23rd January
written by Bloom

South America isn’t the easiest place to be Jewish, but with some communities and fellow travelers spread across the continent, we didn’t wander alone. We started in Lima where the local community numbers, from memory, about 1500 – half of what it was ten years ago. Their main synagogue, which was distinguished only by the fact it has no distinguishing features on the outside of its fortress like perimeter, was sparsely attended even though there was a bar mitzvah.  Of those that did attend, most of the men barely utilized their siddurs, while most of the women did not even bother taking one. With perhaps three people in the shule under 35, the future does not seem bright for the Lima community. On Friday night we were hosted by the Rabbi, an Israeli who took on the post for five years despite not knowing any Spanish. On Saturday we were treated to a an extravagant gourmet Kiddush where guests were presented with champagne by white tuxedo wearing waiters, only further highlighting our our shabby backpacker attire.

Cuzco: Highest Israeli to oxygen ratio outside the Himalayas

Israelis tend to travel in packs so that you often encounter one or two in a given place… or enormous hordes. In Huacachina we met swarms of Israelis who would scream at the dune buggy drivers in Hebrew. In our next stop, Arequipa, there was not an Israeli in sight.

Next stop Cuzco, home to one of the most popular traveler Chabads in the world. What first shocked me about Cuzco Chabad was that it hidden away behind metal security doors.  What shocked me more was that it is a complete dump.  My previous experience with large traveler Chabads was in Bangkok, where I spent  Shavuot 2005 in a prominent, immaculate and highly air-conditioned complex with hundreds of Israeli backpackers. Chabad Cuzco however is a ramshackle courtyard style Peruvian apartment block where Shabbat meals are held in the central yard, which I imagine would be not much fun when it snows. There were around 150 guests for Shabbat, down from their high season peak of 400. Almost all of the attendees were Israelis who of course all knew each other from hanging out at other Chabads in South America. There are all types that gather at a South American Chabad: the religious, the secretly religious, the formerly religious, and the regular Israelis who simply want to be in a place where they won’t need to interact with anyone who isn’t Israeli. One of the more interesting Israelis was a quiet, unremarkable post army guy who proceeded to do an excellent job correcting kriat hatorah… without even opening a Chumash.

Now there are many people who are uncomfortable with kiruv. I am not such a person. In fact, I welcome attempts to bring fellow Jews closer to our tradition, provided it is done in an honest and straightforward manner where everyone is treated like adults. What makes Chabad Cuzco so awkward is that they so desperately want to mekarev these crowds of Israelis, it’s just that they are so damn bad at it.

Before beginning the kiruv, the rabbi stood up to welcome everybody to the Shabbat meal. He then delivered a long list of safety warnings such as, ‘people will deliberately rent you broken  and dangerous motorbikes and then charge you for the repairs’, and ‘the three day white water rafting is not safe all, people have died including Israelis.’ After the warnings one of the shlichim stood up to lead a song, which I personally think is a welcome feature at any Shabbat table.  What song did he choose? A little tzur mishelo maybe, a dror yikra perhaps? No, instead he insisted on leading, in English, a semi responsive reggae style chant about ‘waiting for the moshiach man.’ The second song was just as good, with a chorus of ‘I’m going Chassidish, I started speaking Yiddish.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember more of the lyrics of either song but I can assure you they left the listener in fluctuating states of cringing and laughter.

This La Paz optician really wants you to thank God

Now this is where I think they went wrong. Firstly, no one had ever heard of these songs, which makes it hard to get some group ruach happening.  Secondly, the songs weren’t actually about Shabbat or Judaism for that matter, they were only about Chabad. Thirdly, everyone there was Israeli ( I joked that Ilana and the shlichim were the only people in the room who didn’t serve in the army), so why would you try to sing song in English? Kiruv is like being a good DJ, you’ve got to know your audience.  In any case, most of said Israeli crowd left before the end of the meal and did not return for Saturday lunch.

Where we most would have needed a Chabad was in Rurrenebaque, Bolivia, where believe it or not you can get jungle and pampas tours in lashon hakodesh.  Unfortunately, the Chabad there had closed down just three weeks earlier as it had run out of money and the visas of the shlichim had expired. Funnily enough, we had met the shlichim, who were clearly meshichistim, at our guest house in Huacachina, where they had proceeded to strip down to their underwear and jump into, in order to use as a mikvah, the lake which exactly zero other people had thought fit for swimming.

Our next Shabbat was in Salta, a city in northern Argentina with a local Jewish community where the Orthodox and Reform shule are neighbours. Upon entering shule on Friday night I was made to lead davening, which was awkward because a) they had their own nusach, b) there was no minyan and c) the guy who asked me to lead, after becoming unhappy with my leading, then stood beside me co-leading for the rest of the service. We then ate with a small group of Israelis, mostly couples, with the wife of the Chabad rabbi.

Salta: Great Chabad in an Argentinian desert of traif

After so many weeks on the road it was strange to see men in black hats and velvet kippahs wandering the streets of Buenos Aires. As already mentioned, the city has a tremendous array of Kosher dining options of which we sampled only a few. While there are many different synagogues in Buenos Aires, the one closest to our apartment was, you guessed it, Chabad.  The Rabbi was a cheerful fellow who was genuinely excited by chasidut. What set him apart from all of the other Rabbis we had encountered is that he believed in our trip. Many religious Jews, including, and sometimes especially, Chabadnikim, cannot understand why anyone would want to wander through strange lands and cultures across the globe. Chabadnikim may find their way to the Amazon’s edge, but they are not ideological travelers. Rather, travelers’ Chabads exist to ameliorate the effects of travel. To protect and shelter the travelling Jew from his hostile surrounds, to provide Jewish home in a place so far from your Jewish home.  And yashar ko’ach to them for it. I am certainly forever grateful for their hospitality. But the Rabbi of Palermo Chabad was different in that he understood the journey for its own sake. He said that one of the mistakes of prewar European Jewry is that they were too reluctant to leave their comfort zone, and  that Avraham’s spiritual journey also began with a physical journey abandoning his homeland. He was pleased to hear that we blessed  ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’ at Iguazu Falls and wished us well in spreading light and blessings in all the far flung places we might visit. It was nice to finally be understood as a traveler and a Jew at the same time.

