MICHA.ELMUELLER

 

Backpacking South America (Part 6)

 

We have left Cusco in the meantime — after three weeks! I don’t know there the time went, but I enjoyed the time here very much. One thing which impressed me a lot there is the Greenpoint restaurant. After eating in this (vegan) restaurant a couple of times, we got to know the owner and some people in this environment and became friends with them. At first I thought this was just a single restaurant with a couple of people working there. But as it turns out there are around 70 people working in the environment of the restaurant! There was much more going on than I had glimpsed at first. The main reason why there are so many people involved is because they make practically all their ingredients by themselves — vinegar, kombucha, vegan chesse, the bread for burgers and sandwiches and appetizers, sauces, jam, yoghurt, milk, …. A reason is to guarantee high quality and to be sure where stuff is coming from and how it was made. That it is nevertheless possible to operate a very reasonably priced restaurant amazed me a lot. Furthermore, they offer cooking courses where it is possible to learn how to prepare any of the meals from the restaurant. I find this amazing, it is a very transparent way to operate a restaurant for people to be able to see how things are prepared. Also there was no resistance at all to pass on recipes or knowledge. To me this is in stark contrast to “average” restaurants where you can’t dare to ask for the recipe of e.g. a certain sauce.

As a next stop in Peru we have come to the city of Iquitos, which is located deep in the peruvian jungle. Iquitos is the largest city in the world which is accessible only by plane or boat. There are no streets to the city, the airport is very small and the boat takes a couple of days along the amazon to get there. This “endless jungle” makes quite a nice view from the airplane. Since the city is hard to access, a certain culture has established there. For example, there is a lack of cars, since it is much cheaper to get a motorcycle there. A fitting quote from Wikivoyage is: “As a city not accessible by road, motorcycles and mototaxis dominate unlike anywhere else. Imagine if an American style biker-gang had taken over a city.” When on the road you are always in a bulk of motorcycles and mototaxis and sometimes one can’t help but feel like part of a biker-gang when driving around. The vibe and culture here is completely different to the Peru that we have seen so far — which was so far only the mountain region. In fact, when first driving through the city I thought I was back in Thailand: palms everywhere, very hot and tropical, much humidity, a lot happening outside on the streets in the evening, open houses without windows, many many motorcycles and bikes. And insects of course! They usually seem grotesquely oversized and there is a tick too much of them everywhere. Furthermore there are so many fruits available here of which I have never heard before — aguaje, cuma-cuma, cocona, …. So it is possible to get quite unique juices and jam here and it was a joy to try different things.

In the last days we have done an extensive jungle tour here by which I was very impressed. It was very interesting to see this different side of Peru and our visit in this city was quite worth the effort of getting there. First of all, Iquitos is situated right besides the amazon river. I always thought this is “just” a long river, similar to the ones in Europe. But I was quite mistaken and indeed very impressed by its dimensions. I think this is one further thing which one has to experience to really grasp the dimensions (like e.g. Machu Picchu). The amazon river here is about 1.5 km wide and 4-5 meters deep. In Brasil the river gets even wider. When moving in a boat it sometimes feels as if one is on a sea, rather than on a river. From the city we drove up the river for about 2 hours and then into a sidearm for a while. There we reached a small lodge in the jungle where we stayed for three days. Each day we made explorations with our guide — a native of 30 years who got born in the jungle, grew up here, and has lived here all his live. The last time he visited a city was ten years ago. During our excursions we experienced a lot of the jungle environment, went for walks in the jungle, did piranha fishing, swam with wild dolphins, etc.. Our guide even catched a wild alligator from the river. Crocodile Dundee style. The walks in the jungle were extremely interesting, experiencing this kind of fauna and how its conditions are opposed to anything remotely comfortable. There are so many layers of plants in it: the ground which is muddy everywhere, ponds of water, rotting trees, all kinds of plants competing, huge trees, palms, etc.. And all of it is so dense that you need to make a way with a machete. And when turning around you are oftentimes unable to determine where you just came from. Everything just gets back to its previous state so quickly! It is very exhausting to walk around and there are myriads of small (and large) animals that want to bite you. This is such an uncomfortable environment for humans that in my opinion a “jungle walk” is something you do only once. Overall our stay in Iquitos and the jungle was a very unique and enriching experience. The effort of getting there was very well worth the effort. I was very surprised by how much the culture and mentality here differ from the mountains.

