After quitting our jobs, selling our furniture, saying goodbye to our dear families and friends and the wonderful city of Austin, TX, we have set out to travel the world, or at least as much of it as we can. We hope our experiences and photos reach everyone back home.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

6 Months on the Road!

On the 25th of October we passed our 6 month travel anniversary and thought we’d go back and publish a few stats on our journey thus far. Here’s a quick, completely statistical (and somewhat guessed at) breakdown of where we’ve been and what we’ve done:

Countries visited: 9
Borders crossed: 11
Cities slept in: 61
Hours on buses: 250
Hours on a boat or train or bike: 43
Hours on extended cab rides or 4 wheel drive vehicles: 37
Hours in flight: 59
Distance behind the wheel: 8720km (5406 miles)
Number of airports slept in: 2
Total number of books read: 24

After all of that, we are still alive and moving on for more! We're just finishing up a nice stay in Phuket, Thailand and early tomorrow morning we head to another Thai island called Ko Samui. Also, we just updated our Flickr site with more photos from Thailand. Enjoy!

Sunset at Maya Bay

Sunday, October 15, 2006

18 Days in New Zealand

Day 1: Welcome to NZ?
Our first day in NZ was not a very good one. All due to one ill-tempered immigration official that threatened to deport us back to the U.S. You see, during our first 3 and a half months traveling in South America, we bought our plane, train, and bus tickets as we went, seeing that we did not really know how long we would spend in each country upon arrival. So, we did the same for New Zealand, thinking that we would arrive, figure out how long we would need to travel around the country, and buy our ticket out within a week or so of being there. Wrong. Word to the wise: if you plan to travel to New Zealand, be sure that before you arrive, you already have your departure ticket. (This wasn’t necessary for Australia, or any other country we’ve been to so far, for that matter.) As for us, upon arriving in Auckland at 5am after a 14-hr plane ride from Buenos Aires, we spent our first 5 hours not really sure if we were going to get past the airport. After threatening to deport us, we asked the official if we could buy our outgoing tickets to Australia right then. He agreed if both Mike and I could show him a visa for Australia. However, the Australian tourist visa is an ETA, an electronic visa. You have no physical visa document; you are just in their computer system and your airline will verify that you have it set up before you depart. Somehow this official didn’t understand that (maybe it was his first day) and he demanded to see some sort of printout, whatever it might be. So, thanks to the friendly people at Air New Zealand, we managed to get printouts, literally a piece of paper with our name and “OK to board” written on it. This seemed to work (although I think the Air New Zealand guy helped us out a lot by sweet talking some sense into this snooty official) and we booked an Air New Zealand flight to Sydney for 18 days out. Finally, we saw the bright New Zealand sunshine and felt the brisk outside air!!

Day 2: Big City Auckland
By our second day in NZ, our travel and jetlag issues were behind us, and we had settled into the Beyond Backpackers hostel in downtown Auckland. Ahh, the luxury of being back in an English-speaking country. It actually took us some time to realize that before placing an order in a restaurant or asking a question, we didn’t have to figure out how to say it in Spanish or Portuguese.

Knowing that we only had 18 days to pack in all of our New Zealand travels, we quickly made use of our time and booked a tour around both the North and South islands of New Zealand on the Magic Bus, recommended by the travel agency in our hostel. After settling that, we headed out to one of Auckland’s biggest attractions, Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter & Underwater World. The best part of this attraction was the Imperial penguins, an exhibit that recreated the penguins’ natural habitat in Antarctica. We hopped in a snow cat to view the penguins swimming and hanging out on their man-made snow banks. The penguins were so cute that we jumped on the snow cat again for a second round of penguin watching!

Day 3: First day on the Magic Bus, Auckland to Rotorua
While waiting for the bus, we didn't fully know what to expect from this "Magic Bus Adventure". The brochures looked nice and everyone in them looked like they were having a blast, but still reeling a bit from the immigration official and having experienced all sorts of buses in South America, our guards were up. The bus was a little late, but when it did arrive it was full of life, or at least the bus driver, Stella, her microphone, and sound system were. She had techno dance beats cranked and was singing along to the intermittent vocals. It was funny to see a young girl in her early twenties behind the wheel of this behemoth of a bus. Stella kept things lively, squeezing every NZ catch phrase in her loud, and sometimes long-winded, explanations over the bus mic. "Sweet as", a common phrase in NZ, was by far her favorite. She was great and a good introduction to what was to be expected of the rest of our trip.

The bus made a quick stop at a lookout on the rim of an extinct volcano over downtown Auckland, and then it was on the open road headed for Rotorua and the heart of Maori culture. The bus trip itself was great with incredible views of rolling green hills, unlimited rainbows, and heaps of sheep! Apparently, NZ has a population of 4 million people and 40 million sheep.

Jen with view of Auckland

Before making it to Rotorua, we had a stop at the Waitomo glowworm caves. Jen & I suited up in full wet suits, rubber boots, spelunking hard hats equipped with headlights and, with the help of our guide, braved the freezing cold waters and pitch black. We did what they call a black water rafting tour, which is a tour through dark, underground caves on an inner tube, like "toobin", but without the beer, sun, or red necks. So we were in our tubes, floating down an underground river and looking up at these tiny worms glowing 10 or so feet above. When we turned off our headlights, they lit up the cave's ceiling like a starry night sky. It wasn't a completely passive tour though, it is New Zealand and we had some semi-extreme sport action. At one stage we dropped our tubes 6 feet down a water fall and with the urging of our guide, turned around, with the drop to our backs and with our heels to the edge of the water fall and fell straight back, pretty crazy in the pitch black. There was also a nice big natural water slide near the end. Our guide was great and the caves were something else, well worth the money.

We dried off, jumped back on the Magic bus, and made it to Rotorua before we knew it. This entire NZ trip was jammed pack with stuff and Day 3 was no exception. We threw our stuff in our room and made it onto a different tour bus for the ride out to a Maori museum, recreated village, and enormous Maori feast. The tribe recreated what a Maori village would have been like before the English came to NZ, and then they performed a traditional dance show, the haka, with a lot of wide-eyes and tongues sticking out. Afterwards we enjoyed a huge Maori buffet, by far my favorite part of the evening, lots of meats and kind of spread.

