The End of my Travels

Well, this is the end of the travel tales.

I was just thinking – maybe in the future I will avoid random stock market entries at Ecuadorian airports in light of the whole market crash as of late. I did like this summary courtesy of the Globe and Mail:

“Hi, TD Waterhouse? I’d like to know what your return policy is please.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Well, I bought some stocks and they all plunged in price. I’d like to return them for a refund.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, sir.”

“Oh no? Let me speak to your supervisor. I don’t get this sort of runaround at Wal-Mart.”

I am happy to be back in Canada. Edmonton was awesome. I found a cool place to live just off Whyte Ave. Enter random Edmonton fun, like the huge mall. I shot a 9mm Glock at the mall. Fifty rounds that totally wiped out some sketchy zombie on the target. Well, after I first wasted a full 10-round clip on the wall, the floor, possibly the roof and other places that were nowhere in the neighborhood of the zombie target. And then there was the deadly roller coaster at the world’s biggest mall* with the world’s biggest indoor theme park made me almost pass out but was fun and not deadly.

*well at least as of 2004.
The whole Asian boom has not been good for anyone clinging onto a turn-of-the-millennium ‘world’s biggest’ title’. Good thing that I like 2004. I think that The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Jet were all really popular then. And Modest Mouse became mainstream. And I lived in Grande Prairie. Fun stuff all around.

Like 'a Christmas Story' is so many ways....

Anyway, the end of the blog. What I ended up with was this:

23,600 rambling words condenses to this...


Wordle is the program that Kyle and Phoebe showed me today that summarized words (copy/paste into the box) based on frequencey. It’s very cool.

Now, some random travel notes….

Quick dry clothes – what a bad idea! Laundry services for about $1 per kilo were available everywhere at almost every hostel. Same day delivery. So trying to hang ‘fast dry’ underwear is lame because… it’s not that fast drying. Especially when it is cold, high elevation and heater-less like Bolivia.

Small backpack – a good idea. 35L for everything. I hated it at first because it really restricted the amount of gear available. But it was a good idea it turns out once I got a day bag to take some of the pressure off. Of course now I need another one thanks to United. Waitta handle baggage, guys.

Packsafe (TM). Pictured. I porpose remnaming whatever the name is to the Mega Chain Paranoia Jailhouse Edition (Bryan TM). I was so clueless beforehand it crossed my mind that this may be a good idea. I saw two out of the tens of thousands of obvious backpackers. The scream ‘freakshow transporting jewels’ or ‘I just escaped from a maritime fishing line’ or ‘I love paying bribes Senior.’ I am so glad that I did not buy one of these. All the hostels have lockers available so it is totally unneeded.

bad idea!

Plane Tickets. I have had good luck with changing airports, times and dates when in Mexico and the US. It is always a few hundred dollars, but it’s worth it. I stuck out this time. The fine print said ‘unchangeable’ and ‘non-refundable.’ Lame. Next time I will verify this for sure, especially given buying round trip tickets is generally so cheap – so if they are movable it’s way better than a pair of separate one-way tickets.

Proof of onward travel. Like I mentioned here previously, this is made to be circumvented in reasonable situations. Why buy an unneeded bus ticket just to appease some airline desk jockey?

Wireless Internet. It’s everywhere. Internet kiosks are still very common, but they are slow and inconvenient. In the hostels the computers can often be relics. I was at a great hostel in El Calefate in Argentina when I made the decision to buy a netbook. The hostel had 2 PCs side by side. They were so slow that I would make one window go on one PC, then another one on the other machine go. Every click caused the hourglass of death to crop up for five seconds. It was like racing turtles. It was not bandwidth it was just old 486 machines trying to go. My netbook is great.

Buses were generally about $5 per hour of travel everywhere but Bolivia and Ecuador. I enjoyed my trips for the most part too.

HostelWorld is an awesome site for finding places to stay. HostelBookers is reasonable but is weighted down with reviews from idiots. HostelWorld gets around this by telling you how many reviews each individual has posted which gives a sense of perspective. The real time feedback loop is so much better than a guidebook like Lonely Planet.

People were awesome and I was really fortunate to meet so many awesome travelers and locals. Of course a few of them suck, but that’s life.

The Big Mac Index is alive and well. As if July 2011 the details for the aforementioned burger are:

*$4.84 Argentina
*$4.74 Colombia
*$4.73 Canada
*$4.07 USA
*$4.00 Chile

A European Guy asked me what ‘Canadian food’ was. I told him just a lot of different food from a lot of different countries. He was unimpressed. His follow up, which may be most effectively re-told with a beret and a terrible attitude, is:

Sooooo… what food you like?? Le McDonalds!?! Heh? Is that it?

I spent 3 weeks in the ‘big cities‘ – BA, Santiago and Bogota. There was then another 4 weeks in other cities with over a million people – Mendoza, La Paz, Guayaquil, Quito, Cartagenia, Medellin. The other 8 weeks were in smaller towns usually. Or on the bus. It made for a good mix.

Languages. The continental Europeans give me an inferiority complex. Their linguistic skills are absolutely amazing. As for the British… well they’re in the same boat as me, with English and some scattered odds and ends. Fluency is rare. It’s interesting what has happened with the European university degrees. They are now 3-year undergraduate degrees, often combined with a 1-year or 2-year master’s degrees. So there are a lot of grad degrees granted after 4 years of total studying with is a strong contrast to the North American system.

I missed foosball – it was nearly as ubiquitous as I would have thought. And chess too, but that’s on the geekier end of the spectrum so no surprises there.

I was hoping to find a Carl’s Jr in the airports on the way back. That would have gotten me back to normal size quickly. But no luck! There is now a Canadian franchise in Kelowna apparently, but I don’t like Kelowna so that’s not happening.

Their motto is the unfortunate ‘don’t bother me. I’m eating.’ This was taken off in Idiocracy, a movie that I like. The movies gives CJ’s the classy new slogan of ‘@*#! you! I'm eating!!’

Anyway, thanks for reading!

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Colombia – Last Stop & the 1980’s

Colombia was my stop for the last three weeks. Unfortunately I had a pretty overwhelming ‘excited to be back in Canada soon’ attitude. But despite that it’s an amazing, vibrant country.

Medellin was a gorgeous city. It used to the world’s most dangerous city in the late ’80’s according to Time Magazine. Time probably used to be a somewhat less brain-dead publication back then I bet. There is a Pablo Escobar tour that was apparently interesting, but I passed on it. You get to wear Pablo’s hat and talk to his brother. Pablo the notorious drug baron was a big reason for the notorious past – his paid his thugs $600 for each cop they killed and all police & officials had the choice: “Plata o Plomo” which is silver (aka cash) or lead, as in bullet. But history is history so credit to the brother for making a living off it. Now the murder rate is just over 2000 per year, which is still substantial given there are 2.3 million people in the town.

In comparison, when I got to Edmonton, the big news was that the Calgary newspaper ran this charming photoshop as a headline:

There have been 33 murders in Edmonton this year in a city of 1.0 M making it the murder capital of Canada. The rolleroaster in West Ed mall has killed some people before, in the 80’s I believe, likely on Pablo’s orders. But I survived it yesterday….

Back to Colombia, the next stop was Cartagena via an overnight bus. Picturesque colonial town. But it was outrageously hot in the mid 30s. The town itself is very ‘touristy’ which I never like because it means a ton of touts are always on your case. Oh well. There are some interesting forts like this one, plus the old city walls.

Cool fort. A big flag, cannon everywhere and a good view.

Next was Santa Marta. I stayed in a hostel that didn’t have air conditioning. There was a pool though but you can’t sleep there. I only lasted one night before running to the hills. Wow, 1980s like crazy here – even in the allusions to music. I made it to Minca, a little town an hour out. It was 600m in elevation and in a cloud forest so it was much more temperate.

Getting there was fun. There was a bus stop that was just an unmarked street corner. People wait around until there is a group of four or until some guy in a car shows up and drives everyone up. The cars are every half hour or so. In the mean time you just hang out on the street corner and have a beer. It’s not usually what I’d do, but it was decidedly non-sketchy. Well, it was not ideal because I was hugging the door to stay as far away as possible from a lady with something gross going on with her arm. I tried to take a photo of the car but it does not do it justice. In Minca I dropped my camera in a river by a waterfall. I was really lucky though, the memory card survived! And I steal the majority of my travel photos form Google Image searches anyway so not too much difference there!

