Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ReRun to remind me why I like snow

Today is an icky, sloppy, slushy, freezing, nasty day. My walk to work was miserable despite starting exactly the way this post ends with hopes for a fluffy snow day and announcements of school closures. But as a non-student with lots of work I had to head out and the light snow flurries quickly turned to freezing rain that managed to drip through my hat by the time I was within a block of my office. I didn't have an umbrella and I forgot my gloves. I need to remember why I love snow right now, so I turned to my archives and found this (with some minor editing) from a more optimistic January 30, 2007. Please enjoy.

As I sat on my couch talking to my parents, I wondered what was happening outside my window. The boxes of light peeking out from buildings a block or two away were becoming fuzzy at the edges and the distinct gold pyramid that tops the World Wide Plaza building was slowly disappearing and everything was taking on a blueish gray haze. Upon ending my call, I pulled myself off the couch intending to get ready for bed but was instead drawn to the window to check out what I believed was a thickening fog rolling in from the Hudson River. To my surprisem it wasn't fog at all. In the 30 minutes since I had walked into my building a soft white blanket had covered the cars on the rooftop parking garage across the street and more flurries were hurriedly darting past the lights to settle on hoods and roofs, on the sidewalk and scattered in patches near the curbs on the street.

Snow.

I should have guessed that snow was finally going to make an appearance this winter. This morning the temperature was allegedly somewhere in the 20s but as I hurried to work, I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck and chin to fight against the biting wind that threatened to steal through my winter layers. This is what we call the wind chill - something I never fully comprehended before living in New York City and was never completely exposed to until I chose to live on the doorstep of the secret portal to the arctic circle which is the corner outside my apartment building.

But that wasn't my clue for winter flurries.

My clue came at 10 pm this evening as I exited my office building to wait for the dispatcher to call a black car for me. I stood on the sidewalk without gloves or hat and felt comfortable. Too tired to register the warming shift in temperature, I climbed in my car, gave my address and chatted with my dad on the 10 minute drive home without a snowflake in sight or thought. I should have remembered the relative warmth that arrives as a predescessor to snow.

Seeing the first real snow of the season outside my window makes me long for piles and piles of it - enough to shut down schools and businesses, enough to excuse attendance at work, enough to require me to pull out my warm pink ugg impostors to clomp over the piles that would be shoved up against each street corner, enough to turn Central Park into a magical snow world similar to Narnia. I love snow and I've missed it this winter, I only saw a little skiff a few mornings ago that was gone by the time I walked out the door. The advantage to winter is the soft quiet that descends with the snowflakes, even a City as loud as New York falls into a hush with a fresh carpeting of snow. I'm sure it isn't predicted but my wish as I drift off to sleep tonight, is that I will feel that rush of anticipation when I wake to hear scraping shovels and snowplows hitting cement and asphalt fighting back the snow as I rush to peer out my window to confirm my childlike wish for a snow day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

because you miss me . . .

at least I'm hoping you miss me. I still have lots to write about my Peru vacation and a few things to say about my MLK weekend trip to Utah and other odds and ends about reviewing 2008 and making some 2009 resolutions BUT . . . there is no time. I am pretty swamped at work these days and my home internet has decided to be on the fritz most of the time and I am usually too tired to sort it all out when I get home late at night.

So.

To keep you entertained (sort of) and remind you that I'm still alive (just sick of January), here are a couple of absolutely random lists.

Things in my bottom desk drawer: (because I know you were dying of curiosity)
  • 1 90 calorie pack mini delight quaker chocolatey drizzle [crisps?] (except that now that I have discovered them, I am quickly devouring them)
  • 1 large bottle contact solution
  • 1 blue umbrella
  • 1 folder labeled "2007 Prescriptions"
  • 1 broken cell phone charger (why is that even there? I'm throwing that away)
  • 1 black skirt
  • 1 purple and black striped work-out tank top
  • 1 black sports bra (I forgot that was there!)
  • 1 red umbrella cover
  • an empty, used zip lock bag (now in the garbage)
  • miscellaneous receipts I am sure I was keeping for a reason (now all in the garbage)
  • some address labels with monkeys on them - got those in the mail free I think
  • wait, another quart size ziplock bag (why do I have these?)
  • 1 very flattened box of Special K cereal with very little cereal (now in the garbage)
  • (this is crazy) yet another quart size ziplock bag, this one contains 4 small white pills - I have no idea what these pills are. They are labeled L374 . . . anyone?
  • 1 pack orbit cinnamint gum with only one piece remaining
  • 1 small black velvet bag I received free at some luncheon, I forget what is inside . . . oh, yes a hand-cranked flashlight (my mom will be proud of this, she always wants me to carry a flashlight for whatever reason)
  • 3 blank pieces of lined letter size paper tri-folded to go in an envelope (off to recycling for that)
  • 1 small matchbook from Tao (I have a small obsession with collecting matchbooks from restaurants - and no, I do not smoke, I just like how creative and different they all are - this one contains black wooden match sticks with bright orange tips and the cover of the box is an illustration of two Japanese women in kimonos holding flowers)
  • hold on, I just found another ziploc bag. I am not making this up, I had no idea I was a horder of quart size ziploc baggies!
  • 2 Banana Republic button envelopes (you know the ones that come with new pants and such on the tag) containing . . . buttons! I think these are from that time I had a surprise hearing and had to run out at lunch and buy a new suit.
  • more scraps of receipts for the garbage
  • 1 ticket for a Knicks game versus the Jazz from December 18, 2006 . . . not exactly a memento since the Jazz lost!
  • 1 hour validation for parking at the Westfield Century City in LA . . . haven't been there in well over a year
  • 1 tithing slip from December 2006 . . . I must have dumped the contents of my purse out in this drawer sometime in late 2006/early 2007
  • 1 ticket stub from the Metropolitan Opera for Luisa Miller from March 21, 2006 . . . again, must have dumped my purse at some point

Thanks for helping me clean out my bottom drawer - now my purse finally fits in there again. If I didn't have so much work to do I would make a list of all the items of personal apparel I have hidden around my office (in addition to those listed above). Instead I will just summarize (without double-checking or counting).

  • 1 pair black ballet slipper shoes under my desk (for when I'm tired of wearing heels)
  • 1 entire file cabinet drawer FULL of shoes (most of which I never wear and I will not even begin to estimate the number)
  • 1 pair Uggs (I think these are hideous but an absolute must for walking to work in the freezing cold - especially since they are comfortable AND I don't have to wear socks which is great when I don't have time to do laundry and run out of dress socks)
  • 1 pair unreturned pants . . . they've been hiding in the corner for at least a year, maybe two. I either need to lose enough weight for them to fit or find someone who wears an 8L . . . anyone? Really nice tannish color, never been worn.
  • 1 black suit jacket hanging behind my door (does not match the skirt in my drawer)
  • 1 brown puffy vest hanging behind my door
  • 1 winter coat hanging behind my door with large scarf and hat . . . wore this to work this morning so it doesn't really count
  • 1 white summer weight cardigan hanging behind my door
  • 1 tote containing a full set of workout attire . . . been sitting there for 3-4 months waiting for me to go to yoga or the climbing gym after work.

I think that is all for now with the nutty, revealing lists. What about you? What is hiding in your bottom desk drawer? Or your kitchen drawer? Or your junk drawer? Do you have spare outfits scattered around your office? I could reveal even more if I dared open my other two desk drawers full of snacks and throat lozenges, tea bags and deodorant as well as soy sauce packets, napkins, spare pens and greeting cards I never got around to sending.

Friday, January 23, 2009

candy mule

With all the photos I took on my trip to Peru it would seem hard to believe there is anything I might have overlooked. But somehow I managed to neglect taking a photo of something that is very key to the story I want to relate right now. So, when the time comes, please envision about 10 pounds worth of this stuff:combined with this:and this:


Now, on to the story.
Back when I was in the initial stages of planning my trip to Peru, Tiffany informed me that her nephew Parker had just left on his mission* for Peru. As the date of my departure grew closer we discovered that Parker was currently in Cusco. With Cusco situated quite prominently on my original itinerary for a few days this was perfect for delivering a belated Christmas gift from his family. And who doesn't need good karma points for delivering something to a far flung missionary?
I spent Christmas with Tiffany - the day before I left on my vacation - and on Christmas day we both discovered video skype.** Which, by the way, if you live far from a loved one and both of you have webcams - you really should try this. And if you don't have webcams and you live far from loved ones, invest in them. I got to watch my family members open gifts from me 2,000 miles away! For free! It was great. After Tiffany and Ryan watched me do this (it was my first time too), they had to join the fun and they quickly downloaded the program and cajoled their family members into doing the same. Which was great because we got a mobile tour of Ryan's family's Christmas party via someone's laptop getting passed around and Ryan gave his family a tour of their house. Maybe we are all just nerdy and were missing our families but it was a blast.
Anyway, since missionaries get to call home on Christmas day, Tiffany and Ryan happened to be on skype with family members while the missionary was on the regular phone. So, through modern technology this missionary in Cusco, Peru gave his parents directions where and when to meet him and they relayed those directions to me. And phone numbers were exchanged as well. Original Plan: Sunday, get in a cab, go to the church and drop off the package. Backup Plan: call odd string of numbers (I think there were only 5, maybe 6) and ask for the Elders. After meeting the parents by video conference, I felt even more motivated to get those good karma points by delivering this package to their son.
Tiffany put together a package that consisted of all the items you are supposed to be envisioning: you know, from above - the 10 pounds of gummy bears, butterfingers and snickers bars? Okay, maybe it wasn't 10 pounds, but it was a lot of candy! Full Halloween bags of both snickers and butterfingers, plus 10-12 full size butterfingers (apparently his favorite) and the largest bag of gummy bears I have ever seen. Plus some cards. Plus a large festive red gift bag with white snowflakes. Luckily none of this tipped me over any airline baggage weight restrictions. But packing the candy may have distracted me from packing other essential items - like earplugs or extra pants.
Due to the delayed flight, being stuck in Lima and the belated arrival in Cusco, I was not able to follow through with the Original Plan. But, when I arrived in Cusco on the 30th, I immediately removed all the candy and cards from the squished and stashed positions in my duffle bag and filled up the gift bag in preparation for delivery. It was noon. I should have called the number. Instead, we immediately left the hotel to explore.
That night, I tried to call the number. But the phone in my room did not work. So I asked the guy at the front desk to call. He did so. About 8 times while it rang busy over and over and over again. The next morning we tried again. This time, a woman answered. But after asking for the Elders as instructed, she did something unexpected and responded - in Spanish. I panicked. I kept hearing something about a puerto which confused me so I gave the phone to the front desk guy. He tried to interpret but eventually all I really understood was that no one was home. Which seemed strange prior to 9 am, from what I know about missionary schedules (which honestly, isn't much).
So Erin and I went off to Ollentaytambo (hee! I still love saying that word) and then Machu Picchu with the candy shoved back in my duffle bag. When we returned to our hotel on the 1st sometime around 8 pm, I decided to give it one more try. I pulled the candy and the cards out once more and shoved it all back in the gift bag. Then I called from my new hotel room where the phone actually worked and fretted about what to do if I had to talk to that woman about the puerto again. This time she sent me straight to the missionaries (transferred the call I guess) but then the first missionary didn't speak English. *Sigh* So I muttered through a handful of inapplicable Spanish words I knew tossing in Mormon-o and Elder and Parker's last name and a few "ingl├ęs?" pleas. Finally the phone was handed to someone with a familiar American accent. This missionary was not the one I was looking for but he knew why I was calling. He had been waiting for my call. And he had bad news - Parker had been transferred just a couple of days earlier to Lima. I had missed him! If not for the phone debacle earlier we might have been able to deliver! Argh. But the missionary on the other line (who was not related to a former law school classmate of mine despite a shared not-so-common last name) agreed to collect the package and promised he could get it delivered to Parker. Phew! So I ate a couple of the Snickers bars (remember, this was the day of no sleep and traipsing around Machu Picchu - I really needed a Snickers!) and turned on my phone to text Tiffany the bad news and there waiting for me was a text from her informing me that Parker had been transferred to Lima. In response I confessed to eating some of Parker's candy.*** The missionary who was not related to anyone I know agreed to come by the hotel in a few days to pick up the package and luckily the hotel was agreeable to the arrangement. Although they did giggle when they peeked inside to see all the American candy. I added my own note to the pile in the bag scrawled out on hotel stationary explaining the obstacles and wishing him well. I just wish I could have met him so I could have posted a photo for his parents. He sounds like a really great kid and I must say, he is very lucky to live in Peru for two years. I just hope that other missionary found the hotel (I think I gave good directions - it is on a side street by McDonalds) and didn't keep all the candy for himself.
*FYI, many Mormon young men choose to "serve" a mission for the LDS church when they turn 19 (girls when they turn 21) for two years. They do not choose their destination and even with modern communication capabilities, they do not see, talk to or even email (but this varies) their families for the full two years they are gone.
**Hey, if you have video skype and want to chat, call me! I am highly entertained by the whole Jetsons-ness of it.
***As a side note, I discovered after arriving at home and reviewing my phone bill that I was not charged for a single text message to or from Peru! Why was I not texting more? Oh, because I was on vacation and "getting away" from it all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Machu Picchu

From Machu Piccu

The alarm on my cell phone sounded at 4:30 am as the New Year's festivities raged on somewhere outside our window. As I silenced the alarm, fully awake, my sister said "You've got to be kidding me!" And I responded "Happy New Year" with more than a little hint of sarcasm. We admitted to one another as I pulled the toilet paper out of my ears that I had stuffed in there a couple of hours earlier that we had not had more than 15 to 20 minutes of sleep all night. We felt as if the concert outside had moved into our room and the band had stood serenading us at the foot of our beds. At midnight the fireworks and gunfire started and I went to the window and blinked at the blurred lights and felt grateful it would all be over soon. But optimism that the band would pack up and go home shortly was ill-placed. The bands continued to play interrupted only briefly by a man yelling incoherently in fast Spanish into a microphone. Each time he yelled we each silently prayed he was thanking everyone for coming and wishing them a happy new year and a good night. But the bands played on. As we packed our things, my sister complained about the fireworks and gunshots and possible bombs that were exploding all night long while I whined about the two off-key trumpets who instead of playing in unison generally managed to only be within about an 1/8 of a note of one another. Not the most pleasing sound to the ear. I had stuffed toilet paper into my ears not caring if I injured anything as deafness had a surprising appeal during that insomniatic night. I have never regretted packing an item so much as I did for forgetting the ear plugs that were on my packing list. I have never wanted my ipod so much either - it somehow didn't make the cut for the small daypack. We pulled on yesterday's clothes, noted the rain and wondered why that had not deterred the all-night revelers. We were grouchy, to say the least.

By 5 we were sitting silently at breakfast forcing down bread and jam and bananas with cups of coca tea knowing we would regret it if we skipped breakfast along with sleep. The night before we had asked to follow the other tour group from our same company to the bus. At 515 there was still no sign of them despite an agreed 520 meeting and knowledge that the bus left at 530 am. I was as distressed by this as the German guy we met in Lima - I guess I can blame all my anal retentive time freak-outs on my partial German heritage, right? By 520 the bulk of their group was there but still eating and I chatted with them nervously about not sleeping. No one else seemed quite as annoyed and one guy claimed to have slept through all of it. All the music, all the fireworks, the gunshots and whatever the bomb-like noises were. Oh, to be such a heavy sleeper. When it was nearly 525 and the group was still waiting on one of their members I decided it was time for us to go. I didn't want to miss the first bus. I was up and did not want to waste any more time at this horrible little sleepless hotel. So I asked directions to the bus stop from the tour guide and said goodbye to the group I had been looking forward to getting to know better and Erin and I rushed out the door, up the street, across the bridge and to the long-ish line to the buses. My prior understanding of the system was inaccurate. There wasn't "a" bus every twenty minutes. There was a long procession of buses that started leaving at 530. After a short wait in a soggy line we were crammed onto a bus and zig zagging up the mountainside with views only of the green canyon wall and dripping rain out the window. The bus was pretty silent. The sun was up but there was so much gray and drizzle it was hard to tell. The windows fogged up and I worried I had planned on too many layers.

After a 20 minute ride we were let out in a parking lot and followed the crowd to the entrance clutching our tickets. We couldn't see anything yet through all the mist which added further to the anticipation. After our tickets were punched and we were through the gate we paused to photograph our initial glimpse of this seemingly sacred place. When we turned the corner and saw the ruins for the first time, we were not disappointed. So many things are hyped to the point where reality can never match expectation but Machu Picchu could not be disappointing. There is a reason it is sometimes referred to as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is fascinating.

We quickly separated ourselves from the crowd by opting to follow the path straight ahead rather than scaling the first terraces with the bulk of the people. Shortly we were rewarded by meeting our first llamas. I was ecstatic. This had been my dream, to visit Machu Picchu and see the llamas serenely watching over the historic grounds. Initially, we wandered aimlessly in silence taking photos and taking in the sacred majesty of the place, dumb struck by the beauty of it all. We admired the terraced fields and the unbelievably precise masonry and stumbled into the Room of the Three Windows just above the Temple of the Sun - not knowing what we were seeing. We also unknowingly walked past the Intihuatana Stone which we were later told exudes energy that makes one's pulse race if a palm is placed upon it. The stone is one of the few items at Machu Picchu that is roped off and we walked right by it the first time. Later, when we were there with our tour guide it was too crowded to get close enough to test out this pulse racing thing.

After an hour or so of aimless wandering I began consulting my watch. We had a vague plan to meet our trekking group "at the entrance" between 740 and 8 am. I had no idea if our trekking group would be watching for us and no idea how we would recognize them. We had simply been told there was one entrance and that is where we could find them. I asked around and found out that despite the statement on our map of an "Ancient Incan Entrance Gate", the group would indeed enter at the same entrance we did. So as we wandered and snapped photos and I craved learning more about everything we were viewing, I worried about timing. And then my stomach turned itself inside out and I became tired and irritable and my sister and I started snapping at each other. I thought she didn't care about meeting the tour guide and she thought I was obsessed with it. I kind of was.

