Friday, July 25, 2014
Last year's African safari was a dream come true for me so when we returned home, I was lacking in ambition or direction. What do you do after you cross off a really big bucket list item? Genene ended last year's vacation with a pledge to return to Tanzania and climb Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. No tour outfitter will take her until she turns 12, and she is only 10. We talked to other people who had made the Kili summit and described its difficulty. After much deliberation, we decided that this year, we would take an adventure to Peru. We plan to see a lot of sights and have a lot of fun, but the feat that looms large on the horizon is the Inca Trail. We are planning to see what are some of the most famous ruins in the world: Machu Picchu (or as my mom called it, Mancho Pancho). It is possible to ride a bus or take a train and make a day trip to Machu Picchu, but we wanted more of a challenge and a little tune-up to see if Kilimanjaro is a real possibility or a pipe dream. We have elected to hike to Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail. It's a 4-day, 3-night hike and camp at altitude. We will sleep in tents and go to the ancient Incan city as the Incans did–on our feet. We will spend some time getting accustomed to the altitude before we start, so there are lots of adventures ahead and much to make us nervous.
I spent most of yesterday in my usual pre-trip panic mode. Most of the gear was purchased and piled up long ago, but when I actually start to pack it, my brain goes into hyperdrive. I spent most of yesterday morning piling up things, rifling through them, and asking Greg a thousand dumb questions. He was glad when I finally gave up and went to the office. While I was gone, he packed his bag and Genene's, and both of them weighed in at just under the 50 pound max. I got home from my last client meeting at around 8:30 PM, stared for a while at the pile of stuff and then gave the nod–Greg, you may pack my things! Yes, I know that I sound like a queen, but Greg has a gift. He packs a mean bag. My packing looks like my office (or my computer, or my files, or my nightstand). I know where everything is, but it's a wreck. Greg balls everything up in beautiful tight little rolls that fit perfectly into the bag. I watched him do it all (to keep down my natural paranoia and to keep me from asking him later, “Did you pack this? Did you pack that?). My bag came in just under the limit as well, and we went to bed happy.
This morning, we made one last run to Best Buy. Genene wanted to take her DS, and it's one of the few chargers that only runs on 110, while Peru operates at 240. We found what we needed and got back home to resume the last minute running around. While going in and out the backdoor, I made a critical mistake. We have two cats, a boy and a girl. Of course, the girl is smarter and knows how to go in and out the dog door. I love her. She's a great cat. The boy is a little prince and insists that you let him in and out the back door repeatedly. He's the dumbo step cat that I got from my mother-in-law. (Yes, Essee, I know you are reading this.) He always stands at the backdoor just waiting for a chance to make a break for it. I “accidentally” let him out, causing a bit of consternation. Since he does not know how to get back in, it would have been a problem if we left him out and hoped that the cat sitter could reel him back. Alas, The da#@ thing came back after about an hour, and I got him back in the house before we left. (Hey, I'm only kidding. I like the cat….sort of.)
Action Limo showed up right on the dot at 1:00 PM and we were off for the airport. Our driver was Galleria George, and he was a bicycle enthusiast. We caught up on all the latest Tour de France news from him, and we compared notes on MS150's and other rides we had all done. Genene soon lost interest and fell asleep.
We got to the airport in plenty of time. Greg has what I like to call “old man disease.” He likes to get everywhere with LOTS of time to spare. I like to squeal into the parking lot as the big hand on the clock is hitting the hour. I always humor Greg though. It is better to be early than to miss your flight. Genene calls him the Prontosaurus. As we went through security, I was helping Genene get her gear up onto the xray machine. The lady behind me said loudly and matter-of-factly, “Can I go in front of you?” I was grappling with the gear, so I didn't look up. She didn't say please and I was busy so I said, “No.” After a time, she went ahead and got in front of me. She was a flight attendant. She said, “The difference is that I'm late for work.” I said, “You should have left earlier.” I was smiling when I said it, and there was nothing more to it than that. I did have the fleeting fear that she would end up at the beverage cart on my flight and refuse to serve me a drink. Happily, I didn't see her again, and I should not have worried. United will serve you as many beverages as you like, as long as you have a credit card.
