Sunday, April 01, 2012

Japan on My Mind

A random Facebook "Which nationality are you?" quiz taken some time ago revealed that I was apparently Japanese. Strange, I thought... that's probably as far from Bulgarian as one can get. After spending 2 weeks in Japan, I have to say that there must be something to that quiz. Japan felt strangely familiar for some reason, most of the time at least. 

Until about 2 years ago, Japan had not really been high on my bucket list. Yes, it sounded intriguing and different, but how much of high-tech, modern cities could one actually take? Milos changed that. He had always wanted to see Japan - for the mix of modernity and traditions, cities and nature, the possibility to be completely lost (in translation and otherwise). After reading more about Japan, I had to agree. It would be quite a different travel experience.

Our itinerary was ambitious. Part of me felt that we may need a vacation from our vacation, but on the other hand, we seem to like it that way. We wanted to go, see, do as much as possible. You can see the map below, but for a quick recap the "tour" included: Tokyo - Yudanaka (close to Nagano) - skiing at Shiga Kogen (some runs were used for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics) - Tsumago and Magome (and hiking an 8-km portion of what used to be the old trading route between Kyoto and Tokyo back in the day) - Kobe - Osaka (incl. sumo tournament) - Koyasan (center of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism) - Kyoto - Hiroshima - Miyajima (island off the coast of Hiroshima) - Kyoto - Nara - Tokyo. (Phew!) It sounds crazy but actually we never felt super rushed. Japan has probably the most efficient train system on the planet (or at least from the parts of the planet that I have visited). They all run on schedule to the second; they are super fast (we could take most bullet trains with our Japan Rail Pass), spacious and clean. It was actually pretty hard to return to Economy class on our flight back. 
I could cover each place we visited at length, but that would take way too long (and also probably put you to sleep.) But I will note the things that stood out for me the most from the whole trip. 

View Japan in a larger map

Stepping out into Narita airport, I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world. Airports are generic like that. But as soon as we got onto the train to Tokyo and then into Tokyo itself, differences became immediately apparent. Aside from the obvious (i.e., signs in Japanese everywhere), we also noticed that everything was super clean; there wasn't a single piece of garbage to be seen anywhere. Which was somewhat paradoxical, given that we also immediately noticed a lack of trash cans in public spaces. (We still haven't figured that one out. We were told this was for security reasons; yet, they have storage lockers at all train stations, which would seem to pose a bigger threat if we are talking about someone potentially planting a bomb. Others told us that the Japanese carry their trash with them until they get home. But nothing was confirmed.) 

The Japanese take great care in making sure you are given all the information you could possibly need (and this is done not exclusively for tourists' sake, although we did notice a large number of "Thank you" signs from the official Japanese Tourism Agency). Overhead monitors in trains list not only the next station stop and the time it will take to reach it, but also on which side the doors will open, and where the nearest station stairs/escalator/elevator are located relative to the train car you are in. Over the two weeks, we noticed this many times, which I interpreted this way - they don't want you to feel any confusion or frustration. If you look lost, someone will immediately approach you to help you out (even if they speak little English); if you are asking for directions, they will go out of their way to show you the way (one woman stepped out from her shop into a snow blizzard in only her t-shirt in order to point us in the direction of our guesthouse). Which leads me to perhaps the biggest impression our trip left on me: how helpful and genuinely friendly Japanese people are. From the lady I mentioned above, to a Japanese photographer who gave us a ride back into town (and even offered to drive us on to our next destination), to a man who operates a rest-house in the middle of the hiking trail between two small towns on the old trading route between Tokyo and Kyoto who provides free tea and pickles to all hikers and maintains a personal log of hikers' home countries as a hobby, to the staff of all hotels/hostels/guesthouses we stayed in... the list goes on and on. Now, I have heard from foreigners living in Japan that it is hard to make friends or, at least, it can take a long time. But I guess when it comes to interactions with strangers, they seemed quite open and helpful. 

