Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Killing Time

I am drunk. I am in Lima, Peru. I got here at 9 a.m. this morning after a 4 a.m. wake-up to get to the airport in Cusco in time. I am tired.

I have a 16 hour time-span between my flight into Lima and my flight back to the U.S. The first 10 hours I spent in downtown Lima. The next six hours, I will spend drinking at the airport in hopes of facilitating a few hours of sleep on my red-eye flight.

Driving into Lima from the Airport (about a 40 minute taxi ride costing about $5 USD), I found the outer parts of the city to be just as ugly and unimpressive as everyone told me they would be. But when I got to the center, I was pleasantly surprised by a lively Plaza de Armas surrounded by colorful colonial-style buildings and churches, and more surprised to stumble upon the remains of Francisco Pizarro upon entering one of the Catholic churches off of the plaza.
After making my rounds about the center of town, I sat down on a bench at noon to watch the daily "changing of the guards" in front of Lima´s presidential palace. It was a long ceremony with a marching band and a hundred-or-so men in uniform... seemed like a lot of work for a daily ceremony, but entertaining for the hundreds of tourists who had come in hoards from their tour buses.

Afterwards I took a taxi to Miraflores, the "posh" part of town. And I´ve come to learn in South America that "posh" stands for "gringo-fied," which is to say there is Tony Roma´s restaurant and a shopping mall looking over the ocean front in Miraflores.

In the mall, I asked a saleslady where I could get some reasonably priced and good Ceviche, and she sent me walking 30 minutes in the hot humid sun in jeans to find this elusive place. I was getting sweaty and irritable, ready to curse the saleslady, until I actually got to the restaurant, a dark little hole in the wall, typical of Peru, and was served my Ceviche, which, I would say, has to go down as one of the top 10 meals of my life.

After my excellent late-afternoon lunch, I walked back to one of the "gringo-style" oceanfront bars and had a "Machu Picchu" cocktail (it doesn´t get any more cheesy and touristy than that)...made of orange juice, pisco and mint liqueur. Don´t ask me what part of that combination sounds appealing, but somehow it comes together in a bearable way.

Sitting at the bar alone, I was quickly roped into conversation with two 40-something men, one from Brazil, one from Peru, both airline pilots. It was nice to have someone to talk to at least (and buy me free drinks), but I politely declined when they invited me to dinner at the nearby Hooters. Not exactly what I had in mind when coming to see Peru.

I then caught a taxi back to the airport (after bargaining ruthlessly and still getting the ripoff Gringa price), and have 4 more hours to kill before I am on my way home. Airport bar, here I come.

And I almost forgot to mention... last night I finally ate Cuy (Guinea Pig) and that one will have to go down as one of the top 10 WORST meals of my life. Seriously, a horiffic experience, after which, I sat in silence with my dining companions, all of us pondering the full extent of what we had just done, what we had just eaten, and by the end of the meal, practically RAN out of the restaurant and vowed not to discuss the experience until the following day when the "peruvian rat" had passed through our system. hahahahaah

But all is good and fun in the name of new experiences :)

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Main Event?

Last night I boarded the train to Cusco in Aguas Calientes at 5 p.m. My day was complete. My trip was complete. I had finally made it to Machu Picchu.

Nothing could take away from this day. I had woken up at 5 a.m. to the voice of my hotel concierge knocking at my door, "Señorita, Señorita!" Not that it didn´t piss me off because I hate being woken up when its still dark outside... in this case, from the first deep sleep I´ve had all trip. It was the first time in a month that I´d had my very own private hotel room to sleep in, rather than a mixed hostel dorm with drunk people running in and out and loud music blaring outside.

Either way, I had a reason to get out of bed, and by 6 a.m. I was headed up to Machu Picchu. At 7 in the morning, after a winding bus ride 1000 meters up a mountainside, I made my way into the site with the other busloads of tourists I don´t like to associate myself with, only to find the entire site was shrouded in a deep fog. The Inca Trail hiker groups, (who I respect more than the bus and train group) seemed dejected, after 4 full painstaking days scrambling up rocks at a high altitude to reach Machu Picchu, only to arrive to what one hiker sarcastically proclaimed as "Braveheart...enough said."

But by 8 a.m. the fog started to fade, revealing the rocky outlines of the ancient ruins and the tall jagged mountains surrounding them on all sides. When the fog had cleared by 9:30 a.m., it was a sight to behold...this ancient city perched high upon a mountain-top. I began to wonder how the Inca´s did it.

