Sunday, February 25, 2007

What´s up with those water balloons anyhow?

To get to this internet cafe, Sarah and I ducked out of our hostel, glancing over our shoulders at the group of boys sitting on the corner drinking beer, and made our way down the street like a pair of soldiers under fire. But, again, I think I´m getting ahead of myself...

Let´s start with this morning.

So, it turns out that we will be spending longer in Cusco than we had originally thought. We´d initially planned on going up to see Machu Pichu tomorrow morning, but the train was sold of out tickets, so we´ll be going up the day after tomorrow.

Which actually isn´t a bad thing. With my stomach bug behind me, Cusco is really growing on me. I´d actually be curious to find out how far away Cusco is from both Nepal and Spain, because it feel like its literally halfway between the two. Majestic mountains and Spainish colonial style arcades built on top of the ruins of Inca walls. As corny as it sounds, the sky is literally a darker blue here. The atmosphere so thin, the blue becomes tinted with the blackness of space.

Sure, its a littler touristy, but at the same time, one can definitely appreciate why. White buildings with red tiles roofs seem to literally climb the surrounding hillsides. Narrow cobblestone roads wind toward the numerous city plazas.

So, with an extra day to burn in Cusco, Sarah and I set off on an 8 kilometer hike to see the ruins that surround Cusco. Basically, the plan was to have him drop us off at the farthest of the ruins, and then we´d hike back to town, stopping at the various other ruins as we went.

First up, and farthest away from town, was Tambo Machey, or El Bano del Inca. A small, quiet ruin of what used to serve as a ceremonial bath. Just a little farther down the road was Puca Pucara, the ´red fort,´ that a guide tried to explain to us was a special place for holy men in training, built on a strange magnetic field.

Then, as we made our way to the next ruin, a car drove by and a water balloon hit me square in the chest! Punk Peruvian teenagers!!!

But, we soldiered on. And, after a little off-road hiking, and getting lost once or twice, we arrived at the third ruin, Qenko. Qenko stands for "zig-zag." At first, it didn´t seem as impressive as the others, but slowly it revealed itself more and more. With narrow passages and caves cut directly into massive rock formations that rose from the Peruvian countryside.

After that, we made our wat to the final site: Sacsayhuaman. Now, pause for a second, and say that name outloud, and you´ll see why its the one name on this trip that might make me giggle more than "titicaca." As we made our way to the site, I let Sarah walk a little ahead of me, and repeatedly said: "I think I see Sacsayhuaman ahead."

Yes, I can by immature at times.

Despite its giggle-worthy name, Sacsayhuaman delivered on being a massive and impressive ruin. At one time it was a fort and "head of the puma" (Cusco was originally laid out to for the shape of a puma), but the Spanish reused a large majority of its rocks in their own buildings. But, even what remained was impressive. And, climbing to the top of it provided a stunning 360 degree view, including all of Cusco spread out below us.

Having seen all the ruins, Sarah and I made our way back into Cusco. Making our way down the narrow streets and alleys, we approached a youth sitting on the corner holding a spray can. He didn´t seem right, so I sort of gave him the evil eye as I passed. But, apparently, it wasn´t strong enough, because as Sarah passed, he sprayed her with something tat looked liked shaving cream. Punk!!!

Then, as we walked across the plaza, another water balloon came hurling out of no where, and exploded at our feet. Suddenly, we were feeling paranoid. "Look, over there, that guy has a spray can like that kid! And over there, another one! And those kids on the corner have water ballons in those buckets! Egad! There´s water balloon debris all over! It´s not safe here! Quick, lets duck into that restaurant!"

Safely inside the restaurant, we ordered lunch, and tried to figure out what was going on. At a loss, we asked the waiter "do you know what the deal is with all the water balloons and spray stuff?"

The waiter gave us a confused look and replied "Its the last day of Carnival!"

Suddenly it all made sense. It wasn´t some organized attempt by the youth or Cusco to run the foreigners out! It was Carvinal!

After lunch we made our way back to our Hostel, and began to see things in a new light. All around us, kids were tossing water balloons at each other. Full-scale, city-wide, water-war. As we neared our hostel, we saw a group of kids dumping water on each other with buckets across the street from the entrance.

"If we just walk quietly, and don´t draw attention to ourselves, we should be ok."

We walked up to the hostel door, and knocked. Ezekial, the young boy who´s dad runs the hostel, opened the door.

"Hola!" Sarah and I both said to him.
"No! No! No! No!" Was his response. His eyes growing wide as he peered beyond us.

Realizing what was about to happen, without turning around, I pushed my way past him and into the hostel. Sarah attempted to leap in after me, but not quite fast enough... and a buckets-worth of water crashed square into her back, soaking her head to toe.

Which brings us to the start of this entry, and our furitive dash to the internet cafe.

Gotta love Cusco. Even the water balloons.

Chicken, Soup, Pizza and Desserts!

Now that Tyler´s feeling better (though still on a somewhat limited diet), we´re back to enjoying the local Peruvian cuisine. While it´s pretty straightforward meat-and-potatoes/rice affair, it´s filling and good. And the chicken tastes like chicken!