The rickety red Minca car reminded me of the cars in the meadow in Green Lake (around 70 Mile House, BC.) These are bullet riddled and squashed and doorless. So not a perfect comparison, I mean the Minca car had doors. And more headroom. And I was not on its roof. Whatever, close enough.

...Same paint colour....

I took my last bus, a 22 hour mess to Bogota. The final total was 16,147 km. The drive got air on a few speed bumps, made some screeching stops and was the worst I’ve seen to date. I only had two long trips but both were terrible – the Colombian buses were much worse that those in Argentina, Chile and Peru. On the plus side we got to get out and have food at a Colombia truck stop sort of place.
I got some food and a girl started talking to me in English. She looked like she might be a local. I said she had great English. Turns out she grew up in New York. She had a good line for me:

You know, you have amazingly bad Spanish. No offense. I could barely understood what you said! Plus you didn’t even get the empanada you ordered!

Well, two for three isn’t bad, so take that. I did the the sausage and the water that I ordered…!

Though I wish I didn’t get the sausage. It was pretty bad even by a Colombian truck stop standards. So I bought M&Ms instead.

In Bogota I had an amazing hostel and proceeded to stay there for seven days. It had three courtyards. Three! And hammocks. And a kitchen area with tea on all day, that stayed warm on a cast-iron wood stove. It’s called Anandamayi Hostel.

The only downside was cleanliness. Excessive cleanliness. My toiletry bag is a plastic shopping bag now, so I would leave it outside the dorm so it would not make noise at night when I’d stay up in the kitchen (laptop ally – awesome people there but we mostly worked on our own things most of the time!) So the staff collected the bag and somehow lost half of the stuff in there. So this is the 3rd toothbrush I have lost in SA. Gah. Ditto with food. My leftover pizza got chucked after 8 hours in the fridge. I was planning on eating it for breakfast but no go… oh well, small price to pay.

Four of us went up to the mountain overlooking Bogota. I got a sunburn by accident and felt like Kramer. Being a sunburned gringo is an unfortunate look. Plus, like what Kramer says, ‘Jerry, my face is my livelihood.’ Or not.

The hostel was awesome partly because it was such a ‘grown up’ place. Everyone for the most part was late 20’s and up, which made it a tranquil dorm. With a few exceptions. My first night these three kids came in late, at 2:00am. It was after the bad bus and not sleeping thanks to the terrible driving so I was pretty comatose. But the kids ran around the dorm, quite literally. Then a girl roamed about, creepily. And the two kids pushed their beds together and giggled horribly until 5am. They got hushed time and time again and just laughed more. It was like a weird dream for me at the time but only from being ultra-tired. Someone politely asked them to get private room if they wanted to do this sort of thing, given it was 14 person dorm room. Anyway, I was less comatose in the morning and… it wasn’t a dream! They were still making a ton of noise. I walked up to the boy’s bed, leaned over and said ‘You’re a @*^%$ disgrace! GET A ROOM!!’ The girl hid. He muttered something but also hid. It was great way to make friends because everyone was ready to kill them. They got kicked out later that day. The lady who owned the hostel had trouble at first – there was my story of ‘kids’ who need to go, someone else reported ‘rude Israelis’ and someone cited ‘bad drug addicts.’ In reality they were none of the above, but they got turfed. Probably good – there was a big muscle-bound guy from New York there who had a neck vein pop out when talking about them so there is no way they would have lasted a 2nd night.

One day I was walking through Bogota. Close to a main intersection downtown there were twelve or thirteen riot cops on the corner. I shuffled by them without paying much attention. Then the was another group a block later. Then another. I had gotten a coffee in the mean time and asked the coffee guy what was up. It was just a protest that was supposed to start later sometime so the police were just getting in place. Ahem. Cough. See Vancouver and London? You don’t just have to let the looters run wild. It would be way tougher to pull a prolonged riot there, shades of fascism notwithstanding.

Anyway, I was waiting for the coffee and the third group was right outside so I watched them a little be more closely. Maybe it was not going to be the apocalypse for the potential rioters after all? It was a group of seven women and five men. They had full riot gear on…

mandatory riot control equipment

Four were texting. There was a pink Blackberry in the mix. Nobody had guns. The boss man, he had a Rambo-style ammo belt of tear gas canisters and a launcher, but he was chatting up one of the lady cops at the time. The women had big gold hoop earrings. The men were laughing and joking. Hmm. Ok, maybe the protest was a ‘we love the police and are protesting their low pay’ sort of thing. Regardless, I had no camera. But even if I did I wouldn’t have a photo because still, it’s still probably not too smart to antagonize the SA police with that sort of thing.

I went to a salt cathedral with my English friends Holly and James. It was an hour’s drive out of town and we got to talking about road carnage. We had a cab – well just a boyfriend of one of the girls working at the hostel that thought he may as well make a few extra dollars. We got passed by a truck with huge spikes on the nuts of the wheel. Probably 3″ of protrusion. Sort of Ben Hur style. This was common. Then a school bus raced by us, passing like a psychopath on a blind corner. It pulled into the school a few kilometers later. Gotta arrive on time. Or dead. But just not late!!

mellow out little dudes!

Principal Skinner: It’s a miracle nobody was hurt.

Otto: I stand on my record. Fifteen crashes and not a single fatality.

Later I was telling some laboriously lame story about the boonies. How Highway 16 is rather terrifying at night and I slow way down on blind corners in a feeble attempt to avoid drunken coyboy hat wearing men in 1985 Ford F150s in the wrong lane. I was getting polite nods and occasional acknowledgement every so often (long car ride, ok). So I was talking about how some people calculate how many laws they break driving at one time (two is ok, three is pushing it, never four!) when in a split second, the electric aura of fear became palpable. I look up thinking my story really is just not working. Or working too well. I am a gripping, powerful storyteller. With a knack for pitch-perfect voices. Or not.

Instead we were in the wrong lane, having started a lame pass attempt on a near… a blind corner. Come on. There is a truck coming on fast…. and really close. In our rightful lane there is a bus. Uh oh. So our guy jams the breaks and slides over to straddle the centre lane, honking like a mad man. We didn’t crash. It was chaotic though. Really scary. And ironic above all.

My invention to solve this is a centipede bike. Solely for the South American market. It will be a motorcycle towing a sidecar, which in turn tows another sidecar, repeating indefinitely. Every few sidecars needs a steering wheel and some training wheels to stay up. And the people need crash helmets. Then this abomination of a vehicle can careen over the centre line, effortlessly passing everyone that it can manage. It will have a cattle catcher mounted on the front however to better contend with other competing Centipede Bikes coming the other way and trucks in the process of straddling the centre on aborted passing attempts.

This is what it will look like. This awesome protype is patented.

Anyway, the Salt Cathedral was gorgeous. It is in a working salt mine and the subterranean architecture was amazing. We did a tour that was bound to be tame in comparison to Potosi and Choco Loco’s rein of drunken terror in Bolivia. It was. But it was still a blast. The coloured lighting was masterfully done I thought – it lent an awesome air to it all.

There was even a good rendition of Michalengo's David

Our 4’10” tour guide pulled out all the stops. She’d have us shut off the head lamps and walk though the pitch black for some passages. Super safe but still surprisingly exciting. Then we got to pick-axe the salt walls Zoolander-style. I lost my undershirt in the last mine unfortunately so this lessened the comparison to Zoolander. Not that I can find a good picture of this online though. Anyway, the salt would ricochet out wildly when the axes hit, so my gold sunglasses that I found on a plane came in handy for some of us. They are smaller than the ones that I lost so less salt-fragment protection (SFP?) but still better than nothing.

Zoolander in the mine

(Announcer): …for the past four years, male modeling has had a shadow cast over it by one man and five syllables: Der-ek Zoo-land-er. [Zoolander slowly counts the syllables off on his fingers]

Then Holly had to light dynamite. The group was solemnly ordered to run when it started to explode. We were 20′ away from the fuse.

BOOm!!!! The hidden speakers roared. Fun touch. But the guide had trouble turning them off so the mighty explosions continued for a little too long.