As the plane doors closed and before we had even gotten into the air, Genene let out a small gasp. “I forgot Senior!” she cried, and tears welled in her eyes. Senior is her little stuffed dog. He was a present from Santa Claus on her first Christmas, and he sleeps with her each night and has been EVERYWHERE with her. Senior has been to Belize, Italy, England, France, Mexico, Ireland, and Tanzania. Alas, he will not go to Peru. She slept with him last night and forgot to put him in her gear bag this morning. I told Genene we would find another stuffed animal as soon as we get to Peru, and she can bring the new one home and he can tell Senior about all the adventures. That didn't make her feel too much better, so I said, “Well, you will just have to come back one day and bring him.” That seemed a better solution for her.
I can never make myself spring for first or business class, but I do love the extra legroom seats. We are not particularly tall, and these seats suit us just fine. Our flight left a little late, but our pilot made up time nicely. The food was passable, and the movie selection was awesome. I watched “Nebraska,” and I thought the film was a revelation. It was absolutely marvelous, filled with wicked humor and real pathos. I recommend it. After that, I watched “Rushmore,” something long overdue for me. Much of it was filmed in Houston, and I enjoyed trying to spot landmarks. However, I must confess that the movie made me feel uncomfortable. The protagonist was a little too creepy for my tastes, and he seemed a bit of a stalker. Genene watched several cartoon family movies and Greg watched “Gravity,” which he only gave a passing grade.
Random observation: why do women wear loud perfume on airplanes? It's so annoying. I hate scents anyway, so I always end up with a headache after whiffing up some lady's cheap eau du crap.
We got off the plane at about 10:30. Immigration was pretty easy. Like Africa, they had a lot of different signs purporting to show where the various nationalities should queue to be processed. However, they had a lady right at the back of the line telling people to ignore the signs and that all agents were taking all comers. That system worked just fine, and we were into the baggage claim area quickly. We had to wait a bit for our bags. They were already on Latin time.
Customs consisted of shoving all your bags through another xray machine, and then we were into the ground transportation area. Our tour group representative was right there. It's always such a relief to see the placard with GORDON emblazoned on it. He walked us outside and said, “We are walking across the street to your hotel.” It was literally right across the street. We were relieved and grateful. The flight was only 6 1/2 hours, so it was not the marathon trek we have done our prior trips, but it was now after 11:00 PM and we were ready to settle in. Our guide squired us to some comfortable couches and tended to getting our bags underway with the hotel porters, checking us in, and dealing with all the paperwork. We would be leaving in the morning for Cusco, so he handed us our preprinted bording passes, and a coupon for 3 complimentary drinks at the hotel bar. I could get used to this pampering. We were soon unloaded in our room, and we stepped downstairs for two Pisco sours and a banana-flavored Inca Cola for Genene. We were all tired and not tempted to continue drinking, so we retired to our beds.
Here's the view of the airport from our room:
Genene collapsed instantly, and Greg was not far behind. I'm always the last to wind down. Even when I am exhausted, my mind keeps churning. In the end, I raided some Ritz crackers from the minibar, hid out in the bathroom trying to munch them quietly, took a 1/4 of an Ambien. Sleep finally washed over me.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Our boarding passes and our tour operator told us to arrive at the airport at 8:00 AM for a 10:00 AM departure. We thought that seemed like a bit of overkill for a domestic flight, but we are rule-followers so we got up early, had a nice Continental buffet at the hotel and headed across the street. We were flying LAN for the first time, and the line to check in was an absolute circus. It wrapped around and around and around. They had flights going out to Cusco every 30 minutes and to several other destinations. We soon figured out what the system was. They let everyone queue up until you were just about to miss your flight, and they they would call you by your flight number out of the queue and into a shorter queue. We listened diligently but never heard our flight until we heard the words, “Last call for flight 2045!” We leapt into action and got to the front of the line. Turns out something was wrong with our boarding passes. We never knew what it was. The lady kept saying, “One moment, please,” and then she would disappear for five minutes at a time. By the time she finally ran up with our luggage tags, she waved us away and told us to hurry. Why do I always end up running like OJ Simpson through the airport? It wasn't fair. We arrived two hours early with Protosaurus and still we were about to miss our flight. We still had to clear through the passport control and security. We made it just in the nick of time. There were a few people behind us but not many. Our seats were not together, and I gave Genene the seat beside a younger girl. I thought they could keep each other entertained during the short flight, which was just under an hour and a half. Just as the flight landed, the little girl tossed her cookies EVERYWHERE. I saw it coming, but Genene was caught off guard and looked at the whole thing. Then she started gagging. I thought she was going to lose it too. Luckily we were in the front at row 5 (I was across from her), so the plane cleared out pretty quickly. I apologized to the poor mother sitting beside her child trying to clean up, grabbed Genene's bag and told her to climb over the seat in front of her as soon as possible before she got any on her or joined the blowing chunks club. It's every mom for herself in this world.
