Manú.

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After Bolivia I made my way to Peru for the second time (I wrote a post about my trip to Peru over a year ago, which you can read here). My intentions in Peru from the beginning were the areas of the country that are usually visited when there’s enough in someone’s vacation after Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lima. These include the desert, the central Andes mountain ranges, the northern coast, and the northwest amazon (which includes the well known city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru). After arriving in Cusco I decided to take a four day tour through the southwest rainforest in Manú. Manú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site biosphere reserve covering an area of 15,328 square kilometers. The park protects ecological zones that range in altitude, from as low as 150 meters above sea level to the Central Andean high selva, or jungle, at 4200 meters. Because of this topographical range, Manú has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world.

Our first day we began our 10 hour bus ride at 6am in Cusco. We passed the town of Paucartambo and then descended the high selva cloud forest at 3400 meters above sea level all the way down to 500 meters to the jungle town of Pilcopata. As we rode through the highlands, beginning in the cold, dry, classically Peruvian terraced mountains that later became the flat, lush, humid, hot jungle, I had some time to watch the vast changes in landscape to reflect on my travels thus far, which had totaled three months and eighteen days.

A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at the animal conservatory in Manu.
A tamarin monkey jumped to my lap at an animal conservatory in Manu.

In December, I realized I wanted to go back to school. I never thought that I would even consider graduate school, but there I was hiking in the gorgeous Patagonian mountains in Argentina and thinking about going back to the student lifestyle. And the more I thought about graduate school, the more I was drawn to studying abroad in Europe, specifically in Berlin. And so after I left Recife at the end of February, I decided I was going to apply for a Masters in International Affairs program in Berlin. I’ve applied and am awaiting a reply — I will know soon enough if my life is about to change drastically. I may be leaving New York in September to go to Berlin, and for two years, at least. If I don’t get accepted into this program, I will honestly be okay with it. It does not, however, change my intentions to move to Europe to obtain a masters degree. It may happen in the following winter or spring semesters, but it is something I feel I must do. I love New York City and I know it will always be there for me when I return, just as it was when I moved to Washington DC for my undergraduate degree, when I moved to Paris for my exchange program, and whenever I leave to travel for long periods of time. I am not afraid of packing up and settling into an unknown place. What I don’t know right now is the exact context of my moving to Europe. Will I be changing careers and studying international relations? Is this even what I want to do? Or will I be taking the slightly more comfortable route of receiving a masters in business at a lesser known school in Berlin that caters to foreigners? Or, will I move there to work for a startup, and study for a master’s degree part time? Depending on my moving timeline, what will I be doing in NYC to earn a living? Should I find a full time job or just work on some side projects?

As of now, I know that I will be moving to Europe for some time. I need this change. I left my apartment in Manhattan initially to sublease it for three months, which then turned into six months, and as of almost a month ago I told my roommate I wasn’t coming back to the city. My mother went to the apartment and moved out almost everything that I had left behind. Thinking about it now, I didn’t have the chance to really say goodbye to my life at that apartment that I called home for the last three years. I didn’t tell my doormen, I didn’t say anything to the local businesses that I frequented in the area. I left my life there while I was already gone, and maybe that’s the best way to do things anyhow. I am devastated that I won’t have a place to go back to when I return, and that I will have to come back to my mother’s home, which I know will be extremely challenging for me. I won’t have the freedom I had in the city; I won’t even have a car. But I know that is the sacrifice I have to make so that I can still travel and save enough money to be able to live abroad again. And, hopefully with the help of some friends, I can stay in the city here and there when I need to.

I am not at all sure what’s next for me in the very near future, and it’s often overwhelming to think about. It’s crazy to think that I am even going through this process in of all places in the amazon rainforest, more than halfway through my travels. Applying for graduate school is not an easy task at home, let alone at random cafes in Bolivia and Peru with terrible WiFi. Moving out of your home is not something to be taken lightly, and here I am moving out of my beloved apartment virtually, without even closing my front door for the last time.

And so in rainforest my thoughts kept coming back to what the real purpose has been for me to travel right at this moment in my life. I thought, this is what traveling is all about. It’s a lot of work. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’s one day of feeling absolutely free to the next feeling completely strangled. It’s yesterday having a clear head and moving in a straight line to tomorrow feeling cloudy and sensing you’ve only made the wrong turn and nearly falling off a cliff. At that moment in the car, I was feeling all the extremes at once; it was like I was revisiting the drastic weather changes in Patagonia all over again.  It felt like I was waiting for everything to make sense somehow in an instant, a sign that some higher power was in control of my destiny and was going to make all the decisions for me. I was searching for the moment where I would feel that same relief I felt when I realized on Christmas Eve that I wasn’t coming home in February when I was supposed to. It was such a bright and beautiful feeling.

