Friday, November 18, 2011

The Last One

It's a little anti-climatic to be writing from home. I've been busy with work and even when I was off Whistler has a sneaky way of keeping me distracted and outside away from my computer. Even though the blog has been put on the back burner for the last couple months, it's always been there in the back of my mind, nagging at me. I can't leave the story half finished! Now that winter is creeping in and the hours of daylight are dwindling I'm running out of excuses. If I'm going to finish this thing I better get a move on! So here it is, the last post, finally. . .

Beautiful Whistler has a way of distracting me, I took this near my house on November 15
I'd been putting it off, trying not to think about it since Peru. The dreaded budget. I knew I'd been spending a bit more than expected, but I'd saved enough to have a little bit of leeway. Here's a tip: always budget more than you think you will need. Things will cost more than you think they will. The prices in your guide book have inflated since the time of printing, believe me, and something will always go wrong that will cost you money. I knew all this before I left. I am intuitively good with money - how else could I budget such a trip? But now, as I stared at my banking information online I was cringing. My account balance was bleak and my credit debts high. Things were not looking good.

A mild episode of depression ensued. I couldn't afford to do much of anything, and as a result, I began to lose my way. Things were all blurring together, everywhere was starting to look the same. The absurd had begun to seem normal, the amazing was average, and everywhere I was could be compared to somewhere else better I'd already been. It's no way to travel, my normally astute observation of my surroundings was turning into indifference. Most of all, I was disappointed in myself for getting so absorbed by my own negativity.

I'm not going to lie to you, many of my last days spent in Central America were about passing the time and spending as little money as possible. There were towns I spent days in that I can barely recall except for the dingy cafe where I would sit and sip delicious Central American coffee con leche and leave my nose buried in a book. Finally my type-A travel personality was growing weary. I was weary.

Electrical Storm of Monumental Proportions
On top if it all, things kept going wrong. I lost my cell phone in Honduras, I was almost mugged in Nicaragua, and was stuck in an electrical storm of monumental proportions while kayaking that left our group stranded and needing to be rescued. Strangely, these are the memories of my last days on the road that I now look back on and smile.

I don't want to bash Central America - people can definitely have fun and rewarding travel experiences there! The scuba diving was amazing, the small Caribbean islands were awesome, and there were some really sweet things to see and do. If you like surfing it will help, I would say it is one of the major draws there. I don't surf. If you have some change in your pocket it will be a lot better. I had none. I feel it is very comparable to South East Asia in terms of climate and landscape, where they differ is in culture. I personally liked the Buddhist culture of South East Asia better and I was at a point in my travels where my patience was dwindling and the Spanish language was starting to piss me off. But it remains a personal choice, and I'm sure there are many that will disagree with me. Who knows, if I was in Central America in a different time and mindset, maybe I would disagree with myself.

For those of you reading my story I just want you to know that you don't need to be special to undertake a trip like this. You also don't need to be overly bold, or brave, or outgoing. I am none of these things - if anything I'm quiet and subdued. What I am is restless. When I left home for the first time for a work placement in northern BC I was terrified. I thought everything would change while I was gone, that my friends would forget me, that I would regret leaving. What pushed me ahead was the fact that, as long as I can remember, I've wanted something bigger. What this big thing is I'm searching for exactly, I still don't know, but it doesn't stop me from looking. What I learned that summer was no one forgot me. . .when I returned things were much the same. I didn't regret leaving, in fact I was glad I went! Over the years since then I've put that restless energy into many different things but none of them have satisfied me. So, I think what you do need to undertake a journey such as this is a sense of restlessness. A need to search for something bigger, a pleasure in the unfamiliar, a hunger to lay your eyes on things that you couldn't ever imagine. Plus, I think you'll find the world is not so scary once you're out in it. People are born good and most of them stay that way. There is no where I have been where I haven't had to trust strangers, to put my faith in the unknown, to follow blindly. I put myself in the the hands of people far more disadvantaged than I am. Helpless and out of my element, they could have taken whatever they wanted from me, but guess what? They didn't. Of course I was scared sometimes, but I've learned to trust my instinct, and I can tell you it never let me down. You'll be surprised in the generosity and kindness of people all over the world.

As for what you will have to give up, it will be a lot. You are saying goodbye for your life for a while, sacrificing the safety of stability in favour of the unknown. You will miss the ones you love, and some days you will want a familiar person so bad you will want to pack your bags and run for home. It's often cold and lonely when you are alone in a culture and place you don't understand. But then again, the ones who matter will be waiting, and in the mean time new friends often offer you some of their warmth.

Crazy, Hectic India
Here's a little secret: the world is not a mysterious and unknown place beyond our shores. And please don't expect it to be. The Internet has forever ruined the mystery of travel and the modern globe is wrought with ingenuine experiences, over commercialization, and other travelers are EVERYWHERE. Despite this, travel can also be monumentally rewarding, educational, and eye opening. Just don't expect to be "the first" to be somewhere, this is not the world we live in, and in all honesty, you may think this is what you want, but you may find yourself somewhere so foreign and disorienting, you'll be seeking out and clinging to anyone and anything that is more like home. I wasn't new to international travel, I'd been all over other parts of Asia, and this still happened to me in India. It will fade, but you have to force yourself against your flight instinct to get out there, and it's not always easy. I find having a friend with you cuts the effect of culture shock in half. I never really realized this until I was alone in the unknown.

Travel is an escape from your everyday reality. We all need this from time to time, but I think people that always need to be on the move are running from something. I'm no different. I wanted to put the inevitability of being a grown-up off, just a little bit longer. I was tired choices I didn't know how to make. I didn't want to waste my life, rotting away at work and getting lost in the bubble of my daily routine. This is easy in Whistler, where we often forget there is, in fact, a real and flawed world out there. Most of all, I was running from the fact that I'd graduated university and hit a dead end, not sure where I wanted to go next and with no real opportunities in my field presenting them self. I wanted to open my eyes and mind and find a new direction. Now that my trip is at an end and reality has crept in, I'm ok with it. I'm done running. I'm exhausted from it actually.

I thought this journey would help me to discover myself, realize what I wanted, help me plan my next move. But I'm back and things are much like they were before I left, the whole experience feels like little more than a vivid dream now that the reality of daily life surrounds me again. Have I changed at all? Sorry if I disappoint, but not really. What I've seen and done is like a little secret I keep to myself. I find it extremely hard to explain to anyone what it was like, how to share the totality of my experiences with an explanation of events or a story. I haven't even fully digested how or if this trip has changed me, but I still feel like the same person now that I'm back here. I just know more about the world and the people in it than I did before. Maybe this makes me wiser, but I don't know. I definitely feel more aware of my strengths and shortcomings, they are glaringly obvious when you are picking your way through cultures you don't understand. As for my next move, what I want. . . .Who knows. If I've discovered anything it's that I'm fundamentally indecisive. I feel like I've been taught to go for something concrete and tangible, like a science career, and when it comes to doing something abstract, like writing, with no clear way to acheive success, I have next to no confidence in the matter. Now that my science degree is beginning to feel like a useless and overpriced piece of paper, I really don't know. Maybe I should have gone with what I've always been told I'm good at. It's just getting started, I have no clue where to begin. . .

