Thursday, June 30, 2005

We have 300lbs of luggage

We have now been travelling around South America for almost a month with two toddlers and 300lbs of luggage. I am pretty tired, I can tell you that.

We arrived in Buenos Aires after a 14 hour bus ride. Cannot really complain about the bus ride. The bus was nicer than first class on an airplane. We had a nice dinner served. Drink cart. Great breakfast. Gigantic soft leather seats with about a mile of leg room. I could live on that bus. Loved it!

What can I say about Buenos Aires? It is the monster truck of cities. We cannot believe how big it is, and remember that we lived in Tokyo for 4 years. Tokyo is a quaint little village compared in this place. Everything here is huge. Huge buildings. Huge parks. And the streets?

The main drag here -- 9 de Julio -- has 23 lanes of traffic. TWENTY-THREE LANES OF TRAFFIC!!! They claim it is the biggest street in the world, and I believe it. The street we are staying on has a measly 12 lanes. That is like a side-street here.

Needless to say, we are a bit daunted by the scale of it all.

We are staying in an apart-hotel in a ritzy neighborhood. We are around the corner from the Four Seasons. But the place we are staying in is more like the One Season. We have a wonderful view of a dank alley. I kid you not. It is the most hilarious view in the world -- I even took a picture of it. But being able to cook our own food is nice. Speaking of which, I am on my way to the grocery store right now.

On Saturday night, we fly to the U.S.

Ahhh, it will be nice to have a good cup of coffee. I am fully convinced that there is not one place in South America that can make a good cup of coffee or pull a decent shot of espresso. It is sad how much bad coffee they drink here. Bad coffee and bad beer. The wine, however, is excellent and we are drinking as much of it as we can.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On to Argentina

Well, after 8 days in Santiago (we originally were going to be there for 2) we had to make a decision: Either buy an apartment and stay forever, or continue our travels. Reluctantly, we decided to move on. But let me reiterate that my buddy Zej was right -- Santiago is a great city. And I will say the same thing about Chile that we said about Peru -- can´t wait to go back and see more.

We wanted to take a bus across the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina but the weather was not cooperating. Snow had closed the pass in the mountains for the past few weeks.

Still trying to wait out the storm, we took a bus to Valparaiso on the coast of Chile, about 2 hours from Santiago. Cool little gritty town with just enough charm. The town is built on a steep hillside around a nice cove. They have 15 of these things called ¨finunculars¨ or something like that. They are tiny little elevator-trains that creep up the hillside. Very cool. Gave the town a San Francisco vibe. The constant fog helped -- you could barely see the damn finunclears.

But bonehead Jim, the same guy who gave himself food poisoning back in Peru, decided we would go to Valparaiso on zero notice. We just jumped on a bus and went. No hotel lined up or anything. Well, when we got there we had a hell of a time finding a place to stay --there just weren´t many hotels. We also did not Xerox the Valparaiso section of the guide book either, because we didn´t intend to go there. So, we were totally clueless. We finally ended up at a place called Hotel Ultramar.

The Ultramar was the COOLEST hotel we have ever stayed at. It is in this 100 year old brick building. Very chic design. Super clean. Old hardwood floors and giant windows. Incredible breakfast. Turns out we had read about the place in Vanidades Magazine back in Bolivia. Vanidades is the South Americans Vanity Fair. It was a splurge, but a great night.

Our last day in Santiago we spent at Museo Interactive Mirador, which we agree is probably the best kids museum we have ever been to. Amazing museum, and it had a great staff that was very good at engaging the kids. Jane and Mac had a heck of a time. We also checked out the new Santiago Acuario, which is nice but at this point kind of like a really good pet store.

With the buses showing no signs of running any time soon, we bought plane tickets and flew here to Mendoza (and got hit by LAN Airlines with an excess baggage charge on our 140kg of luggage). Judging by the Andes that passed below our plane, the road is not in good shape. Tons of snow!

