Charmed Life

“Can I swap places with you?” asked Bart.

Bart and his wife Sofie, both Belgian, were walking by, and had stopped to chat with Wendy and I as we sat at a poolside table on the Lido deck. The two of us were in the midst of 宵夜, a late night snack of leftovers from lunch at a Bergen seafood restaurant: steamed mussels and boiled fresh shrimp, washed down with Grolsch beer (me) and hot tea (Wendy). Since seafood tends to smell rather fishy, we decided not eat them in our stateroom, nor bring them into the Lido restaurant to eat. Besides, peeling shrimp is quite messy.

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No, Bart was not asking for a sample of the crustaceans (he’s from the land of moules-frites, after all). I had just told him the itinerary for my six-week European trip. “You’re going to all these beautiful places I want to go to!” he exclaimed.

Six weeks in Europe. Never mind complete strangers, pretty much all my friends were in awe and envy that I was going to go gallivanting around the world, while they were stuck at home with work/raising kids/saving the world, etc.

But as I related my news to each of my friends, I caveated and asterisked the heck out of my impending travel plans. (I tried to downplay my charmed life, untethered to any productive responsibilities. But my friends aren’t much fooled by my act.)

The first two weeks would be spent with my mom Wendy (and her cousin Shujun with husband Harry) on a cruise to Norway*.

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Disembarking from the Rotterdam in Rotterdam

The second two weeks would be spent with Dad (and Joe) traveling independently around Scotland and England**.

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The boys in Edinburgh

The third two weeks would be spent with my step-mom Yeeta (and 20 other people) on a Thailand-based escorted package tour of Slovenia and Croatia***.

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Roving in Rovinj

(Thank goodness I only have three parents, and none of them are Elizabeth Taylor.)

The downsides of this trip were:

  • – I don’t like cruises.
  • — Taking my Dad traveling is indeed ‘travail’ – hard work.
  • — I don’t like escorted package tours.

The upsides of the trip were:

  • + I’d never been to any of these places before.
  • ++ I wouldn’t have gone to any of these places, if it weren’t for my parents.
  • +++ After six weeks in Europe, my spoken Cantonese and Thai would improve immensely.
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And I got to do cool things like photograph drying fish in Norway. By the way, it smelled exactly like Thai or Chinese salted fish.

Even though I’m an over-planner, I couldn’t have planned the trip this way even if I set out to do so. It was just a complete fluke that the dates fell into place, and that all these destinations were conveniently grouped in Europe, the most densely compacted of continents. (Ah, Europe. Where the language changes every 50 miles, and until the euro came along, the currency changed every 100 miles.)

Dad wanted to go to Scotland and England (even though he’d been there before.) Yeeta wanted to go on a package tour, to anywhere, so long as it was somewhere she had never been to before. Since it was a milestone birthday for her this year, I told her I’d go with her, even though I generally avoid escorted package tours like I avoid Ebola.

(Dad absolutely refuses to go on package tours as well. It’s been a long-standing bone of contention between them. But they’ve now figured they could go on vacations separately, and the sky wouldn’t fall on their heads.)

I told them I wouldn’t be available until October, since my work contract ended September 30, as did my house-sitting stint.

“October? It’ll be cold in Scotland by then! I want to go in September,” said Dad.

“Well, my work contract ends September 30 . . .”

There was a tour of Slovenia and Croatia put on by Yeeta’s favourite tour operator starting in mid-October. Neither of us had been there before, so Yeeta and I signed up for it. Yeeta didn’t want to go to Scotland with us because she didn’t want to be gone for such a long time.

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Our tour was ‘sponsored’ by a bank, which got us a discount if we paid with their credit card. Hence the obligatory social media photo pose.

This would work out quite nicely, I thought. After I wrapped up work and house-sitting in September, I would spend October in Europe, and be back by the first week of November, in time to do the Rim-to-Rim hike in Grand Canyon, which had been arranged even before I even knew I was going to Europe.

Meanwhile, Wendy had signed up with Bob for a 14-day cruise of Norway during the last two weeks of September. They were going to go with her cousin Shujun and her husband Harry from Canada.

In mid-August, Bob found out he wouldn’t be able to go on the trip. Wendy asked me to go as a substitute. I said no, I had to work and house-sit, and besides she had Harry and Shujun to hang out with. Plus she had a single supplement by default, from Bob.

Pleeeeease……”

Wendy never pleads. Underlying that entreaty was: “You’re taking your father on a trip to Scotland. You’re going on a package tour with your step-mother even though you hate package tours just because it’s her milestone birthday. Yet you won’t come with your mother on a cruise, even though it’s my milestone birthday too.”

