Holidays on the road

The year is almost out. The last time I wrote, Christmas and my birthday and nearly the whole month of December on the road was still to come.

Now it’s a rain-drenched night in Nashville where I’m sitting and tomorrow morning we leave for our final destination of this month/year (nearly the final destination of our road trip – of our epic journey – but that’s a though for another day), where we’ll ring in the arrival of 2013 holed up in a cabin in the Virginia woods, cut off from internet and, most likely, cell phone reception, where I plan to watch movies with Roman, cook, eat, nap, read, sit by the wood stove, nap, write if I get ambitious, walk if the weather cooperates and nap some more.

And it’s not a moment too soon.

The past month has been AWESOME.

December first saw us leaving San Fran for a couple days on the pacific coastal highway. Then there were all the dear friends we got to spend time with in LA. A rollicking drive through twilit Death Valley to a surreal stint in Las Vegas. Zion National Park. Monument Valley. The Grand Canyon.

DSC_0738a rare bit of sun along the pacific highway

DSC_0837Seasons greetings from Disney on the “It’s a Small World” ride

DSC_0951Rodeo drive all blinged out and sparkly for Christmas

DSC_0381Las Vegas’ take on the holiday spirit….

DSC_0798Zion for my birthday! 😀

DSC_0295Stunning Monument Valley

DSC_0867We visited the Canyon on a snowy, blustery, cloud covered and beautiful day

DSC_0944In the canyon

Reconnecting with my most favorite friend from college in Phoenix. Meeting her husband for the first time. Less than 24 hours in Santa Fe. A long drive to Amarillo, Texas for a surprisingly snowy and bitterly cold Christmas.

DSC_0040Christmas lights and cacti in Phoenix

DSC_0421Ceramic Santas in Santa Fe

Oh, and we got to watch the Hobbit in 3-D Imax at the movie theater next to our hotel – one of two places we could find in Amarillo that were actually open for Christmas. The other being the Big Texan, home of the 72 ounce steak, where we out of necessity and an appreciation for the kitsch factor ate dinner both nights we were there.

DSC_0446

 

And finally, two long days of post-Texas driving changed the landscape dramatically and brought us to Arkansas and now Nashville.

We’ve been on the road trip for just over nine weeks now. In the month of December alone, we covered 9 states, made 11 stops, spent time with lots of people I love dearly, saw lots of new stuff. And now I am TIRED.

This afternoon I crashed. We’d gone to see Jack White’s Third Man Records. I was so excited to be there. I took bunches of pictures, chatted with the friendly lady working the counter, fed the automaton monkey band a quarter so they would play a White Stripes jam.

DSC_0600


All smiles. Then I headed out of the studio door and walked head first into a big fat wall of grumpiness.

Suddenly I was just done. At the moment, there’s not a single thing more I want to look at, hotel I want to research or book, place I want to go, history or natural wonder I want to ponder or regional specialty I want to eat. Sometimes with travel this happens. You just get full up. Any drop more would simply be too much.

I’ve been watching sit coms in a horizontal state in the hotel room all night and it seems to have helped – I’m over the grumps at this point. But I’m still SO glad it worked out (in the last minute!) to rent this cabin that – from the looks on google map – is pretty much literally in the middle of no where. There will be nothing to do but chill. I mean, the closest Starbucks is an hour and a half away! 😉

And that’s exactly what I need. A few days to digest all that the past month – two months really – has been. And a few days during which the future – 2013 and the end of the trip both – can wait.

I hope December has been good to everyone out there. Once I have space to think again, boy will I be excited to see what 2013 brings. 🙂 Happy New Year everyone!!

Advertisements

Memories of Manila

(written back in Big Sur but I’ve only had the chance to post now…)

Since I’ve got the luxury of free time today, I’ll do some catch-up blogging. Where I’ve left off: we were just leaving Taipei for some beach time in the Philippines. It’s over a year ago now that we were at this point in our trip (First of all, MIND BLOWN. Second of all, ack, I have soooo much catching up to do!).