By 715 we were back at the entrance gate where I sat on a rock and tried to convince my stomach to settle down while my sister and I took some quiet time. I know she was mad that we were just sitting but I felt awful. And I was worried about meeting our guide. At 730 trekking groups began wandering down from the ancient gate above us. Erin and I still weren't talking so I entertained myself by trying to spot our guide and watching people complete the trek I had so despartely wanted to make myself. It was incredible. The sky was even drearier than it had been when we arrived and the trekkers had clearly been through a lot of rain and mud. Yet, I still wished I had done it. I felt like I was watching the end of a marathon as I jealously watched the clearly exhausted trekkers cross the finish line with a look of accomplishment on their faces. My favorite trekker was a young 20-something girl who was clearly carrying some extra pounds who reunited with her mother at the entrance gate. The girl's mother exclaimed that she never thought the girl would finish and the girl gasped that she never thought she would do it either! She recounted how she had no idea why she ever thought to do this since she had never hiked or camped before in her life but she did it! She explained in detail how difficult it had been and all the times she wanted to turn back and I rejoiced silently for her. If she could do it then surely I could have done it, if only I had had the chance. People seemed so united and caring and supportive of each other as they finished that I was even more disappointed that we missed our own trek.

Until we met our group.

It took some effort but eventually we found our guide. I'm still not sure that he was aware that we were joining them for the tour. By the time we found him we had been sitting at the entrance gate for at least an hour and we were anxious to not waste any more time. But the trekkers had just arrived and were dealing with logistics such as storing luggage, stopping in the bathroom, grabbing a snack, etc. So we had to keep waiting. When we met our guide he immediately led us out of the park entrance and shortly after exiting Erin had near melt-down. She could not find her ticket. Still exhausted and not thinking, I snapped a stupid question at her about not looking before we exited. She went through every pocket of her jacket and backpack as I chased down our guide who had left us briefly to see what could be done. The lack of sleep was effecting Erin as well and she feared she would be blocked from re-entrance. Just as I discovered that all she needed to re-enter was her passport, she found the ticket and all was well. We made a short bathroom break and soon met up with our should-have-been trekking group.

They were awful. Individually, maybe they would not have been so bad but collectively, they were terrible. There were two guys and a girl of roughly our age range. The two guys were immediately bragging about how they were the fastest and toughest trekkers of all time. They boasted of how much weight they carried in their packs and how they refused to slow down or take the usual rests. When exchanging the usual get-to-know-you pleasantries they were dismissive and clearly weren't listening. They were arrogant and obnoxious and we were both immediately grateful that we hadn't just spent 4 days chasing after these jerks. The girl seemed nice enough and I had to wonder why her boyfriend would be so rude about the whole thing. We spent about an hour with them as the guide took us around the ruins and explained fascinating tid bits of history and insight into the Incan world. But the whole time I was just irritated by the attitude these guys were giving us. The competitive side in me would have gotten the better of me had we spent three days hiking with them. And I probably would have hated the whole thing. It was so disappointing since everyone single person we met while traveling in Peru - save this group - was nice and fun and interesting and well-mannered. We met more people traveling in Peru than we have on any of our other adventures and uniformly the people were cool. We were anxious to hike Waynu Picchu and ended up breaking away from the group early to do so.

Since we did not make the trek we wanted to do a challenging hike and wow was Waynu Picchu challenging. We signed in sometime around 1030 am and optimistically started the hike going downhill. It was raining again and when we reached the stairs we soon learned that even at 8,000 feet, the air was thin and difficult to breath when ascending endless stair switchbacks. It was a rough hike. Probably the toughest hike I have ever done despite the fact that it did not take that long. When we were over half-way up the mountain the rain intensified and Erin worried about how slick the rock steps were getting. Erin has a fear of heights but I didn't think this was the problem since the path didn't have any steep drop offs. But the higher we got the more worried she became about the descent until she told me she couldn't finish. I tried convincing her but knew if it was a fear there wasn't much I could say. I asked if she cared if I finished and she said no. So I kept going. I wanted to turn around many times. My lungs ached and I gladly stepped aside and waited for people coming down the steps. I questioned whether I was actually prepared for the Inca Trail as I gasped for each breath and finally used my inhaler remembering that asthma may be a factor.

When I finally reached the top I didn't care that the view was mostly of mountain peaks and mist. I was happy that I had arrived. I sat on a rock at the first terrace to rest before climbing further to explore the ruins. I drank some water and ate a snack and soaked it all in as the rain slowly stopped. Before 15 minutes had passed my sister's head appeared on the path and she stepped onto the terrace where I was seated. She made it! I was so intensely happy to see her and proud of her for pressing forward. I shared the last of my water and moved over to allow her to sit and catch her breath. She told me she continued on because strangers encouraged her. People coming down kept telling her she was close and that she could do it. I'm sure this is a great analogy for our journey through life but really it is just amazing for what it is. An example of the amazing people we encountered - good people who saw someone struggling and made her stronger with a few small words that helped her take a few more steps.

We spent the next hour or two wandering up and down the ruins and waiting for the mist to clear over Machu Picchu. Just before we were ready to leave it happened. The rain was gone and a wind pushed the clouds away and we looked at the vibrant green terraces and precise gray stones below us and snapped photo after beautiful photo. It was such an incredible sight.

When we finally turned back to walk down we were tired and hungry and our lack of sleep was catching up to us. As we descended we became great cheerleaders telling the ascenders they were close, telling them they can do it and sometimes enthusiastically cheering their accomplishment. We had to pay people back for the positive gift of fortification freely given to my sister. As we carefully picked our way down the steep steps we fell into conversation with a solo hiker. She became extremely enthusiastic when I recognized her accent as from Australia and we spoke of my time spent in Sydney - her home. We loved this girl and our lively conversation made the trip down fly by. She wandered through some more of the main ruins with us for a while before we said goodbye and finished up our time at Machu Picchu. We didn't see every last thing there is to see there but we saw almost all of it and we definitely saw as much as we were physically able in our sleep deprived state.

Around 230 pm we stood in line waiting for a bus in more rain. Tired. Hungry. But exceptionally happy. We waited as a couple of buses filled up and we shuffled forward until the third bus allowed us to finally sit down. As the bus zigzagged its way back down the mountain I opened my backpack and pulled out a treat: a box of three Mrs Fields truffles I had received in my Christmas stocking. We each savored a truffle and split the third, thinking nothing had ever tasted so satisfying.


((a brief warning - Erin and I took so many photos of Machu Picchu it was really, really hard to weed through them but believe me when I tell you that this 180ish photo slideshow is the edited, pared down version.))

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yesterday

It isn't very often that we get to stop and take notice of an historical shift. There are so few guide posts and mile markers that are noticeable in the moment that read: "The World Is Different Now!" or "We've Made Progress". Too often we miss the shift or we mark the low points because they are so low they bring all us collectively to our knees - such as September 11th. But I want to personally mark yesterday as a day that collectively brought tears of joy to the eyes of our nation and what that means to me. I want to be able to tell my children that while I am not black, nor am I an ethnic minority, I rejoiced with those who are for the progress that has in fact taken place in our nation that has such a sad history of oppression and hatred. Is racism dead? Is hate banished? Will a black president bring an end to ignorant comments and bigoted bias? No. But this is marked progress.

Yesterday I arrived home from a red-eye flight and a too long cab ride at 9 am. I planned to rest for a couple of hours before tuning into the inauguration at 11 am but the headache that had been plauging me for two days forced me to sleep until after 1 pm. When I finally roused myself, with a still heavy head, I hit play on my DVR to see how things were changing in my world. The millions who had gathered in my nation's capitol touched me. It was a cold but bright and sunny day and from all the reports people were of good cheer. What touched me the most were the stories of intergenerational discussions of how things used to be and why this day was so important to those who all too clearly remember not being deemed full citizens of our country.

I was struck by so many things that I know I cannot capture in words but I will try because no matter how this presidency proceeds (and I am optimistic), I want to remember how I felt on January 20, 2009 when the first black man was sworn into the office of the President of the United States. What appealed to me from the beginning is his ability to bring opposites together and yesterday's ceremony was another example. The invocation and benediction were given by two men who were on very different ends of the political spectrum. But both invoked God to be with our nation and with this presidency.

The musical number was the perfect prelude to the oath of office and President Obama's address. Because I received an email from my dad praising the music, I had a bit of a preview since he asked "How many of you recognized the John Williams arrangement for Yo Yo Ma, etc. as being from the 7th movement of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland? I would love to get my hands on that arrangement. It was breathtaking . . . " And he was right. It was incredible to hear Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill performing such a beautiful piece in such a breathtaking setting. And despite the bleak, winter cold I thought it was a beautiful scene. Yo Yo Ma's face in particular struck me as he played as he seemed to be enjoying himself and soaking in the words of the old hymn which (partially) danced into my head from nowhere:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
-Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848

I smiled during the exchange between Justice Roberts and President Obama over the misstated words for the oath of office. How human and what a gentle reminder that even justices of the Supreme Court mis-speak at times.

