Saturday, January 31, 2009

Local Remedy

"I feel GREAT today!" J, a young woman on the Bolivia trip, had been bouncing off the walls one morning as our group got into three taxis.

"Caffeine," I stated.

"Oh." She looked deflated.

J and I had both gotten pills for altitude sickness from the farmacia the day before. She'd taken hers in preparation for going to altitude, but I'd decided to tough it out and hope for the best.

I'd looked up the Spanish for "altitude sickness" and we'd gone to the pharmacy.

"Take this," said the pharmacist, handing us "Sorojchi" pills. We'd both dutifully purchased some. But a little Internet research turned up info that they were just aspirin and caffeine. So I'd skipped it.

And when we got to Potosi, I was glad I skipped it. I'd felt pretty good at altitude this time. Seems taking the bus instead of the plane did the job.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Meanwhile, Back in the States

It's that egg cream store on Avenue A. What? Obama Fries? Obama Cheeseburgers?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Souvenir Show

In Bolivia, you can buy knitted finger puppets by the ton.

And then you can put on a puppet show, even if your Spanish sucks as much as mine does. I made one that goes like this:

L: "¿Cómo se llama?"

S: "Mi llamo es El Hombre Araña. ¿Cómo se llama?"

L: "Mi llamo es Llama!"

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Pros of Waterworks

My flight from Lima to Miami (connecting through to LaGuardia) left at 11:40 p.m. on a Monday night.

And though a nine-hour layover in the Lima airport didn't sound like fun, I had carefully booked my flight out of Cuzco for 1 p.m.

Because Cuzco is high in the mountains, and when there is bad weather, there are no flights. So I wanted to make sure I had plenty of chances to get to Lima in case my 1 p.m. flight was cancelled.

But the weather was perfect and my flight landed in Lima on schedule at 2:20 p.m. I had to pay for luggage storage. It was too early to check in. "You cannot check in until three hours before your flight."

Which I tried to do later, but somehow the entire planeload of passengers had managed to get there first. I hadn't rushed. By then I'd checked online and knew the flight had been delayed to 4:40 a.m. Ick.

I asked the security officials and the line managers. "How can I talk to an agent? I want to see if I can get transferred to the LAN direct flight at 11:50 tonight. It goes direct to JFK." I was on a frequent flyer ticket. It was theoretically possible to do this without paying anything.

"Wait in this line."

"This line will take hours. By the time I get to the front of the line, the other flight will be gone."

"It will take an hour."

It didn't take an hour. Two-and-a-half hours later I was still asking officials to help me. They were still telling me to wait in line.

American's office was closed. Their phone number reached only a recording. I pulled out my laptop and emailed friends. Was anyone online who could call American and get me onto the other flight?

Finally, Steve B showed up. He called American and got me on the LAN flight. "It's about to close! Run! Run!"

I ran, dodging baggage carts and those men who wrap luggage in giant swaths of plastic wrap. (Why? People are weird.)

And I raced to the LAN desk.

"The flight is closed."

"Please. What can we do? Is there any way?"


"Please. I have waiting for hours for a flight that is now leaving at 5:50 a.m. PLEASE."

I tried to cry but the tears didn't come. Yet.


I trudged back down the departures level of the Lima airport. Now I had a problem. Now I had no reservation for any flight to New York.

That pleased me for a moment. I had enjoyed my time in Bolivia and Peru and waiting for me at home was snow, ice, and moving an office across town. Plus my ears were stuffed up. Badly. I couldn't seem to equalize after being on the plane from Cuzco.

But I had to teach on Wednesday night. I could not stay in South America. I had to get home.

The line that I'd jumped out of was still about an hour long. And I had no reservation for any flight.

"Steve, are you there?"


"Can you help me?"

"What do you want me to do?"

"Can you call back American Airlines and get me on ANY flight? Anything to the US?"


"You're on the 7:35 a.m. flight."

