iguazu falls
10th November
written by Ilana

When we finally arrived in Berastagi after one early morning ferry crossing, a long bumpy school bus ride, and then a crowded van ride, we were exhausted.  After walking around a bit, we found a hostel, dropped our bags and went looking for food and cold drinks.  Happily, we found both.

During our walk we were constantly followed by hordes of school children.  The followed us down the street, waved hello, asked us our names, and then asked us to be in pictures with them.

Posing with the kids

We were celebrities.  It was a hilarious introduction to what would be our lives for the next week in Sumatra.

Berastagi was alright, but while there I decided I should deal with the fact that my tongue and mouth felt swollen and dry, and had felt this way since we left Australia. At first I had assumed that I had just burnt my tongue or something, but as it progressively worsened, I realized this must not be the case.  I was constantly waking up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and mouth, and by the time we reached Berastagi, I was starting to freak out.

So, instead of taking the morning to climb one of the volcanoes, we decided to look for a doctor.  Luckily, we found one around the block from our hostel.  We walked into a small empty building.  “Hello?”  We called out.  After some time two women found us and asked us to take a seat.  “Doctor?” I asked them.  They shook their heads, “coming soon,” they said and began to take my blood pressure and made me write my name on a piece of paper.  A few minutes into this, a man walked in and proclaimed himself the doctor.  I was escorted into this office where I told him “MOUTH HURTS.  OUCH.  TONGUE HURTS” and then stuck out my tongue.  He motioned for me to say ahh, and then shone a flashlight in my mouth.  “tonsils swollen,” he said.  He walked out of the office and I followed him.  He gave me four different types of medicine.  One for cough, one for swelling, one anti-biotic and one for inflammation.  He then gave me a bill.  It was 75,000 indonesian rupiahs, which is approximately $8 US.

Wow.  I looked at my watch and saw that I had only been inside the building for 15 minutes.  This was the cheapest, most efficient doctor’s visit of my life.

I decided that before getting too excited about the amazingness of the doctor’s visit, I should probably call my aunt, who is a doctor, and check that these medicines were legit.  I found an internet café, where I sat at a computer surrounded by teenage boys playing video games and smoking cigarettes.  I turned to the boy next to me, “don’t you have to go to school?” I asked.  He gave me a confused look and logged onto facebook.  I called my aunt on skype who told me the medicines all sounded good. Mid-conversation I turned my head and found a small boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, perched right over my computer screen on a small stool.  This place was weird.

Following the Indonesian teen’s lead I then logged on to facebook and started chatting with Feiber.  He asked me how I was.  I typed, “yesterday I fell in a toilet.”  I asked him if this seemed appropriate blog material and he said that not only was it good material, but it should be the title of the post, and so Feiber, here it is.

So, you may be wondering, Ilana, how in fact did you manage to fall in a toilet?!

Well, my friends, as you know, I am in the land of squat toilets.  I have not yet taken a picture of a squat toilet to post here, but imagine walking into a stall and finding a porcelain hole in the ground, on the sides of the hole are ridges, where I assume you are supposed to place your feet.  When we were in Medan having tea and a belligerent conversation with our ex-tour guide/driver, I went to the “bathroom.”  It turns out the bathroom was a family’s cement floored laundry room.  The squatter was positioned directly underneath a clothesline with wet, dripping clothes hanging from it.  While being dripped on by the laundry, I tried to maneuver my feet on the ridges, which were wet,  and my foot slipped and fell into the hole/toilet.  Oh, disgusting.  At least I had pre-emptively rolled up my pants since the bathroom is almost always soaking wet.  It was not my best moment.


After the doctor’s visit, and my foray into the internet café, Bloom and I decided to move on to our next and final Sumatran location, Lake Toba.  Lake Toba is a very large volcanic lake.  More specifically, we were going to be spending about a week on the island in the middle of the lake called Samosir, and even more specifically we were staying on a smaller part of the island called Tuk-Tuk.

We decided to save money and take local transport.  I’ve been backpacking for some time now, and I figured I could handle it.  Our first step was getting on a door-less minivan.  There were no real seats in the back, just 2 benches on either side of the van.  The van came to a rolling stop in front of us and after confirming that it was going to the right place, we jumped on.  It was packed with ladies and babies who laughed at us and our big bags.

On the first of many crowded vans

The bags were taking up too much space and were thrown on to the roof.  After around 20 minutes, we reached our next destination where we were put onto another van, this one had rows of seats and even a door.   I am pretty sure this van was meant to seat, maybe, ten people.  However, there were about 30 people squeezed in, a few babies, and one live chicken being held upside down by its feet by its lady friend.  I was lucky to have a window seat, and spent most of the 4 hour ride with my head out the window trying to breathe, and trying not to puke as we bumped over unpaved roads.  We reached our third destination and were put on yet another van, less crowded and chicken-less this time, but no window seat, where we rode for an hour before we were dropped off on the side of the road somewhere near Lake Toba.

By this point, I had had it.  I was proud of myself for saving money and for being a badass backpacker, but I also thought I would puke everywhere, and was quite grumpy about this fact.  We now needed to find the ferry that would take us to Tuk-Tuk in the middle of the lake.  One of those door-less minivans came to a rolling stop.  “FERRY??”  We asked.  They motioned for us to jump in and after a few minutes we reached the ferry, where we were told that it would not be departing for another hour.  I sat on my backpack and was grateful that I was not on a moving vehicle at the moment, but was not excited about the 40 minute ferry ride that was coming up.  As soon as I sat down a bunch of locals approached us.  “Hotel?  Tuk-Tuk?  Transport?”  We were being attacked on all sides, trying to be sold on hotels, food, drinks, etc.  I was in no mood for this.  “NOOO.”  I said loudly and aggressively.  They laughed.

Eventually, we got on the ferry, and it was actually a beautiful ride as we watched the sunset from the boat.  We got to Lake Toba, eventually found a hostel, which we left the next day, but we were exhausted and fell fast asleep.


We spent a week chilling out in Tuk-Tuk, which is the longest we stayed anywhere.  We ended up with so much time since we hadn’t done the long jungle trek, and we already had a flight booked to Java on October 20th, so we hung around.  It was a great place for loitering.  We were staying in a great hostel with a porch overlooking the lake and our own fridge, although there were constantly millions of ants everywhere, but it was still a great place.

Bloom went swimming every day, while I loitered on the internet, trying to keep in touch with the outside world and planning the rest of our trip, which was completely unplanned other than our flight to Java.  We planned on staying a few days in Java and then heading overland to Bali.  How long should we stay in Bali?  Where should we go next?  At first we decided we would go to Thailand to meet our friend Anna, which would be awesome, but then when we looked into flights for some reason it was very expensive for us to get to Thailand at that time.  I started looking into our other options and saw that China was actually not much more expensive than Thailand, but much further away, so we decided that from Bali we would go to China, starting in Beijing and then working our way south overland, ending up back in Malaysia in order to fly to India by the start of February.  We found a flight deal for Nov. 10th and booked the flight to China.

We also spent time just wandering around Tuk-Tuk, and one day we even rented a motorbike and rode around Samosir island.  Awesome.I was terrified, but it was actually pretty fun, and I got a kick out of Bloom driving a light pink motorbike.

In all of Tuk-Tuk we found two restaurants which met Bloom’s approval.  One was a tiny place, I think an old woman’s house, where she happened to not cook any meat or chicken.  We ate there once.  We sat outside her hut in one of the two tables available, and I watched as a chicken climbed on the table and walked around.  This was not my idea of ambience.  There was also a cute looking kitten who climbed onto the table and hissed at me.  It freaked me out and I moved my chair a bit and suddenly the chair broke into many pieces and I was sitting on the concrete.  Bloom was laughing hysterically, and the chicken and kitten just stared.  Needless to say, we did not return.

We found another restaurant where we discovered that they cooked all the chicken and meat  in separate pans, which was a lucky find, since it was a nice place and had decent prices.  We decided we would eat there for shabbos.  We had already been there a few times, and we spoke to someone there about setting up a tab, which was how many places worked in Sumatra, and we even asked if we should leave a deposit, but we were told it was all good, we would have a tab and pay later.

We ate a delicious Friday night dinner and when we got up to leave, we were approached by a waitress who told us we had to pay now.  We went to  the counter to explain that we had set up a tab, etc, and we ended up talking to a European woman who had not been there earlier in the day.  She was apparently the owner, and she did not take kindly to our tab.  “You are not guests in our hotel, so you cannot have a tab, you have to pay now.”  When we explained that for religious reasons we don’t use money on this day, she didn’t buy it.  “What religion is this?” she asked skeptically.  “Judaism, we’re Jews,” we explained.  “I’ve never heard of this.  It’s very weird,” she said judgmentally.  Europeans are such anti-semites, I thought in my head.

She tried another approach.  “Can I have your passports?”  We explained that on the Sabbath we don’t carry anything, not even passports.  She looked at us like we were idiots.  “Look, we were here earlier, we’ll come back tomorrow, we promise, we’re really sorry, we can give you our passport numbers, but we don’t have anything to give you.”  She seemed ok with this, and gave us a paper and pen to write our passport numbers down.  Oh God.  More awkwardness.  “Well…We also don’t write on this day,”  we explained.  She looked horrified at our archaic ways.  After the passport exchange she was still not satisfied.  “I don’t know about this…Isn’t there something you can give me..?” She asked.  “Take my wedding ring,” Bloom said.  “WHAAAT!”  I yelled.  I didn’t expect this to upset me so much, but I almost cried right there.  The European lady started to reach for the ring.  What the hell kind of person was this??  Was she really about to take his wedding ring?!  “You are NOT taking that,” I said to her.  I looked at myself.  I could give her my shoes and walk home barefoot… I had forgotten about my watch.  “Take my watch, it’s a good watch, and believe me, I want it back.”  “Alright.”  She finally agreed.

The Indonesian man who we had spoken with earlier stood by and watched the whole exchange.  Earlier, I had thought he was the owner, and maybe he was the part owner, maybe he was even this woman’s husband, it was unclear.  He gave us a look that said he was sorry about this lady’s behavior, and the next day he even approached us and apologized, which was nice, but I still felt terrible about the whole thing.  We would have left a deposit if they had asked for one!  Now I felt like some sort of Jewish stereotype living an antiquated life, and trying to get out of paying for things.  And what kind of European was this woman?  Did she really not know what Jews were??  It was humiliating returning there the next day, but the food was good, and we ignored the woman.

We even went back Saturday night with a Belgian couple we had met in Berastagi and had run into again in Lake Toba.  I told them the entire story about the food and shabbos, etc.  “Do you guys know about Jews?”  I asked them.  “Yeah, we learn about Jews in school.  We know about Jewish things, the Sabbath and all that.”  Hmm… So what was up with that woman?  We asked the Belgians if they recognized the woman’s accent, since we were trying to figure out where in Europe she was from.  They said they were not sure, but wasn’t the place called Tabo Restaurant and German Bakery…?  I should have known.

SIR, EMBRACE ME:  Our Encounter with an English Class

While Tuk-Tuk, like most of Sumatra, was pretty empty for most of our stay there, on Sunday it came to life with Indonesian tourists.

Our Hotel in Tuk-Tuk

Bloom and I went for a walk and made it only a few feet from our hotel when we were bombarded by teenagers who wanted to ask us questions, take our pictures, and get our autographs.  This was a much more intense form of celebrity than we had experienced in Berastagi.

We would walk a few steps, and then we would be interrupted by a teenager who would ask us a questions, usually “hello!  What is your name?” and as soon as we stopped to answer, 20 other teens would come out of nowhere asking us all sorts of questions.  The questions were immediately followed by pictures.  Some were group shots, but many of them wanted individual pictures with me or with Bloom.  After we posed for the pictures, the kids would shake our hands and thank us, and many would then ask for our autographs, and some even asked for our email addresses.  Many of them walked with us for a while and soon it was like a parade as more and more students joined us in our walk.

As we talked, we discovered that they were students in an English language course and they were on a field trip to Tuk-Tuk where they were hoping they would find native English speakers in order to practice their English.  Some of the questions they asked were standard like, “where are you from?”  “What are your hobbies?”  “What is the reason for your visit to Sumatra?” “Do you like Sumatra?”  “Do you like Indonesian food?”  “Do you like Justin Beiber?”   Some of the more unusual questions were, “What is the reason that American children are more smart than Indonesians?” and “Is Justin Beiber your brother?”  My responses were, “American children are not all smarter than Indonesians, why would you think that?” and “No, I am not related to Justin Bieber.”  They told me that Americans are obviously smart because they have advanced technology and that I look like Justin Bieber.  It’s true that we are both white.

The highlight of all of these interactions was that, more than once, one of the students said to Bloom, and I quote, “sir, embrace me.”  I found this to be quite a spectacular way to ask Bloom to put his arm around them in the photos, although I would not necessarily recommend using this phrase in an English speaking country.  People might get the wrong idea.