Then our President spoke to us for the first time as president. It was not his greatest speech. But it was beautiful and appropriate for the day and for this time in history when our country is in such financial turmoil. But the single phrase that struck me - as I know it has struck so many others - was "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." What an incredibly powerful and enduring image that is.

I was also moved by the US Navy Band "Sea Chanters" rendition of the National Anthem and the images of our new president singing along with his wife. The poem by Elizabeth Alexander was not my favorite. There were bits and pieces I liked but I did not care for her delivery so I had a difficult time judging the actual poem.

And on a more superficial level, I will admit I was anxious to see what Michelle Obama would be wearing. And I thought her yellow coat dress was beautiful and appropriate. I love that their daughters were wearing colorful J. Crew ensembles. I also liked her evening gown although between the two I preferred the bright yellow day dress. I just think she wears bright colors well.

There are more thoughts and ideas and reactions and feelings all jumbled around in my head and in my heart about the new era we are stepping into today. Sure, nothing looks or sounds or acts differently in my world than it did yesterday. My walk to work was the same. My job is the same. People are all essentially the same. But somehow, I think we are different - regardless of the political ramifications - just by hitting the mile stone of having a black man as president. As someone commented on CNN at some point in the last 24 hours of media overload I was watching (and I am paraphrasing) - it is something for kids who once wore Jay-Z t-shirts to be clamoring for t-shirts with the image of Barack Obama. A new role model. Isn't that something?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ollantaytambo


Please tell me you enjoy saying Ollantaytambo as much as I do. Don't forget the double L turns to a y sound in Spanish. Now try it again: Ollantaytambo. It is fun to say fast or slow, although fast can result in a tongue twister.

Ollantaytambo was our daytime touring destination on our journey to Machu Piccu on New Year's Eve and is one of the treasures we would have missed had we made the trek (positive spin work right there). There were a lot of tricky logistics about our overnight adventure away from Cusco. We were picked up from our hotel in Cusco at 9 am and our driver took us to our next Cusco hotel where we would be checking in on the 1st when we returned from Machu Piccu so we could drop off our luggage. This second hotel was actually our original hotel where we were scheduled to stay on the 27th to the 29th prior to our trip but when that shifted to the 30th, they didn't have any rooms so we ended up at the other place with the cute blue doors and trim. Dropping off our luggage at hotel number two meant packing everything we needed for the day, for a trip to some hot springs, for an overnight stay and exploring Machu Piccu in our small day packs. In my case, my much-smaller-than-anticipated-when-I-ordered-it-online daypack. So I crammed in the bare essentials: a swimming suit, change of underwear, fresh t-shirt, toiletries and rain gear along with the camera, snacks, water, guide book, etc. I was already hauling around. And since Cusco was cold the night before we were both worried about getting cold and I think we each tossed in the long johns we had packed for the trek - just to try and get some use out of them. My pack was nearly bursting. Erin's backpack was larger than mine but she also has a much nicer and larger camera as well as a video camera. We dressed in layers that would be re-worn and strapped fleece jackets and rain jackets to our packs "just in case." Neither of us had any desire to haul around a lot of extra stuff for the next days but Erin was pretty startled when she caught a glimpse of my "essential" overnight toiletries:

I don't blame her because I was a little frustrated by it all myself: the toothbrush and toothpaste are obvious needs as are the contacts if you need them (I did not pack glasses but I did bring the spare contacts because my eyes had been really dry and the current contacts were old and I had a fear of being stuck at Machu Piccu without the ability to see), but I did not bring extra solution - only what was in the lens case, the Olay thing is a pack of face cleansing wipes that worked well throughout the trip, bug spray and sun screen seemed pretty essential given the warnings we'd read and heard (but did not ultimately need either there), lotion, face moisterizer and lip balm were very important with the dry climate in Cusco and no one should skip the deodorent. The puzzling part for her since she simply showed up with a toothbrush and lotion were all my blasted medications. It all took up far more space than I had which meant things were left behind. Important things I later longed for such as: my ipod. Why oh why could I not have slipped my ipod into my jacket pocket and zippered it into place? Why did I find bug spray more important than an ipod?

More on all of that later.

After we returned to the van with our considerably lighter loads, our English speaking guide bid us farewell and we were left with a driver who did not speak a word of English. Okay, maybe a word or two but fewer words than I speak in Spanish which is pretty bad. Since he knew more where we were going than we did this should not have been a problem. And it wasn't exactly a problem, just a little confusing. Like when he wagged his finger at us at one point and we interpreted that as him not liking us taking photos . . . maybe. We did understand when he asked if we are sisters - hermanas or amigas as pretty easy to catch. But when he tried to comment on towns and scenic vistas we were passing as we drove through the Sacred Valley, it would have been really nice to understand what he was saying.

At one point he told us we were driving through Chinchero. It was a lovely little town that was obviously going through a growth period and appeared to be turning into a sort of resort destination. Our driver asked us something, we didn't understand and kind of shook our heads no and we kept driving. Then I realized he was asking if we wanted to look around the town a bit. We probably should have said yes because we probably would have had a nice time there. Learning our lesson, the next time he asked about stopping we said yes and were rewarded with a brief stop at a beautiful scenic overlook where we were able to get out and wander around and took photos.

Our next stop was not planned. Shortly after driving into the town of Urubamba - again, another very fun name to say that makes me think of the song La Bamba - there was a police check point of some sort and we were waived over to the side of the road. A policeman came to the driver's door and the driver handed over all his paperwork. The policman was not entirely pleased with everything he was given and asked the driver to get out of the van. We sat in the back and wondered what was happening. Cars all around us were pulled over, chatted with the police and then moved on. Our driver was the only one to leave the vehicle to huddle with a group of police in the plaza behind us. The policeman in the middle of the road continued to signal drivers to pull over - most complied, others continued without any appearance of consequence. I wasn't terribly worried but I didn't exactly feel comfortable about getting out of the car either. I took pictures out the van window but tried not to be too obvious about it because I really had no idea what was happening. We had dropped significantly in altitude from Cusco and Erin and I were questioning our decision to wear and bring so many additional layers of clothing as the sun beat in through the windows. We took off our jackets and cracked the van windows open and I watched a guy walk his pig. But mostly Erin and I just sat in silence, choosing not to speculate why the police were detaining our driver. Eventually our driver came back and from what we could understand, we think he had to pay a bribe.

We reached Ollantaytambo not long past 11 am. The sun was shining brightly and we were ready to get out of the van and do some more exploring. Our driver was sweet and gave us each a hug and said some words we didn't understand but sounded lovely as we repeated muchas gracias over and over. We were deposited in a square directly below the Incan fortress. We used the bathroom in a store, ate a quick snack and rearranged our packs (a never ending ordeal when you must carry everything in a too small bag), then went into the Parque Arqueologico de Ollantaytambo. It was far pricier than we anticipated. The frustrating thing about admission prices was that our guidebooks told of some mythical Cusco pass that you could purchase that for one price gained you admission to multiple tourist sites. We hunted for the place that allegedly sold them in Cusco with no luck - despite a Spanish speaker doing the inquiring. We handed over the bulk of our soles budgeted for the overnight trip and hoped we could find somewhere that took credit card for lunch and dinner so we wouldn't run out.

It was worth the admission price. The sun was bright but not too hot and the hills were lush and green and the whole hillside was beautiful. We didn't bother with any kind of guided tour and about half-way through we realized we must have started at the end of the trail because we were always going the opposite direction of the blue arrows (although there was no clear starting point at the bottom). But as you can see from the photos below, we had a great time exploring and taking photos. And climbing stairs. Lots and lots of stairs which reminded us of the altitude.

After a couple of hours we were ready for lunch and decided to check out the pizza. This was our fourth full day in the country and despite being inundated by pizza, we had not yet succumbed. We tried a place that promised a "wood fire oven" pizza. It was empty but for two other tourists but we loved it. Not really thinking and without inquiring about the size, we each ordered our own pizza. They were huge. And delicious. We easily could have split just one.

After lunch we wandered around town trying to find the non-existent blue heritage trail my guidebook promised and looking for a path up to the other ruins on the hill opposite the fortress. We were unsuccessful on both counts but still enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets, admiring the stonework and the water drainage system which were designed by the Incans. Supposedly the town was originally designed like a cob or ear of corn or something like that. I didn't get it. But I loved details like planting cactus on the top of a fence to keep birds away or people from climbing over. Also, locals who brew their own home corn beer put red plastic outside their doors to let people know they can drop by. We found one but did not sample the local brew.

