Friday, March 27, 2009

So we went to Machu Picchu...

...It was ok.

But some funny things happened to us on the way there:
1. To avoid the horrendously overpriced tourist train, we decided to take the ¨back way¨ into Machu Picchu, which involved taking a bus, to a minibus, to a taxi, to a hike along railroad tracks, to the town at the base of Machu Picchu. After being whisked from the bus to a minibus and racing past banana trees and coffee bushes up and down the mountains on a single track dirt road, we suddenly stopped. The driver got out, walked over to a little shrine on the upslope side of the road, threw out the old flowers and placed a new bouquet in the cut off plastic bottle that served as a vase. Then we continued on.

From The Trip, pt. 11: Back to Peru

2. When we arrived in Santa Theresa, we were whisked from the minibus to a colectivo taxi, but one taxi driver tried to steal us away from another and a fist fight broke out! We felt badly that the locals would brawl over the chance to take us on the next leg of our journey. On the way we saw an entire cow being skinned by the side of the road.

From The Trip, pt. 11: Back to Peru

3. After the taxi driver dropped us at the hidroelectrica plant, we figured what we had to do next was walk along some railroad tracks towards Aguas Calients, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. So the group of us that had been thrown together throughout this hodgepodge of public transportation, two Spaniards, one South Korean, a German, and a Canadian and us, all set out hiking on these railroad tracks. We were not sure if they were active railroad tracks, but luckily we did not find out while crossing a rickety bridge that wobbled over some raging rapids. The train passed after that when we were good and ready for it. Then knowing the tracks were active and seeing the sun go down, we ran when we got to the tunnels near the end. Finally, we arrived in Aguas Calientes and our alternative journey turned out to be alot more memorable than the crusty old train.

From The Trip, pt. 11: Back to Peru

4. The next morning we woke up before dawn because the thing to do was to get to Machu Picchu at dawn, but it was pouring rain so that did not happen. After the rain stopped, we headed off in what we thought was the direction to Machu Picchu, but it was really foggy and Lonely Planet´s map sucked. We started to doubt our trail when we reached our first hundred foot tall ladder ascending a jungly cliff. We thought, ´This does not seem like a trail that thousands of tourists would be willing to take, and I thought they said there were steps, not ladders,¨ but we continued on, for some reason. We broke out of the forest and continued ascending some nice granite steps, which gave us false hope that we were on the right track. We reached the top halfheartedly hoping to see the big M.P., but as it turned out, we were on the hill next to Machu Picchu... Apparently there was a good view, but we wouldn´t know because the fog was part of what landed us on the wrong hill in the first place. So we hiked back down and then back up the correct hill and the correct set of steps. By the time we reached South America´s hottest attraction, I could hardly look at another step.

From The Trip, pt. 11: Back to Peru

5. But we ate some quinoa bars and some maize gigante and somehow we found the will to hike to the top of Wayna Picchu anyways. (W.P. is that big hill you see overshadowing M.P. in the famous photo.) Those Incas... seems like they did things just because they could. As though they thought, ¨See that unbelievably steep hill over there? I am going make some terraces and grow some quinoa up there... just cause I can.¨I don´t really understand why they farmed the tops of these Andean hills when they had plenty of fertile valleys to hang out in down below! It makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

From The Trip, pt. 11: Back to Peru

Or maybe I am dizzy because I need to eat some lunch. We are in Lima now and we only have five days to go... if anything remotely interesting happens to us, we will post. Otherwise, we will see you in the Ooosa.

Our last encounter with Bolivia

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

Going to Bolivia for the second time was short lived. We stayed in Santa Cruz for two nights and mostly just relaxed, with a pause in the relaxation to go to the Santa Cruz Zoo. If you remember, the first leg of our journey took us into the Peruvian Jungle via Iquitos. We took a jungle adventure while there and didn´t really see many jungle animals. This zoo trip remedied that situation. I´m not a huge zoo fan. I was pretty impressed with Santa Cruz´s zoo. For the most part the animals seemed to be treated well with large cages with the exception of some which had adopted some pretty cagey looks and had taken to pacing. The Santa Cruz Zoo, though, was unique in that a lot of the animals (sloths, spider monkeys, and turtles) got to roam free, and the zoo provided an approved ration which you could purchase and feed them.

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

Feeding the animals was a little wierd. It seemed as if may of them had adopted some pretty strong Pavlovian responses to visitors with food. The turtles especially would run to the edge of the fence in anticipation for the dried green morsels... the jungle cats didn´t even notice. Toucans were surprisingly intelligent and gentle with how they handled the food, nimbly procuring it from your hand with the tip of their beak, then popping it into their throat as if it were a vitamin.