Hiking near Whistler
And now I'm back in the land of pointed trees, clear, clean waters, and crisp mountain air. I get to live in a place where, once you get past the overbearing commercialism of a resort town, you can practically hear the magic whispering to you as you walk the streets. It's a little niche that is sheltered from poverty, starvation, and despair, where everything is beautiful and fun is foremost on everyone's mind. It's a place where residents are more likely to get on their bike and ride somewhere than get in their car. It's where we wish for snow rather than riches, embrace a sunny summer day more than materialism, and will put the future on hold to just live in the moment. I love living in a place where it's socially acceptable for boys to have shoulder length hair, where it's the norm for girls to wear skate shoes to their night out, and you won't get laughed at for wearing a toque in July. People from around the world are drawn here, and it's not by mistake. I'm extremely lucky I get to live in Whistler, there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful. But even living in this magical place hasn't cured my restlessness. Travelling the world hasn't cured my restlessness. I'm still looking, searching, waiting for that something big. Stay tuned for my next move!


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sand, Sun, and Tikal

Tulum, Mexico 
I lugged my ever heavier backpack from the airport out in to Cancun, Mexico. The airport was comfortably air conditioned and as soon as I stumbled into the untreated outside air I was pummelled with a thick curtain of humidity and heat. Instantly my skin was moist and sweat began to drip uncontrollably. I was fresh off a plane from Peru where it had been cold and the air had been earth cracking dry. Now I was worried I might float away the air was so wet. Luckily, I had 20kg of luggage to keep me grounded. Still, I found the sudden change in climate overpowering. A man with perfect English (people that speak English!!) helped me into a minivan taxi and we drove off towards Cancun.

Cancun has two parts: the hotel zone (or the 'ho zone' as we backpackers jokingly call it) and downtown. The hotel zone has the beach and all the fancy resorts. Then there's the 'real' Cancun, or downtown where the actual Mexicans live. Because I could afford it downtown, that's where I stayed, but just because it's real shouldn't imply that it's better. It's not. Downtown Cancun is basically a mini-America of concrete and fast food restaurants and a few more Mexicans about than in the US. . . Maybe. Worst of all the beach is a 30 minute drive away, which pretty much leaves nothing to do other than eat McDonalds while perusing Walmart.

Too many tourists, ruins of Tulum, Mexico
My minivan took me through the hotel zone on the way to my hostel. I gaped at the mega-resorts we entered as we dropped my fellow passengers off for their luxury holiday. Far beyond the ho zone, I was the last to be dropped off, and I made friends with Carlos my English speaking minivan driver. We pulled up to a squat concrete hostel with enough barbed wire fencing to keep a small army from entering. SIGH. Occasionally reality sucks. I tipped Carlos (the only one in my van to do so, I might just add), rang the bell and was buzzed through the gate.

I approached the front desk: "hola or, uh, buenos notches. Umm, reservation Jordan Wagner. . .Umm una female dorm. . .or damas dorm I think. . .por favour," I attempted.
"hi Jordan - yes we have you here," he answered in perfect English (clearly I wasn't in South America anymore), "but we don't have a female only dorm, it's mixed."
I sighed, irritated. The advertisement on the Internet had specified a female-only dorm and I had sent an e-mail confirming that I would, in fact, be put in that dorm. That - along with the $10/night price tag - was the only reason I chose this hostel. Apparently they are bunch of liars around here! Let me explain, I'm not so prudish that I think males and females shouldn't bunk together, I have done so often. However, experience has taught me that I prefer a female-only dorm for 3 reasons. First of all, I am an extremely light sleeper and statistically females are less likely to snore. If there is snoring, they at least tend to do it quieter. Secondly, dorms often have mixed toilets and there is a reason why in almost every other situation bathroom activities of males and females are separated. I don't want to know what goes on in there, it's awkward, and the last thing I want is to stumble in to a toilet with the seat left up and piss dribbling down the side. Yuck. Finally, most of the boys in dorms are perfectly pleasant, but occasionally I've been stuck with some creepy asshole, and I like to avoid this inconvenient situation, if possible. It appeared in this hostel, however, I wasn't going to have a choice.

My very nice hotel in Playa del Carmen
I woke up the the next morning latish, and pushed through the heat and humidity to find some breakfast. After eating and wandering through Walmart I came back to my dorm to to grab my camera and some other stuff. It was almost 2:00pm, but there was still a man sleeping in there. He must have had a big night, I thought, as I made my way to my locker to retrieve my things, he was even sleeping through the cleaning lady busily making the beds. As I moved across the room something else came into sight: in a flaccid, wrinkled heap on the bed spread, all of this man's junk was spilling out of his boxer shorts. I clamped my eyes shut, horrified, but the damage was done. I turned to the cleaning lady with a sort of terror never before experienced, but she simply shrugged and went about her business. Poor woman, she must see this sort of thing all the time. I fought down vomit as I raged: this was EXACTLY the situation I had hoped to avoid with a female only dorm! I bet this asshole pissed on the toilet seat and snores too! I quickly retrieved my things and left the room, purposefully slamming the door as loud as I could. I left Cancun the next day.

Next I went to Playa del Carmen. It was, admittedly, a nice beach. It was also a busy beach with a mega-resort feel, which is not really my thing (somewhat ironically since I live in a mega ski resort, but it's just different when it comes to beaches, I want them to be pristine and empty!). I took the public bus out to the ruins of Tulum, the only Mayan site right on the ocean. I was quite possibly the hottest I've ever been as I walked the road to the park entrance. It was so roasting the heat waves had heat waves, and I picked 1:00pm to be out and about. I arrived at the ruins and discovered it wasn't only me that had braved the heat, there were hundreds and hundreds of tourists in a park not that big. A dark-clouded thunder storm was rolling in and the light and setting were amazing. Now, if only I could get a photo of the ruins without 5 dozen Americans posing in front of them. It was nearly impossible, but I managed to snap a few.

Local chilling, Caye Caulker
In all of Central America the activity that I most wanted to do was scuba dive the Blue Hole in Belize. For those of you who don't know, the Blue Hole is a large underwater sink hole surrounded by reef. I was on Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of mainland Belize, and it was close enough to run daily dive trips to the Blue Hole. Unfortunately, I happened to be there during hurricane/monsoon season, and although there were no imminent hurricanes or monsoons, the ocean was rough enough to warrant cancelling the trip, day after day after day. I tried to amuse myself on the island, which, by the way, is awesome. It's a tiny, sand covered speck in the Caribbean - the opposite of the mega-resort. Nothing much goes on there except the palms swaying in the breeze, and I'll endorse anywhere where it's socially acceptable to do anything and everything in bare feet. While on the island I also developed an expensive addiction to shrimp. For those of you aware of my usual avoidance of seafood (yuck), I understand this may be shocking. I plan on kicking the habit when I get home though - nothing will be as good as the stuff they have here anyway.

