Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A while since last post

Actual date: Dec. 27

You’ll have to excuse us, as a lot has happened since our last post, but from the time of our arrival in Cochabamba, Dec. 21, we’ve been staying with Virginia’s abuelita (Spanish for grandma), and she doesn’t have internet.

We’ve made a number of fruitless attempts to get online using Abuelita’s telephone line, but it turns out that tech company Acer left a phone modem out to save space in producing our extra-mini laptop. This does indeed suck, but I’m glad we bought it at Costco just before we left on our two month trip, as Costco has a three month return policy on computers. I’m considering it a 2.5 month rental, but for free because we’ll get a full refund for our 500 bucks when we get home.

Anyways, V’s uncle, my new uncle Roberto, who’s some sort of a computer system developer for a list of companies in Bolivia, made a number of attempts to get us up on the web at Abuelita’s using the phone line, but it’s never so easy with technology from different parts of the world.

Before we knew of this missing modem, we made a trip to the market, thinking a cable adapter was going to be the fix we needed. There’s a particular street in the midst of the market madness where hole-in-the-wall computer shops are lined up one after the other. We had to visit about twenty shops before we found the cable adapter. As with every other shop, the clerk told Roberto he didn’t have such a thing. However, with my keen eye, and while standing outside the shop, I saw it through a window on a cluttered shelf right beside the man’s desk!

After going home and learning this was not our answer, we eventually made another trip to the market looking for an external telephone modem.

Apparently, even in a country where much seems out of date, external telephone modems are obsolete – most every computer comes with them preinstalled. We gave up after about 30 shops into our search.

Meanwhile, we’ve been trying to use the internet at Roberto’s during our visits there, but that hasn’t work out too well either.

I tried to post one time, on Christmas day, but there was a problem with Blogspot’s formatting, and it refused to post. Before I could investigate any further, a monsoon hit and Roberto’s apartment at the back of the property started to flood.

I had to abandon the internet to lend a hand for the next couple of hours, using buckets and large bowls to bail water from the back yard to the drainage gutter in the front yard. Once the rain subsided, we spent the next while trying to get half a foot of water out of the building.

Roberto and his family (wife Rosemary, son Robertito, daughter Adrianita) recently moved into the house earlier this year to take care of Rosemery’s ailing mother. The house was built about fifty years ago, a time when architects were scarce, and so it lacks some engineering foresight.

The entire backyard is covered with concrete, and much of the roof runoff from the two building’s flows to the same area. Compounding the problem, the builders included only one small drainage gutter for all of this water.

From the flooding we saw in the streets the day we arrived, this is a common problem in Cochabamba. We’ll get to this story and a few others in posts to come.

Luckily the main house is well above the flood line, but the smaller building at the back has flooded three times since they’ve moved in. They now have plans to smash the concrete, replace it with grass and redirect the roof drainage, which will hopefully avoid future flooding.

Another time we tried to use Roberto’s internet was the night before on Christmas eve, but as soon as I got the process rolling the family was downstairs calling for my attendance; they were about to touch glasses in a toast. Roberto was polite enough to say they could wait, which was very nice of him, but there were 20 or more members of his family downstairs, glasses full to the brim, waiting to get the evening’s festivities going. Again I abandoned the blog, going downstairs where Roberto gave a wonderful toast.

After the toast the evening was in full swing, and I didn’t want to step away.

There was another opportunity to use Roberto’s internet, but I came down with a bad headache and a an upset stomach – already having a cold – so I decided to lie in bed instead.

Hopefully I get this up soon, as I’ve really enjoyed blogging about our adventures.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Our Lady of Peace

With my Iphone church bells ringing our morning alarm, and after hitting the snooze button three or four times, we woke from our cushy beds in Jemmy and Tommy’s guest room in Nuestra Senora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace).

When I made it to their guest shower, I was extra-super-duper pleased to find that the shower head hung about seven feet from the ground, and this morning I would be banging my head against neither the ceiling nor the spout, which is probably because Tommy, being a German of about six feet tall, had his own South American misadventures in the past.

Unfortunately, before I got out of the shower, Tommy had already left to attend to his piloting schedule that would take him all across South America over the next few days. With our plan being to leave La Paz for Cochabamba by Sunday morning, I won’t have had the chance to thank him for his hospitality and great conversation.

Arriving at the breakfast table, I found that it was not only set with the typical German compliments, such as bread, cheese, meat and an assortment of spreads, but also some tropical Bolivian favourites, as well, including papaya, honey dew melon, pineapple and a delicious fruit smoothie.