Solomon had me not only at the umbilical cord, but the jugular. I have three parents; and if I was obliging Dad and Yeeta by going on a trip with each of them, I should also do the same for Wendy.

I agonized over the pros and cons. I didn’t want to flake out on my responsibilities, but it was possible to cut short on the work contract. And I could make arrangements for the house-sitting. These really weren’t sacrifices. It wasn’t like a “if I had to decide which of my three parents to save if I could only save one or two from a burning building” kind of dilemma. This was a good problem to have. It’s a blessing that each of my parents are still healthy enough to walk, eat and go see the world. It’s a rare luxury for adult children to be able to join their parents traveling. Lucky Celia indeed.

I slept on my decision. The next morning, I told my client I was quitting early. I made arrangements about the house-sitting. I emailed Wendy to say I’d go with her. But if things miraculously worked out for Bob by Labor Day such that he could go on the cruise, I could change my flight and let him go instead according to the original plan.

Then I got the following text from Wendy:

“It is not right to make u make major changes to accommodate me. Bob said the third option is to forgo his part and I go by myself. I think that is best so you can keep your plan to work till end of September.”

Argghhh! I had told her the exact same thing the first time around, but she was deaf to the message, until Bob said the same thing to her.

“I said I would go, so I’m going!” I told Wendy through gritted teeth.

Then I emailed Dad.

“Since you haven’t bought your plane ticket yet, it turns out I can meet you in Inverness earlier, as soon as September 27, since I’m going on a 2-week cruise with Wendy to Norway that ends on the 26th.”

Dad called me back. “You couldn’t go with me in September when I asked you because you said you had to work, but now you’re going with Wendy on a cruise?”

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Trapped

“Don’t get lost and don’t forget to be back here by 6!” was Yeeta’s parting shot. One of my step-mom’s phobias is being lost, because she has no sense of direction. And she tends to assume the same of others, even her me who’s traveled independently in lots of places without knowing the language. Doubters just gotta doubt . . .

We had just finished the ‘obligatory’ portion of the tour of the coastal town of Split where we walked through the walled city that was built into Diocletian’s palace, and now had free time for almost an hour before the tour group was to meet up in front of the bell tower to go to dinner. Free time meant shopping, sitting in café to rest one’s weary feet, get an ice cream cone or walk around to take more pictures. Yeeta was going to sit with and hang out with some of the other folks, since she was tired from all the walking we’d done.

I started off walking down the same alley as Gig and her mother, but then they stepped into a shoe store. I kept going on my own. A few twists and turns later, I found myself outside city wall and on the waterfront Riva promenade sandwiched between Napoleonic-era buildings and the sea. It was a clear, sunny Sunday afternoon. The water was clear enough that you could easily see schools of brown fish swimming beneath the bronze-spangled surface in the twilight.

Ferries were pulling in and out—Croatia is home to a thousand islands. There was also a cruise ship docked for the day. I smiled at the sight of the familiar orange-bottomed lifeboats. Not so long ago I was on such a ship myself.

I caught sight of a Tisak (a Kwik-E Mart type convenience store), which occupied a narrow storefront in one of these early 19th century arcades facing the sea, and remembered that I wanted to look at Croatian cooking magazines. One of the things I like to do when I’m in a foreign country is to browse the local magazines. Even though I can’t read the text, there’s usually enough of interest which you can pick up from seeing the photos. And if it’s in a roman alphabet, you can sometimes tease out the gist of the text.

I was engrossed in comparing between two cooking magazines, flipping through the pages, trying to decide which one I should buy. I vaguely noticed that the store clerk, a middle-aged bottle blonde in a red uniform vest, and a burly guy were discussing and fiddling around with the sliding glass doors. At one point, they were both outside the glass doors, but came back into the store. I resumed browsing the magazines. Finally I decided on one, and turned to pay for it. It was already 5:40, and I wanted to go walk around town some more before dinner.

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The view of Split from the bell tower of St. Domnius (St. Duje) Cathedral

Then I noticed that the people in the store were rather interacting in an animated fashion. It seemed unusual: people usually walk in, buy what they need (gum, cigarettes) and walk out without saying much.

Along with the shop clerk, and the burly man (apparently a handyman), there was another Asian woman in her late 30’s. They were banging and prodding and trying to pull/push the closed sliding glass doors with some urgency.

Because the doors were stuck.

I could see outside the squeaky-clean glass so clearly: the resort vista of palm trees, a setting sun, the cruise ship horizontally dotted with windows . Vacationers strolling on the promenade licking ice cream cones. The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its moneyIt seemed incongruous we couldn’t go outside. I was sure we’d be out in a few minutes. It would probably be a minor fix.