View just before I hopped in the water, snorkelling, Belize
Antsy to get in the water, I signed up for a sail/snorkel trip on the reefs near Caye Caulker. On my first jump into the sea I got to swim with a dugong, a large vegetarian mammal, a bit like a seal but more docile. I followed it out into the murky depths and watched as it slowly eased into the blue abyss beyond my vision. We also snorkelled with nurse sharks, sting rays, sea turtles, and all sorts of fish, but let's be honest, snorkelling is the dweeby little brother of scuba diving, and the Blue Hole was right there! After waiting days, however, it seemed the diving trip was pretty much suspended for the rest of the off season. In one of the biggest disappointments of my entire trip, I had to move on before scuba diving the Blue Hole.

Me at Tikal, Guatemala
I had to follow up the Blue Hole disappointment with something good. Tikal in Guatemala seemed about right. Tikal is an ancient kingdom that was completely overgrown with rainforest after it's abandonment by the Mayans in the late 900AD. The locals around always knew it was hiding there, but it was officially excavated in the 1950s and has since become a tourist attraction. The Mayans, of course, are most famously known for their rapidly approaching dooms day on December 21, 2012. After visiting several ruins, however, and talking to the guides about this supposed day of destruction, I'm not entirely convinced. First of all, the Mayans weren't as smart as they are often made out to be. Yeah, they knew a lot about astrology for their time but they also thought the earth was flat, the sun and moon were gods, and that the sky was held up by giants. Clearly, they were off on a few things. Also, in Western documentaries they often fail to mention that the Mayans didn't even believe in the end of time. To the Mayans, time wasn't a linear, straight thing that had a beginning and an end. Their calendar was circular, in other words, when an era of time ends, another era simply starts again. One of my guides laughed at what Hollywood has done with the apparent end of the Mayan Calendar. He agreed that the the last date on the Mayan calendar is December 21,2012, but when I asked him if he thought something bad was going to happen on that day he just laughed, "it's just when the calendar ends," he said, "like at the end of this year the 2011 calendar will finish, but right away 2012 will start. Nothing really changes in the world, except that it is a new year. It is the same for the Mayans. A Mayan era is coming to an end, but another one will start right away, and on the day this happens there won't be any real change in the world. I don't think anything bad will happen, that wasn't the message they intended to give us."

Tikal, Guatemala
So what happened to the Mayans? No they didn't mysteriously disappear into oblivion. Their societies began to fall apart after their greedy, corrupt kings began taking too much from an already impoverished people, creating civil unrest and war. Over population was a problem and there was a general strain on natural resources of the area. People were struggling for food and water. When a period of drought came to Central America much of the population did not survive, and the Mayan societies began to permanently fall apart. By the time the Spanish showed up there wasn't much left, but they did their best to destroy it anyway. Today there are still Mayans about, or aboriginals as they are now referred, but most are some combo of Spanish-Mayan mix. And there you have it, the moral of the story being we should stop shitting over December 21, 2012 and start fearing the degradation of our natural resources. That is what kills socieities, and now that we are globalised, that will probably be what kills most of us one day.

Tikal was cool, but at the risk of sounding like a total travel snob, I thought Ankor Wat in Cambodia was a titch better. What Tikal has that Ankor Wat does not is silence. There are no 8 year olds pursuing you ruthlessly to buy their post cards then giving you the finger when you don't (yes, I witnessed this at Ankor Wat). No one much is at Tikal, you can wander through the jungle in peace, then BAM you walk into an 1100 year old ruin. Pretty awesome. It was, however, the hottest day of all time on the day I was there, so after a few hours in the mind burning heat I was ready to hurl myself off of one of the pyramids. I am generally quite heat tolerant, in fact I like the heat, but there is no way around discomfort at 98% humidity and 38 degrees Celsius. BLEH.

I'm still sweating it out in Central America, but today is rainy. I have less than 2 weeks to go until my journey is at it's end. I will try to get one more blog post in before then.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Last of South America

Well, I'm going solo again. After battling through the strikes along the border to get into Bolivia, I now had to get myself back into Peru. I took a 12 hour overnight bus back to La Paz and then got stuck. The buses were all on strike, no one was going anywhere. Great. A day later I was able to get on a bus that was going to Peru. It was supposed to take 12 hours to get to Arequipa, my desired destination, but it instead took 18. Our bus was stopped on the highway by a mob of protesters that had filled the street. They had thrown a blockade of dirt and rock across the highway and no one was moving. So we sat and waited . . . And waited . . .And waited. Finally we began to creep forward, as the protesters raged, ¨No gringos! No gringos!¨
Wait a minute, I'm a gringo! What did I do to deserve this! Last time I checked I didn't have much to do with mining in Peru . . . except maybe my enjoyment of their silver jewellery? Not reason enough for this! The locals on the bus advised us to duck into the aisle, and all the bus curtains were drawn closed as we inched through the strike line. I cringed, half expecting rocks and random farm implements to begin hurling through the windows. With two giant heaves our bus cleared the blockade, already mashed down by other vehicles. No foreign objects had been thrown at the bus. Freedom!
Back at the bus terminal in Puno more drama unfolded. It seemed the road between Puno and Cusco (a very popular route) had been completely closed by strikers. Everyone going to Cusco now had to go via Arequipa, a solid 20 hour detour. Sucks to be them. Chaos ensued as everyone scrambled for a place on the bus to Arequipa. I sat in my seat clutching my pre-booked ticket, listening to the distraught tourists wine. We finally rolled into Arequipa after midnight. 

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa
Arequipa is a cute little colonial town with abundant churches, museums, and monasteries. Unfortunately my eyes tend to mist over at the thought of spending several days exploring these things. Booorrr-ing. I promptly booked an overnight tour of Calca Canyon. As I handed over my soles to the tour operator and signed my name on the dotted line, I was pleased to see 13 other travellers registered as well. Unfortunately, my joy was premature. I was lumped in with 6 middle aged French people (no English), 2 retired Brazilians (no English), and a Peruvian family with 3 kids under the age of 12 (annoying and no English). Now, I think I'm being generous when I say the French aren't exactly known for their friendliness, and they made little attempt to communicate with me. The kids brought a wrestling match to our minivan that included elbowing me in the head and kicking the back of my seat repetitively, and not appearing to notice or care. They only stopped the once their parents bought them noisemakers. Oh yes. Bird chirping ones. If you blew into them really hard they would screech. The kids preferred the screeching. Did I mention how much I love kids? No? That's because I don't.        

