Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Well, I can't believe it, but it's over. A month ago I arrived in a foreign land and now I feel a little bit like I'm leaving home yet again. Ali was saying today how she's now starting to feel at home here now, and I feel the same way. It's amazing how quickly one can adapt to a way of life and how quickly we grow those bonds that tie us down, even when away from our comfortable homes.
We'll miss Lima and Peru! It has been a fantastic trip full of friendly people, amazing places, and truly memorable food. Ali and I went surfing again yesterday, and even though it was about as cold as it ever gets here, we still had a blast out there and talking with the surfing dude, Edgar. Followed by an absolutely stellar lunch of Cebiche and a "Reinette" fish in a sweet fig and honey sauce (with wontons, asparagus, and mushrooms, served over a bed of filo potatoes layered with a subtle cheese, mmmm) - followed by a typical fantastic dinner of steak risotto and prawns sauteed in yellow chili sauce served over gnocchi, 2 good Malbecs, and 8 different bruschettas...followed by a nice evening chat with our doormen, Luis and Angel about politics...it really did bring home the point that there will be much to miss.
We will really miss the doormen, Luis in particular. He has patiently taught us both Spanish, talked with us about everything under the sun in Peru, been especially helpful with taxis, directions, recommendations, gossip about other people in the buliding, stood there holding the elevator for us while we blathered on about all the nice places we've been, and more. A super warm and personable guy who exemplifies Peruvian hospitality. One can only wish the best for him as we all continue down the roads our lives are on. (ali) Nic was especially generous in giving him a parting gift in return for all of his patriotic suggestions. (/ali)
There is a dizzying array of countries to go visit in the future, but I can't help but feel like I'll return here one day, maybe with a bit better Spanish this time.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
We were pretty thrilled with the first part of the day and were nearing the end of the most interesting ruins around noon when we started thinking about water. The guidebook says we can’t bring any food or drinks into the ruins, so we dutifully took these things out of our pack for the day. Theme of the day: unprepared. The sudden burning hot sun and Nic's thirst didn’t keep us from noticing, however, another really amazing ruin perched on top of the tall, pointy mountain you see in all the postcards.
The pointy mountain is called Huayna Picchu, or “Young Peak” or “Young Coca Leaf Wad,” and the Incas built a fortress on top of that one too. We didn’t even notice it until a tour guide started pointing it out to his group. As soon as we saw it though, we forgot about thirst and decided we had to go bag that peak.
There is an actual guard gate preventing people from going up the trail without signing your life away in a numbered log book (name, country, time of departure, time of reentry, etc), and there are really funny signs warning people away for being non-fit and technically able to climb steep trails. They make it sound like you are going to be scrambling up a 5.4 pitch of exposed rock! Nic and I started tearing up the trail, convinced our Cascade-honed rock-climbing abilities would prove more than adequate for a teensy little hike!
First, we climbed down into the saddle between the two peaks, then we got to start climbing up. Nic took his shirt off, shyly at first, and Ali turned her wool jersey up at the hems. Shy turned into carefree as the clouds burned off and the day began to get truly, Amazonly hot. Thankfully, the one thing we did remember to bring was sunscreen to cover our already peeling gringo bodies. Ali teased Nic a little about how thirsty he was, but pretty soon she too was thinking seriously about licking the dripping rocks to get moisture.
After leap-frogging up the trail with another trio of Seattleites for about an hour, we reached a cool rock tunnel. You have to go through this tiny little hole in the rock - practically on hands and knees. After climbing through this and the subsequent steep terraces, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the whole of Machu Picchu and the river valley way below us. (Rob, it reminded us of Ingalls, when we were thirsty and the lake was way below!) The elevation was around 8,600’ here (about 600 feet higher than Mt. St. Helens). Nic snapped a few quick pictures before his camera battery needed rest, and we both coveted some guy’s illegal 1.5 liter water bottle before high-tailing it back down the trail.
