Monday, November 29, 2010

That's All, Folks!

(Team Freedom29 - Day 1)

This is it - our last internet rendezvous and the post where I try to figure out what these last twenty or so weeks actually meant. To our family, friends and casual observers, please know that I tried my very best to write each of my previous posts in a way that I thought might be entertaining for you, and attempting to do so has provided me with a great deal of joy and satisfaction. This last time, however, my primary motivation is to record my thoughts before this airplane I'm riding in lands back home, so I apologize if the text seems long-winded or self-important. This will also be the first post where Kristin won't serve as my editor/conscience before my thoughts go up on the website (though she did make me promise that I wouldn't say anything preachy like "the things that you own end up owning you", which I think hamstrings me considerably...). Anyways, here goes nothing - I hope you'll indulge me this one last time. [Editor's note: the pictures below are some of my favourites from our trip.]

(Picture from The Lost City post)

(Picture from A la Cartagena post)

Truthfully, the thought of having to write this post and thereby acknowledge that this chapter of our lives has come to a conclusion has gotten me misty more times than the ending of Field of Dreams. Others certainly have travelled longer and gone further, but I can't really put into words what this trip has done for my emotional well-being and general outlook on life. We didn't do this trip because we needed to escape from our normal lives, but the distance and time away has delivered a clarity that I'm not sure I would have discovered in Calgary. Even though the end of the trip has brought me face-to-face with the realization that my future is still very much up-in-the-air, I've had ample opportunity to identify the aspects of my life that bring me happiness and fulfillment. I want to prioritize these things once I'm home; I want more of these things. It's not that I'm newly greedy or selfish, but slightly refocused. Normally, I wouldn't think of being unemployed as a positive, but in this instance it feels like a chance to find something I'm passionate about and something that accords with what I'd like for my personal life. I hope that I don't squander the opportunity.

(Picture from Cruzing for a Bruising post)

I've been asked a few times along the way if I had any regrets that we decided to embark on this adventure. I know regret - I'm the guy who put transition lenses into his most recent pair of everyday eyeglasses - but I will never regret that I just spent the last 140 days with the most important person in my life and that we have fostered an incalculable number of memories that, cliché as it may sound, we will share for a lifetime. I don't regret challenging myself to learn a new language (even if I wasn't great at it) or putting myself into unfamiliar and sometimes difficult situations. I also don't regret the opportunity to learn about cultures and people different than our own and, as a result, learn more about myself. Conversely, I have absolutely no doubt that if we had chosen not to do the trip back when we were still deliberating, I would always have felt some regret. I know Kristin feels the same way.

(Picture from Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail post)

Kristin spoke of being rejuvenated in her last contribution. Like her, I feel that the novelty and challenges of the trip melted away stress and left me feeling young again. Has the trip fundamentally changed who I am? Probably not. It's romantic to think a trip of this nature could set in motion a string of life-altering epiphanies (though, probably less "romantic" to my mother-in-law, who feared the trip would turn me into a globetrotting hippie who'd stay on the road forever and never give her grandbabies), but the changes I notice in myself are more subtle (or maybe it's just that I'm finally maturing). The trip also strongly reinforced the importance in my attempting to see life as a journey instead of a series of destinations. It's a lesson I find myself often losing sight of, but I think the times when I have it dialled-in makes me feel like a more attentive and empathetic person - someone I like better.

(Picture from With a Terrain of Salt post)

As for my beloved blog, I'm sad to report that it has provided us with neither fame nor fortune - the stated goals in our first post - and our coveted endorsement deal with Icebreaker never materialized. But Kristin and I already find ourselves rereading the posts constantly, so I know we've created something that we'll be able to enjoy for years to come. We also wanted the blog to help us stay connected and I think it's done that. We've received emails and Facebook messages from so many friends along the way who've wished us well or expressed excitement for things they saw on the site. What I didn't expect was that the blog would stir up something creative in me and help me realize how much I enjoy writing. I'd like to figure out a way to keep writing in some capacity when I'm home, as well as try to find some other outlets for my creative energy. In that vein, if you see me one year from now and I haven't learned to play whatever the guitar equivalent of Hot Cross Buns (the first song we learned on the Recorder in elementary school) is, you have my permission to slap me across the face. Just don't hit my nose - it's been through enough already.

(Picture from Paying it Forward post)

For those that haven't fallen asleep yet, let me start wrapping this up by saying that I feel very lucky. I feel very lucky to have been born in a country where it's possible to enjoy a seemingly endless list of freedoms and luxuries that are far too easy to take for granted. I feel lucky to have the backing of amazing family and friends in all of my endeavors. More than anything else I feel lucky to have Kristin. With the possible exception of her evil right foot, I couldn't ask for anything more from the person I get to share my life with or from a travel companion. I'm proud of the person that she is and I'm proud of the person that she was on the trip (true to herself, but full of pleasant surprises). I wouldn't have wanted to do any part of this adventure without her (and never would have gone on a trip like this if we hadn't met), but, with her there by my side, I could have stayed away indefinitely. Maybe most importantly of all, she believes in me so strongly and supports me so completely that I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to. Ultimately, that's all I really need to be happy, wherever we might happen to be.

(Picture from Falling for Floripa post)

A couple of blogs I've seen capped off their final post with an impressive quote from a historical figure, philosopher or poet. Unfortunately, I'm not so well-read as those bloggers, but I like the concept. In any event, I can't think of anything more fitting than what I've reproduced below, courtesy of the late, great Dicky Fox:

Hey, I don't have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I've failed as much as I've succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.

Thanks for reading.

(Team Freedom 29 - Final Day)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The End of the Line

The unexpected, final stop on our South American odyssey was the city of Buenos Aires. On a trip that I would say has had its fair share of adventures, I'm (mostly) happy that the Argentinian capital proved to be a microcosm of the same. Interaction with locals? Yes. Culture? Absolutely. Personal safety concerns? You'd better believe it. All in all, Buenos Aires turned out to be one of the best cities I've ever visited. That said, it definitely had some big city issues.... but I'm getting ahead of myself. In the words of Coldplay: Oh, let's go back to the start.

It was tough to know what to expect leading up to our arrival - about half of the people we met on our travels who had been to BsAs totally raved about it and the other half had absolutely nothing good to say about it (culminating in a Londoner telling us right before we arrived that it was, quite plainly, "a dump"). Appearance-wise, the streets looked decidedly European. Hobbles (the nickname I've given to my gimpy wife) was reminded of Paris and I was taken back down Memory Lane to Vienna. Our neighbourhood was filled with dozens of parks and the jacaranda trees lining the wide avenues and narrow streets alike were all in bloom, meaning that the city was teeming with purple flowers that filled with air with a pleasant, sweet fragrance. I guess if you had Hay Fever you would be less impressed, but I think the "dump" theory can pretty much be discarded.

For us, travelling is walking, and watching Hobbles limp to the grocery store on a daily basis (so as not to be left out of the evening's wine selection process) was truly an inspirational sight. Of course, as I would hope has become obvious by now, I kid. To be truthful, I arrived in BsAs upset that Kristin's injury probably meant that we wouldn't have an opportunity to properly experience the surroundings, but Kristin has willed herself to see about as much of the city as could have been expected from someone with a broken bone in their foot and probably more than 90% of able-bodied people could have managed. She has never ceased to amaze me on this trip.

While simply wandering the city, sampling the amazing cuisine and doing our first shopping of the trip have been memorable, we uncharacteristically planned some extras in BsAs that we were particularly excited about. In no particular order, I would say that the anticipated highlights of our stay in BsAs were: (1) the apartment we rented; (2) taking in a tango show; and (3) attending a soccer match.

1. Our apartment was a shade over 300 square feet, but, after more than four months on the move, you could have easily convinced me that it was five times as large. It's incredible what can excite you on the road. Kristin was ecstatic that there was a table to eat at and I was just tickled pink that our space was big enough to house a box of cereal and a carton of milk. It's also great that an apartment of this size takes only about 30 seconds to tidy up (or so Kristin tells me....).

