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  • To those that believe summer is a bad time to visit India – think mangoes – yes, juicy yellow alphonsos ripened to near-perfection by the summer heat. That, and the thrill of watching the season change, as the gray skies and cool breeze mark the end of three months of stressing out the washing machine.
  • Do not visit the Mysore palace on a weekend. It’s like getting into a Mumbai local in rush hour, except you are forever jostling, moving. Got to admit though, that the palace illuminated at night is a sight worth watching.
  • While on the topic of local trains, the recent additions to Mumbai’s trademark red-and-yellow fleet look slick. Gone are the days of tapping on your co-passenger’s shoulder to ask about the station coming up, for these trains display and announce it.
  • Perhaps the most people-friendly animals can be found in the Mysore Zoo. Elephants raise their trunks and giraffes strut about with a confidence that would make veteran ramp models cringe with envy, delighting the camera/camcorder-weilding visitor.
  • Set on hilly terrain, Coorg offers a cool relief from the coastal heat and humidity, not to mention all-round greenery thanks to coffee plantations, and the most excellent filter coffee. Remember to steer clear of the horse fly – a blood sucker large enough that one might be grossed out by the mere thought of zapping it dead. Mosquitoes are benign creatures in comparison

A wrap-up of all that remains to be spoken of the trip, so I can conclude these promised updates, and allow my blogsistence to move on.

Puno, Peru: Our last stop in Peru – one borne out of necessity than purpose. The bus from Puno would not reach us to the Peru-Bolivia border while the immigration offices on either side were open, which meant that we had to stay over and take a bus the next morning. Puno is a lively small town, visible in its peopled streets, shops and public squares, and their accompanying chatter and banter. Notable culinary mentions include empanadas at the local bakery, and delicious Chinese food at a Chifa (local reference for Chinese food/stall). Many of these chifas seem hole-in-the-wall good cheap eats, in character quite like the (indo)-chinese street food stalls one finds in Bombay.

Copacabana, Bolivia: After a bus-ride tracing the outline of Lake Titicaca that included an interlude of getting off at the Peruvian border, going through immigration, walking the 500+ feet to the Bolivian side, going through the Bolivian immigration, and boarding the same bus again, we reached Copacabana – not to be mistaken with its more famous namesake in Brazil. A visit to the impressively expansive and white basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was followed by a boat ride to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) – an island off the town that has Incan ruins. The part of the island we visited was unimpressive. The boat ride over the calm waters of the vast water body that is Lake Titicaca, the largest lake by volume in South America, was worth the while. Culinary exploits included trying the Trucha (local trout) and tortilla espanola – spanish omelet made of potatoes and eggs that has little resemblance, except for their circular shape, with the flatbread tortillas that one finds in US supermarkets.

La Paz, Bolivia: As one walks around the witches markets in La Paz, where dried llama fetuses are displayed alongside ceramic figurines of Viracocha and the Condor, charms of good fortune and energy, and beyond into the numerous shops selling everything from yarn and clothing to pirated dvds and cds, one is left with the feeling that the whole of La Paz is one large bazaar. We stopped for a meal at the Star of India, British Indian cuisine we’re told, where if you finish up your full order of vindaloo, you get a t-shirt that says ‘I survived the most dangerous vindaloo’. I went for a half-order, and I am glad I did not take on the challenge of a full one. The first few spoonfuls seem inane, the intensity of spice rising in a gradual tolerable crescendo. It takes a few minutes for the chillies (and I don’t know what kind is used) to deliver their sudden and complete coup d’grace.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia These salt flats of Uyuni are a bumpy overnight bus ride south of La Paz, and by bumpy I mean you-better-have-an-empty-stomach-or-you’ll-puke bumpy. The site is more than worth the pain to get there. Standing on those salt flats amidst a vast white plane of white that extends into the eternity on all sides is an experience that words, or for that matter even images, can hardly capture. Watching the sun set in the distant dark and white horizon is serene, mystical.

Argentina From Bolivia, we crossed over to Argentina, spending a brief half-day in Salta before visiting Cordoba Cordoba is a university town, complete with old buildings, bookstores (great titles, unfortunately for me, all in Spanish), and mostly comprised of students. The town of Alta Gracia is a few hours commute by bus. We made a day trip there, renting and riding bicycles in the countryside which is beautiful except for unconstrained vicious barking dogs, and making it in time to see the Che’s house, now a museum. From Cordoba, we went to Buenos Aires, a capital city that, for want of a better description, quite like the cities in Europe. Most of our time in Buenos Aires was spent wandering about, sitting in cafes, watching a tango performance, in short, just taking it easy. All the backpacking and bus rides left us craving for relaxation, and we found it here. And then we flew back to LA.

