Sunday, January 31, 2010

Investing in an Empire of Illusion - GetRealList

Investing in an Empire of Illusion - GetRealList:

"Nearly a third of the population is almost or fully illiterate. A third of high school graduates, and 42% of college graduates, never read another book for the rest of their lives. Eighty percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read one book in 2007. We did, however, watch 28 hours a week of television. Each."
- Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

To a committed reader, those are horrifying numbers.

Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010

The WELL: Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010

A sample:
On the subject of geo-engineering, I think it's a crock. We'll never
get there. They're all techie fantasies, far-out sci-fi notions, Star
Wars physics-style. The cheapest and most effective method of
geo-engineering is to cut the world's population in half.

Just a tremendous massacre. That's the genuinely effective
geo-engineering: it's fast, it commonly works, it's been proven
effective for centuries by lebensraum exponents everywhere, and if you
chose the right tactics and weaponry it might even look like a big

You don't have to put on a fascist armband and start ranting for the
public's blood; an effort like that could be quite subtle and covert,
the very opposite of showboat geo-engineering. "Mysterious deadly flu
in the Congo? We'd better keep all our health workers right here,
they're badly needed in New York!"

Nobody's gonna sit around watching Copenhagen delegates debating giant
phony orbital solar mirrors if the windmills in Copenhagen harbor are
blowing over When and if it becomes obvious that we truly need
massive, ultra-costly geo-engineering interventions, that we have no
other choice, then somebody -- likely some traumatized veterans of
weather havoc who are full of Al Qaeda self-righteousness -- they're
gonna cut emissions in half by cutting people in half. Mankind
wouldn't lack for means, motive, opportunity and eager volunteers.

Genocide has much more proven shelf-appeal than any of these hokum
Rube Goldberg geo-schemes. It's by no means easy to kill off half of
everybody, but we've already invented a wide variety of ingenious ways
to attempt that, and almost all of 'em are much simpler, more rugged
and more plausible than putting the North Pole under a tinfoil hat.

You don't see these Gothic issues raised in public discourse much, but
you go hang out with some Beltway thinktank asymmetric-warfare types,
and man, they talk this kinda stuff all the time. Kind of a Herman
Kahn think-the-unthinkable industry. "Should the Center for Disease
Control be scanning flu-strains for signs of designed interventions?"
"Gee uh, maybe not, could cause panic... but if we had some
off-the-books funding for that, that capacity could be pretty handy."

More Bonaire Diving Photos

Bonaire Diving Photos

Friday, January 29, 2010

Last Day in Bonaire

by Shelley

Since we couldn't dive our last day in Bonaire (due to flying the next day) we rented a car and went for a drive. Our main goal was to kayak among the mangroves. We stopped there first and booked a tour for the afternoon (you can't go on your own which is understandable as it would be very hard to find your way through the maze of the mangroves).

Our next stop was the butterfly farm because Andrew doesn't have enough butterfly photos! :-) Seriously though, it was pretty good in terms of the information the woman working there shared with us but they didn't have a whole lot of butterflies (certainly not like the one in Cayman). Nevertheless it was very relaxing just to sit and watch them and the birds especially since we were the only ones there. The koi fish were fun too. Apparently they like to be touched; if you put your hand in the water they come and suck on it (they don't have teeth). Andrew got some good photos of the iguanas outside as well.

We had lunch at Lac Bay beside the windsurfing place. It was very busy here as there is a fairly nice beach right beside the restaurant and bar. Lots of windsurfers out; most people spent more time in the water than actually on their boards but one guy was doing some pretty fancy tricks which was fun to watch.

We then drove the coastal road around the southern end of the island. It's quite flat and barren with plenty of cactus. We learned about the salt mine and its history. There are rows of slave huts along the road that were built in the 1850's. They're made of cement and are so small you'd have to get down on hands and knees to crawl inside. There are also four large obelisks spread out along the shoreline, each a different color. Ships would come in and the quality of salt they were picking up would dictate which color they stopped at.

The salt flats water was very colorful ranging from a bright pink to purple color depending how much salt was in it. Most of the salt now goes to Europe for salting icy roads but some is also used in cosmetics and an even smaller portion as table/cooking salt.

We then made our way back to the mangroves. Our guide was quite a knowledgeable young man who provided lots of interesting information about the area, how the mangroves benefit the environment, and the negative effects in areas where mangroves have been removed.

There were two other couples on the tour with us and we made our way single file through some of the channels that were so narrow you could barely paddle through them. We paddled across the windy inlet and snorkeled for a short time. There were a lot of upsidedown jellyfish and we saw a few other fish but with seven people in shallow water with a silty bottom it didn't take long to not be able to see much of anything!

All in all it was a good day. Next time we'll have to explore the northern part of the island!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Not to Run a Restaurant

Our least satisfying restaurant experience on this trip wasn't from some hole in the wall in remote Peru. Surprisingly, it came from our last night in Bonaire when we went to a restaurant that had been recommended to us - Richards. 

We're always a little cautious about recommendations because a restaurant may be great and yet not have much for vegetarians. We checked the menu and there was almost nothing vegetarian so we stopped in and asked, since many restaurants will make something not on the menu. We were told "no problem", they could make rice, pasta, or potato dishes with vegetables. 

