Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Two Month Check-up, Part One: Gear

As most good ideas do, the idea of a check-up post came from my dad. He sent me an email with several questions about how our plans, expectations, gear, etc. are holding up so far. These are questions we keep getting, but since the answers are dynamic, I didn't want to add them to the FAQ page and have to eat my words later on. Since most of these questions warrant answers that are posts in and of themselves, I'm going to split it up by question or theme and do a few separate posts. So here it is-- The FAQs Two Month Check-Up, Part One: Gear.

Warning: There will be no pictures of pretty landscapes in this post. I know, I'm as disappointed as you are.

How has your gear held up? Are there things you wish you had brought or things you regret bringing?

At this point, we are both extremely happy with what we brought and, equally as important, what we didn't bring. We have some of the smallest and emptiest bags of the other backpackers we see, which makes us pretty proud of ourselves. We also have some of the dorkiest, most technical clothes and the least cool, decent things to wear in cities, which makes us completely uncomfortable until we realize that, unlike those backpackers in jeans, we can actually carry our bags without hating life. Suck it, jeans-wearers.

While overall, we are pretty obsessed with ourselves for packing so well, there are a couple changes we would make if we had to do it all over again. There are also a few things we have that make us happy every time we look at them because they are just that useful. I'll touch on all of those things below.

Things we should have brought with us-
-A knife-free wine opener. It's a crime how terrible the hostel openers are and how difficult it is to buy a decent one. We need a good opener that we can bring on planes and just can't seem to find what we are looking for.
-Vincent: One less long-sleeve sport shirt and one more technical button down shirt. Vincent has exactly one outfit that he can wear to a restaurant or out to a bar. It's not as if we go out that much, but it gets a little embarrassing when we meet the same people out for drinks two nights in a row.
-Elissa: One decent (i.e. not technical) cardigan or sweater. I have a fleece and two long sleeve shirts, but nothing I can throw over a dress or a tank top if I want to dress up. We both underestimated that we might actually want to look like normal people this year.
-Anything else we didn't bring, we've simply bought along the way, which is much more fun anyway. Among those are comfy pants for V and accessories for E.

Things we brought that we don't use:
Really, not a lot.
I had one too many tank-tops, which worked out perfectly because I've already lost the one I liked least. Vincent hasn't really used his long underwear shirt, but I borrowed it when I lost my fleece. If I keep losing tops at this rate, I'll be completely out by June!
Vincent brought the perfect amount of clothes, but too many security accessories, like two different wire locks and two different money belts, when he really only uses one of each.

Things we brought that make us want to hug ourselves with pride for being so damn clever:
- Our X-Mini mini-speaker for our iPods. It's ultra small and light, but with it, we can make a hostel dinner that much more romantic, bring our tunes to the beach, or drown out the voices of people who annoy us. Genius.
- Our Petzl head lamps (thanks Dad and Theresa!). From hiking up to Machu Picchu at 4:00am to camping during a trek to looking for my earplugs at the bottom of my bag on an overnight bus, these guys are a life-saver and are perfectly travel-sized.
- Our Kindle (again, thanks Dad and Theresa). I really hesitated to get a Kindle due to my loyalty to actual books. While the Kindle will never replace my loaded bookshelves, it is an incredible investment for traveling. Not only are all of our guidebooks stored on the tiny, light-weight device, but we also have the choice of thousands of books for entertainment, both in English and French, for the long bus rides and not-long-enough down time during our travels. We still have actual books that we are carrying, but the Kindle is an amazing fall-back when the hostel book exchanges only have German novels and the Twilight saga.
- Our backpacks. We both have Deuter ACT Lite backpacks that we protect with Sea to Summit pack covers (another awesome investment). The bags have been everything we wanted them to be: light, spacious, comfortable and, so far, durable. We are in love with our little temporary homes.
- Our Exped inflatable pillows. These things are life-savers in hostels with flat pillows, on overnight buses and during camping and trekking trips. They fold up really small and are lightweight, but are also super comfortable. We are obsessed.

