The coin toss landed on . . . Chiloe

December 23, 2013 by

So we were dithering on our last day in Santiago whether to go to Mendoza (back in Argentina, 6 hours by bus) or Chiloe. We ended up on an overnight bus (Hangover 3 for the 4th time) to Puerto Montt, and then rented a car to ferry over and drive around Chiloe island. Chiloe is famous for its sixteen UNESCO designated heritage churches made of wood. It’s got good shellfish, and fish. There are also lots of farms with cattle, sheep, pigs, and it’s very green and lush.

It’s been sunny and warm, which is great for touring around, but it’s also a little unusual, since Chiloe is characteristically known for its rain and fog. In fact I’m almost a little disappointed that I don’t get to experience the wet, damp and cold.  (Rather like going to Guilin and seeing it under sunny clear skies, instead of the mist like the stereotypical Chinese ink paintings.)

Every women on Chiloe seems to know how to knit: lots of sheep providing lots of wool, but the designs could do with some updating. If they knitted poncho or sweaters with churches on them,  that would be more appealing to tourists like us!

Lovely Ritas
They have these meter maids here in Chile, even in small towns like Ancud and Punta Arenas.  I guess it helps with employment. They hang around every few blocks, dressed in dark jumpsuits embellished with florescent yellow or orange safety accents.
Where/when you park on street, they punch into their hand held gadget, and print out a timed slip which they place under your windshield wiper. When you come back to your car to leave, you take the slip and pay the meter maid.
So you never run out of time on the parking meter and thus you don’t parking tickets for overstaying your paid time. And I guess if the meter maid doesn’t come to your car until X minutes after you arrive, you get those minutes free (the equivalent of getting someone else’s leftover paid time on an American parking meter.)
But I wonder how many people drive off without paying if they don’t see a meter maid to give money to? We were very honest; when we walked to back to our car, we asked to meter maid to come.

ทำบุญ (making merit) for Christmas: Since we’re not home and thus not caught up in the mad bustle of getting X’mas presents for folks; the only ‘giving’ (which is better than receiving, of course) we can do is giving rides to people. We have a rental car that’s a four-seater. Gas is expensive here. Might as well ammortize the mpg.  Chiloe is very rural in the sense that it’s not densely populated, and bus service is very infrequent. So as we’ve driven along country roads to check out the churches in small villages, we’ve stopped to people a ride home. It’s selective: the city slickers in us go by gut feeling to pick up people who seem harmless, like the family of 3: dad, mom and 5 year-old daughter. Or a farm laborer lugging three tanks. Or a mother on her way back home from a shopping trip in big-town Castro, weighed down with bags.

It’s also a proactive karmic safeguard: I worry about the car breaking down or getting stuck. A lot of these  rural roads in Chiloe are not paved, simply graded; and some are quite steep. We’ve had a couple of close calls going uphill on stick shift without enough traction. Thank goodness it’s been sunny and dry, and not rainy and muddy.

If I don’t post anything before then, Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to whomever is left of this blog’s readership!

Chile is the midpoint between California, Switzerland and Boston

December 16, 2013 by

It’s a rare treat to meet up and spend time with family/friends while travelling for such an extended period. We got a double dose of socializing in two days when we met up with my cousin Matthias in Valparaiso for lunch last Friday. Then we spent the weekend hanging out with Loutz and his friend Matt in Santiago.

Matthias is one of my cousins in Switzerland, who happened to be doing a study abroad program in Valparaiso. We hadn’t seen each other in over ten years; the last time being our cousin Jason’s wedding in So Cal over 10 years ago. He took us to lunch at a very Chilean place that had good empanadas, but only after 6 PM. We had very good tomaticon (a tomato, beef and bean stew) instead.

Loutz of ice cream fame was doing a bike trip around central /south Chile with his buddy Matt from North Carolina. (Apparently, Dave and Matt, who’ve known each other since college, do a bike trip abroad every couple of years.) So we arranged to meet up in Santiago, which was great, because we hadn’t seen Loutz since 2009 when we went to visit him in Boston.

Better yet, Loutz had been to Santiago 6 years ago, so he was able to be our tour guide.  Even better, Loutz is a transportation planner, so we were able to geek talk, which I haven’t done in a long time. Like discussing . . . .

Santiago vs Buenos Aires: Metro system comparison:

  • Price per ride: US$1 vs. $US 0.35
  • Smartcard name: Bip! vs. Sube
  • Able to ride on negative balance: No vs. Yes
  • Cleanliness: Santiago
  • Age: Buenos Aires  (100 yrs old)


Christmas decorations: We’ve seen some Christmas trees festooned with lights in building lobbies, etc, but Christmas decorations seems more low key here. We could count on one hand the number of homes with outdoor Christmas lights. I think that’s because energy costs are so expensive. The most common small Christmas decoration we’ve seen is a Santa climbing up a rope ladder to get in through a building window. That makes sense, since there are almost no chimneys around here!

Long Bean Slivers: A sandwich universally contains some sort of meat and some sort of vegetable. Back home, the vegetable component is usually sliced tomatoes and lettuce. I usually find it underwhelming. Tomatoes in the winter are tasteless: I used to wonder why they couldn’t be substituted with a slice of orange instead. Lettuce has very little nutritional content, and is insubstantial.

In Chile,  you get sandwiches at fuentes (or fuentes de soda), literally a “(soda) fountain”.  The common fixings in sandwiches are sliced tomatoes, mashed avocado, chucrut/sauerkraut, and slivers of cooked  green beans, which are still green/not overcooked. I really like the green bean slivers, there’s more texture, taste and nutritional value to them than lettuce.  They also remind me of my step-mom, who used to put them in noodle soup when I was growing up, although she would cut them in short twigs, rather than slivers. I wonder why Chileans cut the green beans in long slivers, that would seem to take more effort and knife skills.

Chileans are also very big on mayonnaise in their sandwiches, less you think them all health-nuts. When we went to our first fuente today: Fuente Alemana across the street from where we were staying, we thought the glop was melted cheese. But there was a sign on the wall “Our mayonnaise is made with pasteurized eggs.”

The sandwiches here are so enormous that you have to eat them with a fork and knife. At Fuente Alemana, they didn’t bother offering french fries or any other potato product as an accompaniment. Very tasty, rather old-school with a long lunch counter like Apple Pan in LA, but very spick and span.

Dandelions: I’ve mentioned the llao llao, which are very unusual orange fruit-looking fungus which grown on tree trunks in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego. They looked so wonderfully exotic to me, that it shock to see another plant so familiar: dandelions. I wonder if they came with the European immigrants, or if they were indigenous to the New World. And if so, did dandelions first appear in North or South America? They were all over the trails in Tierra del Fuego park outside Ushuaia. Of course you’re not supposed to pick the flora in national parks, but if I were hungry and scavenging young dandelions leaves for salad along the trail, wouldn’t I actually be doing a good deed of weed eradication?