So a few days later we went back for supper. The restaurant is in a lovely location, right on the water, facing the sunset and the waves. We started with a glass of wine and a Caesar salad, which was excellent. 

The owner was circulating (at least his name was Richard and he was acting like the owner). We listened to him describe some of their dishes to the table behind us, going on about the spices and sauces and the creativity of the chef. My mouth was watering just listening to him. 

But when our meals arrived it was a big disappointment. It was, literally, what they had told us - rice/pasta with vegetables. But that was it - no sauce, no spices, no flavor, no presentation. Just a pile of plain rice or plain pasta with some boiled vegetables beside it. Neither of us ate much of it. We drank our wine and ate the bread. Eventually the waitress asked if everything was alright and I said no and explained. She was young and taken aback and didn't know what to say. (I didn't get mad at her, just explained.) 

Obviously, she told the owner because a bit later he told her (in front of us) not to charge us. But he pointedly avoided talking to us. If he had come and talked to us, with an explanation if not an apology, that would have gone a long way to appeasing us. They could have offered to make us something different.   A free dessert wouldn't have hurt either. Getting the food we didn't like and didn't eat for free was better than nothing, but not really what we were looking for. 

I'm not sure what the story was. Maybe the chef thinks vegetarians are stupid. I don't have a problem if a restaurant chooses not to cater to vegetarians - just say so up front. Don't tell us you'll serve us and then do a crappy job of it. It doesn't do either of us any good. We could easily have gone somewhere else. Or came here just for dessert. 

It was especially bad in contrast with another restaurant we'd been to a few nights before - Appetite. They also had nothing vegetarian on their menu. They also told us they would come up with something for us. But, in contrast, their chef did an awesome job, serving us a delicious meal with a wonderful variety of ingredients, tastes, and presentation. (We love the local goat cheese.)

And another contrast was Sense, a restaurant we went back to s second time because we liked it so much. They didn't have to do anything special for vegetarians - they simply put enough vegetarian options on the menu to start with. Options that I'm sure lots of non-vegetarians took advantage of. 

So, Richards has a great location, and may have good meat and seafood dishes, but if you're vegetarian I'd pass. And if you have a problem don't expect it to be handled with much finesse.

PS. After leaving Richards we walked into town to go to Bambu (another place we liked) for dessert, but they were closed :-( Restaurants here seem to close quite randomly and regularly. 

So we went to the restaurant next door - La Luna (a place we hadn't tried) but when we asked if we could look at their dessert menu the waitress told us she was too busy to serve us, even though the restaurant was barely half full. And it was past the peak supper time by now.

We decided we were fighting a losing battle and went back to our room to pack. 

Bonaire Tidbits

by Shelley

The first indication of a multi-lingual country is the signage which, in Bonaire, is a strange mixture of Dutch, Spanish and English. Many times we saw restaurant servers move from table to table, effortlessly speaking a different language at each one! Pretty impressive! (But don't bother applying for a job dealing with tourists unless you speak at least three languages!)

I got a chuckle out of one of the local kid's t-shirts that said "a pirate ate my homework"!

I think it may have just been the place we were diving with (Carib Inn) but never before have we been with so many experienced divers. Most of them didn't follow the guide but went off in their pairs or even singles. Usually everyone hovers around the guide and things get crowded.  Having said that, Bonaire is a fairly easy place to navigate most dives. Go out along the side of the reef, come back on the top edge of the reef, safety "stop" while you're coming back, and then spot the boat anchor. Andrew and I even did two dives on our own (first time), one of them a night dive.  Both went well!

The other thing we noticed both diving and eating out in the evenings is that we could definitely be considered the youngsters here! I dont think it's a whole lot more expensive to get here and staying and eating is certainly more reasonable than many other places we've been to. It's quiet which is great for us but may not appeal to the young party crowd.

Many people come here year after year. Pretty much all of the other people diving with Carib had been here before. Some of them 10 plus years! And for longer holidays - two guys from Denver were here for four weeks.

The divemasters were also not the young nomadic dive bums you see at a lot of places. Ralf (my instructor for the advanced course) was by far the youngest of the Carib divemasters and I'm guessing he's mid thirty's;  he moved here from Germany 10 years ago and is married with three kids. The other two dive masters we had were women in their 50's, one possibly in her 60's - hard to tell for sure.  They'd both been with Carib for years. I'm sure that's part of the appeal for return visitors; knowing the people and knowing what to expect.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A Good Day Diving

We had another good day of diving today (in Bonaire). In the morning we went out on our own (first time) from shore. It's not the best reef but there were still tons of fish and a moray eel and even a small sea turtle. Frustratingly, when I went to take pictures of the turtle, my camera said "please change the battery". Argh! We managed to go out and back and return to exactly the right spot (not always as easy as you might think underwater).

Waiting to go out on the boat in the afternoon, a group of dolphins showed up and we watched them from shore and then from the boat as we headed out. It's always nice to see them.

On our afternoon dive we saw a seahorse, the first one we'd seen in the wild and not in an aquarium. It was in a hole in the coral and everyone was crowding around to see it, so no photos unfortunately. As Shelley puts it, people were standing on her head to get in to see it.