Calca Canyon
I'd confirmed that the Calca guide could speak English before I registered for the tour. With the rest of the group oblivious to the English language, however, the guide focused his efforts. He babbled on for hours in Spanish and got around to translating about 1/20th of his descriptions. The first day it didn't bother me much, I wandered around at the stops alone, learning nothing but blissfully free to explore where I liked. From the tips of the mountain tops to the bottom of the valley Calca Canyon is supposed to be the deepest in the world. However, it's not really as dramatic as other canyons, with a wide, open valley. Except for the two month rainy season, it is also extremely dry, so everything is brownish. Still, the meandering river and pre-Inca terraces are nice to look at. My enjoyment factor might have been a tad bit higher had I not been openly ignored by everyone. Midway through the first day we arrived in Chivay and were shuttled off to lunch. I was interested to see that guinea pig stew was on offer. Here's my chance to try the traditional Peruvian dish I'd heard so much about! I stirred the spoon around in search of a good piece of meat. As it turns out, guinea pig is mostly skin, cartilage, and bone. Yum. I managed to tear a small scrap off and .  . .it tasted like chicken. The brown meat, but definitely chicken. Hmm. The stew was all right, but next time I want chicken, I'll just eat chicken!

Funky looking cactus, Calca Canyon
It seemed my budget price got me a far shittier hostel than everyone else on the tour. We dropped them all off first, so I got to see what I missing, and then promptly drove to the ghetto beyond the paved road where my hostel was located. The van could barely make it. There was a metal scrap yard across the way and the neighbourhood looked like it was about to crumble to the ground. Nice view. I was shown to my room, which actually didn't look so bad, maybe I'd even take a nap. I slid back the covers and several discarded hairs were still mashed to the pillow. Right. Doubting the bed's cleanliness I pulled out my sleeping bag and placed it on top of the covers. Maybe I'd skip the nap. I was shuttled to dinner that night with my group where I was sat with the French crew. They all talked happily in French and I stared at the ground. There was Peruvian music and traditional dance performances, which I almost enjoyed until the tip hat was shoved in my face, of course. I grumpily put in a few soles.

Flight of the Condor
The next morning we were off early for more sight seeing. After a freezing night alone and not even a 'hi' from the group as I hopped into the van, I was not as perky this day. I'd come to the conclusion that everyone on my tour was an asshole. Yes, even the children. Actually, especially the children! I missed my comrades. This would be so much better if Hayley and Jess were here. Then we could ignore everyone too, and at least enjoy each other. Travelling alone can, on occasion, suck. This was one of those times. By the time we got to the flight of the condors viewing, I was irritable. I was ready to get back to Arequipa and to some friends I'd made there. I was not excited for the condors. The guide had actually got around to mentioning to me that condors have the largest wing span of any land bird in the Western hemisphere. What that basically boils down to is there are many birds the world over that are bigger than they are. They are not all that impressive. And they eat dead stuff? That's gross. I crowded with the swarm of other tourists gathered on the platform as the birds began their flight. They weren't that big, as I'd suspected, but they were flying close and fast. I began to take pictures, and I always get more cheerful when I have something fun and challenging to take pictures of. Before long I found myself running along the mountainside trying to get the perfect shot. Yep, it was official, I was having fun. 

I arrived back in Arequipa in time to get on a bus to Lima, where I would catch my flight to Mexico. I was looking forward to the 16 hour ride in the same way I look forward to dental work. The drive straddled the ocean most of the way and got my heart rate up as the bulky bus spead full speed around sharp corners perched atop cliffs that tumbled several hundred feet directly into a violent and rocky surf. I now understand why most buses run over night, they don't want their passengers to know how close they are to a painful and soggy death. Despite my terror, I was able to evaluate the South Peruvian coastline, and I can tell you it looks frighteningly post apocalyptic. The steep chunk of land that shoulders the sea is totally barren, nothing exists there except rock and sand and rubble. There isn't a even a speck of green, no sign of a living thing. I feared an unannounced nuclear disaster had taken place as we blasted past dusty and seemingly deserted villages. Only the odd string of laundry, fluttering alone in the wind, told me that people had been there recently.                                                                                                    

Ten hours into the journey the bus was boarded by a group of cheerful American teens and their chaperones. We got to chatting and it turned out they were headed to Lima to catch the exact same flight as I was. When they discovered I planned to sleep at the airport - and take a notoriously sketchy Liman taxi to the airport alone - they were appalled. Why don't I just come and stay with them at their church, they asked, the more the merrier. I began to salivate over the prospect of a warm bed, the company of a warm tribe of comrades, and the safety of a prearranged bus. Wait a minute though . . .Church? I tensed and feared the worst. Was I about to be asked if I'd thought about my relationship with Jesus lately? I began to ponder the real cost of this 'free' bed. I inquired politely as possible what church, exactly, they were staying at. They were, in fact, missionaries, but of the Catholic sort, and not seeming at all fanatical. Well ok, I can be comfortable with that. I'm pretty sure whatever religion I am is pretty much the same thing. . .Right? I kept my religious ignorance to myself - I'm hopelessly uninformed as to who believes what these days - the point was I'd happily sit through a few prayers in return for a free bed. I'll thank the Lord for that any day! Just when I was beginning to count my lucky stars the mean pastor stepped in an vetoed the whole thing. They couldn't just invite some random girl to the church, apparently. I guess I do look pretty sketchy, and there were impressionable young minds at stake, but I thought God was accepting of everyone? These missionaries were horrible at selling their faith, I felt rejected. I was fed to a Liman taxi after all that. Luckily I have more street credentials than I'm given credit for. I picked a good taxi and arrived safely at the airport shortly after midnight. I spent the night on the hard floor under fluorescent lighting, but I wasn't the only one huddled there. I may have even gotten 4 hours of sleep before the hordes of morning travellers began stomping through my bedroom.

Girl selling alpaca wool (with her baby alpaca in tow)
How do I sum up South America? I really can't, but I can try to summarize my thoughts on Peru and Bolivia. Peruvians will probably be nice to you, Bolivians may or may not. Don't expect people from either country to speak English. Most people don't, even in travellers hostels and restaurants. I could have saved myself the culture shock and learned a little Spanish before I went, but I did not, and I regretted it. At first I was hopelessly reliant on Hayley to do most the talking, and then I had to swallow my dignity and attempt to speak for myself, at which I often failed miserably. I did eventually find I didn't need much to get by. I quickly learned proper pronunciation and grammar were not important, but getting my point across was. A few key words, numbers, and some creative sign language usually did the trick. Almost all people appreciate it if you try and they will not laugh at you if you crucify their language and fail horribly to communicate, which I did often. Although it will help if you can laugh at yourself. Believe me, it's way better to be the amusing and ignorant tourist than the frustrated and ignorant tourist.

