Thursday, April 30, 2009

The games we play

Monday, April 27
Terminale Terrestre, Tour Peru counter
Cuzco, Peru

Conor, Katy, and I are at the Cuzco bus terminal trying to get tickets to head South to Puno, Peru. The two of them are heading on down to Copacabana, Bolivia from Puno, while I intend to spend a couple days in Puno, getting my Bolivian visa, among other things.

[in (broken) Spanish]
- do you have a bus to Puno on Wednesday?
- yes, it leaves at 8:00 in the morning and tickets are 25 soles ($8 USD)
- is it a direct bus
- oh yes, straight to Puno!
- ok, we'll take it
- great, please be here at 7:30 on Wednesday

Wednesday, April 29, 7:30AM
Terminal Terrestre, Tour Peru counter
Cuzco, Peru

- here's our tickets to Puno
- oh... there's a problem... The bus is going to go at probably 9:30 or so
- No esta bien! We need to be in Puno early to catch the connecting bus to Bolivia before the border closes
- oh, not a problem, the bus is going, it's just ahh delayed until 9:30 (?)
[at this point we note that Tour Peru has sold all of 9 tickets for our bus, so they just don't seem to want to run an almost empty bus... not that I had much faith in the 9:30 promise to begin with]
- we'd like our money back
- no problem

10 minutes later
Cruz del Sur ticket counter
a lady with a cute 5-month old baby behind the counter
actually, the lady is breast feeding the cute baby, but that's fairly normal here...

- do you have a bus to Puno this morning?
- yes, at 8AM... but it's not actually Cruz del Sur, it's San Luis [Now, Cruz del Sur is undoubtedly the best bus company in Peru, even though I'm yet to get on one of their buses. San Luis, in my experience, is known for buses that smell like the bathroom]
- Ok, that's fine, is it a direct bus?
- yes!
- Doesn't stop in Juliaca? [Juliaca is a big city on the highway to Puno]
- no, no straight to Puno
- and what time does it arrive in Puno? We need to catch an onward bus to Copacabana, Bolivia...
- 2 o'clock
- ok, we'll take it

The three of us get seats number 15, 21, and 27. So one might assume that the bus is full as they can't get three seats together anymore. Actually, there's no such thing as a full bus in Peru, so, much like the finer moments of SouthEast Asia, we get a bunch of locals sitting in the aisle in the back of the bus. Seat limitations apparently only apply to tourists. I wonder what else applies to tourists? We soon find out:

Wednesday, April 29, 2:00PM
Juliaca bus station
Juliaca, Peru

So after a half dozen stops along the way (on our direct, totally non-stop bus to Puno) to pick up and drop off passengers and to let on shady-looking local women selling food, at 2 o'clock we have arrived... just not in Puno, but in Juliaca - Puno is another hour and a half away. Over the course of the past 15 minutes, I've had time to watch people shuffling off the bus (none of the locals seem to be going to Puno) and debate why the people back in Cuzco even bother telling us that it's a direct bus. Or does anything that doesn't involve an actual bus change qualify as a direct bus around here? I also have time to contemplate whether or not it would be better to lunge for the door or crawl out the window in the event I should see one of the locals try to walk off with my backpack... I decide the window is a better bet. Thankfully, this plan never has to get tested.

So, at about 3:45 we arrive in Puno. I'm wondering, why the bus companies even bother playing these games with schedules and 'direct buses' since you know none of is true once you've been on a single bus in this country (yes, this experience has generally been replayed on the earlier bus journeys in Peru, so I couldn't really get myself all too worked up over this). Meanwhile, Katy and Conor, who have, of course, missed the last bus for Copacabana, agree to share a cab to the border with two Japanese girls, each of them agreeing to pay 30 soles, or twice the going rate of the bus... which left an hour ago. I catch a taxi to Bothy hostel where I've made a reservation, wondering whether or not I'll have to play the famous Peruvian taxi game of 'are you sure you don't want to stay at this place instead? It's better in every way! [especially the way in which they pay me, the cab driver, a commission]'. We end up going straight to the hostel... it's almost disappointing!