Vincent's favorite things (Vincent claims that guys don't do things like gush about their travel gear, so here's what I could pry out of him):
- V uses a Pacsafe money belt to carry large amounts of cash. He doesn't use it when he needs a couple bucks for a bottle of water, but it comes in handy when we have a lot of cash on us and don't want it easily pickpocketed. It looks just like a normal belt, but has an interior zip that holds money.
- He also couldn't travel without his iPhone. We use it to get online in wifi zones, to hold important documents, to call hostels from the bus, to play music and listen to audio books, as an electronic Spanish dictionary, to play Uno on bus trips, etc., etc., etc. It is definitely a luxury, but it makes life so much easier.

Elissa's favorite things (I definitely have no problem gushing):
- My leggings/ long underwear pants. Warm, light-weight and practical, yes, but with a long tanktop, sandals and the right jewelry, they also make a decent outfit for a city. They are also the perfect "comfy pants" for wearing around the hostel room. They were a last minute addition to my gear and I'm so glad I brought them.
- My sandals. Ok, I have to be honest. I'm really not proud of this, but here it goes: I am travelling with a pair of Crocs. Now before you close out of this window and disown me, they aren't the hideous clogs, they are actual sandals and I love them. Here they are: 
I mean, they aren't going to end up in the pages of Vogue or anything, but their shape and rubber fabrication allow me to wear them everywhere from the shared hostel showers (ew) to a tango bar in Buenos Aires. And, as all clog-wearing Croc owners can attest, they are "sooo comfortable."
- My Lush solid shampoo and conditioner bar. I've already talked about this in the FAQs page but it's great enough that it merits another mention.
- Lastly, my over-sized, square-shaped, cotton scarf (merci Christian et Michelle!) that I use as a scarf, a turban, a beach wrap, a picnic blanket, a cover in air-conditioned buses, a towel and a pillow. It is incredibly resistant, polyvalent and practical, and I would recommend something like it to anyone who wants to travel light.

So there you have it, our gear check-up after two months of traveling in a variety of situations and climates. These opinions are subject to change, so I'll do another check-up if my backpack disintegrates tomorrow or if one more person makes fun of my Crocs.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Winning and Losing

I must admit, we've been incredibly lucky so far (I say as I knock on every wooden surface within arm's reach). For the most part, things have generally gone pretty smoothly for us these last two months. Sure, we've had our downs, but they've been temporary and haven't caused us any real set-back.

Last week, though, after a string of wins, or at very worst, ties, we finally had our first loss.

From San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, we had the opportunity to take an 11 hour bus to our next destination: Salta, in northern Argentina. Instead, we decided to get off the bus after eight hours, in a tiny village called Purmamarca, which we had heard was beautiful. We would stay there for a few days and then continue on to Salta.

Well, that didn't work. We got off the bus around 6:00pm, without a hostel reservation and with the grand plan to stop into the first cheap place we found with a free bed. Two hours later and we were still searching. Every bed in that damn town was full. We tried the cheapest dorms, the most expensive hotels; we even walked into random convenience stores and restaurants asking if anyone there had a bed we could rent. Nothing.

Around 8:00pm, we started to realize that we would be homeless for the night if we stayed in Purmamarca, so we headed to the ticket office for bus tickets where we were told that there were no available seats on the bus out of town, but "we could wait around just in case." On the verge of a breakdown, I told Vincent I was going to go buy us something to eat. I walked over to a woman grilling fresh empanadas on the street and waited in line. When my turn came: "Sorry, no more empanadas." First no beds, then no bus seats and now this??? I was close to tears.

Dejected, I walked back to Vincent just in time to see a microbus pull into the village with a woman hanging out the door yelling the name of the next town over. Without asking any questions (Are there any seats available? How much?) we hopped on the bus, figuring that once we were on, it might be more trouble that it was worth for them to kick us off. We were in luck. While the main bus company was booked, the microbus had seats and we were on our way. At 8:30 at night to a town we didn't know with no hostel reservation.