2. The idea of attending a tango show probably was more appealing to Kristin prior to booking, but the production she picked out was unbelievably professional and sexy. That's right, parents - I'm saying the word "sexy" in a public forum. Basically, it was dancing, singing, acting and orchestra all rolled into one, and the best dancing I've ever seen to boot. It also didn't hurt that we ran into a live, public ballet production with about 20,000 spectators immediately outside the theatre and in front of one of the city's main landmarks (check out the obelisk in our pics) on the way to the show. These things just don't happen back home.

3. Of all the things we had planned, I was most jacked about the prospect of attending a soccer match featuring the La Boca Juinors (Maradonna's old team), especially after the big stadium I wanted to visit in Rio de Janeiro turned out to be closed in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. The La Boca neighbourhood and the soccer matches there are notoriously sketchy, so we went the safe route by paying a little more to go with a tour operator. After being briefed on the dangers of the neighbourhood, we were given a final set of instructions which included, "do not for any reason show your tickets to anybody, even if they claim to be police officers, as this is incredibly dangerous." So, you can imagine how thrilled we were when, five seconds after exiting our van, we were met by some very, very large men claiming to be police officers and demanding to see our tickets. This is where the expertise of our guide was to factor in, but I have never seen someone more petrified in my life. The twenty or so minutes that followed were infinitely more terrifying than when we were actually robbed in Colombia. After all of us had been stripped of our tickets (we were told that they were the type of tickets that should not have been sold to us in the first place .... or some BS like that), we were told to get back into the van along with the "police officers" and some other tourists they had rounded up, the former of which would make sure that we got seats inside the stadium. When we informed our guide that we had no intention of getting back into the van with these men, he told us that the one man had a gun and he would have to ask whether we would be allowed to leave. Ultimately, six of the 12 of us refused to get in the van and, after being followed down the street by some pretty creepy people, got into taxis and left the area. I had to settle for watching part of the soccer match on TV, but it was good to emerge from the crooked cop/thug shakedown relatively unscathed.

The soccer incident wasn't enough to taint what I felt was an utterly amazing city, but after a thwarted pickpocketing attempt on the subway a couple of days later, I think I'm finally looking forward to going home to Calgary for the first time (where most of the creeps spend the winter in Vancouver).

Our pictures from Buenos Aires are here. My final blog post is in the pipe. I'll post it sometime after I get home. Catch you on the flip side...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

He Said, She Said

In a decision that has been very difficult to make, I'm sad to announce that our trip is coming to an end in five days. Kristin's foot is still giving her a lot of trouble and has made it so that we can't travel in the way that we are accustomed to and enjoy. Our hope is that the frigid weather and limited sunshine of December in Calgary will allow it to heal properly. [Editor's note: Deep breaths, Kevin. Deep breaths.]

The past few days have provided ample opportunity for us to reflect back on our trip and to think about what lies ahead. Out of this process came the idea for this blog entry (sadly, Kristin's last contribution to the blog). Here's how it works - we interviewed one ridiculously attractive travel blogging couple and asked them the same four questions. They produced their answers independently of one another and we have posted them below without alteration.

1. Which is your favourite place that you visited on the trip?

She-KLong: That's a toughie because each place has been so different and I have loved them all for different reasons, but I would have to say my favourite place that we "travelled" was Bolivia. It has the greatest indigenous population in South America (over 60%) and this "living historical culture" (I read this description somewhere and really liked it) was very interesting for one of my favourite pastimes, people watching. My favourite place that we "vacationed" (see distinction between travelling and vacationing here) was Salta in Northwestern Argentina. Salta has good, inexpensive food and wine, lots of activities to do in its surroundings, and is still somewhat "undiscovered" by tourists.

He-KLong: Asking me to choose the favourite place we visited is a lot like asking a parent to identify their favourite child (in which case, might I suggest that you can never go wrong in choosing the oldest son...). In terms of an experience, I have would have to say that Ciudad Perdida probably remains my most vivid memory and the one I find that Kristin and I relive most often. Picking a country would be much tougher, as I've enjoyed each for different reasons and they have all been spectacular. In a pinch, I would probably opt for Colombia, largely due to the fact that the people there who didn't rob us were some of the friendliest I've ever met and were the most welcoming of the countries we visited.

2. What has been the most difficult part of travelling in South America?

She-KLong: I guess one of the most difficult parts of long term travel in South America for me was having to pack my backpack with equipment and clothes for all different climates. We experienced temperatures ranging from -10 to +30 degrees Celsius, so this left very little room for "luxury items" (I note that Kevin considers the jeans I brought a "luxury item" - who considers one pair of jeans a "luxury item"?!). Another difficult part for me was having to get by with my limited spanish. I have learned that I am horrible at learning new languages and it was frustrating not to be able to communicate more with locals and sometimes having to rely on Kevin to get my point across (apparently, along with blogging, picking up new languages with ease is one of my husband's hidden talents).

He-KLong: Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the trip was the Golf video game in the on-board entertainment system for Avianca Airlines flights. 350-yard par 3s? 600-yard par 4s?? Give me a break. A distant second would be the not infrequent stomach issues we experienced along the way and, worse, the constant fear of future stomach issues. By the time we left Bolivia, I had become so conditioned by signs of impending stomach danger that even overhearing a rumble from Kristin's stomach was enough to have me reaching for the Bisbacter (South American Pepto rip-off). Not being able to automatically assume that food was safe to eat definitely took some getting used to.

3. What will you miss the most about the trip?

She-KLong: Oh my goodness, I do not know where to start. I have never felt as excited, challenged and rejuvenated as I have on this trip and I know I will miss that. I am going to miss experiencing, doing and seeing as much as possible everyday because you never know if you are going to be back again. Also, you know how you do things while travelling that you would never do at home? I am going to miss this general attitude... Also, after spending 24/7 with Kevin for the past 4 and a half months, I bet I will go through a bit of Kevin withdrawal.

He-Klong: I'll miss so many things about the trip. Most of all, I'll miss that every day here is an opportunity to share something new and exciting with my wife. One of my favourite memories from the trip was the time in Peru (before I had replaced my watch) when I asked Kristin what day of the week it was. Without looking at her watch, she responded casually and in all seriousness, "Wednesday'ish," and continued about her business. Kristin is the ultimate planner and the unexpected response sent me into hysterics. In addition to the laughter, I just remember how wonderful it was to see her so content and carefree and I'm so happy that I was a part of it.

4. What excites you most about going back home?

She-Klong: Of course number one is seeing and catching up with my family and friends, even though, according to Kevin, while away I have talked to my Mom on Skype an "embarrassing amount for someone who is almost 30". Other perks will be being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet, not worrying about personal security nearly to the same degree and not worrying about the food you eat making you sick.

He-Klong: I know I should probably say "catching up with friends and family" or a"resuming my career" (wow, putting that last part into words just made me throw up in my mouth...), but I'm going to have to go with "the ability to flush toilet paper". I don't know anything about how plumbing works. I don't know why the systems here can't handle paper of any sort but in junior high school we never seemed to have any problem when we were flushing the gym shorts of people who forgot to close their locker doors down the toilet. Regardless, it will be good to go home and flush with impunity once again (paper, that is, not gym shorts).

* * * * *

The blog is now officially on the endangered species list. Two posts left.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Trio for Rio

Freedom29's first visitor has come and gone. For eight days we explored, socialized and waited out torrential downpours with Kristin's cousin, Brittney. I briefly considered allowing Britt a guest post to describe her experiences, but, after considering the popularity of Kristin's earlier posts, I just couldn't risk being the third most popular author on my own blog and decided to write the post myself. Don't judge.

Before Britt's arrival, the idea of walking around Brazil with two lovely ladies on my arm had me feeling a lot like "Kevin Long - Rock Star". In reality, the experience left me feeling a lot more like "Kevin Long - Man Purse". Honestly, there were times when those two helped ensure my cargo shorts were more loaded up than Batman's utility belt, and the combination of money, cameras and keys I was carrying probably made me the poster boy for the muggable Rio tourist. Thankfully, I was not depossessed of any belongings along the way and I got even with the girls by pretending from time to time that I wasn't carrying enough money on me for them to buy their precious caipirinhas. Passive aggressive? Maybe. Satisfying? Remarkably so.