By 10 a.m. I found myself in conversation with a Peruvian trail guide who had led an Inka Trail hike to Machu Picchu, but was not allowed to give tours in Machu Picchu itself. He suggested we climb Wayna Pichu, the tall mountain directly behind Machu Picchu that served as a lookout point over the city, and he would give me a bit of "off the records" info. "Great," I thought, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

At 2,720 Meters high, Wayna Picchu was no walk in the park. The most suitable comparison for climbing this behemoth would be climbing up a 6000 Ft ladder. The trails, cut directly into the rock face were one heck of a workout on the thighs, but even worse was the humidity and altitude, which left me gasping for air and water after every 5 or 10 steps, while my Peruvian guide literally went running up the face of the mountain ahead of me, stopping only to ask if I was ok. That, of course, pissed me off.

The view, however, was worth it. From the top of Wayna Pichu, you can look down on Machu Picchu to see that the city was built in the shape of a Condor (one of three religious symbols of Inca Culture--the other two are Snake and Puma). You are also at eye level with the tops of all the other surrounding mountains which from ground level, seem impossibly high. The feeling is incredible...but the descent, while less physically exhausting, is more life threatening (imagine climbing 6000 feet back down that same ladder with nothing but air and gravity on all sides)

In addition, our Machu Picchu guide had told a story about a Japanese tourist who had thrown a coin into the sacred temple some years back and then fallen while climbing Wayna Picchu. He had survived, but I suppose its a lesson in not upsetting the aura of this place.

Well, someone that day must have messed up in a similar fashion, because, when I thought the day couldn´t possibly get any more eventful than a trip to Machu Picchu, our train back to Cusco stopped in its tracks.

First it was the engine that had given out. Surrounded on 3 sides by mid-20´s male Japanese tourists who were all speaking in Japanese to one another, I had nothing to do except stare idly around the train as we waited 45 minutes before the engine started up again. The whole train cheered when we started moving, but our cheers came too soon. No more than 20 minutes later, we stopped again.

Of course in Peru, no one makes announcements as to why things are happening or what measures are being taken to deal with a situation, so after 5 more minutes of painstaking silence amongst my Japanese seatmates, I got up to talk to a train employee.

"Que esta pasando, Señor?" I asked.

"Hay un derrumbe," he answered.

What is a "derrumbe"? My spanish was failing me and I was tired from my day of hiking. Then it clicked. A landslide. Yes, a landslide of boulders has fallen down from the mountains and covered up the train tracks. We were stranded in the dark in the middle of the Peruvian jungle alongside a river somewhere between Cusco and Machu Picchu until the "machines" came to clean up the boulders. That could take hours.

And it did. Two and a half hours to be exact, by which point people were angry, hungry, restless... At some point, out of boredom, I struck up a conversation with the biggest gringo on the train, a boistrous, loud, overweight american man wearing a Brett Favre jersey and drinking beers. Oh, what was happening, and would this ever end?

An angry Taiwanese man spent at least 45 minutes of that time yelling at the Peruvian employees in broken English, while two angry Columbian girls played the role of "angry in agreement," arms crossed, nodding their heads, eyes fixated with the look of death as the Taiwanese man continued his tirade.

As for me, I accepted the "South American-ness" of the situation, and hung out with some English folk at the "bar," listening to stories of small critters in the Amazonian jungle that can swim up your urine stream and get inside your body, are extremely painful, and can only be removed by surgery.

And on the topic of piss, I wondered, who on this train had pissed off the spirits at Machu Picchu and sent the landslide down the mountain. My vote was for the "Angry Taiwanese man", as a group of English boys deemed him.

We arrived to Cusco at midnight, 3 hours later than schedule, and of course there was no one waiting for me at the station, as my tour company said there would be. So I took a taxi back to my hostel and passed out.

Today is my last day in Cusco. I am getting a massage for 25 Soles--about $8 USD...not only because its cheap, but because with yesterday´s events, I´ve earned it.

Machu Picchu and a landslide in one day? You can´t make this stuff up!

Also, just a picture preview from my trip to San Pedro de Atacama. More to come when I get home:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Aguas Calientes

Today I arrived to the town of Aguas Calientes (which if you couldn't figure it out, means hot waters). And yes, there are hot springs here, which I swam in. They're supposed to have healing powers, but the copious amounts of gringos with unfortunate looking shirt tans (this includes me) drinking Cusqueno--the local beer--from the can, took away from the "medicinal powers" vibe.

Either way, the hot springs seem to have healed up many of my cuts and bruises from various travel mishaps (the most recent happened this morning when I tripped over my luggage storage trunk at 5 a.m. in the dark on zero hours of sleep and cut my shin, while attempting to gather my things for the 6:00 a.m. train departure towards Machu Picchu).

Five hours later, I was in Aguas Calientes, which is a stopping point on the way to the ruins. It is a little town beside a river, surrounded on all sides by majestic green looming mountains, and jungle-like flora and fauna. While the town seems to have been built with the sole purpose of accomodating the mass amounts of tourists that pass through here each day, I am still impressed by the natural beauty of its surroundings--waterfalls, mist-covered green mountain-tops, colorful tropical flowers, and then of course a wealth of dining and nightlife options.