From what we saw, Japanese people lived up to the stereotype of following rules and not straying from the norm (and the crowd). We didn't see a single person jay-walk or cross the street at a red light - even with no cars around. When waiting for the subway, everyone lines up at indicated spots where the doors open. There is no pushing/rushing to get into the train; they let passengers step out first, before attempting to enter. (What a difference from NYC!) Although they were less formal towards foreigners, the formalities during interactions between locals (and I am not referring to friends or family members) are interesting to observe - bowing at the beginning and end of the conversation, formal language (we were told) - which apparently varies in formality based on who you are speaking with, cautious initial approach. I read somewhere that the language can be very indirect, i.e., requests are made in a very round-about way as being direct is considered impolite (obviously, we could not catch this ourselves given our non-existent Japanese language skills, but it makes a lot of sense to me, given everything I have seen/read). That is I guess why some translations of signs into English sound so indirect and awkward - most are literal translations from the Japanese. They are also taught to be considerate of others: signs and announcements on the subway/train tell you to silence your phone and if you must take a call (this applies to train only), to do so in the vestibule outside the train car. Near priority seating areas (for the elderly, disabled, pregnant women, etc.) phones must be completely turned off. I am not sure if everyone complies with this latter rule, but they definitely do with the former - we never heard a beep or ringtone.

What surprised me is that there were actually quite a few signs in English (or at least using the Latin alphabet) and even announcements in English on the trains, subways (in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) and some buses. I had expected it to be a lot more difficult for us to get around, but we didn't have too many "lost in translation" moments. (And as a side note, that scene from the movie when the director's long rant is translated with one short phrase into English could actually represent reality. We found announcements in Japanese - on the plane or train, for example - to take much longer than the English versions. I guess, they just have a long-winded way of saying things. Anyway, back to what I was saying before.)
 Even if all signs were in Japanese at subway stations for example, you could always read the subway line maps, since all stations are numbered using a system of one letter and a one- to two-digit number (e.g., R2, T15). The only times when we felt completely lost was when we first arrived in Tokyo and stepped out into the bustle of Shinjuku Station, with streams of people flowing in all directions. There were signs in English to get us to the exit, but beyond that we were completely clueless. Street names were impossible to read; we had the hotel address, but had no idea where we were in order to be able to tell from our map in which direction we would have to go. So, we asked a station police officer. Our first of many helpers along the way. He spoke no English really but he quickly pulled out a map that he could read, read the name of the hotel we gave him, checked the map, and then pointed us in the general direction.The second time was when we arrived in Yudanaka in a snow storm and it was already dark. Again, we had a map but could not tell which street we had to take from the train station - the shop lady I already mentioned above showed us the way. 

Although they make quite a few concessions when it comes to tourists (like skipping the formalities, not demanding that you take your shoes off in all temples), there are some instances in which the Japanese draw the line. Several of the Buddhist temples we visited (although not all) did not allow photographs inside the temple or of the Buddhas. It was somewhat refreshing to see that there are limits to commercialism. Another thing we noticed was that sometimes several people were doing a job that could easily have been done by one person or even a sign, such as directing people from a temple parking lot to the entrance. Or that they had people working in places where you normally would not have anyone in other countries, such as on the sidewalk directly in front of a parking garage exit - to let pedestrians know when a car is exiting the garage and to let the driver know when it is safe for her to continue on her way out. Sometimes there were even two people doing this job. Now we have an idea of why unemployment is so low. 

I can spend ages talking about the food alone - everything was so delicious - from soba/ramen/udon noodles, to all sorts of sea food (raw, smoked, cooked in a variety of ways), to delicious beef in the form of
shabu shabu and sukiyaki, to okonomiyaki. I felt like we spent a good chunk of our time simply eating. We had plenty of traditional dinners and breakfasts, where the presentation mattered as much as what was on the plates. We would be presented with a platter of different-sized and shaped plates and bowls, each holding something different, but it always included at least the following in one form or another: soup, sticky white rice, seaweed, fish, tofu, pickles, and some vegetables. I learned that miso soup is primarily a breakfast soup. I am not a big tofu person, but I must say that I had some delicious tofu in Japan. The best was probably what we were served in the Buddhist temple we stayed in in Koyasan - part of their traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. There are also millions of desserts to choose from - Kit Kat alone has a dozen flavors, among them green tea, wasabi, red bean, strawberry, and seasonal cherry blossom. (It is true - the Japanese are obsessed with their cherry blossoms! They even follow what is going on with those trees they gifted to the US that draw the crowds in DC.)

Delicious okonomiyaki

We also learned that the Japanese have "Western-style" toilets that have special toilet seats that heat, provide bidet/spray functions (with options for desired water temperature and spray strength), can dry your butt afterwards, and sometimes even have a flushing sound button (in case you want to muffle other sounds, I guess). The only place where I didn't see this type of toilet was on the trains. In comparison, the "Japanese-style" toilets are the crouching, hole-in-the-ground type. Japanese love their hot water baths and onsen (hot springs). A few things we learned about the logistics and etiquette of onsen and public bath bathing: 1) you need to wash/scrub yourself before entering the pool/tub, 2) 
men and women bathe separately, 3) you bathe completely naked. The water is very hot (sometimes unbearably so), but I actually got to love these hot-water baths at the end of the day - very relaxing, especially after having been on your feet all day. Our favorite were the outdoor onsen - cool air on your face, but you are all warm inside.