Peru and Bolivia range from entirely traditional (and perhaps old fashioned) to verging on modern but not quite there yet. Bolivia is lagging behind Peru, and the cities are always more 'advanced' than small towns. Even so, after perusing the local markets in La Paz I came to the conclusion that everything the Western World didn't use in the 80's and 90's has now been shipped to Bolivia. Clothes, cell phones, home d├ęcor, cars, computers, you name it and it's at least ten years behind there. It is mildly amusing, except when trying to produce an online blog (or stream the NHL play-offs, in Hayley's case). Then the expired technology just becomes extremely annoying.

Me amigas, Cusco
Generally I liked both countries. Specifically, I would put Cusco, the Salkantay trek (ending with Machu Picchu), and the Salt Flats tour as my top highlights. Go there, do these things! Bring your friends, it's much more fun that way.  I've proven to myself I can embark on an extended journey alone - and I wouldn't be afraid to do it again - but what Peru and Bolivia have brought to my attention is that it's a lot more fun to travel with your friends! Plus you can combine talents, share expenses, and walk together down that sketchy road to the hostel at 3am. Way better! So if you are looking for an adventure and want to go somewhere with a unique culture, a fascinating history, regular fiestas, and outdoor activities abound, go to Peru and Bolivia! If you are reasonably intelligent (I take no responsibility for idiots), alert, and good humoured I can confidently say you will survive South America, and I bet you'll even like it too!

I am now in Central America blasting quickly through 6 countries on the last leg of my journey. My next blog will be from somewhere here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bolivian Adventure

Jess, Hayley, and I arrived in Puno tired and hung over. Puno is a scrappy little town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It's also the centre for the miners' strike that's been taking place along the Peru-Bolivia border. Besides its ridiculous name, Lake Titicaca is famous for being the highest commercially inhabited (e.g. more than the odd hut, there are actual towns) lake in the world, at 3811m above sea level (12000ft). After we found a hostel we hastily planned our Lake Titicaca trip and attempted to book transportation out of Puno, which was easier said than done with the strikes going on. Basically, the Peruvian miners were pissed they weren't getting paid enough, so to get the government's attention they blocked major roads, most of which have bus routes on them. This is a huge pain in the ass to those of us needing to take one of these routes, which just so happened to include me, Hayley, and Jess. So off we went for two days on Lake Titicaca not really knowing how, exactly, we were getting to our next destination. Personally, I was too hung over to care.

Floating Island, Lake Titicaca
Our Lake Titicaca experience started with a trip to the floating islands. They were fairly impressive. The islands are built out of a crap load of reeds all tethered together, and yes, they do really float, you can often feel the ground sink beneath you with every step. Although real families do live on the islands, their main source of income these days comes from tourism, so it's, well, touristy. Still, it's quite a sight to see, these yellowing reed globs all bobbing merrily together. Perhaps the coolest thing about the islands is how the locals there deal with neighbourhood disputes. If a disagreement arises and you wish your pain in the ass next door neighbour would just go away, no problem! All you have to do is grab your trusty machete, cut them loose, and away they'll float! Ha! And don't worry about them too much, they'll most likely find a new island community to anchor to.

Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca
Next we arrived for our home stay on Amantani, one of the largest islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. A cute little lady in traditional skirt, shall, headwear, and braids met us at the port, and no, they don't just wear this stuff for show. In fact, all over Peru you can see the flared and ruffled skirts and rainbow coloured shawls, although less in the big cities. Ugly, in my opinion, but I'm sure they think the same thing about some of my outfits. Anyway, she led us off through the farmers' fields, past slightly disheveled cottages, and to her quaint little home with garden out front and lake view. Not bad, except for the 5 minute walk to the out house, lack of interior heating, and really, who doesn't have internet these days? We were fed and walked up to the highest peak of the island for 360 degree views and sunset. At dinner they gave the three of us the table while the family huddled around the kitchen floor, which was slightly bazaar, since there were six chairs. We tried to have a conversation, but the language barrier made things a little strained.

The next day we returned to Puno after a bit more island hopping. The strikes were in full force by the time we got back with protesters marching through the street, breaking bank windows all over town (another way to get the government's attention), and forming a full out mob in the main plaza. It made us a bit nervous, not because we thought they would turn violent, but because we had places to go dammit! Luckily we met the world's best 'travel agent', a.k.a. lady who lurks around the bus depot and smuggles tourists across the border. Now this may sound shady, but I swear to God she was the best damn person I've ever had working for me. Not only did she get us where we needed to go, but she came to our hotel room to give us minute to minute updates, scoured town looking for us when she needed to inform us of an urgent change (we were eating dinner, she tracked us down in a restaurant, in a town of over 100,000 I might add!), and was even there in the morning to make sure we were up and let us know our buses were going. She should win some sort of award for customer service, this woman. If you ever meet Betty in the Puno bus terminal, say 'yes' to whatever she tells you, and give her a hug from Jess, Hayley, and Jordan.

La Paz, Bolivia
We had to get our passports stamped in a sketchy unidentified building by what I assume was the police the night before we left. We had to dodge protestors and rallies in the street. We had to cram into an unmarked minivan to get to the border. We had to maneuver around the rubble that still littered the road from the strikes. But for the love of God we were getting to Bolivia! Because she needed to catch her flight the next day, we left Jess with her fingers crossed that her bus would leave for Cusco. I think we unknowingly had horseshoes up our asses because we all made it to our destinations without trouble. 

And so we entered into Bolivia. One of South America's poorest nations, it is bone dry, chilly, and so high in elevation half the country is oxygen starved. There's a lush tropical rainforest too, apparently, but I didn't go there, so it's the cold desolation that remains fresh in my mind. Bolivians haven't quite figured out hospitality in the way that Peruvians have. Oh sure, they'll happily take your money, show you around, feed you maybe, but they're not going to inconvienience themselves by pretending to actually like you. I guess if I lived in such a thin aired, parched wasteland like they did, I'd be a little grumpy too.                                                             

Me and Hayley in La Paz
Our bus pushed its way through chaos as we made our way into La Paz. Traffic lurched as drivers battled for space on the road, horns were pounded aggressively. Swirls of particulates of all sorts of nastiness flew through the air as people jaywalked their way through town. As we finally dipped into the city centre I could see all of La Paz before me, a tangle of bricks clinging to the hillside, sliding their way into the valley bottom of high rise buildings. The snow capped mountains towered over the city, casting their mighty shadow over suburbia. The town itself bustles with people, crunches with traffic, and smells like exhaust mixed with fried chicken. There are cool activities to do in and around La Paz, if you have money. We didn't, so what's cool to do in La Paz if you are on a budget? Well my friends, a beer at a gringo's pub is $2. Wine is also cheap. Turns out, so is cocaine, which I heard through the commonly discussed grape vine you can buy for under $20 a gram from your bar tender. For those of you not up to speed on these things, that's dirt cheap. So when in La Paz you party, and party we did. We unfortunately experienced the most horrible bar of all time - Blue Lounge. All the hostel crowd goes there, but do yourself a favour and save yourself from the ear splitting music, hired male dancer whose signature move is the fist pump, and 40 minute wait at the bar. If you do want to go to La Paz's famous Route 36 Bar I can tell you it's not as sketchy as you might think, although expect an inevitable level of dodginess. I assume the police are being comfortably paid off to overlook the various illegal activities that occasionally (ok, sorry mom, frequently) take place there. Someone even told me the police have a share in the place, and I wouldn't be overly surprised if this were the case. Still, I have an inkling that Bolivian prison would suck big time, so party with caution. Compared to most we were almost prudishly conservative, and avoided any attention from law enforcement.

