Amazon.com Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: September 2010 Archives

September 2010 Archives

Bleg: Indiana Jones-style mapmaker?

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I'd like to add a map to Devil May Care illustrating our travels, something like the interactive map on 13 Months. Unfortunately, I don't know how to program in Flash. Does anyone know of something similar that might be easy to put together?

Celebrations with Gaston and Others

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Tony and I recently had all our individual special occasions (i.e. as distinct from general holidays like Christmas) in quick succession: our second wedding anniversary while we were in Quito, and our birthdays while in Cuzco.

A Break in the Avoidance of Quakes

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As Tony mentioned, we had a narrow escape from Cuzco prior to the strikes and protests that have left some tourists semi-stranded. Having signed up with the U.S. State Department to receive email alerts, I saw the following in my inbox:

September-October Strikes & Elections in Cusco

The U.S. Embassy wishes to alert U.S. citizens residing and traveling in and around Cusco, Peru of possible travel difficulties due to strikes and political demonstrations in the weeks prior to the upcoming October 3 municipal elections. The Peru Rail tourism train between Cusco and Machu Picchu will be closed Tuesday September 21 and Wednesday 22 due to transportation strikes. Travelers should be aware of possible impediments or delays to their travel in this region, particularly in the lead up to the October 3 elections, and remain flexible in their plans.

It would have been nice to get this earlier than 8:47am on Sept. 21, when Tony and I already had reached the airport, but probably the U.S. Embassy doesn't get much more notice of these things than the rest of us.

However, once we reached Lima, we had a different kind of disruption: on our first night, around 3am, we woke up due to an earthquake tremor. It wasn't particularly noteworthy -- a mere 5.9 even at its epicenter 110 miles away from Lima -- and I wouldn't mention it except it ended my pattern of earthquake avoidance on this trip.

Consider: an earthquake shook central Canada just a few days before we crossed the northern border. A tremor passed through the D.C. area the day before I arrived for a friend's wedding in Northern Virginia. Both were extremely unusual for the areas in which they occurred.

As we'll be passing through several more earthquake-prone areas after Peru, hopefully all future tremors will be as negligible as the one we felt in Lima. I woke up, but quickly fell asleep again, and in the morning vaguely thought I'd had a dream about an earthquake, until the owner of the hostel asked me if I'd felt it.

More by luck than judgment

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It looks like Tuesday morning was a great time to leave Cuzco, as we got out just before strikes and protests paralyzed the city. Although we had a very hard time catching a cab to the airport, and were a bit confused as to why there was such a strong police presence apparent during the journey, we made it to our flight, and to Lima, without incident.

Having a Party with Politics

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I'm really excited about the election. Not the American election (which I'm not talking about on this blog, unless sudden upsets become relevant to our travels), but the Peruvian elections coming up this fall. For sheer enjoyment of the political process, nothing beats a country in which you don't speak the language, don't understand the process, and don't have a stake in the outcome. It's all the fun of parades, crazy guys shouting through loudspeakers while perched precariously on the back of trucks, and omnipresent political advertising, without an investment in the outcome or the stress of civic duty.

The Peruvian election graphically illustrates that all the folks hyperventilating about evil corporations buying our political process following Citizens United are worried about nothing. Corporations can spend every drop of profit that they have on advertising, along with the unions, and tap into leftover TARP funds, and we still won't approach the level of political advertising of a Peruvian regional election. I have never in my life seen as many ads for candidates as I have in three weeks in Peru. Indeed, I may have seen more campaign signs, walls painted with slogans, buildings decked up to proclaim their allegiance to a particular party, large rocks decorated in campaign symbols, and cars sloshed with partisan paint than I have seen in the rest of my life combined. I kept thinking I'd turn the corner and find some young mother moving too slowly down the street, and some hack busily tattooing party symbols on the baby hanging from her back. [1]

I have no idea which party is which, or their positions. What I do know is their symbols, which are very important. While traveling through Peru, we've met people who speak one or more of Spanish, Quechua, or Aymara, and I'm sure there are other tongues. Moreover, about 7% of Peruvians can't read, according to Wikipedia. Presumably for this reason, every party political sign includes the party symbol with an X over it, illustrating how supporters should vote. [2] Thus, to go only by the pictures, Peru's political parties include, among others, the Condor Party, the My Logo Looks Like the O in Vodaphone Party, the Soccer Ball Party (I could make out that they're for more spending on sports and education), the Wheat Party, the Pan Pipe Party, the Incan Profile Party, and my personal favorite, Pan: the Bread Party. Their symbol is a loaf of bread, and depending upon the size of the wall bearing the advertisement, the logo either looks like a dinner roll or enough bread to feed a family of eight for a fortnight. Sometimes the loaf is framed by the outline of a mountain.

Pan's ads are cheery, brightly colored in greens and reds (except for the bread, which is the color you would expect), and I like them for their simplicity. Again, for all I know they're the party furthest away from my own politics, but I base my fondness solely upon their branding. It's a little liberating to chose your political support based on wholly senseless reasons.

While I never changed my political loyalties, other of our traveling companions were more fickle in their adoptive politics. One young lady was particularly fond of the Pan Flute Party, until she saw some of their supporters dancing down the street in a parade. Every man carried a cardboard cutlass covered in shiny foil, while every woman mimicked the moves of the men, sans weapon. Deciding that this was not her feminist cup of tea, she began looking for alternate choices. (I think, but can't actually remember, that she settled on the Sprouting Shamrock party.)

However, if I were a nationalized Peruvian voting for the first time, I think I would find democracy itself a disappointment, at least after I'd read the instructions helpfully provided by ONPE, the Peruvian agency responsible for voter education. ONPE's posters, explaining how to vote, were posted in most of the town squares, and as public service posters go, they were concise, direct and beat the heck out of anything you see at the post office. (Look at it this way: I could understand them with my limited Spanish. Imagine reading voter education signs in New York if your first language weren't English.) However, the sample ballot on the signs had even better political parties: the Pumpkin Party, the Internet Party (symbol: @, of course), and the Fudgesicle Party, among a dozen others. After that, Bread and Condors (let alone elephants and donkeys--how boring are we?) just can't compete.

[1] We asked one of our guides whether candidates were required to paint over these ads after the election, and he told us that while they were supposed to do so, they often did not. On the other hand, one mayoral candidate took advantage of this, with posters and banners proclaiming (roughly translated) "[Candidate] believes that we should keep Puno beautiful, so he doesn't paint ads on the walls."

[2] This caused us a few seconds of cultural confusion. Because the symbol was covered by an "X," we originally thought that these were somehow negative ads: "Don't vote for the Bread Party," etc. In actual fact, I've not seen a negative ad yet, which is perhaps aided by the multitude of political parties. Maybe it's easier to go positive for yourself than to trash a dozen other factions. Or maybe negative ads have been banned. I don't know.

A change of pace, a change of tactics

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We started this trek on June 22, 2010, which does not seem so long ago. Since that time, we've rarely spent three nights in the same place. Every few days, our entire stock of accessible worldly possessions are stuffed into four bags for transport to the next plane, the next bus, the next hostel. We've gotten very good at packing our things. And as a result, we've seen a lot of the United States, Ecuador, and Peru.

I'll admit, however, that I'm growing a bit weary of never having a place. Thus, we've rented an apartment in the Recoleta district of Buenos Aires for the entire time we're there. We may do some travel through the Patagonia, or trek up to Igazu Falls, but for the most part I'm thinking we'll stay in the city. We've been taking salsa lessons in Peru, and we might keep that up, although I wouldn't mind studying a bit of capoeria as well. The rent we're paying on the apartment isn't really a savings over a cheap hostel, but we hope to make up some of the budget by cooking--and am I ever looking forward to cooking, something I never thought I'd say.

In short, I think that while we've traveled through Ecuador and Peru, I'm hoping to live a while in Buenos Aires.

We already knew that if we were going to charge anything in South America, the Capital One card was the way to go. They have good exchange rates and no foreign transaction fees. (Seriously, if you're doing overseas travel, CO beats AMEX [1], BoA, or Chase hands down.) But credit cards are the least of one's payment problems in Ecuador and Peru. For the most part, establishments are loath to take your plastic, and will frequently charge you a heavy fee for the convenience. While you're down here, cash is king.

Which had been a problem, because we were getting killed by ATM fees: about 10 soles or $3 per ATM transaction. Which puts one in a bind: do you pull out the maximum amount of cash and become an instant mugging target, or do you pile up the fees?

Fortunately, Scotiabank has solved the problem. Its ATMs throughout Peru do not seem to charge ATM fees, nothwithstanding which of our accounts we used for the withdrawal. If you're traveling in this area, it's worth walking over a plaza or two to get to their ATMs. (The GlobalNet ATMs, by the way, are tourist-trap-highway-robbery fee machines.)

Hey, How I Met Your Mother may like to make fun of Canadians, but at least they have civilized cash machines!


[1] Which does, however, have a pretty good platinum concierge service, although it's more likely to get a good result if you ask it a question about stateside services.

Cruising the Galapagos on the Encantada

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I swear that I'm usually a sensible researcher and purchaser of big-ticket items, but when it came to buying a Galapagos cruise for Tony and me, I fell in love with a ship, of which I saw only tiny, indistinct photos, based on its color description: candy-apple red. Somehow the idea of a shiny scarlet sailboat was so appealing, I did pretty much all my comparison shopping based on which agency offered the best price for a one week cruise on this particular ship. They were all in the same range of approximately $2000 per person, including airfare to and from the Ecuadorean mainland but not the various national park fees.

The Encantada appears to be owned or at least directly operated by a company called Scuba Galapagos, but as they were not responsive to my queries through their web form, I actually booked our trip through Voyagers Travel. I was fairly pleased with them overall, though I wish they had put us in the matrimonial cabin as they promised they would do. (In fairness, I have reason to suspect that they put in the request and this was ignored on the fly by the ship crew in order to appease the complaints of other passengers.)

The Galapagos is an expensive destination, but I would recommend it as wholly worth the time, money and trouble. As Tony's posts indicate, we saw many beautiful, extraordinary, sad and funny sights in our one week, and there was never a day that I wasn't glad I had chosen to make this trip. That said, I'm not sure I would tell everyone to book the Encantada; it really depends on what's important to you in a vacation experience.

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My introduction to the Capitan

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I'm not sure if anyone has ever bothered to make it official, but it becomes obvious after ten minutes in about any Peruvian bar that pisco is the national spirit of Peru. Visitors will most likely first encounter the spirit in the pisco sour, which again, if not actually the national cocktail, appears on menus with sufficient ubiquity that one could be forgiven for thinking that it is. Unfortunately, the sticky sweetness of the pisco sour and its whipped-egg consistency do not appeal to me. [1] Quebranta and aromatic piscos on their own, give me a sharp, strongly alcoholic taste, like a dry brandy.

We've tried a few pisco drinks while in Cuzco, but my favorite so far is the Capitan, served to me last night by the bartenders at Chi Cha. Besides being an excellent restaurant (and I suspect that Pallavi will write more about this), Chi Cha boasts some of the friendliest bartenders that we have encountered in South America. They managed to overcome my poor-to-nonexistent Spanish and conversed with me, at length, about the various local ingredients to be found in their cocktails. They also gave me a quick primer on pisco (which admittedly I had to supplement later with some online research).

Better than that, they shared with me the Chi Cha recipe for the Capitan (which is slightly different from some I've seen online). It's essentially a pisco-based Manhattan, but with the taste of vermouth coming through more clearly. Not a drink for those deeply opposed to Cinzano (you know who you are), but one that I think I'm adding to my list of favorites.

  • Three oz. quebranta pisco
  • Two oz. red vermouth
  • One twist orange peel
  • One twist lime peel

Combine pisco and vermouth in a shaker with ice. Pour into cocktail glass. Twist orange peel into glass, coat rim. [2] Garnish with a twist of lime.

[1] About the only cocktail in this genus that I occasionally drink is the White Lady, and I admit that this may only be due to my fondness for the American Bar at the Savoy. In any event, a proper White Lady doesn't have egg white.

[2] I think a dash of bitters would also work here, if you're not feeling like professional-grade cocktail-making.

While composing this description of our time in Baños, I realized that we took very few pictures in this tourist city. This makes sense: the city is mostly populated by backpackers and the service industry that has grown up around them, and other than amusing sights the city has little to offer to a photographer. It's a city where you do things: adventures in the jungle, hot springs, nightlife. Most of these activities are not camera-friendly, unless the camera is waterproof.

A month in Buenos Aires

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We're spending a bit of downtime between Machu Picchu (last week) and Lake Titicaca (tomorrow) planning our time in Argentina. Rather than move from hostel to hostel, as we have been doing, we'd like to rent a nice but small apartment as a base of operations, and then stay at cheaper hostels for day trips throughout our stay.

On the upside, Buenos Aires appears to have hundreds of short-term rental options. Although many are designed for two persons, others are suitable for four to six people, and obviously the per person prices tend to go down as the numbers go up. So if anyone feels like taking an extended holiday during our Argentina stay (from September 25 to October 23), please get in touch, and we can look into shared housing.

Things that can almost make one homesick

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Sitting in a Peruvian bar, hearing Tom's Diner (the dance mix, of course), and realizing that it pretty exactly describes a lazy Sunday morning at Columbia, dodging work.

A brief note on comments

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I have received a few emails stating that users are having a hard time leaving comments. If you do have a problem, always feel free to send me an email describing the problem and I will try to work it out.

As near as I can tell, readers have been trying to leave a comment by signing up to be a commenter on the blog. However, before anyone who signs up can comment, I need to approve the "pending" user. Unfortunately, I am not online very often, and cannot approve everyone immediately.

The best workaround for this is to try logging in with a different system: either a Livejournal, Google, Facebook, or OpenID account. Any of these should allow you to comment without system approval. However, if you do want a unique "Devil May Care" login, I will do what I can to approve you as soon as possible.

Boozing Across America

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Particularly given the so-hot-you-could-fry-an-egg summer New York just endured, I can't say that I spent much time regretting being on the roadtrip instead of in the city. The only story I heard that gave me a twinge of wistfulness for being outside Manhattan was Frank Bruni's report on Ward III, a cocktail lounge that promises to make whatever drink a customer wants, and to save the recipe for her. In his review, Bruni declares, "There are two pronounced strains in current cocktail culture. One exalts the classics, treating them with the reverence that a gourmand accords Escoffier. The other prizes whimsy, imagination, tweaking and tinkering."

There's truth to this, though one should be aware that a bar can hold both strains simultaneously. For example, two of our favorite Prohibition throwbacks in NYC, Death & Company and Please Don't Tell, naturally emphasize old school cocktailing, but their bartenders are also willing to play with the classics upon customer request. And our absolute favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, recently swapped from a hyper-emphasis on the classics (their original shtick was a list of "100 Cocktails You Should Try Before You Die") to a menu of original formulations by their bartenders coupled with a changing shortlist of their current favorite classics.

Blah, Blah, Hope

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Although we try to avoid political posts here at Devil May Care (unlike my previous blog), sometimes I wander across something just too good to resist, such as this picture that we took on August 28 in a cafe in Baños, Ecuador.

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From Cafe Blah Blah, Baños, Ecuador

Some context, after the jump....

Sortides

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We've been gradually telling the story of our Galapagos adventure, but another couple traveling on the Encantada have already finished their photolog and, unlike us, seem to be up to date on the rest of their trip.

This cheerful couple were an inspiration, great travelers and (as you can see from their site) accomplished photographers. They recommended that we dive in the Gili Islands in Indonesia, near Lombok, particularly noting the opportunities for underwater photography. Of course, any camera that we have would short circuit if taken underwater, so that would be obstacle one to this plan.

(I have added Sortides to the blogroll.)

We wrapped up our North American road trip by hanging out with family: Tony's brother Mike in Phoenix, my parents in East Texas and my older sister Prathima in Houston. We also stopped in El Paso for Tony to show me his old haunts from when the Rickeys lived there, and Austin to see some old friends of mine.

No Country for Tall Men

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(I tried to write this in the style of Cormac McCarthy. Even after being woken up by a rat and two cups of coca tea, I just couldn't manage it.)

As I've mentioned before, I needed some new shoes by the time I got to Peru. Not expecting to do much in the way of nice dining, I had brought only my boots, some bright yellow running shoes, and my four-year-old sandals. After Galapagos, those sandals were on their last legs, and I couldn't clean or repair them any further. Given my other options, I thought a cheapish pair of leather slip-ons (casual enough for every day, and that might serve in a nice restaurant) were in order.

The only problem: neither Ecuador or Peru are particularly good places to find shoes for large feet.

Arrival in Peru, No Time for Sightseeing

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We arrived at Lima's airport late on the night of August 30 and stayed at Hostal El Patio, a charming and not-uncomfortable little place. They let us arrive very late (after midnight), picked us up from the airport, and were clean and quiet enough for the first night.

The next two nights were spent in luxury at a Doubletree, enjoying a soft bed and splurging a bit. My parents had saved up some Hilton points, and offered them to us as an anniversary gift, without which this would have been impossible. (Thanks!) This hotel was willing to accept post on our behalf, which solved one issue for us.

We did not really see much of Lima in the first three days. Knowing that we had two days of comfort and safety at the Doubletree, we had not planned much in advance. Also, a month of Ecuador had run down our supplies: my old sandals were pretty much destroyed, a few shirts had seen their last days of service following shrinkage in a hostel launderia... in short, sightseeing took second-fiddle to shopping, answering long-overdue email, and generally preparing for Cuzco.

We did wander around the Miraflores district, mostly a "gringo" area full of shopping, food, and nightlife. Although not exactly what some would call an "authentic cultural experience," I find that every so often I need to sit in a business district just relaxing and catching up with the world. The plan is to actually do Lima on the way back, as we have to fly out of there on the way to Buenos Aires.

On the other hand, we did waste some time talking to travel agents. Note to future Peruvian travellers: LAN has two prices for domestic flights, one for Peruvians and the other for foreigners. There are, reputedly, some ways around this, and the woman at the LAN ticket desk did not seem to want to charge us the foreigner price. But Peruvian Airlines and Star Peru, the two low-cost airlines flying to Cuzco, won out. Which led us to the ancient city of the Incas in the morning of September 3... more about which later.

An unfortunate first

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I woke up this morning to spy the first rat that I've seen in any of our accommodation. Suffice it to say, the Pirwa Bed and Breakfast Suecia is not getting a good review.

On the other hand, now I'm unquestionably awake, so a good time to blog.

Update: Two new thoughts upon waking: (a) that explains the cat, and (b) judging from the sounds coming from the courtyard and my experience with old house cats and field mice, the rat may now be less of a problem. We're still checking out today.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like