La Paz

I love La Paz. The seat of Bolivia’s government, it’s the perfect third world city, nestled among gorgeous mountains. 

We arrived on the first day of spring, which is a holiday as well as love day / friendship day / students day / doctors day (?!). All the women walked around the city with balloons and bouquets which they had been gifted by their significant others. We took a free walking tour around famous sites, plazas, and markets, and then I meandered through some alleys in the city center. 

Our hostel was in an upscale neighborhood, houses surrounded by barbed wire, and as I walked back at dusk, I was accompanied by the sounds of free street concerts and joyous university students dancing and singing along. 

I spent a few days in La Paz, riding up the cable car to the highest neighborhoods, visiting museums, drinking coffee, wandering through the markets, watching the well-dressed businessmen and the students in uniform and cholitas in bowler hats going about their days. 

One night we heard singing coming from the main theater, so we went to see what was happening.  The ticket woman got tired of hearing us say “no boletas” (no tickets) over and over and in order to get rid of us just let us in. A famous Bolivian singer was performing and the crowd was beside themselves watching her. This was definitely the most local experience we’ve had yet. 
Shabbat was lovely as well, with only 10-20 of us at each meal, and the kindest rebbetzin and visiting shaliach (the rabbi was in New York buying arba minim). After lunch we all took a walk together to a nearby park, returned to play some Monopoly Deal, and then made havdalah, ending our lovely stay in the beautifully set city that is La Paz. 


Puno and Lake Titikaka

We arrived in Puno at 4:30am and found ourselves a cute little taxi to take us to our hostel.

yeah, thats basically a rickshaw

We took naps on the lobby couches and at 7:30 were picked up for our 2-day island tour. 

The boats we took were hilarious – they must have moved at 15mph and were pretty run down. But they offered a great view of the lake. 

Our first stop was the Uros Islands, a group of 30+ man-made islands built out of reeds. The native Aymara people created them when escaping the Spanish in the 16th century. Today it seems like it’s primarily for tourists with a distinctly Epcot feeling. It was nonetheless very cool to see how they built everything out of the reeds from the marshes. 

Next we set out on a 2.5 hour boat ride to Amantani Island, where we would spend the night with host families.  

the papaaaas, the papas!

Upon arrival, we were introduced to our “mamas,” who took us home for lunch. 

 Our mama, Juana, lives in a house with her mother Andrea and daughter Rosalinda, and apparently a husband as well, but we never met him. In fact, throughout our time on the island, we rarely saw men at all. We were told they were out fishing, and perhaps they were, but we also caught a bunch of them sitting around a table drinking in one of the shops. 

The women, meanwhile, constantly had their hands busy. When they weren’t cooking, the younger women were spinning wool – always, always, even while walking – and the older women were knitting. 

The upstairs of Juana’s house was quite nice, and we supposed largely funded by tourist money. 

The rest of the house was much simpler, and it had no running water – going to the bathroom involved buckets and the kitchen was a tiny room with a stove and a couple pots. 

The community in Amantani is vegetarian, and we decided to partake in the home-cooked meals. We enjoyed 5 kinds of potatoes for lunch, while dinner was rice with a side of pasta-potato-bean salad. That’s certainly one way to reintroduce your body to carbs. 

After a forced nap, we hiked up to the temple of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, one of the local gods whose name comes up over and over. From there we watched a beautiful sunset over the lake. 

At night, we dressed up in local clothes and all joined together for a dance, which was reminiscent of a simplified Hora at best. 

Miriam and I awoke the next morning to some lovely new bites and the fear that we had spent the night with bed bugs. Mummy liner, fail. We shoved all our clothes into plastic bags, ate a delicious pancake breakfast, hugged our mamas goodbye, and off we went on an extremely rocky boat ride to the next island. 

Taquile Island is home to a unique culture, where the women spin but the men do the knitting, and they sell their work through some kind of co-op. 

market day for yarn

making shampoo from a plant

After wandering the island a bit, we sat down to a delicious (bony) trout lunch, and finally embarked on our never-ending 3 hour boat ride back to Puno. 

The next morning we were picked up by a company called Bolivia Hop, which would take us to Copacabana and then to La Paz. But first, the Bolivian border. Our guide warned Miriam and I that we would need a while at the border due to our disastrous luck of having US and Israeli passports. I had a huge pile of papers (including a last minute copy of my bank statement, thanks Ema) which the border guard barely glanced at, and $160 later (thanks, America) I was through. 

