countin' the days

Friday, September 18, 2009

Yikes! (A Sidenote)

It has been many, many months since my last post. My trip continued on, unbounded, into the wilds of Asia. My blogging did not. This is my apology for being a total slacker, for abandoning my blogging responsibilities, for doing all these fantastic things in wondrous Asian places and not writing about it here at all. Mostly I've disappointed myself, but hey, I'm throwing this apology out to the world at large anyway.

Suddenly, the inevitable has happened: 6 months have passed, I'm back in the States, the trip is over. >sigh< I am compelled to write about everything that went down in the Far East and do some serious catching up. So I will. My stories & photos will appear here, much belated, but true to form. Dates will not match up, inevitably things will be left out, but this blog will be an accurate representation of ALL my travels, damnit. So stay tuned.

I would, however, like to take a quick moment to blame China. There are scores of excellent, inexpensive, high-speed internet cafes littered around China that, aside from the haze of stale cigarette smoke that hangs in the air, have only one flaw: they block access to thousands and thousands of websites. My blog is one of them. (Why?!?) The Great Firewall of China is no myth, and is a very efficient system for censoring boatloads of useful & unbiased information from its billion citizens. I could access Facebook in China for exactly one week of the seven I spent there. In any case, I was robbed of time to update this blog because I quite literally couldn't even get near it. Damn you, China.

Friday, June 12, 2009

No No No No No... NO!

Immediately upon our arrival in Cambodia, we were confronted with what would become one of the many themes of the next 2 months: how to say "NO," over and over and over again. This is, of course, thanks to the plentiful touts & other characters, endlessly offering up whatever possible item or service you just might fork over some cash for.

It began, in a bad way, in Poipet. After getting our passports stamped, we found ourselves surrounded by a varitable sh*tstorm of touts. All were wearing suits (madness in this heat!), wielding "official badges" (ha!), and offering insanely overpriced transport (do I LOOK like a moron, or are YOU just one?). After the whole thermometer incident, I'd had it. I looked at Tim with utter despair, at one point covering my ears with my hands and shaking my head. I couldn't do much but walk away. Tim handled things well, laughing at people and joking around, but eventually the only thing either of us wanted to do was walk away. So we did. Amazingly, one tout followed us a half kilometer down the road, first on foot, then on a motorbike, then in a taxi! Fool. By that point, we were resolved not to spend one thin dime with those bastards. Graciously, an honest taxi driver came by and took us on to Battambang for the RIGHT price, we left that little mongrel in our dust, and in a speedy two hours, we were far from Poipet in lovely Battambang.

I purposely came to Battambang to experience a "real" Cambodian city, and it was a good call. We didn't do anything all too exciting in our time there (being burned out on the whole journey), but had a nice time strolling around its streets and getting a real, and much better, feel for Cambodia. What we found were delightful people, full of smiles & cheer & grace, who were nothing but friendly and helpful. Sure, we had to say "no" plenty of times, but it wasn't so bad.

The real "no" game began in Siem Reap. I knew it was coming, Siem Reap being a huge tourist town, and it wasn't even quite as bad as I'm imagined. But more or less every few feet, you had to say no to some tuk-tuk driver, massage parlor lady, or kid selling postcards. I wouldn't have minded so much, except that these people began to come up to our tables, while we were eating, offering us random crap as we chewed away. My "nos" became a tad more firm at these times. Eventually, we did have to say "yes" to a tuk-tuk driver, when it was finally time to go see the legendary Angkor Wat.

Journey Into Cambodia

After leaving Vang Vieng, we had our eyes on the prize: Cambodia. But we were way up in Northern Laos. Originally, we thought about heading into Cambodia via Southern Laos, bussing it all the way to Siem Reap. Then we started looking at maps, and realizing the actual distance required to travel this route, and it wasn't looking good. Plus, knowing full well the realities of bus travel in Laos -- meaning that a few hundred kilometers that should take mere hours take over half a day, if you're lucky -- we just weren't feeling it. But flying was a financial non-option. The Thailand trains were calling our name.