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

We saw ocelots, capyberries, big amazonian hippoes (with striped feet sort of like a deers), monkeys, armadillos, coaties, and a lot of other creatures... I saved two turtles who had been flipped over, and got a monkey to sit on my shoulder. Cute. We never did see the Sloth, though.

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

After a brief layover in La Paz, again, we made a beeline for Cuzco.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Chicken Foot welcomes you back to Bolivia

After being escorted for $3 to the border at 2am by a little old lady down a dirt path past a shanty town and over some railroad tracks, we safely arrived in Bolivia last night. We made it official with an entry stamp this morning and caught a bus to Santa Cruz, which seems to bear no relation to the one in California. In Argentina they give you food on the bus which is inevitably bad. In Peru and Bolivia they stop at roadside restaurants for food breaks where the food is not necessarily bad. We knew for sure we were back in Bolivia when a whole declawed chicken foot surfaced in our soup, which quickly ended my enjoyment of the soup. Then back on the bus, they played some strange Mexican musical called, Entre Monjas Anda El Diablo, that involved cock fighting and belting out songs with your buddy over a bottle of tequila. The screen flashed between blackandwhite and color every second.

From The Trip, pt. 10: Back to Bolivia

And that is when we knew we were definitely back in Bolivia.

Of a Conversation with Several Corrupt Paraguayan Border Officials and a Bribe, which was not given

So where we last left off, we were planning to carry out the simple matter of obtaining Paraguayan visas in order to get back to Bolivia and finally Peru. So we sallied forth to the consulate in Puerto Iguazu, but as it turned out, they dont give visas at that consulate for some reason. They advised us to go to the consulate in Foz do Iguacu or in Posadas, a five hour bus ride back the way we came. So we hopped on a bus back across the border to Brazil and went to the Paraguayan consulate, where we were told that we would have to pay the $150 Brazilian visa fee in order to get a Paraguayan visa... so we tried to cut our losses by eating never-before-seen Brazilian snacks and beers, then we went back to Argentina and got on a bus to Posadas. However, luck was not our side because we got there on a Friday night and the next morning the consulate was open, but they told us they didnt have authorization to give visas on Saturdays! Then the lady had the nerve to tell we should have gotten the visa while we were in Puerto Iguazu and this story starts to read like Catch-22, which happens to be what John is reading right now. We kindly informed her that the consulate in Puerto Iguazu does not give visas and she told us we would have to wait until monday, which wasnt going to happen. Our final hope was that maybe they could give us a visa at the border, like they do in Bolivia, or at the very least we could visit the town of Encarnacion for the day without a visa, like they do in Brazil, but no, Paraguay does not give visas at the border and the border lady went so far as to say that, unlike Brazil, we could not enter the country even for a second without a visa. But we feigned ignorance (No entiendo.) and we couldnt honestly figure out where the buses were that went back to Posadas and we honestly thought that maybe you had to go into Encarnacion in order to come back to Posadas.... so we hopped on a bus into Paraguay. We walked around the bazaar, ate some grilled meats and paraguayan corn bread, then caught the bus back to Posadas, and sure enough, unlike in Brazil, a Paraguayan official boarded the bus to check documents. He looked at our passports, asked us if we had a visa, then asked us to get off the bus, and did not give us our passports back, at which point we realized that we may be in deep doodoo. We were escorted over to chat with two other customs officials who were drinking some maté and suddenly the girl appeared who had told us not to go over the border and she told them she had told us so. We continued to feign ignorance. They told us we had to pay a fine because we had entered illegally. The first guy went to go ask somebody just how much that fine should be and they decided on $140, at which point we realized we were being asked for a bribe for the first time in South America. We gave them every excuse we could think of: 1) we were only in Encarnacion for two hours to eat lunch and nothing else; 2) we tried three times to get a visa; 3) we tried really really hard!; 4) we really wanted to see their country; 5) we would gladly pay the $90 to 150 for two visas because we really wanted to see their capital; 6) could we go to Asunción and get visas on money?; 7) it was no problem to go across the border for the day in Brazil and we thought it was the same here (even though the girl told us it was not); 8) I asked if they gave visas at the border here like they did so easily in Bolivia... all this horribly conjugated Spanish fell on deaf ears. The first official just kept saying we needed to pay una multa (which we looked up later, it means, a fine) and he kept rubbing his fingers together, saying ´money,´ menacingly in English. The following conversation ensued:

Me: I dont happen to have 140 dollars on me at the moment.
Corrupt Official #1: Then what do you have?
Me: Argentinian pesos.
CO1, did some bad math: Then you have to pay 280 pesos, which was actually a discount, since it is 3.5 pesos to the dollar.
Me: I dont have 280 pesos on me, which I honestly believed to be true but then I remembered I did actually have 350 pesos on me but I kept this knowledge to myself.
CO1: Well how much do you have then?
Me, making no move to look in wallet: I dont know....
CO1, aside to Corrupt Official #3: She is a liar.
Me, attempting a diversion: Do you take traveler´s checks?
Corrupt Officials: .... (they didnt think that was funny.)
Me: Do you have an ATM?
Corrupt Officials: .... (they didnt think that was funny either.)
John, fed up with their blatant attempts at bribery: How about we give you 15 pesos?
Corrupt Officials: .....

Finally, avoiding my wallet, I looked through my passport pouch and said, Oh look, I happen to have $32, that is all I have in dollars, will that be enough? and for some reason at the sight of my dollars willingly offered, they let us go without further hassle, they didnt take the money, didnt say anything else, they escorted us to the bus that had just arrived, and off we went unscathed. John promised them that we would not try that again. As for me, I doubt I will so much as think about trying to go to Paraguay again. If they had been more than just paper pushing corrupt officials and had actually been armed or the police or looked they had the ability or the inclination to throw us in jail, then I would have forked over all the cash I had, but they were just fat and greedy and amusing themselves by hassling some American tourists who innocently wanted to visit their country but couldnt because of their inefficient bureaucratic red tape. If things had turned out differently that may have been the stupidest and most expensive lunch I have ever had in my life.

From The Trip, pt. 9: Back to Argentina

And that is the story of how we did not go to Paraguay.

Con Gas

Literal translation: with gas
Actual Meaning: carbonated

Carbonated beverage: gaseosa

Building Materials

I've taken a bit of an interest in the primary building materials being used in Northern Argentina, and Bolivia.

Most of the buildings are built out of bricks. When I say "most", I mean "pretty much all": expensive hotels, the sketchy hotel we stayed in across the street from the Bolivian Migration office, the Bolivian Migration office, etc. These bricks are actually pretty cool, though. They´re mostly hollow, extruded structural tubes. If you need to create a force bearing structure, you can stack them tubularly through a rebar skeleton and fill them with concrete. They´re pretty versatile, and I´m guessing pretty cheap. In North America, most large buildings are built from wood or concrete. In South America, its bricks.

A lot of structures, mostly awnings and other non-inhabitable structures, are built with prefab structural steel members. These "beams" consist of three thick steel poles held together in a triangular structure with smaller steel poles welded between them in a triangular lattice. They make these things in straight or parabolic sections for shed roofs. They´re pretty versatile, structures seem to go up quickly, and they´re probably cheap to work with. they look pretty cool, too.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Foz do Iguaçu

From The Trip, pt. 8: Brazil

We are now in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. We got in yesterday afternoon after a twenty hour bus ride from Buenos Aires and then we jumped straight into illegally crossing the border to see the Brazilian side of Iguazu falls. Following the girl from the hostel´s instructions, we hopped on a local bus for Brazil, which stops at the Argentinian side of the border for an exit stamp on your passport, then blows past the Brazilian border (and their $150 visa) and drops you at the Foz do Iguaçu bus station (I am very happy I get to use the c with the squiggly line under it for once in my life). There we had a confusing conversation sort of in Spanish with the attendant as to how much the bus cost in Argentinian pesos, the security guard seemed to tell us it cost 50 pesos, but then it turned out to be approximately 10, but we finally paid, caught the bus to the National Park, paid the Foreigner entrance fee, caught another park bus to the falls and then we only had a half hour before we needed to get back on the bus... so we more or less ran down the trail, sped walked past the viewpoints, then ran back to the bus, skipping the line at the panoramic elevator. Nails were bitten when our bus back to the Foz do Iguaçu started to pick people up every 500 yards along the highway. We arrived with ten minutes to spare before the last Argentina bus supposedly left for the border, but we saw an Argentina bus pulling out as we pulled in and thought we were doomed to spend the night in Brazil. We chased it with no luck then waited, hoping, at the bus stop, coming up with contingency plans, but another bus came. Nails were bitten some more as we blew past the Brazilian border, but we were not busted and after we were stamped back into Argentina and we breathed a sigh of relief. We made it into Brazil and back without an expensive tourist visa. No Big Deal.