19th January
written by Bloom

The Inca Trail

The Inca trail is really that good! Lonely Planet has a penchant for helping to make a place popular and accessible only to later say how said attraction is now uncool and too touristy. Well some things are touristy because they are world class attractions, and the Inca trail to Macchu Piccu is just that. Over four days it was consistently excellent, with stunning  snow capped peaks and lush green valleys, cloud forests, Inca ruins, 4200m high passes and more. Book early, pay the exorbitant fees and accept no substitute.

Silence in the Pampas

While we encountered many problems with the homosapiens in the Bolivian pampas, the other animal species put on a marvelous show. Cruising down the river you see so many caimen, birds, turtles, and capybara that it starts to lose its thrill until you start seeing the food chain in action, such as caimen chomping on a large white feathered bird or birds eating baby caimen. A clear highlight was the night cruise where we motored up river and out of the darkness hundreds of pairs of crocodilian eyes reflected back at us. It was kind of spooky. And then we turned off the engine and just floated down river with the current. Absolute silence and absolute darkness, save for the dazzlingly starry sky and on occasions, starlight dimly reflected from the eyes of reptiles watching us from the banks. I don’t know when I have ever experienced silent, effortless and indeed carbon neutral transport before, and under that sparkling sky our quarrels gave way to awe.

The Antarctic

Due to the Earth being spherical, our flight from Buenos Aires to Melbourne took us over the Antarctic. Now as an Australian I still get excited by a pile of snow or a frozen puddle on the streets of New York. When the Antarctic ice shelf became visible outside our window it blew my mind. Ice, in sheets metres or kilometers long stretching out as far as the eye can see, and cruising at 35,000 feet in clear Antarctic air, you can see pretty damn far. The ice was, I think, seasonal frozen sea ice but occasionally you could see an iceberg which had broken off the permanent glacial shelf and now gotten stranded the winter pack ice. The view was just wondrous and unlike anything I have ever seen before. For the second time in the trip I blessed ‘ha’oseh ma’aseh bereshit’, ‘the One who makes the works of creation.’

See also: 3 Things to Hate About South America

19th January
written by Bloom

While Ilana is pondering, it’s time for some backposts. South America was great, next post will be three things to love. In the meantime, here are three things I’d like to rant about.

Hostel crises

After travelling in South East Asia I had certain expectations about accommodation. In Vietnam, for a few dollars each, I could share a clean room with a TV, fridge, Air con and a private bathroom. Here we have been staying in what is at the cheaper end of rooms with a private bathroom. These rooms are often dark, poorly ventilated and always without heating, despite the subzero night time temperatures in the Andes. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they didn’t cost so much. Why is hostel after hostel just so much worse than Asia? $US33 a night is too much to pay for a crappy hostel in a place where you can’t drink the water and you have to put your toilet paper in a bin.


Having the right means of payment is a challenge for any traveler. How much cash to carry? What type of cash? Which cards and which banks? This presented a particular challenge in South America.

Now there are some things in South America that are damn expensive. It costs around $1500 for three people to do the Inca trail. Not the kind of cash that I’d feel comfortable carrying around the streets of Cusco, or any city really. Try to pay with credit card and you can get hit with perhaps an 8% fee. I think that’s insulting. If you say you accept credit cards then damn well accept them, and if you have to be difficult then tack on 3%. So now we have to wander the streets looking for Peruvian ATMs that accept foreign cards and dispense US dollars. However such machines don’t just let you withdraw $1000 at a time, you have to do many small withdrawals, each time for a fee of course.

I don’t object to charging prices in US dollars as is common practice for expensive items in countries with volatile currencies. It can save you trying to do arithmetic with large numbers or carrying around huge wads of notes. Never before, however, have I been charged in $US and then had the vendor refuse to accept my American legal tender. $1, $5 and $100 notes may be refused as payment, as are any worn, torn or marked bills. We were told that it was common to be issued a $US note at an ATM and then for that bank to refuse that same note as payment. It was hardly reassuring to know that large banks can be just as dickish. Do they not understand the idea behind paper currency? It’s symbolic value, not literal value! If the US government prints $5 in green ink on a small slip of paper then everyone in the world, except some frustrating Andean folk, understands what that piece of paper is worth. Whether it’s stained or wet or torn, it’s still $US5! Not here Gringo!

Bolivia – It’s not me, it’s you

Now I have been to many poor countries in a number of continents and I think I am reasonably sympathetic to the plight of the world’s downtrodden. Never before, however, have I thought that a country’s people played as significant a part in the shambolic nature of their country. Quite simply, many Bolivians we encountered are just bad at what they do. Order something in a restaurant and you can expect to wait an hour for your food to come, and this not for a soufflé but for a simple vegetarian pizza. On one occasion the waiter never told the kitchen our order. On another occasion our food was missing the ingredients listed on the menu. Time after time they were incapable of even vaguely holding to schedules that they had themselves set. They’ll tell you to meet at 9am for a tour and they won’t be ready till an hour later. They’ll tell you to meet us in the kitchen at 6am for the early breakfast, and then sleep in. Now as someone who is both tardy and a late riser I can totally understand someone not wanting to meet us at 6am. So why didn’t they just say so? In a league of its own, the Pampas tour was punishment for all my years as an under communicator. Not since the army have I been on an ‘organized’ tour and had less idea as to what was going on. And it wasn’t just an issue of language, a Peruvian guest was also at his wits end. Now if you can’t get the little things right, like having a bed for all your guests or making a pizza, it is little wonder there are perhaps only two paved roads in the entire country.