And on the subject of games, we play, let us briefly review Llama Path, the tour company that organized our 7 day trek to Machu Picchu. Now, first and foremost, I have to admit that I had a really good time - they took care of us expertly, Raul, the guide, was great - enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and there's no way we would've gotten the tickets to climb Waynu Picchu without him. On the other hand, Llama Path is certainly one of the more (if not the most) expensive companies around. They do make a big deal of how well they treat their porters, and while I certainly can't see the porters' paychecks, I can state that the porters do seem to be enjoying themselves a lot more than the porters from the other companies, and it's nice to see that Llama Path has fully decked them out in company uniforms. On the other hand, I still paid $800, so a few things that I found puzzling:
- you pay the deposit when you book the trip, the rest is to be paid (in cash, even though the brouchure Llama Path gives us is confused about this part) upon arrival in Cuzco. The price is set in dollars, however you pay in Peruvian soles. So, we ask the lady to look up today's exchange rate - she happily does, then informs us that Llama Path does not use the official exchange rate, they have the rate permanently set to 3.15. Wonder if the rate would remain set if the official rate went above 3.15?
- the meals. Certainly can't complain about the meals - they fed us a lot and they fed us really well. However, the first breakfast and last lunch are not included. I can picture the management fairly easily saying 'well, all the meals that the porters cook are included, the rest are not.' Personally, I thought for $800, everything could've been included. This feeling was reinforced when at breakfast we were handed tourist menus (read: expensive), while our guide had something that wasn't on the menu, looked more appealing to me, and had to have cost a fraction of my continental breakfast. Lunch on the final day was at a restaurant in Aquas Caliente - regular menus here, so not much to complain in terms of price, even though I did find it notable that Raul snuck away to have his lunch elsewhere - I can only presume for a fraction of a cost once more...
- coming back. Somewhere on the website, I do recall it being mentioned that you can request an extra night in Aquas Caliente. So, upon arriving in Cuzco, we did. Well, apparently we had to request well in advance, now they've already reserved train tickets for us back to Cuzco for 2 in the afternoon. Well, 2 seems a bit rushed, can we at least come back later? You'll have to talk to Peru rail yourselves, and will need to pay a change penalty to them. Thanks...
- as for the actual train, well, it's expensive, we knew that. The 2 o'clock train, however, is slightly less expensive as it doesn't go all the way back to Cuzco, it stops about an hour short, where you can transfer to the bus. The bus, of course, is cheaper for the company to provide, but takes 3 hours to complete the journey back to Cuzco, instead of the hour you would've taken on the train.
- also, on the bus... the driver is an enterpreneur: as we start going, the bus is not full, so we pick up a few friends, family, or random passer-by heading to Cuzco, until the bus is pretty much full, then stop a block away from the tour agency to let the extra passengers off... right after the driver collects their fees from them. Cute... Doesn't really change anything (well, I may have felt differently if I had gained somebody in the seat next to me...), but does strike me as just a bit unprofessional for a company that charges you a lot of money for their services.
- and finally, we arrived at the main square in Cuzco, near the Llama Path office. Raul had told us we'd get dropped back off at our hotels, but I was fairly skeptical, so getting dropped off at the office instead wasn't particularly surprising. What was surprising, or perhaps annoying, was that there was a lady from the office waiting for all of us there, collecting the duffel bags they had given us. Wouldn't bother me if we were at the hostel, but now you get to repack everything out of the duffel bag into plastic bags we were getting in exchange and carry the plastic bags back. At least I'm glad it wasn't raining. Doesn't seem like letting us keep the duffel bags for the trip back to the hostel would have been all that much trouble. I suppose it would've been nice if the guides knew where we were getting dropped off too, but as I said, I hadn't really believed him anyway!

Alright, those are all very minor issues, and as I said, I did have a very good time on the trip, so I am just being a little petty perhaps, but the bottom line is that I do get annoyed when places charge Western prices, but haven't quite learned exactly what Western service works like (prior example). Overall, considering the price, it gives me just a bit of a pause, before I would go out of my way to recommend the company to other travelers. In fact, if anybody is planning a visit to Machu Pichu, I would recommend you skip the Inca Trail altogether and do one of the alternative routes. Yes, you miss out on a few more Inca sites, but you save a fair amount of money (don't worry, it'll still be expensive) and I actually found the walking easier before we got onto the stone-paved Inca trail...

And one final bit of Peruvian gamesmanship - this one is actually more directly related to Bolivia... I went to get my Bolivian visa at the consulate here in Puno this morning. The visa is just a formality really, the Bolivian government instituted it purely as revenge against the US government for making Bolivians get a visa to enter the US (not sure if the US State Department actually noticed though), so I found a blog post by a 'teacher on two wheels' that told me all about the paperwork I'd need to get the visa, and I was off. The first thing I learned from the perfect bureacrat secretary working the front desk at the consulate was that Bolivia now charges a flat fee of $135. As of last November, it used to be $135 at the border, or $100 if you go to an embassy/consulate ahead of time. I weighed my options for a bit and walked back to my hostel to get the extra $35 I hadn't brough with me initially.

