Sunday, January 11, 2009

...aaand she's back! And older! And wiser (well, sort of)!

Does writing in your blog every four months really constitute blogging? Anyway, just wanted to share the good news that Berrrale turns 31 today!!!! That's 15th of Tevet according to the Hebrew calendar, for those of you who are confused (and thank you for all the happy birthday wishes from December 24th).

I will post a picture of my birthday cake as soon as I make one. :))

In case you're thinking: "She must be one of those embittered souls who refuses to have a party cause she thinks she's old", let me set the record straight-I had every intention of having an even bigger and nicer party than the one last year (tho not sure if I can top that one content wise) coupled with a small slide show of the pictures from my trip, but alas, it wasn't meant to be... Firstly I couldn't find that projector. Then, there was the fact that I can never put together some bamba and bisli and have a simple party, so clearly it was going to turn into a whole baking project, which my funds right now don't allow. And then the war began and the thought of having a big happy party just didn't seem to fit...

In the meantime-this is just a quick post to let you know you are all on my mind. I had the most wonderful year of my life at 30-so much happiness, so much growth, please God by all of you. Thank you all for being in my life through the good and the bad!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Summer Time

The picture you see above was taken in the most surreal place I visited in my travels: Rurrenabaque, or Rurre for short. In my anxiety to get out of Bolivia soon, I had briefly considered leaving this place out of my itinerary, but boy am I glad I didn't listen to my inner idiot!

After leaving Chaim and Rikki to enjoy their next high altitude, freezing trek, the girls and I flew from La Paz to Rurre. Rurrenabaque is Bolivia's gateway to the Amazon. Before moving on to the jungle though, I should begin with all the surreal surrounding this little town. First, the 30 minute ride on a tiny plane which carries 19 people and lands on a stretch of green field that may as well be someone's back garden.

Then, the realization that we have come to summer! After weeks of layers upon layers of warm clothing, fleeces, blankets, woolen socks, suddenly the sun is not only bright, but also hot! I mean flip flop weather, people. When I decided to leave Israel for a few months, I had secretly been happy to be doing it over the intolerably hot summer months. As time went on however, I found myself wishing for a bit of warmth. Well, I got that and more in Rurrenabaque...

We had been told that we could find the Beit Chabad at a hostel called El Lobo ("the wolf" in Spanish, named after the Israeli owner of the hotel, whose name Zeev means wolf in Hebrew) so there we went, backpacks on our back, sweating under the sun. See the picture of the Rebbe on the wall? Anyway, when we finally got there, we were a little upset to find out the Beit Chabbad had just moved, but we decided to stay anyway. Now here's another little bit of surreal for you:

That's the inside of a room at the hostel. Half finished, with no paint on the walls. And yes, that is a gap you see between the walls and the ceiling. The room had an arched window as a 4th wall, only there was no glass, essentially making it a well aired 3 wall room. The same went for all the rooms in the hostel. We suspect they ran out of money at some point during the construction process and decided to leave it as is and pretend it's an artistic choice. :) No complaints though, the extra air was definitely appreciated with all the heat. Besides, we had a great view from our window/wall:

We had some choices to make re. our visit in Rurre, but first we took some time to sit lazily in our beds and watch the view. An amazing feeling of calm and beauty filled me and I knew this would be one of the favorite places in my trip.

This little resort town is where all the jungle and pampas tours leave from. Before leaving Israel, I was determined to go into the jungle, but I didn't know which one of these tours I should take. During our stay in Cusco we met a lot of people who had been in Rurre and we got a clearer picture of what the tours comprise: the jungle tour is typically an unstructured excursion into the jungle where you get to sleep in makeshift bamboo tents, learn to carve yourself rings from a tree bark and generally walk around the forest to get a feel of the place and pretend you are on Survivor. Without overly generalising, this type of tour seemed to interest males more than females. The pampas, on the other hand, is what the Israelis called a "kindergarten", ie a 3-day tour on a motor canoe where you get to see a lot of animals and relax.