For Britt's visit, we planned four nights in Rio de Janeiro (Kristin and I arrived a day earlier and had a fifth night), three nights on beautiful Ilha Grande and our last night in the colonial, waterside town of Paraty and its UNESCO protected historic center. It was a good itinerary with largely disappointing weather. After one rainy day in Rio, the rain started again after our first night in Ilha Grande and never stopped. I found it tough not to feel bad for Britt that so many days of her stay were marred by bad weather and even tougher not to feel bad for myself that we invited down somebody who would bring such foul weather with her from Calgary. Notwithstanding the rain, I would say (and I really hope that Britt would agree) that we still managed to have a really good time and share a lot of laughs. Britt was also a good sport about the comically small room we shared in Rio (which is one downside of letting the backpackers choose the accommodation), which probably wasn't the ideal setting for a person with an actual job to unwind during their vacation time.

Some brief Rio thoughts: If there's a more beautiful city in the world, it's hard to imagine what it would have to look like. Rio's blessed with so many beautiful features that it almost seems like an embarrassment of riches. Kristin loved the long beaches that lined the city (particularly Copacabana Beach), Britt loved the Big Jesus watching over the city, and I loved the severity of the mountains jutting out of the water or protuding alongside neighbourhoods throughout the city. We only saw a handful of the many neighbourhoods I would have liked to have visited, but I found them each to have their own character and worthy of a return visit. In addition to its physical beauty, I also felt like the city had its own pulse that seemed to strengthen with the temperature. On the day it rained, it almost seemed like the city was in a state of mourning or hibernation. The pulse, of course, is a function of the people, and watching the cariocas and their love affair with the beach was fascinating and probably would be a reason to make the trip by itself.

Like other large cities we've visited in South America, there is an obvious divide between poor and wealthy citizens, but the socioeconomic groups live in much closer proximity to one another in Rio, where favelas are built illegally on many of the mountains that I mentioned in the previous paragraph (and elsewhere around and throughout the city - approximately 900 in total). We had an opportunity to visit one of such favela - the largest in Latin America, with approximately 200,000 residents - through an organized tour. I was initially a bit reluctant to pay somebody to take us on what amounts to a tour of low-income people and their homes, but the tour was organized in a way that was not exploitative, was highly educational for outsiders, and we were given numerous opportunities to spend our money in the community and see how the tours are helping to develop social services for people in need. It truly was an eye-opening experience and the individual motor-scooter rides into and up the favelas was a pee-your-pants good time.

Finally, we end off with some unfortunate news. Some weeks ago, Kristin developed a nagging pain in her foot, likely as a result of too much walking and hiking. Sadly, it has continued to worsen and now it appears Kristin has developed a stress fracture in the foot and will be in a boot cast for the foreseeable future. The good news is that the name of the cast is the "Bota Robocop", which is super bad ass and makes me wish I too had robotic appendages. The bad news is that it isn't entirely clear at this point what the injury means to the rest of our trip. Hopefully a few days to heal and bottle of Malbec or two in Buenos Aires (where we arrive on Monday) will shed some light on the situation.

Our pictures from our time with Britt are here. You'll notice that they fall off completely after the rains started.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Paying it Forward

I think we're getting half decent at this South American backpacking thing. We've learned a lot by doing, but we've also picked up some helpful hints from other travellers along the way. As such, to mark the four-month anniversary of our trip and to give back to the travelling community, I've cobbled together a couple of pieces of advice from our experiences that you might not find in a guidebook. I hope somebody out there finds them helpful.

Understanding Tripadvisor

Almost exclusively, we rely on Tripadvisor reviews to determine which hostels, pousadas or B&Bs we'll be staying at. While that is probably not particularly helpful in and of itself, I think understanding what the reviews are actually saying is a bit of an art and I have some suggestions for would-be backpackers looking for a translation. In addition to taking all outliers with a grain of salt (i.e. if the reviews for a place are nearly universally positive or negative, you can usually ignore the reviews that don't fit), it's important to understand the inflationary/deflationary impact that certain types of backpacker reviews can have on the overall score given to your potential lodging. Certain words or phrases are indicators that you may be reading such a review. Here are three examples:

(1) Reviewer says: "This was the best hostel I have ever stayed at in my life. I had the most amazing time and wish I could have stayed there forever. Go here!!"

Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel. I stil can't believe my good fortune/their poor judgement. If this had been a roach motel, I would have given it a perfect rating. Man, they were so much hotter than me."

Analysis: These reviews are often easy to pick out because they give virtually no detail on why the experience was so awesome. It's like the reviewer is still in shock that the hook up happened at all and can only provide a review that is akin to a verbal fist pump.

(2) Reviewer says: "Pretty decent hostel, but probably only worth one night."

Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel the first night, but then they found somebody more attractive the second night and I was unceremoniously tossed aside."

Analysis: A variant of the Type 1 class, these typically come with a fairly low rating for the hostel. It is worth noting the the likelihood that you are looking at either a Type 1 or 2 type of review increases dramatically if the reviewer's profile indicates that they are (i) Male, (ii) Australian and (iii) between the ages of 18 and 24... some stereotypes exist for a reason.

(3) Reviewer says: "DO NOT STAY HERE!!!!!!!!!!! [Insert laundry list of complaints]"

Possible translation: "I am very tough to please and/or I just finished a 30-hour bus ride. I'm not in a good mood and somebody is going to pay!"

Analysis: Amazingly, the accuracy of a review does not always correlate perfectly with the number of exclamation marks that a reviewer uses. Some negative reviews are justified, but those that nitpick every single detail and don't mention any positive or redeeming factors are often suspect. That said, we typically read criticisms about cleanliness, safety and unfriendly staff more closely. Also, backpackers are loathe to pack up all of their things, throw on their 30-pound packs and move along unnecessarily. If the reviewer mentions they switched to another hostel in the same city, that's probably a pretty big red flag that something wasn't right.

Long Bus Rides

No, I don't have any hints about how to increase your likelihood of surviving South American bus rides (which I'm still convinced is some function of sheer luck) or how to figure out bus timetables with any degree of confidence. But since many of the buses we have ridden are not equipped with toilets and pit stops are few and far inbetween, the urgent need to use the washroom on a trip can ruin an otherwise run-of-the-mill, horrifying bus ride through the Andes. To combat this evil, for those of you who have been stricken with alarmingly small bladders like myself, I highly recommend intentional and thorough pre-departure dehydration. WARNING: I actually think this advice is directly contrary to what is suggested by physicians when travelling at high altitudes, so it may not be for everyone. That said, I'd rather stagger off the bus upon arrival and overpay for the first water bottle offered to me than be one of those people who ends the ride with their legs crossed and tears streaming down their face.

Seizing the Day

This heading isn't meant to be advice; more of an apology. I started this blog with the intention of including a couple of additional headings, but then we arrived in Rio yesterday right after I wrote the bus paragraph and ... wow, this city is cool. As a result, I'm tucking away the laptop, cutting this post a little short and heading back out to explore. Instead of more advice (which I'm sure you were all really craving ...), I've added a few pictures from our time in Trindade, Brazil, which you can see here.

As an update, Kristin's cousin is joining us from Calgary later today for about a week of Brazil time. She isn't 29 and she still has a job, but we've still decided to make her an honorary Freedom29er all the same. If she brings a Blackberry into our hostel room, however, I'm giving her the boot. Just kidding. Sort of.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Falling for Floripa

And we're back! Sorry for the long lag between posts. We've been.... well ... not busy per se, but....ummm.... oh wow, this is getting awkward. Let's just pick up from the where we left off, post 23-hour bus ride. Good? Good.

Tired of the rivers and lakes that we were used to, we ignored TLC's well-known advice and went chasing waterfalls. What we tracked down was Iguazu Falls at the intersection of the Argentinian, Brazilian and Paraguayan borders (and visited the Argentinian side of the Falls). How good was it? Well, I love waterfalls, so I would have been school-girl giddy with whatever we happened to find there. Kristin, on the other hand, doesn't particularly care for waterfalls [Editor's note: honestly, who doesn't like waterfalls?], told me she had been unimpressed by Niagara Falls [Editor's note: tough crowd, though I note she did have good things to say about the nearby wineries] and appeared to be feigning interest prior to her arrival after I made her promise not to ruin the visit for me. When we finally got there, however, Kristin was a convert - snapping photos like a crazy person and giggling after all of the good mistings. Not even the scolding she got from a park ranger for feeding wildlife could dampen her enthusiasm. Conclusion? Either Iguazu Falls > Niagara Falls or Kristin was still loopy from the big beer I made her split with me the night before we visited. Either way, it's good to have her on our side now. On to Brazil!