Virginia and I decided to use our day to visit the city and its very large and colourful market, which required us to use another taxi, which I was fearful of after yesterday’s experience with the defunct cab full of exhaust fumes that made me want to vomit all over my shoes.

As it turns out, this morning’s taxi was in far better shape, which is not to suggest great shape.

The street market was bustling with action. Everyone was under threat of being run down by cars and buses, as people darted in and out of traffic, off and on the skinny sidewalks. And of course, horns a blazin’ in the exhaust-filled air.

Automobiles rule here, and even if you’re in a marked crosswalk (not many of these around), or walking near the edge of the sidewalk, you better beware.

Indigenous Bolivian women covered in their colourful shawls, wearing sweaters and layered skirts (despite the afternoon sun) and bowler hats, were offering their wares, carrying giant sized packages on their backs, and some few, along with their children, begging for change. Many of the men were also carrying the large packs on their backs, bent far forward to manage the weight. The men, however, tended to wear plain clothing adopted from foreign markets.

Our first mission was to find a few choice items - a light sweater coat for V and a couple of day bags to help us fit in with the crowd. We’ve heard or read from a few sources that pickpockets and other thieves are alive and well around the market areas, and if there’s a way to make our camera, with its long lens, look inconspicuous, then it’s probably a good idea.

Along the way we stopped at a tour company and got the word on a good trip to the jungle. So far as today, we’re planning to take a boat tour along a jungle river in the Amazon, which reaches into Bolivia’s eastern low lands.

After that bit of research, we were back to the hunt for a day bag, but the morning produced no goods for us, so we decided to break for lunch, which was at a little restaurant specializing in small but delicious meat pastries called salteñas. According to V, the recipes for these little treats are closely guarded family secrets and are handed down from generation to generation, and some restaurants serve nothing else, which are supposedly the best ones to go to.

After lunch we made our way to the Museo de Coca – a small, old building telling all about the misunderstood coca plant. Cocaine is what will come to mind for many, but the coca plant has been used by Bolivia’s indigenous peoples for at least a couple thousand years for a number of different reasons.

For example, upon arriving in La Paz, a city sitting about 4000 metres above sea level, I quickly became acquainted with coca tea. I become fatigued and dizzy after just a short walk, as breathing becomes difficult. It turns out that the coca leaf, if chewed or drank as a tea, works against these symptoms.

I had the espresso you see to the left in the Museo de Coca's upstairs cafe, and it included a shot of their special coca elixir.

The day was turning to night, and we had to make our way to a dinner appointment with two of V’s great aunts, Edith and Yola, and Edith’s daughter Ximena, her husband Louis and their daughter Fernanda.

Dinner was at Ximana’s apartment on the ninth floor overlooking the city, and most of the night was full of conversation in Spanish, which is to say I didn’t understand much of it, but did surprise myself the few times I was able to figure out the topic and follow along.

It was a very special meeting for me, as Edith is in her nineties and Yola just turned 88 two days ago, so there’s a chance I will not meet either of them again. Both were a pleasure to be with despite the language barrier.

My exhaust fuelled headache was not a pleasure, however, and I only found some relief after our return home, where I was able to down an aspirin.

I’m starting to feel La Paz is not the city for me, because I can’t get past the fumes from all the older vehicles here. The majority of taxi’s and buses, and there are many extra duper lots of them, seem to blow black smoke directly into my face.

Don’t get me wrong. La Paz is very intriguing city, with a romantic and rich culture to explore, but I’m a wimp from Vancouver who doesn’t function well without clean air. I’m hoping our next destination, Cochabamba, will be different.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Adios Peru - Hola Bolivia

Today was another early, early day (and I thought we were on vacation???). Stephe's phone alarm went off at 350am, and although I could blissfully turn around and ignore the world for another ten minutes, the snooze function unfortunately did kick in and the second time around there was no escaping it.

Off to the shower I went (the taller shower Stephe should use next time, unless he choses to squat again), leaving feeling wonderfully refreshed and awake.

We finished packing up and were ready to go, only to realize that it was already 425am and it was awefuly quiet and dark in the rest of the house. We were supposed to leave at 430am.

I knocked on Gustavo's and Magda's doors, and low & behold, both had slept in! No worries, no worries, we will make it on time, there is no traffic in the morning, plus the airlines are never on time... hmm, as much as I know Latin America's notorious liberal interpretation of "on time", I highly doubted the airline operated under those standards.