Despite our overarching desire to get back down to water and food, we suddenly discovered the steep part they’d tried to warn us about. The Incans had teeny feet! The stairs they’d built down the opposite side of the mountain top were probably about 5 inches deep, meaning we had to take each step sideways, one at a time, or risk tumbling hundreds of feet down the hillside. Ali rediscovered her fear of heights and got very territorial about where Nic put his feet (too close to her hands!) and we both marveled at the lack of handrails on these most dangerous spots. There were cables to hold onto in other places, but somehow not the steepest sections. We could only imagine that they’d been pulled off by earlier thirsty falling tourists. (Forget traffic fatalities, you should have seen the blood splashed down the steps from the unlucky tourists!)
We made it back down to the checkout station in record time, enjoyed a few really neat ruins on the way back out, faded in and out of consciousness due to heat exhaustion, and rushed to go buy the yummiest $3 Coke we’d both ever tasted at the exit of the area.
Instead of walking back down the trail again to the city, we opted for a luxurious tourist bus, which took forever to snake back down the 8 km of dirt trails in a highly exciting way – backing up and pulling over for other buses as we went by each other on these narrow little switchbacky roads.
We made it back to town in time to admire a few of the 6 million cats in Aguas Calientes, play with the restaurant owner’s 3 parrots, and enjoy a fantastic white cheese pizza and two huge bottles of the local beer. Note: the “negra” beer here is killer sweet! Oh, and we stocked up on snax for the train ride, because we weren't going to be stuck again without proper snax, watching all the other tourists munch on chocolate and chips and coke while all we had were cruddy old Clif Bars and water "sin gas!"
Nic was worrying about missing the train, so we sauntered on down about 3 minutes before we were supposed to board - and of course found the train to be late. We wandered around for a while, scoffing at all the tourist junk we saw, wondering why the train was so late, and feeling smug for being so obviously on time and first to the station.
As per the theme of the day, we never really started wondering why there weren’t any tourists around until we sat down on a bench and happened to accidentally spot a sign which said something about the tourist train leaving from ANOTHER TRAIN STATION!!! Thus ensued a hilarious, frantic, high-altitude, beer-logged, completely lost, gringo rush through the town and the maze-like market. We just made it to our train on the other side of the town when it started chugging off, perfectly on time, much to the disappointment of the Germans who’d set up camp in our empty seats.
The ride back was quiet, dark, and uneventful, except for the parts where our train was discovered to have “mechanical problems” and lurched to a halt about 6 different times. One of those times, the "tren local" behind us actually puffed up to about 30 feet distant and stopped on a dime. We were the last car on our train, so when they opened the back door of our car, we could hear the two crews have a discussion about a part that our train was apparently missing. Do you have ANY idea how bright train headlights are at night? Anyway, the tren local gave up some missing part it had that we needed more than it did, and we were off again – for a while, until we lurched to a stop again somewhere else. This went on and on for hours, but we eventually made it home to the Cuzco area, about 1-2 hours late.
This part of the train ride was pretty novel too, though. The steppes around Cuzco are pretty steep. The train gets up pretty high (11,600’) on its way into Cuzco, and it has to lose about 1,100’ in less than a mile. It does this by going forward and backward on connecting tracks that span the hillside, and there’s a guy that runs up and down the hill switching the tracks for us in the middle of the night. The train is thus stuck on the hillside for half an hour, and the guide book said to close your train windows, because this was when angry or drunk locals could throw trash at us. Nobody did, of course, but it was kind of eerie passing the same houses and dogs and people within 6 feet over and over again. One can see how they’d hate that train.
Ok, maybe that's not fair, maybe llama's have great memories and me using them as a slam isn't appropriate, but hey, I had a picture of one.
Remember how I said we came unprepared? How we forgot things?
Well I didn't mention one thing I forgot. One thing that of all places I should have brought along. One thing which I brought to Peru for no other reason than this trip. One thing which I would never forgive myself for leaving behind. That's right, I'm a total llama - I forgot my digital SLR.
My digital SLR which has batteries that last forever. My digital SLR that has a polarizer on it for blue skies and no over exposure. My digital SLR with a fast shutter so I could take multiple shots quickly and frame my exposures. My digital SLR able to take 500 pictures.
Llama llama llama llama!
So when you look at these pictures and think.. gee, that's not that great a picture.. or gee, that looks a bit overexposed.. or gee, why aren't there more pictures. Well the reason for all those and more is because I was using my cheap point and shoot which I also conveniently forgot to charge. So not only was the camera inadequate to start out with, I was snapping pictures as quick as I could then shutting it off to conserve the charge. Arr!