Mendoza is Argentina`s wine capital -- 70% of all Argeninian wine comes out of here. We picked up a nice bottle of Malbec, the local specialty, this afternoon on our way back from the zoo. We paid about $3 for the bottle, which retails for $16 in the US. We will drink a lot of wine while we are here in Argentina!!

But other than wine, there is not much to do here in Mendoza. Still, it is a cool town with every other store a wine or chocolate place. We will tour some wineries tomorrow, then kick around for another day before moving on to Buenos Aires. Not looking forward to that 14 hour bus ride, but we can´t afford any more plane tickets.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Chile in 30 Seconds

Turns out we got hit with like $500 in airport taxes on our way to Santiago. They even charged Mac $100 tax to land here, despite the fact he did not have a plane ticket. Airport taxes are killing us.

Santiago, however, is AWESOME. We love it. It is like New York City, only cleaner. And much cheaper. Great Museums (Bellas Artes and the Pre-Columbian being our faves). Visited the house of Nobel Prize winning poet Neruda. Great cafes. Nice, clean subway. It is a far cry from the Flintstones-like existence we have been living in Bolivia.

We planned on staying here 2 days, but have been here 5. We planned on taking a bus to Mendoza, Argentina today, but an Andes Mountains snowstorm put and end to that. We are going to Valparaiso, Chile, a small town on the coast, tomorrow to wait out the storm.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Peru in 60 Seconds

I feel like dog crap today. I´ve got the Incan Ruins, so to speak. The funny thing is that we have cooked all of our own meals in our hotel. So, I actually gave myself food poisoning. I´m such an ass. And I need to catch a flight to Chile, so this will be short.

By the way, I will pay over $400 in airport taxes for the flight from Cusco to Santiago. That is just wrong.

Cusco is, well, just like Bolivia. I guess that should not surprise me since it is just on the other side of Lake Titicaca, relatively speaking. Same exact architecture. Same adobe houses. People look the same. The indiginous women dress just like the women from Potosi (with different hats). They even dance the Tinku here!

Some differences though. Cusco is kind of like Bolivia if Bolivia ever managed to get its shit together. It just works better here. They also realize tourists are their life blood and treat them accordingly. Better food here. More gringos. They still build with adobe, whereas Bolivia is now mostly ugly red brick. You CAN drink the water here. Toilets are better.

One example: I went to the Peru Rail office to buy our tickets to Machu Pichu. Stupidly, I forgot my passport (well, in my defense, I didn´t realize the train to Machu Pichu was considered international travel, but since they demanded my passport I guess it is). After waiting for my number to be called for an hour, I walked to a nice desk where a professionally dressed woman helped me buy the tickets. When I realized I didn´t have my passport, she said no problem. She took my hotel number, went to a phone and called Megan. She got our numbers from Megan, and completed the transaction. I was given two train tickets that looked like plane tickets, and was on my way.

The same transaction in Bolivia would look like this: There would be no organized number system. I would have to jostle with 100 pushy, rude people who would keep cutting to the front of the que. When I finally worked my way up front, the woman would ask for my passport. When I realized I did not have it, she would tell me I was out of luck. If I did manage to get a ticket, it would be a scrap of paper with a seat number on it and no more. I would not be able to make reservations in advance.

On the other hand, instead of $130, the tickets would have cost me $6 in Bolivia.

Cusco highlights: Machu Pichu was completely amazing. We were awed. Much better than we ever imagined. Worth every bit of hype you have heard, and then some. Beautiful churches in the city itself, including San Blas and the main cathedral. The sacred valley was also amazing, including Pisaq and Ollantytambo ruins and the market at Pisaq.

Low lights: I am freezing my ass off. It is so damn cold here and nothing is heated. In this regard, it is just like Bolivia, but I don´t know what I was thinking. I didn´t bring enough warm clothes. Also, the museums here suck. The Incan Museum, in particular, was a big let down. The museums in Bolivia are MUCH better.