Upon my return to the consulate, I was presented with a new discrepancy: the teacher on two wheels blogged that in order to satisfy the requirement for a proof of a hotel reservation in Bolivia, it was sufficient to simply bring a printout of the hotel's web page. Unfortunately, the guy at the front desk turned out to be a thorough bureacrat, examined his requirements cheat sheet very thoroughly, and informed me that I needed some sort of a document that actually carried a confirmation of my hotel reservation. At this point I was rather pissed (the American version of pissed, not the British), so I could come up with three choices:

1) tell the consulate to go to hell and just get the visa done at the border, since there's no longer a price difference. In fact, my helpful, albeit useless, bureacrat all but suggested this. Downside: if something goes wrong there, I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere.

2) skip Bolivia altogether and save the $135. Upside: I can make a scene here at the consulate, really tell them to go to hell, explain what I think of their inane visa policies, and probably assure that I'll never be give a Bolivian visa again. (I was pissed, mind you)

3) play games

Since the title for this blog post had already been floating in my head for the past 24 hours, I eventually decided it would be better to stay relatively subdued and play games with the Bolivian consulate. So, 30 minutes at a neighboring internet cafe and some careful HTML manipulation using Spanish notepad produced a confirmation page from a hostel in Copacabana, Bolivia. As for why I needed to produce proof of a hotel reservation somewhere in Bolivia for my first two days in the country in order to receive a five year, multi-entry visa, each entry up to 90 days, is a bit beyond me. Nevertheless, creative problem solving to cheat the bureacratic system made me feel a little better about myself, so I presented the printout to my consular secretary amigo (noting to myself the various clues that may have tipped me off that the document was completely fake, but weren't likely to stand out in his mind), and 20 minutes later walked out of the consulate with a brand new Bolivian visa in my passport... wondering whether or not that really was the best way to spend my $135. Well, I do hear the salt flats are quite specatcular, and the country is quite cheap, so we'll see. Plus, I'm sure I'll get to find out what sorts of games the Bolivian bus and tour operators choose to engage in!

Well, if you've managed to read through my ranting this far, the least I can do is reward you with a few pictures, so:

Cuzco's Plaza d'Armas (every Peruvian city has one, always with a nice big Catholic church in the center. Just so, you know, nobody forgets who won back in the 16th century)

Cuzco Cathedral. Built at the former location of a major Inca temple. Interesting?

The Peru mountain troop division marching across Plaza d'Armas. Much like the Soviet Union, it just isn't an important occasion around here if you can't have some sort of a military parade. Afraid I can't tell you what the occasion on April 19th was however

An overview of Cuzco and the surrounding mountains

Worst ... episode ... ever! The 12-angled stone actually gets mentioned in the guide books. I can't fathom why. It's just a big stone. The stonework on the whole wall is beautiful and intricate, but the 12-angled stone is just there because it fits, not to symbolize the 12 palaces of the ancient Inca city of Cuzco!

A very psychedelic looking representation of the Inca view of space. They were quite advanced astronomers actually.

Trying the local delicacies: fried guinea pig. Tastes like chicken (dark meat specifically), until you get to the herb stuffing, which tasted bad. Looks disturbing, what with the teeth and legs all still in place

And finally, yesterday afternoon (after the bus saga), first view of Lake Titicaca from Puno - the highest navigatable lake in the world.

And you can find a whole lot more pictures from Cuzco, Machu Pichu, and the hike here.

Speaking of Machu Pichu, I can't quite leave without this little gem of hilarity... Background: Machu Pichu is probably the most famous site in all of South America. There are posters all over the place promoting it as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. The Peruvian government charges a lot of money to get into Machu Pichu. In exchange for your money, you get a map. On the back of the map, you get a brief culture/history section. First in Spanish. Then in English... Now, I'm not going to state any of my judgements on the English (and typing) skills of the person who created the English translations, I'll just post a few of the highlights (all spelling, grammar, and capitalization repeated exactly as it was in the brochure):
- other settlers like ..., between others, already they knew of machu Picchu
- There they met a farmer, called Melchor Artega, who received a tip of one coinone coin and gave them...
- two local farmer familiaes: ... who lived there and grez crops in some of the terraces of the terraces of the lower portion ... but, precisely it was child, the son of one of the families, who led them...
- new expedition ... to work in the calering and with the archaelogical research
- it is a highlight of the Imperial Onka Culture

Funny, I'm pretty sure I met lots of Peruvians who could speak much better English than this. I guess none of them were available to translate the Cuture and History section for the most important archaelogical site in their country...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Goals, Deadlines, and Challenges

Let's start with the good stuff - this picture will become relevant once you get to the end

I think I tend to work well with goals, deadlines, and challenges - it gives you something concrete to focus on and try to achieve in a given time frame. So, there I was on Day 4 of our 7-day trek to Machu Pichu climbing up to Dead Woman's Pass - 4,200m above sea level. Two day earlier, we had crossed Salkantay Pass, which rises to 5,100m above sea level, yet we all agreed that this one, on the main Inka Trail, was somehow more difficult.