Day 4: Rotorua to Taupo
Beginning our day early at 8am, as most days with the Magic bus are, we set out to check out some of Rotorua’s finest bubbling mud. Rotorua, in all its thermal active glory, has all the mud pools, geysers, craters, and nasty egg smells that you could ever need. We took it all in at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which hosts some great walks to explore these thermal landscapes.

Next, after checking out the rushing, turquoise water of the Huka Falls, we arrived at the Taupo Rock ‘N’ Ropes course. First up, the trapeze jump. For this, we had to climb to the top of a wooden pole, similar to a telephone pole, and then stand on top of the pole, keeping our balance on a piece of wood with a diameter smaller than our feet. In front of us was the trapeze, a bit unrealistic for someone of my height to reach, but Mike wants to make sure that I mention that he grabbed a hold of it with no problem. No worries on my part though, my harness caught me in time. Next up was the giant swing. Harnessed in, this 3-second free-fall/swing was exhilarating albeit a bit scary. Afterwards, I mentioned to our instructor that after doing the swing I was a bit scared to sky dive, which we were scheduled to do later that afternoon. He promptly replied, “Skydiving is nothing compared to the swing.” Unfortunately, due to cloudy weather, our first of three attempts at skydiving was cancelled.

Jen taking off on the Giant Swing

Day 5: Second Attempt at Sky Diving
We started our second day in Taupo with a 10am appointment to sky dive over Lake Taupo. We show up, get fully dressed in our sky dive suits and leather aviator hats, meet our instructors who will be attached to us as we make the leap out of the plane, and what happens…well, clouds happen. Clouds are a no go for skydivers and unfortunately, they didn’t let up all day. The sky dive company kept moving our appointment back, to noon and then to 2pm and then 3pm and finally we realized it wasn’t going to happen. We accepted our unfortunate luck and prepared for a long day of walking the following day at the Tongariro Crossing.

Day 6: Tongariro Crossing
One of the highlights of our NZ trip, the Tongariro Crossing, was, as the Lonely Planet says, "the best one day walk in New Zealand". It was winter time for our walk, and for the majority of the trek we were knee deep in powdery snow, which made it a bit more challenging than we first suspected, though the crampons the guides handed out before the crossing should have been a good indication. The trek started with an easy incline through a valley peppered with small shrubs and grasses, with "Mt. Doom" towering on our right (I believe the actual name is Mt. Ngauruhoe, though I prefer Mt. Doom). As we went, the path became more taxing, with a few pretty steep sections, then a long flat part that reminded us of Siberia, granted we haven't been there… yet, but it looked just like what we imagine Siberia looks like; flat, wind blowing snow everywhere and little visibility. Every so often we would turn around at the end of a steep section, rest and take in the ever changing and magnificent views. As we scanned the horizon, we saw the bright greens in the far distance, then the brown desert vegetation, and then closer still the white untouched powder of the mountain we were slowly conquering. When we finally made it to the pinnacle of the climb we ate lunch on a thermal patch of ground, where the snow was completely melted and the skin of the mountain was exposed. It was graveled volcanic rocks embedded in warm, slightly damp dirt. Lunch was inhaled quickly since it was extremely cold and the wind blew at gale force speeds.

We packed up, but instead of walking down the other side the mountain, which consequently is a volcano, hence the thermal activity, we "bum slid" into the crater. Bum sliding consists of one tucking all loose clothing into the waist of your pants, sitting on the edge of a nice steep decline, pushing yourself off and trying to gain as much speed as possible. With visibility at nearly zero we took our guides word for it and slid some 500 yards into the haze and powder into the mouth of the volcano's crater. It was scary, but great fun.

We then walked another long flat stretch that ended at a lookout point that offered the best view of the walk. We looked out over a number of lakes in the distance, with rolling hills closer, then forest and then snow covered mountains in the foreground. Descending the far side of the mountain range was much easier than the ascent. The scenery was quickly changing, snow still covered the ground, but bushes, rocks and small trees began to make appearances. We had one more bum slide, this one was different in that we could see where we were headed and we had a few more obstacles to contend with, grass and intermittent rocks, still well worth the hazards.

The best part...sliding down the mountain on our bums

We carried on down towards the end of the trail and the surroundings continued to change. We came upon a thermal creek with steam rising over its bright red moss covered rocks and boulders. We continued to hike and the shrubs continued to increase in size until we reached dense rainforest with snow fed streams winding themselves through the green ferns and moss-covered trees. At the end of the trek we shed our soaking wet borrowed boots, pants and jackets and happily drank the free beer provided by the tour guides. After an eight-hour hike through powder snow, tundra, and rainforest, Jen and I slept very, very well that night.

Day 7 & 8: Wellington
After a good, long stop in Taupo, we jumped back on the Magic bus and headed to Wellington, the very south point of New Zealand’s North Island. This day consisted mainly of driving, with a few scenic stops, including a great view of the snow-capped Mt. Ngauruhoe. This mountain is also known as Mt. Doom in reference to its usage as the Mordor mountain in the Lord of the Rings.

Later that day, we arrived in Wellington, capital of New Zealand and home of Peter Jackson. Also home to a friend of ours, Trey, from back home in Austin. Wellington is a clean and bustling city. A bit chilly in the winter, but lots of great restaurants, cafes, museums, and harbor walks, all compacted into one small capital city. Trey was kind enough to show us around and treat us to a meal at one of his favorite local restaurants. Our second night there, we headed out with Trey to his work’s quiz night at a local pub. With images of “The Office” in mind, we began a fun night of mingling with the friendly local Kiwis and taking part in this oh so very British pastime.

Wellington, view from top of cable car ride

Day 9: South Island
Leaving Wellington and the North Island, we jumped on the ferry and headed to the city of Picton in the South Island. Our dear Magic bus greeted us at the ferry terminal, along with our new bus driver, Karl, who would turn out to be our driver for the rest of our NZ travels. Karl drove us down to Nelson, where we spent our first night. Nelson, being the quiet town that it is, didn’t offer us much other than a good example of a typical small NZ town, but it did have a quite beautiful setting by the water along with some exceptional jewelry shops.