Since arriving in Cusco´s somewhat cooler climate, we´ve had more opportunities to enjoy the restaurants´ sopa (soup) offerings. More often here than in the hotter cities we´ve visited, one of the first courses on the set menus is a soup, and generally it´s followed by a word we´re not entirely familiar with. But we´ve had some tasty ones--such as a chicken soup with lots of vegetables, including celery, carrots, squash, tomatoes and corn. And the broth--remember how I said chicken actually tastes like chicken?--is really good. The local corn is also really different and good. The individual kernels of corn are about 3-4 times as big as corn in the US, and it tastes starchier. At one restaurant, they had little bowls of these roasted corn kernels out sprinkled with salt, the best corn nuts I could imagine.

But every once in awhile we start to crave non-Peruvian food. Despite what I said earlier about Peruvian versions of Italian food, they have surprisingly good pizza. We had some in Arequipa when we ran into some familiar travellers from our hostel in Miraflores. We hadn´t intended to eat pizza that night, but seeing some semi-familiar faces and having some additional dinner companions made us change our dinner plans. The places we´ve been to with pizzas have had wood burning ovens and very fresh tasting ingredients. Last night we had more pizza at a place in Cusco on the Plaza de Armas. We ended up with a tasty chicken pie, watching the Cusco/Lima football (soccer) game with all the staff along with bottles of the local Cusquena beer.

Earlier in the day, we had visited the Cusco Main Market, where we wandered through the stalls. Though we had read some warnings about pickpockets and such in our guidebook, it actually was less frenetic and a little more welcoming than the Arequipa market. It´s always fun to wander the markets; there´s the fruit area, juice area, seafood area, chicken, beef, clothes, hats, breads, cheeses, you name it, but all arranged in the same areas of the market.

There are also very different ideas about refrigeration here. Except for a few coolers for soft drinks, I haven´t really seen any refrigerators. And markets have everything just out in the open, waving fans or other material around to keep most of the flies off the fresh cut meat.

Another interesting thing we noticed in Arequipa was a huge number of dessert places--chocolate places, places with cakes and pies. It seemed every street we walked on, in addition to the usual ice cream coolers, were these little shops. Unfortunately due to my own questionable stomach at the time, I only enjoyed these postres once at the Santa Domingo Monastery. I had a delicious torta de fresa, or strawberry cake. It was much like my traditional birthday dessert--a three-layer white cake with whipped cream and strawberries. Delightful!

The only other funny food-related note is that Tyler and I were desperate for a really cold beverage while we were in Lima, Pisco and Nazca, where it was hot and dusty. Best we could generally do was lukewarm or slightly below room temperature. Since we been in colder climes, there has been icy cold water at almost every restaurant we´ve been to!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Take My Breath Away

Forgive the title--we've heard enough 80s rock ballads (think Bryan Adams' Everything I Do or Xtreme's More Than Words) this morning at our hostel to addle my brain and make me feel like I'm in 8th grade all over again.

But, really, the altitude here can be suprising. We're at something like 3800 meters, and I am feeling it--shortness of breath walking up the street, some headaches and lack of appetite. But Cusco is a fascinating city.

In the local dialect Quechuan, Cusco (aka Qusco) means navel of the world, since it was the capitol of the Incan Empire. We have been getting steadily exposed to Incan culture, history and art--and human sacrifice--since Arequipa. One of our last stops there was a museum dedicated to the remains and artifacts of frozen mummies found on the local volcanoes. The Incans believed the mountains were gods and would go there and sacrifice people, mostly children and women, to try and appease them. In the 80s, a mountain climber found the first and most famous mummy, named Juanita. No suprise, the climber who happened upon her was named Johan, or Juan in spanish.

She's famed for being one of the best preserved, with many other offerings. However, she is only on exhibit part of the year, so we saw her less famous brethren, Sarita (found on the volcano Sara Sara). Our guide was very informative, and we learned the differences between llamas, alpacas and vicunas and found out that the graves were often struck by lightening because of the metal objects buried only 1 meter from the surface. We also learned that it was supposed to be a great privilege to be sacrificed to join the gods; there were actually schools to train and select appropriately chaste, intelligent and beautiful children for the event, which ended with a sharp blow to the left-side of the head with a sort of star-shaped mace. A little macabre, but interesting nonetheless.

Today, in Cusco, we went to the Inca Museum. It had information on many of the pre-Incan cultures, as well as artifacts from the Incans. It was useful to have learned about many similar artifacts at the exhibit in Arequipa because, unfortunately, most the signage was in Spanish, and the museum seemed to contain an inordinate amount of painted replicas instead of some actual items and bad dioramas that included plastic men near small plastic bushes surrounded by actual coca leaves (picture bay leaves) all out of proportion.

Speaking of coca leaves, since arriving in Arequipa I've been enjoying daily cups of coca tea. It looks a little like a cup full of bay leaves and initially smells very green, like cut grass, but with a little sugar it's quite tasty and supposed to help with the aforementioned altitude effects. Though the leave is controversial for US policy (it is the raw ingrediant for making cocaine), it is viewed quite reverentially here as a spiritual and medicinal plant. Actually, on some of the figurines included in the sacrificial burials were human figures with bulges in their cheeks indicating that they were chewing coca.