I have heard that there are three regions with distinct mentalities and culture in Peru: the mountains, the coast, and the jungle. The coast is the last region which we are missing and the city we head to next is Lima — the peruvian capital which is located at the coast. So I am looking forward to find out how this hypothesis holds up.

In the meantime I have read another book: the infamous classic “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis. Valerie got me interested in reading it, she had it on her reading list since quite some time and read it a couple of weeks ago (I guess the book is even more interesting to psychologists). During that time she always mentioned stuff from the book to me. I had seen the movie some years back and liked it a lot, so this got me interested in reading the book as well. The book was a very tough read though. Some chapters are quite disgusting and very violent and it sometimes was hard for me to read on. But I guess this is the overall literal genius behind the book: creating emotions such as arousal, disgust, and empathy in the same chapter. I am looking forward to rewatch the movie now and found it interesting to read up on literary analysis and interpretation after having finished the book.

 
 
 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 5)

 

We are in Cusco (Peru) since what now amounts to, I think, over two weeks. At first we only wanted to pass through quickly, but somehow ended up staying here. I like it when this happens unexpectedly because one is surprised by a city. The same happened in Sucre and La Paz. My first impression of Cusco was along the lines of “too many tourists, better pass through quickly”. But as it turns out there is a broad variety of alternative offers and activities around here. It is very easy to get lost in discovering interesting stuff around. For example, there are many many vegetarian/vegan restaurants around here. Even though I don’t live strictly vegetarian it is still very interesting for me to visit such restaurants. There are usually a lot of ingredients involved which are uncommon in other restaurants (Tahin, Seitan, Kombucha, etc.) and this usually results in interesting dishes. Around here it is e.g. possible to find vegan cheese plates (the full deal, with grapes and wine, made from nuts fermented with Kombucha) or Tamales made from a certain type of sweet, large sized corn which is very common in Peru. Our culinary explorations culminated in an extensive vegan cooking class, which I enjoyed very much. We got to know a number of people around here and this yielded interesting conversations as well as a hike into the peruvian mountains with camping, bonfire, etc..

In the last days we visited Machu Picchu, which is surely the most popular activity in Peru. We had originally excluded this ancient Inca city from visiting, due to our assumption that this is probably the most touristy thing one can do in Peru. But as we met more and more “non-touristy” backpackers along the way we decided differently. Quite often we were told that “Yes it is the most touristy thing, but it is also really worth a visit”. There are also a lot of locals visiting and we finally decided to do it as well. However, getting to Machu Picchu is another story. Foremost, you can’t “just” go there, since only 2.500 people are allowed in each day. Thus you need to get a ticket on time, since tickets might otherwise run out. Currently, this does not seem to be an issue. Well, at least for Machu Picchu — the neighboring mountain Huayna Picchu, which is said to provide a nice overlooking view on Machu Picchu, is sold out until August (it its limited to 400 visitors a day). A next challenge is getting to Machu Picchu without spending all your money. Aguas Calientes is the city just below Machu Picchu where everybody needs to get. Most people spend a night in this city and visit Machu Picchu the next day. There are expensive trains to Aguas Calientes, but no streets. Since visiting Machu Picchu is the sole purpose of the city, prices are much higher (2-3 times) than in other peruvian cities. In order to get up to Machu Picchu (the site is on top of a steep mountain) you can either take an expensive bus with queues of >1 hour or do the free option and take a steep walk up the hill. In the end we did Machu Picchu in a cheap way by walking everything which was walkable. We took a cheap bus from Cusco to Hidroelectrica and from there walked to Aguas Calientes along the train rails. We then spent a night in Aguas Calientes and walked up to to Machu Picchu very early in the morning the next day (and later that day the whole way back to the cheap bus).

So in short, Machu Picchu was worth the visit. It really is quite impressive. This was actually an Inca city 500 years ago and when being there it also feels like one. There are temples, prisons, upperclass houses, lowerclass houses, plazas, agricultural sites, etc.. One can easily imagine how the city must have been pulsating and flowing, even though everything is deserted now. Furthermore, the location high up the mountains between other, surrounding mountains is superb and very impressive. The photos of this monument cannot convey the dimensions of this ancient city and I think one needs to be there to be able to grasp this.

