31 January 2012

Inka Express!

There are buses leaving every hour on the hour from Puno to Cuzco. We could have done that. But instead, we took the Inka Express.
                The Inka Express turned the 6 hour bus ride into 10 hours. Sounds miserable – right? But not really. You stop at four different neat sites along the way, have a guide, plus a (horrible) buffet lunch is included. The buses have big windows, you get coca tea and water and soda, and it’s a lot more peaceful (but also a lot more expensive) than the regular bus.
                Wayne and I decided it was worth it.
                The owner of the Duque Inn hooked us up – we got seats 1 & 2, which are the best on the bus. We had views through the front window and through the side windows. It really is a picturesque ride, which is the reason that Wayne was able to persuade me into not taking a night bus after our nights on Lake Titicaca.
                The first stop was Pucara, where we stopped at an archeological museum and saw some interesting findings and learned about the people that lived in Pucara before the Incas came and ruled it, like they did everything else. Then we stopped at La Raya, which is 4,318 meters high. Ouch. We took a few photos, saw lots of vendors. Then lunch, which had zero options for vegetarians (Okay, I lie. I ate tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce with a potato squash stew. I was starving as soon as we left.) Then, we headed over to Raqchi, where we saw the ruins of an ancient Inca settlement. It was very special as there was almost no one there, so we got some great photos and our guide told us some interesting stories about the area. Finally, we visited San Pedro Church in Andauyalillas, “the Sistine Chapel of the Americas.” It was the most incredible church I’ve visited outside of Europe (probably). It was a beautiful church with amazing murals and lots of ornate decorations painted with gold leaf – 24k. Nice.
                Next, another 45 minutes on the bus and then in Cusco.
                Comfy seats, chill environment, good sites, it was definitely a good decision to opt for the Inka Express over the normal bus to Cusco.

The Insanity

Sometimes, traveling is just insanity.
                Like when your tour guide can barely speak English and you’re the only one on the tour in the middle of the jungle.
                Or when there’s a bat swooping your room while you sleep.
                Or when there are some incredibly slow hikers with issues tainting your trek
                Or when there’s a scorpion – no, two – on the wall of your hut that you are to sleep with.
                Or when your room smells like dead mouse and you have to pretend things are just okay.
                Or when your boyfriend has horrible altitude sickness and you realize you really both should stick to sea level, with his altitude issues and your asthma.
                Or when you don’t want to go on a tour and your hotel owner sends you on one anyway without you knowing.
                Or when your laundry isn’t done, they fold it while still wet, you’re freezing wearing wet clothes, and they lose a pair of your underwear which is a big deal since you didn’t bring enough with you.
                Or when you make a reservation and they give it away and aren’t sure why you’re upset.
                Or when there’s another hidden cost.
                Or when there’s another identical hat.
                Or when there’s another long bus ride.
                Or when there’s another toilet without toilet paper.
                Or when the toilet doesn’t flush when it should, it must be.
                Or when you just are so sick of it all…

                You remember that you love traveling. You love the new experiences, trying new foods, the cheapness of things, not working, having time to be creative and write on the long bus rides, the freedom, meeting new people, seeing new and unusual things, not having to wear uncomfortable shoes, improving your grasp of a foreign language, doing what you want, not having to work, not having the scheduled bs of life back home…

                And really, it’s all worth it. It really is.