Conor, Katy, and I at the top of Salkantay Pass

And me, celebrating, by testing whether or not there really is less gravity at 5,100m above sea level.

I don't think we really came up with a good reason why, some of the best candidates:
- Dead Woman's Pass has a long steep approach, whereas the approach to Salkantay may have been steeper and higher, but wasn't as long, and had more flat spots to relax in
- the day before Salkantay, we were hiking uphill, the day before Dead Woman's Pass, we were coming downhill from Salkantay. And then we played football with the porters...
- We were all mentally prepared for the 5,000+ meter pass to be the hard one and the measly 4,100m pass to be a piece of cake in comparison

Anyway, back to goals, deadlines, and challenges. After starting bright and early in the morning at just over 3,000m, we had arrived at small camp site at 3,800 by about 10:30 for a brief tea break. After, we set off on the final 400 meters towards the pass and pretty soon I had my goal, my deadline, and my challenge:
  • Goal: the top of the pass at 4,200m
  • Deadline: get there in under an hour, as our guide claimed that the porters usually take about an hour to get up there
  • Challenge: don't let anybody pass you on the way up, especially not the porters
View of Dead Woman's Pass from 3,800m. It gets its name from the peak you can see in the distance, which looks an awful like it's sporting a nipple. Not sure why the locals thought the woman had to be dead...

Never mind that the we got about a 15 minute head start on the porters as they were packing up camp and my day pack paled in comparison to the 25kg pack they were carrying... hey, nobody said this was a fair fight. I was feeling somewhat optimistic since I had chosen to keep up with our porter team when they passed me on the way up here at around 3,500m and I didn't die over that final 300m stretch.

Needless to say, I wouldn't be writing about all this if I didn't actually accomplish all my goals, deadlines, and challenges. I was staring down into the valley from the top of the pass a little less than 45 minutes later, soon to be joined by Conor, then the porters, and Katy close behind them, so actually three of us made the pass in under an hour. Having been hiking at altitude for the past three days, we were also all able to regain our breath a few minutes after arriving, so crossing the Salkantay was good for something after all! Oh, and the gorgeous views along the way of course.

Now we all celebrated reaching the pass

I added my own way of celebrating too...

Team Llama Path taking a break at the top too

And hiking for three days without anyone else around - most tourists apparently aren't up for the seven day hike, but the four day Inka trail gets downright crowded at times - there was no shortage of people to pass on the way up the mountain, making you feel better about yourself. Especially when you'd pass a porter... just as long as you can somehow ignore the giant pack the porter would be carrying... All in all, the Peruvian government limits the number of Inka trail passes to 500 per day to either try and preserve the Inka sites, or to maximize their profits by limiting the supply - both explanations sound perfectly plausible to me.

An Inka site on Day 6

Our five-person group, plus the guide: Conor, Gordon, Raul, Anne, Katy, and I

So that was my goals, deadlines, and challenges half-way through the trek. At the end of the 7th day lay the ultimate goal: Machu Pichu. This, unfortunately, is even more crowded, as the 500 Inka trail hikers a day are joined by hundreds of other tourists arriving via alternative hiking routes or the lazy ones, arriving by train. The final campsite lies about 6km from Machu Pichu. The trail opens at 5:30AM, and everyone wants to be there first... just because. Since our group consisted of just the five of us, organizing us was fairly quick, so after a 4AM breakfast, we were sitting (and playing cards) at the trail checkpoint at 4:30, first in line. At 5:30, they checked our passes and sent us through the gate, off to the Sun Gate, some 4km away, to watch the sunrise over Machu Pichu. We walked, briskly, in the dark, spotting two bats flying along the path along the way. A few of the groups behind us ran, uphill. We had a head start being first and all, so a little less than an hour later, Conor, Katy, and I were at the Sun Gate. The runners arrived about five minutes later, and were disappointed to find us there. Unfortunately for all of us, the spectacular sunrise over Machu Pichu wasn't meant to be:

So, we headed on down to Machu Pichu itself, soon catching glimpses of the Inka structures through the fog.

