Thursday, September 27, 2007

Smooooke in the Jungle (A fire in the sky)

Alas, the Rolling Stones were truly wise when they said "you can't always get what you want." We spent the last two days hanging in the airport, waiting for our flight to leave from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, in the Amazon jungle basin. There we would have done many cool things (swimming with dolphins, eating pirhanas, learning about the medicinal plants and whatnot), but our valiant attempt was thwarted.

At the end of each winter, the locals gather all the underbrush and refuse that accumulated during the winter and burn it. One big fire to send all the trash up to the heavens. Which causes a LOT of smoke. So much smoke that our 18-person plane was unable to land on the grassy hill (seriously, there's not even an airport there). So we spent two days in the airport in La Paz, being told every hour to come check back an hour later. Just a bit frustrating. Don't ever fly with Amaszonas. They're the worst (the only compensation we got was a free Jr Whopper from Burger King and small fries).

Highlight of the airport (other than hanging out with other fun, stranded tourists) was watching workers oil and polish EVERY leaf on every tree inside the airport. Not sure why they do that, but the kicker was that they wore hardhats while doing so.

So we found out that they don't expect any flights to get in there for at least a week (we feel bad for everyone in the jungle, as they are stranded and can't get out!), so we are not going. Tomorrow we head into the salt flats then across the border to Chile. We should have some amazing pictures after this little trip, so check back in a week or so.

Now, for your enjoyment, here are some pictures from La Paz.

Nice garden in the main park by the ampitheatre/band shell.

A marching band on a random day--not a holiday) decided to march down the middle of the main avenue, delaying our bus. But they were having a blast.

One of the mountains surrounding La Paz (in the Zona Sur neighborhood... where we had those incredible pastrami sandwiches).

The next two pictures are of the Valley of the Moon. One astronaut who has actually been on the moon (or at least a soundstage in New Mexico) said this was the closest he's ever felt to being back on the moon. So kudos to the Bolivians for naming their valley!

Last night was spectacular. Once we admitted defeat in our quest to reach the jungle (I guess we have learned something from the Myth of Sisyphus), we went to Plaza Avaroa with two fellow strandees (Phillipe from Belgium and Dave from Scotland) and dined at a churrascaria and had INCREDIBLE steaks (with wine, fries and sausage) for a grand total of $25 (for four people).

After dinner, we walked a few blocks to the Thelonius Monk jazz club where we saw a great German fourtet (kick drums/e-drums, bass, trumpet and DJ) play. It's been too long since we'd seen live music. It really hit the spot in a big way!

And they had awesome treble-clef candlesticks, shown here with our favorite Bolivian wine :)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Lake Titicaca and La Paz

So we're hanging in La Paz now, getting ready to fly up north in Bolivia to the Amazon basin jungle. Tapirs, crocs, river dolphins, pirhanas, etc... but that's just the dinner menu. (Ok, not really, but they do cook up pirhanas--we're excited to try one!). We'll let you know how it tastes in next week's blog, when we get back.

Our last night in Cusco was perfect. We finished our last Spanish class and went straight to the best restaurant in the country--the MAP Cafe. Located in the Museum of Precolumbian Art's courtyard in a glass cube (think Apple store), the MAP Cafe boasts the best chef in the country (and some say the continent). We had an incredible feast with drinks, three courses and live music, it was under $100. God bless cheaper economies (I type this as the dollar keeps hitting an all-time low against the Euro... thanks, Bush!).

The next morning we took a train through the beautiful southeastern countryside to a stopping point on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca, where we spent the night. Thanks to a great trio of Argentinian retirees on the train, we shared gourd after gourd of maté and watched the hills and rivers roll by. After the 7th hour on the train, we had to resort to watching the Family Guy movie on my iPod. We love technology... we really do.

The next morning we took a super early bus to the Bolivian border and crossed with relative ease (only a thin chain three inches off the ground prevents you from making a run for it). Twenty minutes later and we were in Copacabana (sans Lola), on a peninsula jutting into the lake.

Titicaca is enormous (it's really hard not to crack pun after pun, but I'll spare you) and it seems like an ocean. In fact, it felt a bit like Malibu, but colder and less developed, complete with gorgeous sunsets over the ocean. The very sleepy town didn't have much going on, except for huge parades and festivals every single day. One highlight (though we didn't have the camera) was about 20 8-year-old school children walking through the main street all dressed up in homemade Tigger/cat costumes, chasing their teacher, dressed up as a mouse.

After a few days of relaxation, we hopped a boat to take us to the Isla del Sol, an early Incan stomping ground in the middle of the lake. We hiked the length of it (three and a half grueling hours--see Aaron's "Why I Hate Hiking" diatribe, to be posted later), which Deanna absolutely loved. I'm still sore (a week later). The path took us along a ridge at the highest points of the island, where there were rock gardens and some cool ruins (see the pictures below).

A few days later, we took a bus further along the lake to La Paz, the highest capital in the world. But to get there, we had to take a quick ferry--passengers in boats while the bus was floated on a barge across the straight. See the picture below. I saved the day with my leatherman as our boat stalled out 3 times (we're talking about a 100-yard straight to cross) and they needed my knife to fix a gas line.

We arrived to La Paz and felt instantly at home with the pace of life and variety that the city has to offer. One thing that really strikes us as odd is the layout. The city is built in a giant valley/canyon, and it's HUGE. The interesting thing is that the richest parts of the city are the lowest in elevation, in the center of the valley. The hills with the stunning views are 100% slums--the opposite of most places we know.

After a morning of walking and exploring, we hopped on a double decker bus to tour the city. The highlight so far (not counting the warm pastrami sandwiches with real deli mustard in a restaurant owned by a New Yorker) was the Valley of the Moon (which is on top of a hill--go figure), with crazy rock stalagmites formed by erosion. Pictures don't do it justice, but too bad--you're going to see them anyway in the upcoming ofoto gallery.

Tomorrow we're off to the jungle, then the salt flats. Stay tuned for some more amazing pictures of rainforests, geysers, animals, and, well, salt flats. And food.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Off to Bolivia

Today is our last day in the wonderful town of Cusco. We finish our Spanish lessons this afternoon and celebrate with a fancy dinner at the Map Cafe, which has the most famous Peruvian chef (Deanna has seen him on TV a few times).

So speaking of food, we have had so many amazing meals in this town. Some of the best were: trout sashimi, alpaca meat, chifa (chinese/peruvian hybrid), burmese chicken, the weclome comfort of a Grey Dog clone coffee shop brunch spot named Jack's, some excellent pizza and pasta, and of course, guinea pig. Apologies to any vegetarians, but we had to post a picture of it (below).

And since this town is so famous for its Incan walls, I thought it was cute how the local beer has the wall depicted on the bottle, see below. (Click on it to make it bigger so you can see the wall.)

While eating the local delicacy of cuy (guinea pig), we took in a fun dinner and dancing show (with a shofar/didgeridoo instrument, so we were able to hear the shofar sound on Rosh Hashana). Traditional andean and incan music, complete with pandering to the tourists (several songs ended with "shave and a haircut, two bits" and there was a 5 minute classical music medley that leaned heavily on Mozart) with fun constumed dancing. And guinea pig. Pics below.

We spent last sunday with Evan and Eve in the market town of Pisaq. Such hustle and bustle... We bought two things for our apartment: a great hand-drawn cubist picture of a guitarist and pan-pipe player, and a hand-woven wall hanging of butterflies (to match the butterfly necklace I bought for Deanna). The picture below is just one tenth of the market place. The picture below that is of a really cool tree (and you can see all the vending booth tops in the bottom of the pic).

That's about all for now. Hope all is well! Let's go Redskins...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Happy New Year!

Shana tova to everyone! Happy New Year from Peru. May you all have a happy and healthy New Year.
A and D

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Bellybutton of South America

So we're still in Cusco with one more week to go here. We absolutely love this town, no doubt. Any town where we can drink Boddingtons and watch the first NFL game of the season is fine by me. Oh yeah, and we ate chicken wings that night too. Met a great family from Indianapolis who was very excited to see the Colts in Peru. Swapped travel stories with the parents and their very sweet daughter, Jennifer, who lives in Prospect Heights. Great company!

But as for some more authentic Peruvian fare, we've been seeing parades just about daily (they celebrate one Catholic saint every day--which generally involves pretty tame fireworks starting at 6am and continuing throughout the day), as seen below.

Above was some child saint parade. Below was a military parade on a national holiday here (no one quite knew what the holiday was celebrating, but it was a grand fiesta). About 600 national police in full uniform marching around and around, and around the main square, Plaza de Armas. As it seems to be a recurring theme, we couldn't help to crack the "Big Ben, Parliament" joke.

So we're finally done with our first week of Spanish classes. To give you an idea of the level we're at, check out this video below. One more week to go and hopefully we'll master the language. I just have to stop speaking Italian to everyone...

Below is a picture of Deanna's purse, as mentioned in a previous blog entry. She loves it more than me (ok, maybe I'm exaggerating). We spent a full day with Evan and Eve, friends from back in NYC. Eve loved the purse so much she went and designed her own one that day. I think I might get into the import/export business when we get back to the states... Let me see if I can trademark "Vandelay Industries"

So with Evan and Eve, we went up to one of the mountains at the edge of the town to check out the Incan ruins of Saccsayhuaman (pronounced: sexy'woman). Amazing huge stones (the size of three of me) overlooking the city in the valley. While all Incan ruins now pale in comparison to Machu Picchu, Saccsayhuaman was pretty impressive...

...but what really made that special was two bottles of wine and a perfect sunset over the Andes, as seen below. Another incredible dinner of Alapca meat (mmmm) and we sent Evan and Eve off to start their Incan trail hike to MP. We're meeting up with them tomorrow in Pisaq to check out the huge Sunday market place (hopefully we'll be back in time to catch the sunday night football game--assuming I can wrestle the remote control away from the World Cup of Rugby hooligans in this town!)

Now for some good measure (if you've actually read this far), here are some more pitures of what we've been up to here. First off is the two of us with our Spanish teacher, Henry. In this picture he looks like Ethan Schwartz's clone... pretty bizzare if you ask me.

Next up is one of the Peruvian bands we've seen so far. Our favorite place is a tapas restaurant / art gallery / concert spot called Kilometre 0. The guy pictured below also had a nice Ibanez and apparently a brand new wawa pedal. He didn't quite grasp how to effectively use it, but it was very fun nonetheless. (Our favorite live music here so far was a Colombian trio--alto sax, nylon guitar and a singer with a ratchet stick percussion thingy. Only about 15 people in KM0 that night, including a Colombian guy straight out of the 70s who sat by himself, singing along to every word in complete ecstasy. The owner's wife and her sister, both around 30, were there and one of their tiny cute baby was standing on the bar dancing the whole time. A truly magical night...)

Below is an example of the Incan walls in this town... huge blocks fit together perfectly without cement or glue. Most of these were uncovered during an earthquake in the 1950s. The Spanish built directly on top of the Incan walls and the original walls were finally uncovered thanks to a natural disaster.

And lastly is a picture of the Peruvian flag (red and white in the background) and the Incan flag (rainbown in the foreground) which is just about the exact same as the gay pride flag. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we saw a sign at the far end of town that said in Spanish, "Welcome to Cusco, the Bellybutton of South America." Thanks to Henry and our Spanish lessons, we were able to translate the sign quite easily. Picture taken in Plaza San Blas, where our Spanish classes are.

So after our next week of Spanish classes, we plan on heading south to Lake Titicaca then over into Bolivia for a few days in La Paz and then off to Salar de Uyuni, the enormous salt flats of southwestern Bolivia. There is a hotel made entirely out of salt there, and supposedly there is a sign in the lobby that reads "Do not lick the walls." We'll report on the validity of that rumor in a few weeks.

Keep in touch! We love getting emails from you guys :)
-A and D