It all worked out ok though. We were able to find a room in the town of Jujuy, where there is nothing for a tourist to do besides sleep. The next morning, we took a shared taxi (with a driver who was obviously training for suicide missions) to Salta, where we spent two days of doing basically nothing. The first day, we had a nice long lunch on the plaza, listening to a group of locals at the table next to us who were spending their afternoon drinking wine, playing guitar and singing. These guys had obviously practiced and despite the copious amounts of alcohol on the table, they were good enough to be the perfect accompaniment to a lazy, beer-soaked late lunch in the sunshine. Their voices were deep, almost haunting, until the music would suddenly by punctuated by rhythmic, Latin-style clapping. Their songs were unknown to us, but were popular enough that random passersby would join in the song as they walked by. The whole spectacle was ridiculously romantic and was the highlight of our time in Salta. Although that isn't really saying much since the second most interesting thing we did was go to a museum that featured child mummies so well-preserved that it felt almost indecent to be looking at them. Apparently, these kids were buried alive as sacrifice after being forced to drink alcohol until they passed out and since they were at high altitude, their bodies had been perfectly frozen for 500 years. The youngest one was six years old. Now if that isn't the feel-good story of the year, I don't know what is...

Now, you may have noticed that this post is decidedly lacking in pictures. That's because we didn't take any until we got to Cafayate, a village south of Salta (4ish hours by bus). Cafayate is a cute little wine-making town, nestled between two mountain ranges. Think of the village as a bulls-eye: in the middle is the town, with wide, tree-lined streets and a picturesque plaza, then surrounding the town are rows and rows of grape vines, then surrounding the vines are bright red and pink mountains towering over the lush, green valley. It's lovely.

To explore the natural beauty of the area (here come the piiiiictures!), we rented bikes one day and rode through the vines up to a river that flows down from the mountains above the town. We dropped our bikes and hiked up the river through a canyon that was flanked on ether side by low, rocky foothills with vaguely phallic cacti jutting out of the cliff faces like errant whiskers.
Yep, that's me imitating a cactus...
After about two hours of hiking, we reached a waterfall, where we cooled off with a swim and had a picnic.
So manly with his waterfall...
The next day, we jumped on a bus going in the other direction to a range of mountains that were literally every color of the rainbow: red peaks hovering above bright pink and orange cliffs that gave away to low hills of green and blue, streaked with yellow sand. There were layered gorges that we hiked up into with tall, seemingly lunar columns of stone and chiseled spires of rock that changed color with the light.
To give you some perspective of the size of these gorges.
The only problem with our hike was that this was our footpath:
A highway through the desert.

After about three hours of walking with no shade, the hot sun beating down on the backs of our necks, we decided we were done. Unfortunately, there wasn't another bus for two hours. After a few minutes of weighing our options, we decided to try to catch a ride back. Which is a nice way of saying that we hitch-hiked.

We felt the rejection of passing vehicles for only about 15 minutes before a car slowed down, rolled down its window, and a heavily accented elderly man yelled to us, "What happened?!"

How about that for a hello? "Uh, we're going to Cafayate..."

"Well get in!" The man and his wife were from Israel and had rented a car to explore the region. They were as nice as they could be and didn't even rape or kill us! All in all, a successful first attempt at the art of hitchhiking.

Now safely back in Cafayate, we are taking a series of buses to make our way to Buenos Aires tomorrow. We'll first go the six hours necessary to get to Tucuman, before getting on a 17 hour overnight bus to BA. This will be our longest day of travel so far, but since Argentinian buses are so much more comfortable than any transportation in Bolivia, we figure that this won't actually be the worst we've encountered. At least we are telling ourselves that...

Monday, 20 February 2012

San Pedro de Atacama

Our first feel of Chile was lukewarm. While more modern and comfortable than Bolivia, Chile has the higher prices and tourist-screwing know-how that can easily leave a sour taste in the mouths of price conscious, authenticity-seeking backpackers like ourselves. Bolivia was charmingly na├»ve when it came to squeezing every dollar possible from us and we got a rude awakening when we crossed the border. 