We were scheduled on a 4 pm train to Aguas Calientes and I grew restless around 230 which drove Erin nuts. I realize I should be able to just sit in a public square and watch people and be content but . . . that is hard for me. I need a book or conversation or something to keep me half occupied. I kept making us move from one place to the next when I got bored. At one point we were sitting near the river under a pretty flowering tree and I was entertaining myself by taking dumb photos: of the flowers, the tree, my feet, Erin's ear . . . when a dog walked toward us. He was a small mop of a dog that was dusty and working on some dred locks. I don't touch dogs in developing countries but that doesn't mean I don't watch them or admire them. He was scruffy but still cute-ish. Until he walked right behind our park bench and emptied his bowels . . . and he had not been eating right. So we moved benches for the 3rd or so time and I anxiously looked at my watch and wondered if we should start walking toward the train station now that it was only an hour and a half rather than two hours away. I was irritating my sister. Sometimes on purpose, just to entertain myself I'm guessing. So by the time we were sitting on yet another bench outside the train station, we were no longer talking.

At 3:30 we finally went in the train station and it was very cute. Everything was a bit old fashioned and the train was painted bright blue and yellow and the bright sunshine and the verdant hills rising above the swiftly moving muddy Urubamba river opposite the tracks painted a beautiful picture that improved both of our moods.

The train ride was fantastic. I was initially irritated by the cramped benches but just before we pulled away from the station we - and other passengers - discovered the benches could be adjusted so the bench in front of you would face you. If you ride trains much I think you understand this concept if I describe it properly. Essentially, instead of all of the seats facing forward, the back can be pushed forward so passengers can face each toher. Or, in our case, we were able to find two unoccupied rows, adjust the bench, and stretch out. The railroad winds through a narrow canyon following the Urubamba River which became a very aggressive river at varying points. We also passed the starting point for the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu which gave me one more twinge of regret at missing that opportunity as I watched the trail wind up into the mountains on the opposite side of the river. The train served a little snack that wasn't too bad except for what they tried to pass off as dessert. Apparently Peruvians are big fans of fruit cake. While I cannot say I have ever tasted fruit cake, I am 99.9% certain I would hate it. Which is why the strange little fruit cake muffin/cupcake did not appeal. I went so far as to peel back the wrapper but when I saw the bits of festive "fruit" scattered throughout, I couldn't bring myself to take a bite. Shortly after backing away from the temptation to try it, the train was stopped and a little boy outside Erin's window was signaling for food. So Erin, along with other passengers tossed out a couple of the fruitcake muffins to him. Then the train workers got mad and everyone stopped and just felt bad for the little boy begging outside the train.

It was about 6 pm and raining when we reached Aguas Calientes and a man from our hotel was there to greet us. We discovered some other passengers from the other car in our train were also being escorted to the same hotel and that they were traveling with the same touring company we had used. While everyone was waiting to check in, I sought out their group leader who was wearing a shirt with the company's name. I explained our situation and how we are supposed to meet our trek guide at Machu Piccu in the morning for a tour but was wondering if we could follow his group to the bus in the morning. At the time I had no idea how easy it would be to find the bus. He said no problem and explained they were meeting for breakfast at 5 am and taking the 530 am bus, he would be there to pick us up at 520 am. I thanked him and Erin and I went to settle into our room. As I explained here, our short stay in Aguas Calientes was not exactly the highlight of our trip.

After we arrived, we put on our swim suits and got directions to the hot springs and a recommendation from the front desk for a good place to eat. The hot springs were at the very end of town up lots of stairs and hills. We really did not know what to expect as far as facilities so we didn't even bring our backpacks (it was nice to leave them behind for a few hours), just the clothes we were wearing and some money for dinner and I had my camera. As we got closer we noticed all kinds of stores renting towels for a couple of soles, so we decided it was better to be safe and rent one in advance and when you are paying less than a dollar it is hard to feel you are being ripped off. The canyon became very narrow and essentially ended at the hot springs and after we paid admission we wandered up higher and higher, trying to pretend we weren't getting winded. As it turned out, the facilities were quite nice and roughly equivalent to what you might find at a local pool. There was an attendant where you could rent a locker for your stuff and there were changing rooms. We slipped out of our clothes in the changing room, wished we had flip flops and put all thoughts of fungus out of our heads and paid another sole or two for a locker and went down to the hot springs. There were several pools on varying levels but the first couple were empty and when I dipped a toe in I discovered why - cold. We decided to try the one with the most people and deposited our towels on a nearby shelf. As I was stepping into the pool a vaguely familiar face in the dark sea of heads waved and gestured for us to join him. As we grew closer we realized these were some of the people from the hotel. We chatted with them and found out they were finishing an alternate three day trek that ended in Ollantaytambo where they took the train with us and in the morning they were finishing their trek with a tour of Machu Piccu. Three of the four were law students so we had ample conversation fodder. Before too long they were off to join the rest of their group for dinner and we said we would see them in the morning. They were a nice group and Erin and I were both pretty convinced one of the law student's was Mormon. He was from Idaho and he just had that certain something . . . maybe it was his eagerness and enthusiasm, I don't know what but it was more than a hunch. He went to college at Utah State and had we spoken longer, I am sure it would have come up. I told her if we found out he spoke Spanish then it was definite. My favorite part of our conversation with them was when they thought I was a second year associate at my law firm. . . love being mistaken for someone six or so years younger.

After we had our fill of the not quite caliente aguas, we patted ourselves dry with our towels and headed to the locker room to change. Only we didn't exactly have anything to change into so we faced the dilemma of wearing wet swim suits that would soak through our pants and shirts (our only pants and shirts incidentally) or remove the suits and finish the night commando. I'll just say we finished 2008 a bit differently than I normally choose to and went straight to dinner. Unfortunately the place we were hoping to go to which was recommended by our hotel had a 20 minute wait and we were (or at least I was) starting to get anxious about getting to bed since a 5 am breakfast would be very early. So we made the mistake of not waiting for a table at the lively and festive balloon be-decked restaurant with the live band and went next door where we were hustled to a table on the street where we could watch people. The waiter inquired as to our nationality and enthusiastically placed a small American flag on our table. The service was slow - but that is the same all over Peru - but the food was not good. Erin liked her alpaca so much that I decided to try it. Mine was tough and dry and I was really getting tired of dry, bland french fries. It was around 8 when we sat down for dinner and the streets were pretty empty but by the time we left at 930 people were starting to come out to prepare for the festivities. Despite the occasional sign or 2009 glasses, it wasn't really sinking in that it was new year's eve since we needed to go to bed so early.

We wandered the main square a bit and admired the beautiful Christmas tree in the center made out of green plastic bottles. Then we turned back toward our hotel for showers and bed and the sleep that never came.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Utah, need an excuse to eat ice-cream for dinner?

Ute marching band dad and new reader Roger informed me that Cold Stone is donating 10% of their sales from stores in the Salt Lake valley to the Ute Marching Band. It doesn't take a lot to encourage me to eat ice-cream for dinner but a worthy cause should be enough to push the skeptics. And don't use the whole new year's resolution diet excuse because they have a really tasty no fat sweet cream flavor that is delicious with fruit . . . or brownies. If you are in the Salt Lake area would you please stop by Cold Stone for me?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cusco

We woke up early on the 30th anxious to get out of Lima and start our real vacation. For some reason, I could not shake the feeling that Lima was just a place filler, that we somehow weren't on our real vacation until we got to Cusco. So when we got to the ridiculously freezing cold airport extra early (our Atlanta delays left me a bit paranoid), you can imagine how upset we were when our flight was delayed. And how anxious we became when they announced that the flight was overbooked. I clutched my ticket and hovered a bit too close to the gate thinking if I get on the plane as fast as possible they can't kick me off. After a lengthy wait, we were finally allowed to board and leave Lima behind.

The flight was short and the moment I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac in Cusco, I declared that I love it. The air felt cleaner and I did not yet notice how thin it was and the surrounding hills were beautiful. I am a mountain girl at heart and whether it is the Uintahs or Andes, mountains make me happy. Before leaving Lima, we made a happy discovery that the Lima airport had a luggage storage check so we were able to lighten our load by one bag and left our sleeping bags, trekking poles and a few other superfluous items (water purifier) behind and were able to travel with the far more manageable ratio of 1 bag to 1 person. After collecting our bags we walked outside and I immediately spotted my name on a sign. The woman was from our trekking company - who had rearranged all of our Cusco and Machu Piccu travels. She took us to our hotel and got us all checked in and gave us directions to their office so we could pick up the rest of our itinerary. The hotel - Hotel Garcilasco - was so cute with its bright blue doors and trimming. Our room was off an interior courtyard and the bathroom looked brand new. After our Lima hotel with its tiny cockroach bathroom, this felt luxurious. We were soon greeted with a our first sampling of coca tea which locals drink to combat altitude sickness. We deemed it herbal and imbibed and Erin fell in love with the stuff.

After settling in we headed out to find the trekking office so we could figure out what we would be doing during our stay. Cusco is beautiful. The architecture, the gardens, the people, the narrow cobble-stoned alleys. We loved it all but definitely noticed the thinner air when we marched up the steeply inclined streets. I wanted to give Ambar - our agent - a giant hug when I met her for saving our trip. She and I had been corresonding by email since we missed our flight in Atlanta working out new hotels and excursions. She sat down with us and explained all our options and gave us tickets after ticket and vouchers for everything and listed off meeting points and times and I grabbed a notebook and pen and made her repeat the whole thing one or two more times until I not only had it written down, I had it memorized.

