Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rough Introduction to La Paz, Bolivia

Before I arrived in Bolivia, I read this review: 
"Bolivia did prove one of the more challenging countries we’ve visited. Cold showers, uninspiring cuisine and high altitude were just some of things we battled. Throw in the odd hostel reminiscent of a Soviet-era gulag and you have a destination that lags well behind its more well-traversed neighbours." - 

first sign of the country's
level of development...
Slightly nervous, but still confident in my travel abilities, I arrived to the La Paz Airport in the neighboring city of El Alto at 3 am. At 13,323 feet above sea level (4,061 m), I was immediately knocked off my feet. Already battling a nasty cold that I picked up in sunny Playa del Carmen, Mexico (ridiculous, right?), my sinuses were stuffed up all the way into my head, causing a splitting headache despite my commitment to adequate hydration. I was also suffering from the effects of high altitude - short of breath, dizzy. I didn't sleep much on the flights, and blearily drifted to the info desk at the airport. I had read El Alto at this time of night could be dangerous, so I wanted to make sure I got in an official taxi and paid a normal rate. Unfortunately, the airport info desk guy didn't speak English...welcome to Bolivia. 

When my taxi arrived at the hostel, I didn't want to get was a dark street in a rough looking neighborhood (the word "skinheads" was graffitied onto the stone wall directly across from the hostel front door). The sign was faded and crooked, and the door had security bars. I asked my driver to wait, and he readily agreed, clearly as skeeved out by this place as I was. After a minute of leaning on the buzzer, an older woman shuffled to the door, clearly not happy to have been roused from her sleep. I waved the taxi driver goodbye and stepped inside. The woman grumbled constantly about the cold, rubbing her arms through two layers of sweaters. I soon understood her pain. The hostel is built like one of those old stone monasteries designed to stay cool in the summer, which I guess makes sense since there is no AC. But I am visiting in the heart of the Bolivian winter (end of June) and there is no heating...temperatures outside are about 9 C (49 F) in the daytime, but drop to freezing during the night. My fingers are going numb as I type, my hair doesn't dry, after about an hour fidgeting in the bed with no less than 4 wool blankets piled on top of me, my toes regain some feeling.   
Made sure the door was super locked 
My bed. Minus the rock pillow it was actually sort of comfy
(although after the first night there was a me-shaped dent in the mattress)
My own TV. Such luxury.

Why is this weird mattress in my room? Did it have bedbugs?
Cholera? Consumption? Did a kid pee on it? I'll never know

Mercado Rodriguez
The first night was torture. I couldn't sleep, my head pounded (not helped by the rock hard pillow), my stomach turned with nausea. My cold plus altitude sickness completely incapacitated me for about 8 hours. When I finally pulled myself out of bed around 10:30 am, I took a Sudafed and 2 Excedrin migraine pills and sat on the bed with my head in my hands and cried until the medicine started to kick in. Within about an hour, after a warm shower (the pursuit of which was a saga unto itself) and chugging a liter of ice cold water, I felt a lot better. 

No one to share this huge beer with
By 1:30 pm, I managed to venture into the city, and even though the passengers on my minibus led me astray and I got off at the completely wrong plaza, I managed to get some "sopita de mani" (peanut soup which actually did not taste like peanuts) and an "empanadita con queso" at Mercado Lanza, join an excellent 3 hour walking tour, and have some mysterious chicken dish, choclo (huge kerneled corn), and fried cheese slices at a fast casual Bolivian place called Silpich's. I sipped my enormous (620 ml!) beer to myself, flashing back on my dad and I's time in Mexico last week where we spent countless hours on 5th Avenue people watching and sampling different beers, and clinked out bottles together with a "cheers" before every single drink. I suddenly felt extremely lonely...

Mercado Lanza

Mercado Lanza

Mercado Lanza
Sopita de Mani


Note there is no fork...and the milk can?
Not milk. Just more burnt coffee...
I woke up this morning to another headache...but I steeled myself, popped some Excedrin, and went downstairs to breakfast. Although the hostel advertised breakfast included, I in fact paid an extra $2 for it (what a scandal). When I came down, the woman at the front desk took me to a room marked "cafeteria" that was locked with the lights off. She opened the door, took a chair down from on top of a table for me, and turned on the TV to a loud Catholic preacher yelling about how God wants me to quit smoking (don't worry, God, I don't smoke). My breakfast was delivered about 30 mins later - one fried egg with a hair in it, a piece of cold bread, and a cup of burned coffee with a bowl of sugar.

Although I am starting at the highest altitude I'll reach on this trip, I hope it's uphill from here...

Since I'm already complaining, here are some other things that have frustrated me in the last day and a half:

1. I had to (unexpectedly) transfer in Bogota, and the waiting area after the gate before the shuttle bus smelled like Peruvian chicken...I would soon learn that a lot of South America smells like this chicken

2. Every single wifi network I have thus far connected to has been painfully slow

3. I got a sunburn on my nose in Playa, and now it's red and peeling and painful and I'm blowing my nose constantly which hurts every time and now it's all scaly and I look like a toddler whose parents need to wipe their nose...
4. Toiletries not only explode because of the high pressure, but also are sort of half frozen because of the cold...

5. That feeling when stuff  you don't expect to have meat in it has meat in it... (looking at you, street


6. La Paz should be called the city of pigeons. Seriously, they are everywhere. You can walk through a flock of them hopping around and they'll barely flinch. Occasionally something will spook them and an entire hoard of like 50-100 birds will take flight, circle over the square they were in, and land back down...when this happens everyone ducks and covers their food and kids scream...

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reykjavik: 24 hours, 24 notes

I did the thing. You know, the thing that's all the millennial rage where you can get a "free" layover in Iceland for up to 7 days when you fly transatlantic with WOW or Icelandair?

[First, a warning: it's nothing new, but budget airlines are not as cheap as they seem.
Every time I fly budget, I tell myself "never again" because of all the extra fees and the added inconveniences, but then when it comes time to book, those sweet sweet low fares always reel me back in...there are many times when flying budget is a good idea - if you are going on a short trip without much luggage, if you're a person who doesn't need much leg room, if you don't care about the frills of regular air travel (which are sparse enough as it is). Don't just compare airfares; before you book, make sure you factor in the additional fees that generally come with flying budget, such as:
  • transportation to/from the secondary airports budget airlines often use (WOW flies out of Baltimore, not Dulles; Ryan Air often uses Stansted or Luton instead of Heathrow)
  • the food and snacks you'll buy (at airport prices?) since the airlines generally don't have free meals on board
  • high fees to check a bag - and sometimes even to carry on more than a "personal item"
  • sometimes you must print your own boarding pass before check-in or pay a fee - will you be able to find a printer while traveling? 
  • having to buy stuff in-country that you couldn't fit into your carry on
Anyway, that's my warning, now on to Iceland!]

I was in Reykjavik from 3:30 pm on a Wednesday, until 3:30 pm on a Thursday, here are 13 things I learned, saw, or noticed in my 24 hours.

1. It's we taxied on the runway after landing, my first glimpse of the landscape was the wind whipping up twisting coils of red dust across a low bumpy field of volcanic rock.

2. It's COLD! Late May, and I was wishing I had gloves and a hat. I only had a light, thigh length coat, and a scarf, and I was getting pretty creative with layering and wrapping so I didn't freeze! Especially with the whipping wind - worse near the port (although that's where you get the best views from the city).  

3. Many shops don't have set hours - they either open "upon request" or, for some bakeries and small cafes, just whenever the owner arrives; this is particularly true in the winter when there are less tourists in Reykjavik and locals tend to stay inside more.

4. The city seems to me a sort of Alaskan fishing town in the Swiss Alps. It has a definite European/Nordic feel, but mixed with the wild nature of the vast, empty North American expanses. When you walk down the center of the city, with Hallgrímskirkja Church at your back, the streets are laid out so you can see all the way down to the harbor, and the mountains* across the water - that is an amazing view, flanked by small colored houses, that really creates the fishing town feel. On the other side, with the harbor behind you, looking past Hallgrímskirkja, you see mountains rising up in the distance along with church steeples that have a strong Alpine feel.

5. I knew Iceland was expensive, but hot damn! In 24 hours I spent $132: airport transfer, dinner, a magnet souvenir, coffee and pastry dessert, breakfast (skyr, coffee, pastry), coffee. Prices at the airport are actually less than outside, because they avoid some tax - I recommend stocking up on basics there. 

$13 for a Ben and Jerry's pint!!

6. I spent $43 just on the airport transfer. It was soooo easy and convenient, though, I would recommend it - I purchased it on the plane from the flight attendant (available on WOW and Icelandair, just ask), and it was a door to door, round trip service, no hassle, minimal wait

7. The famed Icelandic yogurt, called skyr, is great!! As I consider myself a yogurt connoisseur, I was so excited to try skyr in its homeland, but while it is delicious and smooth and rich, it's not really miles above Greek or other 'traditional' yogurt products...

8. Icelandic people are broad shouldered and tall. Lots of blondes, but lots of brunettes too. Lots of beards...

9. Icelandic people (by the admission of three locals who I accosted with my cultural questions) are not particularly romantic. I was told that people rarely do big proposals or grand gestures. More of a snuggle up fireside bunch.

10. Icelandic people have a wicked sense of humor. From the sarcastic, self deprecating comments of my waiter and the tourism officer workers, to the bawdy comics of Hugleikur Dagsson (and others) that are popular amongst locals and tourists alike, Icelandic "gálgahúmor" (black humor) is itself worth a visit!

11. Icelanders are more religious than I would expect for a northern European country. 94.8% of people are registered in some religious group...but actually, nowhere near that many people regularly attend church. 
pic courtesy of Moore Travel Tips

12. As every article about Iceland is obligated to mention, more than half the population believes in elves! Interesting historical folk and traditional roots - worth a read. 

13. They have some great pastries in Iceland! Many are borrowed from Denmark, but there are a few originals as well. And THIS is the correct way to eat a kleina

*I read here that, in fact, Iceland has no mountains - it's just rocky ground punctuated by deep glacial valleys that make it look like mountains...but I find that quite hard to believe - regardless of the geological classification, it certainly looks like Reykjavik is ringed by mountains!