Micah: Unmitigated

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Not just another weblog

Same Old Song And Dance

November 8th, 2010

In Otavalo: I shopped, caught a bit of a cold, and ate market lunches. I had one interesting night amongst locals while eating dessert Empanadas and drinking a warm berry beverage. Two giggly young woman to my right, seemed to be making fun of the fact I was dunking my emps. The young man with them and an older lady to my left, asked me some simple questions and I gave them very simple answers. Mostly just smiling and nodding, while they said “gringo” a lot and laughed. The man somewhat jokingly said that I should pay for all of their food. I showed him my near empty coin purse. Then,when I handed the server money to pay for my snack, I pointed at myself and said “Solo para me”. They all laughed healthily and I departed with a bang.

Feeling better Sunday morning, despite no medicine and little sleep, I began my journey toward Bogota. 2 buses and 2 mini-vans later, I was at the border. The skies opened up, rain poured down, lightning strikes could be seen in the distance. I should have known what was coming. My passport was handed to the man in uniform behind the window, he looked at passport, looked at screen, shook his head, showed me screen, I just nodded and said “Entiendo” (I understand), trying to explain what I went through 4 days ago. Apparently, nothing had been updated yet in the computer. I still had only an entry into Ecuador back in June listed, no exit and reentry.

I was told many things: You wont be able to enter Colombia, you will miss your flight, you need to return to Peru, wait over there, go make 2 copies of each of these 3 pages, Amigo! make sure you come back (at this point I was a flight risk, hinting to him that I may go on without an exit stamp), wait, now you need to pay money for stamp, my boss is back in town and gas is not cheap (I said I don’t want to pay), wait, maybe tomorrow. Man then takes my passport again and heads out the door with 2 other officers, they hop into a small red car and go. I wait and watch as the now undermanned station gets busy. Tourists come and go with no problems. I feel somewhat special, but also am very worried. Again, thoughts of alternative methods of getting to Bogota/Home, run through my mind: I really don’t need a stamp, do I? Would it do any good if I jumped the unattended counter and messed around on the computer? What if I physically attacked one of the officers and held him hostage, as I crossed the border? Nah, probably would have an issue later at the airport. Do they run illegal immigrants over on boats to Florida?

Just as I was about to execute one of the above plans, the 3 men return. I am waved over to the counter and handed my passport. He shows me the stamp and says go to Colombia. 3 hours after I enter the office, I can now legally leave. I still doubt the computer system is accurate, and wonder if I will ever be able to enter Ecuador again. There may be a manhunt for me in a year or so, when they look in the system and think that I am still there. If any of you are ever questioned by the authorities concerning my whereabouts, please say that I took a trip to South America and you haven’t seen me since. Thanks

Colombia was easier. After a brief 10 minute wait and being told the system was down, my passport was stamped. I again had to sort through lies from taxi drivers to get my cheap public transport. From the closest town of Ipiales, I booked my passage for the city of Cali (11 hrs north, halfway to the capital) because it is cheaper than going direct. Suffered through a muggy night bus ride, worried about bandits, but got to watch “Jaws”.

Arrived at 5 am: rain is falling, booked a night bus to Bogota, oddly combined my 2 large bags into 1 to avoid paying double for storage, killed time in casinos and walking streets. I found a cheap Blackjack table but had one of the weirdest experiences. They don’t believe in luck, and preferred to blame all of their defeats on the white guy. Whether I took 1 card too many or too few, I made an error and affected the whole table. One man lost a big hand to my left and really wanted the 10 I took, which busted me. He was visibly angry toward me. I am just glad I don’t fully understand what they said, though I do know a few of the curse words they used. They don’t like to gamble, and take advantage of the “surrender” rule frequently. I don’t agree and rarely did. That rule is not common back home and I admit that I don’t know how to properly use it. But I don’t feel I made any stupid moves. I just sat there quietly as my stack dwindled. It was fun but also very uncomfortable.

Safe to say, I am on a run of bad days. Hopefully I can get some sleep on the ride tonight and smoothly get into a hostal in central Bogota. I am looking forward to doing the city a little better these last 3 days, than I did with the first 3. ¿Dónde está el mercado central?

E = 193

Mr. November

November 4th, 2010

Even though my trip is entering it’s last week, I am not going to just set the cruise control, there is more adventure to be had.

My time in Mancora was spent laying on the beach, watching the World Series, and eating fruit. Only my last day there provided clear sunny skies and sunburn, otherwise it was a little too cold to swim and a little too windy to read. One positive was the beach roaming Empanada guy who was willing to cut his price in half, allowing me to pad my count. I also seemed to be there over a holiday weekend, with more Peruvians than Gringos on the sand and souvenir shops in full bloom everyday.

