Saturday, June 30, 2007

Arequipa, Peru: El Misti

Arequipa, known as the "white city" for the white volcanic stone used on all the buildings, really wiped me out. After 4 days hiking in the nearby Colca canyon I could barely walk, and then Ravioli convinced me to climbnearby Mt. Misti.

Known locally as El Misti, the active volcano is a Fuji-san shaped cone that shadows over the city in the morning and glows orange at dusk. At 5,822 meters (about one and a half Mt. Fujis) my guidebook says it is one of the easiest mountains in the world to climb at its height. Ravioli was gung-ho. "It is one the of easiest mountains in the world to climb!" he started coaxing me. "Of its height!" I reminded him, don't forget of its height, almost 6,000 meters...

Ravioli was supposed to climb Mt. Fuji with me last year but a typhoon delayed the climb to a day he had to work and he's felt left out ever since. 5,822 meters (what is that, 17,500 feet! Almost the same height as Mt. McKinley in Alaska!). This was his demented sort of revenge. He wanted to see if he could do it, and I couldn't say no.

We started the ascent at 9:30 Tuesday morning. It was going to be a two day gruelling climb and we had to carry packs with two days of water and camping gear. Ugh. We arrived at the campsite at 4,600 meters early evening, watched the sun set and went to "bed" at about 7 pm. We planned to wake up at midnight for what would be the toughest physical exersion I've ever and possibly will ever experience. Besides maybe running the mile in gym class in high school.

Fortunately we could leave the camping gear at the campsite. Fuelled by a stomach sloshing with hot chocolate and guided by the light of the half moon, our headlamps, and our Peruvian guide Teo, we strove higher and higher into colder and harsher territory. The night lights of Arequipa were a continuous glow in the valley and I wished for the warm comfort of an airplane with similar views.
5,000 meters. My head started spinning. I dragged behind the guide and Ravioli whom to me both appeared casually strolling in the park. 5,500 meters, three or four hours later, my breathing was ok, my muscles were ok, but I couldn't muster any power. For each step forward my foot slid a half step back in the sand and my head took a 360 degree swing. Sometimes I saw color flashes in my vision like if my brain was experiencing a short fuse. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto...wah chicka wah this was altitude sickness! Ravioli's biggest concern was that his toes were numb, he had heard somewhere about numb toes being linked to amputation and was getting pretty nervous. Between headspins I told him not to worry, just wait til you've been to North Dakota in the winter.

The sun came up just as I was reaching the crater, and what a cool crater it was! Steam bellowed out of yellow encrusted sulfuric vents. To me the volcano-freak there was nothing more satisfying than to reach the actual crater of a real active volcano. Ravioli wasn't satisfied, he had to reach the highest point, a 45 minute climb to a rock with a cross along the crater mouth. And he made it, that toughy, congrats!

The descent was wonderful, just an hour down a soft sandslide to the campsite to pack up, and another hour down the sandslide back to the foot of the mountain. 12 hours up and 2 hours down. But I DID it, YIPPEEEE! And noone here in Lima believes us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Funny Pictures

I'm in Arequipa, Peru. The whole city is on strike today against fuel prices, so we can't go anywhere, everything is closed, and we are being forced to relax and do nothing all day. It's tough, I tell you. I'm feeling too lazy to write, so I've decided to share some recent pictures that make me laugh. Hope you enjoy.

Goat who climbed into bus for food
Giant rooster statue in La Paz, I couldn't get his head into the picture
They call them Sandwiches in Spanish, too, but noone has a clue how to spell it
They wouldn't be so creepy without the honey bees
And I thought I got stared at in Japan...
Llamas and sheep
Elmo participated in the strike today, marching with the communists

We're off early tomorrow for a four day trek in Colca Canyon. More about that later!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

El Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

There is a huge patch of salt in southwestern Bolivia, 100km long and 120km wide (70 miles by 80 miles?), the largest salt lake in the world. It was formed like a lot of weird land formations in this area, raised up from the ocean millions and billions and gazillions of years ago. During rainy season it fills with water and looks like a real lake, but in dry season (now) you can see only mile after mile of blinding white salt. You could almost imagine yourself in the middle of North Dakota in the dead of winter with all that flat whiteness. Cesar and I decided to take a tour across the lake in the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, staying in a few isolated "salt hotels" on the way.

We were dropped off the first night at the hotel where we happened to be two of the only four guests---in the middle of the salar (salt lake), no electricity, no light, no running water. The entire building and all its furniture were constructed of bricks of salt, and we kept tasting things just to be sure. Yep, the floor is salty, yep, the wall is salty, yep, the bed is salty. My stomach started churning, maybe I shouldn't be licking all the furniture... With the hotel in the middle of the salar, they have to carry away waste in barrels. The toilets are nothing but seat-covered tubes running to a metal drum in back of the hotel. You flushed by pouring a bucket of water down after your droppings. Believe me, a churning stomach under these conditions is not the most welcome experience.