Thankfully we did get some shots that turned out ok, but nothing like they would have with a real lens and especially with the polarizer on this bright but foggy day. Oh well, as they say, live and learn to forget another day.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
(back to nic)
The whole idea of taking the train at night was to allow us to get up at the crack of dawn and be on the first buses to Machu Picchu. Since the train is the only way into Machu Picchu, and since the first train doesn't arrive until around 10 AM, those who sleep in Aguas Calientes ("Hot Waters") can get the site to themselves in the early morning.
Sadly, when our alarm went off at 5:00 AM, it was also greeted with the sound of some pretty heavy rainfall. This combined with our extreme grogginess made it an easy decision to press the snooze button and sleep in for a few hours more. Others around us were more motivated, as was all too obvious by their banging and jabbering around.
When we finally did roll out of bed, we were greeted with an empty hotel. We went down to grab breakfast (typical breakfast here is coffee or tea with a round, pita-like bread and jam), where we found the resident adorable begger kitten. We only mention the cats we've seen here, because they are so rare in Peru. Aquas Calientes seems to be an oasis for cats.
Now it's here that I must pause and comment on just how unprepared we both were for what lay ahead. Yes, two people with more GoreTex, outdoor gear, hiking boots, Schoeller and more - all of which they even lugged to Peru - somehow completely forgot to bring said gear to Machu Picchu. Instead, we showed up in cotton jeans and normal street shoes. No GoreTex jackets. No hiking boots. No Clif Bars. No extra water.
Oh, did I mention it was pouring out?
Thankfully, in a town dominated by forgetful tourists, the local populace is always happy to oblige. So three soles later we were both happily equipped with brightly colored trashbag ponchos. It was still raining, but the day was young, so we decided to see whether we might wait it out by visiting the Machu Picchu museum first.
The museum is about two kilometers from town, on the road to Machu Picchu (the ONLY road out of Aguas Calientes). There aren't any taxis here so we just walked along the raging swollen river to the museum. Even though entrance to the museum was NOT free with Machu Picchu tickets as our book promised, it was still a good visit. Providing a nice background on Inca culture and construction techniques, it was the perfect preamble to our exploration of the site. Even better, by the time we were done, it had stopped raining. Our laziness had paid off.
There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. Either take one of the nonstop buses shuttling between the town and site, or hike through 8 km of switchbacks on an old Inca path. As we were already 2 km into it, and the buses only leave from the town proper, we decided to do the hike. 6 km doesn't sound like much, and it isn't really, but to my defense it WAS at 7,000 feet, and I was wearing jeans and leather town shoes, and it was incredibly humid. But anyways.. uh.. ya, Ali totally beat my ass up the trail. As it turns out, this would be the theme for the day.
I'll spare you the macro photos of a few flowers I took along the way (a sly way to get a breath I tell you!), but the trail itself was really well built, and before long we found ourselves at the entrance of the site.
Now, Machu Picchu comes with a certain reputation. Its name precedes it, we have all heard about how big it is, how impressive. We've all seen the pictures, the videos, the PBS documentary. But none of that really prepares you for just how freaking huge it is. It's HUGE! No really really! HUGE! Great tracts of land I tell you!
Uhm.. ya. Let's just say when we first rounded the corner and saw it we were both pretty dumbstruck. And we couldn't even see it all from that point. To say that this dwarfed anything we had seen before would be an understatement. The terraces go on forever, the buildings are everywhere and you just can't get over that the entirity of this ridgeline and mountain has been transformed into a village. It really is awe inspiring.
By this time of the day, the rain had completely stopped and all that remained was fog. Sadly, with the nicer weather also came the throngs of tourists that had arrived via train and bus, so the site was swamped from head to toe. Regardless, it was such a huge place that it never felt truly crowded.
Historians are still debating what purpose exactly Machu Picchu served. The current theory is that it was a vacation retreat of sorts for nobility and not a living town proper. It probably never housed more than five or six hundred people, but boy did they ever have a view. The city was largely self-supported; the numerous terraces provided land to farm at various elevations and aspects to support different crops. Additionally, an irrigation system throughout the city was installed to provide fresh water to the fields and people. Although it is built in a terrifically impractical location, it was still practical, as it needed very little from the outside.