 
 
 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 4)

 

In the last weeks we have been to La Paz for some time, among other cities. I was surprised by the city, as I had anticipated a different vibe. In fact we found a modern city with a wide variety of alternative offers. Stumbling into an alternative market at night or eating at a vegan community kitchen, for example. The city has a very unique architecture, it really looks like it was build in a huge dent in the ground (photo at the bottom of this post). This means the houses are all on a steep slope. Our hostel was deep down in the dent and especially at night this was a unique scenery, since the slope was illuminated by countless houses and street lights.

It is very notable how many people we see with the South America Lonely Planet openly running around the city. I have been critical to the series in the past, but during the last weeks I have become even more critical. Since we have one of their guidebooks with us as well I see firsthand what this kind of mainstream backpacking inflicts. Travelers who would normally never have visited certain places do now, blindly following the “travelling bible”. This leads to the effect that once nice and secluded villages get overthrown by tourism within a few years and there is only little left of the original charm. I really hope that some of the really nice and secluded villages in Mexico never make it into one of the editions. I am sure this would otherwise spoil their magic.

In the last week I got more and more bothered by cities which are very touristy. We are currently in Copacabana and this is a sad example therefore. So many boring tourists. They all seem to have the same uniform, the obligatory Lonely Planet with them, visiting the same places, doing the same things. I feel that India and Mexico are countries where tourists like that just don’t emerge. Maybe this is due to the reputation of these countries. It makes me miss the vibe of those countries.

In the meantime I have finished three further books. The first was “How to write a Short Story” by Christopher Fielden. Whilst travelling I went through some creative writing material of mine that dates back some years. I was surprised by the quality of it and decided to hand it in to some competitions. Whilst researching, I stumbled upon the aforementioned book and read it. It contains a number of writing tips and insights into the short story/flash fiction scene. This has encouraged me to actually submit two stories to competitions. Besides that there were still things which I couldn’t identify with in the book. My most critical point is that the author suggests to do market research when writing stories and adapt the story material based on that. This is a different approach than I have to writing stories. For me, the trigger to write something is never a competition, it is always a personal experience or an idea that I aim to put into the best story I can write. Doing market research and adapting a story for a certain audiences contradicts my attitude. Nevertheless, the book was a worthwile read. It was quite entertaining and funny, especially since the author includes own short stories and details the work he put into them and how he adapted them based on the feedback of competition judges.

The second book which I finished is “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young. I got to know about the book after skipping through an old “Rough Guide to Peru” which lay around at a place where we stayed. The book mentioned the infamous San Pedro prison tours and after some research online I found this blog post. This was more than enough to get me interested in reading the book. The book tells the autobiographical story of Thomas McFadden who got imprisoned in La Paz (in the San Pedro prison) for international drug trafficking. Read the above mentioned blog post if you are interested in more details about this very unusual and infamous prison. The book is for sure my most favorite book since quite a while. It grabbed my full attention after I had started reading the first page and I am still flashed after having read it. Very thrilling. Reading the book was an experience as I imagine reading “The Beach” whilst staying in Thailand on Koh Phangan must be. I knew all of the cities, had been to most of them by now. Though, opposed to The Beach this book is a biography and not a work of fiction. I could relate to culture specific things he wrote and was totally stunned that all of this had happened here where I was, just a brief time ago.

The third book which I finished was Eric Clapton’s autobiography. I think the book could have been a lot better, since he plays his achievements a bit down and often not even mentions them (similar to Stephen King in his autobiography). Nevertheless it is a very honest autobiography and he mentions a lot of incidents which take a lot of courage to admit. After having read the book I started listening back to some of his songs. He describes how they came to be and I could relate to a lot of his creative process and motivations. In my opinion, Wonderful Tonight, My Fathers Eyes, Layla, and Tears in Heaven are songs in a totally different league than an average hit song. This is timeless music which is going to stay. The book also made it clear to me, once more, that at some point in the future I need to look more deeply into The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead.

