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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Santiago and the COPA Orientation

Yesterday afternoon I moved in with my host family. But to backtrack a little... I got to Santiago last Sunday and spent the day walking around. I went to this museum that had a really great exibit on pre-colonial Mexican artwork. Through email I had got in touch with another girl from the COPA program, Linda, and we met up for dinner. Linda is from LA and goes to Tufts. The next afternoon we met up and spent the day together walking around. We tried to go to Pablo Neruda´s house (one of three - they are in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra) but it turns out that all museums are closed on Mondays (though all museums are free on Sundays so that is nice). We were hanging out at my hostal and started talking to this guy who it turned out was in our program to, his name is Zaks and he goes to Cornell. So the three of us had dinner and then I cancelled my second night at the hostal and went and stayed with Linda at a fancy hotel where she had a room that was already paid for. The next morning we made our way over to the hotel where we were supposed to meet the group for orientation. It was nice to already know three people (Linda, Zaks, and Catherine who goes to Bard) but everyone started to get to know eachother right away. There were 28 students at orientation and there are another 11 who we haven´t met yet who are here for a whole year so they have already been here for six months. So the first thing I find out is that we are all going to our host family´s house for dinner that first night. At 8:00 all the families showed up and everyone was looking around trying to recongnize each other from the pictures we recieved.

Paulina, my host mother came with her husband Jaime (who is not the father and also was not on my info sheet). Waiting for them I got really nervous but as soon as they got there and we got into the car I felt really comfortable with them. We held a conversation the whole ride to their house and I told them about my travels and my family and they told me about themselves. I felt really comfortable with my Spanish and although I was making thousands of grammer errors I could actually make myself understood. We got to their house and I met the daughters, Javiera who is 22 and Isidora who is 19 (she doesn´t live here but is around all the time) and Isadora´s boyfriend Marco. Paulina teaches at a school for mentally and physically disabled students, Jaime is and economist and a proffesor (and a musician on the side), and Javiera and Isadora are both university students. They were all so nice and welcoming. Also, they knew that I was a vegitarian and said that was fine and they don ´t eat a lot of meat anyway. I have been eating chicken and fish since traveling but I wanted to avoid red meat and this means I will be able to. So we had a very nice dinner and then they took me back to the hotel.

After one night of orientation at the hotel in Santiago, we went to Olmue which is a small town about two hours outside of orientation. Basically we just stayed in the hotel for four days except for when we had a tour of a local winery and when a couple of us walked into town. On the tour of the winery we stopped in an area that was just filled with eucaliptice trees. Everyone was so fascinated by the trees and the smell but to me it just looked and smelt like Berkeley and Tilden Park. Orientation was conducted exclusively in Spanish. Of course all the socializing was in English but otherwise all in Spanish. It consisted of sitting in a conference room for many hours a day learning some useful things and some not useful things. We had workshops on safety, culture shock, living with a family, chilean specific words and slang (including a whole half hour on curse words). We also got detailed information about the three universities where we can take classes and how to register. For those of you who are familiar with the crazyness of Bard registration, I think this will be like Bard registration but less organized and at multiple schools and in different parts of the city. The people on the program are all really nice and it was good to have time to get to know people. The only danger is that you end up only hanging out with them and not meeting any Chileans.

Yesterday orientation ended and our host families picked us up at the bus. When I got back to my house they had a bunch of friends over and we had a big afternoon bar-b-que which was nice. In terms of Spanish: if I speak I can make myself understood with lots of grammer errors, if they speak to me I can understand, and if they talk to each other I get very lost and catch parts of the conversation here and there but if I concentrate really hard I can get a general sense of what they are talking about, but not the specifics. All in all I would say that is pretty good for my first day and hopefully it will get better. Also, everyone but the mother speaks English so I can ask words if I don´t know them but it is also good because they haven´t spoke any English to me so that I can practice my Spanish.

I have the weekend free to get settled. Next week is orientations for all the universities and I have to figure out classes. Also, I created a Skype account. It is free internet calling so if anyone wants to talk to me you should download Skype and we can talk for free. It is not set up completly yet because I still need to buy a microphone but my username is sarifb. Also in the next couple of days I will be getting a cell phone so email me if you want the number.