After a restful week, we packed up our bags once again, and were off to the Medan airport to fly to the next island, Java, to a city called Solo via Kuala Lumpur.  We flew via KL because it was cheap, and because then we were given new visas since we were going to overstay our original 30 day visas.  We flew to Solo because it was the cheapest flight we found to Java.  We spent from midnight until 7 am in the KL airport, which I thought I could tolerate, but when at 1 am they kicked everyone out of the airport in order to fumigate the place, I no longer supported my let’s sleep in the airport plan.  In the end, after some fighting and complaining, we managed to arrive safely and even happily in Solo, which I will write about in the next post.

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31st October
written by Ilana

We arrived in a small village with a few tiny shops.  The driver told us this was Tangkahan, so we got out of the car and said our goodbyes.  We went through a small hut and saw that on the other side was a river.  In order for us to reach our jungle lodge, appropriately named “Jungle Lodge” we would have to cross this river on a “ferry.”

On the ferry

The ferry was a wooden raft with a little hut over it to shade the passengers.  The river was pretty narrow, so the ferry ride only took a few minutes.  We took the ferry, climbed off, and climbed up many stairs and through a jungle-y path to reach our lodge.

The whole place felt abandoned.

“I have a reservation “ I said to the 3 people sitting around the lodge.

I got a bunch of confused looking stares in response.

“I emailed ALEX”  I said slowly and loudly, hoping that would help.

“Alex,” a woman said to me.

There was much confusion and quite the language barrier.  It seemed the Alex who I emailed with was maybe in Germany…  In any event, he was not in the jungle.  We were eventually led to a hut overlooking more jungle and a part of the river.

View from the Jungle Lodge

It was pretty spacious, and we had a nice balcony.

I stood on the balcony and looked around.  It seemed we were literally in the middle of nowhere.  There was no electricity when we arrived; it only went on from around 6-11 pm from a generator.  This worked out well for Shabbos, because we could just leave the lights on and they would automatically shut off at 11.  I knew that there were a few things to do in Tangkahan—there were elephant treks, which we would do on Sunday, and there was some waterfall somewhere and hot springs.  I went back into our hut and remembered that I was sweating through all of my clothes.  It was so damn hot.  There was no fan, and even if there was, there was no electricity so it wouldn’t really help me.

We decided that since we had at least an hour or so before Shabbos we would try to find out where this waterfall was, and maybe stick our heads under it, and then we would at least we would know where to go to cool off on Shabbos.  We walked back into the lodge area and I tried to communicate to the folks chilling there that we wanted to know where the waterfall was.  Again, my words were met with blank stares.

I saw that on the wall there were pictures of a waterfall.  I pointed at the picture.  “WATER-FALL.”  I said, slowly and loudly.  God, I hate myself when I talk like that.  But on the other hand, locals never seem to understand me when I don’t speak in my slow loud I’m-communicating-with-a-non-English-speaker voice.  But still, I feel like such a tool.

Anyway, the message was understood, and a guy started walking.  We guessed we were meant to follow him.  He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and Bloom and I were also wearing our clothes, since we assumed that someone would just explain where the waterfall was and then we would briefly check it out before going back to our hut and showering for shabbos.

We followed the guy through the jungle, down some stairs and then he proceeded to walk into the river in his clothes.  He motioned for us to follow him.  Alright.  It was so hot anyway, I guess it didn’t matter that I was about to walk into a river fully clothed.  I was freaking out a bit as we climbed over slippery stones and I thought about how my near-drowning the day before.  Whatever, it was too hot to be afraid, and this guy kept on walking, so we kept on following him.  We walked past something that looked like a cross between a crocodile and a snake.  “What the hell is that??”  I asked, alarmed.  The guy laughed at me, and kept walking.  “It’s a monitor,” Bloom said.  What on earth is a monitor??  I stared at it and kept walking.

After a few minutes he climbed over some very large rocks and held my hand as I struggled up the rocks.  Then we saw the waterfall which was up quite a few more large slippery rocks.  The guy climbed up those rocks as if he was climbing a normal, dry staircase.  He then went and sat under the waterfall as the water pounded down on his head.   I was wet enough.  I was too scared to climb up more slippery rocks.  How would I get down?  I was already cooling off since I was standing in water up to my waist, so I figured I didn’t really need to climb under a waterfall.  Good, so now we knew where the waterfall was.  And it was only a few minutes walk from our hut.  “HOT SPRINGS??”  I asked the guy loudly and slowly.  Ugh, again, I hated myself as I spoke.  He seemed to understand and he bounded down the river, as again we followed him.  We waded toward the direction of our hut, and then the guy started swimming across the river.  He motioned that we had to swim across to get to the hot springs.

It’s one thing to wade through waist high water, but it is quite another to actually swim across a river fully clothed, the day after the near drowning.  No.  Bloom swam across.  I then watched as Bloom and the guy climbed behind a rock and then I couldn’t see them.  Eventually, Bloom came back over the rock and yelled across the river to me, “it’s really good here!  Come across!”  After much back and forth, and me acting like a complete baby, Bloom agreed to swim me across the river.  Yes, I admit, it is very very lame to be swam across a small river instead of swimming myself, but alas, that is what was done.  We got to the other side, and the hot springs were indeed really good.  In fact, this whole place was pretty good.  True, it was the middle of the jungle and we had yet to see more than 4 people in the whole place, but it was kind of nice that way.  Creepy, but nice.  We had our own private river, hot springs, waterfall and jungle.

We ate dinner at our lodge that night, which was beautiful and was basically a large open air gazebo overlooking the river.  Dinner was basically a war of who could get to our food first, us or the mass line of ants marching across the table.  It was pretty dark, and I tried not to think about what the odds were that I had eaten an ant over the course of the meal.

We went back to our hut, and tried to sleep even though it was ridiculously hot and the mosquito net seemed to make it even hotter in the bed.

Eventually I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew  I was awoken by a scratching noise, which I tried to ignore, but then I heard a loud “HISSS.”  I looked next to me and realized that Bloom had made the hissing noise.  The scratching stopped.  Oh my god.  “Bloom, what are you doing??”
“I think there’s something in here,” he said.

It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Bloom next to me.  Like idiots, since it was shabbos, we didn’t even have our flashlights anywhere near us.  I was freaking out.  “What’s in here?  Is it a monkey??”

I love to look at monkeys.  From afar.  I am terrified of them.  They look and act too much like humans to be trusted.  I feel like a monkey would stab me in the back any day.  I also suspect that there will come a time in this trip when I have a physical fight with a monkey.  I have been careful so far, and have backed away and behind closed doors when monkeys have come near me, but I know that eventually the monkeys will catch up with me, and if we don’t have a physical fight, at the very least it will steal my camera or something else valuable and then laugh in my face.

“I don’t think it’s a monkey,” Bloom said.  “It might not even be in here.  It sounded like it was biting through the wood of the floor or the door or something.”  UGH.  Repulsive.  Maybe a small hut in the middle of the jungle with no electricity or people was not the best place after all.

I turned on the indiglo light on my watch to try to see Bloom’s face.  He got out of the bed and wandered around the hut.  I was freaking out.  What if the animal was right next to the bed?  What if it was in the bed?  What if it actually was a monkey??  I couldn’t see a thing, so I just kept holding down the indiglo light on my watch.  How could I care about shabbos when a rabid monkey was potentially on the loose in my bed??  And Bloom was out in the room wandering around doing God knows what.  I kept shining my watch on him, but I’m not sure it really helped.

After quite some time he came back to bed, but this time I really couldn’t sleep.  I kept imagining things crawling all over me, or hearing scratching on the floor, and then Bloom would hiss again to quiet down the creature.  “Bloom, maybe we should just try to get out of here right after shabbos, maybe we should forget about the elephants.  I’m really creeped out here.”
“Don’t worry, try to get some sleep.”

I dozed in and out until at some point I woke up and saw that I could see.  The sun was out.  We had made it through the night with no monkey bites!  Hooray.  In the light of day I looked around and realized what an idiot I had been at night.  There was nothing to fear.  It was completely safe here.  Bloom looked through our bags and discovered that one of his infamous banana’s had been eaten.  So there was an animal inside the room.  Ew.  I tried not to think about it.

Shabbos was uneventful.  We read, slept and swam, and discovered three other tourists.

At night Bloom and I both had a hard time sleeping.  We thought that the animal had perhaps come into the hut through the drain in the bathroom, so bloom filled a bucket with water and put it over the drain, he also locked the bathroom door.  It was still creepy.  Eventually I fell asleep, but I was again awoken by Bloom shining his flashlight all over the walls and floor of the hut.  “There’s nothing we can do, just stay here and go back to sleep” I said to him, as he started climbing out of bed.  He did not listen, and he spent a while wandering the room, shining his flashlight all over the place trying to find the creature.

We woke up the next morning and got ready to see some elephants, and tried to forget about the creature of the night.  We crossed the river on the “ferry” again and were surprised to see many Indonesian  families walking down to the river carrying coolers and food.  We were no longer alone in the jungle.

We walked for a while until we some elephants hanging out by the side of the road.  We watched as their mahouts (elephant driver) rode them down to the river to bathe them. It was awesome.  I had read somewhere that Tangkahan is a relatively new tourist destination (even though we only saw a few tourists there are still 4 guesthouses there which means it does cater to holding a few tourists), and a few years ago the whole area was in danger of being completely logged.  The locals got together and decided to protect the area and turn it into a tourist destination or something like that…  Anyway, the elephants are used to patrol the area and make sure loggers don’t come in and illegally chop down the trees.  So the elephants were being used for a good cause.

We bathed  and fed the elephants and saw the newborn baby elephant who was adorable.  We were joined by a Japanese family and we all set off to ride the elephants for an hour through the hills of the jungle.  It was a pleasant morning.  The only unpleasant part was when we got back to our hut and realized that the bucket covering the drain had been moved the night before, and that the creature of the night was still hunting us.  Ugh.  We would deal with that later, I guess.

We spent the rest of the day swimming in the river with the locals.  A girl swimming in her underwear swam up to me.  “HELLO! What is your name??”
“Ilana, what is YOUR name?”

She laughed and swam around, and then told me her name was SIska, and that she’s seven years old.  “Do you like visit Tangkahan?”   I told her I very much enjoyed Tangkahan, and praised her English skills.  She then decided to swim underwater toward me for a while, before getting bored and swimming to the hot springs to fill a water bottle with water from the hot spring to then pour all over me and her brother.

That was the thing about Sumatra, the kids were all so friendly and hilarious, and were always  making conversation with us.

Anyway, after our swim we realized that we had to figure out how exactly we were going to leave this place.

Bloom swimming in the river

Our plan was to take a bus to the big city Medan, and then connect to another bus to a small city called Berastagi where we would hang out and maybe see a volcano or two on our way to Lake Toba.  The problem was that the last bus to Berastagi was at 4 pm, so we had to get in to Medan before that.

We asked anyone some of the locals when the bus was leaving the next day.  We received many responses.  “Bus at 6, 7 and 2,”  “Bus at 6:30 and 8:30,”  “Bus only at 7:30,” “maybe only one bus tomorrow at 6?”  Whaaaat.  There was definitely no such thing as a bus schedule here, so we were not quite sure how to move forward with this one.

We went back to our lodge and asked them about the buses.  We were mostly met with blank stares yet again, until one guy who sort of knew English came by and declared that the bus was at 7.  “Ok so we want to take that bus,” I told him.  “No can take that bus” he responded.
“Why not?”
“You need to cross river with bags to get to the bus.  Ferry does not run early in morning.  Water too high.”
“Ok, well then can we sleep on the other side of the river?”
“Ok, I take you to place to sleep.”

We followed this guy back across the river and he showed us an overpriced dilapidated room surrounded by chickens.  Bloom was the one who said no to this one.

Hmm.  We weren’t quite sure what to do now.  We headed back down the steps toward the river when a man approached us and said “need transport?”  We explained that maybe we did need transport, but really we just wanted to take the (cheap) local bus to Medan, but weren’t sure how to get across the river in time for the 7 o’clock bus.  “Maybe no 7 o’clock bus” he told us, “maybe only 5:30 morning bus.”

Whaaaat.  Where was 5:30 coming into this whole plan?  This was a new one.  The man introduced himself as Mega, the owner of Mega Inn and said he would talk to the bus driver when he arrives and ask him what time the bus will leave tomorrow.  We could find him at Mega Inn and ask him about the bus times.

