Icelandic Blues

I, uh, inherited a mysterious album as part of a large collection a few years back.  It’s a solo album that draws on a variety of styles, but at its core seems to be a mix of New Orleans and Ethiopian Jazz.

I call it “desert blues”.

It’s good enough to be mass produced; nonetheless I’ve built up an elaborate romantic backstory for it over the years.  Currently it was produced by an aspirant to the Addis Ababa jazz scene and the original CD was sold off the back of his pickup truck after a live show in a neighboring town.  Possibly he’s a starving artist, although that has a different connotation in North Africa than North America.

In any case I’d like to track the guy down, shake his hand and finally pay for the album.

My first lead in years came in an Icelandic taxicab of all places.  As we pulled away from the curb the driver pressed play and out of the speakers came what could have been the next album in the series.  If it wasn’t the same artist, the style was so close that if I could identify one I could surely discover the other.

Flush with opportunity I prepared myself for the linguistic challenge of asking for and more importantly parsing the response of a name that was likely foreign to both of us.  I leaned forward to ask…

image

DAMNIT!

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Frostbite or Glory Awaits

In 2012 I was paging through one of those Amazing Pictures From Around The World photosets and came across this:

My interest was piqued.  A bit of research later, Iceland made the travel list.

Fast forward to 2014 and Kevin let me know it was time for a road trip.  I don’t remember if he arrived at Iceland independently, but between the waterfalls and a chance to see the Aurora we were sold.  We chose the equinox as it has a reputation for good auroras and was late enough in the year that there would be sunlight.  Also we won’t freeze our balls off.

So we’re on the road again.  The magic door has closed in San Jose and will reopen in Seattle; there another will close and open in Reyjavik.  Should be interesting.

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Aruba

I like Aruba. I suppose that's not a particularly controversial opinion what with the whole island paradise thing, but then again Cancun stunk out loud. So it can be done wrong.

The taxi situation was under control, which was nice. Also nice were the two separate occasions I had female drivers. That was not only a refreshing change but it meant that I took two entire trips during which no one told me in great detail what a single guy should be doing on the island (visiting San Nicolas apparently).

This was my first time using an all-inclusive resort. I chose the Occidental largely at random but it met my needs well enough. A good buffet, serviceable wifi, a nice soft bed. It was particularly nice to have a room on the ground floor

All in all this was a great way to end this particular trip to the larger world.

 

Downside of the all-inclusive resort: they put a wildlife tag on you for the duration.

Trees are remarkable organisms. One small puzzle though is that this one was obviously placed by the resort and presumably taken care of by them. How did it get so far out of true?

Sand kitty! I've met beach cats before but I've never seen one comfortable lying on the sand. Quite territorial too, but given that she had dibs on a beach restaurant about fifteen feet away I can hardly blame her.

 

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A Note On Restaurant Menus

If we're in South America, telling me that your New York Cheesecake is imported may not have the effect you're looking for.

 

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Panama City

I’m tempted to give Panama City a pass here as we started off on the wrong foot and things did not get any better from there. Also I was once again on the outskirts of town and had the constant issue with taxis; Had I stayed close to the city center I may have had a very different experience.

I shared a taxi in from the airport with an Italian fellow here to give a training session. When I say “shared a taxi” I mean we agreed to split the tab to his hotel in the city center, after which I would negotiate with the driver to take me the rest of the way to my place.

We had not counted on a somewhat insane and definitely incompetent taxi driver. By the time we had circled the city enough times for him to concede that calling the hotel was a good idea he was frustrated enough that he was pulling multi-G maneuvers one handed with the other clamping the phone to his ear.

I had explained to my companion the Children’s Pictures Theory Of Taxi Drivers, which states that taxi drivers with pictures of their kids mounted on their dashboard usually have something to live for. Every time he did something new we looked at each other and mouthed “No pictures”.

Eventually we did arrive at my companion’s hotel and I decided that I would get a new taxi…. The owner of the Autograph Lodge in Panama City is a remarkably engaging and competent man and if I return to the city I will look him up. His name is Miguel Burgaleta and you can reach him at +1 954 354 7858. He also has a property in Cuzco. In any case he very graciously arranged a taxi for me.

I had picked the Country Home Inn and Suites because it was right on the canal. Sitting on my balcony I could see the ships queued up for he canal as well as see them emerge at full steam from the other side. Unexpectedly, room service was provided by an attached TGI Fridays. The food was exactly the same as you find around the world, but ordering was an adventure; The staff was pretty clearly college age or younger and any time English was required you could hear giggling as the phone was passed around hot potato style. They always got the order right though.

For the first two days the place resembled The Overlook Hotel — huge empty hallways and lots of spooky silence. I wondered how they stayed open. The answer came on the third day when three different tour groups showed up simultaneously. I had been thinking about extending my stay a day and found there were no rooms left in what was a ghost hotel the day before.

The reason I had come to Panama was to get a Brazilian visa so that I could follow the Amazon down from the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic. I was really torn at this point. I was demoralized in part due to the very poor sleep I got at Lake Titicaca. I had started taking the travel hassles personally instead of treating them as interesting obstacles to be overcome. I had become, to steal the language of a friend, a moaner instead of a trouper.

