Monday, December 27, 2010

The end of South America

We've spent the last 4 days at El Calafate, visiting Glacier Perito Moreno. Our guidebook described this glacier as "suspenseful," "exceptional," "neck hairs rise a-tingling," "spectacular," "existential experience," and "orgasmic." (Okay, maybe I made one of those up.) As a result of all the high praise, we went 500km and 4 days out of our way to see this glacier. And yeah, it was a pretty sweet glacier, but at the end of the day it was still just a glacier. From now on I'm never trusting anyone who calls a glacier an existential experience.

Now we're at the EEEND OF THE WOOOOOORLD!! (Please insert a grandiose hand gesture worthy of the end of the world every time this phrase is read.)

The EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD happens to be Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. We are here after one horrible 12-hour bus ride on which we endured 4 immigration stops, 2 police checks, a ferry ride, and one bathroom disaster. I won't go into details, but said disaster involved me innocently sitting down on the toilet to pee, just as the toilet inexplicably decided that it would be fun to gush water up at that exact moment, spraying pee and water and god knows what else all over me and the rest of the bathroom in quite an enthusiastic manner. I then had to explain to the bus attendant in Spanish that the toilet was "malfunctioning" (a drastic understatement, in my opinion), which caused him to walk to the bathroom, open the door, and just stand there, staring in horror. Understandable, really. And that is how I arrived at the EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD smelling like urine and sadness.

The EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD is also the end of our time in South America. It's been a fun ride, but I'm looking forward to getting to New Zealand. One can only spend so much time in a place where American 80's music is still so ubiquitous. If I hear "Lady in Red" one more time this week, I'm going to lose it.

So, since we're saying goodbye to our South American lives and heading into a whole different world, I thought it would be fun to do a comparison of North and South America. I've tried to stick to cultural aspects only, leaving out parts of life here that are a result of differences in wealth.

Things South America Has That I Wish North America Had:

1. Snack and Fruit Stands. Because walking all the way to a store just for some gum is annoying when you're as lazy as I am.

2. Stray dogs. They've been a common theme all throughout South America, and it's made me realize that we have no stray dogs in North America because they're put down. We like to think we're so humane in North America, but I think it's more cruel to kill them than to let them live their lives, however those lives may turn out. They have a good system down here: catch them and neuter them, then let them go on their merry doggy way. And it seems that, for the most part, the strays seem quite happy to run around, play with other strays, and hang out with people. We've had so many fun and touching experiences bonding with friendly mutts that it's a shame there aren't any back home. Life is just more interesting with random Dogosaurus encounters.

3. Pastry shops. In the U.S. we're basically limited to donut shops and, in Canada, the slightly more varied Tim Horton's. I think if a native Argentine were to visit Tim Horton's, they'd be appalled. Down here, on every corner there are pastry shops with real, homemade, absolutely scrumptious sweets. I don't understand why this sort of thing isn't more widespread in our society, the most obese in the world. I'm going to miss everything about them.

4. Llamas. No explanation necessary.

5. Passionfruit juice. Probably the most delicious juice I've ever tried.

6. Coca tea. I didn't believe in it at first, but I came to really love it, especially when we were at high altitudes. It's tasty, it decreases hunger and fatigue, it's good for altitude sickness, and it has no side effects. Why can't we get any in North America? Oh right, because drugs are bad, mmkay, and the only way to stop people doing them is to make them illegal. Right. Nailed it. And on that note...

7. Prescription medicines. Many medicines that are only available by visiting a doctor in North America are over-the-counter down here. This includes things like coldsore medicine. Who in their right mind would abuse coldsore medicine, or use it for anything other than its intended purpose? Why is it necessary to make it prescription? We have less freedom than Peruvians do, where medicines are concerned. This strikes me as really sad.

8. Dancing zebras. Hilarious government mandates are tragically under-utilized in North America.

Things North America Has That I Wish South America Had:

1. Vegetables. People down here don't seem to view them as a necessary part of meals. They are rarely on any menu, even though they're obviously available in grocery stores. I am not usually a health nut, but down here I've been craving them constantly. I particularly miss sweetcorn. And, similarly...

2. A variety of foods in general. I never realized that variety of food was so important to me until we had to eat Peruvian food for 7 weeks and I nearly killed myself. It's been driving me insane that I can't have curry, or sushi, or pad thai, or burritos, or won ton soup any time I want. I think that people here are satisfied with the food of their own culture because they're used to it. It reminds me of my grandparents, who moved from Russia to the states when they were in their 50s. Even though they can have any type of food any time they want, they only eat Russian food that they cook at home because they simply don't want any other type of food. I can't relate to this at all.

3. Sane traffic. I like that people follow traffic rules back home. It allows me to not die much more easily.

4. Line chefs. The service was extremely slow everywhere we've been except Argentina because in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there were no line chefs or pre-preparation. This was great because every meal was freshly made, but incredibly frustrating for someone as impatient as me. Every meal took at least half an hour to be made. "AGGGGH, WHY CAN'T THEY GO FASTER!!!" was probably the most common thing I said in those countries.

5. Set prices. I'm really, really bad at bargaining. I find it incredibly draining. I appreciate just being told a price and paying it. Done. No arguing, no conflict, no feeling ripped off. I'm not entirely sure why this practice is prevalent in any culture.

6. Street signs. I'm especially frustrated at Argentina for not having many street signs, even though it's such a modern country in so many ways. Even in Peru they managed to paint the names of the streets on the walls of buildings occasionally, even if it was just an afterthought. It's as if the names of the streets are purposely kept secret and passed down from generation to generation just to fuck with tourists.

I'm not sure what it says about me that most of these were about food, but there you go.

We're flying out to New Zealand on Friday. I'm excited!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Yesterday we went to see penguins.

We knew that these penguins lived on the beach, but we were shocked to see that they actually make their homes in the surrounding desert! They dig little nests in the ground with their feet. After waddling to the ocean and hunting for fish, they waddle back to their nests to feed their chicks. There is nothing more surreal than walking through a desert and seeing hundreds of penguins sticking out of holes in the dirt, or hiding under spiky bushes. Or, even better, standing right next to a guanaco (same family as llamas):

Nothing in the world is cuter than penguins. NOTHING. The comedian Jim Gaffigan once raved that bacon is so good, that when they want to make other foods better, they wrap it in bacon. Likewise, I think penguins are the bacon of the animal world. If you want to make anything better, get a penguin. Weddings, birthday parties, funerals - all could be made exponentially more fun by adding just a single penguin.  Even the way they poop is cute. They lean over a bit, pause, and suddenly a little green blob flies out and lands about 6 inches behind them. Pbbt! Done. Penguins don't fuck around.

We were also surprised to find out that penguins make braying sounds, just like donkeys. I had no idea - but then, penguins like to keep people guessing like that. You can never predict penguins. They are like ninjas.

I think it's pretty obvious that this has been the best part of our trip so far. Even the jungle doesn't compare, because there were no penguins. Get on that, JUNGLE.

You better look at these pictures, unless you want to be totally lame and not see any more penguins.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Argentina, Redeemed

Just when I was prepared to hate Argentina and everything it stands for, it turns around and becomes AWESOME. It's beautiful, there's tons to see, and the taxis actually have meters! It's such a relief to not have to engage in a battle of wits with the driver every time you have to take a cab somewhere. (I inevitably lose.) As great as it's been, though, we've been trying to get through it quite quickly because we're a bit tired of South America. I'm ready for some Kiwis. So the last 3 weeks have been a blur of activity - we've been to Iguazu Falls, Buenos Aires, and the delightfully palindromic Neuquen, home to the fossils of the world's largest dinosaurs (bigger than the T. rex!) and 100-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. As evolution nerds, there's no way we could pass that up.

