Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Homeward Bound

Post by Josh

Today we fly back to the US, ending near six months of global wandering and a grand experiment in weird and wild foods. I am sad to be ending this, but there are a few things that I am looking forward to back home:

  • Hot showers
  • Campfires
  • Consistent access to Peanut Butter
  • Having a rational amount of facial hair
  • Family and friends
  • Cooking for ourselves instead of constantly going out to restaurants
  • Having a schedule again
  • Being charged the same amount as "locals" for things
  • Having more than one change of clothing
  • Having a real computer
  • Creeks, rivers, and forests that we can explore without guides or armed escorts
  • Bicycling

Looking forward to seeing all of you soon - we will be back in your airspace in 24 hours.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I live for the Macaws, Macaws, Macaws.

What did the spider monkey say to the macaw? Not sure, but whatever it was, the macaw is pissed off. Watching these two provided endless entertainment. They are both pets sharing a jungle home at the Monte Amazonico lodge, on the banks of the Madre de Dios river in Peru. I use the word "share" lightly. In truth, the Macaw is probably the most territorial pet I have ever seen. Every day, it attacked at least one unsuspecting guest who was dozing in her hammock. What made it even creepier was the way it squacked "Hola! Hello!" before snapping with its beak.

The spider monkey, Marukha, knew that the macaw was a persnickety soul and delighted in teasing it. It would swing by and grab the macaw's tail, and then dangle just out of reach of the macaw's beak. It stole a cracker that the guests had thrown out for the macaw. It stole my glasses once. It stole just about anything it could get its hands on, really, and it stole our attention whenever we were done with our jungle adventuring.

The jungle here was secondary growth forest, meaning that it had been deforested in the past, but there was plenty of flora and fauna to keep us busy. We spotted caiman, capybara, howler monkeys, tarantulas, tree frogs, snakes, hoatzin, river otters, herons, bats, enormous ants, and so many butterflies that we literally had to swat them away.

It was a surprisingly comfortable and relaxing place to be. Before coming I had feared that we would be sweltering hot, sweating through our sheets at night and devoured by the mosquitoes. We slept well, with the forest breeze wafting over us through the screen. At night, the animals didn't make as much noise as the cicadas sometimes do in the U.S. With refreshing juices at lunch, like starfruit and passion fruit and cupuazú (a fun Amazon jungle fruit), I had more energy to tackle the challenges the lodge threw at us.

Like ziplining in the canopy!  Much scarier than I thought it would be.  And kayaking, fishing for piranhas (Josh caught one using the most rudimentary fishing line you've ever seen), hiking through a 3km mud trail to an oxbow lake, and of course surviving the terrifying macaw.

On our last day, we took a break from animals and went to visit humans.  The Mashinega family, who now farm and live on the river bank.  They were marketed to us as a native family, but I asked the grandfather if he was born there, and he said no, so I'm pretty sure that disqualifies them... No matter, though, because it was really interesting to hear and see the things they were doing to make themselves seem more "native" to us.  Like putting achiote (red plant dye) on their faces, singing and dancing with drums, shooting arrows, and the like.  The grandmother was the only one singing, presumably because she was the only one who still knew any songs.  I knew it would be cheesy.  The thing that struck me was how earnestly the grandfather was getting into it.  And the kids loved it.  So, in the spirit of cultural exchange, and sharing, we reciprocated.  Josh and I sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for them.  Of course both sides were putting on a show, and what stayed with me is how fun it was for all of us.

For all our exploring, we only saw the tiniest sliver of the forest around the river.  We both think the Amazon seems like an incredibly diverse place worth exploring further.  Going up one of the tributaries, farther away from the cities and logging operations, would be really dangerous but probably full of surprises.  We've caught jungle fever, so watch out.  We may be in the market to buy a boat if you're selling...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Markets and Festivals of Perú

We crossed over the Andes last night and are in Puerto Maldonado, a river port city in a corner of the Amazon rainforest.  For the next four days, we will be without internet, heading into a jungle lodge for some wildlife viewing, kayaking and ziplining, and a brief interaction with an Ese'eja family.

For now, some pictures from the cities in Peru where we have enjoyed the life in the streets, markets, and public squares.  This has been some of the best street food and free music from our entire trip!

1.  "Diablito" dancing as part of an unidentified street festival in Arequipa on May 31.  Several paces behind were rows of women in skirts and men playing drum and panpipes with Robin-hood type hats.

2.  Ceviche!  For only 8 soles (about three dollars) at the San Camilio market in Arequipa, we scored a lunch of Perú's national dish, raw fish cured in lime and chile, with all the fixings.

3.  Thousands of children performed Quechua dances at the Fiesta Del Cusco, celebrating the anniversary of the city's founding.  The very next day, adults performed similar, more complicated dances, very evocative of birds in flights and flowers swaying in the breeze.

4.  Guinea pig, roasted and served with rice and potatoes for 13 soles at a Sunday street stall in Cusco during the big fiesta.  They call this bad boy "Cuy al Horno."