Day 10: The West Coast
The beautiful western coastline of NZ’s South Island took up most of this day, including the famous “pancake rocks” in Punakaiki. Due to a weathering process known as stylobedding, these rocks form as though they are pancakes stacked one atop the other, often with blowholes of water surging in at various points. Altogether, it was a beautiful coastal area with plenty of photo-ops.

Jen & Mike at the Pancake Rocks - Punakaiki

We arrived in the small town of Greymouth in the late afternoon. We checked into our hostel, in which each room was themed with a different animal. Mike and I had the giraffe room. That night, due in part to the demands of our bus driver Karl, we headed out to the local pub to cheer on the NZ rugby team, All Blacks, in their game against Australia. A nice intro to the roughness of rugby and fortunately, the NZ All Blacks won.

Day 11: Franz Joseph & our 3rd Attempt at Sky Diving
Our next stop was Franz Joseph, well known for its mighty glacier. This was also, as we heard, an incredible place to sky dive, with a view of the snowy mountains and glacier below. We therefore decided to make our 3rd attempt at skydiving. Again, no luck. Intermittent rain prevented us this time. A big bummer, but our replacement activity made up for it, at least according to Mike it did. Enter, quad biking.

After suiting up in mud-proof outfits, Mike and I jumped on the back of one four-wheeler and made our way through the muddy grounds with a view of the glacier behind us. After about 30 minutes of kicking around mud, we came to a river crossing where the water had risen a bit due to recent rains. Our guide thought we’d be okay crossing it after he made his way safely across. The other girl in our group went for it first. About halfway across, the current got the best of her and she and her quad bike quickly began to head downstream. Our guide frantically went after her in the freezing cold water and was able to get a hold of the bike while she jumped off and made her way to a patch of land in the middle of the crossing. At this point there were two quad bikes on one side of the crossing, one badly water damaged and still halfway in the water, and our bike on the other side of the crossing. Our guide obviously needed help getting the bike out of the water and so who rushed to save the day?? Why, none other than Mike O’Hair! Mike ran across the freezing cold, waist-deep water, helped the guide hook up a cable from his bike to the bike in the water, and then hopped on the guide’s bike and began to tow it in. He brought the bike safely onto land and quickly looked in my direction to make sure I was taking photos of his heroism. Whoops. But it’s not over yet. He and the guide then flipped the bike onto its side to flush out all of the water. After much of the water was cleared out, the guide managed to get the bike started and drove it back over the crossing to where we started. Mike, on our guide’s bike, also rode across the rushing water, maneuvering the bike like the champ I always knew he was.

Mike saves the day!

Day 12: Franz Josef to Queenstown
We woke up early and headed out for Queenstown, but first passed through Fox Glacier for a coffee and breakfast, then Haast for a snack, and then Wanaka to stretch our legs and take some photos of their picturesque lake. Those that have been keeping up with the Flickr site will remember the picture of Jen and then I huddled in the trunk of a big willow tree, this was the place. Lake Wanaka is a beautiful lake with mountains surrounding the North and West sides, small boats sailing by and ducks waddling about the bank.

This day encompassed more driving than an average day and we hit Queenstown near dusk. Queenstown has a nice ski village feel to it, quite like Breckenridge or Crested Butte. Everything was well within walking distance from our hostel, and since this was one of the few places in New Zealand that we decided to go out and test the bar scene, that came in handy. Some of those pictures have also made it online, namely the ones where we're practicing the haka along with our English friend Lorna and Karl, greatest bus driver in NZ. Haka, as we mentioned earlier, is the traditional Maori war dance where they stick their tongues way out.

Day 13: Milford Sound
We scheduled a side tour to Milford Sound the day after our night out on the town. We were up before the sun and met up with our bus for the 5-hour ride out to the Sound. We caught a break with the weather and were told that we were one of the few tours that month that had not been cancelled by snow, since the drive out there cuts through some pretty high mountain passes and can be sketchy this time of the year.

On the drive, at all three of our stops we encountered the Kea, a mountain parrot and one of, if not the, smartest bird in the world. These guys are extremely curious birds and, though they are wild animals, get very close to the tour groups and can cause some serious havoc in an unguarded campsite or picnic.

We arrived at the port, where all the tour boats depart from to view the Sound, around noon. As we waited to board the boat, we ate our packed lunch and took in the magnificent view. A sound is valley that has been cut out by glaciers and is then filled in with water. The Milford Sound is a fairly long valley with mountains towering on both sides and meets the Tasman Sea on New Zealand's west coast. Traveling on the sound in between the massive snow-covered mountains, we saw waterfalls of varying degree fed by the melting snowcaps, some with torrents of water raining down and others no more than a light sprinkle, but all fell quite a distance. I know I am not doing this site justice, so here's a photo to fill in the blanks.

Waterfall at Milford Sound

Milford Sound, NZ

Day 14: Elm Wildlife Tour in Dunedin
After leaving the snow-covered ground of Queenstown, we hopped back on the Magic Bus and made our way to Dunedin, a small, but lively college town in the southeast of the island, also home to the world's steepest street. Immediately upon arriving, Mike and I were picked up by our Elm Wildlife Tour guide, who drove us out to the Otago Peninsula, where we visited a royal albatross colony, mingled with feisty sea lions on the beach, and spied on rare yellow-eyed penguins as they came home from a day at sea and greeted their loved ones. The best way to describe this adventure is with our photos up on Flickr.

Yellow-eyed penguin close-up

Day 15: Dunedin to Tekapo
We said farewell to Dunedin and it was on to Tekapo and its lake by the same name. On the way we made a quick lunch and site-seeing stop at the Moeraki boulders near Oamaru. We rolled into Tekapo rather early and went by their famous church which over looks the lake and is said to host more than 600 weddings a year. With not much to do in this little town and us quickly running out of New Zealand dollars we decided to walk up to the grocery store for a meal in that night. Next to the Tongariro Crossing this was the coldest we'd been in NZ. Luckily we layered up for the walk, but it was next to comical how strong the wind was blowing and how biting it was. We did the walk in record time and didn't leave the hostel until our departure the next morning.