Copacabana is a tiny shabby lakeside town with not much to do. 

From there, our bus headed to La Paz, and I finally saw Elf (cute movie, thanks Bolivia Hop). At some point, we all disembarked to cross the lake in what I can only describe as refugee boats, while our bus crossed on a barge. 

Many people scared us about La Paz, and the drive in did not help. We spent the last hour driving through a construction site cum suburb, where I imagine the bus driver’s directions were “turn right at the mound of dirt, left at the pack of wild dogs, right again at the van without lights on.” The only comfort was the twinkling lights below, which I hoped was a sign of a real city waiting for our arrival. 

First stop: Cusco and Machu Picchu

We arrived this morning to our second destination – Lake Titikaka, named either by an American second grader or the Quechua people who live in this area. We have a couple hours on a boat to one of the islands where we will be sleeping tonight, so I figured I would take the time to tell you about last week in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. 
We arrived to Cusco and to our hostel Thursday afternoon with painless travels. We spent Thursday getting acquainted with the town, checking out the local market to start our avocado love fest, and finally grabbing dinner at Chabad, which runs three restaurants in Cusco for the literally hundreds of post-army Israelis who make camp in the city. 

Friday we took a Peruvian cooking class where we learned to make chocolate truffles and stuffed avocados. Before the class started, the chef took us all to the market to buy the ingredients we needed. He showed us quite a variety of animal parts, some of which are considered lucky. One of the girls in the class tried to take a picture of some of the vegetables and got yelled at by a woman, “no photo!”. I had read in a blog that Peruvians believe that the camera steals their souls, and when I looked back at the offended woman, she was hitting all of her vegetables with a leek or something of the sort, I suppose undoing the harm of having a camera pointed at them. 

After the class, we signed up for our 5 day trek to Machu Picchu, called Salkantay, bought snacks at the market, and got ready for Shabbat. 
Friday night was cute, but because Chabad is really catered for the aforementioned Israelis, I found it a bit challenging. After dinner, the rabbi holds a session for the Israelis to “ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask a religious person.” I had some tea, which seems to be the most common drink here, and bounced. 
Shabbat morning I took myself on a long meandering walk through the town, got some great views, and enjoyed some alone time. Shabbat afternoon we hiked up to Christo Blanco (a large white Jesus statue) with a couple of New Yorkers whom we had met at lunch. In all of the towns we’ve visited here, there is a large white cross at the top of the highest hill, but Cusco took it to another level with this statue. After getting chased by some dogs (the dogs in Peru are like the cats in Israel, but inflict far more terror) we headed back down to the hostel where we played a little pool and then made havdalah. The Chabad couple are meshichists so we tried to do our own kiddish and havdalah whenever possible, though it was a bit challenging since this was the first dry Chabad I’ve ever visited.

Saturday night we had a briefing for our trek and then stayed in to pack and get ready. Evenings in the hostel were very cute, with a nice fire pit and a friendly vibe. We also met some other people in our hostel who were doing the trek with us. We all went to bed early in anticipation of our 4am pickup the following morning. 
Sunday we got on our bus and headed on a few hours drive into the mountains, where we stopped in some village and were offered a “continental breakfast”… This place is all tourist, all the time. I of course had an avocado. Then we started our first day of trekking – it was maybe 3 hours uphill, in the altitude, and it was HARD, and very hard to breathe. About 5 minutes in I though we might have made a mistake, and there is really no way off the trail once you are on your way, but I figured I’d play it by ear. That continued to be the theme for the next 4 days. 

We hiked with day packs and had porters with horses carrying our tents, sleeping bags, and extra clothes, as well as all of the kitchen needs, including food and utensils. 
We got to our campsite after 3 hours of uphill, where our tents had been set up under a large roof. We had lunch (this was the first of many meals where Miriam and I would stare longingly at the food, because our guide never quite figured out how to prepare anything we could eat). We then had an optional hike up to a glacier lake, which we had been told was not to be missed. I can’t say I agree – another hour up and then down was torture, and we got there too late to appreciate the lake in the sun, but at least it gave me a feeling of accomplishment and a sense that, having done 16km, I might be able to handle the next day’s 23km, which everyone had said was the hardest day of the trek. 