Next up: 3 things to love.

26th August
written by Bloom

It’s now been seven weeks backpacking through this meat-lovers paradise, tough going for a pair of Jews spoiled by home cooking and New York’s great vegetarian restaurants. Vegetarian cuisine in Peru and Bolivia is, like their economies, ‘developing.’ We were pleasantly surprised at the number of vegetarian restaurants in Lima, Arequipa and Cusco. In many of them we had a set menu consisting of a soup, a main, tea and possibly desert for $1.50-$5. Now it could be that South American vegetarian cuisine is relatively immature, or did the Spaniards run off with all the Inca’s seasoning as well as their gold…  because all most all of our Andean meals were quite bland. The vegetables or grain soups would have been enlivened by adding almost anything. The mains usually consisted of rice, eggs and glisteningly oily fried vegetables. Most of the vegetarian restaurants rely heavily on eggs and cheese, so if you are travelling vegan, it might end up being the rice and oily vegetables for meal after meal. If you risk eating at a non-vegetarian restaurant, the vegetarian menu usually consists of pizza and spaghetti. I should mention that it wasn’t all bad news, we did enjoy a veggie version of a traditional Arequipa dish (at a restaurant called Lakshmivan), a large pepper stuffed with vegetables, tofu and chillies, as well as scrumptious burritos at the Hearts Café in Ollantaytambo.

3000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, yet all they ever serve us are oily french fries

When it comes to snacks there is more to get excited about. Street vendors roast potatoes over coals, although unfortunately for us, always together with chunks of meat. At night, bands of mobile popcorn makers roam the streets providing a cheap and delicious snack, available salty or sweet. One can also find puffed Quinua and other Andean grains, available in small bags or pressed with honey into a type of granola bar. In the right hostel you can find a breakfast of yoghurt, sweet puffed grains and fresh papaya and bananas – delicious. When it comes to fruit, we didn’t try as many exotic varieties as I would have liked, but we did enjoy a juicy cherimoya in La Paz.

On one occasion our diet was supplemented by some wild protein. On a jungle trip in the Bolivian Amazon we were fishing for piranhas using hand reels when I was luckily enough to drag in a fish around a foot long. After checking for fins and scales, we decided it would be a welcome addition to what were some otherwise meager jungle rations.  I killed the fish, a first for me, using the most readily available means, the oar of our canoe, and the fish was cooked up for lunch the following day.

Oily vegetables and fries (standard) with self-caught fish

Civil unrest in Bolivia led us to fly early to northern Argentina, where we traded charming street markets for expensive, industrialized supermarkets where everything contained corn syrup, beef fat or both. The cattle industry is so enormous that the excess fat makes its way into bread, crackers and other baked goods. Additionally, in many places vegetarian food is nowhere to be found, indeed one should not be surprised to have one’s vegetarianism openly mocked. In this region we did a fair bit of self catering, utilizing our pot to make pasta and tomato sauce.

Upon reaching Buenos Aires, home to around 100,000 Jews and some of the world’s best kosher restaurants, we joined in the gluttony of the locals. An upmarket sushi chain has a kosher branch where we paid through the nose for a roll featuring mango, salmon and fried cheese, and another featuring citrus marinated salmon. At the Al Galope restaurant we enjoyed a traditional Argentinian parilla, meat grilled over a wood fire. The steak, sausages, sweetbreads, meatballs and tripe were brought to our table on a mini grill with its own coals to keep it warm. The leftovers lasted two lunches but the meal itself was well, too meaty. It was tough to go straight into that much plain roasted unseasoned meat.

A mini-grill stacked with meat

Now I don’t think I have ever ingested a McDonald’s hamburger in my life, but if you are in Buenos Aires and for some reason there is a kosher McDonalds, why not? OK, I can think of many reasons why not, but we went for what would be a first time and last time experience. My frustration began when the worker took minute after gratification delaying minute to put together our already prepared meal. This is supposed to be fast food! Then I almost threw a fit trying desperately to open their tiny ketchup packets, which cannot be opened with greasy fingers. The bun was soggy and the meat bland – I’m assuming this is standard – not an experience I’ll miss. If I can give them credit for something is that their prices appeared to be the same as the non-kosher McDonald’s. And of course, the sight of a frum woman standing in the middle of a McDonald’s kitchen checking lettuce for bugs is priceless.

The culinary highlight of our trip is a restaurant in Buenos Aires called Asian. After trying a few albeit delicious options we realized their pineapple, soy and ginger marinated steak ($22) is quite simply the best thing we can ever remember eating. Quality kosher wine is served by the bottle only, but for only $13 a bottle there is no fear in erring on the plentiful side. It was very expensive by Argentinean standards, but with quality and service that shamed anything we had experienced in the US, even at top dollar New York kosher restaurants. Argentineans eat ridiculously late, restaurants are usually packed at around 11pm, such that when we came at 8pm we had the whole place ourselves. A great way to finish off the first continent in our round-the-world trip. Bring on Australia.

Ilana is pretty excited about the steak at Asia

12th August
written by Ilana

My mom had joined us on our trip with two goals in mind:  1. to do a multi-day trek and 2. to spend time in the Amazon jungle.  With the first goal accomplished, we set off to Bolivia to accomplish goal #2, but before we left for the jungle, we spent Shabbos in a small Peruvian town.

