Tag Archives: travel

Apartment Hunting in Washington

26 Jul

A thousand speckled dots of clouds over the east coast. That’s what I’m looking at right now. Of course, by the time you read this I’ll already have landed in Washington DC, and my view will be quite different. At the moment the internal Wi-Fi of my laptop is turned off, the iTunes is giving me a taste of the newest MGMT album, and a frigid air conditioner is toying with my immune system. In a nutshell, this is a typical image of flight, though you can easily replace the laptop with an iPod on any other occasion. This week finds me reading “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, a creative appraisal of the creating and founding of Facebook.

It’s on the road again for me, though I’ll only be in Washington until Friday, searching for an apartment and hopefully not just wasting my time. After all, it’s not a cheap flight down from Boston and I have better things to do than kill three days on someone’s couch in DC. Down below we’re now passing by some small city. We’ve been airborne for at least 15 minutes so maybe it’s somewhere in Connecticut. This month’s been kind of a whirlwind, so who can really keep track anymore?

I’ve been surprised in finding that getting an apartment back in the States is almost as complicated as it was in Latin America, though for different reasons. Back there it was an issue of living with someone you didn’t know or possibly trust, trying to find a neighborhood that wasn’t too dangerous, too expensive, a bedbug-free environment, etc. Come to think of it, there are still many corollaries. Now, I’m more focused on a long term stay rather than month by month.

The difference allowed me to be more flexible and leave a potentially lousy situation easily. No lease, no contract (most of the time), and if lucky no deposit. But this also left us expats open for slumlords who took advantage of us and our possible illegal status. Here in Washington, everything must be legitimate and legal. There will be a lease, contract, and maybe even a credit check. This takes time. Though Washington can be a fairly transient city and there are a lot of apartments to search through, it’s not easy. Someone I know who just moved there told me it took him six weeks to find an apartment. If you’re not near a Metro stop, it can also make life difficult.

My friend Ben scoffed at me when I told him how much time I had planned to search for a place. He insisted I come home earlier, but I said I’d be okay with the time I had. A false sense of availability from Buenos Aires allowed me to think that you could walk in to view an apartment and move in that day. It was sometimes that easy in BA. You had to be there exactly at the right moment.

The next three days will be spent viewing apartments and walking around the city, trying to become familiar with what will be my new home for the next two years. I’ll move down to Washington in less than a month, but so far nothing is confirmed except the move down date of August 23rd. Let’s see if I can make this happen.

Northwestern Argentina, in Video

25 May

The Night Bus to Villazón

13 May

I had a rough experience with a night bus my first week in Ecuador, resulting in my insane fear of taking other buses at night throughout Latin America. Yet with great distances and little time, it can often be an unavoidable thing to do. In Peru I took a night bus and noticed that at least the service was better, with few stops and a smooth road. In Argentina my opinion changed greatly, with the quality of the buses so good that I didn’t even consider it a risk. In fact, I began my trip with a night bus up to the Bolivian border without a thought.

Yet once in Bolivia, it was another story. This place had me a bit worried about taking a night bus, yet it was really my only option to get from Potosí to Villazón and return to Argentina, so I had to swallow my fears and go for it. I left Sucre on the 9 am bus, which really didn’t leave until about 9:40, causing us to get into Potosi (3 hours away) late, causing me to miss out on the 1:30 pm mine tour, which I had begun to consider again. I only had a few bolivianos left and didn’t want to change more because I was leaving the country, so I ate a cheap enough lunch and walked around the center for a while. I couldn’t even go into the Casa de la Moneda, a museum on the Spanish mint, because I didn’t have enough cash. With four hours before my bus I went to the station and waited in the new and empty-feeling terminal.

Before getting on the bus I chatted with a guy who was visiting his grandmother in Potosí, but lived in Buenos Aires. This helped me feel that at least one person on the bus could help me out if I needed something. Night fell along with the temperature and we boarded the cold bus for an eight hour trip down to the southern border. Reluctantly I noticed that I was given the worst seat in the bus, on the top and in the far back corner next to a couple and their young child who they kept on their lap. I had to argue with them to move out of my seat and then when they didn’t even get up, had to climb over them.

Once in the seat, I had the child’s feat kicking my legs during the ride while the father leaned into me, taking up all of the space. Normally it would be worth complaining about, but his body actually provided a little bit more heat on my right side, so I didn’t say anything. Every once in a while he would ask where we were and comment on the cold, but apart from that, they didn’t say anything to me, which was fine with me really. About 20 minutes after leaving the terminal every light in the bus was turned off, forcing us to try to go to bed at 8:30 pm.