No sense in getting upset, as Magdita and Gustavo were dressed in no time (what did take time was the freshly squeezed orange juice and the freshly brewed coffee I could not talk Magda out of preparing: no reputable Latino Lady will skimp on offering the best food and/or beverages to guests, and the morning just cannot be started without a good cup of coffee).

In the end the early refreshment was lovely and served with a smile, and albeit being pretty much the last ones checking in, we did get on the plane and left Lima on time.

After a short stop in Cuzco we arrived at the "Aeropuerto Internacional Inca Manco Cápac" in Juliaca, where we were greeted by a local music band playing beautiful Andean music at the baggage claim.

Stephe started to bounce right away to the rythm, proving that he is just a natural and will be dancing the caporales in no time. (You know I expect nothing less, babe!)

Once we shouldered all our packs (backpacks, daypack & camera pack) we stepped outside into a light rain and boarded a bus that took us to Puno (I feel compelled to mention that Stephe's backpack weighs around 17kg, while I am schlepping probably around 25kg ! This is due to my current Santa Claus role in the family, as I am carrying various presents for my grandma, my uncle, my aunt and my cousins in Cochabamba).

Puno is a city in Southeastern Peru, located at the shore of Lake Titicaca. Although we did not get to spend much time in Puno, it is worthwhile mentioning that Puno is known as the folkloric capital of Peru, as it is rich in culture and art, especially around the time of the celebration of the "Virgen de la Candelaria" (the town's patron saint) the city is full of colourfully dressed dancers and revellers.

We, unfortunately did not get to see any any of that, as the "Fiesta" starts January 24th and ends on February the 18th.

What we did get to do was to eat a ho-hum lunch (to be honest, I was a little disappointed; the Titicaca is of course famous for its flavourful, fresh trout, but the trout we had for lunch was only so so). At least Stephe got to try for the first time the dangerously bright yellow Inka Cola - the Peruvian "glow in the dark" answer to Coca Cola. . . just kidding. About the glow in the dark part only, because other than that, Inka Cola does give Coke a good run for the money in Peru.

After feeding our hungry bellies, we ventured off to the train station, supposedly to book our US$20 "backpacker" train tickets from Puno to Cuzco (when returning in January) as per our Footprint guidebook. The train station looked lovely, although a little deserted, but soon we found a staff member who, unfortunately, wasn't very helpful, as he informed us that Peru Rail no longer offers the backpacker deal. Now there is only "first class" at US$143 per person.

Bummer. We'll see how poor we are after Bolivia, as the beautiful train ride with great service might still be worth the money. After all, you only live once and who knows when we'll be back.

After food and info, we stocked up with water and crackers and then took one of the funnest rides everyone should experience at least once in their life time: the tricitaxi.

Basically it is a tricycle that looks somewhat like (and sort of works like) a reversed riksha: two tires at the front end (with the bench for passengers on top) and one tire in the back, above which the driver sits in his saddle and madly peddals away. Considering the hefty size of some of the people and/or the load these drivers move (smiling! not visibly S.O.B!) at a considerable speed through the crazy potholes with street sprinkled inbetween... AND taking into acount the altitude of 3860m... good Lord, those guys must have a lung capacity of about 10L and a resting heart rate of about 40bpm!!! (For all the non-medical folks out there: S.O.B = short of breath (and NOT sonnofa..) Normal average lung capacity is 6L, normal average resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute).

Since we had a few of the aforementioned "extra pounds" on us, it was a bit of a scary (Stephe), extremely hilarious and exhilerating (V) ride. (Guess which one of us is the "crazy-rides-fanatic-at-the-fare"? *lol*)

Unfortunaly it only lasted a few minutes, after which our (still smiling) driver dropped us off safe and sound at the bus terminal, where we got onto our next fabulous ride.

A bus. A bus to Desaguadero (town on the Peruvian/Bolivian border). A bus with very (!) little leg room. A bus that was stuffed with people to the last seat. A bus, in which no one liked open windows. A bus, in which we sat cramped in the very last row between people, painfully far away from said windows. A bus, that was our cheapest option (15 Soles Peruanos (or about US$5) per person. A bus... ride that lasted almost three (endless) hours.

Need I say more?

The only highlight was Stephe's enthusiasm and fascination with the ever changing landscape: the lake Titicaca, the flat valleys, the small mountains and the rolling hills, the clay/mud huts...

V tried to (somehwat successfully) sleep through most of the ride.