Now to the adventurous part: The prices for direct buses north into Ecuador were all very high. Thus I opted to cross the border with local transport and buy my long distance ticket in-country. The first leg was easy enough, a mini-van 2 hrs up to Tumbes for half the price of a bus. Upon arrival, a man poked his head in and promised a $5 bus ride up to Guayaquil. I ignorantly jumped at the chance and ignored the mild warning from a friendly local in my van. He said it was “dangerous”, and that word would become a common theme from strangers. Partly because this main border crossing on the Panamericana has been deemed the worst in South America.

So, I hopped into an unmarked car with the seller and a driver. Light conversation is shared and he tells me that there will be a strike this afternoon at the border, shutting buses down, and that I needed to get one right away. We roll by a bus office and he yells out the window to a guy, asking if buses are running, and the man apparently says no. They continue to drive me through town, telling me that now my best option is for them to drive me across the border and arrange transport there, for $35. I laugh, tell them I only have 20 soles on me ($7), and flex the fact that I know more about the Ecuadorian bus system than they do. I ask them to stop and let me out, but again the words “muy peligroso” (very dangerous) are uttered as we are now a few kms outside of the center. They drive me back to the main plaza and I reluctantly pay them 5 soles. Mostly just glad to be out of the car and consider it a stupidity tax on myself. I should know better than to jump into an unmarked vehicle based on false promises, when I could have easily strolled the bus offices myself and gotten the same “deal”. I figure the whole thing was a scam, reading web forums, people have often had to pay in excess of $30 just to get out of those situations, I feel somewhat lucky. Plus, it was fun to have an argument in Spanish.

After the brief ordeal, I walked across the street from where the guys dropped me and immediately was waved over by a mini-van loading up people for the last 30 minute stretch to the border. The public transport I should have looked for in the beginning and the type the shyster said didn’t exist. The van dropped me at the Peruvian migration office, where I was immediately met by a mototaxi driver asking for my passport and holding forms. I used my supreme intellect to decipher that he was not official and that exit stamp formalities normally aren’t handled by a man wearing Jordache jeans.

A simple stamp in my passport by a man in uniform, and now the mototaxi guys wanted to drive me the last 1.5 kms to the actual line in the sand. I said I preferred a mini-van, and again heard the words “muy peligroso”, which caused me to chuckle. I ended up walking the remainder, feeling very safe at mid-day. It felt good to get into a bustling market area at the border, and to be back in Ecuador. I found the bus stations in Huaquillas and joyfully saw a direct bus to my next destination, Otavalo (15 hrs north and 3 hrs south of Colombia). I purchased passage for 4 pm, figuring that 3 hrs would be plenty of time to walk to the Ecuadorian immigration office and take care of business.

For some reason, passport formalities are handled 3 km north of town, and I walked. A brief wait for buses to handle their business, and then I handed the man my documents. He looked over them, said some things, let his stamp sit idle, handed them back, and then waved me to some other place. I didn’t understand, and went over and asked another guy to look at my stuff. The problem was then presented to me: When I left Ecuador back on August 11th, at the remote border crossing in La Bolsa, they didn’t put my exit in the system. Plus, the stamp mark was blurred and date hand written. Apparently this was a problem. Now 1.4 hrs until my bus leaves town, I approached a 3rd man who told me 20 minutes.

Sitting, waiting, nervous. After the time elapsed, I again presented my case. They got another man, who went in search of a 5th man to help. This man seemed to be “The Man”. Listening to him talk to the others leads me to believe that this wasn’t really that serious of an issue and that the others just wanted to pout. Probably upset with the other offices error and now wondering why they had to clean it up. Either that, or they were waiting for me to bribe them.

The 5th man had me make copies of my passport and then I waited some more, while the man drafted a letter or stared at a computer for another 30 min. Time was running out. I checked my clock often, the time to pickup my stored bag had come and gone and departure was now 5 minutes away. This was the first time all trip that I had reverted to work mode, operating on little sleep and food, my stress level rose. I quickly went over my options: Could I make it through the country without any stamps? Are there checkpoints on my way to Colombia? Could I just get off in Quito and go to the Embassy for help? How bad could Ecuadorian prison be?

With little time to get back to Bogota, I called the bus company, somehow communicated in Spanish, requested that they throw my “grande azul mochila” on the bus, and pick me up on their way north. It worked. Five minutes later I got my completed passport back, and 5 minutes after that the bus rolls up and I jump in. My window seat was double booked, but I didn’t really care. On the ride, I had a prime view of the widescreen TV and they showed a relatively entertaining movie with Robert DeNiro, Stephen Seagal, and Lindsay Lohan. A dynamic trio that aroused the most emotion from a bus I have seen all trip.

Now in Otavalo, I plan to take it easy for another 4 days, before 1 more long bus ride to Bogota. I hope this last leg is a little less adventurous, but you never know. That stretch of highway in southern Colombia is known for frequent bus hijackings at night. Podría ser una buena manera de obtener una descarga de adrenalina.

