Archive for June, 2010

Peru – Day 15

For a life time in Peru, I can live three times in US. This is how fast things move here.

Lima is not an ancient city where one would naturally expect a slow pace. Although I have not figured out the exact reason for its love of bureaucracy, I had sensed it even before arriving (in the Peru Consulate). There are no lack of forms, reports, processes, procedures, talking to my supervisors…

It took me over two hours to withdraw emergency cash from the Citibank principle branch today. This process included a 66-minute phone call among the branch manager (who spoke no English), a bank teller (who spoke good English), a US CS representative and her supervisor, and me. During the call, my information was repeated multiple times and the same form was filled out three times by different people. When all was said and done, the teller went to her counter, took out a huge deck of cash, counted the money and gave them directly to me. The final one-minute transaction felt almost too causal compared to what was done in the previous 119 minutes.

But, I could not get mad at anyone. Everyone was nice and really tried to help. What frustrated me was the system they operated in.

It also took me an hour to get through to the right person in the Embassy on the phone. Again, people were trying to help, but there was little they could do. The  bureaucracy, made up by so many little people and the very specific instructions they were given to, was a vast jungle where no one person can navigate or see through. I am now jumping up and down in this jungle, trying to get some attention.

What is fast here? Food service.


Peru – the rescue plan

By the time I went to the hostel bed on Wed, June 23, I have informed friends, the company immigration lawyer and the office of my situation. The lawyer was able to quickly put together an electronic visa application package that night. Unfortunately his instruction was put into the Junk mail folder by Yahoo Mail. (Some algorithm failure on the Y! side. If I have sent email to the person, should the recipient ´s communications not considered as Junk?!) Without the knowledge of the mail, the best idea at that time was to pay a visit at the US embassy the next morning.

I woke up at 7am on June 24, skipped breakfast to save time, got the embassy address off the internet, and was on a cab by 7:40am.

There are plenty taxis in Lima, some newer models, some really old cars. Taxi here is not metered. So the price needs to be negotiated beforehand. After days´ riding on various types of cars to multiple destinations, I developed a theory that drivers of older cars were more willing to negotiate. Every time before I went out, I asked the hostel staff for their estimate of the fare, and used it as my yardstick for bargaining. Since I don´t speak the language, the bargaining was really done by pen, or more often, hand gestures. Some of the drivers, though speaking only bits of English, tried hard to start a conversation and tell me about their city :-). One of them was a big fan of Chinese Peruvian mixed cuisine. Almost all Chinese restaurants here are called something something CHIFA.

As far as I know, cars here are powered by three types of fuels – petro, diesel, and gas. The gas powered car has a big tube in the trunk. Because the city has plenty of old cars (old beetles everywhere), the air smells strongly of gasoline. The fact that almost all taxis keep their windows down does not help. I was told that gasoline price here was pretty high. It was the reason for the Cusco strike on June 18 and 19.

Traffic jam was visible during the rush hours, though a full stuck was rare. Driving was pretty much free style. A two-lane can turn into three or even four lane if needed be. Drivers were not intimidated by the closeness of their vehicles. This made me wonder why people should bother to buy brand new car here at all, especially the few BMV SUVs on the road, knowing dents and scratches were just a matter of time.

The US embassy is an impressive gray building in the Surco district. Getting inside involved the usual queuing, security check and confusion. I first tried my luck with the Homeland Security Officer. My queue number was 4. The officer, a middle aged lady who spoke both good English and Spanish, clearly had no clue how to treat my case. So she instructed me to sit down and wait; and continued with the rest of the queue. For some reason, the embassy had not bothered to build a more comfortable waiting area for its citizens. The sitting area had rows of wooden benches under a tent roof, in the open, with wind blowing right through. After over two hours and having gone through another thirty applicants, I was summoned again to the window. Again, the lady stressed she could not help me. She phoned the consular section and it seemed nobody knew what to do either. She was convinced it would be tough luck to apply for a visa in Peru. Seeing my frustration (and possibly desperation), she then handed me an application form for humanity parole. Having flipped through the document, I immediately decided that unless I was terminally ill or seriously in danger, this would not apply to me.