So back to Thailand we went. We skipped over Vientiane, not wanting to waste any time rambling about in a random city (with no climbing in sight). We spent an entire day sitting on several different buses to make it from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, then from there over and across the Thai border. I knew we'd only be spending a couple quick days there, but as always, it was a tremendous delight to be back in Thailand. Within seconds of crossing the border, I could smell the fish sauce frying with garlic, chili, and sweetness wafting through the air -- the distinctly Thai aroma -- and my empty belly was rumbling away. We killed the next 24 hours in Nong Khai, eating our way around the city, until it was time to catch the train.

Out of sheer excess and a hefty dose of curiosity, we opted for the first class cabin on the train. It was certainly a first for me (First Class?! Usually an unheard of travel term!), and my, what fun it was. We had a whole air-conditioned cabin to ourselves, a plush little room with loads of space and even free bottled water. Fortunately I remembered to bring a couple beers along so we could celebrate properly.

Early the next morning, we arrived in Bangkok. The Hualamphong station always amazes me ... for a huge train station in the middle of a huge city, you'd think it would be a crazy nightmare, but really it's a chill place and not entirely all too bad to spend a few hours in. We decided to keep the train a-movin' (literally) and bought an onward ticket to the Cambodian border. After feasting on Thai food one last time at a street vendor's stall in the sweaty mid-day heat, off we went.

The second train was decidedly worse. In fact, it was pretty awful. A 6 hour ride on hard plastic seats, crammed in with loads of other people, no A/C, and some serious train-chug-a-luggin' noise. My main mode of distraction came in the form of an ancient, pug-faced old man sitting in front of me, who between bouts of staring absent-mindedly at his hands & drinking from a Pepsi can rolling around on the floor, would whip out a comb and try to smooth down the few grey hairs left on his head that, inevitably, would get whipped around by the wind every time he put the thing down.

The next morning, it was time for the border. We had heard loads of nightmare stories about this particular border, Poipet, and fortunately had the insight to read up on all the scams at beforehand. We made it through the tuk-tuk driver who tried to take us to a travel agent to get our visas beforehand (scam!), the guy at the Thai border who tried to get us to buy a visa beforehand (scam!), the guys on the Cambodian side trying to get us to buy a visa beforehand (scam!), the "official" border agent saying he must charge us a 100 baht fee to process our visas (scam!), and almost thought we'd made it scot-free. Then came the "Health Quarantine." We filled out a bullshit form, no problem, and then they wanted to take our temperatures... big problem. We thought it was a clear scam (suspisciously high temperature leads to bribe), but what was worse, we didn't want that disgusting, unclean ear thermometer anywhere near us. We bitched to high hell for about 15 minutes, yelling at people, wondering why the Cambodians weren't being tested but we were, refusing to acknowledge these so-called doctors' explanations, until finally a border "official" told Tim that if he wouldn't have his temperature taken then they'd have to go "have a talk" in a private room. Well, that did it. We cringed at the ear thermometer, but that was that. Naturally, we whippped out the hand sanitizer immediately (for the soiled ear), but before we knew it we were stamped into Cambodia.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Same Same But Different, Part II (Lao Lao)

The last month has been some of the most rapidito traveling I've done in a long time. I've managed to bus my way through 4 different countries in the last 4 weeks, seeing & doing incredible things along the way (well... naturally). Anyway, that's my excuse for not keeping up very well with this here blog. But here I am trying. Accept my apologies, get over it, and let's get to it.

So after the inevitable departure from Ton Sai, I spent a quick week in Northern Thailand, revisiting the lovely city of Chiang Mai and the very fun rock climbing crag located nearby. Mostly we spent the week climbing, but it wouldn't be a visit to Chiang Mai without meeting up with old friends & hitting up the bars a little bit. I was sad to see that Chiang Mai's infamous "Rasta Bar" area has changed tremendously, no longer a bustling area of some three dozen bars, but a much more toned-down area of two dozen semi-okay bars at best. Sure, I found some nice spots to grab some overpriced buckets and even catch some tunes, but it surely wasn't the same rockin' reggae scene it once was.

