1. What do most local people do for a living?
It seems that three out of every four people are entrepreneurs. Some have restaurants, others have general stores, still others have Internet cafes. I even met one lady who wanted to make some extra money, so she set up a grill at the door to her house and started cooking hamburgers. Other than in rich neighborhoods, almost every house has some sort of business run out of the front area, which is why everything is so available. In the US, we have residential, commercial, and industrial zones. These zones can't be combined, so it is impossible to sell, for example, eggs, bread, and milk from your living room. However, in Latin America, this is done all the time, so everything you need is within walking distance. The entrepreneurs seem to make up the middle class here.
Rich people tend to work for big companies, just like in the US. They drive to work and oftentimes live in gated communities. Poor people are farmers, housekeepers, home builders (building a house barley requires any skills because the houses are so simple here), and similar occupations. Note that when I say "rich" and "poor," I'm talking about their standards, not ours. According to our standards, almost everyone is poor.
2. Do people leave tips?
Tipping is almost never done, except in nice restaurants and on guided tours. Even when you do tip in a restaurant, it's not a standard 15% like it is in the US. Rather, you usually just give them the change. For example, if a meal for four people costs 48 boliviano's, you might just give them a fifty and tell them to keep the change. You never tip taxi drivers, bar tenders, or anyone else for that matter. I think tipping in general is only something that is done to any great extent in the US. Even in Europe, it's not common at all.
Odds and Ends:
3. What is the weather like?
The biggest factor that seems to determine the weather is the altitude. Out of the first eight weeks of my travels, I spent seven weeks above 2000 meters, six weeks above 3000 meters, and three weeks above 4000 meters. At 2000 meters, it gets pretty chilly at night, at 3000 meters, it's time to break out the sleeping bag because a few blankets won't do, and at 4000 meters, the temperature at night hovers around 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). Go much above 4000 meters, as I have done a few times, and it stays below freezing, even during the day. If you ever go to 5000 meters, as I have for a total of about two days, the temperature is permanently below freezing. I was completely unprepared for this when I started my trip. I figured I'd be in the tropics, so it wouldn't get too cold. I was way off. I have bought a winter hat, gloves, scarf, and long sleeve shirt since leaving. When you go to a high altitude, it's going to be cold, even if you're on the equator.
4. What did you like better about Peru than Bolivia and vice versa?
Peru has a lot more archaeological sites than Bolivia, including Machu Picchu, which I think is the most amazing one in all of the Americas. Peru also has much better roads than Bolivia. The only time I road on a non-paved road in Peru was from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon. In Bolivia, where dirt and gravel roads are the norm, you should count your lucky stars if the road you are on is actually paved. On the same subject, the buses are much better in Peru. Some of the buses can be pretty bad, but if you pay just a little bit more, you can have a nice, comfortable ride, with little chance of breaking down. In Bolivia, it's impossible to get a nice bus between most cities, no matter how much money you pay. Not only that, but the buses break down and have Bolivia's much more frequently.
The main thing I like better about Bolivia is how much more adventurous it is. When you get on a bus that's supposed to take an hour, it could take anywhere from thirty minutes (if he driver has a death wish) to six hours (if you have a Bolivia or run into any road blocks or riots). Tours are often organized at the last minute, so the entire itinerary can change at a moment's notice. Small towns generally have no modern-day conveniences like electricity or running water. You just never know what's going to happen next until it happens. Bolivia is also much cheaper than Peru, which itself is a very cheap country.
Possibly the best thing I like about Bolivia over Peru is the quality of the napkins. In Peru, the napkins are tiny little pieces of paper, barely visible to the naked eye. If you have more than one micro liter of material to clean from your face, they are completely useless. Not only that, but it takes a lot of begging and pleading to get a second one. However, in Bolivia, the napkins are almost as good as the ones in the USA. It's like when Peru opened their napkin factory, they were too lazy to manufacture their own napkins, so they just bought a bunch from Bolivia and started shredding them up.