Other than a couple of bus rides, five nights in Florianopolis (or "Floripa" to those of us who are in tight) was responsible for our first impression of Brazil. I think we chose wisely. The whole of Santa Catarina Island (of which Floripa is a part) has a population in the neighbourhood of 400,000, who were the fittest and, objectively, probably the most beautiful people we've come across on our trip to date. Organic and other healthy foods dominated most menus in town and visiting outside of the high-season for Brazilian tourism meant that everybody was incredibly laid back and one could find hikes and beaches without any other people during the weekdays. I'm giving the whole town one gold star since it was one of its hostels that finally granted my wish of an all-you-can-eat South American barbecue, but then taking the gold star away because board shorts in town (which I am in dire need of) cost between CDN$90-160.

By my count, it took us about three days to figure out the right mix for the Floripa coastal experience.

Day 1: Hit some popular beaches. Verdict: Good.
Day 2: Hiked through some tropical forest. Verdict: Good.
Day 3: Hiked through some tropical forest to deserted beaches. Verdict: Booyah!

Having mastered the program so early, I could focus my Day 4 efforts on trying surfing for the first time (Floripa is generally regarded as Brazil's surfing paradise). My take: It's tougher than I had imagined and the beach we were at wasn't exactly for beginners. I got up'ish a few times, but never coasted all of the way to the shore as I had envisioned. Kristin's take (after watching from the shore): For the blog, she recommended that I emphasize pictures that showed me with the surf board on the beach rather than the ones that showed me with the surf board in the water. Ouch!

You can check out some of our pictures from Iguazu and Floripa here. What's next for us? We're heading up the coast to check out some more beaches and take some yoga lessons. Hopefully then we'll feel more rested. I know, I hate me too.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

There Can Only Be One

Move over Arequipa. Salta, Argentina is taking over as my new home away from home in the Southern Hemisphere. First off, I'd like to say that I'm very disappointed in Arequipa for only being able to hang on to the crown for a month. Frankly, I had expected more. Secondly, I'd like to apologize to our readers for the oversight of annointing a city in the first place that didn't come from a wine-growing region. You can be sure that I won't make that mistake again. So, why Salta? In addition to the wine (which has restored the healthy black glow to Kristin's teeth that we all know and love), the weather is warm, but comfortable (we were strolling around in t-shirts past 1 a.m.), the people are friendly (which is why we weren't afraid to walk around past 1 a.m.), there are lots of parks, shops and pedestrian-only streets (which make for great people watching) and the food options/prices make it seem like the town was created for thrifty, beef-loving Italians (which are my kind of people). The last item may prove to be more of an Argentina thing than a Salta thing, but I'm willing to give Salta credit until I see that it is otherwise.

[Aside #1: The only thing which detracted from my Salta experience was the bit I read in one of the guidebooks before arriving which said that travellers should really try to get invited to an asado (an Argentinian private barbecue, where copious amounts of fire-roasted beef and wine are typically served). What does that mean .... try to get invited? I can't get my best friends back home to invite me over for a barbecue, but now I'm supposed to try and get Argentinian strangers to invite me to one of theirs? I think the best offer I've received to-date was a drag off of somebody's cigarette. Until I find one, I'm compensating by ordering beef at every meal.]

After three days in Salta, we headed a few hours south to the town of Cafayate - in Northwest Argentina's canyon and wine country - where day-to-day life seemed to largely revolve around the main church and evening dinners out with family and friends. Our plans for Cafayate were ambitious - we wanted to mix a modest amount of exercise into the rigorous eating and drinking schedule we developed in Salta. The exercise included hiking around local vineyards and was highlighted by a 50km bike ride through the red canyons and desert of the Quebrada de Cafayate. In anticipation of the bike ride and after much searching, Kristin managed to procure what I'm convinced were the only two bicycle helmets in town. The man who rented the helmets said two things which turned out not to be in my favour: (1) We could only rent his helmets if we also rented his bikes (which meant that I was stuck with a bike seat from the 19th century which violated me so badly that I am still walking gingerly); and (2) we had to pay the full-date rate in advance, but if we got the bikes back to him by a certain time - which he didn't think would be possible - he would refund us 40% of our money (which got Kristin's competitive fires going and ended any possibility of the romantic, Wedding Crashers-like bike ride that I had been envisioning). Kristin happily turned a portion of the inevitable refund we received into 250 grams of ice cream at a local parlor.

[Aside #2: Presumably because Argentina seems so modern in comparison to some of the places we've visited, Kristin informed me a couple of days after our arrival in Salta that we are no longer really travelling.... we are vacationing. Now, I'm not sure that there is a need to differentiate, but if "vacationing" means that I won't be sprinting to the washroom after meals and the showers won't give me mild electric shocks from time to time, vacation suits me just fine. I note that I am writing this post in the middle of a 23-hour bus ride. No word yet from Kristin on whether this constitutes vacationing or travelling, but my aching back tells me that it is still probably the latter.]

Our pictures from Salta and the surrounding area are here. We're heading into Brazil in short order. If I discover there is more travelling to be done there, I hope to post another blog in the next few days. Otherwise, I'm sorry to inform you that I don't blog while on "vacation"...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Kristin's Corner - Bolivia

We left Bolivia more than a week ago, so I guess it is about time I wrap up our time in Bolivia with, once again, the top things that Kevin missed (he actually missed a whole entire city this time - I know, shocking).

1. Overview

I absolutely loved our time in Bolivia. As Kevin said in an earlier post, when we first decided to go on this trip, La Paz was the city I was most excited to visit out of all of the cities in South America. I am not entirely sure why - maybe because it is the highest capital city in the world or maybe because I did not have a clear picture of what it would be like in my mind - but it did not disappoint. From the moment we drove into La Paz, I felt so excited to be back in a big, bustling city, but one that seemed very traditional at the same time. Since I had spent so much energy being excited about La Paz, I did not really think that much about the surrounding areas of Bolivia, but they definitely held some of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen. It is amazing how 300km north of La Paz is the amazon basin; 50km west of La Paz is Lake Titicaca; and 500km south of La Paz is the salt flats and the gateway to the driest desert in the world.

2. Parades

The bizarre parades are something I will miss about Bolivia. At the most random times, huge parades of people, usually dressed in costumes, would go singing and dancing down the street. One morning in Copacabana we almost got knocked over by a parade of people where everyone was dressed in ghost/goblin types of costumes. That same afternoon we heard the sound of a marching band and pulled to the side to have a parade of people dressed up in recycling-type costumes (i.e., newspapers and bottles glued to them) go dancing and chanting by us. The best part about these parades was that Copacabana is a small town and these were fairly significant parades - basically the whole town must have been partaking in them. Here is a picture of the recycling parade coming towards us:

3. Poverty

Travelling in Bolivia was more difficult travelling than in Peru or Colombia, which I guess makes sense since it is the poorest country in South America, but I also felt that it was more "untouched" than some of the countries we have visited. One of the most notable signs of the poverty is the garbage. Everyone just throws their garbage wherever they want, which means that the surroundings of each town is basically one big garbage dump. I had a tough time understanding why these people just dump their garbage everywhere and anywhere when it is so obviously ruining their environment; however, after seeing the way certain Bolivians live (actually, I lie, after talking about it with Kevin - he seems to be a bit more sympathetic and insightful than me!), my opinion changed. Garbage disposal is less of a priority than other more basic infrastructure projects that many of these towns are still working on. It was pretty sad to see... Below is a picture a few kilometers outside of one Bolivian town, where the garbage disposal started:

4. Sucre

In between our time in the amazon and our time in the salt flats, we visited the beautiful city of Sucre. The city was very different from the other cities we visited in Bolovia, and had a greater aura of sophistication to it. The people seemed noticeably wealthier and we felt very safe at all times of the day/night. Our trip to Sucre also came at the 3 month anniversary of the start of our trip (which sadly also means we are halfway done our trip) and we used it as a base to get ourselves organized and for me to get over a chest cold. We had a tough time leaving Sucre, partly because it was such a nice, easy town to stay in, and partly because of the hostel we were staying in. We were some of the only guests in this hostel, our room was fantastic and we have never gotten so excited about a breakfast as the free breakfast in this hostel. As Kevin said "this is not only the best breakfast of our trip, this might be the best breakfast of my life". Here is a picture of me having a glass of Bolivian vino in the loft that we even had in our room (yes, I know, maybe not the best way to get over a chest cold!):

Click here for a few pictures of our time in Sucre. Note that Kevin wanted me to mention that the captions are mine, not his. I'm assuming he isn't expecting much and doesn't want anyone to confuse them with his own.

Thanks for reading and I hope that all is well with everyone back home! xox

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

With a Terrain of Salt

As long-term travellers in South America, we are spoiled with a seemingly endless supply of picturesque surroundings. So far, we have hiked through deserted jungle forests and canyons, gawked up close at towering, glacier-covered peaks and whittled away lazy days on pristine Caribbean beaches. Arriving to each of these places for the first time can feel almost spiritual, yet I am ashamed to realize that after a certain amount of time in one place (it might be hours, it might be days) I often become numb to the beauty which surrounds me. Perhaps that is why I found our jeep trip across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (the world's largest salt flat and the remnants of a prehistoric salt lake) into the Atacama Desert in Chile (the world's driest desert) so amazing. Just past the horizon or around the next corner seemingly lurked some surreal object or colour which had no apparent connection to the one previous to it. It felt like a three-day drive through a natural amusement park and it had my undivided attention throughout.

Just mentioning some of places we visited along the way (i.e. Laguna Colorada, Fish Island, Laguna Verde) is still enough to bring smiles to our faces. If I had been commissioned to paint the various landscapes we encountered (pretending for a moment that I had been blessed with any artistic ability), I would have coloured them just as they were. The blinding whiteness of the salt contrasted magically with a deep blue and nearly cloudless sky, yet wispy clouds seemed to appear just in time for sunsets and to accentuate the orange hills, pink flamingos and red lakes (yes, red lakes) that came next. Volcanos, geysers, hot springs and wildlife? Check, check, check and check. Yes, it could get very cold and, yes, it could get very windy, but it just added to the whole experience. I just don't have enough good things to say about all that we saw.

The best advice we received from other travellers before setting out on the trip - and one that I would commend to future visitors - was that we should be prepared to be astonished by the setting and hopeful that our tour operator wouldn't ruin the experience. Indeed, finding travellers willing to recommend the tour group they used is sort of like trying to find a rational Toronto Maple Leafs fan - they pretty much don't exist. I'd crudely lump the typical complaints into one of two categories: the scary (bad, careless or drunk jeep operators and jeeps in very poor mechanical condition) and the uncomfortable (over-crowded jeeps, bad food, food which might make you sick and basic accommodations). Given that our guidebook noted that a number of tourist lives are lost each year in jeep accidents, we focused on trying to find a company that offered less "scary" and crossed our fingers that we would dodge the "uncomfortable". We succeeded in accomplishing the former but couldn't pull off the latter. While I would say that we have now joined the ranks of backpackers who wouldn't recommend their agency, as hard as they tried, I'm happy to say that they were not able to ruin the experience for us.

As always, my Salt Flats experience by the numbers:

Number of times I thought I was going to die: 1 (when I realized the plate of food they put in front of me the first night was meant to be dinner for all seven of us)

Momentary lapses in concentration leading to falls: Zero (yeah, I know it was a jeep trip, but this is progress, people!)

Number of times I thought Kristin was going to slap our jerk driver: 5

Number of times I saw our jerk driver drinking before 8:00 a.m.: 1

Number of tourists in our "six-person jeep": 7

Number of seats that left for the cook we were promised: Zero

The rest of our pictures from the Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama are here. I think they speak for themselves and I didn't even attempt to post any funny comments to go alongside them. Okay, that's not true... the captions are my very favourite part of blogging and I couldn't resist. That said, the pictures are beautiful and I hope my words don't do them a disservice. Now on deck: Kristin, with her Bolivia wrap up.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Arrival to the Freedom29 Family

It is my great pleasure to announce that on October 7, 2010, four days after returning from Rurrenabaque, Kristin's hip gave birth to the Amazonian Jungle Tick pictured below (still unnamed). It was a difficult delivery, highlighted by squirming, screaming and gagging on Kristin's part, but the Tick finally emerged healthy and hit the ground running (literally). Mother is recovering (emotionally) and, several days later, can now be considered to be resting comfortably.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kristin's Grumble in the Jungle

In another last minute Bolivia planning move, we passed on doing a high-altitude, multi-day trek and decided instead on a three-day boat ride into the Amazon Basin and the town of Rurrenabaque. In my mind, the boat offered a chance to encounter scenery unlike any we have seen on the trip previously and a totally unique way of getting to the Amazon. It also incorporated hiking (which Kristin likes) in the jungle (which Kristin likes less) and camping in the jungle (which Kristin doesn't really like at all), all in the heat and humidity one would expect of such a setting. Basically, we had all of the ingredients for an interesting couple of days. I enjoyed it and thought it was a good experience. Kristin at one point on the trip uttered the words, “this is my hell,” which suggests she probably remembers it less fondly. Let’s go to the video replay...

The trip for me got off to a bit of a rocky start. We had spent the two nights prior to shoving off in the sub-tropical town of Coroico, which the Lonely Planet describes as a "Bolivian Eden". We enjoyed the town (especially after switching hostals after the first night), and it did get us used to being around some of the creepy-crawlies we were expecting in the Amazon, but it wasn't the paradise we were hoping for. The "Eden" analogy might have held true, however, in the sense that I definitely ate some sort of forbidden fruit (or, more likely, forbidden meat) that introduced me to Bolivia Belly the night before the boat ride began and sent me running into the sweet embrace of anti-bacterial medication for the first time on our trip. With a four-hour taxi ride to the boat and three-hour river cruise scheduled to begin early the next morning, the timing was less than ideal and the first day of the Amazon trip was not entirely pleasant.

Stomach issues aside, I found cruising in the boat to be remarkably peaceful, maybe with the exception of the torrential downpour which lasted most of the third day. It was also a great way to see isolated towns that would have been inaccessible via any other form of transportation, and to see the locals out on the water and along the banks of the river sifting for gold. In this last respect, some of the convenience stores even had scales where people could bring in the tiny nuggets of gold that they found and be paid for it on the spot. I don't remember the exact rate per gram, but it sure wasn't very much. The landscape in the basin was pretty, even though it was largely covered in a smokey haze from intentionally lit fires in the area, and the boat plodded down the river at a pace that was leisurely enough to ensure we didn't miss anything noteworthy. We filled lulls in the time by chatting with those around us and drinking beer we bought in the riverside towns. I never managed to look up the effects of alcohol in combination with anti-baterial meds and malaria pills before we set off, but, as I'm still standing, I'm willing to give it the Kevin Long Seal of Approval.

While the trip was a chance to enjoy time with friends (naturally, Veit and Meike were there), it was also an opportunity to renew acquantainces with an old enemy from our jungle time in Colombia - the sandfly. For those that are not familiar, sandflies (or at least the ones here) are a lot like mosquitoes, except that they are much smaller and more difficult to see, don't have any sort of adversion to insect repellent and leave a bite that looks, more than anything else, like someone performed amateur surgery on the affected area. Oh, and the bites itch like crazy and tend to scab and scar. Anyways, they were out in full force, particularly at our swimming holes and when we camped on the beach the second night. Kristin's legs have once again taken the worst of it and, combined with her sandfly scars from The Lost City trek, look a lot like a pepperoni pizza from a distance. She is still in a state of mourning.

Insects and birds aside, we didn't see much of the wildlife (pink river dolphins and sloths, for example) I was hoping for. This was somewhat expected because the river tour is not the area one goes to see the most animals (it's better to book an additional tour to a different area once arriving in Rurrenabaque, which Kristin was having none of). Also, our group ballooned from six to 14 persons when a rival operator cancelled their tour, which made us a very noisy bunch when hiking through the jungle. Ironically, we did end up seeing one animal that we were all very much hoping to avoid. [Editor's note: I don't actually know if this is an example of irony or not. I've been totally confused by the definition ever since that Alanis Morissette song came out 15 years ago.] The body of the snake pictured below was largely covered by grass and leaves which had fallen from the trees, but the grey area behind its head was the walking path from our boat to the tents. We were incredibly lucky that it was our guide who happened down the path first and heard the snake, which does not retreat from people, before it was too late. He said that if the snake had gotten a good bite on one of us, that person would have been dead within three hours. When he called some of us over to have a look, even though he was pointing to the spot where it lay, I couldn't see it until I was about six or seven feet away. Ultimately, the snake was given the bouncer treatment with a couple of long sticks and shown back to the river, while our group went the other way to begin a hike in the jungle and consider what could have been.

Our pictures from our Amazon trip are here. We’re heading to the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian salt flats) tomorrow for a three-day jeep ride and then on to the Atacama desert in Chile, so we'll wish our Canadian readers Happy Thanksgiving a bit early and hope to see everyone again here for a new post early next week.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bolivin' the Dream

We're a little bit behind in our blogging, so this is going to serve as an Intro to Bolivia/Lake Titicaca/La Paz combo post. I know, I'm excited too.

Intro to Bolivia

We have only been in Bolivia for a short while, but have really enjoyed the few places we've had an opportunity to visit. The country offers a seemingly endless variety of landscapes and we are doing are best to take in a fair cross-section. Planning a route through the country has been a head-scratching experience, though, as towns that appear to be located close to one another on a map often take a disproportionately large amount of time to reach on account of the unforgiving terrain. Because of this phenomenon, we never seem to know where we are going until the day before or the day of our actual departure. I'm not much of a planner, so I'm finding travelling here really fun in that respect. Kristin, the consummate planner, is probably ready to snap-lose-it.

Crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia was one of those times when, even though you can't necessarily put your finger on what it is, you get the feeling that you have definitely arrived in some place new. There was just something about the way the first towns operated and our interaction with people that suggested as much. An example of a less subtle difference is the quasi-formal system of taxes and tariffs that we have been subjected to since our arrival. Some places place a tax on tourists the moment they arrive in town; most have some sort of tax to leave (in addition to what you are charged by transportation company). Some places have taxes to access different parts of the same town/island; different people on those towns/islands often try to make you pay the tax more than once. In Rurrenabaque, for example, after we paid for our flight and corresponding taxes, we were pointed to a man at the next counter to pay an extra airport tax, who in turn pointed across the corridor to a stand where a lady charged an additional municial tax to leave the town. Everybody seems to want their ounce of flesh (at these prices, "pound of flesh" seems like exaggeration). Depending on our mood, this can either be mildly amusing or mildly annoying.

Visiting Lake Titicaca and La Paz also helped allow us formulate the following generalizations which seem to have governed our travels in Bolivia so far:

1. Yes, things are cheaper here.
2. No, buses will not be arriving in accordance with posted schedules, if at all, and those that do arrive will be driven quite quickly.
3. Villagers in the jungle regions use fire to control vegetation, meaning that most every vista is obscured by smoke at this time of year.
4. "Bolivia Belly" is real and coming to a stomach near you early and often.

Lake Titicaca

We raced through the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca and skipped the islands that are reachable from the main Peruvian port of Puno. We had heard various accounts that the Peruvian side had become incredibly commercialized in recent years, which was apparently confirmed when some travel companions told us the locals were singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to them as they arrived to one of the islands. Instead, we set up shop on the Bolivian side in the peaceful town of Copacabana.

After we unpacked, I immediately headed to the shores of Lake Titicaca with my speedo on tight and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” blasting in my iPod, looking for bikinis and a good time. You can imagine my disappointment when I was discovered that not only was this not the Copacabana Barry was singing about, but that the lyrics to the song have nothing to do with the beach and are actually quite depressing. Huge buzz kill. What I found at the beach were people dressed in warm jackets and these peculiar, swan-themed paddle boats everywhere. I switched my iPod over to the Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" and sauntered dejectedly back to our hostal.

Thankfully, the town and its easy vibe proved to be a pleasant spot to begin soaking up the Bolivian lifestyle and my frown was turned upside down. Adding to the enjoyment was the reunion with our favourite German couple, Veit and Meike, whom we hadn’t seen since Colombia. They sent us a rough itinerary of their time in Bolivia before our arrival and, since we never seem to have concrete plans of our own here, we find that we're effectively copying theirs. As such, if we get behind in our posts, you can check out their blog (particularly rewarding if you can read German) to see how we’re doing.

The highlight of our visit to Copacabana was our day/night trip (with Veit and Meike, of course) to the nearby Isla del Sol. According to local legend, Isla del Sol gave rise to the first Inca and is the birthplace of the sun. From what little I know of the cosmos, I believe this to be somewhat in contradiction to the Big Bang Theory, but I'm not looking to choose sides. At 4000 metres above sea level, I think everyone can agree that even if the sun wasn't born on the Island, it likely keeps a summer home in the area, because it sure never seemed to be very far away. In a pleasant seven-hour walking loop, we managed to see most of the Island, checked out some nice beaches where locals swam and washed clothes, passed some small Inca sites, found a hostal with a view of the water, and took in a pretty sunset after a couple of big beers. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday.

La Paz

La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and the city that Kristin, somewhat randomly, picked out several months back as the place that she was most excited to visit. Her excitement reached a fever pitch in the days and weeks leading up to our arrival as she again and again promised me that we would be able to get everything our hearts desired "once we reach La Paz". That turned out to be slightly misleading, but the city had significant charm and we enjoyed our four nights there immensely

We actually arrived in La Paz twice - once by bus and once in a small plane returning from Rurrenabaque (which I'll touch upon in a future post about our trip to the Amazon Basin). I'll never forget either. People use words like "awe-inspring", "breathtaking" or "jaw-dropping" pretty liberally when describing places they visit in their travels, but rolling along the altiplano and through the neighbouring town of El Alto in our bus (at nearly 4150 metres) and then coming across the drop-off into the city of La Paz below (down to lows of approximatley 3000 metres) seems worthy of whichever of those aforementioned descriptions is your personal favourite. We never did head back up to the top to get a stationary picture of the view (and came away with surprisingly few good pictures from our time in the city), but it was more than spectacular.

Maybe my favourite thing about La Paz is that its long, main street (El Prado) managed to provide many of the goods, services and public facilities that one would hope for in any large, international city, but so many of its side streets (particularly where we stayed) managed to maintain a small-town aura and feel completely Bolivian. I'm not sure how many times we ventured up and down the main drag (walking back up the hill was tiring) only to stumble across some sort of fair, market or festival. With the exception of Sunday night, there was always something to see. Also, ducking off El Prado allowed us to venture into different small neighbourhoods where we explored numerous small markets and our favourite Bolivian snacking option - the salteña (pictured above).

You can see our pictures from Lake Titicaca and La Paz here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Kristin's Corner - Peru

Since we have been in Bolivia for over a week and are heading into the Amazon tomorrow morning, and therefore will not be in internet range for about a week, I figured it was time for me to wrap up the month we spent in Peru. Once again, "Kristin's Corner" is going to focus on things that Kevin missed. Here they are in no particular order:


The food in Peru was a pleasant surprise after a couple months of fried carbs in Colombia. We found that there were way more veggies and great, inexpensive "trucha" (trout) could be found just about everywhere. No, we did not try "cuy" (guinea pig), a Peruivian specialty. Call us unadventurous, but as soon as we saw that a whole guinea pig is served in front of you, we decided that tasting it was unnecessary. Kevin ate alpaca and llama (see below for a picture of one of the poor little guys) quite frequently, and I would have to say that my favourite local dish was "rocoto relleno" (a red pepper stuffed with beef, potatoes, cheese, veggies and lots of spices). Our "go to" budget food was empanadas and, whereas in Colombia they were fried, in Peru they were baked. Also, as the pictures in the past couple posts can attest to, amazing chocolate cake was just about everywhere - how could you not have one a day for around $1 a slice?

We are proud to say that after sampling the local food, both street food and food in the restaurants, we each only had one serious bout of South American tummy troubles. Although this may not seem like a great feat, most of the friends we met on the road have had many more problems. The German couple we became close with in Colombia, and whom we will be travelling with for the next week or so in the Amazon, were even hospitalized after their Santa Cruz trek because of serious stomach issues from the food and water. On that note, it will definitely be an adjustment when we come home and detailed discussions around tummy troubles with people you just meet are somewhat taboo, as it seems to be a source of frequent conversation down here.

Also, a pleasant surprise in Peru was the existence of decent, inexpensive wine. Since we are somewhat "budget travellers", I had to largely avoid wine in Colombia, as it was expensive (well, expensive by South American standards), but much to my delight, since Peru is closer to Chile and they produce some of their own wine, decent red wine was plentiful. Below is a picture of from Peru's largest winery... The surrounding area is so dry, I was quite actually surprised that grapes could even grow there.


Of course, we did not visit every region in Peru and our interaction with the locals was somewhat limited, but I found the people in Peru to be very different than those in Colombia. Firstly, although they were generally very pleasant, I found them to be much more subdued and quiet than their South American neighbors. Some people we spoke with said that this is because of the high altitude in Peru. I am not sure I buy this, but, instead, I think that it is partly due to the fact that Colombians are notorious for being boisterous and full of life and partly due to the fact that Peru is a lot more touristy than Colombia. While Colombia is pretty new on the "gringo trail", Peru has been on such trail for years and seeing and dealing with tourists is not a novelty for, and, frankly, not always very enjoyable for Peruvians.

I also found that people were trying to rip us off left, right and centre in Peru. My first meal in Peru was a delicious pizza in the Lima airport and the 14 year old who sold it to me gave me my change and of course "forgot" to give me 5 soles. These "mistakes" happened all the time, whereas I do not think they happened once in Colombia. Kevin thinks I have become paranoid that people are trying to rip me off, but I was not paranoid before our time in Peru...


Before I really started reading about South America, I must admit, I sort of associated visiting South America with galavanting around in the sun and heat. I now know that is definitely not the case. Granted we were in Peru in their winter (the summer is their rainy season), but it was cold! I do not think we went out one night in Peru without our fleeces, scarves, socks and runners (I am really looking forward to being about to change up the clothing situation once we hit Brazil in about a month). Even on sunny days we were always in pants and long-sleeved tops. In Huaraz, we bought his and hers Alpaca sweaters (I bought a matching one to Kev's, much to his delight) and on our treks would need every single layer we brought, as well as touques and mitts to stay somewhat warm. I am definitely not complaining - I would actually rather it be too cold than too hot - I was just a little surprised. I guess it makes sense, as we were between 3000M and 4000M during most of the month we spent in Peru.

Even though it was fairly chilly, the sun was very strong, which is also because of the high altitude. To further protect himself from the sun, Kevin bought a wide-brimmed goofy hat for the Inca Trail, and I must say, I gave him a hard time, but by the time we reached the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, I was running to the nearest kiosk to buy my own goofy hat. Stay tuned for a post and pictures of us wearing our goofy hats around Lake Titicaca and La Paz once we return from the Amazon (see below for a preview). And wish us luck in the Amazon - Kevin described to me what the death from an anaconcda would consist of yesterday over dinner (and after we booked our Amazon camping trip).

Thanks for reading and I hope all is well! xox

Monday, September 27, 2010

Culture Alley - Peru

We've finally made our way into Bolivia, meaning that country number two in our adventure is officially in the books. I had long planned to do a post which reflected upon some of the cultural elements that made our visit to Peru memorable, but we’ve often been without internet of late, I’m feeling a little lazy and it’s clear to me what the people want – more Kristin. As such, I’ll leave it to her to largely wrap up Peru for us (likely once we return in about a week’s time from the Bolivian Amazon) and focus on a couple of selected topics instead. Paring down this post should also make it more easy for Kristin to come up with her list of “things that I missed”.


Our visit to Peru coincided with the buildup for the local, regional and national elections that will be taking place in October. In contrast to the increasingly scant levels of voter turnout we have been seeing in recent elections back home, participation in the political processs seems to be at a fever pitch in this part of the world. I can't comment on the issues that are of particular concern to Peruvians, but the campaign managers here capitalize on the word “change” to a degree that Barack Obama's team never would have dreamed of.

At home, when I think of think of elections, I think of televised debates, Ipsos Reid polls and "elect Person X" signs along highways and on people's lawns. In Peru, it is a little more in your face. Instead of plastic signs, people paint (or allow others to paint) the walls of their houses and businesses with colourful advertising for their candidate of choice. I’m a little sad that we won’t be around to witness the reactions of the paintees when the elections are over and the candidates don’t offer to return the buildings to their original colours. Also, instead of television commercials or radio spots, cars drive around in Peru (often surprisingly late in the night) with loud speakers attached to their roofs to let you know who you should be voting for and why. I thought this could also be a creative solution for advertisers to bypass “Do Not Call” registries back home. We’ll see if it catches on.

Outside of the election process, people seem willing to demonstrate in public for any number of reasons. This typically appears to involve the members of various organizations getting together, getting angry and then heading somewhere congested to cripple traffic. An extreme example of this phenomenon occurred just about a week ago in the context of a water dispute between the cities of Cusco and Arequipa, where unhappy citizens erected blockades all around Cusco and effectively hemmed in the city. While this was most certainly designed to send a message to different levels of government, it also had the effect of informing numerous tourists that they would be missing connecting legs of their trips (and for some, reservations for the Inca Trail).

The People

I’ll let Kristin detail her impressions of the people in Peru, but I observed that Peruvians as a people were quick to smile and seemed to enjoy a good joke. Unfortunately, they didn’t always seem to enjoy my jokes. I’m not sure if it was another language barrier issue or the fact that I’m just not funny, but most of my attempts at what I would deem to be semi-sophisticated humour were met with blank looks or questioning stares. Surprisingly, my most well-received Spanish “joke” to date probably remains the “I want my mother” line I dropped when their were tarantulas near my hammock in The Lost City. Unfortunately, I wasn’t trying to be funny. Right then, I just really wanted my mommy.

One holdover from Colombia was the interest and amusement expressed by Peruvians in our height. While sometimes I think it would be nice if we were less tall – it would be nice to blend into the crowd from time to time - people approaching us to comment on our height or, as was the case with the parents of the little guys in the picture below, to request a picture with one of us, has been the starting point for some of the most enjoyable interaction we have had with local people. Obviously our height is not a cultural element of Peru, but the interaction with locals can be enlightening. I hope that in the future we are able to come up with more conversation starters that don't begin with pointing or staring.

Of all the places we visited in Peru, I think that Cusco, as the former capital of the Inca Empire, and the surrounding Sacred Valley were the places that I would most quickly associate with cultural heritage in Peru. You can see some of our pictures from those places here.

I thought I'd add an amusing story and new personal low which occurred today and has nothing to do with culture or Peru. We are in the process of securing our Brazilian visa and needed to get our passport-like photos taken at a local shop. When the lady in the shop handed the photos back to me, I swore that I heard her say, "I shaved you," but just assumed that I had heard incorrectly. However, when I looked at the photos, it was clear that she had photoshopped my face to remove what she must have considered to be my very embarrassing facial hair. I had hoped that South America would be a ridicule-free environment for my first-ever facial hair growth experiments; sadly, that does not appear to be the case. It is also quite possible that the woman made it look like I was wearing lipstick in the photo, but, this, I am still attempting to verify.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Into the Condor's Lair


An electrifying saga based on true events, the following three short stories chronicle the compelling tale of a couple of young marrieds in the week following the completion of their trek to Machu Picchu, hypnotically transporting the reader to Peru and into a world of intrigue.

The Bus Ride

Once again, Kevin had an uneasy feeling in his stomach. While he had ridden similarly jarring buses before, never before had they been piloted so quickly and never before had the consequences for a missed turn been so severe. Thinking back to that morning's phone call with their intended hostel in Cabanaconde, he recalled the urging of the woman on the other end of the line for them to book this particular bus as soon as possible and the seemingly innocent suggestion that he and his wife try to sit on the right side for the best views of the Canyon. Looking out the window with an unobstructed view of the floor of the Canyon several thousand feet below, he felt certain that he would have enjoyed the scenery much better from the other side of the bus.

"You okay?" Kevin asked his wife this question with as much serenity as he could muster, trying to mask the fear growing inside of him.

"I'm fine," Kristin replied, equally unconvincingly.

Kevin smiled and patted Kristin on the leg. In an effort to distract himself from the events unfolding outside the window, he turned to his new book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was a hopeless effort, as the shaking and rocking of the bus made focusing on the tiny print nearly impossible, but staring at the pages provided the temporary relief he was hoping for.

By some miracle, Kevin felt, and without any appreciation for how long the unpleasantness had lasted, the couple found that the bus had not careened into the abyss and that they were at long last being dropped off at the main square in the small town. Having found their hostel and dropped off their belongings in their room, Kristin and Kevin sidled up to the bar for a badly-needed drink.

"How was the bus ride?" came a voice that Kevin instantly recognized from the phone call earlier that morning. She slid a big beer across the bar to Kevin and poured a glass of wine for Kristin.

"Ugggggghhhh," Kristin replied, taking a sip of her Malbec. Kevin only made a face that indicated that he had been less than impressed by the experience. He pressed the bottle to his lips.

"Yeah," said the woman, nodding in agreement, "my husband won't let me take those buses. They're too dangerous." Kristin shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Kevin gripped his beer more tightly.

"Why? Have there been accidents on that road?" Kristin asked with heightening alarm.

"Yeah, a few recently. Which bus company did you take?"

"Andalucia," Kevin replied flatly, replete with the knowledge that the woman knew perfectly well which bus they had arrived on.

"Ooooh, they've had a lot of accidents lately, and actually had three in one week not too long ago. They were suspended by the government and just resumed operations."

Kevin closed his eyes and took a large swig of beer from his big bottle. In that moment, he was back on the bus and reliving every harrowing turn and bump from the journey. He knew what Kristin's next question would be likely even before she did.

"Three in one week! Did the people die?!?!"

"Not all of them," explained the woman, who then offered to book them a tourist bus for the ride out of the town, which she assured the lanky couple would be much safer. Kevin resisted the temptation to scold the lady for failing to inform them of the bus issues before they booked their tickets. He realized such an outburst would be pointless and that the small hostel couldn't advertise the accidents and risk scaring off prospective gringo customers.

"Another big beer," Kevin called out instead, as he put back the last of his first bottle. After the story he had just been told, he was sure that the next beer would taste even sweeter...

The Hike

At last, Kevin could make out the top of the ridge above him. A bead of sweat slipped down his forehead as he made the final strides up the steep hill and out of the Canyon. When he finally reached flat ground, Kristin was already waiting for him. He shook his head in disbelief as he considered the hour of energy, water and the relative cool of the early morning they had wasted by choosing the incorrect starting point for the trek, as they always did. Their foray into the 3191 metre Colca Canyon - twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and famous for its resident Condors - had not started well. Having been in similar predicaments dozens of times before and knowing the pitfalls, each of them conscientiously avoided laying blame for the blunder.

There’s the path,” Kristin exclaimed, pointing to a spot a couple of hundred metres away. She glanced at her watch. “It’s only nine o’clock and we still have plenty of time if we hurry.” With that, Kristin set off.

As he raced after her, Kevin thought back to the previous night and the reason he now found himself in such a hurry. The conversation with their hostel owner and former guide had started out harmlessly enough, with the finely-dressed man in his mid-20s providing them with possible route choices and approximate hiking times for what was to be their multi-day exploration of the valley below. However, when the gentleman had casually remarked that some hikers had dared to complete the classic circuit of the Canyon in a single day, Kevin shot a glance at Kristin and, from the look in her eyes, could tell instantly that they would be undertaking the entire three-day, two-night route in and out of the Canyon the following day. He sighed audibly.

Descending down the dusty path towards the bottom was thirsty work at the high altitude, where the intense sun felt like it was hanging just above their heads. Furthermore, Kevin’s spirits had not been lifted by the multiple locals who had laughed when the couple had explained their ambitious hiking plans for the day. As they finally reached the river marking the end of their descent, they came across the first in what would be a series of forks along the unmarked path. Determined not to lose their way again, Kristin and Kevin consulted the 4 x 6 inch map they had been handed before they set out that morning, which Kevin was convinced had likely been drawn by a pre-schooler. Frustrated at the lack of detail, he cursed loudly.

“One day, when I have money, I’m going to come back here and pay for some actual trail markers in this Canyon. They’ll probably build a monument in my honour,” he proclaimed.

Kristin thought briefly of responding that perhaps Kevin should focus on finding a job first, but she knew that it was best not to interrupt him during one of his self-indulgent moments.

The remainder of the hike was enjoyed by Kristin in relative silence, as Kevin’s laboured breathing told her that he would be very selective about when he chose to speak. After many ups and downs, they had successfully steered themselves to the “Oasis” – typically the second night’s accomodation on the classic circuit - for lunch and a dip in a pool around 1:30 in the afternoon.

Kristin knew that with the right combination of rest and food, she could coax Kevin up the 1100 metre series of switchbacks and back to the hostel they had spent the previous night. She mentioned to Kevin that, in her estimation, they could do the climb in roughly half the time their guide had suggested.

Rolling his eyes, Kevin made a mental note never to hike the Grand Canyon with his wife.

The City

Peru’s second largest city certainly had a grip on him. He strolled through the streets of Arequipa with his wife, Kristin, on his arm and marveled at the beautiful white buildings which glistened in the sunlight from a once again cloudless sky. The white volcanic rock from which the buildings were constructed was called sillar, and its natural reflective properties on a church he was staring at in the distance brought back vague memories of Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris. Naturally, he often compared the cities he was visiting with those he had been to before, and at that moment he couldn’t help but think how Mount Vesuvius near Naples had nothing on the dominating presence and near perfect cone-shape of El Misti volcano looming in the background.

They passed by the Plaza de Armas, which was perpetually busy and an attraction in and of itself, on the way to their daily ritual. Walking with their arms interlocked, Kristin pressed herself tightly against the bulging muscles of Kevin’s right arm. He looked down to study to her smiling face and wondered whether it meant that she was similarly contented with the city or whether her thoughts had again returned to the happy hour drink special (3 Pisco Sours for 10 Soles ($3.50)) she had discovered earlier that day and made him swear they would return for later that night.

The afternoon ritual – a large slice of chocolate cake at one of the city’s many cafes - was as foreign to Kevin as many of the places he had been visiting. For one, he didn’t even like desserts. Secondly, he had been lactose intolerant since a nasty stomach bug attacked him years before while travelling in Eastern Europe. While he couldn’t explain his new craving, he was exceedingly happy that his intolerance to dairy seemingly retired from his body around the same time he retired from private practice.

As he watched with some amusement as Kristin scraped every last inch of chocolate icing off of her plate, he thought back to all of the amazing food they had sampled during their four-day stay in the city. He was convinced that he had never experienced better dining value in all his 29 years. He was also convinced that while Arequipa could never be home to him, it was probably the finest facsimile he had come across during his time South America.

“Don’t forget,” Kristin said, cutting off his train of thought, “you promised that we would go have Pisco Sours tonight.”

He broke out in a grin from ear-to-ear.

About the Author

Kevin Long is a devilishly handsome travel blogger from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has been married to his wife, Kristin, herself an occasional travel blogger, for over two years and the couple has no children (though, they are constantly asked by South Americans when they expect to be making some). Kevin’s current hobbies include eating, sleeping, drinking, trekking and riding buses. He dreams of one day again wearing a pair of jeans and a different pair of shoes.


You can check out more photos from the featured stories here.