Sunday, August 31, 2008

More photos, finally...

Colca Canyon (and Cabanaconde) continued...

Puno (Lake Titicaca)

Andean Explorer train to Cusco



Machu Picchu

Photos, finally...



Riki and Kristina




Colca Canyon

Friday, August 29, 2008

Machu Picchu at last

We got our 4:30 wake up call, roused the crew, packed up, picked up our box breakfasts, and headed out to catch the first bus to Machu Picchu. Thought there´d be a few hard cores, but no, there was a line of some 200 to 300 people all waiting to board the ¨first bus.¨ But Peru has figured the game out: they´re making a lot of money now on tourism and it´s one sleek machine they operate. An endless convoy of Mercedes buses, sparkling and new, pull up and load the masses. We got front seats (exploiting the baby again, of course), and watched as the windy drive up the dusty mountain road unfolded like a movie. These are steep mountains, covered in jungle, and I´m sure damn glad I didn´t have to haul my lumpy white ass up there on foot. Before long, you see it, on top of the mountain, or at least a small part of it, and it is every bit as magical as you might think. Day had broken and mist hung around the mountain tops and you could almost imagine the that honky Bingham must have felt when he ¨discovered¨ the big Picchu. That magic is mitigated somewhat once you pull to the top of the mountain and find the Sanctuary Lodge ($700 a night, and the only hotel up there), more buses, a bathroom (1 sole, please), and of course a concession and souvenir stand.

Malu insisted that we take the long, hard route, so we did. The four of us (Kristina, superwoman, once again, hauling the animated but bemused Kanahe along every square inch of that tortured path) zigzagged awhile in the jungle before we broke out into the open, and there spread beneath us was the Machu Picchu you see in pictures. A series of buildings, terraces, walls, and greens that cover the top of the mountain, very orderly and probably bigger than you think. This thing is so high up, and the mountain it is on and the surrounding mountains so steep, that it is hard to imagine anyone or anything being able to break through its defenses. We covered the front and the back, found the ¨hitching post of the sun,¨which Malu and I were looking for, having watched a documentary about Machu Picchu (on the equinox, the sun passes directly over this stone, which is in alignment with another solar observatory built by the Incas on a neighboring mountain (which you can barely see). The Incas, it is said, believed that they had to ¨hitch¨ the sun to the earth or it would become unstable and lost. Whatever.

Again, it really is impossible to describe the place. So I won´t push it. I should note that Malu kept insisting that he wanted to climb Waynu Picchu, a taller mountain which sits behind and overlooks Machu Picchu. Beside the fact that only 400 climbers are permitted to climb per day, it takes 2 hours (looks like terrifying, miserable hours) using ladders, rope bridges, and panic control. It´s not something for a booted 5 year old (much less his baby carrying mother and his klutz of a quasi-uncle). He kept insisting that we climb it. And I had had enough. I finally said, yes, you should climb ¨Whiney Picchu¨ because it is named after you (i.e., the Whiney king of the universe). He got mad, and went off on a crying jag, telling his mother that ¨Freebird may be a lawyer, but he´s a mean lawyer. And he´s a liar.¨ I turned back and said, ¨What did he call me?¨ And before it escalated into a full scale battle, a sweet German woman stepped in and gave Malu a piece of candy. His mood changed instantly.

We spent something like 4 hours on Machu Picchu (and the walking is not easy). But we managed very well, considering. We were also warned about bug bites, and despite the fact that I dressed myself with some toxic local brand of repellent, I was bitten numerous times leaving ghastly whelts on my hands and ankles. Poor Kanahe got his first 2 mosquito bites, but he seems to be faring well anyway.

We caught our train that afternoon to Ollyantaytambo, where we were met with a driver who hauled us back to Cusco and our Hotel Ninos. Today, we had a great breakfast (Malu finally got the bacon he´s been asking for), saw the Cathedral (where Kristina...raised as one of those Protestants...was put off once again by Catholic in solid silver alter pieces, etc...several highpoints: a giant painting of the Last Supper shows the group about to chow down on cuy (guinea pig), the first cross brought to South America sits on top of one of the altars there, and was used for services (and celebrations no doubt of Inca genocide) by Pizarro and his band of thugs), and the cathedral was actually built on an Incan temple where, it was believed, "instruments of Incan power" were buried. Cool stuff. The rest of the day was spent wandering around, gawking, eating more extraordinary Peruvian french fries (they´re ubiquitous, and they´re fresh cut from real potatoes and fried in lard!), and what Kristina believes to be the best chicken curry she´s ever eaten, and keeping Kanahe and Malu fed (not easy). Poor Kanahe had a little constipation problem that he resolved during our lunch, causing an uproar at the table and out in the courtyard, through which he giggled.

