Thursday, December 25, 2008

Who You Callin' a Wombat?

We've been in Tasmania now for about 10 days, and so far have pedalled about 250 miles. Compared to Victoria, Tasmania is much hillier, much more remote and much tougher. It's a beautiful state, wild and frontier-like, with great scenery and loads of isolation.


We spent Christmas Eve cycling in light rain and Christmas day on a fun mostly-downhill ride to Launceston, a beautiful city on the north end of the island. Boxing Day we checked into a nice hotel downtown to restock on civilization.

Tasmania is like a big zoo, and we keep discovering all sorts of weird animals. Our favorites are:

*Koala bears are about as cuddly and cute as you can imagine. They spend most of their time sleeping in treetops, where they occasionally wake up to eat some leaves. In windstorms they are sometimes tossed from their perches to the ground below, where they wake up, rub their eyes, and scramble back up. Despite their teddybear appearance, they have this frightful growl which sounds a bit like a monkey call.

*Nothing is more fun to watch than the wallaby. It's a thigh-high animal like a kangaroo that goes around eating grass, then hops off in big whopping jumps.

*The wombat


is a lumbering goof that grunts around looking for insects and snorts at night. Very cute.

*Think of the echidna


as a miniature porcupine, as wide as it is long, that ambles about sticking its pencil-shaped nose into the ground to find insects. When scared, the echidna does not run away but instead hunkers down and retracts its head under its back. Stand still for a while and the echidna will think you've gone, stick its head back out, and waddle around looking for more bugs.

*Most elusive is the Tasmanian devil, which is nocturnal and pretty hard to find. Sometimes we see it out of the corner of our headlamps while walking to our tent at night. They are the size of a small cat, with long tails, and are called devils because of their hissing scream and scary-looking growly face.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wining, Dining and Reading*

*but not in that order.


Despite the fact that Christmas is days away, Victoria and the Southern Ocean continue to throw their worst weather at us. We have rain fall on most days and often have strong winds. A good day would be a shower in the morning, then some clearning in the afternoon. Sun is rare. But the cool temperatures (it continues to stay mostly in the 60s) means we can keep a good pace on biking.

So far we have biked about 470 miles. In all we've climbed more than 20,000 total vertical feet and have ridden for 70 hours (though that's not how long we've actually pedaled ... I just count from when we get on in the morning to when we get off in the afternoon).


The middle of last week we started hearing about a mammoth storm headed our way. We pedaled hard for two days to get to Colac, a decent sized city half way between Warrnambool and Geelong. I figured if we had to hole up for a few days riding a storm out we ought to do it in a town that has all the services we would need. Well, it was not a great town by Victoria's high standards, but even worse was that the campground, despite a nice pitch of green lawn, had no kitchen and not even a shelter. This would not do. It was too late to do anything about it the day we checked in but the next morning, as clouds darkened, wind rose and humidity shot up, we boarded a train for Geelong. In just one hour on the train we covered a good two days of biking.

The storm was a whopper indeed. Much of Victoria got in 36 hours the rainfall they normally see in an entire month. For us it was two days of drinking coffee in a camp kitchen and occasionally making sure our tent was not leaking (it wasn't).

For fun, I went to the grocery store.

I've been in charge of cooking dinner, and what a joy it has been. In no place else on Earth do you have the access to amazing foods as you do in Australia. It's doubly good since all we can think about sometimes is food (to paraphrase a famous line, we have enormous appetites but budgets the size of pinpricks). Even in tiny town general stores you get to choose from superfresh produce, great meats and inventive prepared foods.

Not only is it good, but it is local. At home, local generally means the food comes from somewhere in your state. Here everything, practically, comes from the state we are in, and much of it comes from within 100 miles.

Here are some highlights:

--Gold skin potatoes: slightly tastier and creamier than home's Yukon gold, with a gorgeous golden skin.

--Timboon honey: it's rare in Australia to get regular generic clover honey. Most honey comes from small independent producers and is categorized by what was blooming when it was harvested. Timboon was a small honey seller in the town of Timboon; we got gum beech honey.

--Beef from Tasmania: cuts are different here, but the quality is high and the price is low ... much cheaper than chicken.

--Sundowner apples: light red skinned, very firm, very sweet.

--Kangaroo: Laura was aghast the first time I bought kangaroo. It comes as a marinated loin and is a bit cheaper than most beefs. It is also lean and, according to the label, more ecofriendly as kangaroos won't overeat their pastures and emit less greenhouse gas than cows and sheep. It's tasty, too.

--Anything made from milk: Victoria at times seems to be a state devoted to dairy cows, and the sight of content cows belly deep in green grass is quite common. Producers here know their dairy, and we have quite the time sampling luscious yogurts, fresh milk, delightful creams and more.

--Indian food: Australia is mostly white, but there is a significant minority population in the cities, and no matter where you are you can get great premade curries and naans, and even fresh Japanese noodles.



I had my first Australian beer the other day -- J. Boag and Sons Premium Lager, from Tasmania (good) -- but it's hard to spend money on beer where there is so much wine around. Victoria has more than 500 wineries spread across some 20 protected wine regions. Most of the places we've been have been cool weather wine growing regions and produce mostly delicate whites and thin reds, though I did taste a shiraz from Scotchman Hill which was excellent (and out of our budget at about $15US). Many of these areas also produce olive oils, which are deep colored and cold pressed. Unfortunately, Australia has the same problem the US does when it comes to wine selling: the big grocery stores tend to sell the same few dozen bottles, and the local wine, even if it is just miles away, is nearly impossible to find.

Here is a rundown of what we've had:

Cleanskin South East Australia 2008 Shiraz Cabernet, 14%, $4 (all prices in US) -- cleanskin is a name given to any bottle without a label, which is something you frequently see here. This, sold by Safeway, had no producer listed. Fine.

Warburn Estate Gossips Cab-Shiraz 2008 Thorbagong New South Wales, 13.5%, $3, pretty bad.

Angrove Family Winemakers Butterfly Ridge 2008 Cab-Shiraz Renmark S. Aus. 14%, $6.50, not bad.

Snow Road Victoria Cab-Merlot 2006 Sam Miranda King Valley Oxley Victoria, 14%, $6, beautiful.

Armindale Estate Wines St. Andrews Imperial Reserve 2006 Cab-Shiraz South East Aus. 13.5%, $4, nice.

The Australian Vineyard Co. 2007 Merlot cleanskin South East Aus. 13.5%, $4, soso.

Littore Family Jindalee Estate Circle Collection 2007 Geelong Victoria Cab Sauv. 14.5%, $5.40, nice.

Littore Family Wines Silvergun Cab-Merlot 2007 Moorabool Victoria 14.5% $3, passable


I can't remember what my last reading list update ended with, so I'm guessing here:

Henry James' Tropic of Cancer -- Extravagant and bitter.

George Orwell's 1984.

Marco Polo's The Travels (did not finish)

Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth -- great.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch -- good.

Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin -- why is this regarded as a 'classic'?

Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle -- magnificent.