Seafood and fruit vs. beef and ice cream. In Argentina, it was all about the steaks and helado. In Chile, to my relief, good seafood is everywhere, and relatively good value for price. Most of it is fish (white) and conger eel and lots of bivalves like mussels, clams, razor clams, and some abalone/geoduck. Most salmon is farmed. Scallops are called ostiones, which confused us, since that refers to oysters in Mexican Spanish. But they are really good here. I missed erizo (sea urchin) season, which is a pity, because I’d love to know how they prepare it here.  There are two types of crabs: king crabs (centolla) and jaibe (stone crabs.) I don’t eat king crabs in California, because they are usually frozen from Alaska.  But here, they are fresh, and very tasty, and better yet, they are usually served peeled. Still, my palate is tuned to Dungeness. There’s not a lot of shrimp (most are labeled Ecuadorian).  I tried to convince my parents to come travel for a bit with us in South America, but they were intimidated by the distance. I think if I told them how good the seafood is here, they’d be more willing to come. The preparation styles are relatively simple as well, which lets the 鮮 (sweet/fresh) flavor of the seafood shine through. Lightly cooked in their own juices, with some aromatics (onion perhaps), lemon juice, and a dusting of chopped parsley, cilantro.

There’s not as much ice cream here, but since it’s summer here, there’s good stone fruit like strawberries, cherries, peaches,  apricots and pears. It’s easier to find jugo naturales (fresh fruit juice) here, than in Argentina.

A lo pobre: A common style of food presentation is some sort of meat or seafood, served with french fries, sauteed onions and topped with a fried egg.  We’re very happy to find it in Chile, as it tastes great with fried fish. I wish it was as easy to find at home.

Reading vs. speaking Spanish: We’ve picked up a fair amount of survival Spanish, at least for reading menus. In some cases, even when there are English versions of the menu available, we prefer to read the Spanish version, since some restaurants simply applied Google Translate and came out with dish names so mangled, it would take us much longer to figure out what they meant in English. “A lo pobre” comes out as “at the poor.”  “Media luna” is literally “half moon”, which is a croissant.

The other thing I like doing is when we’re hanging out at a cafe (really, travelling life is just like life at home in some respects) is to read the local magazines (glossy pages of fashion, ooh!) and the newspaper (it’s good to get a sense of what goes on in real life for people who are living here, as opposed to just passing through.) And usually there is something that is relevant to our travel as well.

I can generally get the gist of newspaper articles, since a lot of the vocabulary is similar to English. But occasionally it backfires, as people might ask me something in Spanish, like “can I have that paper when you are done,” and then my response is a confused look of incomprehension. They’re probably thinking “why doesn’t she understand what I said, when she must know Spanish, since she’s able to read a Spanish newspaper?”

Interesting things can be gleaned from advertisements. Like credit card payments and discounts. Maybe I’ll get around to discussing that next time, but I need to go to sleep now.

Where next?

December 8, 2013 by

“I’m worried about you guys,” said Serge, as he left last Sunday afternoon to go back to the Bay Area after a week’s visit with us in Buenos Aires. “I can’t believe you don’t have plans yet for Tuesday onwards…”

Tuesday was the day we were to leave the apartment we’d rented for a month in Buenos Aires, where we became wannabe porteños* and became experts at getting around everywhere by bus**; and learnt to make ‘sh’ sounds where other Spanish-speakers make ‘y’ sounds, as in “Me shama Uzbekcelia”, instead of  “Me yama Uzbekcelia.”

We luxuriated in not having to pack our clothes in/out of the backpacks. We luxuriated in having mod cons of a dishwasher, washing machine and centrifuge*** in the apartment. We consumed copious amounts of steak, red wine**** and ice cream.  We took lots of naps, watched lots of TV, surfed the net.  I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes, plus reread almost all of Jane Austen’s works (there were lots of books in Spanish, English, French and German in the flat).  We were sedentary, there were days we didn’t leave the flat, except to go out for our daily ration of steak, wine and ice cream.

We played host to Linda for two weeks, and Serge for one week. So we took them to La Boca and Uruguay.

I didn’t blog at all in that time. . .

Monday morning we woke up, looked at the map and decided we should go to Patagonia, as opposed to Medoza or Bariloche, since it would get more ‘crowded’ as the season peaked.

Monday afternoon we went  to buy plane tickets at the airline office in downtown (the only branch that takes cash***** payments.)

Tuesday: we flew to El Calafate. Had patagonian lamb for dinner.

Wednesday: we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier in the southern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We lucked out with decent weather, but quite windy. Had patagonian lamb for dinner.

Thursday: we took a 2 hour bus ride to El Chalten, gateway to the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and did a 6 hour day hike to see Mount Fitzroy. We lucked out, it was not windy nor cold, and Fitzroy was clear, even if there were high cloud cover. I had patagonian lamb ribs with calafate berry sauce for dinner (It was called sweet and sour lamb on the menu!)

Friday: we did a 6-hour day hike to see Cerro Torre. We lucked out, it was sunny, not windy nor cold, and Torre was clear. Fitzroy and Torre are what’s on the Patagonia clothing logo. Had patagonian lamb . . . and chicken for dinner.

By the way, both the Fitzroy and Torre day hikes are relatively easy, and reward you with such incredibly stunning views. We decided we wouldn’t need to go to Parque Torre del Paine on the Chilean side of Patagonia.

Saturday: we did a 16 hour bus ride to Ushuaia. We had to cross in and out of Chile to get back to Argentina. I saw some guanacos, which are related to llamas. Ate centolla (king crab) for dinner.

Sunday: we did a 6-hour day hike along the coast in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. We lucked out: it was sunny, not windy nor cold. We saw lots of llao llao, also known as pan de indio, which looks like an orange ping-pong ball of a fruit, is edible, but grows as a fungus on trees.   I didn’t try any. Instead, we had more centolla for dinner. Joe is going through steak withdrawal. He also sprained his ankle  while jogging towards the end of our stay in Buenos Aires, so the two of us are hiking much slower than usual. (Or maybe it’s due to our age, or the fact that we’ve worn out our hiking boots so much in the past 5 months.)

Anyways, we are definitely rolling  on the road again . . .

* Porteño is local term for a person from Buenos Aires

** There’s now an app for it, course, but the old school transportation geek in me loved the convenience and DIY challenge of the little Guia Transportes booklet, which has an street index, a Thomas Brothers-type grid map, and a turn-by-turn description of of every bus route so your could figure out how to get from any address to any other address in Bs. As. I don’t know why other cities don’t have the same. Maybe London A to Z has similar details, but not for riding the bus?

*** Centrifuge: Argentinians don’t typically have a machine clothes dryer that heats up. Instead they have a centrifuge, rather like the ones in the swimming pool locker rooms, where you put in your sopping wet swimsuit, and push the lid down for 5 seconds, and it emerges damp, but dryer than hand wringing.  A largish one for an apartment operates by a switch, and the most common brand is “Koh-i-noor”

I was talking to a taxi driver about this and told him Koh-i-noor was the name of  an Indian diamond that the British took when they colonised India and stuck it in a royal crown. “Ah the British . . . they are always such pirates . . .” he said. The Falkands  Malvinas War is still a bit of a sore subject around here.