Further research into the boats on the Amazon — specifically into whether and how often I would be able to power the CPAP machine — gave me the excuse to punt on the whole thing. My cousin Jeanne had suggested Aruba, it was an hour and a half due east, and I had never been. I booked my ticket back to the U.S. at the same time meaning that for once I could show a legitimate itinerary to the border control folks. So relaxing to get on an international flight without committing fraud 🙂

Some pictures…

The Bridge Of The Americas, which until 2006 was the only permanent road link between North and South America (there is now a second). It didn’t really hit me until I was standing there looking at it: we dug a fair sized hole between two continents. And we cut a country in half in the process.

Panama knows nothing of water rationing. This made me very happy after water starved Peru.
There are many forms of sheer terror to be experienced in world travel. One is watching your debit card getting sucked into a foreign ATM. Another is watching your cell phone charging cable start to go.

These aren’t actually the people who sold me the replacement. I just like the name.

 

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Third World Restaurants

One nice thing about restaurants in the third world is that they can’t afford to keep perishables. About 80% of the time they would take my order, walk out of the restaurant, and return a few minutes later with a grocery bag containing eggs or vegetables or meat. My whole attitude about restaurants changed from “This is where I go to get a meal” to “These are the people I pay to cook my food.” I started thinking about just bringing them a full grocery bag and asking them to be creative with the contents.

I have no question they would have done it but I’m afraid it would have been interpreted as unfriendly in some way. That would be a shame as almost every single restaurateur I met was gracious to a fault. Even allowing for the fact that they were in fierce competition for my tourist dollars they were notably kind.

One place I pressed their indulgence was by attempting to order in Spanish. They were very good sports about it really, although in the long run I took mercy on both of us and started pointing to the menu item as well. You know, just in case they were hard of hearing.

 

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Lake Titicaca and the Hotel Impertador

There's not a tremendous amount you can say about a lake actually. It was pretty. I presume it was wet although I didn't check that out personally. It was shorter in person.

One thing that can be said is that it did look a lot like what I had always imagined Lake Diuturna from The Book Of The New Sun looked like. The location seems right and the fact that it has floating islands makes it a good bet for what Gene Wolfe had in mind. I was denied a castle and a monster however; At the very least it would have been nice to have a thunderstorm so I could stand on the highest parapet of the hotel and cackle maniacally. Perhaps one day I will return and open the most specialist theme park in history.

The Impertador marked an important and ultimately deleterious change in my lodgings. When I did the planning I knew I wanted to be right on the lakefront; The hotel appeared ideal that way (and it was) but I misread the scale of the harbor by a factor of ten or more. Rather than being a comfortable walking distance from the downtown the hotel was a private enclave on the far margins of town. In fact it had its own pier, and it would not surprise me to find out that tour groups arrived at the hotel, did activities from the private pier, and left again without ever entering the city.

I must admit that there was a nice “coming home” feel to the generic expensive hotel room. Seeing the spring water bottles I had been subsisting on the entire trip being sold for 7 times the local price in the minibar just felt so . . . familiar. I also got to watch the head waiter's moment of surprise and relief when I turned down the wine list; I've been told by waiters in tourist hotels that it's always good to assume that single male travelers are there to write a review and that I give myself away by not caring about wine.

But being visibly wealthy in a place like Puno is not a good idea. 60% of the population in the area live on $1/day, and the Impertador is $160/night on the low end. With disparities like that, haggling loses all interest — midway through you sudden realize you've talked a poor person out of half a day's pay.

However, it's not much fun being grossly taken advantage of no matter how little money is actually involved. When the going rate for a taxi to the city center is $3, quoting it at $6 and settling for $4 is fine. Claiming at the other end that we agreed on $6 however, is some serious bullshit. And more often than not I let them get away with it (or paid them $5) because after a few minutes of arguing I realized that I was getting annoyed and agitated over $2. Eventually I started writing down the agreed fees and carrying exact change, but when every journey to the downtown is a likely con job you get a little tired of going downtown.

Fortunately I didn't need to go downtown much, just once to buy some presents and another time to stock up on spring water.

As for that review: The dining room had a limited but flavorful menu and a surprisingly large number of fruit juices available. For some reason the room service food was terrible so don't bother.

Also a warning: Never forget you're at 13,000 feet. It's very easy to forget to breathe deep and you'll wonder why you're always out of breath.

 

Some artwork from around the hotel

This last piece is a representation of the hotel itself as seen from across the bay.

 

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An Embarrassing Dilemma

When I came to California in third grade I had trouble telling Asian people apart. I remember first learning to spot my friends and acquaintances, then strangers (waiters, etc.), and then it all just faded away and people were whoever they were once more.

In Peru I'm pretty much back to stage one. I recognize the people I deal with over a period of days — mostly desk clerks — but with everyone else I'm hopeless. It's interesting though, I don't remember having this problem in Quito and I've certainly never had it any place else. Maybe I'm just tired.