Indeed. We woke up at 5am and were handed coca tea in our tents to help with the elevation. We basically walked up very steep mountains for about 4 hours straight, maybe more, with only a couple breaks (and these were short breaks because Miriam and I were usually at the back). The feeling of not getting enough oxygen is a bit scary, and I constantly felt like I was going to vomit or pass out; my solution was just to stay away from the edge of the cliff. We finally made it up to the pass, which was gorgeous, and where we took pride in the fact that we hadn’t given up and taken horses like some other hikers. We then started the long, long trek down where scenery changed from barren mountains to green jungle, and where we learned that the only beings who are bothered by 90% DEET are humans. The end of the hike was mostly down and flat but it felt like it would never end, and I’ve never been so happy to see a campsite in my life. Once again that night we were all asleep by 8pm, exhausted from the day. 

The third day was a really nice easy few hours walk through the jungle, where we saw banana trees, coffee beans, and ate iced grenadine (that’s not really the name, but it’s similar and it’s what I remember). We saw a guy pulleying himself across a cable to bring goods across the river. We came to our campsite and then headed over to some hot springs for some well deserved relaxation. 

That night was an eventful one. First, I lost my cool at having an umpteenth meal in a row where they hadn’t bothered to set aside a single fruit or vegetable for us and so there was nothing to eat. Our whole group ganged up on our guide, and things got a little rough. But the night ended with a huge party where I tried to make amends with the guide and apologize to/thank the group with a $15 bottle of vodka. Tack on tequila shots for 1 sol (~25 cents) and some Macarena and the night turned into a festive dance party.

The next morning we headed to a zip line course, which was awesome. Somehow the 6 of us from our hostel had been preregistered to a different zip line course, so off we went together in a van. We had a ton of fun – it was 5 zip lines and a wooden bridge, and hopefully we got some cute pictures out of it (still waiting to see). The we got back in the van with literally no information about where we were going next. We got dropped off at some train tracks near the back entrance to Machu Picchu and just started walking, popping into every restaurant to see if perhaps the rest of our group was sitting eating lunch somewhere (our guide was pretty talented at shaving money off his tip).

Eventually we found them, quickly ate a bite, and then started the 3 hour walk down the train tracks toward Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. At this point the 6 of us, plus a couple others, decided we were schoolchildren no longer interested in our guide, and we lagged behind and took breaks to sit by the river. We also attempted one river entrance but we quickly aborted that plan as we got attacked by flies. One of the guys found some ginger and we picked it and took it to put in our veggies the next night. All in all it was an enjoyable walk with pleasant company but we were completely exhausted and could barely walk by the time we arrived to the town. 

We got to our hostel where we had a 3 bed private room with one of the girls we became close with… And we had showers! We took some well needed scrubs, put on some cleanish clothes, and all went to dinner together, where we exchanged Facebook names and email addresses. 

The next morning we woke up at 3:30 to get in line for the walk up to Machu Picchu. The gates opened at 5 and we started up the stairs. We had been told by some people that this was the hardest part of the hike… Those people are out of their minds. Yes, it’s an hour up some stairs and it’s 5am and you’re sweating your brains out, but then you’re done and you’re at Machu Picchu and your 5 day trek is complete and it’s awesome. 

Our guide gave us a short tour of the site and then we all meandered for a while, and just sat chilling at the top of the mountain with some alpacas. Miriam and I had paid a little extra to hike up one of the mountains around Machu Picchu which supposedly offers a great view, but we both quickly agreed to consider that one a sunk cost. Finally people from our group had to start heading down to catch their transportation back, so we all said our goodbyes and started back down the stairs. 

Miriam and I and the other girl we became friends with chilled around the town for a while – it’s a very cute little tourist town with a pretty plaza and lots of shops. We played some Jenga (which some of the restaurants put out on the tables) and cards with some people from a group that had done Salkantay in parallel with us, usually at the same campsites. 

Finally Miriam and I got on our very nice train to Ollantaytambo. From there, people take buses to Cusco, and when we got off the train at 9pm there must have been 20 drivers there calling the names of the people from their tours. Miriam and I walked past because we had decided to spend the night in the town. We checked into our hostel and went to go find some guys we had met in Chabad on Shabbat who had also done the trek that week, and who we knew were also spending the night. They came to our hostel and the 5 of us sat on the lovely terrace and made dinner together (it was missing some key ingredients like oil, spices, and awakeness, but we managed). 