From The Trip, pt. 9: Back to Argentina

Today we went to the Argentinian side of the falls. An Argentinian told us Argentina owns 70% of the falls and it seems to be true. Poor Paraguay gets none of the Iguazú pie. The Argentinian side is much larger with boats, trains, trails, violet-colored noisy birds and racoon-like pig-nosed coatis that will gladly eat your garbage. Still no monkeys though. Where they are hiding all the monkeys in South America is what I would like to know. Nevertheless, it was truly wonder-ful, but not wonderful enough to be listed as one of the Seven Wonders. It will just have to try a little harder and maybe next year it will wonder enough.

From The Trip, pt. 9: Back to Argentina

Tomorrow we are headed on to Asunción, Paraguay. Again, I have no idea what to expect - these ´guays´through me for a loop.

Greetings from Video Mountain

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Montevideo... It seems like classy name. A name that deserves to be among names like Ibiza, Las Vegas, and Monte Carlo, doesn´t it? Its strange that prior to coming to South America, I didn´t really know where Uruguay was on the map... then again that could probably have been said for a lot of places in the world. Lonely Planet doesn´t spend much time on Uruguay, the only real information thats really important to the traveler is that it is home of some world class beach resorts, and often considered a suburb of Buenos Aires. That´s not a recommendation, that´s a warning. Ill founded.

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Uruguay, or Montevideo, specifically (because that´s the subject of this post) has the beach resorts and shopping centers that might attract a rich Porteño (citizen of Buenos Aires) looking for a weekend away, but there it also has quite a bit more.

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

First off, I´m pretty interested in turn of the century architecture forms, especially art deco andart nouveau. Buenos Aires has a lot of pretty architecture, but after walking a significant portion of both B.A. and M.V., Montevideo wins out in most interesting building forms. Probably the most significant Sky Scraper, the Palacio Salvo, was first built in M.V. (a sister of the same design exists in B.A.) . Unfortunately the attendant would not let me ascend the structure despite telling him that I am an engineer, and that we have interest in these sorts of things... nor would he tell me who to call, but the exterior structure is still quite striking and unlike anything I´ve really seen before, and it has a fairly interesting design history, modeled after the stages of death in Danté´s inferno (this should have been the building they used in ghost busters, but Montevideo is not New York). Downtown there are some other well preserved peices from that period. Its a classy city to walk in, and that´s important to me.

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Its a relatively big city, geographically at least, and there are a lot of places to walk and a lot of geography to walk over. Its one of few cities in South America that exhibits the Western Notion of the neighborhood. I can´t remember the neighborhoods offhand, but Montevideo had them and they were geographically and characteristically distinct, some having more sky scrapers, some outdoor cafés, some with distinct period architecture, etc. Because Montevideo saw much of its initial prosperity after the beef boom in the 1920s or so, it has really two cities, the old town, centered around the port, and the new town with its high rise apartments radiating from its beach.

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Things to do... there are a lot, and I think that is where Montevideo derives much of its character. It has a few museums and other big city things but moreover it has some of traditional South American features exhibited in its own peculiar style. Going to the old town market is like walking back in time to the beef boom. The typical vendors have been replaced by parilla (grill) restaurants offering traditional Uruguayan and Argentinian fair, but the place just feels like it hasn´t really changed in 60 years but still enjoys its initial success. I can´t vouch for our food, I ordered the Riñon (kidney, I didn´t know, OK?) because its cheap, but I´m sure if you actually have a bit more money and order a steak, it would be pretty damned good. The city has a plethora of fairs, including the seven block flea market which has ¨antique¨ vendors and random old people dancing to their gramaphone. If museums, food, and old people dancing bore you, you can escape to the beach, a small amusement park, a soccer game or perhaps see the president address the populace.

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Montevideo was fun and if you´re in the area, its worth a couple of days. Its kind of like Buenos Aires, but a lot easier to get to know.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Mullet, Coming to a Hipster Near You

This is a travel blog, so you are probably wondering why we are indulging in a fashion post. You remember that haircut popularized by American pop legends such as Billy Ray Cyrus and Chuck Norris? The haircut of subjective appeal in which the head was shaved entirely save a striking mane of locks along the neckline, sometimes replete with two to three lines cut in above the ears? Well, The mullet has been making strong appearances in Argentina, and not just on Hipsters as the title suggests. A high volume of fashionable males between the ages of 16-50 have been sporting the lion-like ´do. Why you ask? This author doesn´t quite know. Perhaps its due to their guacho (south american cowboy) past, perhaps its the logical progression of the hipster mohawk popular in most metropolitan cities worldwide and ready to make an appearance in the states. Whatever the source of this questionable fad may be, its all over Argentina and its kind of funny.