On the salt flats
 Tiring of the urban scene and La Paz's smoggy streets, me and Hayley booked our bus tickets to Uyuni and a two day salt flats tour. We first had to survive the 12 hour overnight bus ride which was horrendously cold, long, and bumpy. A few hours after we left the La Paz the road turned to gravel and I'm pretty sure the bus didn't have shocks. You can't sleep when you are being rattled out of your seat. You also can't sleep when it's so cold the condensation on the windows is turning to ice. A girl puked in the isle, motion sick from the jostling I imagine. It added to the enjoyment. We arrived in Uyuni at 7am feeling a bit wobbly, confused to be back on solid ground, and wishing for a bed. No time for that though, we had to quickly book bus tickets, eat breakfast, and get to our salt flats tour before it started in 2 hours. 

Our guides were as lovely as most Bolivians and didn't bother to introduce themselves when they picked us up in their 4x4. To be honest, I'm not even sure they said hello. We were warned that they would not speak English, we were not warned they were going pretend that there wasn't six of us crammed into their back seat. And crammed we were. The first three seats were ok, but the trunk seats were made for Bolivians, a.k.a. for someone 4 feet tall. Since all of us towered far above that, the unlucky 3 whose turn it was in the back got so crunched their knees were practically in their armpits. Comfy. The 4 foot tall guide/cook rode comfortably in shot gun, the ENITRE 3 days. Bitch. Maybe it was the miserable bus ride, or the grumpy guides, the shit seats, or perhaps the altitude, but I felt ill the entire tour to differing degrees of severity. The first night I got heart burn that radiated burning up my esophagus until I puked, and this has never happened before in my life. As this was not a commonly occurring problem for me I had nothing to treat it. I rummaged through my bag looking for something, anything to help. Sure that a hole was about to burn through my chest, I desperately swallowed globs of calcium enhanced toothpaste. Miraculously, it helped. Still, I barely slept for the second night in a row and I chugged 'antiacido', purchased at the hospital the next day, for the rest of the trip. I generally felt exhausted, queasy, stuffed up, disgruntled. And it was fucking cold! Wind chill of minus a bajillion, I swear. Why the hell do I sign up for this shit, I wondered, irritated. I just wanted a warm bed, a good movie, and 5 gallons of hot chocolate. I did my best to hide it and felt bad for Hayley as I feared she was with me at the unfortunate moment I was coming down with a bad case of travel burn out. On the positive side, my lack of appetite meant that I didn't have to worry about not liking the food - I wasn't going to eat it regardless.

Same truck on the salt flats, looking tiny
Truck on the salt flats, actual size
The fact that I STILL enjoyed myself and came out with a positive experience speaks to the wonder and beauty of the region. And thank you Hayley for not killing me in my bad tempered lethargy (although I thought I restrained fairly well from being a total bitch - correct me if I'm wrong). The first day we spent on the great white expanse that is the salt flat, the biggest in the world I believe. I'm not going to bore you with the details, but in short, the flats are what's left of a ginormous prehistoric lake. And is big and white and flat and, unsurprisingly, salty. So much so that your eyes don't really understand the expanse of it, things are magnified and minimized in strange ways.  

Incahuasi Island with Cacti, Salt Flats
There are also islands that punctuate the salt flats. Well, they're ancient islands, there's not so much in the way of a lake covering this part of the salt flats these days. Even in the prehistoric days the 'islands' were actually submerged corals or underwater volcanoes, so what I'm really saying is they were never actually islands at all. But they appear that way today, 'shoreline' and all. On our first day we stopped at one such island, called Incahuasi, and it was definitely a strange sight to see. Rising out of the white salt was a massive hunk of reddish rock that was entirely encrusted with massive, orange-spiked cacti. Despite feeling as if I would like to die, I couldn't help but climb to the top (I'm slightly obsessed with climbing to the top of things, I love a good photo op., and I hate doing things halfway - incase you hadn't noticed) and it was by far worth it.

After a painful, esophagus burning night in a salt hotel (literally a hotel made from large, pure salt blocks) we continued south away from the salt flats. The terrain here is completely unworldly, so desolate and barren I felt as though I'd been plunked down on planet Mars. It was also painfully cold, with a cutting wind that made even a few minutes outside unbearable. We stopped at several salt lagoons, half frozen and seemingly lifeless pools of brine that were skirted with snow dusted mountains. Except for they were not entirely lifeless, flamingos actually attempt to scrape out a living here, and they must be eating something. My best guess is algae, which I assume could survive the hyper saline and ridiculously cold conditions. At certain times of year the flamingos flock to the lagoons in great numbers to breed. We were not here at this time, but you could still see a few baby pink clumps wading in the distance, bravely bearing the icy winds.  


Sunrise over steaming hot springs
On our last day we were up and out before sunrise. The day was filled with more extraterrestrial experiences as we contemplated strange geomorphic formations, steaming geysers, bubbling hot springs, and wide desolate expanses of reddy brown earth. It was also the day that I almost killed our driver for his horrible taste in music, which he had cranked on repeat ALL DAY. Now, the Peruvians have their flute music - which is mildly annoying,  especially when some kid follows you through his village attempting to play the wretched thing and then tries to demand a tip for his 'performance' (Yes, this happened more than once). But what the Bolivians have done with a synthesizer is just plain unholy. It should be illegal. Imagine, if you dare, high pitched electronic ditties reminiscent of 1990s video game music, but on crack. There is absolutely no base, and they beat is EXACTLY the same for every song, so that you're not even sure it IS a different song. All this it set against a winey Enrique Inglesias style voice - but ten times worse. At least Enrique, according to popular opinion anyway, can actually SING. These people cold not. Then imagine sitting in a SUV for hours on end, with your knees crunched to your shoulders, altitude sickness raging, and this abomination being blasted over the speakers. My normally calm, placid demeanor was wearing thin and even with earplugs, I was close to loosing my shit. I was on the edge of a loud and aggressive meltdown that involved beating the unfriendly Bolivian driver to his death. In a slightly insane last resort I instead pressed my head to the window, which with the earplugs vibrated through my skull creating a large and soothing buzz that blocked out any other noise. I took deep breaths. My Zen and sanity took a serious test out on those salt flats.    