Suddenly, the 30 day limit for Thailand was up again, and it was time for Laos. This time around, I did almost the same loop as 2007 but totally in reverse: Houay Xai - Luang Prabang - Vang Vieng - Vientiane. Starting in the border town of Houay Xai was an interesting choice, mostly because it presented only 2 options for the inevitably long journey to Luang Prabang. The first option was a two-day journey on a slow boat down the Mekong, which seemed to us overly touristy, overly expensive, and overly long. We opted for the bus, which was supposed to take only 8 (ha!) hours, but took in fact TWELVE. And so began our Series Of Bad Calls. Bad Calls #2-4 were having to stay in not one, not two, but FOUR different guesthouses in LP because it was so damn hot, we couldn't afford air-con (sigh), and just kept choosing the losers. Then of course, we sealed off our Bad Calls with ol' #5, which was choosing to ignore every travel agent that told us there was no local bus to Vang Vieng, going to the bus station ourselves, and then paying the exact same amount for an 8 hour ride in a total clunker that we would have spent to be in an air conditioned minivan. But it wasn't a total bust, because I finally got the see the Kuangsi waterfall, which was absolutely incredible. We spent the day swimming in its epic terraced pools and cooling off better than any stupid overpriced Luang Prabang A/C possibly could have.

Vang Vieng was instantly pretty awesome. Sadly, the actual town of VV is still the same death trap of identical touristy restaurants with zombied-out kids watching reruns of "Friends" played 24 hours a day on maximum volume. If anything, it's just bigger & more mind-numbing than 2 years ago. But that, clearly, is not why I returned to Vang Vieng (though I'd really been dying to catch up on all my early 90s Friends drama). It's for the shockingly gorgeous scenery all around, the lovely lazy river lifestyle, and the rock climbing.

Not surprisingly, this time around I did loads more climbing than before. In fact, it was 100% the focus of our time in VV, which shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who has paid any attention to my life in the last year. In 07, I'd only been to one of VV's crags. Little did I know that there are handfuls of crags all around! We spent every day except 2 climbing, and explored 4 different crags (one of them we even came back to again). The climbing was really fantastic, and it felt good to get back on the rock after the withdrawal of leaving Thailand. In reality, it'd only been a week, but it felt like forever! We even had the good fortune to meet up with Seth -- our stalagtite-dominating friend from Ton Sai (see previous post) -- and all climb together for a few days.

On our last day, we went back to a huge piece of beautiful limestone that we'd seen from the bus on the way into town. We found out that it had been recently bolted and was climbable, and decided to go for it. It was probably the most jungley crag I've ever seen -- the whole wall was covered in spider webs, the ground was covered in sketchy rocks & brush, swarms of butterflies surrounded us, lizards scattered around, and we even got snuck up on by a local machete-wielding dude who hung out and watched while he inspected our rock shoes. But it was pretty rad, the routes were beautiful, and it was definitely a new experience for me!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Go Deep

Most of my days during my 3 weeks in Ton Sai went something like this:
- Wake up when it gets too unbearably hot to sleep any longer (usually about 9am, a good 2 to 3 hours after the power got shut off).
- Have breakfast of delicious banana pancakes at Green Valley Resort while swatting away mozzies.
Get climbing gear together, refill the water bottles, scope out a morning route.
- Break for lunch and the way-too-intense-for-climbing mid-day heat. Generally this meant eating phenomenally delicious pad thai at Kruie Thai restaurant right on the beach for 70 Baht ($2).
- Spend the afternoon lounging on the beach, in the shade, perhaps quickly jumping on the slackline.
- Choose a new wall, and climb until it gets dark.
- Have beer at sunset.
- Return to bungalow of questionable integrity, take a cold (only option) shower to get rid of a phenomenal amount of grime, and head out for grub Thai dinner.
- Depending on the cash flow situation and plans for tomorrow, either go out for beers or chill and go to bed earlyish.
- Wake and repeat.