Rikki had always expressed more interest in the jungle, but she wasn't there and I was hesitant. I did want to get a feel of the jungle, but then again our brief "jungle" walk on the way to Macchu Picchu had been rather icky, what with all the humidity, and I had sort of already done the "pick the fruit right off the tree" thing. I also found that I was quite enjoying the vacation feel of this place. So I decided to go the relaxing route and signed up for a pampas tour with the girls (and 5 other Israelis. of course.)

The tour started off with a 3 hour ride on a bumpy gravel road (what else) to the start of the canoe ride. We stopped along the way and continued adding to our repertoire of surreal with this funny looking creature:

anybody who knows what it is, feel free to share. All I know is that he stood in his corner , without moving, for quite a while and posed while everybody snapped photos of him. Our guide warned us that he's been known to attack people, so we stood a fair distance away from him, but he seemed so at home with all the tourists arfound him. The other, much more conventional animal we saw was this parrot, who was no less sociable than the funny creature:

Two animals and we hadn't even started our tour... Next up-crocodiles, monkeys and much more!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

La Paz, La Paz, La Paz

This post isn't actually at all about La Paz, although the picture above is. The thing is it happens to be where I spent most of my time in Bolivia and it's also the central point for pretty much going everywhere. Bolivia is not one of the most developed countries in the world so it helps to be in a central place which is well connected to many remote corners of the country.

Since I wanted to make my stay in Bolivia brief, I decided to get going pretty soon after I arrived in La Paz. Rikki & I set out for Sorata, the hiking capital of Bolivia, with another friend we had met earlier in Cusco. I was told that this was a place not to be missed, so like a good girl I made sure to put it in my itinerary. The road there had some really great views of mountains

and that was pretty much the only redeeming quality of the hot and bumpy ride, at the end of which I had a most unsettled stomach. Welcome to travelling in Bolivia. The roads are horrible, the buses packed and uncomfortable. The smells are nauseating, the hygiene nonexistant. Why did I come here again?

But I exaggerate. I had much worse times in La Paz than in Sorata. :)) We arrived late and made hiking plans for the following day. Rikki opted to go for a high-altitude 3 day hike with our friend Chaim while I only had 1 day to spare, so I got myself a private guide. That night we went to the Bayit Hayehudi which we had heard wonderful things about. I can only add to the praise. This wonderful young couple, with their 2 adorable kids, live amonst all the greenery seen above and have the warmest house in Bolivia. And I'm not just referring to their fireplace. :)

What is that bowl by the fireplace, you say? Well I'm glad you asked. It was a little sad to leave Rikki behind since it meant that we would separate for over a week this time. So I decided to be nice and made the two of them some bread for their hiking trip as a parting gift. I know, so selfless of me. :P It was so exciting to touch dough again after almost 2 months of being away from a kitchen!!

I had scared my guide about not being able to climb so he had told me our hike would take about 4 hours. Somehow I managed to breathe however and we did the whole thing in 2.5 hours instead. On our way down we even ran into Rikki & Chaim who had just begun climbing up. Since I still had a whole day ahead of me, I decided to go ahead and do another hike, this time on my own.

The hike was supposed to be straightforward enough. Which didn't prevent me from getting lost. Twice. In my defense, all I was doing was following the signs, which is what the guide had told me to do. The path started off on the dirt road and at some point veered off into the mountains. Then the signs ended and it was kind of assumed that one would follow the path, which looked clear enough. Except it wasn't. I eventually came to the edge of a steep hill with moss on it and the only way to pass it was by holding on to the wet, mushy thing since the path was impossibly narrow and muddy. I was happy to have passed it since I assumed it would be the only time I would need to do it. However, a few minutes later the path kind of ended and the only way forward was by walking over a 2 meter long, thick pipe that connected the 2 sides and was suspended above a steep cliff. While I was standing there, contemplating (not too keenly) whether I should attempt the acrobatics across, I noticed that there was a fire on the other side of the path.

