Monday, January 31, 2011

Hey you guys!

I started this blog with the intention of going through every country systematically, sharing pictures and giving you a time-line of my travels. But let's face it; I have geographical ADD. Not only can I not stay in the same place for an extended period of time, but I can't even write about the same place more than two days in a row without feeling caged in.

So this is why you are getting a seemingly arbitrary mash of my travel experiences, perhaps only gelled together with my sarcasm. I apologize if this is confusing, but I just can't write a real travel blog. However, the search box in the upper right column is really good about finding what you need. Type in the country you want, and BAM, you'll get your info!  Maybe one day I'll have a better archiving layout where you can search by country/region. I don't have the skills to build that, but I'll ask for it for Christmas.

But I hope you continue to enjoy the blog anyway; very once in awhile I post things worthwhile. Sometimes. Then I immediately forget about them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Greyhound Story 3: Security

'Security' seems to be a constant drone in the background of our society. Everyone wants it, but very few seem to be able to adequately define it. Is it the feeling you get when confronted by a 9 foot tall metal detector at the airport - the feeling that at least the job of killing you will be a little bit harder for would-be assailants? Or is security the feeling of serenity gained from hidden cameras and undercover US marshals -the ability to forget that the only thing separating you and a horrible accident is a couple of men and a trained beagle?

The former appears to be the current definition of choice. Not only do we want security, we want to see it. All of our screening, our machines, and our waiting in never-ending lines amounts to a giant, inconvenient, but visible wall between us and our own terror.  

This is particularly true at airports. We build layer upon layer of security in facilities that really very few of us use on any regular basis. However, I often wonder what happens when 'terrorists' figure out that there are more than just airports in the United States. What if they realize that 99% of the rest of the country doesn't have metal detectors. What if they realize that there are also Greyhound Stations?

Luckily, Greyhound has already thought about this, and implemented a system! I wanted to say "security system" but well, that would probably be false. 

The System

Step 1: Before you get on the bus you have to get in a big boarding line inside the building. This allows them to check your ticket and make sure that you are getting on the right bus. Once checked, you go outside and board.

Step 2: Sometimes, a security guard will come check your bags and carry-ons while you wait in this big line. The probability of this happening seems to involve a complex equation where the outside temperature is multiplied by the batting average of the Red Sox and then divided by the year. So roughly 10%. 

Step 3: The security guard will roll a cart around the line, asking each person to put their bag on it. She will rummage around, looking for contraband.  You can actually put your bag on the cart. Or you can step out of line and go hide in the bathroom until she passes you. Or you can hide one of your bags behind your feet in order to speed things up.  

Step 4: For this scenario, lets pretend that you actually give her your bags. She goes through everything, and finds contraband. A knife!! Oh no it looks like she will take it, and you immediately put on your sad face.

Step 5: But no, the security lady says you have options! 
A). She takes your knife.
B). You pay a $10 fine to her, in cash, and then you can keep your knife. 

Step 6: You pay the $10 to the nice lady, and she sticks the knife right back into your bag where she found it. You might think this is a bribe, but she clearly says the word "fine". Fines only happen if you do something wrong and unsafe, and therefore she is entirely justified in making you pay a penalty. And she puts the money in her pocket because it will be safe there while she checks the other passengers.

Step 7: Well, she actually only gets half way through the line before the bus needs to go, so she just gives up. The people hiding in bathroom can come out now. 

Step 8: Get onto the bus. With your knife. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Santa Catalina Convent

I've already written about Arequipa's convent, but I figured it deserved a bigger post.

Began in the late 1500's, the convent was originally built to house nuns (and their servants) from the upper-class of Peru. Over the following 4 centuries, the complex eventually became a small city within the center of Arequipa, boasting a maze of rooms, streets, chapels, kitchens and beautiful gardens. However, while a few nuns still live there today, they now occupy only the northern corner. The rest of the convent has been turned into a beautiful public museum. FOR YOU!

The museum is inexpensive (about $10) and laid back. You are free to wander around for as long as you want, but I believe there are guides too. Inside there is also a cafe and gift shop selling religious objects, although I have to admit I haven't really checked these out fully. Oh, and as a bonus: I've even see advertisements for special night-time tours (I can only imagine how breath-taking/romantical it is at night).

It is definitely worth visiting, if only for the incredible photography. The vibrant colors make it really difficult to take a bad photo, and you'll get to feel really good about yourself when you later look at these pictures. Trust me.

But aside from that, the museum has some really cool displays of colonial furniture, art and technology. Plus it is nice to have a quiet area to just enjoy the day and avoid the craziness that is the plaza de armas of Arequipa. 


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Greyhound Stories, Edition 2

Everyone loved Greyhound 1 so much that I was rather intimidated in attempting this second one. What I get for starting my series with the best story.  Just kidding, I like this one even more.

"These Boots were Made For Walkin'"

Sometime in my junior year of college I was riding the bus from Nashville to Memphis. When I buy Greyhound tickets I often completely fail to take adequate note of the departure times. More than once I've been surprised to find out that I leave at 10pm, not am. 

This trip was one of those times. For some reason I had thought that a 5 am bus would be totally ok. I didn't remember how scary Greyhound stations are. I didn't realize I would be riding a taxi at 4 am to said scary Greyhound station. Alone. In the cold. 