PS Has anyone ever heard of underwater hockey? It is a sport that Linda started to play over her break when she was in LA and it is basically hockey at the bottom of a pool, it sounded crazy and I had never heard of it before.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia and the "Driest Desert in the World" (Chile)

Yay, I can finally post because I found a computer fast enough to upload all these pictures!

On Saturday (a week ago) I left for a three day tour of Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flats) and the surrounding area in Bolivia. The tours are in a 4-wheel drive SUV kind of car. The guide books all warn about sketchy trucks, bad drivers, breakdowns, not enough food etc. So I left for the tour not really knowing what to expect and not getting my hopes up. It turned out to be fantastic. Yes, the drive was slightly sketchy and I could have eaten a lot more than we were served, but we didn´t have any accidents, and we only broke down once and were back on the road in 15 minutes. The trip is 7 people and a driver (not so much a guide because they don´t really tell you much) on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. The whole trip was so beautiful, we drove through so many different types of places, all very different. I think that the best way for me to describe the whole thing is through pictures.

This is the Salar de Uyuni, it is a 12,000 sq. km. salt flat which is where most of the salt in Bolivia is mined from. I guess in the winter it looks more like salt plains but this time of year (summer) it is covered by a couple of inches of rain water which makes the most beautiful reflections. You can see every mountain and every cloud reflected in the salar and you cant tell how far away they are or where the sky starts and ends. Here is an attempt to get a picture of the reflection.

It was also fun to take pictures of our own reflection although the picture doesnt look as good as it really looked. We just took off our shoes and walked through the water over the salt and by the time we got back in the truck our legs were caked in salt up to our knees.

There were also buildings make completly of salt, they were made of bricks of salt and then all the tables and chairs inside were all made of blocks of salt. They sold little souveneirs made of salt and we were all hoping to buy salt shakers made of salt but it seems they dont make those, you would think they would, I bet they would sell big to to the tourists.

The drive was through flat desert type areas sometimes with vegetation, sometimes without and always with mountains (sometimes snow covered) in the background. This is an example of a typical scene out the window.

So we were driving through these flat areas and then all of a sudden we came upon this... Just rocks of all shapes and sizes everywhere fore miles.
At other points we came across similar areas but where the rocks were more like boulders and everywhere as well.

Then we would come across many lakes. This is where we stopped for lunch the second day. Like the salt flats, most of the lakes have an amazing reflection and the mountains and clouds always seem to be situated perfectly to get a spectacular reflection.

Late in the day we stoped at the Arbol de Piedra (tree of stone) which is just a big stone that slightly resembles a tree with lots of other bolders around (they are on the other side so you cant see the rest of them in the picture). Then right in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the summer, it started to snow. It was so surreal. It was just flurries but later that night it snowed for real, which meant it was very cold and there were minimal blankets which just means sleeping in a lot of clothes. The snow is not so strange when you take into consideration the altitude we were at. On the third day we got to about 4,900 m (that is really high).

This is another lake, Laguna Colorada (colored lake) which although appears to be muddy in this picture is actually a vibrant red color with patches of blues and purples.

At this lake as well as many others we saw lots of flamingos, there were always hundreds of them and they were always to far away to get good pictures but this was one of my lucky ones where they were starting to fly away, scared by all the tourists but I managed to get them just in time.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to see the geysers at their most active time of day. Where the geysers were was completly snowy and so we all bundled up and walked through the snow. The geysers are extreamly hot and so the snow was melted around them but a couple feet away we were surrounded by snow and snowy mountains.

This is the group of us and the car we spent three days in. As you can see, we are all unprepared for snow and so bundled up in what clothes and hats we have because it was really cold.

We got back into the car, drove through the snow for litterally only ten minutes and were here...
Natural hotsprings with the most gorgeous view. Considering we had just been in the snow you would think it would be cold but the water was about 33 degrees C which is something really hot in F, I still havent figured out the metric conversions.

The last stop on the tour was the Laguna Verde (Green Lake). You may notice that the lake is not at all green. This is because they lake turns green when it is oxidized by the wind and so you can actually see it changing colors. Unfortunatly the wind was not strong enought while I was there and so I did not get to see it green but it was still beautiful and yet again had a great reflection of the snowy mountains.

