Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Back to my bikes..

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.
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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Machu Picchu (Part II)


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.

Intermission - I am a Llama


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.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Machu Picchu (pt1)

(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

The Road To Machu Picchu is littered with rockfall (pt2)

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.
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The road to Machu Picchu is littered with rockfall (pt1)

(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

Cuzco and it's street peddlers


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?"
ME: "Washington"
FPK: "State or City?"
ME: "State"
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.
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Cuzco - Plaza de Arma


After a first day of being pretty sick for me and VERY sick for Ali we dragged ourselves out of bed on Saturday to make the rounds of Cuzco. Cuzco is filled with an interesting mixture of ancient Inca ruins and walls standing side by side (and sometimes on top of) Spanish-era churches and cathedrals. The center of Cuzco for all of these is the Plaza de Arma, which contains not only the giant cathedral above, but the church below.


We wandered around a bit checking these out and in the process ran across the town market which was filled with various wares, vegetables, fruits and meat laying out. This is actually where I had gone the day before to find some coca leaves for Ali's altitude sickness.


We also found the train station where we arranged for our tickets to Agua Caliente (I'm sure I'm spelling that wrong). Of course in the process of buying the tickets I somehow left my debit card in the local ATM, which soon ate it. Thankfully the banks here seem to be used to such gringo events and were quite quick about getting it back for me.


A bit later we hitched a bus up to the various Inca ruins right out of town, more on that soon.
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Friday, April 20, 2007

Ali caught a fish this big...


Ahhh.. the joy that is exit rows.

We are now in Cuzco, the base camp for visiting Machu Pichu, the one thing most people DO know about Peru. What you might not know is that the city is at over 10,000 feet, which can be a bit of a shock for your system. We were fine after first stepping off the plane, but after being entrapped by a travel agent posing as hotel staff just helping us plan our weekend we started to feel the effects.

I'm feeling a bit light headed as I'm writing this actually. In theory coca tea (yes, THAT kind of coca) is supposed to help, as is chewing coca itself, but the tea hasn't really done the job yet. Ali is feeling especially bad as she has the double punch of already fighting a mild flu.

So it might be an afternoon trying to sleep off the headache before hopefully going out to explore the city a bit. We'll be visiting Machu Pichu proper on Sunday and Monday and yes, I will post the stereotypical picture that you've seen a million times before, it is after all my duty as a tourist.

Cooking Local Food


We decided to cook some of the local food earlier this week. One thing I hadn't really mentioned yet is the fruit stands in Lima. Every other corner has a stand of fresh fruits and vegetables available at rock bottom prices. Paltas (avocados) are about 1.50 soles while key limes have less value than water here, you can buy giant kilo bags of them for three or four soles.

One local curry and spice we've both come to love is Aji Amerillo, which is a midly spiced curry which is common in dishes here. At our Fred Meyer Wong we bought some supplies to make some omelettes back at home to top with the AA.


One funny thing was that the eggs we bought were absolutely huge. I've never seen such giant egg shells. And once we started breaking them we saw why, they were all double! I imagine they just pick out the giant eggs to sell for a bit more, but it certainly did make quick work of making four egg (two?) egg omelettes.

Sadly, we were so excited to dig into our mutant egg omelettes that we forgot to put the AA on. I guess that means we'll have to make more.

Oh, and Parque Kennedy was a park I'd been to before, but I just didn't know the name of. It's the one which had the church on it with no name. Ali and I ended up eating at a rather more busy and definitely slightly touristy restaurant, but it was quite yummy nonetheless.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gato has arrived!

And she moves so quick you can't even see her!!

Ali got here Monday at some obsene hour of the morning. I had assured her and assured her that I would meet her at the airport, Lima is a dangerous, it's no place for you to just hop in a taxi and go. Besides, I wanted to see her as soon as possible! But uhm.. ya, her flight came in at 4:20 AM! Who schedules flights for those hours? I imagine the gates must be cheaper to rent then or something. Anyways, I went to bed early, set my alarm on my trusty Suunto and went to bed. So about that trusty Suunto's.. great watch, tells you the altitude, has a compass, mine can even interface with a computer and see pretty graphs of your day's skiing etc.. But.. and this is a big but, god only knows how many climbs have been foiled by this watch's absolutely anemic alarm. It's like a little mouse squeeking in a tin can with a pillow on top.. at the bottom of a pool. Or something.