And then on the way back we saw another sea turtle and this time I got some photos. It was another small one (maybe 15 inches) but for a change it was swimming towards us instead of heading away. It passed a few feet under me. Very nice.

And as usual here, a zillion fish. There are so many different ones and often males and females are quite different (like the Stoplight Parrotfish) and often juveniles are quite different from adults. To complicate things some of them change sex. And we're only trying to identify the bigger ones, there are a ton of smaller ones too. There's nothing like it on land - you might see a flock of birds or a cloud of insects but not so many different kinds at once and close up, all around you.

It's really hard to take good photographs. I'd like a better underwater camera, but as usual, it's not just the camera, it's the photographer. Everything is always moving - you're moving, the fish are moving, the soft coral is moving. And there's not much light so you have slow shutter speeds, large apertures, and high iso - a recipe for blurry photos. Many of the creatures don't like being approached too closely. The Christmas Tree worms are a good example - as soon as you move in for a close up, they disappear. And even when the visibility is good (as it has been here) it's seldom clear enough to use telephoto, you pretty much have to get close. So my diving photos are not what I'd like, the equivalent of tourist snapshots. But it's fun to take them anyway. And it helps to identify the fish afterwards.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

All Gone Means All Gone

Human beings, it seems, are like little children, who never do quite believe that “all gone” means there isn’t any more, at all, ever.
- Margaret Atwood talking about birds

Friday, January 22, 2010

Diving in Bonaire

Bonaire 2010 Underwater
by Shelley

We've been in Bonaire for three days now and are quite enjoying it! Although it's been fairly windy, this tends to keep the hot temperatures bearable and, with both windows of our room open at night, means that we don't have to use the air conditioner and the "white noise" of the wind allows for a great sleep!

We're staying at the Sonrisa which is a fairly new small place and is very nice with a big spacious room. It's not right on the water but only a 2 minute walk to the beach, less than 5 minutes to where we're diving, and maybe 10 minutes to the centre of town.

After one day to find our way around and recover from a long day/late night getting here we started our diving.

Andrew already has his advanced certification and I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to get mine. We're diving with Bruce Bowker's Carib Inn which was recommended to us by friends who have been here a few times.

I'm taking the advanced course from an excellent instructor named Ralf (German). You have to choose 5 out of about 8 topics with navigation and a deep dive being mandatory. I started with "peak performance buoyancy" and despite thinking that my buoyancy totally sucks, I did fairly well on the practical test part of the dive. Next was the "naturalist" dive so beforehand Ralf brought out a book showing photos
of some of the local fish, hard and soft corals, and various other reef creatures. My job was to try to spot them once we got into the water. I have to confess that Ralf pointed out more than I identified on my own but we did see a good variety of interesting things, especially some of the very small things such as sea pearls, various shrimp, fuzz balls, and nudibranchs.

Today was the deep dive (amazing how colors change at depth) and the navigation dive. Ralf and I got a special treat seeing a spotted eagle ray and a southern sting ray just before we arrived back to the boat. Mark Rosin (my friend and Saskatoon's resident orienteering expert and teacher) will be happy to know I kicked butt on the navigation dive! I didn't tell Ralf beforehand that I knew a little bit about navigation just in case I totally messed it up! :-)

Tomorrow morning is the wreck dive which should be fun too. Then things will be a bit more relaxed as we do more diving. Andrew has either tagged along with me or gone off with other divers while I do the course dives. Most of the diving so far has been quite shallow - it's awesome to be able to stay in for so long (over an hour) without running out of air, having such clear beautiful water to dive in, and
an abundance of fish et al to look at and look for!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hats Off to Harry

by Shelley

We've mentioned in previous posts that in Lima we stayed at Villa Ponciana, owned by a man named Harry. (Click on the link to see some photos of it.) It's in a quiet residential area close to Miraflores (where many of the tourist hotels and shops are).

The "hotel" (actually more like a bed and breakfast) was designed and built by Harry himself. Although born in Peru his grandparents were European and he studied and trained in Switzerland as an architect. After a 30 year career he has "retired" to be a hotelier (and concierge).

Harry himself is a talker and definitely likes to socialize and share stories. He was extremely helpful in suggesting things to do and places to eat in Lima, to the point of printing off maps and dinner menus to help us out. He also suggested some side trips out of Cusco which we did and were some of our favorite excursions.  He arranged taxis for us whenever we came and went from Lima (we used his place as a base to stay and to leave things we didn't need for each part of our travels). He made phone calls to arrange bus travel and got his "researcher" (aka the kid who runs his computer system) to also check into some things for us. He also got his housekeeping staff to do some laundry for us.  And to top it off breakfasts were huge!  Although simple (bread, eggs and corn on the cob) it was often more than we could possibly eat.

In short, Harry went way above and beyond!  Without a doubt, more personal service than you would ever get at a regular hotel or any other place.

We would highly recommend Villa Ponciana!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Santa Cruz Trek

Santa Cruz Trek

We made it to Huaraz ok on the overnight Cruz del Sur bus. It was reasonably comfortable, and even Shelley managed to get some sleep. They claimed to have wifi on the bus (when in cell phone coverage) although we didn't try it.