There are a lot of things about the Bolivian culture which I like and we have met countless friendly people. But the macho fuss in this culture really disturbs me. I have already written about the sexism which I observe when we as male/female interact with Bolivians in Part 2 (I mentioned various examples there). But a couple of days ago the most outstanding incident in this direction occurred. We were eating at one of the better restaurant and the waiter handed only me a menu. He then continued to describe the various specialities of the day — again only to me. He didn’t recognize or interact with Val at all. I don’t know what the reasoning behind this is…that I decide what to eat for her as well? Thus, after getting a second menu, we made it deliberate that she ordered our menu and asked for the bill. The waiter, however, was stubborn and handed the bill to me — as experienced in countless other Bolivian restaurants before. I feel it hard to deal with this kind of sexism, since it is so deep in the culture. It saddens me whenever we experience something like this. I have not experienced anything similar in any other country.

 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 3)

 

To me, one of the most interesting things when travelling is to discover food. After having been to Thailand, I started to love Tamarind, Thai Tea, and Singha Beer. In Bolivia there have been a couple of similar things so far. The Cherimoya is a fruit which I have tasted occasionally in Germany, but it is very hard to find there. Here, in Bolivia, it is everywhere. And it tastes awesome! We also have a lot of fun buying random things in Supermarkets, which are not available in Germany but seem to be popular here — Fanta with Papaya taste for example (wuah…) or a wide range of sweeties which one cannot possibly have imagined (see photo below).

 
 

A while ago I started reading on the digital nomad scene — travelling around and making money working over the Internet, e.g. as a developer or designer. Within the scene one can find a lot of tips on how to live “on the road”. One repeating tip is a product called Sugru. From the product description: “…mouldable glue that turns into rubber. We invented it to make fixing and making easy and fun.”. Basically you get a couple of small packages in different colors. After you open a package you have time to form the glue. If you have created a desired form, you leave it to itself and after a couple of hours it hardens. If you just type “Sugru” into the image search of your favorite search engine you will find a lot of examples how it can be utilized. My favorite one is “How to make any toy LEGO compatible!“, though there are a lot more examples that have way more practical applications. I have a pack of Sugru with me and have been looking for an opportunity to try it out. Finally, I found one and recently used it to fix a shower in a cheap hostel. Basically the shower head needed to be held in the hand since the wall mount had been broken. Thus the shower head could no longer be attached to the wall. Sugru to the rescue!

 
 

On another note, I have started to occasionally contribute to Wikitravel in the last weeks. Adding some content here and there or fixing mistakes. In the last weeks I have utilized Wikitravel a lot and read many pages. After having actually been to the cities and checked out some of the stuff, some outdated information came up. I find contributing there to be actually quite rewarding. I would like to write a complete article about a village or city which does not exist there yet. It bothers me a bit that in the past I have been to a number of cities which don’t have an article, without having taken this opportunity. But maybe we will find an uncovered village in the next weeks.

I have finished another book in the meantime: Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks. This is the first book from his Culture Series. Hardcore Science-Fiction, artificial intelligence, interstellar wars, and space ships. I got interested in reading the books after having read that Elon Musk named various SpaceX facilities after things from the books (more details). I liked the book a lot, though I was a bit disappointed by the ending. But overall it is very well written and thrilling. It reminded me of the Ender Series, though the universe and the characters differ in a lot of ways. I am eager to read more of the Culture Series, from what I hear the first book is sometimes considered the weakest.

So, after an awesome stay in Sucre we went to Cochabamba. But we both didn’t feel comfortable in this city. Maybe this was due to two succeeding holiday days. There was very little going on here, many restaurants, markets, shops, etc. were closed. Very few tourists or backpackers. This seemed to bring out even more of the negative kind of people that plague tourists and backpackers. I haven’t yet gotten asked that unfriendly and penetrative to buy e.g. flowers. Neither have I yet been insulted when kindly declining. There were a couple of nasty experiences and interactions and we both were eager to leave Cochabamba. So currently we are heading to La Paz and I won’t switch on my laptop for a while, mechanical hard drives are mostly not laid-out to be operated on +3000m and data corruption can get a real problem (your warranty may even expire if you take your laptop above 3000m). SSDs are not affected. The issue seems to be caused when the thin air in high altitude is unable to further support the read/write heads of the hard drive. Thus they might scratch the delicate disk surface and damage them. So yes: Laptops can get altitude sickness as well.