Friday morning we had a leisurely breakfast on the terrace (we have had a lot of eggs for breakfast, and that morning was no exception, and I must say I can’t complain). We headed over to climb some ruins in the town, but the entrance fee was outrageous, so we decided we had a perfectly fine view from the bottom and wandered around the town and the market. We fell in love with this town – it was quiet and cute with narrow alleyways and a pretty plaza and small stores. 

We eventually got in a cab back to Cusco, where we made our plans for the next week, including crossing the Bolivian border, which is both challenging and expensive. We also learned that Israelis have to bribe their way across the border. Miriam ended up running around trying to get a visa on her US passport while I ran around getting passport photos and photocopies and printed bank statements, etc etc. I picked up the laundry we had dropped off when we got back – the only clean clothing to our names – and got back to the hostel just a few minutes before candle lighting. Not exactly what I had in mind for my first shower back at the hostel. 

The second Shabbat was a little nicer than the first, partially because we already knew some people, and partially because there were more Anglos, including some lovely couples from Queens who ended up giving us their leftover food and Ziplocs. Friday night we got back to the hostel to find a bunch of our trekking group hanging out there, which was really fun. Shabbat afternoon we briefly joined a free walking tour, discovering some new neighborhoods, and realizing that we hadn’t spent that much time in Cusco itself and when we did, we found ourselves going between Chabad and our hostel, which is not a pretty area. It was nice to see that there were other lovelier more interesting areas in the city. 

Saturday night we rushed through dinner at a vegan restaurant and ran back to the hostel to get to the bus to Puno. 

We had complained to the booking agency about the food situation on Salkantay, so he offered us very cheap bus tickets for a very nice bus to Puno. Our expectations were far exceeded, with huge seats that turned into almost-beds, usb outlets, blankets, and a tea service. I slept soundly throughout the ride and next thing I knew we were in Puno. 

Hashtag 40 days (2012)

Today was my first day to post on 40Days4Israel. This is scary stuff, people! 1500 people saw Sara’s first post. That’s… a lot. I went through last year’s posts to make sure I didn’t repeat anything, because how embarrassing would that be? 

And then, just for kicks, I put them here to share with you. Get into the 40 days spirit! Enjoy!

  • Living in Israel means getting to host people who visit from the US (and other places) all the time. LOVE that. (Welcome to my humble abode, Leyat!)
  • No words to describe singing Im Eshkachech at Matan and Gila’s chuppah overlooking the Old City…
  • Celebrating my birthday tonight with friends from ten different countries (!!) by going to a kosher wine and cheese bar (!!!), where we’ll enjoy some drinks from the world-renowned Israeli wine industry (!!!!).
  • An entire city spending the day preparing for Shabbat does not get old. Shabbat Shalom!
  • Spent Shabbat with friends who made aliyah just before I did. They couldn’t be prouder of their son, who is now in the army protecting our land and our people. 
    What a miracle that we have the ability to protect ourselves and that we take pride in doing it.
  • Negotiating with my Israeli brethren got me a free coffee and an extra five minutes to return my rental car, both for my birthday, and an extra personal training session because I insisted the prices were unreasonable.
    When everyone’s your family, every conversation is a little different.
  • Taking a minute on the way into Jerusalem to picture what the city looked like just 100 years ago.
  • Biggest challenge of the summer: How to attend all of Jerusalem’s festivals
    Happy summer in THE city!
  • Feeling the weekend approach while others are starting their hump day. Love you guys but this part’s kinda fun!
  • First time ever in a convertible today! Just another day of work in Israel….
  • Yesterday, I went to my grandmother’s cousin’s funeral. Gidon, like those of his generation, was part of the founding of our country and our army, fought for the land I live on, for the place we call home. In the words of his nephew, זכיתי להיות שם. 
    Loving and appreciating this place in his memory – 40Days4Israel.
  • Last night on the way home, a truck driver stood facing the guardrail next to his parked truck. I assumed the obvious until I realized that the driver was davening mincha. All along the road, drivers stood alongside their cars/vans/trucks as the sun was setting. Only in Israel.
  • Loved dancing last night at a club by the sea with the lovely Joanna who, decked out in veil and sash, was wished mazal tov by dozens of other club-goers…. mazal tov, Jo! Can’t wait to dance again Thursday night!
  • “So I miss the wine festival… it doesn’t compare to serving my country.” –Jeremy Ross on miluim
  • Cucumbers that taste like candy.
  • ONE WEEK. [Countdown to the wine festival. Don’t be surprised if this one rears its head again.]
  • What more could an Olympics lover ask for than two countries to cheer for? So. Excited.

