Sleepless in Seattle

I’ve been to Seattle countless times, but never to visit Seattle, only to go to SeaTac airport or drive through the I-5 to Oregon. I’ve driven to the suburbs of Seattle for cheap shopping or eating at a restaurant Canada doesn’t have, but now I’ve finally been to Seattle just for Seattle’s sake.

I went there to pick up 3 guys from Iceland who were arriving from Hawaii after a trip around the world. They were met by Conrad, an American-Icelandic tango dancer I met three years ago in San Francisco. I didn’t know him very well, and had only ever danced with him, but I figured the Icelandic connection made us all some sort of family. Conrad lives in Seattle now, and he let all 4 of us stay at his girlfriends place for 2 days after picking the guys up at 6 am from a redeye flight.  The guys also knew an Icelandic couple that lived in Seattle who we stayed with a third night, so after 3 days in Seattle, we managed to do all the sight-seeing things I should have done a long time ago.

We went up the Space Needle, and visited the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum below. The guys shopped at Pike Place market, and we walked up and down Pine street window shopping. We bought some cheap American fashion and an unlocked iphone, as most Icelanders do when visiting the states, and indulged in delicious mexican food and cheap sushi that you would never get your hungry hands on in Reykjavik.

Our first night together was filled with gourmet food and port and a wine tasting session, followed by tango dancing and micro-brewed beers. We had all been traveling for the last 2 months and spent the previous night in transit, but still stayed up as late as we could and then sent Conrad off to Reno on a 7 am flight.

During our stay with Bjossi and Gudrun, the Icelandic couple, we squeezed 3 of us onto a sofa bed. We were almost asleep when an intolerable, screeching siren started sounding and could not figure out what was happening. First, half-dazed, we realized we weren’t dreaming, and that putting the pillow over our ears wasn’t helping. Then we checked all our phones and the electronics in the apartment to figure out what could possibly be making so much noise. After taking out the battery from the fire alarm didn’t work, we realized it was the fire alarm ringing throughout the entire apartment building. We grudgingly went outside and stood around with a hundred others, in their pajamas, wrapped in blankets and holding their pets. After a fire truck and a few firemen finally let us back in, we crawled back into bed without ever knowing if and where there was a fire, and were too tired to really care.

On our last day in Seattle, we drove back to SeaTac airport and picked up my father, who was flying in for my little sisters wedding. We drove my moms convertible, full of Icelanders, back to Vancouver, through the daunting evergreen forests that made us feel very farm from home.

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A Day in Caracas

One can get from Rapa Nui to Canada a number of ways. I took one of the more complicated options, and flew 4 times through 5 countries in 6 days. The journey was long and tiring, but started off on the right foot. I rode to the airport on a horse in Easter Island, arriving in time to check in, drop off my bag, and then gallop along the air field fence for an hour while waiting for security to open. Me and my horse also shared a bag of mangos, since they would not get through customs in Peru, my next destination. I had an overnight stop in Lima, and couchsurfed with a friend of a friend but did little else than sleep and shower.

I went back to the airport to fly next to Caracas, where I had a day and a half layover. I had never been to Venezuela, and had lots planned for my short visit, and tried tirelessly to extend my visit but the next 3 international flights I had to take wouldn’t allow it. Those I told I was going to Venezuela always asked if I knew anyone there, told me to be careful, and suggested I just stay atthe airport to save the hassle of getting around all alone. I didn’t know anyone, but of course found some inviting couchsurfers, opted out of sleeping at the airport, and made the 3 hour coach-subway-bus transit from the international airport terminal to Pueblo de Baruta.