 
 
 

Backpacking South America (Part 2)

 

Bolivia is quite nice so far. We have spent some time in a very quiet city called Tupiza in order to get accustomed to the height (altitude sickness should be taken seriously). A further stop was the salt flat “Salar de Uyuni” nearby the city Uyuni. One might recognize the dried out salt sea from typical photos where the size relation to other objects (mountains, trees, etc.) is missing. A lot of tourists utilize this to take “funny” photos which look like photo-shopped (it is easy to find examples online). We were unsure if it would be worth going there, but in hindsight the visit was very well worth the effort. The salt flat is quite impressive.
We participated in a small tour with some other travelers. On such tours it can be gruesome funny to compare the prices which the other travelers on the same tour actually paid (i.e. negotiated). Of course, nobody paid more than the two Swiss doctors. And of course, nobody paid less than the scruffy rastaman backpacker who chose to tag along last minute.

Since a couple of days we are in Sucre now. I like it a lot here. The city is beautiful. Even though it is the Bolivian capital it feels small and one quickly knows the different streets and directions. There are many vegetarian restaurants to discover and so far all of them offer a “meal of the day” as a lunch. This most often includes a soup, a meal, a dessert, and a drink. The price is normally ~3 euros. Also there is decent coffee available here! As in India, Mexico, and Guatemala, I found that Bolivia has the same characteristic: These countries grow a lot of coffee — oftentimes you even see wild coffee growing — but due to poorness they export all the good coffee and in the overall majority of cases you get some kind of black water if you order a coffee. In Sucre, however, it is feasible to find a decent coffee.

In terms of books, I have gotten unsure about the spanish edition of Jurassic Park. Puh! I have tried to read the first pages, but quickly realized that my vocabulary is way too small. So, I couldn’t resist the urge to read Stuckrad-Barre’s recently published autobiography “Panikherz” instead and have finished the book by now. It was a very interesting read and I think I have read it at a fitting time in my life. It also urged me to read more about Udo Lindenberg, Harald Schmidt, and Stuckrad-Barre himself. The book is quite long though and I think the overall work would be better if some stuff would have just been left out. On the other hand, Stuckrad-Barre leaves out anything related to women in his life. I see how one can argue for this decision (though he never explains why), but I still feel that the book would have benefited from at least some information or explanations, since this leaves some empty spots and yields unanswered questions.

A couple of days ago I had an experience which I briefly want to retell. We were taking a long distance bus late at night. After packing our luggage in the bottom of the bus (without any valuables in them), our tickets were controlled and we could enter the bus. We got into our seats and I placed both our small backpacks in the tray right above us — side by side. There was only one other guy in the bus besides us (a couple of seats behind us). Right after we sat down, Val asked me to get something out of her backpack. I got up and wondered why my backpack was no longer side by side with hers, but rather orthogonal. I thought that I must have somehow rotated it or that the ground of the tray may be slippy. After sitting down for a couple of moments I remembered something to take out of my backpack as well. I got up and only barely noticed the other guy passing me with his blanket and leaving the bus. My backpack was no longer in the tray above us. For a moment I wondered and thought that I might be mistaken, but after some quick glances it hit me. Fuck! I immediately went after the guy, out of the bus. But it was too late. He had already disappeared. I looked through the crowd, quickly ran to different streets, looked around the bus, looked into nearby shops. No chance. Away. I got back into the bus. Val had started looking around in the bus and found the backpack 6 or 7 rows behind us, on the ground, behind a seat. What a relief! And nothing was stolen! I double checked everything. I imagine that my getting up again and again might have come as a surprise and so the guy decided to leave everything before being caught. Wow, what an experience. I am still puzzled by how quickly he managed to get to the backpack and move it so many seats without us noticing. The whole thing happened in under a minute! We are usually very careful and protective of our stuff and were the only two people in the bus besides him. The ticket controlling, having the backpack right above me, and the nearly empty bus made me feel secure, but this experience once again reminded me of being more careful. When I found a pair of unknown shoes in my luggage in Thailand (blog post), that was kind of funny, since I had already anticipated that the luggage might get searched. This time it was more scary, since it was a very close call.

Another thing that we have noticed so far: In most of the restaurants it happens that only I (the male) get asked what we want to order or that only I are asked to taste the wine before it is served. It also happens that taxi drivers ask explicitly me (“Señor, …”) where exactly to stop, though Val has been telling him the way before. When we order the bill its always me who gets it handed to. Whatever you might call that — macho, old-fashioned, etc. — it does not feel right and I dislike it.