I took this as a sign that I should head back and reluctantly turned around. Over the mossy patch again and straight ahead. Except I wasn't getting nearer the road. So I had to backtrack once more until I finally found the path back and moved ahead really quickly since I had been lost now for about 2 hours and I was worried I wouldn't be able to make it to the last bus to La Paz. I'm assuming that this was the path when the trail was originally created, but over time it changed and no one bothered to change the signs. Bolivia... At any rate, I made it to the road and hoped against hope that I would find a cab coming in my direction. Quite miraculously a cab appeared just when I needed it and the family in it were nice enough to give me a ride back to the city.

The ride back to La Paz was thankfully much easier this time and I was lucky enough to listen to a comedy show that was all about making fun of the Argentinians. My Spanish wasn't yet advanced enough to understand it all, but the people on the bus seemed to enjoy it tremendously. For my part, I was glad to be spared the horrendous cumbia music that is generally blasted on Peruvian and Bolivian buses. Seriously, some people should be banned from making music.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Back On The Road Again

After saying goodbye to Cusco, we hit the road again, though a little apprehensively, towards Bolivia. It is possible that I was the only apprehensive one though. I had come to South America expecting to meet warm, bubbly people, like my Latin American acquaintances back in Israel. I had instead encountered what people told me was the ¨real¨ South America, ie the indigenous people and culture. No doubt I saw some amazing places and met the odd sweet person like my Spanish teacher, but I was still longing to be in a place where I could have normal conversations with people on the street. Bolivia sounded quite the opposite and I decided that I would not stay there for too long. What I didn´t know then was that one doesn´t control one´s vacation in Bolivia, it´s quite the other way around. You will understand this better when I write about my experiences in later posts.

What you see above is one of the most touristy things I did while in South America. The picture is that of a ¨floating islands¨ located on Lake Titicaca at the border of Peru and Bolivia. These are a group of man made islands off the coast of Puno where everything is made out of reeds. A lot of people told us it was a big hoax, claiming the people we would meet on the islands actually don´t live there, but travel back and forth between the mainland and the islands. We opted to go because we thought it would be interesting to see anyway. As our (very weird) guide explained to us on the way there, people who live on the islands indeed make a living from the tourism surrounding the islands, but they do actually live there as well. It´s up to you to choose whom to believe.

A welcoming committee greeted us as we came on to one of the islands. They had a little demonstration showing how the islands are built. The large blackish mass at the bottom is what keeps the islands floating and is dried reeds. They replenish the upper level of reeds every few months. It was a very weird sensation walking on it, I almost felt like my feet would sink through.

The Uros, as the people on the islands are called, originally built the islands for defensive purposes. They use these boats (above) made of reeds to travel around. We took a ride across and were impressed with how sturdy they were. It all became clear a few weeks later when we met another fellow traveller who told us the boats were actually made of rubber.

We were offered some reeds to eat which I actually found quite refreshing. There are now about 40 of these islands left in Titicaca, some of which house only 1-2 families. Not all the islands have all the amenities, things like school for the younger children are located on one of the larger islands where there are 10 families or so. Although the Uros population living on the islands (there are many more of them living on the mainland) is only a few hundred people, they end up polluting the lake with all their waste since there's no proper sewage system in place.

Overall I found it fascinating and I'm glad I went, even though the cheesy singing of English and Hebrew songs by the locals made it a little uncomfortable at the end. I think what some people don't understand in these touristy places is that the place is interesting enough on its own so there's really no need to humiliate themselves to make it more likeable.

At any rate, the visit to the islands took only a few hours and after a short bus ride we made it to the border with Bolivia. We spent the night in Copacabana on the side of Bolivia which had a fantastic sunset.