E = 180

Movin’ On Up

October 30th, 2010

The plan seemed simple; ride for as long as I could, and just get to the next relaxing city near a large body of water. I thought about bailing twice during my marathon of bus journeys, but stuck it out. All I had to do was sit in a seat, how hard could it be? Of course it did hurt, there was never really enough leg room, the seats weren’t quite soft enough, and the roads were a bit too curvy. But, I made it and it actually worked out very well.

Leg #1: Copacabana to Cusco = 11.5 hrs, 80 bs ($11.33);

There was a brief stop in Puno, where another company took us the rest of the way. (I feel the need to mention that again I could have saved money if I would have just booked the Puno leg and bought my own onward ticket to Cusco, or even Lima. I knew that we had to change buses there, but the price seemed very reasonable. I could have saved about $2 though eventually saved $20 by stopping in Cusco and purchasing my own Lima, instead of direct from Bolivia, like I figured. In summation: If you ever have a journey that needs to change buses, just buy the first leg and make your own connections. That is all.)

I got into Cusco at 5 am and flirted with the idea crashing for a day, but toughened up. Next bus didn’t leave till 10 am, so I had some time to walk around the city and enjoy the wee hours of the morning. It was prettier than I remembered, with some tight, quiet, cobblestone streets. At that time of day, the tourists were few and the benches in the plaza were empty. I sat in on a service in the cathedral, before getting a cheap, real food breakfast at the market. The market was big and diverse, making me wish I had more time to explore the gelatina section. But, I had to move on.

Leg #2: Cusco to Lima = 21 hrs, 60 ps ($21.80);

I enjoyed the daytime travel, going along rivers and up and down hills, before finally reaching the Pan-American Hwy. I slept a little after the sun went down, but felt very weary upon our arrival into the capital city. The city was as ugly as I remembered, with the ever-present smog and early morning drizzle. My thoughts of staying were only in reaction to feeling a little lost and walking by a hostal. The price was too high though, and I pulled out my map and found the the way to the bus offices. My next bus left at 1 pm, thus giving me 4 hrs to try and find some love for Lima.

I must say, I grew to not hate it. Within a few blocks, I stumbled upon a religious parade, complete with confetti and streamers raining down from the buildings. I enjoyed a large churro and strolled the car-free main drag filled with venders. Then cruised past the plaza on my way to the market for another cheap meal. Too much lunch meat and cheese were then purchased for the ride.

Leg #3: Lima to Mancora = 20.5 hrs, 50 ps ($18.18);

Warmer travel conditions. The man in front of me decided to take off his shirt and make-out with his girlfriend for a while. A little uncomfortable. I had my own row for a few hours, which greatly aided my physical condition. To help me mentally prepare for the battle of my 3rd night in a row on a bus, they showed “Transporter 2” and “Crank”.

I slept more that night than any of the others, probably due to pure exhaustion. Near the end, the pain in my neck was stronger and my left knee was sore. I got into Máncora at 9:30 am and was happy to see the sun.

Total: 63 hrs real-time, 53 hrs on 4 buses, $51.31, about 2,500 kms

The city is larger and the main beach is smaller than I thought. Despite the size, the tourist stuff is all along the one street down to the water or the Pan-American. My hostal is rundown but cheap, and the rooms are full of all that I desire. Many restaurants sell meals for less than $2 and the internet is only $.55/hr. Even with the cool windy weather today, I will stay 4 more nights before jumping into Ecuador. Then, after a few nights in Otavalo, back into Colombia.

The end is very near and the thoughts in my head are either about trip memories or what I want to do back home. The budget is less of a concern, partly helped by cheaper buses than expected for the return and Apple Inc’s nice market performance (my last source of income). My only concern now is the difficult Empanada goal I have set for myself. The land of cheap and plenty (La Paz) is behind me. My biggest complaint about Peru is it’s lack of fried meat-pie pastries. Some bakeries sell a dry expensive version of the culinary wonder, but it doesn’t feel right. Do I sacrifice my pride in pursuit of a statistic? I think about all those times at the end of basketball games, when players have gone out of their way to complete a triple-double or sub-in injured to get a scoring mark. I don’t want to have an asterisk by my number in the record books. If I reach 200, it will be because they were the cheapest and tastiest form of satisfying my hunger. Lo debo eso a ustedes, mis lectores

E = 168

Eazy Duz It

October 25th, 2010

Quickly, time is money.

Sorata: Green, Warm. Deep mountain valleys, snow-capped peaks seen only in morning. 1 hike/walk to a cave, down one-lane dirt road with great views back to town. Hostal had amazing terrace. Mountain bike competition going on, I did not participate.