To me the culture here seems to be very friendly, concerned to look after, but also kind of dopey in a well meant way. There are countless little things at which I have to chuckle. To illustrate a characteristic that seems to be recurring: We visited a park today and a guide described to us how dangerous the following descent will be and how important it is to be concentrated. Once we started descending we noticed that all the railings and things to hold on to had just been painted freshly! And that on a sunday morning :D !

Another thing which I need to quickly retell. Last saturday there was a “Night of the Museums” in Sucre — free entry into many museums. We discarded our plans to attend this event after seeing the huge queues in front of the museums. But the most intriguing thing was who was in the queues. The crowd consisted of basically purely natives, many many of them teenagers or young adults. I think this would be very unusual in Germany. As it turns out, this event had been created to enable the local (poor) population to visit the museums. It seems as if “visiting a museum” is seen somewhat different here, maybe for exactly this reason: it is a privilege.

 
 
 
 
 

Dystopia To Go

 

In 2014 I did a project which I called “Short Story To Go“. The story, however, was none of my own. Since then I wanted to repeat the project with some of my own material. Last year I wrote a fitting short story and earlier this year repeated the project.

The overall idea, structure, and layout remains the same as with the “Short Story To Go”. Also, I have taken the exact same approach to create copies. First, I printed one proper exemplar of the story on a good, duplex printer. Next, I copied these pages a couple dozen times on a cheap copy machine. I like the washed out, somehow dirty look and it was indeed very cheap. Then I sewed the pages together with a sewing machine (the photo on the left shows the result in more detail). Finally, I did cut off the edges, so that the pages align properly. This approach has proven to work very well. It results in a proper, little booklet and looks quite nice. Furthermore, it is very cheap and easy for me to produce copies this way. I guess one can call this “guerrilla publishing”.

The basic idea of the original project is to lay out copies somewhere for people to find and read. Within the copies I suggest to either keep the copy after the story has been read or leave it somewhere for others to find. As an upgrade to the first “story to go” I added a logbook to the back of the copies. This makes it at least feasible to trace how a copy got somewhere and might provide interesting information. I have distributed the stories randomly to some friends and left copies at some places. Also, I carry some with me in South-America currently and leave them at fitting places from time to time.

I have published the source code (XeLaTeX) and a PDF on GitHub.

Backpacking South America (Part 1)

 

Together with Valerie, I am in South America since a couple of weeks. We will be staying here for some more months. This is the first post in a series of posts “on the road”.

We have spent about a week in Buenos Aires. First time I have been here and I like it. Though, one week has been enough for both of us and we are eager to travel on. The city corresponds to the notion I had of it. Everything is colorful, warm, and interesting. Buenos Aires is often mentioned as a comparable city to Berlin in South America. There is much to discover and I see why people get this idea, though Berlin still seems more versatile to me. Still, we had a very nice time in Buenos Aires and discovered a lot of stuff in Palermo, Palermo Viejo, and Palermo Hollywood (those are all different districts). Though, I still don’t get how the crazy crazy city bus system works. I guess this is due to the fact that there is no public bus transport system in place here, but rather an accumulation of independent, private bus companies driving around. There are a number of “How to take the bus in Buenos Aires” blog posts on the internet — most of these “tutorials” have ~10 steps and detail the process closely. The metro is much easier to use, though. Other things which stood out in Buenos Aires are that there is an enormous amount of parks and trees around (at least in the districts which we visited). In practically every street there were a huge number of large trees besides the road and after just every few blocks there was another park around the corner. I liked this greenish vibe a lot. Another interesting experience was the Hippodrome (horse racing).

We took a Lonely Planet with us, though I am not a particular fan of the series. However, the maps, information regarding cities which are worth a visit, and overall information can be really valuable. Especially maps have in the past often turned out to be very valuable. Thus, we took the guidebook with us. But this particular book contains the entire South America (13 countries). Thus it is thick and weighs a lot. After the first day I decided to get rid of the unnecessary parts. So out of one Lonely Planet there emerged three “new” editions :-) . Since we plan to “only” visit Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, we got rid of the unnecessary middle parts. I even made a new cover for one of the new editions out of cornflakes cardboard!