Speaking of the landing, Cusco is beautiful and mountainous. Its elevation is over 13,000 feet. The airport sits between two steep ridges, and the captain had to drop the plane out of the sky. There was no margin for error. It reminded me of the old airport in Fayetteville, Arkansas, before Tyson and Wal-mart corporate traffic justified the construction of the larger Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. The old Drake Field airport sat just on the edge of town, and when Lou Holtz coached the Hogs, he used to joke, “They don't sell tickets at Drake Field. They sell chances.” Lou could say the same thing about Cusco.
I was afraid that our luggage would not make it on the flight, but they must have shoved it in and closed the cargo door because our bags were among the first on the carousel. We grabbed them and headed out into the beautiful Cusco sun.
Our guide Carlos and driver Rolondo were waiting for us, and we had a relaxing lunch at Restaurant Incanto in the heart of Cusco.
Some street scenes from the drive from the airport to the central city:
The fountain on the right marks the spot where two rivers run together.
The people of Cusco have their own version of the white Christ (think Rio or Christ of the Ozarks). He stands atop the city near the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, where we would be going after lunch.
Lunch was delicious and enjoyed by all. We all had vegetable cream soup for an appetizer. Genene and Greg had breaded beef tenderloin, while I had a pasta dish. Cheesecake and fruit finished our meal, we headed out for some easy sightseeing. We went to the large plaza in the center of the city, Plaza de Armas. The cathedral was constructed on the base of a former Inca palace. When the Spaniards invaded, the destroyed the Incan ruins and sacred places, took the gold and silver, and built Catholic Churches on the ruins. To the victor….
Some views from the plaza:
Carlos is good with my camera and actually asks to take family shots. Perhaps I will show up in a few more this year:
I try to get my guides to educate me on the politics of their countries because I am remarkably ignorant of how other countries do their business. Carlos was knowledgeable and forthcoming. He told us about some of the good and bad Peruvian leaders, Shining Path, the institutional corruption, the sale of cocaine to the north, and the political process. We learned from Carlos that presidential elections are held every 5 years in Peru. Everyone must vote or pay a monetary penalty. The vote is secret ballot, and paper ballots are used. There are 10 candidates running in next year's elections, and the winner must receive 50 percent of the vote, which will likely require what he called a “second round.” In the USA, we would call it a runoff. In any event, I find it fascinating to learn about the way other governments work (or don't work) from people who live in the country.
Our next stop was the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, the pronounciation of which sounds almost like “sexy woman.” The ruins sit at the top of a hill with a drop-dead gorgeous view of Cusco below.
The stones at the ruins are up to 29 feet in height, 16 feet wide and 13 feet thick. They were carved to fit perfectly on top of each other without the use of mortar. The Incans did not have iron, so the limestone was carved with harder stones. Estimates on their weight vary from 125 to 350 tons. Incans did not use the wheel, so the theory is that they rolled the stones to the site with tree trunks and heaved them into place. They also did not have the use of horses, which were later introduced to Peru by the Spaniards. It's no wonder people come up with oddball theories about how aliens helped with the construction. It is difficult to fathom how human power fit these humongous stones together and honed them so tightly that not even a credit card can be slipped between them.
Construction of Sacsayhuaman begin during the 1440's during the reign of the great 9th Incan emperor Pachacutec. There is a statue of this important Inca leader in Cusco, and I got a drive-by shot on the way out of town earlier.
It's estimated that 20,000 workers were used to build Sacsayhuaman. It is believed to be a fortress and a sacred place. It took over 100 years to complete, and the Spaniards came six years after it was done, and the whole place was destroyed and left in ruin.
More photos of Cusco from the ruin site. In the first photo, you can see a glacier in the distance.
