Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Stroke of Brilliance

When the passengers disembarked the train at Ollantaytambo, the line for the ladies' room at the terminal was a mile long since the bathroom on board had been occupied for the fasshion show.

But then!

One of the train attendants was waiting at the door to the men's room. When the last mman stepped out, he checked inside, then turned to the long line of ladies and saI, "It's all yours."

"Whoosh!" went half the line into the other bathrooms.

How brilliant is that?

On Traveling South for the Summer

It's really weird to go from being burned scarlet at Machu Picchu to being so cold in Cuzco that wearing a shirt, a sweater, a scarf, and a jacket isn't enough.

It is, however, delightfully European-esque to walk on cobblestone streets in misty rain sprinkles that makes the air smell like snow.

A Low-Key Day in Cuzco

After our adventures at Machu Picchu, Jason and I took a slower day today to enjoy Cuzco. We dropped laundry off down the street and found a restaurant called Victor Victoria for brunch. It was pretty good, but it took 90 minutes for us to get our lunch, a caprese hamburger for me, fried pork and potatoes for Jason, and fried plantains to share. We are discovering that restaurant service in Peru is very slow, as you saw with the anxiety-riddled breakfast before Machu Picchu.

The next stop was the bus station to arrange for our transport to Puno tomorrow. Once that was accomplished, we got in another cab to go to the Sacsaywaman ruins at the top of the hills.

After some misdirection (the driver went right past the entrance and instead of pulling a U-turn, he threw the car in reverse and backed up a half-mile to where we were supposed to get off), we had our Boleto Touristicos punched and went inside the park.

The Sacsaywaman ruins (or, as I called it in my head, the Sacajawea ruins)(that is, I called it that until the Lonely Planet guidebook said to just think of it as "Sexy Woman," which, while strange, helped) are the remains of an Incan military fortress. I had my doubts about seeing more ruins after the introduction to them at Ollantaytambo and the spectacle of Machu Picchu, but these were surprising cool. The walls of the fortress are made of humongous granite stones. And I do mean huge - ranging from two feet to over eight feet tall! The fortress is made up of three terraces built in a zig-zag pattern to break up attacking forces and to imitate the jaws of a puma.

What was even more amazing was learning that the stones we saw are only about 20% of what was there originally. Once the Spaniards conquered, most of the rocks were hauled away for building in the city below.

We took a lot of pictures, watched llamas grazing on the terrace below, and walked around the site before accidentally visiting the Cruz Moqo while trying to find the trail back down the hill.

Down the steep cobble-stone steps we went, following a stream and passing a stray llama as we descended back into town. The steep street opened up onto a plaza with the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, which was on on our to-do list for the day. We bought tickets and followed the red line painted on the brick floor around the prescribed path through the museum.

It was much better than I expected. To begin with, the museum is housed in a Spanish conquistador's mansion built in 1580. The artifacts are nicely displayed, too, lining the walls in glass cases with low lighting. I was expecting artifacts like the ones in the less-interesting parts of American art museums, but there were some really stunning pieces of pottery here. There was one hallway of paintings from the Cuzco school (i.e. Spanish Catholic) and after the personality and the craftsmanship of the ancient Peruvian jars, the paintings of a bleeding Christ and saintly Mary seemed even sillier than usual. Also, they keep painting Christ in a lace skirt when he's on the cross. I'm not sure what's up with that.

We walked further down the hill from there and were surprised to find some street food vendors, which had been pretty scarce up until now. Their sudden appearance made a lot more sense, though, when we came upon the main square and walked right into a massive parade.

There were thousands of people in the Plaza de Armas, lining the streets and park, sitting on the steps to the Cathedral, and leaning out on the balconies above the restaurants and travel agencies. On wooden platforms carried by anywhere from 20 to 60 men rode huge, dressed-up statues of various saints. Each saint was accompanied by its own marching band, and they were being taken out through the giant green doors of the main Cathedral and marched around the square. Worshippers, tourists, little kids, and street vendors hawking popcorn, Jell-o, and fried pork rinds walked in-between and alongside each of the saints, and there we were in the middle of it.

We watched the parade for a while, then went inside the other cathedral in the square. Since everyone was out watching the saints go marching, we had the place mostly to ourselves. We looked at the incredibly Baroque altar, the really creepy statues, and some more paintings of Christ dying in a lace slip before climbing up a ladder-staircase to the choir loft. We followed the sound of the marching bands outside to discover a balcony overlooking the plaza. With that excellent (albeit chilly) view, we watched the crowds and the saints below.

Here, see for yourself:

This saint was one of my favorites because
a) There are so many men carrying him
b) They apparently did some drinking prior to the parade
c) Said drinking made them much more interesting group to watch than the somber-suited and highly regimented saint groups that came before and after
d) Their marching band had the sheet music attached to their backs, and
e) I have no idea which saint it is, but you have to love a guy who's clutching a palm tree and riding a sparkly-fish-filled wave.

When the sun set and the temperature dropped enough that my sweater and scarf and his fleece weren't cutting it, we went back downstairs and cut through the parade route again in search of those food vendors selling bamboo skewers with grilled garlic chicken and a small potato on top. Deliciousness in hand, we circled back around to pick up our laundry and return to our hotel.

Which brings me to the present! We're sitting in the little dinning room in the hotel. The window does little to block out the cold air and the noise of the marching bands that are still playing in the Plaza a block away. My fingers are frozen, but my blog is caught up, and today was yet another good day.

On Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is certainly not the easiest to get to. Even if you get yourself to Cuzco, you still either trek your way across the mountains on the Inca Trail (3 days, $500+) or have to get a train/car to Aguas Callientes (3 hours, $100+), a hotel for the night ($10+), a bus to the site (30 minutes, $8), and the entrance ticket ($45).

It really does take a lot of time and money to get there.

It's also totally worth it.