I waited in line, desperate to get rid of my bag. But even as I waited, I knew they would refuse to take it until 4:35 a.m. Three hours before.

Finally, I was at the counter.

"It is too early. Come back three hours before."

"No. No. You don't understand. You have to take my bag. I cannot carry it around the airport anymore. I have been here since 2 this afternoon and I CAN'T CARRY IT AROUND ANYMORE. I don't have any money for the baggage storage. Please, just take my bag. I'll come back later, but please check my bag."

The attendant looked at me with a little fear. Clearly, she had a crazy woman on her hands.

"I was on this flight, but then I got moved to LAN, but that was closed so just put me back on this flight then."

"No, this flight is full."

"Please. Do you have a supervisor?"

She got her supervisor, explained something tersely to her. The supervisor said I could switch to the earlier flight for $400.

"No, no, I don't care which flight. But please, can't you check my bag?"

I was delirious by now. I could have gone to the ATM and gotten out more Peruvian money and checked the bag, but I couldn't face it.

"Please, just take my bag. I was on the flight, and then I went to LAN, and now I am on the other flight..."

She glared at me and told me to come back three hours before, and this time, I didn't have to pretend to cry. I choked up and went silent, desperately trying to regain my composure.

And everything changed.

"Take a minute. Shhh... calm down. Explain slowly. Would you like a hotel?"

And with that, she checked my bag and gave me a voucher for the Radisson just across the driveway. I checked in, got my free meal that came with the voucher, went online and chose my seat for the flight. Then at 4 a.m., I ran down and got my boarding pass, went back to my room and showered, then strolled onto the 7:35 a.m. flight.

Which left on time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Llama Crossing

The roads of Bolivia are fraught with peril.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Puno Parade

Here's a parade I stumbled over in Puno. It was practice for a later festival, and it looked like maybe they needed a little more practice. Some of the revelers looked bored out of their minds.

I'm still looking for a good way to add video to a blog. I tried using the blogger video function--bleh! Then I tried publishing directly from iMovie to YouTube, and it still looked lousy, so now I'm trying to embed a Flash player. Have a look.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cuzco Now and Then

I scoured the southern edge of Cuzco's Plaza de Armas. My travel agent, Luzma Tours, had been right there in 1994 when I'd last been to Cuzco.

It was hopeless, I knew. The agent had probably changed careers years ago or given up on what must have become high-priced rent after a while.

But I'd try to find her. I owed her a big "Thanks." I hadn't spoken to her since she'd set up my plane transfer from Puerto Maldonado to Lima, one autumn day 15 years ago.

I've been a travel novice the last time I'd been to Cuzco. I'd checked in a few days earlier for my flight from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado. I'd sat at the gate, oblivious to the Spanish-language announcements around me. When my flight left late, I thought nothing of it until I got to the gate.

"Puerto Maldonado? Your flight is up there!" The gate agent pointed at a plane in the sky. I still remember her wide eyes, her annoyed face. The gate had changed, I hadn't heard the announcement (in Spanish, which now I'd understand) and I'd missed my flight.

Sheepishly, I took a taxi to see Luzma.

"You'll have to go tomorrow. But there's no way to get back the following day and then to connect through to Lima. Unless..."

She'd made some calls and decided that I would transfer from the Puerto Maldonado to Lima flight ON THE CUZCO RUNWAY. I doubt you could even do something like that now.

A few days later, after visiting Explorers Inn, I stepped off the plane from Puerto Maldonado. I saw another plane. Uncertainly, I walked towards it. This was highly unusual. Had Luzma made it happen?

I looked towards the terminal. A short woman was waving frantically at me. Luzma! She caught my eye then gestured wildly. RUN, RUN, I could see her mouthing.

I ran to the other plane, laughing. A uniformed airline employee handed me my boarding pass at the stairs. Luzma had pulled it off and I was on my way to Lima.

She hadn't had a website or e-mail back then and we'd done our business by fax. I sent her a card when I got home to New York, but had no way of knowing if it had ever gotten there.