Without a phone or internet, I was at a loss of what to do next. Going back to the hotel computer seemed to be the only choice. Once I was connected and had a talk with the lawyer, I knew I had to hand deliver a visa application package to the DHL office that day. It already passed 1pm. In order to get the package done, I needed to do the following:

– print out all the documents, by using the hostel owner’s computer and offered to pay for the cost. The printer went out ink two pages short and took some technical persuasion to finish the job.

– find an electronic copy of my photo. I was glad I had the smarts to put a passport photo on Picasa.

– complete the online application form, copying and pasting Chinese characters from the Google translator.

– locate a Banco Continental and pay the application fee.

– rushed to the DHL location in another district and made the drop.

By the time I got to Banco Continental in San Isidro (the banking district), I was unconsciously starving, as well as mentally exhausted by trying to explain my situation to non-English speaking audience all day long. So forgetting my check card in the ATM machine was almost “inevitable”. I did not realize I had misplaced the card until I was back to the hotel that night. By losing my access to cash, I just pushed my situation a little more over the edge.

Regardlessly what happened, the day was not too bad after all. Ordinary people´s kindness was surprising and heart warming. One of them was a teller at the bank, who helped me through the payment process  and left me his phone number in case I was in trouble. He even took me to the street money dealer to exchange some soles. Another was a customer in a restaurant, who helped me to order the food, invited me to sit down and had a nice chat, and actually paid for my meal when he left!

For the past decade or so, my life was constructed by organized events. This was probably the first time I was thrown into a unknown situation with no plan. This was the time I had to trust strangers, asked for help, slowed down to observe, and waited patiently.

By the time I wrote this entry, I had been to the US embassy the second time and got positive news. I had been given a tour around San Miguel district by a local. I had visited a technical institute. I had some amazing conversations with other hostel guests. I had successfully ordered and eaten at local eateries, sitting by construction workers. I made friends with almost every staff in the hostel, and was moved into a quite nice room with the ocean view. I can now say I have really “traveled” Lima, Peru.

Finger still crossed for a passport with visa, and a plane ticket home.

Peru – Day 8 how I got stuck

June 23 was supposed to be my last day in Peru. I got up early that day around 7am, had my breakfast and tea, packed. At 8am I was walking around the hostel and bumped into a market. The market where locals buy their produces is always a main attraction for me as a traveler. It provides me a window to the true color and smell of the city. At 10am I was enjoying the chicken rice. By 11am I was back to the hotel. By 11:30am I was at the Lima airport waiting to check in.

And here was where the drama started.

Although Lima is considered a metropolitan judged by both land and population (close to 9 million), not a lot of people speak English, not even the attendants at the airline counter. Most foreign travelers speak basic Spanish. That´s probably one of the reasons why they are travelling in the South America. In my case, I thought majority of my time would be spent walking on a trail; and I would be in and out of cities quickly. Therefore I did not bother to bring a dictionary (or even download an iPhone app ;-)). Trying to explain my travel documents to the airline counter person got me a lot of blank looks in return. Language problem aside, I don´t think a lot people travelling with the documents that I have. However, the one thing that set off the alarm was a manual correction on my parole document, made by the US Customs upon my return from China in May. The year was changed from 2010 to 2011. I was questioned who made the change, and my straight answer was not good enough. After over 30 minutes discussing among themselves and asking around for opinions, the counter lady decided to escalate the matter. I later learnt that a copy of the parole document was faxed to the US immigration. After another 30 minutes, the lady got back with a clearance, apologized for the long wait and issued the tickets.

At around 1:30pm, one hour before the flight´s takeoff, and just after I used my last sole on postcards and Peruvian candies, I heard my name being called out in the broadcast. The message was in Spanish so I did not understand what the message was for. I rushed to the boarding gate to find out and thought my watch might running behind. I was brought to the gate next, and met with the stern faced counter lady. She told me that my flight would land 15 minutes past midnight on June 23, when the travel document was supposed to expire.

In the next hour, with each minute getting closer to my flight’s departure, my hope of getting onto the plane diminished. Pleading did not work. Reasoning did not work. Refusing to be escorted out of the boarding area did not work. Bursting into tears did not work. I was disoriented, exhausted after the tough trail and a week of lack of sleep. I did not have any clean clothes with me. I did not know anybody in Peru. I did not speak the language. I did not know where to go or where the US embassy was. I did not know how to make a phone call to US and let others know what happened.

