Sunday, January 23, 2011

Portland: Where we go to retire

Just kidding! We’re going to grad school! So I arrived in Portland after a ridiculous journey from Lima (all I have to say is DO NOT FLY AreoMexico or through Mexico under any circumstances!!!) to LA, then to Portland. I arrived at our new home where we are subletting for a couple of months and was greeted by Ben who showed me around. The new roomies are super nice and generous, Ben even set up a bed for me! Allison is our other roommate and she told me to drink all the coffee and tea I wanted and made me feel super comfortable.
Since then I have been trying to catch up with friends while setting up some things. I bought an IPhone and a bed. Actually two beds, the first one wouldn’t fit down the stairs so the guy had to take it back. I have been deathly ill (stomach pain) so I haven’t been able to indulge in all the tasty things I have been missing, but when Dan gets here I’m sure we’ll go crazy.
I am so excited about Dan arriving tomorrow, he is now in Pennsylvania collecting all our things and visiting his peeps. I know he will be excited about our lovely home and mild weather. After the initial reunification shock and joy, we will get started on finding jobs and enrolling in classes. Hopefully things go smoothly!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When Traveling Gets Old

There comes a time in every long trip when shit just gets boring and repetitive.  It seems strange to think about, because we’re always in new places, seeing new things and meeting new people. But really, doing new things actually gets old after a while.  Traveling is different than vacation. On vacation you check into one hotel, hang out, get used to a place and explore and then relax and get drunk. Traveling is like one long extended vacation with some sickness, paranoia and instability mixed in. Does this place have bed bugs? Will this piece of lettuce make me sick? Is that guy going to rob us? Did I forget my sunglasses AGAIN? Where are we? Ugh.

The truth is I LOVE traveling. Why else would I work my ass off for months or even years, and then sell everything I own just to go somewhere I’ve never been? I just think there is always a breaking point. After about ten weeks on the move everywhere looks the same. I don’t want to go to anymore tourist sights. I don’t want to see anymore museums or town plazas. I remember the last day in Mexico, after traveling for three months; I almost completely lost it in the airport. Everything was such a cluster fuck (no queues) it took us three hours to get to the check-in desk. When we got there, the woman told us to RUN for the plane or we would miss it. I ran like my ass was on fire. When we got to the gate, wadda know, THERE WAS NO PLANE. It had been delayed 11/2 hours. WTF??  When I finally got back to Oregon it was the best feeling ever.  Thinking back, I have tons of hilarious stories and many came from times like these, when I was fed up with traveling and just ready to go “home.”

Dan and I have 6 more days in Lima, Peru. Then I will head to Portland, Oregon and he will go to Pennsylvania for a week, collect our things, and come join me. I don’t know if we will be visiting any more museums or if we will just be watching the paragliders take off from the beach and then drinking some beer.  At least I’m wearing flip flops while most of my friends are wearing snow boots. :)

Monday, January 10, 2011

How to enter Bolivia (a guide for Americans)

Since Bolivia was on our travel itinerary from the beginning and Americans need a visa to enter Bolivia we were consistently anxious about crossing the border while we were in Chile.  The internet, for once, was absolutely no help.  The embassy website told us that we needed our Yellow Fever vaccination, the bloggers, the few who did write about entering Bolivia said theirs were never asked for.  We couldn’t figure out where to go to get it done so we decided to wing it vaccination wise and all other ways wise because we didn’t know if we would get the visa upon entry, if we could pay with a card, if there was going to be a lot of bureaucratic bs around it or if we needed a concrete exit ticket in order to get in.  So I’m writing this blog in case anyone who reads this ever goes to Bolivia or so that anyone searching for this on Google like I tried to do will possibly come up with some real information.

The American government put up some serious warnings about Bolivia on their embassy’s website, but as far as we could tell, having spent over a month there, it was purely political.  The American government isn’t so fond of foreign governments telling them they won’t lease the rain to corporations so they can sell it back to the native people at a profit.  It was the usual sturm and drang, kidnappings, rampant theft, foreigners with drained back accounts.  Don’t believe the hype, it was one of the more peaceful, safer feeling places we’ve encountered in South America.  La Paz was beautiful and less threatening at night or during the day than Santiago, Arequipa, or Buenos Aires.  But that’s just our take on it.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to tell you how to go about entering Bolivia.  It’s pretty easy.  You need a yellow fever vaccination or you need to sign a waiver that costs 50 Bolivianos ($7.50) or maybe they won’t ask for it.  There’s no worries about not having the vaccination.  When you enter they’ll want 135 dollars in cash or Bolivianos at a piss poor exchange rate.  The paperwork is easy and you don’t need to show any onward travel plans.  The visa is half a page and the visa and the entry and exit stamps fit on a single passport page.  When we entered Bolivia we came on a tour of the salt flats.  So they took our passports at the border, but they aren’t equipped to issue visas at the tiny mud hut that serves as the immigration office so we had to get our visas issued in Uyuni when we got there.  The tour agency vouches for the date that you actually entered Bolivia and the immigration office in Uyuni slaps the visa in your passport.  If you follow this route, remember, Uyuni only has one ATM that may or may not work so having the right amount of money on your person when you arrive would be a good idea.  The visa is good for five years, and 90 days total per year.