(Note: if 3 cities in 3 weeks doesn't exactly sound like a "blur of activity," please remember that getting anywhere in Argentina usually requires a 20-hour overnight bus ride, effectively ensuring that every move takes us 2 days. Looking forward to New Zealand, which is 10 times smaller.)

There's not much to say about Iguazu Falls except that they were stunningly beautiful.

(Pictures couldn't possibly do them any justice, but to see our attempts, click here.)

Buenos Aires was a ridiculously fun city. Everything people do there, they do to the absolute extreme, with a lust for life that is contagious and exciting. It's beautiful, sophisticated, and vibrant in a way that I haven't experienced before. People routinely eat dinner at 10pm, get drinks at 12, and party til 7am. I'm not entirely sure how these people hold down jobs. Then there are the endless amazing restaurants, pubs, and free music shows, as well as beautiful architecture, tons of museums, and chic cafes. The people are gorgeous and almost too well-dressed. Add to that an almost obsessive penchant for drinking yerba mate out of little gourds and dancing tango at every possible opportunity, and it adds up to a place that sucks you in and doesn't easily let go.

We spent the first 4 days in a cute, upscale suburb called Palermo Viejo, not doing much except shopping, strolling around and EATING. Being a vegetarian here simply doesn't work (unless you're okay with getting scurvy), so we temporarily abandoned that plan and ended up switching to the other extreme, as you do. We ate steak almost every night we were in the city, and can I just say, HOLY FUCK, steak here is good. If there was ever a place to fall off the veggie wagon, this was the place to do it. I like to think that all of our steaks came from the same cow, so not much harm done, right...? =/

The next 4 days we were in San Telmo, just outside the city center. This neighborhood was a lot grungier. Dumpster diving takes on a whole new meaning here -- we saw several homeless guys with trash-filled sacks literally the size of cars, precariously balanced on carts. On every block, we had to dodge several piles of dog poop, as well as dripping air conditioners. Graffiti and trash decorated the streets instead of trees. The seedy underbelly of the city could definitely be felt here.

However, San Telmo is home to the San Telmo Sunday Market, one of my favorite parts of the whole city. The market is devoted to local artists' crafts, so everything was wonderfully creative, handmade, and cheap. The atmosphere was dizzyingly energetic - it felt like half the city was milling about here. Amidst all this, we stumbled upon an unbearably cute elderly couple dancing tango, surrounded by crowds of people. The man donned an old suit and a sideways hat, and shuffled around so smoothly that he could've probably done it in his sleep. SO ADORABLE. A few minutes later I came upon a drumming band, rocking out in the middle of the market so hard that it made my heart explode a bit. I gave them 10 pesos for exploding my heart and rocked out with them for 4 or 5 songs, reluctant to leave. LOVED being here. So much life.

The other experience I will never forget was seeing a tango show at a small restaurant downtown. We chose to go to a casual, cheap show because we didn't want to have to make reservations (I'm lazy), and I'm so glad we did. We turned out to be the only tourists there, so it was a brief glimpse into true Argentine culture. Everyone sang along with the classic Argentine songs the singer performed (perhaps almost too passionately at times), and in the end, many people got up to dance amidst the dinner tables. You see so many things when you travel that are simply for the benefit of tourists, an exaggerated caricature of their culture, that when you see something real like this, it's beautiful and very touching.

(We didn't take nearly enough photos of Buenos Aires, but to see a few more pictures, click here.)

Neuquen seemed like a tiny, quaint little city after Buenos Aires. We did a day-trip from there to Villa El Chocon to see a museum housing the bones of the gigantic dinosaur (literally, it's called Gigantosaurus carolinii) and some dinosaur footprints by the nearby lake. Due to a scheduling mishap, we ended up with about 8 hours in which to see the museum and the footprints, so for a while there, it seemed like it was going to be a day filled with lots of thumb-twiddling. We took as long as we possibly could in the museum, reading every sign, in Spanish and in English, and then drank coffee as slowly as we could to stretch the time before starting our walk to the lake.

(Dinosaur footprints are quite hard to photograph because they blend in so well. They were about 2 feet across, astonishingly big.)

As we walked, a dog suddenly appeared, sprinting towards us, happy as a clam and jumping all over us with uncontrollable glee. He was so immediately and unnervingly friendly, that at first we got a bit scared because we thought maybe he had rabies. We pushed him off of us and kept walking as fast as possible, hoping he wouldn't bite our faces off. But as we walked, it became obvious that he wasn't rabid, he was just an unnaturally social and happy dog. He ran in front of us, and then behind us, and then around us, and then into the surrounding fields and back, his energy and curiosity entirely inexhaustible. We couldn't figure out if he was stray or not - his coat was clean and his teeth looked healthy. We ended up naming him Dogosaurus.

Dogosaurus walked with us all the way to the lake, came with us to see the dinosaur footprints, hung out on the beach with us, and then walked back with us. As the day drew nearer to its end, we desperately hoped he would find his way home so we wouldn't have to abandon him as our bus drove away. But he didn't -- he waited for us for an hour outside of a restaurant, and then followed us back into town and waited at the bus stop with us. Just as we were preparing to say our tearful goodbyes and feel like monsters for abandoning the cutest dog of all time, Dogosaurus disappeared! I guess he knew that tearful goodbyes were coming and wanted to avoid the awkwardness. That's how I usually avoid those types of situations too.

So it turned out to be a marvelous day -- not boring for a single second of those 8 hours -- thanks to Dogosaurus, our little gift from the universe.

(More dinosaur pictures are here.)

Today we spent the day in Trelew and Gaiman, two small Welsh (?!) towns on the coast of Argentina. I think this is maybe the only area in the world where you can see signs both in Welsh and in Spanish. We had tea and all-you-can-eat pastries at a Welsh teahouse, which was, and I'm not overstating here, the BEST THING EVER. I don't understand how America has adopted so many traditions and foods from so many cultures, and yet this one has gone unnoticed. Bubble tea - yes. All-you-can-eat pastries and tea - no. What a sad world we live in.

A Welsh and Spanish Jehovah's Witness Church:

All-you-can-eat pastries and tea. LOVE.

(Trelew pictures here and Gaiman pictures here.)

Tomorrow we're seeing PENGUINS, and, if I haven't died of cuteness overload by that point, then after that we're going to see one of the world's only expanding glaciers outside of Antarctica. As it expands, the pressure in the ice builds to such extremes that icebergs the size of houses fall off its edges. Fuck yeah. I'm really glad we gave this place a chance.

The one thing that has continued to be a huge challenge is the way Argentines talk. When I took Spanish in school, I learned the Spanish they speak in northern South America. So until now, I was getting pretty cocky, thinking I was about halfway to being fluent. Then along comes Argentina and I'm back to feeling like a complete beginner. There are several changes that, when combined, makes it sound like they're not even speaking Spanish.

- "Y" sounds have changed to "zh" and "s" sounds have changed to "th."
- Their word order is usually all flipped around.
- They use entirely different words for many things, including the words for "you are," which is a pretty important phrase. It's as if someone took the phrase "you are" in English and changed it to "fleb gleb."
- They speak extremely fast, and slur their words together.

Putting all of these changes together, it's the equivalent of going to California and someone asking "Where are you from?" and then going to New York, where they instead slur to you: "From zhere fleb gleb pathing?" Perhaps you will understand when I say, with all due respect, that to me they sound like my friend Kelly after she just had her wisdom teeth pulled, which makes every interaction extremely difficult, albeit somewhat amusing, even after being here 3 weeks.