Shabbat in Ollantaytambo

We finished the Inca Trail on a Friday, and did not have enough time to get back to Cuzco before Shabbos started, so instead we stayed in a small village called Ollantaytambo between Machu Picchu and Cuzco.  Bloom took an early train to make sure he would have a few hours there before Shabbos started, and my mom and I had decided to take a later train so we could spend more time at Machu Picchu.  Sadly, this was a bad choice.  After we reached Machu Pichu at 6:30 AM or so, and had a guided tour until 10, we were Machu Picchued out.  We left Machu Picchu early and were stuck waiting around for our later train, trying not to fall asleep on public benches.

Our train got in about ten minutes before Shabbos, so now we just had to get to the hotel.  We walked from the train station to the center and thought maybe Bloom would be there to show us where the hotel was, but there was no sign of him.  We knew Bloom had planned on pre-paying for our Shabbos meals at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, so we went there.  The man didn’t really know English, but understood enough to say “from Chicago?  Cheecago Bulls!” and then pointed us in what he said was the direction of the hotel.

An indigenous boy on the edge of one of the many aquaducts that flow through the town

My mom and I walked and walked and walked, and found no hotel.  This was a very small town, and as we looked around us we realized we were probably out of the town by now.  There weren’t so many buildings or people.  Finally we saw two girls walking sheep on leashes.  This was a very weird thing to see, but I couldn’t even appreciate it, because I was exhausted and dirty from the 4 days of trekking, and it was dark and we were apparently very lost.  “Donde esta el Apu Lodge?” I tried.  They looked confused and pointed in the other direction.  I looked at the sheep for help, but they too looked confused.

Finally, after going down dark alleys and asking anyone we could find if they knew of this Apu Lodge, an old lady who had been sitting in what was possibly her restaurant, or maybe her kitchen, led us to the darkest alley and told us to walk down it.  I was freaking out.  Where the hell was Bloom?  If he knew this place was unfindable why had he not found us first and led us there?  Had he never found the hotel?  Maybe he was also lost!  At this point we decided to turn back and go to the center and sit in the restaurant and hopefully Bloom would eventually come look for us.  It was too dark and scary.

We turned around and saw a skinny guy in a white shirt walking toward us quickly.  It was Bloom.  He had tried to find us but had just missed us at each point.  We turned and walked back down the dark alley, only to be accosted by a gang who pretended to shoot us.  I guess I should mention that the gang consisted of four 5 year old boys, but I have no patience for annoying children, and a gang of rowdy kids is a gang of rowdy kids, yeah so they’re 5?  So what?  My mom played with them and pretended to shoot them back.  Finally one of them dared to touch me in my psychotic, exhausted state, I turned to face all of them and, using my best self-defense voice, yelled “NO!”   They finally seemed to get it, and ran away.  The next morning my mom went for a walk and came back to tell me that she had met the gang in the alley again and this time they had spit all over her clothes.  She was pretty annoyed.  Vilde Chayas.  This is why you need to be strict with children.

Cobblestone alleyways, some of which are from Inca times, not as fun when you are lost at night

In the end, the Apu Lodge was an awesome place.  They had a real bed, not just a foam skinny mattress on a slab of wood, and a good breakfast, and they did our laundry.  We ate the best vegetarian food of the trip, since almost every meal we’ve eaten has been rice, mixed with an egg and awkward French fries, which sounds better than it is.  Overall, even with getting lost and our run in with a gang of children, it was a great shabbos.

10th August
written by Ilana

We have not been able to update for a while because 1. we have been crazy busy and 2. the wireless on the tiny thai computer is broken, but we finally fixed it today when we bought a USB wireless card in La Paz, where we are now.

Since I last wrote, we went to Cuzco early to make sure I would have time to get over any potential altitude sickness. We spent tisha b’av there, and sadly Bloom was sick for a few days, so we spent a lot of time sitting around and drinking tea.

When Bloom was feeling better we went on a one day white water rafting trip. There were 35 people on the trip and we all had to split ourselves into boats of 6. Some Israelis spotted us and, thinking we were Israeli, asked us to join their boat. It ended up being Bloom and me, an Israeli guy around our age and his father, and a lone Israeli woman, also around our age, who was a bit of a lost sad sack. The woman was terrified of the boat, and throughout the day asked Bloom questions about kashrut. I was scared that being with Israelis would mean crazy recklessness, but they were really chilled out about everything. It was actually the Germans who we had to look out for (I should’ve known). The Germans, who by the way were rowing in perfect unison of course, repeatedly came up behind our boat just to splash us. “First the Holocaust, now this!” I said. The Israelis made a face, but then one of them said, “obviously if we splashed them back it would be reported that Israelis are violent.” “Obviously.” I agreed. Overall a good day.

Our trekking group at the start of the trail


And now onto the Inca Trail. After the disastrous canyon trek I was pretty sure that I would not make it out of the Inca Trail alive, or that possibly I would need to be airlifted out by a helicopter after realizing that my legs could no longer function. Luckily, this did not happen. I was very proud that I trekked for 4 days and made it to Machu Picchu at the end. Since this was already a few weeks ago, and because I love writing lists, I will make a list of the highlights of the Inca Trail:

  1. We only had five people in our hiking group, and since my mom joined us for this part of our trip, the whole group was my mom, Bloom, me and two others. The two others were twins from northwest Canada who were celebrating their 26th birthday on the trek. They were the perfect travel companions. They didn’t try to race through the trek and the male twin told us many different stories about working on oil rigs and killing his own animals and going to rodeos. At one point I felt like maybe I should be killing my own animals. “I’m becoming a shochet,” I announced at dinner on the first day of the trek, “I want to kill my own meat! If I’m going to eat an animal, I should be able to kill it!” I was really into this idea. I’m very easily swayed. “You would never do that,” my mom insisted. She’s probably right. So, all in all I really liked our trekking group and was inspired to become a shochet.


