“Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” ~ Florence Welch
I spent today on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you haven’t been, add it to your bucket list. The trip takes you a little over 45 miles one way through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado from Durango to Silverton. This was my second trip on the train, the first time with our sons. The only way to see this stretch of Colorado is via this train. I spent my entire day feeling grateful that this is where I have spent most of my life. Colorado is stunning. It’s a privilege to live here.
When the idea was first floated to take a trip to Africa for safari, we had no agreement on specifically where we wanted to go. Africa is massive with myriad intriguing places, varying ecosystems, and animals to see. Eventually we narrowed it down to two typical safari countries, South Africa or Tanzania. I was in the minority in wanting Tanzania and, like a candidate running for office, I waged a campaign. I wanted Tanzania because I needed to see Mt Kilimanjaro because I hope to summit it someday. I wanted Tanzania because it was closer and would involve less travel time. And, finally, I wanted Tanzania because it contains the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater isn’t actually a crater in the geological sense. It’s the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself 3 million years ago. Its floor covers 100 square miles at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Its walls tower 2,000 feet above. It is a conservation area and a World Heritage Site. And, it’s a perfect place for the approximately 25,000 animals who call it home. Large numbers of zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, gazelles, and antelope graze the floor where lions and hyena keep a watchful eye. There is no other place like it on earth.
To enter the crater, you must drive up to the rim before beginning your descent to the crater floor. Although I intellectually understood what the crater was, I could never have grasped what I saw from that lookout point without standing there. I think as tour guide Ammy never tires of the reactions of guests as they stumble dumbfounded to the edge of the rim and breathe in the magnificence of the view. It’s unimaginable. And photos cannot do it justice, which is why I wasn’t prepared for the emotion I felt that morning despite having spent hours viewing other’s images of the crater online before our trip.
After we took a gazillion photos that again would not do it justice, we loaded back into the car and turned onto a one-way, 4×4 road to drop the 2,000 feet to the floor. We rocked and rolled from side to side on the way down. Sometimes the downward angle seemed impossible.
Down, down we go
When we finally reached the bottom, it was overwhelming. The views were 360 degrees for 10 miles. Everywhere you turned, there were animals. We saw thousands of zebras communing with thousands of gazelles and antelopes and wildebeests. We saw some lions lazing in the sun. We watched a couple zebras fight, kicking and biting each other. Then we saw an ostrich running from an annoyed wildebeest.
As we all surveyed the surrounding area viewing different wildlife interactions and trying to choose which to focus on, Luke shouted that he saw a honey badger. Say what? Aren’t those nocturnal? This poor fellow seemed to be lost. Ammy surmised he might have gone out hunting and gotten a little too far from his home. He searched for a while before finally settling down near some jackals. While honey badgers may be fierce, apparently they also can be forgetful. Don’t trust this guy to be key master at your keg party.
The one thing you don’t expect on the crater floor is the plethora of Land Cruisers. The crater is a popular place. But because it is also enormous, you don’t feel crowded save for a few areas. The hippo pond is especially popular. Good luck getting a view there without waiting in a line of vehicles.
The other time when we were bogged down by other tourists and their open-roof vehicles was while attempting to view a rhino. Rhinos are a rare sight in the crater because their population, which numbered about 108 in the mid 1960s, is now only about 12-18 individuals. Ammy heard on the radio there was a rhino to view, but took the long way around hoping the traffic would break up before we got there. It did somewhat, and we were able to park and observe it with our binoculars. Steve, with his crazy camera lens, was able to capture this shot from about 150 yards away.
I felt sorry for the rhino. It just wanted to live its life and cross the road, but all the traffic was parked in its way. (Why did the rhino cross the road? Because it was sick of all the damn tourists.) It eventually gave up and retreated far enough back that it could not be seen from any of the established roads. It would cross another time.
At midday, Ammy found us a picnic spot in the Land Cruiser parking lot and we set up lunch. We could not eat outside the 4×4 because the birds were aggressive and not taking no for an answer. We watched them dive bombing other people and decided that indoor dining was the best option.
A friend recently asked me what you do when nature calls on safari. Well, there is no bathroom in the vehicle. So you go into nature when nature calls, which is much easier for the men than the women. Fortunately, after decades of camping and hiking, I have no issues with baring my hind end in the great outdoors. Still, you need some privacy, so the back of the vehicle is where you go. We called this “checking the tire pressure.” Too much coffee this morning? Tell Ammy you need to check the tire pressure, hop out, head to the back of the vehicle, and hope no other Land Cruiser comes pulling up before your pants do.
There are so many critters in the crater that there are endless viewing and photo opportunities. The animals are so close that more often than not you do not need binoculars or a zoom lens to see them or get a photo. I never thought the kids and I would be able to spend 8+ hours a day for a week without wifi or texting, doing nothing but staring at animals, without beginning to miss our life back at home. I was wrong. We weren’t missing our technology at all.
What’s new, gnu?
Zebras with a view
Old male cape buffalo
Select any photo above to enlarge it.
If you’re going to make the trip to Tanzania for the purpose of going into the crater, though, be forewarned that in the dryer months views in the crater may be obscured by dust kicked up by Land Cruisers. Ammy told us that sometimes you can’t see from one side to the other because of airborne dust. We lucked out because we needed to travel over the winter holidays. After the short rains of November and December, the grasses were low but green and abundant and, because of the periodic light rains, the roads and landscape were not dried out. Best of both worlds. It made for fantastic scenery in addition to wildlife viewing.