Anyway the rest of Bogota was fun. But I was glad to fly out on Friday.

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Peru – Floating Islands & Cool Costumes

Better late than never… Lake Titicaca.

This lake is shared by Bolivia and Peru. So the token English speaker on the Peruvian side describes it as:

Peru got the Titi and Bolivia got the Caca!

I am pretty sure it’s the same, but vica versa, on the other side.

First up was the Peruvian flag. They’ve got a nice one…

Flag Hijinks... or not

If I was better organized, with scissors and red construction paper I would have added a Maple Leaf. As proven above, I am a gifted artist. Perhaps next time. But only temporarily because the Peruvians would have been pretty upset…. and they probably have a ‘Lake Law’ that allows them to throw people overboard for these sort of offenses.

On the floating islands, it was interesting. Pretty kitschy – the driving force now is tourism. What was interesting is that there might be a floating KFC out there too because everyone was in really, really bad shape. Those islands are truly… buoyant. But it’s probably quite difficult to exercise being on a floating island so I shouldn’t given them any grief. And, because everyone was so big (wide) it is just one more reason for no improvized Canadianizatons of the flag because they would have made quick work of me.

They float!

I did a home stay on the real islands, Amantaní and Tacquile. There was a group of about a dozen people which was fun. The island people, as contrasted with the floating island people, were all in great shape. This was pretty due to the hills that needed to be climbed to get from the lake to the village. Our sweaty tourest group did a some sweating.

But no sweating here for the mandatory team photo....

The men there have some very cool Clint Eastwood ponchos. I didn’t see any of these on the Uros floating islands. If bulked up, to the tune of another 150 lbs or so, I’d probably wear a poncho. It’s pretty forgiving. Also is a pouch for coca leaves (not a man purse) and a touque. The guys all got these but my pancho was the most Eastwoodish. The girls got the skirts, the dress shirts and the cool cloaks. This is Liz, my friend from the hostel before, and I in cool gear.

The home stay was a lot of fun. It was with a very nice family with a 10 and 11 year old sons. Their names were Dario Jr and Elvis. They had a lot of Spanish which was lucky because more people in the area speak only Quechua. To get to the big fiesta, the Elvis got stuck being the guide for the ten minute walk. I bought him a big chocolate bar to share and then some crackers. On the consideration that he share with his brother. Later at dinner, he at pretty much nothing. The chocolate bar was nowhere to be found. Hmmm.

Host Family

The view from the family's house.... the Lake is so big that it's like looking the ocean.

On the way back to the boats the next morning two bulls started to fight.

Bull Fight!

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Ecuador – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This is an apt title, if only because I have a picture wearing an awesome poncho in Bolivia that will make Clint Eastwood jealous. I am waiting to get it via email so I can’t put it up just yet. It was from a homestay on Lake Titicaka where we got to wear some traditional stuff for the night. Traditional men’s garb is the awesome poncho and also something that looks suspiciously like a multi-coloured man purse for keeping coca leaves in.

Clint's man purse must be hidden behind him. Camera trickery no doubt.

Anyway, before prior to the Ecuador post I have to briefly re-visit Boliva. I have had great luck finding really interesting book exchange books so far. I am just starting an interesting autobiographical account of the San Pedro prison in Bolivia written by an Englishman named Thomas McFadden who served five years there for trafficking. It falls under the premise that truth is stranger than fiction. They used to have tours offered regularly until a recent prison mutiny that was a mess. Apparently now the tours are very expensive and a lot harder to arrange. This would explain why it was not on the collective radar screen when I was in La Paz.

Anyway, there were two quotes that I liked immediately. The first has to do with a taxi ride.

‘Fifteen Bolivianos, please.’ It seemed he now spoke English. I shook my head and smiled to show I had been in the country long enough to know the cost of a taxi ride.

‘Six’

‘OK, thirteen.’ Eventually he dropped his price a further two Bolivianos, but he said he couldn’t got any lower than that.

Cost cutting in Bolivian schools has resulted in generations of taxi drivers who do not know the numbers between one and ten. They learn to count from eleven upwards. I paid him the correct fare and he laughed good naturedly and then drove off.

This next quote deals with the scourge of the beer in the altitude.

‘Have you tried the beer of La Paz yet? It is called Pacena.’

‘Not yet.’

‘It is not like the beer of Santa Cruz. You will see.’

He was right. For a start, it was impossible to pour.

‘Slowly,’ the colonel warned when he saw the class filling up with forth. ‘You see, that is the altitude.’

I tried again with the glass tilted almost horizontally and it still
didn’t work.

Anyway, back to Ecuador…

The Good
Montanita was a very cool little surfing town. It was advertized as being almost all sand roads in the Lonely Planet. Naturally this was a cruel, cruel lie – there were no sand roads. But I am sure it was true sometime in the 90’s and it will be corrected in time for the 2020 edition.  Regardless it had a great beach, palm trees, thatched buildings and cool people. It was a very friendly place.

Despite being a lot of tourists here the surprising thing was that the usual associated hoard of locals after tourist cash was missing. There are lots of artisans for sure, but no begging (well, ok, two) and no abrasive touts. I made a some Ecuadorian friends here too which was great.

Ok, my photo of the street did not turn out so I borrowed this from Google Images. Despite the fact it makes me look like I am lying about the sand streets! This photo must be from 1992....

Also, Cuenca was another great city. It was easily one of my favourite cities in SA so far. It had a great look to it, with the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. Plus it had about three rivers running through it. The bridges were small and made of stone. Very friendly town too. There apparently are a lot of North American expats living there which, after having spent some time, makes a lot of sense. I made some friends with some university students there, but this unfortunately involved seeing a movie called the Kevin James ‘blockbuster’ The Zookeeper. In Spanish – but oafish falling down and talking animals that offer advice on dating needs no translation. Plus, I was the catalyst for this I think because I said movies are great for learning languages when they have subtitles. Or I think I said that. Nobody in Ecuador can understand me. This fits more into the upcoming ‘bad’ section though.

This was the river that my awesome $25 room looked out at. It was called Villa Nova and it on the left. Stay there! There is also a big park on the right.

Cuenca also had outrageously honest cab drivers. It was crazy, I had maybe 8 cabs and zero problems with them. I found out pretty quickly the fares were about the same no matter where for me because I was in the centre of town, and everyone charged me the same. I was not asking “how much to…” prior to because it was always $2.00 US. Normally there is a gringo markup attempt where they at least try for at least 100% more. No such shenanigans here. There was a cool coffee shop that did not think black coffee was either boiled milk or juice too (more on these boondoggles later.)

Cool coffee shop from my usual perch... well, going by the booze in the lower right, it's more than a coffee shop.

Unlike Thomas the trafficker’s Bolivian cab run in, and lot of my previous rides, I had a great cab driver in Guayaquil. I was very lucky here. I had taken this minivan trip the 4 hours from Cuenca. It was not even sketchy, it was $12 rather than $5 for the bus. But the guy in the hostel recommended it and was able to book ahead so I just went for it. Plus I am a high roller who spells his name with a ‘$’ for a ‘S’. Or maybe not. Actually, I spell my first name now “Brie Jann.’ This how it was written on a cardboard sign for a connection I had booked in advance in Peru.

Anyway, coming into Guayaquil, the van didn’t terminate at the bus stop which was unfortunate because it is quite secure and they screen their cabs there. It just ends up in some strip mall eight blocks from the bus station. Which sort of seems the opposite of secure. This city is unusally bad. The American State Dep’t has gone so far as to say this:

Due to the seriousness of the taxi situation in Guayaquil, all personnel working for the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Ecuador have been prohibited from riding in taxis hailed off the street in Guayaquil, even yellow taxis. In addition, local buses, and other forms of public transportation are also expressly off-limits to U.S. diplomatic personnel in Guayaquil. As an alternative, employees have been told to use their personal vehicles or to call one of the vetted taxi services listed on the U.S. Consulate General’s website.

Anyway, it was dark and that is when Gyualqyuil gets unhinged I guess. I would hate to see it on a full moon. But in fareness, I never really checked out the city so I shouldn’t give it a hard time. But with the cab, I asked the woman behind the desk at the minivan company’s office to call me a cab. She scowled and looked like she had swallowed some milk that I had forgotten about for a few extra weeks in my fridge. Not sure what would take her to Houston BC for some partially solidified milk, but you never know. I said this again, slower, and she was still unimpressed. ‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘Cabs are outside.’

Sure enough some shady looking dudes in nearly broken-down Nissan Sentras. But they were labelled with awesome stickers as Type R, Toyota Racing Development and Kenwood. Because every race car needs an audio sponsor, obviously. Sure, the Sentra is a fine vehicle, one that got me to jobs in Alberta, Ontario and PG between 2004 and 2006 without getting me killed, but I was not about to ruin that streak. I dismissed these yahoos and just hung out. I got lucky and only had to wait for 10 minutes to get a decent yellow cab that dropped some people off at the strip mall. Not guaranteed but better than the alternative.

So where the driver helped a bunch was ‘finding’ the hostel that I had booked. There was only one that could find in advance online that was close to the airport and cheaper than $10 a night. It was the Funky Monkey Hostel. Classy name, guys.

Sweet logo, guys

I had the directions written down verbatim but it was nowhere to be found. They referenced this shady restaurant that looked like it was from Back to the Future II, where Hill Valley is the dystopian wasteland overseen by Biff Tannen. Actually, the whole neighborhood looked really, really bad. Coincidentally, Biff’s future son Griff has a good sense of style. Griff dresses like me while traveling. It’s the metal spaghetti colander for a helmet that it the dead ringer. I like wearing hardhats in sawmills after all, so may as well stick with what works when traveling. The Back to the Future trilogy are my favourte movies but I keep meeting people with birthdays in the early 1990’s. This often presents a problem as they have not seen the 1983 first installment. Gah. Anyway, speaking of Back to the Future, below is an action shot of me in Ecuador:

Nice black cab and elderly cab driver at left. I am at right adopting a diplomatic pre-boarding pose because I certainly am not suspicious of cabbies.*

*Cuenca is the exception!

Anyway, me and my cab buddy drove around for 10 minutes looking for this place. The hostel was impossible to find. In their directions they cited landmarks and various things but no address. I had paid a deposit, only a $1, but still I wanted to find it. The driver asked 11 people. Seriously, I counted. My cabbie had very little English but he know some key descriptive words. So the ‘funky’ adjective was quickly changed out for something more creative.

I decided to bail on it and find another hostel. It was overpriced, WIFI-less hotel and had incredibly humourless, snarky staff. And no coffee. But my cabbie got me to a place which was great. We hadn’t agreed on a price beforehand either. A standard fare is $2, but I offered him $6 and he was happy. It had been at least twice the length of a standard trip anyway. Any other cabbie would have demanded $25 after all the messing around.

The non-funky, non-primate hotel was close to the airport but in a terrible area with nothing really there. They had a bank machine in a quiet office complex across the street guarded by two guys with guns. Two. Everything needs an armed guard in Ecuador here but, two, that is a lot. They take everyone’s info down too so I had to break out the passport to get in. I had a terrible dinner at the airport afterwards. There was no where else to go so I walked there. Well, nowhere may be a lie. I am no better than Lonely Planet now. There was a huge KFC in the background somewhere, kicking off an ominous red glare from under the Colonel’s unflinching gaze. I almost thought about making a trip there just to try a Double Down. After all I frequently mock this monstrosity so I may as well try one sometime. But rain cheque. I plan on getting back to regulation weight on the trip home thanks to stopovers in Miami and Chicago and their associated airport fast food lairs on the way to Edmonton. Maybe they even have a Carl’s Jr. Damn, the Americans have it good. Well, that warrants some careful thinking beforehand – I don’t want to end up looking like this guy.

Why did I eat so much KFC???? Arrrrrgh!

Anyway, now I am in Quito. No Venezuela. Well, I read that my buddy Hugo is in Cuba for some heath care now anyway so no paint going I suppose. I am not having good luck with flights so far. My plane ticket to Canada in three weeks in insufficient proof of onward travel. What an absolute joke. I kicked up a scene and had the airline manager there confirm this with the Venezuela customs crowd, but I would have needed a bus ticket at least. So I missed my flight, and would have had to wait for three days in Guayaquil for the replacement flight. Plus, the Venezuelan currency is officially a 4:1 exchange. The problem is that the real exchange rate for black market transactions is 8:1 at least. So a bus ticket remotely costs over $200 US. It would be half the price in person. And I wouldn’t use it anyway. Gotta know when to fold ’em, so I said forget this. I learned something big though – this guy has it right. I will do this next time. After all, only the airline usually has to be fooled. The immigration people are ok with people who don’t have dreadlocks and dope and are just going to spend some money in their country for a bit. I found this out after the fact obviously, but better late than never.

Quito is very nice. In my first day I went to a museum with Jenna, a girl from the hostel who I hung out with for the day. The museum is the works of an artist named Oswaldo Guayasamín. His focus, at least what was displayed here, was on the mistreatment of black and indigenous people in South America, past and present. He paints like Picasso and is really popular in Ecuador. I don’t know much brutal death and and destruction art, save for Picasso’s Guernica and then some Goya for good measure, so in my simple outlook he became a hybrid between the two. I need to download some photos from today though because his former mansion overlooking the city was right beside the museum. It looked like a place were Frank Sinatra would have hung out, even with the vintage cars still in the garage.

The museam

So when Jenna and I were talking about writing and blogs today she made a very interesting point. Apparently now narcissim is no longer in the new DSM5 as a psychiatric disorder. We figured it the proliferation of self-righteous drivel espoused in blogs was a big contributing factor. Seems bad for business though – it’s like a lawyer actually being OK with fewer laws. I’m off the hook though because nobody actually reads this thing. Not even me. I mean, clearly there is no proofreading to be had. It’s write, get rid of the red squiggy underlines that incessantly mock my inability to spell (and often my u’s in houmor and and other Canadianisms), then done!

The Bad

Apparently I am incoherent. This is mostly the case in Southern Ecuador. In my first day in the country I had about four mishaps with language, all with random people (RP) at different shops or kiosks. This is all in my Spanish, or some approximation of Spanish in my case.

BD Hey, can I have a water please?
RP Blank stare. Usually a scowl.
BD Can I… buy.. a water?
RP Gatorade?
BD No. I want a water.
RP Shrugs indifferently. Goes back to reading newspaper.
BD I point at a water.
RP Scowls. Look indignant. Why didn’t I ask for that in the first place?

I was at the post office. I had a bunch ‘Grandma Postcards’ to mail. They are mostly from Argentina and Chile. So April, May, that sort of thing. They had Peruvian postage on them because I had forgotten to get them mailed in Peru. So I went to the post office in Machila, Ecuador. Ps. Don’t go there. It’s atrocious.

Thanks, Google Images. If I pulled out my camera in this down I'd be dead a few times over. But this does look a little classy, surpisingly.

At the post office, I had my first friendly person which was great. This made me happy because everyone had sucked so far in my first few hours. I asked her to buy some stamps so I could mail them from that post office. I forgot how to say ‘on top of’ so I just said “put them…” then pointed on top of the Peruvian stamps. Then I added ‘I don’t like Peruvian stamps.’ She excused herself and left to find the supervisor. Presumably to fill out the forms for a hate crime.

About five minutes later another lady comes down and looks at me like I’m Forest Gump’s slightly more useless cousin. She tells me that she would love to help but, sir, we are in Ecuador. We are not in Peru. That is a different country. I will need Ecuadorian postage here. She was then really surprised that I wasn’t a blathering idiot and, I had actually been aware what country I was in. But I was just happy to get these postcards mailed after a six to ten week delay. And at the pace I am losing things, I needed to be rid of them quickly. I lost my sunglasses yesterday.

After the post office it was breakfast time. Random waiter guy (RG) was there watching soap operas. He yelled for his girlfriend to come out when I got there. Then again. Then again. She never showed. So he comes to the table, reluctantly.

BD. Coffee please
RG Jugo? (juice)
BD Coffee
RG Huh?
BD Coffee, dude.
RG I give you eggs
BD I don’t want eggs. Do you have a menu?
RG Uhhh
BD Bread?
RG Uhhh, yah. OK. Cafe with milk.
BD I don’t want milk
RG Uhhhhh
BD Cafe… black. No milk. Ok?
RG Ok, no problem.

