Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Home Sweet San Francisco

How can it be that our year is over? Alas, all good things must come to an end. Or at least a temporary hiatus until our next adventure.

That being said, being back in San Francisco isn't so bad: friends and family and capybara-sized burritos make settling down feel more like settling in. And we do hope that all those we met along the way will come crash on our couch and drink our wine and regale us with tales. In the meantime, we're going to exaggerate our own stories of derring-do for all those that will listen.

But as a fitting end to our traveler's tales, it should be noted that Eric's last haircut around the world took place in our bathroom. Goodbye beard, hello job.

We also wanted to make a small plug for two organizations that have captured our hearts post-trip. There are so many people doing wonderful things around the world to alleviate poverty, provide opportunities, and do good in this world, and they all should be applauded. We feel blessed to have had the chance to galivant around the globe for a short while, and our trip did much to impress upon us how lucky we are to have the resources we do. In an effort to give back, we've embraced the efforts of Kiva.org and RoomtoRead.org, both of whom are making huge strides to make this world a better place for all that occupy it. We encourage you to get involved if you feel so inclined.

Thanks for reading and armchair traveling with us. We'll look forward to seeing you out on the road in the future....

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hawaii! The First Step Toward Home

Aloha! The first leg of our journey homeward was a Hawaiian foray with friends and family. The perfect way to ease back into the U.S. of A.! We first landed on the Big Island, where we were greeted by Kathleen's family, and.... best yet... little Ellie, the 10-month old wunderniece that we'd been missing terribly. It was a glorious reunion, made all the more picture-perfect with tropical sunsets, ample mai-tai's and Ellie's motorboat sounds in the pool.

We next alighted for Kauai to celebrate our friend Dan's 40th. What can be better than having some of your nearest and dearest friends all transported to paradise together? Really, nothing. Although the sunsets, snorkeling, ample mai-tai's, and moonlit ocean swims didn't hurt.

And to end our tropical escape, we decided to re-hike the Na Pali Coast's Kalalau trail that we first endeavored on our honeymoon in June 2007. This time we brought good friends with us, but not nearly enough whiskey. As such, we're not entirely convinced our pals would hike it again. Alas, the waterfall helped considerably.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Haircuts Around The World: Bolivia - The Final Adventure

It was our last night in Bolivia. We finished shopping for gifts and souvenirs, made a quick run to find a brewpub, and then we walked down to haircut alley near our hotel in La Paz. There were a good 20 places to choose from, and I made sure, much to Kathleen's frustration, that we walked by all of them. It takes a trained eye to spot (in less than a few seconds) the differences that could make or break my haircut. Disaster is always right around the corner. And this was going to be my welcome home hairdo. What immediately caught my eye were the pictures/posters of Kurt Cobain, Leonardo Dicaprio and 'N Sync on the wall. If these folks got their hair cuts here, it must be good. We walked in, I sat down, and the magic unfolded.

The first surprise was that he lit a flame to sanitize the blades and heat them up. He later used the same flame to heat up some oil (at least that is what it looked like) that was mixed into the shaving cream. It was a careful cut on top with just the blade (no guard) and it looked amazing. He took great attention with the beard, including the use of a straight edge and shaving cream. It was quite a magical experience and a wonderful way to end the Haircuts Around the World adventure. Overall this was a 9 out of 10.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bolivia: La Paz

The pollution, poverty, and chaos of La Paz keep it from being wholly lovable in the grandest sense, but that’s not to say that it’s without charm. You just have to scratch a bit below the surface and have the time and lungs to give the city the benefit of the doubt. Amidst the grime and traffic lurk fantastic restaurants, colorful bars, and a vibrant student life. On a clear day, La Paz enjoys some crazy great views of Mt. Illimani. And even in this heavily industrialized and modernized city, traditional Bolivian dress remains a colorful constant. Indeed color is the much-needed antidote to La Paz’s often gray air. Luckily frequent street parades and vibrant micros (gravity-defying public buses that chug and belch along the steep city streets) add flair.

The witch’s market is a camera-toter’s favorite, where gringos can ogle traditional remedies like llama fetuses meant to be buried under new houses to bring good luck. But despite the open-jawed tourists, this is the real deal: witch doctors and fortune tellers ply their wares and skills on the street for locals in search of healing or hexing.

And despite the somewhat insane vehicular sparring on the crowded roads, we did see this handy fellow monitoring pedestrian flow on the crosswalks, called zebra crossings in this neck of the woods.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Things We Ate On The Street: Bolivia

Bolivian street food was oh-so-good to us that we have come up with some awards for our favorite delicacies.

Grand prize snackmaster winner: The snack to end all snacks was the saltena. No other street fare has come even close (except for Uganda’s chapati, which we still drool over in our sleep). The name comes from their original place of origin: Salta, Argentina. But today, they are a purely Bolivian treat. Calling them a derivation of an empanada doesn’t do them justice. The outer baked dough is slightly sweet and envelops an inner filling of chicken, beef or veggies, all liberally dosed with a drippy, slurpy, secret sauce of intoxicating goodness.

They are usually only available mid-morning and completely worth dragging yourself out of bed. We did extensive research and found the most delicious ones were in Potosi and at artisanal saltenerias in La Paz. But really you should eat them wherever you are, as often as you can.

Most abnormally large fruit that still tastes normal: Check out that avocado! It’s as big as Kathleen’s head! And that’s only a quarter of it. Bolivia’s fruits and veggies were great. As, surprisingly, was the red wine from Tarija. Cheers!

Best shopping experience: We read about an order of cloistered nuns who sell pickled fruit through a revolving door at their convent, and we couldn’t resist the intrigue. Sure enough, you knock on the door, politely ask the hidden Sister if you might buy some pickled lemons, let your money be spun away from you, and await your heavenly treat. The lemons themselves were a bit sweet on their own, but would have been delightful over ice-cream had we had some.

Best Fresh Vitamin C: Oh beloved grapefruit squeezer, how we adored you! Tart and delicious! And you reminded us of the sugar cane press in Egypt that was such a hit. Worth noting is that Eric was not actually allowed to operate the machinery. They have professionals for that.

Best salty snack: Oh when the cold breeze whips down your jacket, there’s nothing like some hot buttered popcorn on your way home.

Best snack that looked like dog food: Giant puffed maize. Sold in giant plastic sacks. For giant-sized hunger!

Best medicinal snack: Chewing coca leaves saved us on many a high-altitude endeavor, as they warded off headaches, fatigue, and hunger. You simply wad a bunch of them between your cheek and gum, and swallow the juice as you traipse along. Adding an alkaloid like lime ash (which is similar to a small rock) helps draw out the medicinal benefits. The beneficial effects of coca leaf chewing are well documented, but the plant remains hugely controversial for obvious reasons (i.e. it’s lucrative derivative cocaine). The U.S., among others, is always wanting to eradicate coca fields and ties political favors to the success of ending the war on drugs. It’s a shame, as coca leaves play an important role historically, spiritually, and practically in the lives of most Bolivians (and indeed most Andean countries). Politically it’s a hot issue, and t-shirts proclaiming (in Spanish) that coca leaves are not a drug are hugely popular among the backpacking set.

Most unlikely place to get chocolate: Who knew that Ghirardelli’s came from the jungle? Well, probably a lot of people, actually. But still, it was fun to see cacao in its original pod form hanging from a tree. Crack that baby open to reveal a squishy mass of hard seeds (the cacao beans) nestled in white slime. Really, much tastier than it sounds, as you slurp off the goo to suck on the bean.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Bolivia: Lake Titicaca

Funny to be scrounging for blankets less than 24 hours after we were kicking off thin sheets in the heat. Such is the contrast of Bolivia. A whirlwind combo of small plane, free-wheeling taxi, and overcrowded minibus deposited us in Copacabana in the moonlight. The minibus segment was the most fun, as we were the only non-Bolivians (save for one Spaniard) en route (perhaps because the Lonely Planet mentions that minibuses are unsafe between La Paz and Copacabana--- a fact we didn’t read until *after* we landed. Oh well). We had a bag of peanuts with us that we offered around, and it’s always such fun to see how food invites a shared community. In no time, people are slapping you on the back, grinning widely, sharing stories, and little kids want to sit in your lap. Just think if we’d had beer to pass around!

Going from sea level to 13,200 feet meant that sleep did not come easily. The next day, we explored the town’s Cathedral, most notable for its Virgin.

Evidently she was carved by a descendant of one of the last Inca warriors. Albeit the artist’s first attempt was rejected and he had to go back for some schooling before providing the current Virgin. She is a sight to behold, mostly for the reverence surrounding her. Ever since she was brought to the altar, miracles have occurred and great mystery and spirituality surrounds her. She is known as the ‘black virgin’ although we must admit she looked pretty pale to us. In any case, she resides upstairs in the cathedral, in a beautiful room decked out with lights, flowers, and a hushed group of devoted believers. The thought is that if she’s ever moved, there will be a flood. Also of note, are the lines of decorated cars parked outside the cathedral. They come for the blessing of the automobiles, a ritual whereby alcohol is poured over the cars to ensure a safe journey home. Better than drinking it before hopping behind the wheel, we suppose.

We next set sail for the Isla del Sol on the world’s slowest motorboat. It’s quite possible we could have swum faster, but it was a lovely ride nonetheless as the snowcapped Cordillera Real came into view. As we disembarked off the gringo float, there were hoards of kids wanting to take your luggage and lead you to a hotel. They were low-pressure and harmless, but what was not so harmless was the gorgeous but STEEP Inca staircase that leads up to town. Bordered by a channeled waterfall (the Inca’s fountain of youth), the steps climb past terraced quinoa fields, handicraft sellers, braying donkeys, women doing their wash, and views that make you gasp from beauty as much as physical exertion. The island is resplendent with timeless Inca architectural ruins surrounded by the luminous blue lake. It’s quite striking. We enjoyed sunset views from a hilltop pizzeria, watching distant (for now) rain and lightning as the sky burned orange under the clouds.

Isla del Sol is a walker’s paradise, as long as you keep chewing coca leaves to ward off headaches. On the north side of the island are ruins with a labyrinth of rooms, nooks, crannies, sacrificial tables, and the sacred rock (Titicaca: crouching puma) that the lake is named for. Wending our way back home, we weaved through small villages and farms, stopped for lunch and to watch hippies trying to sell jewelry, and hit the island’s big museum. And by big, we mean in earnestness. It’s actually just one small room, and the caretaker had to send his 11-year old son home to find the key to unlock it when we showed up. That being said, it did have it’s charm, as it’s devoted to the ‘submerged city’ north of the island where excavations in 2000 revealed a massive stone temple and accompanying treasures 8 meters underwater. The stuff of Indiana Jones, really!

Upon our departure, the rain finally arrived. In full force. And just in time for our half hour walk back down the slippery stairs to catch the ferry. Thank God for the plastic rainsuits we’ve been lugging around since South Africa.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bolivia: Madidi National Park

Jungle fever! Being this close to the Amazon, we couldn`t resist a short foray into its green and rainy depths. Landing on a grassy landing strip in Rurrenebaque, our oxygen-deprived lungs breathed a happy sigh of relief at the low altitude, and we joyfully stripped off layers of fleece. The next morning, we motored up the fast-moving cappuccino-colored waters of an Amazon tributary to Chalalan Ecolodge. This place got big props from fellow travelers and rave reviews from the Lonely Planet, so we dug deep in our wallets to enjoy three glorious nights in jungle splendor.

Chalalan's accolades are well merited, one of the few truly community-run eco-lodges in this rare swath of the Amazon, Chalalan makes the most of it's local flavor. Started in the 1990's by the neighboring community of San Jose De Uchupiamonas (say that three times fast), Chalalan is built by locals, with local materials, uses local guides, and proceeds have already funded a school and medical clinic. It's a beautiful spot and one of the few places where you can actually stay in Madidi National Park, near relatively untouched rainforest.

We had a little paradisaical cabana with a requisite hammock out front, and we spent our days tromping through the National Park and sweating our way through our limited supply of clean clothes. Twilight meant beer and sunset swims in the Chalalan lake, braving the hopefully-sated appetites of the resident caymans. It was kind of funny to jump headfirst into the dark, but blissfully refreshing, water at dusk only to don headlamps and search for flesh-eating aquatic reptiles along the shore mere hours later. Really, that's only a slight exaggeration.

Our first night walk started with a hunt for the elusive boa constrictor. And admittedly some part of us perhaps wanted him to remain hidden. Particularly disconcerting was the fact that our search began in one of the lodge's main buildings, where evidently boa's like to congregate in the rafters. Ahem. We did find one in a tree nearby. And during the day spotted capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, all sorts of spiders, and...the grand pooh-bah...a giant ant-eater! While giant ant-eater might not conjure up the same awe as seeing, say, a snow leopard or jaguar, it is a super impressive (and big!) animal to witness in the wild. Our guide had never seen a full-grown one before (and he grew up in the jungle), so he was foaming at the mouth with excitement. And no, sadly, we do not have a photo. Doh!

Perhaps in our best interest we did not see the bushmaster snake. This fella is particularly notable for the fact that if you threaten his awaiting-to-be-hatched eggs at any point, and even if you do so completely unwittingly by walking down a jungle trail, this snake will follow you for up to 500 meters before striking. And likely killing you. Fun facts to have in the back of your mind as you stumble through the steamy jungle.

By far our favorite animal, though, was the capybara, the world's largest rodent. He's endearing in a way that only the world's largest rodent could be. We're thinking this will be the focal point of the best-selling children's book we plan to write and illustrate in our free time.

Truth be told, jungle walks searching for animals can be really rather boring unless you really know your trees and plants. It's 10,000 degrees out. You're covered in way too much long-sleeved, long-panted clothing to keep from getting rare jungle rashes and bites, your sunscreen mixes with bugspray in your eyes, and it feels like you're trying to exercise in a sauna. And the scenery is pretty unchanging.

On the positive side, we were lucky enough to be lumped in with a group of fun-loving souls in our jungle paradise. And coca-leaf chewing, leche-de-puma drinking, and awkward dance events were made all the more delightful by the company we kept. This extends wholeheartedly to the entire Chalalan staff. Many of whom joined us in a hilarious tri-lingual game of cards on our last night. Explaining the game Bullsh#$%#t in English, Spanish, and Quechua was a cultural experience not to be forgotten (no, really, if you don't have the card, just lie, that's what you're supposed to do!).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Haircuts Around The World: Rurre

It was jungle hot and humid outside even in the early evening. We were in the jungle region of Bolivia and it was an amazing contrast to La Paz. We wandered the streets looking for haircut alley. What immediately caught my eye were the pictures of potential new hairdos all over the walls. We carefully scanned them all but never found one that seemed to fit my demanding tastes, so we settled for the clipper #1 on top and a trim up on the beard.

It did not take more than 30 seconds before I was dripping in sweat. The barber joked to Kathleen by asking her what the translation was for "flood," as he noted my forehead. The cut on top was simple and straightforward. I began to get a little nervous about the beard as he reached for a guard that was a little too short, but it all turned out well. The Bolivians don't sport beards very often, so I don't think he gets much practice. The best that I could get was a once over with clipper #2, a pat down of my brow, and a push out the door. Not a bad cut but none of the fancy moves I have had the pleasure of experiencing so far on the trip. In any event, a haircut for less than $2 is pretty good. Overall I would give this a 4 out of 10.