Our first day in San Pedro de Atacama, a nice-enough adobe village in the desert of Northern Chile, was fine. We were charmed by the quaint earthen buildings and impressed by the isolation of the town. The next morning, we went to buy a bus ticket to Argentina, as was our plan. And that’s when I had my first travel-related break-down.

We found out that there were no buses for another six days due to Carnaval in northern Argentina. We had two choices: stay in San Pedro much longer than we wanted to, missing the Carnaval celebrations, or pay $150 per person, instead of $60, to take a private minibus across the border. Now $150 doesn’t seem like an exorbitant amount of money, but considering that’s what a full week in Bolivia was costing us per person, we were less than willing to part with it for an eight hour bus ride.

The idea that we were stuck, paired with the misery of our last two days during the Uyuni tour (I was still recovering from my food poisoning), on top of the realization that I had somehow lost my $70 fleece, was enough to send me whimpering and then weeping into Vincent’s arms, which was super awkward considering he was lying in a hammock at the time. Instead of throwing myself dramatically against his chest in anguish, I weirdly draped myself perpendicularly across his body, pinning his arms against his sides, with my head and shoulders hanging uncomfortably over the other side of the hammock. So much for my damsel in distress routine...

Once we accepted that we weren’t going anywhere, we actually started to enjoy San Pedro. We relaxed in the hostel garden, cooked every night in the communal kitchen and went to a really interesting archeological museum, which taught us more about the indigenous people of South American than six weeks in Bolivia and Peru. 

On one of our last days, we rented bikes and went out into the desert for what ended up being a six-hour ride/ hike. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world, however this season has been the wettest in 12 years and we actually had big, violent storms several of the evenings we were there. During our outing, we rode on a quiet road through a flat, empty landscape, stopping to enjoy our picnic of empanadas under the shade of a lone tree. We enjoyed views of a nearby chain of mountains and saw two desert owls, which Vincent kept trying to creep up on to take pictures.
We then rode towards the mountains, winding through dry, sandstone gorges enclosed by red rock spires. It felt like we were on the moon and I couldn't stop myself from singing that Police song to myself: "Walking on, walking on the moooon." We then went up along a rocky ridge for an incredible panoramic view of the oasis below, the surrounding mountains, which were layered and etched in a way that looked like multi-colored spikes, and a snow-capped volcano in the distance. 
Once the path got too steep and sandy, we ditched the bikes and went the rest of the way up on foot. The result was breath-taking. We walked up through a pink, layer-cake canyon that fell into massive foothills of fine sand until the top, where we had a 360 view of the mountainous desert around us. It was spectacular.
What was also spectacular were two absolute tools we passed on our way back down: two guys in neon do-rags and black muscle shirts, who were attempting to take pictures of each other “free climbing” the walls of the canyon. If you will remember, the canyon was made of sandstone, which would immediately crumble every time one of the guys got a handhold, releasing a shower of rock down on top of him before he was even a foot off the ground. We watched them do this five consecutive times without getting any hint until Vincent finally pulled me away before I could be my normal know-it-all self and inform them that they were clueless. 

We saw them again as they passed us on their bikes going down. Or should I say, tried to pass us. We were on foot, walking through the loose, heavy sand that had forced us to drop our bikes coming up. That idea was obviously not hardcore enough for these two, who were trying to ride through the sand downhill and failing miserably. Every few meters, they would lose control and slide on the sand, pulling their bikes down on top of them as they fell. After jumping up like nothing happened and looking around to make sure no one saw their fall, they would hop back on their bikes and repeat the entire process. They did this the entire way down.

The last time we saw them, they had found a steepish hill, which I guess was easier to climb than a sandstone cliff face, and were taking turns pretending to rock climb up the hill while the other one bent at an angle to take pictures that would look like it was a sheer face. It would have been too obvious of us to take pictures of these shenanigans, but believe me when I tell you that these guys were champions of douchery and they made our day. 