When we said goodbye, she recommended a place for lunch that we never found and instead opted to check out a little place with incredibly enticing aromas wafting out into the street. Despite a friendly "tourists welcome" sign hanging inside, this was clearly more of a locals only type of place. When we walked in it was nearly empty and we took our time perusing the menu before Erin got brave enough to order alpaca and I stuck with some sort of chicken with fried potatoes. Which, in case you are wondering, means french fries and nearly every meal is served with them - even Erin's alpaca stir fry with rice. And the fries really aren't good. As we waited for our food to arrive the tiny place filled up and more and more people were shuttled upstairs. I was reading through my guidebook trying to plot what to do for our one free afternoon in Cusco as Erin text messaged a co-worker who was also in Cusco trying to figure out a rendezvous place and time. After a while I realized all of these other tables of people who arrived after us were busily eating and here we were still waiting for our food. We tried to flag someone down but couldn't make eye contact with anyone. When we did finally manage to get a particularly hurried server's attention, I did not think he understood what we wanted. But soon enough we had our food although I was pretty startled because mine initially appeared to be pancakes with berry syrup and fries. Except it wasn't pancakes - it was chicken with berry syrup. And it was tasty. We had another significant wait for our check and concluded this was not exactly the most tourist friendly lunch spot and hurried off to take photos and explore a bit before meeting Erin's friend.

As we were sitting in the still-sunny Plaza de Armas waiting for Erin's friend, I thought I felt rain. Before I knew it, big fat raindrops were falling more and more rapidly and it became clear that just pulling on the rain jacket hood was not going to do. We, along with all the other people milling about the plaza, ducked for cover under the covered sidewalks around the perimeter and watched the rain speed up in intensity and turn to large chunks of hail as lightening danced behind the cathedral directly in front of us. Suddenly everyone around us with pulling on brightly colored ponchos and the streets were covered in nearly an inch of water which splashed high as cabs hurried to rescue stranded travelers. We watched the scene as Erin's friend made his way to us from wherever he had sought refuge. When the rain lightened (relatively speaking), we made the short walk back to our hotel to take a bathroom break and to outfit ourselves in better rain gear as we had all decided to stick with our original plan and go to the ruins above town rather than museums. By the time we were changed into rain pants, had wandered around looking for an non-existent tourist office with some sort of discount pass, given up and jumped in a cab, the rain had slowed to a negligible drizzle. Erin's friend is a native Spanish speaker and has an inherently wacky personality which was a welcome respite from the two of us pushing each other's buttons. Not that we weren't getting along, just that it is far easier to snap at your sister when you are tired and things aren't going 100% as planned than it is when you add someone new and interesting to the mix.

We spent the soggy afternoon giving ourselves a self-guided tour of Sacsayhuaman which I constantly referred to as Saskatchewan because I didn't know how to pronounce it and that seemed to be the closest thing in my head. Roman (Erin's friend) often prompted me to read about what we were looking at as we tromped along the muddy paths and rain splattered onto the pages of my book as I stumbled through descriptions of what I thought we were looking at. Roman and I both got excited about some sort of "slides" across the way from where we were standing at the time but Erin pushed us up toward what we discovered was a fantastic view of Cusco. The Sacsayuaman ruins are in the hills overlooking Cusco and it was fun to look down and easily spot the plaza where we met up not an hour earlier. The three of us laughed and joked and explored the winding trails around the ruins and then hiked up a hill (again taking note of the thin air at 13,000+ feet) to where a statue of Christ overlooks the city. By this time the rain had subsided and Erin and I were overdressed in our rain pants but when you bring only one pair of pants (ahem, like me), you can't risk muddying up that one and only pair so early in the trip.

We returned to the parking lot to plot out how to get to our next destination - Qenko (or, as I called it "Kinko's") - another Incan ruin site. My book said it was only a 20 minute walk but also indicated it closes at 530 and since it was already after 5 we needed to track down a taxi.

Let me take a moment and explain something about taxis in Peru. First off, do not call them cabs because people will just stare at you blankly. They are known only as taxi. Secondly, while I was initially quite skeptical of my book's claim that approximately 70% of vehicles in Peru (or maybe in Lima) are taxis, after spending some time in both Lima and Cusco - I believe this statistic. In Lima, if you are not being harrased by a guy with a menu begging you to eat in his restaurant (even if you just walked out of the one next door), a taxi is stopping and asking if you need a ride. There is no meter and generally, anyone with a car can be a taxi. They just have to buy the little white "Taxi" sign and stick it on their roof. In Lima there are a couple of "official" taxi companies but there are also hundreds and hundreds of sole proprieters out there trying to make a few soles. Which means, taxis are cheap. As in, $7 for a 25 minute trip from the Lima airport to the Incan Markets cheap. For a New Yorker, this is a welcome shock. Oh, and they don't tip. Which pained me so I was always throwing in a few extra soles.

Given the proliferation of taxis we didn't think about getting down until we were standing in a parking lot filled with tour buses and no taxis. But it didn't take long for one to show up and Erin and I happily sat back and allowed Roman to negotiate the price and location and all of that and happily accepted our driver's kind offer to wait for us at Qenko after we gave him a 2 sole tip (less than $1).

Qenko (which also sounds like cankles in my head) is an Incan huaca - which is a revered location used for ceremonies. This particular huaca was formed out of an existing cave. While no one is entirely sure what took place there, they believe the altar built inside the cave is where the Incans sacrificed llamas.

After returning to our waiting taxi, we had to skip the last of the three Incan ruins since it was after 530 and it was surely closed. So we returned to Cusco and searched out a place for dinner. We were all in the mood to try the pizza and selected a place on that basis but once inside none of us tried it. We befriended a solo diner at the next table who made a few recommendations and words of caution about the massive meat plate which consisted of skewered meat served on a grill still cooking on the table. Despite the inclusion of intestines and heart and such, Roman ordered it. Erin went with the grilled chicken and I tried the trout which I'd read was good locally. My trout was good and I probably would have enjoyed it more had I not tasted Erin's chicken. I have no idea what they did to it but it was the most deliciuos chicken either of us have ever eaten. My mouth is watering just thinking about this chicken - it was tender and juicy and a little bit smoky. Our friend from the next table found out Erin and I were heading to Machu Piccu next and gave all kinds of tips and advice - some confirmed by other information I had read but always good to hear first hand. He also pointed us toward the best place to exchange money was turned out to be extremely helpful as it had a far better exchange rate than anywhere else we had been.

After dinner we explored the square a bit more with Roman until we were all too tired and bid farewell with hopes of meeting up when Erin and I returned to Cusco in a couple of days. The rain had turned things pretty cold and we discovered our room lacked heat so we drank more tea and spent some time in the lounge area where there was a nice fire waiting for a turn at the computer where I lucked out and caught both my parents and Tiffany on google chat and was able to catch them up on our adventures to that point.

We packed a lot into our one day in Cusco but we both wished we could have more time - like the original two days at least. My advice, if you are in Peru, plan lots of time in Cusco.

Lima

When I was planning this vacation I heard from many, many sources to not bother spending any time in Lima. Almost without exception anyone who had been to Peru said it wasn't worth bothering with. Books and articles boasted about the food but also warned of crime, poverty and dirt. So when I was stuck in Atlanta scrambling to create an alternate plan, I was upset that we would now have two full days to kill in Lima. I emailed a former co-worker who has spent extensive time in South America to see if he had any suggested insights. His response? Get out as soon as possible. Wow, thanks for the advice. While I absolutely agree that there are far better things to do and see in Peru than Lima, I would recommend spending a day there because we saw some great things and I have to admit - the best food in Peru is definitely found in Lima.

Ironically, and frustratingly, our replacement flight from Atlanta to Lima on the 27th was nearly three hours late. And the flight was overbooked due to all of the people who missed the flight on the 26th for reasons very similar to our own. Which means we arrived at our hotel near the airport at close to 4 am. We were tired and irritable and there were several misunderstandings. The hotel sent a driver to pick us up. It was nice to have someone there waiting and while $11 sounds cheap, after spending some time in Lima I now know that was actually a pricey cab ride. I paid the driver. As we checked in there was some confusion about whether or not I had already paid for the room and the night desk person agreed to sort it out in the morning. I told her I paid the driver for the cab. No one took issue with this. However, the next morning, I was told I needed to pay for the cab and was again questioned about paying for the room. I looked up some emails and explained I paid the driver and ultimately they said it was all fine and agreed to call us another cab to take us to our next hotel in Mira Flores.