I get to the station, curse my stupidity, and find a seat. The station was empty, because no one wants to be at the bus station at 4 am. Well, no one was there except for me and an old, short little man. This man seemed to be walking in a big circle around the building. He'd start on the left side and slowly saunter through the chairs, looking at me upon occasion. Then he'd exit the building on the right side and disappear for a bit. About 5 minutes later he'd enter again on the left and re-do the whole routine. I really had nothing better to do than watch him. 

About the third cycle he stopped at my chair, flooding me with the smell of booze. He leaned in and handed me 2 old dollar bills, saying absolutely nothing. Nothing. He just looked, handed over the money, and then started to move away as I tried to give him the cash back. I had no idea why he had given me this money. I thought maybe he wanted me to keep it safe for him while he walked, so I just kept it in my hand while he walked away. He exited the door, and disappeared. I'm just going to keep these in plain sight, in case he forgets he has given these to me, I thought. He is bound to come back.

Yep, sure enough he reappeared at the other door shortly and started through the room again. As he walked over, I made eye contact and smiled in hopes that he'd come and take the money back. Yes, he is walking over! He is gonna take these back and...shit. He walked over, looked at me and then jams MORE money in my hand. Another $15, to be precise. 

"Really, I can't take will probably want this later," I pleaded with him, getting a little concerned with the situation. Oh god, I hope he doesn't think I'm a hooker. 

"Shweetie, you shtake it. Yous can do more wish it than me." He slurred while pushing my hand and the money away.

"No, I thin-"

"No, shtake it! When you gets where you are going, you go to the shtore. And buy boots. And you shing that song. The one about walking!" 

" want me to sing...These Boots Are Made for Walking?" 

He nodded, smiled happily, and lurched off again. Dumbfounded, I stared at the money and wondered how pathetic I must look. I mean, I knew it was 4 am and I had hardly slept. I had rolled into the bus station wearing dirty gym pants and I couldn't remember if I had brushed my hair. But even with all that, did I really look so pitiful that a drunk, and most likely homeless, man would feel the need to give me money? Jesus. I must need a shower. 

Let's be real here - I have a strong suspicion this was all of the money he had. Every cent. And he decided that the image of me singing a kick ass girl anthem and strutting my stuff was worth giving it all away. Damn, I still don't know if I should laugh or cry about it.  My life: a series of low-rent Hallmark movies at the Greyhound Station.

Sadly, I soon had to board the bus and I was gone before the man made another circuit into the building. I kept the money though, and didn't spend it. It didn't feel right to spend that money without either buying boots or passing it on to someone else. And I never did find a pair of $17 boots. So I just kept the money for months, feeling guilty. I ended up donating it; I hope he would accept that as an adequate trade. If not, I guess I owe him $17 and a song.

tl;dr: In Soviet Russia, hobo donate to you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Income and Soup

I found this gem of a menu at the Cruz Del Sur station in Lima, Peru. It amused me because this is pretty much what would happen if I tried to translate a menu. Language FAIL - something I do on a daily basis.

Click pictures to enlarge.

PS I am working on the next Greyhound story and I hope to have it out tomorrow. The enthusiasm for the first one was completely overwhelming; you guys are pretty indulgent of this hobby of mine. Thanks. :) 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Greyhound Stories, Edition 1

I've thought long and hard about what could top The Napkin Story.  That was possibly the greatest adventure in serviette history; anything else will probably let you all down, right? Might as well shut this shop up.

Luckily, I'm a little more prepared than that.  I still have a secret weapon up my sleeve: The Greyhound Stories.

See, I've spent a lot of time on Greyhound buses, traveling the Southern United States. I'm sure a lot of you are already horrified. The Greyhound? Those things still exist? And you rode them in....The South? Where were you going, a banjo convention? 

Yes, the Greyhound. They still exist. For international readers: the Greyhound is a private company that runs large travel buses across the United States. They are slow, smell like forgotten cheese and old socks, and their stations never fail to be in the absolute worst area of town. Maybe they seek out these horrible locations because they enjoy cheap land. Maybe desolate streets and crumbling sidewalks seek out Greyhound because they want to feel better about themselves. I don't really know.

And yes, I rode them in the South. Never to a banjo convention though. Which is sad, because I love Southern conventions. Hell, I once even went to the National Turkey Convention in Tennessee, which had a surprising lack of real turkeys (but that is a story for a later day).

I've decided to share the stories I've gained from these journeys, as they make a nice compliment to the buses of the Napkin Story. All of these stories are real. Most of these tales will (I hope) be funny; if you aren't able to find humor in most awkwardness, then you should stay the hell off the Greyhound. But I hope you keep in mind that these are also stories of the intense impoverishment and racial discrimination that exists right here, right now. These stories don't mock the people who have been dealt a truly shitty hand; if anything, these stories mock my own naivity and inexperience. The people I met have been funny, weird, kind, sometimes drunk, honest, and just trying to hold their little piece of life together; I don't wish to do any disservice to them.

Am I suggesting you go ride the Greyhound for a spiritual and emotional awakening? No -- I'm not the Elizabeth Gilbert of the American transportation system.  But I hope you will keep in mind that while I am a humor travel writer, humor is often mixed with quite a lot of unease, and a bit of sorrow.

Story 1: "Always take Nutter Butters"

Story One takes place between Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee. I'm 19 and on the return leg of my first Greyhound ride. I get on to a relatively empty bus, happily plop myself in the back where I have empty seats all around me, and start to read. I'm ready to do this.

