Tuesday, December 16, 2008

About 20,000 miles later...

Overlooking Machu Picchu

Pics 'n stuff:
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/LATrip# (LA trip photos, not all up yet but most are there, 14 pics)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Lima# (Lima pictures, 23)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Cusco# (Cusco, trekking+Machu Picchu pictures, 99)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n (all my albums)

http://www.youtube.com/llamallama781 (No new additions)

Wow – sorry to everybody for not updating this thing in so long! Between hopping around destinations, embracing time to relax (which is surprisingly infrequent), and not being in the 'right mood' to update, it has been harder than I thought to keep this up to date. I was going to update it last weekend in BA, but a horrible nasty awful case of food poisoning made it hard for me to do anything but lie in bed watching movies and ted.org lectures. Now that I'm feeling better though, this 14 hour plane ride is the perfect excuse to catch you guys up a bit, so allow me to do just that.

LA Visit

Last I left off, I was about to head off to LA. Indeed I did, and I had an awesome time there. It had been too long since the last time I saw Kelly, so it was great to see her over Thanksgiving and we were able to fit in a lot of activities. To build up a hunger for Thanksgiving, Kelly and I went to a park near the Gorges that we were able to hike around for a while which was really nice. Hungry and excited for our first ever time cooking Thanksgiving, we headed back and got to work in the kitchen with her roommate Erika. I have to say, we did a damn good job. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cranberry, green beans+almonds, and Argentinian wine – we were stuffed and had plenty of leftovers to last us a couple days (writing this is making me hungry).

Kelly and I work up a hunger before Thanksgiving by doing a short hike

Erika and Kelly have the honor of cutting the turkey

The next day, Kelly and I spent most of it getting fitted for our drysuit certification and starting to learn the basics in the instructor's pool (located right underneath the Hollywood sign). The instructor (very cool guy named Kareem who was half Egyptian, half Swiss) was great, and since it was just Kelly and me in the class we had lots of time and individual attention to understand the differences between drysuit diving and wetsuit diving (brief explanation: normally you dive with a wetsuit which traps a thin layer of water against your skin which is warmed via your body heat, but if you really want to be warm then a drysuit is best. Drysuits are baggier and have seals around your wrists, ankles, and neck that don't let water in. Thus, you have air between you and the drysuit, which keeps you way warmer (you don't get wet!). It is a bit trickier, though, because the air affects you buoyancy and if you don't learn how to control it it can be dangerous).

Kelly models the drysuit at my request

Nothing like enjoying a tasty rice cake under the Hollywood sign

Saturday we were up bright and early (not a problem for me because of jetlag!) to head to the long beach port to catch the early ferry to Catalina island where we would do our certification dives. Kelly and I had been to Catalina a couple times before, and we always have an amazing time there. It is really like a different universe when compared to downtown LA – besides weather, it really could be mistaken for a small island in the Caribbean. It took most of the day, but we got in a short snorkel and both of our certification dives with no problem, and wound up staying overnight there so we didn't have to be rushed getting back. Before we knew it though, it was Sunday – my last day in LA, which flew by and on Monday morning I was on a plane back to Buenos Aires.

I wasn't sure how it would feel being back in the States after traveling in South America for a while, but it was no problem at all. It took a minute to get used to everyone speaking English, and it was strange ordering food in English for the first time in 6 weeks, but besides that I had no trouble adjusting. LA is a really interesting place, and I know it gets a bad rep due to the traffic and smog (rightfully so), but every time I have visited I've had a great time. I think the key is having friends there and not being stuck downtown – I think a lot of people that don't like the city have only experienced conferences there downtown, which I'm sure can be miserable.

Back to BA

I got back to Argentina with no problems, and spent a few days there relaxing, playing poker, and enjoying the company of the friends I had met there before I left the region. Ian left for Japan (won't see him until summer!) and Leon left for Australia (I'll be meeting up with him in Cairns in a few days), and the next day I left for Peru!