Bolivia is a really great country and really cheap.  The visa is really no worry and you don’t even need the vaccination.  It really shouldn’t be skipped on any comprehensive tour of South America.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Machu Fucking Picchu Baby!

Machu Picchu: When the Incas Ruled the World
One of our main goals when we decided to travel South America was, of course, to see Machu Picchu (a place of religious worship and residence for the nobility built by the Incas in an impossible location in the Andes Mountains).  We arrived in Cuzco a couple of days before our trip; we lounged around and tried to stay dry. December is the rainy season in the Andes so we knew it might be a little wet. The payoff for this is there is WAY less tourists!  

Dan checked in at our agency, SAS Travel, where we had paid $350 each for a two day one night trip to Machu Picchu, starting and ending in Cuzco. We found this agency online where someone had raved about it on their blog.  There are MANY tours and many people chose to go on three nights, four days trekking, but we didn’t feel like spending the night outside in the pouring down rain.  This turned out be a brilliant decision. At the pre-tour orientation, I became deathly ill and spent the whole thing in their bathroom. Luckily, this was our only hiccup the whole trip, and we felt great the rest of the time.
Apparently "Gloria" will give me strength!
Our guide, Aldo, picked us up at 3:30am at our hostel. We then picked up 10 other people (all Americans!) and headed to the train station. The train left at 6am and we were all on it, including two more people we picked up at the station.  The two hour train ride was gorgeous, winding through the Andes along a raging river engorged by the rainfall.

We got off at the first stop, where we began our 12km hike through the Andes to Machu Picchu.  While our guide got our tickets and checked us in the park, Dan and I bought walking sticks and took a look at who we were with.  Bob and Susan were a newly married couple in their thirties, Brian and Laura were on one last adventure before having kids, Lisa and her boyfriend were from Seattle, there was an Indian family from San Jose, whose teenagers had seen more of the world than me, Tim and his girlfriend were farmers from Connecticut and Aldo and Danny were our guides.
We set off. Walking even fairly slowly was difficult (the ground was moist and there were cliffs and slippery rocks). Dan and I stayed to the front of the pack and Aldo pointed out all the awesome fauna and flora along the way.  Our group soon spread out, but we had some resting places to take pictures and get caught up.  At the lunch spot we were all in need of a rest. Laura wasn’t feeling well (head cold) and then we realized Lisa’s boyfriend was very sick. He couldn’t breathe well and was basically passing out so Danny enlisted some SAS porters to carry him to Macchu Picchu. Yes, two men took turns carrying him on their backs about 6km. Poor guy L All I can say is it really pays off to pay extra for a tour like this. SAS was prepared for anything!
On the way we passed an amazing smaller ruin where the Incas terraced farmed and had a temple dedicated to the sun.  Finally, after about 51/2 hours we arrived at the Sun Gate, the first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and it started raining literally the moment we got there! We continued down beneath the clouds and finally got our first real look.  It did not disappoint.  This place is simply amazing. It was a huge community built for about 1000 people, basically on the side of a steep mountain. 

We were all pretty exhausted, so Aldo led us through the ruins, to the buses to take us Aguas Calientes to spend the night. After dinner we pretty much passed out.
The next morning was another early one, we met for breakfast at 3:45am. Two of the couples had decided not to go for the early morning tour, Brian and Laura and Lisa and her bf.  Everyone was okay but just sick from traveling.  The rest of us got back on the buses and headed up the winding road to the ruins.  Aldo made sure we were there in time to get the stamp that would allow us to hike Huayna Picchu (a nearby cliff/ mountain) at 10am. He then led us on an extensive tour of the ruins that lasted about 2 hours.

After the tour we headed to Huayna Picchu, unsuspecting of what lay ahead of us. We hiked up with two other couples. This hike was treacherous. The rock stairs that had been built by the Incas 500 years ago were slippery and small. There was one thin cord to hang on to and luckily Dan and I had our walking sticks to prevent us from flying off the cliff at any moment. Of course, young Germans were practically running up the almost completely vertical stairway, making it even more nerve racking (we knew they were German because they were wearing those hats with the feathers in them and lederhosen).  We climbed slowly but surely and made it to the top in about 1 ½ hours.  The top was a little anticlimactic. After squeezing through a tiny crevice we found some big boulders covered in the aforementioned Germans who were leaping from rock to rock like the edge didn’t even exist. One young couple was having an extensive photo-shoot at the only safe place to see over the edge, after waiting for a while we just gave up and headed down again. 
Yeah, we climbed this bitch!
After climbing down in the rain we were thoroughly exhausted.  We went back to Aguas Calientes, enjoyed some coffee and lunch and chatted with our tour-mates. At 5:30pm we got on the train back to a town near Cusco. We had a great time chatting with Lisa and her boyfriend, who had recovered and actually got to see the ruins in the afternoon. I felt especially bad for them because they were only on vacation for a few days and had to fly out the next day.
On the bus ride back to Cuzco we made plans to hook up with Brain and Laura for Christmas dinner and finally got dropped back at our hostel at 10:30pm. It was a whirlwind tour but it was perfect for us. We got to trek, see lots of great scenery and learn all about the famous ruins. We had a life or death experience on Huayna Picchu but we lived to tell the tale. Miraculously we felt great the whole trip!
Our guide. Aldo!
Trekking along with our walking sticks!
Dan arrives at Machu Picchu!
Dan loves llamas.
Keeping a positive attitude!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol

The Isla del Sol or Island of the Sun is the center of the Incan creation myth.  The sun god Inti bore the first Inca, Manco Capac out of stone on the island.