From there I took a bus into San Pedro de Atacama in the North of Chile. This area is known as the "Driest desert in the world" yet it rained every afternoon I was there and I was almost stranded there because of the rain. The whole area is completly unprepared for rain. Most of the building dont have really roofs and so it was difficult to find a restaurant for dinner that didnt have water pouring in from the "roof." The roads around there were closed because of the weather and my bus to Santiago was cancelled. There was about a day of panic where I was sure I wouldnt get to my orientation on time but luckily I had given myself extra time and the roads opened later in the day. While I was there I did go to Valle de la Luna for the sunset which was beautiful and had the added bonus of the sunset on one side and a very bright double rainbow on the other side.

So I was able to get a bus about 4 hours south to a nothing town where I had to stay a day and a half, two nights to wait for a bus to Santiago. The good thing was that it had a beach, so I went to the beach for about half the day. I ended up getting one of the worst sunburns I have ever had despite constantly putting on sunscreen but it was nice to spend a day at the beach. I then took an 18 hour bus ride to Santiago and arrived this morning. I just wandered around the downtown area this afternoon and tonight I am meeting a girl from my program for dinner who is also here early. Tuesday morning is the start 0f my orientation.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lake Titicaca, Peru and La Paz, Bolivia

After leaving Cuzco I spent two days touring Lake Titicaca. As I was leaving my hostel I ran into Jon from Canada (living in Chicago) who was on my bus and also going to do tour of Lake Titicaca. So we booked a tour together once we got to Puno, the port town on the Peru side of the lake. Lake Titicaca is a huge lake inbetween Peru and Bolivia with small and bigger islands all around. I was only on the Peru side. My tour was one night two days. The first day we left on a small boat with 25 passengers. On the boat I ended up meeting lots of people. I ended up spending a lot of time with some girls from Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. The boat first stops at the floating islands which are islands made completely out of reeds and all the houses and structures on them are also made of reeds. Here is an example of one of the houses.

These people live on these tiny islands and if they have electricity it is just what can be run on two tiny solar panels. In recent years their lives have been taken over by tourism and they rely on selling crafts to tourists as their main means of survival. The islands are really cool to see but also felt like you were invading someone's home, seeing as only two or three families live on the smaller islands.

Our next stop was a bigger island, Amantani where we spent the night with host families. The boat we were on was soooo slow and so it takes about three to four hours to get there although it is not all that far. The boat ride was freezing and everyone bundled up in all their layers and crowded into the inside part of the boat. In Amantani we were met by the host mothers who took us to their houses. Each house has a separate room with about 4 beds to host tourists and then they serve you three meals. Jon and I stayed with a woman named Justa and her seven year old son Henderson. None of the houses on the island have electricity and they are all constructed simply with mud and sticks or concrete and have outhouses in the back. The whole experience of staying with a family was slightly awkward. The families rely on tourists as a huge source of money and so have people stay at their houses once a week this time of year, and a few times a week in the high season. And so whereas we were there to experience the culture and talk to the people, they are really only doing it for the money and so have no interest in talking to us. When we were called down for meals we would try and make conversation by telling them about ourselves or asking them questions, the questions were always answered with a simple yes or a no, which made it clear they didn't want to engage in conversation. After a really good, but slightly awkward lunch we met up with the rest of our group who had all had similar experiences talking to their host families. Our guide took us on a hike to the top of the island were there were some ruins and great views of the lake. This picture is at the ruins just about sunset with two of the Norwegian girls, the Icelandic girl, and Jon from Canada.

Henderson, the boy who lived in the house we were at was very excited for us to take pictures of him so here is a picture of us.

So, we were told that every night, all the tourists go to a party that the host families have. Our guide told us that our families will give us the traditional clothes to wear and we wear these to the party. We all felt slightly wired about dressing up in the traditional clothes. Basically it is a party created for the tourists where they play traditional music, you do traditional dance and wear traditional clothes, so it is like this fake show of the culture for all the gringos to experience. Anyway, it was rude not to take the clothes so all 50 or so tourists were dressed up. My host mother would come up to me during the party to do the traditional dance with me and while dancing just had the most plain, bored expression on her face. Can you imagine doing the whole thing at least once a week, they must get sick of it. Anyway we had fun. Here is a picture of me and the three German girls on the left and the Swedish girl on the right all dressed up. They tied the skirts on so tight and then wrapped the sashes around your waist even tighter that it was slightly hard to breath.

The next morning we left on the boat and went to Taquile, another larger island. We walked around this island, visited the local craft markets, and had lunch. After we left the island we had another three hour boat ride back to the city. This time however it was hot out and so most people were sitting outside, and I sat on the roof deck. At some point a girl asked the guide if it was possible to stop and jump in the water for a minute. He warned that it was cold but we didn´t care and so the driverstoppedd the boat and seven of us jumped off of the roof deck into the really cold water for about a minute or two before we all quickly got back in the boat before we becamecompletelyy numb. Very nice and refreshing.

I decide to go to Bolivia which was not part of my original plan. I had heard that La Paz was fun and the salt lakes south of La Paz are supposed to be amazing. So I am now in La Paz, I came here with Jon and Heida who is from Iceland. I am only here for a day and a half, I am leaving tomorrow morning. It has been fun to just walk around the city. It is a big city and you can buy anything here. Today I went to the Cocamuseumm. Coca is a plant they have all over Peru and Bolivia and you are supposed to drink tea make with it or chew the leaves to help with altitude sickness. The tea is served everywhere and so I have had ita lott. It is also the plant that cocaine is made from. Themuseumm gives a whole history of its uses including drugs, medicinal purposes, altitude, and Coca-Cola (notice the name). We have all heard that Coca-Cola used to have cocaine in it but doesn´t anymore, but what I didn´t know is that it still has coca leaves in it for taste. Also, Freud discovered the chemical in the plant that is made into cocaine. I spent a while walking around the city, through the black market (that is officially what the area is called) where you can buy anything, and through other markets. I also walked through tcemeteryary. Tcemeteryary here is not like acemeteriesies I have seen in the US. It is filled with these above ground buildings where coffins are inserted and then the family creates an alter in a window in front so that you have these buildings with a grid of hundreds of alters decorated with flowers, saints, objects, etc. Across the street from tcemeteryary is a big flower market so that people can go buy flowers to bring to tcemeteryary, anyway it was very interesting. So La Paz has been fun, although it has been raining on and off so you get pretty wet walking around the city. I´m off to meet some people for dinner and then catch an early bus tomorrow morning to Uyuni where I will hopefully find a tour to the salt lakes.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Machu Picchu

Sorry I am getting behind on my blog posting. So this is the classic view of Machu Picchu. I went last thursday and friday, although I was only there on friday but you have to go to the town a day early so you can get in early before the crowds come. I ended up meeting a guy from Australia who was staying in my hostal and he had a tour booked so I went along with him and another American guy from New Jersey ended up coming with us too.
I had seen so many pictures of Machu Picchu I thought maybe it wouldn´t be that great but it was amazing. Actually walking around in the ruins is nothing like looking at pictures. We had a really great guide who has been giving tours for 25 years. Machu Picchu was a sacred site for the Inka and only priests, and high class important people lived there and other people did religious pilgramages there. The history is all so interesting. One of the most amazing and beautiful things about it is the location. It is surrounded by three huge mountains and a river. We hiked around and from the higher points and the peaks of some of the mountains you get the most spectacular views of the surrounding area as well as the ruins. The one main hike we did was to the sun gate which over looks all the ruins and apparently is amazing at sunrise but we were there in the afternoon. One the walk up we saw lots of llamas and managed to take some pictures with them.

I spent two more days in Cuzco, one walking around and going to some museamus and churches, the next day I went on a tour of the sacred valley, which is just the area around Cuzco with lots more ruins. When I first got to my hostal it was pretty empty but the last couple of days I was there, lots of people came. I met a bunch of people traveling on their own from, Australia, London, Manchester, San Diego, Amsterdam, and Korea and we all went out to a club one night. So I got to experience the Cuzco night life which everyone talks about. The clubs are completly geared towards tourists and so play all songs that everyone will know the words to, from oldies, to grease, to brittany spears, and everything in between. It has been nice to finally be meeting people and having other people to do things in the day with and just hang out with.

Cuzco Pictures

Sorry, it won´t let me add these to the previous post so i had to put them separatly

This is the main plaza in Cuzco at sunrise. This is the view from the balcony of my hotel. Why was I up at 5am for sunrise? This was the morning I went to Machu Picchu and that is when I had to get up.

Just another view of the plaza during the day from a cafe I had lunch at one day.

This is an example of the Inka walls I wrote about in my

And, so that you know that I am actually here, this is a picture of me at one of the many ruins right outside of Cuzco.