As I’d mentioned in my last post on the topic, we’d decided to stop in the Philippines for a bit of easy down time after two jam-packed months of shuttling all over expansive, intriguing China.

The easiest way to gain access to this archipelago was via its capital city, Manila. We’d heard other travelers’ advice and opinions about the place, which were pretty much, get out as fast as you can and the place is a cesspool (actually, more colorful language than “cesspool” was used in this case, but I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG).

Our guidebook didn’t disagree with this perception, but did a decent job tempering city’s negative aspects:

This is the sort of city you leave, fellow travellers tell us, immediately after arranging your ferry ticket out. To a degree, Manila’s earned its rough-around-the-edges reputation. After all, this incredibly huge metropolis is home to well over 11 million souls, with scores of hungry transplants from the provinces arriving each day. In other words, this is exactly the sort of place in which there’s bound to be a good bit of chaos…

For a city that’s not known as a major tourist draw, Manila sure has a lot to see. Because of its hugeness and its traffic, you’ll likely never see it all. As you explore, you’ll get an appreciation for a city that has been at the pinnacle of Asia – and almost at the nadir as well. And you’ll get a feel for the soup of cultural influences that combine to make Manila the free-wheeling metropolis it is today. Much of what’s best to see isn’t always at a traditional sight , but rather can be found in the life of the varied neighborhoods.

…If you’re a traveller who likes to get a feel for the pulse of a place just before the rest of the world storm in, it’s quite likely that Manila may just be the sort of town you’ve been looking for.

(Lonely Planet Philippines)

We are not such savvy travellers that I would claim we managed to read Manila’s pulse, but we did decide to spend a couple days exploring the city before heading to the country’s idyllic beaches. Even though we were happy to have a break from exploring culture and history after all that we’d taken in in China, I’m still SO glad that we gave Manila a chance.

Yes, it’s rough. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, it’s grungy. Yes, I saw more human feces on the streets of the city than I saw on the whole rest of the trip (heartbreakingly, it seemed there were more homeless in Manila than in any other than in any other metropolis we’ve visited on the trip).

But there was a lot more to Manila than its roughness. May of the sights we visited were beautiful and fascinating and nowhere else in the Philippines were we more readily able to tap into the sense of this complex country’s history and culture.

First impressions

Exiting the airport, my first impression was that we were someplace VERY different from the rest of Asia.

The air was warm and muggy but with a different feel to it than the tropical countries we’d visited in Southeast Asia. Our cab driver spoke English easily as we navigated through the traffic of, to my American eyes, well-known makes of cars and trucks to our hotel. Somehow everything felt nearly familiar to me, even as we entered our Spanish colonial style hotel. If I relaxed my senses, I could just about convince myself that our short flight from Taipei had landed us somewhere in the Caribbean, Mexico or Florida somewhere. This was a surreal feeling to have, knowing full well that we were still in Asia and not at all that far away from countries that had felt very exotic and foreign to me during our months of exploration.

The strange sensation of familiarity – and how at odds this put Manila to all the other places we’d visited in Asia – made me eager to see more of the city. All things considered, we managed to get around a decent amount in our limited time there.

Bits and pieces of Manila

We stayed in historic Intramuros, the walled neighborhood in Manila that was once the strong point of the Spanish colonists, where today one can still feel the echo of the conquistadors’ presence in the style of architecture; in fact “many of the buildings still have Spanish-tile street names” (LP Philippines).

We wandered a bit, exploring aspects of Manila as diverse as its rough but interesting Muslim quarter to it’s massive, overly air-conditioned and pristine western-style shopping malls. I hope the photos below can help give a sense of the diversity found within the city…

Photo impressions of Manila

DSC_0955The church of Saint Augustin in Intramurous
The oldest stone church in the Philippines. Completed in 1607, the structure has survived quite its fair share of disaster – from earthquakes to invasions by the British and the Japanes and the Spanish-American war in 1898.