Tomorrow is another early wake-up, as we head at dawn to the ruins, spend the afternoon there, and then return to Cusco by train in the evening.

And just for your amusement, this is the email conversation that ensued with my mom after she read the previous post about the Shaman experience:

Mom: Mer even if the shaman is in don't try any peruvian hallucinogenics...Mom

Me: Lil, they're supposed to "show me the way"... don't you think it would be good for me to figure out my life already? hahahaha. Actually, I more imagine this Shaman trip to be some kind of scary disaster where they take a group of gringos to the mountains, give them sleeping pills disguised in some herbal foul-tasting liquid, steal their money and clothes and leave them naked and stranded in the middle of nowhere, Peru. So unless I talk to someone who's already done it and can vouch for it, I won't be participating. haha.

After some of the stories I've heard... believe me, it could happen!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Final Days in Cusco

Just a quick update as I near my final days in Cusco. Tomorrow I'm headed to Machu Picchu. I am taking the train at 6:20 tomorrow morning to the stop-over in a place called Aguas Calientes. I'll spend Saturday night there and then at dawn the next morning we head up to Machu Picchu. I can't wait. I would have liked to do the 4 day trek, but lacked both the time and the advance reservations (they only issue a certain number of permits to trek Machu Picchu per month for conservation reasons)... so I am doing it two days by train.

Anyways, in the past few days in Cusco, I have walked around town, bought loads of artesanal crap at the local markets, drank and ate things I probably shouldn't have, but am feeling fine. I walked into a large open-air market the other day where there were tons of fresh juice stands and I couldn't resist buying a passion-fruit pineapple combination, despite how shady and unsanitary looking the market may have been :) I have also eaten excellent ceviche, quinoa soup (a local grain), and next on the list is Cuye.

Yesterday I did a day trip into the Sacred Valley, where there are tons and tons of Inca ruins, and today I rode a horse around some more ruins. It was just me and my 18-year old Peruvian trail guide riding today, and he told me all about this excursion people do where they go to the mountains with a Shaman and drink some sort of hallucinogenic plant from the Peruvian jungle, and its supposed to purify you and bring your life into perspective. He took me to the Shaman's house to see if I wanted to do it, but the Shaman wasn't there.

I also learned about medicinal uses from a bunch of types of plants, and crawled through dark scary caves, and am now completely exhausted. The altitude here makes a 5 minute walk feel like 5 miles.

Anyways, in my down time, I have been drinking with Scots from my hostel, dining with French, Irish and Lithuanian folk, and sleeping in my freezing cold hostel with my big new Alpaca wool sweater, which, at the rip-off, Gringa-tax price, still only cost me about $12 USD.

Can't wait to update with stories from Machu Picchu!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Coca Tea, Cuye and Cheap Cameras

All the coca tea I drank yesterday in Arequipa may have prevented altitude sickness during the cliffhanging, high-velocity, barreling-around-thin-mountainside-curves in the rain, overnight bus ride from Arequipa to Cusco, last night, but it did not live up to its other indication of preventing stomach "illness"- if you will.

So welcome to Cusco. I am sick. I am also using an x-brand disposable camera I bought in Arequipa for $10 soles--which comes to about $3 USD. The Peruvian salespeople in an Alpaca wool shop were laughing at me yesterday when I pulled it out.

"Where did you get that, Senora? The Gringos always have very fancy cameras."

Well, between ramshackle bus rides, camping on the beach, using a cheap brand of shampoo as hair-wash, face-wash and body-wash after my toiletries were stolen, my trip has been far from fancy, so I guess the camera suits my style. Not that it doesn't suck or anything, but I have to make light of the situation.

And its my fault. Rolling around in the dust and sand of the San Pedro de Atacama desert while wasted was probably not the best idea, for me or for my camera.

Anyways, here in Peru, I'm on a high. I'm going to see Machu Picchu tomorrow or the next day. And camera or no camera, I'm sure it's going to be an incredible experience.

Arequipa was a very nice surprise as well. I thought I'd just be passing through a small mountainside town on my way to Cusco, only to discover that Arequipa has more than a million inhabitants. Far different from Chile, everything has its own Peruvian feel to it. The Spanish is easier to understand, the people more reserved, the food is excellent (still considering whether I will eat Cuye--Guinea Pig--a Peruvian delicacy) and the shopping even better--particularly because things that would sell for about $30-50 in the U.S. are about $7-15 in Peru. Yes, I went a little crazy yesterday.

I met up with a German girl, Nora, who I'd met on the bus the day before and who was living in Arequipa for the year, to explore the town for the day. Now I wish I'd given myself much more time in Peru.