There are llamas grazing at Machu Pichu. And fog...

Having missed the spectacular overlook from the Sun Gate, we were hoping to get a nice look at the whole city a couple hours later from the top of Wayna Pichu mountain, sitting next to Machu Pichu.

Wayna Pichu rising above the ancient city

Unfortunately, the local authorities limit access to this mountain as well - 400 people at 7AM and 400 more at 10AM. So, we were in a rush once more - this time we all ran down the mountain, with Raul, our guide and fearless leader, leading the way. First stop: one end of Machu Pichu to get your ticket stamped, second stop: clear across to the other side of the city to get the tickets for the mountain climb. Climbing at 7 didn't seem to make much sense as everything was still covered in fog, so we went for the 10AM line. So did everyone else there apparently, the three of us got tickets #398, 399, and 400 (the tickets have the number written on the back), so this felt like an accomplishment. After a couple of hours looking around Machu Pichu itself, it was off to the mountain.

Fun in Machu Pichu

The mountain is tall (300m elevation gain), steep (no flat spots to relax in), and has narrow, yet tall Inka steps (along with a couple of tunnels near the top clearly not designed for Westerners). But of course, finally, you get to the top and are rewarded with a fabulous (unbelievable as Raul would surely say) view of Machu Pichu from up above. By the time we got there at 10:30, the clouds were long gone...

View from above

And finally, later that afternoon, the most exciting part of the trip finally arrived: a train back to Cuzco, which had our hotel, with its hot showers and clean clothes!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Walking in the foothills of Tehran

So I arrived in Tehran yesterday (Thursday) and met up with John and Mary Smith who flew over from Kuwait a day early to make the schedules work.  I flew in a day early to deal with Jet lag.  I spent most of Thursday walking around the immediate area near my hotel.  But after reading the Lonely Planet guide talked the Smith's into going for a walk up Durban in the foothills Friday.  According to the Lonely Planet it sounded like a nice leisurely walk.


As it turned out it was basically a hike up a mountain on a slightly muddy trail but the weather was pleasant so we decided to continue the hike and walked up for the next two hours.  But then BAM after we had climbed quite a bit we started hitting intermittent small amounts of snow.


Which caused us to re-evaluate the hike idea and instead we stopped for Tea and Coffee while we waited for the rain/snow mixture to lighten up. After an hour of socializing and pictures with the group next to us we headed back down the mountain to avoid the recently suspect and rather cold weather.  Walking down was quicker and after just an hour the sun had come out and we came across this restaurant over the river which we couldn't pass up.  Since it was lunch time we decided to grab a bite to eat and hang out on the river.


We quickly realized that this menu would be a bit hard to work out but with a little bit of perseverance and some bad acting we managed to order some chicken and some lamb with rice.


I am proud of the fact that after being in the city for a day I can already read the numbers no problem which will at least let me order by cost.  As we spent the next two hours having a relaxing lunch in the sun and feeding the ducks we all come to the conclusion that initial bad weather aside we were glad we had made the hike.



We made it back to the hotel in time to get an hour break before the rest of our group showed up.  We used the time to make friends with the hotel Parrot and an Iranian American who ended up buying all of us dinner.  Tomorrow we will head out around Tehran to a couple museums and then hop on a flight to Shiraz (Yes the original home of Shiraz wine though all the vines have been torn out since the revolution)

I'll post more next time I have Internet.


The Canyon

2:57 AM
Arequipa, Peru
Koala Backpackers
the 'Koala' Room

I awaken with a start. It's almost 3 in the morning - Fuck! Either one of the girls had set her alarm for 3 or, worse yet, the bus is here early. I doubt I would've woken up at three minutes till three all on my own, well, not today anyway. With those thoughts I go back to sleep... 15 minutes later, the lights are on and there's commotion in the room, I struggle to think of a way to ignore all this a moment longer, failing at that, I suppose it's time to get up.

There's ten of us in the Koala room on this (rather short) night. It's sort of a mini-Ireland in here: there's a group of five Irish girls (Cara, Hazel, Laura, Marie, and Roshyn), Dave, Kevin, and Sandra are also Irish (but Dave and Sandra are actually in a neigboring double room). Rounding out the dorm is me, Ancilla and Miercoles (well, that's not the right way to spell that...) from Holland, and Kylie from Australia. Somewhat ironically, Kylie is the only one I know, as she was in my hostel in Rio over Carnival a couple of months ago. The rest, I met yesterday evening, and Kylie's irony lies solely in the fact that she's the only one of us who is actually not getting up at 3 this morning... the rest of us are booked onto a two day tour of the nearby Calca Canyon, leaving between 3 and 3:30 this morning. And the bus got here early. And soon enough, we are off, picking up an Israeli couple to round out our group of thirteen (plus two guides). First order of the morning is to figure out a way to get some sleep on the bus as we spend the next three hours bouncing around the rough Peruvian roads heading for the canyon. Not very much sleep is achieved - the 'tourist' bus is not particularly comfortable and crossing a 4,900m pass at 5 in the morning gets rather cold, in spite of the blankets we were all handed.