We woke up just before the early morning train announced its arrival outside our window with a piercing whistle. Because you can't take food into Machu Picchu itself and the only restaurant at the site is outrageously overpriced ($13 bottle of water anyone?), we decided to get a solid breakfast in town before catching the bus up the mountain.

We went to the only open restaurant, placed our orders for pancakes, eggs, juice, and hot chocolate, and sat back to wait for our food. And waited, and waited, and waited. When it finally came, it really wasn't that great. Still, we were both grateful for it later in the day.

The bus ride up to Machu Picchu was 30 minutes of tight switchbacks with absolutely stellar views of mist-wrapped mountains. We made one last bathroom stop (there's no bathrooms inside), and climbed the stairs to the gate. Once we had Ciro and our little tour group put together, we had our tickets stamped and checked our bigger bags for the day.

Ciro led us up the winding path to the high point for our first views of Machu Picchu. I was pretty quick to like Ciro when he noticed I was out of breath about half-way up the stairs. He stopped and said to the four of us, "We will rest for a moment because you are on vacation and you should relax and enjoy your vacation. You should enjoy Macchu Picchu. Take a moment and open your heart and open your hands to Machu Picchu and take it in." Which was a very gracious way to give me the moment I needed.

Ciro showed us our first view of Machu Picchu, and it is stunning. I'll post some of the hundred or so photos I took on my iPhone sometime (but not tonight, it's getting late). It's one of those places you just have to see in person. Learning about the Incas from Ciro was fascinating, especially their mythology, their architecture, and their astronomy.

Ciro showed us a rock carved to indicate the cardinal directions. He pulled his digital camera many times on the tour to show us things like what the Temple of the Sun looks like at Summer Solstice or the snow-capped mountains that were covered in fog when we were there. This time he flipped through his pictures to one of an iPhone held against the rock and apologized for it being hard to see the phone's display. I suddenly realized what he was showing us, and I whipped out my iPhone and opened the compass app. Ciro was delighted that I had one, and took my phone to show us that the rock does indeed point due south.

Other groups gathered around my iPhone to see, and I swelled with pride that my iPhone had made Ciro so happy. Then Ciro asked if I had the "Star App". I figured out he meant Sky Walk, which I had just downloaded... to my iPad. Which was in the luggage storage outside. I told him no, sadly, and he looked so crushed that Jason laughed at how quickly I fell from glory.
After Jason and I reunited again and toured the parts of the site he had missed or we hadn't been, we picked a spot on one of the terraces, sat on the grass, and just looked around. It reminded me of when we sat on a bench in a park in Istanbul and just looked at the Hagia Sofia. There are some places that you can see in pictures or in movies, but it's just so much more breath-takingly stunning in person you can look at it for hours and still not be done. That terrace is one of my favorite places in the world now, and I was reluctant to go, despite the pressing needs of my bladder.

Oh, also? There were llamas:

On the train ride back to Ollantaytamb, I was wondering what I would do with myself for 90 minutes when I could't read and it was too dark to see out the windows. The announcement recording welcomed us back onboard and said, "We hope your trip to Machu Picchu was magical, and we want to make the magic continue."

I thought that the pasta salad they gave us as a snack was pretty magical, since that slow breakfast was a long time ago at that point, but shortly after the meal service ended, the bathroom door at the end of the car burst open and one of the stewards jumped out dressed like an Incan mythological creature:

And then the other stewards put on a fashion show. No, really, I kid you not:

Of course, they proceeded to pass out catalogues and try to sell the clothes, but they were so tongue-in-cheek about it and it was such a strange and silly way to wrap up an exhausting and powerful day, that we couldn't help but laugh at it.

Well, at least when it was over we did. At the time, Jason's expression was more like this:

We got back Cuzco just after 9:00, dusty, exhausted, and starving. So we treated ourselves to dinner at what was touted to be the best restaurant in town. Still feeling adventurous, we ordered an appetizer of guinea pig on polenta. I was not a fan of it, and in fact felt even more not great as the night went on. Jason claims that it couldn't possibly be the cuy, since he felt fine; however, rather than blaming the excellent-tasting calamari appetizer or my delicious prosciutto sandwich (or, for that matter, the hours of hiking without food or water followed by a bus ride, a train ride, and a van ride), I choose to blame the cuy.

(For the complete story, you really should read this as well.)

On Speaking Spanish

Jason has been doing a spectacular job with his Spanish on this trip. He learned Spanish while he was on an extended trip in Guatemala a few years ago (a trip that has also proven immensely useful for this trip in his knowing how to navigate things like transportation and Lonely Planet guidebooks), and he's retained enough of it to be able to converse with a cab driver about Inca monuments, the Latino populations in the US, and the driver's son who went to Colorado last year. There is the occasional "Oui, si, si," which I love, since I'm constantly defaulting here to either French or Russian, but overall we've had a much easier time getting around thanks to him despite his frustrated "Jeez! Why can't everyone just speak French?!" exclamation a few days ago.

This is, of course, in contrast to my own Spanish skills, which come from one half-credit of Spanish for Teachers I took two years ago and whatever I picked up from Sesame Street.

I can actually understand about 70% of what's being said, but I'm just not there yet to respond outside of the very basic "Si" or "Non, gracias". Jason keeps catching me talking to myself, reading signs out loud and repeating phrases under my breath as I try to get the sound of Spanish into my mouth. Despite studying so many different languages and traveling in so many different places, I'm still held back by the fear of making too many mistakes, of not getting the accent right, and of just not being as good as Jason. Which is ridiculous of me, since I know very well that a) just diving in and talking is how you learn and b) the vast majority of people in this world are patient and kind when someone at least tries to speak their language.

Over our incredibly slow breakfast before going to Machu Picchu we sat across from an older couple. The man was quite friendly and struck up a conversation almost immediately after we sat down. He is from Peru but now lives in Florida; and he and his wife had come back to visit Machu Picchu. Jason asked if they had hiked up there or taken the bus. "Oh, the bus," the man replied, "Me, I would have loved to hike but my wife..." he trailed off, indicating his wife who shook her head emphatically and said, "No, no hiking for me."