I was led to the TACA office, waiting for my checked in luggage to be pulled out from the plane. In front of me, the counter lady started right way to write a  report about my incidence and was seemingly proud of her achievement. I sat there, still could not believe what had just happened, and still tried to comprehend what this meant now.

In the next three hours, I found an Internet cafe, got some cash, connected with US, especially the lawyer. I also got confirmation from the hostel I was staying in that there was room available that night.

Finally at around 6pm, I stepped out the airport, carrying the heavy backpack, looking terrible, got into a cab heading back to the hostel.

And started my unplanned journey in Lima.

Peru – Day 12

Today is the 12th day I have been in this country, 5 days beyond my scheduled return to the sunny California. Too much has had happened within these twelve days. With my return date still an open question, the only way I can tell my travel stories is to go backwards, and the photos (over 1,000 of them) have to wait until my return.

Where am I? For the past week I have been a guest in the Hostel Mami Panchita, “A colonial style guesthouse, run by a Dutch-Peruvian couple,
in the quiet neighbourhood of San Miguel.” The Dutch in this case is Toon. Toon speaks elegant English, enjoys smoking and drinking beer while watching soccer. There are two administrative staffs, who can speak limited English (Yesenia & Eduardo). Two guys who cleaning up the rooms. A driver. One person who always came for the night shift. A lady runs the kitchen. And a young man who came for the Sunday shift (Jose). The computer guy, whom I also met, is Reronato, aka, Nato Wolf. He owns a Vaio laptop, which he said costs up to 5,000 soles in Peru (about $1,760). There are also a dog, named Deekertje (fat lady) and a gray cat, who showed up at night in the reading room to sit on the chair.

The hostel is situated on a quite street, and is by far the most handsome building on the block compared to its neighbors. It is one block away from the ocean. Unfortunately there is not so much beach to speak of. I have yet seen a blue sky and green water. A small park with skate boarders and a John Lennon statue define the beach atmosphere.

The hostel is also ten minutes away, by walking, from a buzzing market. There are rows of stands selling meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, drying ingredients, flowers, fruits…Like in any other markets, it also has stands offering half-processed food, as well as places to sit and eat. I tried the chicken rice at one stand. It was delicious. Cost? Five soles. Less than two bucks.

My room is on the second floor. It has a single full bed, a small square table with one chair, a bed stand, a bathroom with stand shower, and a tiny TV. Every morning I wake up between 7 and 8, walk down to the first floor dining room to have my breakfast. Breakfast consists always a glass of freshly made juice, tea, three bread rolls (one wheat, two white), a roll of butter, a small jar of strawberry jam, two half slices of cheese, two thin slices of ham. Also on the first floor is a small bar, next to a living space with sofas and TV.  I spend majority of my time in the reading room next to the living room, with a small bookshelf and two desktops. Over the week I have figured out one computer does not have the sound card, and took the control over the other that has. On this one I have installed Skype, Google Chrome and tried to install the Chinese typing input. Eventually I found a way around by copying the characters from Google translator. Two days ago I “discovered” wi-fi, which unfortunately only works within a limited area downstairs. Glad my iPhone is back to life. Usually I ask the staff to bring me a cup of tea while I am working at the computer. Except for the coldness everywhere, this place feels more and more like an office to me, with the TV as extra benefits. Cost of the accommodation? $25 per night. Cheaper than my rent.

Today is a Sunday. Cloudy as always. I spent half day laying in bed and catching up sleep. Went out to the market for food. Bought a few baby bananas, cost me less than one sole. Came back to watch the games. And continued to the tea and internet time. Looking forward to staying warm in my room and reading a book.

Everyone who knows my situation is hoping for my safe return next week. I do hope so. To the blue sky, the warmth, the green veges, the silk and the cup of green tea.

fractal – self similarity

Amazing to know the rule exists, everywhere; and has been applied to so many areas – art, coastline measurement, medicine, cell phone antenna, computer generated organic forms (in Star War!)…

Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension: Nova
The mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot coined the term in 1975.

Another amazing book to read about another great mathematician Paul Erdős – “my brain is open”
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

combine Chinese painting with pottery

Creates 3D Chinese painting. The form is somewhat rigid. The idea of combing two very well established art forms into one is brilliant.

Web 2.0 to China

(Web 2.0 – is the term still being used? 😉

This reminds me of a pricey Tibetan herb – yartsa gunbu. The successful strategy is to grow within.