Monday, February 29, 2016

Traveling in Peru is Freaking HARD - when Frenetic Travel plans backfire

Travel within Peru is grueling.
The first thing that will wallop you are the high elevations of the Andes Mountains, where oxygen deprivation and altitude sickness are one and the same. Outside of the mountainous region, you still have to deal with roads which are not exactly of Autobahn quality, impassable jungle, frequent delays, and a lack of reliable infrastructure.
Merely attempting to plan your trip inside the country can be a stressful, headache inducing experience.

We (by which I mean me) have come to rely on the internet to make last minute lodging or transportation bookings, and WiFi here is about as reliable as telling a napping cat to go pick-up your pizza order. Even if you order a meat-lovers.
Of course, this challenge is usually easily overcome by connecting to a cellular network, and we have a T-Mobile subscription which let's us access data on any of the local networks! ... Except, there is no data to be had, it simply does not work. There is zero data available. Nunca!

When I arrive back in Cusco in the evening following a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu, it's been 48 hours since I was last able to access the web, this time due to a power outage from a fallen power-line (electricity was not expected to come back online in the area for several more days.) Thus preventing me from arranging the next leg of my trip, or even lodgings for the evening.
So your perpetual motion travel hero's first stop- any restaurant with internet; I successfully gain access to a working WiFi network on my 3rd attempt.
"Hello, what is the password?" type it in, "Not working." Walk out and find the next restaurant, repeat ... neither fun nor efficient.

So now I'm finally connected, sitting down at a table, looking up flights on my smartphone. An elderly Incan woman leans over my shoulder, warning me not to display my phone so publicly; always have to keep the proverbial "one eye open" I guess.
Attempting to heed her advice, I operate with the phone in my lap. She approaches me again, admonishing me for continuing the activity (you'd have thought I was breastfeeding a child at the Republican convention.)
I'm a little bewildered, I look around and see no one suspicious, so I go back to furtively gazing at the screen. I kid you not, she warned me a third and a fourth more time. You think she'd have given up and let me get robbed. Even today I'm not sure if she was a guardian angel or a demon of annoyance.

My furtive glances at my screen reveal no evening flights to Arequipa (Peru's second biggest city,) and the only direct flight in the morning is outrageously expensive. Inter-country airfare within South America is even more ridiculous, explaining why most tourists opt to travel by bus.
Speaking of the bus, it takes almost 13 hours to traverse the 300 miles between Cusco and Arequipa, Peru's second largest city, about the same amount of time it would take to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Nevertheless, taking the overnight ride will be substantially cheaper, I'll arrive before the flight would, and hopefully I'll be able to sleep on the bus rather than find and pay for last minute lodgings at this hour.
Throw my bags over my shoulder, hail a cab, hurry to the bus station.

the loud chaotic bus station of Cusco, Peru

Predictably, the bus is packed; a father traveling with two young children, one on his lap, the other seated beside him literally repeats the words "Papi, Papi, Papi," for the first hour of the journey. The man is doing nothing to control his son, perhaps too worn out to even make an attempt.
The man next to me snores, our arms touching, the bus lurching to and fro.
My only goal is to get to sleep, which I manage only after "Papi, Papi, Papi," finally runs out of steam.
We're woken before sunrise by a bureaucratic mess; required to exit the bus and have our smaller carry on bags (not the larger ones in storage for whatever reason) X-rayed by some distant agricultural inspection outpost; the government workers not even bothering to look at the screen as our luggage passes through.
Climbing back on board, a man listens to music he has stored on his cell phone, no headphones of course. Apparently he's made the decision that everyone's done sleeping,
The bus has emptied along the way. I'll gather my stuff and find a place to sit with an empty seat next to me.
Oh God, where are my hiking shoes?! Took them off to sleep, now I can't find them! Not going to survive Peru without them. Hopefully they're under a nearby seat, rather than (gulp) stolen. Can't quite reach/see under the chairs so I get on the floor to look. Alas, I don't have enough room, the man beside me is awake, he can tell I'm avidly looking for something, it's obvious I'm lacking sufficient space. Nevertheless, he doesn't rise to give me room. I wait several beats.
"Excuse me, would it be possible if you stood-up?"
He hears me, but chooses to play deaf, rolling his eyes as a giveaway. I'm on a mission of quasi-survival. "Could you please sit over there for a second so I can search under the seats?"
He begrudgingly rises. I don't want him to feel offended, "Please excuse me," I state.
"No," he answers with a slight emphasis, as he takes the other seat.
'No?!' fucking 'no' ?? I'm shocked, but don't pursue discourse any further.

