Monday, May 30, 2011

More La Paz

27.05.: La Paz

Spent basically the entire day walking through the city, beginning with a search for the mercado negro, which probably means the same in Spanish as in our Germanic based languages. From noon on, we searched for the orphanage of the Fundacion Arco Iris, which was founded by a Priest coming from the village next to Yasmin's, so she wanted to pay a visit.

Google maps was feeling rather unhelpful -- it is generally quite bad for La Paz -- and sent us off literally 180º in the wrong direction. So it happened that we walked up one side of La Paz, finally were told the Fundacion was on the other side of the valley, walked down to the tourist info for directions, and from there through the city to the hospital Arco Iris, arrival time 5:30. A very helpful staff had us waiting for half an hour for a doctor who speaks German -- he knows Darmstadt rather well -- who then informed us that the Fundacion is strewn all over the city, and the girls orphanage, for example, is in an entirely different part of town. We nevertheless got a tour of the hospital, generally acclaimed by the populace -- exemplified by the two fine, probably drunk gentlemen who had sent us in the correct general direction -- to be the best in La Paz, and which showed quite European standards; the doctor was, for example, proud to tell us every room has a heater.

After the tour, we were taken to the director, who then proceeded not only to tell us where to find the Niñas Obrajes and how to get there, but also to make an appointment with a German girl (of South American descent) working there, who would show us around.

This unbelievably friendly welcome -- we suspect it may have something to do with German donations being the main income of the Fundacion -- was followed by a hike home through the dark city.

View Larger Map

In all, we spent around 8 hours trekking the city, time well invested: We saw many different parts of the city with diverse characters, from market laden streets between Plaza Murillo and the Cemetery district,and the poorer people's living quarters up the hills (around destination B), to the modern skyscrapers south of Plaza del Estudiante (C) and the SUV-laden rich people's living quarters around Avenida Busch and the Hospital. Plaza Murillo, at the end of our odysee, houses some (or all?) government buildings, so we also got to see some monumental buildings with grand flags, and a statue proclaiming "Gloria", "Fuerte" and "Unidad" for Bolivia.

More sometime else, the cafe is closing...

Friday, May 27, 2011

La Paz, day one

26.05.: La Paz

In Cochabamba, we had the luck of making the acquaintance of Mercedes, a native woman travelling on the same bus, also to La Paz, where she works as transporter. Of what, we didn't understand, maybe a taxi driver. She steered us towards the terminal (we didn't arrive there), and immediately found a guy trying to fill up his soon leaving Cama-bus (the most comfortable class) with passengers for 30Bs a seat. I think, although I'm not sure, that the usual price was between 60 and 90Bs!

The ride was, of course, infinitely more comfortable than the one before, with the two (totally different, not part of a series) Scorpion King movies being shown, one in Spanish, one English. However, along the ride, the bus started falling apart: The toilet was not working from the start, but somewhere on the Altiplano, the cover of an emergency exit came off, and the cold wind from 4000m height streamed in. Later on, after a break, it took half an hour to repair something down in the motor case of the bus.

Found the hostel Dom & Georgie recommended, called Jach'a Inti, at 35Bs a night in a three bed room, with a shared kitchen, and next to a vegetarian restaurant doing a very tasty and copious menu del dia (soupa y segunda) for 8Bs.

After dinner, when we all were complaining about overful bellies, we strolled through the streets of La Paz, and immediately found lots of stand selling lama foetuses.

A Couple of Paradises

17-25.05. Province of Florida, Bolivia
Wasted another day hanging around the city and walking its streets, waiting fot the 4 pm micro from the terminal bimodal to Bermejo, the village near Ginger's Paradise. A man loitering around the information stand offered to show us the way to the micros going from the inter-provincial section, which we explicitly asked for, but instead tried to trick us into getting bus tickets to Samaipata from his agency, which would have been 40Bs instead of 8, and would not even gotten us to where we wanted to go. Of course, after we again explained we knew exactly what  we wanted, and only needed directions, he simply waved his hand in the general direction and left us quickly... this pissed us off somewhat, since we were still entertaining hopes of catching the bus on time.
Most of the time, we had only wonderful experiences with Bolivians, but at the bus terminals, they are incredibly aggressive and annoying.

We found out at the micro section that our bus plans were outdated, and the bus had left half an hour earlier, so we had to wait for the last micro at 7:30pm. When he saw us hanging around the terminal, the guy from the bus company tried to convince us again to take his bus... fat chance we would have taken that company, after he held us up before. Since the bus we caught was the last, we arrived at Ginger's around 11. No-one was awake and we camped in a kind of tree plantation, the type of which I never found out.

