Monday, July 28, 2008

More on Bolivia, and onto Peru

(Editor's note: I have been working on this blog for over a week and waiting to post it until I could include pictures, so it is quite long and detailed. Not that that should be new to you if you are a regular reader! Of course, this computer now won't LET me post photos, so, sorry... it's text-heavy.)

I had an extra day to kill before meeting Matt and Robyn since they couldn't get a flight into Puno the day we wanted to meet. Rather than tacking it on to Lake Titicaca, where I'll already have plenty of time, I decided to spend another day (Wednesday) in La Paz. I really loved the city and am sad that I will probably never be there again in my life. That is something I have had to address constantly during my travels, that with so many places to see and so little time in life and so little oil left, I will probably not get to duplicate trips.

The first day in La Paz I went to five museums, four of which were included in the low price of 4 bolivianos (about 50 cents). They were housed in the same building but otherwise had pretty much nothing to do with each other: precious metals and pottery; costume masks and dioramas of Bolivian living and historical scenes; the war (of the Pacific I think?) where they lost a bunch of land to Chile; and one room dedicated to sea life of the Pacific ocean. After that I walked down the street to what is quite possibly my favorite museum of all time, dedicated to musical instruments. I don't even play any instruments and I loved it! It had a crazy variety, and each room you walked into was motion sensitive so that the lights came on with you, and music from the instruments in that room started to play. They had a whole room dedicated to random instruments people had invented which included everything you can think of (for example, a banjo made with a spam can and a five-handled guitar). They also had lots of instruments you could play yourself. At 5 bolivianos it was steep, but well worth it.

The next two days I sort of lazed around; slept in, took long walks, took naps, and ate a lot. I perused the museum of contemporary art and seriously considered buying something. Art is so cheap there! Even by Bolivia's most famous artists.

On Sunday afternoon I ran into two friends, Cameron and Debbie, which I knew was inevitable since about 20 of us are doing essentially the same trip. Ironically, they live in Seattle when not living in Chile. We had a lovely two dinners together and will also be in Puno and Cusco on overlapping days, so I look forward to seeing them again. I also just happened to IM a girl that teaches in Viña too, and three of them changed their plans so we were in La Paz at the same time. We took in a Peña show together on Tuesday night, during which I managed to leave my debit card in an ATM. Nice work, Arch. Luckily Robyn and Matt and I are meeting up on Sunday, so with shockingly minimal effort I was able to cancel the card, get a new card ordered which this amazing woman at my bank will forward to an address in Chile, and wire a large sum to Robyn's account. My hotel in La Paz agreed to overcharge my credit card and give me the cash, so that should sustain me until Sunday. I felt like an idiot but at least I was able to get it worked out pretty quickly and painlessly.

On Tuesday I went on a tour with five Brasilians, one Belgian man, two Frenchies, and a German woman that fullfilled all obnoxious German traveller stereotypes; I really thought I might say something to her before the day was out but I was able to hold my tongue. The tour included the Moon Valley (valle de la luna), which is a rather large area just outside the city that has random rock formations due to rain and wind. It looks sort of like a large-scale sand-drip castle. Quite lovely. Before that we drove on harrowing switchbacks to reach Mt Chacaltaya. I thought I had signed up for another "car tour" which was going to be relaxing after what I did the day before (Monday), but the mountain stood at 5,300 kilometers (16,000 feet!) and we had to climb the last 200 of them. I didn't think it could take so long to climb 600 feet, but there is no oxygen up there! The views were incredible and it was well worth it, for me. (Although as soon as I reached the top, panting, the German woman screamed at me, you are in my photo!! If I had more breath I would have had a few choice words for her.) During the climb I noticed that the rocks surrounding me were strange... like it was a giant rock landfill, for lack of a better description. They were all broken and the edges next to me were jagged. I asked the guide why the rocks were this way, and the answer was fascinating. He said it was because water filled the rocks during the day, and at night when the water froze and expanded, it broke the rocks into pieces. So cool!

Two Brasilian girls who only had a day's acclimatization got altitude sickness and we had to pull over a few times on the switchbacks back to let them lose their lunch. Lesson learned: acclimatization is important! I got away with a dull headache, dulled even further by chewing coca leaves and a tiny bit of this weird coal that apparently extracts the minerals from the leaves. It also turned my entire mouth numb.