Lake Titicaca

                We took fancy first-class from Arequipa to Puno, where I suffered a miserable migraine. We couldn’t find my medicine, so I took two Aleve, which took forever to work. Ah, the joys of altitude.
                We arrived to the Duque Inn, a place full of false promises, but which we still liked regardless. Our room was on the top floor, which can feel like it’s a marathon to climb those steps. Still, life was good. We explored Puno, and there’s honestly not very much to explore. We had jugos frescos (maracuya, fresa, y mango y pina mixta) and I bought another pair of legwarmers and mittens, and we searched in vain for my Peru treat obsession, chocolate wafey candies, also by the name of Sublime Wafers. They’re kind of like kitkats, but with a little bit of peanut butter. Failed at this task, I ventured into a pharmacy to see if they had my migraine medicine, and they didn’t, but they gave me something else mysterious that I now have in my purse. I’ll update you all if I use it. We did the usual wandering of the streets, eating strange street food (Something like fried crispy dough with dulce de leche all over and shredded coconut.), ice cream, wandering, talking, all hand-in-hand in a way that we never seem to have enough time to do back home. It was lovely.
                And then it was time to eat, of course. We found a restaurant in the Lonely Planet that mentioned “Andean Cheese Fondue” and Wayne was sold. We also got a salad and this amazing cheese bruschetta with fig. But wow, cheese. We did decide we’ll snag one of our mom’s fondue pots when we get home and start making fondue more.
                We got up early and hopped on what we thought was simply a boat to certain islands but was actually a tour. (We were misinformed by the owner of our hotel.) Oh well. We swallowed our hopes and let ourselves go along with what was in store.
                First we went to Uros, one of the floating islands. It’s pretty cool – they pile these reeds on top of floating sod, stake the sod into the water (so they won’t float away – but you still get the sensation of floating!). Their lives are linked to these plants – they build their homes and boats out of the reeds. It’s pretty incredible. Unfortunately, it seems they subsist on tourism and the whole visit felt slightly less than genuine – though it was interesting, I won’t deny that. Wayne and I went with one girl who showed us her family’s home and then dressed us up in their traditional clothing – which is beautiful, even if she did put an orange skirt on me and not the rosado I would have hoped for. Then she tried to sell us all these crafts she made, many of which were just not our taste. (I’m polite, right?) Wayne ended up finding a neat little mobile to buy for his parents, but we did feel pressured to buy something – and neither of us liked that.
                Then we took a little boat ride to another floating island on their “Mercedes” of their boats (Cost: 10 soles each), where I bought a pair of alpaca socks (My feet were freezing) and we paid 1 sole to use the bathroom (disgusting) and bought some coca tea, which does seem to help with the altitude. Or so they say, so we keep drinking it.
                We were on the boat another three hours to Amantani, which is the highest island on the lake. We did a homestay with a family – they knew no English, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend a homestay to anyone who doesn’t know Spanish (Unless you’re with someone who knows Spanish; Wayne had me serve as his translator and still enjoyed himself.). Our family wore traditional gear – big skirts and carefully embroidered tops. Most of the island were farmers – and the work was done communally. We ate lunch – quinoa soup and fried cheese and rice and veggies. Then we skipped out on our “tour” stuff and hiked Pachamama and Pachatata, two different mountains with ruins on the top. We were the only ones on both of the mountains, so that felt pretty special. We took photos and talked and explored uninhibited.
                Then we were both feeling the altitude, so we took a nap. We did notice, however, that our room smelled badly. Being familiar with the smell, we both realized it was eau de dead mouse – or perhaps some other animal. We searched the room, lifting the blankets, under the bed, and decided it was probably in the wall. It was pretty horrendous. We lit matches but it didn’t help.
                We got up before dinner and chatted a little with our host family. We had dinner, centered around potatoes, of course, and Wayne shocked me by being unable to finish his dinner. Altitude sickness is real. It started pouring so our host family decided not to go to the party, though I thought it was cancelled. I think our host dad may have been drunk from the earlier festivities. Regardless, Wayne was ill so we went to bed. It was only 8:30p.m., but altitude makes you tired. (I remember my first weeks at Naropa in Boulder, I slept 10-12 hours a night, until my body became accustomed to it.) I woke up at 3a.m. when Wayne was breathing heavy and complaining of a splitting headache. He drank water, took an ibuprofen, and eventually the pain stopped and he fell asleep. But he was so miserable that I decided if he was the same in the morning, we’d head straight back, grab our bags and head to Cusco early (which has a lower elevation than Lake Titicaca).
                After breakfast with our host family, and goodbyes, we hiked down to the ferry and we all went to Taquile. Another island with a traditional indigenous culture, though the attire was different. The women wore shawls with pompoms signifying their marital status, and the men communicated their marital status and political power through their hats. The attire was carefully made and quite beautiful.
                We walked around, I bought a pair of Alpaca gloves as a present, and then our “group” went to lunch where I was served another disgusting vegetable tortilla (Think: vegetable omelet cooked in too much oil that somehow tastes disgusting – and I really love eggs.). I ended up leaving, letting some poor backpackers eat my meal and wandering around.
                And then we climbed down 543 steps to the ferry. The island has most of the town and its inhabitants living high up. Nobody seemed especially friendly, and I suppose I would be irritated if my tiny little village became a tourist destination. (Hell, I’m annoyed at the tourists in my city, and I live in New York!)
                We headed back to Puno on the world’s slowest boat. When we arrived, a shower felt lovely, and then we got amazing fusion food (We’ve found the fusion food here to be the best, even if they did serve Doritos (!) with the guacamole.) and of course, I got a pisco sour.
                We randomly found a shop that sold my chococlate wafey candies and fun alpaca goods. And then, we found a fair trade shop where they teach women how to knit and give them a skill, women that live deep deep in the city where they can’t sell it – and they sell it for them. I wanted to support a good cause, plus they had great craftswomanship, so I bought some stuff to support them.
                And then, being at altitude, we were exhausted, so we sat around, trying to book hostels and finally, fell asleep wrapped tight into each other’s arms yet again.