5. What's the deal with coca leaves?
I often talk about drinking mate de coca or sucking on coca leaves. Some of you probably think I'm a drug addict now. The thing is, when Americans hear the word "coca," they immediately think "cocaine." While coca leaves can eventually be combined with other chemicals and reformulated to make cocaine, the leaves themselves are a far cry from the drug.
Coca leaves have many uses: they help with altitude sickness, they can be used to suppress one's appetite, and they can be combined with water to make a tasty beverage to share with your friends. This is why people use them so often when trekking through the mountains, working in the mines, and socializing on a Friday afternoon. Just about the only thing they don't do is get you high.
It seems to me that Americans think coca leaves are cocaine because the government wants them to think that way. Americans use about half the world's supply of cocaine, so the government has tried to eradicate the problem at its source. Countries like Bolivia grow lots of coca leaves, so the American government pays the Bolivians to destroy their crops. Of course, that just makes the problem worse because the Bolivians see that growing and destroying coca crops will make them big money, and more crops pop up than there previously were. Then, the worst thing happens: Bolivians think, "Wow, I was just selling these leaves to the local people for next to nothing, but if I can figure out how to make them into cocaine, I can make a lot more money." Because of this, the "war on drugs" that the American government has started has not only not fixed the problem, but it's made it worse, not just in the US, but in other countries such as Bolivia as well. Getting Americans to stop using so many drugs, a solution that might actually work, is something the government hasn't been successful at. So no, I'm not on cocaine, and coca leaves actually taste pretty good when mixed with a little sugar.
6. Does the sky look different there?
Thanks, Paul! You were the first person to ask me that question. I have been blown away by how different the sky is here. When I started my trip, I was near the equator, so the sun moved directly overhead during the day. My whole life, the sun was always in the south at around noon; here, it's right over me. In fact, if I look down and see that I have no shadow, I know it's noon. The days don't get much longer or shorter throughout the year, either. There are about twelve hours of daylight every day, year round.
The sky looks different at night, too. I'm not an expert at this, but a few of the constellations from the northern hemisphere, such as Orion, are still visible here. However, most of them, including the Big Dipper, can't be seen. Instead, the most famous constellation in the southern hemisphere is the Southern Cross, which isn't visible from home. Another big difference is that the moon fills in differently here. In the north, the crescent moon is on the side, but here, it's on the bottom.
It seems that most people don't notice these things, so when I point them out to other travelers, they just give me a blank stare like I'm crazy, especially if they're Australian. Still, now that I know that at least one person cares, I'll put it here.
7. Have you thought in Spanish?
Yes, that happens more and more often now. I think in Spanish, I dream in Spanish, and sometimes, I even talk in Spanish to people I know only understand English. Still, my Spanish isn't perfect. I thought it was coming along quite well until I got to Chile, where the dialect is so different, it might as well be its own language. It's also not a good idea to stay in a hostel where everyone speaks English if you want to learn Spanish. Or write your blog in English. For these reasons, I'll probably never be completely fluent in Spanish, even after traveling for a year through Latin America.
8. What's up with all of these people you keep meeting?
I meet people from across the globe almost ever day here. A few of them are students at nearby universities, some are on holiday for month or so, others just finished college and are traveling for as long as they can before needing to get a job, and still others are people like me who saved money and quit their jobs.
People who travel are of a very wide range of ages. The youngest person I have met was 20, and the oldest was 70. The majority of travelers are in their 20's, but a lot of older people travel, too. The strange thing is that nobody seems to care how old other people are. I guess normally, being the same age as someone else is the main thing people have in common to break the ice, but here, it's sharing the experiences of traveling, so age doesn't matter as much. In fact, the most interesting people I have met have been those who were decades older than me and had been all around the world.
The people I meet are generally from Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but I also meet a few from Asia and other South American countries as well. It's not unusual for me to hear people speaking Spanish, English, French, German, and Australian on any given day. The only people I don't meet very often are fellow Americans, which brings up another interesting question...
9. Why don't more Americans travel?
I think there are several reasons why Americans don't travel more often, the biggest being the lack of vacation time in the US. In Europe, most people get at least a month of vacation every year, and having six to eight weeks off is not uncommon. In the US, two weeks is the standard. In fact, most people want to take off the last week of the year to spend the holidays with their families, so that only leaves one more week for the entire year to travel somewhere. You can't go to South America in a week. That's not even enough time to get to know a big city, let alone a country or an entire continent. So, most Americans never venture too far from home.