After about an hour we make a short 15 minutes stop in Jackson, Tennessee. I don't want to get off and buy snacks, so I honestly pay no attention to what is happening around me (I know, my survival skills are excellent). After a few minutes a large group of men get on to the bus, which is fairly unusual for this stop. As they come to the back of the bus I look up and notice that all these guys are dressed exactly the same. Jeans, a thin white cotton shirt, and a close shaved hair cut. The guys are pretty big and are really excited about this trip for some reason. They all loudly head to the back, where the only available seats happen to be. These seats are the ones around me, soon leaving me an island in the middle of Fruit Of The Loom shirts. I ponder: What's up with the outfits? Are they a band? Sports team? Bachelor party with low funds?

As they file in, a really nice young guy comes up and asks if he can share my seat with me. I move my stuff over and we make small talk as we sit in the station. The rest of the guys suddenly get louder - apparently one of their friends hasn't gotten on the bus. We look out the window and see cop cars arriving to the station. A big guy laughs and says "Aw man, they busted him for buying that booze. Shit, barely out and he breaks his parole." Uh oh. Barely out of...where exactly?

Yep, we had apparently picked up a large group of recently released prisoners. The skinny, nerdy girl reading Kierkegaard suddenly feels a little awkward. I know, I still feel like an ass about it; way to perpetuate stereotypes, Aly. The nice guy notices I've overheard what has been going on, and he is very upfront with me. He tells me that yea, he just got out of jail. Upon release they were all given an outfit and a Greyhound ticket, and personally, he was heading to Nashville to see his little boy. He pulls out a photo of an adorable, smiling little boy around 3 years old. The proud dad tells me that he hasn't seen his boy since he was a very small baby, but he had heard his son was silly, energetic and smart. "I'm glad he is smart; I don't want him to end up like me," he says while clutching the photo. We don't look each other in the eye.

He never tells me why he had been to prison. Perhaps he is embarrassed, or perhaps he feels that this part of his life is done with and he deserves to move on -- I don't think it is my business in either case. Instead, he talks about his son, about the mother of his son, about his goal to be a mechanic and get things together. We talk about politics, about his disdain for President Bush, about my experiences in college. We come to understand each other.

Sometime during the ride, the guy behind us starts talking about why he can't wait to go home. Apparently, he has a woman waiting: his long-time girlfriend Ms. Bubbles. Ms. Bubbles is a stripper, and a hell of a woman (you can't make some of this shit up). Another guy says he doesn't he know what he misses most about home; he has been in for 9 fucking years. He repeats it over and over - nine god damn years. Another guy is pretty honest: he is looking forward to getting shit-faced-drunk (which considering what we had just seen at the station, seems like a really, really bad idea).

Somehow in this conversation they get on the subject of their prison tattoos. I really wish I could write a whole book on prison tattoos. You might think they are ugly, merely gang signs or a way of marking how many people have been personally shanked. But really, the tattoos are like maps to these guys' lives. They tell me stories of why they picked certain images, and how many of these images helped them cope. As a budding anthropology major reading a little too much Geertz, the idea of living symbolic text makes me nerd out. The guys on the bus find my interest hilarious, but amuse me with increasingly ridiculous stories. I even learn new words.

I eventually make a friendship offering - Nutter Butters. If you know anything about my love for peanut butter, you know that it is almost physically impossible for me to share Nutter Butters. I break out in a sweat and start giving the person cold, penetrating stares: You bastard, are you really going to consume my beautiful peanut-shaped nugget of joy?  But somehow this whole experience is making me grow as a person, and I freely pass around snacks. Or you know, I don't have the balls to give an ex-con a cold penetrating stare of doom.

The guys love Nutter Butters. They think I'm awesome. Soon afterwards, we pull into Nashville. Some guys get off, others stay on to head to Atlanta. I openly admire these guys; they spend years locked up with their every move controlled, their every meal planned, and their family visits limited. Then they are thrown out with a shirt and a bus ticket and told "go rebuild your life." I'd like to see the average person try that. I'm glad the guys indulged me, the awkward girl who has no concept of what they have been through but can honestly say she gained a new perspective on what 'hard' is.

I shake hands with my new friends and say goodbye. I'm undeniably a little saddened that I will miss seeing Ms. Bubbles at the next stop. I hear she is a hell of a woman.

tl;dr: Greyhounds are awesome places to meet new friends. And ex-cons like Nutter Butters.

Let's pretend to be warm

To make this clear: I am done with winter. Done.

So, instead let's take our minds to Happier Times. Like when I frolicked in the warm waters of Tahiti and Bora Bora. Ate fresh mangoes until I nearly exploded. Went shark diving without a cage. Yes, Happier Times indeed.

This will probably be one of the only times I'll ever have a post warranting a bikini picture (wonky face and all). Enjoy it while you can.

Sitting on the deck, watching the warm rain on  Bora Bora (sadly the exact opposite of what I am doing right now).

See, proof. I am not making this trip up. Know what else I didn't make up? Swimming with sharks.
This is our grand tour bus on Tahiti! 

I believe this is the view as we flew into Bora Bora from Tahiti. Short flight, less than hour -- with stunning views. 

Bora Bora has a central island with hotels and the town, and then a ring of reefs around it. Our hotel was on the surrounding reef so the only way to get to it was by boat. This is our boat getting us from the airport (where, oddly, John Travolta was that day). 