We head out tomorrow to Lima and onto Houston and eventually Hawaii for the Hawaiians and San Francisco for me. I´m tired so it´s probably best we head home.

Regarding comments:

We have not been chewing coca leaves, but you can buy them by the fist fulls in the markets. No big deal. However, we have been drinking coca tea, which helps with the altitude sickness, but there´s no buzz really and it tastes like murky green tea.

We never found chi cha, the corn beer. Well, not that we would drink. When you drive down the road in smaller towns, you´ll see a pole with a red plastic bag wrapped around it. That means they´re selling chi cha. When you a good look at the place, it tends to be a smokey hovel, and the kind of place where men on the way home from the farm stop to drink and shoot the shit...not a place I want to relax with a 5 year old and 5 month old.

I´ll post photographs when I return to my imperialist homeland.

Some random observations: Peru is cleaner than any other Latin country we´ve visited (I mean, they keep the streets here as clean as they do in with it); as in many places in the world, few people in Peru know how or want to bother to cook a scrambled egg well; traveling with 2 or 3 changes of clothes continues to be the best way to go (watching the unwitting haul giant duffle bags around is a powerful reminder); Peru seems to have a much more efficient infrastructure than other Latin countries we´ve visited, with lots of transportation options; the people have been friendly everywhere, especially to the baby (although some of the women chastise Kristina because the baby´s head, hands, feet, or legs are not smothered like the Incas wrap their children...we had to sneak home from the restaurant today to avoid more of the chastisement), and the tendency to dress a dish with fresh cut, lard fried potatoes is a landmark achievement in world cuisine. I know it seems regressive, but it is a celebration of the simple perfection of a potato and oil. What more could you need?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We think it was the minestrone...

After posting last night, I returned to the room to find my crew asleep. After tending to the nightly repacking ritual, I popped a melatonin and headed for bed, too. Not for long. While Malu´s throwing up seemed to have ended, Kristina´s was just beginning. We counted, and I think over the course of the night she hurled something like 11 times. As morning approached, and her sickness continued, I outlined in my mind alternative travel plans (i.e., me leaving the family in the hotel to rest and recover while I go on to Machu Picchu, and returning to pick them up in a few days on the return). Fortunately, the alternative plan was not needed. By morning, Kristina had done about all she could do in the expectoration department and was feeling much better. We made our 5 a.m. pickup and our 6 a.m. train in Ollyantaytambo, 35 minutes away. I told you this was a tough crew.

And yes, we believe the minestrone at our lovely little restaurant in Urubamba, recommended by the hotel, was the culprit. I didn´t eat any, but still felt a little queasy, and still do. Not sure if that´s mere suggestion or tainted spaghetti. A minor, but very unpleasant, bump in the journey. Our first, really.

We boarded the Backpacker train in Ollyantaytambo and were immediately struck by the difference between it and the beautiful Andean Explorer. This is bare bones stuff. And every cushion, it seemed, was stained with god knows what. Nonetheless, it was roomy, laid back, and not very crowded. We sat with a young couple from Boston, on an 8 week lark before they moved to San Francisco. Yes, I bored them with San Francisco tips. And Kristina chatted up surfing with the boy, as he, too, was an afficianado. The ride was short, only 1 and a half hours, and lovely, as we headed up into the wooded mountains.

Arrived in Aguas Calientes, which sits below Machu Picchu, and exists for the sole reason of Machu Picchu tourism. And it shows. Nothing authentic about this place, but it´s efficient, and has everything a German, Italian, Frenchman, Englishman, or American could want.

We plan to board the 530 a.m. bus tomorrow morning for the 30 minute ride to the top of Machu Picchu, where we hope to catch the sunrise. Wish Riki were here to play his nose flute (you have to be there).

After that we catch the 2 p.m. bus for the return to Ollyantaytambo, where we transfer to Cusco for our last full day in Peru. Boo hoo.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The survivors rattle on...

We sent Riki on his way early Monday morning, flying from Puno to Lima in the early morning...about an hour and a half flight...and onto to Maui at something like 11 that night. Long time in the Lima airport.

My crew, Kristina, Malu, Kanahe, and me, headed to the train station where we boarded the magnificent Andean Explorer train to Cusco. First ones on the train, we found ourselves in plush, quasi English club room surroundings. No plain old train seats, but Queen Anne chairs surrounding linen covered tables. Delightful. And the observation car on the end of the train featured a bar car on the end of which was an open air car with leather covered benches from which you could view and feel the Andean countryside. Yes, we were in hog heaven.