That’s it folks, and thanks for your patience through this stretched 3-month long narration of a 2-week trip. Perhaps a rushed description, I apologize. Feel free to comment if you plan a trip and have any questions, and I’ll be happy to respond with what I know. On a related note, a quick bit on the logistics: we made our hostel reservations through TACA, LAN, and Aeromexico are some of the key airlines that have flights to South America. I found LAN to have lower prices on the spanish version of their website compared to the English version for the same flight itinerary – quite lame, really, because they have fares in USD displayed on both, and they don’t seem to have any geographical restrictions for either site. In almost all big cities, and most of Peru and Argentina, we found people whose English lexicon was far better than our travel Spanish, so language was not an issue there. Can’t say the same for Bolivia. Knowing the language helps you connect with people, and enhances your travel experience. I quite envied some of the travelers we met that spoke fluent Spanish, and regretted not having given myself enough time to learn the language.

Its 4:00 am in the morning, and it is dark and cold. About 50 folks are ahead of us in the queue at the bus stop at Aguas Calientes waiting for the bus to take us to the entrance to Machu Picchu, the first of which departs at 5:30 am. There are no limits on entry to view the ancient ruins, but only the first 200 at the entrance when it opens at 6 am get a pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu – the mountain in the background in most pictures of the ruins of Machu Picchu – a skippable add-on in hindsight, yet its exclusivity has us vying for access. The buses line up at 5:20, the first one leaves on time at 5:30, and after a 20 minute ride along switchback roads with breathtaking views of mountain tops surrounded by the early morning fog, we reach the entrance. By virtue of being within the first 200, we are given the coveted pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu.

The rising sun dissipates the fog that shrouds the ruins, revealing a site that is tranquil, timeless, and beautiful. The ancient walls with its roofs long gone, and the stepped farming slopes provide the framework with which to imagine how the Incas may have lived 5 centuries back. Along the edges of the ancient ruins, one can view the vast Urubamba valley with the Urubamba river appearing as a narrow stream from this great height. As I soak in the sights, I wonder if the Incas stared with similar wonderment at the vistas that surrounded them and contemplated on the beauty of nature.

At noon, we head back to the entrance to meet our guide. With our group we return to the ruins again. This time, thanks to the guide, the ancient structures take on a new meaning. We are told that the Incas built the city around the mid-1400s but abandoned it 100 years later during the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish conquistadors never found the ancient city and when Hiram Bingham, the Yale archaeologist and a possible inspiration for the Indiana Jones character, rediscovered it in 1911, it was covered in dense vegetation, unlike the clear sight that we view today. More details follow. The guided tour is essential to understanding and appreciating these ancient ruins.

After the tour and wandering around the ruins, we start on our hike up the Wayna Picchu, which I found quite exerting thanks to a 10 pound day-pack that I had been carrying. Parts of the trail have narrow steps leading up a fairly steep incline and passages through stone crevices that would not let me pass with a bag on my back. The view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas from the top of Wayna Picchu is worth the struggle up, though not exactly worth queuing up at the bus stop at 4 am in the morning. By evening we are back at our hostel in Aguas Calientes to pick up our backpacks and to catch the train back to Cusco, but not before eating up a pizza at one of the numerous pizzerias in this little town that seems to exist primarily to house and serve the many tourists drawn to Machu Picchu. Tired, we sleep through the 3-hour train journey.

Cusco, with its dark gleaming cobbled streets and public squares made spectacular by cathedrals reaching out to the clear blue skies, reveals few signs except for the occasional Quechua name, of the having been the capital city of the Incas. Even Coricancha, supposedly the most sacred temple of the Incas that subsequently became the site of the Church of Santo Domingo built by the Spanish in the 17th century, speaks little of its Incan past. It is when one sheds the baggage of expectations that one begins to appreciate the finer nuances of this place – colored wooden doors on houses, narrow one-way alleys where one has to step off the 2-feet wide sidewalks to pass, fascinating Spanish architecture, delectable aji de gallina, and a welcoming people.

The day of arrival in Cusco was spent exploring the place, visiting its sights, and chewing on coca leaves to avoid the onset of altitude sickness. The dal chawal dinner that night is not something we had expected to find here – over the course of our wanderings, we had chanced on Maikhana, whose owner claimed that they are the only Indian restaurant in the city. A lack of appetite possibly caused by chewing the coca leaves and the onset of altitude sickness does not allow me to comment fairly on this meal . The next morning, we took the 3-hour train to Aguas Calientes, the closest access point to Macchu Pichu (more on this later), and returned back to Cusco the day after toward dusk. We had hoped to catch a bus out of Cusco on to the Peru-Bolivia border and across. But that was not to be. We missed the last bus and had to stay. The view of the Plaza de Armas that night from Bagdad Cafe – one of the many cafes that outline the plaza – would be the last image consigned to memory of this wonderful city.

Out of the airport in Lima and on the road, the less than perfect traffic flow: buses, cars, and their lesser companions moving in a general direction without the predictability of lanes, indicating their will and size by the intensity of their honks, reminds me of Bombay, makes me feel less of a stranger in this hitherto unvisited city. The cab drive up to our hostel in Miraflores – a relatively nicer part of the city, we are told – offers views of the seemingly boundless Pacific, lined by pebbled beaches and high-rises – fleeting views made shorter by a cab well over the speed limit. We have half a day in the city, enough time to try out two tipicos, local specialities – the cebiche, made of raw fish and lime with onions and chillies in the Peruvian version (countries in SA have their own versions of the dish), and pisco sour, made from pisco (a kind of liquor distilled from grapes), lime juice, egg whites, and bitters, and prepared by our affable host at the Backpackers Family Hostel. One is advised not to consume both of these in quick succession – their high acidity being compounded – online advice we flouted and got away with. An evening walk around the neighborhood takes us to the Parque Kennedy, a small park made memorable by a street play in a small amphitheater-like setting, El Parque del Amor (or love park) with its statue of two lovers in embrace, and LarcoMar, a shopping center overlooking the ocean, whose elevated view of the sea at night reminds me of the Queen’s necklace – the spectacularly lit night-view of Marine Drive in Bombay; another image drawn from a lexicon of the known to describe the unknown. Next morning we move on to our next destination, Cuzco – capital city of the Incas.

I got back from el trip estupendo to South America this past Sunday, and am now in the process of catching up on all the work that has  waited patiently for my return and now overwhelms me enough that I have barely seen sunshine since coming back. Vacation time, I realize, is quite a misnomer – a mere postponement of agony than the riddance of it. Grumbles aside, I shall post detailed posts of the trip as soon as time and vocation permit.

There is really one key pre-trip essential. It is often ignored in the process of planning the trip, and in our case, was put off till the last moment – visas. Two reasons why doing so is a bad idea – they take time, and they cost money. If you are not located close to a city, and one that houses a consulate at that, then will have to send your passport by mail. This takes at least a week at minimum counting 3 days for processing and a day each for overnight shipping back and forth. Three countries and you are looking at a minimum of 3 weeks to get the visas alone. Visas can be expensive – the visa for Bolivia costs a hefty $135 (more about this later). If you are an Indian passport holder, yes, you require a visa to visit most inhabited spots on the planet outside of des, with a few welcome exceptions. Friedman’s world may be flat, mine most definitely is not. There are unanticipated advantages, though, and I shall prolong the suspense a tad bit longer.

If you live close to Los Angeles and intend to visit Peru, Bolivia, or Argentina – the three countries on our list – you are in luck. The consulates are all located on one street – Wilshire Blvd. in LA. You may want to call up the consulate and check what documents they need, how long it would take them to process the visa, and whether one needs an appointment should one decide to show up in person. The list of documents needed for visa to Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina are listed below, quoted from memory and therefore prone to omissions:

  • completed visa application form
  • passport
  • work authorization in the US
  • 1-2 passport sized photographs
  • proof of employment
  • travel reservations
  • hotel/hostel reservations
  • last 1-3 bank statements.
  • proof of yellow fever vaccination (required only by Bolivia).

As regards visa fees, the visa to Peru is $30. Argentina waives its visa fees for Indian citizens. So does Bolivia, which waived the $135 fee for us. It is important to note though that the Bolivian consulate requires a proof of yellow fever vaccination (you can get one at the clinic where you get your vaccination). In addition to the discomfort of being pricked by a needle , the vaccination at ~$110 that is not typically covered by insurance, does burn a hole in your pocket.

We showed up at the Peruvian consulate first. We were asked to turn in the documents and pay the fees, and come back after 2 hours to get our passports back. Next we stopped at the consulate of Argentina. Since we had not made an appointment (we were unaware we needed to), we were asked to turn in the passports and paperwork and a self-addressed pre-paid envelope. We got our passports within 5 days. Since it was too much to make another 4 hour trip to LA from San Diego, we mailed our application to the Bolivian consulate with a self-addressed pre-paid envelope, and it was promptly returned with the visa stamp within a week. All in all a relatively hassle free process for us, though you don’t want this to cut to close to your travel start date.

Moved to San Francisco from San Diego earlier this month, after an 8-hour/500 mile drive – most of it on the straight stretch of the I-5 freeway that is faster but far less impressive than its scenic alternative, the 101. The distance is not the only thing that separates these two cities – they are as different as two cities can be that lie on the Californian coast. San Diego perhaps fits the stereotype one may have about California – sun, sand, beach, and the kind of near-perfect weather that would make your local weatherman or woman break into odes of joy. The place where I moved to in San Francisco is 7 blocks from the ocean. I braved the cold one morning to jog up to the beach. It was like a black-and-white movie shot of a beach with cold winds that make you draw the hood of your sweatshirt over your head, and fog that envelopes the ocean as if in wait for an ominous ancient ship to break through it. The city has other charms though that are good on their promise. There’s the famed Golden Gate Bridge – yes the red one, which is impressive. My favorite is the Golden Gate park – a vast rectangular escape into nature that runs horizontal from west to the middle of the SF bay – akin to Central Park in NY except that this one is not ‘central’. More updates shall follow as I embark on explorations of the city.

Among other interesting developments, a buddy and I will be backpacking in South America – specifically Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. I won’t be carrying my laptop and will not be able to update on the go. If memory and patience hold me good once I get back, I promise detailed posts. I do intend to document some of the pre-trip preps on this blog before I leave Saturday morning, for the benefit of anyone embarking on a similar journey, has an Indian passport and needs to figure out the formalities – a topic on which information on the web is inadequate.

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