So much has happened since that day, it’s hard to believe it was only a few months ago. It’s funny how when traveling, although we may be visiting a certain place at a slower pace than those who are going for a two-week vacation, we make decisions quicker. I’ve made big decisions more rapidly and with far more conviction than when I was stuck in the day-to-day at home. It’s because I am removed from that routine, and with that comes a far greater perspective, concentration, and clarity. I couldn’t have dreamed my travels would turn out the way that they have so far. And what’s even more scary and beautiful all at the same time is that I’m not even close to finished yet. I suppose that means I still have some more traveling to do – and some more big decisions to make. Stay tuned.

 

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A tapir wandering about the animal conservatory, our last stop before arriving in Pilcopata.

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Hoatzin birds at lake Machuwasi.
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Lake Machuwasi
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Paititi Lodge, a 30 minute boat ride from the Port of Atalaya, Manu’s last town accessible by land. Our lodge had a view of the Madre de Dios river, which we used every day to explore deeper into the jungle.

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We came across fresh jaguar paw prints imprinted into mud on a morning hike.
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We woke at 5am for a pre-sunrise boat ride along the Madre de Dios River.

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La Paz.

View of La Paz.
View of La Paz.
One of the main squares in La Paz.
One of the main squares in La Paz.

La Paz is full of quirks. And it’s an incredibly fascinating, grungy, diverse city. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, even though I was sick for about 24 hours after eating some street food (which is pretty typical for first-timers to La Paz). This post is more a list of fun-facts, not at all personal reflections, of which I decided to take a short break from writing about.

Even though constitutionally the official capital city of Bolivia is Sucre, La Paz is de facto, the world’s highest administrative capital, sitting high at 3,650 meters above sea level. It has a metropolitan area population of 2.3 million. Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is a relatively old city in South America; it was built on a river by the Spanish and officially founded in 1548. When the Spanish built the city they separated it into two sides, one for the indigenous population and the other for the European settlers. The indigenous where not allowed to cross the line that used to be the river; and so, the architecture varies quite a bit from one side to the other. Bolivia was the first country to claim freedom against Spain, but last one to actually get that freedom. After 16 years of war, and thanks to Simon Bolivar, Bolivia achieved it’s independence in 1825.
I was fortunate to take a really informative walking tour with Hana Pacha travel, where my volunteer guide Damien, a medical student, shared with the group some of what I am writing here.

For example, there are only 19 supermarkets serving the entire population of 2.3 million people. In Alto, a neighborhood in the greater metropolitan area with 600,000 people, there is only one supermarket. This is because in Bolivia, people do the majority of their shopping in La Paz’s numerous open air markets. It’s residents always prefer to support the local farmers and businesses, and all over the city it is evident that this is the case. And, shoppers have extreme loyalty to their sellers. Each street has one type of item, whether it be fruits, meats, grains, cheeses, and flowers. The sellers are aware they have competition beside them, but they know that their buyers have habituated to visiting one particular seller. Casera, or “special seller” is the word used when a buyer establishes a relationship with their preferred vendor. Contrary to what most people may think, buyers don’t bargain with food they purchase. It is actually considered an insult to the seller, who is most likely the actual grower of the food. After all, why would someone want to pay less than what the hard work in growing the food is actually worth? Instead of getting a discount, the buyer uses the word yapa, which means “a little more.” And so, the farmer adds a little bit extra food to the buyer’s purchase, which makes it a win-win for everybody. Bargaining is expected, however, for any other items other than food.

Many of the female vendors wear the traditional style dress, which includes a distinctive top hat. When women wear the hat straight across, this signifies that they are in a relationship. When worn to the side, they are single. The indigenous women with these high hats and puffy skirts are a reminder of the style of the European women who came to live in La Paz. Today, these women wear this outfit because they are proud of their indigenous heritage. Bolivia’s people today are 95% mestizo – mix of European and indigenous descent.

La Paz is known for it’s witches market, which has various products ranging from dried llama fetuses (which are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla, or “offering,” to the goddess Pachamama), potions, dried frogs, and medicinal plants. It is said that a woman or a man becomes a yatiri (witch) if they survive being struck by lightning. A man cannot pass down their gift, but a woman can pass on their talents to their oldest daughter, preserving the lineage for generations.

Potions and remedies at the Witch's Market.
Potions and remedies at the Witch’s Market.
Sign for a yatiri's services.
Sign for a yatiri’s services.