Day 16: Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
Heading to our final Magic Bus destination, Christchurch, we made one stop to see New Zealand’s highest peak, the mighty Mt. Cook. Unfortunately, the weather that day was overcast and a large cloud sat right in front of the peak, not budging the entire time we were there. We bought a postcard instead. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, was a very cool city, known for its gothic cathedral situated in the center of town. Here we tried to catch up on our Flickr photos, and paid the insanely expensive price of $10 an hour for wireless internet at of all places, Starbucks, the only place in town we found with WiFi.

Day 17: Back to Auckland
Since we only had 18 days in New Zealand and needed to get back to Auckland for our flight out of the country, we took a flight from Christchurch on the east coast of the south island back up to Auckland on the northwest coast of the north island. When we arrived in Auckland the rain was coming down hard outside and neither we nor our bags got away without a good soaking. Though we didn't particularly like the shower facilities (one of the worst I've seen on our travels) at the Beyond Backers in Auckland, we decided to go back. One, we knew how to get there, and two, we left a bag in their baggage storage, so we returned for our last night in New Zealand. They also have wireless internet in their lounge, a big plus for us.

Day 18: Goodbye NZ!
Sadly enough, this was our final day in New Zealand. After checking out of our hostel, we took the Airbus to the airport, giving ourselves plenty of time to make our flight to Sydney. Of course, the Airbus, which usually takes about 20-30 minutes, took over an hour to get to the airport, partly because the bus driver decided to chat up every person on the street during his routine stops. After waiting in line to check-in and hand over our bags, we rushed to the security/exit customs area only to find an even more massive queue. While biting our nails and cursing the Airbus, we hear that our plane is calling for final boarding of all passengers. Then they began announcing that the 5 final passengers, including Mike and me, needed to proceed immediately to the gate for departure. I concluded that there was no way we were going to make it, but the line moved along and we finally made it through, throwing our bags on the security belt, and then making a sprint across the airport to our gate. We arrived winded and received glaring looks from the attendants as they checked our tickets and let us through. After settling in to our seats, Mike turned to me with a big smile, “See, we made it. We’re just keeping things interesting.” I responded with a roll of my eyes.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Our "bus normale" trip across Southern Peru

Our Peruvian bus trip from Cusco to Arequipa left the station at 6:45 on a very cold July morning, remember southern hemisphere, it’s winter for these guys. For some reason this route was more difficult to secure a bus ticket for than most of our South American connections and we had to ride, what they call down there, a “bus normale”. This is the mode of transportation most of the locals take. When you think of foreigners in a foreign land traveling through a dusty, bumpy countryside surrounded by natives, this was how we were traveling; crammed into an outdated bus that sat 44, but was shipping well over that. We purchased the tickets the night before after hitting almost every bus company in the terminal. Absolutely everything else was sold out and the lady at the Civa bus company desk (Civa came recommended by Lonely Planet, thanks again guys) said these tickets wouldn’t be around much longer… she also told us we were in store for a 9 hour bus ride which turned into 12 long ones, but anyway when we found that out we were well away from her “customer service” desk.

We were up before the sun, caught a cab to the terminal, and made our way to the gate. Quick note about transport in South America, after purchasing your tickets you must also go to another window and pay a terminal tax (sometimes two in Bolivia), this threw me the first couple of times, thought we might be getting ripped off, but no, it’s legit. Showed the first guy our bus tickets, and then showed the second guy our tax stamps, and then kept the tickets in hand because at minimum we knew we had two to three more checks before we were in our seats.

Getting bags and your bodies on a Southern Peruvian (or Bolivian) bus is something else; it’s the first good shove you’ll receive of the morning. Westerners have been queuing since almost birth, so we can make a pretty organized and coherent line (in our sleep at that). In this part of the world, the concept hasn’t really caught on, in baggage and bus lines at least. It turns into a big pushing and shoving match. I’ve found waiting in the back and letting the melee die down a bit before approaching the baggage collection guy is the best way to handle the situation; plus who wants to be on that bus for longer than they have to. I made my way to the baggage doors, showed this guy our tickets, handed over the bags and he in turned gave me more paper I would surely lose so, Jen handles all those sorts of items on this trip, thank God. We make our way to the bus door, show the next two guys our tickets and we’re in. The initial boarding of a bus like this is usually the hardest part of the trip. First off, you get hit with a smell of musty, moist 30-year-old seat cushions and bodily fluids. Then its squeezing and nudging your way down an aisle made for a small person, but having to fit two or, if you have someone in a real hurry, three in between the left and right aisle seats—a very tight squeeze.

We had yet to pick a really good seat on a bus thus far in the trip. For us, since we purchase our tickets in advance (advance meaning before the bus starts moving), we choose our seats at the ticket desk before seeing the actual bus. In the past we’ve been too close to the bathroom, big mistake on a 16-hour bus ride, or been in seats that had a crossbar where two windows met, hence no opening window of our own or seats that didn’t recline because of obstructions or seats with a view blocked by the driver’s curtain… the list goes on, mainly involving loud or roaming children. So, at this point we pick seats a bit front of center and hoped for the best.

When Jen and I jumped on the bus we weren’t expecting much in the way of comfort, but were hoping to get a nap in, see some of the countryside and read a few chapters in our books. The bus filled up quickly and since the other bus classes were sold out we knew this was a popular route. Jen took the window seat and I sat by the aisle. We get settled and notice that this bus, like a lot of the buses of the area, had seats made for people that average between 5ft to 5’4”, not bad for the average local (or Jen), a pretty tight squeeze for me; knees buried into the seat in front and arms dangling over the arm rests.