And the conclusion:

Even without the daily postings (you’re welcome), I refrained from saying anything negative about Israel during the last 40 (39) days. It really changed the experience of daily living… hope to continue!

There are no words to describe the feeling of being in Jerusalem during the three weeks, the nine days, and Tisha B’av. It’s a painful, lonely, paradoxical time, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Wishing everyone an easy and meaningful fast, and a גאולה שלימה!


Last year, Janglo presented something called the 40 Days 4 Israel Challenge: to go 40 days – leading up to Tisha b’Av – without speaking badly about Israel. They chose this time because it is the period that the meraglim scoped out Israel before coming back and speaking badly about the land; and as they say, the rest is history. Participating in 40Days4Israel is a way to negate the action of the spies.

When I heard about this last year I thought it was a great idea, and joined the challenge. While it’s easy to find amazing, unique, and special things about Israel, it’s a lot harder to refrain from talking about the negatives – and to be clear, this means I didn’t say anything negative about living here AT ALL, even to my mother.

This turned out to be a remarkably rewarding challenge, and literally changed the way I went through my daily life. When it was done, I thought I might even continue it ad infinitum (hahahahaha, right?)  I’m really excited to be starting again; and this year we’ve created a Facebook group in the hopes that more people will take this challenge upon themselves.

And so, without further ado… here I go!

Gold medals & Great Britain

On Yom Hashoa, the most oft-posted link I saw was this blog post. It aims to move our story away from the victimization of Jews in the Holocaust and toward their strength, and implies that we’d do well to make this switch in the context of Jewish history overall. I couldn’t help but feel surprised at this post, and its popularity among my friends – I don’t remember ever getting the feeling of being a helpless nation from my family/teachers/leaders. I was a bit bothered by this, thinking, We have our own state! We are free, and secure, and we are awesome! Even Mark Twain thinks so! … because this is the rhetoric to which I am accustomed.

Last week, a co-worker began the trite discussion of Yom Hazikaron vs. Memorial Day. Before I had time to flee, she made a point I had not yet considered: it’s not just the proximity, conscription, and percentages that make Yom Hazikaron what it is; it’s also the fact that we like to see ourselves as victims. After spending all of Yom Hashoa determined to think otherwise, this idea somehow struck a chord.

On Saturday, Alex Shatilov won the gold medal for his floor routine at the European Gymnastics Championships (skip to 00:17:00):

Can we all agree that regardless of how amazing that last tumble pass is, this just does not compare to women’s gymnastics?

This is of course very exciting, and upon reading news this I immediately opened youtube and watched a bunch of routines continued preparing a report for work. And then I skipped to the awards ceremony (minute 44), where I intended to proudly watch the flag being raised and hear Hatikva being played.

Now it turns out that Alex Shatilov actually tied for gold – which JPost failed to mention – with Max Whitlock from Great Britain. So before Hatikva, “God Save the Queen” began to play. As I listened, I was struck by how regal, how proud it sounded. And then Hatikva began to play, and it dawned on me – our anthem sounds like the soundtrack to a Holocaust movie. Listen to it. It just… does.

Have we really set ourselves up to be victims? Do we need it? And why? With all due respect, do we need a new national anthem?

29 November!

Ok, let’s address this situation. I have had so many people ask me today what the significance of November 29th is. You guys! It is the anniversary of the passing of the UN Partition Plan. That miracle of miracles that gave us our own land!

Surely you’ve seen this a thousand times, but it never gets old, right? (Until I figure out how to do this automatically, start at 15:02)


You can also find a nicely done documentary with some background here:

This is, of course, what the street כ”ט בנובמבר in Katamon is named after. (Note that by calling it “Kaf-tet b’November,” they’ve actually fused the Jewish dating system with the secular one. Nice.)

And yes – Abbas’s move is, if nothing else, poetic.