Sunday, February 14, 2010

y después...

Checking in from Oruro, Bolivia, where Cap and I have just experienced one of the wildest carnivals one might attempt to imagine. Carnival Diablada involves an endless procession of exquisitely costumed dancers and bandmembers, parading around town for no less than 24 hours. Things were already in full swing when we crawled out of bed Saturday morning and found our grandstand seats at about 1030. This morning, we could still hear the singing of horns and fireworks at noon. Absolutely wild. Cappo took a picture with a girl passed out on the street when he went out to get lunch. I was still in bed nursing my violently upset stomach. Gotta watch out for the carne de la calle. That is all the detail I will provide about this aspect of my day.

One interesting side-note to add here: our friend Miguel, a Mexican from Texas, got arrested today for exposing himself to a police officer. He, along with the rest of us, raged it last night, but what separated him was his intent to slam 6 cervezas first thing this morning, and was thus stumbling about, attempting to make international phone calls and, having already dropped his trousers in front of our little tour group, seems to have done the same for the viewing pleasure of the Bolivian policia. They, apparently, were not so pleased as he might have hoped, and he is now in jail for the next 24 hours. This problem is compounded by the fact that his passport is back in La Paz. I truly sympathize, but am rather thrilled that it is not I who will be waking up from a drunken stupor in Bolivian prison.

This group that we came down here with is a collection of mostly Aussies and Scots. They are rowdy to say the least. I am attempting not to be too judgmental with them, suffice it to say that there is a serious lack of travel savviness in the group (they were shocked that they were expected to have their passports with them), as well as a serious lack of respect for the house where we stayed, and a complete lack of conscientiousness about the impressions they left on the locals.

Cappo and I have been discussing this phenomenon a lot, how the ugly-American stereotype most often applies to those gringos not actually from the US. There were many events where if it had been an American saying or doing the things that these people were, there would have been an uproar, but then, for example, last night, Cappo and I were shocked at the outrageous cover charge to this dance party we attended, and were attempting to negotiate a discount. We met with resistance, and the Aussie dude who was with us immediately undermined the whole process by calling us out for being cheap, and Americans with a sense of entitlement. I was wearing my Canadian flag t-shirt.

As if we didn't stick out enough, we had neon green t-shirts.

But still, party!

Note the poncho. There really were water balloons flying everywhere. Children and old ladies were not necessarily targeted, but they were certainly not spared.

Okay, but before Oruro we were in the jungle. We flew from the airport in La Paz (the highest in the world) to Rurrenabaque, a little town tucked amidst jungle-covered mountains that might have easily been featured in Jurassic Park. Our plane was just a little guy, with one seat on either side and no separation between the passengers and the cockpit. We chose the 45-minute sketchy-plane ride over the 20 hour sketchy-bus ride. So we take off, and I glance out the window to find a huge, snow-capped Andean mountain staring me in the face until we rose into dense clouds. Comforting. We landed on a strip of dirt in a clearing in the middle of the jungle. We truly enjoyed this.

Because our flight had been delayed, we missed the Sunday-start tour we'd signed up for. This turned out to be a blessing because we were then able to spend the afternoon hiking through the Amazon with a guy named Nelson and his two-toothed friend. After a trip up the river (scenes reminiscent of Apocalypse Now; I'll have to compare notes with my brother, recently returned from Vietnam), we trekked up into the mountains for maybe two hours, seeing ayahuasca vines, strangler figs, and chocolate fruit. Our two-toothed amigo somehow found a baby tarantula hiding in the depths of a cone-shaped leaf and provoked it to lunge out and attack a twig.

Eventually, we reached our destination, strapped on our harnesses, had a brief safety briefing, then clamped on to the wire and went zipping across the top of the canopy. This was brilliant, some of the best fun available as far as I can tell. The guides even gave us their super-fast sliders when they realized that the new ones we were using were crap.

Then we watched the Super Bowl in the Moskkito Bar. We had an average pizza and fruity drinks and played frustrating games of pool while we watched Peyton make but one crucial error. Towards the end of the game, a German missionary came and sat with us and asked us questions about how American football works. For various reasons, we chose not to trust her.

Next day we found our tour, and set off on a three-hour ride down a bumpy dirt road in the back of a Landcruiser outfitted with bench seats. Our group consisted of one Portuguese guy (who found it acceptable to ride up front while one of the 'guides' rode in back), two Israeli's (a guy and a girl, not dating), and three Chileños (two girls and a guy).