While most days more or less followed this tremendously enjoyable schedule, we diverted from the itinerary a few times. Unquestionable, one of the biggest highlights among these diversions was going Deep Water Soloing (DWS). DWS is where you hire a longtail boat for the day, and spend the day going out to funky-shaped islands, climbing the rock, and when finished, jumping directly into the water. Deep Water = a safe depth in which to jump off the rock into the warm turquoise Andaman Sea. Soloing = climbing, with only shoes on and nothing else, no ropes, no protection, following whatever lines you find suitable.

We had the good fortune to round up a fantastic group of hyper-enthusiastic North Americans, stoked on climbing & socializing & ready to make the absolute most of the day. Everyone climbed their hearts out all day long, while the rest of the crew not on the rock watched from the boat, cheering like a bunch of drunken high school kids in the 4th quarter of a tied game where the home team's about to push on to the championships.

Naturally, climbing wasn't the ONLY thing on the menu; there was plenty of drinking involved. We brought a nice stash of beers & flasks of Sangsom (Thai "whiskey"), and then took a break on the aptly-named Beer Island to suck down some cans of Chang and grub on some overpriced but still delicious food.

Inevitably, the climbing -- for the competitive & slightly intoxicated boys on the boat -- became a (how shall I say?) kind of "stick"-measuring competition for attainable height. A certain stalagtite, hanging a good 60 feet above the water, was selected as the goal, with each dude climbing higher and higher. "Well, I touched it, you touch it with TWO hands!" "OK, I touched it with TWO hands, you have to jump ONTO it!" Eventually, the stalagtite was not just touched but climbed onto and even higher up!! Seth, the grand champion, ended up about 90 feet off the water and jumped all the way down. Unfrickinreal.

It was a superb day. And timed just a few days before we sadly had to depart, it was a tasty icing to spread over the top of the delightful little cake that was our 3 weeks in Ton Sai.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Same Same But Different

After wrapping up a quick hop & skip through China, it was back on to my familiar, beloved, delicious, and beautiful Thailand. This was my fifth trip into Thailand in the last 3 years... proof enough of my true feelings for the place. I started doing the math and realized that, in fact, Thailand is second only to the U.S. in places where I've spent most of my time. It's now even lapped Spain, where I studied abroad for 4 months way back in '04.

It's hard to describe the feeling I get each time I return to Thailand. Knowing exactly what's going on, how to get around, how to bargain, where to sleep, what combination of delicious delights will make up my meals for the day... those are all lovely, comforting things to feel in any country upon return. But Thailand's got something different. It's the smiling people, the epic sunsets, the smell of fish sauce + garlic + chilis, it's the Tom Yum Kung and Som Tam and Pad Thai Tofu, the rainbow colored tuk-tuks hauled by the remnants of an old hog, bargaining in my broken Thai that always ends with laughter and a wide grin, the giant blow-up photos of His Majesty the King taking photographs from 20+ years ago proudly displayed in the middle of traffic ... what can I say? This Is Thailand. I love it here. And I can't help but keep coming back.

Of my 4 weeks in Thailand this time around, 3 were spent down south in old familiar Ton Sai & Railay, and 1 was spent up north in Chiang Mai en route to Laos. It's become sort of inevitable at this point that upon my arrival in Thailand, I will proceed immediately to Krabi Airport, hitch a ride to Ao Nang, hop on a longtail boat, and get my ass to Ton Sai beach as quickly as possible. If you happen to have ever read my blog in the past, you can understand why. Ton Sai is dear to my heart, a gem of a place, and home to some of the world's most epic rock climbing. The whole place is nothing but huge limestone cliffs, soft sand, turquoise water, and nightly beach parties.