Ok, well at least this Mega guy seemed to be helpful.  Finally someone who would find us some answers.  We went to Mega Inn for dinner, which was delicious by the way, and Mega told us there would only be two buses the following day, one at 5:30 am, and one at 2 pm.  We asked him if there was any way we could take the ferry across to make the 5:30 bus.  We expected him to say no, after we had been told we couldn’t take the ferry across to make the alleged 7:30 bus, but Mega said yes.  He told us that he was driving to Bukit Lawang to pick up some tourists and had to get across early, so he and his friend would take the ferry across  themselves, and we could go with them.  Wejust had to be at the ferry crossing at 5 am.  Ok, I think we can handle that, I thought, as I sat back and drank my banana milkshake, and listened to one of the locals play guitar.  He played “Knocking on heaven’s door,” and then he seemed to be singing Jingle Bells, but I listened and realized that instead of the Jingle Bells lyrics he had changed the words and was instead singing “Jungle trek, jungle trek, in tangkahan.  See the monkeys, see the birds, see the elephants…”  I thought this was awesome, but am no longer of this opinion when, three weeks later, I still find the “jungle trek jungle trek”  lyrics running through my head.

We tried to get some sleep, which we of course did not do, since Bloom again spent much of the night trying to find the creature, and hanging our bags from the walls so they would be safe.  At 4:45 am, in the pitch black jungle, we put on all our bags and our headlamps and trekked through the jungle,  and down the stairs to the river, where Mega was already waiting for us.  I handed him my bag and waded through the river to then climb onto the ferry.  I felt like we were escaping Poland to try to get to freedom.  Dead of night, climbing onto boats, carrying all of my belongings, etc.  However, this place was warm, and I had yet to meet any blatant anti-semites or angry dogs, so I guess there were a few differences between  Tangkahan and Poland.  A few.

We made it to the other side of the river, and we saw our bus.  To call this a dilapidated schoolbus that was probably used in some western country in the 1970’s before it was deemed unfit for use, would be an understatement.  There were holes in the wall, cracks in the windows, and the sides seemed to be rusting away.  Oh well.  We said goodbye to Mega and got on the bus with a few local schoolchildren, and by 5:20 we were off, bumping along the unpaved jungle roads to pick up at least 100 more schoolchildren, and quite a few sacks of oranges.  I found it hilarious that we were actually on a local school bus, as did the children, many of whom used us to practice their English.  I was afraid for some of their lives as I looked out the window and saw a bunch of them hanging off of bars on the outside of the bus  and sitting on the roof.

While on the bus, we looked at our bags and realized that Bloom’s daypack had a hole in it.  Bloom looked into the bag and pulled out his hazon chicobag and saw that that too had a hole in it, he then pulled out a double wrapped Ziploc bag and saw that it too had a hole, and when he looked inside the Ziploc we were not surprised to find a granola bar had been eaten.  Damn that creature.  It must have been some sort of psychotically resourceful rat if he was able to eat through a strong backpack and into another cloth bag and then through a double Ziploc and then into a granola bar.  When I thought of this rat’s strength, I was glad to be leaving Tangkahan.

After four hours of the bumpiest, sweatiest bus ride of my life we made it to Medan, where we sat around the bus station for a while with some local crazies, some of whom had their shirts half off, many of whom were lying on benches singing to themselves.  I was exhausted, so I joined them, and lay on a bench and acted crazy myself.

Our fired driver had wanted to meet us and maybe give us back some of our money so we waited for him for over an hour.  When he finally met us, he took us to a “café” (read:  the front of someone’s house) and berated us for a while.  I wasn’t feeling well at all, so I was trying to ignore this whole meeting and hoping he would just give us some money back and we could all move on with our lives.  But for some reason he chose to go on and on about how irresponsible we were for hiring him and then firing him, no one has ever treated him this way, etc.  I had felt guilty enough about firing the guy, but at the same time, we paid him half the cost, and he had driven us to only one place!  Why was he telling us how terrible we were?  Did he drag us here just for that?  Did I lie around with a bunch of possible drunks in an abandoned bus station for this?

Finally, I said something, “look, we are sorry we decided we didn’t need you.  We told you we felt bad.  We paid you the money.  What’s the problem?”

He told us that we were reaching the moment of truth to see what kind of people we really were.  Whaaat.  He then asked us how much money we think he ought to give us back.

Oh God.  So he was testing us?  We asked him for very little back, which was more than we were ever expecting to see again, and he was happy.  He deemed us good people, and gave us some money back, and pointed us toward our bus.  Good riddance.  At least that awkwardness was over.  We are never hiring a driver in advance again, that’s for sure.

And we were on to Berastagi.

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17th October
written by Ilana

Oct. 7
After tubing down the river in Bukit Lawang at the end of our jungle trek, and watching many locals tube down the river all day, Bloom decided that, for a little more than $1, renting our own tube was a worthwhile investment.

When we had tubed at the end of our trek, Bloom and I had shared a large tube that was tied to two other tubes, and we had guides who appropriately steered us through the rapids, but we had seen that water was shallow, and there were only rapids in a few spots, and tiny local children were tubing, so it must be safe, right?

I was happily reading in the hammock on our balcony, enjoying the shade and the view, but Bloom wanted to tube, so, trying to be my most chilled out self, I encouraged him to go, and agreed that of course it was fine for him to go for a while by himself, he should just come back and get me later and maybe I would join him.

Bloom left to get a tube, and I went back to my book.  After 40 minutes or so, I looked out at the water.  The rapids looked strong from here.  Shouldn’t I have seen Bloom tube by?  Would I have missed him?  No, I’m sure everything’s fine, I’m just being crazy…but..isn’t it dangerous for someone to go to open water by themselves?  Hadn’t I learned that somewhere?  Isn’t that a thing?

As the minutes ticked by, I was using all of my strength to not think that something terrible happened to Bloom in the river.  I decided I was an awful wife for letting him go alone, and got my bathing suit on under my clothes, hoping he would be back soon, and this time I was going with him.

As soon as I was dressed and ready to go, Bloom came back.  We went down to the water, and it was awesome.  The river  was beautiful, and most of it was pretty calm, and serene.  I couldn’t believe I was such a beautiful place, in a tube, in the jungles of Sumatra.  A few times the water got rough and at one point we fell out, but it was fine, and we managed to get back in the tube.

When we had gone far enough, we got out of the tube and sat in the water for a while, watching mothers clean their clothes and children bathe.  Eventually Bloom said he was ready to walk up the river and tube back down again.  I remembered how freaked out I had been when he had gone by himself, and it had been fun, so I agreed to go again.

This time was even more idyllic, since at the start of the tube ride we saw an orangutan swinging from the trees on the side of the river.  How crazy!  We floated along peacefully, hitting a few rapids, getting soaked, screaming and laughing, when suddenly we hit a rock and instead of landing on our feet like the previous time, I got pulled under the water in the strong current.  I tried to lift my head out but I kept getting pulled back in.  I got my head out for a second, but felt myself losing control.  “Bloom!”  I yelled, swallowing water.  “Grab onto me!” I heard him say, and then I saw him reach for me.  I was able to grab onto him, but only for a second when the current shoved me back under.  I felt that I was only wearing one of my flip flops, and I felt the other one get pulled off my foot.  I managed to get up again, and grab Bloom and this time I managed to pull myself out enough that I was standing, but I still felt like the water might knock me over, even though it wasn’t deep.  We weren’t far from the shore and we managed to pull ourselves over to the riverbank, where I collapsed onto the rocks.  My legs were shaking, and I was mentally shaken as well.  I took a deep breath.  I felt on my head and realized my headband that I wear almost every day was gone, and I looked at my bare feet.  Dammit.

We looked down the river and saw that around 50 feet ahead, the water was completely calm.  I wondered what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been able to grab onto Bloom.  Would I have just been dragged along to the calm section?  Did I hurt myself by trying to resist the water instead of letting it pull me along?  Ahhh…what a clichéd metaphor!  If only I didn’t resist and fight, I would float gently by…  Gross.

I was terrified, and I was just thankful to be alive, but maybe it wasn’t actually that dangerous…?  I guess it doesn’t really matter if it was really dangerous or not, what matters is that I felt incredibly scared, well that, and the fact that I now lost a pair of reefs and the UV protected head wrap that I will not be able to replace out here.

Needless to say, I told Bloom no more tubing.  He was not so happy about my demands, but I begged him not to go back in the water right now, and I was pretty freaked out, so he agreed.  He went to the calm part of the water to look for my flip flops, to no avail.  Oh well.  We walked back to our guesthouse, and it started to pour.  It was actually refreshing and I was already soaked and shoeless, and walking very slowly on my still shaking legs, so I didn’t mind.

I still loved the tubing, it was just a shame that it had to end on such a rough note.  I felt vulnerable and scared of this crazy jungle.  All I wanted was to take a hot shower and crawl up in bed and maybe watch a movie.  That was definitely not in the cards.  We made our way back to the room, through the rain, took cold showers, and then I lay down under the mosquito net , and read some of my book to distract me from my fear.

We went to dinner, and, as was usual in Bukit Lawang, we were joined by some of the locals.  One of them was a man called Danny (many of the Indonesians we have met go by Western names for tourists, we asked if we could call them their full names, but they seem to like the Western  ones) who had helped us out a few times and had agreed to be our driver to Tangkahan, our next destination that cannot be reached from Bukit Lawang on public transport.  He had also helped us find yet another vegetarian restaurant in the town where the owner/cook/waiter allowed us into the kitchen and showed us how he made our meals, and he had helped us plan our onward itinerary.  He was very friendly and I liked him a lot.

He introduced us to his friend and said that he was very sorry, but he could not drive us, and his friend would take us instead.  The friend was wearing what looked like a big knit kippah.  “Where did you get your hat?  My husband is looking for one like that.”  He laughed, and then he and Bloom traded hats.  He put on the green 5 boro bike ride baseball hat, and Bloom put on the Muslim kippah.

“You look very serious now!  Everyone respect you!” The guy told Bloom.

I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but somewhere in this exchange I decided to go for it, and reveal our Jewishness to this guy, explaining that Bloom wanted to wear this hat for religious reasons.  The Muslim guy loved it.  “You are religious Jewish??  Very similar to Muslim!  You are my brother!”  If only all interfaith relations went this well…

We went on to discuss all our similarities.  He prayed 5 times a day, we pray 3 times a day.  He pays attention to what he eats, only eating halal, we also have weird eating habbits.  He was very excited and asked us if we could leave for Tangkahan later in the day, since we were leaving on a Friday, and he wanted to go to the mosque for afternoon prayer.  We explained that we needed to be in by a certain time for Shabbos, and we all worked out an agreeable time to all religions.

He said that he would take us to the local market in the morning and we would eat lunch at his house.  Bloom explained our different issues with kashrut.   He was very understanding about our requests, and it was all good.

The day in the market, our meal at the guy’s house, and the bumpy 2 and a half hour drive to Tangkahan were a good time.

We said goodbye to Bukit Lawang and moved on to Tangkahan

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15th October
written by Ilana

Oct. 5—We left our hotel at 5 am to make our flight from KL—Medan.  We flew with Air Asia, which was insanely cheap and super efficient about check-in.  The flight was 40 minutes, making it the shortest international flight I had ever taken.  On the plane we were approached by an old bearded man with a turban wearing a long orange shirt and matching pants.  “English?”  He asked us.  We told him yes, we knew English.  He showed us his customs and immigration forms, handed us his Indian passport and motioned for us to fill them out for him.  I looked around the plane and realized that Bloom and I were the only two non-Asian people on the flight, which must have been why the man approached us.  Bloom began to fill out his forms, and tried explaining the questions, which was difficult since the man did not know any English.  “Where are you sleeping?”  Bloom asked slowly and loudly.  The man looked at us with a confused stare.  “sleeeep-ing,”  Bloom said, slower.  That obviously did not help, so Bloom tried once again, this time making a sleeping motion by putting his head on his hands.  “ohh,” the man said, “Sikh Temple.”  Bloom wrote “Sikh Temple” on the form.  Bloom then tried to ask him why he was travelling.  Business?  Holiday?  Eventually the man got it, and said “prayer.  2 days prayer.  Back to Malaysia.”  I decided I would help ask him customs questions as well, so I tried “do you have any weapons?  Guns?  Bang  bang?”  I pointed my fingers at him like a gun.  He looked startled by that one, and shook his head.  For some reason, I found the entire interaction with this man absurd and hilarious, and I kept laughing, which I tried to hold back since I did not want the man to think I was laughing at him, when in fact I really was laughing at the situation.  Bloom and I were on a plane to a city in Sumatra asking an Indian Sikh man all kinds of customs questions.  It just seemed bizarre to think that a few days earlier we were loitering in suburban Melbourne.

We landed in the heat, and I decided to unzip the lower part of my pants, making them into capri pants.  Bloom reminded me that we had read that when applying for an Indonesian visa it’s important to look somewhat professional.  I reminded him that we were getting a visa on arrival, and it didn’t matter. We went to the counter to apply for our visa, and the man just stared at my calves.  Oh no.  Did I offend Indonesia already?  He looked at me for a while and looked back at my passport.  Eventually he put a stamp in there that said 30 day visa NON-EXTENDABLE.  This is weird, since I am pretty sure that everyone gets an extendable visa.  Luckily, we decided the day before to book our next flight to go from Indonesia (Sumatra)—Malaysia (KL)—Indonesia (Java), so we would get a new visa when leaving and then re-entering Indonesia.  But still, I do think it’s strange that NON-EXTENDABLE was written on our visa…  Maybe it’s really because of the Israel stamp in my passport…?  I guess I will never know.