**** When Serge was here, the three of us would usually order a bottle of Malbec (red wine), and comfortably finish it without getting too buzzed, i.e. 250 ml per person is good. (Linda is mostly a diet Coke person.) After he left, we realized that splitting a bottle between 2 of us was a bit more than we should drink: 375 ml per person takes more effort. But we don’t like wasting wine/leaving wine left on the table. . .

***** The official exchange rate is about 6 Argentinian pesos per $US 1. That’s what you get if you withdraw cash from an ATM, or use your US-issued credit card. However, the ‘blue market’ exchange rate is 9 to 1. It’s so widely accepted that both the official and ‘parallel” exchange rates are actually printed in the daily newspapers. You get this rate by changing greenbacks in person. So to get 30%-40% more bang for our bucks, we changed US dollars for pesos and paid for everything in cash. We have never used an ATM in Argentina.  It’s  long story, but has to do with the economic situation and the government’s clumsy policies to deal with it by putting more restrictions of foreign currency flows, rather than letting it float to the equilibrium in reality.

Bolivia, so far (north)

October 22, 2013 by

UPDATE: added photos, since I’m up early and no one else is hogging bandwidth. Apologies if you’ve already read this sans photos.

(Apologies, I did mean to upload photos with this post, but the internet is really slow, we think one of the other guests is streaming a movie or something, grr)


(We are headed by bus to Oruro tomorrow, where we’ll catch the overnight train to Tupiza, from where we’ll do a tour of Salar de Uyuni. Tupiza is a major town in southern Bolivia, near Argentina, where we plan to cross overland.)

OK, onto regular programming . . .

I’m making up for all the TV I haven’t watched back home (where we also didn’t have cable TV). It’s Day 3 of staying off my feet, since I sprained my ankle rather badly by missing a step of the Plaza San Francisco here in La Paz.

My Spanish is not improving as much as it should, because there’s many TV channels that broadcast programs in original English, and then paste on Spanish subtitles. However, the Bolivian Nacional Policia channel puts on a lot of Korean soap operas, dubbed over. (The ads, naturally, are public service announcements reminding people to use seat belts.)  The hats that are part of the Bolivian police uniform look exactly like those worn by US National Park Service rangers, and since the uniform is also a darkish green/khaki, it makes them seem less intimidating, somehow.

So thanks to the Bolivian National Police, I’ve finally seen an episode of “My Lovely Samsoon.” (It’s interesting that there’s one street near our hotel that’s door-to-door full of hairdressers/barbers, and most of them have posters of Korean boy bands, with tousled floppy longish hair.) It’s about time for Joe to get another haircut, but were he to walk into any of those hairdressers, they’d probably be disappointed that a real Asian customer wouldn’t ask for that kind of haircut.

Unfortunately my two favourite cartoons are also dubbed, not subtitled: South Park and the Simpsons.  For some reason, it’s a lot harder to understand Spanish voiceovers in a cartoon than in a regular movie or live-action TV show. Maybe it’s because the voices are also cartoony.

“New to me” shows I’ve discovered are: “All on the Line” where a magazine creative director tries to help struggling designers turn their business around; and “Private Chefs of Beverly Hills,” which was more entertaining than I would have expected out of such a hokey concept.

OK, so most people reading this blog don’t really want to hear about my TV reviews. What have we been up to since Macchu Picchu? We went to Bolivia  and went to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and La Paz.

Lake Titicaca is a bit like Lake Tahoe in that the border between entities cuts across the lake (Peru/Bolivia; California/Nevada)

Things are cheaper here than Peru, which was pricier than I expected.

Saltenas, the XLB of Bolivia: XLB is the abbreviation of xiao long bao 小籠包, a bite-sized steamed pork dumpling from the Shanghai area. They are a bit unique in that there’s a lump of jellified pork broth tucked inside before the dumpling is sealed, so that it melts during cooking. The tricky part of eating an XLB is to slurp/suck out the pork juice without letting it dribble to waste on your plate or spoon. It takes finesse, especially since the dumpling wrapper is very thin and it’s usually steaming hot.

Saltenas are the savory baked turnovers on Bolivia. Usually filled with a mixture of meat. potatoes, maybe some other vegetables, olives (Joe doesn’t like olives, so I get his), and sometimes slivers of hard-boiled egg. They cost 4 bolivianos (such a sensible country, to name its currency the same as its name. About 7 bolivianos to $US 1 right now).  There’s a pinched seam of dough to mark the closure, and often the seam is usually burnt almost black, in contrast to the golden dough of the rest of the saltena.  The inside of the saltena is also very juicy; at first Joe and I were puzzled as to how people ate them without making a wet mess of their fingers. It turns out you’re not supposed to get juice on your fingers, so I guess you suck/slurp the juice out, but it’s easier than an XLB, because most of them time the saltena is only slightly warmer than room temp, from sitting under a heat lamp in a glass display case.

Olives: It’s interesting; we’ve encountered more olives in food in Peru and Bolivia than the other parts of South America so far. I wonder why that’s the case.

Potatoes: Potatoes are big in Peru and Bolivia: tons of varieties here, since they originated here. We’re familiar with the small purplish variety since it got introduced to California. But there’s also some other odder looking varieties, like pink/yellow ones with long dimply dents.  What’s also common here, but new to us are the dehydrated/freeze-dried potato called chuños. They look like little white pebbles. There’s also dark potato versions.  They’re used in soups and stews, but have the texture, and almost the taste of taro. Since they also eat a lot of pork here, presumably there’s a five-layer pork stew that includes chuños . . . . that would almost taste Chinese/Thai.


Peanuts:  There’s also over 60 varieties of peanuts in Bolivia, which was a big surprise to me.  There were snack stands in Copacabana that sold giant peanuts roasted in shell, both natural, and dyed lightly in brick red dust.  The dyed ones reminded me of something that has disappeared from my childhood: red-dyed pistachios in shell. Maybe it was the FDA red-food coloring cancer scare thing. You could buy a small bag for 5 bolivianos.  There was also giant popped/puffed corn/grain called pasancalla, which tasted slightly sweet. I don’t know if it was natural from the grain, or if they added a touch of sugar. There’s also a peanut soup, called sopa de mani, which is a direct translation,


New vocab all the time: Peanuts, while called cacahuetes in Mexico, are called mani in South America. (As much Spanish as we can learn in one country, there’s always new words to learn in the next, i.e. avocados are known as aguacate in some places, and palta in Peru. We can never keep up!

Chicha . . . chicha morada: One thing I miss now that we’ve left Peru and are in Bolivia is chicha morada, a sweet drink made from purple corn. It’s a common Peruvian no-alcoholic beverage option, along with lemonade, if you didn’t want to order gaseosas (soda pop) like Coca-cola. Chicha in Bolivia is a fermented white corn drink. It’s supposedly slightly alcoholic.

There’s something called api in Bolivia which is made of purple corn also, but supposedly served warm.  I haven’t tried it yet. There’s a chain called Wist’upiku that serves api and pastries.