Trip from Sorata to Copacabana: Mini-van dropped me at junction town. Waiting for correct transportation north. Waved over by 3 locals sitting and drinking on crates. 2 older, 1 proper looking young teacher. Beer glass refilled numerous times by the drunkest of the older gents. He kept saying “tranguilo, tranguilito” and at one point put his arm around me and sang a song. Of the sung and spoken words, little was understood. Large beer bottles emptied, hugs all around, I returned to the side of the road. Help from stationed Police to catch right bus. Shotgun seat to shores of Lake Titicaca.

Copacabana: Resting, relaxing, viewing sunsets. Watched Sunday night football. Ticket purchased to Cusco, where I will immediately look for an onward journey to Lima or farther. Should be cheaper this way. Adios

E = 168

American Pride

October 20th, 2010

Figured I would bust out one more post before I leave the cheap internet behind. Well… , lets see… , what to talk about:

I encountered an American beggar the other day while roaming the streets. He approached me asking if I spoke English, and proceeded to tell me a story. He pursued a career as a drug runner after his divorce, but got busted at the La Paz airport with liquid cocaine in a beer bottle. Thus he spent some time in jail and just got out. He said he had to meet his case worker at the embassy in the morning and needed money for a place to spend the night. Offering to sell me his jacket, cassette tapes, or just tell me stories about jail life for a few Bolivianos. I declined the merchandise and after some thought, decided to toss him 4 coins  (about 55 cents).

I ran into the man from New York again today. He was in a different part of town and this time wanted change to buy a soda. He said the morning meeting went well and that he was signing paperwork for a loan later this afternoon. Asking for only 1 Boliviano this time, I begrudgingly gave. Though, now I question his story even more. I believe that he is just a full-time American beggar, who has an advantage over the many locals who can’t build a rapport with the tourists. It worked on me and I have only given to one other person my whole trip. To each his own.

After doing my good deed for the day, I ventured out to see the site called “Valle de la Luna”, or Moon Valley. It is an eroded maze of rock formations about 10 km south of town. I have attempted to go there 3 times before, but failed each time. Mostly due to festival distractions, but yesterday I just wasn’t man enough to catch the local transport. So, today was more a matter of pride than tourism. I walked confidently and told myself that the first micro with the correct destination, was mine. It took about 10 mintues of waiting at the corner before I spotted one. Then I pounced. The van dropped me right in front of the entrance and I wandered the site for a while, chewing more coca leaves and snapping pictures. From the location, I saw my 2nd golf course of the trip. A green oasis on the other side of the river. No time or money to play, but always a welcome sight.

Local transport took me back into town where I tackled my shopping list and stumbled upon yet another parade. More elaborate costumes, a band, and red crates of beer. They work hard and they play hard. When I strolled by the same plaza a few hours later, traditionally dressed women were doing drunken dances and groups of men belligerently conversed with each other. This was at 7 pm. I am going to miss this city.

During my last couple nights here, I have also discovered the $.55 set dinners in restaurants. I don’t know how I missed them before. You get a bowl of soup, your choice of 3 mains, and a cup of mate tea. The portions are small but satisfying. Amazing value. You can easily live in La Paz for less than $5/day.

Tomorrow, I will most likely catch a bus up north to Sorata. A couple days there, then a quick stop in Copacabana where I will jump back into Peru and beyond. But now I travel with a new $7 bag in tow, full of liquified cocaine in beer bottles. He oído que es la mejor manera de pasar de contrabando.

E = 168

Every Little Step I Take

October 18th, 2010

Change of plans. Apparently the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” is currently a little too dangerous. After catching local transport out to the bus offices that service NE Bolivia, I was surprised to see all of the ones that go to Coroico with closed doors. Some men at another office informed me that it would not be possible to go there. I assume it has something to do with road conditions after heavy rains last night. Or, it could be a more long term problem. I’m not sure, either way I need a new exit strategy.

Still with a desire to get closer to the mountains and do some hiking, I may head up to the peaceful mountain town of Sorata. But since it lies in a northern direction from here, I will spend a couple more days in La Paz and hit it on my way to Peru. That is the current plan. Though, I could stop by tourist info offices daily to check on the Coroico road condition, but that sounds like a lot of effort.

Now that you are caught up, I got a little more typing to do to meet my desired word count. I think this is a good opportunity for me to just talk at you. So, here are 3 random events that slipped through the cracks of my blog making machine.