In the airport we had planned to meet up with a potential driver/guide who had been recommended to us by someone who had helped us plan our Sumatra trip who we had “met” on the lonely planet thorntree forum.  We knew a driver would be expensive, but he had said he would meet us at the airport and we could negotiate.  This was probably not the best idea, since we were both exhausted at this point, and not in our best negotiating mood.  We sat in his air conditioned car and went over prices with him.  We wanted to go to Ketambe to do some jungle trekking, but he did not want to take us there, and told us he would take us to other places and we could do that leg on our own.  We went back and forth for a while, and finally he gave us a price and said he would also drive us from Medan to Bukit Lawang, a jungle town 3 hours away, right now.  “Fine,” Bloom said, “let’s take it.”  It was probably beyond our budget, but we were already in his car, and he seemed like a good guy, so we agreed, and he asked for half the money, which we gave to him.

When we arrived in Bukit Lawang we saw signs all over the place for tourist buses that would take us to the same places the driver was going to take us to, but for TONS less money.  TONS.  Oh no.  What had we done?  We had just given away a big chunk of our budget to this man, and we had agreed that he wouldn’t take us to Ketambe, the one difficult place to reach on our itinerary.  What were we doing?  We needed to cancel, or at least ask to be taken to Ketambe.  We tried to call the guy, but the power was out all around town and the call didn’t go through, since phone service seemed to be down as well.  The next morning, right before we were about to leave for a jungle trek in Bukit Lawang, Bloom got in touch with the driver, who told Bloom to meet him at his hotel.  We were meant to be trekking in 9 minutes, but at the same time, the driver was leaving town and he had half our money, and we wanted to try to negotiate with him, or we would never see that money again.

“Ketambe or bust?”  Bloom asked me.  I agreed, and he ran off to meet the driver.

A few minutes later our trekking guide showed up and said we had to leave now if we wanted to see any orangutans.  “I saw your husband.  Why did he go now?  Not a good time to go talk to driver.”  Oh dear.  If we missed the orangutans, the reason we had come here in the first place, because we had to negotiate with a driver, I would go insane.  I felt my new zen self slowly slipping away as panic set in.  I told the guide we should walk quickly to find my husband.  Luckily, this town only has one road, so we would find him sooner or later.  We eventually found him, and ran through the jungle to see the orangutans.  I have never  released so much sweat into the universe before.

Hey there orangutan!

It was so hot and so humid, and we had to climb what felt like a million ginormous stairs to reach the place where the orangutans usually come and eat in the morning.

We reached the top, and saw a bunch of orangutans in the trees.  My zen self was back.

Watching the orangutans was incredible.  The way they moved, their faces, the way they ate, I just couldn’t get enough.  And we even saw two of them who had small babies.

We were there for maybe an hour, taking pictures and watching them, and then we continued to trek into the jungle.  I had signed us up for a one day relaxed/easy trek, since this is still the first week back into things and I wanted to take it slow.  I was in for a rude awakening.

It’s not that it was too hard for me, exactly… it’s just that I have no sense of balance.  I was not so out of breath or anything, and my muscles felt fine, but I fell quite a few times, and two or three of those times I got pretty bruised up.  The terrain was insane.  We were climbing up these slippery, narrow, steep ladders of rocks and branches and then back down again.  One of my worst falls was when we were coming down some rocky area and I slipped back and grabbed onto a vine and sort of hung there off the ground.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had slipped in the jungle and was now hanging from a vine.  I looked at the guide and at Bloom.  “This is what I did not want to happen to you,” the guide said, as he carried me off the vine.  He pointed at our porter and told me I had to hold his hand for the rest of the way.  How humiliating.  Even worse was that I still managed to fall a few more times while holding the porter’s hand!  What is wrong with me?  A few times I fell while standing in place.  I was not even walking!

The guide told me that I would not be able to go to the bat cave the next day, since it is very steep and I would clearly not make it.  “Your husband, he will be fine.  Not you, I am sorry,” he said.  Are all these backpackers in ridiculous shape or something?  How was this the easy trek?  What was happening to me?  I told the guide I was embarrassed and he said “don’t be embarrassed, before this you come from America, you eating McDonald’s every day, so you are not able to walk in the jungle now.”

Umm.  WHAT?!  To add to the humiliation of my multiple falls, I now had a guide telling me that I looked like a fatass who eats McDonald’s every day, and since I am so fat, that’s why I was unable to stay on my feet in the jungle.

“I don’t eat McDonald’s,” I informed him, “I’m a vegetarian.”  I didn’t quite feel like going into the kosher thing at that point.

“You’re a vegetarian?”  He looked at my body and looked surprised.

Crap.  How much weight did I gain in Australia??  Was I delusional?  I didn’t think I looked like a person who eats McDonald’s every day…  Maybe I need a reality check?  Bloom tried to reassure me by saying that by Indonesian standards I might look large.  Fantastic.  I love Bloom, but tact is not really his thing.

No no no.  I was not going to let all of this get to me.  I was in the jungle.  It was beyond beautiful.  I saw orangutans eating right in front of me.  I was in a place that looked like a tropical paradise, with hardly any tourists.  Ok, so I fell a few times, and obviously serious jungle trekking might not be for me, but we were only trekking for 3-4 hours today, so that was good, at least I hadn’t signed us up for two days…  And so what if this Indonesian man thinks I’m fat?  And so what if I am fat?  As long as I’m healthy, who cares?  Fine, so I gained some weight in Australia, but I was traveling and hiking and walking around every day now, so I will be fine.

The trek ended in the afternoon, and we took large tubes down a river back to the town, which was pretty fun.

Trekking in the jungle

By the end I looked like a complete wreck.  I had cuts on my hands, bruises on my elbows and knees, sore arms from hanging from the vine, mud all over my pants and my shirt was drenched with sweat.  This merited a cold shower.

People like to say that when it’s so hot, you want to take a cold shower.  I do not buy into this philosophy.  I don’t care how hot it is outside, I will always want a hot shower and will always be unsatisfied with a cold one, but alas, I did not have a choice, and I survived it and will survive many more cold showers.

After realizing that I am the world’s worst jungle trekker, I told Bloom that I no longer wanted to go to Ketambe, where the trekking is supposed to be more hard core.  I don’t quite understand what’s more hard core than climbing slippery rocks and branches, but the Lonely Planet says that experienced jungle trekkers may find Bukit Lawang too basic, and those people should head to Ketambe for more serious trekking.  I had found Bukit Lawang too difficult, so I had a problem.

We had another problem which is that Bloom had met with the driver that morning and had negotiated with the driver that he would take us to Ketambe, although we would have to pay even more money for it.  Bloom said that it was clear that if we canceled the driver we would not get any of our money back, so he had negotiated instead.  So now we had already made things awkward with this driver by forcing him to take us to Ketambe, and now I realized that Ketambe was probably not worth it for us, since it is a long way out of the way for jungle trekking, and I did not feel like a competent jungle trekker.

The guilt is now coming back.  How can we cancel the driver?  Now he will hate us.  Not only will he hate us, but we have lost an insane amount of money that could have lasted us at least a week here.  So much money to lose!  But if we go with the driver, we still have to pay him the other half of the money we owe him, and it just isn’t worth it.  Or is it?  AHH.  I hate being inside my head!  I also started regretting our decision not to stay overnight in the jungle, since now if we don’t go to Ketambe, we won’t get the overnight jungle experience here.  And maybe I should just push myself to do the jungle trek!  I’ve pushed myself before, and I’ve been happy about it.  However, unlike the trekking in South America, in this case I actually feel like it’s not so safe for me to be out there where I can fall more seriously.

I need to just let it go.  Let the money go and learn a lesson not to book guides/drivers in advance.  If we ever want a guide again, we now know that we should only book it when we have been in the town a while and know the other prices.  Bloom says that as far as lessons go, this is not such a costly one.  Of course Bloom has the right attitude.  And what about the trekking?  “No regrets,” Bloom says.  “We made a choice, we had a great time, that’s it.  You are not allowed to regret our choices.”  Well then, I guess that’s settled.  But maybe I would like the trekking in Ketambe?  Maybe it wouldn’t be too hard?  Oh man, I am out getting out of control again.

So now that I have talked about our jungle trek and driver woes, I will write a little about where we are.  Bukit Lawang is a small town a few hours north of Medan in North Sumatra.  The town has a river in it, and the river is surrounded by hills on both sides.  There is one road along the side of the river, and there are rows of jungle cabins, small restaurants and souveneirs being sold to the non-existent tourists.  There are no cars on the road, only the occasional motorcycle.

Bloom wandering around Bukit Lawang

It’s a beautiful place.  Every morning Bloom and I wake up to see a group of monkeys (long tailed macaques) jump around and eat fruit in the trees surrounding our balcony.  From our balcony this morning, we also got to see a group of Thomas-leaf monkeys which are a species only found in Sumatra.  It is quite idyllic.

The driver dropped us off the side of a main road, and we then walked down into the village.  Bloom had bought bananas on the drive up, but the woman would only sell him a whole stalk of them, instead of just a few, so Bloom and I walked into town, me carrying my little daypack (someone was carrying my big bag) and Bloom carrying his big bag, his daypack, and 15 bananas.  As we entered the town everyone called out to us, “Hello!  Hello!” and then a few people called out “Hello Mr. Banana Man!”  I loved this.  Everyone was smiling and friendly and came to talk to us as we walked down the road toward our guesthouse.

Most people here are super friendly and many stop and talk to us on when we meet them in the road.  Even Bloom’s friend remembered us later, asking “Hello Mr. Banana Man!  Why so many bananas?  Where did all bananas go?”  I was surprised he recognized us without the bananas, but then again, there are few tourists here, so I guess he can remember them.  It’s bizarre actually that there are so few tourists here.  It’s a great town.  There is no internet and the electricity has gone out a few times, but it’s beautiful and cheap and there are monkeys wandering around!

We came here, as anyone does, to see the orangutans.  The national park on the other side of the river is one of the only places in the world where you can see orangutans in their habitat (the other ones are in Borneo).   Most of the orangutans near Bukit Lawang are not wild.  They are being rehabilitated into the jungle after being found in some human’s house.  People come into the jungle and steal baby orangutans, sometimes by shooting its mother, and keep them as pets or somehow exploit them.  These orangutans, when found, are re-released into their habitat, but they are still fed by rangers in the park twice a day, since they do not yet know how to get their own food.  We went to the part of the jungle where the orangutans are fed, and that’s when we saw a whole bunch of them climbing around and eating.  One of the reasons we were going to go to Ketambe was to see wild orangutans that never lived in captivity.  But I really thought seeing these orangutans still felt authentic enough for me.  They were not living in cages, they climbed around the trees wherever they wanted, and we saw a bunch away from the feeding station as well, just hanging out in trees.  Yes, they rely on humans for food, but I think it was still pretty awesome.

We have eaten delicious local food here.  Luckily, we found a restaurant which, by chance, has no meat on the menu, so we have eaten our meals there.  Our favorites have been gado-gado, steamed vegetables covered in a peanutey sauce and mei goreng which is stir fried noodles and vegetables with some good spices.  Bloom has also been eating his share of fried bananas from the street, which he loves.

Last night we were talking to some of the people who work at our guesthouse and they asked if we wanted dinner.  We were having such a nice time talking to everyone that I decided, stupidly, to explain that for religious reasons, we prefer to eat food that has not been cooked in a pan that was used to cook meat.  “We wash our dishes!”  the owner said, “you think that our dishes are not cleaned?  That there is still meat in the pan?  We clean well!  I am very sensitive about this.”  I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with cleanliness, that it’s just a religious rule and that even in our own house we have two sets of all the dishes!  “We know that we clean the dishes too!”  I protested.  He did not accept this.  “I have heard of many people doing different things, person came here who only ate raw fruit and that can make sense, but this is not good.  You want us to buy all new pots for you?!”  “NO.” I stated firmly, “we do not expect anything of you.  You have been great, it is only difficult for us, not you, we are just more comfortable not eating from those pans.”

It got really awkward, and all of the people we had been talking to were quiet, and looking at us like we were freaks.  “You should respect our religious choices,” I said, “I’m not making you do anything, just asking you to respect me…”  Awkward silence again, and finally I said, “we’re going to go…” and we left to go to the vegetarian guesthouse restaurant.

As soon as we walked out the door I started crying.  I don’t even know why!  For some reason this whole exchange was very upsetting to me.  I was upset about the way the man spoke to me about my religious decisions, and I was also upset with myself for offending one of the locals.  Travel etiquette is confusing.  On the one hand, I believe in pluralism, meaning I believe that people should be accepting of each other’s beliefs without trying to force the other to lose part of his/her identity.  But on the other hand, I am traveling in someone else’s country and someone else’s culture, and maybe some of my traditions offend them.  Maybe it is offensive not to eat someone’s cooking.  I felt like such an outsider.  I was glad that I hadn’t told the guy that we were Jewish, since it would  not make Judaism any friends.