Oh, and Sucre is still without a doubt my favorite city in South America.

p.s. We felt that 7.9 earthquate that hit northern Chile yesterday afternoon.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Safe in Peru

We managed to get out of Bolivia just at the right time. Mesa resigned (again!!) the night before we left, and Cocha was experiencing a total shut down on the day we flew out. No taxis. No buses. Stores and banks closed. We got to the airport only because I managed to find a taxi driver the day before who said he would take us if we went early in the morning. We had an early flight, so that worked.

The day before we left, the airport was blockaded. We also saw tons of streets blockaded, some with bonfires lit in the middle of the intersection.

Luckily when we got to the airport, there were no blockades. We even managed to have an espresso while we waited for the flight.

In La Paz, the airport was chock full of people who had spent the night there. They were rightly afraid that if they left, they would not be allowed in the airport. There was a group of over 100 Israelis there waiting for a plane chartered by their government to get them out. Argentina was also sending planes for its nationals.

The only event for us at the airport was dealing with immigration. We had to pay the usual $25 each airport tax in Cocha. Cocha also hit us with a $20 additional tax each because we have 1 year visas. In La Paz, immigration hit us with another $40 in fees, again because we have 1 year Bolivia visas. So, we went through hell and spent almost $1500 to get 1 year visas, only to find out it entitles us to get hit with still more fees everytime we leave. Madness. Something is wrong with the system when it would be cheaper for us to go to Chile every 3 months to renew our visas than it cost to get the damn 1 year visa.

It was also interesting to see our buddy Osama's son Rahim, who was travelling with us, get hit with a "random" security full body check at every point. None of us got picked, but then none of us look middle eastern.

So, we are safe here in Cusco. We are checking the internet and TV for news on Bolivia and hoping our friends there are OK. We did hear today that all schools in Cocha are closed for at least 3 weeks.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Latest from Reuters

Click here for the lastet Reuters news on the situation here.

A Little Travellin´ Music Please

I´m downtown right now a few blocks off the main plaza. All of the roads are closed and clogged with protesters. Everyone is peaceful now, but you can sense things are just gearing up. I can hear explosions in the distance -- fireworks or dynamite, depending on the group. Terri and I just left the post office and are going to run a few errands before escaping back to our safe little neighborhood.

Bolivian friends have called us in the past few days and advised us to stockpile food, water and gas. La Paz is facing a serious food shortage. Here, the price of tomatos has gone from 1B per half kilo to 1B PER TOMATO. Other food prices have gone up accordingly.

But we are, God willing, hitting the road tomorrow for 2 months of travelling. It will be nice to get out of Bolivia and away from the blockades and protests.

So, while we visit some 5 or 6 countries in the next couple months I will be posting here about those experiences as much as possible.

I hope there is still a Bolivia to come back to in August.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

To Hell in a Nicely Woven Handbasket

I was down at the post office yesterday and most of the roads around there were blockaded. Same goes for the road behind our house, which leads to Sacaba and on to Santa Cruz. Our friend Terri is stuck in Sucre right now, with all roads in and out blocked. Terri´s sister Sandy and Sandy´s husband Ron, are trapped in Potosi. La Paz is reportedly a mess, with ¨dynamite throwing protesters.¨ Well, my local tienda still has beer so all is not lost. Still, these blockades cost Bolivian businesses $8.3 million per day. Crazy how Bolivians angry at their government and foreign corporations express themselves by hurting their own people. Smart.

Basically, the country appears to be heading down the crapper, which is a shame. I wonder how the U.S. government, with its long-held wish for a military base here in Bolivia, will react if cocalero Evo Morales (who is buddies with Chavez in Venezuala) gets close to the presidency?

For your convenience, I have listed some news stories on the crisis below:

BBC

CNN

BBC photos

Al Jazeera (seriously)