I still don't know.

Today, I spent my Sunday wandering the streets of Cuzco, now highly commercialized. The video arcade where I'd played pinball one hot afternoon was gone, I think replaced by a McDonald's. Govinda was still there, and my hotel where I'd laid in bed sick from the altitude and feeling my first earthquake was still there, but remodeled now into a 4-star establishment.

Cuzco is still a historic city, still the gateway for expeditions to Machu Picchu. But it's changed. The entire town, I think, has been renovated.

"Perhaps," I thought as I eyeballed the alpaca sweater prices in high-end boutiques on the main square, "I should have done my souvenir shopping back in La Paz."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Signs of Cuzco

I'd asked my Puno hotel front desk to book me an airport taxi for 6:30 a.m.

At six, I went downstairs to breakfast. There was no one in the lobby and the breakfast man was busy getting the food ready. I went back upstairs and got my bag. I returned and poked my head in the kitchen.


The man didn't speak English, but he spoke coffee. He motioned me to sit down and wait.

I kept an eye on the front desk. Still no one. At 20 past, I gave up on the coffee and sat in the lobby drumming my fingers and wondering where the front desk clerk was. I needed to check out. The kitchen man watched nervously. He could see I was in a hurry.

The front desk clerk strolled in at 6:30. The kitchen guy gave her a bawling out. She was late and a tourist needed to check out.

I paid and asked where my taxi was.

"You want a taxi?"

"YES. I ordered one last night."

She shuffled papers and looked around and then called the taxi company.

"We can get one there at 7."

I started snarling at her.

"NOT okay. My flight is at 8. I need a taxi NOW, not at 7. NOW." (I had already checked in on-line, so was already cutting it closer than usual.)

She was flustered and started calling around. The kitchen guy gave her a look of disgust, walked out the front door, and stopped an empty taxi.

I was off to Cuzco. And when I got off the plane, the first thing I saw was a sign for oxygen. Cuzco is at altitude, but I don't know that a bottle of oxygen is required.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Traditional Songs on Lake Titicaca

If you have a computer that can handle watching QuickTime movies, click here for a .mov look at these women singing, er, traditional songs on Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revenge of the Purple Candy

I made it to my hotel in Puno before my body gave up and quit fighting off Montezuma's Revenge. I sucked on two purple hard candies that I'd found in the room.

Those didn't stay down either. Ewwww.

I lay on the bed and groaned for a while, then weakly pried open my laptop and looked up what medication I needed. I dragged my sorry ass down to the nearest pharmacy for 10 400 mg doses of Noroflaxacin. I had a day-and-a-half in Puno. There wasn't time for this shit.


Ahem. Anyway, a few hours later I booked a boat trip for the morning and went to sleep.

In the morning, I went out on a boat with a guide and some other tourists to see the Floating Islands of the Uros people. These islands are actually manmade, of dirt and totora reeds. Small communities live on each island in reed huts.

These days, their livelihood is tourism. The tourists and guides pay a per-head fee to the islanders, who show how they dress and live and then sometimes, the tourists pay for boat rides on reed boats. In my case, another tourist that I was sitting with in a hut bought a tapestry and a mini-reed-boat. She got great souvenirs and the sellers then left me alone to take photos.

We rode on the reed boat, motored on over to Taquile Island (a 7-square-kilometer real island, made of rocks and stuff), and took a hike. Up, up, up to the village at the top, where the men wear floppy nightcaps, like a Catalan caganer shepherd.

Then down, down, down. 500 steps.

500 very steep steps.

And when we got back to Puno, I went to find Hey-There. "If I walk the main street," I thought, "I'll find someone I know."

It took only pacing back and forth twice to stumble over Julia from the GAP trip. She sent me off to Hey-There's hotel, where we said our goodbyes. Hey-There had been asleep when I'd left La Paz.

"So I'll see you tomorrow?"

I told Hey-There she wouldn't. I was heading to Cuzco in the morning.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Leaving La Paz

But I like these people. I don't want to leave them.