Am I a bad backpacker because I am not so willing to accept the local culture?  I think I’m ok…  But I can see someone reading the above and thinking what an idiot I am, and thinking that I don’t have the appropriate “travel values” or whatever.  I guess I told the guy about our eating preferences because I thought he would find it interesting, instead he was offended.  I always want to hear about people’s religious traditions, but I guess that I should not expect the same of all people across all cultures, and that is that.  This whole thing happened last night, and I still feel awkward around this guy at the guesthouse, and I wish I could make it right, but I’m not sure I can.

Oh well, I am making friends as well as enemies here.  We have a driver that we yanked around and a guesthouse owner that we offended by talking about kashrut.  I guess it’s ok.  I have to stop needing everyone we meet to love me, and just get over it.  It doesn’t matter.  And anyway, tomorrow we are off to Tangkahan an even smaller town 3-4 hours north of here.  There are only 4 guesthouses there, and I’m not sure if they even have electricity.  It’s supposed to be beautiful and quiet and there are hot springs and elephants.  What can be bad?  Sounds like a good place for shabbos to me.

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14th October
written by Ilana

Right now (Oct. 6)  I am sitting in our jungle cabin on a hillside in Bukit Lawang, which is in Sumatra, which is in Indonesia, which, is a country made up of around 17,000 islands in South East Asia.  Our cabin is a small room with an attached bathroom and balcony.  The bathroom has a toilet and a shower.  The shower is a bamboo pipe with cold water running out of it and onto the bathroom floor, and the toilet does not flush on its own, instead you fill a bucket with water from the shower and flush it yourself.

If you read the South America parts of this blog, then you might think that this sounds like my worst nightmare.  You might even expect me to tell some stories about how horribly wrong everything went, and how I proceeded to breakdown and cry.  Well, friends, I’ve got some news—I love it here.  I love Asia.  I love the jungle.  I love the food.  I love the ambiance.  I love cold showers and do-it-yourself flush toilets.  Ok, that last part is obviously a lie, I’m not a masochistic lunatic or anything!

I don’t know what has happened to me.  Why is Asia (or more specifically Malaysia and Indonesia and even more specifically Kuala Lumpur and Sumatra) working for me?

A few theories:

  1. Asia is warm, and warm weather makes everything better
  2. Asia has delicious, cheap, easily accessible vegetarian food, so we do not have to stress about where to find food, and we eat well.
  3. After having an existential somewhat nihilist crisis over Rosh Hashanah and then spending many many yuntif days re-reading Heschel I made peace with the world and am now living in a state of Radical Amazement trying to find God everywhere I go.
  4. I have only been in Asia for four days, so maybe I just need to be given more time here and then I will freak out.

I think all of the above are decent possibilities, with number 3 being possibly a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.  (Side note:  Everyone needs to read Heschel ASAP.  Anything by Heschel is brilliant, and I had forgotten how inspiring he can be.  I actually feel like I am going through withdrawl since I had to leave the Heschel book in Australia since it belongs to Bloom’s dad.  I just want to read Heschel all day.)

Whatever the reason, I feel totally at peace with the trip right now, which is a great feeling, and not a feeling I had in South America.

Oct.3– We got off the plane in Kuala Lumpur and I felt excited to be there.  I was excited about the heat, about being in a new country, and about the ridiculous sunset that we saw on our drive into the city from the airport.  The airport bus dropped us off a few blocks from our pre-booked cheap hotel in Chinatown and we made our way through a very crowded night market, past many different designer purses, wallets, sunglasses and fruit.  By the time we got to the hotel, I felt like I was drenched in sweat.  My backpack weighs a little over 15 kilos (33 lbs), and I was still wearing  the pants and hiking boots that I had worn on the plane, and it was insanely hot and humid, which is to be expected, I guess, when so close to the equator.

We went to our room, which fit a double bed and our backpacks, but not much else.  There were no windows and the place stunk of cigarettes and possibly mildew.  I opened the sliding accordion-like door to the bathroom to discover a closet with a toilet in it.  I was sure that this place was advertised as having a shower…  I looked around and discovered a shower head above the toilet.  It was not clear to me if this is meant purely for space saving purposes, or if it is also meant as a time-saver, since you can now be on the toilet and showering at the same time.  What a world.

We left the hotel and decided to find a vegetarian restaurant nearby.  In my need to be organized, I had made a list of ten vegetarian restaurants in KL, and we now followed a map to the nearest one.  When we got there we saw that everything was closed.  We saw some men standing around on an otherwise empty street, so we asked them if they knew of any vegetarian restaurants.  One of them told us he was a vegetarian and he would be glad to walk us to a restaurant  not too far away.

This was an amazing start.  I thought about how nice this man was to take two random people to a restaurant.   The euphoric hippie in my head was loving this.  However, the angry cynic is not dead yet and I heard it asking questions, “ it’s dark and the streets are empty.  What if this guy is taking us to an alley to rob us, and maybe even kill us??  He can’t really be just a nice guy…What does he want from us…?”

The angry cynic was forced to shut up when, after a few minutes, we arrived in an Indian section of town, to a strictly vegetarian restaurant.  The euphoric hippie was giddy.

We sat and ate delicious Indian food with a bunch of Indian families, and it was lovely.  When I went to the bathroom I was happy to discover a toilet bowl and not a hole in the ground.  However, instead of toilet paper there was a hose with a spray nozzle, which I think is meant to be used in lieu of toilet paper.  There was water all over the floor, so I’m guessing that while this may be a more environmentally friendly approach than toilet paper, it is a whole lot messier.  Also, what happens when you pull up your pants and you have a wet butt?  Do your clothes get all wet too?  I am sure I will learn more about this in due time.

The next day, our one full day in KL, we spent the morning booking some flights and then decided to go to the famous Petronas towers, two of the tallest buildings in the world.

Posing in front of the Petronas Towers

We took the subway there, which was cheap, clean and fast, but before we explored the towers, or more specifically the mall at the base of the towers, we wanted to look for lunch.  According to my research there was a Buddhist monastery near here that served a vegetarian buffet.  We asked many different people about this place, and not one of them knew where it was.  We wandered aimlessly for a while, until we finally found a monastery with golden buddhas and some chanting people.  We walked around the side of the monastery and found a very large cafeteria, where we proceeded to eat lunch  for very cheap.

And now, on to Petronas.  The buildings are actually beautiful in their own way, and the mall was fantastic.  We spent a lot of time looking at 3D TVs, and just wandering aimlessly.  It was a classy place with fancy stores galore.  The craziest thing was the bathroom.  Yes, I am writing about a bathroom again, get used to it.  So the bathrooms looked pretty nice.  Clean sinks, clean looking stalls, but then I walked into a stall and saw just a hole in the floor.  How did it make sense that in a random small Indian restaurant I managed to find a toilet bowl and here there was only a squatter?  And the squat toilet even flushed automatically when you walked away.  I am guessing this is one of the classier squat toilets out there.  I told Bloom about this discovery, and he informed me that in many places in Asia they offer both squat toilets and “Western” toilets.  This also strikes me as odd.  What woman would choose a hole in the floor over a toilet bowl?  Ahh yes, my Western biases are at it again.  But seriously… is there any advantage to a hole in the floor toilet??  Asians must have thighs of steel with all this squatting.

Anyway, enough toilet talk.  We wandered through the mall and then I noticed that “Eat, Pray, Love” was playing, and that a ticket was less than $4 a person, I was beyond happy.  I was still feeling tired from the flight the day before, and this seemed like a perfect way to really relax.

Inside the mall. Glorious.

Every so often I had this guilty feeling about being all the way in KL and then seeing a movie I could see anywhere.  But, I quieted the guilt and reminded myself that I needed to learn to move slowly and rest and watch movies sometimes instead of tiredly treading through the humid streets to take pictures of God knows what.  Also, I loved the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and was really looking forward to the movie.   I know that my love of this book will make some of you judge me, since there are those who see it was self-indulgent crap.  I am aware of that, but I still loved the book.  The movie was just ok, but I loved watching it anyway, and even Bloom unexpectedly enjoyed himself.

We went to the Petronas park to see the towers from a different angle, and then took the monorail in search of yet another vegetarian restaurant.  It took us over an hour to find it, but eventually we ate a delicious vegetarian Malaysian dinner.

And that was it for KL.   The next morning at 5 am, we were off to the airport for our flight to Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia.  KL was awesome.  It had a great vibe.  The city is made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, which makes for some good food and a multicultural feel.  Also, the city is pretty clean with good public transport options and ultra-modern shops, but at the same time, it feels Asian within the markets and the street food, and the fact that I can’t drink the water.  It was a nice balance.

Of course I am still me, so I did have to feel guilty or weird about something, and in Malaysia I felt guilty about loving it so much as a Jew.  Malaysia, as a country, is not so into Jews.  You cannot enter Malaysia with an Israeli passport.  Same goes for Indonesia.  I feel very weird about being a Jew travelling around these parts.  More to come on that later.

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21st September
written by Ilana

I know, I know.  I haven’t written in ages.  This is true.  But I have my reasons.  I will now list them:

  1. Buenos Aires was all about relaxing and doing basically nothing other than consuming steaks and loitering all over the city.  I will write a bit about it below, but I will warn you that there aren’t any really captivating tales, it was just a generally chilled out time.
  2. We have been in Australia since August 26th.  This may seem like the perfect place to catch up on blogging, but the thing is, we have been busy with errands and family time and yuntif.  Also, since I have been back in suburbia the whole travel thing has sort of left my mind and all I want to do is hang out at the mall.  Not the best tone to set for a travel blog.
  3. Do you really want to read about my arguments with Buffy, the Bloom family dog or my love of bowling?  I didn’t think so.

Ok, so I’ve made enough excuses, now I will actually try to write something just to get back into the swing of things, and because I started writing something about Buenos Aires ages ago I figured it should get posted eventually, so, like the editors of the Torah, I will redact it all together into one not so cohesive text.  (No offense meant to the Torah here, just when I think of the word “redact” I automatically think of the word “Torah”)

Alright, so let’s start with Buenos Aires.  First of all, a ginormous thanks to Jessica O who hooked us up with tons of information about BA and a website that lets you search different vacation apartment rentals.  We found an apartment and were told by Jessica and Feiber that this apartment was indeed in THE hip neighborhood (did I just become un-hip by calling a neighborhood hip??), and it was even a bit cheaper than the local hostels, so we rented an apartment for our 6 days in BA.  We were off to an amazing start even before we arrived.  Just knowing that we would be in an apartment of our own brought tears of relief to my travel weary eyes (not literally—but I’m trying to work on my travel writer sappiness here).


To get to Buenos Aires we took another long bus ride.  This time it was 19 hours.  Like our previous bus, it had two levels, and this time we opted to sit in the front row on the top floor, so that even if it was a miserable ride, we would still have a good view of the surrounding area.

Enjoying the fancy bus

When we got on the bus, we already noticed the difference between this bus and the 23 hour bus from hell.  On this bus, the seats moved almost all the way back, and there were nice pillows and blankets on every seat.  A few minutes into the ride, a man offered us drinks and little cakes.  Awesome!  We then watched “Evan Almighty” in Spanish.

Something I didn’t mention about our 23 hour crazy bus was that at around hour 16 they finally put on a movie.  Bloom and I were pretty psyched about this, and waited with bated breath to see what it would be.   The first sign of bad news was when the name flashed on the screen:  “Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans.”  Oh dear.  I had absolutely no interest in this at all.  Whatever, if it was in English I would give it a try.  The movie begins, and we see Nicholas Cage and some other people talking to each other.  In English.  Hooray!  Sadly, my happiness only lasted a millisecond, since approximately one millisecond after the English speaking began, a loud man yelled over the movie in Russian.   For some bizarre reason, this movie was not dubbed over in Russian or in Spanish, but was actually the full English movie with a Russian man reading the screenplay over the actors’ voices.  It was awful and it was very loud, which made little sense since I am almost positive that not one person on that bus was a Russian speaker, so no one was being helped by the loud Russian man reading Nicholas Cage’s parts.  The Russian didn’t appear to be trying.  There was no emotion in his reading, only screaming, and he read all of the male parts.  A Russian woman yelled all of the female roles, just to make it more realistic I guess.

The Russian yelling was so loud that when I tried to listen to my ipod to drown them out, all I could hear was 20% Lady Gaga but still 80% screaming Russians reading a screenplay (yes, I was listening to Lady Gaga and I am not ashamed).  When my Russian hell ended, they put on the movie “Old Dogs,” which was actually in English, but was played so quietly so we could not hear a word Robin Williams was yelling.  I do not think of this as a loss, since this appeared to be one of the worst movies ever made.