We're back in Melbourne and off to Tasmania in the morning!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gee ... long

We've been plodding across western Victoria now for about 15 days. Our routine is pretty, well, routine. We wake up about 8 with birds chirping, make breakfast, which for Laura is cereal with milk and for me is toast with honey and peanut butter, drink a lot of coffee, pack up our tent and site, which can be a Herculean task, strap everything on our bikes (*) and start pedalling.

(*Our bikes are so heavy, and all of the weight is on the back wheels, that sometimes if we are not careful they rear up, the front tire sticking into the air, and nearly flip backwards. It looks like that trick horseriders do to make the horses rear up. Except it's not horses, it's our bikes.)


We pedal until about 11, when we stop for a while to eat a snack, then about noon start looking for somewhere to have lunch. Sometimes we get a nice little town park, with electric grills and tables and water. Sometimes we get a barrier alongside the highway.

We go until about 3, when we start looking for somewhere to camp. A lot of the time we don't have a lot of choice in where we camp, but if we do have a pick we look for somewhere with grass (not always a sure thing in drought-stricken Australia) and a camp kitchen. These can sometimes be rather luxurious, with widescreen TVs, comfy seats, big windows, and all sorts of kitchen amenities (the best is a pot that boils water almost instantly). Camp set, we go to the grocery store and then come back and make dinner. I ususally have a cup of coffee later and then we dig into dessert, whcih is among the highlights of our day. Currently, I am addicted to Tim Tams, a sort of dark chocolate coated cookie made in Australia. I could easily consume a whole box at night, but we try to limit ourselves to three each.


We landed at a notsogreat campsite last night, which would not be a problem except they are forecasting an inch of rain today. With no cover and 40km to the next town (3 hours ride minimum, at our snail pace) we decided to take the train to Geelong, the next big town. For us it would be a two day ride. Guess what -- the train gets us there in an hour!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great Ocean Road

United used to be a decent airline, but as with just about everything else in the world, it's gone downhill in the past few years. We flew with United from Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco to Sydney, but actually had to argue with the ticket agent for a half hour in Atlanta that the airline did indeed fly from San Francisco to Sydney.

Despite their best attempts to keep us stateside, we made it to Sydney after a total fo 20 hours in the air. We spent just a day in that fabulous city before heading to Melbourne, also a very nice place. In Melbourne we spent a busy day buying bicycles and tons of gear. Coupled with the gear we brought from home we were now ready to cycle the Australian states of Victoria and Tasmania.

(Coast near Lorne)


Australia is beautifully situated for biking; cities are laced with dedicated bike routes and you can even pedal along on the shoulder on major freeways.

(Coast near Aireys Inlet)


We spent a few days getting in to shape before hitting the Great Ocean Road, a 200-mile stretch of coves, cliffs, secret beaches, koala bears napping in trees and lush temperate rainforest. It's a spectacular area. We've also hit plenty of hills, bugs, cool temperatures and showery weather, but the scenery is making up for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Interlude: Atlanta

We left Quito at 7 a.m. Saturday. Thanks to drugs, I slept well and woke up with absolutely no worries.


We flew over the tail end of the Andes


crossed Colombia and landed in Panama, which seems to be developing at a rapid place.

Still summer over the tropics.


Not so in Atlanta.


My parents came from Houston, and we ate a lot of Mexican food.

We leave tomorrow for Sydney.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Drugs, the Unexpected Beauty of Colombia, Damn Lovely Quito, and leaving South America


It´s an inevitability that traveling in rough countries will involve bouts of sickness. Part of the problem is that in many poor countries health and sanitation are not particularly strong suits, but part of the blame also lays on the diets of Americans, who tend to eat foods made in factories, irradiated for your safety, and wrapped in airtight packages. True, you don´t get a lot of exposure to germs that way, but it also means your GI tract walks rather openeyed and innocently into the wolves of South American diets. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Luckily for the traveler who may find himself spending days hugging a toilet, access to drugs here is supereasy and really pretty damn cheap. Case in point: A few years ago, when were were getting ready for six months of travel in Asia, a doctor gave us a script for six months of antimalarial medication. No problem, until we went to the pharmacy to fill our order: $900 for the lot. Per person. We held out and got the exact same drug from a pharmacy in Calcutta for less than a dollar. Total. Take that, Pfizer!

The traveler´s best friend here is flagyll, an antiobiotic which is the pharmaceutical equivalent of detonating an atom bomb in your intestines and us used to ward off that pesky GI ailment, giardiasis. The pills are so common the chemist does not even keep them stored on the racks behind the counter but instead in a box by the cash register. Two bucks for a halfdozen pills and in a matter of hours your on your way again.

While there have been plenty of times when I was fairly sure I was sick beyond recall, the worst ever was in Tanzania. I was on Zanzibar, an island in the Indian Ocean. I woke up one morning feeling pretty bad and stayed in bed. Three days later when I had not come out the hotel owner came in to see what was wrong. He took me in his pickup to a private doctor, who after some tests, said I had some sort of stomach deal. He gave me some meds and I was on my way. I felt better for a few hours and even went out to pizza but by the second slice it was like a hammer had come down on me. The restaurant owner got a cab and took me back to the hotel. The next few days were incessant trips to the toilet, unconsciousness and brief period of wakefulness when I noticed that the bedsheets were completely soaked. Oh, and my spleen was enlarged so it was sticking out of my abdomen and I was in extreme pain. This time the hotel owner simply took me to the airport. I gave him money and he came back with a ticket from Zanzibar to Mombasa, a decent sized city in Kenya. I was put in a wheelchair and when it came time to get on the plane to men came and hoisted me out of the chair, up the steps to the plane, and into the first seat. I had to change planes in Dar es Salaam, and no one knew what to do with me, partly because I could not talk. So someone wheeled me into what I think was a hangar and left me there. A while later some guards came by and asked me what I was doing there. I could not talk and there was slobber down my shirt. They came back with a sort of hospital nurse who took me to a room where they undressed me, showered me and, after asking me for a dollar, came back with fruit juice for me to drink. They then wheeled me out to the plane, hauled me up, and an hour later we were in steamy Mombasa. A taxi driver met me and took me to a hotel where I dropped my bag then to a hospital. The hospital had no running water, electricity only during certain hours, and the windows and doors were rusted open. They gave me a private room and hooked me up to an IV hanging from a rusty stand. The IV ran into the bony part of my hand and to this day I still feel like I can feel it. Nurses would come at the shift change and say to the oncoming nurses, in English, This is Mr. Schmerker, and he has malaria. My three meals a day consisted of bananas for breakfast, fried bananas for lunch and roasted bananas for dinner. Most of the time I stared at the ceiling and watched geckos crawl along the ceiling. After a day I was well enough to walk with assistance to the nonfunctioning bathroom, and a day after that they released me. Total cost for my hospital stay: US$25. When I got back to the US I had a series of body scans, I think to look at my spleen. These procedures did not include boiled banana meals and generally took about 15 minutes and for the most part cost several hundred dollars. It all leaves me unsure about America´s claim that it has the best health care in the world.

My other great drug story occurred in Nepal. We were on a three week mountain climbing trek and I got pretty sick on day two. We looked at our trekking map and two days away was a clinic. We hired a porter to haul my stuff and made it to the clinic, which turned out to be bureau full of mostly expired drugs in a hayloft. The owner stepped back while we unpacked the jumble of drugs and found what we needed. A few pills, less than a dollar, and after 24 hours I was feeling as good as I could expect to feel while hiking around the Nepalese countryside, eating yak steaks, at 17,000 feet.