I will now attempt to summarize this three-day, two-night tour as succinctly as possible, in order to remind myself of stories I can delve into greater detail with later. Lunch involved a monkey, two little dogs and a cat, a huge stork-looking bird (not actually a stork), and melted popsicles to drink. We got out of the car to transfer to the boat, and we were introduced to our guide by a different guide, saying ¨This is your guide. He doesn't speak English. Help him load the boat.¨ No English is not a problem, as Cappo and I enjoy practicing our Spanish, but our guide apparently knew only two words in any language: Vamos? and, Tortuga! We spent most of the three days cruising around in our long, skinny boat, outfitted with folding chairs that flip down from the side. It was actually very comfortable so long as you had enough sunblock. So, we were in the pampas, which is basically a monstrous swamp, full of monkeys, toucans, turtles, alligators and river dolphins. The trees have taken root 5 ft under water. We swam with the dolphins (fun, anti-climactic, and dirty - there is a lot of motor oil floating in that stagnant water), hunted down an anaconda (asleep in the roots of a tree), and went looking for alligators at night.
These activities we did, but with perhaps half the success of the other groups, due to the profound incompetence of our guide. Whereas the other group got to pick up the anaconda, we went traipsing off on a wild goose chase, tromping through tall grass on a mission which, it was clear to us all, had no chance of success. Whereas the other group found many alligators, and even scooped a baby out of the water to hold and photograph, we failed to even see a single pair of red eyes glowing in the dark. We only got to see a sloth on the last day because we followed the other group. Sloths are awesome.

Anyway, no big deal, we still had fun, had some cervezas at night watching the sun set over the pampas. Again, I have pictures, but have yet to find an internet cafe able to deal with the upload. We met a Korean-Australian-Christian girl (part of the other group) who tagged along with us back to the Wild Rover in La Paz. Over the course of several meals, we had some rather intense discussions surrounding religion and eco-politics. Turns out what she was espousing was not quite Christianity, but do not under any circumstances tell her that.

The most exciting thing that happened back in La Paz was vindaloo. There's a little restaurant called Star of India, and they boast ¨the most dangerous vindaloo in the world¨, made with special Bolivian peppers from the foothills in the north. There is a t-shirt available only to those who finish the famous vindaloo, ie not for sale. Given this implicit challenge, Cappo and I had little choice but to accept. We took very different approaches, but ended up in the same place. Cap got the chicken, and scarfed 3/4 of it down without letting it touch his tongue (or chewing, far as I can tell). After that it was a matter of will-power to finish the little bit that was left. His biggest challenge was the amount of food, for it really is a sizable bowl of curry. I had the vegetarian style, and took the tortoise approach, complementing my vindaloo with naan and white rice, and really trying to enjoy the full flavor. My biggest challenge was the heat. I don't know if the meat soaks up more spice than the vegetables do, or what the issue was, but my lord, there was plenty of flavor for us. Two smoothies made of milk, honey and peach aided me greatly, as did a bit of agua con gas right at the end. Long story short, Cappo and I have new t-shirts. I will spare you the details of Revenge of the Vindaloo.

So now we're in Oruro waiting for our bus to Potosi. Potosi is an old mining town, where all the miners are self-employed, keeping whatever they find. Apparently the tours of the mines are not to be missed, and we can blow up our very own sticks of dynamite. We plan to be there just one day, before making our way further south and west to Uyuni, where we find the salt flats and many multi-colored lakes. This is supposed to be spectacular. After that, we have one week to make it to Buenos Aires. Looks like we'll go through Cordoba, and skip Mendoza this time around, planning to spend some quality time there on our way back north from Ushuaia.

I wish I had less stuff.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Estoy Aqui

It was a bumrush to La Paz. Flying into Arequipa at sunrise provided one of the more spectacular views an airplane window could ever hope to offer. I tried to take pictures but like usual, failed to do reality justice. The city is set in the midst of three enormous volcanoes (only one of which is active). On this bright and clear morning, they looked close enough to just step out and take a leisurely stroll to the top. This is one of those awesome airports where they let you off the plane, down the ramp and you walk across the runway to the baggage claim. I don´t know, I always loved that. Claimed my big green backpack, and wandered confidently into the cab pool, where I picked a cabbie on instinct. He spoke to me in slow Spanish and pulled over so I could take great pictures of the mountains in the morning (greatness of pictures yet to be determined).