Toilet controls

For a nation that is so technologically advanced it was surprising to learn that the cash culture is still dominant. That is also part of a larger paradox we encountered - that while they are so advanced in some aspects, the Japanese can be quite backward in others. For example, amidst the regular tiles on the sidewalk, a line of special tiles 
with a rougher surface helps blind people navigate their way safely, away from the edge of the sidewalk and the street. The tiles stretch out in a line all the way from one block to the next and indicate when a block comes to an end and there is a street to be crossed or that there is a change in direction, when the texture of the tiles changes - from lined to dotted - so that the person's cane would pick that up. That's the first time I have seen something like this and was very impressed. At the same time, they have no bike lanes, and many people simply bike on the sidewalk, not on the street for some reason.

Special tile "paths" for the blind

However, the most stark "backwardness" is when it comes to gender attitudes and inequality. Women are still expected to take care of the household and kids and put their careers on the backburner. Even if they choose to continue working after having children, they are often relegated to dead-end clerical jobs, as they cannot (nor do they want to) put in the expected 15-hour days to compete with the men for promotions. For those that stop working, if they return once their children are older, it is mostly in lower-ranked and poorly paid positions (again, mostly clerical). There are few Japanese women in management positions or holding political office. This is shocking to me. Just think of all the untapped potential! 

And a few final notes on the brighter side. From our experience, the Japanese are quite curious about foreigners. We had people stop us several times to ask where we are from. 
This included a lady at Osaka train station who upon hearing that we are from "Bulgaria and Serbia" replied "Oh, I'm so happy". And while we heard stories of waiters and shop assistants disappearing mysteriously upon realizing they might be faced with a foreign language situation with a tourist, we found quite a few people who were eager to practice what English they knew (even some who spoke very little English). 

And finally, I had a really hard time understanding young Japanese women's fashion sense. It is hard to describe, but to me it often looked like a bad mixing and matching of styles, colors, and season appropriateness. Most wear high heels, many wear super short skirts (even in winter and often just bare-legged, although it definitely was not warm), and I noticed that very few wore jackets/coats of any kind. (I definitely felt the need for my jacket the whole time we were there; temperatures varied between 8 and 15 degrees C). The knee-high socks are definitely a hit, as are ankle-high socks with lace ruffle. I was pretty amazed by many of the outfits. 

In the end, that's one of the things I love most about traveling - you get to see things that surprise, shock or please you, and you always learn something new. Daydreaming of the next trip already...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Home to the Happiest Sheep on Earth: Iceland

Our interest in Iceland was sparked while reading “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner. In the book, the author visits what according to one database are the happiest countries in the world. We were a bit surprised to see Iceland on that list. When I thought of Iceland, I thought of cold, endless nights and an empty landscape. Weiner’s descriptions of Reykjavik and its people did not jive with that image at all. So, Milos and I decided to add Iceland to our travel list and see for ourselves, although we had no idea when we would actually make it there. The happy coincidence of a Delta inaugural flight to Reykjavik from JFK (i.e., cheap promotional fares), a wedding in Bulgaria, and the desire to see something other than our home countries on a visit to Europe, transformed Iceland from an item on a list to a destination on an actual itinerary. So, off we were on August 12.