Another non-alcoholic drink we’ve seen In Peru and Bolivia is called mocochinchi in Bolivia (I don’t know what it’s called in Peru.) Not to be confused with mocachinos (coffee-chocolate concoctions), it’s a drink made with a dried apricot or peach, cinnamon and sugar. I’ve mostly seen it sold by street vendors in little plastic bags, and was afraid to try it, since I wasn’t sure if they used bottled or boiled water. I tried it at the food fair in La Paz. It was not too sweet, and refreshing.

The Post Office: I don’t know if it was specific to the La Paz Main Post Office, but it was open for business on a Friday night at 7:30 PM (I was buying stamps for a postcard), which was incredible.  Considering the federal shut down we just had in our first world country . . .

Paint: A few blocks south from our hotel along Calle Illampu  is a hardware section of town. Before you get there, you run a gauntlet of camping equipment/clothing shops (lots of North Face).  (The blocks north of our hotel are the party decoration/costume shops.)


Right at the corner are several street vendors who sell paint, color mixed to order. They have signs made of what looks like white butcher paper with round spots of bright colors, so it looks like a twister mat, with more shades. Peering into the paint vendors’ carts, there are square tin cans with round holes on top, like the big ones back home for madras curry or mustard powder. Someone told us paint was expensive: I don’t know if that’s true. But what is common throughout South America are unfinished houses.  Often if you look at the façade straight on from the street, it looks perfectly finished and painted, but go round the corner, and you will see the raw brick or cinder blocks with bits of frosted mortar in between. Apparently most countries have a law that says you pay less property tax if your property isn’t completely built/finished, so most people never finalize the construction of their homes, i.e. leaving it unpainted would be the most obvious sign that it’s unfinished. In some countries, the law has been changed, but the custom still remains.

Witches market: Joe joked that I should have gone there after I sprained my ankle, maybe they could have cured me physically and spiritually at the same time. (I did have a spiritual cleansing when I was at Cuenca, it involved someone spit-spraying herbal-infused water around me, including on my stomach. I didn’t really need to experience that again.)  The witches market is a famous attraction for tourists in La Paz, but the concept is hardly exotic if you’re from an Asian background. It’s where you can buy herbs, love potions, and other paraphernalia for spiritual/religious ceremonies.  This includes sets of colored sugar paste candies, tinsel and bottles of booze to use as offerings when inaugurating a new business, little black stone/clay figurines that with patterns chiseled and painted in white representing luck, money, health, etc,  . . . and of course the infamous llama fetuses that you are supposed to bury in the foundation of your house when you start its construction.  It smelled like a Chinese herbalists’ shop when we were walking through there. They only thing missing was the bundles of fake money for burning.


Benedicion de Movilidad/Blessing of the Cars:  Copacabana is the most touristed Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca. For gringo travellers, it’s the springboard to Isla del Sol.  For Bolivian and Peruvian travellers, it’s the place to get your car blessed, at the Cathedral, where the famous Virgin of Copacabana resides. Many of the hotels there also offer car-parking, which is not an amenity sought by backpackers! In the early afternoon you can see cars decked out with ribbons and flowers, and other offerings, including bottles of cider. (Maybe it’s a preventative measure against drunk drivers hitting you?). In any case, the landscaping in the plaza in front of the cathedral incorporated many of those glass cider bottles.

2 generations at Macchu Picchu

October 22, 2013 by
In Peru/Bolivia, we've seen lots of older women dressing traditionally, i.e. with a wide skirt reaching their calves, hair in two long plaits. Whereas, the younger women are more hip to skinny jeans, sneakers, and Hollister hoodies.

In Peru/Bolivia, we’ve seen lots of older women dressing traditionally, i.e. with a wide skirt reaching their calves, hair in two long plaits. Whereas, the younger women are more hip to skinny jeans, sneakers, and Hollister hoodies.

Made it through the Inca Trail and Macchu Picchu

October 13, 2013 by

(I may add photos to this post later, but wanted to publish something for now.)

We’re baaccckk in Cusco, Peru now, and had our first hot showers to decrustify, yay! after completed the cliched 3 day/4 night trek along the ‘Inca Trail’ to Macchu Picchu.  Macchu Picchu is indeed as amazing as its reputation and attraction to millions of tourists it draws justifies (not to mention its starring role in an international beer commercial.) There are no bad angles to photograph there. We made it through with no physical ailments. But I’m really glad it’s behind us now, and we’re headed to Bolivia next.

Domestic vs. Foreigner prices: Peru is one of those countries that has two-tiered pricing for tourist attractions and some transportation between foreign and Peruvian visitors. For Macchu Picchu, it applies to the entry fee, as well as the 30-minute bus to get there from Agua Calientes. The bus ticket prices were written in magic marker, because the price was fixed in US dollars,  but if a foreigner wanted to pay in Peruvian soles, it would fluctuate based on the exchange rate.  The queuing area for the Macchu Picchu-Agua Calientes was the only place so far in South America that I’ve seen vending machines (so many people here eke out a living as vendors as candy vendors, that vending machines are pointless.) The vending machines sold only imported candy and canned sodas. I didn’t see any Inka Cola in it.

I can see both sides of the coin in charging different prices for foreigners vs tourists (it’s common in Thailand, India, and China where). Foreigners feel its exploitation, after all in the US, everyone gets charged the same price to go to Disneyland or a museum, regardless of one’s nationality. Whereas locals think “you rich foreigners can afford the higher price, but the average local person is poorer and should pay less, based on differences in the costs of living.”

But what really irks me about Peru is the bundling of tourist attractions on one ticket. For instance, to visit most monuments in Cusco, you need a ‘tourist ticket’ that costs about US$30 that includes admission to 16 sites. While it lasts for 10 days, the thing is only about 7 sites are really worth your time, so you wish you could simply pay as your enter each site, at a more reasonable rate.  Likewise for Macchu Picchu, if you want to climb up Huayna PIcchu (it’s that tall mountain the back drop of all the photos of Macchu Picchu), you have to buy a ticket for about US$40 that gives you admission both Macchu Picchu and Huayna PIcchu. You can’t just buy a ticket to cimb Huayna Picchu. This is a vexing redundancy for Inca Trail trekkers, because the Inca Trail permit itself already includes admission to Macchu Picchu.

Gearing up in Cusco: The Centro district, as befits its status as a tourist hangout not only has the usual tourist restaurants (and McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks) and souvenir shops. It has a lot more camping/trekking equipment shops than the normal tourist haunts like say, Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square, ha ha.  Joe and I poked in to oggle. Also because I’m in the market for a new immersion coil (for boiling water) died on me at a most inconvenient time, here in Peru, where most hostels don’t provide drinking water. I hate buying plastic bottled water and adding to the waste. We found one for . . . US$25.It costs about $7-$14 back home, but since they are made in China and often fail after a few uses, I may just live without it. We also oggled, but didn’t buy/rent any at all the trekking clothing (North Face, Columbia), retractable hiking poles; lightweight backpacks, camelbacks, sleeping bags and mats, but made do with we had for our 8-month trip. Our backpacks are about 12 years old, so made of heavier/sturdier material. We have lightweight sleeping bags and mats at home, but didn’t bring them with us, since we wouldn’t need it for anything else but the Inca Trail trek. So we rented the heavier ones from the tour company. Also our clothes were a bit ghetto-looking (hey we’ve been wearing them day in day out for 8 months) compared to those worn by our fellow trekkers who just all flew in last week from North America, freshly stocked up from REI. The most trekking-specific thing we had with us were lightweight but sturdy Patagonia rain jacket shells, and black pullover rain pants (we’d bought then a couple of years in desperation for our Pacific Northwest camping/road trip)

Since I am somewhat of a tightwad, my expenditures for gear were:

1) a wooden broomstick-type pole from a hardware store near the local market for 3 soles ($1). This ended up being the best 3 soles I spent for the trek.

