A Travellerspoint blog

June 2006

Abnormality is normal - the Afterthoughts

South America is a unique continent, at least the portion that I experienced. It gives you emotional high one minute and drives you absolutely crazy the next. The fact is that I have fallen in love with its culture and landscape and it does not involve any love potion from the witch market.

Picture Gallery -
Peru | Bolivia | Chile | Argentina | Costa Rica
(If you are interested to see more pictures, please send me a message or comment so I can email you the link to my online album.)

These are some of the reasons which may explain my strange addiction
(not in order):

1. Passion - especially when it comes to demanding any kind of rights relating to their lives. Strikes are common scenes. La Paz - Bolivian doctors complained about losing poor patients to Cuban doctors. Result: road blocks. Arequipa - public transportation drivers refused to pay extra tax to the local government. Result: angry crowds and hundreds of taxi and minibuses parked at the plaza.

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2. A thousand political candidates - Most South Americans are more political conscious than North Nmericans. You can predict their success by the sound system of the cars or minibuses covered with their posters. No need to go clubbing really.

3. Bus schedule, what bus schedule?

4. Chat explosion - You cannot find any internet cafes without 80% of teenages chatting online with someone. With Entel Punto at every corner, who need a phone?

5. Expats' philosophy - According to an American expatriot living in Rurrenabaque and sell delicious bakery every day to hungry backpackers, 'Da Vinci Code is Ridiculous'.

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6. Honking replaces stop signs at intersections - it works and save a lot of money on traffic lights. They can also act as the most effective alarm clock at 6 in the morning if your hostel room happens to be next to the street.

7. Local street markets - all kinds of vegetatable and fruits you have never seen, plus everything else you don't know you need. Bargain or not bargain?

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8. Creative ways to win customers - Have twenty women surround you, push you to the wall, talk to you non-stop in a foreign language for 10 minutes are just a few tactics to get you into their taxis in Sucre to go to Potosi for 35 bolivano ($4.5) at 6 in the morning if you are even awake for that shock. Or have hostel flyers waving at you like a dictionary when you are still waiting to get your 50 lb backpack out of the storage compartment from the bus in the middle of the night when you are half asleep.

9. Passenger Limit in public transportation - until the bus breaks down. The fact that you cannot breathe or your bladder is about to explode are not valid reasons to stop.

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10. Prohibido Ingresco Borracho al Trabajo. But chewing coca leaves is perfectly fine. By the way, the source of the coca problem is not the farmers who have been growing coca trees for many generations (for medical and other purposes) but the illegality of the refined end-product which creates substantial profit for the underground dealers.

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11. Five course meals for $3 plus free wine or pisco sour

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12. $5 hostel room with the perfect view of Lake Titicaca in Copacabana

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13. The Southern Cross, Milky Way and all the shooting stars - almost every night. If only half of my wishes come true, it is worth the entire trip already.

14. Donkey and sheep traffic jam - stay to the side of the mountains when a donkey pass by unless you like to know what it feels like hanging by a cliff. Watch your steps at all time.

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15. Official policy: No drug in our hostel unless we actually see it - Ever pass by a room in a hostel feeling like you should knock on the door and introduce yourself?

16. Electrocution in the shower - A few times are more than enough for this experience. If you are a licensed plumber, please inspect and fix the loose wires hanging on top of the shower heads in the hostels? Being dead naked in a hostel is the last way I like to end my life. Not good for tourism either.

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17. Temperature fluctuation in buses - 0C at night and 30C during the day. Add another 10C when the local sitting next to you have a bag of chicken constantly poking your behind or you are sitting on the engine.

18. Border crossings - I can fill out custom forms blindfolded now. Why is it a big deal when your birth country is different from your country of residence? Also, it helps to check the opening hours if you do not want to freeze up like an ice cube outside the office in the middle of the night.

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19. Smile and pay - Local kids are very business-savvy. If they cannot sell you anything in their hands, they will ask you to take a foto with them. Then you still have to pay up. Singing a song in bad English and doing flips on the road doesn't deserve to be paid (buses from Macchu Picchu to Angnes Caliente). Buying from or paying kids will encourage parents to take them out of school.