Reflecting hippo pool on a clear day
Every night at dinnertime we played a game called High/Low where we each recounted our high moment and low moment of the day. As I recall it, this was one day where we all had to dig for a low. Seriously, what kind of low can you recount while eating a gourmet meal at the Plantation Lodge after a clear, sunny day in the Ngorongoro Crater? Perhaps only that your stops to check the tire pressure subtracted from your time enjoying the wildlife.
I remember before we left for our Tanzania trip, my sister-in-law asked my husband if he thought they would have decent coffee where we’d be staying. We giggled a bit before he assured her our caffeine needs would be more than adequately met with tasty coffee. At the Asilia properties where we stayed, Little Oliver’s Camp and later Namiri Plains Camp in the Serengeti, they brought it to our tents every morning on wooden trays so we could enjoy it while we readied for breakfast. There are days when I wake up at home now and look forlornly around the room in the sad realization that no one has brought my coffee in. Dammit.
All good things must come to an end and so, after our morning coffee and a delightful patio breakfast where a pair of hornbills came to steal some food, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. I will not lie. I legit cried as we pulled away from Little Oliver’s Camp. I cannot state highly enough what a magical place it is. The quarters are luxurious with no attention to detail spared, and the outdoor showers are the stuff of dreams. The main lounge area is stunning and comfortable. The food is delicious and served in large quantity along with wonderful wine and cocktails. The people working there are the best. You go to Tanzania for the animals and the experience but, make no mistake about it, the kindhearted and gracious people will convince you to return.
This day, we would drive head out of Tarangire National Park, visit Lake Manyara National Park, and eventually land at our next home, the Plantation Lodge. It would take several hours to exit Tarangire, so we left early to ensure we’d have time to stop and view the abundant wildlife on the way out.
One creature we loved seeing was the dik-dik, a small, territorial antelope. Yes. Such a thing exists. Steve, the boys, and I became obsessed with these little guys, forcing Ammy to stop over and over so we could watch them defend their territory with their tiny horns or dart off, stop, and then eye us suspiciously. Most people go to Africa and go crazy for cheetah or giraffes. Here we were, losing it over 11 pound antelope. But, look at this photo and tell me you blame us.
We had seen a few giraffe at a distance during our time in Tarangire, but on our way out of the park on New Year’s Day, we saw over 40 of them in the span of only a mile. We watched a pair battle each other with their long necks. We saw one bend at the knees to eat grass and saw others stretch to reach the tips of the treetops to grab the most tender bites of acacia leaves. Ammy said he hadn’t often seen them together in such large numbers. We joked that perhaps it was their annual giraffe convention. It felt like they were coming out to see us off.
After bidding a fond farewell to Tarangire, we headed to Lake Manyara where we expected to see zebra, wildebeests (aka, gnus), and cape buffalo. The first thing we encountered in the park were baboons along the road. Baboons are fun to watch. They, like the elephants, are always up to something. Anywhere you park, you must roll up your windows because they are opportunists. On more than one occasion we saw a baboon dive into a vehicle and make off with food. I couldn’t decide if I thought they were creepy with their huge canine teeth or adorable with their mischievous and spunky personalities.
Not long after beginning our drive though the park, the sky opened up. It was the only time on the trip when we endured a sustained daytime rain. We closed the roof and tried to take photos out the windows. The area around Lake Manyara is marshy, and I was grateful for the Land Cruiser as we passed through some standing water. As the rains began to lighten, we saw some zebras that looked as if they wished to switch places with us in our dry vehicle. I started speaking of them with the traditional British accent because zeh-bra sounds much more dignified.
The wildlife to be seen here is impressive: elephants, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and all types of water birds. Because the weather wasn’t in our favor, we didn’t spend much time in this park but I believe it would be worthwhile to give another shot at a later date.
We headed out towards our next lodging, stopping at a shop filled with locally crafted items. There were paintings, carvings, and all manner of beaded and other textile gifts. We had fun choosing special treats for our family back home. And Steve did his best to barter lower prices. In the end, I think he felt he could have done a better job and saved us some money. I told him that we were helping the local economy and, let’s face it, could spare a little extra for people who didn’t have nearly what we do. It’s all good.
Ammy turned off onto a dirt road that wasn’t marked and we bounced our way back a few miles to our final destination of the day. As we pulled up the long road towards our lodging, it was obvious we were in for a treat. Plantation Lodge is set on a hill, the entire property shrouded from view with greenery. We pulled up to a parking area and got out of the Land Cruiser. After climbing some stairs to reach the property, I began shaking my head. Ahead of us lie perfectly manicured lawns, all manner of tropical plants, and white cottages with heavy wooden doors. Arbors were covered in flowers, plumeria bloomed everywhere, and several cats lounged lazily in the shade of day waiting for their night shift to begin. Were we really in Africa? This was my second choice lodge for this portion of the trip, and I found myself glad we’d landed here. It was clear we were in for a treat.
More roughing it
We settled into our rooms, took some time to wander the property, and grabbed an evening cocktail before dinner while the boys took to the pool. It’s such a pleasure to travel in a way that affords complete relaxation. Because Deeper Africa took care of every last detail, we were able to show up and just be in the moment. I breathed deeply that afternoon with my cocktail in hand, sunglasses on my face, and the promise of another wondrous adventure day on the horizon.