We fought our way out through the taxi drivers and tour agents swarming the bus terminal. One guy (Oscar) followed us down the street and actually was somewhat helpful. He led us to the hotel we had picked out of the book (Casablanca) but it was full. The he led us to another hotel (Eldorado) and it looked reasonable so we checked in. Of course, he wanted our tour business, but he was helpful even after he realized he probably wasn't going to get any business out of us. We crashed for some more sleep. (It was only 6am)

When we got up we went to Bistro de los Andes for breakfast. It's on the second floor overlooking the main plaza. Seems like a decent place.

We decided to do the Santa Cruz trek (in four days). This is the most popular trek in the area but I hoped that there wouldn't be too many people in low (rainy) season.  The first challenge was to figure out transportation. We could try to take local buses but the start and finish are somewhat isolated and it wouldn't be easy. We decided to try to hire private transportation - it would cost more but would simplify things a lot. We tried a few agencies but they weren't really interested in organizing just the transport and told us we could take the bus. We could have tried to just hire a taxi, but we weren't sure our language skills were up to arranging a reliable pick up at the end.

Again, a guy (Max) started talking to us on the street and I reluctantly told him what we wanted. He said "no problem" (that always makes me nervous!) and led us up to the tour agency he worked for. It was a small agency but seemed legitimate. He said he had a car that could transport us. Just to check we asked to see the car. It turned out to be a friend with a taxi, but it was in decent shape. I have no idea if the price was reasonable, he originally said 500 soles and when I questioned it (out of principle) he came down to 450. (about $150). We later saw posted rates of 120 soles one way, if that was per person our rate was ok. It's a long way - about 4 hours there and 5 hours back.

Next we found a bus line (Movil) with a day time trip back to Lima. We found their office and bought tickets. We were early enough to get "first class" seats (only $5 extra).

So far so good. To reward our progress we found the California Cafe that had been recommended to us. (I'm not sure where "California" comes from - I think the owner is from Amsterdam.) It's a nice place with comfortable couches and chairs and a big book exchange. And good coffee :-) It seems to be the hangout for the Peace Corp kids.

Next on the agenda was to buy gas for the stove and food for four days. We shopped at a couple of the bigger "supermarkets" (not very big by our standards) and also bought a few things at the market. The markets are fascinating but the meat sections are somewhat gruesome, especially for vegetarians! At home we're not accustomed to being quite so "face to face" with the source of our meat.

The book said we were supposed to get park passes (Parque Nacional Huascaran) but that most people didn't because no one checked. Being law abiding Canadians we tracked down the park office and bought them (after wandering around the building till someone told us to go upstairs). As it turned out, they did check our passes at several places so it was good we had them.

We went for supper to Bruno's Trattoria, a little place just around the corner from California Cafe. (The owners were having a birthday party for their daughter.) Good ravioli and a cheese, potato, and mushroom crepe.  (Not exactly local food, but to be honest, we haven't been too crazy about most of the local dishes we've tried. Sorry, can't help being gringo tourists at heart.) The best part was profiteroles for dessert :-)

The next day we got picked up at 6 am and drove to Cashapampa, one end of the Santa Cruz trek. We had a flat tire along the way but the driver (Nino) was quick changing it. We were just glad we didn't get a second flat in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful clear day and we had great views of Huascaran and Alpamayo.  I thought about asking the driver to stop so I could take photos but I didn't (except for one of Alpamayo), thinking we'd be seeing lots more on our trek.  As it turned out, those were the only clear views we got all week - that damned rainy season thing!

Doing the trek in four days meant relatively short days hiking-wise (four to five hours per day).  The first day climbs about 800m from 3000m to 3800m, fairly steeply at first and then levelling out into the Santa Cruz valley. Lots of cattle and donkeys, but no people - we didn't see a single person, even a local, all day.  But the donkeys were friendly :-)

We camped at Llamacorral, one of the "established" campsites you are supposed to use. The only thing at these "campsites" was an outhouse building, but sadly these were all totally trashed - no doors, roof half gone, holes in the walls. I'm not sure if this was vandalism or just weather and animals. The cattle and donkeys kept the grass cropped super short, nice for tenting, but they also left cow pies everywhere. Despite being the only ones there, it was hard to find a spot that was flat, no cow pies (or at least no fresh ones!), and not under water. Did I mention this is the rainy season? The ground was water logged and there were streams, puddles, and swampy ground everywhere.

We were told that it would usually rain in the afternoons around 3pm. That was the case the first day, but after that it rained more often than not, most of the night and much of the day. By hiking early in the day we avoided a lot of it, but we still were hiking in rain gear much of the time.

The second day was mostly flat along the Santa Cruz valley, past two lakes. We got occasional glimpses of higher snowy peaks, but mostly the clouds were hovering low above our heads.

The third day we went over the Puente Union pass - about 4800m  (15,500 ft). There was fresh snow at that altitude but not too much. We met two other hikers at the top doing the trek in the opposite direction. They wanted to know if we thought they could complete the hike that day - theoretically feasible, but a long way on top of the climb they'd already made to the pass. I'm not surprised they wanted to finish - they were in running shoes and with an army duffel bag for a backpack. But they seemed in good spirits.