Otherwise, after a day of R&R yesterday, we saw some of the famed Incan walls and many Andean men, women and children, with their fantastic woven fabrics and dress, replete with lambs and llamas. The only sad/odd part is the children walking around wanting you to pay them to take a picture with them in their traditional dress.

We'll have another day in Cusco, hopefully exploring some of the ruins closer to the city, then it's off for a 3-day, 2-night tour of the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu. Soon, we will be here...

Hello, my name is Tyler, I'm 6 feet tall, and have a stomach bug

All about my stomach bug - As Sarah mentioned in her previous blog entry, for the last couple days, I've been having stomach issues. But, in an attempt to be a Hearty World Traveler™, I'd been trying to ignore it figuring that it would pass in time. But finally, yesterday, we decided that I should do something about it. So, the owner of the hostel that we are staying at (Marlon) called up a doctor friend of his and I got to experience something that I'm pretty sure had gone the way of the dodo even before my parents time: A doctor's house call.

The doctor was everything you could hope for from a Peruvian doctor. A short, professional man in a dark suit who asked me a number of questions in a clipped, attentive manner that stopped just shy of ending each sentence with "idiota turista."

"Did you eat anything from any street vendors (idiota turista)? Did you travel along the coast (idiota turista)? Did you drink water from a mud puddle (idiota turista)?"

But, seriously, he helped a lot. And set me up with a couple of antibiotics. Which, thanks to them and him, I was up and sightseeing again today. Only occasionally feeling like my stomach was being twisted inside out.

By the way, the cost of a house call from a doctor in Peru without insurance? $40 US. The cost of antibiotics in Peru, without insurance? $14 US. Remind me to get sick here more often.

All about being 6ft tall in Peru - The average Peruvian is a lot shorter than me. Furthermore, most of the buildings we have been spending time in were from colonial times that make the average modern Peruvian seem like a giant. As a result, I bash my head on a nearly daily basis. It's become a bit of a joke. A painful joke, but still. My stomach may be doing better. But, I'm probably going to get a concussion at some point.

Al about having the name "Tyler" - Apparently the name "Sarah" is "muy bonita" ...but the name "Tyler" is pretty much incomprehensible. Here's a normal conversation:

"What is your name?"
*Blank stare*
"Si. Yes. Tyler."
"What does Tylor mean, in English?"
"You know the things in bathrooms? The little plates on the floor and the wall?"
"Well, in English, those are tiles. So, Tyler means someone who puts in tiles. A Tile-r."
*Blank stare, as they ponder the ramifications of being named after someone who installs things into a bathroom.*
"But, honestly, in the States, our names don't mean anything."

Hint: In Peru, always tip the mother. - The hostels that we've stayed at in both Arequipa (pronounced "Ar-e-keep-ah" ...or at least thats what Sarah keeps telling me) and Cusco have been run by the same family. The eldest son, Marlon, oversees the entire operation and runs the hostel here in Cusco. His siter, Lucy, seems to run the hostel in Arequipa. Their mother works on the roof terrace, doing laundry and serving tea and coffee to guests. A sweet, older lady, on the last day of our stay in Arequipa, I gave her a tip of 4 Soles (about $1.25 US). From that point on she treated Sarah and I like her favorite children (you haven't experienced life until you've had an elderly Peruvian woman grab you by the head and kiss both your cheeks) . And the family has been amazingly accomodating and helpful. By the time we reached Cusco, our reputation had proceeded us. Marlin's greeting to us: "Oh, you are Ty-lor and Sarah. I talked with my mom on the phone last night, and she mentioned how wonderful she thought you both were."

So, as a rule of thumb: If you want to leave a tip in a family run operation... tip the mother.

Friday, February 23, 2007

No Gracias

That´s probably the most common phrase we use each day. No gracias, we don´t wish to visit your restaurant, or your restaurant or your restaurant, as we walk through the arcade of any town´s main square. No gracias, we don´t need a taxi, a hostel, alpacan wool mittens, jewelry, or postcards. No gracias.

But really no gracias to intestinal infections. Tyler is the first to succumb, with a doctor´s house visit, no less. After a few days of (sorry to any faint of heart) diarrhea and stomach cramps, we decided enough was enough and got some medical advice. Though we had gotten a prescription for Cipro (and antibiotic for traveller´s diarrhea problems) prior to leaving, we realized that we weren´t sure when to go from Pepto and some Immodium to the hardcore stuff. Turns out that was today. Fortunately, Tyler also got another prescription for some of the good gut bacteria. Hopefully everythign will even out as we´ve now reached Cusco, and I´m really excited for Tyler to feel better so we can enjoy this fascinating historic city.

Intestinal disorders notwithstanding, we continue to enjoy Peru. We easily could have spent our entire 30 days here alone. We have been well taken care of by the family with the hostal in Arequipa and now Cusco. In Arequipa, the sister running the office there even went so far as to go by taxi with us to the bus station, walk through the potentially confusing exit process, and make sure we made it onto our bus with no problems. And refused a tip! Then another family member met us after a 10 hour bumpy night bus ride to Cusco at 6AM and let us sleep in dormatory bunks until our room was unoccupied and cleaned, rather than make us wander around, zombie-like in the cold Cusco morning. Tyler´s illness aside, we seem to be having a fair amount of good travellers luck.