It was the only thing she said in the entire conversation. She listened and smiled and nodded her head and obviously understood what we were talking about, but she was obviously just as shy about her English as I am with my Spanish. Which, combined with the husband's restricted yearning to climb that mountain made me turn to Jason after the other couple left and say, "It's another version of us!"

We laughed about it, and even found another parallel couple at Machu Picchu. We hired a guide to take us on a two-hour tour of the site, joining up with a young couple from India, Yessica and Sujoy, to get a cheaper per person rate. As Ciro showed us the sites and the best places for photos, Yessica and Jason would unhesitatingly go out on the edge of the rocks to look down at the 8000 foot drop while Sujoy and I stayed as far away from the edge as possible, keeping near constant contact with the rock wall behind us to make sure it was still there, we were still stable.

At one point Ciro hopped up on a rock to tell us about... something. I honestly can't remember what he was talking about because all I could think was "The edge! The edge! Your foot is right there, your shoe is a millimeter over! A breeze could knock you off! For Pete's sake, get away from the edge!" Which is why I was so relieved when Sujoy interrupted Ciro mid-sentence to say desperately, "Please, please step back." He did, chuckling, and I could suddenly pay attention to what he was saying again, as, I'm sure, could Sujoy.

I can't help it. Heights like that terrify me - If there isn't a solid wall or at least a railing of some kind between me and the drop-off, I look over the edge and the whole world tilts and I have to look away and grab onto something solid until the dizziness passes. Between that and my absolute lack of athleticism, I knew I was holding Jason back. So when we got to the other side of the site and Ciro pointed out the ticket gate for the trail up Waynu Picchu, I knew there would be a gleam in Jason's eyes before I even looked at him. Ciro called over to one of the guards, and the guard reported that there were still some passes left (they only allow 400 people per day on the trail). Ciro passed the news on to us, then resumed talking about the types of animals the Incas domesticated.

I kept watching Jason while Ciro talked, and I could tell that this time it was Jason who couldn't hear a word Ciro was saying. He was positively twitching at the thought of doing that hike. Finally, when Ciro paused for a moment, Jason jumped in and announced that he was going to go on the hike.

"You are?" Ciro looked pleased, Yessica looked jealous, and Sujoy looked mystified.

"Yup!' Jason announced, already backing away from the group and towards the gate.

"Are you going?" Sujoy asked me.

"Nope," I said cheerfully. Jason and I quickly negotiated the return meeting point and time and he bid the group good-bye. As we left the area, Ciro asked me anxiously, "He will be okay? He has his Machu Picchu ticket?"

"Oh, he's fine," I said. "No worries."

"And you two will go off alone like this?" Sujoy asked, incredulous.

"Sure, why not?" I replied.

We continued the tour through the residences and the Temple of the Condor. Ciro wrapped up the tour on a ledge between the terraces and the temple, giving me a big hug (we had bonded over my iPhone, but that's another story). Yessica asked for one last picture and she handed her camera to Ciro and beckoned me to join them.

"Oh, me too?" I asked.

"Of course!" Sujoy exclaimed, putting his arm around my waist when I joined them.

After they left I people-watched for a while, eavesdropping on different tour groups in different languages, then walked through some of the places we hadn't visited on the tour, exploring empty rooms and corridors. I got back to our rendezvous point just before 1:00 and had barely pulled out my phone to send some pictures out when Jason came through the gate, pink-cheeked and beaming.

"You're early!" I exclaimed, since the hike was supposed to take two hours.

"Yup!" he said, "30 minutes up, 30 minutes to look around, 30 minutes back!"

He told me all about the hike - the practically vertical climb, the tunnel you had to crawl through on your stomach, the view from the top. As we walked back towards the Temple of the Sun and I recapped the rest of Ciro's tour for him, we ran into Sujoy and Yessica. lounging on a terrace.

"How was the hike?" they asked, and as Jason told them about his speed and the type of climbing required, Sujoy remarked, "Wow, you must be in really great shape!"

I told Jason later about their comments when he took off, Yessica's thinly-veiled longing to go with him and Sujoy's relief to not have to. Jason laughed and said that maybe we should pair off differently, that Sujoy and me and Yessica and him would make more sense.

I laughed too. It probably would make more sense that way. But then again, without Jason as a traveling companion I wouldn't have hiked up the Ollantaytambo ruins or seen the view and the awesome rocks at Sacsaywaman today or ridden in a collectivo or even attempted to negotiate in Spanish with cab drivers and guides for good deals. So while my accent may be horrible and my hiking may be slow, I am going to keep trying, and I am certainly not going to be so afraid of what I can't do that I won't let my amazingly patient friend run up a mountain when he can.

He Must Be Referring to My Child-Bearing Hips

I'm getting a surprising amount of action here in Peru.

First, as I told you before, there was the fellow who fell into my lap on the train.

Then a stranger got a little friendly with me last night. We were riding from Ollantaytambo back to Cuzco in a collectivo (a real one this time, not just some guy's car, an actual van packed full of people!) and it was my turn to sit in the middle and watch the protective saints swing from the rear-view mirror. Jason was on my left enjoying the view of the stars out his window while listening to opera on his iPod and there were two older Peruvian men on my right, one next to me and one sitting on the ledge behind the front passenger seat facing out the side door. I was totally engrossed in listening to an episode of The Tobolowsky Files and enjoying the thoughtful peacefulness when I suddenly felt a hand on my thigh.

The fellow riding backwards had leaned in to talk to his friend sitting next to me. He had put his hand on his friend's leg to keep his balance while they talked, except he missed and was accidentally grasping my leg instead. I think it was an accident, at least. It was really dark after all.