  1. In my post titled “Turn”, I briefly mentioned the construction delay on the way to Villazon. Well, I was one of the few who stayed outside the bus to watch the machine throw rocks around. It was a long wait but fun to view amongst the beautiful scenery. When I saw that the front-loader was finally smoothing out the road, I decided to get back on the bus. Since I was the first of the full-time watchers to climb back aboard, all eyes were on me. The passengers began firing off questions, eagerly awaiting some good news. I didn’t know what they said, but I knew what they wanted. I announced to the entire bus “Cinco o diez minutos“. It was fun to see people turn toward their friends and probably say “Did you hear that? Well be going in 5 or 10 minutes!”  As I strutted to my backseat, a man used hand motions to ask what they were currently doing. I replied with the hand motion for smoothing it out, and it translated. He patted me on the back, as I continued my triumphant stride to the rear. I sat there a little nervous that my guess was way off and wondered if they still stone people, but 4 mintues later, the bus started up and we were off. I think if you have successfully made and announcement to a bus full of Bolivians, technically you can claim to be bilingual.
  2. I have this bag of Coca leaves that I picked up in Tupiza, complete with the stimulus powder. I did the customary thing and took some with me on the “Salar” tour, breaking them out on the second day. As soon as I pulled the bag out of my pack, the quiet driver’s eyes lit up and he said “Amigoooo, where are you from?” I knew what he wanted and offered in kind. The bag passed around the jeep and most stuck a few leaves in their cheeks. I felt an initial numbness on my tongue from the powder, but no real lasting affects. You mostly just swallow the juice from the leaves and hope to receive their medicinal magic. I kind of like it, keeps me from constantly eating cookies and tastes alright. Since they are illegal in the US, I will have to get my fill while I am down here. Though, if I get hooked, I think I might be able to find them in some other form back home.
  3. In Uyuni, I raved to Luc about the delicious beer shakes in Bolivia. Walking a market street, I spotted a vendor and ordered. As I was enjoying my glass, Luc inspected the bottle a little closer and inquired to the woman if it was in fact cerveza. Well, the answer was “No”. The brown tall boys are actually called “Maltin” and are non-alcoholic. They still taste good, but for some reason, my desire to drink them has completely vanished. Here is the edited Wikipedia entry for you to enjoy:

Malta, young beer, or wheat soda is a type of soft drink. It is a carbonated malt beverage, meaning it is brewed from barley, hops, and water much like beer; corn and caramel color may also be added. However, Malta is non-alcoholic, and is consumed in the same way as soda or cola in its original carbonated form. In other words, Malta is actually a beer that has not been fermented. Most scholars and historians believe that Malta is the direct ancestor of all soft drinks. It is similar in color to stout (dark brown) but is very sweet, generally described as tasting like molasses. A popular way Latin Americans sometimes drink Malta is by mixing it with condensed or evaporated milk.”  –If you want to read more, they go on to talk about it’s roots in meine mutterland, Germany.

So, I don’t feel completely stupid. Though I do need to apologize to ya’ll for my inaccurate blogging. Especially if any of you tried to make a beer version at home.

I may talk at you again before I leave this city, otherwise you may not hear from me until next week, when I will be lying on a beach in Northern Peru. Buena charla

E = 159 (p.s. My goal is 200)

Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough

October 17th, 2010

After ¨Salar de Uyuni¨, everything else in my life had the volume turned down. There is still cool stuff to see, but I was just looking for a place to hangout for a while. Thus, I parted ways with Luc and headed to Bolivia’s judicial capital. The following is a description of the events leading up to and during my time in the city of Sucre.

Luc’s next city was a stopover on the way to mine, so we boarded a bus at 10am and headed east. There were a few interesting events on the way:

  • A bus ahead of us broke an axle and when we arrived on the scene, the back left tires were noticeably unattached. We got off our bus while the driver skirted the edge of the cliff to get by the breakdown.
  • A little kid in the row ahead of us, decided to come back and play. He was very interested in my camera and I had to to keep removing his fingers from the screen. He pointed at random things for me to take pictures of, and loved the video function. A good form of entertainment for him and me, during the long haul.
  • fun with pictures

    fun with pictures

  • Dropped Luc and others off in Potosi, then they took the remaining 6 of us to the main terminal. I thought this bus would take me the whole way, but they ushered us in to buy onward tickets to Sucre. A little annoying, especially since they paid 10 Bolivianos less than I paid for the extra leg. I joked with the driver a little about, but just had to accept my fate. More frustrating for me, was the fact that I had a hunch they were overcharging for the run.
  • 2 Aussie couples on the Sucre trip with me were obviously used to cleaner traveling. One guy complained too much and they were all excited when our bus used a semi-dry river bed for part of the journey. Hearing them talk about their trip, leads me to believe that they will spend the same amount of money in 5 weeks as I will spend in 7 months.

In Sucre: Yet again I wandered the streets of a large city for over an hour, eventually finding the centro and a cheap hostal. A warmer city with a nice plaza and the best overall market I have seen on my trip. It had lots of everything, including a jello section just around the corner from the chorizo district. I was offered a sample of one of the sausages in the frying pan and immediately ordered the sandwich. The best chorizo I have ever eaten.

I checked out a few museums but spent most of my time studying Spanish in the main plaza. While there, I crossed paths with Zed (of “Canyonero” blog fame) and enjoyed swapping stories. The similarities of our travel methods is frightening. We both feel a little bored in big cities and both struggle with the need to be social and fiscally responsible. Our dirt cheap dirty accommodations are gringo free, but half the price of the backpacker hangouts. All of our meals are eaten in gringo free market kitchens and street sweets cripple our budgets. Also, we both have beards.

On Friday, I boarded a night bus for La Paz and Zed headed farther East, looking for a jungle adventure. After warm Sucre, the night bus was freezing cold. I sat up in the very front of the 2nd floor and had panoramic views but little leg room. It was a long 13 hours though the smooth sounds coming from my Ipod helped.

In La Paz: It feels good to be back in a familiar city. Today they had yet another festival, complete with tents, food, bands, and a parade. It rained a little, but I cruised between concerts and dance performances, especially enjoying the rock band with a very charismatic leader. I only wish I knew what he was saying because it was all apparently very funny. They did “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Roadhouse Blues” in English and rocked’em both.

Turn it up! Turn! It! Up!

Turn it up! Turn! It! Up!

When the music ended, a parade took over the main drag and I found a seat. I loved the fact that the participants had a pit-crew walking with them, carrying beer and large bottles of whiskey.

nourishment

nourishment

Tomorrow (Monday), I take a trip down the “Worlds Most Dangerous Road” and try to get some hiking in before the long bus rides. Me gustaría tener mi propio pit-crew.

E = 157

Life on Mars?

October 12th, 2010

After three days and 771 pictures, my tour of Salar de Uyuni and far SW Bolivia has ended. It was the most surreal landscape I have seen in my life. Sitting 3,500 – 6,000 meters above sea level: There are zero trees, a few shrubs, a million rocks, mountains and lakes of all colors, geysers, unique wildlife, salt flats, and jeeps shuttling tourists around. To answer my question from last post: I made the right choice.

Day #1: I hopped into an old Toyota Land Cruiser with Luc, a British couple, and a pair of French sisters. It started with a train graveyard just outside of town before we headed north to enter ¨Salar de Uyuni¨. Impossibly flat and vast, hills in the distance appear close but are hours of driving away. We stopped at piles of salt for photo opps, saw the museum made of salt blocks, and drove straight for over an hour to reach ¨Isla de Pescado¨. A small raised chunk of earth covered in cactus and rocks, providing panoramic views. Here, people attempt the popular depth-of-field trick photos. Making it look like they are riding a toy dinosaur or holding a friend in their hand. I tried some with a beer can, but failed.

We sped off and stopped for a sunset view before arriving at our nights accommodations made of salt, just south of the Salar. Eating off a salt table and sitting on blocks of the white stuff. Our group of 6 was joined by a French group, and we drank tea until they shut the power off. The night sky was impressive but the air was bitterly cold.

Day #2: Up at 5:50 am, we drove south, through smaller salt flats and towns, before climbing up into higher landscape. The road got rougher and became more of a choose your own path. Passing multi-colored mountains and cool rock formations, en-route to the first of 6 lagunas (or small lakes).  Laguna Cañapa appeared before us, surrounded by peaks and filled with Pink Flamingos. The number of birds in that small body of water was amazing and our shutters fired away.

The next lake had Vicuñas (the wild cousin of the Llama) and more flamingos. It was at this point in the trip that I realized there is more to see than just the Salar and that the 3 day tour was necessary. Each lake was stunning, every rock formation unusual, and we hadn’t even entered the National Reserve yet.

We paid our 150 Boliviano ($21.45) entry fee to ¨Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve¨ and tossed our bags into our dorm room at a hostal on Laguna Colorada. Our driver told us we could hike out to a viewpoint for the sunset, but should put on every piece of clothing we brought. At 4,260 meters with strong winds, it is freezing cold. The lake had posters all around, saying we should vote for it as one of the “New 7 Wonders”. It is amazing, but that may be a bit of a stretch. The water has a rustic red color, flamingos are mingling about, chunks of salt lie around the shore, and it is bordered by mountains. I viewed the sunset from the mirador, but my camera batteries died. I had bought a pack of 4 from the street market back in town, but apparently they aren’t strong enough to use in cameras. A little worried, I paid 5 bs to plug my battery charger in for 2.5 hours at the hostal, and luckily that was enough to get me through the trip. That night, we played some “Uno” and drank more tea.

Day #3: After a near sleepless, very cold night under 6 blankets, we awoke at 4:15 am and hit the road. Rising up even further, we stopped at some geysers as the sun was cresting the horizon. Warm sulfurous air blowing out of the ground is always cool, my only problem was the fact that they stuck a tube in one of them to make it shoot higher and straighter. Making it more of a tourist sight. Most of my travel companions were too cold to leave the only semi-cold jeep.