The picture, taken from inside the bus, really doesn't do it justice. The next day we headed to Isla Del Sol, a few hours off the coast. We got off the boat at one end of the island and hiked about 2.5 hours to the other end. It was the most stunning place I had seen so far. The combination of the sun and the mountains and the sea reminded me a little bit of Capetown.

It's very difficult to capture panoramic beauty and I feel like none of my pictures from this area really do a good job. At some point during the trail, the gorgeous view extends to both sides, blue and serene and I felt like opening my arms wide so I could hug it all in one giant embrace.

What really made it awesome I think was the addition of the snow on top of the mountains in the distance, but I stupidly only took very few pictures of it.

So far I liked what I was seeing of Bolivia...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Inti Raymi and other festivities

So we spent 2.5 weeks in Cusco, studying, trekking, eating and meeting a ton of Israelis. As I mentioned before, most everybody falls in love with Cusco and ends up staying there for a while. The Beit Chabad probably hosts one of the largest numbers of people in South America. This is also why Cusco becomes a meeting point of all the ¨waves¨ in South America. A word about waves...

In Israeli backpacker jargon, there are 2 main ¨galim¨ (waves) travelling in South America. The southbound one (gal hayored) and the northbound one (gal haoleh). We would fall under the southbound wave since we started out in Peru and made our way south to Bolivia and then Argentina. The waves roughly move on at the same speed so that once you meet someone from a specific wave, you assume the others can´t be too long in joining him. In addition to these main waves, there are those amusing ones that people make up themselves-gal hamitakeiv (the delayed wave) for those who keep getting stuck in a place, gal hamebulbal (the confused wave) for those who change their direction in the middle etc. etc.

At some point during our stay in Cusco, we met a lot of northbound Israelis who brought back appalling reports of Bolivia: the people are rude and not so bright, it´s very dirty, everything gets delayed, cholas pee on the street, everyone gets salmonella etc. etc. all of which made me very unenthusiastic to move on south. In fact, there was a point when I seriously considered leaving Cusco before Inti Raymi and flying out to Argentina. In the end, slightly reluctantly, I stayed and made it to Bolivia. We discovered there was some truth to the reports we heard, but I also had some wonderful experiences there so I can´t say I regretted going. But again, getting ahead of myself. Back to Peru.

What you see above is the official flag of Cusco which is prominently displayed everywhere in the city. Gay pride parades were not on the agenda, but there were plenty of other colorful events going on during our stay. For example, Cusco Day. Which you would expect to last, well, a day. But why waste such a precious festivity opportunity in 24 hours only when you can have Cusco Day for a whole week??? And so it was that while I was running around between Beit Chabad and my Spanish classes, I would see different age groups parading around the city every day for a full week. They started off with the kindergarten children, which I unfortunately missed and moved on until university students. Since there´s a lot of Inti Raymi pictures to go through, I´ll only post one picture from these festivities.

All these dancing people made it very difficult to move around in the city, not the least because one couldn´t help stopping to watch them. We soon discovered though that all this was nothing compared to the biggest of them all, the incredible tourist magnet, the festival of the sun: Inti Raymi. For one thing, it was ridiculously crowded which allowed one to freely take pictures of the cholas (which I had promised you would be forthcoming). Here´s a typical cholah, with her bundle on her back. Do try and ignore the cell phone.

That hat hanging behind her conceals a baby. They have a special method to wrap up the baby and swing it around to their backs which is a scary, scary sight to the uninitiated tourist. I kept expecting to see a baby fly off during the process or slip from its little trap afterwards, but I guess they know what they´re doing. This is how they feed them:

The cholas typically have 2 braids of long hair hanging behind their back:

though not all tye them together. The other predominantly chola feature is their gigantic skirts, but you will have to wait until I write up Bolivia for a picture of that. On to Inti Raymi...

The festivities started off in the main square of Cusco-Plaza de Armas. The plaza was packed with people on the sides, behind police barriers. There were a lot of different parader groups in different colors, as well as an almost naked group. The last parader to pass us portrayed, we think, the sun god.