Hopefully more soon on our explorations of Incan ruins and such. I´m sure Tyler will be back to regale you with stories in good health and good humor in no time at all!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

** Hostal

Many people asked us before we left what kind of accomodations we´d likely stay in on our trip. We hadn´t planned out lodging in detail; we did know it would likely vary based on the cost of living in each country and how that fit with our daily budget. So maybe cheap hotels in SE Asia and hostels in New Zealand, for example.

So far, in Peru, we´ve seemed to hit the mark with the two-star hostal. Interestingly, it seems that Peruvians have adopted the term ¨hostal¨ for just about every hotel, ranging from your stereotypical hostel with lots of bunkbeds and shared bathrooms to hotels with private rooms with a private bathroom.

Basically, for about $13 USD per night, we can get a room with a ¨matrimonial bed¨(full size) with a tiny, tiny bathroom attached. While the shared living might be more attractive for solo travellers looking to make new friends, we prefer the privacy--definitely worth the $3 or so that we´d save otherwise. And we do manage to meet travellers of more similar age and means (all Europeans so far) in these kinds of hostals which tend to have common areas and roof terraces for breakfast and hanging out. We also get towels, toilet paper, and a toilet with a seat--not a guarantee everywhere.

I also think they save some money and aggravation by having a few more amenities and resources. We've been able to book tours, buses and the like in the comfort of the hostal rather than having to hoof it around town going from agent to agent. And they tend to have some staff who speak English. Even though we´re managing to pick up a few new words and phrases everyday, it still helps.

Our hostals thus far have tended to be close to the main squares in town, but a few blocks away so we´re not always right in the thick of things. And they have also generally been in cool old buildings and colonial homes, which helps make up for lumpy pillows, scratchy sheets, and no temperature control. (Below is a picture of the Hostal del Parque, our home in Arequipa.)

We found this place from the brother of the woman running it while waiting for the bus in Nazca; now we´ll be staying at another family members hostal in Cusco. It´s a little funny to get handed from place to place, but I figure we have plenty of opportunities for travelling woes and troubles ahead of us and might as well enjoy the convenience for now!

It´s funny how a room that I probably wouldn´t want to stay in in the US can feel quite luxurious in other places in the world!

Desert lines, monsterous bus rides, and relaxing in Arequipa

After our stay in Pisco, Sarah and I caught a bus to Nasca. Nasca is a small desert town in Peru, notable primarily for the "Nasca Lines." The lines are giant pictoglyphs imfamous with both fans of ancient civilizations and UFO conspiracy theorists because -while they were made long before the airplane- they are only visible from the sky. So, the first morning Sarah and I were in town we arranged to take a tour by airplane.

The lines were everything I´d hoped them to be, and pretty much everything you´d expect giant drawing in the desert to be. My favorite was a large, waving "astronaut" carved into the side of a mountain. For about 35 minutes, our small plane circled the desert, our pilot distractedly pointing out drawing of triangles, hummingbirds and monkeys carved into the desert below us.

Unfortunately, the tour was also over by 9am, leaving Sarah and I with a day to burn in Nasca, a place which even the owner of our hotel described as "a dusty, half horse town with nothing to do." Then, immediately after saying that he arranged an interesting tour of several locations for us. The most note-worthy of which was a trip to the Necropolis: An ancient graveyard in the middle of the dessert. With out guide, we drove out to the Necropolis, down a dusty road surround by dust devils.

The Necropolis itself was a series of excavations dug directly into the desert floor. Each containing mummies, bones and artifact from the Nasca and early Inca culture. With their long and still intact hair, the mummies were creepy and amazing. And even more amazing is that all of it was basically out in the middle of the desert, where you´d think opportunists and robberies would steal them away, as they´d obviously done in other times past.

Finally, it was time to board the Night Bus to Arequipa...

The Night Bus to Arequipa™

The idea was to take a overnight bus, so that we could sleep on the bus, not have to pay for a room, and arrive early in the day to sight see in Arequipa. Unfortunately, before we left, we ordered a plate of fries from our hotels restaurant which came with what might be described as a spicy relish to dip them in. And the relish was really good. This then led to my stomach being a little sketchy to begin with as we boarded the bus.

Now, imagine being on the top floor of double-decker bus, loaded with passengers, with all the windows and shades closed, recirculated sweaty air, at night... going down a mountain pass in which the road zig zags back and forth every 300 yards or so. The bus literally cranky around 180 degrees with each switchback. And imagine riding that bus with a less than ideal stomach.

Finally, imagine having a guy sitting in the row behind you throw up. And then having him spend the next two hours locked in the bathroom, vomiting loudly the whole time.

Needless to say, I didn´t get much sleep. I didn´t get ill luckily, but spent pretty much the whole night inventing new methods to keep my stomach relaxed and stable.