Back in February, at the bequest of my eldest son, I added the eclipse on August 21st to our family iCalendar. Then I forgot about it. In April, Joe mentioned he wanted to travel to Casper, four hours north of us, to view the eclipse in totality. He told me this eclipse was a huge deal and we should make a plan. I shrugged it off. August was months away. I told him I would get to it. By early June when I finally got to it, there were no rooms available. No rooms. Zero. In Casper. Wyoming. No camping spaces anywhere within the Wyoming area of totality either. On AirBnB, houses were renting for upwards of $1k per night with a two-night minimum. I thought I was in a parallel universe. This is a state where you can travel for hours and see more pronghorn than people. Joe enjoyed a hearty I told you so, and I ate crow and dug out Plan B.
So on August 21st, we awoke in Nebraska. Through ludicrous amounts of searching, I managed to discover a spot within the Nebraska area of totality to park our rPod trailer for a bona fide, eclipse-mania bargain of $50 a night (two night minimum, of course). We spent the previous night camped in a grassy field in the Morrill County Fairgrounds in Bridgeport with about fifty other families who also had put off nailing down an eclipse plan until the last possible moment. These likeminded procrastinators were my eclipse tribe, and we were poised to use our verified, paper, solar-eclipse glasses to see our magnificent star blotted out momentarily by our only satellite. We lucked out. The morning fog had burned off, and the Nebraska sky was clear, blue, and ready to oblige us with an unobstructed view.
I struggle for sufficient words to describe what I felt as the moon eclipsed the sun. As a family we had made a conscious determination to spend our minute seven seconds of totality present in the moment and not absorbed with the misguided notion we could capture and catalog this singular experience with an iPhone. When the moon made midday in Nebraska into dusk and exposed me to a 360-degree sunset, I exclaimed to myself (but somehow loudly enough for my family to remember): This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was incomparable. I could not hold back the tears.
I recount this personal tale not because I felt the world needed yet another #solareclipse2017 story, but because I realized on our way home from Nebraska that an older version of me, a Justine 1.0, would have missed the experience of totality. Being ever realistic and focused on the big picture, I would have done what many Denverites did. After finding lodging completely booked and reading road signs warning of high traffic and news articles advising travelers to bring extra cash, extra food and water, and emergency gas cans because of the unprecedented amount of day travelers expected to make the trek, I would have cut my losses and stayed home. I would have decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the expense or the vacation day hubby would take or the potential 8-12 additional travel hours in endless traffic or the missed first day of school for the boys. I would have determined that 93% of an eclipse was close enough. I would have told myself I would catch the next total eclipse in 2024. And I would have shared all those same rationalizations with my son in lieu of an apology for making him miss something he had been begging to see. I would have told him he had an entire lifetime to catch one later.
But I am no longer Justine 1.0. I am Justine 2.0. Because of my sons, I am daily aware how short life is and how quickly time goes. I know you don’t always have a second shot, a do over, another day. I have learned sometimes if your intuition tells you something might be important, you have to take a leap. You have to decide the adventure is worth it. You have to make it a priority. You have to tell the myriad excuses to talk to the hand. We left the house Sunday night hoping to see a total eclipse, but knowing we might not. We discussed all the things that could go wrong, including rainy skies, running out of gas, and wasting hours in traffic to see not much more than we could have seen from our yard. We decided that at the very least we’d come out of this with an amusing anecdote of a crazy family trip. At most we would fulfill our expectations and maybe even be surprised by something greater.
We weren’t disappointed. Despite the glitch that left us scrambling for lodging at the last minute, Justine 2.0 proved a definite improvement over the earlier version. I’m starting to suspect that Justine 2.5, currently under development, will be even faster on the uptake.
How many times have you talked yourself out of something because the situation didn’t seem quite right? I have done it thousands of times. I am the Queen of Justification. I can talk myself out of anything. This also means, though, that I have the ability to talk myself into anything. It seems easier to avoid than attack, though, which is why I have let so many opportunities in my life slide because it seemed like they might be too much work. Today I decided to challenge myself to go forward rather than retreat.
Three weeks ago, my friend Brooke and I planned to hike on May 4th. So, this morning I woke up ready to hike…until I looked out the window. From my bedroom window at 7 a.m., I saw low hanging clouds, wet ground, and not one patch of blue sky. I texted Brooke to see what the weather was like in Boulder. Light drizzle, she said. I have traditionally been a fair-weather hiker. I try to avoid hiking in the rain when possible because I am not a big fan of being cold or wet or muddy or especially all three things at once. So many reasons not to hike today and only one reason in favor. The forecast for the rest of the week in Denver is rain, one to four inches of it. I decided light drizzle might just be the nicest weather all week. I grabbed my rain jacket and my waterproof hikers and headed to meet Brooke.
On the drive, I tried to convince myself that it was as good of a day as any to hike. I pulled out all my zen and told myself the only moment I have is this one. I can spend it whining about the weather or I can pretend that I’m above it all. By the time I got to the trailhead parking lot, I was convinced this was a good idea. I parked in a giant puddle, zipped up my rain jacket, stuffed my iPhone into one of my waterproof pockets, and embraced our adventure.