I was looking forward to Peru as it would be the first bit of travel I would really do independently. Sure enough it was difficult, engaging, and a lot of fun. It's interesting how one's concept of geography is so skewed depending on what one is familiar with – I, for instance, didn't realize just how far Lima was from BA – almost as far as Boston-LA in fact. However, I am getting used to (and actually enjoying) these long flights so I didn't mind.

The downtown plazas of Lima were quite nice

I had heard nasty things about Lima – the usual big city, dirty, dangerous, etc. - but I must say that my 40 hours there were a lot of fun. The coast is beautiful (big bluffs overlooking dozens of surfers), and there is a lot to see and do. I spent my first day sightseeing on my own. The highlight had to be the catacombs underneath the Cathedral of San Francisco – normally I get bored of churches, but these catacombs were really amazing and creepy. There were enormous piles and pits full of human bones – apparently it was a popular burial ground because people thought they would go to heaven faster if buried there, but also many victims of the Spanish Inquisition who were tortured to death were also buried there.

'Love Park' on the coast - reminds me a bit of a more tame version of Venice Beach in LA

I met some people back in the hostel who were a lot of fun so we had dinner together and checked out some of the Lima nightlife. I told them that I was doing an island tour and swimming with sea lions the next day and they all enthusiastically wanted to join me. Unfortunately, we had terrible instructions on how to get there – so the next day we all missed the bus (separately), but I managed to get a cab to the port on time on my own.

The tour was outrageously long (the boat barely went faster than 2 or 3 knots, supposedly to save gas), but the time gave me an opportunity to meet some more people on the tour and relax. I enthusiastically volunteered when the crew asked who wanted to get in the water with the sea lions, but I had no idea what I was in for! When the island came nearer, I couldn't really see any individual sea lions – but it was easy to hear and smell them! It sounded like hundreds of them but I still couldn't pick them out. Then, I realized that the entire island was covered in them. Literally - they were piled on top of and next to each other covering the entire island. It was a steep rocky island too, and they are very awkward on land, so it was funny seeing them try to move around but accidentally slip down the side slowly into the water. I had been warned the water was cold, and I have been in cold water before so I wasn't worried, but this was without a doubt the coldest water I have EVER been in. I jumped in with the wetsuit on (I wish I had a drysuit there!) and feeling the water seep into the suit so quickly was brutal – one of those moments where you can barely breathe at first. Moving around a bit made it bearable though, and we swam right up to the island and mingled with the sea lions before heading back to the boat.

That's a lot of sea lions!

That night I went to the 'Magical water show' that I had heard good things about from Leon and Ian and it did not disappoint! The park was swamped with families and couples wandering through the dozen or so amazing fountains. Some were interactive and some were enormous – without a doubt they were on par or maybe even more impressive than the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. The best display was a group of fountains that danced to classical music while lasers were projected onto them.

Kids enjoy the interactive fountains. I must admit I was tempted to join in...

The next morning I said my goodbyes to the hostel staff that I had become friendly with (hostel employees have been some of the most interesting people I have met so far on the trip), and I was off to Cuzco!

Typical view into a courtyard area of Cuzco

Traveling from BA to Lima was not a big adjustment – both big industrial cities – but getting to Cuzco was a great change of pace. Even towards the end of the flight I could tell things were going to be different – enormous jagged peaks reminiscent of Yosemite covered in dark green jungle presented themselves and I remember smiling, happy to be out of the city.

I made my way to the hostel recommended by Ian and Leon and checked into my room. The hostel itself was really cool in a dark, creepy kind of way – it was one of those big houses that felt and sounded alive with every step you took and door you opened. First thing I wanted to do after checking in was get to the main square 'Plaza de Armas' and get lunch with some coca tea! Coca tea is very simple, just hot water with some coca leaves in it, and it is known to help with altitude sickness as well as digestion. Yes, cocaine is made from coca leaves, but only after being processed with many other chemicals and concentrated – coca leaves are perfectly safe, not addictive, and not as stimulating.