Then it was time for everyone to climb Sacsayhuaman, a nearby hill with Inka Ruins, in order to watch the rest of the festivities from the side. One has to pay an exorbitant amount to sit around the main stage so most backpackers and locals opt to climb the hills surrounding the spectacle. Maybe this will give you an idea of the number of people:

There were plenty of street vendors along the way, selling anything from memorabilia to street food. We decided to try freshly squeezed cane juice,

but were not too impressed with it. The other ¨delicacy¨ on sale, everywhere, was the guinea pig. The sight of it is enough to make any carnivore consider vegetarianism.

It was quite a challenge to find a spot on top of the hills with a good view. Some people took to the trees.

Our view was mainly obscured and we didn`t understand anything of what was going on. In fact, I think the same went for all the Peruvians around us since at some point something happened which drew much more attention than the festivities. There was a lot of police around the event, trying to keep people away from getting too close to the spectacle. Specifically, the hill directly opposite from us was blocked. At some point, an excursion of a few people managed to break the police cordon and ran ahead. The police promptly brought them back and attention was returned to the festivities. A few minutes later though, a new group made an attempt and suceeded, opening the way for many others to rush in. Here´s how the hill looked after this assault:

and only a few seconds later:

and after the last stages of the conquest:

while back at the festivities, this is what was going on:

It was definitely an interesting experience although I doubt I would have thought it worth waiting the 2.5 weeks if I hadn´t done other things in the meantime. At any rate, we were ready to move on and so said goodbye to Cusco that very night. On to Bolivia in the next post.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Those Inkas Sure Were Very Fit

Ladies and gentlemen-meet the coca! It´s actually quite unacceptable for me to be mentioning this plant for the first time after so many posts about South America. The coca leaves are everywhere. And, according to the locals, capable of almost everything. Helping adjustment to altitudes, alleviating headaches, stomach aches, helping digestion, you name it. There´s nothing this little plant isn´t good for. There´s some cocaine in coca which has caused controversies in the past and caused the Bolivian and Peruvian governments to spearhead campaigns with the slogan ¨Coca is not cocaine¨. It´s also rumored to be an ingredient of coca cola, which would help explain a lot of things. At any rate, Peruvians stick it in your face at every opportunity and expect you to like it. I consumed large amounts of coca tea during my hikes and not only was I not thrilled with the taste, I also saw no beneficial effects. But then again, I´m capable of consuming large amounts of caffeine and going straight to sleep so maybe I´m just weird.

At any rate, this is only one of the many plants we saw on our hike to Macchu Picchu. But I´m getting ahead of myself. A few words are needed re. treks to Macchu Picchu. In the last few years, the official Inka trail has become so wildly popular that the Peruvian government has decided to limit the number of people allowed on it. I had actually tried to get us on it, but 3 months of advance booking didn´t cut it either. So we decided to go instead on one of the ¨alternative¨ trails that tour agencies have come up with. Rikki & Omrit were interested in one called Salkantay, named after the nearby snow capped mountain of the same name. The high altitudes involved were the main deterrent for me. So Maya and I opted for another one called ¨the Inka Jungle¨ trail, which went through jungle like territory and joined the Inka trail at another point. The first day of this trek is actually on mountain bikes, but since neither Maya and I knew how to ride bikes, we decided to walk on the road where everyone else was biking.

We were told that it would be all sunny and warm during the hike and there was no need to bring our raincoats. Worse comes to worst, the idiotic man in the office said, you can buy a poncho for very cheap, they sell it along the way... Of course, 15 minutes into the walk it started pouring and continued for hours. No ponchos to be found anywhere. We were in a jungly area, so it was hot and sticky and rainy all at once. Not pleasant. We were not happy when we finally made it to the first stop. And to think we could have avoided it all if we hadn´t been told a blatant lie. The one thing that lifted my spirits was this little boy scurrying around the village-what is a blond eyed, European looking kid like this doing in a remote part of Peru???