First stop at the canyon does not disappoint: Cruz del Condor. Not sure why, but this is where the Andean condors like to come and hang out

Pretty majestic, with approximately a 3m wing span

From the condors, we get another 20 minutes on the bus, and, finally, freedom! Well, freedom to hike down, then up the side of the canyon over the course of the next eight hours.

Now, I don't think I've seen all that many canyons in the world, but this is the second biggest (by depth), barely trailing another one somewhere nearby in Peru. However, the Grand Canyon in Arizona really is a grand hole in the ground. This looks more like a valley with two big mountain ranges surrounding it - I wonder how one actually differentiates between a canyon and a valley? Either way, the sights were quite impressive nonetheless:

Getting started at the top

Looking down at the canyon, and another condor comes by to say hi

There's lots of cacti here too

From here the hike was pretty straighforward. We zigzagged our way down the side of the canyon for some three hours getting to the very bottom, then came across to have lunch. The excitment on the way down came from an occasional slip and slide on the loose gravel (amplified for some - Sandra - by a fear of heights) and the blisters that were quickly growing on some of the girls' feet. Later that evening, after going up and down the far side of the canyon for a bit, we arrived at Paradise... Paradise is a little complex at the bottom of the canyon, where we were spending the night. It featured a pool (beautiful diversion after a full day on your feet, no matter that the sun had already set by the time we got in), bungalows with surprisingly comfortable beds (that could be the full day on your feet talking again, of course), a nice spaghetti dinner, and absolutely no electricity... A hot shower would have to wait!

The next morning, our wake up time was at a far more reasonable hour: 5AM... But we got up, bitched a bit, packed up, and eleven of us took off on a three hour expedition straight up the canyon wall back to the starting point (and breakfast!). There were 13 of us that came down of course - Laura and Sandra did not perish, they just got convinced that 50 soles (~16 dollars) was a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a ride up the hill in the comfort of your very own donkey. They also got to leave an hour later. The sun wasn't quite up when we all left a few minutes before six:

The sun began lighting up the far side of the canyon

Early on there were a few droplets of rain too, all this culminating in a bright and clear rainbow

And two hours and fifteen minutes later, I was joining Dave and Kevin at the top - they'd gotten there 5 minutes earlier. Hazel joined us in another five minutes. Twenty minutes later, the mules showed up. The rest trickled in over the next hour and a half

After a very satisfying breakfast at the top, we got a ride to a thermal bath for another very satisfying hour spent soaking in 39 degree (Celsius...) waters, followed by lunch, and then back on the bus, and back to Arequipa.

Views from the 4,900m pass we couldn't see the previous morning

By 5:30, we were all back in Arequipa, for a well earned massage for me ($7 for an hour!), dinner, and an evening out with the Arequipa night life - it was Sandra's birthday. Heading back to the hostel around 3 in the morning, we saw our bus roaming the streets, no doubt looking to make somebody else's early morning highly uncomfortable...

And finally, a few sites from the city of Arequipa:

The city, with the white stone buildings everywhere, the bustle of tourists all around, and the tops of the churches lit up at night reminded me of Istanbul a bit... Or maybe it's just because I had kebabs for dinner a couple of times!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Golden Anniversary

I´m in Peru, and it's country #50 on the way (no, I'm still not counting you Bosnia and Moldova - I feel like I need to cover more than 5km of a country for it to count), so in honor of this exciting round number, I got to thinking about all the borders I've crossed in the past 15 plus months. Which quickly brings me to the conclusion that traveling in South America really is rather pleasant - they seem to have figured out how to make the border crossing formalities as painless as possible. To wit:
- crossing the channel separating Uruguay and Argentina, you get joint immigration desks at the departure point in Colonia, Uruguay - the Uruguayan official stamps you out of his country, then hands the passport over to the Argentinian guys sitting right next to him, who promptly stamps you into Argentina. Fast, efficient, sensible...
- Brazil to Argentina: Cyrus and I go across in a Brazilian taxi. Nobody actually bothers us or asks to stop, it's really done as more of a courtesy to the customs guys. The process takes a full 15 minutes, 10 minutes longer than it would have if I hadn't lost my Brazil arrival card
- Chile to Peru today: they have an actual border, so you really have to stop, twice (Chile, then Peru). Yet, the whole thing takes barely 10 minutes, the most time consuming parts being me trying to understand Spanish when the Chilean guy points out that I ought to take my passport out of its cover and the Peruvian guy, upon seeing my backpack, inquires if I'm carrying a parachute...