Geomorphic formations, steaming geysers, flamingo lagoons

It took me a few days to recover from the salt flats. I had come down with a serious cold, completely lost any signs of an appetite, and my energy levels were suffering. I needed warmth and I needed oxygen. A few days in Sucre, more than 1000m lower in elevation, was a perfect place to recover. Sucre is Bolivia's capital and is lined with pastel coloured colonial buildings and shady trees. I don't have much to say about it, because we didn't do much. We read our books on sunny benches, sipped wine, watched movies on our hostel's TV, and ate ice cream. Ahhhh. After I was on the mend we also went climbing, which was a first for me. Initially terrifying, once I learned to trust that the rope would, in fact, catch me if I fell, I had no problems scaling the cliff face. Since Whistler and Squamish are climbing meccas, this may be a hobby I take up when I get home!

Then it was time to say goodbye to Hayley. She left in a taxi for her flight back home and I stood on the curb waving her off. After she was out of sight I lingered for a moment. Everything seemed quiet. Alone again. . . 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Girls Run Wild in Peru

Paragliders at sunset, Miraflores, Lima
With excited squeals and a group hug Hayley, Jessica, and I reunited in the Lima airport, the three of us together for the first time in half a year. We waded together through the busy airport nearly bouncing up and down we were so excited. A few hours from now we'd be on a plane to Cusco and the girls trip adventure we'd been talking about for months was about to begin. . .

A few days prior I was alone and fighting of culture shock resulting from my extreme ignorance of the Spanish language. I literally arrived in South America knowing 'hola' and 'gracias' and nothing else. Not so smart. I was travel weary from a month of bush camping in Africa and now I was lost in a world in which I could barely communicate - it left me more than a little uninspired. But then, a few days later Hayley came bounding out of the arrivals gate, massive smile on her face and arms waving wildly at me, and it didn't matter. The girls were about to conquer Peru!

Plaza de Armas, Cusco's center
Hayley not only saved me with her glowing positivity, she also surprised me with a night at the Sheraton in Lima. Because we are employees back home we were upgraded for free and spent our 24 hours of luxury stuffing our faces with all-you-can-eat buffets and drinking free champagne and pisco sours. We explored central Lima before it was back to reality - and back to the backpackers hostel.

Lima didn't really live up to it's badass reputation for me. It's big, it's smoggy, it's somewhat shabby, but even central Lima didn't feel dangerous. Once we moved to Miraflores by the beach you could barely even tell you were in Lima, everything was clean and shiny and new. On our last evening we watched the paragliders soar along the coastline and into the fading sun. We tried to NOT watch the many couples getting it on on every park bench available. For some reason, this seems to be the thing to do in Lima!

Girls in Cusco, Peru
Soon we met Jess and were off to Cusco. I had high expectations for this city and I must say they were met. Cusco's cobbled streets and stone and clay buildings have the feel of Europe for the price of the third world. It was definitely touristy, but it didn't take much of a walk past the main centre before the hawkers were gone, the buildings were more tattered, and you felt like you were in South America again. The best of both worlds, in my opinion. Cusco is also a high city, at 3400m (11150ft) we dragged our asses a bit the first day and found ourselves gasping as we hiked the steep hill to our hostel. To compensate we chugged coca tea by the gallon - which to be honest I'm not convinced actually does anything - but I guess I can't argue with 1000s of years of local knowledge, and it definitely didn't hurt.

Horseback riding near Cusco
We warmed up for our Machu Picchu trek with and excessive amount of good food (including alpaca steaks, which were extremely delicious) and a day of horseback riding in the hills surrounding Cusco. Our guide was a cute little Peruvian who spoke next to no English and let us do pretty much whatever we wanted. With years of riding under my belt I was in heaven (unlike my terrifyingly hellish pony ride in Lesotho where I was pretty sure I was going to die). We could see the city below, painted perfectly into the valley and across the lower hills. We trotted through little villages and crumbling Incan ruins. I also finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of galloping at top speed through the open fields like a real cowgirl. Hayley followed merrily behind me but Jess was not so impressed - But what are friends for if not to push your limits and terrify you from time to time? Jess, you know you loved it and you weren't going to fall off anyway!

With saddle sore legs (maybe all that galloping the day before a 5 day trek was poorly thought out, oops) we got up at 3:30am to make our way to the bus stop to begin our trek. We were excited to be with other people, but as dozens of gringos were herded onto the bus I got a little nervous. I thought this was supposed to be the less traveled route? The last thing I wanted was to be nose and nose with 100s of other tourists, which is why I really didn't have a problem doing the alternative trek and never setting foot on the Inca Trail. The first day was definitely a bit crowded as several trekking groups walked the trail together to the first camp, picking our way up into the hills and past the last of civilization. As the mountains peeked their white tops above the fading green hills, however, I stopped caring, and didn't take the guides long to separate us out into groups so that we were more spread out. I don't know if Jess was still traumatized from our horseback ride or if she was having trouble with the altitude, but she struggled a bit the first day. She hung in there like a trooper though, and made it to our camp on night one.

Although I was initially grumpy about so many people, once we had established our groups it wasn't so bad and, admittedly, the social factor ended up being one of my favourite parts of the trek. With Belgium, Holland, the UK, South Africa, Canada, and the USA being represented, along with the Peruvian guides and cooks, we were a truly international crew. We huddled around our dinner table the first evening and got to know each other as the chill of the night crept over the campsite. Shortly after an exhausted Hayley, Jess, and I piled into our tent and cuddled together to keep warm. Even with the body heat it was bitter cold and I buried my head deep into my sleeping bag and thanked myself for purchasing the thermals that were currently keeping me at least mostly warm. I learned my lesson after nearly freezing to death in Nepal!

Salkantay trek, 4600m above sea level
We were up for an early start the next morning at 5am. The cooks woke us with a lovely delivery of hot coca tea right to our tent door. We sat and sipped the hot liquid in the dark, reluctant to enter into the frosty morning outside our tent. The day ahead was meant to be the hardest of the trek, not only the longest day in terms of time, but it also included the most elevation climbs and falls. We started with a steep ascent into the high mountain pass. The high elevation here made breathing difficult, I was pulling at the air as hard as I could, trying to bring as much of it into my lungs as possible, but the breaths just felt shallow and unsatisfactory. If I stumbled or lost my rhythm it literally felt like the air was being sucked from my lungs and I'd be left gasping for oxygen. Every so often though, I'd grip just the right amount of air and I could feel all the cells in my lungs licking it up, absorbing every molecule of the much needed oxygen into my tissues and sending a wave of relief over my entire body. We hiked up through the jaggedy white mountains and into the alpine, reaching our highest elevation at 4600m. The views here were stunning and the mist lifted just the right amount to expose the massive mountain tops, caked in ice and snow, as they reached into a glimmering blue sky. We paused to take a few photos, to thank Mother Earth in the Incan tradition, and to sufficiently let the searing wind freeze our sweat so that we were ready to run back down the other side of mountain.