To be continued..
Friday, April 27, 2007
Upon arriving in Ollantaytambo ("Ollantay's warehouse"), we were treated with spectacular views of large ruins on the hillsides above. The ruins we'd seen up until now were peanuts compared to this mountain fortress. The story goes that this particular spot was where one of the last Incan generals retreated from the Spanish in the 1500's. Here, they repelled the Spaniards for about 40 years, including using tricky irrigation techniques to flood them, until they were finally overrun by a massive cavalry attack in the end. The ruins all over the hills were food storage sites, so they say.
Anyway, we explored that area for a while, assured it was bigger or better than Machu Picchu by the friendly local juice squisher, and then settled down for a longish wait in the city square, where there was an Andean weaving contest going on. It's neat to see how plain old wool off an alpaca is twirled into woolen yarn, then taken somewhere to be dyed, then woven through a laptop loom into the bright red and orange scarves and blankets you see everywhere here. The town was overrun with gringos, but we found a tasty café to hang out in which donates its profits to local women's funds in the mountains around us. We read that the women were given a choice of programs to fund with the café's profits, and they picked all children's programs – basically giving away the funding they could have taken for themselves and choosing programs for the kids of their villages. Anyway, this café had the most amazing hot chocolate we've ever seen. Ali drank 3 pots of tea (ginger-lime, coca, and ginger-lime) to make up for her recent dehydration at 10,500' in Cuzco.
We paired up with a pair of friendly Dutch gringos for the walk to the train station, swapping stories and talking about travel. Nic was inspired by the long-term travel many of the Europeans find themselves able to do. 2-month tours are easier to do when you've a holiday tradition of getting the summer off from work, and 6 to 12-month tours are not atypical. Dollars and the Euro go a long way in South America. Still, the Dutch weren't staying at $30 hotels, but truly backpacking it and bargaining.
The train was packed exclusively with tourists; there was another train called the "tren local" for the local residents right in back of us which costs less than half (but still $20, exorbitant for most people). It was quite nice, except our seats faced another pair, and Nic's legs were politely intertwined with a pair of Argentinean legs. But it was OK, as the ride was only supposed to be about 2 hours long and it was already dark. Since we'd gotten on about half way to Machu Picchu, everyone was sleepy and the train was pretty quiet. Nic and the Argentineans contorted themselves into amazing shapes in order to snooze, while Ali flirted with decapitation by craning out the window to see through the dark into the emerging river jungle.
Suddenly….CRUNCH, BONK, CHUNK, BANG, CHUNK, BANG, CHUNK…SIZZLE!!!! We lurched to a rapid stop. "¡Como!" was heard from the sleepy Argentineans. We started going again, slowly, only to hear the Crunching and Banging and Chunking again. Over and over. It felt like the train was ramming something on the tracks, which it turned out, was exactly what it was doing.
An amazing amount of communication can happen between people who don't speak the same language in situations like this. We're all sleeping, when suddenly the train feels like it's just about to derail in the dark, in the jungle, and nobody knows what's going on, and nobody's there to tell us, and it's scary. But somehow, within 2 minutes, through sign language and pidgin Esfranglish and charades, we all knew that huge rocks had fallen from the cliffs we were traveling under and landed on the tracks in front of us. Indeed, we all fathomed that the train driver had attempted to bludgeon his or her way through them. By the time the conductor came and told us about "las rocas," we already knew.
A mesmerizing cycle of banging our way through, backing up, then waiting began. We could stick our heads out the windows and see big lights in front of the train, hear people with crowbars trying to lift the rocks off the track. One couldn't help thinking it was like modern Incas moving huge rocks to build something, except with the help of a massive train to pulverize some of the pieces. We couldn't actually see the process from our car, but we felt each little boulder as we either rammed it or subsequently ran over it. An hour or so passed, and we kept slowly moving forward, encountering more rocas along the way.