  2. I only cried once. This might not sound like a highlight, but come on, four days straight of trekking, mostly straight uphill and straight downhill and over crazy “stairs” that were more like giant boulders that I needed to climb up and down than stairs, and I only freaked out once. I thought I would freak out on the notoriously impossible day 2 of the trek, but actually I dominated day 2. Day 2 is hours and hours of uphill until you reach the top of a very high mountain.  You then spend the next few hours climbing down said high mountain. I rocked that, but sadly my mom had altitude sickness (so that’s where I get it). Day 3 was what killed me.
    No one talks about day 3 being difficult. I had no expectation of it destroying me, but it did. It turns out that my body is better at going uphill than downhill, and my knees are not in the best shape. The third day had a few hours of uphill, but many hours of downhill, climbing down these massive rocks. Luckily, I had hiking poles, which helped me out, since after a few hours of downhill I could no longer move my legs, and relied completely on my arm strength and used the poles to drag my body down the trail. After a few hours of using the poles, I started freaking out. My whole body hurt, I was moving so slowly, and worst of all, I know I looked like a complete moron dragging my body by poles, but hey, I was getting an awesome full body workout. My mom and Bloom were trying to cheer me on, and I put on a positive face for the Canadians. They were super tough about things, and had never met Jews before, so I felt obligated not to whine too much in front of them. But as soon as they had passed me and I realized I could turn off my or l’goyim, the whining began. “Everyone is passing me! This is too hard! I just want some popcorn!” The thing is, the Inca Trail had God-awful vegetarian food, but when we got to the camp after the full day of hiking there would always be popcorn for us, and I love popcorn, so I was disappointed that I was moving so slowly toward snack time. The tears started when an approximately 70 year old German man passed me. “Why is he trying to show off? Why does he need to be in my face? He’s trying to brag!” For some reason the German threw me over the edge. I made many comments about the Germans always needing to show the world how awesome they are, and haven’t we seen enough?? Etc. I really try to feel normal toward Germans, but it’s very difficult. I was raised by a man who told my Holocaust bedtime stories, I have survivor grandparents, and I was always obsessed with Holocaust literature. All of this makes it hard for me to not think of the Holocaust whenever I hear a German accent. At one point in the trek a woman behind me said “shnell!” and I froze. “Isn’t shnell a Holocaust word?” I asked my mom. She told me that it’s just a word, and Bloom mentioned that these people weren’t even Germans they were Dutch. Still. “Shnell?!” Come on.

    I made it to the top of the highest pass!


    Climbing some inca stairs

    Climbing down the inca stairs

  3. We saw a giant condor flying above us when we reached the highest point. I don’t really think I need to elaborate on that.
  4. Condor!

  5. The scenery was ridiculous. I never saw anything like it. We went from these snow covered Andean peaks into a cloud forest/jungle.
  6. Our Campsite on the 2nd Night

  7. I used the most disgusting bathrooms I have ever seen, and I survived. I wouldn’t call a crap covered hole in ground a “bathroom” per se, but I used it, and I figured it was good prep for India.
  8. On the last day of the trek we were one of the first groups allowed onto the trail. We had around an hour to reach the Sun Gate and see the sunrise over Machu Piccu, and there were many groups of fast paced Brits behind us. We decided we didn’t want to be passed by all the Brits, and instead we would have a power hour. We would walk as quickly as possible in the dark (it was 5:30 AM), and we would reach the sun gate for sunrise. It was insane. I was practically jogging to keep up with all the giants in my group, and jumping over the ginormous rocks. When we had been jogging for a half hour or so we turned a corner and saw a wall of stairs. ARE YOU SERIOUS? My mom put her poles down and used her arms and legs to literally climb the wall.
    After I made it over the wall and then to the sun gate, I could barely breathe. I felt like I had run a marathon, but I had made it, and I was happy.

    Sunrise from the Sun Gate

  9. Mission Accomplished!

    On Our way to Machu Picchu

19th July
written by Ilana

Some Background:
Lots of people ask us if we planned our trip in advance.  We knew that wherever we started in South America, we would need to reach Buenos Aires for our flight to Melbourne on Aug. 25th to celebrate Bloom’s grandmother’s 90th birthday.  We had thought about starting as far north as Colombia, but we would have to move very quickly to get to Buenos Aires in time, so we chose to start in Peru and figured we would work our way through Bolivia and a bit of Argentina in a little over 7 weeks.  We knew we wanted to 1. Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu, 2.  See part of the Amazon basin, and 3. See Iguazu Falls.

The Inca Trail books up insanely quickly for the dry season (right now), so we booked it as far back as April, and even then the only date available to us was July 27th.  Since that was already booked we figured we would start in Lima and make our way down to Cuzco stopping along the coast and on the way.

We knew that along the way we wanted to go to Huacachina to hang out on sand dunes.  Mission accomplished.  We also knew we wanted to see Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca.

We arrived in Arequipa Tuesday morning after our 11 hour night bus, which was actually pretty great.  Bloom slept the entire time, while I kept imagining the bus crashing over the side of a mountain and would randomly jump up and look for my backpack, since I was convinced someone was going to steal it right out from under me.  I then watched “The Backup Plan” in Spanish.  So, although it was comfortable, the bus ride was not tons of fun for me, although I’m pretty sure Bloom would love to take that bus every night instead of sleeping in our hostels.

Ilana in the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa

Upon arriving in Arequipa I realized that I wasn’t feeling too well, and figured it was due to lack of sleep and went on with my day.  Our day consisted of going to different travel agencies and asking them about the best way to see the canyon.  It turns out that the only way to get into the canyon was to hike down and then hike back out, or you can just take a bus tour around the top of the canyon.  I figured that I’m tough, I can handle a hike into and out of a canyon!  Why not?  We then came upon the issue that the 3 day trek, which for some reason was less expensive than the 2 day, would have us returning to Arequipa an hour after Shabbos started.  We decided we would do the 3 day anyway, and if we couldn’t find a way to get the bus to get back earlier, we would wake up early on the 3rd day and take the local bus.