Our first view of our hut in Bora Bora. Hut might not be the best word...

 View from our deck. Every hut had its own stairs down to the water, which was about 3 or 4 feet deep.
The main building of our hotel! 

The little town of Bora Bora -- I'm not sure how far the road actually went, but I don't think it went all the way around the island. We had to take a 30 minute boat ride from our hotel to the town. Boats left every hour or so. 

The town is filled with great pearl shops. I don't even like pearls, but I must admit they had some really beautiful stuff. You can get a pearl necklace and pick out each individual pearl, matching it to your skintone. Just fantastic works of art when they are done. 

These are the guys who took us shark diving. This was our victory song for not being eaten. 

Tahiti itself. 

Tahiti again. This give you a good view of the black sands on the coast. 

What do you know, I even found a romantic waterfall! 

My lovely mom and I on our last day in Bora Bora. Look at that incredible scenery! 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Huaca Pucllana Review

Huaca Pucllana is rather unique. Unlike other ruins where you have to walk or charter a bus to visit, Huaca Pucllana is smack in the middle of Miraflores, the touristy zone of Lima. Hell, the ruins even have a high class restaurant right in the middle. So not only is it right next to your hotel, they'll serve you ceviche too.

The Site 

The site was built by the Lima Culture around 200-700 CE. It probably served as a religious and administrative center for the area. The site itself is composed of adobe bricks, which form a large pyramid and several courtyards and open spaces. Some of these areas have been rebuilt and display various mannequins to re-enact life at the site. I'm not a fan of rebuilding, but these aren't super terrible or overwhelming.

Honestly, you can't walk around a lot of the site as it is still being actively researched. But entrance is pretty inexpensive (Expect 10 soles, so a little over $3) and includes admission to a small museum and zoo with little animals. You can get an informative guide too. My archaeological opinion is that the site is really worth the look, but then I am a completely biased Andean history dork.

The Restaurant

The restaurant is upscale. I didn't really know this when I went, so I showed up looking like your typical dirty American backpacker - grubby clothes and a baseball cap.  And then I saw that everyone else was in suits and cocktail dresses. Dammit. 

But they let us in anyway, which turned out great since the restaurant is excellent. The atmosphere is cozy, with lots of wood and adobe finishing and big fireplaces. You can even sit outside on a patio overlooking the site. The site is closed at night, by the way, so you'll have a quiet and unobstructed view. Plus, they light it up beautifully. Being able to eat dinner while looking at a 1800 year old pyramid with a spotlight on it? Win. 

When you go expect to stay awhile, eat several courses, drink some wine, have an entire legion of waiters offering to fill your water, and enjoy the view.  The staff was so polite, even when faced with a troop of under dressed gringas. Some waiters do speak English, and they also have English menus. 

As for the food, it was very good. Just don't expect traditional Peruvian food; it is Peruvian food like P.F. Chang's is Chinese food. I had the tamale appetizer, which was big enough for a meal. Being from the Southwest, I'm a tamale snob - and this one was damn good.  I also had some of the gnocchi; it was rich but delicious. Everything else looked really good too, but keep in mind that it is all pretty pricey compared to most other places.  

Overall:  It has good quality food and great waiters. Is it the best food I've had in Peru? No. It also isn't where you want to go if you want traditional Peruvian food. However, it is really hard to beat the romance of the setting. It might be one of those end-of-the-trip meals where you've already had as much ceviche and papas ala huancaina you can eat, so you just go to relax and have decent wine. And stare at a giant awesome pyramid.

Llama Stalking

I feel that I have to be fair. I've had a stalking llama...but I am also guilty of llama stalking.

Payback is a bitch

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Napkin Story: Part 3

The final chapter!

(Click to read Part 1 and Part 2)

Psst: I took some photo-editting advice from the awesome travel blog foXnoMad and updated my Colca pictures. See, now you can actually tell why I love this valley! Check foXnoMad out if you have the chance.

Now on to the story!

At some point after the hot spring we make it back to our hotel. And at some point I remember there being a very large ruckus over payment. Apparently, our hostess thought we would be paying up front; we thought we would be paying when we left (which had been standard for all the other places we had stayed). I don't really remember all that happened but it most likely went something like this, with the Spanish words we understood in bold:

Hostess: blah bah blah blah blah blah today blah blah blah


Hostess: blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah now.

Us: Ok.

Hostess: Ok? blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

Us: .....yes? nyyyyes.

Hostess: *sigh*

We ended up getting everything straightened up, and hopefully she didn't hate us too much. But we did decide to move hotels. I'll do more indepth hotel reviews later, but for now know that we definitely upgraded.

Anyway, day two rolled around and it was time to actually FOLLOW THE NAPKIN MAP! Step one: get to Yanque.

We walked around the square trying to find people who knew how to get to Yanque. I think we finally found a travel company who wanted to sign us up for tours. These cost money. "No thanks," we said, "We don't need a tour, we have this napkin."  The guy most likely thought we were insane, but he was nice enough to give us a tip: we could catch a 'colectivo' that would take us to Yanque.