We also managed to find ¨ponchos¨ here, which are basically colorful garbage bags with a hole in the middle for your head. Anyway, our second day of walking was slightly more interesting, with large trees and a lot of plants along the way. We discovered on this day that our party was full of energizer bunnies. All very young Europeans and all of them running ahead at full speed. There was some climbing involved, but it wasn´t too difficult. Maya had some stomach trouble which meant that I had the wonderful opportunity to walk in the middle-in front of Maya and behind the energizer bunnies-which allowed me to enjoy the beautiful scenery by myself.

At some point our guide picked up a fruit which the locals use as a natural dye and painted everyone´s faces with it. Everyone, that is, but me. Should I be worried that even random Peruvian tour guides are scared of me? The truth is that the guide soon proved to be extremely sleazy so my conscience is clear. He kept making up excuses (¨but this is how we say hello in Peru¨) to touch and/or give us kisses and we were pretty disgusted with him.

Thankfully the scenery was much more pleasant. For my part, I really enjoyed being able to eat fruits we picked up straight from trees along the way. Oranges, sabras, tangerines, papayas (ugh!), avocados...

We also saw some gorgeous butterflies along the way-as much as I tried to run after them, they proved too elusive to capture on camera, so here´s another colorful creature for you:

In stark contrast to the beauty of the 2nd day, we spent the morning of our 3rd day walking on boring railroad tracks which brought us to Aguas Calientes, probably one of the most touristy towns in the world. The walk itself was uncomfortable and uninteresting and we had to keep stepping aside to allow the trains to pass.

Once in Aguas Calientes, Maya & I were put in a room together and before we knew it, everybody had left the hostel. We found out later that we had walked the railroad tracks due to a change in plans, requested by the energizer bunnies, who wanted to save time so they could climb another hill. Nobody bothered to consult us. I think they were concerned that we couldn´t handle the climb. Nobody consulted us for that either. The problem is that at this point, we had grown completely tired of our sleazy and incompetent tour guide and couldn´t even be bothered to complain.

So it was in that very negative light that we decided to skip climbing the thousands of Inka steps to Macchu Picchu and opted instead to take the bus to the top of the mountain. Honestly, we just wanted to get the whole hike over with and make it back to Cusco before Shabbat. Which was not as easy as you might think. But, first, a picture of the ruins:

I´m sorry to report that I belong to the group of people who are not wowed by them. Before anyone can go ahead and repeat the mantra that it would have been a completely different experience if I had climbed the stairs, I would like to remind you that I had little interest in Inkas before getting there. The only reason I went to Macchu Picchu was because I felt it would be stupid to make it to Peru and not see one of the wonders of the world. I don´t see why climbing thousands of stairs at 5 am in the morning should make a difference.

It is not clear what the purpose of Macchu Picchu was. Some claim that it was a spiritual center, which is also the theory that the guides´ explanations center around. The guides were very anxious to point out that Hiram Bingham, the man who supposedly ¨discovered¨ the ruins, was not the first person to find this site. Apparently there were some Peruvian families living there long before. They also talked a lot about the artifacts that Bingham removed from the site, about which they are very bitter. And rightly so I think. We have many cases of removed artifacts from Turkey-a problem accounted for, I believe, by the fact that original archaelogists were ¨westerners¨ who took advantage of the loose conservation laws in place in the less developed places of the world.

We had an unpleasant surprise on the way back from Macchu Picchu. We had requested to get earlier train tickets in order to be able to make it to Cusco by Shabbat and somehow they had mucked up Maya´s ticket. After a few very stressful hours, we finally managed to get on the train and were very happy to leave Macchu Picchu and our guide behind. At any rate, I leave you with one of the few pictures I have from Aguas Calientes. Quite wondrous, isn´t she?