Thursday through Saturday:

Ginger's is a permaculture farm located 2km east of Bermejo, a pueblo (= collection of about 5 huts). Run by Christobal and Sol with their three children, of whom we met Dissy, 12, and Ginger, 6. I have no Idea if I spelled all the names correctly.

There are 2 large meals a day, made mainly from the food they produce themselves, and an evening snack. To reduce the amount to be paid per night, you can work for 2 hours a day on whatever needs doing -- they advertise learning how to make cheese and milk cows, but we saw no cows, and the most important work was picking Hibiscus petals they sell and make tasty jam of. On the third day we got to fee a field of weeds with machetes, which was good fun, but otherwise the work was annoying. The worst part is that, usually starting around 11am, the work cuts the day in half quite effectively, and no other larger activities can be undertaken.

The family, while often strange -- I had discussions with Chris on Tesla's most famous invention, the perpetuum mobile, and on the sun's interior being all ice -- is very nice (and Sol a great cook), and the same can be said of the other guests lodging there, Aurelien again, and Yoris and Lars from the Netherlands, Laura from London, and, on our last day there, Conrado (kon'hado) from Rio, and Annabell from Germany.

In the evening, we gathered on the porch, for music, games and entertainment. We played, amongst other things, chinese and and watched a game of japanese chess. Chris knows Go, but doesn't have a board, so I was deprived of a chance to play (Doro has become sick of it in Germany).

There is a beautiful river for swimming after work, and the hills around the valley are scenic, but there are few possibilities to hike, and as the work, as mentioned cuts the day in half, Doro felt penned up soon.
We left on Saturday, the 21st of May, which apparently was the end of the world, according to some Bolivian media. I hope you enjoyed it!

Ginger's is still quite expensive for Bolivia: we payed 50Bs pp each night, while camping and working, and we had to pay another 40Bs for the breakfast the both of us enjoyed on Saturday. We caught a Samaipata Taxi (30Bs together for one hours drive), and found El Jardim, a hostel/camping ground generally recommended, which costs 15Bs pp, no food, when camping. Nicely located near the market , it really is a garden, and I can add our recommendation, too: 15Bs camping, 30Bs for the dorm, and 110Bs for a small hut with a private bath -- the latter being probably too expensive, you shoud be able to get better prices from hotels in the city. El Jardim is also a great place to meet other backpackers, from many different nations: We talked to french, a greek, a czech, argentinians, peruvians, germans and, above all, australians, during our stay.

Hiked to El Fuerte, an archaeological site near Samaipata, the central part beeing a large rock, ca 60x200m, carved mainly with seats of different sizes and shapes, with no apparent order.

The site itself was something of a letdown after all the hype before, because there are very few explanations around, and I'm used to better in Europe. But then, the wikipedia article is very short, so hopefully we funded new archeologica investigations and better tourist information with our 50Bs.

The hike from the 9km distant Samaipata, though, was very nice, and Bolivia once again revealed tçits beautiful side. Also, Bolivians again belied the rumor that they are less friendly than surrounding nations: we were asked again and again by passing busses and cars if we wanted a ride there, or back. We actually had to learn the word for "walk" -- camionar -- and "truly" -- verdad! -- because some could not comprehend people wanting to do that.

Monday & Tuesday:
Torrential rains in the morning showed us that the tent is not watertight. Though it keeps the dew in quite nicely -- and unnecessarily -- the rain kept dripping from the tent roof. We quickly packed our stuff into the backpacks and thanked yog we could put them under a roof instead of being out in the wilderness.

At least the rain was a good opportunity to get together with the other guests. We had exhausting but interesting conversations with a french guy, who spoke only French and Spanish, but understood English to some extent, which culminated in juggling lessons. I'm still bad, but at least I suck in totally new ways. Traded (well, recieved, mostly) great travelling tips from the people there, mainly with Dom and Georgie, from Cooma, Australia, but also with Wez and Kerrie, from Perth (also Oz). A German Yoga-Guru (Yogi?) wetted our appetite for India, and we met a German-Peruvian family without permanent residence: they travel from India and South America, where they buy clothes, to Germany, where they sell them to stalls at festivals, and also sell home-made jewellery at said festials. 

We walked around a bit, after the rains stopped, and were rewarded with a most amazing view from a mountain maybe 2 hours by foot out of Samaipata. We had forgotten the camera, though, so there are no pics. Densely forrested smaler peaks melted into a long, narrow (~5 km) plain full of fields and dotted with villages. On the other side of the plain, the small, craggy foothills, immediately forrested, rose to meet high mountains whose peaks where hidden in some clouds. Just walking around pays off in Bolivia.

On Tuesday, we decided to loiter another day. Finally found some Coca leaves to chew (a bag of maybe 500ml with a good sized chunk of the activator goo, whatever it is, costs 4Bs), which is interesting (the mouth is numbed a bit), and gives you energy in a more subtle way than caffeine does, I think.

Dom's birthday. We got him beer for breakfast, which went down well :)

Left for La Paz, by way of Cochabamba, in the company of Yasmin, from near Stuttgart, who luckily was smart enough to spend 4 weeks on a Spanish class in Argentina. To get there, we had to take a collective taxi to Mairana, the next village on, and get on the 3 o'clock bus to Ccbb, the only one around, arriving at 4am. The taxi driver screwed us over slightly: After some haggling, we agreed on 15Bs for the three of us, but in the end, he demanded 20. The lady selling bus tickets then demanded 40Bs each, although we had been told by the wife of the guy managing the hostel it was 35. Not really a lot of money, but you still feel treated unfairly.

The ride was in an uncomfortable old bus, and quite rough, but very scenic, over the old mountain road. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Paraguay, an uncomfortable bus and our first two days in Bolivia

Wow, has it really been 6 days since my last post? Time flies...

10-14.05.: Paraguay

Took a day to explore Ciudad del Este, and fill up our cash -- ATMs without horrendous charges are becoming seldom. We hade to walk into the city center from our hotel, a 45 minute trip past a school. The students were painting a wall with scenes from Paraguayan history, mostly wars in surprisingly gruesome detail, but also the founding fathers, looking quite US-ish. Paraguayans seem to be quite as fervent about celebrating their independence as Americans.

We also bought about 4kg of fruit for less than 2€ from street vendors. This is a great place to like fruit.

Wednesday & Thursday
We arrived in Villarrica Wednesday afternoon, a town about halfway between Ciudad del Este and Asuncion, which is supposed to have a nice church and pretty parks. I prefer the parks, of which we found one with a small lake and some kind of giant guinea pig. The church, with two blocky, castle-like towers, was quite nice from the outside, but boring on the inside.

The people are very friendly; one stroll through the park, I had three lengthy conversations with people I did not at all understand. The hostess of the hotel kept trying to learn tidbits of English; I think the conversation started on a different topic, but after 3 minutes we agreed that "Como estas?" means "How are you?".

Friday & Saturday
6 hour trip to Asuncion, got out of the terminal and found a hotel around the corner, charging us 75 mil Guaraní a night for a tiny room with a balcony, from which we proceeded to watch the local nightlife and the upcoming evening thunderstorm.

In the morning, we took a bus in the general direction of the city center, and got out somewhere interesting looking. It turned out to be a market covering a couple of blocks, a labyrinth of stalls, the canvas of which all but hid the sky. To top it off, all the buildings around which the stalls where erected turned out to be shopping malls. Needless to say, we soon got lost, never found back to an interesting shop, and never found back to the street we came in on. 

After a while, we did find a bus back to the terminal, where we booked a bus to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia (250 mil G pp). The bus was late, and not comparable to the comfortable bus we had from Rio to Foz de Iguacu: less room, smaller seats, a couple of windows would not close, and the toilet was all but unusable, having neither a toilet seat nor lights nor water, and you could see the passengers through a crack in the wall...

Luckily, we sat up front ( as is recommendable to do on buses in South America, to be as far from the toilet as possible), and the employees, a group of 4 people, had a nice time sitting in the drivers cabin together, listenig to loud music, and drinking whiskey and mate. By 10pm, we were travelling through the Chaco, the threefold savannah of western Paraguay, and had met Daniela, an Italian girl travelling the South Americas for half a year.

Because the third section of the Chaco, the Alto Chaco, is an uninhabited, thorny land of bushes, cacti and trees, we had to get our exit stamps at a sleepy frontier station near Mariscal Estigarribia, some 300km from the border. We stood around forever without anyone opening the office, with only a pack of street dogs halfheartedly trying to chase away a wild pig as entertainment, while our bus was thoroughly searched.

15-16.05.: Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia

Sunday & Monday
25 hours after leaving Asuncion, travelling long distances over a street only half there, often only going 30 km/h, through the intimidating but beautiful Alto Chaco and the just beautiful foothills of the Andes in southern Bolivia, we finally got to Santa Cruz, and Dani, Doro and I were able to go find a usable toilet.

We checked in at the wonderfully spacious jodanga hostel, 800m from the terminal bimodal and at most 2km frm the city center, as marked by the large basilika built in 1605. 70 BOB (Bolivianos, about 7€) a night in a 10 bed dorm, with breakfast, which is practically usury in Bolivia, as many people assured us.

Met a guy from french Switzerland, with whom we exchanged travelling tips, and a woman originally from near Pittsburgh, who is on a research trip through Bolivia, among other people.

Loitered around the city center for 3 hours, because the tourist office closed half an hour early, and reopened half an hour late; found out no-one has any usable maps of Bolivia above city level. The only apparent way to get a map you can hike with seems to be a GPS, which is both boring and expensive.

Tomorrow, we'll try to get to Ginger's Paradise, which sounds like a pretty cool place, and maybe find a way to hike into the Amboro National Park in the following days.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Through Brazil to Paraguay

05-09.05: Rio de Janeiro to Puerto Iguazú

Thursday & Friday:
Took a very comfortable bus from the Rodoviária in Rio to Foz de Iguaçu, which stopped along the way, for example in Säo Paulo. Cities in south-eastern Brazil are incredibly extensive. The first 12 hours of the trip we were essentially in one large ubran area, with short stretches of grassland in between.

Arrived at Foz 24 hours later, around 11 am. Hiked through Foz de Iguaçu past the border, where we talked the Argentinians into giving us entry stamps, to El Viejo Americano, a campsite near Puerto Iguazú.

Saturday and Sunday:
One day at the camp was lost to laofing around. While xploring Puerto Iguazú, who else should find us but a Jehova's Whitness, whose grandfather was German, and who tried to foist on us a German book on Paradise on Earth, if just everyone would keep God's commandments. I guess paradise needs a lot more stoning people for minor infractions.

On Sunday (morning again, to avoid the crowds), we went to the Cataratas de Iguazúm which cost us 100 Pesos each (around 20€), and are worth every penny. There are viewpoints close to different parts of the falls, and walkways through the jungle sufficient for an entire day, if you hurry.

Lots of animals: Flocks of .. some kind of vulture-like bird, some type of swallow, colorful birds which may be a species of canary, a jungle hen, three wild pigs, two tapirs,and a variety of giant rat or posum (yeah, ain't I the zoologist) crossed our ways in the beautiful jungle. There also was an incredible amount of butterflies.

On the way back we met a girl from Buenos Aires, Lirach (or something sounding similar), who had just visited the Brazilian side, and told us it was boring by comparison. There are just two viewpoints, from which you can see the falls in their entirety, sure, but everything you want to do is extra.

10.05.: Ciudad del Este

Arrived at Ciudad del Estr, the Paraguayan counterpart to Foz de Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú at the three counrtries border.

The city is supposed to be both a shoppers and a counterfeiters paradise, both of which are easily believed when looking at the streets full of shops and stall. One man offered us "Rolex", laughing at his own joke...

The city is by far the most un-european in character so far. There are far less street signs, and life seems generally far more chaotic than in the Brazilian and Argentine towns we've seen so far.

The hostel we wanted to stay at has upgraded to a hotel and now costs 150 000Guarani a night a double bed room, about 30€. Tomorrow we'll change locations to a hotel that has stayed as cheap as the guide book promised -- 80 000 Guarani. Instead of at the city center, it's at the regional bus station, next to a small slum of about 10 haphazardly constructed tents.

By the way, Achim, who has no account to comment here, has informed me he has heard of an even larger piece of kitsch than Rio's: Cochabamba seems to have a Christ statue larger by 10cm...

Love, hugs or greetings, as appropriate, all around.

We're off to plan our trip through Paraguay.

Into the Jungle, II

So I'm finally at a computer terminal again, in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Updates will probably stay as unrealiable as they are now, since we're running around the countryside a lot. Internet here is about half as much an hour compared to Rio. (5000 Guarany vs 6 Reais)

Wednesday, 4th of May, Jio de Janeiro

Another early hiking trip. By the way, the reason we are getting up this early, defying all our natural instincts, is that it gets suddenly dark around 5, 5:30 pm.

This time, our target was the Floresta de Tijuca (Floh-'resch-ta de Ti'juke, using German sounds [ sorry, English is too unreliable in that respect]). The Floresta is actually just another part of the parque de Tijuca, but has well maintained and numerous hiking paths.

Things accomplished:
  • hiked through rainforest, including an 800m peak, through plants and over rocks (Breathtaking view: I think the German word for this kind of rainforest is Nebelwald, so we saw a lot of mist)
  • swung on a liana
  • saw monkeys and some kind of reddish colored
  • ran into the giant cobweb of a hellishly large spider... Aaagh! Hellishly large is defined as a spider with a body the length of my middle finger, plus head and legs, as opposed to simply terrifyingly large, which are resident spiders the size of slightly less than my thumb, and which, unlike Hellspiders, definitely are more afraid of me than I of them...
  • ate a tapioca wrap and some kind of sweetened corn mush bought from two street vendors

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Into the Jungle

03.-04. of May, Jio de Janeiro

We got up at some ungodly hour, six-thirty-ish -- university has spoilt me for real jobs, methinks -- to find a bus to the foot of the bejungled hill of Corcovado. Taking heed the warning of the tourist office lady from yesterday, "There are no maps, and people do get lost", we cheerfully searched byways for hidden paths, which we found through a -- possibly private -- driveway and past a small hut bearing a warning against gas tóxico. It was perfect! Small, overgrown, and we were somewhat sure it led in the right direction.

Turns out it actually did, but after about two thirds the way up, a tangle of fallen trees, roots and bushes totally obscured the way, and we instead climbed onto the near tracks of the train which is the usual route for people trying to get up that hill. At the top, we took a quick peek at Christo Redentor, probably the worlds largest piece of kitsch, and a longer one at the surrounding countryside. At this point, I really would like to show some of the pictures we took of the view of the Bay of Rio do Janeiro, with the mountains and the islands... but lacking neccessary technology, this must wait.

The post for today must wait, the Internetcafe is closing...

The Beginning

01.-02.05, Rio de Janeiro 
Thus far, I can't upload any pictures, as the resident computers are lacking in SD card readers. Too bad mine's in Germany...

 After the frenzied preparations of the last couple of days, which included Doro and I moving our stuff while desperately trying to compensate for mediocre (some might say absent) planning of the trip, Sunday morning went quite well, until we arrived at the check-in counter on time -- thank you, Caecilia and Tobi, for driving us. Then, Condor Airlines stepped in to prevent things from going too smoothly...

EU citizens can visit South American countries up to 90 days without any visa -- provided they have an itinerary proving they wish to leave within the alloted time. Condor deigns to enforce this rule in the countries stead (without, by the way, explaning this all to closely when the flights are booked online), with the added catch that they demand both entry and exit be by plane.

While rather surprising and brazen, this did not shock me. After all, I had booked a flight from Bogotá, Columbia to New York two months onward. I felt this would be adequate proof that we indeed intended to leave Brasil. Condor, on the other hand, demanded we book a flight actually leaving from Brasil itself. Since our pissed off protests did not affect the staff, we had to run to the last minute counter ("Cash only!") to book some random flight which would then be canceled the following day -- for the trifling fee of 150 Euro per person...

The flight was more entertaining than 10 hours of sitting around promised to be, mostly thanks to the brazilian kids running around and their parents letting them be children (playing ball in the aisle, pillow fights, a toddler entertaining himself by grabbing my foot repeatedly...)

Due to our late arrival after 16 hours of travels -- 10 h was the flight time to Salvadore da Bahia, where we changed planes -- we spent a restless night at the airport in Rio de Janeiro, to take the bus into the city at 6 am.

We got out of the bus in the quarter of Botafogo, and decided to try our luck with Ace Backpackers hostel right around the corner. While asking for directions, I had a painful lesson instilled: after 3 semesters of Português classes, my Portuguese sucks unbelievably. The English-speaking population quickly changes to that language when addressed by me em Portugês, even when I'm sure I've used all the right words. Those unable to do so must answer in their native tongue, which, although I can read a little, I obviously cannot understand at all.

After getting directions to the hostel ("PLEASE speak English! Where do you want to go?"), we booked, with the help of a Greek speaking Spanish, Portuguese and broken English, currently taking his vacation in said hostel, 3 days for 25 Reais per day and person, in a cramped but clean 8 person dorm.

We then walked past the Pão do Açucar, one of the incredibly steep hills dotting the bay of Rio do Janeiro, and went on an Odysee trying to find the next tourist information, a one hour walk through Botafogo and Copacabana, including a trek through the fringe of a military compound (slightly worrying) and along the edge of the worlds allegedly largest inner city rainforest, Floresta da Tijuca. Also my first ever first-hand sight of a rainforest -- yay!

The incredibly knowledgeable woman from the tourist office aided us in planning our next days. Another success, after rainforest and tourist information, was my being able to communicate to a waiter in Portuguese almost exactly what Doro and I wished to eat. I may have stressed the vegetarian part a mite too strong, as my sandwich was missing the ham, but I shant be picky.