I was standing on a landing in Hotel Rosario in La Paz, having just left the group of 8 others that I'd spent the last few weeks with. Three were off on their own plans for the jungle in the morning, two separately bound for Chile, and three continuing on with a different GAP leader bound for Peru.

Strange, no? I am not usually so keen on strangers, mistrusting them for ages before I decide that they are all right.

But I had a bus ticket for Peru for eight the next morning. Hey-There grunted when I tried to wake her. Never mind. I'd find her tomorrow night in Puno when she caught up to me.

The bus goes to Copabacana, where I was to transfer to a bus that would take me across the border to Peru.

Two items of interest occurred on the bus trip: 1) I felt tummy grumblings and realized I had Montezuma's Revenge. It took all my self-control not to vomit on the bus journey. 2) The bus crossed Lake Titicaca on a rickety ferry. Really! Take a look at the video below. Scary stuff. Wonder what Captain Sully would make of this.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Losing It

Hey-There, my 62-year-old roommate, had lost it. She was chattering away, narrating the Dolph Lundgren movie on the railway station TV with her own script. Meanwhile, AF—a biologist from the mines outside Perth—dove under the table and napped on his coat. I played pool with our merchant marines and kept my distance from our group, which had lost its collective mind a few hours prior.

The train, which had already been leaving in the middle of the night, was running late. After three days in the desert, we'd all showered in Hotel Samay Wasi back in Uyuni, gorged ourselves on Tonito pizza, and headed to the overnight train-bus to La Paz.

And so we waited.

And waited some more.

The slight air of respectability our group had acquired post-showers started to wear thin. We slobbered and jabbered.

I'm exaggerating. But only about the slobber.

The train finally rolled in so late that I no longer recall the time. We piled into the reclining seats and Hey-There continuing to chatter until a stranger shushed her.

We were on our way back to La Paz.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Day Three: Southwest Circuit

Delirium had set in last night over dinner, with certain group members giggling far too much (um, me, maybe) over jokes that probably weren't really that funny.

That's what happens when you pack nine people into two Land Cruisers and drive them out into the desert for three days.

I woke up early and was initially startled by the pyramid of empty beer cans in the common area of the salt hotel. I smiled. Our boys had been up late, then.

Today was salt flat day. We'd get to the reason we'd come to southwestern Bolivia.

Lonely Planet Bolivia said it well, so let's just borrow from them:
"One of the world's most evocative and eerie sights, this, the world's largest salt flat (12,106 sq km) sits at 3653m... When the surface is dry, the salar is a blinding white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable."

They pull the salt of the earth out of the ground here and sell it for human and livestock consumption. It's funny that Bolivia is such a poor country when it has so many natural resources, including silver, salt, gas, and uh, sweaters.

We cruised the plains of salt, stopping for perspective photos, some of which worked and some of which didn't. We pulled into Uyuni in late afternoon, salivating over the thought of pizza and showers.

More photos here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Day Two: Southwest Circuit

I couldn't hack it. I was weak.

At 4:30 a.m., I dressed in the dark since Hey-There, Paul, and I were in a dual-gender room in the crappy hostel by the Laguna Colorado. "Can I turn the light on now," said Paul after a while.

I went into the two-stall bathroom and undid my belt, but I almost vomited from the smell. There were probably about 25 people staying in the hostel, and 25 people make a helluva dreadful smell when they are all tossing their used toilet paper into a wastebasket in the dark. I fled. I hadn't been drinking much as I was consciously trying to avoid the rank stalls.

We were all wearing multiple layers of clothes as we piled into the two Land Cruisers in the dark and headed to the Sol de Mañana Geyser Basin.

The crowds at the geysers confused me. We were in the middle of nowhere, Bolivia, at the crack of dawn. What was with all the people?

Quietly, Paul explained it. The cold of the morning made the steam more dramatic. In the afternoon, all the geysers looked like bubbling mud. So all the tour operators arrived at the same time.