2) 2 rice sacks (woven plastic) to cover our backpacks/belongings in case it rained, for 1 sole each.  Also purchased at the local market. It worked out well to stuff our stuff in the rice sack and then stick the rice sack in the backpack. I also used it as a rain apron for my front, since sometimes I would wear my rain jacket OVER my backpack, which mean I was too fat to zip close the front of the rain jacket. I them simply tucket two corners of the plastic rice sack between my backpack straps and my shoulders. It made me feel/look like a butcher, but hey it kept my chest dry. I don’t like buying disposable rain ponchos.

3) Antibacterial gel. I’m usually not a fan of this either, but given the primitive toilet situation we’d been led to expect, we had to resort to this. In the tourist oriented shops, we saw bottles of Target and CVS gel for sale (must have been imported via someone’s checked in baggage.) We simply went to the local pharmacy and bought a local brand.

Coca: People like to make a big deal about coca leaves since it’s illegal in the US (cocaine is derived from it), but it’s what the local Quecha (and their ancestors the Inca) have been chewing for ages to deal with altitude sickness, cold, pain, hunger, tiredness etc.

Also in a less potent form is mate de coca (dried coca leaf tea), which is one of the typical choices you get for tea here (other flavors are chamomile, anise and ‘puro’, which is regular tea. It’s made me a little nostalgic for Earl Grey tea.)

Anyways, a lot of tourist trekkers will learn/try at least once to chew coca leaves, because hiking at high altitudes when you’re not used to it is very hard.

And yes, Joe and I did chew coca leaves regularly on the trek.  It helped, but I don’t know if it’s from the placebo effect or really did have a medicinal affect on us. I did feel bit more mentally alert, even is my body was a bit foggy-tired feeling. And I did manage to keep going quite well, although after some stretches of going uphill, I would still be out of breath.

There’s a process to it, perhaps like the betelnut chewing process, although it doesn’t stain your teeth green. You’re supposed add some plant ash (it comes in a lump, which you pulverize or chip off), and roll it inside 5-7 dried coca leaves. The ash helps release the alkaloids in the coca leaf, which increases its potency on you.

You chew the coca leaf roll for 2 minutes without swallowing any of the juices (your saliva will hydrate the dried leaves, and it will taste like Japanese matcha (green tea). When your lips and tongue start to feel slightly numb, which is the sign to spit it out, and rinse your mouth with water. Then you roll another coca leaf roll  (again a bit of ash inside 5-7 leaves), and wad it between your gum and cheek. You can bite on it gently to release some flavor, but you don’t really chew it. After an hour, it may lose flavor, and you spit it out.

I have yet to see a real, live coca plant though. I may have to ask about in Bolivia.

Agua Calientes: Everyone who visits Macchu Picchu will go through the town of Agua Calientes. With the way our tour was scheduled, we had 4-5 hours to kill there in the afternoon.

It is full of pizza places (unfortunately, wood-burning ovens, which must surely contribute to deforestation!), hostels, tourist restaurants, and massage places (for all those grimy trekkers coming off the Inca Trail trek to get a good rub-down.) Some of our fellow trekkers went for a massage, which offered the option of taking a shower before hand (makes both the therapists and clients happy!)

Agua Calientes means ‘hot water’ in Spanish, and there is a thermal bath to soak in. But supposedly it’s a bit dirty (all those Inca Trail trekkers have sweated and have not showered for 4 straight days.) Unlike Japan, the baths here only suggest, not mandate that you scrub down with soap three times before entering the pools. Also you have to wear swimsuits to go in. So Joe and I decided not to go, although it would have probably felt good. It made me wish someone would open a Japanese-style sento or onsen in Agua Calientes.

I’m surprised that no one in Agua Calientes has opened a place that offers shower-only rentals, i.e. the way you can pay for hot shower at Curry Village in Yosemite National Park for Half-Dome hikers.  I joked with our group that I was tempted for Joe and I to rent a hotel room by the hour, just so we could each have a half-hour hot shower!

The other thing that is missing in Agua Calientes is a juice place/ice cream parlor. (In South America, a lot of juice places will also offer milkshakes, and sometimes even ice cream deserts) Joe wanted a sundae. We had to settle for coffee.

Will cut off here. I may add photos to this post later.

On the fly

September 28, 2013 by
View from Lover's Park (Parque del Amor), Miraflores, Lima

View from Lover’s Park (Parque del Amor), Miraflores, Lima

Our itinerary in Peru will be a bit crunchy. We already booked our Macchu Picchu trip for mid-October; most of the places we want to see are in the south, i.e. Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, Canyon de Colca and Nazca. There were a couple of places I wanted to see in the north, but I think we will be too lazy to backtrack. (We have to be in Buenos Aires by November 1.)We left Lima today, having stayed 3 days instead of two, and had planned to stay one night in Ica/Huacachina. But as we pulled into the bus station at Ica, I realized I didn’t really feel like staying there (the main attraction is the sand dunes/lagoon at Huacachina, and the pisco grape wineries.)

‘You wanna just head to Nazca?” I asked Joe. OK, we’re from California; we have wineries and Pismo Beach.  As soon as we got off the bus, we bought tickets for the bus to Nazca. Since it was leaving 3 hours later,  we had time to kill in Ica, so we walked to the main square, found the nicest restaurant in town, had lunch (the sandwiches on the bus were thoughtful, but not fulfilling), and then got online to book a hotel for Nazca, as well as see about flights.

The El Otro Peñoncito restaurant owner was a very chatty guy, and he asked to take our photos, and said he was going to post them on Facebook!

Santo Domingo Church, Lima

Santo Domingo Church, Lima

I should have just booked the bus from Lima direct to Nazca, instead of stopping in Ica, but I thought, since we have time, we should stop and have a look-see. But sometimes you just feel like doing what you really want to do, and I just wanted to see the Nazca lines. I’d known about them from reading a Nancy Drew mystery (The Clue in the Crossword Cipher) when I was a kid. The Nazca peoples (their culture predated the Incas.) created these lines in the desert in the shape of a monkey, a bird, and other figures that are so large, they can only be seen from the air. On the ground, no one knew they existed until the mid-20th century, with modern aviation. The Nazca peoples created these lines by driving very fast in race cars plastered with symbols of serpents, birds and cats and corn on race tracks in the shape of monkeys and birds, creating wheel track scars that have lasted to this day. This was the forerunner of the NASCAR races, where cars plastered with logos of pet food and products containing corn syrup race around a set track, leaving burnt rubber tracks on asphalt. Just kidding. Well, we’ll see how it goes tomorrow. The 30 minute flight to see the lines is supposed to be bumpy (breakfast to be consumed after the flight), and of course it’s increasing my carbon footprint.