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20. Religous level - over the top! Churches and portraits of Jesus or Mary are everywhere. Most taxis have an altar in the front glass. Everything need to be blessed, even the cars. They even read fortune with coca leaves!

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21. Great street food - fresh cerviche, peanuts, corn on the cob with cheese plus everything cheap and delicious.

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22. Useless wax napkin - No wonder they are free

23. Act like a local, take your sunglasses off.

24. Wildbird stuck in the engine of a plane from a small airline with only one functional aircraft. You are stuck at the local village unless you like the adrenal rush by taking the public bus on the 'Most dangerous (& equally bumpy) road in the world' for 15 hours with more than a few episodes of wheels hanging over the cliff.

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25. Depository of all the leftover Toyota (or Toyosa) 4x4s in this world, and old mini school buses with Japanese characters on the body. Japanese cars do last forever! Maybe not the British train. (Enlarge photo below and note writing on the train body: Necesita un mechanico experiencia, urgenta!)

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26. No destination signs. One person yell out the destinations from the van and if it is yours, squeeze in with the other 30 people already inside. Concentrate during rush hour and be prepare to run across a 3-lane highway to catch your van.

27. Be careful when you have food in your hand in the vinicity of pigeons. They will jump on your lap. So will the squirrel monkeys when they see banana in your hand. If you worry about bird flu, stay away from this continent, at least the Ballesta Islands.

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28. The question 'Where are you from?' actually means 'What ethnicity are you?'

29. You got to go when you got to go - only if you have small change. Public toilets have operating cost too. Buy a lottery ticket if you find a free public toliet. Pay and make sure you get your receipt. Otherwise, try the back of a jeep in the dessert, shades in the jungle (if your bladder is more important than your behind getting ticks or mosquitoe bites, sometime both.)

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30. Cafe con Leche is made differently in different restaurants, towns and countries - it's hot milk with expresso comes separately (in Cusco), it's hot milk with instant coffee mix, it's powder milk and instant coffee mix, it's regular coffee with a shot of tonic on the side. No wonder there is no Starbucks. Ironically, they will never be able to make coffee as tasty, even with the beans imported from these countries.

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31. The soup - How can I ever forget the Queua soup? And all the great meals during the inca trail prepared by a chef who should own a 5-star Michellin restaurant. The purple potatoes that shaped like a worm, the slurpy but cunchy seeds of Granadilla and the sweet purple corn drinks. Plus all the food group is on one plate. (As far as the guinea pig, I can be an adventurous eater but when it comes to fond childhood memories, I rather not temper with it.)

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32. When you bump into other backpackers that you hanged out with before in another small town, you feel like you know them from home even though it may only be a few weeks ago.

33. Conversations are far more meaningful with other travellers than casual friends at home even with a few glasses of wine or beers. Most do not involve questions like 'did you hook up with anyone?' or 'what did you do last weekend?' But stay calm when you are the only one in the group not doing a RTW tour.

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34. Most local and gringo bars and restaurant play reggae, reggaeton, merengue and 80s pop music, except the trendy ones. Some may actually allow their customers to program the song list from the computers. Only once a Britney Spear song came up on the bus and I could not run from it.

35. If you try to use your limited espanol to ask questions or carry out conversations, chances are you would be answered with a lengthy response which with luck, maybe half of it is comprehensible to you.

36. When being asked why you are travelling solo or if you are married, which comes up quite frequently, lying may save you from answering some embarrassing questions.

37. The colors - almost no AIBs (army in black) on the streets, except tourists. Indigenous fashion deserves more attention.

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A few deeper thoughts:

38. Inequality exists even after you are dead, at least in Sucre, Bolivia - While rich families have hugh roman structure with marble pillars as their graves lining on two sides of the main path, middle class have ashes inside glass slots decorated with flowers on the wall, the poor simply have wooden crosses with thousands of others in the back of the cemetary. And if you are late on fees, don't be surprise that your love ones' remains being 'evicted' and getting toasted under the strong sun.