So.. uh, ya, I overslept. And as these things always seem to go, you jolt up awake, check the time and it's exactly when you are supposed to be somewhere, in this case, the favorite time of pot smoking insomniacs the world over. Thirty seconds of getting some clothes on and I run downstairs to grab a taxi. Except somehow in this city containing nothing but taxis there are none to be found. Arrr!! Some frantic Francospanglish with the doorman gets one on the way for me. Not long after I'm racing towards the airport in classic Lima fashion.. no stopping for red lights, much less stop signs, honking randomly, and a new experience for me, refilling at a gas station while the car is on! Exciting stuff I tell you.

Thankfully Ali was still patiently waiting at the airport despite my tardy arrival and all was good.

Ali can now attest that some things I said were true, act as an importial witness if you will.
1) yes, there really is very little to no litter here. It's crazy!
2) yes, the food is fantastically yummy, even for a vegetarian
3) yes, it's impossibly loud. Apparently to bring this point home, they started some kind of remodeling on an apartment three floors down from us. And apparently, this remodeling involves quite a bit of demolition work. As in, they've been pounding something to death for two days straight nonstop. I really don't understand how it's physically possible for them to swing hammers for so long. These people must be PopEye incarnates. But it has brought the point home. Noise noise noise.

We are going to go check out Parque de Kennedy tonight, which was recommended by my neighbor as a great night spot to grab some food. We'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

No new news

Jeez, how do people blog every single day?? I mean, sometimes nothing really happens.

I guess that means I'm getting pretty comfortable in my routine as really not a whole much happened today. Went to my class in the morning, where we proceeded to spend another 90 minutes on telling time.. ahh!

Eric, Vaughn and I are on a big push to finish up our latest game, so that's been taking up most of my time. Most of the time all the honking outside the window doesn't bother me, but now and again when they are just leaning on them I feel like sticking my head out the window and yelloing "Un Sacapuntas!", which until recently was the only Spanish I knew.

I find myself constantly frustrated at my lousy retention. It's like my brain is broken, but it drives me nuts that I can't see something once, commit it to memory and move on. So many wasted cycles on something that really ought to be easy. Understanding is one thing, memorization, I'd happily pay 100 grand to have an implant in my head that would give me perfect recall.

So instead I have flashcards, which drive me bonkers because they only drive home the point of how imperfect said brain is.

I'm going to go watch some Spanish TV now. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Being Four Again


I decided it would help me with my sentence structure if I got a book to read. Of course, I can't read just any book, but some hunting around in the bookstore found me a collection of children's stories. Perfect! One even talks about chicken pox, which I've never had, so maybe it'll be educational too. The cashier asked if I wanted it wrapped, to which I replied "Mi libro", to which she laughed and asked if I was learning Spanish, "Si si".

Day two of class was much like the first, except I can tell time now. It's the little things in life. I also met a swiss named Patrick who's here for a few months alone, so we might hook up later in the week and on the weekend to do some exploring, time will tell. I hate Europeans, he's speaking to me in English, but of course German is his native tongue and he seems much more adept at Spanish than I already.

I'm becoming a regular at the hole in the wall around the corner. The menu is just too cheap to pass up and I haven't had anything less than excellent there. Plus they kind of know me now so don't ask too many questions. I show up every day with my "Eating in Peru" book, start translating the options then try to order something I haven't had before. So far it's working out alright.

I also had my first private lesson yesterday. That was incredibly helpful. She walked me through conjugating the three primary families of verbs and answered a few of my pressing questions. I'm still completely hopeless when it comes to forming sentences though, so I'm going to try focusing on those kinds of scenarios from now on.

I have to admit I'm actually getting a bit homesick. I ALMOST walked into the TGIF last night because a burger and milk shake sounded terribly wonderful and familiar. Instead I wandered some more and found a fairly generic local chicken restaurant that was ok but nothing to email home about. The best meals are had in the small local places. Sadly the part of Miraflores (more like San Isidro) I'm in is lacking many, especially at night.

Can't wait for Ali to get here so we can do some more exploring in the evenings (and of course go to Cuzco and beyond)

Monday, April 9, 2007

First Day of School


I attended my first day of Spanish class today at ICPNA (Instituto Perunivano Norte Americano, believe it or not, they just pronounce it as ICPNA). I'd only been there when first registering and it was dead, but today it was packed with young kids attending various classes. I came rather close to walking into an English class by mistake, having misremembered the room number. I would have been quite the star there.