We then descended to ¨Termas Challviri¨, a thermal bath that felt great at 6:30 am. The nearby lake and rising steam made for an impressive sight. My only problem with this place is the fact they boarded up the changing rooms and charge $.45 to use the bathroom. The pool is free, which is nice, but I just feel that when you pay over $20 to enter a park, you should be allowed free access to the facilities. I hope all of the money we pay is going to good projects and a future visitor center.

The last real sight on the tour was Laguna Verde, a green lake backed by a volcano. From there, we dropped one of the sisters off to catch a ride to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and began the long haul back to Uyuni. Backtracking to Laguna Colorada and then heading east. We exited the park and rolled through small towns. The old jeep had some issues on the way back, requiring multiple stops and assistance from a passing local. I tried to help by turning a fan belt, but failed. A long day in a vehicle on rough roads, but the scenery was still cool. We arrived in Uyuni about 2 hours late. Warm shower and soft bed.

My mind feels a bit lighter now. There are a few more sights to see in Bolivia but none of them are all that important. The only thing I really have to do is buy souvenirs and ride northbound buses. The next place I am looking forward to is Mancora, Peru. Located about halfway to Bogota, I hope to find a strong sun and nice beaches. Es casi terminado

(photos can be seen here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=94107&id=1408574607&l=6b459da51c )

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Turn

October 7th, 2010

My direction has changed and I will be heading north for the next 5 weeks, until I reach home. I have one last really big thing to see, which has  been tearing me apart inside, but let me first give you the weekly highlights:

  • The road from Tarija to Villazon was rough and fun, including a 1 hour delay while watching a backhoe knock pieces off a rock wall and then dump them down into the river below.
  • Villazon was near freezing at night but a bride and groom still danced outside in front of a statue, and groomsmen set off fireworks in the plaza.
  • 2 hours to get into Argentina
  • Buses were 3 times more expensive than I thought, chose to stay the night in the border town of La Qiuaca, which resembled a ghost town on that Sunday afternoon.
  • Watched the loose border rules; people backed cars up across the unfenced border stream, to transfer goods.
  • 1 hour to get back into Bolivia, met Aussie/English girl in line, ¨Luc¨.
  • ¨Luc¨ taught English in Bogota for past 3 years and is now my travel partner.
  • Smooth 3 hr train ride to Tupiza
  • Tupiza; rugged colored mountains and valleys. Hiked around one steep red canyon. Watched ¨Butch Cassidy …¨ since just north is actual site of their demise.
  • Amazing Tamales near the market. A line formed while the lady setup her pot and then the rush was on. They were filled with Llama meat that had been marinated for a while, great flavor. I had 4 during the 2 days.
  • Also found a new snack; green beans from the market eaten raw, just like back home when Mother would make a roast for dinner. Which, by the way, may be my requested meal upon my return.
  • 7 hr Jeep ride up to Uyuni, 1 flat tire, ever-changing scenery. Into pure desert with blowing sand looking like fog.
  • Now in a tourist hub, filled with tour agencies.

This is it. Ever since I saw a photography show on OPB about ¨Salar de Uyuni¨, the worlds largest salt flat has been on my mind. In my dreams, I hike out into the vast openness with a tent and some food, and spend a week taking pictures. But that may have to remain a dream. I don’t really have the equipment to handle the below freezing temps at an unprotected 3,700 meters above sea level. Let alone trying to find water and get around the impossibly huge area. Tents down here run $15/day, and a bike would be $35/day.

Luc has been a fun friend to travel with and right now we are checking out tour companies and their 3 days packages, all about $30/day. But the battle still goes on inside my head. Will I mess this up, the one place I have looked forward to most? A failure at this point in my trip could sour all my memories. Sintonizar siguiente entrada de blog para saber

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Silver Lining

October 1st, 2010

Lets get right to it:

I checked out the silver mines on Monday. There were 5 of us on the English tour; 2 Aussie girls, a Canadian guy, and an Italian male. We suited up in yellow jumpsuits while the guides joked that we were going to a disco. Rubber boots, hard hat, and a headlamp rounded out the gear and we felt cool. Mandatory gifts for the miners were purchased (like coca leaves, soda, and dynamite) and we headed up the hill. I tossed a few leaves in my mouth to feel like a local, but didn’t have any of the chemical that releases their magic. So, I will have to try it again and hope to feel the positive effects: Reduction of hunger, resistance to temperature fluctuations, cures altitude sickness, and numbing of the tongue and cheek.

