We literally ran out of work around 11pm the night of our flight, rushing to cross the border. It was finally time for our long weekend Mexico City adventure!!! Delta Airport Parking is a convenient place to park on the US side if you’re going to the Tijuana International Airport. It’s only seven dollars a day and they will drive you to/from the border 24 hours a day. A $12 taxi ride took us to the aeropuerto. Then we had to get $25 tourist visas to go past the border zone. They don’t check if you have them on the way there, but do on the way back. The visas last for six months so hopefully we can use them again. Airport security was different. “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OFF OUR SHOES!?!?!” ¡Viva México!!!
Since our flight left at 12am and lasted about three hours, it was still dark when we made our way towards the Metro. Conveniently located right by the airport and taking you all over the city, the Metro is a cheap and efficient way to get around. We grabbed some churros and easily navigated the subway to the Roma, a hip neighborhood where Jaime, our CouchSurfing host lived. The architecture was cool, eclectic and Spanish with crooked walls from many, many earthquakes. Our host was a great tour guide as we searched for early morning food. We ate lamb tacos and tamales with mole. We talked about food. Life was good.
Getting some energy after eating, we let our guide go off to work and walked several miles to the Centro Historico, home to beautiful government buildings, museums, and many cool bars and restaurants. Walking was really nice; its our favorite way to enjoy a new city.
As I said, there are a lot of awesome places to eat and drink in the Centro Historico. On our Mexico City adventure one awesome place we found was an old cantina, La Faena, which served dual functions as both a bar and a bullfighting museum. Notice the very complicated matador-themed crown molding. The best thing about cantinas is that with every drink you order you get some free food. The more you drink, the better the food! We started off with some bar nuts here, and after a few rounds were given amazing bean tacos!
I ate grasshoppers.
Pulque. It’s a lightly alcoholic drink made from the sap of the agave plant and flavored with various fruits. Super thick and milky and not for us. The bar was awesome though.
Eventually, all the food and walking, plus the effects of being up all night caught up to us and we took the long walk home to crash for a nap at Jaime’s house. The rest of the night involved some more relaxed wanderings around the neighborhood.
In the United States there are many laws that definite exactly how one i supposed to drive while on public streets. Every vehicle is meant to follow the same rules no matter how big, small, expensive, or cheap. In South America, the rules seem to be a little different. Here are a few things that we have determined…
Stop signs are only a suggestion and in general mean you should slightly slow down and honk your horn to let every else (who are also not stopping) know that you are not stopping.
A traffic light, though very uncommon, is to be followed more closely than a stop sign. At a red light cars will, in general, stop at least until they get bored, and then of course, honk before they run it.
Most intersections have no signal and conform to the “General Rules of Intersections” which go something like this:
If the street isn’t crowded, then you can probably just blow your horn and cruise right through without looking. Maybe speed up a bit to lessen the chances of being hit.
If multiple cars get to the intersection at the same time, the order in which you go depends on the size of your vehicle, i.e. semis and buses go first, then vans, then taxis and cars, then motorcycles.
Motorcycles can usually squeeze in between everyone else because it’s not necessary to stay in lanes. A two-lane road will usually have three lanes of cars with “motos” sneaking in between.
Bicycles go last and people even after them. Never EVER walk into a road when a car is coming, even if you have a “Walk” sign at a crosswalk, because people will not even slow down. They will probably honk at you and pray that you don’t make a very big dent. Unless, however, you think you weigh more than the vehicle coming at you, in which case they may stop for you.
When driving around corners, people don’t stay on the right but rather take the shortest distance, cruising all the way to left like racecar drivers, possibly honking if they can’t see around the bend.
When on a narrow, dirt, one-lane road, if two vehicles are coming towards each other, whichever one is smaller has to somehow back up, nearly go off a cliff, whatever, in order to let the bigger one pass.
This might all seem very crazy and unsafe, but we have seen significantly less traffic accidents here than we do back home in the U.S.A. Why this is, we can only guess. Maybe it’s because no one has insurance so they don’t have the option of “Yeah! Let them hit me and buy me a new car!” Or maybe everyone’s car is so precious to them that crashing is not an option. When we first arrived, I was scared silly every time we got in a car, but now I’ve realized that it was mostly only frightening because it was different. I do think it’s not as good of a system and probably less safe, but because of all the insanity people in general are better drivers. Not safe drivers, but more skilled at maneuvering to avoid accidents. Having said that, I’m still not sure I could safely drive here myself and don’t want to try!
