Friday, August 28, 2009

A surrel landscape

The last one week has been something else as we have learnt the meaning of roughing it out while traveling, been involved in a Bond like chase of a bus and been rescued from the middle of Lake Titicaca in a motorboat. These incidents have come in the middle of the most enchanting landscape that i have been lucky to capture on camera, with a point and shoot digital camera, given that my Nikon conked out a week back. It would be doing great injustice to the last week if i try and recap it in a single post, so i will begin by using a combination of pictures along with descriptions to speed up the updates.

19th Aug

We spent the 19th loitering around Santiago before our flight to San Pedro de Atacama in the evening. When i think back to the day today after almost a week, there is nothing that stands out about Santiago except for the views of the city with the towering Andes in the background from Cerro San Cristobal, a 200m high hill in the middle of the town. Santiago though captured a bit of the US, Europe and Asia for me; the skyscrapers of a mid-sized US city, some colonial architecture around the central area that reminded me of Europe and the smog & pollution that characterizes big Asian cities such as Delhi, Beijing or Bangkok.

We took the evening flight at 7pm to a town called Calama, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from San Pedro and the nearest airport. The Lonely Planet Chile guide describes Calama sensitively as a "shithole" and we had no inclination to take a taxi to the bus station in such town in the middle of the night to get onto a bus to San Pedro. I had booked a transfer with Transfer Licancabur for about 10,000 CLP ($20) per person to San Pedro in advance. There were a few false alarms as the desk was empty when our flight landed at 940pm and continued to remain empty post 10pm. The doorman at the airport however assured us that the person manning the desk would be back and we need not have worried as there were another 10-12 travellers waiting for the same guy. We were all bundled into the mini bus once the person re-appeared and we reached our hostel in San Pedro at around 1230am. At this point we decided to venture out for some food and water and luckily our hostel (Hostal Sonchek) was right next to the central square so we did not have to venture out for too long in the cold to find a nice place to eat.

20th Aug

The next morning dawned bright and clear and we were astounded by the bright blue sky without a cloud in sight for as far as you can see. While i had known that parts of the Atacama deserts have not seen rain for a long time and are among the driest areas on earth, i did not know that for more than 350 days in a year, San Pedro remains absolutely clear without a cloud in sight, and when i say cloud i include those harmless white fluffy ones.

San Pedro was full of tourists enjoying the various tours of the desert and had a nice frontier town feel to it. After breakfast we started checking out the various agencies offering tours for the two tours we were interested in: a day trip into the Moon and Death Valley just outside of San Pedro and the 3 days trip in a 4 WD that would take us to Uyuni in Bolivia through the Atacama desert. It pays to shop around for bargains since there is a lot of competition between agencies and i had done some research on the better agencies that offer the trip to Uyuni. From among those Cordillera Traveller was the most expensive one offering the tour for $130 per person. We finally had to choose between Estrella Del Sur, who were offering the tour for $110 per person and Tierra Mystica, who were offering it for $115 per person. The tours and the kind of places that you stay in were very similar between the two but Tierra Mystica was offering the tour with only 4 tourists in the 4WD as compared to 6 tourists in the Estrella del Sur vehicle. It made more sense to go with Tierra Mystica since we would have got much more space for 3 entire days in the 4WD but the rude sales lady at Tierra Mystica was curt with us when we enquired (ok all right, not really enquired but pestered) her for a discount and so we decided to go with Estrella and their cheerful staff.

In the afternoon we went for the Moon Valley and Death Valley tour, which was simply astounding. The landscape seemed from another planet and cannot really been described in words, so i wont even try. The tour rated extremely high in the wow factor for me.