True to what Brooke had said, there was a light drizzle. I couldn’t actually tell if it was drizzle or just mist from low hanging clouds. Either way, there were no drops of rain. We started up the trail, planning to do a 4 mile hike I’ve done many times with my family. As we turned to head uphill, the path beneath our feet became increasingly muddy where rain had rushed down, following gravity’s lead all night long. For about three-quarters of a mile, we hiked uphill through heavy mud, trying to walk on rocks when we could, scraping our hiking shoes off when we’d gained an extra pound per foot. My mind wandered back to how these shoes had hiked the entire Inca Trail without getting wet. They’d survived four days in the Andes with hardly anything to show for it. I was making up for it now. I blocked out the notion that it would take me an hour to clean them when I got home. I kept on trudging.
I realized about two miles in that we were not on the path I had intended to take. Oops. No worries. We’d figure it out. We kept heading uphill, towards the trees, hoping that once we got into them we would find a trail that had been protected from the moisture. Around the point that we hit four miles, it was clear we had wandered further off course than we’d planned. I pulled out my phone to view a trail map so we could get our bearings. We were two hours into the hike. We’d passed two people. Although the views weren’t much because of the fog, the rainy weather had afforded us a hike in solitude. The only sounds were a gurgling creek running full with rain from higher up the foothill, some frogs chirping, and songbirds flying in and out of the bushes around us as we passed. Being a fair-weather hiker, I’m used to sharing the trail, to catching silence in between polite greetings with groups of fellow hikers. Today there was none of that. There was just peace.
We figured out which trail to hit and began our descent. We stopped to take photos and enjoy the less muddy section of trail. We paused to appreciate the scenery, limited though it was, and revel in the isolation. Eventually we passed one more set of hikers before we reached the parking lot. By then, the stats on my Fitbit app were impressive. We had logged seven miles in 158 minutes and climbed the equivalent of 116 floors under less than ideal conditions with mud-packs as ankle weights. And to think I had nearly given this up morning workout for an almond-milk latte indoors. Craziness.
I’m going to make a concerted effort more often to go with the flow, even if that flow is from rain. Despite all the mental excuses I could come up with today to skip our hike, nothing bad that I had imagined actually came to fruition. The rain held off, I stayed dry, and most of the mud fell away from my shoes on its own. Even when we realized we were off our intended path, we found our way back to where we needed to be. Everything worked out because everything always works out one way or another. I spend too much time imagining the worst, meanwhile missing out on what might have been the best.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~Vivian Greene
After a lively, late night dinner with our tour group that included the opportunity to make our own Pisco Sours, surprisingly we were up early for our final morning in Cusco. Our first stop was to Starbucks. Don’t judge. Old habits die hard, and Starbucks has free wifi. And reliable caffeinated beverages. And we wanted to Facetime with our sons. We hadn’t seen their cute little faces in days. We were due.
This Starbucks store sits on the second floor of an old building right off the main plaza, so it offers a nice view of the city while you wait for your latte. While we were sitting there, a procession of local, Catholic school children was making its way down the street in front of the store. Some were dressed in uniforms. Some were in angel costumes. All were adorable. It was one of those scenes you just don’t get to see in suburban Denver, so we snapped a few photos to share with our kids.I don’t feel one bit bad for visiting that highly commercial, Seattle-based coffeehouse. The way I had it figured, we were supporting American workers.
With caffeine on board, we went out to find some final souvenirs before heading to the airport. Walking around the central area in Cusco is fun. The city is both modern and ancient. You’re just as likely to encounter a hip student on a cell phone as you are a woman in traditional dress walking an alpaca. We lucked out and ran into Ray while we were trying to decide the best place to buy some last-minute gifts. It’s great to have a local to give you tips when you’re not familiar with an area. They can be invaluable in suggesting restaurants and pointing you in the right direction for exactly what you need. It helps when that person is also energetic, fun, and an all-around nice person. I was glad to discover that Ray is on Facebook. Facebook, for all its absurdities, makes the world a bit smaller by allowing me to stay in touch with amazing people I meet along my life’s journey.
We got to the airport with time to spare before our scheduled departure. While we were sitting there waiting, Andrew went off to buy some snacks. He returned carrying a bottle of Inca Cola. We’d seen this on the menu nearly everywhere we went. Inca Cola is Peru’s answer to Coca Cola. It looks like Mountain Dew, but Ray told us it tasted like bubblegum. Andrew poured us each a sample in a plastic cup and we toasted to our trip and our successful completion of the Inca Trail. Salud! Turns out it does taste pretty much like bubblegum soda, which I thought would be horrific but really wasn’t as disgusting as I had imagined. Not saying I’ll be buying cases of it on Amazon or anything, but I always figure I’m better for every new thing I’m brave enough to try.