However, they have waterfalls, Buenos Aires, dinosaurs, Welsh tea houses, penguins, glaciers, and Tierra del Fuego, and that's not even a tiny fraction of what there is to see here. So I guess I don't mind it here too much. :)

Friday, November 26, 2010

First Impressions

Our first day in Argentina was undoubtedly the worst day we've had this whole trip. I usually don't like to go into such detail about a single day, but I think this day deserves to have its own post, if not some sort of thesis, written about it.

We took a 9-hour overnight train from Uyuni to the Argentinian border, which already started everything out wrong because it was the bumpiest, shakiest train I've ever been on. Not as bad as the bus TO Uyuni, during which, for about 7 hours, I could literally feel my own brain bouncing around in my skull, leaving me to wonder if I was giving myself permanent brain damage (will I still be able to do math after this? damnit, now I have to keep solving math problems in my head just to make sure) but still bad enough that we didn't sleep very well at all. Also, I woke up with a chest infection that got worse and worse throughout the day. We were not very happy campers when we arrived at the border at around 7am and had to wait around half an hour for our luggage to be unloaded, followed by another hour just to cross the border. What's the deal with borders, anyway? I just want to go over there, why does this have to be so complicated? Why can't we all just get along?

Our plan was to take a bus from the border to a city called Salta that very same day. As we neared the bus station, we were approached by one man asking "Bus a Salta?" We replied, "Sí!" and were instantly swarmed by 5 more guys all shouting in unison "Bus to Salta? Direct! Cheap! Leaves in 10 minutes! BEST BUS IN THE WORLD!! This bus will take you out for a romantic dinner, give you a foot massage, and make you breakfast in the morning!" or something to that extent. I don't think these people realize how scary it is to be swarmed by 6 shouting guys at once when you have no idea where you are. We somehow extricated ourselves from the cluster and kept walking towards the bus station. Note to self: never say "" to anyone again.

At the bus station we managed to find one company that didn't have anyone shouting or harassing us, so we decided to go with them. (I wonder if those guys realized that their shouting had exactly the opposite effect of their desired purpose? Someone should tell them, dude, just chill.) Our bus didn't leave til 11:20am and it was only around 9, so we bought our tickets and decided to hang out in a cafe til that time. The menu in the cafe looked like this (leading me to wonder whether they'd be capable of making a tea without injuring themselves in the process. I was pleasantly surprised when they could).

Something doesn't add up (i.e. the numbers):

We came back to the bus station at 11am, 20 minutes early, like good little backpackers. I went back to the company where we bought our tickets to ask where the bus would be leaving from. "A Salta?" The lady asked, while clutching her mate gourd. "Ya salió." (It left already.) We looked at each other in confusion and rising anger. She pointed at the clock above her head, which read 12:00. WTF? Then it slowly dawned on us: there is a one hour time difference between Bolivia and Argentina. Why in the hell didn't they tell us that on the train? And how is there a one hour time difference if we've gone directly SOUTH of where we were in Bolivia to where we currently were in Argentina? Why does nothing make any sense down here??

Since it was an honest mistake, we asked her if they'd be willing to transfer the tickets to the next bus, but she absolutely refused. She just kept looking at her computer in complete boredom and saying, "No." Ah. Alright then, there goes that $50. Thanks for nothing, bitch. Their next bus didn't leave for another 3 hours, and we decided we weren't going to give them any more money anyway, so we went back out to look for a different company. That is when we got swarmed once again by the guys from the other company. "Our bus leaves in 20 minutes! It's cheap! It's direct! Our bus will hold you at night while staring longingly into your eyes! NO OTHER BUS WILL LOVE YOU LIKE THIS BUS!" And even though we could tell these guys were shady as hell, in our moment of anger and impatience, we decided to just go with them, since waiting 20 minutes sure beats waiting 3 hours.

I had a bad feeling about this company from the very start. Something just didn't feel right, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. In the end, it turned out that when they told us, "This bus is direct, takes 7 hours, and has a bathroom" what they really meant was "This bus has no bathroom, you will be forced to switch buses three quarters of the way through the trip and wait for 2 hours at a hamburger joint for the next bus, and the whole trip will actually take about 10 hours." What I had initially sensed and couldn't put my finger on was that people were lying directly to our faces because they knew that by the time we'd realized it, we'd be 7 hours away and helpless to do anything about it. We were NOT happy about this, especially since throughout the day I kept getting progressively more sick. I'm thinking the sheer amount of anger from this day probably had something to do with that.

Because the bus didn't have a bathroom, they stopped about once an hour to let people use the bathrooms at a bus station. Both times I tried to pee, however, turned out to be traumatizing experiences. The first time, I completely forgot that most bus stations charge a peso to use their bathrooms, so after walking all the way to the bathroom, I had to run back into the bus to get money. As I was getting off the bus again with the money, I told the bus driver that I was going to the bathroom. To this he yelled, "Rápido!" as if he would, in fact, drive off without me if I took too long. I sprinted to the bathroom and back like my life depended on it. Which, in a way, it did. Talk about performing under stress.

The second time, as I walked into the bathroom all prepared with my 2 pesos, I was confronted by a (roughly 14-year-old) girl who immediately shouted something at me. Because Argentinian Spanish is so nasally, slurry, and generally incomprehensible, I thought she had shouted "Boliviano!" I momentarily forgot that we were in Argentina by this point and thought she was asking me for 1 Boliviano, so I tried to hand her my money. She just shouted at me even louder, and I finally understood that she was shouting "LIMPIANDO!!" (I'M CLEANING!!). So I asked if I could use the men's bathroom instead, and she angrily yelled, "NO!" as if I had just asked if I could round up a group of my best friends to gangbang her mother. So I just slunk back to the bus and tried to hold it til the next stop. Apparently the complete lack of manners begins quite early in this country. What's with all the unsolicited yelling, especially from some 14-year-old girl? Was that really necessary? And, more importantly, why did I let myself be ordered around by this little teenage piece of shit? Apparently the complete lack of balls begins quite early in my country.

Shortly after these mortifying episodes, the bus suddenly stopped and the driver droned through his nose that everyone had to get off the bus, take all of their stuff, and submit to having their bags searched by border control officers. By hand. By which I mean, these guys were pulling out everyone's stuff, including clothes, underwear, children's toys, everything, and just tossing it on the ground, while everyone else watched. Then each person would have to kneel on the ground and repack everything. Ross and I stood in the back of the line watching this in horror, getting more and more pissed off at the complete lack of respect. (Just imagine, none of this would be necessary if there were no war on drugs. But that is for a different, even more frustrated, post.) And then, when we got to the front, nervously anticipating having all our stuff thrown on the ground, the officer just checked our passports and waved us through, not even bothering to open our bags. What? Um. Okay.

When we got back on the bus, the woman in front of us was complaining to the woman next to us that, in the process of "investigating" her bag, this "officer" had taken some of her sexy underwear that she had bought to wear for her boyfriend. Ross and I were shocked and asked why. She shrugged and half-joked, "Because he liked it?" Wooow. So, that explains why everyone here is so bitter: They are being constantly fucked over by their own government and police officers. And the worst part is, they're not even overtly pissed off about it anymore. She seemed to accept it and move on with her life while Ross and I sat there completely stunned that any of this could happen so casually. We've witnessed corruption in Peru and Bolivia as well, but this was fucked up on a whole new level.