 
 

Furthermore, I am about to finish reading the “Becoming Steve Jobs” book. You may ask yourself: Why another Steve Jobs biography? I thought the same once I stumbled upon the book, but got quickly interested after reading the foreword. The authors basically describe, that they have the impression that he is often portrayed wrong in media. As longtime friends they feel it is necessary to correct this image. They write, that the war on how history will see Jobs has begun and that they feel they need to contribute their version. I am thinking about moving on to the spanish version of Jurassic Park next, I liked the book so much last year and this would be an opportunity to deepen my Spanish skills. On that front it is going bumpy, but improving constantly. We are thinking about joining a spanish school or a homestay — a possibility to live with a spanish speaking family and learn the language at the same time — for a week or so in Bolivia (maybe in Sucre).

 
 
 
 

After the stay in Buenos Aires we participated in a ten day silent meditation retreat (though separated, men and women were separated). This is a serious undertaking and we both took it that way. Two of my friends have done such retreats multiple times in the past in Central America and I was interested in the experience since quite some time. Basically the retreat is a meditation course and happens this way: you are on the area of the meditation center for ten full days (and two more for arriving and leaving). For the ten days you are asked to stay on strict “noble silence”. This means no talking to other participators and no interaction with anybody (including yourself). You do not write (i.e. talk to yourself), read, laugh, make gestures, or even exchange gazes with others. You are there the whole time and keep only to yourself. Totally alone. Even though there are other people around this does not make any difference. There is a short period of time when you arrive to talk to some people, but this is not sufficient to get to know anybody more deeply. The facilities are kept very basic and plain. There is no distraction in any way and attendees are asked not to wear distracting things and to e.g. not use perfumes. There is an outside area to walk, but there are no flowers or anything. Just some vegetation and some wooden blocks to sit on. So basically, you are stuck on a small area for ten days and have only yourself. You are asked to get up at 4:00 in the morning and attend a lot of meditation hours throughout the day. You go to bed between 9 and 10 pm. There is a strict meditation schedule, which you are asked to attend (and looked after if you don’t), but there are also some couple hour slots for free time. Though you are asked not to do more than sit around, walk, or shower. Breakfast and a lunch is prepared by voluntary servers, dinner is just some fruits and tee. You usually do not get to see many of the servers. Most things are indicated through three gongs (lunch is ready, waking up, etc.). You are also asked to not do any work or exercise during your time there — no washing, sport, yoga, etc.. The whole course though still works very well, since students who have attended such a course in the past and do now attend again, clean the bathrooms regularly in a clever, rotatory way. Everybody is there freely and all servers, the teacher, etc. are there freely and without payment. Everything works because of voluntary donations (of time or money). You are only allowed to give voluntary donations after you have completed a course. The course guides you through a specific type of meditation technique, which you will learn over the course of ten days by following spoken instructions by a teacher. All in all there were about 70-80 people participating (half men/half women).

Well, I have just completed this course two days ago (Val as well). Wow…ten days can be a really really long time and you can get quite lonely. Even though there are other people, you do not interact with anyone and are totally for yourself. There is no way to distract you, since you are even held back from cleaning stuff, preparing food, etc.. Since you are there for that long of a time, you do not need to plan anything, there is no “next week I need to …”, etc.. Val framed it best by saying that this allows the mind to wander to stuff about which you do not think in everyday life. So what basically happened for me was that this being lonely and being silent part in combination with so many meditation did a lot to me. I thought about a lot of past experiences and many things came to mind which I haven’t thought about for years. My dreams were very vivid and a lot of things came up during these days. A lot of time to think about stuff since there are no distractions at all. I honestly have to say that I am still not sure if it was an overall more positive or more negative experience for me. I am quite happy that I did it though. It was really hard for me and I had many ups and more downs. I am sure this was because the last eight, nine months were not a particularly happy or fulfilling time for me and indeed very stressful. This and the consequences which it yielded became very clear to me and this gnawed a lot at me. Ten days…much time to lose yourself in should-have-done’s, should-have-not-done’s, could-have-been’s, etc.. It was a very unique experience and I need some more time to let it sink in to be able to really assess it.

After the silence was ended some groups formed and started talking again. I couldn’t directly talk to a whole group of people again, even hearing a group chatting was too much for me. After some time I got more accustomed. It was an overwhelming, incredible experience to directly talk to a fellow meditator and look him in the eyes. One overlooks this in everyday life, since it is such an elementary part of one’s daily interaction. But after ten days looking someone in the eyes is an extraordinary experience. It was an incredible feeling and is very hard to describe. It felt very intimate to me.