On the other hand, a few "highlights" from some prior border crossing experiences:
- New Zealand didn't even want to let me in because instead of a ticket for onward travel I just had the name of a boat that Nate was sailing on... Eventually they figured they were stuck with me, but still confiscated my boots and only returned them after having sprayed them with some vicious acid designed to kill any and all remaining traces of SouthEast Asia
- Vietnam searched my bags, but not all that thoroughly. Then we discussed the US primaries going on at the time and I was surprised to find out that the Vietnamese customs officer supported McCain, a former Vietnam POW
- China chose to search my bags quite thoroughly, checking all the books I was carrying, then opening up my laptop and requesting to see all of my photographs. I suppose that's what you get for being the only American they had seen that week (month?)
- crossing by train from China to Mongolia requires the trains to be raised up in the air and the wheels swapped out because China uses a different gauge of rail than Russia and Mongolia
- crossing from Mongolia to Russia, you sit for two hours on the train (without your passport) while the Russian customs officials thoroughly search the entire train. To their credit, the Mongolian women were smuggling all kinds of things across the border
- Kosovo explained to us how we needed to pay 50 Euro for each car because our insurance policies did not cover Kosovo... And then all the lights went out. And then we still had to pay, under the faint lights from a generator. "Or you can go back to Albania" - I still don't like that guy!
- Greece, where Cyrus chose to celebrate us reaching our 6th country in under 24 hours by spilling scalding hot coffee on Liz' lap...
- entering Turkey by car requires going to about 12 different stations to get various pieces of paperwork stamped. A lot like Turkmenistan, except that I could at least speak the language in Turkmenistan. Well, and Turkmenistan charges a lot more
- I ripped the exhaust pipe off the manifold coming off the ferry from Ukraine to Russia, then had to drive the next two hours with the car making horrible noises. On the bright side, the Russian customs agent was very cute in her exceedingly short skirt uniform, and seemed more interested in taking pictures of the mini with her cellphone than actually making me do paperwork
- Uzbekistan confiscated my contraband Sudafed - that's Cyrus' fault, really. And the lady felt really bad about it.
- The customs agent at the Kazakhstan border decided to show Lott and I a porn video on his cellphone while we were waiting for somebody else to get back from dinner and finish our paperwork. Thankfully, the movie was not of him.
- Mongolia, the only country that's more difficult to leave than it is to enter as they absolutely insist on searching everything you've got to make sure you are not carrying any priceless Genghis Khan artifacts with you out of the country.
- the Canadian customs agent was simply confused when I presented him with a Carnet de Passage for the mini, clearly never having seen one before. 20 minutes later he managed to put all the stamps in the right places
- and finally, of course, there's Moldova, which turned the mini right around after noticing that the VIN number on my paperwork didn't actually match the one on the car.

But you are not really here for my border musings, you want pictures. So, let's have some pictures from my first day in Peru:

I started off in the border town of Tacna. I had 2 hours to explore it while waiting for my bus, and found this Cathedral (quite busy on Easter Sunday), designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame, as the Lonely Planet, oh so helpfully, points out)

I've always found the juxtaposition of palm trees and European architecture a bit surprising

The arch (not a replica of the one in St. Louis) celebrates some Peruvian generals. Even though they lost the war and Tacna was under Chilean control for a while, until Chile voluntarily returned it...

This is just a crazy random sight in Tacna. For a little Peruvian city in the middle of the desert it did actually have a surprising number of green areas

And then there was this sight: an honest to goodness Bajaj tuk-tuk on the roads of Peru! Just like the ones we had in India (it occurs to me that the blog doesn't actually have any good pictures of our beasts). We did see a couple of these things in Costa Rica too, but there's more of them here, so I managed to get a picture. Before I leave this country, I must get a photograph of me behind the wheel of one!