Instead I was the kid who can't speak any Spanish. Ok, so I wasn't the worst, but I'm pretty close. I'm actually a week behind as classes started last week, but I'd studied over the weekend and am mostly caught up. Of course the class is taught entirely in Spanish but it's at a reasonably comfortable pace.

It's been a long long time since I've been in a class and I kind of remember why I dropped out of school. Not being able to really guide your learning, focusing on parts you need more help on and vice versa is terrible! You are either feeling rushed and confused or bored. It's no fault of the teacher or class, just of the system. No, I don't really have any suggestions on fixing it. (interactive software?) Regardless, I'm learning from it, it's just frustrating that it's not more quickly.

To that end I've hired a private teacher to work with me a bit every afternoon as well, hopefully that will help in a more self guided manner that is more effective.

In other news I have interweb again! A technician arrived at 10:30 and promptly diagnosed my modem as dead. For some reason he doesn't carry spares though, so with a little help from Google Translator he related that I needed to exchange mine at the eMax office in San Isidro. Finding the office was fairly straighforward, but it took them forever to reprogram the modem.

Oh well, at least I'm no longer a thief. I've seperated my WiFi router and the WiMax router, so hopefully they won't interfere if that was indeed the problem.
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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Almost a week in Lima


So it's been almost a week in Lima, and I'm a bit surprised about how I feel about it. I expected much worse really, even after first arriving. Everybody talks of the danger, the poverty, the pollution. Even the locals seem down on poor Lima.

Those things certainly seem to exist, but Lima is also wonderful in many ways. The coastal areas of the city are alive, refined and metropolitan. Yes, there is obviously crime and danger, but I wonder how much of the fear here is held over from the past. Every building is surrounded by a gate and razor wire, often with armed guards in bullet proof vests, but all this feels vastly overdone. It seems as if the terrorism has largely been tamed here.

There is no litter to speak of. None. Less than Seattle, far less than Paris, as a matter of fact on my cab ride home I couldn't spot any at all. The streets are clean, sidewalks plentiful and of polished concrete.

The weather is gorgeous, parks are many and beautiful. Palms grow everywhere and the coast is breathtaking.

The people here are incredibly friendly, easy to smile, seemingly always willing to help and very patient. The sheer volume of public affection is almost contagious, they are so interested in each other as people. It somehow makes you want to be that much friendlier to everyone, to smile back and laugh.

The vast majority of Lima lives in devastating poverty, that there is no mistaking, but it's a city that seems to be developing, pulling itself up by it's bootstraps and trying to emulate coastal European cities in it's atmosphere. It often succeeds.

In short so far I'm amazed at how much I like Peru, and doubly so Lima. Central and South American never had a big draw for me, but the people, climate and history really are something special. Combine that with the amazingly low cost of living and one wonders why more ex patriots don't settle here.



Decided to go visit Barranco, another of the wealthier areas of Lima on the coast. This part of Lima is where most of the students live and by no coincidence also the center of the nightlife in Lima, with clubs and bars scattered across it.

I had planned on taking a taxi there, but didn't really know of any landmarks in Barranco and the taxi driver I tried saying 'Barranco Centrale' didn't apparently seem at ease to determine where that was. So I hiked down there, which was quite a ways but as always, beautiful as it was along the coast. Evenings here are just magical. The sun sets around 6:00 PM way off on the horizon and everything takes on an orange glow. The parks along the cliffs are just scattered with couples taking in the evening.

Barranco itself was bustling with shops, food stands and people everywhere. A much more bohemian set than central Lima however and it felt much safer. I tracked down an antichuchos de corezon stand (marinated and skewered beef heart), another local specialty and eagerly handed over my seven soles. This was probably my favorite meal yet, the meat was nicely grilled and spiced and not overly chewy or gamy as I had feared. Serious yumminess.

By this time it was dark and I had some studying to do for the first day of class tomorrow, so I hitched a cab back home. Pretty sure I payed a few soles too much this time, but it feels silly to argue over 60 cents.

Huaca Hullamarca


Decided to go take a short stroll to a local site, an Inca pyramid dating back to 400 AD. It's a bit north of me in the ultra ritzy San Isidro neighborhood. San Isidro ups Miraflores by not only having be quiet signs (see my new pictures for the previous post) but also security cameras everywhere. On top of the normal gates and security guards Miraflores has it must be mighty safe. Apparently condos here run around $40,000.