Mostly things were the same as before, but certainly not everything. As the Thai saying goes: same same but different. Prices are higher (a natural but nevertheless frutrating inevitability), April was surprisingly crowded, many restaurants that used to be phenomenal have now altered their best dishes to watered-down tourist-friendly and less-tasty versions, the funky little bamboo bars have both sprouted up by the handful and been taken over by larger resorts... the usual kinds of things. But the rock is still epic, the monkeys run free, Ton Sai "road" is still a potholed mess of a dirt path, Dream Valley has the same exact p.o.s. overpriced bungalow for rent, the heat beats down like there ain't no tomorrow, and life is good with a capital muthafunkin' G. It's been interesting to watch Ton Sai evolve over the last 3 years, at a pace that at times truly frightens me. I guess I just feel lucky to be checking it out now.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

China: WTF?

China is a country of very extreme contrasts. In any given moment, in any given place, you can experience the strange dualities that seem to define much of China. The beautiful alongside the disgusting, zen among the chaos, balance within incongruencies, harmony not too far from the barely tolerable. Normally, during my travels I will keep my famous "best & worst" lists for each country I visit in the back of my journal. But in China, thanks to these strange extremes and all the oddities in between, best & worst just didn't seem to fit. Thus, my "China: What the F*ck?" list was born.

Generally, when I saw something fitting for this list, the dialogue would go something like this:
Courtney: "What the F*CK is that about?"
Erica: "Yup, that's China for ya."

Here are a few excerpts from CHINA: WTF?
- man painting a wall blue, in the middle of the day, wearing a suit
- man gutting a fish for a restaurant on the concrete floor on an alleyway
- taxi drivers refusing to drive us once they knew our destination (this happened probably 6 times)
- "no cars" sign posted on a small, quaint footpath in the middle of the park
- complete lack of internet cafes due to government censorship of the internet
- strip malls built in sacred spots (ie Jing'an Temple)
- "Take Me Home Country Roads", sung Chinese ballad-style, blaring out of speakers at the Hangzhou train station
- woman holding a bouquet of not flowers, but stuffed teddy bears
- getting cut in line every single time
- the lead-poisoned milk scandal & subsequent execution of the farmer who started it
- taxis cutting off cop cars, while speeding
- enormous popularity of Haagen Daaz chains
- vendors pushing carts through insanely crowded train cars, over & over again
- people blowing snot rockets into their hands
- is it really so hard to smile?
- men gardening bushes to clear the path, then parking their bikes full of clippings in the middle of the sidewalk, thus totally blocking the path
- 70% of adult males smoking 30% of the world's cigarettes
- speciality on the dim sum menu: "aerobics frog"
- children "fishing" for tadpoles at the dirty lake in the park and collecting them in water bottles
- guards at the park telling people to stay off the grass, then tossing garbage directly into the lake
- Lays potato chips in fruit flavors (blueberry, lychee, lime)
- stop lights with only red & green arrows, each pointing in 3 different directions

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Asia: Round III

On March 31st, I arrived at the International Terminal of LAX for the umpteenth time. I had wrapped up my life in Utah, spent a couple weeks preparing for my travels in LA, and even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Nor Cal to visit friends & family. It had been far too long since I'd hopped on an international flight, and I was very ready to go.

I arrived in Shanghai, via a quick layover in Seoul, well-rested and with few hassles to report (thanks for that Ambien, Mom!). Erica met me at the airport, we got on the airport bus, and were at her apartment in central Shanghai in no time. On the way there, with our crazy bus driver weaving through lanes and honking at everything that moved, we passed by a construction site where a handful of Chinese men in hard hats and flip flops were welding a piece of steel about 6 inches from the road, wearing no eye protection whatsoever, at 9 o'clock at night. There was no doubt about it: I was definitely back in Asia.

I spent the next week mostly in Shanghai, with a few days of checking out nearby Hangzhou thrown in. Shanghai is a big, Asian metropolis with plenty of the modern mixed in with the ancient. The traffic seemed absolutely dead-set on running me over, the subways were clean but jam-packed, bicyclists pedaled down the most crowded of streets alongside motorbikes & taxis, charming alleyways abounding with charm and stories of laundry drying in the breeze would pop out of random urban blocks, people of all ages practiced Tai Chi around every corner... it was the China I had been expecting.