He sat back after a minute and I had just started to relax again when I felt an arm against my leg and a head on my shoulder. The friend to the right kept dozing off through the rest of the ride and he slumped further and further against me each time his head nodded forward.

To top all of this off, Jason and I were standing in Plaza de Armas this morning consulting a guidebook for suggestions for breakfast. A salesman approached, as they always do there, offering to sell us Alpaca sweaters.

"No, gracias," we both said, and proceeded to ignore him. That usually works, but this fellow was not going to leave us yet.

"Where you from?" he asked.

"The United States," Jason replied, keeping his eyes on the guidebook so as to not engage further.

The guy turned to me and looked me up and down. "You are strong, very strong," he said, clenching his fist in illustration.

We both looked up from the guidebook at that one.

The guy sidled up to me and indicated Jason. "Your husband?"

"No," I said.

"Ah!" he said, raising an eyebrow at me. "That's good. You strong." He indicated the two of us, "Amigos?"

"Si," Jason replied.

The guy turned to me. "Amigos?" he said in a different tone.

"Si, si," I said, assuming he wanted me to confirm what Jason had said. I was confused then when the guy broke into an even bigger smile, said something in Spanish to Jason, and insisted on shaking both of our hands. He then tried again to sell us the sweaters again, rubbing the wool against his cheek and then aiming for mine. We broke away at that, barely containing our laughter as we crossed the Plaza.

"You realize what he meant by 'amigos,' right?" Jason asked.

"Friends?" I asked.

"Maybe the first time. But the second time he said 'amigos' with a suggestive intonation, in quotation marks, and you confirmed it. He thinks we're engaged or something!"

Which is probably a good thing for me, I pointed out, since he seemed to be sizing me up for himself.

Besides, who wouldn't want a good strong woman like me?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So tired...

We survived, hiked, conquered, and loved Machu Picchu.

We are no longer starving to death, but we are dusty and tired. As such, tonight will be for the showers and the beds, and the blogging will have to wait.

And, oh, what blogging there shall be!

And Good-Bye Jason!

(He needed to accomplish something.)

Hello From Machu Picchu!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Photos! Car, Olly, and AC

Car Ride River and Mountains
On the car ride to Olly

Town on road to Olly
Also on the ride to Olly

Again on the ride to Olly

Yet still on the road

Olly Market
The market in Olly with the ruins behind

Town view from the top



Olly Farms
Farm view from the top

The chicken burritos

Aguas Callientes

Market in AC
The market next to the train station in AC

Aguas Callientes
Plaza in AC

Aguas Callientes
The view from our hotel window

Aguas Callientes
Our hotel room in AC (and no, it's not "matrimonial" - you just can't see my bed)

From Cuzco to Aguas Callientes

We are sitting in a cafe in Aguas Callietes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. I have a cold bottle of water and Jason's got chamomile tea sitting next to our respective computers. The sun's already set behind the cloud-covered jungle-ish mountains all around us.

This town exists solely for tourists. The window to my right looks onto the main plaza, and we keep flinching as two little girls in navy blue school uniforms toss a yellow rubber ball right next to us on the other side of the glass. Beyond them is a fountain with a taller-than-life statue of an Incan chief, flanked at its base by two painted statues of Inca women, one red one blue. The other patrons in the cafe are all gringos, as are most of the people walking through the plaza.

Still, it's fun to be in a town like this. The mountains are just as mist-covered as the pictures promised, and the effort it takes to get here elevates the whole experience.

We found the PeruRail office in the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco this morning after circling clockwise around the entire square. There weren't many tickets left (whoops), and there certainly weren't any of the Backpacker Train (i.e. cheap) left for today, so we got two tickets on the Vistadome Train out of Ollantaytambo, a town 60 miles NW of Cuzco.

So now we needed to get to Olly (as I will nickname it henceforward, since, like my attempts to say "Thank You" in Turkish, I tend to stick imaginary syllables in the middle of the word). We downsized our luggage for a one-night trip and dropped our bags off at the hotel we are going to stay at when we return to Cuzco before hailing a cab to take us to the street where we were told the collectivos waited.

The cab driver dropped us off next to an alleyway and a man stuck his head in the cab door before we could gather our bags. Jason asked about a ride to Olly and the man said, "Si, si!" and beckoned us to follow.

We did and found ourselves in what might have been somebody's backyard and certainly was a dirt parking lot for cars in various stages of disrepair and at least seven men in button-down shirts and black pants, all of whom seemed to be offering rides.

The original guy explained what we wanted while Jason tried to both confirm and clarify, since we had been expecting the vans we kept seeing drive groups of people around town. When Jason asked, "Where are the busses?" the men would collectively reply, "Si, si" and go back to arguing muy rapido while pointing at each other, the cars, and us with both hands.

Finally the Mexican Standoff-without-guns came to an apparent conclusion when one of the guys directed us to get into the white sedan on our left. It didn't feel like a kidnapping, so we did as we were told. We slid into the backseat and were promptly squished by a scruffy-looking gringo who spoke fluent Spanish appearing out of nowhere and sliding in on the other side. A local guy (at least I assume he was a local, since we stopped outside his house for a few minutes on our way out of the town) hopped in shotgun and we pulled away. Kind of. We actually sat in the lot for 5 minutes of waiting for another car to move out of the alleyway, which prompted a lot more Spanish yelling. But then we pulled out and were on our way.

Once we got on the road proper, it was a great trip with windows rolled down and my hair blown all about. I frequently leaned out the window to try to get a better picture of the mountains we were driving through, only to pull back inside suddenly whenever the driver passed another car on a blind corner with a bus coming straight at us. We passed a few small pocket mountain towns, soaring snow-capped peaks, herds of sheep grazing on school basketball courts, women walking past in red-embroidered skirts with large burdens in brightly-woven cloth tied across their shoulders, and, randomly, a rock climbing wall in the middle of nowhere. It felt an awful lot like driving through a back road in the Rockies, and yet nothing like the Rockies at all.