More children books ties. Many Tintin adventures were set in South America, some fictionalized, like ‘The Broken Ear’, where an ancient wooden statue with a broken ear plays a key role. I’d read somewhere that it was based on an actual statue, but I can’t confirm it was the same one as the one we saw in the Museo Larco in Lima, which was wood, and had an ear missing.

Then again, there’s quite a few wooden statues out there that have an ear missing, simply due to their antiquity. Still, Tintin was also a source of what little I knew about South America, before I got here, as is probably true for many others!

La Emolienteria Bar, Miraflores, Lima

La Emolienteria Bar, Miraflores, Lima

Yes, there is a Chinatown in Lima, the lady at the tourist office told us. “Hmm, peligroso. Better visit it in the day time.” It was close to 5 o’clock, and would get dark soon.

It would have been better if we had ignored her advice. Because we went the next day, which was our last night in Lima, and had half a roast duck, garlic choy sum, plain rice and tea for dinner. We had quite a bit of duck and choy sum left, but didn’t take the leftovers. If we had been a day earlier, we would have had fixings for a fabulous breakfast. The Wah Lok Restaurant had the most appetizing looking ducks hanging in the window. And even though they bring out chop sticks by request (the default cutlery was fork and knife), the menu was bilingual in Spanish and Chinese. At the end of the meal, they give you White Rabbit candy, instead of fortune cookies. White Rabbit candy seems to be popular in Chinese Peru. We last had a meal like this right before we left home, and I don’t know where next in South America we’ll encounter Chinese roast duck.

Lima’s Chinatown is surrounded by a very busy market/shopping area that was quite hopping, even at 6:30 PM on a weeknight when we walked there from Centro. So we didn’t feel unsafe because it wasn’t quiet/deserted, so we didn’t worry about getting mugged. On the other hand, it’s crowded, so you worry about pickpockets.

While there were typical Peruvian chifas (Chinese restaurants) in Chinatown, there were also more ‘authentic’ Cantonese food, like roast duck, barbeque pork, take-out dim sum, and Chinese bakery items like egg tart (my favourite) and sat-keh-mah (sort of like a rice krispie treat that is Joe’s favourite.) Chifas are like the Peruvian equivalent of Chinese American food, instead of beef with broccoli and kung pao chicken, you have kam lu wantons and aeropuerto (fried noodle dish with bean sprouts). Both have egg foo yung though. We will have to go eat at a chifa before we leave.

The names of Chinese food items took some deciphering: soy sauce, ‘si-yau’ is spelled “sillau” here. Ha kow (shrimp dumplings) is ja-kao. Steamed buns, ‘bao’ is known as ‘min pao’, although in Hong Kong Cantonese, min pao usually refers to bread baked from wheat flour.

Lima’s Chinatown didn’t seem to have many green grocer stores (or maybe they were closed when we got there) There were some dry goods grocery stores selling soy sauce, tea, spices, dried noodles, etc. In fact, the most popular aisle in the grocery shop was full of health-conscious Spanish speakers checking out the different teas. One woman in the next aisle held up a restaurant-sized packet of five-spice powder and asked me if it was for drinking (bebidas.) “No, it’s for making soups and stews!”

There weren’t many stores selling Oriental/Chinese knick knacks like you’d find in San Francisco Chinatown but in one mall, there were quite a few shops selling Indian/Middle Eastern items like incense, belly dancing outfits, and hippie/backpacker clothes you’d find in Goa. The other shops sold trendy clothing and accessories like in any other part of town.

There’s a major mainstream supermarket chain in Lima called “Wong’s”. (Think Safeway/Whole Foods, not 99 Ranch.)  It’s very useful, because when people ask Joe how to spell his last name, we just say “it’s like the supermarket name.” (For me, the only name shortcut I get is my name is Celia, like Celia Cruz.) There’s also another chain called Metro, which is also part of the same company.

According to Angelo, the helpful and chatty Joe-Pa look-alike owner of our hotel, they were started by the Wongs, a couple who immigrated from China about 70 years ago. They started with a small shop, did well, expanded, and when their 10 children sold the company to a Chilean conglomerate called Cencosud, they priced it at $10 million per year their parents had been in Peru, so almost ¾ billion dollars.  They were known for really good customer service. They would have shoe shiners offering free shoe shines at the front of the store, so men could get their shoes shined, while waiting for their wives to shop!


September 23, 2013 by

On Saturday night when we came back from dinner at 10 pm, we walked past Church of La Merced (in Guayaquil) where a wedding had just ended. The bride and groom were standing with their backs to the altar, and posing for photos. A car decked out with flowers and ribbons was parked out front, and there were grains of rice on the sidewalk in front. We were pretty amazed that weddings are held so late at night.

A wedding was about the only rite of passage that we didn’t see in the Galapagos Islands amongst the wildlife. It’s interesting that human beings have the developed rituals like weddings, language and haircuts, but otherwise we share the same basic life cycle as the rest of the animals on the planet. Birth, mating, aging and death; and all throughout life we all need to breath, drink water, eat, sh-t and sleep.

We saw blue-footed boobies (BFBs). Mating, nesting on top of one or two eggs, and nurturing the remains of shells that had hatched. Female and male BFBs can be distinguished by their calls, the females cack, and the males have a thin whistle. Males start advertising for a mate by creating a nesting space: the equivalent of 15,000 square foot mansion with granite counter tops and flat screen HDTVS in every room is a large flat area with 2 concentric circles of white guano and little twigs, each twig placed just so (and preferably having been submitted to the future missus for approval.)  Needless to say, 30-second proximity to beach access is a given for every one of the nests.

The chicks are white and fluffy, as if they were covered in fur (down), rather than feathers. They are adorable, like stuffed toy animals. However, if they fall out of the nest, and land outside the shit/twig circle, their parents don’t feed them, and then they starve to death. The ‘booby’ name apparently comes from the Spanish word for ‘stupid’, because that’s how they look. They look nothing like Pamela Anderson’s assets. Of the Galapagos-themed T-shirts, the ones with the BFBs are the most common: it’s hard to resist the frat-boy humor, hyuk hyuk. There are also red-footed boobies, and masked/Nasca boobies, but the BFB is also unusual for having blue feet, a color that’s rare in the animal kingdom.

It’s fun to watch the BFB’s feed. You’d think sea birds all dive cleanly with grace, as to catch their prey by surprise and not scare them away. But not the BFB, they dive into the water with a big bombastic splash, and disappear under the surface for a second, before springing back to the surface with a pop, in a floating position like a duck. Somehow it works: they’re not starving to death.

We saw a mother sea lion exhausted after giving birth, bloody traces of placenta on the beach, the umbilical cord still attached the pup, which was covered in a darker, thicker coat of fur than the adults. Both were yelping away to each other, to impress on each other to recognize the sound of their voices. Lots of other pups were suckling on their mothers’ milk: the nipples seem very small and flush (almost retractable) to the mom’s belly, unlike cats and dogs, where you can see them clearly.