I have always believed that first impressions of a place and people are the most telling; and also quickly fade away as one’s senses adapt to the surroundings. My first impressions from Iceland would have to be:
1.     People are super friendly and helpful. They are also curious as to what you think of their country and how you are enjoying your stay. All in all, they are the perfect hosts.
2.     Nature in Iceland is overwhelming… in a good way. I felt small and insignificant in comparison. The only other time I have felt that way was in Patagonia. (But more on nature later.)
3.     Iceland feels empty. I had not realized that the population was only 300,000. A little more than a third lives in Reykjavik. So, as soon as you exit the city, it’s just you and nature (and some sheep). (More on sheep later.) No surprise then that even Reykjavik on a weekend lacked the hustle and bustle. That’s population sparsity for you.
4.     Reykjavik is a fun and very livable mini city – it’s green, clean, walkable, child-friendly, and party central on the weekends. Seattle is apparently its sister city and, although I have never been to Seattle myself, from friends’ descriptions I can see how the way of living and proximity to nature can compare. Conclusion: I would not mind living in Reykjavik (although I reserve the right to change my mind until I have had the chance to experience a Reykjavik winter as well, although Icelanders say it is not as cold as one would assume, since the Gulf Stream brings warm air, but it is dark…for a long time).
5.     Icelanders love fast food. Apparently, there is a strong US influence. Iceland has one of the highest per-capita consumptions of Coca-Cola in the world. They love hot dogs (that’s like the national food), burgers and pizza. While at a famous burger joint in Reykjavik, we saw families downing their burgers with pitchers of Coke. I had not expected that for sure!
6.     And Icelanders love coffee, and they prize high-quality coffee. All of the coffee we had there was much better than most coffee in the U.S.
7.     Drinking and partying is reserved for the weekends (and people go all out on both fronts on Friday and Saturday nights), but the rest of the week is pretty calm and quiet. I guess work hard, party hard is what they abide by.
8.     Sheep are everywhere (outside of Reykjavik that is). They graze freely, and we spotted some in pretty remote areas, far from any farms. Usually, they wander around in groups of 3-5, not large herds, so I would guess families?
9.     Iceland is expensive. I guess that should come as no surprise. It is not as expensive as it used to be before the crisis, but it is definitely not a cheap destination. Didn’t feel much different price-wise from New York.
10.  Children rule. Reykjavik (and Iceland on the whole) must be one of the most child-friendly places I have ever been to. Families with their kids were out everywhere; people aren’t bothered by the multitude of strollers (as is the case in NY), there are plenty of perks and discounts for kids. As one magazine article I read put it, “Icelandic moms look happy and relaxed, not stressed and worn out.” I also enjoyed reading the following somewhere, “Icelanders treat children as mini adults, therefore visitors to Iceland may not see as many things geared specifically towards children.” Who knew?

For me, the most memorable parts of the trip will be the ones spent outside the city. I had been craving some “nature time” for a while and I definitely got my fill and more. My descriptions will not do full justice to the scenery, but I hope the photos will rectify some of that. After an initial day in Reykjavik, we hopped on a bus to Skaftafell National Park in the south, located at Iceland’s largest glacier – Vatnajökull. The way inter-city buses are organized in Iceland is mostly to serve tourists. Most bus journeys are accompanied by some audio guidance, highlighting interesting sights and explaining this and that along the way. On one trip, we had the “guide” tell us a number of Icelandic sayings and superstitions for a good 10 minutes. At the end of it, I only remembered one, perhaps because it seemed the most absurd: “If you see nine cows in a shed with a grey bull next to the door, and all of them lie on the same side, you are in luck, because you will be granted one wish.” I had no such luck.

As soon as you leave Reykjavik, you feel like you have entered another planet – black igneous rock, covered by patches of green moss, alternating with hills of the same colors. And that’s just the beginning. From there the scenery changes several times along the way. Horses and sheep dot the landscape. Villages and towns are merely a collection of houses, sometimes as few as five, and it’s actually gas stations that serve as transit points, where you can switch from one bus to another, not towns or villages. Or perhaps the gas station is the central spot of the town, given the lack of a central square or other central location. There is definitely no lack of natural sights. We stopped at a couple of waterfalls along the way, and saw many more from the bus. 

But the highlight of the day would be Jökulsárlón – the glacial lagoon filled with icebergs, which have broken off from the Vatnajökull glacier. Shades of white, blue and black alternate on these giant floating blocks of ice, some over 1000 years old. We took a boat tour to view them at close range (although you still can’t get too close for safety reasons; apparently, the icebergs are known to flip over without warning and with more than 50% of their mass underwater, you need to keep a good distance). While waiting for our turn to board, we enjoyed watching some seals make laps in the lagoon. It was almost as if they were taunting the tourists. Their heads would appear periodically above water, they would swim around, then dive and disappear for a long time, leaving you wondering whether you will get another chance to capture them on camera. 

After the lagoon visit, we returned to the park, hiked up to our guesthouse and left our things, before going to see yet another waterfall, Svartifoss. This one flanked by black basalt columns, which made for an impressive sight. There is much more to explore at Skaftafell, including glacier hikes and other activity involving snow and ice, but we had decided to spend more time trekking more to the southeast, having become acquainted with glaciers on our climb of Huayna Potosi in Bolivia. Landmannalaugar was calling – the starting point of the Laugarvegurinn 4-day trek to Thörsmórk. 