So, Taxi > bus station > .50 soles to use a sketchy bathroom > wait until 830 am until boarding the bus to Puno... At this point I was at 24 hours without proper sleep. I hadn't slept on the plane from Atlanta to Lima because the in-flight entertainment was so entertaining. I watched This Is It, and was dancing in my seat, saw an episode of The Office I'd never seen (Jim and Pam's wedding, rom-com of epic proportions) and Funny People, where Adam Sandler is a dying comedian and tries to find meaning in life or something. Stupid but funny. Anyway, the point is, I didn't sleep. This will catch up to me.

Beautiful busride from Arequipa to Puno. About 5 hours up into the mountains, along windy roads with steep drop-offs. The driver took the corners with very little hesitation, which I liked, as I felt it showed confidence. Plus, our lane was hugging the mountain, so we were at least 5 feet further from dramatic death than the cars coming at us. And then you come around a corner and there's Lake Titicaca sprawled out in front of you. To say it is beautiful is expected, understood, assumed, but what is less tangible is the sense of magic surrounding the place. Can't say what it is, just something radiating out of that water.

The town of Puno is cuddled in a bay on the southern side of the lake where big jagged hills slope down into the basin. The town itself is not exactly attractive. The streets are tiny, the traffic uncontrollable, and many of the streets are dug up (presumably under construction); its picaresque location is Puno's grand redeeming quality, and it more than suffices.

So I got in at about 2 pm, and scheduled a tour of the Uros for later that afternoon. As I soon found out, the Uros are floating islands that indigenous people live on. I'll try to post some pictures, because it's hard to explain (and I´m getting impatient with my own writing; it's cocktail hour for chrissakes). But yeah, very cool. Six or seven families live on each island, maintaining it with grasses and fresh clumps of dirt that float by. They eat fish and keep chickens, and very rarely (if ever) go ashore. I met one lady who introduced me to her 92 year old mother who had apparently never been to shore. (I was later confronted with rumors that they don't actually live there, that they hang out and talk to tourists all day, then row home at night. I am in no position to either confirm or deny this, but I will say that upon reflection, the hut that I stepped inside did seem suspiciously clean.) They all had solar panels plugged into their thatch huts, so they had stereos and TV's. Good for them?

After the tour, I proceeded to walk about town and get quite drunk with some lovely Australian folks I'd met at the hostel. (For a country of 20 million people, Australians make up about half of the population of all the backpackers hostels down here.) Being at altitude, I was aware that the booze was going to kick in quick. So I started slow, was careful, and worked my way into a jovial state of mind. No problemo, right? Right, until the next morning. I was in bed at 330 feeling dandy, and awake at 6 carefully observing as my internal organs appeared to all be slowly shutting down. I had to walk half a mile down the hill to an ATM before I could buy water and check out. This was pure torture. I can only imagine the policeman washing his truck was pretty impressed with my appearance.

It seems an appropriate time to mention that this last paragraph begins about 8 hours after the last ended. I will explain this when the time comes.

Wait, okay. So. Down the hill, no biggie. Up the hill at 630 am, at 12,000 ft, more hungover than I knew was possible? Only one way to learn. Check out; taxi al Terminal Terrestre; OH and so I already had this ticket booked, so they knew me at the desk and were happy to take my backpack, tag it, hand me the sticker on my ticket, but then it disappeared and I said Oh, okay, I trust you? So I ask a series of questions in my ever-less broken Español, a que porte, y hay un tax de salir (para mi pobre Americano)? (Parentheses not actually spoken, no shit). But so yeah, pay the tax, get out Puerto Numero Dos, y there's seis o siete autobuses sitting there, all apparently going where I want to go and for the first time, there is not a conveniently (read: blessedly) placed individual there waiting to tell me precise where to go. Moment of Panic. Where is my bag? Where is my bus?

Okay, found it. Uncomfortable bus, fine. Forced to switch seats three times, okay. Fed to the head of the line at the border for being an American? Not as great as it sounds, since they only wanted my sweet sweet Dollars (no longer so sweet, I'm told). Novente dias en Bolivia costs us $135. (Already worth it).