The Toilets n Peru

                I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I would have to say, of all the countries I’ve visited, Peru wins the distinct honor of most disgusting toilets. Toilets that don’t flush, toilets you don’t even want to squat over, and toilet paper is rare. Even in hostels/hotels, when you have private rooms, toilet stall doors that never close, sometimes you have to purchase the paper (or they will give you a very limited amount for your trip).
                So my recommendation – always have toilet paper with you, wherever you go. Bring instant hand sanitizer – I’m not a huge fan of that stuff, but otherwise, there’s nothing.
                And until then, though I’m adoring traveling, I’m really looking forward to returning to my world of clean toilets back home.

28 January 2012

Arequipa, the White City

We got to Arequipa and immediately headed out to the main square to meet my friend from Huanchaco, Jon. Wayne had never met him and of course, with a few pisco sours, and random dinner at Che Café, we all quickly bonded. We laughed about traveling, about drinks, about more. We ended up completely smashed, finding a candy store and discovering the elusive wafer candies that tasted oh-so-delicious when drunk (and delicious the next day when we were sober as well!).

The next day, was our explore Arequipa day. We had a short run (My asthma proves to be problematic at high atltitude.), then went to Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which was really interesting. We learned a lot about the nuns. After, Wayne and I had lunch for 7 soles ( a little more than $2) and then went to Museo Santury to see the frozen body of an Inca maiden – very interested. We learned all about how these select royal children were raised just for the purposes of being sacrificed. Sad. The body was well-preserved due to ice and snow covering the mountain.

Then Wayne and I explored Arequipa, walking around, eating popcorn, helados, popping into various shops and streets, people-watching. It was so nice because for so long, Wayne and I have had such opposite work schedules that we haven’t had time to just chill, to just walk around, hand-in-hand, talking. It was really lovely.

We had dinner again with Jon, eating at the horrible Wild Rover hostel (though the food wasn’t horrible). Then we found a club and got 2 for 1 pisco sours and got wickedly drunk.

Then, we had to get up at 2:45 to get picked up for a two day Canyon de Colca trek. Canyon de Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world. (The first deepest is another in Peru in a more remote region. Also, Americanos, this canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.) We squished into the back of a minivan where I promptly fell asleep and Wayne stared out the window and tried to sleep. We arrived in a small town at a freezing restaurant where we ate bread and cheese and jam and coca tea for breakfast, drove a little more, then stopped an amazing lookout where we saw condors and some other animals. We drove a little more and then began day one of our trek.