The Trek
Although I do generally think I’m tougher and stronger than I actually am, I had a sense that this trek would be trouble, since we were being picked up at our hostel at 3:30 AM.  That is a totally unreasonable time to start the day, especially when I knew I had not slept the night before.  Oh well, I figured I would sleep on the bus to the start of the trek, which was almost 5 hours.

At 3:10 AM there was banging on our door and a man walked in saying that it was time to go and that we were late.  Oh dear.  Our stuff wasn’t completely packed up and I had even left the bed yet.  This was bad news.  We rushed the hell out of there to find that no one else was in the bus aka van.  I thought that in Peru everything is always running late??  Whaaat.  Whatever, I figured I would just try to forget about the rush and go to sleep.  Before I slept the guide told us that the other people who were supposed to be trekking with us got food poisoning and could not come, so now the trekking group was me, Bloom and the guide.

I could not sleep on the van because it was maybe 5 degrees.  I was shaking with cold, and couldn’t feel my legs, and I realized my head was pounding and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  The guy behind me (a Canadian guy, although I was convinced he was European…am I terrible with accents??) mentioned that he thought we were on perhaps the world’s highest paved road.  That’s when it hit me.  I wasn’t just tired, I probably had altitude sickness.  I wanted to cry but I was too cold.

We got off the van to go to a lookout point where you can see condors flying early in the morning. I couldn’t walk from the van to the lookout.  I felt like everything was in slow motion and I couldn’t really breathe.  I tried to communicate this to the guide, but I don’t think he quite understood, since he responded by giving me oreos.  I looked around and everyone else seemed totally cool with the freezing cold and the altitude.  I figured that maybe I was just tired.

We then went to a village over the canyon where we ate lunch.  I was feeling too sick to eat, but I figured I always had the oreos for later.  We started walking to the canyon, and I walked at the pace of a 95 year old.  I kept insisting I would be better when we got lower into the canyon and into lower altitude.  As we got lower, it did get warm out, and I was able to breathe a little better.

However, even without altitude sickness, I am not in amazing shape.  I figured that I was in good shape.  I mean, I walk from the 60s to the 90s like every Saturday!  That’s a lot of blocks!  But alas, that was not enough to walk straight down a canyon for 4 hours.  I felt like someone was stabbing me in the knees, plus I still wasn’t breathing right.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

Colca Canyon. The oasis is down in the middle

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

We finally got to the bottom, and got to a small village that looked adorable.  The other groups were staying there, and there were people laying on the grass reading and writing in journals.  “We go to sleep in next village” the guide said, “One hour more walking.  Maybe one hour and a half.  Uphill only half hour.”  Uphill only half hour!  Was he serious!  “Look, if we don’t do this now, we’ll have to do it tomorrow and you won’t like that,” Bloom said to me.  He was right.  I wouldn’t like that.  Fine, I would get it over with, and maybe the next village would be even more awesome.  It would be our private village with no one else and it would be amazing.  Fine, I would continue walking.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 1

As we walked uphill I couldn’t breathe again.  My heart was racing, my head was pounding.  This must be what it feels like to have an asthma attack, I thought.  I am having an asthma attack.  I cannot go on.  I will stop here, and sleep on the dirt path, and maybe I will have to be airlifted to a hospital where they will discover that I have some kind of weird breathing disease and that I can never walk again!

I was spiraling out of control.  Am I so weak, that I can’t do this?  What is happening to me?  Maybe it’s not the altitude, maybe I am just a typical out of shape American who can only handle a tour bus!  I started whimpering all of this to Bloom, and then I also decided that the guide hated me, and thought I was holding him back.  “The guide wants to run ahead of me,” I kept whispering, since I was too weak to talk.  “The guide hates me!”

I am not quite sure why in my delirious state I got all neurotic about the guide, but I did.  He kept telling me I would be better “after hot shower.”  “So basically, he think I’m a hypochondriac!”  I said to Bloom.  “He thinks a shower will cure me!”  Also, where on earth was I finding a hot shower in the middle of this canyon.

We FINALLY arrived at the village, and that’s when I lost it.  I had struggled for an hour and a half to get to a tiny village where chickens kept trying to come into my small dirt paved room.  By this point, I was too sick to stand, so I tried to ignore the chickens, and the terrifying stuffed fox mounted on the wall of one of the huts,  went into our hut, put on as much clothes as I could find, and got into bed.

Ilana and the chickens

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

When I was growing up, my family used to go on hiking/camping vacations.  My brother Josh may have been only 6 or 7 and he would go on these hikes and he would inevitably end up saying/whining “why did I ever think I could do this??”  At that point I completely empathized with the young Josh.  Why did I ever think I could do this?  What the hell was wrong with me?  What kind of out of shape person hikes into a canyon without even acclimatizing to the altitude?

I was in a bad place.  Bloom, on the other hand, was loving this.  Especially the rustic nature of the village.  He figured the other village was too touristy.  This was the real thing!  There was no grass to lay out on here.  There was dirt, and there were chickens and mules and sheep.  And the family cooked in a kitchen hut over a fire.  And our hut floor was made of dirt!  This is authentic. I am not directly quoting Bloom here, but I am pretty sure this is how he felt.

The kitchen

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

These were in the "kitchen." Yum.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

The next day I woke up to the sound of sheep and roosters, and immediately remembered that I was on the side of a canyon.  My legs hurt.  My head hurt.  And I was terrified of hiking another day.  Luckily we hiked for about 3 hours and then arrived at the oasis, which is a place for backpackers to stay and swim and eat and drink right at the bottom of the canyon.