We descended from the pass and set up camp in the rain. We were joined by a group of 6 or 8 with a guide and mules, again going in the opposite direction from us. After having the trek more or less to ourselves for 3 days it was a bit of a shock to have a group of young people hooting and hollering as they're apt to do.  At least some of them were fellow Canadians so we were treated to a rousing rendition of "O Canada". But the sound of the raging creek and the rain on the tent covered most of the noise. And they went to bed relatively early, tired from the trek no doubt.

The last day we hiked out to Vaqueria. We were in a beautiful forest of trees with red peeling bark, with green, green moss everywhere.  We managed about an hour of hiking before it started to rain. It rained off and on the rest of the way. Our pickup was scheduled for sometime between 12 and 1pm. We arrived at 10:30 figuring we'd have a couple of hours to wait, but we'd only been there about 5 minutes and a taxi pulled up. It turned out to be our ride. It was nice that we got picked up early because it's a long ride back, about 4 hours to get back to the highway at Yungay and then another hour back to Huaraz. First you climb up and up steep switchbacks to a 4800m pass, and then descend down and down even more steep switchbacks. If the clouds weren't so low I think there would have been some awesome scenery.

Back in Huaraz we moved to the Olaza Hostel. It had been recommended to us and we had checked it out before we left for the trek. We would have stayed there at the start but were too worn out to go searching for it. It's a very nice place and only about 70 soles per night (about $30) with breakfast included. It's a little way from the centre of town, but only about 10 minutes walk. There's a great sitting area on the top floor with more tables outside on the roof when the weather is nice. Recommended.

The next day we took it easy until our bus left at 1pm. It was nice to travel during the day so we could see the scenery, on the other hand, 8 hours of riding a bus does go easier when you sleep through it. We had tons of room in first class - only three seats across the big bus.
We're back at Villa Poinciana in Lima. Harry (the owner) is once more looking after us well. He had a taxi waiting to pick us up at the bus terminal (as he had similarly done when we arrived at the airport).

And now for something completely different … next we head to Bonaire via Caracas (Venezuela) for some scuba diving. It will be nice to be in one place for more than a day or two!

Travel Tales

After our trek near Huaraz (more coming on that) we returned to Lima for a day before continuing on.

When we originally started planning our trip our return flights went through Caracas, Venezuela. That's close to the island of Bonaire which is known for it's great scuba diving so we decided to stop there on the way home. It seemed simple enough, but the reality has not been so easy.

First, flying out of Lima is chaotic. At best you have to go through four different lineups - check in, airport tax, immigration, and finally security. (not counting the lineup to board). Although we'd booked our flights through Air Canada, somehow our flight from Lima to Caracas ended up with Taca. Shelley's family had trouble with their Taca flights so we were a little nervous. We checked in online but even that was a big hassle - My booking number brought up Shelley, and Shelley's booking number was rejected. So I had to use the e-ticket number which involved an "entertaining" guessing game of figuring out which subset of the 20 digit number they wanted (not the whole thing, that would be too easy) The flight itself was ok, but the airport check in was crazy. First they told us to stand in one huge unmoving line. Then they came and moved us to another slightly shorter but still unmoving line. Finally they put us in the "special" line. There were no signs and no rhyme or reason to the various lines and shuffling. Every person checking in took forever. I have to think the system could be improved!

On the positive side, our flight was late leaving, giving us time for a bathroom break (heaven forbid you need to go while you're shuffling through the lines) and even time to pick up a coffee.

Because we'd booked our Caracas - Bonaire flight separately we couldn't check our bags all the way through. We weren't sure what to do. Shelley figured we'd have to go through immigration, pick up our bags, and then check back in. I wasn't sure and asked several people who sent us in various directions to wait in various lineups, only to finally find out that Shelley was right. At least she didn't say I told you so!

Arrivals was a zoo with a zillion people milling around. We had to leave our luggage cart and we had too many bags to carry (camping plus diving gear). So we got "picked" up by one of the luggage handlers and some other guy who babbled nonstop. Neither of them knew where our next flight check in was but it didn't stop them from running around the airport with us in hot pursuit trying to stay close to our bags. We lost the one wacky guy and the other eventually got us to supposedly the right place, although the sign said Mexicana, not Dutch Antilles Express. When we tipped the luggage guy $3 he told us it wasn't enough - he wanted $5. We gave it to him just to get rid of him. Eventually a few more people showed up looking for the same flight and we all stood around wondering if we were in the right place.

Amazingly, it was the right place. Then the charges started. $56 for excess baggage. Then $60 for one "departure" tax - a guy with a briefcase taking cash in exchange for immigration cards. Seemed suspicious but the check in person sent us to him. Then another $80 tax at a more official seeming counter. But they only took Venezuelan money so we gave in to two guys that had been following us around trying to get us to change money. Only the great rates they'd been offering suddenly evaporated and we got in a minor argument. It was nice to get back through security (two sets - army and airport) so we were out of reach of all these guys trying take a buck off you.

After a bite to eat I wanted a coffee but they didn't take dollars. I tend to make the mistake of thinking South American countries are similar but this was a good example of how they aren't. In Peru ATM's are everywhere and it's easy to get dollars or soles or change money. Here (in Venezuela) there are no ATM's and changing $40 to pesos took 20 minutes and required copies of my passport and fingerprints on multiple documents. The things I go through for a coffee :-)

On the lighter side, the people at the coffee place were highly amused by Shelley's personalized travel mug with pictures of us etc. Of course, they're somewhat baffled by travel mugs in the first place.