We arrived in Lima hungry and tired. When we checked in at our hotel for our last night, I pulled up TripAdvisor and looked for a restaurant nearby. Saqra was ranked #14 in Lima and, bonus, it was just around the block from the hotel. It was a definite find. The ambiance was modern, fun, and funky, and the food was delicious. Up until that point, the four of us had been fairly conservative about what we ate and drank because, well, we were nervous about being sick on the Inca Trail. But with our trek behind us, all bets were off. We started with our first official Pisco Sours of the trip. The night before we’d sampled them but didn’t commit. I finally understood why people rave about these drinks. They’re tasty, they hit you like a ton of bricks (hello…cheap date here), and despite the lovely buzz there were no ill-effects afterwards. We ordered a couple appetizers, Parmesan scallops (which were served on their lovely shells) and ceviche to start. Perfecto! I settled upon ravioli for my main course and was not disappointed. The most fun part about Saqra was the restrooms, which were infinitely more amusing after a Pisco Sour. There are two unisex rooms. One is decorated with walls covered floor to ceiling in padded, red vinyl. The other room is entirely mirrored. Neither was occupied, so I had my choice. I won’t share which one I drew me in first, but I will tell you that a second Pisco Sour and another glass of agua con gas guaranteed that I eventually got to experience them both. When I got back to the table, as gauche as it is, I mentioned that the restrooms were not to be missed. I was curious to see what room would intrigue my friends. I’m all about initiating spirited (and occasionally inappropriate) dinner conversation among friends.
After dinner, we were worn out from shopping, touring, sampling, flying, drinking, and laughing, so we called it an early night. We had to rest up for our last full day in the City of Kings. Tomorrow we would tour Lima, visit a museum, and enjoy one last Peruvian meal before boarding a red-eye back to the States. As excited as I was to see our boys, I was melancholy about leaving Peru. Or maybe it was merely the effect of my Pisco Sours wearing off.
Until you’re standing there, surveying the whole of the place, you can’t comprehend how big Machu Picchu is. That was the first thing that struck me. The place is huge, big enough to once have housed perhaps a thousand residents. It’s hard to imagine that when you realize where these ruins are. They sit at around 8000 feet in elevation and are surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, which is about 1500 feet down from the ruins. The ancient city itself is impressive with nearly 200 buildings, but it’s the impossible surroundings that you miss in a postcard photo focused on the ruins that blew my mind.
After a while, Ray told us we had to leave Machu Picchu and re-enter it through the main gate. We would have our passports checked with our entry tickets and might need to store our backpacks if the guards deemed it necessary. Ray also told us that the main entrance had proper toilets, vending machines, and a snack bar. We were all on board for that, so we walked out to begin again. There was a small entry fee for the bathrooms, but that was of no concern. I would have willingly forked over $20 to sit on an actual toilet at that point. The faucets with running water were heavenly. I briefly considered stripping down to wash up and I might just have done it if the restroom hadn’t been packed with an international crowd that would have frowned upon my personal bird bath in the sink.
When we had finally cleaned up and had some snacks, it was time to re-enter. We would get a tour with Ray for about an hour and then have a couple of hours to tour Machu Picchu on our own before getting into the bus queue for the ride down to Aguas Calientes where we would catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. From there we’d be getting back in a van for the ride to our hotel in Cusco for the night.
The number of visitors inside the ruins was already growing. Machu Picchu accepts a limited number of tourists per day (I heard between 2500 and 4000) and, despite its large size and the 11 hours it is open each day, it can feel crowded and overwhelming. When Ray was giving us his tour, he would have to scramble to find a quieter spot to give us information so we could hear him. He was able to give us some info about the site before he turned us loose to tour on our own with some recommendations about what we should investigate.
Steve and I split off from our tour group with our traveling buddies, Andrew and Heather. The four of us set off to see the temple first. I managed to get myself separated from everyone else while trying to take a photo of Pichu inside a building. When I tried to get to where I thought the others were, I was told by a guard that I could not go that way. What the heck? Turns out that to mitigate congestion, visitors must follow arrow signs in a particular direction while inside the ruins. Really? Okay. When in Rome. I turned around and followed the crowd, slowly and surely moving in the approved direction where I might eventually find everyone else.
I was starving. It was close to 11 a.m. and I had been awake almost 8 hours already. We’d been given sack lunches at breakfast, so I dug into my bag and started gnawing on a cheese sandwich.
“You’re brave,” a Canadian tourist said to me.
“Why?” I asked.
“You can’t eat in here,” she replied. Then she told me she’d gotten reprimanded for such an infraction earlier. I’d simply been lucky and no guard had caught me eating.
Snap. Now I was hungry, without my companions, and feeling my blood sugar dip. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s angry. I turn into something reminiscent of the Hulk when I need to eat. Things would get downright scary if I didn’t eat something quickly. I decided to be a rebel. It had to be done. I pretended to put my food away in front of the other tourists who had caught me nibbling, but I kept part of the sandwich in my hand. When I’d get beyond a guard, I’d sneak a bite in my mouth as surreptitiously as possible. As far as I was concerned, it was a matter of life or death this breaking the law. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.
Steve found me and together we pushed ahead to catch up to our friends. When we found them, we decided en masse that if I was going to meet my goal of being photobombed by a llama we would need to get over to where we had seen them grazing earlier. The problem was that they were nowhere near where we currently were. We had 45 minutes to make our move. We started heading in the direction we needed to go. Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a tour group of seniors. It was clear that most of them were struggling with the stairs and the altitude. They were moving very slowly, and it would have been exceedingly rude and ugly American to shove through their group. So we stayed behind them and waited for their tour guide to move them through the narrow room where they were all standing. We were trying to be good citizens and follow the prescribed pathways, but the prescribed pathways were clogged with people who were not in the particular hurry that we were. I was becoming anxious. Time was a-wasting, and llamas wait for no one.