So he comes out with this bread stuff covered in ham. Ham. But the worst was the coffee. It was a tub of instant, obviously. But the it was a cup of milk, fresh out of the microwave, bubbling from being boiled.

Anyway, the cabbie was fond of making throat-slitting gestures. Pretty much for anything. Walk down the street – muerto. Other cabbies – muerto. He was a jackass.

Walking down the street I was getting heckled incessantly by sweaty greasy guys in undershirts. I makes me wish I hadn’t lost my undershirt. Then we’d all be friends. Or not. And I am probably lucky I lost it now that I am looking pretty frail and emaciated. So, these idiots would try to summon me. To street corners, alleys whatever. Pretty atrocious. What kind of person accepts being summoned by thugs? And this was during the day.

I uncharacteristically asked for directions at the Peru/Ecuador border. I asked a guy who looked normal. He proceeded to follow me under the guise of help. Apparently it was a block away but hard to find. I thought whatever, I will put up with that then give him a buck at the immigration stand. A block later he says we needed a cab. It just so happened that he had a friend right there in a cab too! Lucky break! He then tried to grab my bag to ‘get it in the cab’ so we can go. Guess I might not be as frail as I thought. I got rid of him, just in English, and then took a non-corrupt cab without creeps. My fault – I should have never sanctioned a tag along, even for a short time.

The bus in from northern Peru was terrible. It was a 12 hour shot on a school bus type of rig that ended up taking 15. I had to sit beside the stinkiest man in the world. He was about 5’0″ and kept encroaching on my seat. Mostly while sleeping. So I would have to pick up whatever limb it was and put it back on his side. He was so little he should have had tons of space. But having to move limbs was not cool because I was not sure where the origin of the stink was. Possibly a dead skunk somewhere that he was carrying. This is not out of the question. In Arrested Development, my still favourite show because my TV clock stopped in 2005, GOB hurls a dead dove dramatically into the sea. And a letter and a dead rabbit. So perhaps this man planned to do the same with a dead skunk.

RETURN FROM WHENCE YOU CAME!

Regardless, I don’t stink afterwards though so good that it wasn’t contagious. A quick segue to dead skunks: I was read a book down here about a down and out junky in LA called Digging the Vein. There was the best simile ever used by the author. To paraphrase, it went something like this:

The failure enveloped him fully, as thought a giant, horrible skunk had turned around and sprayed him with the horrible choking spray of failure.

Wow. Maybe skip the similes next time. Still, probably at a higher level than my blog, but I am down for living in a glass house and throwing stones.

There was not a single regular restaurant in the boarder town. I was disappointed also because after getting on the bus I now get somewhere to hang out and get organized before going anywhere. It gets me away from all the “Hey! Hey! Hey! Amigo…” shouting and cabbies honking. Anyway, when I finally got checked into the motel it was 4:00 pm and definitely time to eat. It had been a long time since… dinner the previous night. The only food the whole time was street meat which is fine normally, but is not an acceptable option when taking a bus without a bathroom because sometime it spends a lot of time in the sun.

When I went looking for a restaurant, the problem was there was nothing open. The chairs were all up for siesta time. Gah. So I ate some friend chicken served up by another scowling Ecuadorian girl. I was expecting her to get confused by my evidently incoherent Forest Gump Spanish too even though this order entailed just saying a number off a board.

I also hate getting honked at, sort of what you see in touristy Mexico in the off season. It started happening a little in Peru. I had seen zero occurrences pretty much in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. And Bolivia is the poorest country in the continent, so if anyone should be ‘honking for dollars’ it is them. Anyway, the horns blare here because I need a cab but just do not know it yet. Sort of a Pavlovian reaction – horn honking brings out a need to whip out the wallet and drive around town. Just like his drooling dogs. Anyway, I was crossing a four lane street that was pretty busy. It took about a minute to get from A to B. In the process, because I was standing there, it was an absolutely ridiculous amount of honking, gesturing and slowing down. This made the crossing a lot longer than it would otherwise be – I mean four lanes… that is maybe 50′ across total? Thanks cabbies.

They heard the bell...! dogs on the beach in Montanita

One the bus leaving to Montanita, a man came on to sell newspapers. He offered me one coming up the isle, then down the isle. He was profiling. He wanted to rock some demographic and psychographic marketing slices to make more sales. After all, he had other magazines. So women who said no to the newspaper where offered gossip magazines and men who said no were offered hardware flyers or something like that. I was flattered by the double offer- he must have thought I looked like someone who could read! And possibly even someone who knew what country he is. Nope, not in the follow-up profiling. Upon the second no, he wedges some sort of Ecuadorian porno mag in my face. The kind without any articles most likely. So rather than being profiled as literate I was evidently profiled as a sweaty, scruffy pervert. Oh well.

The Ugly

Not just the lack of sun in Montanita. It was pretty overcast.

Yah. Don't swim at the point.

I went running on the beach in Montanita on morning and pretty much just ran out of real estate when I got to the point.

I should have read this sign beforehand!

Anyway, so I swam out maybe 200 meters to the point and hung out in the big waves for a bit. Fun stuff. Then I decided to come back in. After 10 minutes I was in… the same place. Hmm. So then I tried about 10 minutes of front crawl and made a little bit of progress, but needed a rest. A rest that involved going backwards. So, ok, no more rest breaks. Plus, the big waves were really nailing me too. This was not going well. Then another full-out go of the front crawl for five minutes.

I was, best case scenario, stuck there. I didn’t want to get too tired to have trouble treading water, but then that might not be the best long term plan. Plus there is some pride too, being just a useless bobbing guy out by the point is awful. So I kept swimming. Swimming is a charitable description because I was absurdly tied. It was more like a drowning guys’s thrashing around and spitting out salt water. Not a good scene. I got really lucky and got a big help-out from great guy who surfed out to yank me in. It’s really another story….

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The Plan: Fly to Venuzula

The plan is to head to Venezuela this Friday by plane. It has finally come to this after 14,144 km on the bus. Flights. Appalling. Regardless it will give me some extra time to check out Venezuela and Colombia before heading to Edmonton in early August to find a place to live.

This is what the route looks like:

Yellow is the planned flight, orange is the planned trip and red the route so far

I just arrived in a town called Cuenca, Ecuador from the beach town of Montanita. I do have a plan for a more detailed blog entry on Ecuador so I will save discussing Montanita until then. The most unusal part of Cuenca is the hotel I booked. Yes, not a typo for hostel. I am high rolling to the tune of $24 per night. It will be worth it for some hot water.

Living the good life

This photo has a few noteworthy elements, the most conspicuous being the Canadian art on the walls. A total of seven prints, all by a lady named Sue Coleman. It is outrageously Canadian – photorealist takes of animals like bears, wolves with the Native art style then paired up as a contrast. Also, there are totem poles and a longhouse. Cool to see down in Ecuador.

Of additional note is that I have an awesome devil t-shirt on. It’s hand painted in Montanita by a cool Argentinean couple I met there. The shirt’s protagonist looks like a toaster which is fun.

The dreadful beard, which does not look nearly as dreadful in this photos as real life, will have to stay now. It’s easier to make friends on buses looking like a man named Jebidiah who escaped from an Amish commune it seems. I had pretty much the whole bus (ok it was not that busy of bus) come up and hang out on the 4 hour ride here. And I made the mistake of lending my flashlight to some 10 year old boys who promptly went berserk and shined it in all available eyes. Then they found me playing Solitaire later. It was a bad moment. Who plays that drivel anymore? I keep forgetting to get a chess game on my computer. Regardless I was busted and they wanted to play. So I promised them that it is the most inane, frustrating game ever. But that sales pitch did not deter enough and it took them 10 minutes to figure out that I was not kidding – it really is not a fun game.

The remnants of my pants are in sight too. I had to crop the photo lest it look like I am riding a chicken. It was hot in the surf town and I needed shorts. I have lost two pairs of shorts already, so I just lopped the legs off the jeans. Turns out this is socially acceptable these days as far as I can tell. And it’s not even the early 90’s either, so that’s a bonus.

The pants idea might not have been the best. This new town is a lot higher in elevation and it shows by being really cold. The sequence of cities perhaps was not terribly well thought out.