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2


From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

At this point, the guide suggested I take a mule up the last part of the trek, which was straight up for 3 hours.  Most groups walk this part at 5 am on the last day, but our group was hiking up at 3 in the afternoon when it was hot (finally it was hot!)  and there was no shade.  Fine, I decided I would take the mule, but I was humiliated.  I had to be rescued out of the canyon by a mule.  Ugh.  How in the world will I ever do the Inca Trail?  It is 4 days long, and allegedly more difficult than this trek!  AND there are no mules!

a mule is not as fun as it looks

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

Bloom and the guide left to get a head start on the climb and I was told to wait for a man who looked like a small Peruvian cowboy who would get me a mule.  I waited with another girl who was also opting for the mule after having food poisoning the night before.  We waited and waited, but no cowboy.  We were told to climb up a little and find him.  We climbed for about ten minutes until we found him.  After ten minutes of climbing my asthma attack state was back.  The cowboy motioned for us to follow him and the mules up further.  Was this cowboy my nemesis?  Why was he making me climb more?  I really hated that cowboy.

Finally, after about 20 minutes of uphill climbing the cowboy helped me get on one of mules, and we started walking.  I’m pretty sure this mule was a reckless lunatic with a death wish.  Every few minutes he would stand all the way on the edge of the canyon wall, where I imagined us both plummeting to our deaths, or at least to our sever injuries.  But hey, the view was nice, and at least I wasn’t walking.  This was fine.  Until, the cowboy decided to up the ante, and throw rocks at my mule!  This, logically, made the mule run up the canyon.  This was not fun at all.  I kept screaming when the mule would run, but I guess the screams didn’t translate.  On top of all of this, the mule in front of mine began to have explosive diarrhea.  I use the word “explosive” carefully there.  It was literally exploding, and I was pretty sure that I would get off the mule covered in the other mule’s diarrhea.

Ilana on a mule

From Colca Canyon Trek Day 2

Altitude Sickness

As we trekked higher up the canyon, the worst of the altitude sickness came back, and I was trying my best not to vomit.  I thought about how crazy it would be to vomit off the side of a mule, and how I would laugh if it hit the cowboy, but I would feel bad if it the other girl…  Toward the top, I heard someone yell my name, and looked up and saw that Bloom was almost at the top, taking pictures of me on the mule.  FINALLY, we reached the top and I couldn’t move.  At this point, I knew it had to be altitude sickness, because it was so significantly worse the higher the altitude.  Like the previous day, I could hardly walk, but somehow it was much worse now.  We had about a 30 minute walk to the village at the top of the canyon, and I again didn’t think I’d make it.  This was the sickest I had been.  When we got to the hostel, again I put on every ounce of clothes I could find, and tried to sleep.  However, there was a massive festival happening in the village and it was happening right outside our window.  There was a parade of trumpets outside the window and it went until 3 am.  They certainly know how to party.

The next day we went to some hot baths, and took the local buses with the guide in order to get back to Arequipa before Shabbos, where we had already pre-paid for Shabbat meals at some vegetarian restaurants.  It was nice relaxing time in Arequipa, which is a beautiful city with an abundance of pretty awkward vegetarian restaurants, one of which may have poisoned Bloom, but still a very nice city.

So that’s that.  The trek was beautiful, but being sick was terrible.  We decided to come to Cuzco last night in order for me to acclimate to the high altitude before the Inca Trail.  I will admit that I am terrified of the Inca Trail seeing that the Colca Canyon trek was a ginormous fail on my part.  I am really really hoping that this whole thing was just sever altitude sickness, and that I will not need to be emergency helicoptered out of the Inca Trail.  We have a week and a day before the trail…we will try to do some small treks to prepare ourselves (by ourselves I guess I mean myself), and hopefully it will be a good time.  Stay tuned.

18th July
written by Ilana

So after what seemed like forever, we finally left Lima on Sunday and went to heaven on earth, a desert oasis called Huacachina. The oasis is a 5 minute drive from the city of Ica, which is a 4-5 hour bus ride from Lima.

This was our first of many long bus rides in South America, and after reading Lonely Planet I was terrified of having my things stolen while on the bus.  I wore a money belt and held my bag for most of the ride, which was probably a bit over the top.  We watched The Day After Tomorrow in Spanish, which kind of made it more fun,  since we guessed about the dialogue.

As soon as we got off the bus in Ica we realized how happy we were to be out of Lima.  As opposed to gray skies and nasty weather the skies were clear blue, and it was actually warm outside.  When we drove up to Huacachina and I saw the oasis and the massive sand dunes, I knew I was going to be much happier than in Lima.Huacachina oasis

We decided not to book a hostel in advance, which stressed me out, but I decided to try and adapt to the backpacker lifestyle and be more go with the flow about things.  When we reached the hostel, the man at the desk told me it was full, and I then immediately lost my new backpacker style and freaked out.  Bloom went to some other hostel and was told there were parties there until 6 am.  Not our style.  After checking out a few more hostels we found one that was cheap and relatively decent in what appeared to be a Peruvian family home.   It was confusing where the hostel ended and the home began, but overall it was good.  I apologized to Bloom for my freak out, and once again told myself that I would be more chilled out about things in the future.  We’ll see how that goes.

The next day in Huacachina we wandered around the oasis and relaxed.  In the evening we went out on the dunes in a sandbuggy that speeds over the dunes.

In the dunebuggy

We were in the buggy with a few Israelis and a few chabad guys.  Classic.

Of course Bloom was an awesome sandboarder, and I was too scared to stand and board, so I went sitting up or on my stomach, which actually went insanely fast.

Bloom sandboarding gracefully down the dunes

Bloom gracefully sandboarding

Ilana sanboarding head first and not so gracefully

The whole thing was amazing.  We saw the sunset over the dunes and they looked like they went on forever.

From Huacachina

Sadly, we left Huacachina that night on an 11 hour overnight bus to Arequipa where we planned on touring or trekking the Colca Canyon.