It was somewhere in the middle of taking all these pictures and playing in the sand that my Nikon conked out and has been out of circulation since. Hopefully i can get it repaired in Cusco (our next destination) which is the tourist center here in Peru and the launch pad for treks and trips to Machhu Pichu.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the shadows of the Andes

18th & 19th Aug

Our first day in Santiago was a washout. It was raining when our aircraft landed and continued to rain till the afternoon while we got our Bolivian visas. On our way to lunch, around the corner from the hostal that we were staying in, the rain stopped and a hint of warm sunshine appeared to raise our spirits. This was not to last and when we reappeared from the restaurant it had started to rain and continued to rain throughout the night.

Pooja woke up at 7am on the 19th, which in itself was not much of a surprise. What was incredible was that she had gone to sleep after lunch at 3:30 the previous afternoon and 16 hours of uninterrupted sleep brought about without a drop of alcohol in the system must have taken some effort :)

19th was a clear and sunny day and we were awed by the snow covered Andes towering around Santiago. We were told that we were lucky to have got a glimpse of the Andes as Santiago has a terrible problem with smog and in winters they are rarely visible due to the poor quality of the air in Santiago. It is only for a few days after winter rains that the atmosphere clears up and their towering presence is visible. In fact smog is such a big problem that when it rises over a certain level. the local government only allows cars with license platers ending in certain digits on the roads on a daily basis.

Given the nice weather we decided to go for a day trip to Valparaiso, a UNESCO world heritage site and the third (or fourth) largest city in Chile. Valparaiso is around 120km north west of Santiago, on the coast, and its claim to fame is that architecturally it has colorful old mansions built on 42 cerros (hills) that make up the city. Lonely Planet described it as a city that has you sighing on every corner due to the fabulous views and a city that brings out the photographer in everyone.

I was underwhelmed by the city considering the descriptions that had been given. While there is no arguing around the fact that a colorful city built on 42 hills has tremendous potential for photography, irritatingly placed skyscrapers and outdoor electrical wiring along the lines of what we see in Old Delhi spoiled most of the photographs. It was a nice place to wander around though and some views did leave you sighing about its potential.

One piece of advice though and i am talking from personal experience. If you are ever in Valparaiso let a woman in the group be in charge of the maps and navigation. Given the tendency of men (actually thats my tendency but am generalizing it to men in general to not look bad :)) to not ask for direction from locals and having full confidence in their ability to read maps, there is every chance of a wrong turn taking you downhill away from the place you really want to go necessitating a steep uphill 200m climb that could easily have been avoided had directions been asked initially.

After about 2 such instances i was forced to handover the maps to Pooja and we made it back to the bus station in the evening by the shortest possible route without any further incidents.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

An apple, some tears and a $210 fine

17th Aug

We caught the flight from NY to Santiago via Atlanta and reached Santiago on time at 715am. Immigration was a breeze and while i was waiting for the baggage to arrive, Pooja went to the arrival hall to check on the prices available for the ride into town from the various taxi services. She came back and reported that before we could move out to the arrival hall there was the customs check happening where the entire baggage of passengers was being x-rayed. There were specific boards put up before entry into the customs area about not carrying fruits, plant or animal products into the country.

We had a couple of bananas that we had picked up on the flight for hunger pangs later in the day. We decided to wisely eat the bananas before approaching the customs counter. As our baggage passed through the X-Ray machine it was flagged by the customs official for a detailed check. During the detailed search by another customs officer, an apple that we had bought in NY [damn the hunger pangs] and had forgotten about, was found. We graciously told the officers to throw it in the dustbin as we could buy another apple from the Santiago market if they so desired. We obviously did not get a chance to say that as we were shown to a separate area where others with banned items [stuff like fruits, almonds, packed basil, oregano bottles, other spices etc] were also present.

The thing is that the apple had been found in Pooja's bag and she had volunteered her passport during the initial check so i was playing the role of a glorified extra as the officals were not even looking at me. Needless to say i found this pretty funny so i continued playing the joker with silly wisecracks. The gravity of the situation had not really hit us then as we continued to joke about whether we would be put in jail with the official while she filled out a challan like sheet called the certificado de denuncia or some such in spanish. The official very sweetly replied 'no not as all' which put us further at ease as Pooja and I continued to joke about how she would be made to stand in the corner with others and asked to put on dunce [certificadi de denuncia??] caps while we threw apples, almond and other stuff that had been found at them.