We tried several different paths to head in the direction we needed to go, but we kept going around in circles by following the arrow signs. Finally, the guys split off to try to get their bearings or perhaps get directions from someone (who’d have thought that possible?). Steve returned to tell the tale of how he’d found an English-speaking tour guide but felt bad for asking him the fastest way out of the ruins. I never imagined that during my time in Machu Picchu I would become so discombobulated and frustrated that I would be looking for the exit. Andrew and Steve had separately landed upon the same solution to our problem. We now had an exit strategy, so we began cruising in that direction.
We found the llamas where we had seen them, happily munching on grass along the agricultural terraces. Now to get close enough to get a photo with them without getting kicked out for going the wrong direction or treading where we should not tread. This was going to be a trickier task than we had originally anticipated. Apparently it was everyone’s Machu Picchu dream to hang with the llamas. I didn’t want a photo of the llamas in the crowd. Time was ticking away until we needed to be out the main gate and waiting in line for our bus to Aguas Calientes to meet the rest of our group for lunch and train tickets.
All I can say is that Pachamama must have been looking out for me because as we were standing there puzzling out how to make this llama photo work, the llamas began to move down the terraces toward us as if Pachamama’s divine hand were urging them toward me. This might work out yet. We had 15 minutes left to get this photo and be out of the gates. Steve started snapping shots as they came closer, hoping that one would turn out. I did my part by jockeying for position near the llamas but out of the way of the other tourists who would not get the heck out of my photo-op. I did not make this long journey to share my llama photo with strangers. In the end, we had several decent photos of the llamas by themselves and one passable photo of me and the baby llama in the background. We had to call it good because it was time to make like a baby and head out.
As for the rest of our day, it was long. It started with a bus ride down from Machu Picchu that nearly did me in. The cobblestone road from the ruins, as you can imagine given the location of Machu Picchu, is set into the side of a steep mountain above a river. The road is wide enough for one bus. Needless to say, there is more than one bus transporting the thousands of visitors each day. I think I left impressions in the seat in front of me with my fingernails. I’m not even sure a Valium could have made that ride pleasant. It was the last sweat I broke on the trip.
We had Coke and wood-fired pizza in a real restaurant while waiting for our train. Our group barely spoke because we at last had wifi and could contact our families. We were back in civilization and it felt good. I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride to Ollantaytambo and even our bus ride back to Cusco. I didn’t sleep like some of my fellow tourists because I am one of those travelers who hates to miss a thing. I simply watched Peru as she flew by. I hadn’t even left yet and I was already wondering when I would return.
Before we could begin our Inca Trail trek, we needed to spend some time acclimatizing to the higher altitude. We were already fortunate enough to be coming from the Mile High City, but any Coloradoan can tell you there’s a big difference between physical exertion at 5,280 feet and physical exertion at 14,000 feet. We needed some time to get ourselves ready. So on Wednesday morning, we headed back to the Lima airport to board a flight to Cusco, which sits at 11,200 feet. A combination of Inca and Spanish culture, a blend of old and new, Cusco did not disappoint. For starters, landing at the airport there was more eventful than I was prepared for. As you descend toward the city, the Andes rough you up and force you through sharp turns as the pilots maneuver to land in the narrow, high valley where Cusco rests. I’d like to say that regular flights over the Rocky Mountains had prepared me for this, but they didn’t. But then I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the wonder of Cusco.
Our G Adventures guide, Ray, was waiting for us safely outside baggage claim. He efficiently loaded us into a large van for the 15 minute trip from the airport to our hotel and began briefing us about the rest of the events for the day. After a couple of free days wandering around Lima sans guide, I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about Peru from a local. A guide will make or break a tour, and immediately I knew we were in good hands with Ray. He was born and raised in Cusco, spoke Quechua (the language of the local natives), and finished his degree in tourism at the university in Cusco by completing his thesis on the Incas. And if his expertise were not enough, Ray’s impeccable people skills carried us from that first van trip through our last night in Cusco. He somehow managed to keep us motivated and on track for our entire tenure with him without ever making us feel rushed. I later discovered that he’s a Gemini like me. I knew I liked him.
We had a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up before heading out for a walking tour of Cusco. Ray first took us to the San Pedro market. We wandered the aisles of this packed, open air venue where you could buy produce, grains, meat, herbs, textiles, and other assorted items. I marveled at the size of the Inca corn, which makes our corn nut snacks look piddly. We stopped occasionally to make food purchases from several local vendors so we could sample traditional bread and some tropical fruits that we can’t find here at home. It was one of those things that we might not have experienced without a good guide. We might have found the market on our own, but the likelihood that we would have felt comfortable purchasing and ingesting unknown foods is slim. The most interesting fruit we sampled was the granadilla, which had a hard outer shell similar to a gourd but which was very similar to a passion fruit. The flesh around the seeds was gelatinous (think chia seed consistency) and you had to suck the fruit from the outer shell. It was a fun experience. Nothing like getting to know your new friends by mouthing fruit on a street in Cusco.