Speaking of shorts, there is a good list of things that have mysteriously disappeared. I am now packing lighter than before. Theft and carelessness combine to make it easy on the back.

North Face Jacket
-replaced with a XXL sweater from Bolivia. To get the arms the right length the torso looks like flying squirrel. It is wide enough for three of me to fit.

Underwear (x2)
-replaced with progressively more and more pairs. I am trying to minimize laundrys like back at home it seems.

Soccer Shorts
-replaced with short shorts from a road vendor. They are rather short which is not cool.

First Aid Kit
-replaced with stuff from the Bolivian pharmacy

Another Shirt
-replaced by tacky ‘I survived the death road’ shirt. It came with the tour. I did not buy it. Seriously.

iPod… near miss! I actually recovered it.

Lonely Planet book
-I scored a better one at a book exchange. Newer and prettier. Too bad it turned out to be in French. Probably should have checked that first. I traded this for a horrifically ugly one, but in English.

My Sedaris book.
-A few says at the post office. This sucks because it had a big smoking skeleton on the black cover so it looked pretty badass.

My replacement toiletry bag.
-Seriously, why steal that? I had left it on a bus seat for all of a few minutes and that was that. All this replacing stuff is getting me used to the pharmacies and buying deodorant and toothpaste. But I get all francais-ish with the dental floss, I can never remember the name and call it dente friese. Think its french… Blank stares (deserved ones) until the manic gesturing starts.

Weight.
-I am 16 lbs lighter than last time I checked a few months ago.

But it is not too big of a deal. I have added some things like the devil shirt, a shark’s tooth and a new respect for malicious ocean currents.

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Peru – The (Near) Bingo Victory / Machu Pichu / Ace Ventura

The South American buses play bingo. I had generally ignored this phenomenon before because of the unfortunate association with our North American Bingo ‘games’ held in smoky, depressed old foreclosed real estate in strip malls. Always beside pawn brokers, too. But I guess Quebec needs a place to store their asbestos! Do’h, can’t make fun of Q because all the Quebecois people I meet are really cool.

Anyway, back to bingo. The SA buses will give you prizes for winning. Invariably alcohol or junk food. My trip from Cusco – Lima – Trujillo was 30 hours so I thought I would get on this for a change. The bus ‘bus attendant’ lady came by and I snatched a card. She was incredulous. ‘You… know numbers… in Spanish??’ she asked. In Spanish. I think other words were uttered but I obviously did not get it. All I heard was the challenge. Now I was resigned to win for more than just the booze and Lays chips. It was a mission to prove her assessment of my ineptitude wrong.

The numbers are being blared out by her on a karaoke machine that breaks up in the high notes. And there are lots of high notes. She yells 46. “Cuarnte y sie-EEEZZZEE” and my ears hurt. But then, I stop the game in the name of victory! I have won. She has to shut down the karaoke machine and come down to inspect my card. Everyone was impatient. I was happier than the dad on A Christmas Story when he wins the leg lamp. It’s Italian – after all it says ‘fragil-iee’.

The spoils of victory

But my hopes were dashed. Apparently the gritty strip mall rules of 5 across / vertical / diagonal do not apply – here you have to get every single number to win! Bah. So much for my anticipated glory ride which would have in all likelihood required a bib given it’s copious amounts of Lay’s chips and oversize’d beers. Damn.

Cuzco is a famous city. It’s historic, has the big archeological sights (Macchu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World now) and has the cool colonial architecture. But it is so atrociously touristic it is all but ruined. The central square is only people trying to hustle gringos into either restaurants, back alleys for dope, travel agencies for tours as far away as Bolivia even or into shady looking massage parlors. I feel bad for the Peruvians – what a sorry fate for the nice 300m x 300m main square of the town. But not too sorry….

…Because it it imprudent to antagonize the Peruvians, like certain mining companies (that would have celebrated Canada Day recently) would have found out. I have this queued up for another post thought. Things get ghetto-violent pretty quick and they could show Vancouver how to have a real riot. But alas I am on South American time so this blog entry will take between one and three weeks.

Back to Cusco. I thought perhaps they were unusually socially progressive. I had forgotten that the rainbow flag was also the Cusco flag. One of the tour guides had this flag so we could find him in this awful cat-herding mass-tour thing. Why are the tourists so difficult to herd? It seems superficially easy but I think the tourists are…. hmmm… challenging? He had a pre-scripted joke saying it was ‘the Cusco flag… uh…. is not that…. uh gay flag.’ Then, upon vouching for his heterosexuality, he wheeled around to deliver a creepy wink at the girls. Smooth operator.

Macchu Picchu was very cool. I did the three-day hike to get get there, but it was bastardized to some degree. I.e., the first day had a lot more mountain biking than hiking. The second day involved zip lining. There was a comically large Argentinian man who tested the integrity of the zip lines. He probable was big even by rugby standards 10 years ago, but then he just got really fat on top of it. I guess they engineer the lines to hold 280+ lbs which is good. And I don’t know why, but he also managed to be drunk by 10 am which was interesting.

I managed to get an action shot halfway over the valley. But that time I was going backwards. Unintentionally. Even the big fat Argentinian guy managed to not go backwards.

Upon getting to the town at the base we got up at 3:30 am to get the jump on the tourists and get up to the site. The elevation is 2000 meters and we only have to get to 2400 meters walking in the dark, but it was a pack of about 400 sweaty, huffing and puffing westerners all trying to swarm up the stone steps in the jungle in the clouds all at once. I am not judging them – my shirt took all day to even semi dry out afterwards. But they would try to pass, then stop, and other petty things of bad stone stair etiquette. I however showed good etiquette by not pushing any botched-passing-attempt people off the steps into the jungle. It was fun hiking thought clouds though.

The other good vantage was a hike to 2700 meters up the sister mountain Wayna Picchu. This provides the good view of the archeological site.

Machu Picchu in the foreground, Wayna Pichu in the background

My hike was a day less than most people who opted for a 4 day hike. So I had to leave the group that I started with the first day and catch another group. The second group was generally late 20s which was a good change. My first group was Team Teen (Aspiring) Romance. Well, so some of them thought. There was a few Canadians which was cool. Upon talking to them, I found that each girl had a love-stricken guy who followed like a lost dog. And each one a comically obvious mismatch. Thus my scorn. Trying is fine, but don’t embarrass yourself in the process. They guys trying their lamest were also socially inept too, so if I would walk over and say something to the girl being pursued, pouting and foot shuffling and silence ensured. No tears however, they were too above that fortunately. It would have been interesting to stick around and see how long the girls permitted these doughy doofuses to shamble around behind them all day under the guise of being friends before staging the travel-divorce, but sure enough when I saw team teen romance on the last day the boys hopes had been cruelly dashed. Glad that I got to do the group switch overall though, a few hours of that is fine but not a few days.

I also missed a hostel that team travel romance stayed at. All reports said it was sketchy. There was a big hole in the roof of a room and an animal lived in there. It would scuffle and cry and make horrible sounds. One of the girls brought a cat into the room to try and protect them from the animal but the cat, for bathroom purposes, had to be let out. Plus they had ran out of chicken, thereby disincentiving the cat to remain. So they opted for stuffing food into the hole to appease the beast and hopefully make it the night without seeing it in all its (most probably) fanged fury. This was a weird little town with nowhere else to go so they were stuck. No mauling ensued though so that was good.

Guard Cat?

Speaking of stuck, ditto for the food with the hike. No other options. I am a slow eater, and was only a little bit into some unappetizing soup when the group had already devoured theirs. Then, I discovered a nasty addition to mine. Maybe some sort of grub or larvae or something else equally awful and gross. The worst part was that since we all had the same soup, I just said nothing and that was that. I would not subject them to a post-consumption analysis/compliant of something that was likely widespread… and consumed in mass by everyone. Good thing they don’t know I have a blog….

Speaking of gross, we went to a hot springs in the town called Aquas Calinantes. I mean when the name of the town translates as Hot Water it should be… hot water. But it was luke-warm. And filled with people so that the supposedly hot water was a shade of greenish-brown. The main pool looked like an orgy it was so packed (people making out too, which was not a good indicator of hygene.) The relationship, mathematically, must be that the temperature and hygiene level were probably inversely related. Thus the make out, jam packed pool was likely the hottest, but probably carried the best chances of getting the plauge. We passed on the hot pool. Unlike there Bolivian hot springs there was not a big sign that said ‘no pooing’ so that was a good sign.

