Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hmm, what was I dong again?

I'm back in the states. That's part of why I haven't written. I'm no longer traveling on tips. So little of my blog and its title seem relevant right now.

But I never intended to quit writing once I quit traveling. And I suppose it's not really accurate to say I've quit traveling either. I still don't have a bed or an address of my own. I still never spend more than three days in a row in the same place. The biggest difference is that now I have more stuff I can't find.

Instead of my one big orange backpack, I have a variety of little bags stuffed with clothes and toiletries. I have my own toothbrush at four different houses. I have a job, or two, or a few.

But I'm more lost than ever. I just started my seventh week back in this country and I really thought I'd be more settled by now.

I almost had an apartment. It was awesome. Right in the neighborhood where I wanted to live. It was a little one-bedroom with windows on every side, wood floors and no neighbors above or on the sides. It was the upstairs of a carriage house. Tiny, but pleasant and in my price range. I was really excited about.

But the landlord never answered or returned any of my daily calls after I dropped off the deposit check for $850.

I left a stern message one day and said I needed to hear from him. He ended up saying he'd never gotten any of my messages. His phone must have been broken. But he suddenly wasn't sure he was comfortable having a tenant who was only marginally employed. He would have to think about it and get back to me, he said.

I thought about it myself and told him I was pretty sure I didn't want a landlord with a broken phone.

So I thought maybe I should try to buy a cheap condo. They were all pretty dismal.

Then I started applying for writing jobs that I felt sort of qualified for.

Now I haven't heard from any of them. Maybe what they say is true: The economy IS bad and there are a lot of people looking for work. Or maybe this just isn't what I'm supposed to be doing.

I joined a team a couple weeks ago. A special, elite team of mean problem solvers. It's the merchandising projects team at an electronics big box store. I travel to four different stores in the Denver area, setting up displays and signage in the early mornings. It's interesting work and pays enough to keep me in groceries but not quite enough enough.

I'm still homeless. I want to wait until the dust settles to pick a home base now. I feel things are too up in the air to be signing a lease. But this lack of connection and roots leaves me itchy. It's like a big red rash of uncertainty buried deep enough under the skin I can't get to it to scratch it.

I have applied and applied to jobs. It takes enough time it might as well be a job.

last week, I stopped applying for professional jobs. I've been freelancing for some Web sites and its going pretty well. I'm thinking again about waitressing and freelancing. That had been my plan all along. I don't know why I can't just pick a path and stick to it.

I keep expecting something to find me. And maybe it will or maybe it has and it just has to take hold.

At any rate, I should have tons of time to call all the people on my mind. I should have lots of time for sleep and seeing people. But somehow I always feel stressed and rushed.

This is a tough country to come home to.

I haven't taken advantage of the summer weather. I'm stuck inside of my head most days.

While all of this is pretty overwhelming sometimes, I do go back and forth between being terrified and terrifically excited about all of the possibilities.

Anything could happen. And it could be really awesome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adventures in northern Argentina

I crossed the border between Bolivia and Argentina on foot at dawn. It was confusing in its simplicity after my manic crossing from Bolivia in Peru. It seemed on this frontier that I could have walked across with little more than a wave, never alerting authorities of my presence or absence.

From the border, this was more than a week ago, I took a nice cushy Argentinean bus complete with heat, a bathroom in the back, reclining seats, and even a movie playing on the several TVs that hung from the high ceiling. It was a welcome comfort after spending the night on a Bolivian bus wrapped in the rug I bought for the apartment I hope to have after I move to Denver. The bus was cold and drove on a dirt path alongside a dirt road that was being “improved” and passengers had to pee in the grass behind the restaurant where we stopped for dinner because the toilets were overflowing.

I arrived around 1 p.m. in Tilcara, Argentina, a beautiful tiny little mountain town. Northwest Argentina is dry and colorful, filled with reds and browns much like the South West in the U.S. Tilcara boasted a funky hippy square filled with cool artisan goods and a 360-degree view of rolling hills and taller red peaks. The roads were dirt outside of the main square and the tourist information office was closed from 12:30 to 5 for siesta.

Having no map, I wasn’t sure where to go for a hostel and stood looking like a fool in the square for a few minutes before another tourist, one with a map, also came by looking like a lost idiot. He walked me to my hostel and then we jumped in a taxi to the top of one of the rust-colored hills nearby for a quick hike to a hidden waterfall. He had a bus to catch that afternoon. The drive and the walk were both lovely. It’s hot in the north of Argentina during the day and the sun is gloriously intense. It was so welcome.

After the hike, it turned out my new friend from Israel had missed his bus and could stay a bit longer so we went to check out the Pulcara ruins. It had been a fortress but without walls. It’s position at the top of a hill is what protected it. Many of the walls and houses were completely reconstructed in the 1930s and then the brilliant archeologists who discovered the place built a Turkish-style pyramid on the site to congratulate themselves. Nothing says important pre-Incan civilization like some random building from a different culture, time, and continent, eh?

There was just enough time to have a bite to eat and a bottle of wine before my new friend had to grab a bus. I stayed in a beautiful hostel in the woods and wished I could stay longer, but also took off for Salta the next morning.

It seems there is always a reason to celebrate in Latin America.. I’m pretty sure that I’ve had trouble finding open businesses at least one work day every week for the last six weeks because everywhere I’ve gone, they’ve had some sort of federal, provincial or regional holiday that has brought the masses out to parade and dance while they shuttered their office doors. Salta was no exception. They were celebrating 200 years as a city and hosted folk dances and historical demonstrations on the square constantly. It was wonderful to watch.

I did also get a chance to see a high-altitude mummy in the museum there. Archeologists, presumably the kind that don’t build foreign structures on historic sites, have found the perfectly preserved bodies of sacrificed children on six of the tallest peaks in the region. There were three on the Volcano Llullaillaco near the Chilean border in the north of Argentina. The children were left at the top of the 6,700 meter peak, where the cold maintained their skin, hair and clothes in perfect condition.

The museum displays one of its three mummies at a time. I stared at the six-year old boy until the other tourists left and the next group came and huddled around me and the boy. You can see his expression through the window between his bent elbow and where his forehead rests on his folded knees. His eyes are closed and squinted, but he looks somehow at peace. I don’t know how the mummies were sacrificed. How they were killed. It’s crazy that I don’t. I read absolutely everything in the museum, every board and every pamphlet. They just didn’t say. Were they poisoned? Were they just taken to the peak and arranged in these beautiful peaceful and meditative positions and then left to freeze to death? I wonder if Wikipedia might be able to tell me what the museum didn’t.

From Salta, I headed to Cafayate. Joe asked me what took me there. I told him, “wine.” Cafayate is Argentina’s second biggest wine region. It’s known for its Torrontes, a variety of sweet white wine. I’m not typically a big fan of sweet white wine, but I’d heard they made other varieties quite well too.

The thing about wine tasting, however, is that I didn’t really want to do it on my own. I’d heard that El Balcon was a nice hostel and a good place to meet people. When I got off the bus though, a fellow offered me a bed for $25 pesos a night in another place, about $6 US, and said they were having an asado. I went to El Balcon and they had conveniently sold out of the dorm beds for $30 and only had $40 beds. Plus, they weren’t having an asado. I walked down to the farthest reaches of the little town and joined the mixed group of Argentineans and Europeans socializing entirely in Spanish and poured myself a cup from the jug of red wine on the bar.

It was the dirtiest, most disgusting hostel I’ve actually stayed in (which doesn’t count the Scrum Hotel Illa and I avoided earlier in this journey). But the people were nice and we went for a fabulous 48-kilometer bike ride through the desert together the next day. The second day we wondered up a rocky canyon toward some waterfalls we never reached, built a campfire, drank wine and ate goat cheese together. I still hadn’t been to a single vineyard on the third day and made some quick rounds to the nearest ones before my bus.

The bus. The bus was about two blocks outside of town when I realized I’d left my passport and money belt buried under the towel I decided to discard. The driver agreed to wait for me as I frantically ran back toward the hostel, 10 blocks away, looking for a taxi. In the town square, the guy who ran our hostel loaned me his bike and I pedaled like the wind against traffic. I grabbed my moneybelt, remounted the and pedaled like the wind back toward the bus. About a block and a half behind the bus, I started trying to wave at the driver so he would know it was me.

Look mom, no hands!

And then I hit a sandy patch. The bike tire slipped sideways and I knew there was no fixing it. I should have been petrified. I was, after all, riding like the wind. I should have been afraid for my life and struggled to protect my fragile limbs. But I think I may have still been trying to wave at the bus driver even as I slid 10 feet along the sandy asphalt, scraping my bare skin against the dirt. I don’t think I ever took my eyes off the bus, where all of my worldly belongings were stored in the underbelly. The group of pre-teen boys drinking soda from three-liter plastic bottles along the side of the street made “whoa” sounds and dropped their jaws to watch me. Before I even slid to a complete stop I assessed the damage, decided it was only flesh wounds, stood and resolved to leave everything that had fallen from me behind. But the boys raced to hand me my sweater and water bottle. And I finished the ride to the bus.

There, the driver looked astonished and offered to divert the many passengers on his rout to the nearest hospital for me. I said I would be fine and took my seat in the very front next to an older lady where I began to cry and dab at my bloody elbows with coarse paper towels. She rolled her eyes and asked me where I was from, wanting to know what nationality the idiot who caused the delay was.

The other tourists in the back of the bus gave me a two-liter bottle of soda water to carry to the bathroom with me. I cleaned my wounds and resolved to spend my last night in a rented bed in luxury. I found the nicest looking hotel in Tafi Del Valle and took a 45-minute shower before laying in my king size bed.

The next day the lady at the front desk in the hotel, the guy at the pharmacy and even the lady who sold me the bus ticket all said, “why don’t you go to the hospital?” as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do even for injuries so superficial they didn’t need Band-Aids. I had time and I was curious and figured I could also ask about my enduring cough.

I went and it took 30 minutes for them to clean my wounds, listen to my lungs and give me advice. All they wanted from me was my name, age and nationality. That’s how healthcare should be.

In keeping with my luxurious conclusion to this trip, I rode in a suite class bus with my own TV screen and a seat that folded flat to Buenos Aires. I’m staying with a family friend of sorts, Robin who lives in Argentina and usually works crazy hours at Bloomberg. We cheered Argentina on in their game yesterday at a bar called Loco por Football and I’m happy I’ll get to see Argentina play one last time before I go on Sunday.

I love World Cup Soccer in Argentina. The people are so passionate and so patriotic. I wish we could have that kind of unity.

I’m looking ahead a lot to my homecoming and I’m really excited about it. I will miss this carefree lifestyle, but it will be nice to have an income again, assuming I eventually have a job, and I can’t wait to have a home and a bed.

I’m taking a couple hours of classes now and I know I’ve achieved my goal of improving my Spanish. I hope I’ll be able to use it when I’m home.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A vivid country

The ironic thing about not writing recently is that I’ve been in the ideal place for writing. I’m staying in a fabulous little room with a twin bed on the top floor of an immaculate white house in Sucre, Bolivia. My room overlooks the white city and surrounding mountains, granting me a glimpse of the most romantic scenery that exists in South America. I imagine it’s what Paris was before it became a big noisy city full of tourists.

I walk past a square and a lovely white church after climbing a steep hill with a view many townspeople and tourists cherish then turn down a sweet narrow cobblestone street to the house. To say it’s charming or elegant or romantic or beautiful would be an understatement.

When I go to my Spanish classes in a cold dark classroom in the city center, I long for my room in this little house. I want nothing more than to sit on the sun deck and read or at my desk in front of my own splendid window and write a novel. I want to cook big meals with the fresh vegetables and pasta from the hectic market and drink wine with the other guests -- three couples.

I so often am thinking of home and missing it and getting ready to go back. I am ready. I have just a little more than two weeks left now. And I’m eager to start up my life there. I look forward to seeing my friends and my family and I’m making plans and even applying for jobs. But this little place.

I find myself wishing for more time here. If I could go back to the beginning of my trip, I might change it all so I could have a greater piece of time here.

It’s peaceful, comfortable and clean. There’s no Internet, which has been a struggle. I haven’t been in contact with my loved ones as much as I would like. But it’s also woken me up a bit. I’m drumming up more ideas and the creative juices are flowing. This place seems to have that effect. My friends Deborah and Lee are also at work on some grand business ideas born here in this magical place.

I imagine one day having a book to write and coming here for a couple months to do it. I told Tonya, the owner of this little guesthouse, that and she said there was a woman who came here once. She was going to stay three days and stayed a month instead, writing a novel in German.

This place, its quiet and peace, is particularly phenomenal when contrasted with the vibrancy of Bolivia.

Someone just gave me a copy of Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Robbins’ character describes South America as “vivid.” He illustrates what he means by describing a scene he witnessed: a naked parrot matching the weak steps of his hunched old lady owner.

I have also witnessed some vivid scenes here in Bolivia. It’s an amazing place full of sharp colors, memorable scenes and distinctive odors. There are always festivals or protests in Bolivia. I have run into a few big processions and celebrations in the streets of Bolivia and I’ve only been here two weeks. But when they aren’t celebrating, they’re protesting. The streets here are busy.

I went to the silver mine in Potosi the day Ronaldo left for Uyuni. I guess I should say it used to be a silver mine. Today, miners, about 4,000 of them struggle in the depths of this mountain to recover slivers of Zink, which have sunk in costs since the advent of lithium batteries, my guide told me.

He took me first to a store where I bought $30 bolivianos worth of coca leaves, coca leaf cigarettes, a small plastic bottle of 96 percent alcohol, a bag full of diesel-soaked pellets and a stick of plastic explosive. Gifts for the miners. The conversion of dollars to bolivianos is 7 to 1.

Then Daniel and I slithered into the mine, through an entry soaked in dried llama blood from a recent sacrifice, down a dark dusty hole to pay tribute to the Devil and his rather over-sized penis. The Devil is not, in fact, a devil or el Diablo. They call him Tio, which means uncle in Spanish. But these miners don’t all speak Spanish. Those who never went to school or didn’t finish probably never learned Spanish. They speak Quechua. When the Spanish came and explained god, or dios, to the people of Bolivia, the people had trouble pronouncing the “d” and called the diety instead Tio. The Spanish told the Bolivians that they had to work in the mine or the devil would kill them, the devil is the keeper of the underworld.

The religion evolved. And now the miners are permitted to believe what they want outside of the mine. Nearly all of them are catholic and attend mass regularly, praying to the Spanish god. But when they are in the mine, they worship the Tio. Every mine has a sculpture of a devil-like creature with red eyes and a large erect and flexible penis. The miners, upon entering the mine, offer the tio coca leaves, dropping them on his shoulders, head, at his feet and, of course, his engorged genitals. Then they offer the devil the alcohol and drink a bit themselves. They offer the tio a puff of their cigarette if not a whole one. And then they go into the darkness to work, hoping the tio will have mercy on them.

The mine is old. Bolivians began toiling here, extracting tons of silver for the Spanish, in the 16th century. It’s now 12 levels deep, reaching something around 150 degrees at the deepest level. The town of Potosi is almost 13,000 feet in elevation. Only recent years have they had air pumped into the mines. Before that a miner’s life expectancy was less than 10 years from the day he started working. That’s a pretty tough figure when you hear that most start at age 12 or 14. Only men, of course.

Life expectancies are still low. There’s a lot of dust, few mechanized operations, lots of accidents and collapses. And now they let little tourists like me go in and watch! Crazy, eh?

The mine was incredible but I was eager to get out of Potosi. I took a bus. I was the only tourist. The smell is strong on buses here. The strongest was my trip with Lee and Deborah to Tarabuco, a traditional village about an hour from Sucre. We were stuffed with 12 other passengers into a minivan meant to hold far fewer. I rode backwards, but sat next to the window. I could see the smells on Lee and Deborah’s faces. It was quite a ride.

In the village, we were greeted with an array of amazing colors. Tarabuco is known for its textiles. And the colors were indeed “vivid.” It was a lively marketplace full of women and some men selling the weavings they’d slaved over for months, begging tourists to buy them.

This is an incredible place, Bolivia and especially Chuquisaka, this province of the country.

I almost didn’t make it to Bolivia on this trip because US citizens now need visas thanks to strained international relations. Gracias a Ronaldo, I’m here. And I am so happy I’ve been able to see these places and visit this part of the world.

Next I’m heading to the north of Argentina and the Cafayate wine region before a last week of classes in Buenos Aires.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Another two-week bite

I got into a rhythm on this trip. I got used to taking quick two-week journeys with friends and I haven't been able to change the beat. I went to visit Ronaldo in Sao Paulo after Illa left. I had a visa and a friend to stay with, so I figured, "why not?"

Then Ronaldo suggested traveling to Peru and Bolivia together. He's never been and didn't want to go alone. Again, why not? So we flew the 5.5 hours from Sao Paulo, close to the Pacific coast, to Lima, on the Atlantic coast. The long flight was a reminder that South America is a vast continent.

I met Ronaldo at Spanish school in Buenos Aires. He's about 5 feet 9 inches with perfectly coiffed brown hair. He spent over $800 pesos on hair products while we were in BA. He likes to walk arm in arm down the street so he can squeeze my hand when a "cutie" walks by, usually an attractive guy with blond hair and blue eyes.

I skipped Lima the last time I was in South America because I heard it was dirty and dangerous. Ronaldo, coming from Brazil, has always expected teh rest of South America to be a bit backwards--dirty and and dangerous.

We were both surprised and amazed in Lima. It was clean with fresh new roads, beautiful gardens and parks. The security guards outside the government palace even approached us to give us information usually provided by tour guides. They are proud and know what they're protecting.

We went paragliding over the Atantic and Lima. It was an amazing feeling, just like flying. My guide said he had the best office in town.

From Lima, we flew to Cuzco and jumped immediately in a van headed toward Macchu Pichu. The train has been out of commission since the floods a few months ago. The van took us to where the train started again and we road the rails for the last hour or so of the jouney, arriving in time to enjoy the thermal pools above the town.

We befriended two cousins from Sanfrancisco, Reena and Krina, and enjoyed dinner with them.

The next morning we got up at 3:30 a.m. to wait in line for the bus to Macchu Pichu. It was worth it, because we had it to ourselves when we arrived. Though I'd been there before, it was still a magical and spiritual experience. It was a lot more casual this time. And arriving with friends made me a little more realistic and a little less dreamy about the place than I remembered being the last time. None the less, I'm glad I got to see it again and would go yet again if the chance came up.

I have a bit of a cold and convinced Ronaldo to stay a day in Cuzco instead of getting up early for a third day in a row to travel to Lake Titikaka. We wandered around the city and Ronaldo took many pictures of the colonial architecture. We also had a rather sentimental tour guide who whispered in reverey when telling us, very emotionally, about the Incan ruins. Since the tour was in Spanish, I had little patience for his weepy style and we ditched the tour half way through.

The next day, we were on an early bus through the Andes and incredible mountain scenery to Puno, Peru on the shore of Lake Titikakka.

This is why I love letting the trip decide for me where to go. This is why I was so happy to tag along with Ronaldo. We went to see the Uros, a group of 60 man-made floating islands in the highest navigable lake in the world. It was amazing.

They have to move their homes every six months to stack fresh reeds underneath them. The island we visited was 11 years old, but the islands themselves have existed since before the Incas. They were constructed so that the people who lived on them could pull up the anchors and float away if there were any threats.

The people on the island showed us how they create the islands using porous roots and reeds. It was the most amazing thing and I'm so happy I got to see it.

From Puno, we bussed to La Paz and discovered that we once again were arriving just in time for a big celebration. El Gran Poder is one of South America's biggest festivals. The parade went on all day and all night. It was amazing. The costumes were rich and elegant. The music was impressive. The people peeing in the street were innumerable.

La Paz is a dirty city. It has a smell. And the altitude is killer. At about 12,000 feet above sea level, it's the highest city in the world. The altitude has been punishing for us. We crawl up the hills here and Ronaldo had a bout of altitude sickness the day we left for Bolivia. Coca tea was his savior.

La Paz is an amazing city though. Planted in a valley, surrounded by mountains, it's beauty is unmatched. The people wear traditional dress and the streets are filled with people selling things ranging from underwear and light bulbs to plastic washers for your sink and dried llama carcasses.

It's been amazing trip so far. Today, we're off by plane to Sucre. Ronaldo and I will part in a few days and I'll go back to Spanish school.