There was a tiny little museum here with various pottery and even some of the remains of enshrined queens which had been dug out of the pyramid. Apparently they think there are many more inside but they have stopped the excavation.


It does make a mighty cool sight to come walking upon it in the middle of the modern neighborhood.


On my way back home I ran across a Chifa restaurant and as it was lunch time decided to grab something to eat. Ended up playing russing menuette again and got a good but not fantastic or terribly unique serving of stir fried rice and chicken noodles. A huge quantity of food that left me reeling afterwards but not as exciting as my previous adventures. Eight soles for those keeping track.

PS. A neat view of the pyramid from google maps.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Lima is a noisy place


These pictures are probably helping you get a feel for Lima, but you really are missing out on a huge part of it, which is the constant racket going on in all parts of the city.

Since the majority of vehicles here are taxi cabs, they contribute the most:
* they honk anytime they pass a pedestrian, asking "want a ride?"
* they honk driving away from said pedestrian, as if to say "your loss"
* they honk coming into an intersection
* they honk when turning
* they honk pretty much anytime they are stopped
* they honk a lot when merging
* they honk in response to other honks
* they honk when they are about to hit a pedestrian
* they honk when slowing down (mind you, never for a pedestrian)

It's non-stop honking!

Add to this that there are cops on almost every street corner, and often they are blowing their whistle at cabs for something or another (not enough honking!?). Additionally, there are ice cream vendors on bike-carts all over during the day, and they have their own whistle which they blow at every occasion.

Almost all cars have alarms here and during the day you can almost always hear one going off for one reason or another. And when the car alarms go off, the dogs start barking. Lots of dogs barking. Never ending barking. I don't know if this is security thing or what, but nobody seems to mind having their dog bark for hours on end.

It's a really noisy city, they should rename it to Honkania, or Barkorrio, or maybe even LListlelica.

Lunch and Shopping


After the monasteria, I started looking around for a place to eat. I came across another hole in the wall with a fixed price menu, and this time I understood one of the appetizer options, Ceviche! Ceviche is a uniquely peruvian (and largely Limanese) dish consisting of raw fish 'cooked' in citrus juices with thin slices of onion. I had tried some in the states with Mom and Rob on our Peruvian restaurant field trip, and this was rather similar. A small plate came mounded with the onions and fish, as well as some lightly popped kernels of the huge Inca corn. (the kernels are the size of a small grape) The second course was a mystery until it arrived, but was like a vegetable fritata served over fried slices of plantain. With a side of spicey cury it was really tasty and hit the spot.

Again, prices were crazy. Five soles for the menu, plus another two for an Inca Kola, which I'm starting to acquire a taste for though it's rather sweet.

Afterwards I found a big pedestrian shopping street. For five or six blocks both sides were packed with stalls selling various wares from clothes to electronics. I went into one of the shops to buy myself some cheap speakers to listen to music but the lines were too long and I gave up. This seemed to be the major shopping drag in central Lima for the locals.


More wandering east found me at Plaza San Martin where I finally hitched a cab back to Miraflores. I think my more confident delivery of asking for how much the fare was might have saved me a few soles. :)

Central Lima


I decided to go explore the historic area of Central Lima. This was my first time grabbing a taxi, and it's no wonder an estimated one in seven cars here is a taxi, it's pretty good money. I got the gringo price on the way there, 15 soles, but even on the way back when I got the normal price according to the doorman, 10 soles you can see how it is fairly lucrative. In all fairness it was quite a ways though, about 15 minutes.

My destination was Plaza de Marma, which is the old center of Lima. The presidentical office can be seen above, and the square is surrounded on all sides by buildings of Spanish heritage. Apparently not a single one has lasted through all the earthquakes however, which became a common theme when visiting other areas.


The Cathedral de Lima can be seen above, also on the square. It was originally built in 1555 but has been knocked down multiple times by earthquakes, first in 1687, then again almost completely in 1746.

Central Lima feels VERY different than Miraflores. Miraflores is where all the upper class live, central Lima is the middle class. People were bustling all over and the streets were clogged with taxis. It is obviously much poorer in general than the posh San Isidro and Miraflores districts I live in, and there is evidence of it everywhere. It feels much more genuine however.


A block away from the presidential office, on my way to the Monasterio de San Francisco I ran into this building, which had beautiful antique frames but had seen better days.