Hangzhou was a breath of fresh air -- literally and figuratively -- with its beautiful silver lake and multi-tiered pagodas popping out of the mysterious mist that perpetually lingers in the air. I wandered around the shores of its lake and finally felt like I had discovered the other, more zen-like side of China. Whereas Shanghai was the modern, crazy China I had expected, Hangzhou was the more etherial, ancient China I had dreamed of.

From the first hour, China presented many challenges to me. The language barrier was absolutely huge -- in no place I have traveled to before has English been so absent. The basic Chinese I struggled to learn was essentially useless, given that I couldn't understand anyone's responses and, frankly, was probably pronouncing everything wrong anyway. An ever bigger challenge was the food issue. I have been a vegetarian for 5 years now, though I'll dabble in fish if & when it sounds good. China seemingly is unaware of what vegetarian food is, and even when I would try desperately to order tofu or vegetables dishes, they would inevitably arrive with chunks of pork floating around in them. (I will say, however, that on my last day in Shanghai I discovered a restaurant with a 100% vegetarian and MSG-free menu that was divine!!) Initially, I had a radical itinerary planned, but once my jet lag kicked in, and the reality of my Chinese travel challenges set in, I opted to take it easy, abandon my grand plans, and shift my pace down to a much more leisurely one.

It was -- as it always is -- a good call. I became familiar with Shanghai and got to discover many of its beautiful parks. On a Sunday, I went to the "kite-flying park" and spent hours walking around as old men played chess in secluded leafy corners, Tai Chi masters taught classes to the public, and traditional Chinese music ensembles got together to play music & sing songs. That same day, I also got to have not one but TWO exceptionally delicious meals with Erica's family, who were also visiting from the States.

This first trip to China was only a short one; essentially, an extended layover to check things out & visit Erica as I made my way on down to Southeast Asia. But I'm headed back after my rounds in the South are done, with even grander plans for traveling through southeastern China, Tibet, and Beijing.

Another Adventure Born

By the end of March of 2009, I'd spent more than 10 months living & working in the US, the longest continuous amount of time I'd spent stateside since 2005. I had unexpectedly landed in Utah after returning from South America in June of '08, and due to a combination of great people & great times, ended up staying far longer than I had initially imagined. It was a good run -- a 6-month-long production job with the Sundance Film Festival, quality time spent with new friends & fun family, many hours of late night Rock Band sessions, dozens of days of snowboarding the Utah pow pow for free, a boatload of adventures rock climbing at classic crags in the States, and a decent share of boisterous nights at the bars. But, eventually, I grew tired of Utah's absurd liquor laws, "private club" membership fees at every bar, oblivious & horrible drivers, the snail's pace at which life crawls by, and was itching for international adventure.

To those that know me, it should come as no surprise that I chose to return to Asia. I've spent quite a chunk of time exploring Southeast Asia, and from my very first time here it's had a special place in my heart. I've been ready to come back since I last left (in November '07), so I guess it was due time for my return trip. Originally, I was thinking only of Southeast Asia, as my climbing partner (& then some) Tim had long since planned a climbing adventure in these parts. The idea of returning to SE Asia as a better & stronger climber was beyond tempting. When I found out my college friend Erica was living in Shanghai, I expanded the picture to include China. Then when I started researching China (oh what would I do without the color photographs in Lonely Planet??!!?), I decided I may as well include Tibet since I was already going to be all the way over here!

Thus, my 2009 Asian travel itinerary/sketch/plan/idea was born. That being said, there is not the slightest hint of doubt in my mind that it will change. But here's the plan:
China > Thailand > Laos > Cambodia > Vietnam > Tibet > China

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Machu Picchu: The Final Frontier

After Desi left Peru, I could really hear the tick-tock of my travel clock running out. I had two weeks to go. I also had a dilemma: what to do with those two weeks. Being more or less completely broke, a little low on energy, and really sick of the touristy hell Southern Peru can sometimes be, I was debating whether or not to even go to Machu Picchu. I had heard a variety of things about it, ranging from the divine to the disastrous. My travel partner, the lovely Biggi from Germany, was in the same boat. We discussed our options and eventually decided to go for it, together, taking our time, and just doing whatever felt right. The goal would not be Machu Picchu itself but rather the journey to & from. Indeed.

