April 30, 2009

I will be planting trees for two months (yes, reflections, nude photos, humorous anecdotes will be compiled) and most likely not getting up a lot of posts in the mean time. I want to put up a few more summary posts about South America in the next week or so, but then be patient as I accumulate the necessary life experience to continue wowing you with my fluid prose.

I will also start to include some short stories I’ve been working on. Expect the quality to improve with time.

Thanks to everyone who followed this blog over the last few months. You may yet inspire me to forget law school and write forever.



April 20, 2009


Iguazu Falls. The most beautiful thing in the world according to Bill Clinton. And the man has good taste, does he not? Especially in women…

It’s more than a waterfall. It’s more than a hundred waterfalls, actually. There are butterflies. There are beaches. Islands. Speed boats. Reptiles. And there are millions of gallons of water, spilling immaculately into a bubbling cauldron of inconceivable size.

I journeyed a long way to get to the falls, close to 100 hours by bus, and the drawn out anticipation didn’t stop there. I arrived at the park only to be herded onto a small, open air train that would take us to the top of the falls. They are known on the Argentinean side as Las Cataratas de Iguazu.

We caught the train, but no glimpse of the falls. A metallic walkway continued from the end of the train tracks. Our eager footfalls clanged along it.

It didn’t take us long to find ourselves strangers to land. At first we only crossed the odd stream, but little by little the landscape opened up to a vast expanse of shallow water. The water stretched out in all directions, lake-like. Except that it retained the shallowness of a modest jungle stream and a calm that belied oblivion to the chaos ahead. Tropical birds flitted back and forth, approaching tourists less than tentatively for a tithe of their lunches. A wise but desperate turtle struggled valiantly against an invisible current, away from the falls. We quickened our step, encouraged by the first whisper of the roaring falls ahead.

Iguazu offers one of nature’s most spectacular vistas and in addition it offers the fun of Splash Mountain. The Devil’s Throat is the number one attraction that flows, and falls, directly between Brazil and Argentina. The commotion of the Falls creates a convection current that sends a ceaseless spray of water up onto the lookout point. I was drenched before I had managed to snap a handful of photos. And I stood well above the falls.

Iguazu could poetically be described as the kitchen sink of the Gods. It has it all. It’s basin shape is what makes it truly unique. The water flows over a sharp, rocky ledge that extends in a semi-circle more than a kilometer. Thick bushels of grass of the size and vibrant color you would expect in the land of the Lorax drape like a shimmering carpet over parts of the falls. The water finds an infinitiy of ways to lower its gravitational potential. At some points, the water will spout over the edge in a trumpeting symphony of thin streams. At others it somersaults over itself from ledge to ledge, making its tortuous way down to the rapids below. And at the busiest junctures it charges over en masse: a tumbling cavalry charge, a churning immensity, a foaming show stopper.

We also took a speed boat under one of the lesser (but still epic) waterfalls. Un ducha de verdad, yelled the tour guide over the roaring motor and water. A big-time shower. I clung to the seat ahead of me and my waterproof camera bag as the boat surged forward. The white spray enveloped us and suddenly I found myself bombarded, pillaged, from all directions by the world’s biggest Super Soaker. It was senseless to yell out in surprise or glee – the only thing awaiting such responses was a mouthful of Iguazu.

Otra vez! We cried after the engine cut and we drifted back to relative safety. Encore! And so we lurched forward once again into the tumult.

It was rather much for the eyes to swallow. We sat down on the beach for a packed lunch of Oreos and Milenesa Sandwiches (a thin strip of breaded beef) to dry off.

It’s a shame there is nothing like Iguazu left to discover in this world. It would be a priceless experience to have the place to myself for an afternoon, to swim alone through the rapids, to climb the slick faces of rock, to close my eyes and be submerged in the roar of the falls.

To get a peak at what Iguazu is like, rent the Mission. This Hollywood flick features Jeremy Irons as a Jesuit missionary, climbing up Iguazu to spread the word of God to savage natives. Or save the $4.95 and just check out my humble photos. 