Surprisingly, because I was so tired and felt secure in that no one would come up from behind me, I was able to sleep a bit, though always woke up periodically throughout the night. And with a bit of luck, there were no hijackings or rollings off of cliffs. By 5 am we pulled into Villazón, stepping down into the freezing night and shivering uncontrollably. If anyone ever tells you that you can wait in the bus until the border opens, it’s a lie. You get tossed out as soon as the bus stops and have to wait in the cold.

I met up with two other Argentinians on the bus and together we walked down to the border, accidentally crossing illegally into Argentina before it opened. Once we realized it, we started talking to a border guard who didn’t really seem to care and told us we could wait at a gas station up the road. I chose to play it safe and cross back into Bolivia to stamp my passport, avoiding any potential trouble later on. There I waited alone for an hour and a half, freezing and unable to feel my feet at 11,000 feet above sea level. Finally a Bolivian guard let me wait inside where at least it was slightly less cold. I had to take out the pair of alpaca socks I bought in Sucre and use them as gloves, having forgotten mine in Buenos Aires.

Even after the border opened, we had to wait another 30 minutes for the guy with the stamp to show up. It was Labor Day, May 1st, and no one really felt like working. But all things considered, I was the first person stamped out and feeling tired and more glad than ever to return to Argentina, I saw the “Bienvenidos a Argentina” sign and crossed in, rushing up to the bus terminal to catch the first bus to Tilcara, a small village in the northern province of Jujuy.

Finding Sweetness in Sucre

12 May

Sucre architecture

The ride from Uyuni to Sucre was long but nevertheless rewarding. The first 45 minutes to an hour were rough, with bumpy dirt road causing the old bus to sway back and forth. Considering that it was five hours to Potosí, it felt like we were going to have sore bodies by the time we arrived to the world’s highest city. Yet by the one hour mark we turned on to what must have been a main road, any by comparison it was suddenly smooth and enjoyable. From then on we were treated to the stereotypical scene of Bolivia—high mountain peaks, deserts and valleys of intense color and depth.

Originally I had wanted to spent a night or two in Potosí and visit the mines, known the world over for their miserable conditions. Yet talking it over with Alex and Faye made me realize that it was kind of patronizing to come to a miner’s work place and gawk, taking photos as if they were in a zoo. I don’t approve of slum tours either, because in my opinion they demonstrate just how separated we let ourselves feel from people who have to live in poor conditions, rather than trying to help. So I scrubbed the mines from my plans and went with the girls to Sucre. Just as well, because in passing through Potosí I could see that it wasn’t a particularly attractive destination and had an odd feel to it.

View from the hostel

From Potosí it was another three hours to Sucre, this time descending a bit and going through green valleys which, with the right lighting during sunset, somehow reminded us of Tuscany. By nightfall we were in the disputed capital of Bolivia, and adding on a Slovenian girl named Ana to our group, I haggled with a taxi driver who laughed as I bargained him down to slightly above the going rate to the center. Along the way he gave me a good run down of city life in Sucre, explaining the traditional food, local activities and what sureños like to do.

Even though it was night, I could already tell that I liked this city. With colonial influence in the center, it reminded me of Cusco and Cuenca, which are both also located in the south of their respective countries. We walked around looking for a restaurant to please the vegetarian needs of Ana, and once we found an extremely touristy resto-bar, I made a grave mistake. I thought because it was a place for tourists that I could eat anything, and I naively ordered the chilli con carne. This would prove to make me quite sick for the next few days.

Our first day got off to a late start because we really needed some extra time to recuperate, especially after days of waking up before dawn on the Salar tour. Previously I had considered spending the night in Sucre and then in the afternoon heading back to Potosí, but after the long and tiring trip to Sucre (which had always been too far away to visit in my plans), I decided to make the most of it and spent two nights. After all, it was a nice place anyway, so why not enjoy myself? Thus, we leisurely headed to the central plaza by noon, but not before stopping in at Para Tí, one of the most well known chocolate shops in Sucre. An unlikely destination for chocolate, Para Tí actually has an excellent selection, as well as coffee and other caffeinated beverages which run for close to $1.50 or so. There are two locations in the center, and we wound up going to both that day.

Our goal was to visit the Dinopark, which houses fossils and dinosaur tracks lodged into the side of a hill. They used to be flat, but as the Andes Mountains are the youngest mountain chain in the world, they have over time been elevated and now make it appear as though dinosaurs could defy gravity and walk up cliffs.