Salt hotel in sunsetHallway of salt hotel Salt hotel plumbing (tube coming straight from the toilets)
As night approached temperatures in the hotel plummeted. The salt insulated a bit, but not enough to keep out the freezing outside air. The hotel woman started a fire for us in another barrel in the dining area, ahhhh. We spent the rest of the night chatting around this barrel, warming our hands and faces, rotating to our backs and back to our fronts again. When the fire started dying I opened the drum to see what kind of fuel they were using. It looked like it was full of coffee beans. Hmmm. There was a bag next to the fire with more supposedly coffee-beans, so we shovelled in a couple more handfuls. When the woman returned we asked her about the beans, "Beans? Nooo, ha ha ha ha, we burn llama dung!"

The salt hotel, however primitive, was an incredible experience. And the display of stars that night was the most incredible I've ever seen.

The next three days we continued in the Landcruiser with a small group of tourists past volcanoes and colorful lakes stopping to take pics of wading pink flamingos and deserts straight out of a Salvador Dali painting. The nights were freezing, my stomach never stopped churning, but the trip was well worth it.

At 5:30 this morning they took us to a hot spring pool at about 4,500km in freaking-cold altitude surrounded by ice. When we arrived there was a group of 20 bundled tourists dipping their fingers and toes in, shaking their heads and looking at each other. I had slept cold that night and was really looking forward to this bath, and there was no way I was letting the cold scare me away. I had even slept in my bikini in anticipation of this moment. Being a hot spring veteran in Japan (as I like to think of myself, ho ho) I knew it would be all right as soon as I was in the water. I stripped out of my hat, scarf, gloves, winter coat, clothes etc. and jumped in as quickly as possible. People thought I was nuts. Some people even applauded. Eventually a few more brave souls joined me and convinced the others that it was really nice. All they needed was for sometime to break the ice, literally.

Freezing outside, toasty warm inside

I crossed the border into northern Chile today. Prices are shocking compared to Bolivia but showers are hot and I feel like I'm in civilization again. I'll try to put up pics soon, but the internet connection is still slow here...

Thanks everyone for your birthday messages!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Lake Titicaca to La Paz, Bolivia

I have so much to write about. Man alive. Here we go...

Lake Titicaca Homestay
There are many tribes of indigenous people living on the islands of Lake Titicaca, and we decided to do a boat tour to visit them and stay with a family for a night. The first group we visited, called the Uros, actually live on man-made islands of grass. We started getting nervous, what is this homestay going to be like? We would be staying on the second island, called Amantani. Arriving on the island, each couple of tourists was sent home with a family. We would eat dinner together, then meet up for a party later. Our host father, dressed in traditional black vest and hat, showed us to our room of clay, and pointed us to the pit toilet out back. Then disappeared. An hour later, he appeared with two plates of red and orange colored potatoes (dinner) and disappeared again. By this time it was getting dark, and the island had no electricity. We lit a candle and waited for our next contact with the outside world. This time a woman in traditional costume with gold plated teeth (apparently our host mother) came in and gave Cesar a big woolly brown poncho to wear. Then she started wrapping a skirt and belt around me and put a black cloth over my head. She was dressing us in their native clothes for the party! The party was fun, all the tourists looking silly in their costumes dancing to Andean flute music with the locals. We returned to the room, and tried to sleep in the pitch black night. There was not a sound besides a rustle here or there, I think it was the quietest, darkest sleep I've ever had! The next morning we awoke and discovered our room was next to a herd of sheep. All in all, it was a pretty cool experience.

La Paz, Bolivia
I arrived in La Paz with my mouth open. For one, the view of the metropolis crammed into a steep mountain valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains put me in awe. Secondly, the new altitude had me gasping for air. We found a hotel room next to the "witches market" selling good luck amulets and all sorts of dried animal foetuses. What a crazy city, I've never seen anything like it. There are people EVERYWHERE, you literally cannot walk down the sidewalk. There are all sorts of rickety cars and buses and taxis all competing for a chance to WHAM!BAM! you if you happen to get bumped off the sidewalk. Every street goes either up or downhill, constantly exhausting your lung capacity with every few steps. (Picture: llama foetuses in witches market)

The Coca Plant
Bolivia is famous for the cultivation of the coca plant. Indigenous people traditionally chew coca leaves to combat fatigue, put off hunger, and for altitude sickness. Coca tea (mate de coca) is as common at breakfast buffets as English tea in England. As you know, some crazy westerners took the plant into the lab and created a highly addictive drug, and now are demanding countries like Bolivia to stop production of the coca leaves because they don't know how else to stop addicts in their own countries from buying cocaine. The plant is being viewed as evil, as a great problem in our world. The funny thing is, the US with its war on drugs and its policies against cultivation of coca in Bolivia, is one of the biggest importers of the plant. Did you know that most of you consume the coca plant on a regular basis? You guessed it, friends, that's the magic ingredient still in Coca-Cola. You can personally decide if you think the plant is evil.