A nice hot cup of coca tea

Cuzco itself was bigger than I was anticipating – but not in a bad way. I never saw a building more than 2 stories tall (besides churches), and the streets were all cobblestone and free of any bad traffic. I would say Cuzco reminded me of one of those old European cobblestone cities, but dirtier and a lot (LOT) cheaper. The only frustrating bit were the beggars – but even they weren't pushy – a simple 'no gracias' was all it took to direct their attention elsewhere.

Many of you know I am not big on planning ahead for non-essential things, and Cuzco was no exception, but thankfully things worked out fine anyways because I needed a couple days to adjust to the altitude before setting off on any adventures. I did feel the affects of the altitude, especially when climbing stairs or jogging, but I don't think I had any sort of altitude sickness. Sunday was spent sightseeing in the city, and that night I got some food at a restaurant where a local band was playing some traditional music. When the guy who played a little mandolin-like guitar came around to sell CD's I asked him if he could give me a lesson the next morning. Sure enough he was free, and it was great getting to know him a bit, and the lesson was one of the highlights of my Peru trip. I took videos of us playing a few songs and will try to get them online soon. Monday I was determined to get out a bit so I booked a horseback tour that afternoon, and a 4 day/3night trek to Machu Picchu that departed the next day.

The horseback riding tour was ridiculous and hilarious, even though at the start I was a bit overwhelmed. I had just booked it and the guide said 'ok hurry the truck is waiting!' so I went outside and saw a truck jam-packed with a lot of 15-16 year old Peruvian kids. I thought I was going to be with just a few other tourists – but I was wrong. A highschool class from another region of Peru had won some sort of lottery to visit Cuzco, and they would be my company. We stopped at a 'tourist' restaurant on the way to the ranch that clearly only catered to those on a budget – it was 5 soles (US$1.50 ) for a full lunch – and was fun to practice my spanish with the kids. I mostly spoke with the guide and his friend because they had more to say (we spoke about spirituality and alternative medicine for a while). The girls of the class mostly just giggled and took pictures of me when I tried to talk to them so I didn't learn much from them... The tour itself was interesting and relaxing, which I cherished because I knew I was gonna be hurting soon from the trek.

Enjoying lunch with the kids

The next morning I was supposed to be picked up between 7-7:30 so I was up at quarter to seven with everything ready to go, but then it became 7:30 and I hadn't heard anything. 7:45...8...8:15 I called the agency but they just hung up on me promptly...8:30...I started to get in a legitimately really awful mood and the hostel staff could tell. It usually takes a lot to piss me off but if I wasn't able to leave that day then I would have to forfeit the opportunity to hike to Machu Picchu because there weren't any shorter treks, and I had to be back on Friday night. But then, at 9, the van finally showed up! It made its way (very very dangerously and terrifyingly) up and around windy foggy mountain roads to our launch point via mountain bikes. The group turned out to be comprised only of a girl studying abroad from USC, and a late 20's Irish guy (James) on vacation, two guides, and me. In talking with James, I found out he had hired his guide separately to do what was supposed to be the 4 day hike in 3 days. This idea appealed to me very much, because I wanted another day to do something more around Cuzco, so I decided to join him and his guide (which ended up being a great decision).

Not gonna deny it. This was a terrifying drive.

We spent that afternoon and evening mountain biking from an altitude of 4.2k down to 1k – that is a big drop!!! It was a ton of fun despite shoddy equipment (at one point my pedal leg – not just the foot pedal, the whole leg – completely fell off the bike) – and by evening my butt, back and arms had taken quite a beating. As tiring as the biking was, though, it didn't even compare to how tired I got playing soccer with James, our guide, and a bunch of little kids that night before dinner. While I was trying to pull some fancy moves defending against some little kid on a breakaway I could feel myself pull some groin muscle and I said to myself 'ohhhh sh*t tomorrow is going to really hurt now' (thankfully I felt better in the morning though.) We had a great home-cooked meal of Lomo Saltado (I would have preferred to do a camping trip, but there were none available in my time-frame, so this one was split between one night in a home and one night in a hostel), and we fell asleep by 10 for our 4:30 A.M. wake-up (that early because we were squeezing 2 days of hiking into one – 40k worth of hiking!).