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The view from our ‘cell’ would give that from San Quentin a run for its money

“There’s no other exit through the back?”

“No.”

I realized I was glad that this wasn’t a hold-up/burglary. Then it dawned on me to be even more thankful that this wasn’t a fire, although in which case, we might have been more willing to take something to smash the presumably bullet-proof glass to break out for our lives. I was appalled there was no emergency exit in this shop. But as it stood now, none of us wanted to incur property damage.

The shop clerk and the burly man got the attention of a few passersby outside, as well as a waiter from the café next door, who tried to force the door open, but only managed to force it open a couple of inches. Wide enough for the shop clerk to hand him a can of beer, but not enough for any of us to get through.

The Asian woman was upset and getting agitated. Not because she was Korean, but because she was the tour leader/guide of a group of Korean tourists, who presumably spoke no Croatian, very little English, and were dependent on her to shepherd them around this exotic and foreign country. To make things worse, her group was supposed to be getting on their tour bus with her for a 3-hour drive to the next town where they would be checking in their hotel for the night.

Having seen how hard Oy worked as our tour guide shepherding us around, I could imagine the immense responsibility resting on this Korean guide’s shoulders. I felt for her. Me, I was just a tourist client, so I could just kick back and wait for someone deal with the situation for me. She was the one her clients depended on to address whatever issues they had on their tour, but now she herself was having a major problem that she was powerless to solve.

It was now 5:55 PM. I had a phone, but no SIM card. I don’t like being late if it is going to hold up/inconvenience others, and none of my fellow tour group knew where I was. I had Oy’s mobile number. I asked to borrow someone’s phone so I could call her. Unfortunately, no one in there could call a Thailand mobile number. Then I remembered I just happened to have Mr. Drago’s (our Croatian coach driver), and Mr. Burly used his cell phone to call him for me.

“Mr Drago! It’s Celia. Can you please tell Oy I’m stuck in a Tisak. It’s facing the sea!” I asked Mr. Burly to explain (in Croatian)what was going on to Mr. Drago . . .

“OK, don’t worry,” Mr. Drago said.

The minutes ticked by. We tried switching the power and fuse box on and off. Mr. Burly examined every corner and around the glass door for any possible give, fiddling with the wires, trying to figure out if there was some sort of motion sensor thing. There was also a tiny lock on the door frame, outside and inside. We tried the keys inside. We handed the keys to someone outside for them to try the outside lock. Nothing happened. The way the doors were hung, they were inside the lip of a ceiling wall. There must have been some sort of electronic mechanism that controlled the doors, which seemed to have been designed to refute brute/mechanical force.

The Korean guide was pacing around, fuming and complaining. She was frantically calling on her phone to the other tourist clients in her group to let them know what was going on and figure out how to get out. Passersby came and went, peering inside at the four of us in the retail aquarium, offering suggestions, making half-hearted attempts to open the door. For them, we were a mild diversion, fodder for discussion at dinner.

The clerk was pretty passive, considering this was her store. She wasn’t doing much, mostly looking on. I wondered why she wasn’t calling her boss/manager or even the corporate office for help. Was it because it was Sunday? I wondered how often something like this happens. Maybe it had been Mr. Burly’ fault for trying to fix the door, but causing it to get stuck instead. He had called a locksmith, but since it was Sunday evening, and/or may it was Croatia, the locksmith would get here in an hour or two. Maybe.

A couple of the Korean men from the guide’s group showed up outside the glass door. They tried prodding and fiddling with the door from the outside, but they had no better luck. The guide stuck inside shouted some instructions through the door to them, probably telling them to take everyone else to the bus and she would call the hotel and figure out how they could get checked in.

By now, it was 6:30 PM. The cruise ship was pulling away from the dock, headed to its next destination. I was really glad that I wasn’t a passenger on that cruise boat, because there was nothing I could have done about being abandoned ashore.

If this had happened while I was on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry, it would have been much worse. There would have been so much more fuss. (In fact there had been a passenger on our cruise who had been late in returning to ship, past its designated departure hour. But at least he came on board.) There was no way I would have been able to call Wendy, and none of them got wifi to check email on board. They would have freaked out. Good thing this was the package tour portion of my trip. I crossed my fingers, hoping that Mr. Drago would have told Oy and Oy would have the situation under control. Especially with Yeeta. It was 100% given that Yeeta was having a fit. I sighed. She was probably more upset than I was about the situation.

Then I did freak out. I saw a few of my fellow Thai tourists walking along the promenade, presumably headed to dinner. I jumped up and down and banged on the glass like a madwoman to get their attention. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” I needed them to know where I was, and that I was OK. I also wanted to make sure Oy knew where I was and what was going on, since I didn’t know if Mr. Drago had told her.