Meanwhile, Sarah (who usually suffers from motion sickness worse than I do) managed to sleep soundly through the whole trip.

Anyhow, we arrived in Arequipa shortly after dawn. And check into a probably the nicest hotel we´ve stayed at yet. An old colonial building. Clean, with a roof terrace, a private bath and a small balcony overlooking a busy street. All for 40 Soles (about $13). (See Sarah´s latest entry) And, its a good thing the hotel was nice, because Sarah and I spent most of the afternoon and evening napping and reading in it. Since the night bus had left me in shambles.

When we arrived in Arequipa, it was warm, and Mount Misti loomed over the city, like Mt. Rainier... if Seattle had literally been built right at the foot of Mt. Rainier. By the time we were ready to venture out into the city though, clouds had rolled in and it was raining, sheets of water running down the street. But, for a couple from Seattle who had spent the last several days in the desert, the rain was refreshing. And we spent a relaxed night eating crepes (because nothing says "Peru" like crepes, right?) for dinner followed by a beer at a small pub.

That night, we were awoken by another small earthquake. I get the feeling they are a little more common here than in Seattle. (Update: As I finished typing this, Sarah found a story online saying that Pisco, where we felt the first earthquake, had been hit by a 6.5 earthquke -which is what we feltlast night, 8 hours away in Arequipa- sounds like it only did light damage and their were no deaths, luckily.)

Today, we woke up to more sun, and after some tea on the roof terrace, we set out to explore the city center. We checked out the plaza, some cathedrals and some colonial homes; but the highlight of the afternoon was checking out the St. Catalina Monastery. While 30 or so nuns still live in privacy in one corner of the monastery, the majority of it was opened to the public in 1974. With its small plaza and squares, tiny winding streets, and it´s red and blue walls, it was the perfect way to spent a day relaxing and exploring.

As I type this, Sarah and I are in small internet cafe off the Plaza de Armas. The clouds have rolled in again, and soon we´ll be hunting for a place to have dinner. Tomorrow night is another nighttime bus ride, wish me luck!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Food in Peru

Most people know of my love of exotic fruits while travelling, but I´m also generally interested in local food and cuisine. Here´s a little info about food in Peru thus far.

Every breakfast we've had thus far (free at our hostels) has been rolls, butter/margarine, jam, some sort of juice and tea. (Fortunately, a cup or two of black tea seems to be enough caffeine for me to get by with.) Not too exciting, but it does fill you up.

We´ve had a variety of lunches. In general, it´s the most affordable meal of the day, where you can get a set menu ranging from 4.5 to 10 soles ($1.50 to a little over $3) which includes some kind of appetizer, a main dish, beverage and maybe something sweet at the end. As we´ve noted earlier, our language skills generally leaves some question as to what we´ll actually end up with, but it has included ceviche, some kind of chicken skewer, fish/chicken/beef with french fries (pappas fritas) or rice.

Dinner is quite a bit pricier than lunch. Except in Lima, there haven´t been grocery stores and we haven´t had cooking access. Going out generally starts at 20-30 soles for an entree ($8-10), not including drink or any other courses. Again, lots of fries and rice, and though the price is high, the portions are large. Tyler and I are realizing that we could almost always split an entree and leave happy. We´ve had chicharron (fried fish and chicken) and various beef and chicken dishes. Tonight we had an appetizer of pollo salpicon, which ended up being a chicken salad with potato, carrot and pineapple in a mayo dressing--quite good, though we thought we were ordering the chicken skewer Tyler had for lunch another day. Then we ate pollo arabe, something that I guessed would be a spicy sauce, since it looked vaguely like √°rrabiata. It was actually chicken in some sort of soy-type sauce. It is always a bit of an adventure.

Last night, after an expensive lunch on our tour of the Reserva Nacional Paracas, we decided to eat cheap and get food from a small vendor rather than a sitdown restaurant. We had chorizo sandwiches, and Tyler went back to get the most popular dish at the place--salchipapas, french fries with what we think was thinly sliced hotdog and ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and a green sauce. It was pretty tasty and inexpensive, but we were a little sick this morning.

We´ve also tried some of the renowned ceviche, or fish ´cooked´in lemon juice with peppers and red onion. It has been tasty, but every time I eat it, Tyler fears that one of us will end up with a lung fluke. (Long story.) It has been good--fresh, citrusy, with a little bit of spice, but I keep wanting something a little better. Smaller pieces or something. But, then again, we haven´t been eating at super-fancy restaurants.

Another interesting thing has been that there is some variety of food--quite a few Chinese restaurants in Lima, and Italian food (at least pasta) at most restaurants. However, I've heard and read enough about limp noodles with ketchup to stick with local cuisine for the time being.

My new favorite thing is chicha morada, a dark purple beverage sold on the street. When we first had it as one of our refreshes with a set lunch menu, I guessed it was maybe some kind of iced hibiscus tea, but it is actually a drink made from fermented purple corn, with cinnamon, pineapple, clove, sugar and lemon juice.