Eva Ayllon Concert Fiasco
I love Afro-Peruvian music, and arriving in La Paz we found out Eva Ayllon, one of the most famous Afro-Peruvian singers, was giving a concert on Sun.--YIPPEE!!! We asked around for tickets and found out the show started at 1pm. We arrived early to make sure we got tickets, and were informed the concert didn't start for another 2 hours, at 2pm. Ok, sure, so we bummed around town for a few hours, returned to the stadium and found some good seats. The stadium was already full of anxious spectators. And we waited.
At 3pm (an hour after the show was supposed to start) some roadies came on stage and started setting up. HUH?? At 3:30pm a man came on stage and announced that the concert would start in ten minutes, but in the meantime, who wants to come on stage and sing an Eva Ayllon song for a free bottle of Coca-cola?!
At about 4pm, 2 hours and 8 amateur singers later, the audience started to get impatient. Where's Eva? People started chanting, HORA! HORA! It's time! It's time! At 4:30, now two and a half hours later, the announcer informed us that Eva was feeling ill from the altitude, sorry for the delay, but she will be here any minute. Everyone knew it was a lie because she had played on Friday no problem. Bottles started getting thrown on stage. Chants evolved from TIME! to THIEVES! THIEVES! to KILL THE THIEVES!!!! The announcer asked some children from the audience to come on stage and pick up the bottles. When the kids finished, more bottles started flying with further chants of death to the promoters.
At 5pm, the announcer said Eva would be here in a matter of minutes, and the first opening act came on stage. What? Opening act?? It was then that we realized we'd waited 3 hours and now would have to sit through another 2 hours of treacherous Andean-flute rock music (sorry, but barf!) before Eva came on stage. I couldn't take it. We decided to go back to the hotel, get some dinner, and come back in a few hours for the main act.
We arrived at 8pm only to find people throwing bottles onto a newly emptied stage. Eva finally came on a half hour later. She apologized to the audience, explaining that the promoters hadn't paid them and the hotel was demanding payment---they couldn't do the concert at least until they knew they weren't getting screwed. What a crazy day!!! And what a fine example of life in Bolivia. Just so you know, Eva was excellent.

President of Bolivia Playing Soccer
I know you guys aren't all interested in soccer, but some bullies in FIFA, the international soccer association, are trying to eliminate soccer games at higher altitudes. Soccer-butt kicking countries like Brazil and Argentina always lose when coming to Bolivia or Ecuador because the athletes get breathless after 10 minutes of play in the thinner air. I can understand their plea (=gasp=), but with a yes vote, countries like Bolivia will not be able to hold international soccer games in their own country without building new stadiums in remote areas. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, in protest to the initiative, set up a soccer game yesterday where he picked his team and personally played against other teams in the national stadium. He was number 10, forward position, one of the most important on the team. My friend Mercedes (my old roommate from Argentina) is a journalist and got us into the game---on the field---as Associated Press, he he. It was AWESOME! To avoid standing out, we were running after the team and the president on the field with cameras, and even sat behind the goal post for part of the game. That is, until we were discovered and kicked out by security. I never thought I'd see the president of Bolivia in person, much less stand within 10 meters of him as he kicked a soccer ball around! (Picture: Evo Morales, president of Bolivia on the soccer field---I took this picture!!)

The Highway of Death
Dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday in an e-mail. When I replied he said, "I will give you *** (censured), but under one condition---you have to promise me that you wont get on the Highway of Death in Bolivia." Er, uh, oops. Just that week I had heard about this fabulous mountain biking tour down the infamous Highway of Death. Yesterday was the big day. Six months ago they completed a new road because the highway was so dangerous, so it was just us mountain bikes and a few crazy idiot buses who wanted to save a little time and gas (the new road is longer). We stopped here and there as the guide described who died where and how. One bicyclist in our group actually went over and Ravioli helped him back up, luckily he only fell a few feet. Needless to say, he was pretty shaken up. The road wasn't so dangerous on bikes, but with a bus and two-way traffic on one-lane-wide roads with sheer cliffs and waterfalls raining onto you, I can see how it could have caused a lot of tragedy in the past. We had a great time, and thanks Dad for not taking back my birthday present!

Today's my 25th birthday, YIPPEE! (for those who know me well, add or subtract as necessary) I never thought I'd be in Bolivia on my birthday! And I can't believe last year this time I was in the car with Mom driving to Mandan from our trip to Winnipeg. And that we ate my faaaaavorite A&B Pizza with Sam and Jamie a year ago tonight (sniff sniff...drool).

All right, enough typing. For all of you who have read all this way, thank you! I miss you all!