As always I struggled with the food. I had to lie and tell the cooks that I was allergic to cilantro so they wouldn't put any of that nasty herb anywhere near my meals since they seemed to love to sprinkle it over every single dish. It's always discouraging to be extremely hungry and incapable of eating whatever is put in front of me. My anxiety always raised before meals as I waited to see what it was. If I didn't like it, I tried to force myself to eat it anyway, to shove spoonfuls of whatever it was in my mouth, but my throat literally closed and I would feel nauseated. It's extremely frustrating to be this way, but I don't know how to change it. My savoir was my stash of snacks I brought with me and what the cooks called the 'happy hour' after we'd completed our trek for the day. At this time they would serve up huge plates of biscuits, popcorn, and hot chocolate and I would fill my face and then dinner became just a bonus snack. So thank you happy hour for saving me from starvation!

Our trekking crew at the hot springs
 The third day was the most fun. Not only was it the shortest in terms of walking time, we were also down lower so it was a lot warmer, and our efforts were rewarded with hot springs. With three days of accumulated grime and sore muscles, the springs felt amazing. There were local ladies selling snacks and beers on the water's edge and we relaxed into the mountain setting and enjoyed ourselves. That night we had a big bonfire and the three of us girls shared a few bottles of delicious Argentinean wine they sold at the campsite store for $10 each. We stayed up past our usual 8pm trekking bed time, all the way to 11pm. Rebels, I know.

I've officially donated my piece of shit hiking boots to charity and I apologize to whoever receives them. Three treks and 100s of kilometers walked and they still gave me blisters. Those stupid boots have almost caused me more than one trek melt down. I resisted my flip flops for days, then with one toe so raw it was bleeding I finally changed footwear - and then ended up walking through a river of mud and gravel that would never end, down a steep slippery slope, covering all my open foot wounds in random jungle sludge and almost falling on my face. I was so pissed off by the end of it I almost punched my favourite little Jessica in the face when she took a picture of me struggling down the hill. I also debated throwing my mud covered flip flops at lovely Hayley, who was laughing. I blame my hiking boots for all of this, by the way. Luckily, I will never have to see them again and our friendship survived the incident.

By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, the town nearest to Machu Picchu, we had been eaten alive by flies, hadn´t showered for 4 days, had more than a few sore muscles, and I personally never wanted to see another trek meal again, ever. I almost jumped up and down when I saw our hostel with hot water and restarants selling pizza! I had the best shower of my life that night and the best pizza, also.

Wayna Picchu is at the back right 
 You know that mysterious looking, steep, jungle encrusted rock in the background of every classic photo of Machu Picchu? It´s called Wayna Picchu and our group was extremely determined to climb it. You need separate passes to get onto this rock, and you can't get those in advance. They give 200 away for each time slot and they are on a first come, first serve basis. So, up we got at 3:30am and speed walked down the dark street through hoards of other hikers so that we would be first in line when they opened the gate. Once they DO open the gate, you don't get your tickets there. Oh no, no. It's a race from the valley bottom up the wickedly steep mountain Machu Picchu is located on. They then sell you the tickets once you're at the top. We waited for the gate to open, trying not to get antsy in the ever growing line. At 5:00 when they started letting people through we rushed along with the crowds, resisting the urge to push and shove, and began our climb. It usually takes at least an hour to get up the ridiculously intense hill. It took our group 40 minutes. We practically sprinted up the trail, passing the more weak left and right, resisting the urge to rest, barely able to breathe, dripping with sweat even in the cool darkness before dawn. Our group was within the first 20 to the top, and I'm pretty sure Jess, Hayley, and I were the first girls of the day. All 15 of us got our Wayna Picchu passes without trouble.

Sitting on the top of Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu below
We spent the day exploring Machu Picchu and, of course, climbing Wayna Picchu. In the early morning the mist floated throughout the ruins and since we were there so early we nearly had the place to ourselves. I was too caught up in the setting to pay any attention to our guide's tour of the ruins. I spent most the time trailing behind the group or running around alone, daydreaming of ancient Incan civilizations, and not wanting to be disrupted by reality. Despite the early morning marathon up the side of the mountain, we were all excited and energetic to climb Wayna Picchu. With the cliffs edge threatening just beside you, you wind and climb your way up a steep ladder staircase. At the summit you feel like you are at the top of the world, with Machu Picchu barely more than a tiny patch in the forest below. By midday the tourist buses have arrived and the place is crawling with gringos. We snapped a few final pictures in the warmth of the afternoon sun, and then began the climb back down to Aguas Calientes to catch the train back to Machu Picchu.

You would think after a 5 day trek, then an extremely early morning start at 3:30am, with a long day at Machu Picchu and a several hour journey back to Cusco, we'd be too exhausted to do anything but sleep. . . And true, we were tempted by our beds, almost thought about climbing in them. . .But then our entire trekking group was going out to celebrate our 5 day conquest . . . And we couldn't miss out, could we? Hell no! So minutes after we arrived back in Cusco and dumped our stuff, off we went to meet the rest of our group at the bar. The bars in Cusco are evil and stay open devilishly late. After being up for 25 hours, 4:30am is the time we arrived back at our hostel (and we left before the bar closed, by the way!). 6:30am is the time we had to get up to catch our 10 hour bus to Puno. I can tell you right now it was not fun. To make things even more enjoyable, we had splurged on a special tourist bus that stopped at all the sites along the way. It turned out to be a total waste because we felt so awful we wanted to cry every time the bus pulled over, had absolutely no interest in the sites, and almost vomited when we saw the massive lunch buffet provided for us. Good times. Despite the pain and agony, we did eventually make it to Puno.

Before I wrap up I just want to say a word of warning for others about the company we booked our trek with. While the trek experience was great, the booking company was absolutely horrible. They were called Peru Inka Intertravel and you can find them online, but don't. The deceived us into thinking we were getting an upgraded trek, but once we got there we realized that we had actually been downgraded to a cheaper route that we paid double what everyone else did. Not only that, they were extremely disorganized, forgot our hostel bookings, sent us on a wild goose chase, and left us with more than a bitter taste in our mouths. When we confronted them about the situation they were vicious and said we would 'certainly not get any money back'. There's no place to leave feedback on their website - probably for a reason - but still, we are going to do what we can to bring them down! So please, NO ONE BOOK WITH THIS COMPANY! They are more than assholes!

I'm currently in Bolivia and admittedly, more than a little behind on my blog. Sorry for the wait! Hayley is leaving me in two days and I will once again be travelling alone, which generally leaves me with more free time. I'll fill you in on everything that's been going on then :)