We booked a bus to Cuzco with a two day stopover in Copacabana through the same tour company which took us to Tiwanaku.  They picked us up at 7 in the morning and spend the next two and a half hours driving around La Paz picking up the people lucky enough to be able to sleep in or at least stay at their hotel until breakfast began.  It was pretty miserable, especially since I was having digestive problems.  If you’re going from La Paz to Copacabana via tour bus, make sure you’re the last people picked up.

On the way to Copacabana there’s a strait that connects Lake Titicaca with the smaller lake to its South.  Bolivia, not believing in bridges, has an original way of dealing with this.  Get off the bus, pay 20 cents, get on a boat for 20 minutes and wait for your bus to cross, passengerless, on a flat barge.  I suppose I can’t blame a poor nation with as many regime changes in its history as telenovelas, but this bridge would need to be half the size of the George Washington Bridge in New York.

We made it to Copacabana where for the first time in our travels we didn’t have a hostel pre-booked.  There were slim pickins when it comes to the town of Copacabana on hostelbookers.  In La Paz we bumped into the German couple we had met at La Dolce Vita in Sucre and they recommended a hostel called La Cupula.  Although it sounded expensive, the town of Copacabana looked run down, and we decided that if we could find it, we would take it.  It was well worth it.  Beautiful views of the bay, nice rooms, good showers, who cares if it was our most expensive hostel in Bolivia.

We had no time to lose, we went to the office for our tour company in Copacabana, confirmed our bus to Cuzco, and booked a boat to the Isla del Sol for only $3.50 each.  The next day when we arrived for our 8:30 boat, the reason for the inexpensiveness was evident; there were already more people on it than it could fit.  We squeezed in and spent two and a half hours on a very slow boat to the Northern part of the island.  

We arrived in a small town with pigs shading themselves under small boats, took a quick look at the museum and got started on our hike.  The scenery was grand, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The island is sunbaked but not a desert.  Grass grows and livestock graze along terraces that become very steep at parts.  The walk was 8 kilometers and the road was pretty well worn.  It follows the spine of the island and shows terraces gliding into crescent bays, smaller islands dotted in the infinite blue of the world’s highest lake and the largest lake in South America.  Across the lake to the East, the Cordillera Real rose above the clouds which made the peaks look disembodied, like jagged, foundationless castles.   Llamas, vicunas, and alpacas roamed, the earliest Incan ruins still stood unmoved including an ancient altar.

We joined up with two other hikers, Jag and Ben, a married man from London whose wife didn’t feel up to the hike and a medical student already accepted to Vanderbilt taking a gap year, respectively.  We walked and talked and admired the views.  Different people had set up gates on the trail and extorted more money out of us as we passed although it was less than a dollar each time we were pretty indignant at the arbitrariness of it all.  The boat ride back was equally crowded and even slower than the boat ride to the island.  I seemed to be staring at the same mountain just in front of Copacabana for an hour and a half without getting any closer to it.  Eventually though, we did get back and I discovered that I was far more sunburnt than I anticipated being.

So we prepared to leave the next day, everything was shaping up for our entry into our final country, Peru, and then we found it.  An eight month old calico kitten.  Amanda was in love and I was questioning whether we’d ever leave this hostel for anything.  It was adorable and yes it did try to play with my face in the night as we let it sleep with us, but even I was enamored of this guileless being.

Copacabana's town center.
Somehow I convinced her to leave and get on the bus the next day and we walked into Peru.  We changed buses in Puno and because of very poor communication on our guide’s part had seats across the aisle from each other on the six hour bus ride from Puno to Cuzco.  To make matters worse we were each sitting next to Peruvian women who had made a trip to Bolivia in order to go on the shopping spree of the century.  They were rude, they piled their goods on top of themselves until they were up to their heads, they tried to put their shit on top of us, and they wouldn’t switch seats with us even though they were traveling together and it would have given them more room to put their crap.  To make matters even worse, they had a 12 year old boy with them who they neglected to purchase a seat for, so when the person whose seat the boy was sitting in boarded the bus he had to sit on a bag in the aisle.  Eventually he just laid down in the aisle and started to sleep… on my foot.  Since everyone had excess baggage and children in the aisle it was also impossible to get to the bathroom.  Our first glimpse of Peru was the bus ride from hell, but in our path stood Machu Picchu so there was reason to be optimistic.