Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hawaii! The First Step Toward Home

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

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

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

Friday, March 7, 2008

Haircuts Around The World: Bolivia - The Final Adventure

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

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

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bolivia: La Paz

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Things We Ate On The Street: Bolivia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 3, 2008

Bolivia: Lake Titicaca

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

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

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

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

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

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