DSC_0948 

DSC_0957

Beautiful massive doors and Spanish architecture in Intramuros.

DSC_0958Manila graffiti

DSC_0964

The Manila Cathedral

DSC_0968

Fire truck

DSC_0978

At Fort Santiago. Aside from its general historic significance, the fort holds a significant place in the Filipino psyche as it was where Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, was imprisoned prior to his execution by firing squad at the age of 35. A quick overview from Wikipedia:

He was a proponent of achieving Philippine self-government peacefully through institutional reform rather than through violent revolution, and would only support “violent means” as a last resort. Rizal believed that the only justification for national liberation and self-government is the restoration of the dignity of the people, saying “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” The general consensus among Rizal scholars is that his execution by the Spanish government ignited the Philippine Revolution.

For more on Rizal, please click here. 

DSC_0983

Filipinos walking Rizal’s steps towards where he was executed

DSC_0986DSC_0991Manila

DSC_0998

Pedicab driver taking a nap between jobs

DSC_1000I loved the Jeepneys!

DSC_1004

Reading the paper as a bus rolls by

DSC_0013

Outdoor market 

DSC_0018

Walking to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. The bridge we’d just crossed was clearly a place to sleep for a lot of homeless people, with many corners having obviously been turned into outdoor bathrooms. Not the most pleasant walk…

DSC_0026 

Selling flower garlands outside the Basilica

DSC_0040DSC_0033

Devotion at the Black Nazarene

DSC_0044In Manila’s Muslim quarter

DSC_0046

Homeless; possibly trash pickers since the child was in a dumpster

DSC_0052

Manila

DSC_0062

A homeless man surveys golfers inside the Club Intramuros golf course

DSC_0084

Indoor skating rink at one of Manila’s insanely huge, western-style malls

DSC_0086

Getting ready for Christmas

Poetic madness: The House on the Rock

I first heard about the House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.

Not that I would ever need prompting to want to road trip – anywhere but especially in the US – but Gaiman’s book taps into and is a wonderful reminder of one aspect of what I’m looking for out here on the road – unexpected magic, myth and beauty in my home country.

The novel’s image of the meeting of old, forgotten gods in the carousel room stuck with me, and I felt like I hit the road-trip-jackpot when I was flipping through a road trip book to get ideas for our route to Wisconsin, and I happened to notice that the House was more or less along the way to our destination.

The House on the Rock sort of defies explanation. The place itself offers a video biography of the House’s creator, but never really manages to delve into the why. Here’s their website if you want to learn more, but this is one of those places that you have to just see to believe, and even then, the why will probably remain elusive.

The world’s largest carousel is only one part of the entire experience of the place. But of everything we saw, it was for me the most overwhelmingly jaw-dropping. It is insane. It is beautiful. It is haunting. It is awesome in the old-school definition of the word.

I will borrow from Neil Gaiman’s book/blog – why bother when such an amazing writer has already described the place. 😉 Photos are from the carousel as well as other parts of the House.

The largest carousel in the world – barely fit my camera lens!

From American Gods, Chapter Five:

Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.

The photos are not the best – it was tricky capturing moving objects in a dimly lit room…

And then there was the carousel.

A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in gothic profusion, and forbade anyone from climbing on it or from riding on the animals.

And such animals! Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different – he saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly coloured and more than real: each rode the platform as the waltz came to an end and a new waltz began. The carousel did not even slow down.

“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no-one ever rides it.”

“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”

* * *

No photo can do the carousel justice. No video either – and this one is extra grainy (had to make it small, or else I’d be uploading for another month with our current internet), but this might give a bit more of a feel:

Another room in the House. Steam-punk paradise…

Among other themes, the House has a vast collection of circus miniatures…

Would love to know the story behind this antique woman’s prosthetic leg/pistol holder!