Falling in love.

Falling in love.

Macchu Picchu

April 12, 2009

I think a thousand pictures will speak more articulately than any words in the case of Macchu Picchu. It was worth every grueling minute of bus, taxi and train to get there. The fact that aqueous and turistical inundation accompanied us to the ruins didn´t take away from this marvel of Inca architecture.

Well, except maybe one tourist. As we made our way up Macchu Picchu mountain (from which you can look down on the ruins that share its appelation) our playful conversation was interrupted by a wavery Peruvian voice encanting a traditional Inca song. A gringo tourist, with long blond dreadlocks draped over a shiny new rain jacket, was standing on a cliff overlooking the ruins. His personal guide, or perhaps a courtly entourage musician, was singing softly behind him.

I don´t know what look he was going for, what spiritual enlightenment he was seeking. But he looked like Jack braced at the front of the Titanic and the only depth he was reaching was the profundities of our convulsing, laughing lungs.

Enjoy the pictures.

Julio getting in touch with his Inca roots.

Julio getting in touch with his Inca roots.

The real top of Macchu Picchu.

The real top of Macchu Picchu.

To go or not to go – to Brazil.

April 12, 2009

Mr. Kim managed to introduce himself, invite me out for dinner, and delve into the introduction of his life story before I had managed to get my bulky backpack through the hostel door. He seemed a Korean version of Mr. Miagi on first impression, except that he was obviously Asia´s biggest extrovert.

A Frenchman joined us for some delicious Cuban food (A Lo Cubano – 30 Boliveanos) and the conversation drifted ineluctably towards Che Guevara. Mr. Kim was obsessed with the enigmatic liberator of the Cuban people. He is even heading off to visit Che´s burial ground near the Brazilean border. The Frenchman didn´t speak any English, and Mr. Kim spoke in a stilted but expressive string of words that every once in a while fortuitously coalesced into sentences. We got along fine.

Surpisingly, Mr. Kim turned out to be an acclaimed Korean novelist and poet. Not to mention quite the party boy. After dinner, we headed over to the Adventure Brew, a Kiwi owned hostel slash microbrewery. Things got wild.

An impromtu fireworks display burst out in the middle of downtown La Paz. We sprinted out onto the balcony. A gangly English boy tightrope walking along the six story balcony railing, flanked by a deep expanse of night sky that was filled with the sparks and deafening rumble of exploding projectiles.

The bartender was helpless to convince him to get down. Mr. Kim provided an attentive, uncharacteristically wide-eyed audience for the circus act. Unfortunately, the boy didnt fall to his death. Instead he got down to wax arrogant about his idiotic feat of strength and to order an endless, pathetic series of Jagerbombs.

Mr. Kim spent the remainder of the night instructing me to hit on young ladies, writing his email on UNO cards to give to new acquaintances and taking arbitrary photos. I was deeply entertained.

I chatted with my friend Oren, Isreali trekker extraordinaire who had just offered a job as Bolivian mountain guide, when Mr. Kim interrupted to recount a fantastical travel story:

After a night of drinking in Rio de Janeiro, he had gone to sleep happily in his hostel. A rough shove and loud bellowing brought him out of his reverie. As his blurry vision cleared up, he found himself staring down the barrel of a Brazilean gun. Being half drunk, understanding nothing of the language, and being of an incredulous disposition to start, Mr. Kim sat back and enjoyed the chaos. Naturally, he sat cross legged in the corner, with wrists strapped together, and looked on curiously as 14 gunmen pillaged through tourist´s bags and lockers. 34 tourists, some of them their first night travelling, lost everything they had and had to sit in silence for an hour before the police caught wind of the robbery.

The next day, Mr. Kim, the least rattled and most talkative victim, was interviewed by reporters and police in three languages that he didn´t speak. But not speaking a language didn´t seem to be much of an impediment for him. He smiled at our gawking expressions as he wrapped up his story. I could see his next novel brewing in his eyes.