After filling out the form we were asked to wait outside a room by the side and told that we would be called. Outside the room while talking to others we came to know that we would be fined $210 for each item that we had not declared. The joke the entire while had been on us.

Anyway having to shell out $210 for a single apple wasnt something we were prepared to do so we devised the errrr 'impressive' strategy of acting as poor Indians who would have to sleep in the park if they made us pay the $210. By then Pooja was completely in the mood about not paying on principle and was prepared to cry and beg to ensure we did not pay [she had realised that she packed the apple and she wasnt going to hear the end of this from me for a few years if we had to pay up :)]

While we waited outside we made friends with this lady from Atlanta who had been caught for carring almonds and a pack of some spices. She went in before us and had been a part of our strategy discussion about showing a complete lack of funds. After about 10 min of going in she was accompanied by one of the officals to an ATM in the vicinity as she withdrew the 220,000 Chilean Pesos [$420]. I wasnt allowed to go in with Pooja when it was our chance and for 20 min was witness to the most virtuoso performance of a lady in distress [remember IIMActs anyone??] as she shed helpless tears and cajoled the officer about our inability to pay the fine.

As she came out maintaining the dead pan sad expression she told me that she had maintained that it was a mistake while they kept showing her the signed declaration that we had filled along with the fine print that we could be fined if found with any such products. Anyway to cut a long story short the officer had asked her to wait outside while he consulted with other senior officials and we were let go after having to wait there for another hour or so, without having to pay a fine.

All said and done while we got away, there was a german couple and an American girl who paid $210 for carrying a single apple like us. There were at least 10 people per flight who were caught for carrying such harmless stuff that you would not think twice about carrying into another country. I mean if Chile were to become popular with Gujju tourists they would just double their GDP from the amount that they would collect in food related fine. The whole thing smelled of a money making mechanism for everyone concerned [except the caught tourists]. There was an American couple who paid a bribe of $250 to an official to reduce their fine from in excess of $4000 to $500 for carrying spices that she planned to cook for her family whom they were visiting in Santiago.

Anyway the excitement of the entry aside, it has been raining in Santiago since morning and is yet to stop. We had just about enough time to go to the Bolivian Embassy in the rain and are now in possession of our Bolivian visa. Yippppeeeee. The entire process was extremely painless and we got done in less than 15 min as our passport was stamped on the spot.

I think we also recouped our investment in Spanish classes within 4 hours of landing in Santiago. The entire conversations that Pooja had with the customs officials was in spanish as were the conversations with the taxi drivers and the Bolivian Embassy officials. The pleasure that these people showed while conversing with a gringo [spanish slang for foreigner, similar to firangs in hindi] trying to talk to them with broken Spanish in their own tongue had to be seen. The Embassy official was impressed enough to enquire from Pooja about how long she had been learning spanish and from whom. While it would be simplistic to assume that we got away from the customs officials without paying a fine, got a fair deal from the taxi drivers who did not try and rip us off, or got our visa instantaneously at the embassy simply because Pooja could converse with them in their language, i think in some measure it did contribute to things working out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

gogo inflight services, one small router and a giant leap for flyingkind

i am currently flying from ny to atlanta without a laptop while writing the blog and updating my fb status. Does not make sense right. Well ladies and gents, this is a miracle made possible by gogo inflight services and the nokia e71.

At the risk of sounding ignorant about emerging tech trends i had no clue that airlines had launched wifi access on flights atleast in the continental us. For almost $8 per flight segment or $12 for a 24 hour period it is possible to check your mails, surf the net or even chat while flying. Here is to hoping for a quick acceptance and adoption of this service by airlines around the world.