The only other interesting food-related comment is about tipping. We´re still unsure if and what is expected. We didn´t tip at first, until we noticed we started getting change that was meant to be easy to tip with (e.g., we need 10 soles back and get a 5 coin, a 2 coin and three 1 sole coins). But we still don´t know what to leave, so it´s a bit of a crapshoot. And because we can´t ask anyone and didn´t bring that part of our guidebook, we´re flying a bit blind. But that´s becoming commonplace.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Beef, Buses, Birds and Beaches

About and hour ago, in the small town of Pisco where Sarah and I are currently staying, there was a small earthquake. Nothing major, just a quick tremor, but still the type of thing that -if it had happened in Seattle- the News would still be talking about the next day. Yet, here in Pisco, life has already returned completely to normal.

So normal that Sarah and I just spent probably the most relaxing hour of our trip thus far, just sitting in the middle of the towns Plaza de Armes, sipping Chicha Morada, watching children play with their dogs, old men chat and life go by.

But, perhaps Im getting ahead of myself. Let's get you all up to speed on what Sarah and I have been doing for the last two days.

So, Sarah and I spent our first full night in Lima in a suburb called Miraflores. And we were pleased to discover that there were Inca ruins just a couple blocks a way from our hostel... and somehow our travel handbook failed to mention them: Huaca Pucllana. Apparently, the entire area was supposed to be demolished to make way from some roads, but was spared and is now a park, complete with 5 Star Restaurant and a tour. The tour was both interesting and allowed us to climb up onto the central pyramid, and get a view of the sprawl of Lima which surrounded us.

After that, we continued to wander through Miraflores until we got to the sand cliffs of the (oddly named) Yitzhak Rabin Park where we could look down at the surfers below us. After that, we were both starving, and made our way back to the Miraflores city center where Sarah got to have her first taste of Ceviche. Ceviche, for those who don't know, is basically raw fish cooked in lime juice. I tried a taste of it, but let's just say it didn't end my natural dislike for seafood.

So, instead, I continued my Beefathon and had a steak. I've considered going vegetarian while I'm in India, so it only makes sense that I focus on the meat in South America, right? In fact, the first night in Lima, Sarah and I shared a dinner that consisted of (and I'm not kidding here) beef, chorizo sausage, pork, chicken and french fries. Oh, and a beer. Then we rolled back to our hostel.

Anyhow, after our lunch of Ceviche and Beef, we decided it was time to put some distance between Lima and us. So, we bought our tickets for a three hour (it ended up being more like four) bus ride to Pisco. As the bus slowly made its way out of the city, we were hit by how barren the landscape is on the coastline of Peru. The entire stretch was made up of wind-blown sand dunes, broken occasionally with yellow-staircased shanty towns and billboards... really, really epic billboards. One billboard was a massive six-story tall woman who appeared to be standing next to the road, looking at her even more mammoth shoe closet. Another was a pair of thirty foot tall flip-flops rising from either side of the highway. And a final pair of signs featured dozens of male mannequins in matching blue or red jump suits hanging from it by hooks. Surreal.

Arriving in Lima shortly after sundown, Sarah arranged a cab ride into town, while I secured our luggage from under the bus. Then, after a short detour by Hostel Inka (the cab driver insisted on taking us by it, and while we didn't understand what he was saying, his gestures led us to believe that we "wouldn't believe our eyes" when we saw it) we arrived at our original choice: Posada Hispana. We then checked in and arranged to go on a tour of Paracas Rerserva Nacional.

The first part of a tour was a two hour speedboat ride to see Isla Ballestas. Isla Ballestas is an island that serves as a refugee for wild birds and sea lions. As you can imagine, I was a bit wary of it after my encounter with the pigeon two days previous, but I figured it was a challenge I had to face. The place was amazing!

There was a moment when our boat was idling near a massive tunnel filled with literally hundreds of sea lions, while thousands of birds twirls overhead. Their feathers fluttered down around our boat, and the bellowing of the sea lions echoed of the cliff faces. It was one of those things that you know you will only experience once.

We saw pelicans, boobies, kerns and even a dozen or so penguins. The pure number of birds was almost unimaginable. Clouds of them in the sky, and countless numbers spread across the cliffs.

And, luckily, I didn't get pooped on again.

In addition, we got to see the Candlebra. A pre-Inca shape carved into the side of the cliff. Massive and mysterious, it was a good primer for what we expect to see in Nazca.

The second half of the day was filled with a bus trip through the rest of the Reserva. Where we saw sea side rock formations, vast desert-like dunes and ate lunch at a small beach filled with fishing boats.

And, now we are back in Pisco, relaxing. Tonight will probably be spent grabbing a quick bite to eat, then maybe having a beer while playing another round of dominos... or, as we've dubbed it: The World Domino Championships.

Then, tomorrow, its off to Nazca.

Peruvian Observations

Some initial observations:

1. People in Peru have been extremely polite and patient with our lack of Spanish language skills. At restaurants, bus stations, and taxis, everyone has tried to be as helpful as possible given the language barriers. One nice driver in Lima even attempted conversation with his limited English. (If I ever thought describing what I do for a living is difficult in English, trying to do it in English that a primarily Spanish-speaker could understand was pretty impossible.) But it has really made me think about how generally impolite and impatient most Americans can be with people for whom English is a second language in the states. I've witnessed annoyance, frustration and sometimes even anger that someone dare impose themselves on America without a full command of the language. And I saw a similar attitude among Americans here. Tyler and I went on a tour of Ancient Lima ruins with a group of four other Americans with an English-speaking guide. Our guide was quite earnest, though not the best speaker, and our fellow tour mates seemed aggravated when he couldn't understand their questions immediately, needed them to speak more slowly, or mispronounced something.