 

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Juliaca and Puno

Juliaca and Puno are the two main towns up near Lake Titicaca. Juliaca is the larger at 200,000 people and contains the airport; Puno is the smaller at 100,000 people and has the tourist harbor for the Lake.

The outskirts of both towns (and thus the ride in from the airport) look like the establishing shot for the generic overcrowded capital in a war-torn third world country. Buildings are half finished, or half torn down, or just sitting in ruins. Every side street of the main paved road is a desolate swath of dirt sided by one and two story cement block tenements. Somehow the war-torn look would be more reassuring if there had actually been a war, but it's just extreme poverty in play.

The relation of buildings to poverty has always fascinated me. Every third world country I've been to has appeared to be in the middle of a building boom. A huge number of buildings are half built and a smattering of them have crews hard at work finishing them. But then one notices that the rest of the half built buildings are in a state of decay, as if someone started with a budget and grand plans but had to give up halfway through. Even the tenanted buildings tend to look half finished, usually in the form of a partially completed upper story. It's hard to look at all of this and not see each unfinished building as someone's dream unfulfilled.

Both towns do have central tourist areas that are well patrolled and, as in Cuzco, once again surprisingly free of beggars. I didn't spend any time in Juliaca, but Puno was surprisingly bizarre.

First of all, every restaurant advertised itself as Italian. In Cuzco and Agua Calientes every restaurant *served* Italian as indeed they served everything. It's very possible that every restaurant menu in Peru is printed by the same company, which merely swaps out restaurant names in each printing. But in other cities the restaurants claimed a niche: Traditional Peruvian food, Mexican, French, American. In Puno it was Italian everywhere.

Puno is also well known as the consumer electronics marketplace of Peru. If ever it fell off the back of a truck it ended up there. Obscure brands, main brands, counterfeits, stolen, stolen counterfeits. If you're a careful shopper you can find the deal of the lifetime there.

Perhaps related — and this is where things get really strange — is the number of print shops. There are hundreds of them. They're thicker than the restaurants and electronics shops combined. If you want passport photos taken or photocopies made, Puno is the place and I have no idea why. In particular I have no idea why all these shops are paying the extra rent to be in the tourist district. It took me forever to find a simple market that sold bottled water and basic goods, but I couldn't but trip over a place that would sell me masking tape at a reasonable price.

Much to my surprise the city also has a University. Security is tight around it so I didn't get a chance to go in and explore the campus, but one of my taxi drivers (the best of them actually) was wrapping up his senior year and starting to look for a good grad school. He had a freshly arrived application/promotional packet in the cab and shared it with me: as will likely come as no surprise to the the well travelled it was for University Of South Australia at Adelaide, where my sister has worked for the last 20 years. There really are only 1000 people and 100 places in the world, it just feels like more because they change names occasionally.

 

The problem with trying to get pictures of insane traffic scenes is that you're too busy hanging on for your life. Twenty seconds before this and twenty seconds after this were total bedlam.
The picture before this one was the main road. On the outer edges of town this is what the side streets look like.
The road between Juliaca and Puno is flanked by this sort of wetlands. Some of it was drained and farmed, but I can't say it looked terribly fertile.

This cluster of expensive looking modern buildings appeared in the middle of nowhere in between the two cities. There is nothing remotely this nice in either of them.

A side road on the outskirts of Puno. I wish the fellow in the suit had come out clearer; He was very dapper.

My first view of Puno.

The main city. That's the lake poking in on the left.
Although the outsides of the buildings appear worn down, the insides reflect the true wealth this region is home to.
Yeah, right. Actually it's the lobby of my five star hotel on a private island just out of town. The price per night is, without exaggerating, roughly the half the annual income of a Puno native. If you're looking for me I'll be outside giving away all of my worldly goods.

This is part of the downtown tourist district. There were a lot more indigenous shop owners, etc. than there were in Cuzco.

A pit stop for Pomeranians.

I love these guys for two reasons. One is that I was behind them at airport security and watched them try to get the drum through the X-ray machine. The other is that these were the absolute last Andean street musicians I had to listen to.

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Solo

I haven't traveled much with other people since college.

This has been more and less of a problem depending on where I've been and how rough I'm traveling. Sleeping alone under Mediterranean stars on the deck of a Greek ferry has a certain romance, right up to the point where you have to go to the bathroom and you'd like all of your gear to be there when you get back.

On the other hand having another person with you risks insulating yourself from what is going on around you. I love details, in particular the fleeting details that reveal a glimpse into something totally unexpected. It's hard to see those while simultaneously sharing yourself with someone else.

Watching travelling couples attempt to burn holes in each other over cafe tables has given me a bit of a jaundiced view of paired travel as well. To be fair they usually get over it by the first course. Look for my upcoming paper: “The Role Of Antipasti In The Prevention Of Spousal Fatalities”.

Still I think I may have reached the end of the part of my travelling life when I want to do it all alone. There are a few trips where'd I'd have to have just the right person, but for the most part I think it's time to buddy up.

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