The one gripe i have is the branding of the service. I mean gogo inflight services, could they not have been more original :) And the fact that bosses can now remain connected even while traveling. The lack of emails from up above during morning and evening flights could very soon be a thing of the past. I am suddenly having second thoughts about the early adoption of this technology.

The other realisation for me on this trip so far has been the usefullness of the e71 for staying connected while traveling. Public wi fi systems are quite widespread in the us and the e71 has allowed us to remain connected whether we have been in our hotel room, shopping on 5th avenue or waiting for a train at the subway station. It is painful to write long posts such as this and takes possibly 3 times as much time as typing on the comp but nothing beats it for checking scores (go man u, haha liverpool), mails, news or fb updates while on the go.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It all comes falling down

14th Aug

A day spent sightseeing in downtown New York. Statue of Liberty, Merrill bull, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge ticked off the To-do list. The stand out moment though was the lunch of chicken and lamb gyro rice bought from a street cart on the intersection of Broad & Pearl street as we walked from Battery park towards the bull for the mandatory photo-op (in a haphazard pattern followed by most tourists without maps :).

The fragrance of the stuff being cooked assailed our sense as we talked 4-5 feet away from the van and that was enough for us to get into the queue to sample the delicacies and were we in for a treat.

On the 14th night we took the bus to travel to Niagara. Not wanting to lug our backpacks across the New York state we tried to sweet talk Crowne Plaza into keeping our luggage for 2 days but they invoked their post 9/11 policy of not keeping any baggage overnight. Candlewood Suites, where we were planning to stay after our trip back from Niagara were kind enough to look after our stuff till we got back, which literally took a whole weight off our back for at least 2 days.

15th Aug

We reached Niagara at 7:15am, right on schedule and were hoping that we might get an early check-in to recharge and catch up on a bit of sleep before we hit the attractions on the US side of the falls. Unfortunately sleep continued to remain a precious commodity on this trip as the hotel was full the previous night and the earliest they promised us a room was post lunch. The Crowne Plaza in Niagara had a preposterous policy of a 4pm check-in which they kept using as a negotiating tool with us while we were requesting them for a room.

After freshening up and following that with a nice heavy breakfast at Denny's we hit one of the main attractions at Niagara, the Maid of the Mist. The early start did turn out to be advantageous as we hardly had to queue up to get on the boat that has been carrying visitors to the base of the American falls and the Horse-Shoe falls for over a 100 years. The spray as we went past the American Falls was impressive but nothing could have prepared us for the spray, noise and the sheer monstrosity of the horse-shoe falls as the boat strained its throttle in the rapids to maintain its position at the base of the falls. The wonder that you feel is extremely hard to describe in words so i wont even try but will post a video soon to give an idea of what it was like.

Next it was time for a trip to the cave of the winds, the other major attraction on the US side of the falls. By then it was close to noon and crowds had built up which meant a queue of close to an hour before we got to the elevator that took us 18 floors down to the base of the Bridal Veil falls. The Bridal Veils falls are the smallest from among the 3 falls but the viewing deck that has been constructed at the base of the falls was by far our moment of the trip. Having already done the Maid of the Mist, we found that the souvenir rain-coats provided did the job of keeping you dry but nothing prepared us for the Hurricane deck. After getting off the elevator, we walked down a tunnel to come out besides the falls. Then we walked up a specially constructed walkway that gradually climbed up past the rocks at the base to right under the falls to the platform called the Hurricane deck. Each step brought us ever closer to the falling sheet of water till standing on the Hurricane deck, we were right under the falls being smashed (in the most enjoyable sense of the word) by the falling water. I am sure words are hardly doing any justice but it is something that will literally take your breath away when you stand there in the middle of the wonders that is the Niagara Falls.

We reached back at the hotel by 3:30, tired but exhilarated, and were informed that our room was not yet ready. The hotel had decided not to check in any guests till all rooms were made available by house keeping and that led me to completely blow my top. The intensity of my tirade was enough for the front desk person to call the manager. The manager tried to explain to us that check-in was at 4 and that the rooms were not ready for everyone to check-in.