We stopped in front of one of the most fascinating prisons I have ever heard of. San Pedro prison lies in the center of the city, and is still in operation. Currently 2500 prisoners live in about 200 cells. What is so interesting is that the government lost control of the prison in the 1980s, and so there are only a handful of police officers guarding the entrance (it should be mentioned that Bolivia is home to the third most corrupt police force in South America, after Venezuela and Colombia). There are no police officers inside the prison itself. The prison operates differently than most. A prisoner pays an different entrance fee, depending if they are rch or poor. And so the “rent” for this cell can range from 12-15 Bolivianos a month (about 2 USD) to over 1000 US Dollars! These mega expensive cells have plasma tvs, internet, carpeting, and one of them has a hot tub. What is even more interesting is that the cell rent money goes to the previous owner of the cell, not to the government or to the prison system itself. The previous owner of the cell is the legal owner and the prisoner pays rent for use of his property. Prisoners have to pay for everything inside, including food, water, and clothes. People without money have to work, and oftentimes family members sell what is produced inside the prison outside within the city.

It gets even better: this prison is unique because of the privileges allowed by the inmates. Their families can live inside the prison with them, and all but the prisoner can come in and out without restriction. There is a public school next door where most of the students are actually living in the prison with their families. with most kids who live in the prison. Because life is so good for these prisoners (most of whom have only committed minor crimes such as drug dealing), there have only been 10 people to attempt to break out. There is even a bank right next to the prison building.  San Pedro Prison was definitely one of the most interesting things to hear about in La Paz!

A family going "home" to San Pedro prison.
A family going “home” to San Pedro prison.

In Bolivia, many of the houses are unfinished. This is because the law is that if you finish your house, you have to pay higher taxes (in Sucre, if you finish your house and paint it white, you pay less taxes, which explains all the white buildings).

We ended our tour at the hostel I happened to be staying at – Loki. The building that is now Loki used to be one of the first 5 star hotels in the city. Che Guevara spent 3 months hiding in this building, and Richard Nixon spent a few nights there. Not bad for a hostel!

View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.
View of La Paz from the cable car going to Alto.
View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.
View of La Paz and the Andes from Moon Valley.


Uyuni.

I recently spent four days exploring the desolate corner of southwestern Bolivia, traveling in a 4×4 truck from Tupiza to Uyuni. In just over 200 kilometers I was able to witness this area’s bizarre landscape: volcanoes, geysers and remnants of volcanic rocks, mineral and salt lagoons peppered with pink flamingoes and llamas, wild vicunyas running across the plains, and long stretches of desert followed by the famous salt flats of Uyuni. This post is just some photos of my time traveling through this incredibly diverse environment.

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Natural Rock formations in “Dali’s Desert”

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Uyuni’s old train tracks.
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Volcanic geysers
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Pink Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada, a salt lake in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, at 4278 meters above sea level.
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Baby llama at Laguna Colorada.
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Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni
Inca Huasi (Fish Island) in the middle of the salt flats
Inca Huasi, home to enormous groups of cacti, in the middle of the salt flats.
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The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level.
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The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by up to 6 meters of salt crust, and is exceptionally rich in lithium, containing 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves.

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Jericoacoara.

My pre-departure letter was where I first mentioned that my writing in South America were going to be part of a social experiment. I wrote that this blog is a device I intend to use in place of a private journal, so that I can learn the effects of exposing my writing to the public and with the internet as it’s medium. And thus far my writing has been honest, yet tame. However, while in Jericoacoara, the remote beach town 300 km away from Fortaleza in the northeast of Brazil, I experienced for the first time extreme reactions to my post about Recife, linked here. Staying true to the uncensored quality of this blog, I would like to elaborate.(Some commentary and photos of my time in “Jeri” are at the end of the post).

The post entitled “Recife” is the most provocative I have written thus far, yet if you read it now you probably wouldn’t agree with me. That’s because, being completely contrary to the self-imposed rules I’ve created, I had to delete some paragraphs. Before I hit “publish” I had written a much longer post, one that included commentary about my visit to see my maternal grandfather and my views about his marital status, observations of household values that were in reference to specific members of my family, and a reflection on the varying degrees of meaningful exchange I have with family and with travelers on the road. I slept on it and decided in the morning to trim these portions, but also with the intention of adding them back in at a later date, after the potential initial rush of family members read the post as soon as it was published. My intention was to subtly make the changes so that few would notice, and also to indirectly avoid any conflict or hurt feelings between the parties involved.

When the post finally went live on my birthday I didn’t think that anyone would have any concern with this unknowingly edited version. But, the edited version is not what is available now. I removed one paragraph, which I’ve pasted here:

“But I see it differently. I see it as a reflection of ignorance. The more I travel, the more I come back to this notion of ignorance. I see just how different my life is from theirs, not so much in the day-to-day but in the grander scheme of how different my life is just because of the place where I grew up. Because of how different my mother’s life became after she moved to New York.”

I will not describe exactly where this was placed, but it’s not difficult to figure out the context. What I can say is that it was removed after receiving an email from a friend of the family, one that I have known most of my life and who has always been a very important part of my “New York family.” I was told that the entire post, if read by members of my family, would be hurtful to them and that it was in my best interest to take it down immediately. I was also told that much of what I wrote needed to be shared personally with a therapist. I wanted to confirm if any of these sentiments were felt by the person who reads my blog the most and whose family is in question, my mom. And so after several whatsapp audio exchanges I decided to take only this particular paragraph down. I asked my mom if she was ashamed or embarrassed by my honesty and of what I wrote, and she said that she was not. Rather she didn’t feel comfortable with my using the word “ignorance” in the context I had placed it in. It was solely because of her that I removed this portion, but I also made her aware that my next post would be discussing this in great detail. Although very personal and detailed, my recollection of both this email and the exchange with my mother publicly to you, the reader, is all part of this experiment.

While I will not privately respond to this person, I will say publicly that I welcome all reactions to my posts and I encourage them to be made publicly in the comments section, the way others have done so far. After all, if any reader of my blog truly understands the point of it all by not only reading that pre-departure letter but by reading all of my previous posts, they would know that this is the blog’s purpose. There is a deliberate and thoughtful reason to why I write in this way. And as a result, I want to read not only the encouragement and the love but also the frustration, the anger, the shame. I want to create the dialogue that I wish I could’ve had with my family in Recife. I want to arouse in others the raw emotions that I yearn to feel every single day while I travel. I want people to know that travel is all about feeling things across the entire spectrum: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the right and the wrong, the selflessness and the egotism, the strengths and the weaknesses. It is no surprise to me that along with this reactive email I also received extreme praise from other loved ones about this very post, both privately and publicly. The post was also re-blogged by a complete stranger to his blog of 800+ followers. It is a well known fact that with every piece of art made, every article written, every speech given, every opinion expressed, there will be varying interpretations. There will be conflict. There will be as much of a divide as there will be unity. And as such, all of the effects of my writings are welcome.

And so, the experiment continues.

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“Pedra Furada”

Jericoacoara Beach one of the most beautiful parts of Brasil that I have ever been to, and I was so grateful to spend four and a half days enjoying this paradise. To get there is not easy: you either take a 6 hour bus followed by a 1.5 hour 4×4 transfer or a private, 4.5 hour 4×4 truck from Fortaleza airport. The roads for the last 45 minutes are bumpy and unlit: the nature of one’s arrival makes almost all visitors feel as if they’re on an island. Jeri is known for it’s vast expanse of sand dunes and fresh water lagoons. Nearest to the town are sand dunes that hover a long stretch of beach and calm ocean, oftentimes windy enough for the kite surfers to play. These dunes are the backdrop to the lush greenery of the town itself. Everyone within town by foot; motor vehicles aren’t allowed except the dune buggys that are used for day trips to the nearby lagoons. In Jeri you’ll find fresh fish, açai and vegetable juices, yoga classes, and stores whose floors are covered in sand selling all sorts of beachwear. Along the streets women crochet beautiful summer tops and bikinis while tattoo-covered hippies sell handmade jewelry with feathers and stones. There aren’t any ATMs in Jeri, but I did go to a Thai restaurant run by a French owner who brought in a chef from Thailand five months ago. The food was so authentic it brought me right back to Chiang-Mai.  At 5:30pm everyone climbs the dunes to see the gorgeous sunset that is followed by a local capoeira group. Practicing to the music and songs of a berimbau and drums, the all white-clad dancers and musicians almost glow in the dark, evoking the traditional customs of Bahia. All night forró happens on Thursday and Saturday nights, with traditional Samba on Friday nights. Every night of the week there is a beach party with some local DJs, where you can order caipifrutas made from fresh maracujá, kiwi, abacaxi, caju, siriguela, and various other tropical fruits from endless number of drink stands at the beach’s entrance. It’s no wonder that you’ll find visitors from all over the world here to enjoy the warmth and spirit of the northeast of Brasil.

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the fallen tree
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Paradise Lagoon
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Panorama of the sand dunes
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Capoeira

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One of Jeri’s beautiful sunsets
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Horseback riding on the sand dunes
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View of the lush, green town center from the dunes
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Caipirinhas made from a variety of tropical fruits
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