Just like the beginning of many of our South American bus trips this one began in complete chaos and bedlam. People everywhere, twice what you’d except in an area that size, sitting, standing, cramming things in the overhead shelves and others selling god knows what over the rows of people. We see the majority of seats filled, with people pushing about and more passengers piling on and more passengers piling on, until all the seats were occupied, then standing in the aisle. From past experiences we knew that it’s custom for relatives to say their goodbyes on the bus, showing their relatives to their seats, then running frantically, pushing and shoving, to the front when the bus starts moving, but most people were just standing waiting. I am thinking, 9 hours standing (not yet knowing we had 12 glorious hours ahead) on a bus going over some pretty treacherous roads… I am glad Jen and I secured these seats early.

Everything settles a bit after the bus engines rev and kicks it into reverse. Heading out of the bus station parking lot I have my book in arms reach and am contemplating dosing off or looking over Jen’s shoulder as the city passes by when we hit our first of many axle grinding bumps. There’s a collective gasp, a few things from the overhead rack fall on passengers in the back and a native catches herself on my upper arm. Not with her hand mind you, but with her bum. She sat right on me. Little awkward, but I was thinking the moment would quickly pass. Nope, she rather liked that spot and since I didn’t immediately object she probably thought I was ok with it. She was your everyday Peruvian Indian women with 1980 style dress shoes, dresses and skirts stacked underneath her aprons, with mountains of blouses on top of shirts; then wrapped in a blanket of multi colors, braids down to the middle of her back and a hat; (plus no shower in a long weekend or so). Since this was a very cold morning all these layers made sense, normally it’s not this cold, but they tend to wear the same number of layers.

The eighteen inches of personal space doesn’t exist in other countries as it does in the States and I am ok with 12 or even 6 when space is limited. Now when it quickly approaches zero, meets it and stays for an hour and a half on your arm that is when I get uncomfortable. My mom has brought up a polite, young man and when I initially saw these women standing I toyed with the idea of standing and letting them take my seat, but two things came to mind; one, Jen then having to sit next to and smell them for the rest of the trip and two, these ladies nearly pushing me to the ground to get into their standing positions, so the offer passed through my mind rather quickly. My politeness was still taking over though and I couldn’t bring myself to full out push this lady off my arm. The small nudging I was delivering wasn’t having its effect and I couldn’t cough or clear my throat loud enough for her to hear it over the din of the bus and passengers and constant honking on the streets, so I sat and waited; hoping that this lady didn’t have a ticket all the way to Arequipa.

While having the native sitting on my left side, people shoving in the aisles, coupled with new people joining us at each stop light or slow turn around a corner, we also had every manner of salesman joining us on this jam-packed bus. They would jump on, sell their items over the mass of people in record time and hop off to harass the next group of travelers. With a captive and passive audience promised, these salesman were numerous and of every shape and size; small girls selling sodas foreign and domestic, middle aged woman selling popcorn, toothbrushes, mouthwash; old women selling lemons and oranges, men selling butterscotches and even a sort of South American encyclopedia set. Though the books were much smaller, for example the life sciences were condensed into a single easy to read 75 page, pictured filled book.

One sales duo worth mentioning was arguably the most popular of the traveling sales people. Two native women boarded the bus from a small abode dwelling half way through our route, in the middle of the Peruvian wastelands, with a big bundle wrapped in the ubiquitous colorful Indian blankets. The bigger and younger of the two women set the bundle down, one side on my arm rest, which forced me to lean well into Jen’s seat and the other on my neighbor’s. She began to carefully un-wrap her package. First she untied the blankets, then a sheet, and then a few layers of dark brown well-recycled wax paper. Before I could really make out what was inside the bundle, her hand rooted around in the small opening and produced a large meat cleaver. In one fluid motion the cleaver went high above her head and the other hand spread out the corners of the wax paper wide. Her cleaver came down several times with force enough to jolt my seat. The women’s free hand then found clear plastic bags and with the now free striking hand she grabbed a hand full of freshly hacked smoked meat of some sort and then a link of exceptionally greasy sausage. She did this repeatedly, handing the newly stuffed bags of meat to her partner who in turn sold them for 5 Peruvian soles, a steal in any currency. I was able to take a peek at the contents after she set the cleaver aside, and with my head no more than a couple of feet from the action, I still couldn’t make out what sort of animal it came from. Right off the bat I eliminated beef and pork, the smell and texture wasn’t right. I would guess either llama or donkey, I’d bet on llama, but no speculation on the sausage. These ladies cleaned up, made a killing; sold a good three-fourths of their carcass. Then wrapped everything up, ran to the front, pounded several times on the driver’s door and jumped off the bus in a spot just as secluded as their embarkment.

Roughly 2 hours after the start of the trip, just when it seemed we were through picking up random passengers in town, the lady on my arm found her destination and people were beginning to catch cat naps, the music kicked on. Jen and I were directly under one of the two speakers on the bus and could feel the traditional Peruvian music in the deepest recesses of our brains. We both scrambled for ear protection, I had ear plugs and Jen threw on her iPod to no avail. We’ve both been to numerous rock shows and I for one had never heard music that loud. It was ear piercing with the plugs in. We were both at a loss as to what to do for the second time on the bus ride. Should I try and tell the bus driver in my broken Spanish that he was destroying the hearing of his 60 plus passengers or at minimum, again in broken Spanish, take a census to see how many enjoyed crappy Latin music with the volume cranked to eleven. The speaker was clearly blown and crackled and popped every time a drum beat came in, but looking around no one was appalled; very few looked displeased, not nearly enough for a mutiny. So we sat there as passive observers to the oddest bus trip we had been on yet. We sat for about an hour and a half waiting while we slowly went insane, until the music just cut off, never to be heard again that day.

After the traveling butcher shop and insanely loud music we had another visitor that gained the attention of the bus: the traveling encyclopedia salesman. With his front two teeth missing he was able to deliver his sales speech above the racket of conversations and road noise. He leaped on the bus at about hour 8, when Jen and I were contemplating walking the rest of the way, and traveled with us for two hours or so. With him he dragged on two big duffle bags and gave the bus a sales pitch worthy of any I’ve heard. He went through the entire set of books for the audience covering A to Z, after that he went back to take us through, blow for blow, the history of Peru. Then if learning wasn’t really a rider’s thing, he also had posters and stickers of your favorite soccer or “futbol” stars to hawk. To my surprise he sold a good bulk of his books and posters and left as quick as he came with a third of his items.