Once in Desaguadero on the Peruvian side, the priorities where (in order of urgency): getting our bags safely off the bus, pee brake, drinking water, taking pictures, collecting all the needed stamps at various Peruvian offices (crossing the tiny dirt street numerous times going back and forth), walking over a little bridge to the Bolivian side, collecting all the needed stamps at various Bolivian offices (weaving our way through some hallways) and voila, we were in Bolivia!

BTW, everyone make sure you bring some toilet paper with you or else have some change handy, as you are charged 0.30Soles for, hmm, let's say four or five generous sheets of toilet paper at the toilet "facility" - dirty, dirty, dirrrty !! Don't touch anything and for haven's sake DO NOT EVER do anything else but "the stance". (I hope I need not explain any further.)

Also, remember to bring some US(!) dollars with you (the banks do not change Canadian $), as there is no bank machine in Desaguadero (at least there was none on the Bolivian side).

From Desaguadero (very poor, very dirty, nothing much else) we took a "cab" that collects four people (or more in the hatch) at a time, charges 20Bs (less than US$3) per person for the approximately 1 1/2 hour drive to La Paz. There are also busses that will take you for 10Bs, but they only leave at set times (which might mean a 45-60 Minute wait), take longer and could drop you off at El Alto, a suburb North of La Paz that is certainly no safe place for newcomers, especially if you are a foreigner. Make sure that whoever drives you goes all the way to the "cementerio" IN La Paz (cementary at the North end of the city, which is a busy area and from where you can easily grab a cab to your final destination).

Only true sour moment: As dear hubby was getting our backpacks out of the bus (which we initially thought we would take), the hatchback-style door fell on his head! Big ouch! I am proud of him not cursing up a storm (which was probably not so much due to him being a stoic superman, but more so the fact that a bunch of little children were curiously watching the tall gringo), although it did send him off with a massive headache (we are probably talking a good throbbing 8 out of 10 here). As we were pulling out of Desagaudero he was seriously contemplating how many brain cells he permanently lost with that hit. Being the thoughtful and caring wife I am, I tactfully declined a guess and offered a headmassage (for the develping goose egg and more importantly, the bruised male ego).

But back to the trip: Be prepared for a stop on the way, where Bolivian police officers (I believe they are highway patrol) ask you to leave the vehicle, cross the street to another officer that checks your passport for proper immigration stamps and then sends you back to your car, that might have moved forward another 200metres. Although this is normal procedure and only takes 2-3 Minutes, I would advise for you to take out any visible valuables with you out of the car (i.e. don't leave anything behind you on the seat that could easily be removed).

The entire road is paved, so a very comfortable ride at about 120km/h, and in our case particularly charming one, as our cabdriver played CDs with beautiful Andean music.

At the "cementario" we took another cab that drove us to our final destination: the house of Jemmy and Thomas, great friends of my family and the loveliest, warmest, "bestest" people ever (we are truly being spoiled with wonderful hosts on this trip).

The drive to their house was an adventure in itself. While I was lost in memories of my childhood/teenage years lived here, and Stephe was marvelling at the crazy, yet breathtaking topography and the even crazier traffic in La Paz, an evil evilness was noisilessly seeping into our cab: engine exhaust. Of the worst kind. At first we thought the pollution in the city was a little over the top, but by the end we realized that we were dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, as the exhaust of our cab was freely flowing into the passenger compartment through a whole in the floorboard.

We both had a raging headache and felt slightly nauseous and lightheaded by the time we arrived at the house after the 30 minute cab ride. Stephe's headache was compounded by the earlier whack on his nogging and altitude sickness (locally known as "Sorojchi"), so he was not a happy camper.

Once we were insde the house, it was blissfullness to the fullest: after all the hugging and welcoming by Jemmy & Thommy, we had a short nap and then a nice late snack and cup of "mate de coca" (coca tea: the perfect remedy for Sorojchi).

A wonderful chat with our hosts that lasted for a couple of hours was the perfect ending to our long, long day, and finally we were able to rest our sore bodies on the most comfortable of beds ever. I literally fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. . . in the beautiful City of "Nuestra Señora de La Paz".

And to think that a week ago we were still in Canada, running around, freezing our cute little butts off. . . let me finish off (my mega, überlong blog) with a beautiful quote from Mark Twain:

" Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A day in Lima

After a decent night’s sleep, we made a trip to the local mall with Magda to book our flight to Juliaca with Lan airlines, US$140. The flight is about 2 hours from start to finish, including a short stopover in Cuzco. Juliaca is at the northern end of Lago Titicaca, from where we will travel to La Paz, Bolivia.