Now, about Monday... I didn't write about it beforehand because I didn't want my poor Mom, who worries about everything, to have to spend the entire day thinking, "My daughter is seconds away from certain death." Yes, ladies and gentlemen, last Monday I mountainbiked down what is actually classified as the world's most dangerous road. This is akin to my older sister bringing home a videotape of her bungie jumping... the folks weren't happy about it, but at least she didn't tell them until afterward. It was entirely out of character for me and I was hesitant and nervous beforehand, but it ended up being 62 kilometers of great fun. It really isn't very dangerous for bikers, even beginners like me, and 99% of the fatalities occur because of bad (and sometimes drunk) driving. The worst was in 1983 when a truck driver went over the edge, with 100 people crammed into the back. None of them survived. Of course, there is a new highway now that most of the traffic uses, and we only passed about 3 cars during the entire trip. It was sort of eerie biking a road with so many crosses erected in memory of the many who have died on the very same road, but at the same time I was so focused on braking (which I did for the majority of the down hill trip) and avoiding any large rocks or potholes that I didn't have much time to think about anything else. The group I went with - Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking - was easily the best and I would say that anyone who wanted to do a similar trip would be a fool to go with any other company. Their standards of safety were incredibly high, and the price was almost identical to the less safe options. Also, we ended (and lunched) at an awesome animal reserve where I got to swim in a pool, eat fresh pasta, and play with monkeys. We started at about 4,500 meters and some 0 degrees and during the day dropped about 2,500 meters, ending in a sub-tropical forest; needless to say we shed a lot of layers throughout the day. You can check out the tour I did here: I also have a CD of pictures they took of us during the day which I will share at some point. Here is a link to the tour:

Ok, onto more important things: eating. I continued to revel in street food every single day of my time in Bolivia. It actually changes as the day wears on. Early in the morning people sell coffee, tea, and something edible that I didn't really notice since it was 7 am, but possibly a breakfast-type sandwich. As the morning wears on the salteña and tucamana sellers appear. Salteñas are possibly my favorite street food. They come in a variety of flavor combinations, usually chicken or beef with potatoes or peas or both. One time as I was seeking a salteña seller I came upon what seemed like a catered parade and was handed a FREE one! Then the guy handing out free cokes came by and I definitely offended him when I said no. That was the second time I turned down a free coke and subsequently offended the offerer, the first time being on the bus to La Paz. We pulled over in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, and the bus assistant got off and then reboarded with two crates of cokes. Random south American events like this occur constantly.

Ice cream is also quite popular, and you can see men pushing ice cream carts all day long. Women also walk around with trays of fruit drinks and jello, sometimes with whipped cream on top of them. I resisted all three. What I love is that all juices and fruity offerings come in real glasses, and you either stay by their stand while you consume it, or they come back to wherever they gave you the glass, usually along a plaza. Here's to reusable resources!

As the day turns to evening, the salteña sellers disappear and in their place appear women selling not nearly as good bready, pastry items. Some of them have corn, some have meat; all are dry. This is also when my sandwich ladies appear. For 6 bolivianos (about 85 cents) I got a pork or chicken sandwich on a delicious cheese roll with pickled carrots, tomatoes, onions, spicy sauce and this addictive seasoning. As I munched on that I wandered down the street to the juice and milkshake ladies. They are out all day, and sell every type of juice or smoothie you can imagine (also in real glasses). There is one juice I ventured to try that has something rather sinister in the bottom that ended up to just be a dried peach, in peach juice; it was delicious. I usually got a pineapple, strawberry and banana smoothie, but they also sell, you are reading this right, BEER smoothies.

The nighttime food or "drunk food" as I like to call it consists of street vendors with sausages, hamburger patties, and a pile of grilled onions with rolls and buns and condiments. Not so dissimilar from what you would find in the U.S., at least in appearance; I never actually tried this brand of street food since for whatever reason I was weary of it, who knows why since nothing else makes me suspicious.

After I left La Paz I went to Copacabana, a small town on the coast of Lake Titicaca. There isn't a lot to do there but eat and rest, so I did plenty of both. I also ran into the three girls again (KaLeah, Katie, and Hillary) so we hung out. The second day I took an overnight trip to Isla del Sol, a smallish island about 2 hours away on the slowest boat ride of my life. There are lots of ruins on the island and Inka legend says that the sun was born here. It was certainly sunny! To hike from the north to the south of the island took about 4 hours (including a 45 minute detour to the "labrynth," definitely the coolest ruins there.) It was an up-and-down hike and I had my backpack on, so I struggled a bit, but it was a good precursor to the actual Inka trail where I won't have more than a daypack to shoulder. I spent the night in a fairly crappy hostel with a private room but no running water in the communal bathroom (apparently common on this island, where there was not a single car and they transported everything by donkey). The stars were incredible, though! Plus, the room only cost $3 and the bed was comfortable.

