On the Road In unBOLIVIAble & PERUnique

I am pregnant. Well, at least that’s what some people might have thought when they saw me vomiting several times on the streets of La Paz. Luckily for me (and for them) it was only orange juice or coke. It was a welcome gift from La Paz’s notoriously famous high altitude (3,640 m/11,942 ft) and I had no choice but to accept it in the most ungraceful and ungrateful way that I could have managed in such a situation: vomiting in public. It serves me right though because I was wrong and stupid to believe that if Addis Ababa‘s high altitude (2,355 m/7,726 ft) couldn’t harm me then I should have no problem walking around in La Paz. The fact that I felt nothing when I arrived in the city in the middle of the night only strengthened this theory. It turns out that 1,300 m of difference in elevation can cause lots of troubles. In fact, the next morning I woke up finding myself succumbed to dizziness and nausea. La Paz made me breathless. Literally. La Paz made me hungry as well which made me think of spaghetti which in turn made me think of muffins and pancakes. I dreamt of food for the first time in my life. My head spinned. My stomach rumbled. My body trembled. I had no choice but give in to sleep without really wanting to. Finally two days into the journey the effect of the soroche pills and coca tea kicked in and I was released from dizziness. Time to do what I do best whenever I am on the road: getting lost in a foreign city. This time: getting lost in a foreign city and eating without being afraid that I will vomit what I just ate. Even better: getting lost in a foreign city and eating without being afraid that I will vomit on the street what I just ate. Here is the best: getting lost in a foreign city and eating yummy Japanese and Vietnamese food without being afraid that I will vomit on the street what I just ate. That’s how incredibly happy I was. And yes, you read right: there is a Vietnamese restaurant in La Paz and the food (I had a bowl of pho and a cup of ca phe sua da) was quite good. And yes, it was a pleasure for me to walk across the city to find that restaurant after seeing a flyer about it in my hotel. It seems that Vietnamese cuisine has gained popularity all over the globe which is actually not surprising at all. I’m definitely not a foodie* but it’s fair to say that Vietnamese food possesses the air of lightness and elegance that some others lack. My time in La Paz was short but long enough to make me feel closer to this city and its inhabitants. It was nice to walk around without being stared at even though I looked totally out of place. It was great to be treated with fairness by street vendors. In fact, based on my experiences, this is something that makes traveling in South America differs a bit from Asia where in many cases tourists will be ripped off easily.

What’s also great about Bolivia is the divers topography of the country which has three geographic zones: the Andean mountains in the southwest, the moist slopes and valleys on the eastern side of the Andes and the eastern tropical lowland plains. In other words: you might catch a cold in chilly La Paz but also suffer from a sunburn in tropical Santa Cruz. Cochabamba, the next destination on my list, has the best of both worlds. The moment I set foot on Cochabamba I felt like being in another country since everything seemed brighter in comparison to grayish and gritty La Paz. I had a great time discovering the city by taking random trufis (fixed route taxi) to get from one random place to another. It was a short visit but I am glad to having given myself the chance to see more of Bolivia before visiting its neighbor Peru.

And so the plane took me to Peru’s most famous Inca city Cusco, crossing the border, seemingly blue Titicaca lake to my left and majestic Andean Plateau to my right. I couldn’t have asked for more in a short flight. Here is a confession: I am glad that La Paz took my breath away because it would be a shame if Cusco (3,399 m/11,152 ft) did. This city’s thin air posed no threat to me because my body already got used to La Paz’s high altitude. However, Cusco still did take my breath away. Metaphorically, of course. Its charmingly narrow little alleys display remnants of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture and I fell in love with it right away. I walked and walked and walked and regretted that I couldn’t walk anymore. The next day my numb feet took me to the bus that left for Aguas Calientes where Machu Picchu is located. In the grimy window of the bus I saw how rural Peruvian life pass by. Our bus zigzagged through uneven and rocky roads revealing lush fields, little houses, local markets, valleys and mountains. It was an undoubtedly beautiful scenery but also an undeniably clear demonstration of contrast between Peruvian rural and urban life.

The next day I woke up at 4:30 am before the sun, grinning like a fool and congratulating myself on being perhaps one of the first people to see Machu Picchu and then realizing that it was not possible since there were more than 100 people in front of me at the bus station. Take it or leave it: It’s not the ruins that really fascinate me but rather the serene surroundings of the place. I remembered sitting in a secluded place of the ruins, looking straight at the other mountain and listening to the soothing sounds of birds, leaves and water. It was a moment in which I felt complete. And also the moment in which I developed that inexplicably strange interest in llamas and alpacas. Perhaps it is because of the adorably goofy llama on Machu Picchu that was smiling at me (or so I thought). Or perhaps it is their fluffiness that nobody can resist. Whatever the reason is, there is no way you can escape their charm.

And there was also no way for me to escape Lima’s charm either. Peru’s capital has a beautiful historical center, a sight absolutely worth seeing. The colorfulness of the buildings and its mixture of old and new made me want to linger longer and absorb everything I saw. It was a visual feast for my hungry eyes. They were easily saturated but the same thing could not be said for my interest in languages. There were many moments during this journey in which I truly felt lost due to my Spanish language skills or rather the lack thereof. I remembered the moment when a young woman in a uniform approached me asking something in Spanish which I didn’t understand. I remembered guessing that it must have been “’Do you speak English” (which actually turned out be right). And then I remembered trying my best to answer and to come up with something sophisticated and other than “si” or “gracias” or “adios.”

I remembered ending up answering her question with another question: “Uh..si?”

She beamed at me. We both laughed. Perfect. We were lost in translation but I found myself understood. Cynthia, as it turned out, was a young city guard who simply wanted to practice her English. And so we stood in the middle of the park, surrounded by tourists and cats, talking about life in Peru (it’s good but hard if you have no education), her mother (a hard-working cook) and her future dream job (psychologist). It was a beautiful human connection that encourages and motivates me to leave my comfort zone and see the world with my own eyes. It’s the kindness of strangers that makes my journeys intense and enriching. I felt humbled by their laid-back attitude, friendliness and honesty. That thought stayed with me when I arrived to visit the Pacific Ocean for the last time before my departure, listening to the sounds of the waves and watching the Peruvian sun leaving the sky.

*My favorite food is spaghetti. I order spaghetti wherever I go, even when I was in Bali where I got the worst spaghetti ever.

More photos of Peru here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hothutrang/sets/72157651082368144

More photos of Bolivia here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hothutrang/sets/72157653411547701