Right, so back to our Buenos Aires bus, it was awesome, and featured all kinds of delicacies like movies at a normal volume, blankets, cakes, beverages, nice views, fully reclining chairs, and a vh1 special of top 80’s music videos.  Amazing.


We got to Buenos Aires, and went straight to our apartment.

View of the sunset from the balcony of our BA apartment

The apartment was in fact in a great neighborhood near all sorts of shops and grocery stores, and it had a balcony with a view of the whole city.  For some reason, this was cheaper than any of the hostels in the neighborhood, which made me feel happy as someone who feels guilty spending money.

We admired the apartment, and then went straight to a kosher sushi restaurant for lunch.   While I had not really missed eating meat in Peru and Bolivia, I had missed my weekly sushi fix.  Before I moved to NY, I had never been so into sushi, I thought it was very little food for very much money, but then I discovered sushi lunch specials and my life was changed.  This kosher sushi place was very upscale, and had all sort of fancy sushi rolls, which were delicious, but cost more than a week’s accommodation in La Paz.

For six weeks we backpacked, and on the seventh week was a week of rest.

After having spent six weeks traveling around from attraction to attraction, hostel to hostel, we decided that in Buenos Aires we would just chill out, and treat it like a real vacation instead of backpacking.  We spent the next few days loitering in the streets of Buenos Aires, walking everywhere and enjoying the fact that we had nothing planned other than eating and wandering the city.

Regretting Kosher McDonalds

The abundance of amazing kosher food after weeks of nothing but pasta and rice and occasional food poisoning, was heaven.  There was kosher gelato, kosher steaks, and kosher McDonalds.   Although, Bloom now thinks we need to give tons of tzedakah to some environmental group to offset the carbon footprint and general guilt of eating at McDonalds.  Maybe he’s right, but come on, when there’s a kosher McDonalds outside of Israel you eat in it, and that’s that.

Our first day in Buenos Aires, after wandering through the famous cemetery and the main square, we made our way to the Jewish neighborhood.  All of a sudden every man had a black velvet kippah and every woman a few babies and a shaitel.  When we got there, we realized it was time for dinner, so we went to a restaurant that basically served us an entire cow.  I was so excited to finally eat meat, but sadly, I was like a starving refugee whose stomach is nowhere near ready for meat.  I ate a few bites of steak, and thought I would die, so I left Bloom with the task of eating an entire cow, which he managed to accomplish (over two days), since he may look like a starving refugee, but surprisingly can eat a whole cow, or multiple loaves of bread.  Watching Bloom eat is like watching a magic show.  But I digress…


It turned out there was a chabad (one of many in BA) ten minutes away from our apartment.  We went there Friday morning and spoke to the rabbi who invited us for dinner that night.  Perfect.  Hooray for another non-backpacker infested chabad.  We showed up for shul , but for some reason it didn’t start for an hour after  we got there, so I read the parsha.  Ki Teitze.  Oyvey—the worst!  I read all my least favorite parts of the Torah, and started going into existential crisis mode again.  What is my role as a Jewish feminist woman?  Who am I?  What do I do with texts that I find traumatically disturbing?  How can I read something that says (summarized here) that if an engaged girl is raped in a city, she and the man are both stoned to death, she because she didn’t cry out and he because he violated another man’s wife (property).  Look, I know that it’s more complicated than it seems, that it’s a particular time period, that the Talmud changes things, etc. etc.  But I still can’t help feeling like I’ve been slapped in the face every time I read that pasuk.  I am obviously modernizing and personalizing the pasuk, but I can’t help it, because I feel like rape is so prevalent in the world today, and one of the main issues is that victims are afraid to “cry out” during and after the attack.   It’s weird because I thought I had answered those questions years ago in seminary and then again in Pardes, and maybe even again at Hartman,  but I’ve realized that all of my religious questions never really go away, they just cycle through my life every few years looking for new answers.

Oh dear.  This is meant to be a light hearted travel blog and I just went off about the Torah, feminism and rape.  Typical me.  Ok, I will try to get back on track and if you want to hear more rants from me about the above, you can email me privately.

SO…After sitting for an hour thinking about the question “Am I a Feminist Jew, or a Jewish Feminist? (similar to the most annoying question on earth—Am I a Jewish American or an American Jew?), and “How can I STILL be frustrated over this?” and generally driving myself insane, davening finally started.  The few women who were there were sitting silently, as the men sang Yedid Nefesh.  I will not sit silently!  I will cry out!  I sang Yedid Nefesh very loudly, trying to remind myself that I do have a voice.  It was a strange experience.  I looked at the insanely tall mechitzah and listened to the men who sang and then later danced together while the few women sat there staring straight ahead.  Ugh, now I remember why being an Orthodox woman can be super lame and feel like you’re watching a really fun TV show that you are not a part of.  A few years ago this would’ve driven me to a very long rant, but I calmed down pretty quickly remembering that I am a traveler, a visitor, and this is not my community.  I have a community (sort of) and it is not this.  I am here to watch and be respectful.

So I thought I was being respectful, but the next day when I showed up to shul in a T-shirt (I was thrilled that it was finally warm enough to wear a T-shirt!), I was immediately chastised by an elderly lady.  I sat down next to her and she said a bunch of things to me in Spanish.  “What?”  I said.  She motioned to my elbows and shook her head.  “No no,” She said.  Luckily I had brought a hoodie, so I put that on, but was shocked about not being able to wear short sleeves.  Where was I, the Academy post 1999?  What was weird to me was that there were women wearing pants at this chabad, but that was deemed acceptable here.  Not my community, I am a guest, I kept repeating to myself.

After shul there was a Kiddush.  I stood on the side talking to Bloom about the T-shirt scandal, while men set up tables.  Hmm…the mechitzah is still up, that’s interesting.  I watched people put tables on separate sides of the mechitzah and set up a separate seating Kiddush/lunch.  Whaaaat.  This was especially strange since the average age of the women in shul was probably 67, so I’m not sure there would have been inappropriate mingling between the sexes.  I started panicking.  Who would I sit with??  The old lady who yelled at me about the t-shirt?  At least Bloom had a bunch of buchurim on his side of the mechitzah.  A woman came up to me and said “I speak English, I will sit with you,” and then sat me down next to a few 80 year olds.  The next time I saw my alleged English speaking friend, she was passing out tiny shot glasses of wine for Kiddush.  She, on the other hand, had a large cup of wine.  “I’m going to get drunk,” she said to me, and I did not see her again.

Abandoned by my friend, I looked at the pensioners and smiled.  They did not speak English.  Eventually the Rabbi’s daughter told me to come sit with her and her high school friend (the only people other than us who were under 60), since they spoke Hebrew.  She asked me what the lady said to me when I walked in, and I told her about the t-shirt.  I asked if it was really unacceptable to wear short-sleeves here.  She said “it is not respectful, but also she should not have said anything to you.”  Interesting approach.

As soon as I scarfed down a bowl of chulent, I got Bloom’s attention and high-tailed it out of there.  We went for a walk through a bunch of the public parks and past the zoo, which was a perfect shabbos activity.

Loitering in BA

We spent the next few days loitering and one day we went to a free tango lesson.  We were awful tango dancers, but it was a really fun time, even when the dance teacher insisted that I stood like an ape and repeatedly demanded I fix my posture.  I hope that Bloom will learn from this that dancing can be fun, but he treated it more like the army, counting out steps and making sure we learned it well.

What else happened?  Well, I ate the best steak of my life (see picture in Bloom’s post), so that was eventful.  If you are ever in Buenos Aires, go to the kosher restaurant Asian, and order the steak with the pineapple/soy sauce marinade.  It was so good, I was actually speechless, a rare event in history.

I hate to admit this, but one of the happiest moments of BA was when I found a Starbucks and ordered a skim latte.  The smell of Starbucks is the smell of NY, and I am admittedly homesick from time to time, so smelling that Starbucks smell and knowing exactly what to order, and knowing I would get what I ordered, was an amazing feeling.  This does not mean I am having a bad time.  I think all long-term travelers are excited when they see something that reminds them of home, I’m just putting it out there.

So that’s it for BA.  We have been in Australia for almost 4 weeks now.  We spent a lot of the first week celebrating Bloom’s grandmother’s 90th birthday and spending time with her, which was really fun, especially since she tells me lots of random things about her life, which I find fascinating.  I am not sure if she gets that I love when she tells me things, since it is pretty clear that she finds my accent and high-paced talking incomprehensible.  But still, I really enjoyed hearing stories from a European Holocaust survivor who is not Polish.  She made it very clear that she is entirely different from the Poles (of which I am one), and that she is liberal and democratic.  I am also liberal and democratic, I think, so this should work out.

Bloom has been spending a lot of time watching and talking about Aussie rules football, since his team is playing in the Grand Final (their Super Bowl) on Saturday.  I find this kind of boring, but luckily I have a computer to loiter on, and future trips to plan.

We also spent 5 days up north in Queensland where we snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef and explored the rainforest up there.  I will attempt to write a post about this tomorrow.

And readers, I appreciate your loyalty, and I LOVE when people tell me they like the blog, or even that they read it.  So if you like what you’re reading, let me know.

And I promise things will get more interesting when we’re back on the road October 3rd to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before heading to Indonesia.  Believe me, it will be good.

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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

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19th August
written by Bloom

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18th August
written by Ilana

I rationally knew that in traveling for a year, I was bound to have difficult days or weeks, since over the course of a year there will obviously be better days than others, but when many problems came up, seemingly one after the other and then another, I fell apart.


Last Sunday was an amazing day.  We flew from the jungle to La Paz, and met up with my mother there at her hotel—the Radisson.  My mom and Amit decided to be nice and booked us a room at the Radisson as well, which was amazing, probably the best day of my life.  There were carpeted rooms, hot showers, a pool, cable TV!!  I couldn’t even believe how amazing it was to feel clean and not freezing.

My mom took us to dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was amazing, but sadly I had horrible altitude sickness yet again, and could not enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  At one point I got up from the table to go to the bathroom, and as I turned to flush the toilet, I saw something on my lower back.  Oh no.  Oh my God, it was definitely a tick.  Well, maybe this is why I haven’t been feeling well!  Altitude sickness plus a tick sucking my blood for days.  Ok, well, I need to be strong here.  I turned around and pulled it out with my hand.  Ewwww.  I was disgusted and proud of myself for being such a badass and pulling a tick out of my own body with my hands.  I looked at it.  Yup, it was a tick.  I thought about bringing it back to the table to show my mom and Bloom and then decided against it and flushed it down the toilet instead.

So, even in luxury I was still a dirty backpacker with ticks.  Ugh, it was probably from that day when they made us walk around the unkempt backyard!  Ew.  I was so grossed out, that I couldn’t sit in the restaurant anymore and went back to the room to console myself with cable tv.  It was good consolation.

My mom left on Monday morning, and that is when the week from hell began.  We had to leave the Radisson and go back to our backpacker hostel life.  We actually found a hostel with cable TV, which was awesome because I was getting sicker by the day, and was too weak to even leave the bed.  The altitude sickness was hitting me badly once again, but I also had some sort of flu on top of it.  I spent Monday and Tuesday sitting in bed in the hostel in La Paz, sick as a dog, but at least there was the TV and internet to keep me entertained.

I felt like such a loser.  I was in Bolivia, and all I could do was watch 90210 reruns?  What a waste!  I felt guilty about wasting our Bolivia time.

Our original plan had been to go to southern Bolivia, do a tour of the salt flats, and then move on to Argentina.  However, it turns out that many of the southern Bolivian roads are blocked because of a strike, and many tourists have been trapped for weeks in different parts of Bolivia.

We decided that it was not worth it for us to try to break through a foreign strike, and we would just have to skip southern Bolivia and escape via plane to Argentina.  I felt like I was no longer a badass, because a real backpacker badass would take some sort of 26 hour bus over crazy roads to try to get through the strike, but alas, we have a 90th birthday part to get to, and I’ll be damned if some Bolivian strikers try to stop us!


Fine, so we flew to Salta, Argentina on Wednesday only to discover that every double room with a private bathroom in the whole city was booked for the entire weekend, and I was still sick, possibly getting worse.  I was shocked when I had enough strength to drag myself onto our flight, and I had resigned myself to spending the next few weeks on the floor of the La Paz airport bathroom.

We settled on a room without a bathroom, which looked like a prison cell.  The floors were concrete and had dirt stains on them, and there was no window.  We figured we would go to a nice hotel for my birthday on Friday, but the nice hotels were also all booked.  Even our prison cell was booked for the weekend.  Were we going to spend my birthday sleeping on the street?  Bloom spent much of Thursday morning going from hostel to hostel to hotel trying to find any available room, bathroom or not, and after many hours finally found one in some random hostel, as I lay in bed, STILL sick and spiraling into despair.