The next day I took the early boat back and caught a bus out of Bolivia and into Puno, Peru, to finally meet up with Matt and Robyn! We are all here and they are adjusting well to the altitude. We actually managed a fairly steep hike up to the top of Puno today. Tomorrow we will take an overnight trip to some local islands where apparently we are housed with a family. More updates to come! Suffice to say I am so happy to be with some familiar people.

A few other random notes and observations about my time in Bolivia before I move on to Peru in the next post:

Rubber stamps are incredibly popular in La Paz. Seemingly everywhere "sellos de goma" are advertised. I have no idea why.

Everyone wears Yankees hats, but very few people know what the symbol means or who the Yankees are. I have also seen Dodgers and Red Sox hats. Similarly, Winnie the Pooh is very popular.

The shoeshiners wear ski masks over their faces. I thought it was because they were avoiding inhaling the fumes, but then I found out it is for a much sadder and less practical purpose. Since it is considered a very base job but they do it to support their families, they cover their faces so no one can recognize them.

There is a pizza chain called Eli's, which is what my students called me.

I found out that Bolivia's newish president, Evo Morales, is the first "non-corrupt" politician they've had in power pretty much ever. He has no college degree and is a real man of the people, doing crazy things like providing electricity and education to small towns. Of course, the U.S. is anti anything that even closely resembles socialism, so they cut off the $100 million in annual aid they were previously giving. This helps explain a little better why Bolivia suddenly started charging U.S. citizens an entry fee. Now, this socialist president is also unpopular with Bolivia's elite (of course), so they've managed to arrange an impromptu election to "verify" that Bolivia actually meant to elect him. General opinion is that he will win again.

Ok, I mentioned we are all in Puno, which we are, but I very nearly wasn't able to make it. If you remember my last blog, I was able to enter Bolivia as a Chilean because the immigration official did not want to deal with converting Chilean pesos to U.S. dollars. This wasn't a problem until I left Bolivia and tried to enter Peru, where the Peruvian official noticed I had no stamp from Bolivia in my passport. I explained why and he said, ok, go back to Bolivia and get a copy of your exit paper to prove it. So... I walked the short distance back to Bolivia, where the two men became infuriated that I had entered the country illegitimately. I explained that I had only done what the Bolivian immigration officer told me to do, and he called me a liar. I explained that I could not pay the fee that I tried to pay in pesos because I had no money and no way of getting money until I reached Puno. He again called me a liar, and started ignoring me, helping others. I explained, helplessly, that I could not be a prisioner in Bolivia and I had only done what they, Bolivians customs officials, had told me to do. He got angry at this and told me if I didn't change my tone he would send me to La Paz where they would deport me to the U.S. Now, being a level-headed person, I booked it back to Peru and the Peruvian agent, hoping I could use the country rivalry/dislike as leverage for him to help me. I explained that they refused to make a copy of my exit paper. He sort of shrugged his shoulders, at which point I, not meaning to but literally unable to help it, starting crying. Yes, I was THAT girl. A girl crying is normally something to glance at, but a girl crying at the border is JUICY. Everyone stopped and stared. He asked me to please calm down and said he would stamp me in as Chilean. I said, ok, but will I have problems trying to leave? He again shrugged his shoulders, which made me lose it even more and I started ranting about how I didn't like being called a liar and I had only done what I was told and blah blah blah. Eventually he stamped me in as a U.S. citizen but instead of giving me the full 90 days he limited me to 30... not sure what exactly that mattered, but since I will only be here for two weeks I wasn't sweating it. I was just so grateful for the stamp, and then embarrassed and ashamed at having been called a liar when I really had done what their cohorts told me to do. Several people tried to stop and talk to me but I was not in the mood to stoke their international gossip, so I fled to the bus which I was terrified would have left me by now. Luckily they were waiting, and after finally calming down I napped my way into Puno. And, that brings you up to speed!

After our two-day trip we are off to Cusco on the 31st, so stay tuned! I will try to blog again before we leave for the Inka trail on August 3. I understand I have some new readers, so I invite you to post comments! I hope all is well in Gringolandia.


Anonymous said...

This is so damn juicy..... Rick Steves has nothing on you , you savvy biatch! Kiss Robyn and Matt for me. Have a Pisco sour for me! Love and kisses, Missy

Anonymous said...

Hello Elizabeth...I'm Matt's mom - Robyn sent me your blog (you know we 'mom's' need 'itineraries' and Matt forgot to give me that!) I've been enjoying reading all your great insites and experiences! I'm excited for your upcoming hike - can't wait to hear all about it! Give Matt and Robyn a big hug from 'Mom'! Be safe! Nancy Elliott