This post is already getting far too long, so I'll just end by saying that the rest of the day continued in much the same manner, with us wondering what the hell is wrong with these people, and probably vice versa. South America hasn't exactly bowled us over with kindness in general, but Argentinians seem actively hostile against our presence. Since that day we've been in Salta for 2 days, during which I've been lying in our hostel being sick, while Ross has wandered around a bit. He has tried to convince me that people in Salta are nicer than on this first day and not all completely obnoxious, but I'm not sure I believe him. I really hope so. I'm going to try to be open-minded and give this place a chance. But seriously? Not a good first impression, Argentina.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Salt Than You Could Shake A Stick At

Hey, guys! We totally didn't mean to neglect the blog like we did. It turns out that if you stay too long in one country, everything about that country starts to piss you off. And then you try to write a blog about that country, and it comes out sounding like you hated everything about it, which isn't true at all. And then you feel bad and delete the entire post. And then your boyfriend tries to take a crack at it too, but the exact same thing happens. Before you know it, it's two weeks later and you can barely remember anything you were going to write about in the first place. So, in a nutshell: Cuzco was pretty at first but so touristy that we ended up hating it, Machu Picchu was beautiful enough that we overlooked how touristy it was (but it still felt a bit like entering Disneyland), the salt pans and Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley were completely fascinating, and Lake Titicaca was over-rated (aside from its name, which I will never tire of giggling at).

We've been in Bolivia the last week or so. We spent the first several days in La Paz (the highest capital in the world). It's our favorite city so far - it's got its metropolitan parts, where businesspeople in suits mingle with ladies in native dress; it's got its cute little tree-lined residential sector; and it's got an especially interesting neighborhood where the streets are lined with vendors selling everything from llama fetuses (?) to dentists' chairs (??). And, unlike in Peru, we're not constantly bombarded by people trying to talk to scam us. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to walk the streets without being a target! It's quite refreshing, I must say. I almost want to give people money for NOT talking to us.

By far, the best part of La Paz, however, was the dancing zebras.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived was that, at every red light, people dressed in zebra costumes were dancing around in the intersections waving little stop signs. I found this extremely confusing until I found an article about this very issue in a magazine. Apparently, until recently, La Paz had a serious problem of drivers not paying attention to stop lights, causing horrible traffic jams. The government decided that the best way to counter this issue was to hire students to dress in zebra costumes and dance around. And to the surprise of everyone except the apparently-quite-stoned Bolivian government, it worked! Now, drivers actually stop at red lights while the zebras help pedestrians cross and, delightfully, make fun of any drivers who violate traffic rules. I saw one zebra stop dancing, shake his head sadly and do a facepalm when he saw a driver stop too far into the crosswalk. AMAZING. I think way more government mandates need to involve dancing zebras. Even now, this makes me laugh every time I think about it.

We didn't think to take any pictures of  La Paz, so I had to steal one from google:

After La Paz, we endured the worst bus ride in history to get to Uyuni, home to Bolivia's enormous salt flats (10,000 sq km across! "Almost as big as yo mamma," my brain can't help but add). I think the salt flats may be one of my favorite places in the world so far. Not only is the landscape completely insane (hexagons of salt in every direction as far as the eye can see), but it's studded by islands filled with hundreds of cacti, most of which are at least a thousand years old. (The salt flats are what remain of an ocean that used to be here 30,000 years ago. We later found out that the islands of cacti used to be coral reefs! This explained why the rocks forming the cactus island looked so un-rocky: they were actually petrified corals). It's the kind of environment that, the more time you spend in it, the more you devolve into a giggling, shrieking mess. After about an hour of wandering around the cactus island, Ross and I were reduced to making elephant noises to try to entice the llamas to look our way for a picture. I have a feeling that this is the only natural response to such mind-boggling surroundings.

Note the llama, totally oblivious to our elephant noises:

On our way to our hotel, we stopped at a "museum" on the edge of the salt flats. The museum turned out to be one man's massive collection of rocks that are shaped like various animals, which he collected from the nearby mountains. This may be the strangest hobby I've ever heard of. But then, just when we thought it couldn't get any weirder, underneath his rock collection in a small underground closet was a 1,500 year old mummy that had been found nearby. There was no glass to keep us from touching, no ice to preserve it, none of the typical museum protections - just a mummy sitting on the ground, close enough to smell and touch, surrounded overhead by rocks that look like condors and rabbits and whatnot, on the edge of a goddamn salt flat. I couldn't decide if this was the best or the creepiest museum ever. Or both.

That night we spent the night in a hotel made of salt. This wasn't as awesome as you'd expect. At first it was great - "The walls, bed, tables, and chairs are all made of SALT! WTF!" - but then it slowly became obvious why furniture isn't typically made of salt. Over dinner, Ross's Sprite exploded as he was opening it, and the edge of the table just melted right off. (Uh, oops? Someone get a salt sculptor in here, QUICK!) Then, just as we started to notice that our elbows and clothes were covered in salt (alas, if I were more prim and proper, I would've kept my elbows off the table), the waiter brought out a big, salty soup. Ahh, perfect - just what we were craving, MORE SALT.

Shortly before the Sprite disaster:

Another highlight was the flamingos that breed on the lakes near the salt flats. They were even more hilarious than I expected. They can live in groups of up to 12,000 and all squawk quite amusingly to each other, creating quite a ruckus. And they can fly, but only very awkwardly - they can only get airborne by running, flapping and flailing, and then when they do manage to take off, they have to flap their little hearts out just to stay about a meter above the water. Silly birds. If that is, in fact, what they are. I have my doubts.

Either way, one of the best parts, for me, was swimming in hot springs overlooking a lake teeming with flamingos. Our guide, Jose, timed it so we were the only ones there, which was amazing, as not only did it give us private access to the flamingos (not that way, perverts), but also it gave us a chance to goof around with Ross's underwater camera for the first time. Good times.

Before we left Vancouver, I said that I wanted our travels to change my life somehow. Well, it has become clear that this trip has changed me in 3 very important ways already.

First, I've become much more bold about peeing outdoors. Perhaps this is a consequence of always having to carry toilet paper around with us, which makes it much less gross to pop a squat. Or perhaps it's just a result of spending the majority of our time in places where we're not near bathrooms (or where the only bathrooms look like this). Either way, I think I have sufficiently marked Southwest Bolivia as my personal territory in the last several days. I have peed behind rocks, on deserted beaches, and even off of a cliff. I'm not exactly sure if I should be proud or ashamed, but either way I thought it was relevant to mention.

Second, I'm now able to tell apart llamas from vicuñas. Llamas are much fluffier.

And finally, my Spanish is now immeasurably better than when we first got to South America. When we were first getting to Ecuador 2 months ago, I could barely ask for a croissant at the airport without stammering and blushing intensely (incidentally, if you want a mind-blowingly good croissant, go to the airport in Bogota, Columbia). Now, during the tour of the salt flats, I managed to have entire conversations with Jose (our wonderful guide who only spoke Spanish) about mining, the war on drugs, and Bolivian driving and healthcare policies, all in a coherent and blush-free manner. Who wants to speak Spanish with me when we get back home? I need a Spanish buddy so I don't lose my español skilz, por favor.

We've enjoyed Bolivia very much (way more than Peru). I think we'd like to come back here someday to see the rest of the country. It's a shame we only planned a week here; it turned out to be way more interesting and beautiful than we expected. But tomorrow we'll be in Argentina, and that is very exciting too! I can't wait.