So we walk across the border and re-board the bus for another 2 hour cruise to Copacabana, at which point we disembark, and half the gringos race to book their tickets to Isla del Sol (can't say I blame them), and the other half don't know whether to get back on the same bus or to grab their baggage and stand around in the mid-day, atmosphere-unimpeded sun for half an hour until someone wanders along who actually knows what the F is going on. (The latter won out, obviously). Board the new bus, and am surrounded by beautiful women. Seriously, on all sides, call it 8 of them, surrounding me, and all I can manage to muster is a meek Hola, buenos tardes, que pasa, que un dia tan bonita, no? And then the girl in front of me sinks her seat all the way back so here head is practically in my lap, and all the other girls giggle as I make a big show of taking a deep breath and smiling and use her chair (now trapping me tighter than a rollercoaster restraint) as an armrest.

Halfway through this ride, we disembarked once more in order to cross el Lago Ti Ticaca at a thin point. After the kind young lady left, I erected the seat in front of me in order to escape the confines of my seat, but have no fear, she reclaimed her reclined position just as soon as we had cruised across the skinny stretch of lake and found our bright white bus again. Deep breath. Tryambakam mantra x 3. Consciously create a cloak of white light around the entire bus. And send the prayer to she who confounds you: May you be safe. May you be happy and healthy. May you live with ease. Smile and try to sleep. But again, we were whipping around cliff-face roads pock-marked with grave-stones or memorials marking spot where one vehicle or an other careened off the cliff. I stayed awake and watched Titicaca rest amidst its protectorate cliffs, verdant in the late-afternoon mist.

Um, then what. Oh, okay, got to La Paz. The girl once again neglected to put up her seat, so I waited until everyone else got off before I was able to extricate myself from my cozy little ahh but it's fine. Found a cab immediately, brought me right to the hostel, they were expecting me, got a bottom bunk on the quiet side of this monstrously amazing building, wandered around in search of Cappo until deciding he would find me napping in my bed (which, by the way, is one of the most comfortable hostel beds I've ever known: Wild Rover Hostel, La Paz, owned by an Irishman, proper fun, tell ya whut).

And so he did. After half an hour of pure gratitude for my horizontal orientation, Cappo comes in, jolly-as-all-heaven, telling me about these people I need to meet, and soon enough about the soccer game we might>could>will>need to attend. So let´s say it's 7 pm at this point. Wednesday. How many hours of sleep have you counted? I give it 6 at best, but 3 of those necessarily came crook-necked on a bus, and the other three were in Puno where the alcohol negated any possible benefit. Whatever, what am I going to do, NOT go to the soccer game? Exactly.

Long story short, we bought tickets from the first scalper we met, who sold us perfectly legit tickets, but to the youth game that had happened an hour earlier. So we got ripped off for $1.50 US. Not the point, it's the principle of the thing. Found proper seats, front row of the balcony, and absorbed the atmosphere that only a South American country can create for two teams who, in all honesty, would benefit if they would let me start recruiting for them. Not to say I could have played (I could have), but I definitely know folks who could step right in and start scoring multiple goals a game, no questions asked. There were obvious runs unmade, lazy striker play, sloppy ideas followed by sloppy touches, and an infuriating lack of conviction when it came to finishing the football. Game ended 1-1, whatever. Good time.

Then I slept for 16 hours. Woke up after 8, continued to believe I might die, went back to bed. Got up, chugged water, went to an ATM, brushed my teeth, slammed some multivitamins and had a salad heavy on the avocado, and the world was brand new. All of a sudden there were wonderful people around, from all over the world, who already knew and loved Cappo and were excited to meet me, and well, it has continued from there. Most likely, I imagine that my mother does not want to read about the details of what has transpired over the last two days, but suffice it to say we have booked a 3 day trip to the Amazon, in Pampas, Bolivia, leaving this Sunday (so that during the Super Bowl we will be deep in the jungle, far from any mention of Brett Favre's future, or lack thereof) north of La Paz, and booked our tickets from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, leaving on the 3rd of March. Also, we have tickets to see Paul Van Dyke in BA on the 27th of Feb. I'm imagining this to be an interesting event, to say the least.

That's all for now. I'm free to sleep now, and my body is greedily grabbing these hours of rest whenever it can, since it is now alert to the fact that they are on premium. Hope all is well where ever every one is.

Love and Light.