So there it is—our most memorable bus trip thus far in our travels. Some of the Bolivian bus trips were close, but this one had all the quintessential South American bus travel goodies wrapped into one neat little package. Some of the items I didn’t mention above were the baby changing, breast feeding and crying, but anybody that has flown on a plane or been in a south Texas shopping mall has seen that lately.

Stay tuned for more posts, we’re in Australian at the moment, but heading to Singapore on Oct 10th.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Last bit of South America Continued...

Okay, so back to La Paz, the largest and highest city in Bolivia, according to our guidebook. And I would like to add, the dirtiest. Wow, where do I begin with La Paz. Imagine a shopping mall that sells anything and everything you can imagine. Now imagine that all the shop owners take all of their goods and plop them on a table in the middle of the busiest street in town. And now imagine that all the goods are complete crap. Add in loads of shoe shiners wearing ski masks, vans driving by with 10-year-old boys yelling out destinations and prices, indigenous women in bollo hats rushing around, and a few men pissing on the street, and voila!’ve got La Paz. Ok, ok, I’m being a bit harsh. But I don’t think I’m too far off. It’s quite an experience. We did find a great hostel to stay in called the Adventure Brewery Hostel, a hostel and microbrewery in one! They have a BBQ every other night and make a seriously good burger on the grill. You can also find some good bites to eat if you stick to what the Lonely Planet recommends. And there’s lots of cheap shopping, of course. I think the scariest thing that we heard about being sold on the street were the Radio Taxi signs that cabs put on top of their cab. The local police and guidebooks always tell tourists to only take taxis that have the Radio Taxi sign on top of the cab, otherwise you risk getting into a fake cab and being temporarily kidnapped and robbed. And here they are selling these things on the street! Your best bet is to get your hostel or hotel to call a taxi for you. That’s certainly what we did.

One of the very best things about La Paz is that it is where Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking runs its trips down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road". After a bit of coaxing on Mike’s part, I agreed to give this craziness a try and we signed up. The road gets its name because it has the most deaths per year of any other road in the world. It is a long, winding, narrow, dirt road with drop-offs like you’ve never seen. And by the end of it, you are deep in the Bolivian rainforest. It averages about a bus a week that goes off the road. We actually saw a tour bus that had gone off the road the previous week sitting at the bottom of a ravine. Not a good sight to see. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, but believe it or not, drunk driving is actually the leading cause of accidents.

The End of the World's Most Dangerous Road

We, however, made it safely down to Corioco and quickly began planning our next adventure into the Bolivian jungle. All of the other bike riders who weren’t staying on to do a jungle tour actually had to ride the Gravity van back up the World’s Most Dangerous Road to get back to La Paz that evening. We opted not to do that, for obvious reasons, and we were especially happy with our decision when it began to pour down rain right before they were loading up to leave. Imagine traveling that road in the rain? No thanks.

For our jungle tour, we went with a company called Deep Rainforest. We ended up really liking them and would recommend them. The first day, a driver drove the 7 of us to the river where we met our tour guides and the boat. Along for the journey was myself, Mike, 2 guys from Australia, 2 girls from England, and one guy from Spain plus one English-speaking guide, one non-English-speaking guide, a guy to drive the boat, and a cook and her son. We camped out two nights under a tarp, one night on the bank of the river and the other night in a small village with about 15 people and one sloth living there. During the day, we did treks through the jungle/rainforest with Ruben, our guide, literally creating the path with his machete as we went. We also went piranha fishing and actually ate what we caught that night for dinner. We even snuck up on a huge pack of wild boars at one point…around 100 of them!! Good thing they didn’t try to charge us. Mean buggers.

Piranha close-up

On the third day, we were in the boat most of the day, heading through the beautiful national reserve of Madidi. The views were spectacular. Madidi is supposed to be one of the most well preserved rainforests in the world. By the end of the day, we had made it to Rurrenabaque, the largest town in the Bolivian jungle…3 days and 2 nights without showers or toilets and we were very happy to be back in civilization. From there, we hopped on a tiny Amazonas flight (complete with a grass runway) and headed back to La Paz to begin our travels down to Uyuni for our final tour in Bolivia, the salt deserts.

Jen about to board our plane out of the jungle

After passing through the small towns of Sucre and Potosi, we finally made it to Uyuni. Traveling across Bolivia takes a REALLY long time, as there are very few flights anywhere and so everyone just ends up taking buses. And unlike buses in Argentina, there are NO nice buses in Bolivia…you’re lucky if you find a road that’s actually paved. More than likely, you’re traveling on a dusty and bumpy dirt road, packed into a dingy bus with locals sitting all along the aisles and probably on top of you if you have the aisle seat (sorry Mike). The bus proceeds to stop every 15 minutes to let someone on who will try to sell you something, usually some sort of mystery food. It also smells pretty bad...because of the mystery food or the locals letting their kids and animals pee on the floor. Unfortunately, if you open the window, you just get a swarm of dust in your face. Also, the bus NEVER leaves on time and so your trip almost always ends up taking longer than what they told you. Yeah…I think I’ve had all the Bolivian bus rides I can take for a lifetime. I don’t know, I hear Greyhound buses in the States are pretty bad…

But back to Uyuni. This is the town that everyone starts their Salar de Uyuni (aka, salt desert) tours from. Not much to it and it’s very, very cold. However, there is a fantastic pizza place called Minutemen, which is owned by an ex-pat from Boston. They also serve up some amazing pancakes for breakfast…with maple syrup! That was a first for us in South America. Anyhow, at this point, we had met back up with our Arizona friends, Erin and Cira, and so we decided to book a 4-day, 3-night tour together with Licanabur/Tupiza Tours, who were recommended in the Lonely Planet (but that we would NOT recommend). The way these tours work is that you have a guide who drives a group of about 6 people across the salt desert, spending the night in very basic accommodations in small towns along the way. Basically, we had no heat, no hot water, and no electricity. There was a cook that came along as well and cooked up all of our meals. It was so cold that we had to sleep with our hats and gloves on. But all of this was well worth it for incredible landscapes that we got to see, which hopefully you all have already checked out in our photos. Flamingos, geysers, mirror lakes, red & green lagoons, volcanoes, and lots of salt!! Bolivia, surprisingly enough, seems to have it all. Unfortunately, we struck some bad luck in that our guides turned out to be really bad. They hardly spoke to us and usually lied to us when they did. Very strange. But for some reason, lying seems to be a very common thing that Bolivians do to tourists.