Guests had been checking out since 7 in the morning when we got there and had continued to do so throughout the day. With 12 noon being the official check-out time it is safe to assume that by 1 more than 90% of the rooms that were supposed to have been vacated would have been vacated. With neither the arrival or departure of guests nor the cleaning of rooms being a batch process, i failed to understand why the hotel would adopt the policy of being 'fair' to all guests by keeping anyone from checking in before 4pm when all rooms were ready. They could easily with a bit more teamwork and collaboration between the Housekeeping & front desk teams adopt a FIFO policy for checking-in guests as and when the rooms were cleaned and ready for occupation. This is generally done in most other hotels that i have been to and you would think that a hotel chain such as Crowne Plaza would have perfected such practices that are a part of the daily challenge in the hotel industry across locations. The Manager did not really have any sort of a convincing answer for my questions but did ask the front desk to check us in (as the room was already ready....)

We slept through the afternoon and the alarm that had been set for 6:00pm. Finally got up at 8:30pm and by the time we made it back to the falls the weekend fireworks on the Canadian side were long over. The spectacle of the flood-lit falls still is worth the evening trip and i got some nice pictures of the falls lit up at night.

What was surprising for me was the depressing nature of the town on the US side. Given that the Niagara is one of the biggest attraction in the US attracting thousands of people daily, i would have expected the town to be much more lively. There were hardly any people walking around in the town except for in the National Park or any nice restaurants or shops to spend time in and a mall right opposite the visitors Center had shut down presumably due to a lack of business.

All in all it was an awesome day and while i would have preferred to stay another day and take in the falls from the Canadian side as well, if that is not an option due to visa & such issues, i would still recommend making the trip to just the US side.

16th Aug

A day to recharge our batteries as we spent the entire day on the bus, leaving Niagara at 8am and arriving in New York at 7pm. Read Grisham's Playing for Pizza and Amit Varma's My Friend Sancho on the bus. Playing for Pizza is the first non-courtroom book from Grisham that i have read and it was quite decent. The book is set in the Italian town of Parma and the detailed description of life in Italian towns was enough for me to start dreaming of planning the next holiday in Italy :)

Met up with Kapil & Shipra in the evening for dinner at the hotel itself. It was nice to catch up with old friends after more than a year and hopefully we can watch the US Open again this year together just like last year. My last look out of the window before i fell asleep was of the Empire State Building lit up in saffron, white & green to commemorate India's Independence day, 8000 miles away from home. Happy (belated) Independence Day everyone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spooky corridor music and reason code 9110

The time since we left India has been a blur. Jet lagged and sleep deprived, we were thumped wide awake but only for an hour or 2 by the waters at Niagara falls on the hurricane deck today. More on that later as i try and recap the days since we left home.

13th Aug

The flight on Qatar Airways was much better than I expected except for the quality of ground service at both the Delhi & Doha airport. It took us close to 75 min to check-in at Delhi and the queues at the security check-in for transfer flights were something else as close to 4-5 flights from across Asia had landed almost simultaneously. Thankfully Pooja had fully exhausted her "Aaap Qatar mein hain" jokes in Delhi so i did not have to go through more of those in Doha. The whole lot of passengers were being literally herded through the single X-ray machine that was completely inadequate for close to 700-800 passengers. We were among the lucky ones who had a flight in the next hour or so and were accompanied by the airport ground staff through the security.

Almost 24 hours after leaving home we landed at JFK and came through immigration & baggage collection quite smoothly unlike a certain famous Khan whose ordeal i read about today. I will try and refrain from tempting fate by commenting about the pig-headedness of officials at airports in the name of security. We took the air-train from JFK and reached Crowne Plaza Times Square by 6ish in the evening. We were looking forward to a nice comfortable bed and a few hours of interrupted sleep when we entered our room 2523.