Once again, however, Kanahe was the star. I am not sure of the cultural or anthropological significance of this, but the haughty Germans and pinched English in our car, all on the older side, pretty much ignored Kanahe. While the Italians and Latins that passed through the car, including the staff, went gaga over him. Part of the reticence of the Europeans, I will admit, was their fear, upon seeing a 5 month old and 5 year old in THEIR train car, on the train ride they had saved and waited for all of their lives, that there would be honyocks going apeshit. In fact, the English even admitted it at the end of the ride. But to a person, the passengers of color, so to speak, stopped and made quite a to do over the little one. The Italians, including the men, stopped to take pictures. Several times during the 10 hour ride, our Latin attendant stopped by to hold and ogle Kanahe and whisked him away into the nether reaches of the train. She stopped by at one point to ask if she could borrow him for a fashion show...unfortuately, he was feeding and nothing gets in the way of Kanahe and his chow.

Anyway, we lunched on china...lovely if not extraordinary food...I had Andean sushi, boiled beef with some kind of pepper sauce, and rice pudding...and were served tea an hour or so before our arrival. The service was great, and the food delivered as if we were in the finest, if show offy, restaurant in Paris, the waiters lining up in the car with dishes in hand and, simultaneously delivering the dishes to the table. Too cute.

The landscape along the way was monumental, tall, steep mountains, rivers running alongside the tracks...and in some towns, we seemed to actually tear right through the market place with stalls practically touching the train.

Although it was a 10 hour ride, the group held up well considering. We soon found our way to the Hotel Ninos in Cusco. It is a little colonial style hotel, very simple and cheap, run by a foundation created by some Dutch woman to benefit homeless children of Peru. All I really cared about was a good bed and a hot shower, and the Hotel Ninos has both. Unfortunately, Malu began to have a nasal situation, perhaps a cold. So I ran out into the night to find go. So I bought something recommended by the farmacia and when Malu woke up in the middle of the night, crying about how miserable he was, Kristina fed him one of the pills and he seemed to sleep much better.

Unfortunatly, Kristina accidentally overdosed him in the morning. There were no instructions on the packaging, and she remember me saying something about 2, i.e., 2 a day. But she thought, well if it works that good, lets try 2 this morning. At breakfast, Malu conked out and had to lay on two restaurant chairs pulled together. Meanwhile, I ran errands...more diapers, a visit to the ATM, and a visit to the South American Explorers Club, of which I am a member...yes, nerd find out how to get to Yucay in the Sacred Valley. I got to see a good portion of central Cusco, and it is lovely. The town means a lot to me, having just read a great history of the Incas. It was in the very Plaza de Armas where we had breakfast, and where Malu conked out and where we later changed Kanahes diaper in the grass while the policia watched, that the most decisive battle between the Incas and the invading Spanish was fought. The City is surrounded by mountains. The Spanish held the City, and hung out in the Plaza de Armas. The Incas had learned by that time that they were no match for the Spanish horses or guns on level ground, so they surrounded the city in the mountains and rained arrows, some with fire, into the Plaza. They did this for weeks. At night, the outnumbered Spanish would look out into the hills and shudder to see the Inca campfires glowing throughout the hills. Freaky stuff. We did not get to explore much more because we had to head to Yucay.

Yucay is in the Sacred Valley, another spectacular Andean valley. I had no idea how to get there, and I did not want to pay some tour operator, who would gouge me and then lecture me to death, not to mention stopping at the souvenir stalls where he would get a commission. So the SAE told me to go to one corner in the City and either catch a collectivo, which is a small public bus that packs them to the gills and heads off to a particular location. Or we could take what is in effect a private taxi. We opted for the latter. However, when we got to the intersection in question, this was no bus or train station. It was a bunch of guys standing around. When the cab stopped and we got out, they approached us yelling out towns. A little freaky, but, what the hell. We told the guy Yucay, and he whisked us to his car. He took us on an hour and 15 minute ride into the mountains for about 15 dollars. By way of reference, I can barely get home from my office for 15 dollars in San Francisco.

Our hotel, the Casona de Yucay, is yet another lovely hacienda. Simon Bolivar even stayed here, so there. We had lunch at a restaurant recommended by the hotel in nearby Urubamba. We thought it was great. But after I left for my solo field trip to the ruins in nearby Ollantaytambo, Malu hurled all over the restaurant...and Kristina. They retreated to the hotel where, so far tonight, he has hurled 2 more times. We are keeping our fingers crossed that his hurling will be completed by the 6 a.m. train. Pete stop laughing.

Oh yes, the ruins of Ollantaytambo were spectacular. An Inca fortress built into the side of a mountain another 35 minutes from Yucay. Fantastic location, and the ruins were both monumental and did they build these things. It was very windy and at one point I found myself on a narrow path hugging the mountain. Not my thing. Glad I made the extra effort to see this stuff, despite my being bloated and tired from lunch.