Jen has Mike in the palm of her hand...

By the end of our tour, we had made it down to Tupiza, which is in the very south of Bolivia. We were so anxious to get back to Argentina that we decided to immediately jump on a bus down to the Argentine border, crossover, and catch an overnight bus to Salta, Argentina. Around midnight, as soon as all of us were fast asleep on the bus, we get woken up for a checkpoint. Everyone is told to get off the bus, take ALL of our luggage off the bus, and wait in line for it to be searched by the Argentine border patrol. It was freezing cold and we were tired, but it’s understandable. I’m sure there are people that try to smuggle illegal items across the border. However, we weren’t so understanding when we stopped AGAIN at 3am to do the exact same thing AGAIN. Even funnier was that the border patrol didn’t even bother to search our bags as soon as they saw our U.S. passports.

So, needless to say, by the time we got our sleep-deprived and very, very dirty selves (none of us had showered in over 5 days) to Salta we were quite excited…we had made it to Argentina! Ahhhh…real coffee, real food, hot water…we were in heaven. As our luck would have it, it so happened to be Argentina’s 2-week winter holiday and the city was packed. It was 6am and we had to try around 7 hostels/hotels before we found a place with room. Luckily, a very nice cab driver helped us out and drove us around to all of these places. Love the Argentines. Sadly though, due to the holiday craziness, we decided to nix our ski trip to Bariloche. Next time, next time. Instead, we headed straight back to our home away from home, Buenos Aires, where we quickly adjusted to a life of WiFi cafes, boutique shopping, devouring delicious meats and empanadas, and starting our nights out at 1am. Our last 2 weeks in BA flew by and soon enough we were saying goodbye to South America, a continent that both Mike and I will definitely be returning to at another time in our lives….hopefully sooner than later!

As of now, we are in Aussie country. After a quick 17 days in New Zealand and about a week here in Sydney, we are headed to Melbourne tonight. We spent my b-day last night seeing Rigoletto at the Sydney Opera House and then eating seafood at a restaurant on the harbor. Really good!

But more to come soon about all of that as well as New Zealand!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New Zealand & a bit more on Peru & Bolivia

Hello mates! As they would say here in New Zealand, where we’ve been now for over two weeks. This beautiful country has kept us so busy with all sorts of outdoor adventures that we’ve barely seen a computer in all our time here (which is probably a good thing). We’ve seen penguins, fur seals, sea lions, volcanoes, and all sorts of amazing landscapes, gone blackwater rafting in a caves filled with gloworms, trekked across a mountain in snow up to our calves, driven ATVs through the rainforest, experienced a traditional Maori concert and dinner, and loads more! But first, we need to catch up on the last of our South American adventures.

Our first stop in Peru was Cusco, a very touristy, but nice city where everyone comes before heading up to Machu Picchu. We felt a bit spoiled there, but happily so, with tons of good restaurants and bars to choose from and lots of shopping. We were especially excited when the French owner of a bar we frequented called Pepe Zeta recommended an Indian food restaurant that of course I can't remember the name of, but it's the only one in town. The food was so good and such a nice change of pace that we ate there twice. After a few days acclimatizing to the altitude and watching the last of the World Cup games, we took the train up to Aguas Calientes, which is the village just below the Machu Picchu ruins. We spent one night there so that we could get an early start the following day at the ruins. One note about Aguas Calientes: they do have hot water, as the name would imply…there are hot water springs that you can take a dip in for a small price. The setting is quite amazing with the Andes hovering above you and lush greenery all around, however, I wouldn’t recommend actually going into the water. Not the cleanest or best smelling water and the locals believe the pools are medicinal, so you’ll see men with huge wounds just plopping right in. Eww. Unfortunately, Mike and I realized this after the fact. No worries though, we are still here and healthy.

But anyhow, as I’m sure you guys have seen in our photos, we made it up to Machu Picchu very early the next day...we took the 5:30am bus, which got us there at about 6am. This is the absolute best time to arrive, as there is no one else there, save for a few llamas. After loading up on photos at the Caretaker’s Hut, which is where you can take the famous shot of the ruins, we headed through to the back of the ruins, where Wayna Picchu is. They allow only 400 people a day to climb this very steep mountain. And steep it was, with ropes to help you along in the more challenging spots. It does quite a number on your legs, but well worth it for the views at the top. If you are heading to Machu Picchu and decide to do the climb, just don’t turn your back to the edge when taking a photo. We were told that a lady did that and starting stepping backward to adjust the view of her photo and she stepped until there was no longer ground under her feet. There’s really not much to save you at those heights. And of course, this is Peru, so there’s no warning signs anywhere.

mike & jen machu picchu shot

We also did the hike to the Great Cave, which we would not recommend as it takes about 3 hours there and back and really isn’t so “great”. We were also out of water by that time and began to greatly despise anything that went even slightly uphill. Nevertheless, we made it back to check out the rest of the ruins, which by midday were packed with tourists.

After one more night resting our sore legs in Cusco, we headed to Arequipa next. Our bus trip there was quite a unique experience (and one that I hope never to have again), but Mike is writing up something about that and will post it a bit later. We quite liked Arequipa, which is located in the southwest part of Peru and is known as "the white city” for its white colonial buildings. They have an incredible monastery there that we took a tour of as well as Juanita, the most well preserved ice mummy in South America…or maybe it was the first. Either way, it was super cool.