We pulled into Olly on a very bumpy cobblestone road (which didn't help my very full bladder) and paid the driver 25 soles for the 90 minute drive. After a quick run to the nearest bathroom we had just under two hours to explore Olly before we caught our train, so we headed for the ruins we could see on the mountainside ahead of us.

People have been living in Olly since the 13th century, and it was the site of one of the few victories the Incas had against the Spaniards in the 1500s. Of course, the Spaniards returned with four times as many troops and conquered the town thoroughly shortly thereafter, but still! They won one at least.

We crossed through a souvenir market and bought a ticket enter the ruins. They stretched up the steep mountainside in a series of terraces (probably used for farming) with the ruins of a series of stoney rooms and passageways at the foot of the mountain. A river runs next to the ruins and part of it is channeled through the site underneath the ground, appearing as fountains inside the various rooms. It reminded me of Knossos and of the ruins in Mexico on a smaller scale.

When I post pictures of the site (hopefully in the next entry), I want you to keep something very important in mind: There are views from the top of the ruins. Which means that I hiked up there. Yes, hiked! Up very steep and uneven stone stairs and a dirt path with Jason trotting past me reminding me of my pioneer genetics in what he thought was a very encouraging way.

From the top we looked down on the town, the patchwork quilt farmland, and the Peruvian middle school marching band arranging themselves on the terraces to our left, blowing on pan flutes and cow horns and drumming drums to get ready for a Hill Cummorah-type pageant tomorrow. We were in the middle of the Andes, we kept reminding ourselves. How spectacular!

A perilous descent down the mountain later and we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Puka Rumi next to the ruins. We both ordered chicken burritos, and it was delicious! We each received two thick crepes (not tortillas - crepes. They were definitely made that way, although with a different, thicker batter that had basil chopped up into it) and the waitress set a series of clay bowls on our table with cheese, chicken, red beans, tomatoes, a heaping pile of guacamole, and shoestring fries that were so salty and delicious.

We ate and walked downhill alongside the river to the train station and got on the Vistadome train for the 90 minute ride to Aguas Callientes. Although the car had wonderfully large windows, to my dismay our assigned seats were two of the few that faced backwards. The VomitWatch kept it from being horrible, but I missed most of the views because I couldn't look out of the window for more than a few seconds before the nausea became unbearable. I defer to the entry Jason's writing alongside me, since he was able to take in much more of the sights.

The train car was packed full with a group of hikers who had just finished a three-day trek through the mountains from Cuzco. They were such a cluster of hiker stereotypes, from the brassy Australian woman who pulled a bag of squished and decaying bananas from her bag, leaned across our laps with it and called, "Scusi! Scusi!" at the attendant to get rid of it; to the American ex-grad student who talked loudly about his wealthy uncle and house near the beach in Rhode Island; to the young blond girl dressed up like a hippy and yet sharing her bag of peanut M&Ms with everyone in her group. Between them and the blushing young train attendant who lost his balance on one of the corners and fell into my lap (much to the glee of the Aussie), it was quite an entertaining ride.

In Aguas Callientes we hunted for the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet and found it on the train tracks at the very end of this little town. Jason was positively gleeful as we climbed the steps in the darkness: "I love that it's the last building between us and the jungle!" We got a room for the night, bought our passes for Machu Picchu at the tourist office, and found this Internet cafe to blog, to hydrate, and to plan.

Buenos noches!

P.S. Jason's version, which made me burst out laughing many times in this quiet cafe, can be found here.


After a solid night's sleep (thanks to earplugs, eye-masks, and half a sleeping pill each), we got up on the earlier side and headed to the highly-recommended Jack's Cafe for breakfast. Since we were both starving, these breakfasts hit the spot!

Jason had the Gordo while I had the ham and cheese on toast with a frothy glass of pineapple juice. We also shared a fruit salad.


Now we are hanging out waiting for the train ticket place to open. The rest of our plans hang on when we go to Machu Picchu, so fingers crossed!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Photos! Lima Airport and Cusco Day 1

Sunset on the flight from Houston to Lima!

I spy with my Mormon eye...
A Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints!

The Fateful Hostel Rec Room, Minutes Before Disaster!

Luggage Wrap in Lima Airport!
Luggage Wrap


Airplane Snacks!
Airplane Food

Cuzco! (Plaza des Armas)


A Gate!
Cusco Gate

View from our hotel room window at night!
View from Cusco Hotel

Pastries on a Bed!
Cusco Pastries

Jason taking a picture of the pastries in the closet because the bed background wasn't good enough for him!
Cusco Pastries

And... fin.

The Journey Begins

I must start off by reminding you about Jason's blog. Thanks to work, he has his Blackberry on him and therefore can email/blog as we go. Hence the posts this morning, and hence the fact that you knew that he had recovered his passport before I knew.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When last I left you, we were in the airport in Houston. After the 6 hour layover, we had a happily uneventful flight to Lima. We watched Rango (strange movie), read, dozed, etc.

We rolled into Lima at 10:30 PM, picked up our luggage (yay!) and went through customs. After adding another stamp to our passports (yay!), we stepped through the doorway into a sea of drivers holding signs.

Really, it was remarkable. There was such a crowd of people pressed against the gates, most of whom were holding signs. I despaired about finding ours in the sea, but happily Jason spotted my name on one of the whiteboard paddles in the crowd.

The driver led us outside, then scurried off to pay for the parking while we waited and enjoyed the cool temperature (66!). He then drove us through the city, pointing out the sights and jamming to American techno.

We arrived at the hostel in Miraflores a little after midnight. By the time we checked in and the clerk led us upstairss to a bunk-bedded dorm room with a green door, it was almost 1 AM. We crept through the other sleeping travelers, set our alarms for 7, and went to sleep.