Auntie Mee and her niece Bomb were the first to spot me and walked over. “Hey, Celia what are you doing here? What’s going on?”

“Are you OK? I told you not to get lost and hurry and come back. You’re always . . . “ Yeeta had appeared at the door, and launched into a nagging litany was somewhat (thankfully) obsfucated by the glass. But she could see I wasn’t in any physical danger, so it was more to vent her annoyance at the worry I’d caused her. Then Oy came up to the door and told me that she’d walk the group to nearby restaurant where we were slated to dine, and then come back for me. Phew, I didn’t want her to think I was flakey in showing up late for dinner.

I settled down for the long wait, if it really was going to take that long for the locksmith to come. This wasn’t such a bad thing, being trapped in a Croatian convenience store. There were snacks (Kinder chocolates, pretzel sticks, peanuts, potato chips). There were beer and soft drinks. There were magazines to browse, even English ones on the top shelf. There were postcards, souvenir magnets and keychains, and guidebooks to Dalmatia, so I could read about the sites I was being kept from seeing, in any of a dozen major tourist languages. They only thing missing was somewhere to sit. I didn’t really want to sit on the hard sandstone floor.

It could have been worse. I could have been trapped in a shoe store. (“But then you could have spent the time trying on shoes,” said Gig later.) I bought a can of Ožujsko beer. I’d been in Croatia for an entire week, and still hadn’t tried the local beer. I offered to buy one for everyone else in the store, but no one took me up on the offer.

“Wait!” I paused before I handed over my money. “Is there a toilet in here?” I needed to make sure there was somewhere to empty my bladder, even if there was no emergency exit.

Come to think of it, it was pretty stupid of me to pay for the beer; I could have probably just taken it and drank it. The convenience store owed me at least that much for the inconvenience they’d caused me.

Two police officers came, a man and a woman. Finally! They tried the same ineffective poking and proddings we had tried, to no avail. Then they shrugged their shoulders, said they couldn’t do anything about it, and said it wasn’t their problem/responsibility and walked away.  With the arrival of the police, the crowd of lookers-on grew larger. Oy had came back, along with Mr. Drago. I raised my can of beer at them, and asked if they wanted anything from the store. No.

Darkness had fallen. I started to feel bad that Oy and Mr. Drago were still waiting patiently outside. Mr. Drago at least had his cigarettes. I asked the clerk for some paper and a pen, and wrote Oy a note in English, telling her that she and Mr. Drago should just go back to the restaurant to have dinner with the rest of the group, and I would take a taxi to the hotel on my own, since I knew its name, and I had Croatian kuna (local currency) on me.

“Of course not,” Oy said. “I’m not going to abandon you like that.” I got the sense though it was more out of obligation to Yeeta, because Oy knew I was perfectly capable of getting back to the hotel on my own.

Next, the firemen showed up. They were more capable of dealing with the situation than the police – they had brought along useful equipment like a manual/hydraulic jaws of life. It was rather like jack/lever. The first one was too small to force the doors open. Someone went off to fetch another one, one size bigger. With forceful, scissoring movements, the glass doors budged open, bit by bit. As soon as it was wide enough, the Korean guide leapt out the door. I ran out next, and gave Oy and Mr. Drago a hug. I didn’t even mind Mr. Drago’s eau de cigarette smoke. “Woohoo, freedom!”

There was large crowd gathered outside, and they probably applauded and cheered, but I didn’t really notice. It must have been a like a Chilean miner moment.

“I’m so sorry to have caused you so much trouble,” I apologized.

“It’s OK, it could have happened to anyone.” She grinned. “Although, it’s a good thing it was you and not your mom. You were pretty laid back about it. Really, drinking a beer!”

We got to the restaurant in time for desert, although they had saved me some fries and the main course of grilled Croatian sausage rolled up like a snail. It tasted like ไส้อั่ว sai-ua (an Isan/northeastern Thai style sausage).

The experience hadn’t been too bad. One of my favourite books recently is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is based on a real life incident where some Peruvian revolutionaries invaded a diplomatic party and held the dinner guests hostage for four months. In Bel Canto, there is an opera singer among the party. Consequently, Chicago’s Lyric Opera commissioned a real opera out of it, which premiered this month. If I were to be trapped somewhere for four months, I can’t imagine what a nutcase I would become.

The next day, as our coach drove past the outer walls of Dubrovnik, we spotted a fire station. “Hey,” Auntie Mee poked me in the ribs. “You should take note of where the fire station is at, in case you get trapped again.”

“No, she had better not go into any more Sevens from now on,” said Yeeta (the Thai slang for convenience store is taken from 7-Eleven)

“That’s right, I’ll only go to Family Mart!” I joked. (Family Mart is a rival convenience store chain in Thailand.)

Two days later, Mr. Drago told me I was in the newspaper.

“No! You’re kidding me!” It must have been a really slow news day in Croatia that something as trivial as malfunctioning Kwik E-Mart doors would rate a mention in a national tabloid. Then again, Croatia is a nation of merely 4.3 million people. I bought a copy from a Tisak (a free standing kiosk this time.) The front page of the 24 Sata (24 Hours) featured migrants/refugees struggling to transit through Croatia to northern Europe, and the 20,000 Croatian kuna (US$2,800) handbag carried by a pretty young politician who’d been charged with ‘irregularities’. The Tisak snippet was buried on page 18.

I got a friend of the friend to translate the article for me when I got back:

On Sunday, around 6:00 in the evening, two Japanese tourists went into a kiosk on the Riva in Split.  In the kiosk was a saleswoman and a worker who was fixing the sliding door.  The sliding door got stuck, so the worker called for help.  The women were panicking.  People were trying to help open the door.  After a half-hour, the police came.  After the police, the firemen came. After 1 hour and 15 minutes the “hostage crisis” was over and the Japanese disappeared into the night.  The onlookers cheered for the firemen.

“Japanese”?! We were one Korean and one Chinese masquerading as a Thai.

“Panicking”?! Bullsh-t! One was very pissed off, and the other was vey relaxed.

It was more than 1 hour and 15 minutes, but I’ll let that one slide.

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Considering I didn’t like escorted package tours to begin with, this incident made me disdain them even more. Even though this could have happened when I was traveling independently with Dad in Scotland or on the cruise in Norway with Wendy, I can’t help associating this with the package tour trip. So it’s could be my excuse for not going on any more such tours!

Polar Reversal

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“So after you’re done with the car, you just park it here, in front of the gate to the dock [where our cruise ship was docked], and you leave the key on the little ledge inside the driver’s side wheel well. Then we’ll come pick it up.” The car rental company agent took a photo of my driver’s license, jotted down my credit card information, and that was it. I had rented a car, a little blue Subaru for the day we were on shore in Narvik, Norway to drive ourselves to Polar Park.

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Before I left home to go on this cruise, I had looked up the shore excursions for each port, out of curiosity to see what kind of attractions there were at all these little coastal Norwegian towns I had never heard of. I had also talked to my friends who had been on cruises before, and they were only too happy to give me advice.   “Really? I get to give you, Miss World Traveller, tips on cruises?” joked Hubert. He told me that the shore excursions booked through the ship were usually overpriced, so one could often just show up on shore and there would be local tour companies offering a similar tour for much cheaper. The only saving grace of the ship’s excursions was that if there was a delay, the ship would definitely wait for their excursion clients to come back, and not sail off without them!

Narvik had boasted of an attraction called Polar Park, which billed itself as the “World’s Northernmost Wildlife Park”, about 68 km away inland. I can easily skip churches, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to see animals like wolves, bears, and deer. The exchange rate was 1$US = 8.6 NOK (Norwegian Kroner). So I had persuaded Wendy (my mom), Auntie Shujun and Uncle Harry that if we rented a car for $80 US, and paid the zoo admission of 215 NOK (about $30 US) per person, we’d still come out ahead, instead of $150 per person by going with the ship’s excursion. They agreed, so I booked the car online.

“Are there signs telling us how to get to Polar Park?” I asked the rental car agent.

“Oh yes, there’s signs.” I had printed out google map directions before I left home, but still, it was good to know. I figured we couldn’t really get too lost in a rural area; there weren’t too many roads. It was a big attraction for small town Norway, so I was sure there would be signs. Even on Highway 5, there are tons of signs for Andersen’s Pea Soup, and that’s hardly worth writing home about.

“This car isn’t very clean,” said Wendy and Auntie Shujun from the back. An empty plastic soda bottle rolled around on the floor. Small town in Norway, end of tourist season, I didn’t expect to find much choice in the fleet. “So long as it gets us there and back . . .” I shrugged in the driver’s seat and shifted into first gear.

I was glad I had rented the car. So far on the cruise, Uncle Harry had been paying for all the wine we ordered for dinner each night, and wouldn’t let Wendy or me pay, even though we tried to insist. It’s a very Chinese thing, to fight for the honor and privilege of picking up the check. In a way, it’s also chivalrous or chauvinistic, so I call it the ‘old geezer’ act. It usually amuses non-Chinese whenever they see it happen, whether or not they understand what they are seeing. So in my renting the car, I would be able redress that balance a bit, along with paying for the zoo admission and filling up the gas later. I would be drinking the wines Uncle ordered with a clearer conscience.

It was a clear, sunny crisp day. We left Narvik, driving north across a suspension bridge that was also slightly cloggy due to reconstruction. Wendy and I ooh’ed over the pretty fall colours, since we don’t get much of that in California. Uncle Harry and Auntie Shujun aah’ed as we skirted the coast, winding through mountains and a couple of long tunnels, since they live inland in the flatter areas of  Ontario. After being on the ship for so many days, and walking around the port towns we stopped at, it felt a little odd but liberating to be driving a car.

An hour into the drive, someone requested a pit stop, so I pulled into a restaurant/convenience store parking lot. To back out of our spot to continue our journey, I had to shift to reverse, which was to the left of 1st and 2nd gear (In my car at home, the reverse is to the right, below the 5th gear). I tried to shift, but each time I pressed the gas pedal, we went forward, not back.

“Here, get out and let me try,” offered Uncle Harry. He got into the driver’s seat, and tried shifting. “The clutch is a bit soft. Maybe it’s worn out.”

“Well, the rest of the gears shifted fine on our way driving here,” I pointed out.

“Maybe it’s just the reverse gear doesn’t work, maybe it’s broken.”

“Ai yah, not only is the car dirty, but they gave us a car that doesn’t work!” chorused the back seat.

“That is pretty awful,” I agreed. How could this company be so irresponsible and reckless to rent out a car that without a functional reverse? It was shock to have something like this happen in Scandinavia, where you expect everything to be orderly, efficient and done by the book. “I’ll email them when I get back,” since I didn’t have a SIM card in my phone to call them.

Wendy, Auntie Shujun and I got out to push the car backward, while Uncle Harry steered the car. What to do now? We decided to press onto Polar Park, since we were more than halfway there, rather than waste our limited time to go back to complain and exchange the car for a fully-functional one. The car’s forward mobility was fine. We simply had to cross our fingers that when we got to the parking lot of Polar Park, they had drive-thru type parking spaces so we wouldn’t need to reverse!

We ended up missing the turn at the major roundabout for Polar Park. Continuing along the coastal road E10 for 20, then 25, 28 miles, we found ourselves in a rural area, with buildings far and few between, with no sign of Polar Park. We eventually found another gas station and asked.

“Oh you’re in Bogen now, you have to go back and turn at the roundabout at Bjerkvik about 28 km back to take E6.” said the clerk. It always blows my mind that even in the dinkiest of towns of Norway (and the Netherlands), the locals are pretty fluent in English. I can’t imagine a gas station clerk in the US being able to give directions to lost European tourists in German, French, Spanish, etc.

When we backtracked to the major roundabout there was no sign for Polar Park, but tons of official directional signs for the site of the 1940 Battle of Narvik. I thought that was odd; I would have thought that most tourists who come to these parts would be more interested in seeing a zoo than a battlefield, and that the directional signage would reflect that.

When we arrived at Polar Park, it was already noon. There weren’t too many people there. We found a drive-thru parking spot. Uncle Harry elbowed me out of the way and won paying for the admission tickets, though not before incurring the ire of European man in front of us, thinking we were trying to cut in line.

Polar Park is set on a long swath of hillside, along and above a creek. The day we were there, they had wolves, arctic foxes, brown bears, lynxes, elk, musk ox, deer and reindeer on display. (They also have wolverines, but not on display then.)  While some of these animals have been socialized and are used to humans, the setting itself seems to have been kept natural. There are various enclosures each the size of a neighbourhood park, spacious enough to give the animals roaming space; even in confinement, they need enough elbow room. Each enclosure is habitat for one species of animal. For the human visitors, it really does take a lot of walking uphill and downhill to get around and see them all. The enclosures are full of bushes, trees and natural vegetation, so you have to peer mindfully in stillness, until your eyes are tuned in to little movements that are not of leaves and plants rustling in the wind.

Just a short distance past the ticket office as we headed towards the main enclosures, we passed a wolf-visit enclosure, where some other visitors had each paid 1,500 NOK to hang out with the wolves for 30 minutes. (It was also possible to hang out with the arctic foxes for the relative bargain of 200 NOK per adult.) The wolves had been socialized enough to interact with visitors, and were excitedly loping around the group. One wolf stood up on its hind legs, resting its paws on the shoulders of a trembling young Asian woman, as if to waltz with her while trying to sniff and lick her face. “Don’t be scared, don’t show fear,” said the zoo guide in a firm voice.

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Dancing with wolf

Once we got to the main enclosures, we usually had to walk all the way around the chain link fence perimeter to spot the animals. There were only a handful of other visitors when we were there. One stocky, middle-aged woman by herself seemed to be pretty good at quickly spotting where the animals were, so we followed her wherever she went, very quietly, so as to not scare or disturb the animals. Perhaps she was a professional wildlife photographer, or simply had honed instincts. Or maybe she had that vibe that drew animals to her. Being a photography buff, Uncle Harry was very interested in her camera, with a very long/large lens. Later she told him she had driven up from Switzerland in her own car over the course of a month, and her camera cost over 200,000 Swiss francs.

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The animals can be in an elusive, private mood and cocoon themselves away. Or they may deign to show themselves and come closer to the fence where people are. Who knows why animals do what they do, or when they’ll do what. Maybe sometimes they’re curious about the visitors. Maybe sometimes they’re bored and want to people-watch. Maybe they like getting attention from visitors who are respectful, calm and quiet (when they’re not fighting over who’s paying).

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Arctic Fox

The coats of the arctic foxes had changed into their winter whites from the summer browns. Covered in snowy fluffy long fur, and bushy long tails, they looked adorably cuddly, like a doggier type of cat. Their faces and pointy ears were grey. With their squinty eyes, they looked drowsy and relaxed basking in the winter sun, although they were very aware of us as they curled up in front of us, with the chain link fence separating us. “After you walk away,” their expression seemed to say, “we’ll relax our guard and take a real nap.”

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There were two wolves in the next enclosure. We’d spotted one deeper in the enclosure and walked up to the chain link fence to take closer-up shots by zoom. Wendy was so engrossed in taking pictures of that wolf in the distance, she was completely oblivious to other wolf that had come up to her, scoping her out.

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…oblivious to the other wolf that had come up to her

The wolves began to walk away, but still sticking close to the fence perimeter, as if to entice us, so we followed. They would glance at us, as they paced around, stretched, yawned, and sat down to rest in front of us. Maybe they had caught scent of the ham and cheese sandwiches in our backpacks we had packed from the breakfast buffet.

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These wolves had calm demeanors and dignified expressions. I didn’t find them intimidating, and it wasn’t just because they were safely separated from me by a tall fence. They just looked like leonine dogs. Whereas before I had pooh-poohed the idea of paying 1,500 NOK to interact with the wolves, now I began to think it might have been worthwhile after all.

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We stood there taking photo after photo of them through the diamonds of the chain link fence, until we had enough shots, put out cameras away, and simply gazed at each with mutual unabashed interest. Then one of them howled, as if to communicate with the wolves higher up the hill that were out of sight in another enclosure. That set off a call and response racket that went on for a few minutes. Maybe they were lamenting their enforced separation from each other. Or maybe they were just exchanging gossip about what they might be having for lunch. It was an eerie racket, mournfully fierce, unbearable to my untutored ears. If I heard such noises while camping in a nylon tent, I would be terrified.

The lynxes were the most reclusive of all the animals of Polar Park. With their tawny coats with black splatters, reminiscent of a leopard, they were very hard to spot. The tips of the tail and the points of the ears are a solid black on adults; on the cubs, the black was a more faint smudge. I primarily know the lynx as model of Mercury car; I really had no idea what they were. They are bigger than domesticated cats, and much smaller than wild cats such as tigers and lions.

Luckily, we were with the Swiss Miss, who saw the mother followed by two cubs. The mother was very wary: as we came in closer to look at her through the fence, she would move to the right. We started walking towards the right as well, following her. Her cubs stayed close to her, and as she ran as if to shake us off, we started jogging too. The mother ran though the tall grass, but followed the inner perimeter of the fence, so we could still track her, pausing intermittently. It made her hard to see (and photograph). It was curious: if she didn’t want us to see her, she could have run inwards towards the center of the enclosure and be completely out of our sight. But she was always within several feet of us. Was it a form of practice, a game for her of cat and mouse? Her cubs, with the naiveté of youth, paused to check us out with unabashed curiosity.

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Lynx cub

Having seen the highlights, Uncle Harry headed back to the car to rest and eat his sandwich, since he was tired. The rest of us, continued on to look at the red deer and the musk ox. The red deer stag reminded me of my high school classmate Kevin, with its wide set eyes perched high on an inward looking face.

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Red deer stag

The musk ox is the most cartoonish looking of bovines(?). With a short bow of a horn over its eyes, the tips taper into a flip up curl on either side of its face, giving it the look of a Tory judge on a bad-wig day. One of them entertained us by getting up and using a stump still rooted in the ground to scratch the inner ‘armpit’ of his front left leg and then backing up to scratch his rear. The stump had been carefully sawn off to the right height. The musk ox wore a shaggy coat of long fibres, like a bison. His front hump was taller and more pronounced than his hindquarters.

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Musk ox

“There will be a special feeding today at the lynx enclosure at 1:30 PM,” the ticket seller had told us. It turned out that it had been arranged for a large group of tourists . . . from our very own ship. Even though we had already seen the lynx and her cubs, we thought it would be fun to see them again while feeding. So we tagged along with the group, but stood at the far end. The zookeeper had a bucket of food in her hand, and she stood by the door to the enclosure, calling “Josefa . . . Josefa!” a few times. But the mother lynx didn’t come out, and neither did her cubs.

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 . . . waiting in vain . . .

The three of us smiled lightly at each other. We all felt lucky and smug that we had gotten to see Josefa and her cubs, even without feeding, and that our visit to Polar Park was a bargain, compared to what the tourists in the group paid. “The only benefit of going with the ship’s excursion is that you won’t get lost driving yourself!” we joked amongst ourselves.

We headed back to the visitor’s center and the car. Uncle Harry would probably be worried that we would be late in getting back, and missing the ship, but we figured if we left BEFORE the ship’s tour group, we should be able to get back to Narvik in time. Uncle Harry had tried fiddling some more with the reverse gear, but the problem remained.

On our way through Narvik, I had spotted a gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank. “Let me pay for the gas,” said Uncle Harry.

“No way,” I said. I ran off into store/kiosk to pay. “I’m at Pump 4,” I said. “Do I give you my credit card now or later.”

“Someone is already paying,” the clerk nodded towards the window. Uncle Harry had spotted the ‘pay at pump’ option, and had whipped out his credit card to pay, while I had wasted precious seconds going inside.

“Garghh!!!!!!!!”

“You’re not supposed pay,” I scolded him, as I started up the car. “Please let me pay.”

“No, you already paid for the car rental. That is only fair.” Uncle Harry retorted.

“Well, you paid for the zoo tickets as well. So you better not buy any more wine for dinners!” I glared.

“Then what am I supposed to drink? Gasoline?”

All four of us burst into laughter simultaneously in the little blue Subaru.

FAST FORWARD to one week later. I was a tautly strung up bundle of nerves driving to pick up Dad from Inverness airport because:

  • I had gotten lost trying to find the Inverness Railway Station car rental office – which turned out to be in a kiosk in the shopping mall across the street
  • I was driving a beast called the Nissan Qashqai (Qinghai? Qaddafi? Is it a Chinese or Libyan name?) that was much larger than what I normally drive at home. (This was on behalf of Dad. Apparently he prefers to ride in bigger cars now. When he last came to visit us in the States, he made me rent an SUV to drive him around.)
  • I had not driven on the left hand side, on narrow roads, liberally peppered with roundabouts since five years ago. I was rusty.
  • I didn’t know if my Dad would actually arrive at the airport on the flight. If he missed his connecting flight to Inverness from Manchester, he would have to figure out how to contact us (he had no smart phone) and how to get to Inverness, since the next direct flight would be the following day. He is not quick on his feet, literally or metaphorically.
  • We were late – if the flight had arrived on time. We were critically late – if Dad had indeed arrived on the flight – we might have missed him. If Dad didn’t see us at Arrivals, he would conclude we weren’t coming to pick him and simply catch a cab to the hotel on his own.

I found an empty parking space in the airport short-term parking lot, but misgauged the turning radius. I shifted to reverse to back up. The ‘R’ was to the left of the 1st and 2nd gear.

Once again, the reverse gear did not engage. I was stuck, blocking the lane.

“Let me see,” Joe tried to shift it to reverse, but he couldn’t figure it out either.

When it rains, it pours: everything had been going wrong today, and now this? How was it even blinking possible, that two rental cars in a row couldn’t go in reverse?? Argh!!

I spotted a man walking in the parking lot with a roll-on bag, and rolled down the window.

“Excuse me,” I hollered with the most sheepish of smiles. “We’re American tourists. We can’t get our reverse gear to engage. Can you help us?”

He came over. “Usually you have to press a button or knob or pull it up,” he said fiddling with it. He pulled the waist of the skirt around the gear stick up the shaft. The reverse gear clicked into place. “There you go!” Aha, maybe that’s what I was supposed to have done in the Norwegian rental car as well.

And fortunately Dad was waiting in the arrival lounge. “When I didn’t see you, I thought maybe you had missed your flight to Inverness and weren’t in town yet!”

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Can you name the six languages on this sign?

The coin toss landed on . . . Chiloe

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

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)

OTHER ODDS AND ENDS

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?

“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)

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)

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(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.

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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,

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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.)

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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.

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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.