Tourists were leaping across steam vents and peering over the edges, ignoring the "Danger" sign. One of our women nearly slipped into one, giggled, and was then surprised to hear it could be dangerous.

'It's boiling water," muttered someone. It might have been me.

We headed to some thermal springs for clean pit toilets and breakfast. Again with the crowds. We'd all been interested in the springs until we saw the dozens of people crowded into the pool. James the engineer made a joke about "short and curlies" at the bottom of the pool and my thoughts about it being a petri dish of shared illnesses sealed the deal. I wasn't going near the thermal bath, no matter how dirty I felt.

We drove past lovely, rugged panoramas, a volcano, and colorful mountains. In the evening, we stopped at a new hotel, the Hostal Solar Botana in San Juan. The building was made of salt blocks, clean, relatively modern, and best of all, had a hot shower and towels available for 10 bolivianos a go.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day One: Southwest Circuit

Most tourists to Bolivia end up on the Southwest Circuit sooner or later.

It's a 3-day 4WD trip through a national park and the massive salt flats near Uyuni.

We left Uyuni and did the trip in reverse, beginning with a long drive to the red lagoon and finishing at the salt flats on Day Three. A cook and two drivers took us out into the rugged landscape, towards the Chilean border.

We'd stop at small roadhouses for lunch, and along the way, we'd pull over and investigate interesting sights. The first night, we stayed in a crowded, dirty hostel with foul-smelling toilets. There's not a lot of choice out in the boonies. Hey-There and I shared a triple with the boss, trip leader Paul.

Our day's drive went kind of like this:

We stopped to see rocks.

And for funny rabbity things.

And finally for the Laguna Colorado.

More photos here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Way to a Woman's Heart

About 7 years ago, I was walking south on Manhattan's Orchard Street. An older man passed me, walking north. He eyeballed me.

"You still got it."

Aghast, I'd thought I wasn't aware I'd lost it. Talk about a backhanded compliment. At 35, I wasn't exactly sagging around the edges.

Today, seven years later, his comment might be appropriate. In the 9-person group I was in Bolivia with, I felt more an outsider than an active participant. I'd been on a half-dozen small group expeditions in the past, but on the other trips, I'd been of the median age. Now I was the only one in my age group.

The two younger women primped and vamped and made themselves up at night for dinner (our men were oblivious). I watched them with a little envy but mostly with relief. Let them put on the show. I wasn't here to flirt. I didn't feel any pressure to perform or even to shower. But I like to stay clean so I showered when I could, like on the last morning in Uyuni before we were to go into the salt flats for three days.

Hair still sopping wet, I got into one of the two Land Cruisers. After we left Uyuni and stopped by the train cemetery, we headed towards the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, home of salt flats, lagoons, and pink flamingos.

An hour or so's drive into the trip, we stopped off in the small town of San Cristobal for a potty break. The other women and I trotted into the mercado and lined up outside the public toilet, near an unusually tall, handsome Bolivian man who was chatting with his friends.

A small boy attendant held out some toilet paper to me and said "Uno Boliviano." The fee for the toilet was one coin.

I reached into my jeans pocket.


I checked my other pockets. I had nothing but large bills. No one ever has change in the unindustrialized world. I blanched... I didn't have the money to enter the ladies room.

The handsome Bolivian man then stepped in. He gallantly forked over one of his own coins, smiled, and waved me into the ladies room.

I reddened and walked in, as my group and a few Bolivians tittered behind me. Better than a drink, a man had bought me a pee.

I still got it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

El Tren Muerto

Rusting, abandoned machinery is disquieting, but that awareness did not prepare me for our morning visit to the Cementerio de Trenes.

Three kilometers away from Uyuni there is a train graveyard, full of once-functional machinery that has been left to the desert. A bit further on are even more locomotives, including an ore train once robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as Bolivia's first steam engine. Bolivia is now the poorest country in South America, but it once buzzed with the profits from silver mining.