We took our coffee to the gate listed on the departures board, which was displaying the correct flight. But no one was there, passengers or staff, even though there was only 20 minutes to the flight. Strange. Then another passenger came along and he was even more concerned. Suddenly he said "oh, they just announced they changed the gate". Lucky he was there because I doubt we would have understood the mumbled announcement in Spanish. We rushed to the far end of the terminal and got to the gate as they were boarding. I'm still not sure how everyone else knew which gate to go to.

It's less than an hour flight to Curacao and then we had to figure out how to avoid going through immigration. Our bags were checked through this time but we didn't have boarding passes. (And Shelley was dubious that our bags would actually get transferred correctly.) We got shuffled around from person to person until we got to someone who was able to give us boarding passes.

Thankfully, our bags made it and it didn't take too long to get a taxi to our hotel where we crashed.

I can just hear Jennie saying "see, that's why I don't travel". But despite the frustration at the time, it's all part of the adventure. And besides, it provides amusement for you folks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Long Day

Third airport and country, one more to go. (Lima, Peru - Caracas,
Venezuela -Curacao - Bonaire) Free wifi though :-)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gringo Hits, Volume One

by Shelley

One of the funny things we always notice on our trips to developing countries is the abundance of English music being played and that it's 20-30 or more years old! It's like we're in a time warp back to our teens. At least most of them are "golden oldies". We're not sure if they play it for the benefit of the tourists or if it's actually their preferred music.

Here's an example of what we've heard lately.

- Dust in the Wind (Kansas, 1974)
- Angie (Rolling Stones, 1973)
- Year of the Cat (Al Stewart, 1976)
- Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty, 1978)
- Love on the Rocks (Neil Diamond, 1980)
- Yesterday (Beatles, 1965)
- Sailing (Christopher Cross, 1980)
- Summer Breeze (Seals and Croft, 1972)
- Rosanna (Toto, 1982)
- Grease (Frankie Vallie, 1978)

And the "new" hits:

- Constant Craving (kd lang, 1992)
- Mr. Jones (Counting Crows, 1994)
- Mambo #5 (Lou Bega, 1999)

We haven't figured out where they get the music from. Does someone local sell "Hits of the 70's and 80's" CDs?

When we get home we're thinking of putting together an iTunes playlist of "tipical" Peruvian music for the younger generation of my family!  (Just kidding Julie!)


by Shelley

Although we saw a few real Starbucks locations in Lima their legal department obviously hasn't made it past there.

In Aguas Calientes we found "Discovery Coffee" with the distinctive green circle logo -- it had good coffee and a most excellent chocolate cake!

In Ariquipa the "Cusco Coffee Company" changed color with a blue circle logo with a photo of Machu Picchu in the middle. They served frappes and one of the guys claimed to have previously worked at a Starbucks. Oh, and very good latte, tea and cookies!

But the most blatant and humorous ripoff was the "Incabucks" in Ollantaytambo. Green circle logo with an Inca king in the middle, replacing the seductive siren in the Starbucks logo. They even had t-shirts that said "I hate people who steal my ideas before I think of them".  Of course Andrew had to buy one!

Heading North

Flew into Lima and found there are only night buses to Huaraz so we're leaving tonight - running around buying bus tickets at Wong (think Walmart) and finding somewhere that will do laundry in a few hours. I think we have it all under control. Now we're sitting in Gloria Jeans having coffee. Could have gone to Starbucks but we would have had to cross six lanes of crazy traffic. Once we get to Huaraz we'll stay one night and try to get organized for a three day trek, no doubt running around crazily again. This holiday thing is tiring :-)

Trekking in the Colca Canyon

Colca Trek

When we took the train from Cusco to Puno and then the bus to Arequipa we were heading for the Colca Canyon - Peru's Grand Canyon. It is not as steep as the Grand Canyon but it is twice as deep. And to top it off, the mountains around the canyon rise to 6300 m (20,700 ft - bigger than Mt. McKinley, the highest in North America).

From Arequipa we took the bus to Chivay, a small town at the start of the canyon. This is a four to five hour ride. Part of the road was under construction and was really rough. The road goes over a 4900 m pass where you're supposed to be able to see some of the high volcanoes, but it was too cloudy to see much.

When we got off the bus in Chivay we were "befriended" (hustled, in other words) by a lady and her daughter promoting their Rumi Wasi hostel. Normally we don't like to encourage these people but she was low pressure and was quite helpful as we tried to book bus tickets for the next day. (In the end we found the reason we were having so much trouble is that they didn't sell those tickets in advance!) We didn't have any plans on where to stay so we decided to give the hostel a try. It seemed ok and was only 20 soles per person (about $8). Sadly, once they got our business they stopped being friendly and helpful and pretty much ignored us. Oh well, it was a place to stay.

The next day we caught the bus to Cabanaconde. This is normally a 2 1/2 hour bus ride but our bus broke down and it took them an hour to fix it. Usually it's just a flat tire but this was something else involving hoses and connections. I just hoped it wasn't the brakes they were jerry rigging!