I've also already realized how much knowing more Spanish would have made this a richer experience. We're fairly isolated since we can't communicate easily with most people. And we've even encountered few English-speaking tourists as this early stage of the game. (I imagine that will change around Macchu Picchu but probably be the case again in Bolivia and maybe even Chile.)

2. There was a lot of security in Lima--security personnel, police with noticeable guns, gates, bars over first floor windows. This managed to make me feel both more and less safe. The police presence did make me feel it was less likely we'd be pick-pocketed in public places, but it also makes you wonder why they feel they need such security in the first place. We walked past the Belgium Embassy and the guard out front had a really big scary gun.

3. We have been touted/harassed/preyed upon as tourists surprisingly little. The most it occurred was when I decided (against Tyler's inclination) to refer to our map to find something. As soon as I pulled out our guide pages, we were surrounded.

4. If you go to eat at a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet, you will be surrounded by more white people than you've seen the rest of the day.

5. Peruvians must really like ice cream. There are carts and storefronts all over. Just out on the main plaza of Pisco, there must be a cart every 20 paces. They've been at every site we've been too--even on the highway between Lima and Pisco.

Oh--and Pisco Sours in Pisco are tasty, though a bit pricy compared to other options!

Tomorrow--another bus ride to Nazca where we'll fly over the Nazca Lines, then off to Arequipa where we might try to slow down our sprinting travel pace we've managed thus far.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Nueva Entrada

Sarah did a great job of summarizing everything we saw today in her entry below, so I won´t bother repeating what she just posted. So, instead, I´ll just add a couple notes.

On how the rest of the world drives - Sometime, in ancient history, the entire world got together and decided the "Rules of the Road." After the Rules had been carefully laid out, America implimented them. And, to this day, we still follow them to the letter. Meanwhile, the rest of the World shrugged, said "meh" and threw them out the window of their car. "Let America follow those rules" the rest of the World said, "I´ve got somewhere to go." Stoplights? Optional. Four lanes on the road? Perfect for six cars. And while America has only mastered the "I hate you with a passion" style of honking the horn. The rest of the world has turned it onto a subtle instrument that, I´m sure, would allow them to recite poetry if they so choose.

Meanwhile, the only accident we´ve seen is what appeared to be a fender bender between two sets of Americans in rental cars. I´m sure there is a message here somewhere.

On the changing of the guards - Theres a point in the changing of the guards, at the Governor´s Palace, in which six men in red and blue suits on horseback ride circles around each other, while a man in a military uniform shouts triumphantly over a PA system. I like to think he is saying something like: "Our valiant soldiers will ride over our enemies and crush them under their hooves! Then we shall return home! And make passionate love to our beautiful wives! For great and glorious is the Empire of Peru!"

Anything less than that would disappoint me.

On the skulls in the catacombs - I´m not sure if I´d ever seen actual skulls and bones before. It was creepy. But also fascinating. The catacombs were actually a dark and cool relief from the oppressive heat of the streets. And the air smelled musty and earthy. At one point a middle aged woman started too panic a bit. She turned and started talking franticly to me. Not sure how to respond, I used the tried and true "no habla Espanol." She pushed past me, and later our tour group met her back up on ground level. I guess she just couldnt take the low ceillings and tight hallways... oh, and the rooms full of human skulls.

On taking a tour that is in Spanish - Taking a tour in which the tour guide only speaks Spanish is fine when you a looking at an old library filled with spiral staircases, ancient books and religious icons. It becomes slightly less interesting when the tour guide is talking about what appears to be a dresser.

On being pooped on by a pigeon - One day into the trip, and a pigeon has already pooped on me. Somehow, I suspect it won´t be the last time.

And the journey begins

I expected to experience a mixture of emotions as we left Seattle; instead, I just felt really excited and really ready to hit the road. Despite an early start after little sleep, our trip down to Lima was uneventful. When we arrived, bleary-eyed, around midnight, we were very happy to have set up accomodations and a taxi pick up. Someone holding up a sign with your name on it is a happy sight in that situation!

It is unnerving to arrive in a foreign place at that hour--everything manages to seem a bit desolate, and areas around airports are never that appealling. But we've been pleased with our hostel (it's in a remodeled colonial house, though hot for our Seattle selves) and Mileflores seemed much more alive and friendly when we ventured out this morning.

