Mendoza, Argentina – The Blind Leading The Blind

untitled (56)I made it to Mendoza, Argentina a few days ago and guess what?  It’s rained for some portion of every day I’ve been here.  I hadn’t seen rain in months, and it turns out it sucks exactly as much as I remember… but it does become slightly more palatable when paired with a fine Malbec.

So day before yesterday, I literally witnessed the blind leading the blind.  No lie!  It started out as a threesome, with one man with blacked out glasses and a white cane holding the elbow of a 2nd man with skyward-pointed sightless eyes, who in turn was holding the elbow of an able-eyed skinny-jeaned hipster who was leading the trio.  Turns out the hipster was just a good Samaritan navigating the vulnerable duo across the busy street.  When they reached the other side, he gave them both a pat on the arm and ran back across the street to carry on his way, as the two smiled and continued to shuffle gingerly along the street together.

Then yesterday, on the sunny patio of a street-side restaurant at lunch, I watched a stylishly dressed elderly gentlemen of some means enjoying his solo lunch of ever-amazing Argentinian steak and (of course) a nice glass of vino.  untitled (57)He was entirely alone with his thoughts (as was I, but I always have a laptop to keep me company!)  and he seemed to me to be a little out of sorts and quite possibly, just a little grumpy.

Now, Argentina is going through a terrible financial crisis and some people here (as in many areas of the world), are struggling.  In Mendoza, those in need occasionally approach restaurant patrons on patios for the leftover bread in the basket that has not been eaten at the end of the meal, or possibly for other scraps that remain.  Argentina-economyAfter the elderly man finished eating and sat back, one such scruffy young man approached his table and gestured to the bread in the basket (I was out of hearing range so am not sure if anything quietly was said). I was very curious to see how the older fellow would react.

To my delight, without fanfare or even changing the grumpy expression on his face, he gestured the ok for the remaining buns to be taken, then offered his steak knife to cut them open, and then he proceeded to slowly and carefully spoon what remained of his steak & vegetables into them for the surprised young man.

Such a small gesture; it cost him absolutely nothing and was so easy to do, but often in this world given that same moment many people make a different choice, and you have to ask yourself why.  Kindness shouldn’t ever be so surprising, but too often it is. I’m going to try to remember to spread it around a bit more.

On my way here from Santiago I met an English-speaking Argentinian woman about 5 minutes before we were set to board the bus.  Well as It turns out, the online info about crossing the border I had was outdated, and I needed to go online to pay the entry fee and print the receipt before boarding the bus (that was now to leave in about 7 minutes).  This woman learned what was necessary from the concierge and then raced me around the terminal helping me to get it accomplished.  In the end she came very close to missing the last bus of the day with me.

If Argentina isn’t careful, it’s going to earn kindest country award of the trip, but to temper things… shortly after the restaurant scene, I watched 2 women almost hit fist fight level in a pedestrian vs. driver intersection disagreement. :)

imagesCAFF9ZUUOh, and if anyone remains even slightly curious about the question “Where’s the beef?” …  I can tell you that at a minimum, several pounds of it is in my belly.

Can you eat it 3 meals a day, you ask?   Why yes you can!  Eating steak here is like eating tomatoes in Greece …  you’re like, oh, that’s what it’s supposed to taste like!

So far I’ve navigated the illegal money changing without incident or arrest!   Sun is in the forecast so wine touring on bicycles starts tomorrow.  Do you think I should I wear a helmet, or is it much too late for that?

Santiago 2.0 – Despite All Of My Best Intentions

Two posts in one week?   What??   Well, there is a first for everything.  Also, I’m super tired and way too lazy to do anything but sip and type.

SignForgot to mention last time that two of these giant signs are literally within 10 feet of the front  door of my Santiago hostel.  I scared the driver when I burst out laughing as we first pulled up in the taxi.  Sometimes the universe gives you signs… sometimes it just wants to make you laugh.   Against all evidence, I’m going with the latter this week.

Hoy me duele la cabeza.   Translation:  My head hurts today.  And it’s all the fault of 3 Chileans:  an opera singer/flautist, a sign-maker, and a naval commander.

Screenshot (57)As we linked arms Wizard of Oz style to walk to my hostel after closing down the bar, I tried to recall where my initially sedate night had taken such a dramatic turn.  I always find this to be a fun forensic exercise.  It occurred to me that I should have seen it coming when the bartender introduced two of them emphatically as his “very best” customers,  Also, merely by his outward appearance, one of them (Jeremias pictured here) gives a clear indication of his level of commitment to having fun.   Turns out he’s the more reserved one.

Hours earlier I had taken a seat at the outdoor bar of a lovely upscale restaurant in the Patio Bellavista complex hoping to hear some live music.  With no one on stage yet, I pulled out my trusty tablet to do a little work on my new passion project.  I was just getting in to things when the first two showed up….   Miguel and Jeremias.  I smile politely and say hola when the bartender introduces us, and then resume my typing.   Over time, this does not please them.

imagesCAA49Y1ILong story short, officially there was never any live music, but we did all play the drums on our bellies (Miguel swears his rather sizeable one is composed entirely of the world’s finest fois gras) and at random moments here and there Jeremias would belt out an operatic line or two.  We shared recipes (I swear to god I learned in gory detail how to prepare bull tall), compared bifocal prescriptions. traded family stories, and ultimately I was lectured passionately on how “anglos” like me suffer terribly from our lack of latin blood, and therefore are burdened with a serious inability to properly cut loose and enjoy life.

After my first glass of wine, they insist on buying another,   I politely but firmly refused saying that I have to abstain as I am going running on the river again early in the morning.  Brief moment of total silence, then in unison we all burst out laughing, including the waiter who immediately drops off another round.  This was well before the champagne started flowing. Yikes.

We had to ditch the naval commander when he got all moony-eyed.  It wasn’t his fault…. he had serious champagne goggles on by then and at least half of my irresistible clavicle was exposed.  Don’t laugh.  The other guys however (now known to me as Opera & Fois Gras) are two of the most fun-loving silly men I’ve ever met.  Good times.

images (21)Today I made my way through downtown Santiago again to change my remaining Chilean pesos to US $ before I skip town.

There is a really cool stretch of pedestrian only streets with two main areas of interest.  One is chess, and men of all ages gather around tables furiously concentrating on their next move.  There always seems to be one “celebrity” match underway with a group of 10 or more crowded around watching intently.   Not a single woman has been playing or watching either time I’ve been here (well, except me that is).  I wish I was a secret superstar player and could just sit down and start killin’ it!

The first sign you are approaching  the second area of interest is the initially faint whiff of incense, and then you come upon a dozen or so fortune tellers and tarot card readers in rows of stalls that seem to be uber popular with the locals.  I wish I could easily understand enough rapid Spanish to make visiting one not such a painful process, as it looked like everyone was hearing really good news today!

It is fall here, and though it is decently hot at mid-day, the evenings and morning are very cool.  Leaves are falling from the trees and I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to get this far south.  I also can’t tell you how glad it makes me that I’ve missed this past northern winter altogether and will be coming back to the best seasons in Vancouver!

imagesCAKKHLADTonight I make my way to Mendoza;  adios to Chile and hola to Argentina.

I hear you can beat the official posted exchange rate by as much as +20% on the blue market,   Sweet!   Time to start exchanging dinero in back alleys.  That doesn’t sound too dangerous, does it?

Santiago, Chile – Putting The “Fun” In Funicular Since 1923!

WTF is a funicular you ask?  Patience my friend, all in good time.

Suntitled (53)o, after a mere 35 hours on a bus including 2 mechanical breakdowns (one thrilling one in the middle of the Chilean desert), I arrived in Santiago, Chile   The trip actually sounds a lot worse than it was, particularly if I share the part about my “assigned” seat being next to an 11 year old boy with a serious case of ADHD.   Luckily though our seatmate relationship (which was a disturbingly close one, as apparently in his sleep he repeatedly mistook me for either his pillow, or his mother) lasted a scant four of thirty-five hours, and I was able to score 2 seats to myself for most of the trip.  I caught up on some serious zzzz’s!

I am loving this city!  My hostel is located right on the edge of Barrio Bellavista, which is home to the University and is the city’s “bohemian” entertainment district full of bars and cafes with huge patio spaces, live music every night, and a bustling art scene.   Even the hostel itself is gorgeous, with enormous wooden sculptures found everywhere in a big bright airy old house.  I can not believe the places I get to stay for the small amount I pay in this part of the world.

imagesCALPX3BCThis morning I laced up my long-ignored sneakers for an early morning run along the Mapocho River.  It winds its way through the City and is nestled against a park space with paths that go on forever (…. at least it felt like forever!).  Perfect for biking and jogging!

The Condell pedestrian bridge, that I used to cross the river to the park, is where couples with a romantic streak, and a desire for everlasting love, make their mark by committing a padlock inscribed with their names and a message to the railings.   Isn’t that freakin’ adorable!  The whole surface of the bridge is covered with heart-felt graffiti messages and poems of passion and love.

images (20)I also visited the Mercado Central with its bustling seafood market, the National Park, watched some hilarious meerkats play at the zoo for an hour or so, and took the funicular (pictured here) up Cerro San Cristóbal.

This is where the 22 meter statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the city, surrounded by a lovely garden.  There is an amazing view of Santiago from the top, but the ever present haze of smog is a bit disconcerting.

I also indulged in my newest favorite pastime, ”begging at banks for money”, which has taken up at least half a day every week since I lost my debit card two weeks ago.  More on this in a future post where I will review all and sundry items lost or broken on this little sojourn.  This begging pastime has honed my bank navigation skills to a razor-sharp edge.   Most important lesson learned – do not initially join any line-up AND always enlist the assistance of a guard.  They are the unappreciated saviours of foreign travelers navigating financial disaster… at least blonde travelers anyway.  Eventually I always walk away with fistfuls of pesos or soles or dollars…  so all is well.

For some inexplicable reason, Chile is 2 hours ahead of Peru (though I think they’re at generally the same longitude?), but it’s great because it stays dark until after 7 am, but it’s still light at 8 pm which makes for gorgeous patio sunsets!

This is a fashion forward city.  I saw a 3 year old today rocking her Chuck Taylors, leopard skin leggings, vintage AC/DC sweatshirt, bright pink oversized sunglasses and a faux (I hope) snake-skin clutch.  I fear my dirty hobo look is getting more than a little tired.

Taking a step back… my first stop in Chile was in a little town near the Peru border called Arica.  where I stayed just a couple of days.  The weather was lovely but there wasn’t too much to do, or maybe I was just lazy.

WendyEither way, there I met by far one of the most interesting characters I’ve met on this trip… and that’s saying something.  Wendy is an American woman (ex-military) who’s been traveling for 3 months solo on a motorcycle, taking much of the same general route I’ve traveled.   Her goal (only slightly less adventurous than mine?) has been to paraglide in every place it is possible on this trip.

She has a couple of blogs (one is Live To Fly To Ride  but the one with my all time favorite title is Paragliding Confessions… of a lesbian bomb technician.   She embodies the 4 “F”‘s - a fun, funny, fearless female and even though she is younger than me, I want to be just like her when I grow up…. except for the lesbian part… I like boys, whatever.    She has some great stories to tell about her trip,  and has taken some really beautiful photographs.    After one near-death epic tale she summarizes….

“So.. to clarify, if a man is standing anywhere on the road holding an orange piece of cloth over his head, it means Stop.”

Love it!   She also makes a mean pasta.

curvy-road-3I have another couple of days here in Santiago before I embark on this road route to Mendoza, Argentina, to indulge in even more wine.   Did I mention I had 10 dry days before hitting Santiago…. call it Liver Prep 101 for wine country.  :).

Do you think I should take a dramamine beforehand?


Random Thoughts On Central & South American Stuff – Part 3

With only 2 countries left on the must-see list, and admittedly just a little bit of travel weariness setting in  – I’ve finalized my return to Vancouver in just about 3 weeks (6 months and two days after departing)  to start a new adventure of a totally different sort…… but more on that another time.

Here is the 3rd crop of observations…  most are things I like, and just a couple…  well… not so much.  So, under the heading of things I like::

1. Extraordinary Street Food!

untitled (42)In every country, or region within a country, there are at least a few specialty foods that are entirely unique to that area.  Overall the sheer variety of cheap & delicious things that can be bought to eat street or beach-side is overwhelming.

Here in Peru, an interesting addition has been cooked quail eggs.  These enterprising vendors have the entire supply chain contained within their cart.

The first level is the farm, the second level is the processing plant, and the 3rd level is retail - direct to the consumer!

There are no businesses I can think of that run this self-sufficiently.  Well, maybe prostitution.

2.  Everyone Is An Entrepreneur!

Iuntitled (47)n the modern world of ubiquitous technology, where there seems to be a smartphone in everyone’s pocket, who would have guessed there is still a job for letter-writers in the plaza.

These amazing administrative wizards can be heard cllck-clacking away at an amazing speed on their antique manual typewriters   They pump out some fine-looking letters with classic old school formal formatting.

No white-out in sight.

QuitoFaro-1The interesting thing is that no one seems to be without work of some sort.  Everyone is hustling - making, selling, cooking or cleaning something.  There are miniature 5 x 8 foot store-fonts side by side for miles, packed to the rafters with all manner of odds & ends.

Even intersections are ripe for self-made jobs.  Forget squeegee kids.  Here you get acrobats, jugglers, dancers, fire eaters, and hula-hoopers - and they’re really entertaining!  A definite improvement over a windshield that ends up dirtier than it was before it got “squeegeed”.

 3. The Complete And Utter Lack of Fuss Over Women Feeding Their Babies … In Public!   (GASP!)

untitled (48)Every day I see women happily breast-feeding their babies in public without any qualms about covering up or being within sight of anyone else.

All around these women, life goes on entirely as normal, with no one batting an eye.   Can you imagine?

Even the ever-cleavage-seeking latin male population realize this is nothing to get excited about (no pun intended).  It strikes me that at some point something has gone very wrong in the development of a society if its people can be offended by this sight or feel it is something that needs to be hidden.  And If you opened this post at work… well…  good for you!   And oops.

 4.  Catcalls & Dinner Invitations

imagesCAA2RHT9Something weird happened when I got south of let’s say the 10th parallel.  I got better looking!  Case in point - this morning I rolled out of bed with straggly mop-hair looking akin to some sort of  modestly medicated insane asylum shut-in.  Remembering that I was out of milk for the daily “café con leche” fest that I call breakfast, I threw on my uber-linty black dress / robe /pajamas / beach cover-up (remember – travel clothes must be versatile!!) and flip-flops to stumble to the market down the street.   On the only corner enroute, I got a “Buenos dias chica!” and a whistle.   Now back in the day my 20 or even 30-something self probably would have found this annoying….  but my 6-months-minus-one-day -from-turning-50 self finds it entirely charming.  Go figure.  In truth,  I know all the credit for this minor miracle belongs to L’Oreal Preference 7.3.1 Medium Blonde.

5.  The Beautiful Old Buildings, Courtyards And Cobblestone Streets

imagesCA2D2T6RThere is just something so visually appealing for me about the old areas of each of the cities I’ve visited.

By day, they are often where the cultural heart of the city is found.

By night, there is such a purely romantic aspect to them…. so much more interesting than skyscrapers and glass could ever be.

And most importantly,  they generally have all the great restaurants and bars!

Now, here are a few things that I will definitely not miss…..

1.  The Death Traps

IMG_20140324_154354This part of the southern hemisphere is not kind to the clumsy.  Or to the tall.  This is the land of the perpetually sprained ankle, and for anyone over about 5′ 8″, the permanently dented and abraded forehead.

Sidewalks here have the equivalent of mini manholes, most of whose covers have been inexplicably removed.  This situation combined with constant wearing of the world’s most comfortable but also most trip instigating footwear – the flip-flop, make navigating the always treacherous stretches just a matter of time before it’s – “man down!”.    Here is a single pic showing what they are supposed to look like on the left, and then what they almost always look like on the right.   untitled (50) Note that the streets are not typically very dirty, but where there is a hole, garbage will gather.

Likewise, tall people will encounter low ceilings, unexpected beams and doorways made to accommodate gnomes, dwarves, midgets, leprechauns, and people like me.

I’m not going to lie –  it is kind of fun to watch the inevitable head clunk unfold.   I like to think the entertainment is payback for me almost never seeing any portion of any street level performance due to these same “average” and above sized freaks.  You know who you are.   lol.

2.  The Inability To Line Up Properly

This is infuriating to my sense of justice, but at the same time points out just how uptight I am. Apparently I like an orderly line up that is formed and moves according to the unwritten but official laws of line-ups that absolutely everyone should know and abide by!  There I said it!  Here it’s a free for all, almost  all the time.  It’s a sport to see how ballsy you can get and how many people you can step right in front of.   And whoever is doling out whatever it is you’re lined up for, does absolutely nothing to discourage this behaviour!   Unacceptable!  :)   The weirdest is in the ladies bathroom where everyone picks a stall and creates a line up outside each door… Anyone who enters can join any line-up, or as noted above, try to just boldly butt in –  it’s chaos!  And you know there won’t be any toilet paper.

Oh my, I’ve gone a bit long yet again, haven’t I?   Sorry.  This week it’s “Adios Peru” and “Hola Chile”.  I am looking forward to some quality time in wine country!

What’s the weather like in Vancouver?….  do you think I will be able to keep my tan through to summer?  lol.

Letting It Be In Peru

It’s been a fun week.  The highlight by far was the day spent at Machu Picchu.  It is an absolutely magical place that I hope everyone gets a chance to visit at some point.

When I booked my trip the agent said they would pick me up at my hotel at 4 am.  I knew that I would not be the only passenger so I suggested that it would probably not be exactly 4 am for all the passengers, but maybe earlier or later depending on the location of my hotel.  Nope, 4 am pick-up she said confidently.   At 3:35 when the knocking on my door begun, I was not surprised… but I was also not ready.  Laughing, I quickly threw on my clothes and headed out to the waiting van.

I found Cusco, the home base for most who are visiting Machu Picchu, to be surprisingly alive with people at that ungodly hour.   A nice mix of bleary eyed travelers heading out for the day, and bleary eyed drunks starting to wind down their night.  I swear the whole town is busier at 4 am than it is at 10 am.

untitled (34)We were in the van for about an hour and half heading to the cute little town of Ollantaytanbo, where we boarded the train for the next leg of the trip to Aguas Caliente.  This is where the magic starts.   The trains have large panoramic view windows and the vistas at sunrise, the whole way along the river bank,  are totally breathtaking.  I was seated beside Mikael - a 30-something Russian who runs a hostel in Moscow.  He tells me politely that he talks to travelers every day at his hostel, so he doesn’t like to talk to travelers when he’s on vacation.   Um, ok.  Then he proceeds to talk for the whole ride.  lol.   It was cool though, there was a lot we were seeing that was well worth talking about.  Also a super welcome diversion because the young couple across from us were seriously making out the whole way….  Maybe they were live auditioning for some totally odd ”Macchu Picchu Is For Lovers” ad campaign.  Kids these days.

On arriving at Aguas Caliente we boarded a bus for the last 1/2 hour trip to get to the site of the ruins.  This ride is definitely not for the faint of heart…. nothing but mist, switchbacks, cliffsides and one very narrow unpaved road.  There is also a constant good-natured game of chicken being played out by the highly skilled bus drivers trying to navigate past each other with mere inches to spare.

imagesCA6Q66EQMost of the clouds had cleared by the time we arrived at the site and it was bright and sunny and totally jaw-dropping.  The mist swirls in and out of the site and around the surrounding mountains.  It really has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

The 2 hour guided tour was fascinating, and I spent another couple of hours hiking up and around the site.  I had my favorite picnic ever here – a gourmet organic peanut butter and strawberry preserve sandwich, eaten perched on the edge of a wall overlooking the whole site (many thanks to Meghan for bequeathing me the $$ jars on her departure from Lima, and for having such exquisite expensive tastes!).   The impromptu picnic was totally against the rules (no eating? c’mon!), but at least I kept my clothes on.  For those of you who didn’t see it in The Vancouver Sun or other news channels, days later two Canadians were detained for streaking on the site.   Go Canada.  We’re such rebels.

Apparently about a month ago, there was a landslide on the route up and the site was not accessible by bus for several days.  Can you imagine coming all this way and then not being able to get the last 15 miles?  Some fellow travelers and I made the bus / train / van trip back a red- wine soaked chat fest – everyone was really overwhelmed by the day.

imagesCA3E0KE6After leaving Cusco, I made my way to Arequipa, Peru.  This is the 2nd largest city in Peru but is far different than the larger Lima.  It does have what I think is the most beautiful Plaza de Armas (the main square of Peruvian cities) of any place I’ve been in South America.  The weather here has been perfect and I decided to settle in for a week,  chill out and finish off my PMP re-certification requirements… which I finally did the day before yesterday.  YAYl

That night I decided to celebrate and took myself out to gorge on an amazing filet mignon dinner at the mighty fine Zingaro – honestly the food in Peru continues to be phenomenal!   Afterward in search of amusement, I wandered through the blocks of Calle San Francisco (the main entertainment zone) looking for a venue with live music.

On the advice of the bartender from the restaurant, I stumbled in to Retro Bar only  to hear an all Spanish band playing Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water”.  While not exactly what I was looking for, I hung around for a few songs and watched the mostly local crowd going absolutely  crazy for the set of Doors songs featured next.  Classic ’70′s.

imagesCARRQVVZ (2)One of the other patrons at the bar suggested another club a block away so we made our way over and walked in to a packed bar to find another band stepping back in time, this time though it was an awesome rendition of ”Highway Star”.   Yes, also a Deep Purple song from the ’70′s.   WTF is up with Peru and Deep Purple?   Anyway this band diversified and with a great lead singer brought out their best U2, Coldplay and some classic Red Hot Chili Peppers, so I decided to stick around.

Music in Peru has been unusual to say the least and aside from the ever-oily Mark Antony’s crossover hit “Vivir Mi Vida” (which I fear has been permanently burned in to my brain.. heard many times every day in every city) , I’ve heard very little Spanish music here.  Case in point, more Blondie heard here in Peru in the last week than at home in the last decade.  Weird.

I wound up my night after the entire bar (my group included!) joined in and belted out “Let It Be” along with the band.   It seemed like a good high note on which to pack it in…. you know, before things get sloppy.   lol.

untitled (36)From here I will be making my way to the border with Chile and onwards in search of wine country, and of course ping pong.  I have a couple more days here though and I hear there is a ping pong table at the Wild Rover Hostel just off the main square, so I may have to make my way over there for St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow.

Any great vineyards around Santiago, Chile that you would recommend visiting?   Oh, and also I lost all my clothes for 1 1/2 days.   You may think that you really hate them all after 5 months…. but only until they’re missing!   More on that another time.   Hmmm.  There are loud church bells ringing and gunshots outside…. gotta run!

Lima, Peru – Named For The Bean?

Actually, it’s the exact opposite.  Who knew?  Geezus I am no fan of those little green monsters though.

So, let’s do a quick catch up.   4 hot hot sunny days in Mancora, 5 games of ping pong, 4 victories, 1 crushing defeat (sob!), 3 pisco sours, 1 slight hangover, a truly surprising number of hairless dog sightings, many walks on the beach, and 1 bus ride to Lima.

images (14)I really enjoyed Lima, but I have to admit my adventures were limited to two of the most upscale neighbourhoods – Miraflores and Barranca.   I visited some very cool pre-Incan ruins at Huaca Pucllana which was found oddly only 2 short blocks from my modern suburban neighbourhood in Miraflores. I walked all along the Malecon which is a stunning 6 mile walkway along the top of the cliff overlooking the beaches and oceans below.   I caught a bit of a surfing competition being held the weekend I was there.  If Vancouver is a city where you can ski after work, then Lima is the place you can surf at lunch.

untitled (22)There are some amazing views around the area and it is quite cosmopolitan…(translation… I looked like a dirty hobo there).  There is a super glam mall built in to the side of the cliffs called Larcomar where I almost dropped $s/169 on a pair of jeans.

That’s only about $60 but seriously I couldn’t bring myself to do it!  I did however find an amazing Helmut Lang pale pink sundress at a discount store called Quincos or something for $s/20 (which is like $8!).  Gorgeous!

In the Barranca district I visited a few art galleries, some outdoor plazas, enjoyed a local band playing out in front of a restaurant and had by far the best ceviche I’ve had in my life, and that is saying something as I had a lot of fantastic ceviche in Ecuador too.

The weather was lovely and sunny without any rain at all.  The locals complain about the “cold” winter but apparently it doesn’t ever go below about 15 degrees in this city.  Cold my ass.

imagesCAQ02ZV2I received so many warnings about traveling alone in Lima but I have to say it felt very safe.  Very similar to being in downtown Vancouver (and I don’t mean the east side) without the tragedy of the many homeless people.  I guess it really depends on what neighbourhoods you are in.  This was about the most scary thing I saw….. which was really far more cute than scary.

From Lima I grabbed a VIP bus back up to high altitude at 11000 plus feet in Cusco.  I watched a couple of good movies in English on my personal seatback entertainment system  (internet, movies, books, games, facebook, etc. on offer), had a hot meal, drifted off to sleep and woke up to my blanket being tucked in to my cama-bed by the stewardess.  Greyhound, take a lesson!  The 20 hour trip cost only about twice the amount it costs to travel 1 hour from Vancouver to Abbotsford.  I was also initially shocked, but then ultimately reassured to watch them give the driver(s) a breathalyzer on camera before departure.  You have to wonder what kind of situations have led to that being standard practice for a professional driver going through the Andes.  Yikes.

They say it is easier on the body to adjust to the altitude if you travel by land than by air.   I wonder how freakin’ bad I would have felt if I came by air? cocoleaf By the time I got to my hostel I was not feeling well at all, but many many cups of whole coca leaf tea and a good nights sleep seem to have done the trick.

At the Nuna Raymi restaurant today, where I had the best steak I’ve EVER eaten, my waitress was wearing a t-shirt that said something like “The Coca leaf is not a drug – it is part of our Andean culture”.   I’ve never been so disappointed! :)   In contrast, here’s what Wikipedia says on the topic and also an interesting article on getting the most out of it.  I’m gonna keep drinking it anyway.  They say it’s good for altitude sickness.  lol.

More on Cusco next time.   Who’s been to Machu Picchu - any advice is welcome!

It’s Official – I’m A Total Moron….

untitled (17)Or at the very least a professional level procrastinator….. but you knew that already, didn’t you?   Here’s the thing – I have a designation that requires 60 hours of professional development / education every 3 years to maintain the qualification.   It doesn’t sound too unreasonable, does it?   60 hours over 3 years?   Of course not.   However if you leave it all TO THE LAST MONTH in the midst of traveling, all of a sudden it becomes quite a considerable burden.   For some completely naïve reason I thought I could easily get an extension.   Nope.  All I can say is thank god for the internet and recorded webinars!  Needless to say I have not posted anything here in a couple of weeks, but I’ve managed to kill 40 of the 60 required hours!  Whew!

imodiumI arrived in Mancora, Peru, via overnight bus from Guayaquil, Ecuador, at 6 am this morning.  All day yesterday before leaving at 11 pm I was plagued by the first “stomach bug” of my travels and the prospect of an overnight bus trip was making me very uneasy.  Fun fact – Ecuador doesn’t have Imodium or anything remotely like it over the counter!   My alternate strategy – eat nothing all day and drink loads of water.    As it turns out, this particular strategy really did curb the most troublesome aspect of the bug, but unfortunately not all of its symptoms.  Now not to be too indelicate, but I’m going to imagine that my bus seatmate may have bestowed on me some sort of affectionate nickname…. like “Fluffy McFarts” or “Trumpet”.  Or most likely there was no affection involved at all.   Sorry dude.   I hope you were a sound sleeper.  Too much information for you?  Perhaps.

350px-Mancorabeach1I was greeted in Mancora by lake sized puddles and super muddy, sloppy streets after an apparently unusual overnight deluge of rain.   I took a tuk tuk (love that name!) to my hostel (2 fully flooded blocks away), dumped off my junk and hit the road to find some coffee… no easy feat in a flooded surfing town at that hour of the morning.  I’m hoping it dries out considerably throughout the day and I get to see it more as pictured here!

Some quick trip stats that occurred to me:

Days Since Leaving Vancouver:                136

Borders Crossed:                                           6

Cities Visited:                                                17

Blog Posts From The Road:                       20

Ping Pong Tables Played:                            7  (Unacceptably Low!!)

untitled (20)I hear there’s a ping pong table at Loki Hostel down the street from here so I will have to wander by at Happy Hour to check it out!   Also I found a great café with organic drip coffee, so things are definitely looking up!    I may even eat something today.   Also judging by the streetside menus. the “Pisco Sour” seems to be the drink of choice around here, so I may just have to have one of those too!  it’s time to get back to having some fun before tackling those last 20 hours!

What’s the worst circumstance that you’ve been in when hit with a stomach bug?  C’mon, do tell!   Shhhh…. I wont say anything, promise.  :)

Cuenca, Ecuador – High Altitude Living

imagesCA5VQPVDI’ve now been in Cuenca for over 2 weeks.   The bus ride here at times was absolutely stunning, as we wound our way to this city through the Andes.   At other times, the ride was stunning because they were showing “The Fast and The Furious:  Tokyo Drift” in Spanish.   Man that was some stellar example of almost modern cinema at its finest!  :)

The first few days here I was not feeling terrible, but not really great either, I suspect due somewhat to the sudden change in elevation.   Then I got the cold.   You know the one that starts with that scratchy ache in your throat and progresses through all the dreadful predictable stages to leave you ultimately with the lingering nagging cough.  The one that comes on only when you lie down to sleep and persists throughout the entire night…. meaning you get zero rest for days on end.   However, this being my very first minor health setback in 4 months on the road, I really do feel like I’ve been let off lightly compared to what has befallen some others.  On that note, thank you stomach of steel.

images (11)Cuenca has a really lovely historic area with beautiful old buildings, plazas and parks that are well maintained and popular with locals and tourists alike.  The area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are many museums that are either free, have entry by donation, or have a very modest entrance fee ($3-$5).   There are also many many beautiful old churches (52 in total in the city!) that are well attended by the local population at every mass.  I wake up to hear church bells ringing out in the very early morning.  Every morning.

IMG_8362There are a couple of really large markets within this section of town and the choices are endless.    Fruit & vegetable stands, dry goods vendors and endless rows of every different type of meat you can think of, including many types you would never think of, or once you’ve thought of them, you want to quickly forget them.

My favorite market is at Diez De Agosto and the building features one of the only escalators in town. The 2nd floor contains the equivalent of a giant food court in a western style shopping mall, but remains serving only local traditional foods and no brand names or logos are seen anywhere within it.

images (13)Cuy (guinea pig) is the most popular Ecuadorian delicacy in Cuenca and I do intend to try it before I leave here.   It can be found grilled by street or storefront vendors such as this one, or in fine restaurants where much of the delicate deconstruction work required is taken care of for you.  I can’t decide yet which route to take.   Also, I think this is the closest to eating something that is considered a house pet in some places that I will ever get, but for this one I figure when in Rome……

Many concerts and creative performance are held here, and often they are free.   This city is considered one of the best places to retire for those from western countries who are looking to retire where rich cultural opportunities exist, with a low cost of living, and great year round weather.  I can definitely understand the appeal.

I am back in daily Spanish lessons, and though my kind teacher praises my pronunciation and vocabulary regularly, I feel like if anything I may be sliding backwards.   Maybe that’s a common feeling though.   Anyway, at $7 per hour for private lessons I can’t ever say it won’t be pocket change well spent.

The only really bad news is that I’ve not found ping pong anywhere in Cuenca, so this means it’s been more than 4+ weeks since I’ve played.   An unacceptable travesty of city recreation planning at best.

Thanks to Dianne & Shelley for their recommendations that I stop here – I’ve really enjoyed it!  Now though the beach is beckoning me back for a brief stop of recuperation in the sun and a game or two of pong before heading on to Peru.    Game on!

Six Sun-Drunk Weeks – An Ode to Manglaralto & Montanita

I finally made the move and on Monday went from sea level to 8200+ feet of altitude, ending the day in Cuenca, Ecuador.   Now looking back I realize I was utterly sun-drunk for six weeks…. and truth be told I was actually drunk-drunk for only slightly less than that time.  But only the fun tipsy kind of light drunk – thanks to the high-caliber pacing skills that months of practice and determination have helped me develop :).

That area in Ecuador enjoyed almost non-stop dry weather with full-on sun for the majority of every day I was there.  I rarely wore any shoes and if I did it was only flip-flops.  I’m now paying for that luxury as the tops of my feet were in utter agony when I put on my most comfortable Chuck Taylor knock off runners and walked for like 3 blocks in the city.   Shoes feel so weird!  Add that one to the growing list of “Things I never thought I would say”.

In this post I want to pay tribute to some of the cast of characters that contributed to making that stop a great place to stay, and a tough place to leave.   Mosquitos did not make the cut, and nor for that matter did crickets.   I’m also not posting pics or last names to of course protect the innocent (that would be me).

Monique - the first person I met on the patio of my temporary home.  She has the mischievous smile of a 6-year-old about to commit some devilishly naughty act, and a laugh that makes you want to say something funny just to hear it.  While not a seasoned ping pong player, her spazzy moves were surprisingly as effective as they were weird to watch.   On a scale of 1-10 - I give her game a (-1) for finesse , but a (+11) for utter unpredictability.   She, of the baby turtle & seahorse rescues, will make an excellent English teacher I’m sure, and I hope our paths cross again someday soon.

Greg - the second person I met and also a neighbor at my hostel.   If Monique had the smile of a 6-year-old, Greg stole that same 6 year old’s view of the world.  Everything seemed new and magical and full of beauty when seen through his eyes.  Every minute of every sunset, every object or person he photographed, and every conversation he had were treated as precious.    Of course he was seeing and experiencing it all through really thick rum and/or red wine goggles so that probably explains a lot.   And while we got along great almost all of the time, he did bring out the contrarian in me, and the phrase being thrown my way most often by him was  ”Jane, you ignorant slut“.,,, which made me laugh every time.    You may have to be of a certain era to appreciate the nostalgia of that one.

 John -  Greg’s childhood friend and  a permanent resident of the area in the making..  also a fixture at Montanita’s gringo watering hole “Playa De James” and an avid sharer of some of the most interesting crap posted on the interwebs.   Funny too, and as an example I received the following verbatim message on FB after running in to him during a night out…. “Thanks for the smirk while giving me the finger as you left. It’s the little things that make it worthwhile.”    To be fair, he had been making fun of my humidity assaulted beach hair.

The Santas  – ZZ Top- James & Woot –  Both of these bearded guys had the goodness of heart to play Santa Claus at different children’s orphanages in the area over the Christmas season.  Both are clearly generous and kind men, but they are also smart enough to realize that showing up on Cocktail Alley at Happy Hour in a Santa suit could mean that scores of scantily dressed long-legged Argentinian lovelies will sit on your lap to get their picture taken.   Pervs. :)   They are also key contributors to the lightning fast local grapevine where gringo news has been known to travel faster than the crickets.

Julie & James - This good-looking couple are the proprietors of the aforementioned “Playa De James” and went out of their way to make me feel welcome.   They serve a dinner there too, but generally need to know in advance how many people are expecting to eat.   My free-wheeling lifestyle just couldn’t conform to the rigidity involved in this kind of forward planning… lol..  but somehow they were almost always willing and able to rustle up a giant plate of fresh vegetables (not normally seen in this area!)  and some of whatever else was on the grill if I happened to show up.  It was fun to take a spot at the bar and be treated to their unique blend of hospitality and banter.

Other Jon -  You know those people who immediately after meeting you drag you directly into an intense conversation?   Jon is one of those people.  I whiled away one of my favorite days in Manglaralto sitting and solving the world’s problems with him in a bamboo surf shack on the beach, with a backdrop of lounging bronzed surfers, perfect tunes, and multiple tetra paks of fine red wine.   Yes, tetra paks.  Good times.

Oswaldo -  I was introduced to Oswaldo my first night out in Montanita.  He is from Peru and is opening the first Chinese food restaurant in Montanita.    He is quite a character and I think is quickly becoming a fixture in the town.  He dropped by our hostel patio a few times to visit, and also emails me mysterious questions from time to time.  During a shared cab ride home one night he said he had a love letter for me.   *Awkward Silence*.   When he handed it over it turns out it was from someone in the 6th grade and was addressed to girl named an Alison.  In Spanish, it is the cutest and sincerest letter you can imagine from some love-lorn little Romeo trying to win Alison’s heart.   Oswaldo had found the letter lying in the street one day and we both hope that Alison did not cavalierly cast this little gem aside.   Instead perhaps it fell out of her book bag inadvertently and she’s still looking around for it with regret and misty eyes, and/or she and Romeo are right now holding hands on the swings in the local park.

I fear I’m getting a bit long-winded… so last but not least,  some brief (well maybe not) honourable mentions:

Sue & Steve - Traumatized by a bad initial rental, and terrorized by mozzies, they are two funny Brits from Spain who were loads of fun despite the somewhat dire start to their vacation.

Bill & Debbie - Clearly the most stylin’ Canadian guy in town with a GQ scarf and actual shoes, and the sweetest American girl who was a key member of the abandoned beach puppy “Nina” rescue squad, and also of my own tequila shots team.

Gaby & Kim - Opened a restaurant (Kaffeine) in Montanita during my stay and fed me by far the most gourmet food of my six weeks there.  I can still taste Gaby’s experimental spicy roasted ginger, and her heavenly chocolate cake!  They are both fun, friendly and full of positive energy,

Jorge, Adela, Adela’s mom & Jacqueline - Jorge and Adela own and manage the Manglaralto Sunset Hostel where I spent my entire stay.  They are warm, helpful and hospitable people, and Adela’s mom was a treat to spend time with (although neither of us could understand a word the other was saying, ever).  Jacqueline was the housekeeper with the patience of a saint, and the presence of mind to proactively address my unkempt appearance issues each morning (straightening straps, tucking in tags, etc.)

So hopefully by writing some of this down I will actually remember my time there and these people for longer than my swiss cheese brain normally permits.   Also, in reviewing it, this post should have probably been broken down in to a 2-parter.  Sorry (and thanks if you made it this far… it’s almost over, promise!).  I can’t wait to see who I meet next.

I think where I am now in Cuenca will be my last stop in Ecuador, before heading to Peru.  Thus far I haven’t been able to locate a ping pong table here,  but it’s early days still, no?   Who has Peru advice?  Talk to me.

Random Thoughts On Central & South American Stuff – Part 2

Good lord.  I’m asserting that my recent absolute lack of momentum is due to the amount of effort it takes to stay rooted to the ground here near the equator – where I imagine the earth is spinning the fastest, no?    Is that an even slightly plausible excuse?

Here are a few more random musings on some of the differences I’ve noted since heading south.

1.  Suck It Costco

In North America we think we’ve mastered the art of retail.  We’ve got huge box stores where you can buy anything from brussel sprouts to lingerie to a riding lawnmower, or specialty stores where you can buy 172 different blends of black tea.  I’ve come around to thinking we’re missing something, and now, if I have to shop, I’d rather it do it Manglaralto style.

pineapple manHere you can spend a couple hours chilling on your porch, drinking your coffee and reading the paper while all the local vendors drop by to entice you with their goods, and bring you all the neighborhood gossip to boot.

Here is the Pineapple Man.  When he rode up to make a sale to a neighbor - we asked his permission to take a photo.  He waved us off and we thought for a second that we had offended him.  Turns out he just wanted a minute to take off his helmet, smooth his hair and strike a pose.  A total ham!

There is also the vegetable guy, the fish guy, the shaved ice guy, the flip flop guy, the pots & pans guy, and at Christmas there was an electric organ guy.  No joke.  He was walking around the neighbourhood with half a dozen boxed electric organs draped around him,  playing jazzy Christmas carols with one hand as he strolled about.

If they don’t have what you want today, just put in your order and they’ll have it for you next trip.   For customers - no need to find parking and no waiting in line.   Genius, don’t you think?

2.  Who’s Your Best Friend?

picture010Charmin To Go, that’s who.    I’ve always hated that damn creepy family of bathroom-obsessed bears.  Until now.  The lack of provided toilet paper all over Central and South America is astounding.  The very few times there is paper, it’s usually found well outside the cubicle in a common area where I will have forgotten to grab some before entering the stall.

To the rescue, this little savior of a purse-friendly-personal travel roll.  Brilliant!

3.  Juan Valdez Kicks Starbucks Ass

untitled (16)I haven’t seen a Starbucks since landing in Costa Rica.   What I have seen a few of are Juan Valdez coffee shops.   This is the one place you can consistently get good drip coffee or espresso.  In addition, the Wi-Fi is free and unlike Starbucks, they don’t reset the router every 30 minutes in an attempt  to roust out settled-in squatters.  What really sets Juan apart though, is that you can get café con licor  (coffee with liquor) 24×7…. for like $2.50!  Delicious lattes with Amaretto, Bailey’s or Tia Maria are all on offer if I remember correctly.  No one bats an eye when you order (even at 10:00 am) and you don’t look like a total reprobate walking around with one.   Thanks Juan!

4.  What’s That Over There……  Is It Dead?

If you walk the beach of any fishing village for an hour or two a day, you are going to encounter your fair share of washed up dead stuff.   smiling pufferNow I’ve never been one of those people fascinated by roadkill, and in fact I’m generally entirely horrified to the core to see anything dead.   However, for some reason I feel entirely compelled to stroll over for a look at the sea life that has met its maker on the vast stretches of deserted beach here.  You may recall my prior sea snake picture?  Well since then there have been turtles small and large (one giant sad old bastard), many large fish, and a whole host of these spiky puffer guys.   I think we’ve got something to learn from this specific species though…  every single one of them seems to go out with a mysteriously contented smile.

imagesCAENPP65A cool video I saw from an amiga here was one she shot of a couple of little seahorses that washed up on the beach that she rescued and returned to the water.   These things are so odd looking that part of my brain wants to put them in the same mythical category as unicorns and minotaurs.

Only one more week at the beach and then I’m off to Cuenca at 8300+ feet of elevation and several degrees colder.  It’s supposed to be a great place to learn Spanish.

I’m certain I can singlehandedly ruin that reputation.