We walked from the market toward the main plaza. Along the way I took time to marvel at the architecture. The bottom portion of many of the buildings was fashioned from different materials than most of the top parts of the same buildings. Ray explained that over the course of hundreds of years and dozens of earthquakes, the Inca walls remained in tact while the Spanish buildings erected on their ruins crumbled. Consequently, Cusco has a very new, old feel. I marveled as we walked near one of the old Spanish churches erected by the Conquistadors. Outside there was a street performer who had painted himself gold and was posing as a living statue for cash, a scene I could easily imagine any day of the week on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Passing right in front of the church at the same time, however, was a woman in traditional costume walking an alpaca. That was when I knew we were in for something special over the next week.
Noting we were hungry and a bit worse for the rapid altitude change, Ray directed us to a spot to grab a late lunch. He told us that our best bet was soup. Better not to overburden your system when your body is already struggling to acclimate. I was definitely feeling somewhat off already, so at Ray’s suggestion I tried the quinua (quinoa to us North Americans) soup…just the right amount of protein and comfort. Perfecto!
Later we met back at the hotel for a briefing about our journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and our Inca Trail trek. We were at last introduced to the whole of our hiking group. There were fourteen of us, six Americans, four Brits, a Swiss couple, and two Danish twenty-somethings. We quickly surmised that we were older than most of our fellow travelers by at least 20 years. We tried to imagine our advanced age would not be a handicap but, just in case, I began referring to us as “the old folks.” (It was what “the kids” were thinking anyway.) We covered logistics and were reminded that our packing limit for the next five days was 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) and that had to include our sleeping bag and ground pad. They gave us the trip bags to pack for our porters and sent us back to our rooms to begin the arduous task of packing, weighing, and repacking. I was thrilled to realize I’d estimated well at home. My first time to the bag scale left me a half kilo under the allowed weight. Woohoo! I got to add in another shirt and the portable battery charger for my iPhone. All was right with the world.
Dinner was at a quaint, well-reviewed restaurant called Nuna Raymi’s. While my friends all went with more traditional Peruvian food, I was still feeling not quite 100% so I opted for the comfort of pasta. And I was enjoying my spaghetti with olive oil and chunks of delicious, locally crafted cheese until I thought for a second about the fresh basil and tomatoes in the entrée that I’d happily been gnawing. My mind did the inadvisable and considered that they may have been washed in water that hadn’t been boiled. I am not much of a worrier, but for about thirty seconds I entertained the horrific idea of uncontrollable, unscheduled, and just plain ugly potty breaks in the presence of 10 strangers with no proper toilets, limited foliage, and pack-out-your-own trash. I considered the swamp ass that would certainly follow such episodes and the irreparable damage it would inflict on my limited undergarments and two pairs of pants over the next five days. I imagined sleeping in a tent with these clothing items and my unclean self. I shuddered. Too late now. There was a reason why I purchased and packed Imodium AD and filled a prescription for Cipro. Why borrow trouble? One way or another, it would all be fine, right? I’m not much of a praying woman, but I’ll admit that on that note I sent some positive energy out to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to encourage her to look after me, just in case.
Last week we returned from an 11-day trip to Peru. The impetus for the trip was to hike the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, something we’d been talking about doing since we were in our twenties. It was then one of those distant, maybe-someday, sort of things, a long-term bucket list item that we shelved once we had children and the notion of traveling 4,000 miles away to hike 27 miles without them would have raised some eyebrows. Then, late last year, my friend Heather reintroduced the idea. Turns out we aren’t getting any younger, and the strenuous nature of the trek made the feasibility of postponing this adventure much longer a little sketchy. I mean, here at midlife we’re still reasonably fit and healthy, but you never know what’s right around the corner. So we took a chance on ourselves, put down a wad of cash on the trip of our dreams, broke the news to our children (who were less than thrilled to be left behind), and started working out the logistics. Seven months later, we were winging our way to Lima in coach, fingers crossed, trusting that we’d return home safely to children who discovered they could survive without us.
I want to share something of our adventures, so I am going to spend a week or two writing up some memories of the trip. Thanks for indulging me.
July 7th, 2014
After a decent night’s rest at the Tierra Viva Hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima, we were anxious to explore. First stop, sadly enough, was to Starbucks to access reliable, free wifi and to satisfy an intellectual curiosity about the international cost of a Starbucks vanilla latte. (The latte was comparably priced to our local haunt…approximately $4.33 for a venti.) With no desire to sit after a long travel day, headed out armed with a map and a little blood in our caffeinestreams.
We walked to Larcomar, an upscale shopping mall built into the sea cliffs in Miraflores and listed as a must-see attraction in the area. While its location and architecture are worth noting, at the end of the day it’s just another mall with a Pinkberry and a Gap. We were hungry, though, and decided to eat lunch there at a local chain that specializes in pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). Not eager to encounter stomach sickness before our long hike, we eschewed the salad we might have had at home and filled ourselves with chicken, fries, and Cusqueña, the local lager. With full bellies, we headed away from the coast and walked blocks back into town in search of something that felt a bit more unique.
We found it at Parque Kennedy, which is home to dozens of feral cats who have been adopted by the city’s residents. Local citizens set out bowls of water and food for them under trees in the shade. The park was designed with built-in seating where people can relax with their lunches and smartphones (free wifi in the park too, who knew?). Once you settle into a seat, a cat is likely to find its way into your lap for a warm, cozy nap. I found this local custom perfectly charming. The cats seem to be well-cared for and not at all mangy or unclean. We even saw one with stitches in its leg, which leads me to believe that they are getting medical attention when necessary too. The park serves as a de facto library system for cats. You stop by, borrow one for a while, and return it when you’re ready to leave. I was missing my dog and wanting some animal attention, so I sat down near a cat who was not spoken for and waited to see what he would do. After sizing me up for a minute, he decided I was acceptable and crawled into my lap. There he napped for about 20 minutes while I petted him. Made my day. Pet fix achieved, we returned to our hotel to mull dinner options.