As i switched on the TV while Pooja freshened up i heard an exclamation from the bath commenting on the fact that the previous occupants of the room had left their toiletries in the bathroom. As we explored the room further we found the cupboard was full of clothes and all drawers were full of personal belongings. An empty envelope marked dollars and a post it with the telephone number of someone called Choudhary was in one of the drawers with close to 8-10 expensive looking women handbags. What was surprising was that the room had been cleaned by room service and entered in the system to be allotted to a guest. We called the front desk and as they sent someone to clean up the room Pooja and I decided to move to the corridor outside to avoid the situation of being confronted by the original "occupants" of the room.

Outside in the corridor we were confronted by the shadiest possible B grade Hindi horror music soundtrack (will upload by next post) and that was enough to send us convulsing with laughter and uncontrollable giggles. That was the condition that the housekeeping lady found us in and as we re-entered the room she found the situation inside equally hilarious as she called security to clear the room. Till security arrived she spent an entertaining 10 minutes discussing with Pooja the quality and style of the handbags in the drawers and the ones she should carry home that evening in case they remained unclaimed.

Anyway as we went back to the front desk to be assigned another room we cribbed royally about having to lug our 30 kg backpacks (combined) up and down 25 floors to the hotel staff and were rewarded with a coupon that entitled us to one of a free movie, buffet breakfast or free drink at the hotel due to reason code 9110. The hotel manager told us that code 9110 is a fact of life in hotels in the US since they started quick check outs where guests don't physically need to check out at the front desk and all front desk employees keep a stash of these coupons to handle irate guests. Do remember to ask for these if you end up in such a situation. The buffet breakfast next morning at the restaurant with a fabulous view of Broadway was a great way to start a day of sightseeing in New York City :)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Of Government Hospitals and Yellow Fever vaccination

Ok let me get the rules & regulations out of the way first before i proceed with this post. When you arrive at an Indian airport and have passed through the list of countries given below, you are required to have a Yellow fever vaccination certificate, in the absence of which you will be quarantined at the airport for 6 days. For some backpackers (and they come in all varieties) this could be a great opportunity for a free stay but somehow spending 6 days at the airport in a hospital is not really my idea of fun.

List of Countries:
Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire), Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan (South of 15 ° N), Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia.

Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Panama.

A yellow fever vaccination certificate is also listed as one of the requisites while applying for a Bolivian visa though reading peoples comments on online forums tells me that you would have to be really unlucky to be denied a visa if you are from the US, UK or some such nation and dont possess this certificate. However, its always better to be in possession of such documents rather than take a risk of being turned back in the middle of your trip by an overzealous bureaucrat.

Anyway given the possibility of being denied a Bolivian visa and having to spend 6 days quarantined at Delhi airport; getting myself a Yellow fever shot & certificate was high on my To-Do list once i got my visas done for Chile & Peru.

With 2 weekends to go before we left for the trip, on a sunny, muggy & hot Saturday afternoon i googled "Yellow Fever Vaccination, Delhi" to realize that it is possible to get the shots only from 4 places in Delhi.

These locations for Delhi are:
Health Organization
Palam Airport
Timings: Tue. And Thursday. 1400 - 1600 hrs Tel: 2329 5507

Public Health Laboratory
Municipal Corporation, Town Hall, Alipur Road
Timings: Fri :1000 - 1200 hrs Tel: 2397 2058

Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital
Room No. 7 & 8
Timings: Wed & Sat 0900 to 1230 hrs Tel: 2336 5525

International Inoculation Center
Mandir Marg, New Delhi - 110001
Timings: Wed & Fri : 1330 to 1400 hrs Tel: 2336 2284

On top of the specific dates & timings (with the absence of the option to get the shot on a Sunday) i also came to know that the certificate is considered valid 10 days AFTER getting the shot. Considering the amount of work that needed to be done at work, i figured that next Saturday (8th Aug) was the earliest i could get the shot and if the guy at the Bolivian Embassy got too technical with the 10 days i figured i had a buffer of 3 days since i planned to enter Bolivia on the 22nd of August. An iota of doubt though still remained since we planned to apply for the visa on 17th August in Santiago and that was enough to send me into panic mode.