Dorm sleep tends to be light sleep, so we were both still blearied-eyed the next morning. We ate some "breakfast" provided by the hostel (a piece of white bread and "juice") while waiting for the cab to the airport.

We traced our way back to the airport, taking a different route along the coast (ocean!). It took twice as long as the night before, being rush hour Monday morning. The driver dropped us off at arrivals and we towed our selves and our luggage to the door. "Passporte?" the young guard at the gate asked. He checked mine and waved me through, laughing about my last name ("Si, si, Aguacasa" I replied smiling). As I went inside, I heard Jason call my name in a panicked voice. He had stepped to the side and was frantically going through his bag. I went back out, pointing "mi amigo" out to the guard when he blocked me with his arm.

"My passport," Jason said as I approached, "I can't find my passport."

Duh, duh, DUH!

I gave him my phone and he called the hostel. Sure enough, the front desk checked and found the little black bag in the living room area where we had eaten breakfast. Two hours away. And our fight was leaving in 90 minutes.

With a very Fonzi-like "Hey...!" from the passport guard, I went back inside to ask an agent about changing our tickets. There was quite a line, though, so I went back outside ("Una vez mas!" says the guard) and suggested that Jason go back to the hostel while I tried to change our tickets.

He headed over to the masses of cab drivers and the guard waved me through, scoffing at the idea that he needed to see my passport again.

I spoke to a ticketing agent, and happily we were able to switch to a later flight. I emailed our hotel in Cusco to inform them of the pickup time change and then I went back to the windows near the door and my friendly guard and sat on the window ledge-bench-ish thing and waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

It wasn't too bad. I mostly had to work on
1) not obsessively checking my email to see if Jason had reported yet (he had not),
2) not thinking about how much I needed to use the bathrooms that were all located on the other side of security, and
3) learning how to secure luggage in green plastic wrap.

I was right across from one of those wrapping luggage stations, and I watched them wrap a lot of bags while not checking my email.

A little under two hours later I spotted Jason coming up the walk right after getting an email from him saying he was almost there. He seemed to be searching for the door he had left me at, so I stepped up next to the guard and called "Jason!".

"Jason!" the guard immediately echoed, waving at him, too, then grinning triumphantly at me when Jason turned around.

He passed through this time, we got boarding passes printed for the next flight out, and we dashed through security to the gate. Happily, we even had enough time to go to the bathroom.

And so we settled in for our flight to Cusco, relieved and a bit high from the adrenaline rush.

The flight was lovely. Once we got out of the Lima fog, we could see the Andes mountains the entire way there. Despite being a short flight, they handed out drinks and snacks (Ritz crackers!), prompting Jason to point out how yet again a third-world country does a better job treating people than ours does.

The plane descended onto Cusco through a series of figure eights (Vomit Watch Level 4!) and stellar views.

We landed, claimed our bags, and looked for our pickup from the hotel to no avail. I had no idea if they had gotten my series of emails from the morning, but since we didn't see my name on any of the signs, we accepted a ride from the guy who flashed a very fancy-looking badge to prove his taxi officialness.

He spent the cab ride trying to talk us into coming to his travel agency to get free information about tours. His partner was actually waiting for us in front of our hotel and followed us inside, determined to get us to come listen to their spiel. Jason finally managed to shrug her off by getting her phone number to call later that day.

We dropped off our bags, got a map of the town and a restaurant recommendation from the very friendly clerk, and headed out to see Cusco.

So far, I love it. We followed the Lonely Planet walking tour and saw some of the churches, plazas, and Inca walls that are indeed impressive in their ability to carve and place such tight-fitting stones without mortar. I like the atmosphere here. There were people everywhere, mostly a lot of non-gringo families. We hit Plaza de Armas right when school was letting out and there were kids everywhere in brown or green uniforms chattering as they walk home from school. There are the salespeople, of course, coming up every few steps to offer "Massage?" or "Painted cups?" but they're not as persistent as the ones in Turkey and a polite "No, gracias" seems to do the trick.

We had some tasty fried chicken at the restaurant while King Kong (the newer one) played in Spanish on the TV overhead, then walked about more, enjoying the thin, dry mountain air and cool temperatures until the sun set and we decided that bed was calling. We stopped off at a pastry shop on the way back to the hostel (pear pie for Jason, a banana wrapped in puff pastry for me), and settled into our room to enjoy wifi, power outlets, and a clean bathroom with the prospect of a full night's sleep ahead of us.

Despite the panic of this morning, it wound up being a pretty good day.

Photos to come! (Again, Jason beats me here since he has his laptop and is uploading from his good camera to blog. Oh how the technology-tables have turned!)

P.S. I apologize here and now for not proof-reading these posts. I'm typing on my iPad keyboard, which tends to double letters without me seeing it. Sorry!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Airport Star-Dome

Houston Airport

In Which We Get to Houston

So. Here we are in Houston. It's very exciting.

Four hours into this six hour layover of ours. We killed an hour eating lunch at Chilli's Too and another hour with Jason wrastlin' with Comcast about his bill. (I can say wrastlin' because I'm in Texas, right?)

The plan next is to wander around.

I know you're jealous of my glamorous international lifestyle.

The plane here was really cramped, although the view was enlightened by being surrounded by the Houston Dynamo Soccer Team. At least it was for me. Jason might not have enjoyed the view as much as I did.

Okay, off to wander. Toodles!

On Sleep

Dear Self,

Please stop staying up so late the night before a flight.  Three hours of sleep is not the way to start an international trip.

"I'll sleep on the plane" is a load of crap.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Which We Pack for Peru

A day of laundry, packing, shopping, and generally getting ready for our big trip tomorrow. Woot, woot!

We paused the packing to eat pizza while sitting on the floor of the living room to watch The Emperor's New Groove (Jason's quoting most of the lines along with it. It's a favorite, and rightly so). Woot, woot!