There’s also a doll carousel. Spot the skeleton… 🙂


If you are ever in Southwestern Wisconsin and have a couple hours to spare, visit the House on the Rock. I can’t say if you’ll love it or hate it, but you’ll definitely NEVER see anything like it!

Cultural fondue

I love me a good melting pot.

Visiting locations where dramatically different cultures, histories, languages or traditions have been thrown together (voluntarily or otherwise) and have stewed (sometimes at a pleasant simmer, sometimes a roiling boil) for long enough to produce something that still tastes of the original elements yet still is different, new and unique have been among my favorite experiences of the big trip.

India, with its exuberant jumble of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh temples, holy places and practitioners, with traditions of Jain, Zoroztrian, Judaism and Baha’i faiths thrown in for good measure.

Xinjiang, where historically disparate regions flowed into each other along the Silk Road. Xinjiang, today the province in China that over ten different “minority” groups call home, where you can walk down a street and see signage in four different scripts: Arabic, Chinese, Roman and Cyrillic.

Places like this are fascinating and captivating to me.

Introducing the Philippines

I didn’t know it before we decided to travel there as a respite from all the cool, grey weather we endured in China, but the Philippines has a cultural mix to rival the best of them.

Technically it’s a part of Southeast Asia, but it sure feels like unlike any place we traveled in that region.


(What looks to me like) a Chinese-style statue in front of the exterior of a Catholic church in Manila

I suppose it’s understandable when you look at the major historical and cultural influences on the archipelago: Indigenous, Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish and American (of the United States persuasion). Comidienne Lisa Lampinelli lovingly described Filipinos as a “weird mixture… the Swiss Army knife of minorities.”

It’s a pretty eclectic mix and helps to make the Philippines and the Filipinos a country and a people like no other! (this site has some really interesting perspectives from Filipinos on the topic in case you want some extra reading: http://www.interaksyon.com/whats-a-filipino; this article in particular provides an interesting overview for folks who are less familiar with the country’s history)

Arriving in Manila felt like entering a completely different world after all the months we spent in Southeast Asia and China. The countries we had visited, while welcoming, always definitely had an air of the exotic and foreign for me. After adjusting to cultures so different from my own over all those months, it was a bit of a shock how familiar the Philippines felt by comparison while feeling at the same time equally exotic.


A jeepney – the ubiquitous form of public transport in Manila. “Maldito” is definitely Spanish as far as I’m aware

Over 170 languages are spoken across the islands, but we mostly got to hear Filipino spoken. To my naïve ears, the language called to mind Spanish with its cadence and lilt. Even though I couldn’t, I felt like I SHOULD understand at least some words here and there, like I do with Spanish. This was a unique feeling after being in completely unknown linguistic waters in all the other countries we’d visited. And when Filipinos spoke English with us, the accent was just as familiar – I felt like I could be listening to a speaker from somewhere in middle America.

The Philippines is also the second largest predominantly Catholic country in the world. 90% of the population is Catholic and it was trippy to see churches (distinctly Catholic AND Filipino at the same time) and their influence in such prominence after months of visiting Buddhist and Taoist temples and the occasional mosque.

It was funny for me to see the flower garlands on the wrist of a Catholic saint – till then I’d only encountered these in Buddhist and Hindu places of worship.

And even though there was nothing I could quite put my finger on, somehow there was a good amount of America in the air (in the cities at least). I think Lonely Planet can explain it better than I:

“Describing the country is like trying to pick up a bar of soap in the bath: you may come close to grasping it, but it always seems to elude you. The Americans have something to do with it. Ruled by the United States for 45 years, the Philippines maintains a close spiritual bond with its former colonial master… The US legacy arguably looms even larger than that of Spain, the Philippine’s original colonisers who ruled the country for 350 years.”

And with all this influence from far-flung corners of the globe, the Philippines still have something intrinsically Asian about them.

We went there for the nature and the beaches. These were great, but what for me remains most vibrant in my memories of our time in Philippines is its odd-man-out-in-southeast-Asia essence and the tenacious, effervescent nature of its people.

