Wednesday, February 14, 2007

South America Trip - Fun Facts and Link to Peru Pictures

Hola, amigos!

We're finally ready to start posting pictures from our trip to South America! Sorry for the delay, but YOU try weeding through almost ten thousand pictures. That's right. We took approximately 9,670 pictures over eighty-five days. Yeah. The final count blew our minds as well. We're still not done yet, but we're ready to show you pictures from the first country we visited--Peru.

By the way, on average, that's a little over 113 pictures per day. (Whatever...don't try to pretend you didn't just calculate that yourself.)

Our trip in a nutshell: We left Los Angeles on October 4, 2006 and returned on December 28th. We spent two and a half weeks in Peru, five days on Easter Island, about three weeks in Chile, and the last six weeks in Argentina.

Since we've been back, everyone's been asking us more or less the same question: What was your favorite out of all the places you visited? The truth is that it's hard to say, because we saw so many amazing, wonderful things. If I had to narrow it down, I'd have to go with the breathtaking Machu Picchu ruins in Peru, the awe-inspiring giant stone statues on Easter Island, and the majestic forested mountains of Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Chile. My favorite country as a whole, though, was probably Argentina, with eye-popping scenery, diverse and interesting wildlife, friendly people, great wine, and the most unbelievably flavorful and juicy steaks I've ever tasted.

The link to our Peru pictures is at the bottom of this post. But first, here are some fun facts about our trip:


Machu Picchu altitude: 2,430 m (7,970 ft)
- similar to base elevation of Mammoth Mountain in northern California

Lake Titicaca altitude: 3,812 m (12,507 ft)
- highest navigable lake in the world

Highest altitude on Inca Trail: Dead Woman’s Pass, 4,198 m (13,769 ft)
- similar to summit elevation of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Distance we hiked on the four-day Inca Trail: 49 km (30 mi)

Date of "discovery" of Machu Picchu: July 24, 1911 (Hiram Bingham)

Best pollo a la brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken) we ate: El Pio Pio in Arequipa

Number of cities/towns/areas visited: 6 (Arequipa, Puno, Uros [the “Floating Islands”], Isla Taquile, Cuzco, Aguas Calientes [Machu Picchu Pueblo])

Most delayed bus departure: 4 hours
- bus was scheduled to leave Puno at 12:30 a.m. but didn’t leave until 4:30 a.m.
- and then broke down halfway to Cuzco causing delay of one more hour

Number of daypacks stolen: 1

Easter Island

Distance from Easter Island to Santiago, Chile: 3,600 km (2,200 mi)
- similar to distance from Los Angeles to Hawaii

Number of moai (stone statues) discovered by researchers, to date: 887

Size (area): 163.6 km² (63 sq. mi)
- slightly smaller than Catalina Island off California coast

Population: 3,791 (2002 census)

Only town on the island: Hanga Roa (with 3,304 inhabitants)

Number of ATMs on the island: 1 (and it didn't take our card)


National cocktail: Pisco sour (pisco brandy, lemon juice, and sugar)

Number of cities/towns visited: 14 (Santiago, Valparaiso, Pucon, Villarrica, Lican Ray, Conaripe, Valdivia, Osorno, Castro, Dalcahue, Achao, Puerto Varas, Puerto Montt, Puerto Natales)

Exchange rate: 1 USD = 545 Chilean pesos

Distance hiked on the “W” Circuit in Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine: 76 km (47 mi), over four days

Total hours on buses: 30 (approx.)


Number of cities/towns visited: 26 (El Calafate, El Chalten, Rio Gallegos, Puerto Deseado, Trelew, Camarones, Puerto Madryn, Gaiman, El Bolson, Bariloche, San Martin de los Andes, Villa Meliquina, Mendoza, San Juan, Cordoba, La Cumbre, Jesus Maria, Alta Gracia, La Cumbrecita, Puerto Iguazu, Corrientes, Resistencia, Rosario, San Antonio de Areco, Buenos Aires, Tigre)

Number of penguin habitat areas visited: 4 (Isla Pinguino, Cabo Dos Bahias, Punta Tombo, Peninsula Valdes)

Area: 2,776,890 km² (1,072,157 sq. mi.)
- 8th largest country in the world

Distance traveled by bus: 8,216 km (5,094 mi)

Total hours on buses: 135 (approx.)