We finally got through the rocks. There was something really magical about this part of the journey. There are only two ways to enter Machu Picchu, by foot along the 2 or 4-day Inca Trail, or by train. The trains only run at night, and this time of year, you arrive long after dark. You leave light somewhere up in the highlands of the Sacred Valley and travel through dark and moonlight into the unknown. Peering out the open windows of the brightly lit train only faintly reveals a roaring, whitewater river and looming, shadowy trees. The smell of the air is your best indication of the terrain, as you roll down through the dusty highland foothills into a steamy, verdant, tropical gorge.
The passengers had reached that hazy state of exhausted, crammed in familiarity that you get on long journeys, where you stopped worrying about touching thighs and nudging for extra space a long time ago. Everyone drifted between sleep and one-eye-open consciousness. Nic found position #35 to snooze in, while Ali hovered out the Argentineans' window (the conductor had stopped worrying about her decapitation a while back). The front of the train belched flames and smoke from the smokestack in front when it rounded curves in the gorge. Every now and then, a face in the dark would rush by underneath, barely 3 feet away, evidence of a tiny local train station for that person's 1-hut village. There are no roads out here.
Finally, there were lights in the fog around the gorge's corner up ahead. Machu Picchu station! Altitude: 6,800'.
We had booked a "hostal" from Ollantaytambo. In the sleepy, mesmerized, and very late state we were in, we weren't sure where it was or how to get there. So we were carried along in the dark in the quickly dispersing tide of lemming tourists until Nic overheard a man mumbling "Rita Poche" behind us somewhere in the crowd, and we were escorted to a woman holding a sign with the same printed on it in the small town square. Soon thereafter, we were met by an older lady who encouraged us to start walking up a steep hill with her. I don't think we really knew where we were going, but we weren't about to argue if it meant a place to sleep.
After a brisk 3-minute walk that felt like hours, we spotted a cat! (2nd one in Peru, to Ali's knowledge.) Soon, we turned down a dark alley towards the sound of the river, and were taken inside a really nice, small hotel that was completely dark and deserted. This part of the trip is hazy, as we were sleep walking at this point, and we had no idea where we were. But as soon as our heads touched the pillows, we fell fast asleep to the sounds of a roaring whitewater river.
(Ali has picked up the blogging slack and written the Machu Picchu blog for us)
We slept the night in Cuzco and walked through the main square Sunday morning on our way to the "bus station." The whole town appeared to be out and dressed to the nines, including the usual FPKs and their parents and their siblings and their aunts and uncles, and the various cultural groups of the mountains around us (see picture). Every group that could possibly be represented was representing, with the notable inclusion of the town trash collectors (see picture) , and the notable exception of the town dogs. They were probably running in packs in another part of town, open season on trash and cats while all this was going on.
We picked a strategic spot in the middle of this military marching girls section (see picture) from which to observe events. Nic was too shy to approach the twittering bunch, so Ali, with her 27-most-important-Spanish-verbs, went and elicited helpful information like, "There is a parade," and, "Today is Sunday," and, "It is especial Sunday today," and, "This happens every Sunday."
The army (see picture) marched around the square a few times, chanting army things, with big guns. A prissier version of the army marched around a few times, with big guns. Finally, a ceremony of sorts involving a special woman and a lot of military yelling and flags happened on the stage set up on the steps of the cathedral. We asked some guy standing there if it was the Presidente of Cuzco, expecting a blank or disgusted stare, but apparently we were dead on. (He was the governor of Cuzco state.) The military did some perfectly syncopated do-si-do maneuvers, high stepping behind the woman and the Presidente, and flags were raised. The Cuzco "departmente" flag looks an awful lot like another world-famous rainbow flag.
After some false starts and an enlightening visit to a pharmacy for diarrheal medication, we found the bus station in a muddy, dog-infested courtyard in a bad part of town. The bus didn't go all the way to where we wanted it to, so in true hopeful gringo fashion, we got on anyway. For $.67 we got a 2-hour ride through the hills surrounding northern Cuzco. This time, there was no Andean woman singing at us until we gave her money for caramels, but there were several enchantingly beautiful rural women with children strapped to their backs in the typical Peruvian blanket style - who stood for the whole ride. These women are tough! We still don't know how they get that blanket knot to stick all day long.