Biking through the clouds near Cuzco

Originally Angela (the USC girl) also expressed interest in joining our faster trip, but after we waited 15 minutes for her to get ready, and after I realized how much makeup she put on that morning, I realized she might not be able to keep up with us. Sure enough, half an hour in, James, our guide, and I had hiked far ahead of her and her guide, so we decided to continue on our own. The hike was beautiful and brutal. What I especially liked about it was that the trails we hiked on weren't trails designed for hiking. Instead, they were trails used to connect small villages that we would hike through on our way to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu). The villages clearly were not frequented by tourists, so it was a nice way to get off the beaten path. A couple of them did have stands to sell water and food which were a great treat during our 14 hour hike.

The red stuff was natural repellent from a pepper plant the guide pointed out to us

The friendly monkey 'Martin' at one of the villages

I had heard terrible things about the bugs in the jungle there, and it's all true. Thankfully with toxic bug spray and a brisk hiking pace, they didn't bug me much (pun not intended), but we saw lots of nasty critters. At one point I saw a huge wasp-like fly buzzing around on the ground and I stopped to ask our guide about it. He said 'Ah yes, this has very dangerous poison. What do you call what you use when you get bit by poisonous spider?' I replied 'An antidote?' He said 'Haha yes, there is no for this'. My eyes widened a bit, then decided to keep on moving.

The best part of that day, without question, was our stop in Santa Teresa at the hot springs. It was about 11 AM, so we had been hiking for a long time, and it was the perfect way to relax for a bit before continuing on our long day. For a short time after the springs we shared a cab with some locals (not much of a point to hiking along a road for a few k), and then finished the trek along the seemingly never-ending train tracks to Aguas Calientes.
The wonderful halfway-point of hot springs on the way to Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes was actually a pretty cool place – of course it solely exists to house people on their way to Machu Picchu – but it had a nice feel, kind of like Whistler Village below the ski resort (but obviously not as big or fancy). We had dinner at a restaurant in the town and were asleep by 9, exhausted by such a long day of hiking, ready to wake up at 4:30 again to make our way up to Machu Picchu.

Near Aguas Calientes - one of many conspicuous bridges we had to cross

The Inca stairs up the mountain were totally brutal, especially at such an early hour after such a long day of hiking. It was about a half kilometer rise in elevation, and it took a little over an hour. The incentive to keep a good pace was the sun – I really wanted to get up to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise over the mountains – and thankfully I barely made it on time.

Is it just me, or is this llama actually smiling for the picture?

I was anticipating Machu Picchu to be heavily micromanaged and swamped with tourists that were shuttled around from point A to B to back outside, but for the first few hours there were hardly more than 100 people there. It was a great feeling being there so early because it was practically deserted and felt much more inspiring without the buzz of the hordes. We had a scheduled tour at 8 which lasted until 10, when we started to climb Wayna Picchu (the tall mountain overlooking Machu Picchu in most of the pictures). Our tour guide annoyingly joked relentlessly that it only took 15 minutes to get up Wayna Picchu 'at Inca speed', but an hour 'at tourist speed'. Well James and I were happy to make it up at half Inca speed, because we had to be back at Aguas Calientes at 2 to get our train tickets for that night. Overlooking Machu Picchu was very cool – but we were more happy to reach the top of Wayna just because it meant the end of climbing steep steps! I had a victory snickers bar at the top, relaxed for a bit in the beautiful weather (which we were very lucky to have), then began our descent back to Aguas Calientes, and from there, took the train back to Cusco.