I had falsely believed that as soon as we arrived in Argentina, life would get easier.  Everything would be nicer.  It was certainly more expensive, so we figured there would be hot showers or better communication or something, but there was not.  I also thought Salta was going to be a cute, small town, but it was a relatively big city and it was freezing and a bit gray.  Most of the cool stuff in the Salta area requires a day trip to reach, and on Thursday I was still too sick to do anything, so it was another wasted day for us.

We figured that by Friday I would be better, and booked a day trip tour to a small town called Cafayate.  The tour was going to be in English and it would be chilled out, stopping at look out points and some wineries.  I figured this would be a festive way to spend my birthday.  I imagined being with a tour group, in some beautiful winery, where everyone would toast to my birthday and it would be awesome.  That would get me out of this funk.  And everything was fine, we had a tour, we had a hostel for Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday we were leaving Salta to move on to Iguazu, so it would all be fine, I told myself.

Friday morning, I woke up and was still feeling very sick, but it was early in the morning, so I figured I was just tired, and anyway, it was too late to cancel the tour.  We got on the mini tour bus and the guide began speaking in Spanish.  He spoke for about 5 minutes straight in Spanish, the crowd eating it up, laughing, joking with him, etc.  He then looked at us and said “this is a tobacco field.”

Seriously?  Bloom and I gave each other a look.  There was no way he was translating everything for us.  Everyone else on the bus spoke Spanish.  Oh well.  I was too tired and sick to even get angry anymore.  I just stared out the window and tried not to cough and sneeze over the other passengers.  We got out of the bus a few times, but I could hardly move.  I was freezing and my whole body hurt from being sick.  Eventually, we got out at a winery where a woman gathered up our group and another group, and started giving a tour in Spanish

I looked around and saw the tour guide from the other group standing with 5 people from his group, speaking to them in English.  “I will walk you through it and speak to you in English so you can understand,” I heard him say to them.

What!  Where was our tour guide?  Why couldn’t he do this for us too?  Bloom went and found our tour guide standing by the bus hanging out with the salami salesman.  Bloom asked him if he wouldn’t mind translating the tour for us.  In fact, he did mind.  He did not want to translate for us, but eventually Bloom convinced him.

We followed the tour guide through the winery where he pointed at things and said “this is where they store wine.”  “This is a barrel.”  Wow, this guy was really helpful.  “Now you go to that room for tastings,” he said, and pointed us to a very crowded room where people were pushing toward the front to get their wine.

Bloom and I stood in the back, and then saw the other English speakers and their guide.  “Let’s follow them,” I said loudly.  One of them turned around and heard us, and I told him we spoke English and were going to follow them.  He smiled and seemed nice about it, but all of a sudden, their small group of 5 had formed a circle, their backs towards us, clearly excluding us from their wine drinking.  Their guide handed them each a glass and told them about smelling wine, how to drink it, etc. as Bloom and I watched from outside the circle.

I looked around the room.  Everyone was talking and laughing and drinking and I was standing there feeling like a complete moron.  I was with Bloom, but everyone was ignoring us.  I felt so lonely in that room full of people, and after many days of sickness and arguing with hostels and travel plans gone awry, I was beginning to crack.  I could feel it happening and I tried to stop myself, but the tears were slowly tricking down my face.  I tried to take a deep breath and let it all go, but I couldn’t.

I imagined myself in NY.  What would I be doing today?  Maybe I would’ve gone out with some friends, and most likely Bloom and I would be having a big Shabbos dinner in honor of my birthday.  Instead I was somewhere in Northwestern Argentina, surrounded by unfriendly strangers, freezing, sick, homeless, jobless, the spiraling had begun and I couldn’t stop it.  And I’m 28.  28!  What am I doing with my life??

It was time to get back on the bus to head into the town.  I stopped the crying and got a hold of myself.  It would be worse if these people saw me breaking down.  We got to Cafayate, which was a cute enough place, and Bloom and I went to a café that had wireless so I was able to check my email on the iphone, which cheered me up.  Ok, I figured, there are people who remember me, and acknowledged my birthday and want to interact with me.  I was feeling a little better.  I ordered some of their famous wine gelato.  I had the chance to speak to my mom and Amit, and even Shani, so I was happy.  There was some beautiful scenery, and I had wine gelato, and friends in other hemispheres.  I would be ok.

We got back to Salta 10 minutes before Shabbos started.  When we arrived at the hostel they told us “no.”  It turns out they did not have a room for us.  Oh dear God, come on!  “Reservado!” We kept yelling.  After a few minutes they sent us across the street to a different hostel, which was more expensive, but did not have wifi in the room (I know I sound like a wench with this wifi obsession, but it is the only link we have with the outside world, and I miss that world), and more importantly did not have a kitchen.  They gave us our room key and we opened the door to a room with twin beds.  I went downstairs and told the man we needed “matrimonial,” which is a room with a double bed, and I explained that we had reserved that at the other hostel.  He did not speak or understand a word I said, other than matrimonial, and he kept shaking his head at me and saying no.  I started crying, again.  This seemed to freak him out, and he made a phone call and gave us a new room.

I was exhausted from all the crying and the arguing and the sadness.  Was this what long term travel was all about?  Fighting with people from different cultures?  Going from place to place only to stay in crappy cold accommodations and go on tours you can’t understand?

We took a break from our hellish week, and went to the chabad shul, where they asked Bloom to be the chazzan.  I was not looking forward to Shabbat at chabad, since our Shabbat at chabad in Cuzco had been like spending the weekend at an awkward Israeli summer camp surrounded by cliquey Israelis who, when hearing that Bloom and I were not true born Israelis, literally walked away from us and changed seats, leaving us to sit by ourselves in a room of 200 people.  I didn’t think I could take that again.

Luckily, the rabbi and his wife in Salta are awesome.  The rabbi was out of town, but his wife invited us and two other Israeli couples over to her house for dinner and for lunch the next day.  It was really nice being in a real home and eating real food.  The other Israeli couples were also friendly to us, and the wife was beyond welcoming.  A group of 4 Israeli girls also joined us later in the evening, and one of them mentioned that she was having a great week, especially since today was her birthday, and her friends bought her a fleece that said “I spent my 23rd birthday in South America” in Hebrew on it.  “Did you want me to make you a birthday fleece too?”  Bloom whispered to me.  I am 90, I thought to myself, a made to order fleece may not be appropriate anymore.  The Rabbis wife then brought out a cake for both of us, and everyone sang “Hayom yom huledet.”  I loved this woman.  Why was she so nice and awesome?  And, she was not a mashiach-ist, and gave a dvar Torah about Torah, not just Chabad.  My birthday was turning around, and I was feeling better.

Saturday and Sunday were pleasant.  Salta was growing on us, but we were still ready to move on to possibly bigger and better things.  On Sunday we had a 23 hour bus to Puerto Iguazu.  Our bus tickets were very expensive, but we had heard rumors that Argentinian busses were incredible, and that it was well worth our time and money to take the bus.


The bus arrived late.  After a few minutes of driving I realized that I was freezing.  Everyone around us was bundled up in coats and scarves, also freezing.  I felt the vents and there was cold air blasting out of them.  Really?  There was a French couple behind us who spoke Spanish, so after a few hours one of them eventually went to complain to the man sitting next to the bus driver.  The guy came back and shrugged his shoulders.  What was this??  Also, why were there no movies?  Why had this been so expensive?  In Peru we took an 11 hour bus.  It had heat, movies, food, wifi, and outlets.  Why do people brag about Argentinean busses?  This was awful and more expensive than Peru.

The French girl decided to give it a try herself and went to complain.  She came back freaking out and ranting like crazy.  I loved this girl.  She was my angry soulmate.  She knew some English and explained to me that the driver’s partner had told her that for some reason the bus didn’t pick up any of the food, or the blankets or the movies.  We would need to hold out until 3 am when we would possibly be able to find some food.

Now I went crazy too.  I decided to go talk to the guy.  I spoke in English and he angrily responded in Spanish.  The other people on the bus told me that there would be food at 8 (we had been on the bus since 3).  No, I tried to tell them, there was a rumor that there was no food at all.  Good, just what I had hoped.  The entire bus was wup in arms and freaking out.  The revolution had begun.

I sat back down and started thinking about everything over the past week.  Why was everything so difficult?  Why was everyday another fight?  It seemed like we were spending tons of money on terrible crap.  Why did it cost $25 to stay in a prison cell?  Why did it cost almost $100 to take a messed up, freezing bus?  Was this what we had saved all our money for?  Was this why I no longer had the job I worked so hard to get?  What was the meaning in all of this?

This was my real breaking point.

I thought I had broken down before, but everything just came crashing down at this point.  I had hoped that this bus would be a turning point, the end of the horrible week, but no, things were still going wrong.  I felt trapped.  Trapped on the bus, trapped in South America, trapped in travel.  I had been terrified of traveling for a year and leaving everything but Bloom behind, but I had also believed that eventually I would get the hang of it, that I would love it like everyone else, that it would change me, that it would be meaningful.

That was what hit me the most.  Where was the meaning in my life?  I was very lucky in NY.  I found my job meaningful.  It was difficult, and I was often stressed out, but I believed in what I was doing, I stood behind it, and last year was my best year of teaching, I felt like I had so much more to learn and so much more to teach, but now I was no longer teaching, and I had no idea if I would even get that job back.  I had given it up for travel, for long busses, for constant miscommunications, for being dirty, for feeling lost and homeless.  What was meaningful about this?  Who was I helping?  What was I learning?  Where was my community?  Was this a year of self-indulgence?

I cried for a while, letting myself ask all of those terrible questions, and stared out the window.  Bloom tried to cheer me up.  He read to me from my Chelsea Handler book.  He tried to make me laugh.  I should note here, that the one thing that I do appreciate and love about this year is getting to spend all of this time with Bloom, but I was still asking all of the previous questions about meaning and worth.

After a few hours and a stop at a gas station (the revolution had succeeded and we had forced the bus to stop) where I ate frozen pizzas and cheetos (my stomach needs to be pumped ASAP), I finally fell asleep.  I woke up the next morning and spent more time staring out the window and thinking.  I was feeling better.  It was then that I remembered learning that when you first start meditating you need to be aware of all of the pain that you feel.  You are supposed to embrace the pain, be aware of it, and then move on.  Only after you experience the pain and the anger, can you let it go and eventually meditate for real.

Maybe that’s what this was.  Maybe I needed to let go of everything.  I needed to allow myself to get sad and angry in order to get past it.  And maybe I also needed to get rid of all of the comforts in my life to move past them.  Maybe I needed to get rid of job security, our apartment, our possessions other than a little bit of clothes and a lot of pepto-bismol  in a backpack, in order to learn something about who I am.


I also realize that we need to organize at least two months of volunteering where I can feel like I am doing something for the world, instead of just taking.  I have also learned that I like slow travel, small towns, jungles, trekking and cafes.  Would I have known that without being in South America for almost two months?  Probably, but this is just the beginning.  I am learning to live in the moment, and overcome adversity, and for that I am proud of myself.

I know that I might sound like a whiner, but traveling long term can be hard, and these small difficulties sometimes build up and punch you in the proverbial face.  It’s also an especially difficult time for me, since I know the school year is about to begin.  Without me.  I’m scared of the unknown, and this is a fear I am being forced to face on a daily basis, so just have some ruchmanus on me, and try not to judge me too harshly.  I’m using this blog as a means for honestly conveying how I feel about this trip, and this is me, being honest.

When we got to Iguazu, it was the official end of our hell week.  Iguazu was unbelievable.  Bloom will write a post about it when we get to Buenos Aires tomorrow.  I am refusing to write anymore posts until he writes one, because I know he will describe Iguazu much better than I ever could.

And now I am about to get on a 17 hour bus to Buenos Aires.  I have no expectations, but I know that no matter what happens, it will be fine, I will make it through, and I will be ok.

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14th August
written by Ilana

We got to the office at 8:45 for our pampas tour, after buying out the French bakery just in case we were in for another fat camp situation.  At the office, we found two Australian girls from Byron Bay, but no one who worked there.  The Australians told us the tour is now leaving at 9:30.  Ugh, what is with this country?  Why was everything always late?  Oh well.  This gave us time to go to the bank, and buy food for Shabbos that we would store at the hostel.

I sat with the Australian girls and I was actually having a good time with them.  We’ve met people on the road, but it’s hard to meet people who we click with.  It happened a few times, but then those people were traveling on a different schedule than ours, and we never saw them again, so I was really excited about doing the pampas with funny interesting girls.