The Monasterio de San Francisco, dating back to 1687, is one of the more famous attractions here. Among other things it has a huge library of ancient texts, which they estimate contains 2500 unique books and artifacts. When visiting it it didn't seem like any work was being done to preserve or study said texts though, it was incredibly musty. That's one thing that contrasts with places in Europe and which Ali and I noticed in Tunisia too. Many of the areas here are beautiful and important artifacts, but there just doesn't seem to be the money to properly restore and present them. Just like the incredible Roman ruins in Tunisia that were completely deserted, the monasteria had numerous areas that just needed some TLC.

Apart from the library, the other attraction is the catacombs, which served as Lima's cemetery for a while. They say over 70,000 people were buried here and just like the other catacombs, some macabre soul took it upon themselves to start organizing and stacking the bones and skulls. They think the catacombs and various tunnels connect many of the churches in central Lima, but most have not been excavated.

Rob had told me about this, but it was still funny. They are very proud of a huge painting of the last supper, very similar to DaVinci's. The tour guide pointed out all the differences, and the best one by far is that they are eating what was (still is?) considered the ultimate delicacy here, roasted Cuy, or guina pig.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Got Milk?

I'm sitting here eating an avocado that's as big as my head. Ok, maybe not quite, but it's at least seven inches long and three inches wide. Yumminess.

On my walk I found a little local food stand on the cliff band. No real menu but they had a board that had words I recognized: "triple pollo sandwich". Sold! Four soles later I had a grilled chicken sandwich with these crunchy mini french fries on top. Pretty dang good, I could have eaten two but that probably would have been rude.

Thanks to Tom I found milk! He correctly pointed out that milk isn't sold refrigerated here. Instead it's in an aisle like any other in little nondescript cartons. I guess you only need to put it in the fridge after you open it?

Tom also told me to go buy some chocolate. Which I did. It's pretty good, but I'm not really a chocolate connoisseur so I can't say whether it's really any better than what I've had in the states.

Ok, onto the other half of Godavocadozilla.

More Wandering


I went out to find some food and ended up walking a similar path as yesterday except in reverse. I started off a bit farther north than I had before and ran into a really neat skate and bike part that was packed with kids. Overall the coast was really busy today as it was a public holiday and the weather was fantastic, about 75 degrees with a cool breeze.


Of course I also ran into the parasailers again, and after watching them go around for a while I think I'll have to renig my earlier statement and say that I most definitely DO want to go for a ride, even if it's a dual tandem. It's really cool as a spectator too because they are often actually below you and no more than 20 feet away. They just float by weightlessly.


I had two unexpected interactions with locals today. While watching the waves come in a woman walked up and asked me the time in English. How dare she assume I'm american!? Actually I looked especially American today with my dual striped t-shirt on, so I was easy prey. I gave her the time (I should say "Je ne parles pas Anglais" next time) and she then began chatting me up about this and that. Apparently I'm beautiful because I'm over 2 meters. Hrmmm. Anyways, she was trying to sell me something, either the tour guiding she claims on her card or something less reputable. I eventually clawed myself away.

The other was much more geniune, cuter and proof that language is no real boundary. I was stocking up on my strawberry gogurt (mmmm, strawberry gogurt) and walking down an aisle when an old lady called out. I turned around and she pointed at the top shelf and said something or another I didn't understand. But the message was clear. Yet again, my incredible height could help less fortunate folk, for once more I was "Top Shelf Man"! Uhmm.. ya, well anyways, I got what she asked for, she thanked me (I understood that) and I said no problem. See? I'll have this Spanish thing licked in no time.

Speaking of learning Spanish, I decided to ask the doormanm, Jose Luis, how much a taxi to central Lima should cost. Per the usual drill I spent all day practicing the phrase and upon returning belted it out on him. He understood and this time since the answer was numbers I mostly understood the answer too. More importantly we got to chatting about various things in his broken English and my more than broken Spanish with the help of my dictionnary.

Fascinating things he related to me:
1) France is #1 country in world for food, Peru is #2
2) The French hate the Americans, the Americans make fun of the French
3) The French have more culture and intellect, the Americans just have money
4) Wong, that shop I got my phone at, is like Costo, you can return things no questions asked. It's Chinese.
5) There are lots of Chinese Peruvian folks in Peru, and Chifa, what they call the Peruvian Chinese food is very popular and extra yummy according to him.
6) He's never been to Machu Picchu because he can't afford it, and asked whether Americans knew of the Incas

Anyways, I think I found someone to torture a bit every day with my Francospanglish, his job is just hanging out and he seems to enjoy the excercise.
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