We were driven past a lot of beautiful country, slowly dropping down lower and lower into the mouth of the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Valley is a long river valley, between steep foothills (think Incan terraces steep), with the pink-colored, whitewater Urubamba river flowing at the bottom. We were informed that this river is quite polluted and no longer contains enough fish anymore thanks to Cuzco's pollutive dumping. There are some really gnarly looking rapids, which Nic said Marc would have no problem with. If he spent the rest of his life trying.
We got off at the tiny town of Urubamba for a bus change and a bathroom break. The bus station bathroom of Urubamba goes down in history as the nastiest, filthiest, grossest, most disgusting bathroom experience EVER in Ali's book. But we won't go into detail here.
Next part of the ride was in a combi, or minibus, with the locals. We paid $.30 each (1 sole) for an hour ride down the valley in the front seat of a dilapidated old Toyota minibus that Nic estimates was made to carry about 8 people, but had 19 stuffed in. The driver was super friendly and invited us to sit up front with him. Nic sat back and patiently watched when Ali's partially functioning seatbelt prevented the driver from lifting his emergency break, and an interesting weighing of worst-case scenarios ensued in her head. Nic long ago abandoned all pretenses of believing in seatbelts in Peru and has adopted the locals' laissez-faire attitude of vaya-ing con Dios. Ali has to date still not quite reached that zenith of Zen, but the driver's tour guide abilities and our 27-most-important-Spanish-verbs did a good job of distracting us the rest of the way.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
One thing that feels very different about Cuzco as opposed to Lima is this is a city that survives almost entirely on tourism. This is the closest airport to Machu Picchu and therefore almost all tourists pass through it. As a result, it often feels largely artificial, especially near the center of town where the primary sites are.
Also as a result, there is a never ending supply of agressive street vendors pushing various cheap wares upon anybody resembling a tourist. In places like the Plaza de Arma the entire population consists of three groups: tourists, peddlers and of course, taxis.
And of course the peddlers break out into groups as well.
There are the finger puppet kids. Generally in their early teens they greet you with "Hello my friend, would you like to buy a finger puppet? Where are you from?". Now before going any further, I want to just question the decision to peddle of all things, cheap cotton finger puppets to tourists. Did some plane crash in the Cuzco mountains full of finger puppets? Are old PBS kid's shows the only exposure they have to westerners? I'm just kind of wondering about the logic of the whole thing.
Anyways, the finger puppet kids (FPK from now on) seem to have all gone to a finger puppet peddling training school, because they all have the same routine:
FPK: "Hello my friend, would you like to buy a finger puppet? Where are you from?"
ME: *laughs* "No, I don't need a finger puppet, thanks"
FPK: "Why not? Where are you from?"
ME: "United States"
FPK: "United States, capitol Washington DC, first president George Washington, second president John Adams, third president Thomas Jefferson. Current president George Bush (sometimes accompanied with excited thumbs down)."
ME: "That's very good, you know them better than I do."
FPK: "Which state? Georgia? Louisiana? New York?"
FPK: "State or City?"
FPK: "Would you like to buy a finger puppet?"
ME: "No thanks."
FPK: "Ok, later you buy finger puppet ok? I come back."
The FPK's are definitely the most fun of the peddlers, they are good natured and frankly pretty darn cute. (Peruvian kids in general are just adorable) However it seems with age they must transform into either shoe shiners or sweater and blanket peddlers.
One word of advice if you ever visit Cuzco. Wear sandals.
Wearing black leather shoes in need of a polish is guaranteed to suck away 30 minutes of your life in turning down shoe shines. Sadly these peddlers are incredibly agressive and persistent. They will follow you around the plaza telling you you need a shoe shine, that they have just the right color, that your shoes are lacking color, all the while ignoring your statements, then pleas that you don't want a stinking shoe shine!
Thankfully the remaining peddlers are rather less determined than these first two breeds and a stern "No gracias" will let them on their way. Whatever you do, don't show any interest in their wares though, as their keen eyes instantly detect this and suddenly it's a hard sell once more.
The photo for this post is something entirely different. Just outside the banks groups of people stand with huge wads of US and peruvian bills, apparently doing exchanges. We can't quite figure out how they exist. Are they just faster? Ask less questions? I personally can't imagine the rates are better, but we did find it fascinating that in a country known for crime there were people standing around with what looked like thousands of dollars without any visible protection.
Ok, we're off to Machu Picchu.