We ventured deep into the mountain, often ducking and crawling to get through passages. Miners were doing what they do and we took pictures. Many interesting characters in there, all with big bulges in their cheeks. Walking the tracks became a scary task, as heavy trolleys were pushed around. When the guides yelled “trolley!”, we had to run to the closest gap in the wall to get out of the way. At the conclusion, our guide gave us a dynamite demonstration outside on the hill. I even got to hold the lit explosive due to a patient 3 minute fuse.

That night I saw an amazing sunset from a viewpoint in town and had an even more amazing bowl of soup. I was feeling defeated by my dinner choices the past couple nights, opting for the very accessible blue fast food booths that magically appear at night in every Bolivian town. Eating cheap hamburgers, hot dogs, and Salchipapas. But that night was different, I stumbled upon a mobile kitchen in a plaza. They were filling bowls and I asked for one. “Aji de Fideo”; 3 potato halves were placed into a bowl and then covered with noodles and a red broth. The spice was perfect and the noodles plentiful. There were small pieces of meat but they weren’t really needed. The broth is what made it and I was a happy man for only 75 cents.

That 1 magical bowl of soup seemed to change me with each bite. I felt like I had got my mojo back and I was ready to tackle the rest of this intriguing country. Though, I must also give some credit to another food. “Ensalada de Fruta”, multiple counters in the market offer fruit smoothies and salads. My eyes immediately locked on to the towering glasses with a fruit and yogurt base, a jell-o middle layer, and topped with the ever present whipped cream/meringue white stuff. At less than 60 cents a piece, I could not turn them down.

Tuesday: I saw a cathedral/museum, ate yet another fruit salad, and studied Spanish in the plaza, before catching a night bus down to Tarija. Another sleepless journey, partly due to the old lady who couldn’t keep her hands to herself. Her right arm would conveniently slip off the armrest and onto my leg. Each time, I would politely grab her sleeve and place her arm out of my personal space. It was a long trip.

Wednesday: My planning failed me yet again. The night bus journey took 3 hours less than I thought, and resulted in a 4 am arrival. The hostals near the terminal were either full or too expensive. So, I decided to wait around the busy station until the sun came up, in order to walk into town and find reasonable accommodations. That plan actually worked out, the station was an interesting scene and my hostal in town is clean and next to the centro mercado.

Tarija is a warmer city, 2,000 meters lower than Potosi, in a semi-fertile valley. A few hours north of Argentina, beautiful people and new treats are all around, plus this is the first town I have seen in Bolivia without any blue fast food booths. My first nights dinner was the following for $2.50: 3 pieces of street pizza, 1 pork sandwich, 1 plate of chicharron (small pieces of fried pork fat) choclo and potatoes, and finished with a banana smoothie. Oh, I also had some coconut sweets for desert. As you see, I am eating a lot more.

Thursday: Strolled to the big local market and found a fruit salad. This time it was a tall glass filled with multiple fruits in an orange colored juice. And, in keeping with the local tradition, when your glass is empty, they give you an extra helping that almost equals the first. Again, for the low price of 45 cents.

On the way back to the center, I stopped at a hilltop viewpoint to enjoy the sun and study some more words. While there, a female gringo came up to enjoy the same view and (as I was the only other white person she had seen) approached me to chat. She is French and on a 3 week vacation trip. I enjoyed being able to impress someone with my length of stay and we decided to go check out a nearby lake. Though not very scenic, it was good to get out of the city.

She left to meet up with a new local friend who was learning French and we made plans for another side trip outside of town on Friday. I returned to the Chicharron lady for dinner and enjoyed standing in the corner, surrounded by locals, eating with my hands, and getting a double-take from the handful of passing tourists.

Friday: Met up with Frenchie at 10 am, sampled some street crepes and salteñas, before searching for the micro to Coimata around the local market. After we asked 5 people for directions and I showed her the fruit salads, we finally boarded a van. Disembarked, and hiked about 30 minutes to some waterfalls. Set in an arid canyon, she showed off her rock climbing ability and I showed my fearlessness in trekking through thorn bushes off the beaten track. Women always worry when they see blood, but I assured her I was okay. I soaked my wounds in one of the many pools and felt alive again. Too much time in cities really gets to me.

It was great to hangout with Frenchie for a few days and her Spanish came in very handy. Back in town, she left to catch her 6 pm bus heading north and I cruised by the sports complex to watch some soccer and little girls who desperately need to learn some basketball fundamentals. Double dribbling should not be tolerated and I don’t believe it is legal to stand on the bleachers in order to throw the ball in over the girl who is probably a little to big for her age.

Well, that catches you up. Tomorrow morning, I will hop a bus to the border town of Villazon. Sunday, I plan to cross into Argentina with a yet to be determined itinerary. I could just spend a few hours there, or I could venture further south and make it a few days. This will mark the end of my southern path and then it will be 6 weeks of north to Bogota. Creo que va a ir muy rápido. >

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