A Catholic festival:
Plaza de Armas from above:
More beautiful views of the city:
I found it interesting that they are still making recent archaeological discoveries at this site. The Incans did not have a written language, and much of what is known of them is courtesy of Garcilaso de la Vega (1539 – 1616), a chronicler and writer from the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. The son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess, he is recognized primarily for his contributions to Inca history, culture, and society. His work was influential and is still used by archaeologists. Through family interviews, de la Vega was able to provide some written recollections of a destroyed civilization. He wrote of three towers at Sacsayhuaman, and archaeologists found and dug out evidence of those towers in the 1980s. Photos of two of the tower bases are below.
It's exciting to think that there are still so many things to be discovered. Carlos says that they are still finding Incan Trails everywhere in the countryside. The Incans actually destroyed some of these trails themselves, to keep the Spaniards from finding all their holy places. That is one reason Machu Picchu was not discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards and then was reclaimed by the jungle to be “rediscovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1912….but I'm getting ahead of myself.
So far, we are having no major ill effects from the altitude, but it is quite noticeable when climbing stairs. We were huffing and puffing on the stairs above Cusco. Carlos is very attentive and has told us we must go slow and acclimatize. The key is not to push oneself in the early going. We are taking him at his word and going easy.
We drove from the hills of Sacsayhuaman to the Sacred Valley. I got some street scenes:
We visited a wildlife rescue and refuge operation at Awanacancha. We heard many sad stories but saw some awesome things too. We saw camelids (alpaca, llama), Peruvian mountain cat, puma, exotic birds, condors in flight, a Peruvian hairless dog.
Behind the two exotic birds below, you can see one of the tubes that are used to smuggle them out of the country. Over 90 birds are stuffed into the tube, and at journey's end, only 9 or 10 are alive. The birds are endangered because of our desire to cage and possess them.
This mountain cat was the size of a house cat, but he was hissing like crazy at the puma in the next pen over.
The puma was rescued from a discoteque, where he provided amusement for patrons. He has been declawed and cannot be returned to the wild.
The condor was perhaps the most impressive. Several of them were at the refuge because they had been poisoned by native people. We received a flight demonstration. They went right over us, and the beating of their wings was clearly audible and a bit unnerving. The Andean condor's wingspan is 10.5 feet.
Genene was scared to get too close to them, but she posed for this picture on the outside of the pen, so that you can have some perspective on the size of these massive birds. You can also see that Genene has gotten a new stuffed animal, an alpaca made from alpaca wool. Genene has decided that the alpaca is a girl, but she does not have a name yet. Miss Alpaca is traveling in style and will fill Senior in on all that he missed.
This is some kind of raccoon-like animal. He was rescued from a home because people were trying to domesticate him, but just as raccoons do, he was getting into everything and eating the furniture so he had to go. My mom can probably relate, since she recently had to stop feeding her raccoons when one of them took up residence in the attic and began chewing the electrical wiring.
I thought the Peruvian hairless dog was quite fetching. I wonder if Spielburg saw him and got the idea for “Gremlins.”
An Andean woman and child were weaving at the site.
We were exhausted on the journey to our hotel in Yucay. Everyone except the driver fell asleep at one time or another.
I want to ride in one of these:
Carlos helped us get checked in, and we spent much of the rest of the afternoon unpacking and getting organized. Carlos dropped off our gear bags for the Inca Trail, so we began sorting items to go into those bags. Trail porters will carry the gear we will need while on the trail. We will each carry a day pack. Another bag is going via train to Machu Picchu where it will be waiting at our hotel. Our suitcases will be waiting for us back down the mountain where we will be continue our vacation when the trail portion is over. Logistics loom large.
This is the view from our room. There is some kind of festival going on outside.
We had dinner at the hotel. We had ceviche and alpaca, beef and chicken on skewers with barbeque sauce. It was all delicious. For the main course, I had a tradition Peruvian chicken dish with potatoes and rice, while Greg had a fish dish. Genene went for comfort and had sausages and French fries. We are trying to stay hydrated, and alcohol is frowned upon while getting adjusted to altitude. Greg and I had one sociable beer apiece, while Genene had another Inca Cola.
The festival is still going on.
I thought the festival was entertaining for a while, but now it is after midnight and they are still singing the same stupid songs, and I am ready for them to shut it down and go to bed. I swear one of the songs consisted of them yelling “sopapilla” over and over, or at least that's what it sounds like to me. I think I'm just getting hungry for my midnight snack. Greg and Genene are snoring away. I will try to join them in a bit.
We have a full day of touring tomorrow but at least we are starting at the reasonable hour of 9:30. I will feel like I am getting to sleep in!