Today, Tyler and I did a bit of exploring in Lima. We took a taxi into the center plaza (Plaza Mayor) and serendipitously happened upon the changing of the guard at the governor's palace. It was pretty impressive--a marching band, high-stepping guards, guards on horseback, along with military and local police along the fence of the mansion as well. It's hard to believe they go through such pomp and circumstance every day! After that, we checked out the nearby cathedral which included a mosaic room with Pissaro's remains. (For those who don't remember their middle school world history facts, Pissaro is the Spanish conquistador who founded Lima and other cities in Peru). After that we had our first semi-mystery lunch--boiled potatoes in some sort of dressing that didn't have too much flavor, sweet tea, and chicken and rice. Basically we knew we didn't want the soup so ordered the other item (said potatoes), and I recognized pollo con arroz and not the other option, so that's what we ended up with. After that, we went to a Franciscan Monastary that also included a crypt with lots and lots of bones. The whole monastary was beautiful and the tour sounded little of it as we could pick up. I was sorry not to get to learn more about that fascinating place.

Now we're taking a bit of a rest in our hostel's courtyard with the plan to head out for some ceviche for dinner and ruins and a beach tomorrow. Then I think it will be off to Pisco!

Sorry for no pictures--we're using free internet at the hostel on a pretty old computer. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to upload them in the next few days!

Love to all--Sarah

Monday, February 12, 2007

Living the Liminal Lifestyle

Liminality: the condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process.

We’ve been in a long-lasting liminal state--couchsurfing with friends and family, shopping for last minute supplies, packing and re-packing and saying lots of good-byes--for more than two weeks. At this point, I think both Tyler and I are officially ready to be on the road. Instead of saying to each other, “Imagine when we’re in Tasmania and…” or “Can you wait for the ceviche in Lima?” we’ll soon be in these locations, actually experiencing things instead of imagining them. Plus, we’ve started to outwear our welcome. As Tyler mentioned previously, it unnerves people to see you after you’ve had your official farewell. Anytime we run into anyone we know, they look at us quizzically and ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in Africa or something?”

Much of the past week has involved shopping. Lots of shopping and lots of money being spent (we can look forward to next year’s REI dividend!), all in preparation for seven months on the move. At this point, we’ve both got packs that weigh about 35 pounds. Probably a little more than we would ideally like, but I think at this point we’ll just figure out what’s really essential while we’re on the road. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

For any dreaming travelers out there, here’s our packing list. If you’re really interested, check back when we return, and we’ll tell you what we end up with….

Tyler may fit in one final “pre-trip” entry in the next 36 hours, but I’ll look forward to writing my next blog from abroad!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A list of lists

Sarah and I returned from a family trip to Winthrop on Sunday evening, smelling slightly of wet gortex and with visions of legions of white tailed deer dancing in our heads, and hit the ground running on Monday. Our goal: To finish the last of the packing and planning by the end of the week, so that we could enjoy our last weekend in the States.

This required lists. Lots and lots of lists.

Sarah has a natural affinity for list creation and usage, but the Art Major in me has a natural aversion to them. That said, there are times in your life where lists are important, and you just have to sit back and let them run the show. Let's take a look at some of them, shall we...

"The Uber-List" - This list was created several months ago, to detail everything we need to get done before we get on the plan. The problem with this list though is that it's the written equivalent to the game of Asteroids. Or, possibly more accurately, the mythical Hydra. No sooner have you crossed one item off the list, than it is replaced with two or more new items. As a result, what started as a one page list detailing what we were supposed to do over the next several months has somehow expanded and evolved into a four page list detailing what we need to do this week. I'm not sure if we will ever conquer this list... but at some point, we'll just run out of time to do things and have to climb onto the plane regardless.

"The Cancel and Change Address List" - This list is hell. It's amazing how hard it is to become "disconnected" from society. No longer can a person just "up and leave." Instead, you have to systematically cancel all your memberships, extra credit cards, phone plans, cable, internet, etc. etc. Furthermore, none of the items in question actually want to be cancelled, so you are stuck dealing with salespeople who are actually trying to convince you of the advantages of maintaining your home internet connection while in Cambodia--even though you won't have a home.

In addition, you have to set up all your forwarding addresses, so that any wayward student loan bills or tax forms don't end up drifting around in post office limbo. The problem with this is that it involves hunting down long lost PIN numbers, visiting archaic government websites, and otherwise spending countless hours getting things accomplished at a rate that makes a glacier seem downright zippy.

...and all that isn't even mentioning the annoying automated telephone warrens that you have to navigate these days.

"The To Buy List" - Ah! A fun list! What sort of sandals to buy? Which quick-dry, wrinkle-free underpants? What book should I bring to read first? Everything on this list hints at the adventures that lie ahead of us. So, even though not every purchase may be a fun one, overall this list is a joy to plow though. If this list has a downside, it's that it's proving to be expensive.

"The Itinerary" - Sadly, this is the list that is probably the most neglected this week. But, from time to time, Sarah and I pass a glance back and forth, and we just know the other person is thinking about the same thing we are: the journey that lies ahead. A couple of times recently, someone has asked me the question: "Which place are you the most excited to be going?"

My current answer is, "at this point, I just want to be on the trip!"

Now, I'm sure that there are more lists. In fact, I know there are several stacked in the guest room of Stephanie and Patrick's house where we're currently couchsurfing. And there are probably a few kicking around upstairs on their kitchen counters. But I won't keep boring you all with them now. Needless to say, though, I may never love lists but I'm learning to live with them.