We got to Cabanaconde about 1pm and had a quick bite to eat. The tiny restaurant didn't offer us a menu or ask us what we wanted, they just brought us each a big bowl of soup. Luckily it was vegetable soup and quite good. The woman also started cooking more (meat probably?) but we managed to communicate "no algo mas" (nothing more).

After lunch we headed out on our three day hike (didn't spend the night in Cabanaconde). We got directions for finding the start of the trail, which actually had a sign (unusual) but we soon got confused in the maze of trails through the corn fields around town. Once we found where the trail dropped into the canyon we were ok. For the first night we were headed to Sangalle, a camping site beside the river. That meant descending about 1000m (3300 ft) on a steep path zig zagging down the side of the canyon. Our legs were getting a little rubbery by the time we got to the bottom.

We saw a few lizards on the way down and also quite a few dung beetles. They were the kind that make balls out of fresh dung, rolled them away and then bury them, either for food or for laying their eggs. They're actually quite a valuable part of the ecosystem since they get rid of the dung before it breeds flies and other pests. Often the female rides on the dung ball while the male rolls it. It's a bumpy ride for the female! They roll the ball by putting their front legs on the ground and using their back legs to push (like doing handstands). Check out dung beetles on Wikipedia for more information.

There are several camping sites at Sangalle. We stayed at Oasis (the first one we came to). It had toilets, a shower (cold), and even a pool, and it was only 3 soles (about $1) per person. We hadn't brought our swim suits but we were glad of the shower after a sweaty day. The resident dogs - a large German Shepherd and a brown fur ball of a puppy - pestered us a bit, but in a friendly way. The puppy wanted to chew everything, including Shelley's socks and even her elbow!  Then as we tried to get to sleep the mules came to munch on the grass, so close to our tent that we thought they were going to take a bite out of our packs which were under the fly of the tent. I finally yelled at them and they ran off.

The next day we crossed the river (the Rio Colca) and hiked up the other side to Malata, Coshnirhua, Tapay, and finally dropped down almost to the river again to San Juan de Chuccho. Most towns have an "Arco de Ingreso" (entry arch) and a church with a plaza (square) out front. Some of the plaza's were very nice with grass and flowers, others were bare and not well kept.

On the steep route up to Tapay Shelley started feeling not that great and threw up (a fairly common occurrence on these trips unfortunately). Just before this we'd been stopped by a French couple coming from the other way and asking directions to Sangalle. They were also camping but the guy was carrying a big pack with all the gear and the girl was carrying a small day pack. Shelley later wondered where she could find a big strong guy to carry all her gear for her. I told her I was looking for a hefty girlfriend to carry all my gear but
preferred one who didn't puke!

We stopped for a snack at Hospedaje Restaurant el Encanto de Maruja in Tapay - a big name for a small place! Amazingly, the owner pulled out a home espresso maker (still in the original box) and made me a latte! Originally we had planned to stay in Tapay and this would have been a good place, but we decided to shorten the next day (the big climb out of the canyon) by going further. While we were sitting here we noticed the small green fruits in the tree beside us. We asked what they were ("que es?") but of course we didn't understand a word of the reply. The man brought one over with the green skin removed and it was obvious they were walnuts! Sadly, to us, things like walnuts and brazil nuts come from the grocery store, far removed from their original source.

In San Juan de Chuccho we stayed at Gloria's. Some people had recommended it and it was also the first place we came to. It was very nice with flowers and trees and only 8 soles per person (about $3). Our total bill for the room, drinks, supper, and breakfast was 45 soles (less than $20). A beautiful sunset that night.

The third day we crossed back over the river and made the long climb back up. It took us about 3 1/2 hot, sweaty hours, slowly but surely. Once we reached the rim it was about another hours walk back to Cabanaconde. We were again "befriended" and led to Pachamama's for lunch. This guy was a real character. He had very good English and was obviously determined to try out every slang English expression he knew. He even pulled out a list of English words (from a book he was trying to read) to get us to help him pronounce them correctly. English pronunciation is tough. By comparison, Spanish is easy.

We caught the 2pm bus back to Chivay. The bus ended up packed so full there wasn't even standing room. So far we've been lucky and gotten seats - I'd hate to have to stand, packed like sardines, for a two hour bus ride!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Travel Update

A quick update since we'll probably be out of touch for a few days.

After the rain forest we flew back to Cusco. (the rest of the family headed home). Decided to take the Peru Rail Andean Explorer train to Puno. Similar cost as flying but we figured it would be more interesting and we'd see more of the countryside. Turned out to be quite posh with wine with lunch.

We spent the night at the Sonesta Posada in Puno - unremarkable but a nice location right on lake Titicaca.

Then took the bus to Arequipa. Always a challenge to figure out the buses - there are dozens of private bus companies all going different places at different times and varying widely in quality of buses and service. We found one that turned out mid-range. We got good seats right at the front of the second level so had good views and leg room. The only negative was that there was no ventilation and it got pretty hot and stuffy by the end of the 5 1/2 hours.

Stayed at another Sonesta Pasada in Arequipa, mostly because it was right on the Plaza de Armas (main square). Had supper at Paladar restaurant - very nice - recommended.