Click here for more pictures of Bolivia:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sex, drugs, and Carmelite nuns

One day after we got into Lima, Ross came down with a fever. We tried to ignore it, not wanting to make a big deal out of nothing, but pesky thoughts of dying of malaria kept popping up, since we'd just been a delicious dinner to ravenous mosquitoes in the jungle and, most likely, to deadly bacteria in the Amazon river. (Ross was secretly hoping it would be the plague, of which there has been a recent outbreak in Peru. It's the perfect disease - easily treated with penicillin, but bragging rights for the rest of your life.) Dying of malaria would be very inconvenient because we had plans to go to Bolivia after this, so we decided to go to a hospital to make sure that our plans would not be hampered by imminent death. I'm glad that we turned out to be in Lima when we were in need of a hospital instead of a more remote part of Peru. One guide told us that, in very rural areas, some indigenous people who don't have enough money for healthcare treat themselves using guinea pigs instead. In case you haven't heard of this method before, here's what they do:

They take a live guinea pig and rub it all over their body. (If you've never had anyone mime 'rubbing a live guinea pig all over your body,' you truly haven't lived. It's exhilarating.) The campesinos (farmers or peasants) believe that by doing this, their disease will be transferred into the guinea pig, so they cut open the guinea pig to diagnose themselves. If they find something wrong with the guinea pig, they believe that indicates what was wrong in their own body. (Only black guinea pigs are used as medicine. The other unfortunate souls are enthusiastically eaten all over the country as a dinnertime treat. Guinea pigs suffer so many indignities at the hands of the Peruvians.) However, for some reason, guinea pigs are not seen as a suitable treatment for children, so for children they do the same thing, but with eggs. This makes even less sense to me - how are you supposed to make a diagnosis using an egg? They don't even have body parts! The way the guide explained it, "They don't have enough money for medicine, but they already have guinea pigs and eggs, right?", with which I had to agree.

So I was pretty happy to find that we didn't see even one guinea pig scampering around the hospital. I did see an egg, but only in the form of my sandwich. The hospital was quite professional; in fact, the experience was quite a bit more enjoyable than a typical Emergency Room experience in North America. A+++, would visit again!! $300 worth of blood tests later, we discovered it wasn't malaria or the plague, it was just a regular old flu that happened to strike at the moment we'd be most paranoid about it. Damn sneaky viruses. 3 days later I also came down with a fever. We briefly debated going to the hospital for tests again, because what if we let our guard down, assumed it was the same flu, and at that exact moment, malaria made an ass out of u and me? How absolutely ridiculous would we feel THEN? But we're too lazy to be that paranoid, and I'm still alive, so I think we made the right choice.

Another happy coincidence was that we got sick in a hostel that is as cheap as it is bizarre. Our hostel is what would happen if you crossed an old Colonial mansion, a museum, and a zoo (Ross tried to capture some of the weirdness in his first ever youtube video). There is pre-Inca pottery lining the front desk. Roman statues hide in the corners, and every corridor is peppered with religious Spanish paintings. Getting to our room is like walking through a labyrinth. You walk up one long regular staircase, then one spiral staircase. Then you pass a rooftop patio in which you encounter several budgies, 3 turtles, a cat, a dog, a parrot, and what we have only been able to guess is a macaw. One more spiral staircase later, and you finally arrive at our room, where we spent a week in bed, trying desperately not to wake up when the macaw and parrot began squawking every morning ("Hola!" the parrot would shout hopefully, over and over again). Sleeping through all of that might have been possible except on top of that, every morning at 9am, the restaurant on the patio blasts music for their breakfast customers. And by "music," I actually mean, one very worn album of French love songs from the 50s, each song indistinguishable from the last, played over and over again until my ears would start to bleed. I spent every morning in a rage, wondering if the entire city of Lima was just some cruel, psychopathic joke.

In the last few days, I have finally been able to ascertain that it is not, in fact, a cruel psychopathic joke. Instead, it is simply an absolutely chaotic whirlpool of 8 million people squeezed into a city with the infrastructure for about 13 people and a llama. Areas of devastating poverty surround quite lavish neighborhoods filled to the brim with historic landmarks. Traffic is an unbearable mess - getting from one side of the city to another can literally take several hours during rush hour, as we found out while trying to get back from the hospital. Cabbies will routinely simply refuse to go to Central Lima during this time. Because many huge intersections lack street lights, cars just dart out into oncoming traffic with no understanding of "right of way" and honk angrily when they find that other cars are - surprise, surprise! - in their way. Not to mention the daily parades, which aren't actually an election quirk as we thought, but actually just a favorite national pastime, akin to reading or playing Backgammon. If the government spent half the money on street lights as it spent on parades, I think Lima would probably not have earned the nickname "Lima, la horrible" from noted Peruvian essayist Sebastian Salazar Bondy. (He was actually referring to the weather, but I'm sure he'd say the same thing about the traffic, were he alive today.)

Nevertheless, once we were healthy enough to say our tearful goodbyes with the parrot, we actually found that we enjoyed exploring Lima quite a bit. One of my favorite parts happened our first night out. Still in somewhat of a flu-y haze, we chose to go to dinner at a restaurant that our guidebook said was run by French Carmelite nuns. Walking up to its exterior, we were greeted by a closed gate, with a sign saying "We're open! Ring the bell!" Hmmm. We rang the bell and waited. Finally someone answered, "?" I wasn't quite sure what to say. "Uh... para cena?" I stammered ("...for dinner?"). I suppose this was the right answer, as we were quickly buzzed in. Puzzling.

We were further confused as we were led to our table. "Bon soir!" they greeted us in French. Except my brain, which has been struggling to think exclusively in Spanish for the last 2 months, interpreted this as complete gibberish. She may as well have squawked at me like the parrot. The whole night, none of us could decide which language to speak in, so every conversation was conducted in a mix of French, Spanish, and English. The problem was that some of the nuns spoke Spanish but not much French, while others would address us mostly in French and a bit of English. I only speak some Spanish and no French at all, while Ross has no Spanish but a tiny bit of high school French. And everyone, trying to be polite, tried to speak the other person's preferred language, but nobody could decide what that was.

"Ready? Ça va?" approached a nun.
"Oui, merci," Ross responded, while at the same time I answered, "Sí, gracias!"

This continued the entire night, every interaction ending in laughter as the nuns tried to engage us in conversation and made fun of our stumbling around at every opportunity. I never knew nuns were so cheeky. (By the end of the dinner we started throwing some German and Russian into the mix, just for fun.) The food was outstanding - in fact, it was the only truly amazing meal we've had in Lima, despite our guidebook raving about this city as the "gastronomical capital of Peru." (I don't buy it for a second - even a gastronomical capital can't salvage the horror that is Peruvian food.) After dinner, the nuns gathered in the dining room to sing Ave Maria, all facing a picture of the Virgin Mary (which I'm sure the virgin appreciated). They handed out little cards with the lyrics printed in French and Spanish and invited everyone to sing along, but I didn't, because they sang in French, and it was a different version of Ave Maria than I was familiar with. (Neither of these things stopped Ross though. Perhaps his religious fervor was just too overpowering.) It was quite a touching moment and a perfect way to end a very bizarre, but absolutely lovely, dinner. The only better way would've been if I could've taken one of the nuns home with me to be my grandma. So cute!

