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...

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