The stretch from Lima to Cuzco takes about an hour and is the starting point for traveller’s heading to the ruins of the famous ancient city Machu Picchu, which Virginia and I will visit later on in our trip.

After booking our flight, Magda negotiated a decent fare for a taxi to take us to the tae kwan do academy where Gustavo was teaching a class of vicious little children.

Taxi rides in Lima are an insane experience, as we weaved in and out of traffic, crossing double-yellow lines as if they were there for just that purpose, horn ablaze, turning signals a forgotten consideration. “Um, is there a seat belt?”


Once we arrived at the academy, we saw the tail end of Gustavo’s lesson. Children as young as five were throwing murderous kicks and practicing their jumping technique.

On our way home from the academy, Magda wanted us to experience a Lima bus ride in rush hour, which turned out to be even crazier than the taxi, both of which were a bit more like a rollercoaster than any cab or bus ride I recall back home. The main difference was that the bus drivers seemed to be at war with one another, having competed in the exact same route day in day out, whereas the cab drivers had some level of comradery.

With eight million people living in Lima, and most all of them choosing horns over signals, rush hour is something of a musical composition, albeit one with eight million solo artists sounding off in total chaos, not even wondering if those street lines actually mean something helpful.

The bus ride took us home, where we spent the rest of the evening preparing for our early morning flight, which had us scheduled to leave the house at 4:30am.

And of course, what better way to end a day than with a shower?

Did you know that there are very few people in Peru that are 6’2” tall? Unfortunately for me, this is true.

I hit my head on the shower ceiling no fewer than 10 times. Not just a low shower spout built for someone 5’8”, but a ceiling that could only accommodate those about 5’10” or shorter. After some struggle with the concept, straining my neck sideways, slouching forward, kneeling – you name it – I figured all I could do to get it done without a headache was to assume the squatting position.

If you’re taller than the limited dimensions I write of above, you best be practicing your technique before you come to Peru, just to be sure, because it’s not the easiest thing for everyone to do for ten minutes at a time. Fortunately for me, squatting was a regular part of my theatre training.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Frozen north to cooking south

Thanks to our great friend Chris, we made it to the Vancouver International Airport on time, at 5:15am, on Dec. 16, on perhaps the coldest morning of the year.

Virginia didn’t even put her head on the pillow the night before and and to make matters worse woke at 3am the night before that to make a last minute trip to Seattle, which is a story in itself, but for another day.

Needless to say, by the time we hit our destination, Peru, V was a zombie, but one in full possesion of her vocal skills, as she chatted with our first hosts, her friends Magda and Gustavo, who are two of this world’s most wonderful people.

Gustavo and his mom Magda run a tae kwan do academy. Gustavo is a Peruvian champion, having won many awards, and Magda helps run the office. Gustavo also has a young and budding travel agency. Perfect hands to be in for the start of our adventure!

Magda and Gustavo are taking care of us for the next couple days as we arrange our travel to our next destination, Juliaca, a city near the famous lago (lake) Titicaca in southern Peru.

Our flight lifted off from Vancouver on time at 7:15am. We had a stop over in LA, and arrived in Lima, Peru, just after midnight, local time.

I’m happy to report to everyone freezing back home in Canada, the temprature in Lima is closer to 30C, and I’m working up a sweat just typing this.

I’ve gotta get going for now, so let me end by saying, “I wish you were here.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Greetings, earthlings

Welcome to our travel log!

We haven't left Vancouver yet, but we'll fly to Lima, Peru, in just a couple days.

Please come back often to join us on our trip; we promise to make it interesting.

You can expect regular updates about our adventures and thoughts as we travel from Vancouver, Canada, to and through South America's Peru and Bolivia.

We hope to post at least a photo and a couple paragraphs each day, documenting our experience. The actual frequency of our posts will depend on the availability of an Internet connection.

We'll be using a digital SLR camera, a HD video camcorder, a digital voice recorder if an interesting interview presents itself and a GPS tracker that will pinpoint our location on Google Maps. However, we aren't able to process video footage on the go, so you can expect to see footage only once we've gotten back to Vancouver.

Some of our plans include exploring the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru, and the salt desert and jungle of Bolivia, all while visiting with Virginia's family and friends at different points along the way. Virginia lived in Bolivia for six years when she was a teenager.

Thank you for visiting us here on the web, and we hope you enojy your time with us!