the couchsurfers flat

I had an uneasy feeling about what I could or could not do but mostly because of all the warnings building up. Every traveler and latin person I had met had hyped up the safety issues in Caracas so much that I really started to believe I had to me more cautious and guarded. Yet, from the moment I left the airport and spent those 3 hours alone transitting to Eduardo’s house, I could not have felt more secure; the backpack on my shoulders and my nervous eyes were enough of a tell-tale sign that I was a gringa (despite my badass tan), and every person in eye-shot of me noticed and felt some sympathy. Those in earshot of me almost always said something, asked me if I was ok, and offered to help me in any way they could. “Do you know where you are going?” “Do you have a phone number to call your friend?” “I will keep an eye on the zippers of your backpack.” “I can help you translate any spanish if you need help with your directions.” Police officers walked me from the street to the right subway platform underground. My bus driver escorted me onto his bus, infront of the 3o or 40 passengers already queued in line, wouldn’t allow me to pay the bus fare, took Eduardo’s phone number in his cell, and called him to come and meet me at the stop he would drop me off at when we were 5 minutes away. Others just started chitchat, so curious about what I was doing on local transportation during nightime rushhour, alone, with a backpack, certain that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and needed help to get back to where I belonged. But I felt that I belonged right where I was, under the safe cloak of  all the empathetic strangers I met.

the couchsurf crew on campus

When I met Eduardo, his roomates and  3 his Argentinian couchsurfers, I immediately felt like I had arrived into to a group of old friends. It was Monday night but we decided we could make a party wherever we went and drove around a sleepy Caracas to stir something up. We stopped by a stand-up comedy bar, went to a trendy lounge where we could dance salsa, and ended the night at some Irish-pub-feeling place before going home and sleeping in various arrangements on couches, yoga mats and camping mattresses.

the one pictured I managed to take from the car window

The next morning we squeezed 6 people into a little car and visited a university campus nearby. We drove to the center of Caracas and weaseled through the subway stations and trains which were more crowded and chaotic than NYC’s Penn Station at 6pm. While driving, I naively held my camera a little out of  my rolled down window to take some pictures, and Luis quickly grabbed my hands and laughed, explaining “the next guy on a scooter to pass us will just rip that right out of your hands and you’ll never see it again.” I guess you should never really let your guard down all the way, despite how safe a place can make you feel in one short day 😉

 

Rapa Nui – Easter Island

the Rano Kau crater

Easter Island was up there with Antarctica and Greenland for most random and tricky-to-get-to places that were high up on my bucket list. Greenland was, luckily, not so hard while living in Iceland, and Antarctica kind of fell into my lap even though I couldn’t afford it and hadn’t planned to go there until after traveling some easier-to-get-to countries. But, it was the last continent and 2009 was the perfect time to go, when voyages were undersold for the first time in years because of the economic recession.

horses at Ko Te Riku

I was going to Chile for my friends wedding and promised myself next time I was in Santiago I had to bite the bullet and dish out for the trans-Pacific flight to Rapa Nui. Flights were between $688-$1100, and I couldn’t convince myself it was worth it. Then I realized that LAN Airlines was part of the One World alliance, which my mom had just given me 50,000 miles for my birthday, and I managed to book a round trip flight from Santiago to Mataveri for $157 and 20,000 miles, and still had enough miles to get from Santiago to Vancouver one way for another $300 and 30,000 miles. I even got all the right dates I needed to stay a comfortable 5 days. This was the perfect amount of time to spend on the 70 sq.km island with 800+ monolithic statues and almost as many horses.

sea-ward facing Moai's at Ahu Akivi

I took a red-eye flight to Rapa Nui and arrived at 6 am in pitch darkness on a jumbo plane that unloaded 300 passengers. I couldn’t imagine this little island had the infrastructure to host us all, but we dispersed from the tiny ‘airport,’ which consisted of a small building, a driveway and a couple taxis, to our respective homes.

Mihinoa campground where I stayed

The island has a population of 5 thousand, and almost everyone is working in the tourism industry. There are no chain hotels or restaurants, but family-run guesthouses and a few luxurious eco-resorts built in the style of the stone and turf houses the settlers used to build. Camping is popular, in the breezy sub-tropical climate, but your tent heats up alot after sunrise since few trees are left to provide any shade. There is only one ‘town,’ with a main street and a few overpriced supermarkets. There is a soccerfield and a couple beaches, just wide enough to lay a towel and give the only access points to the sea if you’re trying to surf the waves on a board or a boat.

stone carvings

The rest of the island is rolling green hills, a few volcanic craters, and dirt roads leading you from fallen statues to risen statues, underground caves and stone carvings. A large chunk of the island is national park (split into two areas), and another large chunk is a biological reserve area. Cows and horses graze in most pastures, and people use horses, mountain bikes or quad cycles to get around if they don’t own a jeep.

stone and turf houses at Orongo

Most of the Island is a world heritage site, littered with these huge stone faces. I still haven’t figured out the Moai’s, what they meant, how they were made or transported, and why they made so many. I guess there are a few theories, but noone’s really sure, and all I can say is they spent a whole lot of time and energy making them and moving then for some very important reason. They all looked a bit different, some made in the likeness of some VIPs or chiefs, some had red stone hats, some were small, others big (4 metres) and they all weighed a tonne or more.

an unfinished moai

I went to one of the quarries, where unfinished moai’s laid unfinished in the mountain. I biked around the island and saw many laying on their backs or on their faces, barely recognizable from another pile of rocks that probably had no historical significance. Some were left in transit, as if one of the seven plagues had just hit, and all the moai deliveries were dropped and left exactly where they were. All were raised facing land (except a handful of rare exceptions at Ahu Akivi) theoretically because they were built to watch over towns and perhaps the Rapa Nui people respected the sea in some special way.

My favourite way of exploring the island was on horseback, and I was lucky enough to find a guy with a mare he could lend me for a couple days. I ran around on her bareback through Hanga Roa and along that Ana Kai trail, and if it wasnt for the hordes of tourists taking photos of every statue, I could have escaped through imaginary time travel and ridden over to the next village to ask alot of burning questions about the Moai’s and the Rapa Nui people.

A Chilean Wedding Reunion

My first good friend from UBC got married this year, causing good reason for a UBC alumni reunion of old friends and roomates. We all started our undergraduate degrees in 2004, as young, naive teenagers, far away from home for the first time. Now we’ve matured, grown up, moved away, gotten jobs, and for those as lucky as Stefan, found someone to share it with.

Stefan and Mane, the newlyweds

Stefan is a New Mexico native, born in Chile to American parents. He speaks Spanish and has a Chilean passport, so he decided to take his exchange semester from UBC in Santiago. We all took our exchanges in 2nd or 3rd year, many went to Australia or New Zealand, but not many dared to venture out to a non-English speaking university. Stefan extended his stay from one semester to a whole year, working in Portillo Ski resort and traveling through his birth country, and I was lucky enough to be backpacking through South America when he was still there. I visited Stefan in Santiago, only weeks after moving in with his girlfriend. Mane was also working at Portillo as the nurse, and Stefan had set his eyes on her the moment they met. I could tell instantly from the moment I met her that she was adorable, fun, smart, and confident. Stefan must have noticed she was a keeper, so he did exactly that, keep her.

the UBC crew

Ten UBC friends (plus one highschool friend and Stefans family from New Mexico) attended the wedding, which was held in Santiago – a long way to go for the Americans and Canadians. Though we were largely outnumbered by the Chilean guests and Mane’s family, we certainly tried to make up for it by being louder and more obnoxious. Apparently we drank the same amount of pisco as a wedding of 400 by the time 6 am rolled around and the party finished with the last 30 stragglers (all of Stefan’s foreigner crew still present).

Their wedding was held in the most beautiful setting, a place you picture only in romantic fairytale movies. When we arrived, a flock of peackocks walked past the small lake between the mansion and the stone church, and flowers and champagne glasses shone in the sunlight. Their ceremony was magical, with live music from family relatives, tears flowing from bride and groom, and 100+ guests dressed in their Sunday’s best taking pictures and throwing a rainbow of flower petals.

the view of Vina's coast

We spent some time together in Vina del Mar, on the top of a hill in a highrise building with an incredible view of the coast. We rented apartments in Santiago for 4 nights, drinking wine and coke and having completo hot dogs as all good tourists should. My highlights were the Fish Market and Pablo Neruda’s home-turned-museum, and the 6.1 Richter scale earthquake that hit us while on the top floor of an old apartment building. The whole thing shook, and we all looked at

a completo

eachother with a mix of confusion, panic, and even glee, while debating which door frames to stand under and who should get in the bathtub. Needless to say we survived, so a few days later we were on our separate ways, some going South to the Lakes Region, some going home, and I flew across the South Pacific to Easter Island.

Paraguay

Paraguay is one of those places that doesn’t evoke any strong stereotypes, a place that you don’t have any preconceived notions or expectations, just a blank slate of wondering why you know so little about it. It doesn’t boast any famous landmarks or must-visit tourism destinations, and few backpackers make it there on any South American journeys. The barrier is really two-fold – you don’t know anyone that’s been there to vouch for its interest or safety, and you don’t know what to do or how to get there since few roads lead you in its direction.

But then there are the travelers who dream of this kind of place, an off-the-beaten-track surprise bag to go and discover for yourself. The lack of information or infrastructure just makes Paraguay more appealing, a black hole you want to paint yourself with and wear night-vision goggles in. The country is completely landlocked by Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, its borders defined by the muddy rivers flowing between them. Its much bigger than you expect, and all its main commercial centers are at the borders, creating an economy that depends on its neighbours.

The population is only 6.5 million, a fraction of the 195 or 40 million in Brazil or Argentina. The customs/immigration office in Punta del Este, a border town near Iguazu, Brazil, shares its office with the Ministry of Tourism, and the front page of its eco-tourism marketing pamphlet has a picture of Iguazu Falls (that waterfall is actually only shared by Argentina and Brazil, though Punta del Este is a “gateway” town to it).

From there I traveled west, through a never-ending small town that eventually turned into the capital city of Asuncion. Here I waited at the bus terminal figuring out what do while meeting and conversing with a handful of local people. All of their concerns were the same; “Why are you here? Are you traveling alone? Can you speak Spanish?” I slowly got the feeling that gringas should have a better plan than I did, so I called a couchsurfer who I had been in touch with to see if we could meet. She said no, she was busy until 4, but then we could meet at her apartment and I could crash there.

The stairs up to her second floor apartment smelled like cat litter, but there was no cat in sight, and noone was home at 4:15. I thought maybe I was late and had missed her. I waited til 5. Then her downstairs neighbour came home and saw me waiting. After calling her from his phone, she said she’d be home in an hour. Since I was in a residential area that felt quite safe with little else to do, I figured I’d keep waiting. She finally showed up at 6:30, and continued speaking only in Spanish though all our exchanges had previously been in English. She was youthful and healthy, and perhaps a little obsessed with her body and beauty. Her apartment was very clean and organized, so much that she was on the verge of being OCD about it since hosting couchsurfers obviously distressed her. She spoke a lot, non-stop almost, and I felt it was either because silence made her nervous or because living alone didn’t giver her enough chances to complain to someone who would just listen. She didn’t always complain, but she preferred to tell me about her petpeeves instead of her interests. She also liked to explain the house rules and how to use everything properly, but kept her hospitality to a minimum.

Asuncion was a beautiful town, a walkable city, with plenty of colonial mansions and a few highrises that would have impressed in the 1980’s. The mercado quarto was my favourite place, a sprawling neighbourhood of merchants selling everything you could imagine. A lady described it to me as the Wal-Mart for Paraguayans, and I guess thats accurate, minus the shiny newness and organization of everything under one roof.