I quietly kept an eye on the engineer in our group. He loves machines; what would he make of this desolate setting?

The same thing the rest of us made of it as it turned out.

"That's really sad."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Going Local

We caught a local bus from Potosi to Uyuni, a 7-hour slog across winding dirt switchbacks. I sat with Hey-There in the front, next to two very tall, very scrunched-up men from our group of nine.

We drove.

And drove.

And drove.

Once, we were allowed off the bus to pee in the dirt behind a pig sty next to a restaurant. Though "restaurant" may be too broad a term to use for the concrete block alongside the road. We stopped other times to pick up passengers or let them off, and once for the bus crew to pick plants, but no other potty stops occurred. I'd been careful about my liquid intake being used to this sort of trip, but the plant-picking bit was as new to me as it was to the others in our small group.

Finally, we pulled into the dusty town of Uyuni, its frontier-feel obscuring the friendliness we'd encounter later when all of us went out for the best pizza in Bolivia, when I went to the market for a fresh juice, or when four of us went out in search of tough, plastic zippered bags. We were leaving all we could at the hotel during our 3-day excursion into the salt flats, and would substitute tough plastic for our regular luggage.

Photos of the bus journey are here.

And here is a little video for you.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

But What I Really Need is a Leatherman

I followed Hey-There—my 62-year-old Canadian roommate whose name (Heather) has been Bolivian-bastardized—into our dingy double room in Potosi. A minute later, I thought I'd go buy some water from the front desk.

I tried the door.


I twisted the center turn-gizmo on the knob and tried again.


"Oh shit," I spoke to myself as well as to Hey-There.


"We're locked in."

Hey-There immediately rushed over and tried various squiggles on the doorknob. None of them worked.

"Phone," I said, even as she was already walking to it.

She picked it up.


"Unplug it and plug it back in."

"Still dead."

We eyeballed the room. There were two third-floor windows that looked over a courtyard and a small bathroom window that led into the hallway.

"We could climb out through the bathroom window," I suggested, though we were both eyeballing it dubiously.

"But how would we get up to it, and how would be get our bags out?" I could hear her voice rising as she realized that I'd already switched on to. We were locked in a Bolivian hotel room.

"Okay, stay calm. I've got a Swiss army knife," I said, heading for my backpack. I'd sussed out that the hinges were on our side of the door, and the doorknob was held in by only two screws.

Hey-There didn't get to 62 without the ability to 1) use common sense and 2) embarrass herself when needed. She stuck her head out the bathroom window.

"Help! Help!"

I had my Swiss army knife out by now but could barely use it due to an attack of giggles. I was thinking about a time in Laos when my roomie Lochie had turned the doorknob in a Pak Beng hotel room and it had fallen off in her hands. She's brought it to me with a "WTF" look, and I'd asked the hotel to deal with it. This situation was slightly different.

Later, our trip leader Paul would say "I thought it was just some kids playing or something, but then I realized that yelling sounded like Heather."

He came to our door and Heather said "We're locked in."

Paul tried the knob. He shook it, twisted it, and pushed back and forth.


"I just need a little time," I yelled through the door. "The knob is in the way of my screwdriver. I can only turn about 20 degrees at once."

"I'll go get someone."

Paul brought back the hotel receptionist, who went through the obligatory pushing, pulling, turning, and twisting before running off to find someone else to help.

"Don't worry, Paul, I think I can take the hinges off if this doesn't work."

Hey-There added, "I think she's almost got the knob off. We just need more time."

A few minutes later, the knob loosened in my hands just as the hotel manager pushed the door from the outside. The door swung open to reveal three worried-looking people on one side, two triumphant women on the other (that's me and Hey-There, by the way).

"We want a new room. Now."

Hey-There glared at the staff. They scampered to get us a new key.

The Incans Were Ahead of Their Time

Many interesting products are available in the Andes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Lake Titicaca

I wonder how she really feels about dressing up tourists.