The colectivo we rode!
A colectivo is basically a public bus. In some places, such as Buenos Aires, they are really nice buses. In other places, they are just some guy's personal bus that he lets people ride. The Colca has the second type of colectivo. They don't really have a schedule; usually, they just sit in a designated area and wait for enough people to get on board to make it worth leaving. You can get on and it can immediately go, or you can get on and sit for an hour while the man tries to attract more passengers -- it could really go either way. And much like the large buses we rode into the canyon, colectivos can fit a truly amazing number of people into them before they decide to go. But what makes them awesome is that fact that they are super cheap; I've paid $1 for an hour ride on a colectivo. The only way to travel cheaper is to walk.

Carol and I eventually find the side street with the colectivo buses and locate one that seems to be going to Yanque. Most of the drivers and passengers seemed really amused that we are trying to take their buses; I am pretty sure that gringas (white girls) weren't often their customers. In fact, when we finally get moving we begin to notice an interesting trend - no one will sit by us.  We were in the back seat of the bus, alone. We could have easily fit 3 or 4 people on this seat, but no one tried. Even when we stopped to pick up more people, no one tried; they decided they'd rather sit on the floor by the door than sit back there with us.

I really don't know why. Either:

1. We smelled repulsive. Which normally would have been a possibility, but we had just been to the springs.
2. People felt bad for us and wanted to give us room. This one could be likely. I think we were both getting sick (stupid Shaman curse) at this point, and we probably looked pathetic and tired.
3. People felt we had a spiteful look about us.  I really, really hope this one is not true. We tried so hard to be friendly!

Whichever explains the situation, it made for an awkward trip to Yanque.

Now Yanque is really small. Chivay has a population of 5,000, and Yanque is much, much smaller than that. I'd say somewhere around 2,000 people live there. This made following the napkin map pretty easy -- there were not many ways to go wrong.

Step 2: Get to Ullu Ullu.

We head outside of town, eventually hitting a bridge going over the river. On the bridge a little old man was walking; based on the shovel he was carrying I assume he was heading to his fields. He noticed we were stopped and looking at some tombs that are built into the bottom of the canyon, so he began to tell us about them. He then told us about lots of other things, not that we understand any of it. But we didn't want to make him feel bad so we just kind of smiled and nodded along and made "ah" noises every once in awhile. Finally, he finished and held out his hand -- giving us what was possibly the saddest little old man face I have ever seen. We stared at him, confused. He made an even sadder face. Finally it dawns on us that he wants payment for the 'tour' that he has given us. We gave him some money and he happily went on his way. We, meanwhile, had gained little except confusion.

We ended up crossing the bridge and heading out into the countryside. It was a long walk, but quiet and relaxing. We  hiked on a road along the agricultural terraces, past people working in fields and past grazing llamas and cows. After walking for some time we saw a sign saying "Ullu Ullu" and pointing to the right, off on some dirt path. We turned and followed this dirt road for awhile, but soon it becomes clear that it really wasn't a path. OR maybe it has been a path up to some point, but we somehow got off of it. In either case, we were soon in people's fields.

Terraced fields, with Ullu Ullu just visible in the middle.
As I mentioned - the fields are built like terraces, so they form giant steps. We could see where we thought the ruins were, but they were on the other side of this big earthen staircase. Oh and cactus, we can't forget the cactus. The whole thing was covered in spines of doom. 

We started the long hike up the mountain, and noticed for the first time how very alone we were. We were really, really alone. We had periodically seen people working in the fields, but now there was no one. No cars, no people, no houses. I got nervous, because I'm a worrier. My absurd paranoia soon hit CODE RED. I tried to make it look like I was checking out the scenery, but I was really looking behind us for our impending death. Carol was much calmer than I was about the whole thing, and I am sure she internally mocked my fatuous comments about how no one could save us out there. But at least she didn't verbalize these thoughts- thanks Carol :).

As we were walking, we passed a bunch of llamas out grazing and I noticed a large white one with a black face.  He was probably the only thing at that point that I didn't immediately stare down as suspect. Who would ever suspect that big cuddly llama casually chewing his grass? How naive I was.

We climb higher - I look behind us. The llama seems....closer. He is standing still, staring at us. 'That's kind of odd,' I thought. "Why did he leave all the other llamas?".   We climb higher - I look behind us again. The llama is the same distance he was earlier; he is obviously climbing too. And so it goes: we climb, the llama follows. But I can't actually catch him moving! Every time I look he is paused, just starring intently and trying to make it seem like it was a coincidence we kept seeing each other. "Oh, you again? Funny. I'm just here eating the grass...mmm.....grass."

You know what is past paranoia CODE RED? CODE LLAMA. Out of all my hysterical scenarios I had forgotten the most obvious, and the most dangerous - death by stalking ungulate. Seriously: it became a major concern. Was it a real llama with a taste for human meat? Was it a robot llama sent to destroy us? A spy in a llama costume? What was it??

Eventually, we did lose the llama. I think we went over some sort of irrigation ditch and the llama was foiled by water (which makes me think it probably was a robot). Ha, llama/robot/spy! You were no match for our ninja skills! But even with all our skills, we couldn't escape his eyes. He continued his unblinking eye-stalking. Stalking of my soul.

Anyway, by that point we had actually made it through the cactus and to the site. We were exhausted - being chased by llamas takes a lot out of you. We stopped, ate lunch, and then proceeded to nap in the middle of the ruins. We went all that way -- rode hours over the mountains, hiked for more hours, faced perils everywhere, with only a napkin to guide us -- and I didn't take a single picture. All that I really remember about the site is how good the sun felt while I sat on the ground eating lunch. And you know, I'm fine with that.