Oh well, I guess I'll just have to come back someday :)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Still Standing...Somehow

I woke up in Arica with a cookie in my hand. It was 6:20 a.m. and my 11-hour bus ride from Calama had arrived an hour ahead of schedule. The bus attendant was ripping my blanket and pillow away from me before I had even opened my eyes.

A somewhat rude awakening (minus the cookie part) if you ask me, but I didn´t mind, seeing as ir was a bona-fide wake-up call rather than the usual polite interruption to my typical routine of tossing and turning restlessly on any form of public transportation. For once, I had slept through the whole ride, and for me that was a miracle.

Two days and nights in the San Pedro de Atacama Desert had done the trick I sometimes surprise myself with just how much abuse my body can withstand.
As our tour (which turned out to be excellent) departed from the Chilean port city of Antofagasta on Wednesday morning, our guide suggested we drink a lot of water--in addition to his warnings the night before not to eat a heave meal and to skip the drinking and carousing until 6 a.m. which had become protocol on the tour. We were going to go from sea level up to 3600 Meters in a single day, and all the suggested self-control was to avoid altitude sickness.
As it turned out, my good behavior paid off and I made it into the dusty, charming, swarming with tourists desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, feeling at the top of my game. After visiting the Flamingo reserve and watching the sunset over the lagoons there, we made it to our hostel and then went for dinner.
Over dinner, I talked a fellow American and an Irish couple from our tour, into doing a sandboarding trip with me early the following morning. Many beers later, plus one late-night. Chilean house party, followed by drinking around a campfire until the sun came up, I, the Sandboarding expedition instigator, slept through my big plans for the day. Oops.
The day was not lost though. So I let down the Irish couple, who ended up doing the trip alone, but after a much-needed post-noon brunch, I dragged my dehydrated, hungover self on a mountain-bike ride with two English girls and a South African guy from my tour. I rode for an eternity in the hot desert sun to see a breathtaking gorge and some ancient ruins.
Later that day, on 3 hours of sleep, I felt miraculously ok, and proceeded to do some adrenaline pumping rock climbing, followed by a short caving adventure through tiny dark spaces, and then finally to climb up some massive sand dunes to watch the sun go down in Valle de La Luna--where Pink Floyd once filmed a concert.

An Incredible day indeed followed by an equally incredible night--starting with dinner and a live native music band, typical from the Atacama region--which resulted in the group cheering me on to oblige the invite from the waiter to dance with him in front of everyone. I danced until my knees were shaking (which didn´t take long after my exhausting day) and thought about calling it an early night, but once again stayed up drinking Piscola (Pisco and Coke) from a communal bottle until 6 a.m. when the final embers of the campfire went out and the sun started to come up.

The next morning I left the tour, which was heading back down south towards Santiago, and once again I was traveling Chilean style. A friend of mine from Santiago, Juan Andres, met up with me in San Pedro and took me to his family´s house in what is arguably the worst city in all of Chile-- Calama-- which is famous for the three "P´s"

Polvo, Perros y Prostitutas

(Dust, Dogs and Prostitutes)

After "tomando once" (Chilean light dinner) in Calama, I caught an overnight bus to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, and also a beach town, where I met up with a Juan Andres´s friend, Pablo.

Pablo and his friends and family showed me around town and made me feel completely at home--and of course I spent another late night, this time as an awkward Gringa trying to dance to latino music at the biggest club in Arica, where we went to celebrate Pablo´s friend´s birthday. Yet again I went to bed as the sun was coming up, and after 3 hours of sleep, I had lunch with Pablo and his family, and was then on my way to Peru, on what, I didn´t realize was going to be one of the most extremely uncomfortable bus rides I´ve had in a long time.

The early departure to the Peruvian city of Arequipa was already full, so I agreed to travel on the economy bus, which took two hours longer, made frequent stops, smelled of burning rubber, and was perhaps just one step above riding with chicken crates. So I exaggerate, but I was cramped as sin, since I had chosen to put my large backback in the seat row with me, forcing me to sit with my knees drawn up against my chest for the first hour of the ride until I found a way to extend my legs to the floor without bothering the guy next to me. Worth it? Most likely. I had heard a horror story from an Australian traveler I´d met in Santiago, that his entire pack had been stolen from the luggage storage beneath a bus in Bolivia, and he was traveling for the next 6 months with the clothes on his back.

Anyways, 7 hours later, smelly, sore and tired as hell, here I am in Arequipa, Peru-- and am hoping I don´t get sick to my stomach with the water here, especially since, along with my passport, all of my medicine was stolen too.

Tomorrow night I head to my final destination, Cusco, to see Machu Picchu.

Unfortunately my camera didnt survive the San Pedro de Atacama desert quite as successfully as I did, so hopefully I can get my hands on a disposable one!