Dinosaur park

The park itself is nothing special, and the guided tour is 30 minutes long in one small room, though the guide tells you about the fossils and how they were probably formed. The cost of $30 bs is debatably worth it, and the extra $5 bs you have to pay if you want to take pictures is definitely not worthwhile. Especially when you consider that, if you’re a sneaky ninja like Alex, you can simply take out your camera when no one is watching and take a picture. I wasn’t so clever.

Apart from that activity up in the hills, our day was spent walking around the center’s blindingly white architecture and perusing the hundreds of stalls set up with the traditional alpaca sweaters, socks, hats, and millions of knick knacks. I splurged on a necklace and a pair of alpaca socks, anticipating a cold winter back in BA. If I could have winged it, another day in Sucre might have been nice to visit another part of the city, but I was concerned with the timing and left for Potosí the next morning, where I would have to wait around all day with nothing to do and feeling ill. This was the only day on the trip that was “wasted,” even though I’m glad to have seen Potosí. Anyway, the good times had in Sucre made up for a lazy day in the middle of a long adventure.

Southwestern Bolivia, in Video: Part I

11 May

I’ve finished the first video on Bolivia, featuring the first two days of footage of the trip through the southwestern part of the country. Take a look at it here:

Minuteman Pizza, Your Place to Eat in Uyuni

11 May

Leaf through a Lonely Planet published in the last few years and when you make your way to Bolivia, you’ll probably come across the town of Uyuni sooner or later. Check into hostels and activities, and eventually you’re gonna realize that you need to eat too. And there, at the top of the list, is where you’ll find Minuteman Pizza, an unlikely gastronomic delight in a random high altitude speck in the world. All things considered, it’s a major find.

Though you might want to focus on the typical food while in Bolivia, once you get to Uyuni you’ll probably be craving something that doesn’t make your stomach churn, or at the very least reminds you of familiar food that you can rely on. And Minuteman is just the place for a fix up of good food. But still, it’s not just food that suffices in a harsh environment, and it’s really good.

After our tour of southwestern Bolivia ended with the icing on the cake, the Salar de Uyuni, the girls from the tour and I were looking for a decent meal to cap off the excursion and have a nice goodbye. Alex, Faye and I were heading to Sucre in the morning, but Erica was leaving at midnight on the train to Oruro, so using the Lonely Planet’s advice (often times way off, by the way), we wandered into Minuteman, which was recommended for having good pizza. I thought that maybe the guy who owned the place had at one point visited the Boston area, because that name is specific to my hometown. You see, during the American Revolution, regular Joe’s would be sitting around a tavern drinking a beer. Suddenly a church bell would ring out, and within a minute they were on their feet with muskets in hand, ready to fight the British. Hence, Minuteman, which is also the mascot of UMass Amherst, my alma matter.

My ideas of a Bolivia with knowledge of Boston were thrown for a loop, however, when I walked in and saw the Red Sox flag on the wall. I heard the guy behind the counter talking with another American and though I couldn’t spot his accent immediately, knew that the owner was from the States. Suddenly I heard it: “I’m from Amherst, Massachusetts.” Of course, it all made sense. The flag, the name, but how on earth did this guy get to Uyuni, Bolivia to open a pizzeria? Was he a tourist who fell in love and stayed behind?

I waited for my turn to speak and then eagerly went up to introduce myself and say I was from the Boston area as well and had gone to UMass. With a big grin, he shook my hand and introduced himself as Chris Sarage, saying welcome to Uyuni. We chatted it up and it turns out he used to be a manager for the (world) famous Antonio’s By the Slice pizzeria in the center of Amherst. Antonio’s had been a highlight of my four years in college, and the fact that I was talking to a living legend who helped set it up and create my favorite slice, the chicken bacon ranch, was a total shock. Like the salt flats, I felt as if it was some kind of illusion.

Chris told me the interesting story behind Antonio’s and the food industry in Amherst, and told me how he met his wife, from Bolivia, while serving her a slice in Antonio’s. Eventually in 1998 they moved back to Bolivia, first to La Paz, where Chris found the pizza to be lackluster. All the Bolivians ever wanted was a Hawaiian pizza, and though he swore he’d never make one, he eventually added it to a rather long list of topping filled and appetite stifling ‘za.

So much of a restaurant also has to do with its onda, or atmosphere. Minuteman Pizzeria has buena onda, or in other words, good vibes. Though it was mostly filled with tourists, it felt like a branch of the South American Explorer’s Clubhouse, a place where weary travelers could unwind comfortably and safely and share stories. Good music playing in the background, appropriate lighting, and a location across from the train station (ideal if you have to catch a train out and need a place to kill time) completed the experience. It was also one of two places I went to in Bolivia that actually had toilet paper in the bathroom, in addition to humorous survival guides on the wall.

The restaurant was a bit more expensive than the other places in town where you’d get a typical meal, but sometimes you need to splurge when you’re on vacation. And when you do the math, it’s fairly cheap as it is. Take a load off and get a cappuccino or a slice of death by chocolate with ice cream on top, because it might be your last chance while you’re in Bolivia.

Sometimes you make your home where you are, and other times you create a new one. Chris Sarage has helped to bring a little slice of home back to those on an adventure of a lifetime, and for that, I’ll raise my pizza in the air in salute and say, “¡Buen provecho!” Bon appétit.

Address: Av. Ferroviaria 60 (in front of the train station and military base)

Snapping Away in the Salar de Uyuni

10 May

Dawn at the Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni might be off the radar for many travelers, but then again, Bolivia is off the radar to many travelers as it is. The giant salt flats in southwestern Bolivia are a virtual wasteland which inspires imagination in even the most jaded of journeymen. Those who have heard of it or even seen the pictures hold it up on a pillar as one of those fabled places worth visiting before dying, and might even consider it to be one of the natural wonders which, once having experienced, gives you the right to carry a certain pop in your step.

If you’ve seen the pictures, then you know what I’m talking about: the conga line of friends walking into a can, a perfectly timed jump over a white desert and clear sky, or the aspect games in which one person is huge and another is tiny. These are the traditional and touristic photos that all must demote themselves to, for in reality, the only thing to do in the salt flats is take pictures.

As fun as it might seem, the act of taking the pictures is much less enjoyable than the end result. The smiles on our faces is a bit of false advertising, because as we spent the better part of an hour struggling to figure out exactly how to get the pictures to come out correctly, we realized that sometimes you have to work hard for a simple photo. At first we had zero success and tension was building. Blame the camera or blame the photographer, but it sometimes comes down to the fact that it’s hard to take the perfect shot. We eventually enlisted the help of our driver, Gonzalo, who has become a seasoned expert after so many trips through the desert with tourists wanting the same thing.

Playing with the aspect

We began with a walk into a Pringles can. Easy enough, right? Next up was a bigger challenge. I was to kneel down and hold my arms up so that the girls could appear as small objects resting on my hands and head. I had the hardest part because I needed to keep a firm position bent down with my arms up while Gonzalo ordered the girls to move forward, backward, closer, farther, etc.

The idea that these pictures come out perfectly is almost impossible. At the time we wondered how people do it, yet later on we checked other photos and realized that by looking closely you can always notice something a little off. After all, it’s not Adobe Photoshop that you’re working with. It’s simply white salt as far as the eye can see, clashing with bright blue sky, creating a natural sort of green screen. When water covers the salt you see perfect mirror images, and as the sun rises the desert gets brighter and more powerful.

For that reason, you get there before dawn (on a good tour) and watch the sun rise. It’s a bitterly cold experience, and it seems like the sun is lazily getting out of bed and taking it’s time. The effects of the cold and slushy salt made me think of February in Boston, and if you hadn’t told me it was a salt flat, I would have assumed that it was snow. Little mounds set up to drain water rested in front of the famed Salt Hotel, where you’re not supposed to go to the bathroom, but paying for it can get you in to the facilities.

Once the sun has risen slightly the temperature jumps up, explained by the Salar’s high altitude (3,656 meters/11,995 feet above sea level). This area, which contains 50-70% of the world’s lithium reserves, becomes a hot pan by midday, though you’ll still most likely remain in warmer clothing for most of your experience there, the wind remaining a factor. Even in the beginning of the dry season, your 4×4 will likely have to ford through flooded parts of the area, and in the wet season you’ll be able to witness one of the largest mirrors on earth. (The water recedes six inches a day in dry season).

Mirror image of a salt mound

So besides these things to see, a tourist going to the Salar is most likely to go picture crazy. There isn’t a ton else to do. But it’s the highlight of a tour which for me was the culmination of 3 nights and 4 days of roughing it through the Bolivian Altiplano. To be in a place so different and unique that I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere else like it, it made it all worth the trouble. You take pictures that will eventually create hundreds of words as you try to explain what the otherworldly place is like.

Breathing in Bolivia, Even When There’s Hardly Any Oxygen

9 May

Snow capped volcanoes

As we sped past the convoy of other 4x4s on the narrow dirt road, the three girls and I began to look at each other nervously and joke around that we were about to die. To each side of the road was a sharp drop into jagged rocks, and at the speed we were going, no seat belt would ever do any good. I was warned the night earlier at the hostel to be careful with the drivers by two Israelis. Apparently just a couple of weeks before three other Israelis had died when their trucks rolled over on a tour.

“Is it really necessary to pass the other cars?” I yelled to our driver Gonzalo from the back of the Toyota Highlander.

“Yes,” is all he replied, continuing to take hairpin turns with the grace of a rally driver who had grown up in these parts.

Sunset from San Antonio de Lípez

We held our breaths and hoped for the best, but somewhere in the back of my mind I was rested assure that he was too busy chewing coca to be on a suicide mission, and that if he was speeding it was because he generally thought he needed to. Fast forward to the end of the day and we realized that with no refuge reservations, the first trucks into town had dibs on lodging, so in essence, yes, he had to speed up to beat everyone else. Even after taking the lead from dead last out of Tupiza, we pushed on ahead of the group and had to wait around for our wingman truck. You always go out in groups of at least two for safety, because you’ll probably encounter some kind of trouble along the way.

Let’s get cliche for just a moment: I don’t know what was more breathtaking, the scenery or the altitude. The first time we passed a snow capped volcano we stared at it with wonder and admiration. Naively, a couple of us tried to snap photos from the rapidly moving truck, thinking we would have no better opportunity to steal a memory. But we were foolish for thinking that. Soon volcanoes popped up on all sides, and neither the right nor left flanks were clear. Giants lurked with soft and inviting tones. I thought of a number of things, but rarely considered the extreme altitude we faced. It was partly because the numbers I was given were in meters, rather than feet.

Looking back on it, we passed through heights of over 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level on average. Because I had lived at high altitude in Ecuador and am a young runner, I assumed that I was impervious to the affects of altitude sickness. Yet the places where I lived in Ecuador (Quito, 2,800 meters/9,200 feet; Cuenca, 2,500 meters/8,360 feet) were much lower in comparison, and I was not well acclimated. One of our highest elevations was over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). On the first night we stayed in a bare bones refuge in San Antonio de Lípez (4,200 meters above sea level). It was there where the effects of high altitude got the worst of me.

4,690 meters (15,387 feet) above sea level

After settling in we had a nice dinner under two dim light bulbs. There was no heating, though we were given three blankets each (and I rented a sleeping bag), and one bathroom for about 15 people to share. As usual in Bolivia, no toilet paper was provided. After our dinner we walked into the frigid night for just a few minutes to catch the millions of stars in the sky. With no light pollution, we could easily see the Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, etc. With a 4:30 am wake up time, we were in bed by 8:30 pm. Yet once I lay in the bed resting on a stone frame, I was unable to breath.

I tossed and turned all night, struggling for freedom in the tight North Face sleeping bag. On my side I could feel my heart beating double time, as if I had just been running for a long time. Deep and drawn out breaths brought me nothing, and I felt as if I were drowning. It was a horrible feeling, to reach back as far as I could and still have no air to breath. Throughout the night I could hear the girls in the room also struggling to breath, and a look at the travel alarm clock showed me that it was only 1:30 am. There were moments were if I didn’t mentally think to myself, “breath in, breath out”, then I was suddenly gasping for air as if I had been holding it without noticing.

By the time the alarm went off my mouth was as dry as sand paper. I sat up in bed and felt what must be the sensation during a migraine, because it was the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. While the others ate a breakfast of tea and bread I rocked forward feeling like vomiting, and after finishing my coca tea excused myself. I never came to the point of vomiting, and once I took some ibuprofen I felt better, but the uneasiness stayed until the sun rose. On the second night, staying at even higher altitude, the effects continued, though by this point I had at least gotten somewhat more used to it. And by the third night of the excursion I felt slightly normal.

Red mountains

You see, that’s the thing about Bolivia. It can knock you out and push you around, but still leave you wanting more. You get sick from the altitude, the food, the water, whatever else might be out there trying to kill you, and you selfishly keep coming back for more. Those monster mountains on each side of the truck call to you, and at the end of the day, it’s worth a few deep breaths.