The ride from the outskirts of Arequipa into the center of town is excruciatingly slow, 180 second traffic lights plus being stuck behind slow moving freighters. At last, we pull into the station.
I find an AirBnb with a washing machine so I can send my dirty, dirty, dirty clothes on a spin cycle. There is a one dryer in all of Peru- it's called the sun.
the of the mountain- 4,910 meters- 16,108 feet
Two days later, having trekked the Colca Canyon, I'm at 16,000 feet of elevation. Walking around for a few minutes, I feel light-headed, my lungs seemingly breathing fire, letting me know they're not taking kindly to these extremes.
the view at 16,000 feet- no trees, too high

flying over the
Amazon basin
Having gone round trip via night bus to and from Arequipa, I opt for fly from Cusco to the Amazon and Puerto Maldonado. Buying a roundtrip ticket you won't use the return leg of on the Internet websites is often 30% cheaper than a one-way ticket; Einstein couldn't explain the logic.
I get to the airport an hour early, alas my plane takes off 3 hours late.
I'm not saying flights never depart on time in Peru (it happened once in 1998) but you'd be well advised to leave a large buffer zone in connection plans.

Now that we're in the Amazon, travel becomes water logged. Once you're off the one main road, you need a 4x4 truck to traverse the muddy dirt roads.
Below is a video of us using a heavy pick-axe and wooden boards to dig ourselves out of the mud.

                                                                         pick-up truck stuck in the mud on Amazon road

Peru has some of the most spectacular, diverse scenery of any country in the world, and its well well visiting. My only advice about traveling within boils down to this: EXPECT DELAYS. And if you're there and have a similar experience, don't bother sending me note to tell me I was right. You're unable to connect to the Internet anyways.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Machu Picchu- Gorgeous Pictorial. High Energy Place?

For anyone who loves to travel, Machu Picchu should be at the top of your list of places to see. Go ahead, reshuffle, I'll wait. 

me and the trekking crew

For my group, it was the culmination of a four day trek, and literally the top of the mountain after a 4 AM start time- making the cherry even sweeter. 
I can objectively state that between the ancient city and the nature surrounding, it's the most impressive and inspiring area touched by man I have ever seen. 

Many believe Machu Picchu to be a very "spiritual place," where the energy of the world runs strong, often describing the area as liberating and freeing. 
My question is, are there zones of the world which can function as "battery storage" for spiritual energy, or is it like electricity, which must be used at the moment generated, or dissipate? 
I think the power of Machu Picchu lies in our connection to the ancient civilization which once existed here, having left evidence of its presence, and the natural splendor of the Andes surrounding. It's my belief, that in the dual presence of such stimuli, thoughts of lack, worry, or limitation leave our mind much more easily, and are replaced with an intense focus on the beauty of the area, the beauty of life. It is at that moment that dormant potential energy reawakens within us. These are moments of presence and connection with something beyond the mind, but that potential exists at any moment, in any place. It's just easier and far more likely to be triggered in area like Machu Picchu.

So go ahead and chew on those thoughts, and look through the photos and videos below of Machu Picchu. Hopefully some energy might stir inside you as you do. 
not much to be seen @ 6 AM
heavy early morning vapor
the shroud of fog lessens

Machu still shrouded in fog
ancient railing

the "wings" of the condor temple

the head of the condor temple

video: Temple of the condor inside Machu
early morning still
a window of Machu Picchu

Machu walls

in the morning we thought this as good a shot as we might get
the ancient city- the veil of cloud coming off

the shroud of fog starts to lift

should I make this my FB photo?
my Chilean friends look out over Machu 

really great shot of Machu Picchu

video: breathtaking view of Machu Picchu

walls of the ancient city
llamas on the far side of Picchu- part of the exhibit, not wild
trekking group photo 2- nice people
some of Machu Pichu's crumbling walls
gazing out the window
the area surrounding Machu is breathtaking
Incan agricultural steps
so lush, so green 
the mountains surrounding
all fired up
spectacular scenery
Wayna Picchu? Picchu means mounatin by the way, Wayna means 'young,' Machu- 'old'
the river far below
yup- that's what you see. Machu is so special

video: the mountains surrounding and the backside of Machu Picchu

Lost in the Pitch Dark Climbing to Machu Pichu

4 AM, the alarm rings, but most of us are already awake. There's literally no light in our windowless room, a result of a power outage scheduled to be fixed ... in a few days. We're in Peru, not Germany.
Rummaging through our bags, one of us finds their flash-light, using it to guide us out the door and down to the hostel lobby.
We set off at 4:15 AM, an effort to ease the suffering of the worry-bots of our crew who believe that if we aren't the first through iconic city's gates at 6 AM we'll be doomed to "unsavory, awful photos with people in them which would not be "fit for posting."
With battery powered headlamps illuminating, we make our way through the dark streets of Aguas Calientes, then down an uneven path towards the mountain's base.