When traveling on long bus trips, or when we have time to kill sitting in the park, we always have a paperback or a Nookbook to pull out. What we are wondering is, why do we never see any of the locals reading? Sure, once in a while you catch a student studying for classes, or an old lady reading a romance novel, but for the most part people just sit and stare into empty space when unoccupied. Every day we also see street vendors and bus attendants or various other workers with an abudance of downtime, but they are never reading. You´d bet if I were them I´d read a book a week! I don´t think it´s a literacy problem, just something that´s embedded in the culture. The positive opinion on this is that people evidently aren´t in constant need of stimulus (ADHD) like people from Europe, North America, or China are, but there is definetly a HUGE downside! Not reading seems to indicate a lack of curiosity, as well as decreased learning potential, vocabulary, and general reading skills. Reading for pleasure would definitely be a hard phenomenon to introduce, but we think it would have great benefits. Fortunately we have come across many NGOs and charity groups starting libraries and trying to encourage reading. It´s going to take awhile though.
Puno is a great base for exploring some of Lake Titicaca‘s amazing islands on the Peru side, including the Floating Islands and Taquile Island. We originally wanted to spend a night on one of the islands but it didn’t work out with our schedule. Instead we opted for the more common day tour (40 Soles=$15, not including lunch), worried that it might be too cheesy and touristy for us. While it was popular and touristy, it was for good reason and we still loved it! The magical islands are just too cool to not enchant all who visit!
We left Puno’s dock around 7:30am in a group of 25 in a slow boat that thankfully had heating and comfy seats. After about 30 minutes we arrived at the famous Islas Flotatantes, or Floating Islands. These are exactly what they sound like…islands that are floating on the lake surface! They were built by the Uros people several hundred years ago in an attempt by the tribe to isolate themselves from other cultures (kind of like the Amish). The islands are made by lashing together a bunch of totora reed roots, and then layering cut totora reeds over and over again on top. The islands are about 2.5 meters thick and they have to add a new layer of reeds every two weeks! The ground kind of squishes when you walk on it and you can feel the motion of the water. In all there are about 70 floating islands clustered together, each with five or six families living in one-room houses, also made of reeds.
The residents of the Floating Islands we visited are totally dependent on tourism–they receive visits from the boat tours every day (making money from the tour companies) and also sell handcrafts to the tourists. It made me happy to know, however, that there is another group of Uros on other floating islands further out on the lake who are still living traditionally, untouched by tourism.
At our stop on one floating islands we watched a demonstration of how the islands are built, looked inside one of the houses, looked at the handicrafts for sale, and learned more about the Uros culture. A couple more interesting tidbits:
The Floating Islands in Peru are usually staked because “we don’t want to float to Bolivia without passports,” we were told. However, for certain events which require more space, such as weddings and football (soccer) games, the people will push two or more islands together!
Titicaca is .08% salt. Our guide blamed the salty water for the Uros women being “a little bit round.” He said this out loud in English and then whispered it in Spanish so they wouldn’t hear him!
At the end of our time on the floating island most of the group took off in one of the crazy boats for 5 Soles extra. Zach and I opted not to, and we were glad we did because we ended up getting to talk to some of the Uros more casually. One lady even gave us some reeds to eat after we saw her munching on them and asked to try. She said they were “muy dulce” (very sweet) but after trying them and finding they tasted like nothing but water I felt bad for her for probably never trying any real desserts!
Next we took off on a three-hour trip to the center of the lake to Isla Taquile. Good naptime with the noise and vibration of the boat!!! Taquile is a real island (not floating) inhabited by a group of Aymara people. We got off the boat and walked 400 meters uphill on a beautiful stone path. Others in our group were struggling with the walk (remember Titicaca is at 4000 meters altitude!) but we charged up the hill, thankful for our Inca Trail training and one month of acclimatization in Cuzco. The views of the lake from the main plaza were stunning. Isla Taquile is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the intricate traditional knitting done by both the men and women. We browsed through knitting museum and shop, full of amazing hats, gloves, scarves, and sweaters, but only bought seven cool little bracelets for 7 Soles ($2) from some kids. Knitting and clothing is obviously a huge part of the Taquile culture. Everywhere we went kids and old people were spinning thread on spools or knitting something. Their beautiful handmade clothing also has cultural meaning: men whose hats are all colored are married while men whose hats are white on top are single. Likewise, women who wear dark clothes are married and those who wear bright clothes are available. The kids of different ages even wear different colored hats.
Walking around the narrow stone streets of Taquile was so refreshing-no cars, no pollution, and gorgeous turquoise blue lake in every direction! After lunch we continued walking across the island looking at the simple houses and hills terraced with stone walls for farming. We got to the other side of the island and walked down 100-ish steps to another dock to our boat. Three hours back to Puno had us snoring away again.
Despite the inundation of tourism, I was impressed with how authentic the island cultures of Titicaca seemed. Between the craziness of the floating islands and the gorgeous tranquility of Taquile, the island tour was downright magical.
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We had some time to kill so we decided to stop by the Coca Museum (Museo de la Coca) in downtown Puno, Peru. Once through the front door, we made our way up a flight of stairs and into the museum. There were three rooms, one like a gift shop where you paid the 5 Sole entrance fee, one full of pictures and information on the history of coca and how it has affected the culture of the surrounding areas, and the third dedicated to traditional dancing and dress. We started in the third room, surrounded by crazy and colorful dancing costumes. They played a short documentary for us, in English, explaining the different dances and what they mean. After the movie, we got to try on some costumes!
Well worth the 5 Soles (under $2) just to play dress up, the Coca Museum was informative and interesting. Did you know that coca leaves have more protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin A than corn, wheat, rice, barley, quinuoa, or yucca? It’s too bad people have to go and do bad things with an amazing plant. To close, here’s a quote displayed at the museum that proved chillingly prophetic:
Latin America has a growing trash problem. In the major cities the garbage lines the sides of the roads until locals start small fires to diminish the piles. This creates smog and the cities smell more and more like trash. There are a few ideas that we have had to help with the problem. The first and most major problem is that everyone buys the small single serving plastic water bottles. This problem is intensified by the fact that the water from the tap is not drinkable in most places. Sure, tons of people have drank the tap water from birth, and most boil, but everything else is purchased in small bottles. They do sell the big bottles, but people don’t think ahead, “Maybe I will drink more than 600ml of water before I die…” And to make maters here worse, NO ONE knows how to use trash cans. When you are riding in a bus someone will eventually come onto the bus to sell small waters and sodas. As soon as people have finished the drink, they open the bus window and dispose of the bottle onto the highway. There along the highway it will sit for years and years making a larger and more disgusting pile. Is this the peoples’ fault? Yes and no. I don’t think there has ever been proper education on disposal of trash. Many times you have to carry your trash through half the city before you can find a can to toss it into. There is no recycling system set up. Sure, there are people (pickers) that sort through all the trash for recyclables and sell what they find to the recycling companies, but there is no specific place to throw the recycles. Not that the average person would even know what can actually be recycled. In a few cities we have been to there have actually been three cans side by side, (like in San Francisco) “Trash, Compost, Recyclables” but, since no one knows (or cares) which is which, the three cans are all full of the same things (mainly plastic bottles).
What can be done and who is at fault? There needs to be better education on how and where to dispose of your garbage. There needs to be more trash cans and more reliable collection. Basically, the South American governments need to start addressing this as a serious problem. Yes, there is major poverty, hunger, class division… but by the time they fix these problems, the entire continent is going to be covered in an inescapable pile of filth. Compared to all the stupid things that I see governmental money going towards (like huge stupid statues in the center of every tiny village…) I think they could spring for a few trash cans and a couple of people to collect garbage. Maybe the whole problem is that life is so hard for so many people here that it’s nearly impossible to get them plan farther in the future than tomorrow. The attitude is to worry about today first, then think about tomorrow.
Guys, we totally forgot to post a Culture Shock! on Wednesday! Woops! We were too focused on finishing the Inca Trail epic. So here it is for this week, better late than never!
So far on our adventure we haven’t needed to use our health insurance. That is not because we haven’t gotten sick (we have), but because everything you need is sold over-the-counter at your friendly neighborhood “farmacia.” The only thing you need to do is diagnose yourself! It’s sometimes actually fun playing doctor. The process usually goes like this. Day one: stomach pain and diarrhea. Day two: usually everything is better once it’s all out of your system, but if you are still feeling problems, wait one more day. Day three: If you still feel terrible then get yourself some Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic for bacterial infections which will knock out just about anything. If the Cipro doesn’t clear it up, then you are in trouble and should probably go to the doctor. Carrie and I have both taken the Cipro once and both times within a few hours we were feeling much better.
There are some potential negatives to this system, of course. Firstly, you really can get anything you want over the counter. It is of course possible to abuse this for recreational purposes. Secondly, pharmacists are not actually educated or trained like they are in the United States. When we went to get some Cipro for Zach the pharmacist actually tried to sell us more than two times as many tablets as we needed and tried to convince Zach he needed to take a large dose for 10 days. Either she was being totally dishonest to make a sale or we really knew the drug instructions better than she did, because you’re only supposed to take a small dose for five days! You have to be smart and research to find out what you really need when you’re sick. If in doubt, you should see a doctor first!
However, I think needing a prescription to cure yourself of obvious problems is part of what makes medical care super expensive in the United States. Sure, pharmacies shouldn’t hand out addictive drugs over the counter, but there’s also no reason it should be necessary to pay a doctor to tell you what you usually already know. Maybe instead of forcing money out of people’s pockets, we could focus on educating people on how to help themselves. But no, let’s continue to let the drug companies tell us what medicines we need. We all know that they have our best interests in mind.