Tomorrow, we catch the Backpacker Train to Aguas Calientes, which sits at the bottom of the mountain on top of which sits Machu Picchu. We will just see.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Out on Lake Titicaca with little Kanahe

We finally made it to the waterfront today for the trip out to the famous reed islands of Lake Titicaca. Yes, some of the islands, known as Uros, are made entirely of reed. I first heard about these when Papa took me to see a documentary on Thor Heyerdahl´s Ra Expedition and have been intrigued since (nerd alert). I got goose bumps when we finally approached the islands and there, tied up along the water front, were the very reed boats they´ve been using for centuries. We got to the islands by ignoring the many touts in the port, and jumping on the ¨locals¨ boat, which was much cheaper. 30 minutes out to the island, where we were greeted with the locals in their colorful garb. Not too pushy, but tourism has become their livelihood, so they´re selling lots of the same crap you see on the mainland. But they do live on these islands, in little reed huts. Walking on these islands is a challenge, quite mushy. My nerd dreams came true when one of the local men asked if we wanted to ride in one of the reed boats. Of course, we did, and he took our little group on a ride along the other islands for about 20 minutes. Delightful, but for the incredibly bright Peruvian sun and two Bolivian honyocks who acted up on the boat. Kanahe was bemused by the whole experience, watched as the reeds floated by in the water, took a giant dump on the boat (in his diaper, mind you), and giggled his way through the rest of the day. Malu did everything he could, it seems, to make as much noise on the boat as possible. Oy vay.

We´re beginning to feel a little of the altitude. I´m not sleeping much and wake up gasping like a fish. Riki´s dizzy and has a periodic headache. Kristina doesn´t complain much, but we all get winded making just the slightest physical effort. Candy helps.

Yesterday was Riki´s birthday and we celebrated it in the restaurant recommended by our pickup, Broz. The Balcones of Puno was a little corny, but fun. Had local folk dancers (who didn´t do anything Kristina and I thought we couldn´t pull off), and an incredible band (featuring the biggest pan pipes you´ve ever seen). Their repertoire included the standard folk music, plus John Lennon´s Imagine and the birthday song in Spanish for Riki. It was sweet. The food was quite alpaca lomo saltado showed up in architectonic form: the rice was a pyramid, and the french fries stacked like bricks, the Inca way! I think there was only one time out during the meal, so it goes down in the history books.

Tomorrow, Riki flies home to Hawaii, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. Fortunately, we have first class tickets on a train to Cusco through what is supposed to be some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. Leave early, but that´s no hill for these steppers.

Over and out for now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It´s cool, sunny and very high on Lake Titicaca...

Finally, a life quest is completed. I have made it to Lake Titicaca. Well, not quite to the lake. We managed to rise at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. (despite the fact that the hotel clerk failed to give us the wake up call he promised). The crew pulled together amazingly quickly and our pickup arrived on time. We were whisked to the Arequipa airport, and met there by a representative of my Lima agent (we didn´t have to pay for this transfer, because they screwed up on our transfer in Arequipa, at night, in the dark and cold, you remember). We managed to get through the check in with little difficulty (the only difficulty in fact was the LAN agent´s struggle to enter the long, polysyllabic Hawaiian names of the children). The LAN flight was short and sweet. We were met at the airport in Juliaca, and whisked an hour away to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

On the ride, our guide, Broz, informed us that we were at 12,000 feet, which I guess I had overlooked. We are all getting a little dizzy and fatigued, but are trying to take it slow. After breakfast, we wandered over to the cathedral, where a series of weddings were taking place. A good mix of western and indigenous outfits, and the Wedding March in Spanish. Because the weddings followed one after the other, a mariachi band celebrating one wedding outside encroached upon the wedding mass going on in the Cathedral, but no one seemed to mind.

Malu was beginning to get feisty so Lady K retreated to the room with him and Kanahe for a nap. Riki and I treked across town to the market place (wild) to buy diapers (pinyas or something like that) and pants for Malu (since his blue jeans keep falling off). The market stretched across several blocks and into a warehouse of stalls, selling everything from diapers and pantalones, of course, to fish, fresh produce (including coca leaves), goat heads, and crap you don´t even know what it is. On the way back, Riki and I hopped into one of these three-wheeled contraptions that motored us around. Along the way, we saw a school field full of soccer players, and realized we will have to return with Malu once he wakes up.

Tomorrow, assuming no altitude sickness, we´re headed to the lake to catch "the people´s boat" to Uros, an island in Lake Titicaca made entirely of reeds. It´s a 3-hour trip. After that, we will no doubt collapse. It will be our last night together, as Riki leaves Monday morning for Lima and then Hawaii, leaving me, Kristina, Malu, and Kanahe to make our way to Machu Picchu. This should be interesting since my escape hatch will be closed (I´ll be sharing a room with the family for the last few days of the trip). Pray for me.

Why aren´t you people commenting? Am I writing for the ether? Peace out.

P.S. Just saw Biden is Obama´s VP pick. Exciting.