A half hour later we arrive at the bridge over the rushing river. I'm shocked to see about 35 people already waiting. Two friendly dogs mingle with the the UN sponsored collection of tourists. By the time 4:59 AM rolls around, the ranks waiting for the bridge to open have swelled to 80; apparently others are also worried about "quality photos" as well.
Now while everyone is doing what everyone else is a doing (a psychological phenomenon known as 'Social Proof,') which is huddling around a shack containing a couple government workers, I break away from the pack and stand by the bridge's gate. Sure enough, when 5 AM strikes, and the fence rolls back, I'm first to show my ticket and passport, then cross, listening to, but unable to see, the river raging below me.

I start hiking up ancient stone steps, the last leg of the Inca Trail. The mountain is steep and there are arrows pointing me back to the path as I cross the dirt road the buses use as they wind up the the steep hill. Buses are allowed to start ascending at 5:30 AM, giving hikers a head start.
Now, there's still no light in the sky, so I'm using my cell phone as a torch, and as I climb through the jungle in the pitch dark alone, I imagine all the invisible nocturnal hunters that might be near- jaguars anaconda, dragons etc.
At that very moment, an animal races by my legs. Fear momentarily overtakes my body as I shine the torch in its direction, bracing myself for imminent attack. It's one of the dogs from below. Another animal rushes by me like the wind, the other pup.
my guide waits for me a couple stones up (cell phone flash)
I laugh, relieved, and gently call them to me, petting them. Once I deem them sufficiently tamed, my two canine guides and I start once again ascending through the pitch-black. I imagine myself an ancient Incan warrior, arriving back home after many years of exploration.

Twenty minutes later the roads have stopped crossing the path, the stone steps more jagged and farther between. Suddenly the realization comes, I haven't seen anyone else on the trail, I'm alone. True, I got out of the gate first, but I'm not the speediest walker. I stop and wait 30 seconds, no one joins me, silence reigns.
Alright, well so be it, I'm continuing up. Ten minutes later I turn around, and decide to wait a full minute- no one appears save my guides racing around me.
hurry up Rich
I seem to be off here. Did I take a wrong turn? Am I lost on this mountain? How come no one's caught up? It doesn't make sense. Am I going up the wrong way? Maybe I found a backroad into the city. Should I go back to the base of the hill and start over?
Nah ... This will make for a better story. I keep climbing, the lost explorer keeps moving in the wrong direction.
Yup, for sure now, no more signs, no more arrows ... the upshot is there's a glimmer of light on the horizon. I'm lost, but since when in mankind's history is that a reason a stop?
What happens if I don't even make it to Machu Picchu? Oh my God, have I really come all this way to Peru, and now I am not going to see this stunning, ancient city? ... Oh well, I guess I can accept that, at least this is an adventure.

But lo and behold, ten minutes later, the path opens up, and I'm at the entrance of Machu Picchu, it just so happens that, on this morning, I'm the first hiker up to ascend, actually by a wide margin. So I guess will see the ancient city after all! I'd have been cool either way.
Machu Pichu visibility early morning- so glad we listened to the worry-bots

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Funny Moments on the Trek to Machu Picchu

My trekking group consisted of nine, generally very cool people who took the 4 day Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. In reality, your odds of coming up snake-eyes in this regard are low, as it's a self selecting group of adventurers, and of course, when you have me in the mix, it leads to some humorous moments along the road.

That's why you Itch, Dude-- Now, one thing Peru has in abundance, even more so in the lowlands, are mosquitoes. A number of us had bitten close to the rivers on our long hike, so I asked Peter, a 50 something Aussie who had just finished a 3 week stint in the jungles of Ecuador before joining our trek, about his experience with the malevolent pests in Ecuador.
"Stupid buggers are everywhere. I actually bought shirts and pants pre-covered in DEET (the active ingredient in mosquito repellent) and there was nothing I could do to keep them off me. They just kept coming in waves."
"Ouch, alright wow. Well, let's keep the door closed tonight."
"I'm one step ahead of you," replies Peter with a wink, "God I hate those mozzie buggers."
An hour later, I go to our room at the hostel, and there Peter is, all alone, both his hands ferociously raking each of his legs at the same time, an agitated look on his face, the price for his jungle excursion, except for, the DOOR IS WIDE OPEN.
Did you sleep outside the mosquito nets in the jungle Pete?
me and my trekking group- finally at Machu Picchu-
Aussie Pete is on the far left. 
Knifie Spoonie- So, I told you that story, in part to tell you this one.
I had an idea for a skit, referencing the original Crocodile Dundee when a mugger pulls out a small blade and Dundee looks whimsically at it, and responds, "You call that a knife?" then pulls out a much larger hunting knife and explains, "This is a knife."

So, having Pete, a real live Aussie, the skit was scripted as such:
I improv something about cutting through Peruvian food.
Peter: "You call that a knife? This is a knife!"
Only he's holding a spoon. I look at it stupefied for a moment.
Me: "That's not a knife, that's a spoon."
Peter: "All right all right you win, I see you've played knifie-spoonie before."
A beat.
Me: "I think I hear a dingo eating your baby."