One ailment that afflicts me with acute consequences is a sort of panic that precedes things like flights, bus departures, boat departures and general adherence to schedules. When it´s bad, and it´s often bad, I enter into a sort of depressed raging catatonic state of which nothing can cure me. I´ve tried and tried to keep this under control but it seems to get worse with age (I´m now 38 damned years old). So Laura had the bright idea the other day: Let´s just go buy antianxiety drugs. Pharmacies here, and generally around the developing world, have most of the same drugs Americans have, but with two caveats: you don´t need some freaking doctor´s note to get them, and they cost next to nothing. So the past few Days I´ve been walking around town asking who has what. I am now the happy owner of a veritable pharmacy of antianxiety of drugs. Hopefully none of them will kill me, and hopefully I won´t be arrested upon return to the US for drug smuggling. If you don´t see an update for a while, you´ll know one or the other happened.


A few days ago we realized we could go to Colombia. We had not planned on visiting the country due to a number of factors, but two things happened: we realized that once in Quito we were just five hours from the border (well, five Lonely Planet hours, which is reality was about six and a half -- I could wring the neck of the punk who wrote that guide book) and we heard several glowing reports of the country´s beauty and -- you know, this will come as a surprise to a lot of Americans -- safety. Due to the presence of drug runners, narcoterrorists, kidnappers and a smorgasbord of unsavory characters, much of Colombia as recently as 2006 was simply a place to go to be kidnapped, extorted and then killed (though not necessarily in that order). But the new president, Uribe, put a lid on that with an aggressive campaign to take the country back.

We took the five hour ride from Quito (candidate for city with the world´s bus terminal, by the way) to Tulcan, on the border. We took a taxi to the border station and I almost had a hemorrhage when the taxi driver drove right through Ecuadorian immigration and into Colombia, but it was only because there was no turnaround at the customs post). Passports stamped, we walked across the bridge and into Colombia. Zero hassle here. We took a shared taxi into Ipiales and checked into the nicest hotel in town -- 20 TV channels in English, newly carpeted floors and a workout gym, all ours for $33 a night. We made a sunset trip to Santuario Las Lajas, a spectacular Gothic cathedral built on a cliffside over a raging river to commemorate an appearance of Virgin Mary -- you can see her likeness (well, if you squint) above the rock altar. For dinner we had our favorite -- a thin slice of grilled steak, fried patacones (plantains), rice and pinto beans, washed down with cup after cup of dark, strong and sweet coffee. Good times. The next day we went to Pasto and changed to a shared taxi which let us off at a lake in a national park. We paid a guy $7 to take us to an island in the lake home to primary rainforest, though an odd forest it is since the elevation here is over 9,000 feet. We were back in Ipiales by dark and celebrated my 38th birthday with the thin grilled steak, the beans, the rice, the patacones, and the black coffee, plus a piece of chocolate cake. Can I hear a HELL YEAH!?

It´s sort of a joke between Laura and I that when we leave somewhere I say, well take one last look, we may never come back to (fill in the blank) ever again! Not so Colombia, which is a country of breathtaking beauty, gregarious and friendly people, and a certain sophistication not found in other South American countries.


I feel like I should like Quito. The setting, in a broad valley flanked by snowcapped volcanoes (one of which is erupting at the moment), is stupendous. The central core, a UNESCO world heritage site (another to add to my previous list), is an intoxicating warren of alleys, vendors, stores, smells, cathedrals, tiny plazas, simple restaurants and mountain views.

Unfortunately we´ve only got 48 hours here. We arrived at sunset and, against our better judgment, gave the cabbie the the address for a hotel recommended by lonely planet. Yes, it had flower bedecked courtyards, yes it had free coffee all day, yes it had a laid back travelers vibe, yes yes yes to all of that. But for $20 damn dollars we got a windowless hovel with no TV, no room to walk around, and a bathroom down the hall where the door does not reach all the way to the top of the door frame -- just the sort of luxury you cherish during one of those interminable South American emergency dashes to the toilet. Again: whoever wrote the Lonely Planet South America On a Shoestring -- dude, what is your deal?

We had business to take care of in Quito. First of all we had to reconfirm our flights -- Saturday we fly from Quito to Panama (no, not that one, you Floridians), Orlando and then Atlanta, using two different airlines. Except for the fact that for about half an hour it did not seem as though our reservations actually existed, we got everything taken care of. Then we had to go to the US embassy to get more pages sewn into our passport -- you can thank Brazil for that, who used up four pages alone. We tried to get there taking the trole, a sort of electric bus, but the bus did not go all the way. We got free connections for a regular bus, but three different employees of the transport company gave us three completely different suggestions on which bus to take. So we took a taxi: $1.60. The passport wait took an hour -- they give Americans a special room to wait in and THANK GOD there was not a picture on the wall of George Bush (AKA: The Prince of Darkness) we had to stare at as is found in most embassies) only to find when we got our passports that the passport number code printed into the added pages on Laura´s passport were, in fact, wrong. She pointed it out immediately and was told it was probably no big deal. So our government, the mightiest government in the world, which can no longer react in a meaningful way to fiscal catastrophe, which is waging a false war, and which can aid its own citizens caught in a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, can also not manage to copy down correctly the nine-digit number which is stamped, now quite permanently, into a passport. I dare you to argue this country is not broken.

Well, that´s OK, Ecuador, despite its beauty, is pretty broken, too. Our last errand was to get rid of the $70 worth in Peruvian soles that had been burning a hole in my pocket since entering Ecuador. Unlike every other country we´ve been in, there was seemingly no way to jettison this currency once out of its borders. I tried everywhere: hotels, banks, casas de cambio, bus stations, random people on the streets. No dice. Finally it seemed our only recourse was to go to the airport and try there. We went the day before our flight in case the bureau de change was not open at 5 a.m., which is when we´ll need to do the deed. It was open, so good times. We walked out into the now pouring rain and attempted to use Quito´s trole (´troley´) system. It´s a dedicated bus line with formal stops and tokens. Sounds good, especially as it rides on dedicated lines and misses much of Quito´s traffic which is horrendous -- not because there are so many cars but because there are so many roads which seem to meet at oblique angles and since, of course, there are no traffic lights. Many roads, in fact, are two roads somehow stuck together. Four lanes of traffic will have alternating lanes headed in opposite directions, so crossing to get to the trole station, which is always in the middle of it all, involves nothing short of an Olympic effort. Once there, however, not all is solved. Exits may be barred, troles running in one direction may actually be facing another, and there are hundreds of people trying to get on to the same bus, except upon closer inspection there are not trying to. They are crowding the entrance to be first on to the bus they want to get on, which is invariably not the bus which has just arrived. It´s complete staggering chaos. I was walking up and down the platform trying to decide what trole we wanted. We had a beautiful, big, detailed and colorful map of central Quito which showed almost nothing on the map in the actual place where it was on the ground. I asked four of the helpful, sympathetic station conductors, all of which thought long and had about what to say and then said they had no idea what bus we should get on to go to the very center of the old town. At this point I had what you might term a minor mental breakdown. Actually in was closer to major rather than minor. Laura took my hand and we took a cab back to the hotel.


We fly out of Quito tomorrow for Sydney. We have an incredibly hectic four day layover in Atlanta, where Laura´s family lives and where my parents are going to meet us. I expect that after the busyness of Atlanta going back to hacking our way across unknown continents will actually come as a relief.

This morning we had breakfast in one of the simple streetside cafes in Quito. There are thousands of them. They were serving chicken soup (not as nice as it sounds) and coffee. I asked for a coffee and a plate of patacones, which are sliced, pounded and fried plantains, not unlike French fries but about 100,000 times tastier. No problem. Laura got an orange juice and I watched the cafe owner pull four oranges out of a sack, cut each in half, and them press them through a hand operated juicer. I almost began to cry. Most of the time when I leave a continent after a good long time I am like hell yes I am ready to get the fuck out of this place. But not always. I choked back tears in 1997 on the way to the airport in Johannesburg because I simply did not want to leave Africa, and I feel the same way here. We have to go. We have to go to Australia and buy mountain bikes and bike the South Coast and Tasmania. We have to fly to Bali and island and nation hop through Asia. And we have to go to a dozen other places, from Tunisia to Malta to Mauritius to Sri Lanka.

I´m looking forward to them all, but I still don´t want to leave South America.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One Degree South and Headed North


We finally left Huaraz on the night bus on Oct. 29. Because the bus went at night and it was a rainy day it ended up being pretty much a waste of a day, but we decided that it would likely be the last down day of this portion of the trip. Just before getting on the bus I got the scare of my life. We found, by accident, an incredibly cool coffee shop, where they had REAL coffee -- a very hard thing to find down here -- and a cool vibe with tons of comfy couches and loads of books and magazines. On the way out the door we stopped to read the message board and on it was a warning from a group of five travelers who were robbed at gunpoint three days before on the trail to Laguna Cherup -- the same trail we had been on just yesterday! Beside that were other warnings by travelers who had been robbed on other nearby trails. I guess I began to panick a bit but we made it to the bus station and the bus ride itself with no problem.

The number of threats to travelers here is really tiresome. While Peru does have some great sites, a lot of the country is trashed and decidedly not fun for the traveler. It makes me wonder if Peru is going to learn the hard way, like Kenya has, when it comes to creating an environment which is welcoming to the tourist.

(Los Frailes, Ecuador)



The departure from Huaraz kicked off a several-day blur of traveling. The night bus bounced its way out of the mountains to the coast and dropped us in Trujillo the next morning. We immediately took a taxi across town and caught a bus to Chiclayo, a three-hour ride. Or it should have been. We made good time before leaving the road to bump across a trackless waste due to road work. Our first problem was meeting headon an 18-wheeler high centered on a sand dune. Once we made it around that we got a flat tire. The tire took a long time to fix because the bus did not have a jack and the driver tried to bum one from a passing truck. After that proved fruitless he solved the problem by driving the rear tires (the rear axle had four tires) on to a brick, digging some sand from under the flat tire, and taking care of things that way. Which would have been a simple solution if the driver had been able to get the spare tire out. He wound up having to dismantle a good portion of the front of the bus to get the spare. Later we spent an hour idling in traffic while lorries and busses waited in line to cross a long one-lane bridge with a severe weight restriction. Anyway, our simple trip to Chiclayo took a few hours longer than it shoud have.

Chiclayo was a nice place, but we were off early the next morning to Piura, which was a total dump. We had lunch then took a bus to Sullana, another total dump, and then got a bus which crossed the border into Ecuador. No problems there, except there were no money changers at the border and I´m still stuck with about $70 in soles. We spent the night in a very cute town just over the border which was strung out on a saddle between two high mountains. To get to Guayanquil we had to bus two hours to Loja and then two hours almost all the way back to the town we had spent the night in. Never made it to Guayanquil that day, however, because the bus got two flat tires. The first one was changed easily, though we had to drive a half hour to get to a place flat enough to change it. Only one spare, however, and the second flat spelled the end of the line for our bus. Our driver got us on another headed for Machala, where we wound up spending the night. We made it to Guayanquil, surrounded by banana plantations, the next day.

So far, despite flat tires, Ecuador is much to my liking. It reminds me a lot of Panama.

(Blue footed Boobie, Isla de la Plata, Ecuador)



Our recent bad luck with busses got me thinking about the worst all time bus ride of my life, and piddly flat tires on hairpin roads in Ecuador don´t even come close. It would have to be what was supposed to be an already epic 24-hour bus ride from Lake Victoria to Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. The bus left just fine at 9 a.m. and went across dirt roads and through tiny villages. Just after sunset the engine began to make a bad banging noise. We coasted into a tiny village and I spent the night on the floor of a small shop. In the morning the driver and assistant took the engine apart and found the problem -- a cracked piston. They put the engine back together without the piston, and we went across the rest of Tanzania with five cylinders, not six. Which was fine, except the bus then had so little compression everyone had to get out and walk up the hills. Which was fine, except the engine was put back together without any seals, and so oil sprayed all through the interior of the bus.


We have visited several UNESCO World Heritage Sites on this trip. These places are meant to be the most significant cultural, historical or natural places in the world. Worldwide, there are about 700 sites. Member nations pay dues which are used to help preserve and protect the sites, and the UN can yank designation if a government fails to provide adequate protection. Since I like to make lists, here is the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites which I have been to:

Dachestein Austria
Brugge Belgium
Potosi Bolivia
Iquazu Brazil
Angkor Wat Cambodia
Rocky Mountains Canada
Potala Palace China
Dubrovnik Croatia
Prague Czech
Cesky Krumlov Czech
Lalibela Ethiopia
Seine-Paris France
Meteora Greece
Patmos Greece
Tikal Guatemala
Copan Honduras
Budapest Hungary
Luang Prabang Laos
Lake Malawi Malawi
Georgetown Malaysia
Fez Morocco
Marrakesh Morroco
Kathmandu Nepal
Panama Viejo Panama
Cusco Peru
Arequipa Peru
Macchupichu Peru
Sintra Portugal
Transylvania Romania
Sighishora Romania
Cordoba Spain
Parque Guell Spain
Palau de la Musica Spain
Zanzibar Tanzania
Ayutthaya Thailand
Istanbul Turkey
Bwindi Uganda
Yellowstone USA
Grand Canyon USA
Smokies USA
Carlsbad USA
Redwoods USA
Olympic USA
Yosemite USA
Waterton Lakes Glacier USA
Taos USA
Colonia Uruguay
Hue Vietnam
Hoi An Vietnam
Halong Bay Vietnam
Victoria Falls Zambia
Great Zimbabwe Zimbabwe

(Isla de la Plata, Ecuador)



I´ve been busy reading in the past few weeks in a brave attempt to lighten my pack.

Isabelle Allende´s Eva Luna. A remarkable book, but I felt like I read it before and it was called Love in the Time of Cholera. Allende´s shortcoming here is an exhaustive dose of magical irony. Almost too much of a good thing.

Anita Desas´ Village by the Sea

Ivan Doig´s Mountain Time. I was a huge fan of Doig´s This House of Sky. This book is a fictional version of This House, and a miserable failure when measured against the original.

Joyce Carol Oates´ Man Crazy. Good.

Willa Cather´s Death Comes for the Archbishop. A magnificent achievement.


Laura discovered a new sport in Ecuador: surfing. She rented a board and got a two hour private lesson in the small village of Montanita. I sat on the beach and watched her and was shocked when she stood on the board her very first wave. By the end of the hour she was turning and standing longer and riding waves until their end. I thought well I can do this. So the next morning I got a surfboard but declined the instructor. Not only did I never stand up on the board, I never even got to where I felt like I could paddle the damn thing. We´ll have to try again in Bali.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Month Late

We got Bill off to the airport early on Friday morning to fly to Lima, and then Atlanta, and had just a few hours to kill until our trip to Lima -- by bus.

We had tried to get Bill to come with us by bus -- it´s a third of the price of flying -- but he took one look at the 19-hour travel time and said no way.

Our bus left at 2 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive in Lima about 9 the next morning. We were traveling with a company called Cruz del Sur. Normally we give hardly any thought at all to what bus company we travel with but of the number of things complicating life for travelers in Peru is bus travel and personal safety. One issue, which we can do nothing about, is hijackings, which have occured but which we have heard little about recently. The other problem is theft on busses. Cheap busses tend to stop constantly, and since many longhaul busses here travel at night it´s much easier to get stuff stolen on a bus which is stopping all the time since there are that many more people getting on and off. The better bus companies pick passengers up at one end and hardly stop at all until they get to the other. Cheaper bus companies are also more likely to have drunk drivers, bad drivers and no onboard attendant -- not that I need to be served, but the presence of an attendant can help deter theft between passengers.

The bus climbed out of Cuzco and began to traipse across the staggering Peruvian topography. It´s 18,000 foot glacier clad mountains, ridiculously steep mountains, and bottomless valleys. The road constantly climbed to 11,000 or 12,000 feet to cross a pass then descended just as quickly to 6,000 feet to cross a river. I woke up at one point in the night finding it hard to breathe. I looked at my altimeter and found we were over 14,500 feet. I let my watch accumulate vertical feet of descent for the trip and by the time we got to Lima it had tallied up 48,000 total vertical feet.

(Trail to Laguna Churup)


Day dawned with us back on the coastal desert -- sand, fog and eerieness. We pulled into Lima late, at about 10:30. Annoyingly, there is no central bus station in Lima. Instead, each company has an office. Ours was along a freeway. Bus stations are grimy, but convenient since you can go from company to company and see who is going where when. Instead, we bought a ticket for the next day to Huaraz and wound up with an unexpected day in one of the world´s largest cities.

It was not a day we wanted to have. We´re running short of time and still have a few countries to go before we fly out of Quito on Nov. 15. Besides, Lima at first glance was not what you´d call fun.

We took a taxi to the nicest part of town and checked into what our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended as a ´splurge.´The Hostal del Patio was in the city´s best neighborhood and close to the coast, but like so many other things about Lonely Planet I take exception to its recommendation. Lonely Planet´s idea of a great hotel is one with large rooms, attentive personalized service and, inevitably, flower draped patios and courtyards. This had all that and, for $48 a night, no hot water and moldy mattresses. We ate at a posh sidewalk cafe, walked through a fancy outdoor mall set on a cliff over the ocean, and watched hang gliders take off from a bluff over the Pacific.

(Nevada Churup, outside of Huaraz, about 17,000 feet high)


We were back at the bus station the next morning. The Cruz del Sur for Huaraz left on time and spent an hour plodding through the endless sprawl of Lima. What looked like a regular old ugly city on the south side morphed into a seriously wretched city on the north side. Laura remarked at one point it did not look all that different from Calcutta, and I had to agree.

Away from town we were back into the vertical world of Peru. We rolled into Huaraz at 5 p.m. after cresting yet another bleak 14,000 foot pass.

Huaraz is the principal city of Peru´s northern Andean region. It was flattened by an earthquake in 1970 and is still in many areas being rebuilt, or so it seems. It´s a drab, ugly city of about 100,000, convenient only for its espresso bars and location next to the fantastic Cordillera Blanca, a line of 19,000 foot mountains, and proximity to several other breathtaking ranges.

Unfortunatly for anything having to do with the mountains and outdoor sports, we got here about a month late. As we have traveled north we have gotten into progressively wetter weather, and here, at 10 degrees south latitude, we are squarely in the wet season. It´s clear but for a brief moment in the morning and then gets cloudy as the morning progresses. There is always rain by 1 p.m. and after that the day is pretty much finished.

We did manage to take one hike in the mountains. We hired a guide, who packed us a lunch and hired our group a taxi, and hiked to Laguna Churup. Yet another of the things complicating life for travlers in Peru is the likelihood of being attacked while hiking. It´s hard to pin down exactly when and where it is the most dangerous, but the bottom line is you can´t go traipsing around in the backcountry on your lonesome. At least Jesus was a nice guide.

We left town at 7:30 as clouds were beginning to build. We drove from town, at 10,000 feet, to the trailhead at 12,200 feet. From there we followed a trail into a narrow canyon and hiked up alongside a waterfall. From there the trail was inches wide, wet, and we were pelted with spray from the waterfall and water falling from the cliffs above. Much of the way was legitimate rock climbing, and Laura took a bad fall and scraped her knees and poked gaping holes in her pants -- the North Face pants that have now been to five continents on her. Laguna Churup was a wash of blue and green at 14,000 feet and ended at a headwall which led up to Nevada Churup, some 17,000 feet tall. We were back in town by 3 p.m. for chocolate cake and the regular afternoon downpour.

New snow on the mountains this morning. We did not feel like doing much but do have a night bus at 9 p.m. for Trujillo. We´re making a B-line for Ecuador. Hope to make it by Saturday.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Machupicchu (or Machu Picchu -- depends)

On Monday we woke up early, walked across downtown, and boarded the very expensive train to Machupicchu (though it´s also commonly spelled Machu Picchu, and occasionally is spelled Macchu Picchu).

When it comes to ruins here in Peru, they run quite the racket and the whoel thing left me with mixed feelings. If you want to see Machupicchu independently, here´s the breakdown:

·backpacker train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes: $96
·bus from Aguas Calients to Machupicchu and back: $14
·entry to ruins: $42
·cost to use the toilet at park headquarters: 30 cents.

It was the fee to use the toilet, after I had paid $42 to get in, that really left a bad taste in my mouth. But regardless, Machupicchu is likely among the most expensive wonders in the world to visit.

So is it worth it? Hard to say. The ruins themselves are not terribly interesting, in my opinion, especially when compared to some other places I´ve been like Tikal (Guatemala), Copan (Honduras) and Angor Wat (Cambodia). What is not an arguable point, however, is the grandeur of the setting.

(Here´s Laura and Bill atop Waynapicchu looking down on the ruins:)


The train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes switchbacks to get out of Cusco and climb up to 11,000 feet before ambling through pastoral valleys and small towns and beginning a descent into a radical canyon. The canyon opens somewhat before closing further and picking up a raging river. The elevation over the course of four hours drops from 11,000 feet to 6,300 feet, along the way are stupendous snowcapped mountains.

We arrived in Aguas Calientes about noon. We had heard a lot of bad things about this town but it turned out to be pretty cool -- totally isolated, no cars, big river running right through town, and some of the most incredible mountains I´ve ever seen.

The hassle factor there was pretty high and we practically got chased out of town by touts wanting us to stay at thier hotels. We chose the one who hassled us the least and set out on a hike.

The hike was up a peak facing Machupicchu. This photo, taken from the ruins the next day, shows the mountain. Climbing it involves tackling a long series of wooden ladders and legitimate rock scrambling. It took about 90 minutes to get to the top.


We were up early the next morning to save $14. The tourist bus to the ruins is $7 each way, but you can forgo that by hiking a trail which runs between the road´s endless switchbacks. Laura and I left at 5 a.m. and got to the ruins, sheathed in fog, at about 6:30. Luckily we found Bill. We then got in line to get tickets to climb Waynapicchu, the steep peak that backs the ruins. The climb is free, but they only let up the first 400 who make it to the base. The climb was more ladders, steep rocks, a narrow Inca tunnel and then a scramble to get to the summit.

Waynapicchu in the background:


By 2 p.m. we were pretty wasted. Laura and Bill rode the bus down while I took one short hike, to a place called Temple of the Sun, which has classic views down on the ruins.

On Wednesday we had an easy morning and caught the train partway back to Cuzco, getting off in Ollaytatambo, a small and very pleasant town. When I thought of the ruins in Peru I just thought of a handful of the popular ones, but the whole countryside is filled withe ruin´s; on a two hour trainride we passed a dozen or more, some of which were simple Inca terraces and others of which were teraces matched with walls, trails and forts. Ollaytatambo was no disappointment; not only was it extensive but it was backed by snowcapped peaks. We stayed in a very nice hotel for not a lot of money and had good Mexican food for dinner.

Bill slept quite a bit while he was with us, and I think it drove home something I try and tell people: traveling is not easy. One of the most difficult things is the fact that we never go to the same place twice. That means we never know where the bus station is, where our hotel will be, where is a decent place to eat, what streets are unsafe at night, or a million other things. Also serving to further exhaust the traveler is the fact that in many places a decent night´s rest is pretty hard to come by, beds can be awful, food of negligible nutritious value, hotels noisy, and etc. etc. etc. So it´s hard work, except when it´s easy.

Wednesday night, right during our Mexican dinner, I started to feel pretty lousy. I had been feeling weird on and off for a couple of days but at night my stomach started to cramp and I got the dreaded sulfur burps.

A few years ago, traveling in Vietnam, I got pretty sick -- travelers stuff. The hallmark of the sickness was burps that tasted like sulfur. It´s fairly disgusting. After suffering through this for a while someone mentionned that sulfur burps were a sign of girardiasis. Girardiasis is a parasite that hangs out in polluted water, and even though we filter all the water we drink I suppose you can still ingest some through juices, vegetables and even accidentally in the shower.

The cure for girardiasis is a drug called flagyll. It´s a superstrong antibiotic available without prescription in countries like those where you´re most likely to get it.

I felt pretty awful Wednesday night and most of Thursday, worrying about my sulfur burps, until Laura said we should just get flagyll and not wait for it to get worse. Well, first pharmacy we went to had it for less than a dollar a pill. I took two last night and one this morning and the sulfur burps are gone. Yeah!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oh, Cuzco

We arrived in Cuzco last week with me feeling pretty sick. Laura thinks it's all the salsa aji I've been practically drinking lately. It's a fiery green sauce you get with all meals here served in a tiny cup with a wooden spoon that you dabble on to your food. Good times, except for last week, when it was bad times.

Cuzco is the ancient home of the Incas, and was settled in something like 1200 AD when a chief was ordered to go look for the belly of the Earth. It's set in a staggering valley and bordered by two rivers. The center of the city is sprawling cathedrals and a warren of winding alleys bordered by characteristic stacked rock Inca walls.


Much of the city has been unchanged for centuries, though of course now in the prettiest parts there are upscale restaurants and hotels.


Bill, Laura's brother, flew in from Atlanta via Lima at sunrise on Saturday.


We toured Cuzco on Saturday and today went to Pisac. Pisac is a tiny village high in the Andes empty Monday through Saturday and packed come Sunday with highlanders who come down to a very colorful market. Oh, and the several thousand tourists who come by bus at about 10:30. We left the crowds and hiked up to Pisac's Incan ruins. Mostly, the ruins are an extensive system of terraces etched into nearly vertical rock walls. It's quite a sight, and quite a quad workout to make it to the top, where the remains of a modest village hangs on to a small saddle.

We'll be in ruins of one sort or another for the next week. Tomorrow we take the train to Machu Picchu -- exciting! Except for the cost of the train ticket. Not exciting! Anyway, until there, here's one more photo of Cuzco.


Sunday, October 12, 2008


Copacabana, on the shores on Lake Titicaca, proved to be a very relaxing and cheap place to stay. Without intending to, we spent a week there taking walks along the lake, reading, drinking Bolivian coffee and eating Mexican food (yes, Mexican).

But all that free time gave me a lot of time to read the guidebook and a lot of time to start feeling guilty about not seeing more, so on Thursday we shoved off. We had a very easy border crossing into Peru and changed buses in Puno. We arrived in Arequipa just as the sun set -- a spectacular arrival, with the city glistening white under alpenglow and a line of 18,000 foot volcanoes, one of which puffs smoke occasionally, guarding the western horizon.


Arequipa is a beautiful if frenetic city. Much of the old city´s buildings are mde from distinctive white volcanic rock, and there are loads of old buildings and churches.

We spent two nights there and took a bus for Mollende, a beachtown 90 miles and 8,000 vertical feet away. Today we woke on the early side and went to Laguna Mejia, a national reserve about halfhour to the south. The reserve is a chain of lakes which is the only significant fresh water in a 1000 mile stretch of desert coast. The place is full of birds and despite the proximity to the equator is comfortably cool, thanks to the Humbolt Current. We walked down the chain of lakes and back on the beach, where men were out in the frigid water fishing for mussels and clams with nets. Tonight we´re going to have Pisco sours and ceviche and, of course, Inca Kola, the supersweet bubblegum soda which are are currently addicted to.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Loose Ends

Finished two books recently:

Joe Coomer´s The Loop. So so.

Saira Shah´s The Storyteller´s Daughter. Miserable, and full of lies.

Doris Lessing´s Winter in July. Wonderful.

Beer reports:

Potosina Pilsener: Watery Bolivian brew.

Huari Pilsener: Not quite as watery, bouyed by a great label.

Arequipena: A notch above the rest.

Cuscuna Stout: Dark, sweet Peruvian treat.

And a wine update:

Undurraga Cabernet-Pinot 2007 Valle Centra. A pleasant surprise. Got a halfbottle for $4 in San Pedro de Atacama.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Our happiness at returning to civilization in Uyuni was tampered somewhat when we realized it actually was not civilization at all.

Took a bumpy ride from Uyuni to Potosi, a UNESCO world heritage site and reportedly the world´s highest metropolis (100,000 people) at 13,000 feet. Potosi was a major silver producing center and singlehandedly kept Spain´s coffers brimming for a few hundred years. Today it´s not as rich but still richly fascinating.

We spent a day doing Internet, getting laundry cleaned (what´s that smell? oh, I think they use kerosene) and walking the fascinating market and church squares. We stayed in a rambling mansion sort of place, up in a turret, which was buffetted by mountain winds all night. In the early evening there was shooting and I ran down to ask the hotel clerk if it was the revolution, and he said, Oh no, not in Potosi.

Early the next morning we took a six hour ride to Oruro. Oruro is nothing and certainly not scenic but the ride to La Paz was 8 hours and we did not want to risk a late arrival. The journey was marked mostly by a trail of bodies freshly killed in rather horrific single car accidents. The air felt empty over the bodies.

We checked into the nicest place we could find in Oruro. A truly disgusting place though I´ll never tire of markets like that town´s -- sprawling, with everything under the sun for sale.

Took a morning ride to La Paz, the route traced by staggering volcanoes. La Paz comes as a surprise ... you don´t see it until you are looking down on it. It falls spectacularly from 13,500 feet to 12,500 feet, the buildings hanging onto steep canyon walls and a ginormous volcano looming beyond it.

We took a taxi across town (only our second taxi ride of the trip) to a smaller bus area and took a minibus to Copacabana -- not, not THAT Copacabana but another one. Very quiet, very cheap, and only 8 miles from Peru.

We´re assessing our next stage at this point.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Altiplano

Thursday 25 Sept. 2008

Check out of our hostel in Salta early and get to the bus station for our 7 a.m. ride to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. The bus stops in Jujuy then enters a dry canyon marked by colorful villages. The canyon narrows and we begin to switchback.


At about 10 a.m. we are on top of a sprawling plateau at 10,000 feet. We continue to climb, gradually, and volcanoes loom in the distance. The climb continues to the Argentine customs checkpoint, which is at 13,000 feet. It´s cold here, and windy. Back on the road, in Chile now, the climb continues past 14,000 feet across a broad plain with almost no vegetation -- though there are signs of life: llamas are browsing along the road and the driver occasionally honks his horn to scare them off.

When we hit 15,000 feet there are small pathces of snow and ice along the road, and the bus steward begins to pace up and down the aisle, presumably looking for anyone having trouble with the altitude. We hit 15,400 feet.


Suddenly the climb stops and we crest a ridge. Below spreads the Atacama desert, the world´s driest place. We descend along a road marked continually with runaway truck lanes. We drop down to 8,000 feet before hitting San Pedro, where we go through Chilean customs. San Pedro is a sandy-street town made mostly for tourists. We check into a hostel and shop around for trips to the Bolivian Altiplano. We find a tour guide we are comfortable with, and the price is right -- $100 per person for three days, the fee including everything except for one night´s lodging and park entry fees. We sign up and have a good dinner.

Friday 26 Sept. 2008

We get up early, have an excellent breakfast and get to the tour agency office by 8. I change our pesos over for bolivianos and we meet Ben and Megan, the Australians we´ll be sharing the tour with.

We get in a minibus and drive back to Chilean customs, then begin the climb back into th Altiplano, turning off on the dirt road marked simply ´A Bolivia.´ We climb back to 13,000 feet and Bolivian immigration. Being Americans, we need to buy another expensive visa, but the immigration guy can´t or won´t sell us one. Instead he wraps our passports in an envelope and gives them to our tour guide and tells us to get the visas in Uyuni, the first real town in Bolivia. We meet our guides: Mario and his wife, who is apparently only called Mama. Mama makes us breakfast while Mario gasses up our LandCruiser using a tank he has tied to the safari rack. There are other tours leaving at the same time as ours, and everyone is in stripped-down LandCruisers, each with huge gnarly tires and gas tanks strapped to the safari rack.


Mario drives the trackless desert and chews on coca leaves while Mama occasionally tells him to watch out for things. The Altiplano rises into a multicolored hue of barren earth and towering mountains. We rise to just under 16,000 feet and make our first stop: Laguna Blanca. The lake is white due to borax deposits, Mario says. Like the others in the Altiplano, it´s teeming with flamingoes and flanked by llamas.


Then it´s on to Laguna Verde, a spectacular sight.


We pass the Desierto de Dali, with its weird rock formations, and stop at a hot springs for lunch, which Mama prepares while I get in the hot springs. It´s nice until I get out, at which point it´s incredibly cold.

At lunch, Mario fixes a leaky tire by taking it off, taking the tube out, plugging the hole with cement, and then putting everything back on and filling the tire up with a bike pump. Then it´s on to an area of geysers and boiling mud pots before dropping down to Laguna Colorado at 14,000 feet.


There is a very simple pension here and we walk along lake before sunset. For fun I decide to see how far I can climb up the mountain behind the lake before the sun sets and after a halfhour have not even reached the mountain´s base -- everything here is on such a huge scale.

I´m having trouble with the altitude, and so is Laura. My nose is bleeding, I´ve got a dry hack, my head is pounding, my ears are ringing, and my fingers and toes keep going numb. Don´t sleep at all.

Saturday 27 Sept. 2008

Cold, though with a warming sun. We have breakfast, though I can´t do anything but drink tea. We pack up and a few miles down the road steam pours out of the hood.


The radiator has froze, Mario says. He was afraid of this. He came outside at 5 a.m and the temp was minus 10 F. I walk away for a while and see how incredibly alone we are.


Mario fixes the problem by taking a coat hanger and wrapping a piece of cloth around it. He dips the cloth in kerosene and lights it on fire and holds the flame by the radiator. After a few minutes, problem solved.

We stay between 14,000 and 15,000 feet and pass Arbol de Piedra


before passing a chain of five lakes, all with flamingoes. We descend to 13,000 feet and ride across a salt flat before crossing a railroad track and coming to a village called San Juan. Mario tells us if we want we can visit a museum here. The museum is closed and he drives off, coming back a few minutes later with the woman who has the key. The museum tells about the area´s history, including the tribes which inhabited the area before the Inca came. They hunted llama and grew quinoa, a high-vitamin cereal that grows, apparently, with no water and in below-freezing temps. The main part of the museum is a mummy dating to 1250 AD which still has clothes, skin and hair on it. Mario tells us if we want we can see where the mummy came from. We walk across town and up a hill to a small shack, where a woman takes a dollar from us and points us up the hill. We follow it to an area full of stacked rocks. In holes in the rocks are mummies, about 30 in all. Some are children, some have had their skulls bound into points at childbirth to show they are royalty, and some are just skulls surrounded by broken bits of pottery.


Back at the shack, the woman shows us pins, hooks, unbroken pottery, arrowheads, hair and cloth taken from the crypts. Back in the LandCruiser we drive another half hour until we come to a salt hotel. A salt hotel is just that. Almost everything, from the bedframes to the bar to the reception desk to the walls to the floors to the tables and chairs, is made from salt. Two boys come in after dinner and play songs for us on a flute and drum. We sleep well in the oxygen rich environment of 13,500 feet.

Sunday 28 Sept. 2008

Up at 5 a.m. Outside see sky lit in a fantasm of stars, so many stars it´s hard to see black sky. We leave at 5:20 and sail across the salt flats -- Salar Uyuni. The sun comes up.


We stop at an island in the salt and climb a hill. Atop it are 36-foot tall cactus that look like saguaro. One is labelled as being 1200 years old. We have pancakes for breakfast and go on, crossing more salt.


We pass an area where men are shoveling the salt into trucks for processing and then a train cemetery, where Bolivia´s oldest trains have been put to rest. Most date from the 1880s.


We get to Uyuni at 4 p.m., get into a hotel, get our passports straightened out, bid farewell to Mario and Mama and the Aussies, and have beer and pizza for dinner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Valle de Cafayate

We´re in Salta, both a city and a province, in norhtern Argentina.

Argentina has several wine regions, but almost all the wine anyone gets in the US is from Mendoza -- also both a city and a province. Incidentally, little wine from Mendoza comes from around the city itself but instead out of town.

Other wine regions here include areas around Cordoba, San Juan and Cafayate. Cafayate is a city and valley south of Salta by some 100 miles. It´s not far from the border with Chile and in the Andes´ foothills and rainshadow.

This area is dry, very sunny and pretty high -- most vineyards are at 7,000 feet and some are higher. A wine shop guy told me some of the highest vineyards in the world are here, and that the altitude (somehow?) made for wines with big alcohol contents -- one bottle I saw registered in at 16.5 percent.

The area is also visually spectacular, with loose forests of saguaro-like cactus, whitewashed villages, and the occasional 19,000-foot mountain with small glaciers on it.

Here are two wines from the region:

Vasija Secreta Cabernet Valle de Cafayate. Did not figure out why it´s labelled ´cabernet´ but this is a common cheapie and went well with a steak.

Bodegas El Porvenir de los Andes Amauta 2004 Valle de Cafayate. A blend of 60 percent malbec, 30 percent cab sauv and 10 percent syrah. Bought in a wine shop in Cachi for US$13 and shows how a modest uptick in price yields spectacular results. Beautiful.

Road to Cachi


Salta at night


Monday, September 22, 2008

Sick in a Great Place

Our 18-hour bus ride went off almost without a hitch. The overnight portion was on a bus which smelled heavily of gasoline. We arrived in Salta as the sun was coming up. What a sight. The bus crested a pass and the city opened up in a wide valley below, bounded by steep mountains, some with patches of snow on their south faces.

All was not well once I got off the bus, however. We had a short breakfast while waiting for things to open up, and by the end of it I was definitely feeling ill. Like being drunk or very depressed or otherwise out of sorts, the feeling is the same: the distance between myself and things in my foreground increase by about 10 percent, the new space is filled with the fuzziness that is sickness.

I spent a full day in bed. Today we got out and saw some of the city: fun, scenic, lots of activity.

Gondola ride above Salta:


Sand dollar from Brazil:


Beach dogs:


Some details to keep up on:

Finished The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. An absolutely fantastic novel full of delicious irony.

Consumed some Cancao Vinho Tinto de Mesa Seco, by Antonio Basso and Filhos, Flores da Cunha, RS Brazil ($2). Brazil does make wine. Most of it comes from a mountainous area a bit north of Porto Alegre, which is the southernmost big city in Brazil. Unfortunately, this wine was absolutely, totally disgusting.

Consumed some Fernet Vittone. Fernet is a popular drink in Argentina. It´s made from water, alcohol, sugar, aromatic herb infusion and caramel. I got a small bottle of this for the bus ride and a mixer of Coke to go with it. I guess hard liquor is not the thing for me. Bad times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Whales, Waterfalls and a Long Bus Ride

We left Torres on Sunday for what was supposed to be a 5 hour bus ride. Turned out to be 8 hours, and I´m sticking a lot of the blame to Lonely Planet, which has been consistently incorrect about a lot of things on this continent ... but more on that later.

We drove along the coast and then to Ilha Santa Margarita, home of Florianopolis. We got off the bus to beautiful clear crisp skies to find the town, home to about 300,000, completely closed. This is not the first time that for whatever reason we´ve happened across a deserted city, but few have been as closed up as Florianopolis. We spent nearly an hour looking for an affordable hotel in the center and gave up. Then we walked a few miles looking for a restaurant open and serving something other than beer and empenadas. Failed on that front too. Slept well in our overpriced room but were woken at 2 a.m. by someone knocking on our door. We ignored it, but scary nonetheless.

Monday morning dawned clear and when we went outside we found the city positively humming. Streets packed, everything open, cars and busses everywhere and people all about. A pretty city, but I felt a bit put off from yesterday and we decided to take a night bus to Foz do Iguacu. We got our tickets and left our packs at the bus station and caught a local bus out to a beach on the east side of the island. The bus left the busy waterfront and climed up a steep canyon. From the mountain crest we could see a lagoon, huge dunes and miles of white sand beaches.

We got off at a village called Barra de Lagoa to find sandy streets and waiters from nearby cafes rushing up to us to show us the menus. We passed on an early lunch and walked on to the beach and took our shoes off. The beach, backed by pines and palms and narrowed by high tide. curved around to the right. Two dogs followed us. We walked for a half-hour as the waves grew. I saw three black rocks out in the water and Laura asked if they could be whales. I said no and suddenly she was running toward the spots, trailed by the dogs. A second later I saw one of the rocks blow water skyward and I was running too. A halfmile later we were abrest of two whales 100 yards offshore, and we watched for an hour as they jumped, blew water, waved their tails and fins and cavorted about.

The afternoon waned and the skies clouded. We took the local bus back and got to the bus station with an hour to spare -- just enough time for a dinner of beans and rice and pineapple juice.

The bus dropped us off 17 hours later in Foz do Iguazu, a busy town of 200,000 12 miles from the famous waterfalls. We had breakfast in the station and took a bus into town, checked into another overpriced hotel, and rode a local bus out to the Brazilian side of the falls.

Iguacu falls is hard to put into words, and hard to compare to anything -- even the inevitable comparisons to Victoria and Niagra don´t come close. It´s a stupendous miles-long wall of falling water, sometimes in slivers and sometimes in magnificent plunges of thunder and spray.

The next day we crossed the border back into Argentina -- good to be speaking (sort of) Spanish again. We took the day off to read on the patio of our quiet hostel and then the next day went back to the falls on the Argentine side. Argentina has their side of the park set up so you walk to the falls through a dense jungly forest, which even though you are sidebyside with what seems like millions of tourists there is still a sense of discovery.

Laura got a fever in the afternoon -- 100 -- and we were whupped by the time we made it back to town. Our next goal is San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a daunting 40-some hours by bus in total. We decided to bite off just 5 hours in our first stretch, getting us to Posadas, a town of 250,000 set along the banks of the Rio Parana and facing Paraguay. Nice, but it´s hugely inconvenient for travelers -- bus station is 3 miles out of town, very few hotels and none which are affordable, and lots of other services seem hard to find. No matter, we´re out tomorrow and headed for Salta, where we hope to do a big smelly load of laundry and take a few days to relax.

Here´s what you´re waiting for: Laura´s pictures