First off, you have to understand that there are literally only three ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town that sits at the bottom of Machu Picchu.
1) Do what everyone else does: take the train round-trip from Cusco on a one-day tourist trap excursion that will cost anywhere from $75 to $300.
2) Take a guided trek through the mountains -- ruling out the Inca Trail because it's always booked up months and months in advance -- which will last about 3 days and cost $300-500.
3) Go the completely hairball and roundabout back way, taking overcrowded buses and shared taxis through tiny pueblitos until you reach a hydroelectric plant, at which point you & your stuff walk for 2 1/2 hours down the railroad tracks.

Take a wild guess which one we chose.

It took 9 1/2 hours of travel in 2 days to get there, but cost only $11 and the journey was actually quite fun, thanks in no small part to my superfabulous travel chica.

After a rest day of listening to loads of reggae in our room and drinking beers with locals, the big day arrived. We woke up at 5am to catch the very first bus up to Machu Picchu. We reluctantly paid the outrageous entrance fee ($42!!!) and made our way to a cozy spot high atop the site, where everyone takes that classic Machu Picchu photo... as did I. There we sat and watched the sun rise. I topped it off with a headstand. I could instantly feel the magic of the place, and laughed at myself for ever having doubted it. Looking around at the surrounding mountains and epic valley in which it sits, it is extremely clear why they chose this particular hilltop to become a site of divine worship. It is a supremely sacred spot.

We wandered through the site for a while, in complete awe at the sheer size of the place and the tangible sense of mystery that lingers in the air. But exploring was momentarily put aside as we got in line to climb the big peak that overlooks the whole thing, Wayna Picchu. They only let 500 people per day climb the mountain, and we definitely wanted to be two of them. It was a steep 45-minute climb, but was easily the highlight of my day. After reaching the summit, we found a nice spot on a sunny rock and busted out the delicious picnic we'd brought with us as we gazed down upon the splendor below. (Yet another bonus of being an experienced traveler: you always pack plenty of delicious grub.)

On the way back down, I struck up a conversation with a lovely kiwi lady named Angie. Within moments of reaching the ground, we met up with her buddies, kicked off our shoes, had a session, and spent the next couple hours lounging in the grass staring at the phenomenal beauty that surrounded us.

Eventually Biggi & I did more walking around, and our general amazement just continued to grow. I didn't realize how extremely huge the site would be, and we spent several giggly hours wandering past 10 foot high Inca walls into alleys and neighborhoods, discovering carvings & statues & even water fountains along the way. The whole thing is just so fantastically magical, sacred, and awe-inspiring all at once ... it's hard to even describe.

Truth be told, it was a bit like Inca Disneyland with the expensive entry, lines of people, tour groups, and the cheesy statues & crappy overpriced restaurants in Aguas Calientes. But so what?! It was a totally freaking awesome experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Guess I can say that about just about everything, everywhere, and everyone that graced my life for the last 18 months. I am endlessly grateful, overwhelmed, and overflowing with joy that I DID IT. And it ruled.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Muchas Chelas!

The actual trip from Lake Titicaca to Cusco was a bit of a nightmare. It was another one of those classic Third World bus journeys, where the aisles are so crowded that some stranger's ass is shoved in your face, the police hop onboard and start searching around for suspicious cargo (which they find), you take a pee break during the raid and end up running down the highway with your pants down thinking the bus is leaving without you, then once back onboard you'd bet the farm that you could run faster than the bus was chugging along. Aaaaaaah, South America. Not really anything new for me, but a whole new world for Desi. Nevertheless, we made it, many hours after our tickets promised.

After our first night in town, spent frantically searching for food at midnight and feeling uncomfortable in our cattle-call of a hostel, things started picking up for the better, and quick. We found our new home in Hospedaje Inka, a converted old farmhouse on top of a hill in the charming little artsy neighborhood of San Blas. The view down to Cusco below was reason enough to make the big breathless hike all the way up to the joint, but combined with free breakfast, amazing hospitality, peace & quiet, and the fantastic roster of other travelers also staying there, it instantly ranked as one of the best hostels I've ever shacked up at.