So, you can see in the video below what it's like for a director to deal with an absolutely incompetent actor. I had a second camera filming Peter, but decided it wasn't worth editing in, as my reactions to his floundering are way more humorous.
Australia was once a British penal colony. Today's Aussies are descended from this gene pool. Is it random I'm mentioning this?
Video: the Knifie-Spoonie skit, leaps, and lands squarely on its head

USA! USA! USA!!!: Joined by another group on the same trek, we're playing drinking games on the second evening, lead by some fun loving Irish blokes, who, when it comes to alcohol, are in their element like dolphins are in water.
Each time it was my turn to drink, as the only American of both groups, they would all start chanting, "USA! USA! USA! USA!! ..." Playing along, I proudly raise my glass to the sky, acknowledging their chants, which I viewed as an act of submission to the country which reigns supreme. It was all meant in fun, and we had a great evening, though, the dolphins consumed a heck of a lot more water than I did.
The next morning before our zip-lining expedition, once again the Irish start their "USA!" chant. Again, I acknowledge! Watch below.

Blind Man Locates Toilet- The closest town to Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes and we arrive there in the middle of multi-day power outage. Four men have gone to bed by candle light, slightly before midnight, in a windowless room with all alarms set for 4 AM hoping to be the first trekkers through Machu's gates at its 6 AM opening, in an effort to appease the more anxious members of our group, who believed there would be "no good photo opportunities" as more tourists flow in.
Plaza de Armas in Aguas Calientes
So, we're all asleep, and I awaken needing to use the bathroom. There is zero light in our room, it's pitch dark, I couldn't make out a shape if you placed it an inch in front of my face.
So, I rise from my bed, unsure as to which way to go. Immediately I trip over an unseen backpack (my own,) landing smack on the legs of one my dormant friends, who gurgles in his deep sleep as I push my way back upright, then take another step, rolling my ankle on a water bottle, bouncing on one leg in pain, trying not cry out and wake everyone.
A snail would leave me in the dust at the rate I'm going, ouch, just ran into a bed that was jutting out further than the others.
Now I'm doing the baby-step shuffle. My velocity is further hampered by forward momentum being converted into dance form in an attempt to prevent my bladder from exploding; bladder racing against blindness, and it's not looking good for me.
My toes offer me my best line of sight, communicating back to me the obstacles on the floor, a kinesthetic version of submarine sonar. Unfortunately sonar does not equate to GPS, I smack straight into a wall, the wrong wall; I've been going the wrong way.
Turn around, running out of time I advance ... slowly ... hopefully, in direction of the bathroom this time. I'm not going to disclose whether the submarine sprung a leak or not before making it to base.

The Blarney Stone - Finally having made it to Machu Picchu, we're walking to our next exhibit when someone notes how much of the ancient city is roped off.
"A couple was caught carving their initials into the stone, and the government felt like they had no choice but to make it harder for people to graffiti," explains our guide.
For whatever reason, I think of Sweden and the amazing civic responsibility ingrained in the culture. "Definitely not Swedish," I state out-loud.
One of my Irish USA chanting friends overhears me. "Probably American," he jabs.
My immediate gut feeling- 'he's probably right.' Still, I just could't let his comment go without a retort.
"Probably Irish."
"Definitely not Irish," he states honestly.
"Isn't it it Irish tradition to get drunk on your birthday and go throw up on the Blarney Stone with all your friends cheering you on?"
"No," he calmly replies.
"Too hard to get to all the way at the top of the castle?"
Just some fun banter along the trail.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Inca Trail- Views on the Trek to Machu Picchu

When I'm in nature and taking in the breathtaking views found on the Inca Trail as we hiked through the Andes mountains, thought leaves my mind and a vast opening and free flowing energy reemerges into my being.
With that in mind, I'm going to keep my thoughts to a minimum and merely allow you to take in the scenery captured in photo and video form below. Enjoy.

the stunning scenery you'll see in the Andes mountains
marking the start of the Inca Trail
Video: A coca plantation + the leaves drying - on the Inca Trail

Video Highlights: from Monkey Thievery to Spectacular Vistas on the Inca Trail in Peru

even more breathtaking when there

Fun video: Crawling up a Steep Cliff with an Amazing Vista - on the Inca Trail in Peru

face painted and high above the river below
fast moving mountain creek behind
that is a manually pulled cable car across the rapids

Video: cable car crossing rapids 
nearing the end of day two's 24km hike
lots of these views
the sheer cliffs add contrast
the river bends to the contour of the mountains

fast flowing rivers and gorgeous scenery along the Inca Trail
traversing the gorge- follow the water
amazing beauty- the Andes