And now we continue packing while finishing the movie, hopefully getting to sleep before 1:00 seeing as how we have to get up by 4:30.

And still I say woot, woot!

Adios until Peru!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just as Everything was Beginning to Suck

I discovered the airy and air conditioned courtyard in the midst of this museum. I believe I shall read some Sherlock and nurse my waterbottle for a while.

Hanging Out With Louisa

At the National Portrait Gallery today.

In Which I See a Different Side of Antonio

After the Library of Congress I met Jason at his office building.  We walked to Penn Quarter to get dinner at a place called Teaism before going to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Merchant of Venice at Sidney Herman Hall.

This is the newer performance space for this company and it's beautiful.  The lobby area is all orange and glass in a very contemporary way, and the theater itself is comfortable and enviable.

This production was set in New York during the Jazz Age.  The commercial importance of the setting and the abutment of the Jewish and the Italian neighborhoods worked, but you just can't escape the fact that this play was written for an audience with very different mentalities.  "I wish," I told Jason on the train home, "that we could see the show from the Elizabethan perspective.  To see Shylock as really evil and to see his conversion as a merciful victory."  I have a hard time watching this play, as I do with Twelfth Night, because of the cruelty.  In this production they really twisted the knife at the end of the trial scene, though, by having Gratiano laughingly chase after Shylock to rip the yarmulke off his head and toss it to the ground.  The other characters laughed while Shylock silently continues his slow walk off stage, covering his head with his hands.  It was awful.

There were some good choices - the suitors had great costumes, one in a classic 1920's aviator ensemble and one in a blue-and-white yachting outfit complete with fluffy dog-in-arms.  Jessica showed up at Portia's house quite visibly pregnant which, if you forgive the strange calendar math that would require (or maybe it's a vampire baby growing in there at freakish speed), gives a nice motivation for her to elope with Lorenzo.

The Italians, especially Salarino, spoke with thick New York accents.  I didn't like this choice, since the rhythm of that accent jars against the rhythm of the script.  Actually, a lot of the actors were difficult to understand, and they missed quite a few possible jokes.  The production kept to the more dramatic tones and it was less enjoyable without people you can genuinely root for.  The production notes said, "In no other of Shakespeare's plays is the word 'love' said do frequently, yet it is unclear precisely when, or if, these characters are capable of actually falling in love."  The unpoetic, unromantic business side of marriage was the emphasis here, although there were two ideas they hinted at that I wished they had committed to more fully and played out better - one, that the fathers in the play set things up to take care of their daughters knowing that they make bad choices in love (this is more obvious in the riddle for Portia, but the director also connected it to Shylock and Jessica with the final bit of blocking at the end.  At least that's what I hope they were going for). 

The other was most obviously hinted when Portia gives Antonio the ring to give back to Bassanio.  At this point the staging had Portia and Antonio on the floor at the foot of the big staircase and Bassanio on the landing halfway up.  Antonio takes the ring, goes up the stairs to Bassanio, takes his hand, and slides the ring on Bassanio's finger while everyone looks on from below.


Well, that's an interesting twist on the Bassanio-Antonio relationship.  Jason said afterwards that they had been hinting at that all along, citing body language cues in their first scene together that I was completely oblivious to.  I had spent the time trying to think of real-life examples of that level of mentor-mentee love and respect between two men.  I actually thought of one, recalling the tender interactions between Phra Bart and Phra Sanjoy last summer.  This was fresh in my mind, since I had just gotten the news from Phra Sanjoy that Phra Bart passed away in his sleep this week.  With that example in mind, I watched Bassanio weep all over Antonio's shirt in the trial scene (which seemed pretty inconsiderate, really.  If a man's condemned to die for the sake of your debt, at least have the decency not to get snot all over his shoulder while they tie him up for the execution) and figured that perhaps that kind of bond could exist between two men after all.

Just not in this production, apparently.

In Which I See a Proper Library

Earlier in the week I made a reservation to take a tour of the Capitol Building.  I arrived early Thursday afternoon and, after the long wait for security (do take the instructions seriously that say to allow at least 45 minutes for that!  Also, when they say no drinks, they mean water bottles, too), entered into the blissful air conditioning to be sorted into a tour group with the masses.

The tour began with a video giving an overview of the history of the building and the set-up of Congress.  I actually thought the video did a nice job covering both of those topics and the comfort of that giant theater can't be beat.

Everyone is then directed up the stairs and sorted into five smaller groups.  A woman in the requisite red jacket handed me a set of earphones with a little digital receiver attached to it.  When I put it on, I heard the woman standing at the front of our line giving us pre-tour instructions.  Each tour groups was connected to a microphone worn by their individual guides.  This allows them to have multiple groups in the rooms at the same time and, despite the rooms' terrible acoustics, everyone could still hear their own guides.

The tour itself was short - we visited the rotunda and the statuary hall (where the Representatives used to meet).  That was it.  The guide provided a lot of interesting information about the structure of the building and the history of the statues.  Each state gets to contribute two statues of any person as long as 1) the statue is made of either marble or bronze and 2) the subject of the statue is dead.  "The state can choose anyone they want," the guide explained.  "Even if everyone else in the country hates them," and here, I swear, she gave a sidelong glance to the statue of Brigham Young we were standing next to, "as long as the state loves them the state can contribute them."

After we were dismissed from the tour, I visited the Exhibition Hall.  There was a row a digital touch screens set up where you could learn more about Congress or the Capitol building.  I looked up the list of statues to see who Colorado had contributed: Florence R. Sabin and John L. Swigert.  (Utah's other contribution, by the way, was good ol' Philo.)

There is a tunnel that connects the Capitol to my next destination so I walked to the Library of Congress without having to re-endure the heat or the security lines.

When I mentioned the Library of Congress earlier in the week, Jason encouraged the visit, saying that it was the most beautiful building in the city.