So that was San Pedro for us: desert and douchebags.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Salar de Uyuni tour : The Good, the Bad and the Stomach Problems

Let’s start with the good. Our three day tour of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and the desolate Southeast corner of Bolivia allowed us to see and experience some startlingly beautiful natural wonders. The Salar itself takes the prize for the most mind-blowing thing I’ve ever seen (apart from Vincent doing the Carlton dance). 

In dry weather, the flats are an expanse of blinding white salt that extends to the horizon in every direction. During the rainy season, which was in full force during our trip, the salt was covered with about six inches of clear water, turning the flat into a veritable mirror and reflecting the sky so perfectly that you literally did could not ascertain where the earth ended and the heavens began. Don’t believe me?
In every direction we looked were eerie, dream-like reflections; it felt like we were on drugs (without the physically destructive side effects, of course…). 
The landscape was so unique that we couldn’t help taking loads of pictures, making use of the surreal surroundings. It was simply magical.

Decidedly less magical was that evening, when one of the tour meals of chicken and rice (always f-cking chicken and rice) gave me a nasty bout of food poisoning that kept me awake the entire night. The next morning, I begged Vincent to negotiate with the tour agency to let me recover in the hostel that day and continue the tour with another group the next. Unfortunately, the village we were staying in had lost all electricity in a storm three days earlier and there were fuel shortages that barred new tours from starting. We would have had to wait three more days in a tiny desert shit-hole without electricity before maybe having the opportunity to hitch a ride out of there. Needless to say, I dragged my sick, sorry rear-end out of bed and into the jeep for the second day’s tour.

Which proved to be a disaster. It had poured down rain the night before and the dirt road we were taking was a slippery mud pit. About an hour and a half into our journey, the other jeep in our group slid right off the road into a muddy ditch. The drivers and guides, in all of their Bolivian wisdom and planning, did not have anything to get the jeep out: not a rope, not any wood planks, not a knife, not even a working cell phone. We were stuck. And then it started to rain again.
Three hours of waiting on the side of a nearly deserted muddy road in the cold rain, one makeshift rope constructed from a seatbelt (which was cut using a knife borrowed from one of the tourists), and one flooded engine later, we finally managed to pull the jeep out. You should have seen it, the crew was celebrating like they had won the Olympics, without any recognition or remorse that they had gotten us in that situation so woefully unprepared in the first place.

As we were three hours behind schedule, the driver flew through each remaining site like we were being chased, allowing us just enough time to jump out of the cars into the cold driving rain, take pictures, pretend like we didn’t hate life, and then jump back into the car in our wet, muddy clothes. This went on for seven hours, until finally, thankfully, we arrived at our lodge, which was essentially a concrete bunker. But at that point, we were so happy to be out of those damn jeeps that our basic lodging seemed positively luxurious. 

The next day was an early wake-up call to see some geysers at 5,000 meters (16,400 ft) and then move onto some hot springs where we were able to soak away our annoyance of the previous day. 
We then drove through some more striking landscapes before our jeep dropped us off on the Chilean border to meet the bus that would take us across the border to the Northern desert town of San Pedro de Atacama.

Despite the rain and rush of the second two days, we did see some breathtaking views: colorful high-altitude lagunas, teeming with pink flamingos; towering boulders shaped into unearthly forms by the wind; 6,000 meter high volcanos whose snow-capped peaks struck an unexpected contrast against the desert sands; seemingly water-colored mountain slopes, painted green, orange, pink, blue, yellow with mineral deposits. Every new sight was not only unlike anything we had ever seen, but was also completely unlike those that came before and after it, like the region was just a series of individual natural wonders with no relation to each other.
When our tour finally ended at the Chilean border, we were hit with the realization that we were leaving Bolivia for the last time. While we loved our month in the country, the last two days of experiencing Bolivia’s special relationship with logic and initiative helped ready us to move on to more advanced countries. Just the sight of a smooth, paved, lined Chilean road across the border was enough to have us practically skipping into border patrol to get our exit stamps. Helloooo Chile!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Silver Lining

After a heavenly week in Sucre, the mining town of Potosi knocked us back to reality. No, worse: Potosi gave us a taste of hell.