From Arequipa, we took a guided tour to the Colca Canyon, stopping for one night in a small, small town called Chivay. We met some really cool girls from Arizona, who you will see in our photos (we met up with them again later in Bolivia and Argentina). We did some Peruvian dancing and ate some Peruvian food, which is basically white rice, maybe some fries and a slice of tomato or two, and meat, either alpaca (llama), chicken, or trout. Gets a bit old as you would imagine. And yes, Mike always opted for the llama, in case anyone was wondering. The next morning, we woke up at 5am and headed out to do some condor watching! These birds were HUGE with a wingspan about the size of an NBA player. We were also at some pretty high elevations throughout this trip, so we stopped often for some mate de coca (tea with coca leaves) or munched on coca leaves and coca candy, all of which are meant to help with altitude. Can’t really say that it did, but we tried it out anyway. When in Rome…

Coca leaves...helps with the altitude (& illegal in most countries)

After leaving Arequipa, we bussed it down to Puno for our final stop in Peru. Puno, unfortunately, was not a very nice city, but it is where everyone comes for access to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, as well as the floating islands (Islas Flotantes). After a short boat ride, we stepped out onto the floating islands, which are so named because they are made entirely of straw and hence are floating in the lake. And there are people who actually live there, making their living mainly from tourism, of course, as well as selling miniature versions of all the millions of things that they make out of straw. Crazy stuff. Even crazier was that of all places to run into some fellow Austinites, it happened to be there…on islands made out of straw, in the middle of a lake, in Peru. Ha. And they are the only Austinites we’ve met so far during our entire trip.

From Puno, we bussed it again across the border to Bolivia for a look at the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca from a small town called Copacabana. MUCH nicer than Puno and we’d definitely recommend going that route if you have to choose between the two. Also, crossing the border by way of Yunguyo is MUCH better than going by way of Desaguadero. The first time we crossed by way of Yunguyo, it was a mad house (I think most of you saw the photo of me at the Peru border). There were Peruvians and Bolivians everywhere, half of them trying to cut in line for the immigration stamp and the other half trying to sell you pens to fill out your immigration forms. That’s South America for you. There are pens in the office by the way…chained to the wall. Anyhow, lucky for this Canadian guy on our bus that Mike and I happened to have a quick conversation with in the immigration office, because afterwards he walked off for a second to find a restroom and the bus started leaving and we were the only ones who noticed that he had not made it back on the bus. There’s no such thing as a “count”. So, we yelled at the driver to stop and Mike ran off to go find the guy. Whew. One lucky Canadian bacon. Sorry, we have to poke a little fun at Canadians, considering how much they absolutely despise being confused with Americans. So much so in fact, that it’s very common among the traveling community to ask a person with a North American accent if they are Canadian first, because they get HIGHLY offended if you ask them if they are American. Ridiculous.

But back to Copacabana. We splurged a bit here and stayed in a really nice hotel called Hotel Cupola. We had our very own little bungalow with a great view of the lake. A whopping $32 dollars a night for the two of us. Gotta love that exchange rate…8 bolivianos to the dollar. During the day, we headed out to La Isla del Sol, about an hour and half by boat from the shore. There are some truly spectacular views of Lake Titicaca from here. This was where the Incas believed the Sun was born. We hiked across the entire island, about 3.5 hours of nonstop walking…lots of uphill, too, so not so easy. But we met some really nice Brazilian and French people along the way, so it was good fun.

Jen's new friend

Our next stop was La Paz, but unfortunately I’m going to have to save that for our next post as the internet here in New Zealand is quite expensive and we need to head to the airport for our flight to Sydney. Yes! We are already moving on! But don’t worry, we’ll catch you guys up on everything in between when we get chance. By the way, the last of our South American photos are up on Flickr and New Zealand photos will be coming soon. Sweet as.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Back to a more refined section of South America

Ahhhhh!! Back in Argentina and lovin it! As Jen said, we had a good time in Peru and Bolivia and saw tons of amazing sites, but Buenos Aires is now like a home away from home for the both of us and its great to be here. With Leticia being such an incredible hostess (even though she’s thousands of miles away at the moment, we’re still getting check ups and event calendar updates emailed daily) and with the people being as nice as they can be, how could we not be enjoying ourselves?

Since we’ve gotten back to BA we’ve devoted the majority of our time to eating great high quality inexpensive food (namely beef), drinking plenty of fresh brewed coffee (a rarity in Peru and Bolivia) and posting massive amounts of travel photos. I hope everyone has been keeping up because at this point we’ve just made through the near end of our Brasil travels and still have Peru and Bolivia to go.

the bday boy

From here on out we’re going to try and be a bit more specific about the traveling as far as naming, and sort of rating, the modes of transportation, the hostels, bars, restaurants and tour agencies. We’ve found some very useful info on others travel blogs and thought we’d add to the travel info database… plus we have a couple of complaints and don’t want others to make the same mistakes… all and all we’re having a terrific time, have met tons of great people, but still wish we had everyone from home going through these experiences with us. Keep checking back and we miss ya'll.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Back in good ole BA

Well, we have officially survived our South American travels! Mike and I made it back to Buenos Aires about 2 days ago and have been completely indulging in all the wonderful, wonderful things that make up this incredible city. As I said to Mike, Argentina really feels like Europe after traveling in countries like Peru and Bolivia. Not to say that we did not truly enjoy those countries (photos to come of all the beautiful landscapes!), but it's very nice to be back in a country with good food & coffee, warmer weather, and toilets that flush. I think we both feel very at home here.

But anyway, I wanted to let everyone know that we are going to be uploading lots and lots of photos on our Flickr site over the next week. Since I have not been able to upload any of my photos since we first left BA (they've all been from Mike's camera), we'll be starting again from the beginning at Iguazu...a little recap of our entire South American journey. We'll try to get a new batch up every day, so keep checking back! We'll also be posting some stories to the blog. We apologize for not having kept up with it as much, but Peru and Bolivia aren't exactly on the Information Superhighway. Plus, we were really on the move a lot....taking in lots and lots of landscapes and wildlife, biking down the "World's Most Dangerous Road", camping out in the Bolivian jungle, and freezing our butts off in salt deserts that are often said to resemble Salvador Dali paintings. More details and photos on all of these things to come soon. We hope everyone is doing well at home and knows that we miss you all very much!