5.  Aguajina is the drink made from the aguaje fruit, an Amazonian specialty which is dazzling in its color and texture.  Real yummy too!  For only one sol at the central market in Puerto Maldonado.  Google reveals it is part of a health trend under the name of Buriti.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Inca Trail, part 2

Day 3

This was the most beautiful day.  After lunch, we walked along a section of the trail that was really well-preserved, hovered at around 12,500 feet, and took us through cloud forest, along giant valleys, and in view of many huge snow capped peaks.  It was during this portion that one of the porters walked with me and gave me some insight into Quecha culture.  His name was Ephraim Cruz Huaman - the first two names very biblical and the last name very indigenous (it is the Quechua word for an eagle-like bird).  Huaman was his mom's last name.  His wife's last name is Condori.  As you guessed, it means condor.  He pulled some pod-like plants off a vine on the rock face and had me eat some.  They were sour in a good way.  Placados, he called them.  And he took some berries off a plant, which he called macha-macha, and said that if you eat more than one you hallucinate.  Obvi, we did not eat those.  He also taught me some Quecha words which I used that night on the other porters during the goodbye "ceremony."  I'm sad to report they had almost no effect.

Anyway, after the nice scenic portion, we eventually got to another mountain pass with llamas at the top, and proceeded to Phuyupatamarka, a ruin with some excellent examples of Inca ritual baths.  They even had water still flowing through them.  Our understanding of the Incas at this point remained somewhat nebulous.  Our guide and the guide for another pair of tourists in our group were saying some inconsistent things (about whether or not the Incas sacrificed humans, for example) and we are not sure whether anyone knows the answers to the questions we were asking. 

The next stretch was pretty horrific, with somewhere around 2,250 stairs down to our campsite for the night.  I don't want to see another staircase for the rest of the trip.

Day 4

Shockingly, we were woken up at 2:50 am (!), given a sack lunch and led to the final checkpoint, where we sat and waited for two hours for the gates to open.  This was ostensibly to enable us to see the sunrise on Machu Picchu, but honestly, we could have still done so if we had woken up at 5 am like normal, and skipped waiting in line.  We think it was to allow the porters to get home earlier.  Anyway, we were some of the first people of the hundred or so that waited in line that morning.

Once the door opened, the hike to the Sun Gate took about half an hour.  It should have taken twice as long, but we were literally running at times because A) there were more steps and descending staircases and I wanted to be done with them as soon as possible, B) we really wanted to beat the rising sun, and C) a strange competitive spirit took hold among the front of the pack.  A group of Australians behind us began shouting things like, "Let's hunt 'em boys," and "Up and at 'em!" and "We're gaining on 'em."  One of them even blew into an animal horn he was carrying, like he was in hot pursuit of wild game.  We pushed ourselves hard to stay ahead of them, and got to the Sun Gate panting and sweating profusely.

Then there she was.  The ancient citadel, and the best preserved Incan city discovered to date.  For about three hours, we walked between the terraces, temples, houses, and plazas wondering how they built with stone like this and what it was all used for. Our guide led us along the main route, and then we walked around to the other side of the hill behind the citadel and admired the Inca bridge.  Built from stone stacked against the sheer face of a soaring cliff, the Inca bridge was almost more impressive to me than the city, because it highlighted in one clear line how complex the engineering was.

We walked down to the tourist haven of Aguas Calientes and had a soak in the weirdly murky but relaxing hot springs.  This was just the antidote we needed for our aching calves, knees, and thighs.  We had lunch and dinner with Harriet and Franky, our new friends from the UK, before getting on the train back to Ollantaytambo, and then the bus to Cuzco.

I would recommend the Inca Trail to anyone who likes guided package tours and exercise and photography, and is willing to pay top dollar.  I would recommend it less to someone who is trying to understand the Incas in depth, or to anyone who wants to do day hikes like the ones we have in the US national parks.  This trail was very rough-hewn and steep and uncomfortable, and the information on the Incas is not very site-dependant.  Machu Picchu was the single most expensive piece of our trip, and while it may not have been completely worth the cost, it was definitely worth the time and effort.

Inca Trail, part 1

Day 1

At kilometer 82 where we started, the Inca Trail begins as a footpath that was built and maintained in the 1980s.  The actual path built by the Incas is now buried underneath a railroad which runs to Machu Picchu.  The scenery is spectacular, with glaciers poking out behind mountains carpeted in green - a huge difference from the dry, completely barren mountains near the coast.  Our first day did not really follow the path, though we witnessed where it would go through the Urubamba river valley.  Our guide Ramiro told us that we would see parts of the original trail the next day, and that it was 60% "new trail" at this point.