Within minutes we met Biggi, a German girl traveling solo through South America. Free-spirited, easy going, and tons of fun, Biggi would become our partner in crime for the next week, and my travel partner & kindred spirit for my final three weeks in Peru.

Desi & I had some mighty big plans when we got to Cusco, but things didn't exactly play out quite as we'd imagined. Machu Picchu was high on the list for her, as it is for most visitors to Peru, and all those who go to Cusco. Somehow, we'd mixed things up in our heads a little bit and hadn't realized that the ONLY way to get there would cost either hundreds of dollars or many days' worth of time. Sadly, Desi didn't have the time to spare, and by the time we figured all that out, it was too late to get it together. But in true Desi fashion, she just shrugged, laughed, and was over it.

Fortunately, over the course of several days in Cusco we'd discovered something else that would more than adequately bide the time: Chelas!! That's Peruvian slang for BEER.

Now, Desi & I are no slouches when it comes to the fine art of late-night alcoholic escapades, but partying in Cusco took things to a whole new level. Cusco boasts a thriving international nightlife where every single night of the week you can find spectacular live bands playing for free and hip bars throwing huge dance parties. Those Chelas are each over a liter in volume, and they hand them out for around $3 a pop at the bar. Add to this an eclectic group of travelers from around the world and the ever-present friendly locals (who will inevitably stay out later than you, every time) ... and you've got yourself one hell of a party.

My favorite night? The one where we started out with happy hour at Ukuku's, jumped back over to Siete Angelitos for some live reggae, then ran back across town to Ukuku's, where we spent so many hours shaking it down to the DJ's manic shuffle of salsa & American pop songs that we failed to notice the time ... until the bartender Cesar finally pulled us outside onto the balcony at 5:30am to prove that yes indeed, the sun was up. And the party was still going.

Man, there's nothing quite like having one of your favorite people in the world come meet you in one of the greatest countries in the world, where in one of the coolest cities in the world you finish off your 9 straight days of fun, laughter & antics with an endless stream of libations & celebrations.

Des: it was so awesome. Can't wait to do it again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Surreal World

Next stop on our saucy Southern Peru trail was Lake Titicaca (and yes, that is in fact its real name). The lake sits way up at 3,812m (12,507 ft) and aside from being the largest lake in South America, is also the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake is teeming with islands where indigenous people still live mostly traditional lives, but the main attraction is a group of 42 "floating" islands.

Called the Uros islands for the people who live there, these islands are a very surreal sight to see. In attempting to escape from the wrath of the Incas, the Uros created islands to inhabit by hand using only totora plants (reeds), which grow readily in the lake. The islands are anywhere from 3 to 5 meters deep, and every last thing on them is made of these reeds. The ground, the homes, the boats, benches, observation towers, and of course plenty of kitchy tourist souvenirs. Truth be told, these islands are a bit of a tourist trap, but it was spectacular to witness nonetheless. Walking around on the islands feels a bit like tramping on a waterbed, and you have to keep an eye out for the occasional sinkhole. Obviously, Desi and I avoided the souvenir stands and restaurants like the plague, and instead sat in the sunshine on the shores of the islands contemplating how something so spectacularly surreal could be possible.

Naturally, we also went out to the bars the night before. Lured by free drink coupons, we ended up in a random bar getting happy hour specials on Pisco Sours long after happy hour ended. What was originally some decent music with a few people swaying around turned into a huge bumpin' dance party with a bunch of college buddies from Georgia. We were reminded of many a fun college night with our fun college homies, many years ago ...

Our original plan was to go further out into the lake and do an overnight homestay with an indigenous family, but unfortunately Desi was battling with a nasty bout of altitude sickness (the town of Puno resides at a hefty 3800m). So, in true travel form, we spontaneously completely changed our plans and headed out on the next bus to Cusco.