We splurged on first class seats on the bus, which meant that our seats were huge recliner chairs which leaned very far back.  Another luxury was the heat, which we hadn’t encountered previously in Peru.  AND there was wireless internet!  The bus was definitely nicer than any hostel we had stayed in thus far.

10th July
written by Ilana

After deciding that Lima was an awful smelly city, and considering leaving early and spending shabbos alone in some small town, we decided to stick with it and give it another try.  We spent Friday walking around downtown Lima, which was surprisingly really nice.

We went to a vegetarian restaurant where we again realized that our lack of Spanish is going to be problematic.  The only word that looked familiar to us was tortilla, so we ordered that.  I did not know that a tortilla was actually fried eggs on rice…  Hmm…  At least I was able to communicate with the taxi driver by holding up nine fingers telling him I was only willing to pay 9 soles for the ride.

Bloom will write more about our Shabbos experience, but I must say that I have never felt more like a homeless bum than I did in the Lima shul.  I figured it was ok to look like a homeless vagabond, wearing hiking pants, hiking boots, a fleece and a skirt over the pants.  I felt like an idiot, but figured it would be ok.  When we got to the shul, I looked around and saw that all the other women were wearing fur coats and lots of fancy jewelry.  It was like walking into Or Torah in a track suit.  Humiliation.

I realized the humiliation was worth it when I saw the kiddush, which was actually fancier than our wedding.  There were tuxedoed waiters walking around with champagne, and then a massive fancy lunch.  It was crazy.

That kiddush made up for our awful hostel situation, which wouldn’t be too terrible if only our room had a window that opened to the outside and not to the hallway, and it didn’t smell like mildew, and there weren’t Europeans smoking everywhere, but yeah, other than that, it’s alright.

Tomorrow we are off to Huacachina, a desert oasis a few hours south of Lima.  We hope to go sandboarding there, and get some fresh air after being in the city.

8th July
written by Ilana

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.  And by lives, I mean approximately a year, but if you know me you know I like to speak with hyperbole, so as I was saying, the first day of our trip is here and it’s cold and bleak.  I’m not trying to be a downer, but seriously, I am so cold and the sky was whitish-gray all day, and we spent most of our time wandering the streets wondering if there was more to Lima than ginormous KFC’s and stinky cars.  The sad answer is, not really.  From what I can tell, Lima is pretty lame.  We even thought about booking out of here tomorrow morning and spending shabbos elsewhere, but we decided against it, since, while Lima may not be so cool, they do have a shul and people who will feed us, so that is making us stay until Sunday morning.

Our flights here were long, but shockingly not so miserable.  Even though Spirit Air does not feed you and makes you pay for drinks and has no TV’s, etc, I kind of respect them for being honest about the fact that they’re cheap.  American Airlines tried to charge me to use a blanket (a blanket!), yet they pretend like they care about their customers and they’re awesome, etc.  I prefer Spirit Air.  At least they’re honest.

Anyway, we arrived at the airport, and we knew that a guy named Carlos was supposed to pick us up and bring us to our hostel.  I was surprised when I saw a lady holding a sign with my name.  She was definitely not Carlos.  Bloom and I had read some lonely planet on the plane and it kept reminding us that in Lima there are all kinds of scams with taxi drivers and you need to be extremely careful because people will try to kidnap you.  After being adequately scared out of our minds, we decided that we would ask the alleged Carlos to tell us his name before getting in the car with him.  I was a little worried when I saw that Carlos was a woman, but then she introduced us to a man.  It was kind of amazing when Bloom said to him “What’s your name?” in an aggressive tone.  The guy told us he was friends with Carlos, which we accepted warily, and followed them out of the airport.  After 5 minutes of walking through a parking lot while being followed by taxi drivers trying to get us into their cars, I realized that I make a terrible backpacker, since my back was killing me!  I was seriously hurting, and I wasn’t even out of the parking lot!  I was trying not to lose Carlos’s friends or Bloom, while also trying not to think about my back and ignore all the taxi drivers and children who kept trying to sell us things.  We finally all got into a taxi and what followed felt like nothing less than a police car chase.  Carlos’s friends nervously laughed about the psychotic driving and tried to make conversation with me.

This is when I had a sad realization about the next two months:  I do not know Spanish.  I sort of thought that I would be able to make it here with my tidbits of Spanish that I picked up from Sesame Street and the maintenance guys at Heschel, but alas, that is just not going to cut it.  Carlos’s friend asked me questions and I really tried to figure out a way to integrate donde esta or agua or banos into a conversation, but it was a total fail.  I even said all three of those things at once to show Carlos’s friend that I knew some Spanish words.  He actually seemed pretty weirded out by me saying “where is…water…bathroom…” and then smiling proudly at myself.

Outside our barricaded hostel

Today we wandered around trying to find the chabad and at least one vegetarian restaurant.  Two crucial places.  We found both, but realized they were both really far from us, which was sad.  When we were at the restaurant we overheard people speaking in English about plans for Shabbat, so Bloom went over to them and found out about Lima and where to go for Shabbos.  The girl made two references to “people your age,” when talking to us.  1.  When talking about the rabbi of the local shul she said, “He’s really young for a rabbi, maybe like your age”  Ok…  2.  Then she told us about how Cuzco is awesome and there were 300 Israelis at Chabad when she was there a few weeks ago.  She then said “but they might be too young for you guys, they’re all like backpackers”


To make matters worse, tonight we met an Israeli guy at our hostel (Bloom is actually out at the grocery store with him now.  Quite the playdate), and he mentioned that he was 23, but one of his friends is 26.  I think he was trying to make us feel better about our age, by telling us he has friends kind of close to our age.

Freezing and trying to avoid feeling like I was wrapped in mildewy towels

Are we too old for this?  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.  I’m just hoping to stop being so cold and maybe pick up some Spanish on the way.