Monday, January 17, 2011

This man is my hero

Meet Fred Finn, who has traveled 15 million miles, visited 139 countries, and been to Africa some 600 times.

Everyone loves a parade

Peru loves parades.

Ok, that may be a broad statement, but I base it off empirical evidence: I see them all the time. ALL the time. Political rallies, religious holidays, protests, military drills, Tuesday -- all good reasons to have a parade.

You know what else is a good reason to have a parade? Having extra Uncle Sam Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh costumes lying about.

I like how the guy in the blue jumper is as confused as I am.

P.S. I am working on part 3 of the napkin story. It'll be out in the next couple days, but this will hold you over. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Napkin Story: Part 2

Napkin Story: Part 2 - Return of the Shaman!

Part 1 can be read here.

After we unload from the bus, we find ourselves in the town (village?) of Chivay. We walk from the bus station to the Plaza de Armas (main square), looking for a hotel. Chivay has several, so we decide to pick the one that promises "agua caliente" (hot water). MISTAKE NUMBER 1.

We soon find that 'hot' wasn't the best description of our shower. 'Tepid' or perhaps 'warm enough to get your hopes up, but ending in only a cold freeze on your dreams' would have been more fitting.

Normally, this would have been a great disappointment. However, we had heard that there were hot springs just outside town. And who needs a warm shower when you have a spa right down the road?! We had barely arrived, but it appeared to be time to move yet again.

Looking back, we probably could have walked to the springs. But we weren't sure where it was, and if we had asked directions we wouldn't have understood what was said anyway. So we decided to grab a mototaxi, an example of which is above. Basically, it is a rickshaw: as the mototaxi junket says,"imagine a motorbike. Then imagine a smaller one. Then cut it in half and stick a not terribly comfy sofa on the back."

Peruvian motos are usually personalized, with each driver picking the colors and decals that best express his personality. We picked the Spiderman moto (there was also a Superman moto, but everyone knows that Superman is a dick). This moto was flimsy even by moto standards; instead of a metal cabin with doors, we had plastic wrap with a picture of a smiling spiderman spilling out crazy curse words. As Carol notes, we were too cool for doors. MISTAKE NUMBER 2.

So after somehow conveying where we want to go, we zoom off in our little moto at a pace slightly faster than jogging. The trip is loud and bumpy, but not that unpleasant.


We round a corner and hit a car! Which is a really big deal when the only thing separating you from the car is plastic wrap. The moto driver starts to shake his fist and yell angry words ( much like the words coming out of the Spiderman on the side of the moto). We try to escape the moto but he won't let us get out, there is more yelling and finally he just drives away and leaves the scene. Yes, this is the only time I have been an accessory to a hit-and-run moto accident. Carol sums up the accident thus: "Obviously that nicely parked car on the side of the street was in the wrong place. Also, it was parked."

Thankfully, we were all fine. Well, not all of us; the moto was hurt and made pathetic and disgruntled noises the rest of the trip to the hot springs. But to be fair, we did actually make it to the hot spring, so we did get what we wanted. And after our long bus ride, crappy cold shower attempts, and near-death moto accident we really, really needed those hot springs.

The pools were pleasant, and we had a good time. We soaked up rare feelings of warmth in each pool, before we decided to end our visit by relaxing in the largest outdoor one. As we were swimming around (by swimming around I mean camped next to the hot water jet) a white blonde lady, probably early to mid 50's, came over and began to talk to us in English. Yea, we tend to be pretty obvious in a crowd. We did the obligatory where are you from, how do you like Peru, have you been to Machu Picchu. But then the conversation took a turn towards AWESOME.

The lady was apparently from New York and was traveling with a large group of wealthy, aging, white baby boomers. But this was not the normal sight-seeing tour group. It was a spiritual tour group. She had found a shaman, a real honest-to-goodness Peruvian shaman, and was following him around Peru on a tour of enlightenment. They happened to be currently in the Colca to see the condors and to do a 'fire ritual'. After telling us abut their trip so far, she unexpectedly invited us to join them, for they were about to start their hot spa healing ritual.

How could anyone pass up such an opportunity? If you find yourself saying 'I'd pass', then I suggest you reconsider your life choices.

So what was this hot spa healing ritual? Well, all of us got in a big circle in the pool, and started to do what appeared to be Tai Chi mixed with water aerobics. The Shaman was chanting mystical things, trying to heal us with the water. But Carol and I just flail around, feeling awkward. About the time that the shaman starts asking us to all splash water on our face (think of the parasites!), I see Carol begin to edge out of the circle. I back up too, and we slowly and politely make our way to the edge of the pool. We wave a little to our new friends, and then hurry off.

Was it worth it? Well, I don't think the ritual worked. Actually, I'm fairly positive we were shaman-cursed for leaving early (MISTAKE NUMBER 3). I battled parasites for the next 6 weeks, and Carol soon developed a cough that was from some mutant lovechild of swine flu and TB. Yea, it didn't work.

So ended day 1.

Travel review: The springs are actually really nice. The buildings are newer, and the whole complex includes several large outdoor pools and at least one indoor pool. These pools vary in temperature, from really warm to lightly heated. I remember the water being nice, although not as hot as my ideal. But then again, I'm cold blooded and could probably sit in molten lava before I felt I was 'too warm'. You also have changing rooms, nice bathrooms, lockers for rent, and massage rooms: all for a couple US dollars. I would highly suggest you visit.