At 9:30 they told us it was time to get in the jeeps for a 3 hour ride to reach the boats.  They put us in a Toyota sedan.  “This is not a jeep,” I said.  The tour person laughed.  Okaaay, I guess we’re getting in this car.  The Australians also got in the car, but were then pulled out and replaced with a local woman carrying boxes of eggs and her 3 year old child.  I did not like where this was headed.  Was our tour group going to be us and this woman, child and eggs??  I told the tour people that we wanted to move cars to be in the real Jeep where they had put the Australian girls.  They told me no, but I didn’t listen and went into the real Jeep anyway, when a woman begged me to get out.  Fine.  I will go in the small sedan, I told them, but we paid for an English tour guide and you need to make sure we are in an English speaking group.  They told me of course, English, of course.  I didn’t trust them at all, and was starting to believe I would have a Spanish speaking guide.  I was also really disappointed to be pulled away from people I was actually able to talk to.  I got in the sedan and cried, because I’m on emotional overload on this trip, as the woman shoved a French couple into the car.  This was way too many people for a sedan.  It was boiling out, and my mom rolled down her window as we drove off.

our "jeep" is that blue sedan

The road was not paved and was all dirt and gravel, so as we drove we inhaled dirt.  I couldn’t stop coughing, but my mom pointed out that it was too hot to have the windows up.  True.  A lose-lose.  The French guy, who had said nothing to us yet, finally spoke to tell my mom to close the window because the child was cold.  She grumbled about it, but did as she was told.  Later we stopped the car, and the child peed out the door.  This child was controlling all our moves.  He was a tiny dictator, and I loved him because I thought it was hilarious that he called all the shots, and because he was super cute, and not physically accosting me like those hooligans in Ollantaytambo.

We got out to eat lunch at a restaurant called, no joke, “El Shaday.”  Amazing.  They served us vegetarian food, which was rice and some olives.  Eww.  Good thing we bought out the French bakery.  We started talking to the French couple to discover that they were in medical school together and had been doing medical internships in Arequipa, Peru.  They had come to the jungle with a member of their Peruvian host family.  They paid for his trip as a thank you gift for his hospitality.  We did not see any Peruvian guy with them.  Weird.  They explained that for some reason the tour company had put their friend in a different group, and had separated them.  Whaaaaat.  Turns out the Peruvian guy was in the English speaking group with the Australian girls.  I tried to tell one of the guides that we should switch with the Peruvian guy, but they would not have it.  What a nightmare.  The French people also explained that they were not a couple.  The girl had an Australian boyfriend, and she wanted Bloom to tell her prices of flights from France to Australia.  They also told us that their flight to the jungle town had been cancelled so they had to take a bus, which in the end had taken 30 hours and had no bathroom, so a woman had crapped in the aisle when the bus wouldn’t let her out.

Our lives were looking extraordinary next to theirs.  We were all in a group together, and we had not been on a 30 hour bus filled with human feces.  Life was good, I guess.

EL SHADAY Restaurant

The other group eventually got to the restaurant, so I sat down to talk to the Australian girls some more.  I explained that Bloom and I were going to Australia in a few weeks for Bloom’s grandmother’s 90th birthday.  We were all talking about grandparents birthday parties, and guest lists, when I said, “well, I’m pretty excited because one of Bloom’s grandmother’s friends coming to the party was a tattoo artist at Auschwitz!”

That killed it.  Any chance of friendship I had with these girls was gone with the word Auschwitz.  They stared at me, shocked.  Oh no.  I had forgotten that I was not dealing with Jews, and that anything to do with Auschwitz is not for polite company.  But seriously, I think it’s cool that this guy did the tattoos at Auschwitz.  Or maybe not cool, but absolutely fascinating.

After a few moments of atrociously awkward silence, Bloom said, “well not a tattoo artist.”  “What else do you call the person who did tattoos?”  I said.  The girls were still staring, and I felt like a moron.  Why am I so stupid??  Why did I always have to bring up the Holocaust??  This is why I have no backpacker friends!  I tried to change the subject, and eventually walked away mortified.  Oh well, that one was my fault.  Lesson learned.  No mention of the Holocaust to people who are not Jewish, or maybe even to anyone other than Bloom and my mom.

We eventually got to the boats where chaos ensued.  They started putting people on the boats, but they told us that we did not belong on any of them, we would be on a different boat leaving later.  My mom flipped out at this.  “We are only here for two days, we want to leave now, and we want to be with an English speaking group!” she yelled, and I backed her up, yelling similar things.

Everyone was staring at us.  Some guy came up to us and said with an American accent “you can’t just go on your own boat when you want to go, you aren’t on a private tour.”  Who was this moron?  Why was he getting involved?  “We just want to make sure we’re in an English speaking group, so if you want to get involved, you can use your Spanish to explain that to him.”  He walked away, and I half expected to see him pull out a guitar and start playing John Mayer songs to the Australian girls.  That’s the type of guy he was.  The worst!

A guy came up to us and told us he was our guide, and the rest of the group was on their way.  When we saw that the rest of the group was a Spanish speaking couple and their two pre-teen kids, we were not thrilled.  “This is a Spanish speaking group!” we yelled.  “I SPEAK ENGLISH!”  The guide yelled back.  FINE.  We got in the boat, only to realize that there were not enough seats for everyone in this dysfunctional group.  The French guy was nice about it and sat on the floor of the boat, while everyone else sat on what looked like broken lawn-chairs from someone’s 1986 backyard.  It was a weird motorized canoe with attached broken lawn-chairs.  This was so weird.

Whatever.  The boat started and we saw many caiman.  They were everywhere, so that was cool, and I tried to resist making Captain Hook references.  We also saw capybara (aka ginormous guinea pig, aka largest rodent in the world) and some monkeys.

Large Caiman. I was afraid it would eat me. I think that fear was justified.

A little bit into the boat ride, one of the Spanish speaking tweens passed me a baby turtle.  What the hell was this?  Why was she handing me a turtle?  Our idiot guide had taken a baby turtle out of the water to show us.  This cannot be right, or good for the turtle.  He then pulled over the boat to show us a bunch of monkeys in a tree.  They were jumping happily, making monkey noises, when all of a sudden they started screeching and yelling and biting each other.

It turns out our guide had thrown the monkeys food, and it made them go absolutely insane.  Ugh.  I was appalled.  How could this guy be a guide?   Every idiot knows you shouldn’t feed wild animals.  We watched the monkeys’ civil war, and soon a bold, smart monkey stopped fighting the others and turned to his source of food: our boat.  With a crazed look in his eyes, the monkey jumped onto the boat, practically landing in Bloom’s lap.  AHHH!  The guide jerked the boat with the motor, scaring the monkey, who jumped back onto land.  Crap.  This guy was a nutcase.

“Any questions?”  the guide asked.  Those were the first two words he had spoken to us.  No one said anything, so I said “Yeah.  Don’t feed the animals!”  I was not making a friend here.  The family giggled.  Watching the guide create a monkey war was traumatic and I didn’t feel like this guy would keep me safe from being eaten by a caiman, or even from a monkey.

This monkey looks cute, but it was ready to attack us

A few hours later, we arrived at the lodge, which was an absolute pit, and saw that the other, English speaking groups were already there eating popcorn.  Hooray!  Popcorn!  I sat with the Australians, since I had decided I would just act like the Auschwitz comment hadn’t happened, and try again.  Idiot John Mayer told me that this was their assigned group table for the trip.  What was wrong with this guy?  I looked around and saw an empty table with no popcorn on it.  Was he trying to tell me I had to sit there?  Fine, when Bloom and my mom walked in, I left John Mayer and we sat at the popcorn-less table trying to plan our next move.

Eventually popcorn arrived at the table and all was right in the world, except that our guide had disappeared and had not told us where to put our stuff or where we were sleeping.  A Bolivian guy sat down at our table wearing a hat that said “UCSB Grandpa” on it, and, assuming he worked there, my mom started asking him where we would sleep, and why was this place so crazy and disorganized, and why was there no communication??  UCSB Grandpa just stared at us blankly and shrugged.  “Great.  Just great.”  my mom said.  Later we realized that Grandpa was just a guy on the tour, who was of course also placed in the English speaking group.  My mom and I felt terrible.  We had yelled at the guy a few times.  Oy.  Maybe we are racists?  I hope not. Does writing about it make it better, since I’m willing to admit my wrong?  Maybe?

We eventually tracked down our guide and he brought us to a tiny room crowded with beds, almost touching each other.  The beds away from the door had all been taken.  “The family!”  I whispered angrily, fist in the air.  They had taken all the “good” beds (honestly, they were all bad, but some were better than others).   There weren’t even enough beds for us!

My mom lost it.  “I am 50 years old!  You better give me a bed!”  The guide looked at one of the beds and took someone’s bag off the bed, and told us we could use that bed as one of ours.  We didn’t want to make anymore enemies, so we decided this was a bad move.  After much fighting, beds were arranged for us, and we waited for our dinner of rice and olives.

After dinner we went out for a night boat ride, which was amazing, since the stars were perfectly clear, and you could see all of the caimans eyes, which reflect the light to look like they’re glowing in the dark.  After the ride we looked for the guide, who had disappeared, this time we did not find him, so we had no idea what time to wake up the next day or what the plan was.

At 6 AM the next morning the guide banged on our door saying, “sunrise 10 minutes.”  We watched the sunrise, which was cool and came back for breakfast, where they insisted we sit with our group.  The family did not look pleased about this development.  They brought out some toast, pancakes and fried donut things.  There was enough given to our table for everyone to have one of everything, which was not nearly enough for Bloom’s morning carbo-load, and we had run out of our snacks.


There was a table behind us set for only 4 people, but they had enough food for 10, so I told Bloom to ask them if they would give him some food.  In classic Oliver Twist style, Bloom went up to the table, which had a young couple and an older couple, and said something like “please, sir, may I have some more?”  They looked at his skinny body, saw his pants falling off, thought about it and said “no.”

Bloom came back to our table telling us that the older couple had denied his request.  Are they insane???  I asked/yelled.  Fine, I will go to the kitchen and ask for more.  I was strongly denied with a loud “NO.”  I went back to the table and asked Bloom about the older couple who refused to share.  We had heard them speaking English the previous night.  Were they British?  American?  “No,” Bloom said, “they’re Germans.”

Of course this news made me go ballistic, and I forgot my pact with myself from the day before about not thinking/talking about the Holocaust.  I went on quite a rant that I will not include here.

“Ilana, stop it, you’re being crazy,” my mom told me.   Both Bloom and my mom agreed that I was a lunatic, and ignored me.  Bloom waited until the Germans got up, and then ate their leftovers, which they of course did not finish.

After our embarrassing morning with the Germans we were told that we were no longer in a group with the Spanish speaking family and were moving to another group.  Fine, whatever, this place was nuts, just put us on a boat.

We got on a new boat and sat in the front seats.  The new guide came out, followed by the German couple and the younger couple and told us to move to the back.  No way, man.  I was not moving to the back of the boat for some Germans who couldn’t give a starving Jew some bread.  We were being yelled at everywhere we went.  Move groups, move beds, move to the back of the boat…  We had had it.  We said we were not moving to the back.

The new guide freaked out.  “This is my group!  You are not my group!  You sit in the back!”  My mom and I both went crazier than ever.  “WE HAVE NO GROUP!”  we yelled back.  “Don’t mistreat us!”

We apologized to the Germans for making a scene, and tried to explain how this whole trip had been chaos for us, but they just stared at us.  Eventually we gave in and moved to the back, so the Germans could sit in front.  We spent the day with them, and their Spanish speaking guide, not understanding what was going on.  We got off the boat, and walked around in something they called a jungle, but what looked like a very unkempt Skokie backyard.  I realized why it was so unkempt when the guide pulled out a machete and gratuitously hacked away at the small trees.  What was wrong with these guides?

We walked in the unkempt yard for about an hour, and then got back on the boat to look for dolphins, which was fine.  On the dolphin searching ride, the Germans kept loudly insisting that the boat was being slowed down today because of the extra people (us), and that they had to speed things up because they had a flight to catch at 5:40 that evening.  I couldn’t believe he was complaining about us weighing the boat down, repeatedly, in front of us!

Capybara. Ginormous guinea pigs.

We got back to the lodge for lunch—more rice, but this time someone had put some of the chicken sauce on it, so we really couldn’t eat it.  Even if we had wanted the rice, there was not enough for us, since other people had already eaten most of it.  My mom asked if there was other rice, and the Germans, looking afraid we might eat/contaminate their food, said “this is our food, I’m sure someone will bring you other food.”

These Germans were actually out of control mean and crazy.

FINALLY we were told it was time to go back to the town, and that we would take the boat to the jeep that would drive us back.  The Germans had insisted that they needed their own boat that moved quicker, so we had been moved to another boat, yet again, this time with dreadlocked, smoking backpackers.

After a very long two days, we got back to town and our hostel, which now seemed like luxury since it was not crowded with beds.  Bloom went to take the laundry before Shabbos and ran into the Germans, which is weird, because it was around the time of their alleged flight…

My mom flew to La Paz the next day to be safe, since her flight was on Monday morning, and these flights are notoriously late, sometimes by many days.  She came to our hostel room right before her flight to tell us that she had seen the Germans at the “airport” earlier this morning and had called them out.  “Hi!  I am so surprised to see you here!” she had said to them.  She told us that they just muttered something and walked away.

What did they have to gain by lying about a flight?  What was wrong with these people?  We never did quite figure it out.

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