To now turn in a completely different direction: Several weeks ago we promised that we would go to a museum filled with pottery made by the Moches, one of the most insane cultures that has ever lived. Artifacts that have been found from their culture suggest that the Moches were obsessed with sex and death (Freud's predecessors). For example, they would make 2 warriors from their culture fight it out to see who would be sacrificed. The loser would then be 'cleansed' for sacrifice by being forced to take San Pedro for a week straight. (Normally I would be all for that sort of fun, but to be on a hallucinogen for a week before being killed would probably be a bit of a downer.) Then he would be ritually anal raped and decapitated, after which (according to one theory) the priest would drink his blood. And that was only the beginning of the fun - their pottery frequently shows women being raped by pumas, women having sex with corpses, men with venereal diseases, and lots and lots of anal rape all around. So of course we were excited to go see this museum. And indeed, their pottery was more grotesque and fascinating than anything I've ever imagined. Observe:

Aaaand I think that is a good note on which to end. For more pictures of Lima, including many, many more pictures of pottery with cocks on it, click here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Drench me in bug spray and show me monkeys

On Tuesday, giddy with excitement at the prospect of going to our jungle lodge, we walked to the Muyuna office to meet our guide and drive to the port. The first thing we saw upon stepping into the office was a couple in their 70s sitting across from us, bags packed, our giddy expressions mirrored on their faces. As we made awkward small talk, we were joined by 2 Austrian guys, both also in their 70s and both very, very deaf. WTF? Up until this moment I had been feeling like an intrepid explorer, ready to face the boundaries of human existence and come out the other side unscathed, laughing in the face of dangerous animals and excruciating humidity alike. Seeing wrinkly, barely mobile retirees about to do the same thing quickly forced that fantasy out the window. My mind started to race with very age-ist thoughts: Perhaps we were in the wrong office? Maybe we had accidentally signed up for the senior citizen resort package and would spend our next 4 days eating Jello by a pool? Oh god, what have we done? I WANT MY MONEY BACK.

Fortunately, we were soon joined by 4 British 20-somethings, and order was somewhat restored in the universe. Before we knew it, we'd been speeding down the Amazon in a motorboat for 3 hours and were almost there. For the last leg of the trip, normally the boat would turn off from the Amazon into a smaller river to get to the lodge, but this was low season, and the river was even lower than usual for low season, so the boat couldn't get through. This meant that we had to hike for about 45 minutes in the sweltering heat to get to the lodge. This proved somewhat more than the elderly couples had bargained for. We had to walk across a log to get across some water at one point, and that taxed one of the poor men so much that he later slipped and fell. His wife quietly informed me that he was 78, and had arthritis in his knees, which made it hard to walk. At that point I wasn't entirely sure that they would make it back out of this expedition alive. Wasn't hiking meant to be a big part of the point of this trip? They were obviously quite brave, but I still didn't want to be grouped with them for our hikes.

When we got to the lodge, however, all these thoughts disappeared. It turned out to be a huge step up from what I was expecting. It was fully screened, with running water, hammocks on the porch, and a cafeteria with boardgames, fooseball, and delicious food. We were greeted with ice cold passionfruit juice and wet towels (to wipe our already conspicuously dripping sweat). Unlike Sean's experience, we didn't have to poo directly into the river! Success. The only downside was the lack of electricity, which meant that at night we had to use 2 kerosene lamps, which had a tendency to keep going off in the middle of anything important. This made nights in the lodge really creepy. 2 of the walls were basically just screens, which was great, except that you could hear every insect, frog, and bird with deafening clarity. You could hear bugs fluttering and scratching against the screens, and it sounded like they'd somehow gotten through the screen and were closing in on our faces. Thank god for headlamps!

(We later found out that our cabin was right next to the 2 deaf Austrian guys, who we could hear shouting at each other quite clearly thanks to the screens. And who, perplexingly, played panpipes poorly while we tried to nap.)

Our first day, we took it easy with 2 short boat rides: one in the afternoon, to bird watch, and the second in the night, to look for nocturnal creatures. Bird watching was way more fun for me than I thought it would be. You just sit there (love it) and watch things (awesome!) while the guide tells you interesting things about cute animals (what could be better?). Our guide, Julio, had this supernatural ability to be able to spot any animal from like a mile away -- "There!" he'd point, "A kingfisher!" or "A wattled jacana!" And we'd squint and squint and finally see a blurry blob way over in Chile or something. (Fortunately we brought our monoculars, which helped, even though it made Julio make fun of us for looking like pirates.) 

The night ride to look for nocturnal wildlife was also quite fun. For a long time all we saw was snakes and frogs, but then suddenly he moved the boat very slowly towards a clearing on the river. Of course, we saw nothing and just sat there in silent anticipation. Then he jumped out of the boat (something I would NOT do with all those snakes out there) and came back in holding a baby caiman! We all got to hold and pet him (he was quite helpless if held by the neck and the tail) and I instantly fell in love. If only they didn't grow to be 7 feet long and deadly, I'd totally want one! So cute!

Our guide, Julio:

Little did we know, they were just letting us rest up in order to save our energy for the next day, for which they had planned an EIGHT. HOUR. HIKE. I've never done an 8 hour hike in Vancouver, much less in the jungle. (The group of older people were going on a separate, 3 hour hike. Suddenly I was jealous that we weren't going to be hiking with them. Instead it was us and the 4 Brits.) We donned our gumboots and long sleeves and were out the door by 8am, dripping in sweat by 8:02. Although the first part of the hike was pretty interesting (we saw millipedes, leaf cutter ants, a rare poisonous dart frog, and a tree rat. Plus, Ross ate larvae! "Tastes like coconut," he said), we soon found ourselves trekking along for several hours without seeing anything at all. Julio kept hurrying along, desperately trying to find monkeys to show us, and the 6 of us scurried behind him in single file. This wasn't the best system - Julio would put his hand up when he heard something, indicating that we should stop and shut up, but by the time this message traveled to the last person in line, even the sloths had had time to run away. He was clearly getting quite frustrated - he said normally we would've seen tons of monkeys by now, but he didn't even hear any this time. Perhaps there had been a monkey exodus, as Ross suggested, or perhaps 7 loud people tearing through the jungle just isn't a good way to attract shy creatures.

Meanwhile, we kept walking and walking and walking (and walking), swatting mosquitoes away from our faces and getting more and more cranky. Insect repellent does nothing when you're sweating too much to keep it on your skin. By the time we stopped for lunch, we didn't even care about seeing monkeys anymore. We just wanted to go back to the lodge and have a cold shower. But there was still a 2.5 hour hike back, during which Julio kept stopping to make a last-ditch effort to listen for monkeys. I wanted to scream at him to let it go, but somehow kept my mouth shut. His persistence finally paid off. In the very last hour of the hike, we got to see 2 pygmy marmosets - the smallest monkey in the world! They were cute and all, but by that point I was just too grumpy to care. Later, we found out that the older group had seen tons of monkeys and sloths on their 3 hour jaunt. Sonofabitch.

Pygmy marmoset:

Me being too tired and disgusting to care:

Because we had barely seen anything on this hike, Julio suggested that we leave at 5:45 the next morning to look for nocturnal monkeys. Ah, 5:45am, awesome! Just what I wanted to experience after a day like that. The hike turned out to be short, yet mesmerizing - within about half an hour, we had seen 3 different species of monkeys and a sloth! This time the monkeys were jumping all around the trees, in every direction -- you didn't know where to look first! I couldn't believe we had seen practically NONE the day before! We followed this with a boat ride to the Amazon to look for pink dolphins. They are quite shy and they don't jump like grey dolphins do. It's like they know they're extra interesting so they're purposely elusive and stubborn. Bastard dolphins. (I still love you though, dolphins.) However, we then got to swim in the Amazon river, which was slightly terrifying after finding out there are piranhas and whatnot in there, but it was super warm and nice, so I stopped caring pretty quickly. Finally, we went to a swamp filled with 2 meter wide lily pads on which a baby could sleep without drowning. By this point it wasn't even 10 o' clock and already we'd had the craziest day of our lives. I forgave Julio for forcing us on our death hike.