We didn’t spend enough time – most of our interactions were just fleeting but as well, most of them involved a smile if not a laugh. I usually find it easy to fall in love with the people in a new country. It was easier than usual in the Philippines though, and I hope some day I can return and get to know this special place in greater depth.

Peace in the Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, located well south of Cuzco and both closer to the coast and lower in altitude, made for a warm and welcome change of scene after being steeped in Incan lore and thin mountain air for so many days (not that I didn’t LOVE all the Incan amazingness and beautiful mountains!). The city is full of exquisite examples of pearly white colonial architecture and the vibe is considerably more down to earth than lovely, but ultimately touristy, Cuzco.

We had a few days here and I’ll write later at greater length about those days, but for now I want to share some snaps from, what was for me, the great highlight of our time in Arequipa.

The city is home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a maze-like convent dating back to the 1500s.

Despite a dubious past – for much of the Monasterio’s history its nuns were women of wealthy backgrounds who continued to enjoy the good life, complete with servants and slaves, live music and parties in spite of their cloistered existence and alleged vows of poverty – the place still managed to produce one saint, Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, and in the late 1800s, the entire place was reformed by a strict Dominican nun, Sister Josefa Cadena, who ran a tight ship and brought life in the Monasterio in line with typical convent standards. (More details can be found here.)

Screen through which nuns would speak to people from the outside world.

Today, only a handful of nuns remain at the Monasterio. They live in a small section of the 20,000 square meter complex which is closed off to the public. The rest of the Monasterio, however, is open to visitors and is well laid out to receive them, with ample and interesting information about the place’s history posted in most rooms in both Spanish and English and even a café that serves quite decent food located about halfway through the tour circuit.

From what we’d read in Lonely Planet, I knew the Monasterio would be worth visiting. I wasn’t prepared though for how totally charmed I would be by the place.

The cells, courtyards and walkways are a mesmerizing interplay between, dim rooms, cool shadow and rock and bright hot sun and illuminated, brilliantly painted walls and cheerful frescos. I suppose the resident saint and the changes put in place by the reforming sister have been effective enough to balance out the alleged wickedness of some of the earlier nuns – the atmosphere of the place is peaceful and hallowed.

We ended up spending half a day there, making our slow way from room to room, hall to hall, enjoying the peace, the stillness, the warm, summery air, the beautiful grounds and the cheerful colors of the place.

I think I must have been a nun or monk in a past life. I just loved spending time in this place. Somehow the thought of a life of spiritual devotion in a location so simple but so lovely seemed quite appealing. Especially when reading a message from the sisters currently serving there:

Since the origins of Arequipa there was a need of founding a contemplative Dominican Mothers’ convent… (Permission was given to begin) the construction of the convent in 1570.

Nowadays we are 30 sisters, of ages ranging between 18 and 90.

In the serenity that our hearts have been originating during long hours of silence, listening to God, in the perseverant praise that springs up of the grateful soul, we are able to acknowledge the presence of God in the small events of everyday life.

Our spirit takes us to offer prayers of intercession and reparation for all the humans to be saved.

Our day starts at 5 a.m., and we pray starting from (during) the praise of Jesus Eucharist, from (during) our studies, doing our manual work in order to win our daily bread. In every single moment we pray for the world and with the world. In the Church we are the presence, not the visibility.

After more than 400 years we are still here, because our contemplative vocation is LOVE. This is our great secret of being happy: to be in love, neither with an ideal nor a project, but with Jesus Christ. 

There are plenty of times I will disagree vehemently with the Catholic/Christian church, but when I read something like this, I can’t help but feel pretty inspired by these women’s devotion to attempt to live in selfless prayer.

And if you’d like an audio to go with the photos, click below to hear the convent bells ringing as we left the peaceful sanctuary for the city streets at closing time. I always think there’s something magical about the sound of church bells…

Church bells

A beam of light shoots through the blackened walls of an ancient kitchen

A collection of old medicines

In the Monestario garden

I love swallows! 😀

Glimpses of rural life on Titicaca

We’ve been in Peru for five days now already!

We arrived in the southerly city of Puno from La Paz, Bolivia, after a scenic but precariously windy (precarious for my stomach, that is) bus ride skirting the magnificent lake Titicaca.

We’ve done some of the touristy stuff, (and there is plenty of it – Titicaca is the second major tourist destination in Peru after Machu Picchu) since arriving in Puno, but starting yesterday we managed to get off the beaten track a bit with an overnight tour with Cedesos, an NGO in the area that works with local communities to develop sustainable tourism.

We were able to see LOTS in our jam-packed two days (and I’ll write more about all of it and Cedesos in a later post), but the juicy filling in our Titicaca-tour-sandwich was a home stay on the Chucuito peninsula.

This is Cedesos’ map – hope they don’t mind me using it. 🙂

Chucuito is home to a handful of small farming communities. We visited Karina, a village of about 80 families, located directly on the shores of Titicaca.

We stayed with the Fernández family. Efraín and his wife Tomasa are born and raised in Karina. They have seven children. The three youngest sons are still living at home although the older two will soon leave to study and work.

Like most of the families in Karina, they are subsistence farmers. They work so they can eat and live – growing crops, keeping livestock, fishing, weaving, knitting. They produce a lean excess that is sold for a profit, but mostly what they grow is what they eat.

Tourism in the area is about three years old. Efraín is the head of the tourism association in Karina. Eleven families are prepared to receive guests for over night visits. Working with Cedesos and a few other organizations, the association manages the reception of outsiders to the community and makes sure that all the families participating get a chance to play host.

Efraín is enthusiastic about his role with hospitality development in Karina, and it seems clear that the additional industry provides a welcome financial boost to the participating families. As far as we could tell, opening to tourism seemed well-balanced and positive for Karina. It certainly was a positive experience for us!

Learning some basic farming techniques, helping in the kitchen, eating food grown in the Fernández’s backyard, warming ourselves around a dried-cow-poop fire under a starry sky while listening to local ghost stories, experiencing the first rain marking the end of the dry season, sleeping under blankets hand-woven from wool from the family’s sheep, hiking to an Incan funerary tower, and simply spending time with the family – the short visit was so full!

Geraniums grow outside our room

Decorations over the entrance of the house

Tomasa showing me how to separate wheat from chaff

Efraín and Tomasa gathering wheat

Delicious home made fried bread for breakfast (made from home grown, hand prepared flour)

The boys caught a huge trout in the family’s net – seven kilos! Efraín was so excited!

Everyone has to pose with the fish.

During the hike to the Incan tower, Efraín explained some of the local plants to us. This one is crushed to produce soap, used for laundry and as shampoo.

Efraín taking in the view

Telling us about a dream he had in which the Incas of the lake were calling to him. Apparently this is a phenomenon that occurs in the area; people have been known to sleepwalk into the lake and drown. Drunks sometimes “see” a city on the lake and walk towards it, meeting the same fate. Efraín was able to realize what was happening in his dream and woke up before anything happened, but he said it’s dangerous to nap too close to the water.

This cactus helps locals with their farming. Efraín explained that because the cactus had grown so close to the ground, the season would be late this year, but the vibrancy of the flowers means the crops will be good.

Looking down on a farm in the valley

A view of Karina from the hill

Efraín explained that locals believe this plant is good against epilepsy.

A boy brings his cows to the lake shore for a drink

Outhouse

One of Efraín’s sons helps clean and prepare nets for fishing

Some of the family’s quinoa crop

Efraín seems pretty proud of his donkey!

This is a special breed of corn that has adapted to grow in Titicaca’s high altitude and challenging climate

A neighbor milking her cow

Tomasa’s skirts drying on the roof

The back door (made from a what I suspect might be a flattened oil drum) to the house. The tire is apparently on the roof to help against lightning.

Saying goodbye

Breathless in Bolivia

Greetings from La Paz, the seat of Bolivia’s government and, at an elevation of around 3,650 meters/11,975 feet, the world’s highest de facto capital city! Phew!

We’re both literally and figuratively out of breath. We’re having a whirlwind journey through Bolivia. We’re only in the country for a week (if we manage to book the bus ticket that we are hoping to this afternoon, that is. Fingers crossed!).

The trip that took us from the edge of Chile and through the barren, rugged and mind-blowing landscapes of Bolivia’s southwestern corner was, in a word, awesome. Three jam-packed but peaceful days. Time got stretchy. We saw SO much, but also managed to just sit and attempt to absorb the mind-bending vastness and awesomeness of nature.

This map is actually oriented west-east, instead of south-north, but I like it cause it gives you a sense of the altitude. 🙂 Source: http://www.boliviabella.com/geography.html

We’ve been battling colds and dryness and dust and the altitude. Nothing like a few extra thousand meters to make a girl REALLY feel out of shape. 😉 The temperature shifts in the elevated desert have been extreme and I’ve actually had to wear MORE layers than I did when we were down in Patagonia and Tierre del Fuego, relatively close to the South Pole. Roman makes fun of me but if it takes three layers of pants, four pairs of socks and as many shirts as I can while maintaining a degree of mobility to keep warm, that’s what I’m gonna be wearing. Yes, I am a wimp. 🙂

Mostly we’ve been laughing about the insanity of it all, including the truly insane amount of tissues we have been and still are going through a day. Gross. 😉

An overnight bus ride from the dusty town of Uyuni dropped us off at La Paz early yesterday morning. I’m quickly and easily falling for this small, scrappy city, clinging defiantly to the rugged mountain peaks. I’m grateful that we have at least a bit of time here.

Tons to write about (as per usual……), but not today – it’s our only full day in La Paz and we have loads to see and do. If all goes well we will be in Peru by tomorrow night.

But I will take advantage of having internet again to share these few photos from our time in the desert. These are some of my panoramic shots, so click for a larger view. See why I’m in awe? 🙂

 

A quick “where we’ve been, where we’re going” post

And suddenly here we are at the end of our time in Chile. It feels like just yesterday that we were crossing the border from Argentina on refrigerator posing as a bus down in Tierra del Fuego, but we’ve been in Chile for over a month now already.

It’s been a full time, and the past days have been among the busiest. We’ve been rambling all around Atacama, the massive (we’re talking 40,600 square miles massive) plateau desert in northern Chile. The driest desert in the world. A place of extreme and harsh and incredibly beautiful nature. It’s been just awesome, and a lot to take in. The vastness of this place, the isolation, the stark beauty. The immense valleys that grow to sky scraping mountain and volcanic peaks in the far distance. The endless sky. The powerful sun that roasts us even as the chill of morning lingers in the shadows. The clarity of light and sound in the dry, clear air. The milky way swirling above our heads at night.

We’ve done and seen as much as we could fit into our time here without totally exhausting ourselves before our next adventure – Uyuni.

We are leaving Chile for a quick foray into Bolivia. We opted to travel to Peru overland, rather than by plane (would have involved returning to Santiago), and going through Bolivia seems like a good way to do it.

We’ll be leaving the extremes of Atacama for another insane and awesome environment – the world’s largest salt flat. We’re going with a driver and the journey from here in San Pedro de Atacama to the town of Uyuni, not far from the flats in Bolivia, is going to be three days of travel with what promises to be rough conditions. Basic accommodation and nights that go down to about -10 degrees Celsius/14 degrees Fahrenheit. This may require even more layers than Patagonia! 🙂

There’s loads more I want to share about Atacama when I have time, but until then, here are just some visual impressions from our time in this amazing place:

 

Feeding frenzy

We’re currently on a little side trip from Santiago at the seaside city of Valparaíso, an hour or two from Chile’s capital. It’s our last night here already – and also my first with internet since we arrived and now that I’m on line I just have to share some photos.

We’re staying at a B&B outside of the city center. It’s a short walk to the metro, which runs parallel to the Bay of Valparaíso’s coastline and gets us into the city in no time. An unexpected benefit is that the metro stop is right by a fisherman’s market and the piers behind them.

Each day there, we’ve gotten to marvel over the spectacle of gulls, pelicans and sea lions hanging out and squabbling over the fish and crab scraps the fishermen toss them from time to time. It’s like our very own David Attenborough special in real life, up close and personal.

The sea lions are too massive to be believed. They are these great hulking monoliths of slick fur and flubbering flesh lumbering across the sand, flopping into worn out piles to sun themselves, baring teeth, bellowing like disgruntled wookies and charging each other over food. Everything changes once they hit the water, where they immediately transform into weightless, elegant creatures gliding effortlessly through the water.

The gulls in the photos might make it seem like the sea lions are not that big. Don’t be fooled. They are colossal. I mean both the sea lions and the sea gulls. The cacophony the birds create when bits of crab or fish are available to fight over is insane!

And the Peruvian pelicans are incredible. They waddle, pigeon-toed, around the pier with their chins tucked deferentially into their chests like they were insecure about asking for fish, but they become magnificent when they take to the air, swooping about pterodactyl-like on massive wings.

So here are some of my favorite photos, in no particular order…

Fishing boats with the pier in the back ground. If you look close, you can already see the sea lions on the beach under pier. 

Pelicans going for fish scraps

Sometimes the sea lions get pretty aggressive with each other. Made me really happy to be watching from the pier above. 

A sea lion dives for crab scraps 

Sea lion and gulls

Gull, pelicans in the background

Diving for scraps

A fisherman dumping crab scraps

And the chaos that ensues…

A tern checking out the action from above

“Back off!!!” I love the look on the one gull’s face

Jack pot!

Pelicans eyeing the action below

Pelican coming in for a landing 

Cormorant and sea lion

Coy pelican

A tern glides above as a sea lion floats below

Santiago street art – wow!

It’s been a busy week or so. The Navimag Ferry dropped us off in Puerto Montt. From there, we did a little side trip to the island of Chiloé (more on our time there in another post).

We did a bit of sight-seeing while there, but we also got down to work, sketching out the upcoming weeks of travel and then filling in the details – researching, checking out reviews, finding out about transportation, booking hotels and tours. Somehow I always manage to forget just how much work the planning part of this trip takes. The work always pays off though, and I’m really excited for the next stops on our roster… Watch this space. 🙂

In the mean time, we left Chiloé, and we’ve been in Santiago, Chile’s capital city, for a few days now.

I didn’t know what to expect from Santiago. Prior to getting here I really didn’t have any mental image or feeling about the place. People we met while traveling had told us that it didn’t have Buenos Aires’ sophistication or edge, but while it might be missing the wow factor, it is a very “livable” city.

We won’t spend nearly as much time here as we did in BA, but Santiago’s making a really good first impression on me. It’s certainly feeling quieter than BA, but it’s got its own certain magic.

For one, I didn’t expect the city to have so much incredible street art. It has a very different feel from BA’s graffiti. Buenos Aires’ street art is amazing – I don’t want to take anything away from that – but the stuff we’ve seen in Santiago feels warmer and more whimsical and it seems to be just about everywhere. I am definitely a girl with a soft spot for whimsy, and I can’t help but fall for a city that embraces art with open arms the way Santiago seems to. If I have time at some point, I’ll have to do some research to find out a bit about the street art scene here (i.e. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the things we’ve seen are actually commissioned murals, but I really have no idea).

In the mean time though, I gotta share just SOME of the graffiti/murals we’ve seen around the city. Check out the gorgeousness below! 🙂