This new trail was very smooth dust and gravel and allowed for an easy day of walking, with several ruins along the way.  My favorite was Llaqtapata, a paw-shaped settlement set in a dramatic valley.  The ruins were very green and, Josh noted, shockingly orderly.  It is obvious that Peru puts a lot into maintaining this area.  It was a bit difficult to imagine a day in the life of the people who lived here, but we can see that they had lots of decorative niches in their house, and no windows.  It was also obvious to see that they had intense city planning and really liked landscaping!  I was not as moved as I had been with some other ruins on this trip, where you could see individual etchings or inscriptions, and imagine some ancient story behind it.  But they were beautiful, almost otherworldly in their smooth, terraced shapeliness.

Speaking of otherworldly, Ramiro told us about a theory that the Incas had uncovered the secret to teleportation.  We both gave him quizzical looks.  He said, "Who knows?" and went on as if he might actually believe it.  But really?  We figure, if the Incas had teleportation, why would they have built this trail?

Day 2

This day is known as the challenge day. We started at 9,800 feet, climbed up to the Warmi Wañusca pass at 13,800 feet, and descended down to our camp at 11,800 feet, all within 6 hours.  It was definitely painful and slow going.  The path was a continuous steep slope.  And while we did see the original trail today, it was not exactly a relief.  The Inca had built steep stone stairs that made the slope even harder to climb, in my opinion.  We had to take big steps that challenged the limits of our glutes.  Meanwhile, the porters (local men hired by the trekking companies) were carrying gigantic backpacks (at least four times as big as ours) and passing us constantly.  Some were like sixty years old!  The climb was a humbling experience whose details are, sadly, hard to remember due to the fatigue.

There were no ruins along the way, other than remnants of the trail.  While relaxing at the camp, we shared pictures from our entire world trip with the porters.  They laughed at the pictures of women carrying baskets on their head in Africa, and they did not know who Nelson Mandela was.  I did not get much farther than that because lunch was shortly served - lomo saltado, barley soup, rice, and salad with cheese.  (The food on the trail was always really good!)  We relaxed all afternoon, but the German couple in our group did not make it down to camp until 4:30pm.  We think the altitude really got to them.  Fortunately they brought some meds that they shared with Josh, who also had altitude symptoms that evening.  This did not stop him from getting out of the tent in the middle of the night to admire the stars (and use the toilet...) which in his words were wondrous.  Altitude has its benefits!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Cuzco interlude

We are in Cuzco, Peru, and about to embark on a four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  The Inca Trail is one of our Ancient Roads on the original itinerary, and we are excited to walk it.  At one point we will be at 13,800 meters above sea level - higher than I have ever been.  We will definitely blog after we come back - see you soon!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sitting on the dock of Iquique

Our detour around Bolivia took us to the (completely unfamiliar to me) north coast of Chile.  I don't know why, but I was expecting something Mediterranean.  But no, as we were landing in the town of Iquique, we pulled down the airplane window shade and saw a vast desert stretching away as far as the Andes.  Then all of a sudden the word "Atacama" came back to me from geography bees past.  We were in the driest place on Earth.

In Iquique, it turns out, the whole reason for the city to exist was mining.  The big sandy hills that surround the city are full of minerals like nitrates and saltpeter - minerals valuable enough that Chile went to war with Peru over them in the 1800s. The area was full of small mining towns until they were gradually abandoned in the mid-1900s, leaving giant refineries abandoned in the desert. We heard that there was a particularly well preserved ghost town just 40 km east of us.  The place was a saltpeter mine until it was abandoned in the 1960s and now it is even a UNESCO world heritage site.  It is called Humberstone, which the people here pronounce like "Ombertun." 

Our misadventure trying to visit Humberstone need not be recounted in detail.  Let's just say, due to traffic, it took us an hour to go 5 kilometers of the way there before we decided to get out of the car and turn back so that we could catch our onward bus.  We were annoyed that we couldn't make it in time, but later found out there were several earthquakes last month (around 8 on the Richter scale!) that badly damaged the highway out of town.  I felt sheepish for complaining about the traffic when I found that out.

But still, we wanted to do something before leaving.  The tourist information office recommended an hour boat trip out past the harbor.  But lo and behold, when we got there, no boats were running.  Just our luck, right? 

Dejected, we went to the dock to look at the water.  There was some kind of huge brown bean bag on the dock.  As we got closer, it opened a sleepy eye and watched us.  A sea lion?!  Was this really a lone sea lion, sitting fat and sassy on the dock of the bay?  They live in colonies, so it made us wonder why this one was alone.  Maybe he was taking a break from the group, or maybe he had been kicked out.  He seemed pretty content either way, and his serene smile made us feel better about the failed Humberstone and Boat trips.

Sitting there ended up being lovely.  Out in the ocean, the most enormous waves I have ever seen crashed against the distant breakers.  The little sandy beach was strewn with tons of large, intact mollusk shells.  A black bird with a long red beak stalked the surf, while men stood on boulders fishing for whatever could withstand that tide.  We left Iquique wishing we had stayed longer.  I know so little about the Atacama region, but what little I know says there is a lot going for this little mining town.