The effect of meditating for so long was remarkable as well and amplified the effects I had already gotten in the past through meditation. The technique progressed over the ten days and a large part of it has to do with feeling body sensations. It is remarkable how fast the mind can adapt and how powerful it is. Ten days is definitely enough to feel the effects of meditation.

Although everyone kept to themselves all the time, I found that I still had formed certain impressions of the other attendees, based on behavior, looks, and some stereotypes. After the noble silence was ended it was interesting and amusing to discover how these images of people held up to reality.

The course we took was a Vipassana course, meditation centers of this organization are distributed all over the world and they all follow the same basic principles (free of cost, voluntary donations, structure, technique, etc.). There are shorter courses by other organizations though. But a ten day course, in my opinion, is one of the more serious undertakings. But there are much harder courses as well — a 45 day silent retreat for example, or retreats in Mexico which I heard about, where you also stay in total darkness for the time of a course. However, the course is finished now. We went back to Buenos Aires for one night, celebrated our re-discovered freedom, and are moving on directly to Bolivia now (I am actually writing this on a bumpy long distance bus). Argentina can get quite expensive and we hope for our money to last longer in Bolivia.

Backpacking India

 

I have been backpacking through India since the Christmas days for about three weeks. Together with Eva I flew to Kochin, where we met up with two other friends and traveled in this constellation for the remainder of the journey.

I didn’t have a culture shock or anything of that sort. I think this might be due to my experiences in Guatemala, Mexico, etc. — those countries have similar problems of hygiene and waste. Furthermore, we have only visited two states and have not been to Mumbai. I was quite surprised by how little of my stereotypes held true. India is quite a big country with quite a large population (> 1.2 billion) and 29 states. Over 100 languages are spoken in India and there are a number of different writing systems. It is entirely possible for two Indians to meet and speak English with each other, since it could be their only common language. These statements should give you a rough idea of just how diverse the culture, infrastructure, etc. might be in different parts of India.

We have visited two (neighboring) states: Kerala and Goa. These two states were enough to already see differences in mindset and culture and I have to say that I liked Kerala (the self proclaimed “God’s own Country”) more. From my impression the mindset of the people was directed much less towards “tourist = money”. This might be due to Kerala being one of the “richest” states in India (well, “rich” in Indian terms…). Kerala is also a state which has declared the war on alcohol: starting from 2014 over a period of ten years they plan to ban alcohol. In the last years they have already limited the consumption of alcohol in restaurants by allowing only a very small number of restaurants to serve alcoholic drinks. This has lead to the odd situation that even though no beer is available on the menu you might still succeed in ordering one. Though, you shouldn’t wonder why it will be served in coffee cups! As part of the draining efforts the sale of alcohol has been limited to scarce liquor stores. The one in Varkala is the most shady, prohibition-like place I have ever been to (photo below).

India is the most vegetarian-friendly place I have ever been to, we had exclusively very good (and very cheap) food. Astonishingly this journey was by far my cheapest one yet; with flight, food (three meals a day, always restaurants), accommodations (no dormitories, only private rooms), etc.. I have had total costs of about 1.000 euros, with the flight being the most expensive part (~600 euros). But of course this is at the expense of hot showers and other things. In Kerala we were staying in a place where I heard a suspicious gnawing in our room at night. The next night I spotted a rat climbing the outside wall of our neighboring hut and had a hunch. The next morning “someone” had eaten through the backpack of my roommate — he had forgotten to remove an open bag of peanuts from his backpack.

In Palolem we discovered something nice: if you walk to the very end of the beach (on the right side when facing the ocean) you can walk to a very small island at low tide. There are some huts and we stayed there for a couple of days. The natural foreclosure whilst high tide makes this a quiet and secluded place with very little wild dogs or tourists. Interestingly all huts on the beach are built from scratch each year, since the monsoon is too devastating.

All in all it was a very nice trip and I would like to go to India again. Maybe even this year?

I have attached some photos to this post. As on the other journeys, I had an analogue disposable camera with me (besides the E-M10 Mark ii). I very much like the color faded, blurred look of the analogue photos. Since I got MediaGoblin running again a few days ago, I have uploaded the below photos in a high resolution there as well (under CC-BY, link).

 
 
 
 

About Me

I am a 28 year old techno-creative enthusiast and former computer science student of the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.

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