From Tacna I had an unexciting seven hour bus ride to Arequipa, my destination for the next couple of days. The most memorable things on the journey were the immense desert outside, the woman sitting next to me, who had the worst breath imageanable, and the one hour delay we had early on, when Peruvian security forces apparently decided to prove to me that their customs and immigration facilities don't all run as seemlessly as I may have imagined earlier: here, everybody's luggage was removed from the bus and examined (with varying degrees of thoroughness - my backpack attracted no interest whatsoever). As for the rest of the passengers on board, I'm not going to say there was a bit of smuggling going on, I just found it a bit surprising that everyone had giant boxes and satchels full of childrens's toys, baby carriers, and unopened skateboard/helmet sets. The only thing I can't figure out is where could the smuggling be possibly coming from - cross-border Chile is much more expensive than Peru?

By the evening, I arrived in Arequipa, and have so far found it to be a city of interesting contrasts. On the one hand, you see the cars and city buses prowling the local streets, and the words "Third World Country" scream out of your mind. On the other hand, I walked a couple of blocks down the street from my hostel in search of food and was greeted with an unexpected variety of restaurants, eventually settling on a Turkish kebab. All the restaurants even appeared to take credit cards, so not so third world at all... On your third hand in Arequipa, you've got a smattering of colonial architecture, including some very impressive churches, nicely lit up at night, all around the center of the old city. So, all in all, Arquipa seems rather fascinating, I understand three 5,000+ meter peaks surround it, along with the 2nd deepest canyon in the world (or South America, I can't quite recall). And I did get to see a little more of the city than I had bargained for as my cab driver from the bus station tried to take me by a few of the hostels that would pay him commission instead of going directly to the one I had actually wanted. Considering that both the Lonely Planet and my hostel had warned me that this was quite likely to happen, I actually found the entire experience amusing - gave me plenty of practice for my Spanish for "No, this is not where I wanted you to go."

PS. And as a final parting note for this long seemingly rambling post, this picture really should have been in the Lauca post, but better late than never:

We haven't had anything crossing the road in a while, so here's what Chile uses to warn you of crossing vicunas... llamas too, if you want to be technical about it...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

In Arica

Well, as long as I'm spending another day here in Arica, and am feeling too lazy to pull on a wetsuit and go sufing, might as well get a few more thoughts and observations about this little outpost of a town on the Northern edge of Chile.

Arica is actually a thoroughly pleasant and tranquil town. Generally, most travelers just make a brief stop here on the way to/from Peru or the Lauca National Park. The place is certainly helped by a nice quiet Sunny Days hostel, run by Ross, a New Zealander, who can provide a wealth of information about the area, rent a bike or a surfboard, give you a ride to the bus station at 6:30 in the morning, and provide a nice hostel bed, along with some of the best breakfast I've had yet. That (and the fact that I don't need to be in Cuzco for another five days) was actually the main reason for me to have stayed here an extra day - just a chance to relax (and upload pictures). As for the rest of the town? Well, it's a regular stop for cruise ships, so it's got a lot of people running around trying to convince the passengers to go along with them on a tour of the city. Not sure why you'd pay to go though as you can walk around the entire city in about an hour, and here all the highlights you´ll find:

There's a 110m high rock overlooking the city. Christ the Redeemer sits on top. Did you forget it was a Catholic country? Yesterday was Good Friday, a national holiday. A procession of people went by our hostel at night singing, holding candles, and carrying a cross...

Arica's a beach town, hugging the Pacific coastline - look out from the top of the big rock

As mentioned in the last post, the sunsets over the Pacific from the top of the rock are pretty spectacular too

There's a couple of guns stationed at the top of the rock, guarding it, I presume?

Speaking of guns, this was the scene in the middle of the city the first day I was here... Don't know the details, but this used to be either Bolivian or Peruvian territory, and I believe the soldiers were commemorating the conflict with Peru, which apparently left both sides feeling rather sore

There is, of course, a nice church in the center of town too

Arica's pretty serious about protecting your lungs too - smoking's bad, mmmkay?

Additionally, about 10km along the coastal road South of the city, there are some limestone caves created by the waves eroding the coastline, so yesterday, I picked up a bike and pedaled my way down there to have a look:

Waves splashing against the rocks on the way South

And the caves right in front of the water

And from 'it's a small world department,' it took me coming to Arica, Chile to find a most unexpected acquaintance - Tatiana, a woman, also from Moscow originally, currently residing in Connecticut and good friends with my aunt who lives in New Haven... Oh, and Tatiana's son had gone to the same school as I did back in Russia, and they know my former English teacher quite well, the one I had rather wanted to look up while back in Moscow last summer... Well, I suppose you travel long enough, you are bound to run into all kinds of fascinating people!

Well, that's about it, honestly. I'll relax here for another day today, then tomorrow, it's off to Peru! Hope the buses run on Easter Sunday... Did get a chance to upload another batch of pictures, now that I'm done with Chile: Chile in pictures.