Later, we went canoeing with Julio. By this point the 4 British people had left, and we had our guide to ourselves. I'm not sure if you know this, but canoeing is fucking hard. Not 2 minutes in, my shoulders were already hurting, followed quickly by the rest of my body. After what seemed like 4 hours, I asked him, "We must be nearly there?" And he laughed and said we were only about halfway. OMG. So we took the opportunity to chat to him about his life, and he told us that he's never been anywhere outside of Peru. But if he were to travel, he said he'd want to go to Canada first. "Why Canada, of all places?" we asked in astonishment. He told us he'd had a couple who'd stayed at the lodge, who had invited him to Edmonton to show him around, so he really wanted to go to Edmonton! I told him not to expect much (according to my friend Jenny, who is from Edmonton), but then felt somewhat bad for stepping all over his dreams like that. Seeing snow and a city outside of Peru would probably be so new that it would still be great fun, even if it was in Edmonton.

That evening, we went on a night hike, nervously stepping through the brush with flashlights. We saw tons of huge spiders and tarantulas, scorpions of all sizes, and even a scorpion without a tail that looked like a spider! The worst of both worlds! This probably wasn't the best choice of activities for me to do right before trying to sleep. I was thoroughly creeped out and, after that, pretty much ready to be done with the jungle.

Our last day, I almost didn't go on our final morning hike. Putting on my disgusting gumboots, and my clothes that were by this point completely drenched in sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray, and going out there to deal with the mosquitoes again - it was almost too much to handle. But I sucked it up because I didn't want my last impression of the jungle to be the spider scorpion. And on that hike, the onslaught of monkeys that we saw turned out to be like nothing else we'd ever seen. It was absolutely stunning. Monkeys were jumping from tree to tree, picking fruit, scratching themselves, staring right at us with curious little eyes, peeing from a tree... It was like being in a Planet Earth documentary, and Julio was like David Attenborough with a machete and better hair.

3 monkeys (looking down from the tree):

I was pretty happy when we were finally on the motorboat heading back to Iquitos. 4 days in the jungle was more than enough for me. I'm glad I experienced it, and I genuinely had an amazing time, but it was pretty intense. It's good to be back in a place where you have motorcycles attacking you instead of insects. It's hard to believe people live in the jungle their entire lives - they are clearly made of much tougher stuff than me. Most of the villagers get their food using canoes, and probably have never experienced running water, much less hot water (while we canoed, we passed a family washing themselves in the river, with grandma sitting topless just like in National Geographic, boobs down to her thighs). Julio didn't sweat once, didn't put on insect repellent, nothing. In fact, as soon as we got back from our 8 hour hike, he asked us, "So, who wants to go fishing before dinner?" as we all nearly died of exhaustion. I've never felt so sheltered in my life.

3 children canoeing down the river on their own:

Tomorrow we're flying back to Lima, where I might finally stop sweating and maybe even be slightly cold for a while. I'm excited.

Click here for way more pictures of the jungle, and see our previous post for more pictures of Iquitos.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Wow, the last few days have been intense. Shit has been real up in here, as they say (or may not say anymore).

Right now Ross and I are in Iquitos, the largest city in the Amazonian jungle, only reachable by boat or plane. The humidity here is absolutely unbearable. It feels like you're trapped in a sauna that's been wrapped in llama wool, dragged through a forest fire, and then left sitting in a swamp. It's mildly uncomfortable. Fortunately we've decided that Iquitos will be the place where we splurge (because you have to have a good splurge every once in a while if you're going to survive a year of backpacking), so we got a hotel with air conditioning! Oh sweet, sweet air conditioning. Possibly the greatest invention known to man.

Past the heat and humidity, Iquitos is a difficult place to describe. It's the kind of place where, instead of driving cars, mom, pop, and 3 kids pile onto a motorcycle, sans helmets. Instead of squirrels hopping around the main plaza, there are giant rats. The marketplace offers sloths (as pets), larvae (as food), Valium, and Chicha next to the usual array of splayed chickens and fish (Chicha is a beer that is traditionally made by grounding corn, moistening it in the maker's mouth, and then forming balls to lay out to dry. In short, we've been calling it "spit beer," but despite that it's actually quite good). During meals, we've been approached by children begging for food, a boy selling quartz, and one drunk, overly enthusiastic waitress who insisted on hugging each of us on our way out (I didn't mind this at all - maybe we've been enjoying too much chicha). The people are beautiful and friendly, and the juice is so good it's like a smack in the face. It feels wild and unkempt, but also laid back and fun - completely removed from urban mores. Pictures would probably be a lot more successful at conveying a sense of what it's like, so I'll wait until we have those up instead of writing any more.

We've booked a guided tour into the jungle for 4 days. Tomorrow we take a motorboat down the Amazon river for 3 hours to our ENTIRELY SCREENED lodge. Ross's brother, Sean, just did a similar tour of the jungle last week, and was attacked by ants. ATTACKED BY ANTS. As in, one moment he was walking along being all British, the next moment there were ants down his shirt and in his hair, biting the shit out of him for committing the grave sin of brushing against their tree branch. He also reported that there is such a thing known as "sweat bees," which prefer to attack the nose and eyes. I'm slightly terrified of this aspect of the jungle. I completely flipped out when we had to sleep in a hostel that had a cockroach in it. Hopefully it will be like aversion therapy and I'll come back completely unaware that bugs even exist. After this is over I will laugh in the face of cockroaches! Ha ha! Or, alternatively, I will actually go insane and spend the rest of my life rocking back and forth, mumbling incoherently about screens. (We got nets to wear on our heads just to be sure this doesn't happen.)

However, according to Sean, the trip is totally worth the onslaught of bugs. Every day we will go bird watching at dawn. Then the afternoon will be filled with hikes to various regions to see monkeys, butterflies and hopefully bears or something. Those live in the jungle, right? According to Mowgli? We will also go fishing for piranha, and at night, do hikes to look for nocturnal animals like tarantulas and caimans. I'm excited - it sounds at once exhilarating and a bit nightmarish. I'm sure the reality will be something else entirely.

Today I had to go shopping for a long-sleeved shirt, because apparently those are somewhat handy in the jungle. It would've been good to have thought of that before actually being IN a city in the jungle. The fashion here, understandably, is to wear as little as possible. Store after store, people looked at me like I was nuts when I asked for shirts with long sleeves. When they did have one, all they had was one size, "standard," which may be standard if you're a petite, beautiful Peruvian jungle woman but was comically undersized on me. I felt like a big, pasty Godzilla, lumbering around their stores with pit stains bigger than some of their small children, scaring away all but the bravest of salesgirls. Fortunately everyone came out unscathed (except for my ego), and I managed to acquire 2 long-sleeved shirts. Huzzah!

Anyway, if we're not back by Friday, send help!

More pictures of Iquitos:

Monday, October 4, 2010

In which Marina learns that animals are scary

I probably should've waited another day before writing such a scathing review of Huaraz. Now I feel a bit bad. Oh well, at least they're all too poor for internet, so they'll never know! Joking.

To even things out, here is one nice picture of Huaraz:

We realized that because everything around here is so far away, and also because we are a teeny bit incompetent in the art of getting around rural Peru, that we should probably hire a guide next time we try to go somewhere interesting. That way we might actually be able to experience the scenery properly instead of coming home exhausted and bitter and rearing to leave the area as soon as humanly possible.

On that note, we got a guide to drive us to a rock forest called Hatun Machay, and it proved to be a fantastic decision. We got to learn fun little tidbits about South American culture from the guide: for example, there is a fierce rivalry between Ecuador and Peru. Peruvians call Ecuadorians 'los monos,' or 'the monkeys,' because during times of war they tend to hide in trees to shoot people. Meanwhile, Ecuadorians call Peruvians 'las gallinas,' or 'the chickens,' because during war they just run. Lovely.