Another reason Americans don't leave the country often is because it is so big and there is so much to see there. New York City, San Francisco, Miami, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, Alaska, and Hawaii are just a few of the major tourist destinations that our country has. Not only that, but it's easy to get there. Other than Alaska and Hawaii, Americans can drive there, and they don't need to worry about getting a passport or visa, learning another language, or dealing with culture shock. With only week a year to travel somewhere, you could easily spend your whole life just getting to know the United States.
Finally, Americans don't travel much because of the live-to-work culture that exists there. Amazingly, one out of every three paid vacation days in the US doesn't even get used. People are worried that if they leave the office, they'll fall behind with their jobs. I hate to say it, but they're right. Back when I had a job, whenever I went away for a week, I spent my entire first day back answering emails. Then I spent the rest of the week catching up with all of the work I missed so I could still make my deadlines. It's even common for Americans to take their laptops with them on vacation so they can check their email when they are gone. That doesn't sound like a vacation at all. It's actually more stressful to leave the office for a week than to stay, so a lot of people choose to stay and not to use their vacation time.
I even tried to take a leave of absence from my job, but was denied. I was told that it wasn't in the company's best interest. Here I was, a talented young software engineer who wanted to take some time off and broaden his horizons, and it somehow wasn't in their best interest. What did they have to lose? I wasn't asking for money. It only would've cost them a few dollars to maintain me in their records. Instead, they lost me forever. When I get back, I'm going to have countless business contacts from all over the world, and I'll have a deep understanding of Latin American business and culture. The experience and knowledge I will have gained will translate into major earning potential for myself and whoever I end up working for. The worst thing is, if I had said that I was burned out from all of the stress of my job (which would've been a lie), I easily would've gotten a leave of absence. Companies in America are used to hearing that they have worked their employees to the brink of insanity. They are not used to hearing that someone who works for them might actually want to have a life outside of work. (Sorry for the rant.)
10. Why didn't you buy a Round-The-World ticket?
Of the people I meet who are traveling for more than a few months, most have round-the-world (RTW) tickets. These tickets usually can be purchased for around $2000 and allow you to fly to four or five continents and take several flights within each of the continents. They are fairly flexible in the dates you can fly. You just have to get to a city a few days beforehand, let the airline know that you want to fly, and they'll fit you on a flight that still has room. The standard length for an RTW ticket is a year, but some people go for as few as six months or as many as sixteen.
I thought about buying an RTW ticket, but decided against it because I didn't want to be in too much of a hurry. You're probably laughing now and thinking that you could easily see everything in the world in a year without being in a hurry. Well, you can't. In fact, our lifespans aren't long enough to see everything. You have to pick and choose your destinations, RTW ticket or not.
The thing is, people with RTW tickets really seem to be in a hurry. They never want to take a day off and just relax because it would be a waste of time. They won't ride buses during the day for more than a few hours because they don't want to waste that day. I barely sleep when on overnight buses and end up walking around like a zombie the whole next day because I'm too tired, so I don't mind so much taking the bus during the day. I can easily travel for two or three weeks while moving fast and not sleeping much, but beyond that, I crash. I don't enjoy having to move so fast.
The thing that finally told me that an RTW ticket wasn't for me was the fact that I wanted to see the whole continent. People with RTW tickets generally only get to spend three months or so in South America, so they only see three or four countries, and only travel around the big cities because they have to catch another flight every few weeks. I wanted to see Machu Picchu, Ushuia, Iguazu Falls, Buenos Aires, etc, and there's no way I could have seen all of them on a RTW ticket.
Of course, the advantage of having an RTW ticket is that you get to see much more of the world, whereas I'm only going to get to see one continent. Years from now, I'll have lots of stories about traveling for a year, but I sill won't have been to Australia, Asia, or Africa. If you're thinking about buying an RTW ticket, the biggest question you have to ask yourself is "Do I want breadth or depth?"