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

Why I Travel the Way I Travel


  • I travel alone most of the time. Being alone gives me the space to discover things at my own speed. It gives me the freedom to do what I want. Don’t get me wrong, I also travel with other people but the experiences would not be the same. I find everything more intense when I am alone on the road.

Me taking photos in Jerusalem, 2014.

 

  • I buy a book (mostly a novel in English) whenever I am in another country. This allows me to roam endlessly in different bookstores to enjoy the atmosphere and to see what kind of books local people read. Last purchase was in St. Louis, USA, January 2015: Best American Short Stories 2014. Quite a good read.

  • I send postcards to my family, friends and myself. In most cases I send them just before I have to leave because I want to recapitulate and summarize everything in a few sentences.
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My parents’ fridge with some of the postcards sent by me and my sister when we are on the road.

  • I learn the basics of the language spoken in the country that I visit: this gives me the chance to talk to locals. One of the best parts of an adventure in another country! Tip: YouTube is a very good source.

  • I take a picture of an apple with the visited place in the background: it gives me the feeling that NYC is always with me wherever I go.
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Big apple with Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco 2013.

  • I don’t have a plan when I travel: having plans will not allow me to enjoy randomness which I love every much. In fact, it’s randomness that makes a journey more interesting.
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Why sticking to a plan when you can roam aimlessly? Like this stray dog in Addis Ababa, 2013.

 

  • I walk most of the time: walking is the best way for me to discover a foreign place. Period.

    Just me and the road. Well, almost. Kyoto, 2010.

    What about you, fellow travelers? Any special behaviours when you are on the road?

Myanmar? Myanmar!


The monster above your head stared at you. You stepped back. His mouth: wide open with large teeth. His eyes: ferocious and menacing. His legs: gigantic. He was ready to jump at you in any minute. You watched him watch you through your camera lens. You squinted your right eye. You moved back and forth to capture him. More to the left, more to the right or perhaps two steps back? Mhhhm. Click. The monks in burgundy robes looked at you amusingly. You couldn’t blame them; your object of desire was quite a choice. Another click. Twenty minutes, several different angles and some weird looks thrown your way later you were rewarded with a photo of him glaring down at you in the most threatening way that you could have imagined. Gotcha. Now you were ready to enter the Shwedagon pagoda with a sense of satisfaction.

It was raining cats and dogs when you visited the pagoda on that day. You got the first glimpse of Myanmar’s most well known pagoda from the window of your plane. It was impressive even from such a distance. You were, however, not impressed when you stood in front of it craning your neck until it hurt. To be impressed was an understatement: You were overwhelmed. Gleaming in gold, it was indeed a sight to behold. Majestic. Mesmerizing. Sublime. People moved passively around you, everyone seemingly lost in their own world. Yet, everybody was doing something, monks washing statues, visitors offering flowers, devotees worshiping and meditating in their favorite corners. Time doesn’t matter when you are in such a holy place. Time is indeed different here in this country.

Visiting Myanmar means going back to the past. Your time machine was the circular train that takes, as the name already suggests, a circular route of more than four hours through Yangon and its suburbs. Especially for foreigners, it offers an authentic insight into the daily life of the people living in this city. You were not the only foreigner in the wagon. Joining you was also an old Taiwanese American couple who just arrived in Yangon a few hours ago. Frank and Gina, as they introduced themselves to you when you stood on the platform, just happened to come from California and now preferred to divide their time between Taiwan and the US. And any other countries that were on their list of destinations. Now over the age of 60 and retired, they had all the time in the world.
“It is more fun that way, you know?” Frank said. “I know,” you said and wished your parents could be more like them. You sat across from each other and the train began to move. “This is pretty much like Taiwan in the 1970s,” Frank told you as he leaned over the open window. The wind was refreshing and welcoming. You let his thought sink inside your head and realized Myanmar has a long way to go to keep up with other countries. Frank alternated between moving to the right side and the left one in fear of not being at the right place to capture the ‘right’ moment. His wife Gina was the calmer one. She sat patiently looking out at the window, talking to you and her husband. The conversation between you and them flowed effortlessly. The silence was never awkward. You talked whatever popped into your mind. After a while the three of you decided to focus on the scenery outside of the window. The train travelled at a deliberately slow pace giving you enough time to observe your surroundings and gain a clear overview of the city. You passed lush green fields. You saw and waved at people standing and waiting on train platforms. Their smile was contagious. Never before has waving at someone been so much fun for you. You smiled at vendors selling snacks, children playing soccer, people farming on their fields. Life at its fullest exposure. Poverty is everywhere. It is a hard life and you wondered how in the world they can still smile. Perhaps it is exactly the reason why they smile.

It was almost dark when the train bought you back to the very heart of Yangon and you told yourself that this won’t be your last circular train ride. Frank and Gina headed for Yangon’s Chinatown while you opted for a walk back to your hotel. You didn’t take the normal route and got lost but the walk was truly a lesson in diversity. Yangon managed to surprise you again. Mosque. Pagoda. Church. Hindu temple. Sometimes they stand side by side. Sometimes they are just a few blocks away from each other. There are religious and ethnic conflicts in some other states but here in Yangon peaceful coexistence seems to be possible.

Here is the ugly truth: The circular train ride was more than just a train ride. It was fun but it also revealed Myanmar’s current state: Decades of economic and political isolation and military dictatorship have turned Myanmar into a country that is seriously lagging behind its neighbors. As surprising as it sounds, back in the early 1960s Myanmar was one of Asia’s leading economies. Now time seems to stand still in some areas of Yangon. Myanmar’s former capital and largest city is dominated by run-down buildings and cracked sidewalks where vendors sell their products. Crumbling colonial villas stretch over the cityscape. Things are getting better in Myanmar but it would take years/decades to reach Thailand’s level. It has of course occurred to you before that it takes only 1 hour to fly from Bangkok to Yangon but now that fact has another meaning for you. Yangon and Bangkok. Bangkok and Yangon. Two cities. Two different worlds. So close and yet so far. Thailand’s capital has everything the modern world has to offer. It sounds strange and probably doesn’t make sense but you wish Yangon would stay Yangon but can still be like Bangkok someday. You wish Myanmar would learn from the mistakes of its neighbors and develop its own approach. You really like Bangkok but you don’t want Yangon to turn into another Bangkok, a tourist hell. You thought of Bangkok and felt an urgent need to leave Yangon for a quieter place.

And so you came to Bagan and it was the perfect escape.

Bagan welcomed you with a long sun- drenched day. Time moved slower than in Yangon. All you had were your eyes and your feet. They were all you needed. It felt good to be alone on the road. It felt good to have the road for yourself. You wandered on one of the two main streets looking at countless temples. At one point you enjoyed getting lost in a small hamlet next to the Irrawaddy river. A horse cart owner approached you and after a hesitant moment you agreed to join him on his cart because the sun was unbearable. The ride was a bumpy one. The cart zigzagged its way through many green fields and you climbed on the top of the Shwesandaw pagoda. A rainbow appeared on the sky. It was very picturesque and too good to be true but it was reality. Luck was definitely on your side. You paused to catch your breath and drank in the landscape. Temples, dozens of them, no, hundreds of them, amazing, other-worldly silhouettes. You just sat there in silence watching the last sun rays disappear from Bagan’s horizon. It was liberating and therapeutic. For now, above the pagodas your self-imposed isolation felt complete. Some might say it was not the perfect sunset but to you it was more than perfect. It was your sunset. The ride back to the hotel was a short one. The sounds you heard were familiar but surreal at the same time. Cicadas singing in the air. Horses galloping at a slow pace. Out of a sudden, the horse cart owner began to sing. You listened. And then a funny thing happened: You hummed with him. What a way to end a day. What a day to start an adventure.

The next day found you awake to the sound of rain drops. It was the rainy season. You stepped outside of your bungalow and the smell of jasmine was in the air. It was comforting. You decided to take another walk to find the post office. It was hidden in a big building that you already saw when you first arrived in Bagan. You wrote your postcards thinking about all the small little things you had encountered in the last few days. And then it hit you. Strangely enough everywhere you went you found familiarity among foreignness. There was a bit of Vietnam in Myanmar: the sounds of cicadas. There was bit of Germany in Myanmar: the melody of Beethoven’s For Elise used by a street cart vendor. There was a bit of Japan in Myanmar: the cars on the streets of Yangon. There was a bit of the US in Myanmar: the man carrying a NYC bag standing on the train platform. There is a bit of Indonesia and Ethiopia in Myanmar: the banana trees. The lady at the counter waited for you patiently and smiled when she read the destinations on your postcards. “Ah, lots of international friends,” she said. You smiled back, thanked her and scratched your legs for the umpteenth time of the day. Bagan’s mosquitoes loved you. Perhaps a little too much for your own liking.

Rain again. You just arrived at the Shwezigon pagoda and needed to leave in two hours to catch the flight back to Yangon. You took a stroll around the large temple and became fascinated by a little boy bathing in the rain. He shrieked delightfully as big rain drops splashed on his head. His carefreeness was contagious.

This time you didn’t come back to Europe to declare how wonderful the world is. You came back to Europe thinner, tanner, with lots of mosquito bites on your legs but full of zest for action.

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More photos on my Flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hothutrang/sets/72157643407565733/

Farmers Working on Their Fields image (1) image (2) image (3) image (4) image (5) image (6) image (7)