Distance traveled by rental car: 2,307 km (1,430 mi)

Total distance traveled: 10,523 km (6,524 mi) - similar to driving from Los Angeles to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back again

Longest bus ride: 24 hrs (Cordoba to Puerto Iguazu)

Best Argentine steak dinner: Cerro Lindo in El Bolson

Best Patagonian lamb: Tarquino in Bariloche

* * *

More fun facts to come! And here's the link to some of our Peru pictures, posted on Shutterfly:

Please comment! We LOVE comments!


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Downtown at Twilight

Bus Driver's post about downtown L.A. prompted me to post this picture I took a few months ago. Bus is right - the skyline can be really beautiful from certain angles. I took this one from the corner of 1st St. and Beaudry Ave.

Friday, February 09, 2007

South America: Camping or Hostel?

(This is an old post, from Nov. 26, 2006.)

Say you're traveling (with your significant other, if applicable), and you come upon a small town with only two options for lodging for the night. Would you rather (A) sleep in a hostel in a shared room with strangers, or (B) camp outdoors in a tent? That is the question of the day. Which would you choose?

For anyone who's interested, right now we're spending a couple of days in the charming town of El Bolsón in Argentina's Lake District. Nestled among gray mountains capped with (melting) snow and lush green fields full of these dazzling purple and pink cone-shaped wildflowers, El Bolsón has a totally laid back vibe, which I understand is in stark contrast to the bustling and cosmopolitan resort town of Bariloche, just a couple of hours to the north. This morning we perused the weekly artisans' fair, where local vendors were selling handcrafted leather bags, handmade silver jewelry, and homemade beer, among other things. After lunch, we had what Lonely Planet describes as arguably Argentina's best ice cream (at Heladería Jauja, if you ever find yourself here). It was pretty damn good.

Okay, back to the question. This situation actually came up for us during our four-day/three-night hiking trek in Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Chile (Nov. 10-13). Because the only indoor accommodations along the park's popular "W" trail are shared rooms in the refugios (mountain refuges), we would have to sleep in a shared room for the first time EVER. This gave me pause. Share our sleeping space? With people we don't know? My first thought was security. Will our stuff be safe? Do I need to sleep with my money belt on? Do I need to put R's camera under my pillow? And then my second thought was...


What if our roommates are slobs? What if they have B.O.? What if they take off their nasty, sweaty socks and put them on the window sill, precariously hanging above my water bottle? What if they snore? What if they fart in their sleep? Can I really sleep with a stranger's fart just hanging there, lingering in the air in the crowded, stuffy room?

I never liked the idea of sharing a room with strangers, and neither did R. Before we decided to hike the "W," we had ALWAYS booked our own UN-shared room, double accommodation. Five years ago, when we tromped around Central Europe for six weeks after I took the bar, we booked private double rooms on that trip, even though hosteling was and is extremely popular in Europe and is supposed to be a great way to meet fellow travelers. Now, I'm five years older and five years grumpier, and I have five more years of habits and idiosyncrasies that I feel like only a private sleeping and living space can accommodate. Like, to use one of the previous examples, what if I'm the one that needs to fart in the room? Those are some nice choices there in a shared room: I can let it out as silently as possible and hope no one notices, all the while living with the guilt that I foisted upon these unsuspecting strangers the very thing that I detest and fear about the shared room situation; I can hold it and be uncomfortable all night, and try not to burst out laughing at the idea that I'm trying to hold it ALL NIGHT; or I can get out of bed, walk to the shared bathroom, and fart on some sleepy-eyed backpacker who just wanted to brush his teeth in peace. No thanks to all of those. At least in a normal double room, I can do what I always do when the gas needs to be passed: calmly inform R of the situation, politely excuse myself, and hurry to our private bathroom to let it out silently. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, my first inclination was that I would rather camp than share a room. Then I remembered a split-second later that I don't like camping. We were totally pampered on the Inca Trail in Peru: the tour company provided the tents, sleeping bags and mats for us, and their porters carried all the equipment and set up and took down everything for us. And even on this, the cushiest camping trip you could possibly imagine (they also cooked all our meals and woke us up gently with coca tea every morning), I concluded that I don't really enjoy camping. It's cold in the tent. Things get wet when it rains during the night, or in the morning from the dew. It's dirty. The campsite's bathrooms are usually nasty. And it's crowded in the tent, what with your bags and shoes and the sleeping bags and all that.

So, in short, I was not happy with either option. However, in the end, the idea of a warm bed with blankets and a pillow won out, and so we decided to try the shared room thing. We found spaces in the refugios for the first and third nights, but the refugio we wanted was full on the second night, so we would need to rent camping equipment and camp outside anyway. So I would get to try both, and weigh them against each other.

And where did I come out, after all of this?

I'd say it's a draw.

The first night (shared room) was a little weird. After dinner, R and I walked into our room to find that the lights were out and that the four others in our six-person shared room were already asleep. We hadn't even met these people yet, and now we were going to crawl into our adjacent bunk beds and just go to sleep. It was a bit unnerving. In the morning, we met them briefly and saw that they were just normal people, but we didn't know that lying there during the night.

I didn't like the lack of control I had over what I could be doing right before bed. Because the lights were out and the others were asleep, I couldn't read the Lonely Planet, or talk to R, or do any of the other stupid little things you can do when you're by yourselves. We had to try to get ready for bed in the dark, using only R's muffled headlamp as a guiding light. To entertain myself, I made a game out of it and pretended I was a secret agent in training, moving as silently as a cat and only as much as necessary to complete the mission. Don't wake the strangers. It's amazing how much body control you need to change out of travelers' pants quietly. They're made out of this nylon-like synthetic material that's really loud when you crinkle or rumple it. It took me like five minutes to take my pants off because I was moving so slowly, but I didn't wake anyone up, so I decided that I won the game.

And on the third night (our second night sharing a room), we met a delightful Australian couple who were in the last month of a year-long round-the-world trip (!). (Damn, those Aussies know how to live.)

As for camping, the tent was already set up for us, and we could use the indoor bathrooms in the refugio, so it was cushier than normal. It was crowded in the tent, and I had a sore back the next day due to the extremely thin mat, but for the most part it was fine. There was one gas-related incident that I'm sure R will blog about someday. It makes me chuckle just thinking about it.

Neither sharing a room nor camping were as bad as I thought they would be. So, in the end, although they're still not my first choice, I would be willing to share a room or camp outside if we need to. And if I have to choose between them, I think I'll take the clean sheets, warm blankets, and roof over your head that come with sharing a room. I just need to make sure the hostel doesn't have beans or cabbage on the dinner menu that night.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

South America: DJ Fujimori

In our travels, we've grown accustomed to the local people not being able to figure out where we're from. At times, this has frustrated me, but lately it's mostly just been mildly amusing. Like, when a local vendor or tout spots us, he or she usually will shout out one or more of the usual Japanese or Chinese greetings.

"Konnichi wa!"

"Ni hao ma?"

When I reply in English (or, down here, in accented Spanish), it confuses them for about a split second. But the dollar signs quickly return to their eyes and they go back to their usual selling mode, now in their best broken English (or, down here, slow Spanish with lots of baby words).

In South America, we´ve been getting a lot of "Konnichi wa." I like to think this is because of my distinctive Japanese-y features, which, in fact, Rita tells me have been greatly enhanced by the new wild and wiry facial growth. But it's probably more because they get tons of Japanese tourists here, and hardly any Chinese ones. Give it time. At the rate China is growing, soon the souvenir hawks will be bowing and chanting "huanying guanglin" when any Asian walks through the door.

On this trip, we've been getting all kinds of interesting and funny greetings and comments in passing from the locals. A popular greeting from vendors who either don´t know any Japanese phrases or don´t want to use them on us has been, "Hola, amigo - where you from, Japan?" (One time I responded, "No, los Estados Unidos," and the guy laughed. It was weird. What's so funny?) On Easter Island, a group of schoolchildren made random kung fu/karate noises when they saw us. The next day, I could have sworn that one guy on a horse mumbled the word "Ninja!" as he rode by. In Peru, one guy who noticed me made a quick, barely intelligible reference to Alberto Fujimori, the controversial former president of Peru. (I wish I had understood what he had said there!) And, of course, there were the touts along "Gringo Alley" in Cuzco, Peru, whose sole marketing pitch was to intone "hapa hapa hapa hapa..." as we walked by. (Rita's blog explains this one - click on the above link for her post.)

I would imagine other Asian Americans get this treatment as well. I'm fine with it. What else are the locals supposed to think? I look Japanese. And I am, sort of. And no one's being malicious or racist - at least it doesn't seem like it to me.

Ninja. That's good stuff.

Signing off, from Pucon, Chile,

Friday, October 20, 2006

South America: The Post Office (Day 24)

One thing I'm learning on this trip is that when you're in a foreign country, sometimes it's nearly impossible to perform even the simplest tasks. For example, how hard is it to mail a postcard? Apparently, on Easter Island, this task is comprised of at least five steps.

(Note: I absolutely LOVED Easter Island. Once in a lifetime. You will cry when you see the pictures. Now, back to my post.)

Step 1: Drop by the main post office in the center of town. The clerk will tell you that postcard stamps are either 320 or 390 Chilean pesos, depending on the destination. The clerk will tell you that it's 320 pesos to send a postcard to the U.S. However, the clerk will also tell you that they are out of stamps for the day, and that you will have to come back in the morning.

Step 2: Return to the post office in the morning, where a different clerk will be assisting a customer, who also appears to be a tourist. The clerk will dutifully take this other customer's twelve postcards to a small adjoining room and pound her cancellation stamp loudly on each one. She will do this in plain view of you and the other customer. When she finishes, she will bring the postcards out and hold them up to the customer to show him her handiwork. The customer will extend his hands in front of him, palms up, and ask, "Is that it?" The clerk will smile and nod, and will carry his postcards gently to the other room and place them in what appears to be a pile of "mail to be sent." You will be heartened by this display of postal competency.

Step 3: When it's your turn, show the clerk your own twelve postcards and tell her you want to send them to the U.S. She will tell you it's 390 pesos each to send them to the U.S. You will quickly decide that despite the discrepancy between what she's saying and what the guy said yesterday, you should overpay just to be safe. You will pay the money and receive the stamps.

Step 4: Tear off the first two stamps along the perforated lines, lick them, and apply them to the first two postcards. At this point, the clerk will admonish you for your stupidity and will point to the wet sponge on the counter. Be sure to use the sponge to wet the adhesive and apply the rest of the stamps, or risk being shunned by the clerk forever.

Step 5: By the time you finish stamping your postcards, another customer will come in - this time a local - and the clerk will turn all her attention to that person. Due to this unexpected turn of events, you will not receive the same competent, personal service as the first customer. Instead, when you gesture to the clerk that your postcards are stamped and ready to be sent, she will point to the red box in the corner and gesture for you to drop them there. You will comply, but you will be confused.

Step 6 (optional): You may feel the urge to continue to hold your postcards out to the clerk and smile, and gesture like you're saying something like, "Now? Ahora? Can you do...ahora?" You should probably resist this urge.

Who would have thought that in South America, mailing a package would be easier than mailing a postcard? There are vendors outside and sometimes inside the post office who are there specifically to help you bundle up and send your package. Granted, in Peru the girl at the kiosk sold us used banker´s boxes that obviously contained paper or computer parts up until just a couple of hours before, but hey, I'm not complaining.

Chile is fantastic. In Valparaiso right now. More when we get further south.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

South America: Day 1

Alas, I never got around to finishing my post on the fabulous Midwest Tour. You´ll just have to believe me that it was awesome. Whatever. I know you´re jealous.

I didn´t want to turn this into a travel blog, but I guess I´ll have to. At least for the next two and a half months or so. I´ll try to keep it to travel stories, how´s that?

Anyway. So it begins. Day One of my big adventure in South America.

Right now, I´m at an internet station in Jorge Chavez International Airport, in Lima, Peru. It is 3:11 a.m. local time (two hours ahead of PDT). Our connecting flight to the southern coastal city of Arequipa leaves in a few hours. The typing is slow-going. There´s an "ñ" where the semicolon is supposed to be. Heck, it took me fifteen seconds just to find the quotation marks for the previous sentence. I am exhausted yet excited, wary yet wide-eyed. Day One of eighty-five. Just saying it out loud gives me chills. The good kind.

I´m noticing that this computer has a USB port. So, I could conceivably upload a picture from my camera to my Flickr account and post it in this blog. My head is spinning.

This airport is great. The restaurants in the food court, the shops, and the internet station all stay open twenty-four hours. The main waiting area is clean and brightly lit. Now, if I can just stay awake until our flight leaves...


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Midwest Tour - The Cast of Characters

On July 21st, Rita and I and four of our close friends set off on our highly anticipated Midwest Tour. Many non-believers, when informed of our plans, winced at the thought of traveling -- voluntarily -- to Chicago, Indiana, and St. Louis in the middle of summer. Those who didn't wince, jeered. Some guffawed. Anyway, screw you all. It was fabulous. The other five intrepid barnstormers will soon be peppering their blogs with funny pictures, charming anecdotes, and the like. I will also try to do justice to this soon-to-be-legendary trip. For now, though, I just want to introduce this motley crew to the blogosphere...

CAPTAIN INDIANA (aka The Medalist, Tetris Master, The Cub, HipGayChemistryTeacher)
Our tour guide in the Hoosier State, this furry fellow medaled in all four cycling events he entered at the Gay Games in Chicago (July 15-22, 2006). He likes Star Wars, cereal, waterskiing, and a dangerously addictive card game entitled Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot. Little-known fact: The Captain brought seventeen complete changes of clothes on the trip and, to the best of my knowledge, wore all of them. Twice.

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (aka Rubberface, The Fluxx Capacitor, Little Toes, Mister Jackhonky)
No, not Lindbergh's famous single-engine plane. This guy IS the actual Spirit of that great Midwestern city. Also known as Mister Jackhonky, this Wash U alum showed us that there is so much more to the "Gateway to the West" than just The Arch (although looking down from 630 feet up was pretty cool). He also introduced the group to Fluxx, the wacky card game with ever-changing rules! The Spirit reads Us Weekly religiously, but also enjoys pontificating, deconstructing, and creating portmanteaux.

THE LAUGHING ASSASSIN (aka The Valedictorian, GPS, Da Pingguo)
Don't let the sweet smile fool you. This New York native first earned her nickname during a seemingly innocuous round of Mille Bornes, the classic auto race card game. Her signature giggle -- the one she unleashes right after demolishing your car, trashing your Keeper, or flaying your bunny -- still haunts me at night. She is also known as GPS because of her uncanny knack for always knowing exactly which direction the SUV was pointing. The Assassin is exceedingly fond of big sunglasses and fishing hats.

THE SLEEPSTANDER (aka The Opinionator, The Former Human Garbage Disposal, The Fuming Doctor)
Med students learn a host of immensely valuable skills during those long, arduous years of training, but only a select few acquire the grotesquely unnatural ability to fall asleep while standing. We are proud to call The Sleepstander our own. Surprisingly, he stayed awake for most of the trip, although we had to remind ourselves to poke him sharply every once in a while to make sure he was really awake (he can fake it well). When he's not checking on his fantasy baseball team, The Sleepstander can be heard mumbling an insightful opinion ("oh, really? what's that about?" "wow, that's cool"), or fuming over the fact that another waitress called The Laughing Assassin "sir."

THE CRAZY HAT LADY (aka The Initiator, Lemon Tea, The Shutterfly, RH Crayon)
She forgot the welder's helmet her paranoid mother gave her, so The Crazy Hat Lady brought along this crazy yellow hat. But I love her anyway. Can you imagine that? My wife is also the brainchild behind the Midwest Tour. A few years ago, when we learned that Gay Games VII was going to be held in Chicago and that Captain Indiana was planning to compete there, The Initiator had the wacky idea that we could all tag along, and that we could also tour the hometowns of the Captain and The Spirit of St. Louis. Did I mention the wincing? Well, we had a wonderful time, so count me as a doubting Thomas no longer.

THE DRIVER (aka The Game Master, The Muscle Tracer, DJ52)
Yep, that's me. I drove almost the entire way. There was one morning in St. Louis when the Captain took the white Chevy Trailblazer LT around the corner to grab some coffee and bagels, but the rest of the time I drove. What can I say? I like to drive. Especially on freeways and highways, and most especially on roads I've never been on before. Legend has it that I was giving my parents driving directions from my car seat when I was an infant. I almost believe it. We played some of the games we brought, but we never got to try Settlers of Catan or Lord of the Rings Risk. I guess those will have to wait for our next trip.

Here's a picture of the entire group:

More soon!