It is unfortunate that signs like this have reason be made

So me and a couple others from the hike had to settle for a peripheral pool. It was also right in front of a terrible mural that made me wish I had my camera. It appeared to be bears that were fighting, or acting like the kids in the main pool. There was an English guy in a Crocodile Dundee hat in our pool who had lots of offensive (yet funny) commentary for the awful things being allegedly depicted in the mural.

Upon getting back to Cusco I got back on the coffee. It is a tale of woe. I was looking for breakfast on Sunday morning one day there and everything was closed. Well, the places without guys stationed out front because generally I will not go to those because I do not respond to the ‘heeeeeey amiiiiiiigo, we has food here, real American food’ calls from the touts. So after walking into a few places and finding no staff, I found the McDonalds. I can go with some bland pancakes I thought. But it came with a coffee. A North American sized coffee. This was the first in 9 or 10 weeks. Obviously I went mental. So, four hours later I finally emerged from the McDonalds, a second cup of coffee in the mix, and some Stephen King esque literary prolificness accomplished. Not nearly on pace to write a full sized book but maybe a novella can emerge in time. I was pretty much out of batteries on my netbook then, so that was the driving force for the departure.

This shirt started off white. The ruins are below on the bald spot on the mountain.

Last of all I was doing a bad job of reading the Lima newspaper on the bus today. But I did find this article.

I missed Ace Ventura by a day???

Of note is that he apologized in advance of delivering his ultra lame pun via Twitter… so “Incr-redible” was I guess not serious.

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Bolivia – The World’s Most Dangerous Road

The most dangerous road in the world was on the agenda for outside La Paz Bolivia. The moniker is now quite out of date because a new road has been built that involves widths more than 10′ and guard rails. But this edition lives on in the form of breathless T-shirts for tourists boasting of their survival.

The group was my usual travel buddies from the past few weeks Hugo and Michael. There was another guy in the mix possibility but he pulled the plug after seeing some photos. He generated some good quotes in the process of jamming out:

[30 minutes before closing time the night before, we are just booking the tour.]

Guys… this is way too expensive. 480 Bolivianos??

[$50 Cdn for the honour of having bikes that don’t break and sober guides unlike the mining trip.]

Hugo!! Tell her no way, we gotta take our business elsewhere, [despite that the tour leaves in under 12 hours, and we already having a completely competitive price.] If I don’t save this $3 Cdn I am goin to lose it! Tell her Hugo, tell her it in Spanish, TELL HER NOW!

The lady was sitting 2′ in front of him while he was bellowing about petty pricing differentials.

Guys… seriously. Where are the railings?? This is not cool. Not cool!! Yah, I am not going on this thing after all if there are no railings.

It's a long way down, about 600 m. The tour-provided jackets were a bonus not just stylistically, but because it was cold again!

The road itself, our part, is about 60 km long. The elevation is 4600 meters at the high point and we descended to 1200 meters by the end of it. The first part was paved which meant we got to pass the buses for once which turned the tables on those South American bus drivers. Some of the buses in the past have wound up on the wrong side of the 600 meter drop off, so the tend to take it easier than usual still it seems. Also, the paved section is a good place to get the requisite ‘no-hands’ shot that is important too.

After, on the main dirt part, it was a lot of hanging on.

Corners like this made me glad we didn’t demand to save 10 Bolivianos, all the the expense of brakes most likely. Braking like Fred Flinstone on corners like this would be a poor idea it seems.

We tried to get the standard team photo too. It seemed relevant because everyone’s brakes worked. Afterwards we went swimming and drank some beer. Again, this forms a critical distinction with the mining tour insomuch as the drinking was confined to afterwards… rather than during.

The boarders were closed between Peru and Bolivia, so it made for a long route west because we had to come through Chile again. The boarder guards almost popped my soccer ball. It did not bounce, making is suspicious. Well, I would guess cheap before suspicious, but once they deemed that it was not a narco ball, it was clear sailing. It was another 18 hour travel day based on three buses and an old cop car turned taxi cab that tried to lug us across the boarder. The bus rarely stops, so the agenda called for a lot of poket bread to come on the trip. The is probably a more sophisticated was to binng food than wedging break in ones pocket, but it is working well so far.

At Puno my group is officially gone different directions, so it is back to being solo, with its pros and cons. Upon getting to Puno, Peru, a lot of the banks had smashed windows from the riots. Not ‘Nucks related, but Canucks related. A Canadian mining outfit called Bear Creek was planning on setting up a silver mine near Lake Titicaca and the locals were very unimpressed. The result was boarder closings, road closings and a gringo shortage here for the time being. Ironically, my buddies the Scotiabank are big down here. They have a huge branch here, so Canadian imperialism is alive and well. Less ABM fees for me is all that it means. The irony is that the bank that has ‘Imperial’ in its name is not doing well in the developing world, useless CIBC.

Tomorrow is the trip onto the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. I am doing a home stay with a family which will be fun. They speak the indigenous language, Quechua, almost exclusively, so I am back to pointing and grunting. Little different from usual. But I am traveling with an Englsh girl, Liz, from the hostel so I suppose some English speaking will be on the agenda. Being de-languaged may be good practice if the stories are true – this is where my buddies Kang and Kodos hang out a lot supposedly.

How to remain undefeated all time at foosball!

01. Be an 18 year old English girl
02. Drink excess amounts of rum
03. Brag, incessantly, that you are the best ever with an unblemished record
04. Promise to vanquish all challengers in a non-ironic declaration
05. Play a team game. Three girls vs myself and an Irish guy
06. Make a rum wager when leading 7-3
07. Lose 8-10
08. Renege on wager, make another one with a Peruvian girl for $5
09. Get demolished by Peruvian girl
10. Freak out
11. Drink more, imply that the Peruvian girl is just mean
12. Tell nonsensical mafia stories
13. Stage a botched theft of the hostel booze
14. Now you are still in possession of a perfect foosball record! I don’t quite follow the logic, but I accept it on faith that it is correct.

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Bolivia – Some Fries with Your Salt?

To go from northern Chile into Bolivia, I did a three-day 4×4 trip across a lot of interesting ground. The main highlight is the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) that is an area of 10,000+ km3 that is formerly a prehistoric lake that is now covered in a few meters of salt.

Fisherman's 'Island'

The starting point was the Bolivian border. We gained a few thousand meters elevation just to get here. It was a pretty rustic place, and very cold with the altitude (approx. 4000m up) and the wind.

Show me your passport! Yes, this is the official crossing.

Despite the humble nature of the infrastructure at the border there was still sophisticated systems in place to ensure security. This guy prowled around to find drugs. All we saw was him finding bread though, but it was probably coffee break. He seemed to live in the remains of a once nice bus. It had creepy things in it, like an old baby strolled with missing wheels.

The drug sniffing fox.

There were some geysers going on too. Part of the geothermal action was a hot springs on the first day. Nobody had really planned for this because most of the gear was tied down on the top of the jeeps. So it was a motley affair done in underwear mostly that did not involve drying off.

Geysers. Nobody fell in. However they potentially seemed to be a good venue for one to 'earn' a Darwin award by doing so.

Nobody was in the standing around mood after a bunch of hours in a jeep so this is an action shot.

The Stone Tree - Team Photo.

We did some climbing on the rocks too which was great.

We were hanging out by a lagoon and found bunch of llama parts. There was a paw that seemed like a good photo op. I took the pic of Hugo, then upon seeing it I decided that it looked pretty cool and that I wanted one of my own. Holding this thing in between two rocks was the best way to stay rabies free.

My photo though was less… classy. Michael had came by and I decided that trying unsuccessfully to menace him with the llama paw would be the best bet. He was unimpressed. The weather was still very cold too.

I hereby menace thee

The big island, called ‘Fisherman’s’ ironically, was very cool. It had llamas and cacti there.

Bombs in Bolivia... nuevo Che?

The scenery is definitely cool.

Then there was water....

Last stop was a train cemetery. Good thing that salt and rust are definitely not related. Next time I go away, I will leave my truck and other things made of iron here. Just for safe keeping.

Ok, for the mine. The outfits were obviously cool. And probably an inspiration for Ghostbusters. Here is the evidence:

Ghostbusters! But we all have dibbs on being Bill Murrey.

Ok, circumstantial evidence at best. Regardless, one more cool Salar pic here. No Photoshop either!

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Bolivia – The Devil Runs this Mine

Potosi, Bolivia.

The town has was built in the 16th C around the mountain because of its silver deposits. The mines have been running ever since. There is an opportunity to go down into the mines for a half day, so I went with my two travel buddies from back in Chile last week Hugo and Michael. There are still about 14,000 people working there now. The operating structure has changed significantly, going from a colonial (slave) operation under the Spanish to a corporate owned thing to being nationalized to being shut down due to poor mineral prices to now – groups of miners working in groups (collectives) who own everything they can extract.

We went down into the mines with three guides. They were all former/current miners. Prior to going in, we stopped at the market to buy some gifts for the miners. The implicit deal is that this makes up for the work interruptions and also means that hopefully nobody gets run over by mining carts.

The gifts were coca leaves, alcohol, dynamite and juice. The coca leaves are chewed to stave off hunger, cold and fatigue because eating down there does not happen because of the inevitable arsenic on the hands. The alcohol says ‘potable’ on it. It was probably not – it seemed like something that comes from a Mississippi bathtub and causes blindness. Not 96 proof as in 48%, but 96% as in 192 proof as in… yikes. The dynamite is their favorite gift because it is relatively pricey, at about $3.00 Cdn per stick.

Dynamite! (Not Napoleon)

We had some cool guides. One was called Chacski, but he was not Polish. Apparently it means messenger because he had a great showing in a marathon a few years back which is very impressive given the brutal hit anyones’ lungs take working there. He had great english and was a very nice guy. He was the leader which was good, because his sidekick was a guy named Choco Loco. This means ‘crazy chocolate.’ He was crazy. Well, more like a belligerent final-stage alcoholic / professional sleazebag. He would lurk around any girls trying to coerce them into drinking and using the same line all the time, ‘me amor imposible.’ He almost got into a fight with an Aussie guy, lurked around the hostel (which sanctioned him apparently), tried to rip off the guys who had the misfortune of getting some drinks with him and his favorite hobby was exploiting the cool movie star of the town (or country or continent….)

Choco Loco sometimes be gone for a while (passed out, presumably) but then he would reemerge sometime later with a new jug of swamp water laden with 96% booze and make absurd demands, like ‘[inaudible grunt]… me amigos!! Six llamas were sacrificed today so you must immediately have 6 shots!! Vamos! Radipidmente!” The easy deflection once it got ridiculous like this was “sure, you first.” That would get rid of him for a while. It’s worth noting his underground behavior was moderately more sober than his ‘day off’ antics.

Time to drink a 50/50 mix of 96% 'potable' alcohol and gross fruit flavoured drink. Chacski (L), Choco Loco (R)

We saw previous to the trip a movie on the mine. It was very good, definitely worth seeing. It was a true biographical account of Basilio, a 14 year old who works in the mine.

The Film

Basilio is the central character. He is on the movie cover/poster. The film basically chronicles what a miserable place it is to work but also how he balances it with school and is mentored by the older miners who look out for him. Anyway, he’s now 22 and we met him on the Saturday when the llamas were being sacrificed. Basilio is doing some university now but still working in the mines. We got to meet him and he is a very cool guy who was barely tolerant of Choco Loco trying to parade him around in a futile attempt to impress girls. Anyway, we invited him to come and stay with us for a bit if he ever comes up to our respective countries (Canada, England and Holland) because he was a very nice guy.

Michael, myself, Basilo and Hugo.

As alluded to previously, there was blood. Gore. Lots of both. We came back on the following day because it was the biannual festival. They sacrifice llamas to the Tio (translation: uncle.) The Tio is a big devil in the mine. God is only for when they are above ground – when below ground, the Tio rules the roost. They eat the llama meat after the sacrifice to it is not senseless thankfully, but there is a lot of blood being tossed around as a sacrifice for the bloodthirsty Tio. If not the llamas it will be the men, so the thinking goes.

The enterence on Saturday...

The Tio takes offerings of lots – he likes coca and cigarettes and 96% ‘Bolivian whiskey’. Here I am pouring him a drink from my 96% booze. All offerings are proceeded my pouring some on the ground first. Similar to any LA stereotypes/films where the gangsters pour malt liquor (out of a brown bag) onto the sidewalk and say ‘for my dead homies.’

The devil and I. He is gussied up for the festival. Note my bag of coca leaves too.

But in the grand scheme the Tio only got a small amount of my swag – the miners, and there are lots of them, were happy with the lion’s share.

We also met another celebrity. Well, so we thought. He was not Art Garfunkel but a lookalike. He claimed to be from Chicago but drawled like he was from the deep south. He was an expert on everything. Everything. But his specialty was screaming at the TV when sporting events were on. His default emotion was indignation.

OHHHHHHHHWW!! MONSTER JAM!!!

(NBA on TV)

OHHHHHHHHWWggggg!! WHAT A RACE!!! You can’t appreciate racing unless you build engines like me. And race! But that was when I was young. Now I just appreciate the power and gears, yah!!

(F1 racing on TV)

OH!! Look at that turn! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT????? Waita turn, Shumie!!!!

(More racing, showing a routine turn)

He also spent much time screaming at the hostel staff. The gist of it was this.

a) The Faux Art G. paid for a tour or something. With a wheel-barrel of cash it sounded like.
b) He forgot about the tour.
c) He remembered after and demanded his money back,
d) He used the time-honoured technique to jog peoples’ memories – yelling.
e) ARRRRRRRRRGH!!!!!
f) He had no receipt. This further enraged him – bad men must have stole it.
g) He was out like 90 Bolivianos!! That is like $15 Cdn.
h) There was much bemoaning this misfortune afterwards.
i) He showed his indignation by… staying in the same crappy hostel for two more nights.
j) The concept of being careful with money in a 3rd world country was lost on him evidently. Ditto with the notion of most likely ‘missing’ money turns up later in your other pair of pants. Yes, I now have two pairs here, like a high roller.

On the way out to La Paz, where we are now, we got burgers to go. ‘Hamburguesas con huevos.’ Burgers with eggs, good deal! Well, risky given the 12 hour bus trip had no bathroom and stopped only once. But anyway, they forgot the burger part. So it was strictly eggs. Probably for the best.

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Going to Bolivia

Right now I am in San Pedro de Atacama. It’s a little, old west looking town of 5000 near the Bolivian border, 7900 ft in elevation. They have a nicer soccer field than this here, but if I was playing, the dirt field overlooking the volcano would be more my style.

The plan tomorrow, Monday, is to do a three-day 4×4 trip into Bolivia. This goes through geysers, hotsprings, over some 15,000 ft peaks, and through the salt flats of Uyuni which sounds great. Great for everything except for streaming game #3 of the Canucks/Bruins online…

The route lately has been 1190 Km from Valparaiso to San Pedro with a few days stopped off in between in La Serena. There was a foosball table at the hostel there which is what I was expecting everywhere in South America but have not been seeing much of. Well maybe for the best because I lost most of my games…. Anyway, below, the salt flats show up as white on the satellite image.

I went to the observatory nearby. Chile has the biggest observatory in the world – the Very Large Telescope. I did not go there. I went to a smaller one nearby. It was an observatory for… observing, not for scientific research. But they let you look through the telescope which is fun whereas the science guys don’t unless you rent the place and apparently they want $30,000,000 Chilean pesos an hour to rent it (that’s about $60,000 Cdn.) Plus, you can jam your camera into the telescope to take pictures of things. Like Saturn, albeit at only 10x larger than actual.

I never made it to any big copper mines in Chile either, despite sending some disjointed emails to random copper outfits in broken Spanish. I should have told them I was a lumberjack perhaps. Then they would have moved quicker. Regardless, I am going to the big silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia. This is where the miners take you down with them to do some work, and you buy the alcohol, tobacco, coca leaves and dynamite beforehand at the market. That should be this coming weekend hopefully.

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