Enter Pooja to smooth things over as she very calmly called up Max Hospital in Gurgaon to check if they could give us the shots. Well apparently they could and they had the vaccine available with them which would cost us Rs 500/person as compared to the Rs 250/person at the places named above. Feeling slightly sheepish about my panic attack i dutifully followed Pooja to Max where we were told at the reception as a FYI while we were paying money to the cashier that everything was just fine other than that they would not be able to issue us the certificate since certification is regulated by the government.

Stage was set for panic attack #2 but Pooja intelligently and proactively suggested that we go have dinner at Italiano and round that up with dessert at Mocha. The thought of yummy fish in rosemary sauce & the heavenly, dripping in olive oil, pasta in pesto sauce was enough to relegate any thoughts about yellow fever shots to the back of my mind for the time being.

Saturday the 8th could not arrive fast enough and by default we ended up at RML given that they were the only place which was open for the vaccination on Saturday. We were told that registrations for getting the shot started at 9 so we arrived at 9:05 to find a longish queue at the registration counter. A circular stuck on the window clearly stated 9:00am as the time for the counter to open but in true government hospital style we were told that "sahab 9:30 baje aate hain"

Registration started slightly after 9:30 and we ended up paying for the cost of the shot, getting our number in the queue (21, 22) and the blank certificate at about 10am. Dont forget to take your original passport as they are quite strict about that requirement. We filled out the certificate with our name, passport number etc and then started the next phase of waiting outside another room as the doctor arrived at 10:30. We got our shots and the signed and stamped yellow fever vaccination certificate valid for 10 years at slightly after 11:00am.

The entire process was not as bad as i had initially imagined but took slightly longer than i thought it would due to all the waiting time. Apparently a friend of ours who also got vaccinated in RML 7-8 years ago reported about A/C waiting rooms in RML, with mainly international travelers queuing up for the shot. Well things have changed, the A/C works in the doctors room in which you end up spending 5 min while being given the shots and the waiting is done out in the corridor or in a small garden courtyard with some benches close to the doctors room. There were no international travellers in the queue that day, just your usual groups of immigrating Sardarji's and lesser skilled workers.

I would suggest to anyone who plans to get their shots at RML to get there between 10:00am - 10:30am and you should get your signed & stamped certificate by 11:30 with significantly lesser amount of waiting around.

With the certificate in our possession (laminated the very next dayl.. hey its valid for 10 years and i dont want to be queuing again in RML if i can help it) we are all geared to take off later tonight.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The beginning of the adventure

I am starting this blog just before embarking on a 3 week trip to the Americas (US, Chile, Bolivia (hopefully... more on that later, and Peru). Over the last 6 months or so that i have been planning this trip, i have realised that the resources available on the web for planning a trip in this region are not as extensive as say for any part of Europe, US or even South East Asia. A large part of the information that i have needed such as modes of transport and their schedules between point A & B, visa application issues etc i have got from blogs such as these where travellers have described in detail their experiences while travelling. Hopefully this blog would prove useful for those planning their trip to this region as well as provide us with a platform to share our travel experiences with others.

Coming back to our trip, this will be adventure for us as this is the first time that we would be travelling to a set of countries with an approximate itinerary rather than a well planned one. We plan to travel to Bolivia but given that Bolivia does not have an embassy in India, we would be applying for our visa in Santiago, Chile. We have been assured in conversations in broken Spanish with the Bolivian Embassy in Santiago (credit to Pooja and her 3 months of Spanish classes, actually more to her Spanish instructor who took over the conversation when it wasnt going anywhere :)) that the visa process can be completed on the spot if we have all the papers with us. However, given my general experience dealing with a lot of Embassies and the experiences of others that i came across from the internet things will not be as straightforward. We would be in Santiago for 3 days and need to manage our Bolivian visa during that time otherwise the approximate itinerary i have planned would need to be rescheduled in a hurry.