To be continued....

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Napkin Story: Part 1

Every once in awhile I feel like a total bad ass. This story recounts one of those extra-bad-ass times. How bad ass? Well, let's just say I hope I have a really big tombstone. Because I want this entire text plastered on it.

It is: The Napkin Story.

(Sadly, I took hardly any pictures while on this adventure, so go google image search "Colca Canyon" and pretend the pictures are on this blog.)

My lovely friend Carol (seen here holding an adorable baby of indeterminate species) and I went to Peru together in 2009, a first trip for both of us. After visiting Machu Picchu and doing all of the touristy Cuzco things, we found ourselves spending a few weeks in Arequipa (an unexpected, but exciting, side trip).

We were in a very large group at the time, and one weekend we decided to all take sightseeing trips. Everyone else chose to go to Lake Titicaca, but Carol and I became interested in going to the Colca Valley. I don't really remember why, but I am going to assume it was because we heard it held both condors and the world's best cake. You would have made the same decision.

Now, we knew someone who had done extensive and exciting work in the Colca, and he said that if we were going into the valley we had better go see the awesome Uyu Uyu ruins. He drew a map on a napkin showing how to hike to the site from a small village named Yanque. But how does one get to Yanque? Well, that wasn't on the map. But, we knew it was near a town called Chivay. And Chivay was in the Colca Valley. How hard could this be ?

So we go to the bus station of Arequipa and try to find a bus going to the Colca. Neither of us spoke Spanish (Carol made much better attempts than I did), so buying the ticket meant wandering around until we saw "Chivay" on a sign, then repeating "Chivay" a lot to the ticket lady to make sure she knows this is really where we want to go (protip: just chant what you want in Spanish, eventually they give in).

Having acquired tickets, we get ready to board our bus, which had cities in Bolivia and Chile written on the side of it. Crap. We realized there was a chance that we would find ourselves somewhere far, far away --somewhere we probably really, really did not want to go to. We got on the bus anyway!

Now, Peruvian buses often operate on a system I have yet to understand. People at the first stop buy tickets and get into seats. Then the bus goes towards its destination, stopping and picking up other people on the way. Sometimes these people are at actual bus stations; sometimes these people are standing in the middle of the frozen tundra on a mountain side. And while it doesn't seem to matter where people wait, it also doesn't matter how many people wait. You pick up every person (and sometimes their farm animals). The seats quickly become full; people start to stand, then they start sitting in the aisles. Everyone is very polite, and it surprisingly isn't unpleasant, however it soon becomes hard to move your arms.

Awesomely, the buses do provide entertainment for all these people: they show movies on little TVs! I was very excited for the Colca movie...until I realized it was about a man who is kidnapped and then tortured for months. It went: "kidnap scene. bad things bad things bad things oh god make it stop bad things bad things. END." I'll be the first to admit that I am a wimp, but the movie was truly difficult to watch. However, this was undeniably better than the time I was forced to watch Twilight: Eclipse on my way to Ayacucho.

Anyway, something around 4 hours (and many torture scenes) later we arrive at our destination. And it was actually Chivay! I know - I wasn't expecting it either! Hooray! I remember coming over the hill, looking down in the valley and realizing that this was going to be so worth it. That descent into the Colca is to this day one of my favorite images in all Peru -- the valley is covered with centuries old agricultural terraces, which frame tiny towns and a winding river that runs through the middle. All of this topped with stunning mountains and glaciers? Yea, definitely worth it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You can't escape The Bears

I'd like to thank my friend Matt for capturing the true essence of the latest BEAR.
Look into its eyes....see the horrors unfold.

The Bears *updated*

With rising affluence and technological advances comes a rather unique era in human activity. We can undertake actions for pleasure and because we want to do them.

Cooking is no longer the mind-numbing activity that takes the majority of your day just to keep your family of 13 kicking. You can now experiment with spices (cardamom!), or cook a butternut squash macaroni and cheese dinner because you think it would be an exciting change.

You no longer have to track animals through mud in order to bring offerings of meat to your family and local dieties. You can track animals through the mud because that sort of thing gives you a thrill and reminds you that you are more than Dave-who-works-in-accounting: you are DAVE, the Man with the Fire Stick.

And you no longer need to spend all night patching the knees of pants so your children can be warmer when they go into the fields to work. You can now take fabric -- that was made by women in South America who stayed up all night working in the hopes of getting money so their kids wouldn't have to work in fields -- and make your own yoga pants (how zen of you!).

Yes, we as a people live in peculiar, free-time filled era indeed : it is the Age of the Hobby.

And me? How do I spend my free time? Traveling the world tracking down giant bear figurines to fondle.

Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

Bath, England

Bath or Cambridge, England

Bath or Cambridge, England

London, England

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, USA (yes, I am licking him)

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, USA

Near Williams, Arizona, USA. I look so sad because that giant bear statue was too high up for me to fondle. :( (Photo: Ryan Abella)

*update* Cambridge, England.

*Update* Kingman,Arizona, USA.
This is my "don't pay attention to me creepily taking pictures of myself with your giant bear" face.