Today we're heading by bus to Chivay and then to Cabanaconde to hike in the Colca Canyon. Tried to get an 8am bus but it was either full or cancelled so we bought tickets for an 11:30 bus and headed back downtown to wander and visit the Cusco Coffee Company again.

Not sure if we'll have Internet till we get back to Arequipa on the 10th.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Boats, Birds, and Bugs

by Shelley

On December 28 we started our visit to the rain forest (you're not supposed to call it the "jungle" although that's what it seemed like). We flew from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado, took a bus to the river and then a 3 1/2 hr boat ride along the Tambopata River to Refugio Amazonas, located in the Tambopata National Reserve.

The Refugio is an amazing place made of natural and local materials (mahogany, bamboo, cane, clay and palm fronds). There are no doors or outside walls. The bedrooms are three sided, with one side open to the jungle; curtains served as door coverings. Although there was no electricity the bathrooms were surprisingly modern. There was no hot water but after sweating it out most of the day a cold shower was tremendously welcome! There was also no electricity (kerosene lanterns lined the walkways to and along the rooms) except in the main lodge during certain times. There was also wi-fi which Andrew noted in a previous blog.

We stayed here one night at the beginning of this part of the trip, one night at the end, with two nights further along the river at the Tambopata Research Center (not quite as fancy as the Refugio but still very natural and nice).

Activities were early in the morning (i.e. 4 a.m. wake up calls!) and later in the afternoon when the animals were most active. Our guides, Yrma and Johan, were very knowledgeable and gave a running commentary about all the things around us.

The first hike we did was learning about all the medicinal plants in the jungle. Johan had us chew the stem of one of the plants and our tongues all went numb!  The plant was apparently used as a local anesthetic.

One early morning we went to the canopy tower, climbing stairs 135 ft into the air to an observation platform. A bit crowded with 11 of us plus guides! But we saw lots of bright coloured macaws, toucans, and other birds.

The brazil nut tour was an eye opener. I'll never eat another one without thinking about the incredible amount of time and energy that goes into harvesting them (all by hand), in very rough conditions, for very little pay!

Andrew enjoyed the night hike which provided an added opportunity to see snakes, frogs, tarantulas and other slimy creatures. He also kept Johan out for extra hiking time trying to find all manner of bugs, spiders and creepy crawlies.

Although Bev and Gretchen kept a detailed list of all the birds, animals and plants/trees we saw, some of my favorites/memorable were:

- huge strangler fig trees
- monkeys (red howler, black spider, tit, and brown capuchin) -- especially when they actually sat still long enough to get a good look at them!
- leaf cutter ants and army ants marching, not two by two, but by the hundreds!
- capybaras
- wild turkeys
- peccaries (wild pigs)

Unfortunately, we didn't have much luck at the macaw clay lick. We were hoping to get to see the usual 300-400 macaws but the first morning we went out it rained (they don't like rain) and the second morning the river was too high to go out. The high river also foiled our chance to go on a night boat tour looking for caimans (like alligators). It was amazing how quickly the river changed from hour to hour. It was definitely very high due to recent rains and was moving very quickly!  Our return boat rides took about 1/2 as long going back downstream!

photos from the rain forest

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Inca Trail

So you don't think I'm totally negative I'll start with the good. The Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu has amazing mountain scenery, beautiful cloud forest, a very cool trail, and fascinating ruins and history.

But ... it also has too many people, crowded campsites, and not enough toilets. Many of the people are in over their heads, ill equipped, unfit, and unprepared for a demanding high altitude hike. Our group, including an 82 year old traveled quite slowly, yet we often caught up with other groups at rest spots. Between the altitude, traveler's diarrhea, and over exertion many people were not feeling their best.

Our first campsite was quite nice - small with only one other group. But after that, our other campsites were much larger. 400 people per day are allowed on the trail (I'm suspicious of anyplace with a quota!) and almost all of them were concentrated into the same camp sites. There weren't enough toilets and often they were a long hike away. And I still can't figure out how you get feces sprayed over the walls four feet off the ground, no matter how bad your diarrhea is!

Our guide (Fredy, short for Frederico) was very good to us, patient and considerate. I question some of the approach but the problem seems to be more a reluctance to change their routine. For example, when it's raining and you're moving so slow you're going to get in after dark it doesn't seem like an appropriate time to stop for an archaeology lecture. Several days we stopped for close to two hours for a huge three course cooked lunch that most of us barely touched, waiting over an hour for it to be prepared, shivering in wet clothes. Maybe that works for the sprint and crash majority, but it doesn't fit with a slow and steady approach like our group's. We asked several times for a smaller, quicker lunch (to which they said "of course") but we failed to budge them from their routine.

I would love to do this trek if it wasn't such a circus. As it is, if it was just up to me, I'd do one of the less crowded treks instead. If you want to see Machu Picchu (and it is impressive) take the train to Aguas Calientes. By the time you've trekked there, you're too tired to appreciate it anyway. (We stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes and went back up to Machu Picchu in the morning.)

photos of the trek

Coffee in Arequipa

At the Cusco Coffee Company - another Starbucks lookalike. Not sure
about the name - we didn't see any in Cusco.