A large part of our local travel through Chile, Bolivia and Peru would be by bus and given the general uncertainty on whether we would be going to Bolivia along with the fact that very few bus companies have online websites in English where you can book tickets, we have decided to keep our plans flexible.

Unfortunately Peru & Bolivia are currently seeing a lot of protests from farmers (not too dissimilar from India) and the indigenous population. Their favourite means of protest is to block roads and rail tracks (sounds familiar.. doesnt it :)) which can leave even those with the best planned itineraries in a jam as you are stuck in a place for days till transport options open up. Given all these variables we have decided to keep our itinerary as flexible as possible.

Ideally if everything goes according to plan we would be travelling as per the following itinerary:
13th Aug - Fly from Delhi to New York on Qatar Airways
14th Aug - In New York, taking night bus to Niagara Falls
15th Aug - Niagara Falls
16th Aug - Travel by bus back to NY from Niagara and reach there by the evening
17th Aug - Evening flight to Santiago to New York
18th Aug - Santiago (apply for Bolivian visa)
19th Aug - Day trip to Vina del Mar and Varparaiso from Santiago
20th Aug - Santiago with a late evening flight to San Pedro de Atacama
21st Aug - In San Pedro, take tours to the Moon Valley etc
22nd Aug - Take the 3 day tour to the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia
23rd Aug - Salt Flats tour
24th Aug - Reach Uyuni in the afternoon and take the train to Oruro in the night
25th AUg - Reach Oruro early morning and take the bus to La Paz, overnight in La Paz
26th Aug - Take bus to Puno on lake Titicaca, overnight in Puno
27th Aug - Tour the isalnds on Lake Titicaca for the whole day and take the night bus to Cusco
28th Aug - Cusco
29th Aug - Go to check out the Inca ruins in Ollanta before taking the train from Ollanta to Machu Picchu, overnight in Aguas Calientes on the foothills of Machu Picchu
30th Aug - MPD - Machu Picchu Day, overnight in Aguas Calientes
31st Aug - Early morning train to Ollanta and then on to Cusco, overnight in Cusco
1st Sep - Flight from Cusco to Lima, overnight in Lima
2nd Sep - Evening flight from Lima to NY
3rd Sep - NY
4th Sep - NY, late night flight back to Delhi, back in Delhi on 6th morning

I would have preferred to have spent a little less time in the US but given our reliance on using my Continental Onepass miles for funding the flight legs from the US to South America & back, this was the best we could do basis the flight availability for using points. I would also have preferred to have done the entire itinerary in reverse starting from Lima and ending in Santiago as it would have given us time to acclimatise to higher altitudes in Cusco (~3,200 m) before we moved to La Paz (~4000+ m) and the altiplano. With our current itinerary there is a serious chance of us getting hit with altitude sickness as the drive from San Pedro (~2400m) to Laguna Colarada (~4400m) goes up really quickly and the first night on the Uyuni tour is spent at really high altitudes. Hopefully a combination of Diamox (a prescription drug available in the US that helps your blood absorb more oxygen, which is an extremely rare commodity at an altitude of 4000m+) & Coca tea will keep the symptoms away.

After the flight to San Pedro on the 20th and before the train to Machu Picchu on the 29th, we have no confirmed hotels booking, or bus/train tickets (see i did mention the flexible itinerary didnt i). In countries where not many people speak English, hopefully Pooja's 3 months of Spanish classes would keep us out of trouble and on the right track, it would definitely be intersting to calculate the ROI on those classes :)

Travel to Peru & Bolivia involves the additional pain (literally & figuratively) of getting your yellow fever vaccination. Otherwise you stand the risk of being quarantined on your return at an Indian airport for 6 whole days. A detailed post on the procedure to get vaccinated and get presented with your yellow fever international vaccination certificate (pure gold dust if travelling in South America & Africa is high on your agenda) follows.