Despite its impressive altitude at 4,090m (13,400ft) and its title as “the highest city in the world,” Potosi is depressing. It really isn’t its own fault- it was at one time quite the place to be. Around 500 years ago that is.

In the 1500’s, Potosi was incredibly rich due to the silver mining that took place in the mountain that dominates the cityscape: the Cerro Rico, or “rich mountain.” Legend has it that when the Spanish arrived in the city, the streets were literally paved in silver and the population rivaled that of London or Paris at the time. Of course, the Spaniards were all over that and quickly began exploiting the silver mines with slave labor and stripping the city of its riches, sending the bounty back to Spain.

Today, the Cerro Rico has little silver left, but that doesn’t stop some 5,000 people, around 800 of them children, from working 12-20 hour days for $4 a day in increasingly dangerous and hellish conditions. Since the mines became known to the Spanish, it is said that over 8 million people have died in the mountain’s depths. What was once referred to as the rich mountain is now referred to as “La Montana que come los hombres vivos”- the mountain that eats men alive.

Potosi is extremely poor and its poverty is evident everywhere: in the dreary architecture, the run-down homes, the down-trodden people. The only locals who didn’t seem miserable were the kids, armed with water balloons in celebration of carnival and targeting tourists for sport. The main tourist attraction in the city is a visit to the mines to experience the tortuous conditions and meet (read, take pictures of) the miners who work there. There was something a little too voyeuristic about the tour, so we opted out and visited a museum instead. If I want to take pictures of beings living in misery, I’ll go to a zoo.

There was a bright side to our visit to Potosi, however small. First, the bus rides to and from the town were stunning. We passed rocky hills made of fool’s gold, sparkling in the morning sun. The landscape changed from fertile plateaus covered in vegetation, to high, red rock-strewn mountains, dotted with green scrubs, the land etched by canyons made from dry river beds. The hardened earth was punctured by eucalyptus trees, cypresses and cacti, a combination as visually arresting as it was unexpected. In the valleys between the mountains, llamas grazed on short, sparse grass, accompanied by sheep, donkeys and the occasional pig.
Our bus passed through the kinds of earth-colored, wind-swept villages that time seems to have forgotten, always with the ubiquitous old man sitting alone against a wall, watching the occasional vehicle pass by. In these lonely hamlets, the upper-class homes are evident by the presence of a tin roof weighed down by rocks, while the homes of the poor are roofed with straw. I actually saw two oxen pulling a plow through a field, as well as a young boy playing with a hoop and a stick. It was like stepping out of a time machine into the past.
The second positive experience we had during our stay was an incredible local dish called K’alaphurka: a delicious maiz stew, filled with fava beans, vegetables, hot chilies, potatoes, chunks of roasted pork, spicy chorizo and crunchy pork cracklings, all cooked with a red-hot volcanic rock that is dropped in the ceramic bowl right before the soup is served.

To sample the treat, we went to a restaurant that is known for the dish in a lost section of town, passing women selling whole, open sheep carcasses off the sidewalk on the way.
At 10:00am on a Thursday, the restaurant was packed with locals; we actually had to share a table with a Bolivian couple. The only beverages available were beer from Potosi or Coca Cola, so we did like the locals and ordered a liter of beer while we waited.

Our bowls arrived at our table sputtering and popping with boiling broth. As the soup cooled, we threw handfuls of fresh, starchy Peruvian corn into the mix, which added yet another layer of taste and texture. The result was out of this world: rich and hearty, yet full of bright, independent flavors. While every bite tasted different depending what was in my spoon, the whole dish was united by the earthy, mineral flavor of the volcanic rock. It was insanely good, which explains why the restaurant usually runs out of the dish by 11:00am.
Nothing left but my volcanic rock!
Despite the meal, we were ready to get out of Potosi after two days and took a bus from there to the town of Uyuni, on the frontier of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and the empty wilderness beyond. We had heard that the salt flats are unimaginably beautiful and we were excited to visit them. But more than that, we were simply happy to be leaving Potosi.