I have to agree.  It's stunning; a mosaic-ed, fresco-ed, and carved temple dedicated to knowledge.  From the names of various writers set in gold in the ceiling and walls to the quotations about knowledge and books on the upper walls, I loved it. 

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The main reading room was closed except to researchers, but I did get a glimpse of it through the plastic-enclosed public viewing room on the second level. Oh, the wood! The lighting! The statues of inspirations figures looking down at you! The books! It called to mind the long afternoons I spend reading while Jason studied in the fabulous reading room at the New York Public Library, and I wanted nothing more than to settle in to one of those leather seats with my Kindle.

Dang researchers-only rule.

Instead I went to one of the galleries in the wings where they set up Thomas Jefferson's personal library. After reading about it in At Home, I was eager to take a look at his collection myself. They have his books (well, the ones that weren't burnt, that is. They did replace the lost books with other matching editions for this display, but only about 1/3 of the books there were actually his) set in glass shelves in a circle so you can stand in the middle, surrounded by the books, just as it should be.

It's a beautiful building and well worth a visit. It also raised my standards for my home library, dang it.

In Which I Find an Arid Climate

Hirshorn Gallery Fountain

On Wednesday I went to the Hirshorn Modern Art Museum first. The circular building was fun, with the galleries set up in two concentric rings on each floor. The art was meh. There were a couple pieces I enjoyed - a large sealed plastic cube with condensation from distilled water on its sides and ceiling, for example. I get a kick out of those art pieces that you're not really sure whether they're part of the exhibit or just something someone left there.

I also liked this one:

Modern Art

That's it, just those giant blue words on the wall.  Ah, modern art!

After an obligatory visit to the museum's gift shop (I love museum gift shops, and modern art museum gift shops are my very favorite kind), I walked down the street to the Botanical Gardens.

I had visited the outside gardens earlier, and I enjoyed them. But the inside! The conservatory definitely make this the best botanical gardens I've ever been to.

The greenhouses are divided up into rooms of various sizes according to climate. The different collections include Rare and Endangered Plants, Primeval Plants (plants that have been around for more than 150 million years), an Orchid Room, Hawaii, Medicinal Plants, a lovely Garden Court, a huge Jungle Room which includes a balcony at canopy level, and my favorite, World Deserts. I relished standing in a place with low humidity again!


Like much of the Smithsonian, this museum included several interactive parts. I actually really liked their choices for including hands-on exhibits. For example:

Smelling Station

There were smelling containers set up with groups of spices that make up different dishes.

Interactive Stations

There was also a station for exploring plant-based perfumes and crafts.

The best idea, though, was this room:

Children's Garden

How great is that?  (If you can't read the sign, it explains that the room is for kids to explore, touch, smell, and to use gardening tools to dig, rake, and water the plants.)

The Children's Garden was pretty empty when I went through. I watched one little boy run from fountain to fountain to pump water using a pump exactly like the one in front of our cabin at Bear Lake. There's also two tunnels made from plants, so I wandered through the path made from bamboo:

Bamboo Walk-Through

I'm sure it's a lesser-known museum in the Smithsonian's collection, but I sure enjoyed the Botanic Gardens.

I called my mom as I left to tell her about them (she would love it). We talked as I walked over to L'Enfant Plaza in search of a post office. I had tried to find the one that Google Maps claimed was near the Forest Service/Department of Agriculture earlier to no avail. My mom hunted for directions online and talked me to a grand hotel at L'Enfant by way of the Department of Education (as you saw). I went inside, ignoring the look I got from the doorman (I assume it was because I was a bit of a sweaty mess by this time. I miss my desert climate!). I couldn't see any signs of or for a post office, but I went to the gift shop betting that, like most hotels, if they sell postcards they must also sell stamps. Success!

I brought a pedometer with me on this trip, but I haven't been wearing it since it makes a little shuffle-clicky sound with each step. I had clipped it on that morning, though, because I really was curious to see how many steps my museum trips accumulated. They say 6000 steps for health, 10000 for weight loss. I walked over 18000 steps on Wednesday. Huzzah!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Irony

Dear Department of Education,

photo 5.JPG

Do you realize that nine of the twenty-two pictures on the front of your building show children participating in the arts?

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Please keep that ratio in mind.

In Which I Give You Wolf Trap Advice*

* (Not this wolf trap)
(This Wolf Trap)

Advice for Going to Wolf Trap

1. There is a let's-avoid-the-traffic handy shuttle that will take you from the West Falls Church metro stop directly to the Performing Arts center.  It costs $5 round trip.  Be sure to have exact change, but the driver will be patient while you count out $5 in dimes and nickels because you only have a ten and four ones.

2. Bring a picnic!  We recommend wraps from Sweetgreen with Perrier and Trader Joe's dark chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt and turbinado sugar.

3.  Bring a blanket to sit on as well as trash bags to put under the blanket to keep the soggy ground from soaking through.  (Note: will not prevent sogginess when the moisture comes from the sky)

4.  Make sure you pick a spot to sit near groups of people with beer, wine, and light-up plastic goblets.  Their drunkenness will provide minutes of entertainment as you wait between acts.  Keep an eye out for the bonus show to your left once the rain really kicks up where two girls slither against each other and the handrail before falling completely over on the sidewalk!  Just make sure you leave when the guy behinds you starts dancing to Aretha's music by hopping in circles on one foot with the other at the level of your head.  He might be drunk enough to avoid injury, but you're not!**

** No one you know was actually injured in this dance

5. Make sure you bring your umbrella!  It'll rain for most of the concert.  It's also a great time to practice your yoga skills as you try to keep all of yourself covered:

Wolf Trap

But seriously, the concert was a lot of fun: lightning, fireflies, drunk people, Aretha's fiesty lecturing of the sound techies in the middle of her song, and the incredibly long monologue from the opening act musician to set up a faux Billie Holiday song. I'm glad we went and I'm thrilled we brought umbrellas!
Wolf Trap