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39. The grandeur of nature - the roaring of the sacred Urubamba river and the Iguazu Falls (esp. at night with full moon), the spirituality of Machu Picchu and the Colca Canyon, the serenity of the jungle, pampas, mountains, valley and streams compliment with millions of stars, not to mention the Salt Flats, lagunas and the deserts.

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40. The spirituality of the indigenous - their respect for nature. Some aspects may seem superficial, as in many ancient religions, but the basic belief in their harmonic survival with the environment is something most city dwellers are lacked of. Not having to depend on the mountains for daily life, we compromise with the environment in terms of using cleaner fuel, recycling etc. But all these practices are simply medications not prevention.

It is, however, an inescapable fact that many towns are filled with leftover vehicles from the west, as if the only way for a better life is to sacriface the environment.

41. The inequality and living conditions of the poor - makes your problems in life seem insignificant. It seems that what Che felt more than 50 years ago -'the beauty of the landscape and the natural wealth of the land set against the poverty of those who work it. The nobility and generosity of the poor set against the mean and sordid spirits of the landowners and of those who rule the country.' still holds true somehow.

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42. All the special people I met and the friendliness of most locals - Using the most imaginative adjectives cannot describe my personal experience, only those who experience with me will truly understand and appreciate. Sharing my excitment and emotion with them makes this trip more worthwhile.

43. Last but not least - the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises in the most breathtaking landscape. See it for yourself HERE.

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My only regret is not to be able to spend more time in each town and to see more countries. Hopefully the day will come soon enough for me to go back to get another dose of the rest of this continent.

Posted by shinenyc 01:34 Comments (1)

Losing oneself in the gadget world

What a strange feeling after not using my mobile phone for the last two months and suddenly surrounded by people with ipod, mobile phones, laptop, blackberry etc... at the Miami airport. Not only do these people feel the need to be constantly 'in touch with the world', but they also think that everyone around them have to share their agitation by talking in such a volume as if the planes are actually taking off next to them.

No wonder yoga and meditation is increasingly popular in cities where people feel the need to escape and are willing to pay too much for it - all for the sake of 'getting in touch with yourself and your surrounding'. Maybe all they need is to turn off these gadgets once in a while and actually 'detox' their minds instead. Technology is great but it certainly should not be dictating our lives in a sense that we do not recognize ourselves anymore without the presence and constant bombardment of advertisements for the latest gadgets. What is the difference between drugs and these materialistic processions which does nothing but to give us a hallucination of our own self-worth?

I did not recall any museum exhibitions about Romans or Greeks discussing philosophy on their cell phones in the piazzas or indigenous tribes using computers for directions to expand their empires. Yet history had proved that people were much more in tune with themselves when they are close to the natural environment. It is when my evening companion is nothing but the tranquility of the mountains, the sound of the streams and millions of stars above, and my neighbor and roommates are animals and insects, that I feel the closest to myself. The precious moment of self-revelation that no yoga or meditation can achieve for me.

Life should be simple and enjoyable. Time after time I had encountered the most genuine and down-to-earth locals in my trip. The less they have, the more they give. Children on Uro (floating islands) say farewell to us by singing songs in at least 6 different languages including Japanese. Children from my host family on Amantani island displayed their gratitude after I gave them each a color pencil by holding my hands and trying to tickle me. While those in Parismina tried to teach me spanish with picture books, paint my nails, fetched me sme fruits that look like mashmellow from the trees and tried to read the page numbers from my novel. What more can I ask for?

Posted by shinenyc 23:57 Comments (1)

A city with no character

rain 20 °C

I don't mean to offend anyone who is fond of this semi-modern Latin America city. It is still a bit hard to justify my decision of a 35-hour of roundtrip bus ride from San Jose to Panama City. The city itself is certainly not as colorful and characteristic as many colonial towns that I visited in South America.