What do you imagine Uruguay is like, more like Bolivia or more like Argentina? I had no idea what to expect last night as we rode the ferry from Buenos Aires for three hours to get across the Rio de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento and then we scrambled in the dark to get on to a bus to head to the capital, Montevideo. We arrived in the dark, and drank espresso, ate bizcochos, contemplated the 25 peso to the dollar exchange rate in the dark, as we waited for the sun to rise. So far Montevideo seems to be leaning more towards Argentina, but I miss Buenos Aires. I am not sure I would have ever been ready to leave...

From The Trip, pt. 7: Uruguay

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Good Airs

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina
Wow after a 20 hour long bus ride up the Atlantic coast we have finally arrived in Buenos Aires. It is unexpectedly hot and humid and ironically smoggy here, but it was great to ride our first subway (or subte, as they call it) in awhile. We still need to explore, but I was distracted by my unofficial acceptance to Berkeley´s Master of Landscape Architecture in Environmental Planning program (long title). Hooray! Hopefully John and I will find out about more schools over the course of the next month, but golden bear is not too shabby of a start.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

Ps. In case you didn´t know John and I applied to graduate schools this winter and are waiting to hear back.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

Update: What they say about Buenos Aires is true; it is truly an amazing city. Yesterday we wandered around the historic district of San Telmo, enjoyed ´tea time´ with beers and crackers in the park, found ourselves in Plaza de Mayo, walked down Avenida Florida´s pedestrian mall, saw some street tango, ate a Uruguayan chivito, drank some Uruguayan clericó ( a white wine ´fruit salad´ as our waiter called it, which prompted me to say, Weird, alcoholic fruit salad? and he said, No it´s not weird, it´s actually very popular.)

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina
Today we planned to try to walk all around the city from the working class neighborhood of La Boca, home to the Boca Juniors, all the way up to Recoleta, home of Evita´s grave, and beyond to the expansive parks of Palermo. They have neighborhoods here called Palermo Hollywood, Palermo SoHo and Barrio Chino (Chinatown), which all make me very curious, but it is very rainy... hopefully it will let up soon.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

Dame los Pinguinos

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina
The most noteworthy thing that happened to us when we were in Puerto Madryn was our failed attempt to ver los pinguinos (see the penguins) at the Valdes Wildlife Reserve. We read in Lonely Planet that as an alternative to the $50 tour, you could buy $10 local bus ticket to get out onto the reserve´s peninsula and you could buy the $15 tourist pass there at the bus station. On the way out there, a park staff person boarded the bus and started charging locals $1 to enter the park and we realized there is quite a discrepancy in the local vs. tourist price. I also realized that this kind of discrepancy doesn´t really exist at our national parks or anywhere else for that matter. It is strange to imagine museums or other tourist attractions charging tourists more for admission... I imagine that practice would promote the belief that all tourists are much more wealthy than the locals, which is not necessarily true in Argentina. So our bus dropped us in the tiny town of Puerto Piramides and that´s when we realized that Lonely Planet did not tell us that while the local bus will get you into the park, once you are there you will have no way of getting around the Point Reyes-sized peninsula... thanks, LP! So we explored our options, contemplated joining the $50 tour (no), attempted to hire a collective taxi (none to be found), thought about renting bikes or ATV´s, but the pinguinos were located 40 miles away. A tourist information lady told us about a ¨hike¨ we could do to see some elephant seals and as we trudged along the dirt road, we were picked up by a nice Hungarian and his mom who took the rest of the way to see the seals in their rental car. While looking at the lobos marinos and their pups, we saw a lone pinguino fishing out off the shore and it inspired us to try harder to find a way to see the rest. We started walking back, planning to get to the junction of the road back to town and the road to the pinguinos to try to catch a ride, but we were picked up by a ranger who told us the penguins were far away and took us back to town against our will. So as soon as he was out of sight, we started walking back up toward that junction and we had just made it to the top of the hill when he drove back past and gestured with both arms wondering what the heck were we doing. I thought we must be like the turtle that Tom Joad catches and wraps in his shirt in the beginning of Grapes of Wrath, the turtle that tries so hard to escape but keeps getting wrapped back up in the shirt again (unfortunately John lost te novel somewhere back in the lake district so we will never know what happened to the turtle). The ranger, however, scolded us. He told us it was too late in the day to hacer un dedo (make a finger) to see the penguins and catch one´s bus back at 7pm. He drove off as we peered at the long dusty road to the penguins in the distance and we decided he was probably right. We had to be satisfied with our one pinguino and drink a beer on the beach. Sort of disappointing, but also sort of a funny day.
From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina