Bad Weather? Phuket, We’ll Go Anyway.

beachcollage.jpegOur flight to Phuket landed just after midnight, but we had found a place just a few minutes away from the airport. There was a guy standing there holding a sign with our names on it — just like in the movies! We arrived at the hotel, barely knowing what our surroundings looked like, and passed out. We awoke to a beautiful day, so we hopped in our suits and ran over to the beach. Gorgeous waters, bright sun… amazing.

IMG_3038We managed to soak up a few rays, but we knew this wasn’t where we were supposed to stay. We packed up and took a cab to Phuket Town, our jumping off point to get to Ko Phi Phi, one of those glorious islands you see in all the pictures you search for on Google while at work and dreaming of a vacation.

After a fairly uneventful stay in sleepy Phuket Town (it is the off season, after all), we experienced plenty of excitement on the ferry over to Ko Phi Phi. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the water was a shocking palette of blues and greens. The boat was crowded with all sorts of people from all over. At one point, we found ourselves tripping over a bunch of backpackers who had managed to position themselves in the most inconvenient spot. At first we were a little annoyed, then one of them pulled out a guitar and started playing songs by The Lumineers, which made everything better. It was the perfect soundtrack for the trip.

photo (5)The pier at Ko Phi Phi was bustling, and we elbowed our way into the little town. (Having a huge backpack really comes in handy when you’re fighting for personal space.) The town is mostly made up of beachfront bars, souvenir shops, tattoo and piercing places, and people selling day trip packages to tourists.  We eventually made it to our hotel and high-fived when we saw the view from our balcony. The view was so picturesque, it didn’t seem like there was any reason to leave the comfy lounge chairs that were set up… but we wanted to explore.

Our Let’s Go Thailand guide mentioned a hike that promised “stellar” views. What it didn’t mention was how long the hike was, or that getting there wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. The viewpoint was incredibly scenic and ended up being kind of worth it. It was, however, extremely windy at the top. Want to see how windy it was? Look what the Google Machine made for us!

We ended the day with a lovely dinner on the beach, complete with some fruity cocktails.

The next morning we awoke to some overcast weather. Up until that point, we had been pretty lucky, considering it’s the rainy season in Thailand. (But we really can’t complain because we got so lucky for the wedding.) We had big plans to visit Phi Phi Ley, a smaller island that’s home to Maya Beach (featured in one of Leo’s not-so-great movies, The Beach), so we hired a longboat to take us around.

The weather seemed to be getting a little bit worse, and the waves were… pretty impressive. We didn’t end up going to the beach because we had to swim to it from the boat and the water seemed a little treacherous. Plus, we watched as a bunch of tourists were paralyzed with fear as they prepared to climb down the rope ladder and then swim back to their own longboat. Our driver indicated that we had made the right choice, and we weren’t too upset as we had seen the beach on the ferry ride in. We did make it to another beach on the island and then swam in one of the bays, but we were thankful to get back on solid ground.

We did spend some time at the beach, but the weather just didn’t feel like cooperating with our plans to return to the States bronzed and beautiful. Most of our sun came from that first morning and our ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi. And this happened to poor Mike:

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We had big hopes that the weather would be a little better for our next destination, Ao Nang beach.

K+M

 

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

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Elephants. Elephants. ELEPHANTS, YOU GUYS.

Sorry for the delayed post! We’ve been without significant interwebz time for a bit, island hopping and whatnot. (We know, we know.) So, to pick up where things left off…

We were picked up in the morning with our hangovers from the previous evening in tow. It was a long and bumpy bus ride, but we felt alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic by the time we arrived at Elephant Nature Park, a refuge for rescued domestic elephants.

Elephants have played a large (ha) role in Thailand’s development as a nation, aiding in the construction of its infrastructure and most recently in the logging industry, which is now illegal. While these animals should be revered, domesticated elephants endure the worst kinds of cruelty. In addition to physical abuse, the elephants in shows and at elephant ride parks also suffer injuries from the weight of the riders and neglect from their caretakers. Lek Chailert founded the Elephant Nature Park in the ’90s and has since grown the organization, housing around 35 injured and retired elephants and creating a safe space for them to roam. They range in age from just a few months (babies!) to almost 80 years old… and they are adorable. See?

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So, you might ask, what makes this place better than the rest? These elephants are already domesticated, so most of them cannot be released back into the wild. There are no performances, no tricks that the elephants must perform. If they want food, we feed them. And, with a few exceptions (like being led to the shore for a bath), they roam freely. If they don’t feel like being around humans, they don’t have to be.

But let’s get to the fun stuff — like when we met the elephants. When we first approached them to feed them, we were slightly intimidated. They are, after all, pretty enormous. They loved the bananas, pineapple, and watermelon we were giving them, deftly taking the fruit with their trunks and then tossing it into their mouths.

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After our first encounter, we walked around the park some more to see the elephants in action. There were two babies at the park (and they didn’t know who the father was for one of them… SCANDAL). Elephants raise their young as a community, and they are incredibly protective. We saw this in action as one of the babies took a bit of a spill after playing on a log and then all the other elephants rushed over to comfort and provide cover for it. Mike actually caught it on video, as Kathleen freaked out because it was just like she had seen on all of the nature shows on PBS:

We then helped bathe the elephants, which they actually seemed to enjoy! And just a friendly warning: Their ears move a lot and they might accidentally smack you in the face if you aren’t paying attention.

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Because these elephants were domestic, they were completely friendly and let us scrub them and pet their trunks. One of our favorite moments happened when we sauntered up to an elephant hoping for a good picture to put on this little bloggy. The elephant turned out to be a bit of a photo hog…

elephant photo bomb

We obviously loved the experience and would recommend the Elephant Nature Park to any and all who visit Chiang Mai. And while we wanted to stay for a while longer, we knew we needed to leave because part two — the beachy part of the vacation — was about to begin. We took a tuk-tuk to the airport and, in a moment of weakness, ate at the McDonald’s in the food court. To be fair, our only other option was a Burger King, but we were actually feeling a little noodled out anyway.

After consuming enough sodium for the rest of the week, we hopped on our 10:45 p.m. flight to Phuket, which we learned is pronounced “Poo-ket.” You learn something new every day, no?

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

We Learn to Cook… Chiang Mai, Oh, My.

We were actually a little sad to leave our hostel in Siem Reap — the people were amazing and the bohemian vibe made us feel pretty cool, like those real hardcore backpackers. But as we hopped in the tuk-tuk to go to the airport (no complicated border crossings this time), we were pretty excited to head back to Thailand and get to Chiang Mai.

IMG_2284The flight was only about an hour, and we landed with around five hours before our overnight train. We went straight to the train station to ensure we didn’t miss anything, but soon realized that it wasn’t really a place we wanted to hang out. We should have just eaten at the airport because it’s a well-documented fact: There is never good food around train stations. After a failed lunch at the world’s worst chain (so bad we blacked out the experience and the name of the place), we ended up at a 7-11. Oh, thank heaven. Because we were maybe still feeling more badass than we really are (thanks to the hostel), we purchased a bunch of crazy snacks. The chip flavors are RIDICULOUS. No sour cream and onion or regular barbecue for the Thai — they had flavors like “salmon with dill,” “hot chili squid,” and, our favorite,”lobster hot plate.” We haven’t yet cracked open the lobster chips (GET IT!?)… but we’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

We had second-class sleeper car tickets this time (oh yeah, moving on up) and our seats were pretty awesome and spacious. And, when we were ready to really relax, the seats were converted into bunk beds. Wild. We hung out on the bottom bunk, and the curtains made it feel like a fort. Not a bad way to spend an evening. Plus, when we woke up, we were in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city that’s located in the northern region of the country.

IMG_2890We found a breakfast place that served banana pancakes before checking out our new hostel. Thank god for the full breakfast, because our hostel was the worst. It felt like the Von Trapp family home… pre-Maria, of course. There were just so many rules and so many signs telling us to be quiet. We had to get out of there, so we spent most of the first day just checking out the old city, which lies within a moat. The day was pretty uneventful, but something major did happen… we had our first taste of real, authentic, pad Thai. We know it’s terrible, but we kind of prefer the pad Thai at our local takeout joint in DC. But really, this was only the first try. There’s more out there.

The next day included an activity that we had both really been looking forward to — our cooking class!

A group of us all squished into a van and headed out with the Thai Farm Cooking School. Right away, we loved our guide/instructor, Embee, a lovely woman with an inimitable laugh and a wicked sense of humor. The first stop was the market, where we learned all about the ingredients we would be using and ogled at some that we were thankful to not be needing.

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After the market, we went to the cooking school’s organic farm and learned more about the herbs and spices we’d be using. Mike, in a display of bravado and upon Embee’s urging, took a bite of a raw Thai chili and spent the next 90 minutes extinguishing the fire in his mouth and regaining the feeling in his lips.

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There were many more chilies to be tried, as we learned how to make different soups, green and red curries with chicken, sweet and sour chicken, our very own pad Thai, and finished up with a mango sticky rice dessert. The class was nothing but good times and giggles, and we ended up meeting a fantastic British couple — Matt and Anouska —  who invited us out for drinks later that evening.

Despite some rain, we had a ridiculously fun time. Anouska had found a bar that was off the beaten path of tourists and more for Thai twenty-somethings attending the local university.  When we first walked in, the live band was playing Thai pop songs. Maybe it was because we stuck out pretty badly, and maybe it was just fate, but the band switched to English songs and our evening really escalated. We heard a lot of Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, and Rihanna. The best though, was hearing Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” TWICE by two different bands. The second version was way better and we all got pretty into it. It was hard to tell if the singers actually knew the lyrics they were singing, or if they were just mimicking the sounds, but it didn’t matter.

Kathleen had made it perfectly clear that we turned into pumpkins at midnight (because we were being picked up at 8 a.m. the next morning to see the elephants), yet the hours flew by and we made it home — after a late-night trip to an aptly named burger joint called Mike’s — around 2:30. You know what? Maybe we actually are kind of badass.

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

Wat’s Up, Y’all + Siem Reaping the Benefits of Cheap Massages

angkor watAfter one million hours of travel, we were more than ready for our first real adventure. We scheduled a tuk-tuk to pick us up on Sunday morning at 4:45 a.m. so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which is the world’s largest religious monument and the eighth (yeah, we know) Wonder of the World. Just a heads up, if you choose to visit Angkor Wat, know they take a picture of you and print it on your pass… so maybe brush your hair in the morning. But all vanity was forgotten when we pulled up to the temple.  The first view looked like a post card — and it was wild to think that we were actually seeing it in person. Mike was giddy. The day was slightly overcast, so we didn’t get to see the sunrise, but we did get a head start on most of the tourists.

After navigating the maze of Angkor Wat and climbing its super steep stairways for a few hours, we decided it was time to move on.

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Our tuk-tuk driver took us to Angkor Thom, which is impressive in its own right, but unfortunately has been deemed by tourists as the “Tomb Raider Temple.” Yes, Angelina Jolie was there to film the movie, but this old monastery (built in the 12th century) is home to many famous faces. Stone faces, to be exact. Below is a picture we stole off the interwebz  (thanks, Google), because Kathleen can’t get her busted iPhone to connect to any Wi-Fi networks.

Photo credit: sebastianeking.wordpress.com

Photo credit: sebastianeking.wordpress.com

And then we saw more ruins. And more ruins. And more ruins. (Check out the map here.) Each one was fantastic of course, but after the first few they all started to look the same. The tuk-tuk ride back to Siem Reap was glorious, not only because the day had gotten very hot and the breeze felt AMAZING, but it was also a great opportunity to take in the landscape. We even saw some baby monkeys (!) hanging out by the water. It had been a full six hours of adventuring, but it was only 12:30 p.m. when we arrived back at the hostel. We took a quick nap and then headed out for lunch.

20130708-065931.jpgThis was our first real foray into Siem Reap, a crowded, dusty, and tourist-driven town. It seemed like we couldn’t go three steps without someone coming up to us and asking if we wanted a tuk-tuk, a massage, or a silk scarf. It seemed that they never addressed Mike, just called out to Kathleen, “hey ley-deeeee!” We eventually landed at a restaurant for lunch, but the real draw was the $0.50 beers. You guys, everything is cheap. Like, really cheap. Lunch for two with a few beers? Just $6. We walked around for a bit before finally caving into a call out for a massage place. It was a fairly classy joint, and a full-body massage for 15 minutes cost $3. We walked around a bit more and decided to get foot massages — just because we could. We made it back to our hostel just before the afternoon storm.

Siem Reap in the evening is actually way more fun than in the day. The city lights up and its real charm comes through. Everyone just wants to have a good time, eat and drink, and haggle for cheap prices in the market. We celebrated our bargaining successes with some ice cream and headed to bed with plans to fly back to Bangkok and then overnight train to Chiang Mai the next day.

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

Planes, Trains, and… Tuk-Tuks

We made it to Cambodia, but it’s been a long trip. We left Dulles at 12:30 on Thursday and arrived at our first real destination, Siem Reap, Cambodia early Saturday evening.

20130708-065550.jpgBelieve it or not, the 13-hour plane ride from Dulles to Tokyo was a piece of cake. Or, a better way to put it would be four glasses of champagne. We had a wonderful flight attendant who definitely spoiled us. Additionally, there were no fewer than 50 different movies to watch. We aren’t going to tell you which ones we viewed, because that would be embarrassing (mostly for Mike).

We had a three-hour layover in the Tokyo airport. Like mature adults, we giggled at some of the products being offered in the vending machines. Want to get a little wild? Try a Crunky ice cream bar. Feeling dehydrated? Replenish with a refreshing Pocari Sweat drink. We didn’t try the sushi, because airport sushi — even in Japan — seems sketchy everywhere.

The next leg of the trip was the six-hour flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. It was a little rougher than the 13-hour flight, maybe because there was no champagne involved, but also because we were starting to feel just a wee bit tired and our seats were uncomfortable. We landed in Bangkok at 10:30 p.m. local time. It was hard to justify getting a hotel room before our 5:55 a.m. train — and we’re clearly hardcore backpackers/world travelers — s0 we spent the first real night of our honeymoon sleeping in the airport. Ah, the romance!

20130708-065632.jpgWe were up and out the door by 4:15 a.m., but not after a quick trip to the Bucks. Not going to lie, their pastry selection is slightly better. We took a seat belt-less cab (with a driver who had a need for speed) to the train station, only to find a Dunkin’ Donuts. Fact: Thailand runs on Dunkin’.

We paid $1.60 per person for a third-class ticket (oh yeah) to Aranyapraythet, the jumping off point for those looking to cross the border into Cambodia. After a crowded, six-hour train ride, we avoided one visa scam and managed to get everything in order to cross over to Poipet. Once in Poipet, we took a shuttle to the bus and taxi station. We split a two-hour taxi ride with a mother/daughter duo from Ohio, who were fairly entertaining and had an interesting perspective on world travel. Of course, we ended up getting scammed at the end of the taxi ride. The driver had promised to drop us off at our hostel, but kicked us out at a hotel just after entering Siem Reap so the final leg of our trip was completed via tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are essentially motorcycles with little carts attached to back… so really safe, Mom.

When we finally arrived to our hostel, we had big plans to put our stuff down and go explore. But then we napped. And then it rained. The truth is that we were perfectly content staying at our hostel, HI Siem Reap. There’s a great vibe here, as well as a bar with $.75 draft beers. Life is good.

Sorry for a post mostly of travel logistics. It gets better, we promise!

K+M

[Cross-posted with www.kathleenplusmike.com]

Salgo Valpo, hello Santiago. Plus, the weirdest hot dogs ever and funicular fun.

We had a great last night in Valparaiso. Our restaurant overlooked the harbor, and we ate really amazing food for way less than it would have cost at home. I really loved it there.  But all three nights we were there, we went to a different restaurant nearby with the most amazing owner. We didn’t eat there all three nights, but we went back to visit. Fernando, the owner, was a merchant marine and spoke perfect English. He was also a never-ending source of fascinating stories. And, because my stomach was aching, he gave me some herbal tea to soothe it. What a guy.

We managed to get on a 11:15 bus to Santiago. It only took us two hours. It’s nice to see a new region of Chile. Gone is the endless desert scenery! Hello greenery!  As soon as we arrived in Santiago, I knew we were going to have a good time.  We did, unfortunately, encounter another cab driver that overcharged us, but there was nothing we could do.  We had to get to our hotel.   Our hotel was in Barrio Brasil, a really funky area that had a Bohemian vibe to it.  It was full of cafes, graffiti, and the iconic image of Che Guevara.

On the first day, we walked around for hours and hours. Santiago is how you would picture a well-developed South American city to be. It’s hot, there are palm trees, street vendors, and the architecture is a interesting blend of the old and new. After searching for some food, we found ourselves at a Schopdog–it’s a Chilean chain restaurant. Basically, it’s beer and hot dogs. Oh man, Chile loves a good hot dog. When I say good, I mean absolutely bizarre. Ketchup and mustard are not sufficient. The most common hot dog is called a ‘completo’– a hot dog, mayo, and guacamole. Yeah, I know. Just don’t think about it. My hot dog had mayo on it, but no guac. Fortunately, I could mask the mayo with copious amounts of ketchup. Weird hot dogs aside, one thing I love about Chile is that you can get fresh juice everywhere. So I washed down my mayo-tainted hot dog with some fresh raspberry juice. Jason and I both ate for under 5 bucks. The rest of our day was spent walking around even more, going out to a nice dinner, and then passing out watching American movies on TV.

On day two, we decided to go to the museums and do a self guided walking tour. The Museo Historico Nacional was full of interesting artifacts and, when I spent the time to translate, full of information on Chile’s history. We started the walking tour with the Cerro Santa Lucia. Stairs. Thousands and thousands of friggin’ stairs. But when you get to the top and see the whole city, it’s so worth it. I bought myself an ice cream to take away the sting of all the stairs. It helped.  It really was magnificent though.  Later, we visited the Museo de Bellas Artes.  I love art museums, no matter where they are.  There were some fabulous black and white pictures of Chileans in the 1920s that I just loved.   The rest of the day was all about public squares, beautiful buildings and noteworthy places. Such is the walking tour. That night, we managed to drag ourselves out and went to the Providencia section of the city for some live music.  Santiago at night is just as fun. With all the palm trees and Christmas lights, it kind of reminded me of  Florida.  Haha.

Monday, our third day in Santiago, was a national holiday celebrating the Immaculate Conception.  Of course, every store was closed.  Well, except for some food places.  But it didn’t matter.  We had a plan that worked out better than we could have imagined.  We were worried that the Parque Metropolitano, which has gorgeous swimming pools, a funicular and botanical gardens, would be closed because of the holiday.  Just the opposite.  Parque Metropolitano is around mini-mountain San Cristobal.  And guess what’s at the top of San Cristobal?  A HUGE statue of Mary.  Yes, we found the place in Santiago where everyone was making their pilgrimage to.  And I loved it.  It was like a carnival.  Cheap food, tons of people, fun atmosphere.  We had to hike up to top to get to the pools (which sucked in flip flops) but it was worth it.  The pools were clean and beautiful.  And then we rode the funicular and saw the city from a different view.  It really could not have gone better.  That, as you can imagine, took a full day.  But we topped the night off by going to the movies again and maybe sneaking some more fries from McDonald’s.  Weak, I know.  Don’t judge me.  We saw Body of Lies, which stressed me out for a solid three hours afterwards.   But that’s how I get with war movies.  Somehow, I managed to calm down and go out for a little bit before bed.  We left Santiago the next morning.

Living the life of luxury, Bond, James Bond and the three week mark.

Our bus ride from San Pedro to Atacama to La Serena was twenty hours long. But it was the BEST BUS RIDE EVER. We spent the extra money and upgraded to premium. Essentially, it was like sitting in an extremely comfortable chair with a TV and someone to serve you snacks. YES. Speaking of snacks, they served us some soda that has the most unfortunate name ever. Mini Pap. Um, when I drink soda, I don’t want to think about women’s health. Maybe that’s just me. I didn’t drink the soda.

We arrived in La Serena in the morning. La Serena is a lovely resort town, with a cute downtown shopping area and a nice beach. Our plan was to spend the day lounging on the beach, but the weather was overcast. Fate was not on our side. Instead, we walked along the beach, stuck our toes in the water and ruffled the feathers of a few sea gulls by charging at them.

We stopped at a restaurant on the beach for lunch. In my four years of Spanish classes,  I managed to learn and promptly forget many vocabulary words.  I remember the word for seafood, which is great.  I do not, however, remember learning the words for the different types of seafood.  Being that we were at a beach front seafood restaurant, it was an issue.  Even with an english menu, we still had a miscommunication.  And instead of getting the crab, like we had wanted, we got the seafood chowder.  So I guess it didn’t really matter that I didn’t know specifics.

La Serena is the first place in South America that we’ve been to that has money.  Chile is the richest country in South America and is close to leaving its third world status behind.  La Serena has a huge mall, a movie theater, and the ultimate status symbol– a McDonald’s.  Because we didn’t have anything to do, we decided to check out the mall.  It was Christmas come early…literally.  It felt like being at home.  All of the Christmas decorations were up.  There was even a mall Santa!

We found ourselves at the movie theater and on a whim decided to see the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, in English with Spanish subtitles.  Side note: what does Quantum of Solace even mean?  It makes no sense.  We got popcorn and drinks.  Now at home, when you order a medium soda, you get two liters.  Here, you get a very small cup.  The movie was good, but for me the most interesting part was seeing the scenery.  It takes place in Bolivia, but was apparently filmed in Chile.  Regardless, what you see in the movie is really what it looks like in Peru, Bolivia, and Northern Chile.  Being that it was the three week mark of our trip, it was nice to have some familiar experiences.  Going to the movies, etc.  And the next day before our bus to Valparaiso, we may or may not have stopped at McDonald’s for some REAL french fries.  I don’t know, I can’t remember.

I love Valparaiso, called Valpo.  The multicolored houses spill out of the hills and look like they’re built on top of eachother.  It’s right on the water and has some beautiful beaches and spectacular views.  Because there are so many stairs, the city has a number of  ‘ascensions’– or rather, rickety old lifts that put your life on the line for thirty seconds but give you a great view of the city when they do.

Yesterday, we spent the day at the beach with a couple of American kids staying at our hostel.  We had a great time, and, like always, I got an awkward looking sun burn to go along with my farmer’s tan.  Score one for me!  Our wonderful day yesterday came at the price of my stomach.  And today, I have ‘stomach issues’.  Don’t worry, Mom.  I’m fine.

Tomorrow we take the two hour bus ride to Santiago.  Santiago is our last stop in Chile.  I honestly have no idea what to expect.  I keep hearing mixed things.  I’ll let you know.

Only two more weeks left on the trip!  I don’t know how we’re going to fit everything in.

My Thanksgiving sans turkey, but with flamingos and a lot of salt. No, I didn’t eat flamingo.

If I’m going to be away from home on Thanksgiving, there better be a good reason.  Two years ago, I was in Rome.  That’s legit.  This year, I had a ridiculous 4-day adventure in Bolivia.  I think it passes the test.

On Thanksgiving morning, we woke up early and got on the bus that was going to take us over the border.  A chirpy old Chilean woman (who I assume worked for the tour agency) hopped on with all the tourists. She yapped about this and that, and I don’t think ANYONE understood what she was saying, but she was absolutely hilarious.  And perhaps a tad bit mentally unstable.  About 30 minutes into the bus ride, she was talking at the indifferent bus driver at a rapid fire pace, and then randomly just burst in to tears.  She sobbed and spoke without slowing down or taking a breath for 15 minutes.  And then she was fine.  hmm.

When we pulled up to Bolivan customs, I had to look twice just to make sure that I really was there.  It was only a mudbrick shack the size of my freshman dorm room that said “Migracion Bolivia” on it and a Bolivian flag to make it official.  Americans need visas to get into Bolivia.  Not only visas, but visas that cost $135.  Naturally, Jason and I didn’t have them, but the guy at the tour place said it was no big deal and we could purchase them on the third day in the town of Uyuni.  No big deal to him might meant something else to us.

The border control guard confiscated our passports, wrote down our names and passport numbers and then proceeded to wrap them up in a brown paper bag.  I’m having heart palpitations, and every word of Spanish I have ever learned is failing me.  I tried to ask him what he was doing, but I’m pretty sure I was speaking jibberish or asked him something completely bizarre, like “how is the purple toothbrush in the swimming pool feeling today?”  because we obviously did not understand eachother.  He stapled the paper bag shut (oh, that’s secure) and then wrote a name on it and handed it to our driver.  WHAT?  It took about ten minutes, but I found out that we were not allowed to hold on to our passports until we had visas.  Well, alright.

The tour we chose was a four wheel drive jeep tour.  Our driver, Lucio, was very shy and quiet.  Our jeep mates were an older French couple.  After our backpacks were tied to the top of the jeep, we were off. 

(I can’t upload my own pictures, so I’m going to use some I found from Google Image search, because I don’t trust my own descriptions to do what I saw justice.)

Lago Blanco

Lago Blanco

 Our first stop was Lago Blanco, an impressive scene with flamingos scattered around.  In case you didn’t know, I LOVE flamingos.  They are the absolute coolest.  Perhaps I can relate to their general awkwardness and goofiness, having once been compared to one.  We ate breakfast here and had our first experience with the group of Koreans that would be with us the entire time. 

One of the things I love about being on the road is seeing the other travelers.  There are a couple of types that I find to be absolutely hysterical.  The older Americans and Brits who wear all khaki.  I’m talking khaki pants, khaki vests with more pockets than they could possibly ever have a use for, and khaki hats.  Where exactly do they think they are?  They aren’t roughing it, that’s for sure.   The bus picks them up and drops them off exactly where they need to be.  You are completely taken care of, and the people here bend over backwards to make sure everything is as good as it can possibly be.  So dressing like you’re on a safari is kind of ironic.  One of the other types is the asian tour groups.  I saw Japanese girls in fancy dresses and high heels hike up Machu Picchu.  Why, why, why?  And, of course, the epic and inevitable peace sign in every picture.

This particular group of Koreans all wore masks.  Full face masks.  Hilariously gender appropriate, they were either pink or blue.  They also wore gloves.  It’s 80 degrees out and sunny, and nobody else is wearing masks or gloves.  There is no explanation.  One thing that we also noticed is that they all carried thermoses, and each time we were served tea, they would take all the hot water.  A definite quirk.

Our next stop was the Lago Verde.  I chose to wear a turquoise shirt that day and managed to match the lake almost perfectly.  Here it is:

Lago Verde

Lago Verde

Stunning, right?

Lago Colorado

Lago Colorado

After a brief trip to the geysers and a a quick dip in the thermal waters, we went to the most impressive lake of them all, Lago Colorado.  I’ve never seen a red lake before.  This is also where most of the flamingos hang out, and, as I was later informed, it’s mating season…so there were THOUSANDS.  This area of Bolivia is obviously very rich in minerals.  So it was a sea of pink and green and red.  It was a nice place to sit and have lunch out of the trunk of the jeeps. And guess what guys?  I ate tuna fish from a can, as much as I hate it!  I managed not to vomit at the smell or judge those around me.  It was actually pretty satisfying.  I took a million pictures of my own, and got some good shots of the flamingos in flight.  When they fly, they are like pink flashes  and their reflection can be seen in the water below them.  You have to see it.  It’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen so far.

We drove for hours to get to our “hotel” for the night.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, every time I would get bored, I would just remind myself that I was sitting in a jeep, touring a national park of Bolivia, and seeing the world. I also found the spirit of Thanksgiving in music.  Lucio had one casette tape with him.  This tape had six songs, which played over and over and over again.  Four days later, I still can’t get the songs out of my head.  I am thankful for American music and my iPod.

Jason and I made friends with the British kids on our tour.  Rob, Rhiann and Kate graduated from college (“uni”) in May, and are on a nine month trip around the world.  Awesome.  They were in the states just before the election, so we had a great conversation about politics and I absolutely loved their observations.  Also, they asked me if high school in America was really as fun as it seemed and told me that the thing they were most jealous of with American school kids was lockers.

Thanksgiving dinner consisted of soup with some veggies in it, spaghetti with strange sauce and a cup of tea.  Not my usual Thanksgiving dinner, but I’ll take it.  We also discovered one of the reasons the Koreans were hot water stealers—they like to make instant rice pudding on their travels.  Not kidding.

The next day was fairly uneventful.  Mostly driving and seeing more scenery.  Some of it was exactly how I pictured South America.  Mountains in the background, rolling hills with some greenery and rivers, and llamas.  Llamas EVERYWHERE.  We ate lunch in one of the most depressing places I have ever been.  In the desert, and all of the buildings were the color of sand.  There was no color, only monotony.  It was practically a ghost town.  The only sounds came from the school yard, where 15 children were having recess.  Oh and here is something interesting.  The top layer of brick on the walls had pieces of broken glassed pressed into it, with the sharp edges sticking up.  Well, that’s one way to keep the kids in. Oh, South America.
Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

 Day three of the trip had what we were really waiting for–the salt flats.  Remarkable.   It looked and kind of felt like crunchy snow and ice under my feet.  You could see nothing but miles of white all around.  It was eerily beautiful.  Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world.   One of the fun things about the salt flat is that there is no depth perception in pictures.  So, like the tourists we are, we took a bunch of goofy photos.  Even though I was fifty feet away, I look like a miniature person sitting in Jason’s hand.  We drove around and ended up at a salt hotel.  The hotel, most things in it, were made completely out of hardened salt.  Tables (table salt, haha), chairs, statues, everything.  It was incredibly bizarre.  Thank god we didn’t stay there.  Salt hotels are very bad for the environment, because all the waste and trash that visitors produce ends up getting dumped on the salt flats.  Here is another picture, which shows the mounds of salt.  (Mallory, you would LOVE this place).
Salt mounds

Salt mounds

We continued to drive on our way to Uyuni, where Jason and I were getting our visas.  But along the way we had some more weird stops.  We stopped at a train graveyard.  I’m not kidding.  A bunch of old, rusty trains in the middle of a desert.  This is apparently interesting to tourists.  I sat in the jeep, reading my book.

The city of Uyuni is a dump.  Really, nothing interesting about it.  But somehow, we managed to have an interesting experience.  At customs, after talking to the guys and telling them that a total of four days were going to be spent in Bolivia with absolutely NO plans to return, they decided that we didn’t have to buy the visa.  Instead, they would give us a day pass.  So they stamped our passports twice.  Once for entering, and once for leaving.  And they changed the date to the following date, so when we actually did leave it would be correct.  This only costed us $50.  Now you’re probably thinking it’s a little weird, and you’re right.  It would never happen in the United States.  In fact, it’s probably really illegal.  But whatev. 

We were told we had about three hours in Uyuni.  With absolutely no use for the currency, Bolivianos, Jason and I spent about $30 on candy bars, postcards, and other worthless things that were just to get rid of the extra.  So we show up with no money left at the time our jeep is supposed to leave for the overnight trip back to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  Oh, change of plans, there was no jeep for us to leave in and we had an extra THREE HOURS in Uyuni.  Now, with no money, what were we supposed to do?  Typical.  We did a lot of walking that day.

Our new jeep driver wasn’t nearly as friendly as Lucio.  And he was a bit of a speed demon.  The French woman and I would look at eachother and hold our breath as we whipped around the curves.  The dirt roads were only about a lane and half wide.  After we got a flat tire (thank god we had a spare), our driver decided to take it easy.  The rest of the ride was lovely– a perfect sky with lightening behind the clouds in the distance.  Because of all our delays, we ate dinner around 11 pm and had to wake up at 4 am and continue.  But I didn’t mind, because I got to see the sunrise.  It was glorious.  Plus, I got to see all the lakes again, but this time in the early morning. Flamingos, flamingos, flamingos!

Of course, we had problems at the Bolivian customs shack.  Apparently we didn’t have exit visas.  Well, we did.  They were just in Uyuni, where we had been stamped.  Oh well.  I managed to not stroke out the way I did last time.  After all, I’m a South American visa issues pro now.  Basically, you just roll with it.  We managed to get back to Chile.

It really was an awesome adventure.  Exactly what I wanted.  And exactly what I needed.  And most of the things that made it so wonderful seem trivial.  Being stranded on the side of the road while we had a flat tire wasn’t great at the time, but it really added to the experience.  Now, I’m back in San Pedro de Atacama.  Jason and I are taking a twenty hour (yes, TWENTY hour) bus to La Serena, where we will recharge our batteries by spending a few days lying motionless on the beach.  Wooooooohoooooooo!  This was a really long post, sorry.

Border crossings, I hate taxi cab drivers and dropping twenty thousand on dinner.

I don´t actually hate taxi cab drivers.  Just one.  Hold on, I´ll get there.

We woke up early in the morning to catch our bus to Tacna, which offers nothing other than a really easy crossing point into Chile.  The bus ride was long, but we got to watch half of Bad Boys II (before the DVD quit).  We passed through miles and miles of desert, and the monotony helped me fall asleep.  I was awakened when the attendant started passing around BINGO cards.  Yes, BINGO.  Forty-five minutes of listening to BINGO numbers being called in Spanish when you´re trying to sleep is a nightmare.  A very, very, very awake nightmare.  Haha.

The trick to getting from Peru to Chile is to take a cab across the border.  It´s easy and costs about five bucks.  As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were bombarded by cab drivers.  Long story short, we chose a guy who actually had an office.  It didn´t make any difference, we still were squished into a Buick with the driver and three other passengers.  Jason and I couldn´t do anything but look at eachother and laugh.  It definitely felt like we were being smuggled across the border.  A packed Buick, racing along with nothing but desert on the horizon.  But don´t worry, Mom.  It was legit.  The customs process was easy, and we were in Arica, Chile in about an hour.

As soon as I went to the ATM I realized that my mathematically challenged self would struggle with the currency.  In Peru, it was three sols to a dollar.  Easy enough. Here, it´s 671.75 pesos to a dollar.  Uh oh.  This issue became very apparent when I paid our cab driver from the Arica bus station to the hostel three minutes away 30 bucks.  And the jerk had the audacity to give me 50 cents change.  Haha.  And they call themselves a Christian nation!?!?  HA!  Lesson learned.  I was more frustrated with my own mistake than losing the 30 bucks.  But still. If I ever see him again… Grrrrr…

To calm down, and to enjoy the moment, we walked along the beach.  Arica has HUGE waves, and is a fun spot for surfers.  Around 7:45, we decided it was time for dinner.  Well, restaurants don´t even open until AT LEAST 8 in Chile.  Even though it was 8:30 when we chose a place, we were some of the only people there.  And yes, we spent 20,000 pesos on dinner.  Living the high life.  It sounds way more expensive than it is.

Because it´s on the water, Arica is known for having good sea food.  I can testify that it does indeed.  And Chilean wine is alright too.  I guess. I mean, I don´t really know… Ha!  (Okay, I do know.  It´s fabulous.)

Another thing that helped erase the resentment left by the cab driver was the wonderful couple that runs the hostel we stayed at.  She is French and he is Chilean–and they both are incredibly sweet.  She even made me a complimentary breakfast an hour past the time the complimentary breakfast ended.  Awww.

Today, we´re just hanging out, walking around.  We´ll probably go to the beach, but the water is a little too CHILE chilly.  I´m hilaaaaaaaaaaaarious.

Next up is San Pedro de Atacama.  I´m seriously pumped.

Hope you all have a good Thanksgiving!

Flamingos, Richmond Spiders, the lake with the inappropriate name and a game of dress up.

Okay folks, this is going to be a long one.

Our bus ride a few days ago from Cuzco was actually the bus ride from hell.  Cuzco to Puno should take about six or seven hours.  For us, it took ten.  This is because we were apparently on a tour bus that stopped to show us more ruins every so often.  At that point, I was a little Inca´d out and not really feeling it.  The plus side was that I got to see more of Peru.  I saw even more rainbows than I did before in Cuzco.  Rainbows with the Andean mountains in the background is quite a sight.  And, the highlight of the bus entire trip for me,  was seeing flocks of flamingos hanging out in one of the lakes.  I never really pictured flamingos with snowcapped mountains as the backdrop, but I´ll take it.  More flamingos to come!

Puno is the main launch point to explore Lake Titicaca (teehee).  Affectionately called Lake Boobypoopy.  Yes, we´re mature.  There´s a main street with tons of neon lights, a reggae bar, and hundreds of women asking you if you want a massage.  Err, no thanks.  We were told not to eat meat because Puno is even higher than Cuzco (we´re now at 12,500 ft.) and meat is harder to digest.  So we played it safe and got pizza.  Excellent pizza, actually.  Being that we were completely lame and totally tired, we went back to the hotel room and watched some TV.  America´s Next Top Model was on. TyraBanks is just as crazy below the equator as above.

In the morning, we caught our bus to the docks.  Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world.  It´s not what I pictured at all.  In my mind, I pictured more of an oasis.  Don´t get me wrong, it´s stunning to be on a lake surrounding by mountains, with blue skies and the clouds are closer than they have ever been, but it just wasn´t what I was expecting.  Our boat looked like vomit central.  Tiny, and shaky.  Our guide was a really nice Peruvian woman that said everything in Spanish, and then English.  She also wore a tshirt that said “Blondes `R`More Fun”.  Given that she had black hair, I´m going to go with she didn´t understand what she was wearing. 

The first islands we went to were the floating islands.  Yes, floating islands.  The people, the Uro, rely on a plant called totora for EVERYTHING.  They make the islands with the roots and then hundreds of layers of reeds laid on top, they use it to make their boats, their homes, and they even eat it.  It tastes like celery.  Don´t worry Mom, I had the Benedryl with me…just in case.  One of the islanders took us to his home and showed us his kitchen, which was outside.  They live in one room huts.  The family all sleeps in the same bed and there is a small TV above the bed.  Each house uses a solar panel to get their energy.  How progressive!  They live in huts and use technology that we are still struggling to make common practice.  I almost stole one of the little children running around, but I figured he´d be difficult to get through customs.  Oh well.  These islands essentially cater to tourists.  As we got on the traditional boat to go to another floating island, they sang a song to us.  It ended with ¨hasta la vista, baby!¨.  Which is obviously hilarious, but somewhat sad at the same time.

While I was on the boat made of totora, I noticed that this one girl was staring at me.  My first instinct was that something was on my face, but after a bit of small talk she asked me where I went to school.  She said she recognized me and graduated with me from Richmond.  In fact, she lived on the first floor of my freshman dorm.  Wow.  Small world.  I´m on a little boat on Lake Titicaca in Peru, and I´m sitting next to a fellow Spider.  How bizarre.

We went to the island of Amantani, where we were spending the night with a host family.  As the boat arrived, we saw all the host moms lined up on the dock in traditional clothes. They all looked so tiny.  Most of them, in fact, are barely 5 feet tall.  They wore white tunics with floral embroidery, bright colored skirts, thick multicolored  belts and black scarves on their heads.  We followed our host mom up the hill in silence.  She climbed the hill in sandals without stopping, as Jason and I huffed and puffed.  I´ve never felt so inadequate.  She led us to our room and then scurried away.  The top of the doorway hit my chin.  I felt like a monster.  Haha.

After she made us lunch, we walked up to meet our tour to hike to the top of the island.  While we waited, there was a friendly pickup game of soccer between the locals and the tourists.  I have no idea who won.  I HATE soccer. 

We ate dinner with our host parents in their dimly lit kitchen.  I somehow managed to hold a conversation in Spanish, but all of my previous Spanish teachers would have wept openly if they had been there.  Despite my language deficiency, we talked about Barack Obama (who they referred to as “elnegro”),  the price of college, and our families.  Then, my host mother dressed me in clothing similar to what she wore earlier and gave Jason a traditional poncho.  I had always assumed that the women were short and kind of rotund, but in reality, it is the skirts that make them appear so large.  I bet they´re all very skinny.  Dressed up and looking kind of silly, we joined all the other silly looking tourists in a rec hall and had a fiesta.  The best part was that in between dances, our host mom and the other host moms would gather in the corner and sneak beers.  Haha.

The next day we said goodbye and visited the island of Taquile.  Much of the same, but still very pretty.  It took us three hours on the boat to get back to Puno.  Honestly, I could have swam faster than the boat.   That was our last planned tour.  We felt so free!  I´m thrilled that the adventure of figuring things out for ourselves is now present.

I´m currently in Arequipa, Peru´s second largest city.  Nothing too unusual about it–snowcapped mountains in the background, the whole deal.  Tomorrow, we go to Chile.  The plan is to spend a few days on a beach.  I am very excited.  Traveling for such a long time without a home base can get tiring.  But for me, the hardest part about this trip is suppressing my inner political wonk.  I want to know what´s happening, all the time.  But I´m loving this trip.  And I can read a few days worth of news at a time when I get to a computer.

Once again, please excuse all grammatical and spelling errors.