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As impressive as it is, the Panama Canal, the only waterway connecting the Pacific and Carribean Ocean, was built in the early 1900s and put into use around 1914. It is no doubt one of the most successful engineering achievement in the last century. Immigrants all over the world participated in the construction and resulted in the diversity of population nowadays. There are three set of locks to rise and lower different sizes of cruise and cargo ships. I visited Miraflores Lock, which is closest to downtown and saw the operation as a few cruise ships pass through. It only takes about 30 minute to go thru the two lowering gates at the Miraflores Lock for the gigantic cargo ship from Asia. According to the guide, the Panama canal makes about $1 million profit per day for this country.

If this is true, how can one explains such a big part of the city consists of ghetto/public housing, and other parts resemble Las Vegas in the 70s or Florida's tourist district? Which swiss bank accounts do these money really go at the end of the day? I walked aimlessly after getting off at 'cinco de mayo' plaza and wondered...

Why, when it rains, do all the windows in the local buses have to be closed to a point where the only reason suffocation doesn't happen is because the driver has to open the door once in a while to let people in? (And you still get wet from the water dripping from the roof of the bus) Why do local bus drivers blast reggaeton on their buses and cut lanes on the highways like they are driving tiny japanese race cars only with consist stream of black smoke coming out of the 10-feet high aluminium exhaust pipe? I struggled and struggled hard to find some kind of identity that defines Panama city, beside the famous canal.

There are good things that come out of all this: 1) movies only cost $2.50 (even the latest ones.) 2) McDonald hamburgers $0.79, with cheese. And last but not least 3) local buses $0.25 and 4) taxi $1.50 (still cannot beat Peru and Bolivia.)

Chances are if I stay longer, I may grow to like this city.

Posted by shinenyc 20:45 Archived in Panama Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Dinosaur of the Ocean

sunny 25 °C

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After a brief stay in Lima, I flew to Costa Rica for a week of volunteering at the beach of Parismina island. The two shifts of volunteers have to patrol 4 hours each every night mainly to protect sea turtle eggs from being stolen by poachers and sold in black markets.

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Barlomina, my host mother, lives in a wooden shack with two bedrooms. I stayed in one and the rest of the family stayed in the other. I immediately befriended the younger members of the family, as I always do. Everytime I attempted to read on the porch, they would surround me with the cutest laughter and playfulness so innocent that make me stop my reading and join in for the fun.

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Patrolling on the beach at night is not as romantic as I thought in the beginning. First of all, the pace was quite physically demanding. Secondly, we walked in complete darkness to avoid alarming the mother sea turtles which attempt to come on the beach to lay their eggs.

Sea turtles go back to dinosaur period. There are about 10 species of sea turtles in the world. The most representative, namely the Leatherback Turtle, chose to lay egg on the beach of Parismina island every year from March to June while green turtle from July to September. Research had shown that sea turtles usually return to their birthplace to lay eggs. However, no one has yet to figure out how and why. The rate of sea turtles have been decreasing at a rate of 20% per year. This alarming factor is mostly due to improper or illegal fishing method still practice by many which kill thousands of sea turtles, sea lion, dolphins and whales each year.

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To watch any birth process is enough to make anyone realize how precious life is. To observe this process of the oldest reptile in the oecan is to literally see tens of thousands of years of history condensing into a miracle. To witness eggs coming out from the tail of a six-feet long mother sea turtle in the moonlight, listening to its breathing and the sound of the waves is really a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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In one occasion, I had the opportunity to relocate over 100 large(fertile) and small eggs by putting these soft and warm 'tennis balls' into another 20-cm deep hole inside the hatchery. Another time, the mother turtle could not find 'her' spot after a while and went back to the ocean without nesting. Jason, the local patrol, had seen turtles mating on the beach, even threesome and male(possibly gay) turtle trying to nest.

The most satisfying moment came as we witnessed over 100 baby turtles climbing out of their nest in the sand and stumbling onto each other. They have been hatching under the sand for two months. (Temperature determines the sex of these turtles.) Knowing that only 1 out of 1000 baby turtles survive to adulthood, which takes over 30 years, I cannot help myself but to wish these little fellows good luck when they crawl towards the roaring ocean with their tiny arms and legs.

Posted by shinenyc 23:34 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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