While we were stuck in Atlanta, I contacted a travel agent in Lima and asked her to help us to book a hotel and a tour. Our first hotel was never meant to be a place from which to sightsee. I selected it for its close proximity to the airport and nothing more. It wasn't close to anything and I don't believe it would have been wise for us to wander around on foot from there. The hotel the travel agent booked was in Mira Flores - the most affluent area of Lima. The hotel was cheap and clean (other than the nasty cockroach we discovered in the bathroom) and like all hotels we stayed at in Peru, provided breakfast. It was very close to Kennedy Park which is the main plaza in Mira Flores and had lots of restaurants to choose from. Due to our early morning arrival, we missed the breakfast at our first hotel and were starving by the time we checked in at the Bellavista. It was already 1 pm and we were being picked up between 215 and 230 for our afternoon tour so we asked the woman at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation and where to exchange money. She was vague in responding to our first query telling us all of the food was good and pointed us in the general direction. As to the second, she instructed us to look for the "boy" who is "famous" at the end of a certain street. Uuuuu, what? We had no idea what she was talking about but found food without a problem when we turned up restaurant row where menus were pushed at us and we were promised the best pizza in the city by competing restaurants. We did not want pizza for our first meal in Peru and needed to be finished in an hour and accepted the menu of a place that promised we would be done in an hour and had typical Peruvian food, despite the pizza and pasta neon sign.
I am so glad we chose that place and I wish I could tell you the name because it was one of our best meals in Peru. We both selected the same cilantro rice with chicken and it was delicious! Unfortunately I never saw anything like it the rest of our trip as potatoes were generally more plentiful than rice.
I also discovered at that first restaurant that my brand new hydration pack was leaking all over my back. We tried to find the source of the leak but strangely, it only leaked when it was in the pack. Good thing I won't be needing it for the trek to Machu Piccu, right?
We returned to our hotel and soon enough we were picked up by the tour company for our trip to Pachacamac - the pre-Incan ruins outside of Lima. This tour company had quite the system but it was a bit confusing for the uninitiated. We were picked up by a bus that drove us to a little park where there were numerous vans and mini-buses and people were called off one bus and shuttled to another. The guide who picked us up had us sitting on a park bench waiting for our bus to arrive but did not explain that was what was happening and we were getting nervous as buses closed their doors and drove off until someone approached us and herded us into a mini-bus. What I liked about this tour is they didn't just show you the one thing on the itinerary. As we drove along the coast and admired the cliffs and view of the city fading behind us, the bus pulled over at a turnout and gave us some time to get out and take photos and wander along the scenic cliffs for a few minutes. We were on an English speaking tour but we may have been the only Americans and possibly the only native English speakers. The tour guide was animated and tried to get people to interact but our group of 15-20 people just stared out the windows and talked amongst themselves. This was definitely a Lima thing as everywhere else we went in Peru people were friendly and chatty and we met some really great people. It was just those tours in Lima where people kept to themselves.
Pachacamac was a 20-30 minute drive from our meeting point in Mira Flores and I found it fascinating. Our tourguide emphasized that these ruins are pre-Incan from the Huari empire although the Incans did maintain and use the site after they took over. Unlike the Incan ruins which are made of stone, these ruins are made of adobe. It was a little strange that instead of walking the wide road around the ruins and up to the sun temple at the top, we took the bus and simply got in and out at important spots. Others in our group complained when we had to walk up a short hill. So strange. The tour was pretty fascinating and it was interesting to learn that Peru - according to our guide - has historically not put money into preserving or restoring these ruins and that most of the work was done by Japanese archeologists. One of the more fascinating things about walking around the area is that it was a burial ground and once you are aware of this you see bones everywhere in the dirt!
After Pachacamac, we took a slightly different route away from the coast back into Lima and stopped for a short walking tour through the Baranco neighborhood - which we read was an artist's district. Baranco is an area we wish we had more time to explore. It was so brightly colored and vibrant I wish we had gone back there for dinner one evening.
At the end of our tour we booked a city tour for the next day. That evening we had dinner in a cafe in Kennedy Park and tried Inca Kola for the first time. I loved it and drank it pretty much the rest of the trip. We also had delicious desserts with our meal - Erin had flan and I had dulce de leche with meringue which was very sweet and rich but still delicious. After dinner we wandered around Mira Flores and examined the wares at the little market in the center of the park.
Before returning to the hotel that night we both decided to get some cash. We had already discovered that although Peru has its own currency, most places gladly take dollars . . . but not always at the best exchange rate. So I went to an ATM to pull out some Peruvian soles and ended up with . . . dollars! So strange. But then we spotted the "famous boys" the woman at our hotel was talking about. They have vests with dollar signs and "Euro" printed on them and they gave us a much better exchange rate than our first hotel had that morning. Now, I later read in my book that you have to be careful with these "boys" (who were actually older men and even one woman) because some will short change or give you counterfeits. But the ones we used in Mira Flores were in a busy, well-lit area and used a calculator to show exactly what they were giving you and it all worked out well.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and waited for the bus to pick us up between 915 and 930 am for our city tour. As we both lamented how we had packed all the wrong things for exploring a city (as opposed to trekking through the mountains as originally planned), we met a German family of a father and two daughters who was also waiting for the same city tour. It was pretty hilarious to watch this German man fall into all of stereotypes about his people from the way he was dressed to his obsession with the time. He declared them late at 915 when they hadn't arrived. I tried to explain they had given a time range but his impatience continued despite the fact they arrived promptly at 930 to collect us.
We had a different tourguide for this tour and again she tried to get people to interact but again, I believe we were the only native English speakers on the tour other than two possibly American kids who were there with some family or exhange family from Brazil. I think the tour was half over before our tour guide discovered we were not part of the German family. Our tour of central Lima was also confined to the bus for a great deal of it but we also had the opportunity to wander around some of the main plazas and explore some churches. I found our guide fairly entertaining. A few of my favorite explanations were "you may call them Spanish, we prefer Conquistedors", well of course they do since the Spaniards pillaged and destroyed the Incas! She told us that people in Lima never carry umbrellas because it never rains. She also explained why all the buildings are painted so bright and cheery - it is gray all the time and if the buildings were gray everyone would commit suicide. Very matter of fact. She was also slightly obsessed with the two Japanese girls in our group who we later had lunch with.
We briefly explored the Plaza San Martin and then the Plaza Mayor with the cathedral where Erin got in trouble for using her flash. It is pretty funny how there are never signs anywhere about what you can and cannot do but if you do something wrong, someone swoops in to reprimand you. There weren't any of the usual signs about no flash photography and everyone else was doing it so we joined in. Oops. While we were waiting to meet up with the group again after the Cathedral, a woman and her two daughters approached us and asked to take a photo with us. It was cute and when I saw them going up to other white, American looking tourists I wondered if they were trying to scam people in some way but couldn't figure out what way that could be since they didn't steal from us, didn't try to sell us anything and were generally very sweet.
Despite all accounts, I was finding Lima very clean and friendly. Granted, we were simply hitting the prime tour spots and there were police all around and people constantly picking up trash and we were with a tour so really, Lima was putting its best foot forward for us. But ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised. Especially with the lack of piegons. While we did see a few milling about in Plaza Mayor and Plaza San Martin, they were definitely outnumbered by everyone else which certainly cannot be said in major plazas and squares in other major world cities such as New York, Rome and Paris to name a few I've visited. Not to mention Piazza San Marco in Venice which has basically been turned over to the piegons. After I inquired, our guide informed us that Peru has piegon vultures that eat piegons! She explained that they have a piegon problem and they have to take care of it. I was shocked and explained a few measly piegons is not a problem. Now I want to see what can be done about importing these piegon vultures to New York! Of course, a quick google search revealed nothing on piegon vultures so now I'm not sure they are real . . .
After the Plaza Mayor we made the short walk to the Monestary of San Francisco which I found fascinating. The architecture was beautiful and I loved the inner courtyards with the open walkways. The floors are tiled and they recently discovered that behind the many paintings adorning the walls are frescos! One of the stairways has a beautiful wooden cupola overhead that had to be restored after an earthquake. But most impressive of all was the library. We were only able to step into a small portion of one end of the convent's library but it was amazing and slightly tragic. I found this photo of it, although we were told no photos. The giant music manuscripts (which I tragically cannot remember the name of) in the foreground alone are probably priceless. The books were covered in dust and you could see that the pages would disintegrate if you dared touch them. What you cannot see in the picture is that there are not only skylights allowing natural light to fall onto the books but open windows! These ancient tomes are exposed to light and air and all of the elements. I couldn't help but think of the time I was allowed into the ancient book room at my University's library and had to wear special gloves to touch anything. And those books were nowhere near as old as these. Such a beautiful room.
The other thing I loved about the monestary were the catacombs below. I do not know why I find catacombs so fascinating. Erin and I visited the catacombs in Rome as well and they stick out as one of the top things we saw there.
After we finished up at the monastery we had more of a driving tour of the city as the Germans fretted about making it to their next appointment and ultimately asked to be dropped off near a highway so they could get in a cab. We, on the other hand, were in no hurry to finish the tour as we had nothing left to do when it was over and debated whether to tack on another tour for the afternoon. Ultimately we decided against it and chose to explore Mira Flores on our own. The bus dropped us - along with the Japanese girls - off at a restaurant not far from our hotel in Mira Flores after driving us past the coastal parks which gave me some bearings as to where we were. Lunch - as usual in Lima - was delicious and Erin enjoyed some amazing ceviche and I had the tasty sea bass. Our Japanese friends were friendly and allowed us to sample their food as well and we enjoyed getting to know them a bit over lunch despite their limited English.
After lunch we headed out on our own toward the Park Amor which we were shown out the window of our bus. Apparently this park was famous for all the couples making out all the time so the city decided to erect a statue in their honor and dedicated it on Valentine's day one year. Despite it being mid-afternoon we were able to spot a number of couples taking advantage of the park benches and doing their best to imitate the sculpture at the center of the park. I waited, but found no love. Just a particularly creepy spider.
We walked along the coast for a while killing time by taking photos and trying to figure out what to do next when we stumbled onto a mall that felt like it had been yanked out of Southern California somewhere. We had our one and only major communications meltdown trying to order gelato. There was a system where you pay the cashier, get a number and then pick your flavor. We figured that out without too much delay and then struggled to convey to the cashier we wanted two cones. I paid 12 or so soles for the two which seemed about right since the posted price was 5-6 soles. We then walked toward the gelato case and the woman said something to us so we turned around. I looked at my receipt and discovered that while she had charged me for two cones, she gave me a receipt for only one! Much confusion ensued as I tried to explain this - ultimately with pointing and writing the numbers down. Then we finally got our gelato that was . . . good, not great. Mine was melting so fast it was hard to enjoy it.
As we wandered the multi-tiered, cliff-side mall debating whether to try and see a movie, feeling extremely conspicuous in our tourist attire, we stumbled onto an exhibit from the gold museum. We had thought about spending the afternoon in museums but were told most of them were closed and my guidebook indicated there had been some sort of scandal a few years ago where most of the pieces in the gold museum were fakes, we we scratched that idea. But being bored and outside the entrance, we decided to check the exhibit out. And I am glad we did so. It was a limited exhibit on the gold making of the Incas and focused on a few key pieces. There were headsets and numbered exhibits and I thoroughly enjoyed it and much of what I learned came in handy as we explored Cusco and Machu Piccu.
Ultimately, even after the exhibit we still decided to see a movie and saw Australia. It was a challenge to ignore the Spanish subtitles because my brain is trained to read all words in front of my face even if I don't understand them, but that was not the most annoying part of the movie. Even though we were there just to kill time, I found the movie ridiculously long. It was essentially two movies in one. I don't think it was bad, just longer than necessary. But it did its job and by the time it was over dark had settled in and it was time to walk back to our neighborhood, eat dinner and turn in. We wanted to try a Chifa restaurant that were hyped by our guides - a Chinese/Peruvian fusion food - but couldn't find one so I settled for ordering a Chinese-ish dish at a Peruvian pizza place. It was delicious. For dessert we bought churros from a street vender I had been eyeing and what I wouldn't do for another one of those churros. The grease soaked straight through my napkin and it was filled with heavenly dulce de leche and despite the fact that Erin found it too sweet, too greasy and/or too rich, I found it heavenly and would go back for another one if given the chance.