Images of La Paz

April 5, 2009

Zebra crossings

Buenos Aires has the widest avenue in the world, the Avenida Nueve de Julio. Bolivia has El Prado: a smaller main drag, but a bigger nightmare. Two lanes run in either direction. The north and south flow of traffic are separated by a sprawling divider of concrete sidewalk and fenced in green space. The traffic is bad, but the street is virtually unwalkable because of its human traffic. The bottleneck quality is aggravated by the myriad trinket stands that line the already narrow sidewalks.

The cars are bad enough: every road in the city not crippled by construction is strangled by a 24 hour traffic jam. La Paz has a colorful variety of public transport vehicles. The most common is the micro, shaped like a VW van but jerry-rigged to carry a dozen people on rickety folding chairs. Underfed, underpaid sons and wives of micro drivers hang out the windows and perpetually squak out their destinations. They compete with regular taxis and bumbling, multi-colored cartoon school buses for passengers and worming space.

The inuits have 53 words for snow. The Pasenos have 53 different excuses for horn honking. It is insufferable. And the city planners have some interesting solutions the challenges facing their transit system. My favorite instance of this Bolivian creativity is pedestrian crossings. No one obeys the lights to start with, the semaforos, and pedestrians are forced to try their chances at Frogger to cross the road.

If zebra crossings don’t work, then what the heck, what about people is zebra costumes? Yes, dancing zebra traffic mascots frequent the Prado and herd (the irony is not lost on me) pedestrians across the busy roads.


Things are always black and white on the streets of La Paz.

Things are always black and white on the streets of La Paz.


Futbol with Fries

I stumble out of the Isreali-owned American Hard Rock Cafe in Bolivia into the streets, more tired than drunk but more hungry than tired. I beeline for San Francisco Plaza, the last best hope for late-night burgers. I arrive at the fried food mini-city, 16 tin stands billowing out bright lights and hotdog steam. I poke my head into the first. I am met by a stack of fried eggs and gigantic hotdogs, but I find no one to serve them. I dart from one stand to another but I am met with the same strange absence of humanity.

Then I hear something: shrieks, the scuffle of footsteps on pavement, sharp outbursts of protest, cackles of laughter. A makeshift chef soccer game had kicked off. Each team is complete with a full complement of chefs uniformed in greasy, white aprons. There are even self-elected coaches pacing the sidelines.

Imagine walking into McDonalds in Canada to discover the tables pushed aside and the entire counter staff playing floor hockey in the middle of the restaurant. You stand half in awe of humanity’s life force and half in worry about whether anyone will notice you and fix you up a burger trio. It was that kind of frustrating miracle.

In Bolivia, football comes before food safe.


There are no parks in Central La Paz and joggers are regarded quizzically if they try and nip through the busy and broken down streets. And I know whenever I lace up my running shoes, there is only one way to go: Up. La Paz is the ultimate hill run.

Staggering up the slopes, huffing and puffing up cement staircases and slippery cobblestones, you get to see the uphill struggle of Bolivian life. Shit is supposed to roll downhill, but in the slums here it usually ferments under the grates of heavily frequented staircases, it just kind of sits there and steeps. I stopped to catch my breath over one of these open sewer covers and I almost passed out. And believe you me, my weak legs had nothing to do with the altitude or the hills. Besides the smell, you can expect to see a few other stereotypes of Paceno life on the ascent: pickup soccer games on concrete pitches, sexually active stray dogs, youths crowded into tiny internet cafes, and drunks – arm in arm – jeering unintelligibly at goofy gringo joggers.

It’s a brutal price but an incredible reward to arrive at Mirador Alto Pampahasi as the city lights take over from the sun. You know that meditative feeling you get 40 minutes into a hard run? It’s amplified tenfold if the endorphins hit you while you stare down on La Paz: a city flanked by watchful mountains, a city dug stubbornly into eroding cliffs, a city you have to breathe in all at once to appreciate.


Walking uphill is not all lollilops and rainbows.

Walking uphill is not all lollilops and rainbows.

A House to Die For

April 3, 2009




On our trip back from Lake Titicaca, the national news was full with the following story:

“a mob invaded the altiplano home of Victor Hugo Cardenas, the Aymara intellectual who served as Bolivia’s Vice President under President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993-97). Cardenas was away at the time but members of his family, including his wife and children, reported being physically attacked before their home was taken over entirely in an act of political violence spurred by Cardenas’ recent opposition to the new MAS-backed constitution. Los Tiempos on Sunday quoted a campesino leader, Alfredo Huañapaco, as justifying the attack on the basis of Cardenas’ ‘traitorous’ acts against his people and that the house “served no social function.” The mob that took over the house claimed its intention to turn it into a home for the aged. While both President Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera voiced a general condemnation of the violence, both also sought to justify it in public comments. Morales (also quoted in Los Tiempos) said, “The people do not tolerate or forgive traitors.” “

The ‘house of the people’ was on our return route; naturally we kept our eyes peeled for it. My unfettered imagination conjured up images of an enormous property of a corrupt politician crackling in flames and surround by a sea of angry campesinos.

“There it is!” someone exclaimed as the house rushed past me. It was of modest size, a solid block of cement and painted a quaint shade of yellow. It sat a surprisingly close 15 feet off the main drag. Despite a standard cement fence around its perimeter, it really seemed vulnerable. Violated. The fascade of the house, its forlorn, shattered windows, its evident emptiness and the scars of red graffiti carved into its yellow walls – I was staring at victimhood personified.

As the house zipped by, we snapped out of our reflective reverie and hollered at the driver to pull over. Picture time.

As we drew to a halt I became aware of a group of campesinos squatting across the street from the destitute mansion. My peripheral vision had only chanced upon them, but my instinct seemed to prioritize them as a threat before my overcrowded consciousness had time to process them.

In the excitement of the moment, the lone Bolivean amidst us, our intrepid and politically fulminating photographer Julio, had snatched up his camera and leapt out onto the tarmac. I whipped my head around to follow his movements out the back window. A Swedish girl also hopped out as some commotion began to stir amongst the campesinos.

Keep in mind that in this part of Bolivia, the state police are currently not allowed. By declaring temporary sovereignty from the law, the mob had managed to absolve itself from their illegal acts. To paraphrase Nixon: “When the mob decides to do something, that makes it legal.”

I waited patiently for Julio to snap some photos of the damaged home. My attention was still very much absorbed by the emblazoned scrawl of graffiti shouting, “Evo! Si!” off the walls of a traitor’s home. So much so that I hardly noticed the first rock zip by Julio’s head.

He had trained his camera on the campesinos rather than on the house. I thought he was just adjusting his lens. But when I recognized that the cholitas in the crowd were desperately covering their faces and stumbling away from as if from a threat, I started to worry. Even still, I waited for the camera to swing towards the damaged but inoffensive house of the people.

When the first rock hurtled by, the warning shot, my worry turned to panic. Outside, like a hardened war correspondent made to feel invincible by his lens, Julio took another tentative step towards the confused and increasingly enraged campesinos.

I grew alarmed. His finger continued to tap furiously on the aperature. He was aiming nowhere near the house.

As the patter of rocks skipping across the paved road increased, so did the patter of scurrying footsteps. My friends flung themselves back in the car and grappled for the door handle but a gruff hand hindered their attempt. We found ourselves staring into a brooding pair of eyes: one dirtied by a calcifying cataract, the other dirtied by all the bitterness in the world.

Caged protest erupted. The sounds of the zoo filled the car: one moment we were docile, the next screeching to high heaven.

“Dame la camera!”

“Que haces tu!”

“Que haces TU!”

“Solo estaba sacando fotografías. No es un país libre? Y claramente,  ustedes no exactamente están tratando evitar atención.”

“Da me la camera. No puedes sacar fotos aquí. No vamos ser un parte de tu propaganda!”

“Que mearda! Mira lo que ustedes han hecho! Que violencia! No puedo creerlo. ESTAN SALVAJES!”

Calling the seething mob gathering outside the car savages was downright stupid. They were begging for an excuse to hurt us. Their leader, a shoe-in for the part of Scar in Broadway’s Lion King, silently bared his teeth at us.

We all turned our fearful eyes to supplicate our driver to take off. Traitorously, he had already stepped out of the car. He answered our desperate looks by raising his hands and turning away – a modern day Pontius Pilot.

Any resistance on our part quickly metamorphosized into desperate apology:

Lo siento. Lo siento. No tenía sentido. No es verdad. No están salvajes.”

“Look. We’re sorry. We are just a bunch of tourists. We didn’t mean any harm.” Julio, wild-eyed and showing his first signs of fear, began fumbling through his pockets.

“Quick. Money. Do you guys have any cash?” We pooled together the loose bills we had left over.

I gulped fearfully at the meager sum that sat crumpled in Julio’s hands. The cost of living. The few dollars keeping us from a lynching.

Cynical faces stared at us in principled un-forgiveness. Fortunately a more utilitarian instinct was governing their hands and stomachs and they grudgingly accepted the cash.

We accelerated away, leaving behind us a cloud of dust and aggression. We all embraced the quiet, the soothing buzz of wheels on asphalt. Then, after a brief calm, came a storm of reproach as we all cried out in unison:


Green Shirt Fever

April 2, 2009

Argentina vs. Bolivia: an historical world cup qualifying game. And an historical mistake: wearing an Argentine jersey to El Estadio La Paz.

The score line is probably old hat by now. 6-1 Bolivia. 6-1 Bolivia. Argentina has not lost this bad to anyone since 1958. And they lost to a team near the bottom of the South American qualifying table, a team considered to be a disappointing group of drogos y borrachos.

We filed into the North Curve of the stadium and awaited kickoff with anticipation. Down on the field, we pointed out the Argentine stars excitedly – Messi, Teves, Aguero. We were in the presence of some of the greatest players in the world. And then there was Diego Maradona in the flesh – or more literally in a black tracksuit – sporting his legendary mullet and earring. The infamous hand of God was folded modestly behind his back.

45000 fans were stuffed into the esophageal stadium like a force-fed goose destined for fois-gras. And 45000 thousand throats could be heard bellowing a thundering warcry:


It was human voices become rolling thunder; it was the blood lust of the Roman coliseum. Except that the mob yearned for a marriage of ball and mesh, not steel and flesh.

The Argentines were well represented, even sporting a banneresque flag with the word “Malvinas” written across it in threatening black. They wanted to win, they expected to win. They also wanted to have the Falklands back. But you can’t always get what you want, and at high altitude, sometimes you don’t get nuthin’.

Behind my seat, a group of belligerent Irishmen were feeling at home in their green Bolivian jerseys. Despite their genetically programmed drunkenness, they managed to fashion a chant of scathing genius: “Maradona is a wanker! Maradona is a wanker!” they jeered. The Bolivian fans looked up in admiring incomprehension, struggling to comprehend the foreign word.

As a trickle of Bolivean goals turned into a flood, it was impossible not to get caught up in this sporting Cinderella story. When the Bolivean’s earned a penalty to have the chance to go ahead 2-1, there weren’t any press behind the goal to capture the moment. They had all been waiting expectantly behind the goal at the Bolivean end for the likes of Messi to score. In a wave of panicked herd movement, they all decided to run to the other side at once. Jackets flapped and huge zoom lenses wobbled in apologetic desperation down the sideline.

After the game, Maradona said: Cada gol Boliviano fue como una puñal en el corazón.” Every goal was  like a dagger in his heart. I think his analogy failed to capture the violating quality of his first defeat. I think we can all imagine where he really felt each goal.

My post game experience was no better. Walking out of the stadium in my Argentina jersey, I carried the shame of a nation on my shoulders. I was interviewed on camera, and my off-guard Spanish was mocked by the camera-man. I was punched and booed by young children. A homeless man made a serious threat to stab me six times. I was sure I had it worse than Diego.

Oh, the fever of soccer in South America.