We climbed down to the bottom of the canyon, which took a few hours.  The soil was dry and rocky and the footing could be slippery and I fell on my butt and another hiker’s shoe at one point (Better than landing in mule poop.).

When we got to the bridge at the bottom, we waited as our guide instructed. And waited. And waited. Our group was only eight plus our guide, and the first six of us waited. Apparently, two of the girls had problems – one had knee problems and downhill was problematic for her, and the other was afraid of heights. I’m not sure why they thought it was a good idea for them to sign up, but we ended up spending a lot of time waiting (and less time in the pools!). Then, we hiked another hour to our lunch spot, where the food was actually decent. There were lots of avocado groves we walked through, so of course we had delicious chunks of avocado with lunch.

We walked an easier hike, mostly flat and down, passing agave and aloe vera and all these beautiful places whose names I don’t know. We walked on this tiny single-track trail that was the only way to get around the towns – there were no roads. You had to hike many kilometers over rocks with steep ups and downs and cactuses on other sides, with just mules as your method of transport – and you had to lead them so it’s not like you got to relax. Our guide told us some interesting stories until he had to go back to help the others in our group.

We waited at the next bridge for another hour or two. The sun sunk low in the sky as we waited. But then the all arrived and we headed to Paradiso.

Paradiso had warm water pools – heated by a waterfall high up that was fed by a rather warm lake. The sun was setting but Wayne and I jumped in the pool anyway and swam around for a little bit. Then we went to our room to change and I noticed something odd on the wall, something I had never seen before.

“Uh, Wayne. Is that a scorpion?”

Wayne looked at the wall and just stared. And stared.

We went to our guide. He told the property owner. He followed us to our room. He looked at the wall and then smashed it with a tissue. Just like you’d kill a little bug at home.

We were a little nervous so we put all our stuff in our bags, worried about bugs. Then we ate dinner and went to bed. Wayne and I were a little nervous and slept tight, holding each other and I dreamed about scorpions. When we woke up, we were both alive, unbit, but we had a new scorpion on our wall. We quickly dressed and prepared to climb up the canyon.

Our guide estimated three hours. From the start, it was a difficult climb, my calves aching at the beginning but soon getting used to it. My asthma struggled, and I used my inhaler as the altitude increased. We got to the top in two hours, an hour less than our guide said we should climb it in. And then we waited. And waited. We grew colder and colder, no longer moving, the sun not yet fully over the mountains. We ate our snacks and moaned with hunger and cold.

We were waiting for a slow German hiker, and a South Korean guy who brought his entire backpack – all 17 kilos of it! – on the hike. They were having a tough time. The two Dutch girls who had problems the prior day were taking mules up. Just when Wayne was proposing to save the day by running down to help them, our guide came up. He told us they would be a lot longer, and gave us directions to our breakfast restaurant. We went into Miriam’s which had plastic lawn chairs and nonfunctioning water in the bathroom, but Miriam served us rolls and eggs and butter and marmalade and we put the coca leaves in water which helped us with the altitude and recovery.

After everyone hiked in, they ate and we headed out to an amazing lookout point. Then we went to the hot springs – many in our group were too lazy/poor to head down, but Wayne, a Swedish backpacker, and I fully enjoyed the hot pools – our favourite pool was outdoors and at 40 degrees Celsius.
 We ended up befriending these two old Peruvian guys who shared their drinks with us and told their stories. Wayne and I ordered pisco sours which we drank in the water, stretching our legs, enjoying the day.

After we returned to the bus, we went to a buffet, which surprisingly had vegetarian options. Then we stopped and saw some lamas and alpacas and took photos, and headed back to Arequipa.

We were tired. We showered, flipped through our Lonely Planet and tried to make plans. We grew frustrated, and headed out to dinner. I had an Arequipa Sour, which was papaya juice instead of lime. It was pretty incredible.

And then we got back to our room and cuddled up together, sleeping until it was time for one more run in the beautiful city of Arequipa.