Our guide was, no joke, the most talkative man in South America (strangely, that was listed in our guidebook), which forced my Spanish skills through an intensive bootcamp. During the course of the day I found out how to say such exciting words as "shrine," "carving," and "goat." That's the kind of thing you only learn in the school of hard knocks, baby. Of course, I can't remember any of them now except "goat" (cabra), but I think we can all agree it's still a success.

The rock forest was a massive collection of ancient rocks. Doesn't sound like the type of place that you'd drive 2 hours with a guide to see, I suppose, but it was amazing. It was finally a place that matched the natural beauty and weirdness of Icelandic landscapes. There are ancient carvings in some of the rocks from the cultures who inhabited them thousands of years ago. There are also several people who still live in little huts only several meters away from those carvings! Just when I thought it couldn't get any more rural, these bastards shatter my biases again. These huts are in the middle of the desert, many miles from any other people. How in the hell do people survive in these places? And WHY, for the love of god? Why live in a place where there are no people, no food, and no water? Of course, the scenery's great, but it's like... you could move to Huaraz and eat more roasted guinea pig than you could shake a stick at! Tempting, no? But of course, then you wouldn't be surrounded by rocks. Pros and cons.

Today made me realize how removed I've been from animals my entire life. (When we passed by a group of sheep, I shouted "Look, little baby sheep!" to which Ross responded "You mean 'lambs'?" Ah, yes. Those.) I've never seen donkeys, pigs, or cows in a wild environment before, and it was actually a bit frightening. You realize how incredibly big and strong these animals are, and how helpless you'd be if they decided they don't like the cut of your jib.

We kept a safe distance for the most part, but at one point we were both bent over looking at some pretty flowers (yes, we are tree-huggers) and I heard a slobbering noise right behind me. I knew it couldn't have been Ross, since he hardly ever slobbers, so I turned around to investigate, and I saw a cow (or a bull, I couldn't tell at that point - they both have horns! Who knew?) not 10 feet behind me! A possible BULL, RIGHT NEXT TO US, probably ready to eat us and everyone we hold dear. I was literally rendered speechless and just uttered a series of "Uh...uh... um...." in a terrified manner towards Ross. I suppose it's not often that I talk like that, because this made him realize something was wrong and he turned around. "What do we do?" I whispered. "Just back away slowly" was the obvious answer. As we backed away, we saw that it was merely a cow (I've never been happier to see udders in my life), and that she wanted nothing more than to chew some grass by where we were standing. Thank god. Near-death experience? I'm going to say yes.

Here is the cow that nearly killed us:

We've finally realized, at least, why everyone raves about this area. We probably should've just listened to reason and gotten a guide from the very start instead of assuming that we were cool enough to do it ourselves (we're not). We've been convinced to stay one more day to go see some ancient underground tunnels (woot!) and we'll probably be going with the same guide again, so expect more colorful Spanish words to come tomorrow.

The rock forest was an amazingly photogenic place, so we've added a lot more pictures to the album.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Huaraz: at least it's got oxygen

Okay, it's not often that a bus can be exciting enough to blog about, but today is one of those times. For our 9-hour overnight ride from Trujillo to Huaraz, we decided to splurge on the ultra-super-VIP, gold-covered, unicorn-fart bus. Not only did the plush, mattress-sized seats go all the way back, but we also got a blanket and a pillow, and not one of those static-y blankets that you get on airplanes, either, but a Peruvian, llama-wool cocoon of happiness. We were offered coffee and tea as soon as the bus started moving, and then they gave us a nectarine juice box and cake. CAKE. I half expected the stewardess to start offering everyone coke and lap dances to accompany the in-bus movie. (It turned out that I was not far off: as soon as we got to our hostel, after what turned out to be a TWELVE-hour ride, the host immediately welcomed us with mate de coca. Fortunately neither he nor his septuagenarian wife thought to offer us lap dances.)

If only the rest of Huaraz were so wonderful. The guidebook described Huaraz as a bustling metropolis next to ancient ruins, hot springs, and a gorgeous mountain range rife with trails, waterfalls, lakes, wildlife, and all that is good in the world. One of the peaks in this range is even rumored to be the mountain on the Paramount logo! Naturally, we found out the hard way that "bustling metropolis" is actually a euphemism for "tiny, rubble-strewn dump." And that "next to" actually means "3 hours away, down a dirt road, in a combi; Oh, and if you want to actually see anything before the clouds and rain roll in at 2pm, you have to wake up at 5am and be on your way by 6:30am. Have fun!" (We have since gotten a more specific guidebook.) We managed to do one day-trip to see one of the lakes, and found that although it was beautiful, it wasn't worth the excruciating pain in the ass (literally) of sitting in a combi for 6 hours to get there and back. (Perhaps Ross and I are a bit spoiled from the beauty of Iceland.)

Combis are a fascinating South American way of getting around. They're small buses that are meant to hold 12 people, but generally they stuff more like 20 in them. One guy 'drives' (I use the term loosely) while another, usually teenage guy hangs out the window, shouts their destination at pedestrians, and collects money when people hop on (and hop they must, for the combi will only stop for a maximum of .4 seconds to let people on). The first time we took one was quite intimidating. Ross and I were both shoved in with 2 other people in a 3-person seat, sitting right behind the driver on a bench facing everyone else on the combi, nervously guarding our pockets. Everyone was staring at us and we, in turn, were desperately trying to avoid eye-contact and communicable diseases while simultaneously trying to figure out how much and when to pay the prepubescent teen in charge of the fare. Directly across from us was a guy with a guinea pig in a bag on his lap. He was petting it and being somewhat affectionate, but because roasted guinea pig is such a common dish around here, we couldn't help but wonder if it was meant to be his afternoon snack.

(An interesting anecdote: When talking to one of our Peruvian guides about the combis, she asked us "What do you call the guy who hangs out the window and shouts?" as if it didn't even occur to her that this concept might not exist in Vancouver.)

By now, of course, we are nonchalant about it. We hail them from the side of the road like natives, palm down. We get incredibly annoyed if we're trying to hail one and it's already full. "They can still fit more people in there!" we shout with indignation. It's little things like that by which we proudly mark our progress from bumbling gringos to seasoned travelers. So it comes as no surprise that, while we felt comfortable enough to catch one up the mountain to see the lake, we quickly regretted our decision when we realized that 6 hours in one of these contraptions was about 5.5 hours too many. Maybe we're not so seasoned quite yet.

Our trip to the lake, although underwhelming, was a very good way to force some perspective on Huaraz. As the combi bumped along the dirt road up the mountain, we passed increasingly rural houses inhabited by increasingly poor locals. Many of the women were washing their clothes in tiny riverbeds... washing them as we went up, and 2 hours later, still washing them as we came back down. Damn. It made me appreciate even the cold showers we've had recently. Most of the houses lacked paint, fences, even windows; they were simply shelters made of wood or mud bricks. After that, Huaraz really did seem like a bustling metropolis.

However, perspective doesn't last. Today we weren't able to go anywhere because it's their election day, which means everything gets shut down, including the buses (and, delightfully, the infuriating parades). A gloomy mood came over us when we realized we were going to be stuck in Huaraz for the day ("Hey, at least there's running water" isn't consoling for very long), and we quickly started to crave any sort of distraction. It seemed like the perfect time to try the San Pedro cactus. This would've really turned things around and made for a great story, except that the cactus did absolutely nothing. I thought I was joking when I said that the guy probably sold us ground basil, except that the 'cactus' actually smelled like ground asparagus. So... there's that.

Tomorrow we're doing a tour of a rock forest 'nearby', and then making our way to Iquitos, a city in the middle of the Amazon jungle. That should provide a tad more inspiration. Perhaps soon you'll see a post about something other than cars and buses! That would be exciting.

Click here for more pictures of Huaraz and the 'surrounding' areas: