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Illegally in Chile

Chile-Bolivian Border

FUNNY STORY

I've had multiple interesting experiences crossing international borders. Like the time I got food poisoning while crossing the border from Mongolia into Russia. Or the time I forgot I had a water gun in my luggage when flying out of Israel. But my time at the Chilean-Bolivian border must have been the most bizarre.

During the 4 day Uyuni tour, our tour group stopped at the Chilean-Bolivian border to drop off some group members who were continuing onto Chile.

Americans have to pay $150 for a visa into Chile, so I wasn't one of them.

HOWEVER

The moment we arrived at the border, I was very surprised. Here is what the international border looked like:

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It was just a single line in the sand. In the photo above, I'm in Chile and my Caribbean friend is in Bolivia. All you have to do it walk across the line in the sand, and you've crossed the border.

Of course, near the line-in-the-sand international border, there was a small blue building on the Bolivian side where stamps and visas are issued into Chile. The building also had a poll-bar that was open the entire time. Cars could freely pass as they wish.

A few yards away from the line-in-the-sand border, there was a "Welcome to Chile" sign on the Chilean side. My friend and I walked across and took photos. In Chile. Which is technically illegal, but nobody was enforcing anything and a bunch of white tourists were crossing it too.

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So technically, I was in Chile! Even though it was only for a few minutes. And technically, illegally. But when the international border is just a line in the sand, then I guess nobody cares.

Posted by DanPan 14:32 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Salar de Uyuni, Part 1

Largest Salt Flat in the World

Interestingly enough, one of the most unknown and least-visited attractions in the world is probably also the coolest.

Situated in the southwest corner of Bolivia is the the world's largest, and most mesmerizing salt flat, known as Salar de Uyuni.

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Many years ago, it used to be a salt lake. Then, the water dried up and instead of leaving behind large puddles, it left behind a extensive and flat piece of salt. So flat, in fact, that NASA uses its surface to calibrate their satellites.

Why is it so cool? Well, I don't really know. And it's kinda hard to explain. But there is something absolutely amazing about standing in the middle of a valley of flat, white salt approximately the size of of New Jersey.

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The entire experience really makes you feel like you're on the moon. You can't really appreciate it until you actually go see it yourself. Pictures just don't do any justice.

UNLESS

You take optical illusion pictures, which Uyuni is perfect for. Because the landscape is forever flat, you can make some pretty interesting trick photos. And ordinary things become excellent props for your photos. For example:

A water bottle

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A banana

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An orange

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A shoe

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You see what I did there? That isn't a huge water bottle, or banana, or shoe. Because Salar de Uyuni is so flat and extensive, there is no sense of depth and these photos look pretty cool.

...

If you want to go to Salar de Uyuni and take interesting optical illusion photos like mine, you need to first get to the Bolivian city of Uyuni. It's a small city and probably 90% of the buildings there are Salt Flat tour groups. Choose any building, walk in, and sign up for a tour. You can sign up for a one-day tour, or be hardcore like me and sign up for a four day, Salt Flat plus the surrounding desert tour.

Here's is what I did:

First, I hopped on a bus that left La Paz in the evening and arrived in Uyuni in the morning.

If you do this, then sometime in the middle of the night the paved road will suddenly end and turn into rocks and gravel. You will be aware of this very moment because you'll go from smooth sailing to earthquake mode in about 0.5 seconds. It was the first time in my life that I was woken up because I was being lifted off my seat.

In Uyuni, I found a tour group, paid $100, and spent the next four days in a Jeep, traveling around with a Bolivian driver, a Japanese woman, a Caribbean girl, a Dutch law student, and a couple from somewhere in Latin America.

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Four days in a car with six strangers doesn't sound fun, does it? Interestingly enough, it was fine. Beside the Latin American couple, no one else knew each other but we still got along fine. The couple or the Japanese woman couldn't speak any English, so I was the translator because I knew enough Japanese and Spanish to translate. Funny how things turn out.

Anyway. Here's a list of the cool things we saw on our four-day tour.
The list isn't exhaustinve, just the things I found most interesting:

Salt Flats

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Cactus Island

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Interesting Rock Formations

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Completely Random Railroad in the Middle of Nowhere

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Pretty Lagoons

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FLAMINGOS!

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More Interesting Rock Formations

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Alpacas

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An animal I've never seen before.

[What is that? A squirrel? A rabbit? Both? A SQUIRABBIT? What are you, Frankenstein animal?!]

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And the most beautiful, amazing, extraordinary Lagoon I've EVER seen. Laguna Colorada.

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Well, there you have it. Although I was cramped into a jeep with six strangers and was only able to shower once through out entire trip, the four-day Uyuni tour is DEFINITELY a must see for any traveler. Amazing memories and pictures guaranteed.

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Posted by DanPan 11:40 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Bolivian Children's Home

This happened at a Bolivian Children's Home where I volunteered for 2 months. I was playing badminton, using a big red rubber ball instead of a shuttlecock, with a boy from the home named Marvin. As we were playing, I asked Marvin, "¿Cuántos años tienes?" ("how old are you?"), to which he replied "Diez años" ("Ten").

I decided to take advantage of the moment and turn it into a teaching lesson. I paused the rubber-ball-badminton game and said, "Tú tienes un mitad de mi edad. ¿Cuántos años tengo yo?" ("You are half of my age. How old am I?")

I was answered with a blank stare.

"¿Qué?"

Again, I asked "¿Si tienes un mitad de mi edad, cuántos años tengo yo?" ("How old am I if you are half my age?").

Still nothing. Just the blank stare.

No matter how many times I tried to paraphrase the question, he could not answer.

I thought that maybe he couldn't understand my Spanish.

"¿Qué es el doble de 10?" ("What is double 10?")

Still nothing.

I was becoming frustrated at this point. Why couldn't he answer my simple question? Was it too difficult for a 10-year-old? I personally remember already learning multiplication when I was 8 and in the 3rd grade. Why couldn't he add?

Finally, he said, "12?"

I said no.

"100?"

"No."

"50?"

No.

In the end, I just made him count from 10 and stopped him at 20, and told him that was the answer. Half of 20 is 10.

I was very disappointed. Why couldn't this 10-year-old answer such a simple math problem? I knew he understood the question, my Spanish accent isn't that bad. Plus my 10-year-old niece could answer this question correctly in a heartbeat, so I knew it wasn't overly difficult.

I thought that maybe I had tested the wrong person, so I repeated this experiment with three other kids.

I asked them, "How old are you?" and "If you are half of my age, how old am I?" As a result, my age was always different depending on the age of the kid I asked.
Of the three kids I tested, only one answered correctly. The only kid that passed the test was 7 years old, and he correctly determined that I was 14. But this kid looked Asian and everyone called him "Chino", so maybe he wasn't a good test subject.

Nevertheless, although Chino figured out that I was 14, he couldn't figure out the right answer after I asked him how old I really was if half of my age was 10. He guessed "100?", and some other irrelevant numbers until I finally told him that I was 20.

I don't know. Maybe my experiment had errors and I should've only asked 10-year-olds for consistency, and maybe I should've asked Bolivian kids outside of the Children's Home for variety. But regardless, this "experiment" really made me think.

First, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. I was disappointed NOT in the kids, but in their nation's inability to teach them critical thinking skills. How is it that these kids are so left behind, playing badminton with big rubber balls, while their counterparts overseas are excelling in math and science?

It wasn't hard until I found my answer. All I had to do was look around the Children's Home and note the awful facilities they had -- the old, rusted, and broken-down playground was all the children had to play on.

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Their playground was a safety hazard. When I was a kid, my public elementary school had a huge playground with slides and bars and that zip-glide handle-bar thing that everyone loved to hang on as they glided from one platform to another. And for safety, the entire playground floor was covered in soft bark so that kids wouldn't hurt themselves if they fell.

I mean, just looking at my elementary school's ordinary playground could mentally stimulate any kid. Even the homework packets we received as children were enough to rack our brains back then. What kind of stimulation do these kids get when their playground is crap and the homework they receive is pointless bell-work that includes thinking of 3 words that start with the sound "ma"?

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These kids, and the precious little brain muscles inside of them, are noticeably lacking stimuli. Obviously, this is not their fault. Again, when I was a kid, my imagination was constantly being catered to. I was always being made to think outside the box through various activities and assignments. I was unceasingly being stimulated and I didn't even realize it. I guess that's what good teachers do; stimulate the kid without him realizing it.

I cannot believe how much I have taken my childhood for granted. Families overseas spend a fortune for their children to receive an education that I received for free in the US of A. And what happens to those kids in Third World Countries who don't have rich parents to send them to rich private schools? Well, in the case of the kids in this orphanage-like Children's Home, they remain unstimulated because they are taught by people who themselves were unstimulated. It's a vicious cycle - Third World Countries always stay poor because their education sucks and the young minds aren't taught to be innovative and creative.

I've complained before that in America, you need to have money to make money and that wealth always stays in the hands of the wealthy - because rich people teach their kids how to get rich. But now, I realize that this concept is much greater, and can be applied in a much broader sense. It is the exact same with countries; rich countries remain rich, and poor countries remain poor. In this case, I'm on the other side of the spectrum. I'm with the rich, with the fortunate.

Okay, I'm making a huge generalization with the things I'm saying. I understand that I can't make judgments on an entire country based on the kids I met and the conditions that I saw in a Children's Home. I know that there are a lot of factors that I haven't addressed that play a huge role in this equation. But, at least now I realize how fortunate I was to have a "normal" American childhood, how well it prepared me for the world, and how much more I need to appreciate it.

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Posted by DanPan 19:22 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Cusco Guinea Pigs

Cusco

I've eaten a lot of crazy things in my life.

  • I've eaten black eggs that smelled like ammonia after

being preserved for several months (called Century Eggs)

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  • I've eaten Fugu (blow-fish in Japanese), which is deadly poisonous and must be prepared a certain way to avoid death. [I ate it and didn't die. Yet]

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  • I've eaten brown rice supposedly grown in the

Demilitarized Zone in between North and South Korea.

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  • And I'll never forget eating fried scorpions on a stick in the streets of Beijing

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Besides this, I've eaten other crazy things like cow utter, chicken heart, and a kosher cheeseburger at an Israeli McDonald's.

But, as of now, the prize for the craziest thing I've ever put into my mouth goes to Cuy - fried guinea pig from Peru.

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I guess from my American point of view it's considered crazy, but for Peruvians, it's totally normal. In fact, guinea pig is considered a delicacy in many counties in Latin America. I guess that's because guinea pigs require less room to maintain and reproduce really fast. Initially, I did NOT want to eat this poor thing. But my frendz did, so we bought it, cooked it, and then ate it.

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I've always been taught not to play with my food, but when it's a guinea pig, I think it's okay...

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Anyway, I didn't like the taste of Cuy, but the others did. I tried to enjoy it, but I just couldn't do it. It tasted kinda like chicken, but the problem was that I knew exactly what it really was and I couldn't forget it!

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Thanks Cusco. I'll always remember that you fed me fried guinea pigs when I think of you.

Posted by DanPan 11:35 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Peru

Macchu Pichu

This is a story of how my friends and I hacked Machu Picchu

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Every year, Machu Picchu brings in thousands of travelers from all over the world. However, most people don't realize that Machu Picchu is crazy expensive until the last minute (entrance ticket alone costs $45). The Inca Trail, the four-day hike that everyone takes from Cusco, costs around $500 - $600. Consciousness travelers on a budget skip the Inca Trail and take the train, which alone costs around $130 round-trip. Well, my friends and I hacked this system and got to Machu Picchu for only $24.94 .

BUT FIRST, a little background info.

After about a week of going to the hospital and uncomfortably observing burnt patients, I decided to find another place to volunteer. Perhaps it's a bad reflection on my character for starting something challenging and not finishing it. But as I'm sure you could tell from my previous post - I wasn't a very pleasant place...
Instead, I found a volunteer position at a children's home working with kids -- something I have lots of experience doing.

Other volunteers from different countries were also volunteering at the children's home, so I was able to make some new friends. On my second day there, I asked the other volunteers if any of them had gone to Machu Picchu - about a day away from La Paz. One of the Belgian volunteers told me that he was going with some friends in two days, and invited me to come along.

OKAY!

Even though it was only my second time meeting this dude and I hadn't even met his friends yet, I said yes because I assumed that I wouldn't have another chance. It was really spur of the moment. Living on the edge. It's funny, on my second day volunteering at the children's home I was already asking for time off to go to Peru with my new frendz.

We met at the Laz Paz bus terminal and took the overnight bus to Cusco. Beside my Belgian friend and me, our group also consisted of a girl from Quebec and a German guy who also lived in Belgium. Except for me, everyone in the group spoke French. It was Japan all over again.

The first part of the journey out of La Paz and into the Bolvian altiplano (plateau) was flat, brown, and pretty ugly.
Это Боливия, детка!

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When we arrived in Cusco, we bought $7 tickets for a local bus to take us to a town called Santa Maria, 6 hours away. Beside my frendz and me, all of the passengers on the train were indigenous Peruvians.

This time, the view had completely changed and we were driving past green fields that were surrounded by towering Andes mountains.

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The views just got better and better the further we got.

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Until finally, the the road became narrower, went even higher into the mountains, and the guardrails suddenly disappeared. Driving in a huge bus on roads like this was pretty freaky - but the views were absolutely majestic!

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After finally arriving in Santa Maria six hours later, we were immediately offered to be taken in a car-turned-taxi to the hydroelectric plant, the next stop on our hacking-Machu-Picchu-journey, for $5 per person. I guess many people take this road to hack Machu Picchu, because the drivers know exactly were to take you. I loved the fact that the diver squeezed in eight people into his five-seater car.

Cars can only go until the hydroelectric plant because that's where the road ends. The closest village to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) is completely surrounded by jungle and getting there is only possible by rail. But, we are hacking Machu Picchu, so instead of spending money on the expensive train, we walked along the train tracks for 2.5 hours.

Getting ready to walk on train tracks...

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...because Peruvian trains are expensive.

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I never realized how difficult it is to walk on train tracks. You can't really walk on on the rail because you keep losing your balance, and walking on ballast (railroad rocks) hurts your feet. Also, looking at the track for more than a couple of minutes begins to hurt your head...

The jungle was amazing though...

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We arrived at the village 2.5 hours later and went to see Machu Picchu itself the next morning. Machu Picchu is on top of this really high hill, and although there is a bus that takes you there for $10, we were hacking, so we hiked.

...

In hindsight, perhaps taking a bus up the mountain was a better idea, because the hike up the mountain to see Machu Picchu was the

hardest hike of my life.

And I don't even know why! I'm a fit guy who stays active and eats relatively well. I easily climbed Mount Fuji in Japan, which has a higher altitude than Machu Picchu. But climbing to Machu Picchu from the village was DEATH.

I couldn't stop panting and sweating and feeling out of breath every 3 minutes. What sucked was that my frendz just walked past as if it were the easiest mountain ever. One of the guys was a smoker, smoking cigs as he climbed, and STILL climbed faster than me. The only logical explanation I can think of is that I wasn't acclimatized to the altitude, like my friends were. Actually, I just don't want to admit that I'm out of shape. Thus, I blame the altitude.

The views were amazing though - just like everywhere else. But on top of the mountain especially!

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Doing a victory pose after reaching the top - even though I am physically broken.

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And then, as we walked through the gate, we saw it. Machu Picchu. The reason for my pain. The reason for our hackery.

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Yay, we made it!

I don't know where I got the energy to jump after all the pain I just went through.

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A Peruvian man approached us and offered to give us a tour for money. I didn't want it but my frendz did, so we agreed. You know what I learned from the insightful tour? Absolute nothing. I don't remember anything the guide said - which is exactly why I don't like tours. The only reason I remember that we took a tour is because it reminded me why I don't take tours.

Taking photos is much better.
Then you can use Wikipedia to learn about the place. This way, you'll actually remember the information. And it's free.

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Next, we decided to climb the mountain behind the site to see Machu Picchu from above. Even though I had almost died on the climb up to Machu Picchu, I went with them to climb 1000 meters higher. What a masochist I am.

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Climbing up mountains when you haven't acclimatized is brutal - but I did it! When we reached the top of the second mountain, I was physically broken (again).

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Hmm, maybe I was being punished with severe altitude problems for hacking Machu Picchu...
Well, regardless, I still did it. And I had a great time with my frendz and paid significantly less than most travellers. Even though it physically broke me twice :)

Photo after I had recuperated:

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Posted by DanPan 12:21 Archived in Peru Comments (6)

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