So that was Lima. Not as terrible as everyone claimed but really, everything could be done in a single day. I would just recommend packing something other than trekking or jungle attire for wandering around to blend in a bit better. And maybe a little bit of makeup . . . you should be warned, in the photos below neither of us had any makeup on. My apologies in advance. Also, in reviewing my photos I now understand that I need to buy some new t-shirts since every vacation I have taken in the last 2-3 years features me in these same 3-4 t-shirts. Enjoy. There is lots more to come!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Thank You!

Thank you everyone for your comments. The final count was 31 which means I will be donating an additional $155 to the Ute Marching Band to get them to DC. This was a great little experiment that I think I will try again in the future.
Thanks again!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Help the Band and Leave a Comment!

Probably one of my biggest college regrets (aside from getting married and divorced in the middle of it all) is not playing in the marching band at the University of Utah. As a transfer student working close to full time I just didn't have the time and given the other crazyness (ie, marriage and divorce) happening in my life at that time, I didn't prioritize it. But both of my brothers played in the Ute marching band and had really great experiences of which I will always be a little bit jealous. Besides, once a band nerd, always a band nerd and my time as a high school band nerd and Southern Utah Unversity band nerd has given me a life long soft spot for all the band kids.

Which is why I was so excited to hear that the marching band from my very own alma mater has been invited to play at the presidential inaugeration in Washington DC on January 20th. This is an an amazing opportunity for these kids and - like most band and music programs - they need some financial support to accept the invitation. I made a donation but I've decided to try something new I saw on another blog: For every unique comment I receive between now and Sunday night (1/11) at 10 pm EST, I will donate an additional $5. The only rules are (1) only one comment per person is eligible for a donation; (2) in order to be eligible, the comment cannot be anonymous - just leave your name in the comment if you are not a registered blogger; and (3) I reserve the right to cut off my matching if I end up with some crazy high number of comments which I cannot afford. Since I've never done anything like this I am not going to set a maximum, I just reserve the right to cap it if you exceed my budget by shocking me with hundreds of comments.

If you want to donate and give a student a once in a lifetime opportunity - click here.

If you want me to donate and give a student a once in a lifetime opportunity, leave me a comment below.

Thanks!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Peru Teaser

Lots of great photos and stories to come . . . stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

a few items of business

  1. yes, I am home and anxious to tell you all kinds of fun-filled stories and share incredible photos, but . . .
  2. I am also back at work today and somehow there is a lot to do here as well, and . . .
  3. I took over 1,800 photos. No typo there, I took OVER 1800 photos. I will not subject you to all of them so it will take me some time to cull through them, delete the blurry ones and the duplicates and the ugly ones and all those photos of every meal we ate . . . you don't need to see all of those because we really only had two choices: meat and potatoes or pizza. Not to mention all the photos my sister took. And the videos.
  4. I may or may not have got my wish and brought a souvenier worm home with me. I lost three pounds but trust me when I tell you there are better ways to lose weight. Especially when you are traveling for close to 36 hours straight. I will spare you the gory details. I fear my digestive track may never be the same.
  5. someone asked if the divorce saga was over . . . not even close but I have clearly been occupied with my travels. Don't worry, I will return to writing soon.
  6. YEAH UTES! I cannot beleive I missed that game! I was wearing my Ute hat (to hide from the world during my bubonic plague episode) when we came through customs in Atlanta. I was exhausted and very, very sick. We were at the last customs check point where we had all of our luggage piled on a cart and had to hand over our passports and forms to the agent. I was not thinking of the hat and the agent got all excited and said "Utes - national champions!" I managed a weak smile and eye contact as the other agent said something about "you guys don't need Urban!" I think I responded but can't be sure. Funny thing is, they didn't glance at our passports or our forms as we exchanged a "down with the BCS" farewell.
  7. The Amazon jungle is unbelievably amazing. I think the word amazing must be derived from the Amazon.
  8. I cannot begin to describe how unbelievable Machu Piccu was. I highly, highly recommend finding your way there one day.
  9. Lima is as skipable as everyone claims it is. We saw two movies there: Australia and Four Christmases. The former was far too long and the latter was terrible.
  10. Happy New Year! Hopefully I will be back in the swing of things with show and tell travelogue soon.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Go Utes!

(I am leaving this post up. . . hopefully things have improved on my trip by now)
Dear Utes,
You have no idea how sorry I am that I am not in New Orleans with you today to cheer you on in the Sugar Bowl. You see, I had this prior commitment to Peru so I was already booked when you pulled off what I previously thought was a once in a lifetime experience of finishing an undefeated season and busting into a BCS bowl game. I have really fond memories of that last BCS busting season four years ago and trip I made to Arizona with my brother, sister and my brother's friend Nate to watch the Fiesta Bowl. We rented a roomy car for the drive and were rewarded with what we fondly called the Batmobile. It was a great trip down with a short stop-over and in St. George for Chinese food with our grandparents.
But the best part really was being there for all the fun pre-game festivities and the energy of the game. I believe I got in trouble with my brother at one point for making the mistake of wearing a regular old sweater that wasn't officially licensed Ute gear. Our motel in downtown Phoenix left a lot to be desired . . . what with the musty stank that hung in the air in there. And I'm sure Erin will argue that the Waffle House was a huge mistake but ultimately we had a blast. Here my sister and I are getting ready for the big game.
And the thrilling sitting around portion of the day while we waited for the ticket office to open up.
We had a bit of a wait for our Uno's pizza pre-game . . . but made it to our seats with plenty of time before kick-off.
I have to confess, this is the only time the national anthem has made me cry. It was pretty amazing. I think jets flew over as well.
Here we are supporting our team:

We were pretty happy with the win and Utes, I know you can pull it off again. You are on a great winning streak with bowl games and I am confident you can continue the streak.
Good luck at taking on the Tide. I will be thinking of you as I lounge in my hammock at the Amazon Refuge eco-lodge in the jungle.
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