Infant mortality is not a statistic in a news article, but is seen up close and personal, individual in carcasses of sea lions, boobies, and a sea-turtle that fits on your palm, and looks like a rubber-toy.

There are so many different species of animals in the Galapagos: it’s a bit like being a kid in a candy- store equivalent of a zoo.  Everywhere you look, you’re sharing the domain of some fellow creature of a different species. There are so many birds on land and in the air. There are colorful fish in the water. There are sea lions, black marine iguanas and small orange/cinnabar Sally Lightfoot crabs everywhere on the shores. It is very easy to spot turtles swimming in the sea, as well as manta and sting rays on the bottoms of shallow coves.  We saw a whale once, a penguin once (it looks disappointingly like a small black duck when seen above water), and dolphins twice. I think seeing the dolphins swim so close to the dinghy was the highlight for me.

An unlike those in the rest of the world, the animals are not afraid of human beings (. . . yet?) so you’d be able to walk up next to them and take a photo, without them shying away, which is absolutely amazing. (Except the crabs, which are just as cagey as crabs anywhere else, and scuttle off when you lean in close.) The animals are just nonchalantly going about their business as if human beings walking by with their beeping cameras are part of the landscape. Lots of them hang out next to the trails: there were quite a few times when I almost stepped on a lava lizard, iguana or even a sea-lion!

Visiting the Galapagos, however, is an expensive and very-tightly controlled experience. You go on walks along designated trails in groups, always accompanied by a guide. The guide not only tells you an earful about the flora, fauna geology and history, but keeps you on a short leash for not straying off the trail; as well as not getting too close to the wildlife, for their protection, but sometimes yours. (One of our fellow passengers was chased by a very large bull sea lion!) It’s a bit odd when you think about it: after all we’re used to go hiking in natural settings on our own, to have to follow a guide to go for a short hike feels contrived. But with so many visitors to the Galapagos, it’s amazing that there’s no litter whatsoever on the islands, and the animals maintain their state of wildness.

But, because almost all the food and day-to-day necessities have to be imported from the mainland, things are very expensive in the Galapagos, the same way it is with Hawaii. Only a few of the islands are inhabited, and there isn’t enough local agriculture to sustain the population. The sheer number of visitors is also a strain on the environment, a couple of hundred thousand each year. The islands are struggling to find a balance between preserving the very special environment, meeting the needs of the local population and accommodating the visitors. The Interpretive Center on San Cristobal had a very well-done and thoughtful series of exhibits on the human history of the islands, as well as the current issues they’re grappling with. One striking take-away is that at least 75% of the visitors’ spending doesn’t really go to the locals, but the mainland companies, i.e. the airlines and the cruise operators.

Going to the Galapagos was a big-ticket item for us. On a per day basis, it cost us about 10X more than what we’ve been paying for lodging, but it included all meals and excursions. Since I get sea-sick easily, we decided to go for a catamaran, which helped narrow down the choices, but also restricted us to the higher-end boats. (It is possible to the same itineraries on the cheaper tourist class motor yachts.)

The total amount we paid for a 7 night/8 day cruise would cover the cost of travelling around for a month on mainland Ecuador, even with the 40% discount off the rack rates with our ‘last minute discount.’ We had booked it a month before our sail date. One couple booked the 4-day cruise the day before they boarded, but they ended up paying the same price on a per-night basis as we did.

It is possible to do 5-day or 4-day shorter cruises, but you don’t get to see as many islands, and thus miss out some things, because each island usually has something unique that other islands don’t have, even though they have some things in common. I figured that if you really wanted to see everything properly, you’d have to do a 15-day cruise. With the itinerary we picked, we saw the further-away islands in the north and east, but missed out on Isabela and Fernandina islands. Maybe next time!

I hadn’t thought too much about going to the Galapagos Islands as part of this South American odyssey, but I brought it up to my old college buddy Rich. A long time ago, he mentioned he really wanted to go to Easter Island or Galapagos, so I told him if he wanted to go, we could meet up with him to go together. He was really keen on it, and we did some research on Galapagos trips before we left home, but unfortunately, Rich’s schedule didn’t work out. Still, having done the research did help whet our appetite to go to the Galapagos. So, thank you, Rich for the motivation and inspiration. We’re still early into our trip, but this may be the highlight.

We did fulfill one of Rich’s dreams: which is to swim with turtles. And sea-lions. Without a wet-suit, which was a bit crazy, because the water was a bit cold. But we wanted to save on the rental, and besides the wet-suits were in sorry condition. Seeing turtles in the water is awe-inspiring: I never realised how much longer/larger the front flippers of a sea turtle are, compared to the rear until I saw them swimming. They can swim very fast in the water, even it looks like they’re gliding at a turtles pace and their shape looks ungainly.  Swimming with sea lions is full of rude surprises. Those marine torpedos have such fantastic control of movement: one moment I’m minding my own business, the next thing I know a curious sea lion is coming from out of nowhere headed for collision with me. I panic and yelp and kick away, but the sea lion has effortlessly twisted and rolled away: an aquatic acrobat. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch them swim under water, when you spot them first! The coral and fish aren’t as exotic looking or colorful as the Great Barrier Reef or even Hawaii, but the water is cooler, after all.

Feeding: different animals eat different things, and in some ways they are mutually exclusive, so they don’t compete. For instance, sea lions eat fish, not crabs, even though they are neighbours in the same shore zone. Likewise, marine iguanas actually eat green algae that grows on the rocks in the tidal zone. I wonder why neither of them eat crabs. Some birds eat baby turtles, why not simply eat fish? Land iguanas eat cactus, in fact the cactus is disappearing because of overeating.

I never thought of myself as an animal person (unlike my cousin Pat), but I’ve now realised that I like seeing wildlife as much as I like seeing city/transportation planning, or history or local culture when I travel. I think most people who come to the Galapagos are the self-selective the same way; you do more ‘active’ activities hiking and snorkeling/swimming in the Galapagos, as opposed to say a Carribean cruise, where you have more resort-type activities on board (I think.) I also don’t usually like programmed/package group tours, but this was alright. We were one short of the maximum 16 passengers, and thankfully we all got along pretty well. In some ways, it was a bit of a relief to not have to unpack, think about what to eat, and simply do as we were told . . . for a week.

San Cristobal, Galapagos

September 17, 2013 by
We’re on land in a town today where I had an overpriced $2.50 magnum ice cream bar and then headed straight for the internet cafe. We’re halfway through an 8-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands. (I think it would take 15 days to see everything.) It’s been good: three meals, two hikes and one snorkel/swim per day. Yes:  we’ve seen sea lions, turtles, manta rays, sharks,puffer fish, birds, iguanas, and even a whale in the distance. No matter how many times you swim with a sea lion or turtle, or spot a manta ray, it’s still neat. (I haven’t really swum with an iguana yet though.) We saw a mother sea lion who had just given birth, the pup still had the umbilical cord attached. Sea lion poop smells incredibly awful, you do not want to step on it.  I haven’t been too sea sick. I have gotten sun burnt. We’re on a catamaran with 16 passengers, so we got to know everyone well, but so far the group is very fun.
We head back to Guayaquil on Friday.

from Cuenca . . .to Galapagos . . .

September 13, 2013 by

Blogging this from Guayaquil airport (free wifi): we are waiting to board our flight for Galapagos!  Our flight has been delayed by an hour, so we were asked to go to the gate counter, sign the passenger manifest to confirm the airline informed us that the flight was delayed; had our snapshot taken on a smartphone, and each given a packet of snacks and a box of peach juice (as a consolation prize!) It’s kind of cute.

We arrived in Guayaquil yesterday afternoon, and visited the Parque Historico Guayaquil which was a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It featured lots of animals, which led me to joke to Joe that “maybe we don’t need to go to Galapgos now!”

It’s a bit a pathetic that we spent 10 days staying put in Cuenca to do that stereotypical tourist thing: learn Spanish and do a homestay, but I haven’t blogged about it.  Our Spanish did improve somewhat, but I still feel dumber than the kids who can prattle away in Spanish.

It was a bit weird to have to do homework everyday again. I felt like I was back in high school. Also even though Joe and I have been together for so long, and have shared/experienced so many things together, we’ve never really been classmates together, so that was a bit of an interesting experience also, having to do homework with him and argue about the answers.

But it was good to have a routine: Try to eat breakfast at 8 AM at our homestay with Charo in a ‘suburbanish’ neighbourhood, so we could leave at 8:30 AM, walk 30 minutes to class across the river to the historic downtown Centro district to start  our 2-hour class by 9 AM. We had a private tutor, who taught out of her office at home, so our classroom was in a very domestic setting: with her adorable 3-year old daughter Malena, and her cat Serafina wandering in and out at will, both obviously used to the rotating cast of students, and were not shy. After class, we would poke about Centro a bit, then walk back 30 minutes to Charo’s to do our morning homework, eat lunch (biggest meal of the day included in the homestay).  After lunch, it would take us 35 minutes to walk back to class (since we were weighed down by our full bellies). I had a hard time staying awake in the 2 hour afternoon class. (I had the same problem staying awake after lunch when I was working too; my second wind wouldn’t kick in until after 5 PM.)

After class we’d get coffee or ice cream in Centro and do our homework, before walking back to Charo’s (another 30 minutes), and Charo would have take-out of some sort for dinner, and then surf the net. It was nice to have a routine life for an extended period, not having to worry about travel arrangements (where to go, to stay, how to get there.)  But our brains were taxed in a very different way: learning a new language at this age in life . . . especially all the verb tenses and conjugation! Argh!

Like English, Spanish, is full of regional differences. Some of the words we’d picked up from Mexican Spanish back home didn’t really work in Ecuador, also possibly because they’ve become outdated.  Then of course, there’s verb conjugation and other grammatical differences in general that are challenging for English speakers.

Joe took 3 years of Spanish in high school; I took a quarter’s worth of Spanish at a junior college about 10 years ago. I took French in high school, which was somewhat helpful, since some of the grammatical oddities are similar and I sort of remembered them. For instance in English, it’s “It’s cold,” “I’m hungry”; but in Spanish it’s “It has cold,” “I have hunger” (same as French.)

Joe, being of an engineer’s bent, got more frustrated than I did about the exceptions to grammatical rules (he wants them to have more logic!)  I was mostly upset at my brain that it’s getting old and can’t remember things as well as when it was younger. We ended our course just as we were getting to the interesting part with past tense (we had already booked our Galapagos trip.)

But it was a good immersion experience. Charo would tick us off whenever we spoke English at home. ‘You’re only allowed to speak Spanish here!” And the end of the week, my cousin P sent an email with a photo of a Chinese poem; my brain had been so soaked in Spanish, I couldn’t read any of it.

We found our tutor Maria Elena on the internet. Over a three day weekend in Banos, we were debating whether to go to the Amazon or go to learn Spanish in Cuenca, and emailed inquiries for both activities. We heard back from Maria Elena on Sunday before we heard back from the Amazon tour folks, so off we went to Cuenca on Monday.

I have to say, maybe the people in Cuenca are used to all these foreigners, so they slow down when they speak Special Spanish with us, because they know it’s easier for foreigners to understand Spanish when it’s spoken slowly. When they’re talking with each other (i.e. a local talking to a local), they go at full speed, and it’s hard to catch anything.  My ultimate goal is to understand Spanish spoken by locals at their normal speed. We’ll see how close we get in a few more months! In his book ‘River Town’, Peter Hessler talked about speaking ‘Special English’ to his Chinese students, that was slower and had a more limited vocabulary; that’s probably how Maria Elena and Charo talked to us.

Cuenca is a popular destination for people to (1) learn Spanish, (2) for Americans to retire; and in some cases both. It’s appealing as a city with preserved colonial downtown, complete with a UNESCO seal of approval, yet it’s the third largest city in Ecuador, so it has the major infrastructure and facilities of a major city; including the worst of both worlds as a growing city: lots of traffic congestion in the narrow streets of a grid laid out hundreds of years ago. The buses and trucks mostly spew black exhaust (a pulmonary throwback to Bangkok in the 80’s for me); and car alarms are constantly going off (a sonic throwback to the 1990’s for us.) There’s a growing middle class, who would prefer to drive their own cars rather than take the crowded buses.  We saw lots of vintage cars from the 70’s and earlier, which had been carefully repaired and maintained as the main family car; 5 or 6 people crowded into each little car going on Sunday excursions. I saw Datsuns, a Corolla like the one my step-mom had in orange, and even a Maverick like the one my mom had in orange. The more well to do seem to favor SUVs, like Kias.  Chevrolet is a popular brand here, for newer smaller cars. I don’t think we’ve seen many Hondas, but Toyota has major presence here.

We met up with a friend  (Marie Cecilia) of a friend  (Loutz) who teaches urban planning at the University of Cuenca: she told us one problem was that some of the colonial buildings in Centro had gutted their interior patios, to become parking lots for people working or going to downtown. A loss of historic values against the needs of a modern society.  Parking in downtown is about $1 to $1.50 per hour (rather high by local standards.) In the ‘suburbs’, i.e. where we were staying, the streets are wider so people can park on the street. They are starting to build bikeways, but in Centro, it’s also hard to bike on them, due to the cobblestones.

Americans retiring in Cuenca (and other places in Ecuador) is quite a phenomenon; it was almost a complete surprise to us, but for one of our fellow garderners at back home telling us about it. (It was a bit odd that he’d thought about it, because he’s probably not that much older than us.) The ‘jubilados’ are probably driven by two factors are probably that the (1) cost of living is a bit cheaper than back in the US, and (2) the currency is the US dollar, and the climate is pleasant.  From the Cuencanas and other Ecuadorians, we heard some of their reaction (1) the cost of housing has gone up, driven by the influx of Americans with more buying power, (2) some of them find it hard to adjust to the culture (dogs that keep barking, a more laid back attitude toward efficiency), especially if they don’t learn Spanish, and then some of them end up going back to the US.)


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