*update* Kingman, Arizona, USA.
I couldn't fondle him directly because he was behind glass. I did what I could.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sorry, stomach

My gastronomical choices while traveling could really have their own blog. Most of them can be described as 'interesting'. Some have been...unfortunate (I could have an entire section devoted to the '100 ways I probably got parasites'). And some have been culturally and personally uncomfortable, particularly since I am a vegetarian (an adventurous vegetarian with a not-so-secret love of bacon) often forced to eat meat when I'm abroad. But luckily, most of the time these choices have also been absolutely delicious and worthwhile. Therefore I have no plans to stop these culinary capers (sorry, stomach); my hedonism demands that I continue my quest for delightful goodies. Besides, a lot of what we describe as "gross" or "inedible" is a cultural construction, and who doesn't like challenging those? Sticking it to our ethos, one dish at a time.

Anyway, here is a list of my favorite food adventures:

1). Octopus head. Kaizu, Japan.

I spent part of the summer after 7th grade in Japan on an exchange program. I had absolutely lovely host families, who went above and beyond in their effort to make me feel at home. While most of the time they made incredible feasts for us to enjoy at home (see below), occasionally we went out to a restaurant in the evening. On one such night we went to a small nearby restaurant, let our host father order for us, and then told stories seated on the floor around a traditional table. It was only when my food arrived that I realized what had been ordered; seated proudly atop my rice sat a baby octopus. An entire octopus,whole except for the the beak and eyes, which had been removed.

My host family laughed and tried to take it away thinking I wouldn't want it. But I felt up to the challenge, and I fended their chopsticks off. The biggest obstacle wasn't fear, it was lack of technical knowledge - how does one eat an entire octopus? I started with the legs, eating each one separately. They were chewy, but surprisingly lacked any particular flavor. After I had finished all 8, I felt prepared to tackle the head. Biting off the very top, I was met with a lot of chewy texture, some saltiness, but again, a lack of a definitive flavor. Mmm, octopus brain (I'm like a zombie of the sea).

Overall: it wasn't bad. I'd do it again.

2). Guinea Pig. Ayacucho, Peru.

Guinea pigs, called 'cuy', are served all over Peru. You can order a half or a whole (I don't think I've ever seen a quarter...but someone should correct me on this), and it comes to you fried, broiled or roasted. I've had the fried, where the cuy was just skinned, breaded and then fried whole. It's tiny little rodent head and feet sadly still attached.

It was a really oily meat; I've heard it compared to rabbit. It also was a pain to get actual meat off of the itty-bitty rodent bones. I think I expended more calories getting the meat than I gained from eating it. But then as a vegetarian I lack important meat-gathering skills.

Overall: It was ok. But I've only done it once and haven't desired a second round.

3). Takoyaki. Kaizu, Japan.

While in Japan I was able to attend classes at a junior high. Most of the time I just sat in the back, as my Japanese was limited to "Hi" and "I like to swim". However, cooking class was one of the rare times I actually knew what was going on. As we started to get ready, my fellow classmates showed me pictures of what we were about to make. It looks like muffins, except round. Maybe a muffin/dumpling hybrid? I know all about making muffins! AWESOME, this will be the best day ever!

And then the octopus came out.

"Maybe it is for a different cooking group"

..... Nope, they want me to hold these legs so I am pretty sure it is for us. But...what are we goi-OHGOD not into the MUFFINS!

Yes, those octopus legs went right into the muffins. Turns out we were making takoyaki, an incredibly delicious octopus dumpling with a sweet sauce. I ate every single one I could get my hands on.

Overall: DELICIOUS. I still order them to this day, although they are hard to find.

4). German nachos. Mannheim, Germany.

My parents and I had driven to Mannheim to spend a day visiting. I was hungry, so we stop at a cafe where I decide to order the "nachos". I had heard plenty of horror stories from friends who had attempted to buy Mexican food in Europe, but this of course did little to deter me.

What came out was a plate of fritos. Yes, the actual frito chip. Or at least, the Germany frito knock-off. And on top of these fritos? Cheese. And on top of that cheese? Sweet and sour sauce -- you know, the type you get on your Chinese take-out chicken.

Overall: Disgusting. Germany, I am disappoint.

5). "Meat" patties. Kaizu, Japan.

Japan is just racking these up, huh?

My host family knew I didn't eat meat. We had already gone over all of the meat I didn't eat: "no cow, no pig, no chicken." We had that down.

So on one of the last days we have a huge feast. The table was covered in food, all of which was incredible. There was one particularly tasty looking patty thing with a barbecue sauce. They told me it was fine to eat, so I bite in thinking it is probably fish. And dayum, it was good. Sweet and juicy. I eat another. And another.

Finally, I ask, "What is this?"


Uh oh.




"No. Meat."


I name all the animals I think of, then I give up. It wasn't until the next day that I realized I never named horse.

Overall: Really good. Horse is one of the best meat-things I've had.
(patties are in the bottom middle)

6). Denny's Fried Cheese Melt. Arizona, USA.

See, sometimes you don't need to travel the world to find really bizarre things! Americans make questionable food choices our national past-time.

On a recent night, I found myself in Denny's. And what do I behold on the menu?! The Fried Cheese Melt. Yes, it is a grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks, served with marinara sauce and ranch dressing.

Of course I order it. The waiter questions my intentions, wanting to know if I was sure I wanted it. Oh, I wanted it.

Overall: It tasted like plastic. It smelled like plastic. The marinara sauce didn't help matters at all. But I regret nothing.