 The bus ride to Landmannalaugar the following morning was accompanied by drizzle. We had had good weather the previous couple of days but knew that there was rain in the forecast and had been mentally prepared. Plus, Icelandic weather can be quite fickle and you can get a little bit of everything in a single day. On the way we stopped at Eldgjá – a volcanic rift that stretches 40 km. According to our bus brochure “only the name itself conjures up images of a mysterious and powerful place.” Although definitely different, I did not share the feelings of the brochure’s author. A trail through the rift led to another… you guessed it, waterfall. This one made up of multiple cascades. The drizzle persisted to Landmannalaugar, covering the surroundings in a veil of mist, which made the greeting “Welcome to beautiful Landmannalaugar” a bit incredible. We had reserved beds at the only hut and were told to find two mattresses in room #1. Room #1 actually contained 32 mattresses and I knew right away it would be a long night. There was no way in the world that at least one person (if not more) would not snore that night. But all in all, the hut was quite comfortable (as were the remaining huts we would stay in along the trek): we had access to a kitchen (cooking and eating utensils included), hot showers (for $4 per 5 mins), and, most importantly, a warm and dry place to spend the night! Our first stop was the thermal pool near the hut. Hot springs are so common throughout Iceland that at some point your nose stops picking up on the sulfur smell, but what is not as common is water of temperature that would not scorch your skin right off. Turns out that in Landmannalaugar water from a hot spring and glacial runoff join to create a pool of perfect temperature. Even the continuing cold drizzle could not keep us away. By the clumps of people in the pool, one could immediately tell where the temperature was best. I only wished that such pampering awaited us at the end of our trek.

The next day, the sun was peeking through the clouds, and just like that, the veil had lifted. (I even got to use my sunglasses that morning! Something I would not repeat until Day 4 of the trek.) The landscape had magically transformed from black-and-white into full color. As we started the trek, I had to admit – it was quite beautiful. Rolling rhyolite hills of shades of green, red, orange, and purple; patches of light blue sky; the tents at the campsite we had just left behind mere colored dots on a canvas. (Given all the volcanic activity in the country, we quickly learned about different kinds of volcanic or igneous rock. Apparently rhyolite rock is formed when mineral-filled lava cools unusually slowly, and the result is these spectacular colors.) 

Another highlight of Day 1 was the geothermal area Stórihver, which literally bubbled, boiled, and steamed. Unfortunately, there was no flow of cold water in this part to make any of the hot springs batheable. As we approached the hut where we would spend the night (Hrafntinnusker), the ground began to gleam in black and grey. What seemed like silver from afar turned out to be black obsidian rock (formed when lava cools rapidly with minimum crystal growth, according to Wikipedia) – very smooth and very shiny. And it was literally everywhere. Hrafntinnusker greeted us with sunshine. But as soon as we got ready to explore the area, the rain started coming down. We decided to wait for it to let up a little and then still hike to some collapsed ice caves nearby. By the time we returned (after making a detour to another set of hot springs as well), the hut had become considerably more crowded. People’s wet clothes were draped to dry all around the hut (which made for a cozy, but somewhat smelly experience). A group of Slovaks (who were camping, but had sought out a drier, warmer place until bedtime) were squeezed into the vestibule area of the hut with all the hiking boots, sitting on small stools, but they did not seem to mind and were engrossed all night with game after game of cards. (I always knew you guys were sturdy hikers, Nadka!) We were just happy that we did not have to camp.

Day 2 greeted us with dense clouds and fog. Some people decided to wait a little to see if the fog would lift but there was little indication of that, and the warden also did not seem optimistic, so we set off. There is not much to report on given the limited visibility, until we began the descent to Lake Álftavatn and could spot the lake in the distance. We knew that the next hut was located near its shores. This turned out to be the most luxurious hut of the hike: we slept 4 people to a room in what looked like a recently constructed building. The only downside was that all of a sudden we felt a little too close to civilization again. A bus made a daily stop at the hut, and some hikers began or ended their hike here, instead of trekking the full route. It was here that we said goodbye to a French couple we had befriended along the way. It was also here that we met a young German, who had brought along nothing but 500g of pasta for the trek, not even pasta sauce or ketchup. By the end of the 4 days he was infamous but definitely did not take himself too seriously – making jokes of how his diet was actually varied, because one day he would make the pasta al dente and the next day cook it fully through. A side hike around the lake turned into an adventure as Milos decided that the trail led up a rocky incline. While the views from the top were spectacular, the scrambling down was not so much. But we made it back to the hut in one piece, just as it began to drizzle again.

Day 3’s highlights included the fording of two rivers (icy cold of course, but also refreshing and good for your feet and circulation!) and walking through an endless desert of black sand. The sight got to be a bit monotonous, but the soft sand underfoot was definitely welcomed by my knees. The sun also peeked out a few times. 

After reaching our destination – the huts at Emstrur – and dropped off our backpacks, we took a side hike to what many described in the guestbook of the hut as the highlight of their day: the Markarfljótsgljúfur canyon, what someone termed as the green Grand Canyon. I have to admit, it was pretty spectacular, especially as greens flowed into reds and into blues. The color palette in Iceland is amazing. Some strange white birds were circling in the canyon. The sun peeked out again and as we headed back to the huts, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier – the sun’s rays hitting the dazzling white ice cap.

 Day 4 greeted us with sun. But a dark cloud was fast approaching, so all of us hastened to pack our backpacks and head out as soon as possible. All along the way, the clouds were at our back, but luckily did not reach us. The terrain was a bit more varied from the previous day – hilly, grassy, rocky in turns. We had to wade through another river. This one had a stronger current than the two from the previous day, but we made it across with no mishaps. So did most people; only one girl managed to drop her boot somehow, and her hiking buddy had to chase it downstream, jump in, and grab it. Then she herself stumbled and fell. By the time we helped her out, she was soaking wet. Luckily we were not too far from the last hut, so we lent her some dry clothes and she hurried on. Then trees appeared. We hadn’t seen any trees in days. It was a nice way to end the hike – walking through a semi-forest, which then opened up into a clearing, and there was the Thörsmórk hut, with the infamous Eyjafjallajökull in the background. I had imagined we would see a ravaged landscape, given last year’s eruption, but it seemed quite like the rest of the Icelandic landscape (may be because it is all volcanic in the end). Our final destination and a bittersweet feeling of accomplishment and nostalgia, as our adventure had come to an end.

Iceland is harsh, resilient, surprising, unique, friendly, and much more. Mostly it’s just hard to sum up in words. I am happy to have experienced it and would recommend it to all nature lovers. Go out there and feel insignificant. I can also confirm Weiner’s observations: people in Iceland seemed quite happy. But the happiest to me without a doubt would be the sheep. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Travels Revisited

Just now I re-read a post I wrote three years ago about a trip I took with classmates to Puerto Rico. It was wonderful to revisit the details but also disturbing to realize how many of those details I had actually forgotten in the meantime. So, I made a pledge to myself to write up in more detail as many of the Bolivia/South America trips we took as possible. Yes, the experience is not as fresh in my mind as it would have been right after each trip, but I am sure I still remember more now than I will five or ten years from now. This is a pre-New Year's resolution -  to capture in writing the following trips:
- Isla del Sol, the birth place of the sun
- The Jesuit Mission towns in Eastern Bolivia
- Potosi (or how the Spanish Empire bankrolled its conquests) & Sucre (the other Bolivian capital)
- Puno and the Urus floating islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca
- Torres del Paine and other highlights in Chilean Patagonia
- The Bolivian Amazon (forget Brazil, Bolivia's Amazon region is more pristine and cheaper to visit)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

How Would You Like Your Salad?

Chopped. Is apparently the right answer. Or at least, so I learned today when ordering a salad at a deli and being faced with the question, "Would you like it chopped?" Now, let me explain that the salad and all of its ingredients were already chopped to (what I think of as) the regular bite size. You can imagine my confusion when the man behind the counter asked me whether I would like my salad chopped ... further ... using a chopping machine. After a second's pause, I responded with a "No." He obviously recognized I was a newbie at this and persisted, "Are you sure?" "Yes." I almost felt the urge to tell him, "My salad is normally sized, and I don't need it shredded to bits, thank you very much." Apparently, however, other people did. Two women ahead of me in the line as well as one behind me had theirs chopped. Why? I'm not really sure. It looked so unappealing. But apparently you can then eat it with a spoon. Oh, and the deli can probably charge you more for it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Door-Hoggers & Solo Cafe-Goers

Slowly,  I am getting used to the sirens at all hours of the day and the go-with-the-rush-or-you-will-be-run-over attitude. Do as the natives or... One thing I am definitely never going to understand (and probably my number one NY pet peeve as of now) is the door-hogger. This is just a random term I have started using to refer to people who enter the subway by taking one step inside and then just standing by the door, while a crowd is gathered to board outside and the inside of the train is empty. Seriously, I haven't seen that anywhere else. Not in DC and definitely not on any of the European subways I have ridden. No-one else really seems to notice or mind from what I can tell, so perhaps over time I won't either.

But I think the phenomenon that has struck me the most this time around is the solo cafe-goer (and this is not something particular to New York, but to the U.S. as a whole). While grabbing coffee is a social experience in most countries, or at least the countries that I am familiar with, in the U.S. it is often a solitary experience. In the rest of the world, most people would not be caught dead sitting alone in a cafe. You go to a cafe to meet up with friends, to spend time with others, to socialize. Perhaps Starbucks is not the best comparison, but I find that even at other "alternative" or European-style coffee shops most of the tables are occupied by one person, who is more often than not typing away on a laptop. It fascinates me. Perhaps Europeans or Latin Americans are afraid of being spotted alone at what is considered a social venue. Or what I think is more likely (at least if I base this judgment on myself) is that the cafe is merely a vehicle for a social experience. It is not the coffee or the wi-fi availability per se, the functionality so to speak, that I am interested in. It's the way in which the setting makes it possible for me to spend time with people I care about. If I just want coffee, then I'll make it at home. So why this difference? Perhaps it's just a difference in socializing vehicles. Here people seem to prefer to socialize over brunch, dinner or drinks. Can't say that the same is not true in Europe or Latin America, so I'm not sure that quite answers my question. Perhaps others will have better ideas.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Goodbye Bolivia, Hello New York

I had the good intention to write this before I left Bolivia (which was actually 2 months ago at this point). But moving across three continents, planning a wedding celebration and then ultimately trying to settle in my new city (New York) somehow got in the way. (Excuses, excuses.) I miss Bolivia. I miss the crazy landscapes of La Paz and actually writing this post now is helping me feel closer to my Latin American home. (For anyone wondering why I refer to Bolivia as home, this may be helpful.)

Highlights of my last month in Bolivia (some of them involving neighboring countries):

1. The first glimpse of Machu Picchu before sunrise (and getting up at 2 am to hike to the entrance). Machu Picchu (and Peru in general) has been on my destination list for a long time. Vaguely since I first started learning Spanish in 2000 and more definitively since I sat next to a Peruvian woman, who told me all about Peru's sights and wonders, on a bus in Costa Rica in 2005. It helped significantly that La Paz is not that far away from Cusco and Machu Picchu. Long story short, I was excited to finally get so close. Milos and I had thought about hiking the Inca Trail, but in the end opted not to, since it gets very crowded in June-August and is quite expensive. We figured we had hiked similar trails in Bolivia with only our guides as companions and this would not be able to compare. So, we decided to take the train (finally running after the landslides of last February). There are then two options to get to the site itself. Take a bus or hike. There is no daily limit on the number of people let into the site but there is a limit on the number of people allowed to hike Huayna Picchu - the peak that rises behind the ruins in all classic postcard pictures of Machu Picchu (400 people per day). We had been told that climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu is a must, so we were determined to be among the first 400 in line the day of our visit. This meant hiking up to the site, since the first bus would not get us up there early enough. (We had been told that aiming to be there around 5 am should be fine.)

We arrived by train to the village of Aguas Calientes (or Machu Picchu Pueblo as it is now known) and decided to do some recon on the trail up to the site.  It was pretty much a walk on flat ground for 30 mins to a bridge and beyond that the trail started going up an endless set of steps. Some guards stood by the bridge; out of curiosity I asked them at what time people start coming by this way in the mornings. "3 am and if you want to climb Huayna Picchu you shouldn't be much later than that." So, we quickly changed our wake-up time from 4 to 2 am. Very few things can make me get up in the middle of the night, but I figured that the climb to Huayna Picchu would be worth it.

So, at 2 am we woke up and at 2:30 am we we off. We got to the bridge in 20 minutes. There was already a group of 20 or so people gathered there, waiting for the bridge to open (which wasn't until 3 am, it turned out). As they opened the bridge at 3 am, I almost felt like a contestant on the Amazing Race, rushing off from the starting point. Steps and more steps. People would huff and puff, stop to rest, as did we, but apparently less than the others (which we didn't even realize at the time), because by the time we got up to the entrance (an hour or so later), there were only 2 people in front of us! (Yeah, we overshot it a bit.) We were actually not sure at first whether we were in the right place, since there was no-one around. But soon enough, more people started coming and 30 minutes later the line had really started forming. Every newcomer (who, disoriented at first about where the line actually begins and where it ends, would usually head towards the front) was greeted by angry shouts of "Fila, fila!" (Queue, Queue!) and headlamps being shined on him/her, until s/he got his/her bearings and headed towards the back of the line. We had almost 2 hours of that to bear until opening time.

At 6 am, we were let in, stamps for Huayna Picchu in hand. Although quite a few people had been waiting in line, somehow the crowd dissipated as it entered the site. No photos do Machu Picchu real justice. It covers a huge area, which you only realize after you start climbing up and down the various terraces and trying to get from one end of the ruins to the other. In the onset of dawn and surrounded by silence, I had the feeling that I was seeing it as its earliest visitors must have seen it. There are no tell-tale signs of modernity or time more generally. Just the signs of an ancient civilization hidden among green mountain peaks. I stared at the ruins and it was like time stood still. There are very few places where I have experienced this feeling. The sun's rays began to illuminate the ruins, more people started entering the site, and then that quiet moment passed. I was back amongst photo-takers, backpackers, and women sporting crystal skulls. For anyone headed to Machu Picchu, I strongly recommend either getting to the ruins really early the morning of, or staying until the site closes. For me, those were the most magical moments.

2. Playing with a bunch of cute Peruvian kids in Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo lies in the Sacred Valley. Apart from being a departure point for the train to Machu Picchu, it also boasts its own ruins. (Although no Machu Picchu, the ruins are definitely worth a visit, and the village itself was one of the highlights of the trip for me - with its narrow, cobblestone streets and mountain-water canals.) While exploring its streets, we passed by a group of kids (5-8 yrs old). One of them started saying something to me. I didn't quite understand at first, but then figured out that he was asking me to take a photo. I told him to get all his friends together and I would take one of all of them. They gathered very excitedly and hugged each other, ready for the shot. As soon as the picture was taken, they ran up to me to see it (oh yes, they know digital cameras). "Again!" they cried. So I took another one, and then another one, and another one. I think I ended up taking 5 or 6. I had to tell them that was the last one. At which point, one of the smaller kids came up to me and said, "Cárgame" (Carry me). I thought this was an odd request, but he was so cute I couldn't refuse. It was hard to get him to let go afterwards. In the meantime, the older kids started getting water from the canal and splashing us. It turned into a bit of a water fight, with the younger kids still pleading "Cárgame, cárgame." In the end, I had to literally extricate myself, as one little girl hugged my leg with both hands and would not let go. It was comical and endearing at the same time.

3. Seeing a pink river dolphin. When I first read in the Lonely Planet Bolivia that you could spot pink river dolphins in some of the rivers in the Amazon, I was intrigued. I had no idea such a dolphin existed. When we finally made it to the Bolivian Amazon in July, I couldn't wait to get on the river. Then we were told that they were actually pretty difficult and rare to spot. Well, I guess we were very lucky because we saw one on two different occasions during our 3-day tour. Perhaps it helped that there were only the two of us and a guide in the boat; we were a lot quieter than some of the bigger groups, who had no such luck. For anyone curious as to what a pink river dolphin looks like, it would be better to consult google images. We only saw its back for a few seconds before it disappeared again underwater. But, no, it is actually not pink in color.   

On another note, the difference in the level of tourism between Peru and Bolivia is staggering. Peru's tourism is very well run and organized. We saw tourists of all age groups in Cusco. Of course, this has its pros and cons. Pros mostly for the country itself, because the revenues from tourism can be substantial (and unfortunately Bolivia has not really tapped into them yet). And cons to some extent for the tourists - everything may run pretty smoothly, but you will always be surrounded by hundreds of other tourists and don't get to enjoy nature and the sights quite like we did in Bolivia. There is something to be said for untouched and remote locations.

Of course, now I am in New York and this is as far removed from remote as one can get. Despite having been here for a month now, I am still adjusting. There are many aspects about this city that I love - the diversity, the ability to find anything you could possibly be looking for, the international feel. But the hustle and bustle, the noise, and the pushing on the subway definitely don't make that list. We debated with a friend the other day, "Why do New Yorkers have so much patience to wait in line to get ethnic food at some food fair, but when it comes to waiting 2 minutes for the next subway train, that patience is non-existent?"

Well, I am sure I will be asking myself a lot more questions and gathering a lot more impressions as I get to know my new city. And I have made a decision to document all this here in a new series, New York Stories. After all, it's not healthy that looking for a job take up all of my time.