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: