Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Long and Winding Road

On Tuesday evening, we headed to the Bolivia Hop headquarters (located in a pretty cool hostel, so if you're looking to do the backpacker thing in Cusco, check out their site and the affiliated lodging.) We had booked tickets through BH to also do an excursion to the floating islands in Puno during a morning stopover, but when we got to the office, they told us that local protests were planned for the roads the next day, so they'd have to skip the excursion and refund us our money. They wanted to ensure they got us to the Bolivian border as quickly as possible prior to the strikes, so skipping the 1 hour trip was going to help us. No problem here as I'd heard these islands weren't so great anyway.

We got on the half-full bus at about 10 pm, and Francisco, our guide (not a tour guide, but a local who spoke perfect English and was quite comical) handed out blankets and told us there was no pooping on the bus (LOL and good luck to you all.) He did note that they were going to have to make stops during the night - one to switch drivers (they don't allow 1 person to drive continuously for so many hours), and a second so that he could switch places with another guide, since he had hurt his back or something and couldn't stay with us.

We took off and had fallen asleep, but during the night I'd awoken at one of the stops. There seemed to be an issue - with my slight understanding of Spanish, I realized that the other bus driver never showed up at the switch point - we'd been waiting for this no-show which lost us probably half an hour. Then, I had woken up again when Francisco made his switch, and we appeared to have backtracked in the opposite direction to do so. Between both things, I'd gauge we'd lost about an hour traveling.

At around 6:00 am, we were supposed to make a stop off for breakfast in Puno, and the new guide, Manuel, kept implying that we needed to try to beat the strike, and asked if we wanted breakfast or if we could skip it. Nobody on the bus seemed to care either way, so he decided that we'd stop for half an hour in this dungeon-like place to eat, which really was totally unnecessary if it meant beating the strike, but I guess he was eager to please.

Well, after driving for about 2 hours after breakfast, what do you know - we hit a roadblock! Although we had skipped the Puno excursion, between the bus driver miss, the backtracking to get Manuel, and the prison breakfast, we most certainly hit the strike.

We were stuck next to Lake Titicaca - not the worst view, so we got out and walked around for a bit while Manuel was figuring out what to do with us...

As pretty as it is, apparently it's very polluted so we didn't get too close.

This roadblock consisted of boulders blocking the road. They looked like you could pick them up and move them, but the point was that you weren't supposed to do this - the people were striking (and we also didn't know how they were going to react if we moved them - possibly violently), so we were not moving forward, especially on a tour bus, any time soon. During this time, Manuel was saying that we could turn around and drive back the 2 hours to Puno, and possibly get a boat over to the Bolivian border, but it wouldn't be able to carry everyone, and it would take hours. There was nothing we could do while he was figuring out next steps, so we watched Jerry Maguire ("Show me the border!") 

Not only was there no resolution as to which way, or how to go by the end of the movie, but a blockade had since been set up behind our bus now, so we were literally stuck!!! What natural next step was there but to... 
Meanwhile, Manuel called a taxi (some small cars were allowed to pass through) to take him to a village about half an hour away to get us water and bananas (yay Manuel!)

After the movie (keep in mind how long Jerry Maguire + Forrest Gump are combined), we did some more hanging out by the lake, finally starting to get to know our fellow travelers a bit. There were some solo backpackers, 3 girls who had just graduated college and didn't have a care in the world (and I was totally jealous of them), a father and son, a man who owns a travel agency and wanted to try out this bus company for himself, and a woman with a twisted ankle, amongst some others.

Here's the bus that was stuck in front of ours...

And here are a bunch of backed up trucks...

Finally, Manuel received some news from the villagers that they still would not let the bus pass, but they would let us walk over the boulders with our luggage. Luckily for us, we were allowed to start moving, but unluckily, we had a big rolling suitcase while everyone else had a backpack - not so easy to roll (even the slick 4 wheeler) on these roads.

We made our way over the boulders with all of the men and women of the village watching - it was awkward to say the least. By the way, they were striking because an international company had made a deal with the local government to mine their sacred land. This had happened recently in another area of Peru and the strike worked out for those people, so I guess our guys were not going to cave, and rightfully so.

After we walked over the roadblock, there was a man in a van that Manuel paid to cram the 20 of us into along with all of our stuff, to take us as far as possible. This drive was great and all, but lasted only about 5 minutes until we hit the next village's roadblock. This one consisted of trees blocking the road, and there were men at the top of the hill above chopping another one down (which I was terrified was going to fall on us as we were crossing the blockade.) We quickly lugged our suitcase over the trees and kept going until the same thing literally happened again - Manuel found a van, he crammed us in, we drove about ten minutes until we hit yet another blockade. This next stop was different though - these villagers were no longer allowing any cars or vans through this roadblock, and they said it would take a few hours to walk this stretch, which was basically impossible. To clarify, this was not a village like you and I think of a village - this place consisted only of farmers' small homes, each of which had an outhouse and a donkey, and there were no shops, or anything else around. SuperManuel managed to find a farmer who said he would take us in his vehicle, which was kind of like the back of a truck that was connected to a motor bike. It was too small to fit everyone from our group though, so half of the people had to stay behind while the other half moved onward towards Bolivia. Dave and I were in the group that stayed, fearful that Manuel and the farmer were never coming back to get us and we'd die in rural Peru...

The carefree college grads had a "clever" idea to start walking, despite the fact that we knew that the walk to the border was a few hours away and we didn't have a good sense of direction. Everyone started following them, and Dave and I could not pull the suitcase on the rocky ground (and it was way too heavy to carry), so we said we'd just wait by ourselves (NOT what I wanted to do - a group should ALWAYS stick together!) About 3 minutes later, everyone realized that if they made progress, and Manuel and the farmer picked them up along the way, they'd still have to come back to get us, so there was no point in them continuing to walk (haha, we won.) Manuel eventually came back after about an hour (longer than they'd anticipated, but they had to stop for gas), so we crammed into the truck for a 15 minute bumpy ride through the farmland until we hit yet another roadblock. Here's the next one - it consisted of small bushes...


I have to give a shout out to T-Mobile - we had 4G and full bars here which was kind of amazing (though we were trying to conserve battery life, so they weren't of much use.)

Remember from my last post how I mentioned that other bus companies have been known to leave passengers at the border, etc.? Well, that other bus which I posted a photo of up above - that company actually did that! All of those people were just left stranded by their bus driver. They walked with us a bit, but when it came down to it, Manuel was responsible for us, and with only so many people he could fit in a van, they had to figure what to do on their own - they ended up paying locals to drive them on the backs of their motorbikes with their bags which is crazy.

We had to do one more trip to get to the border and the only car at this blockade fit just a few people. We said the 3 girls could go + one older American guy who didn't even have his passport photos at this point for border patrol. Apparently, he showed up at the Bolivia Hop office right before departure without any of the documents that I also hadn't had that morning, so the bus company printed everything for him, even the forged card! I know it's not their job to do this, but myself and the other American girls had to run around Cusco that morning printing and forging things (the same thing happened to them too), and this guy didn't have to do anything! On top of that, it was getting late and we were starting to worry about getting to the border before closing time, but this guy HAD to get his passport photos taken. So much grrrrr!

Manuel went with them in the car to the town near the border about 20 minutes away, and sent a van to come back for the rest of us, so that was another 40 minute wait. We met up with the other four in the town, and Manuel gave us a few minutes to get snacks, money, etc. - again not sure why he was letting us do this when it was so close to closing time at immigration, but maybe he's just a courteous guy?

A few minutes later, we pulled up to the border, and he's now urgently yelling for us to "RUN! RUN! RUN! The Bolivian side is CLOSING!!!!!" Everyone still had to go through Peruvian immigration, change money (Americans have to pay to get into Bolivia), and go through the Bolivian side. It also turned out that the two very lengthy forms the bus company had us fill out the night before (another perk - they provide all of the forms) was not a perk at all - the officials didn't want them; we had to fill out a whole other form during this mad rush (I didn't even have a second to worry about my forgery, I was so panicked about the border closing.) Long story not so short, they actually kept a copy of my "vaccination card," amongst a few other documents, plus the $55 fee, and I made it through. I was a bit concerned about the dude behind me who had no documentation at all, and was basically like, 'What's this country Bolivia? I heard it's cool, thought I'd check it out.'

The way that Bolivia Hop works is that they leave the Peruvian bus on the Peru side (along with Manuel), and another bus meets you on the Bolivian side. Apparently, the Bolivian bus and guide had been waiting hours for us - nice that we didn't get ditched, so overall the company stayed true to their word, and we were in Copacabana in less than 20 minutes after the border crossing. In all, it should have taken 3 and a half hours from Puno to Copacabana (including about half an hour at the border), and it took us from 7 am to 5:30 pm. Yep.

I also should mention that Manuel had worked something like 48 hours straight (covering for people, etc.) before our trip, and after dropping us at the border, he had to first figure out how to get back through all of those roadblocks to the woman with the twisted ankle who had stayed behind with the bus driver(!!!)

It turned out that we were going to be staying at the same hotel in Copa as the very nice father and son who were on our bus. This hotel had very strict rules about checking in because they are in such high demand - if you were going to arrive after 2 pm, you had to call them (no emails) to tell them you'd be late and when you were arriving. When planning your trip, if you knew then that you'd be arriving late, it was recommended to Western Union them the money to guarantee the room in advance. We hadn't bothered sending money since we were originally supposed to get there by 2 pm (LOL), so I called them twice during the day to explain our delays/ETA and tell them to not give up the room. I told the guys I had called (on my own behalf), but we collectively thought they'd be fine not calling as they had Western Unioned the money which should have been considered a guarantee. Upon arrival (and climbing up the steepest hill ever at a 4000 meter altitude, in the dark, then up another thousand steps), one of the hotel staff greeted us, and showed us to our room. We closed the door just when it seemed like the other guys' room might have been given away. Eek! 

Next up: When alpacas attack.

Current Music: Phantom Planet - California

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bringing Sacsay Back

Continuing where I left on our South American trip (I am determined to finish writing about it, even if it takes me 6 months), our plan was to tour the Cusco area during the day and catch an overnight bus to Bolivia that evening. We headed out early from our hotel and figured we'd locate our bus company so we'd know exactly where to walk to with our luggage that evening instead of trying to figure it out later in the dark. Additionally, we thought it would be a good idea to confirm in person that they had our reservation.

Back in April, before we'd left, I'd researched bus companies, and there were comments on Trip Advisor about a lot of shady ones. I was happy to have found Bolivia Hop (also connected to Peru Hop), which is owned by Irish guys who cater to the backpacking crowd. For what one might consider a premium price (perhaps for a backpacker - as a working professional it was fine), their specialties included duvets (apparently the other buses are ice boxes), a bathroom on board (although potentially smelly, this is key), English movies (a luxury which later became a necessity as you'll see in the next post), and an English-speaking escort who will not leave you stranded at the border (as other companies do if you take too long, also a key point to note for the upcoming story.)

I had also done a lot of research on what the requirements were for crossing the Bolivian border. The strict regulations are only applicable to US residents, because, you know, politics, so Dave had no need to worry despite the fact that he's been a US resident for over 5 years. After a lot of contemplation, having read several forums and consulting people who had been to Bolivia in the past year, and based on the fact that I'd literally only be going 20 minutes into Bolivia (NOT in the jungle either) for just 2 nights, I decided that I would forgo getting a yellow fever vaccination as I didn't want a shot, nor did I want to pay $150 for it if it seems they weren't checking for it anyway.

Well, when I got to the Bolivia Hop office, the guy in charge immediately asked me if I had the following documents as I'm American:
- Detailed itinerary of my time in Bolivia
- Copy of hotel booking
- Copy of return ticket
- Bank statements
- 2 passport photos
- Yellow fever vaccination card

Well, the answer to all of the above was NO. Apparently, border officials had been changing their minds recently (on a week-by-week basis) for what documents they were checking, and according to Bolivia Hop, they were in a strict mood at the moment. I had a minor freak out, but the guy casually (like, really casually) told me to go to the internet cafe next door and look up a YouTube video on how to forge a vaccination document, simple as that.

We headed next door (this would be the first of 4 internet cafes we'd go to that morning), and I quickly wrote up my itinerary and printed the other documents. I could not find any videos on how to forge the card, and panicked also about where I was going to find yellow paper and a place to laminate it. We went back to the office to ensure that I really needed this, and he then clarified that a black and white photocopy of the signed page would be acceptable. OK then...(I know you are giving me advice as a courtesy dude, but couldn't you have told me about the simpler recommendation from the get-go?)

After taking the passport photos, we went to a pharmacy to see if I could get a shot (even though it was really too late - it's needed 10 days before entry), or to see if we could possibly, and shadily, buy a blank card off of them, this turned out to be useless as they told us that vaccinations are only done at the hospital. Determined to get to Copacabana, we finally found a semi-acceptable vaccination card on Google Images from some girl who had gotten her shot from a doctor (official stamp included) in North Carolina in 2009. We copied the image, and like an 8 year old with a new computer, used Microsoft Paint to very carefully delete the person's name and other non-Meredith information using the precise yellow to match the card image. Then Dave went to the bookstore to find a pen with a similar thickness to what was used on the document, which I used to write and then rewrite my info, and photocopy it a few times until we felt like we had a semi-acceptable forgery. All-in-all, this, plus running around and obtaining all of the other things took about 3 hours (I won't post an image of my vaccination card so as to not completely incriminate myself), yet we still had enough time to find a travel shop and book a tour of the Cusco area for that afternoon, so not too bad!

After quickly scarfing down beef heart skewers for lunch (delicious by the way), we headed out on a tour with Benjamin (pronounced Ben-ha-meen), the guide.

We started the tour at a cathedral which was literally 20 steps from our hotel, where authentically-dressed women tried to get tourists to take photos with them and their baby llamas. These llamas were cute and all, but I needed my fix of full-size ones roaming around freely!

After that, we headed to Sacsayhuaman (tourists call it Sexy Woman, but I love saying just as it looks, in a very pronounced way - try it, it will make you smile!) We were in for a treat during this outdoor tour - a hail storm! Like, giant balls of hail. Yeah, that was pleasant.

Hail...what can ya do?

Complain, that's what we can do...

The ruins were impressive - walls built from giant stones from centuries ago. We just wanted to make sure they were secured:

And then...THERE WERE LLAMAS! WET LLAMAS! Naturally, we spent almost all of our free time from this part of the tour taking photos of them...

Wet llama

Llama...you so drenched!


More yay!

Of course, not to take away from the reason we were here, the ruins were amazing...

But llamas! Too cute

We just saw wet llamas. High five, bro.

Cool Benhameen lecturing on Ruins 101...

We toured a few other sites, and came upon this amazing looking scene...


Why are they called ruins if they are still in pretty good shape?

That evening we ate in a tourist-y restaurant (free pisco sours but nauseating bathrooms), where the people next to us ordered Cuy, a Peruvian specialty. This, to English-speakers, is guinea pig. Yes, I said guinea pig. I had been planning to get one for dinner at some point since it is unique to the country, but once I saw their meal come out I had a change of heart. The plate literally comes out with a skinned guinea pig on it - face, legs, and everything! That's just so you can do the tourist thing and take photos - then they take it back and cut it up for you so you can actually eat it. But when their cuy came back, they kept the whole head on the plate, so I had to stare at this thing (teeth and all!) throughout my dinner, which wasn't very good to begin with. So, yes to beef heart skewers, no to guinea pig.

By the way, several the cathedrals had Inca + Spanish-influenced paintings. For example, you'd see the last supper, where Jesus would have more of an Incan look, and they would be eating guinea pig for the meal.

Up next on the blog - not quite the bus trip we were expecting...and did I get in trouble with my fake vaccination card at Bolivian immigration?

Current Music: Bush - Little Things

Monday, July 06, 2015

It's Not Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Coming back from a 4 day weekend is tough, but today was a good Monday, mainly due to 3 things:

1. A vendor took me to Maloney and Porcelli for a fat steak lunch

2. The MTA refunded my broken Metrocard...

Not only that, but they did it in less than a month. For every 300 things they do wrong they get something right. I don't even care that they called me Mr!

3. My Zumba instructor resurrected "Your Love is a Killer" after something like an 8 month hiatus. I remembered the entire dance BECAUSE ITS THE BEST! Also, Fuse ODG played the 10 pm slot on Friday night in Sonic at Glastonbury this year - more like Fuse OMG, am I right?!

I'm breaking up my Peru posts with this special 4th of July blog on our weekend trip to Philadelphia. I'd been there twice before - once when I worked at ICSC and helped out at our conference, and once when I worked as a side job for my boss helping out with on-site things at her son's wedding. The bride and groom actually forgot their wedding license in their hotel room, and the rabbi insisted upon having it before signing them as legally married, so I had to race back to central Philly during the ceremony (the wedding was at a museum about 20 minutes away), go up to their suite in the Ritz Carlton, search for the license in their luggage, and run it back to the museum before the rabbi had to leave for another engagement. After that, I stayed as a guest and just helped pack gifts into the car at the end, so all in all, it was a fabulous side job.

Back to my point - I've never actually toured Philadelphia, and Dave has never been, and this was an easy and quick getaway that we planned literally on July 1st. We took the Megabus there - aside from the slight chaos of the lines (where I took in a view of L'Oreal's new & very unfinished building at Hudson Yards), we left a cool 20 minutes late, but made it to PA in under 2 hours.

Our hotel was located right next to Reading Terminal Market which has every type of food imaginable. We found ourselves amazed by one of the chocolate shops where they sold multiple types of chocolate covered bacon for an insane dollar amount.

We walked to the old city, saw Independence Hall, and toured the US Mint (which was very interesting by the way)... 

We said hi to Ben...

...stopped by Betsy's house (though she had retired for the day) 

...and took George's advice:

We walked down Elfreth's Alley, the oldest residential street in the US...

Dave was being all "British," and this guy was all "What are you doing here acting all British?" 

After dinner, that was a wrap on day 1, we were pooped from walking everywhere.

On July 4th, we took getting our Independence Day on to a whole new level. And by that I mean, starting with the Liberty Bell...

Dave took a photo of this random couple to show how the founding fathers fought for our right to use selfie sticks...

There were reenactments, live music, and games all over the old city to celebrate the holiday (plus free hats and flags courtesy of Wawa!) Seeing some of these women in old colonial costumes in the restrooms of various places was pretty hilarious.

Ladies preparing for the parade to start...

After that, we headed to the National Constitution Center (which had free admission on 7/4.) I liked the way they displayed the history of the US (though they did skip some important things, like there's a great deal of info on the Great Depression, and then all of a sudden World War II was over.) This is me acting like a Supreme Court Justice (except I'm robeless and kind of look naked...)

We eavesdropped on some very important conversations with the founding fathers...

He wanted to fight for the right to party but I wasn't having it...

Have some independence:

Next, we went to Betsy Ross' house. Did you know that George Washington and two other important guys just rolled up to her place and were just like, can you make us a flag, in secret?

After that, we walked over to the South Street area, a cute bunch of blocks with restaurants and food, and ate at the birthplace of Larry Fine, which is the curly-haired one of the Three Stooges. So, that was an important piece of history.

For the record, every time we entertained the idea of getting a cheesesteak, we got turned off fairly quickly. Will I be kicking myself later for this?

We stopped by the Magic Gardens and took some "mirror selfies"...

Then we walked back up music row and reflected on some of Philadelphia's finest musicians...

We went to the LOVE park next. I didn't realize this was a Philadelphia thing since we have one in NY. The logo is nice either way, but Philly's is small, and you can maneuver your way around New York's.
Philly love:

New York LOVE (shout out to Ana!):

LA LOVE (just because):

Then we found this park with giant sized game pieces. I was super excited, but in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have touched anything as I'm pretty sure I've contracted some form of Hepatitis.

Not sure why that guy was carrying something when there was a wheelbarrow right there...

The saddest chess game...

Take me down like I'm a domino...

SORRY! More like sorry that I touched this...

We stopped by Mac's Tavern, which is owned by 2 of the actors from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Though we didn't spot Danny DeVito, we did get to watch the Nathan's hot dog eating contest. Side note: my friend Mike has a podcast on competitive eating, check it out here: Fink Beats the Stomach.

In the evening, we went to the Parkway area where The Roots were doing a free show with Miguel and Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland, plus surprise guest Cee-Lo. It was good but I was tired and just wanted to see the fireworks already. The best part of the show was when the Mayor joined The Roots on stage and performed 'Rapper's Delight.'

After the two and a half hour show (really, I should have been happy, it was free), the fireworks finally went off above the Museum of Art...

The best part of the fireworks display was that they didn't play "Firework" by Katy Perry! That was amazing - thanks Philadelphia!

The next morning we went back to the market to stare at the chocolate covered bacon again, and have some breakfast...

There was another chocolate shop that sold candies in the shapes of human body parts...

Oops! I thought you said a dozen NOSES!

You make my liver quiver...

If you were a kidney, I'd be your stone...

We went to the Eastern State Penitentiary next. I was so excited for this, being that my favorite show is Locked Up Abroad. Creep factor was fulfilled...

Here's a cell...

And here's a recreation of Al Capone's cell...

Dave during a recreational break...

We finished the day by going to the Rocky steps (aka the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) Here I am doing my own pose while all those suckers queued up to stand in front of the statue...

Here's Dave at the top...

People just kept running up the steps (old and young, big and small) which I found to be completely hilarious. I was surprised to see a queue for the museum at the top - who actually goes there for the art?

Bye bye Philadelphia!

Current Music: CHVRCHES - Recover