I should say a bit about Machu Picchu before I go on. Everyone has seen the pictures, but I was amazed at just how big the place really was. It was interesting to learn the history about how it was discovered, but even more interesting to hear about how much mystery still surrounds it. Hiram Bingham was directed to it by two farmer families it in the early 20th century on his search for the lost Inca treasure, but was disappointed to only find some ruins. He came back, sponsored by Yale University to explore it more (apparently many artifacts were taken back to Yale), but not only was there no treasure to be found, there was nothing besides empty ruins. Not even bodies or anything – it had been abandoned, and no one knows why. There have been other ruins discovered elsewhere around Cusco, but none have quite the amazing setting as Machu Picchu, on the top of a mountain surrounded by beautiful vistas. If I had more time, I would have loved to take the trek to the most recently discovered ruins that were only found 20 years ago. They are still being uncovered, so there are no roads going there – it requires an 8 day trek to get there.

Sweet victory atop Wayna Picchu overlooking Machu Picchu

That night I went out with James and his 4 Irish friends that met us at Macchu Picchu (they had just finished hiking the Inca Trail) at Paddy's bar, 'The highest Irish-owned pub in the world'. It was a lot of fun meeting them, and lets just say they lived up to some Irish stereotypes. I didn't have a hostel reservation for that night because I had originally planned on returning the next day, but they were nice enough to give me their extra bed at their hostel, which was really cool of them. I was hoping to catch up on sleep a bit, but of course that didn't happen, as I had to be up early the next day for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

I'll be brief about that tour. While it was nice to see a bunch of ruins, by far the most interesting part of it was meeting and talking with a couple on the tour. I forget how the subject even came up, but the guy and I started talking about our different perspectives on meditation, consciousness, and life after death. It turned out his father is a retired Buddhist Monk (who now 'only' meditates for eight hours every day), and he grew up in North India along the Himalayas. We had a great constructive conversation providing our differing perspectives on those topics, and I think we both learned a lot. When I asked him what he did in NYC, I almost laughed when he said he was an investment banker, but then I realized he wasn't joking! I asked him how that came about, and he said he was fascinated by the concept of capitalism and it always drew him in. I thought that was interesting, and it provided a bit of a different light in which to view our conversation. He recommended I get some books describing a dialog between the Dali Lama and a group of neuroscientists which sounded fascinating. I will look up when I get to Australia.

I was looking forward to getting back to BA in time to enjoy a barbeque some poker friends were having – and I was able to enjoy about an hour of it – but then, like I said at the beginning, the food poisoning kicked in, and I was out of commission for the next 36 hours. I did have long enough to meet a few more players I hadn't met before, which was cool (one of them had previously played the card game 'Magic the Gathering' at a competitive level and was ranked 1st in the world!). I said my farewells this morning which was sad, but not too sad because I will see a lot of them this summer in Europe, as most of them are traveling as well, and with facebook nowadays, it is impossible to lose touch with travel buddies.

I'm looking forward to getting to Sydney, and especially Cairns to meet up with Leon and do some serious diving. Apparently Google has a new feature that you can use to 'dive in' from satellite view right into the great barrier reef that I am pumped to check out when I land. Right now though, We are passing near the south pole, and I can't do much except watch the in-flight TV (Bear Grylls in Man vs Wild – the Australia episode!), and maybe sleep a bit before I land.

Comments questions and suggestions encouraged!



Ian said...

awesome awesome trip report

rick said...

special kudo's for the mandolin lesson and the sprint up wayna picchu
i guess occasional food poisoning comes with the travel life but as nietzche said, that which does not kill us makes us stronger (maybe ...)

Ben said...

LOL @ the picture with the llama. One of the best autophotos of all time!

Please take lots of pictures of the great barrier reef (if you are able to), and keep the updates coming, reading each one is like a mini-vacation :)