We landed at Panchita, a large restaurant that was more populated with locals than gringos. There were no menus in English, which boded well for an authentic experience. We attempted to conjure up any Spanish-language remnants from high school for about fifteen minutes before our waiter realized we were out of our element and sent over another waiter to offer suggestions in English. Good man! Eager to try some real Peruvian food, we ordered a sampler platter and four different entrees. There was not a thing we tried that we didn’t enjoy. We tried Peruvian Anticuchos (beef hearts), papa relleña (fried, stuffed potatoes), causa (a layered dish with mashed potatoes, meat, and avocado), and some local giant corn covered with huancaina sauce. Steve ordered the lomo saltado (grilled beef with peppers and onions) and I had tamales and arroz verde. For dessert we shared some picarones (Peruvian donuts). You could stick a fork in us because we were so done. Not exactly sure how we ate that much or how we managed to waddle back to our hotel. By far the most unexpected thing about Peru was how wonderful the food was. Everywhere we went we found new delicacies to enjoy. The Peruvians take great pride in their cuisine, and it shows in the flavor and presentation of every single dish. We thought we’d head to South America and lose weight. Tell that to my now tight pants.
July 8, 2014
After transferring our bags to the hotel where we would meet our tour group later, we walked back up one of the main streets in Miraflores to look for our next great food adventure. We apparently planned to eat our way through Peru. We stopped into a sandwich place and somehow lunch became more dessert than anything else. Tres Leches cake and churros dipped in chocolate, anyone? Desperately seeking exercise, we walked toward the sea cliffs to stroll the boardwalk that connects Larcomar to several local parks. Along the way we passed a restaurant where Brazilians had gathered to watch their World Cup game against Germany. It was not pretty. My blonde hair made me feel like sore thumb for some reason.
We strolled toward the boardwalk, which in truth is more of a sidewalk than a boardwalk, with the intention of making our way through several parks. This part of Miraflores is called the Costa Verde because despite Lima’s status as a coastal, desert town, things actually grow green here. There were tons of flowers and bushes, along with cactus, green grass, and palm trees. It was hard to believe Lima was in the midst of winter because it didn’t seem like winter to these northerners. It was never under 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most daytime temps were closer to 70. While the locals walked in boots, coats, and scarves, we strolled in light jackets. It was chilly, but not a Colorado winter by a long shot. I had read that winter in Lima was grey and dry, and that was no exaggeration. It was continually overcast, but rainless, and still quite tolerable.
Our walk down the Malécon landed us at El Parque Del Amor. There resides a sculpture by Victor Delfin called El Beso (The Kiss). Surrounding the sculpture are walls filled with bright mosaics. There are more built in benches where lovers can hang out and enjoy the sculpture…or not. A local tour guide told us that every year they hold a kissing contest beneath the sculpture. The longest kiss was over 9 hours. That’s more dedication than I have. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d like to do for 9 hours straight. Not a thing. Further down the boardwalk we came across the place where paragliders launch themselves via updrafts over the cliffs. We watched them for a while and, for a few seconds there, I almost thought it would be worth the $60 flight cost. Then I decided that since my main goal in traveling to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail I might be better off saving my flight for another bat time, another bat channel. No need to risk breaking my ankle landing from paragliding the day before our trek to Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Inca Trail, and finally Machu Picchu. We walked back to our hotel to meet our G Adventures representative and get the skinny on our flight to Cusco in the morning. We were finally on our way.
As we began our descent into fall last year, we spent one perfect afternoon on our friends’ pontoon boat on the reservoir near our house. It turned out to be the last swimming day of the year, and all the kids enjoyed fishing and splashing while the adults sat around drinking wine. While cruising along on that fun day, from across the lake, Joe (the same child who can’t find his shoes when they are on his own feet) spied some kids sledding down a steep, gravel embankment into the water. We had no idea what they were sledding on, but Joe was convinced it looked like fun. Ever since that afternoon, Joe has been pestering us to help him find that exact spot. We got away with not taking him last fall because the weather turned, and the good beach days were over. Then winter hit and, although he knew he would not get us out there, he still mentioned it from time to time. When spring rolled around this year, I knew I was screwed. I knew that as soon as the weather got warmer he was going to make me hike through brush and cacti to find that spot so he could investigate further. That kid, while being exceedingly easy to distract, is like a pit bull with his jaws locked when he happens upon something that interests him. He cannot let go.
This past weekend my time was up. He asked again, and I could not see how I would be getting out of it. I know that in these situations the only way out is through. So Joe and I headed into the state park to do some exploring. I figured that, at most, I’d have to put in about 30 minutes worth of walking and this was a small price to pay to toss this monkey off my back once and for all. I parked near the heron overlook, and we began walking down the paved pathway. The temperature was hovering near 80 and, because it was the warmest day of the year so far, it felt stupidly hot. We walked for about a mile until we came to a spot where Joe decided it was time to jump off and begin our big explore. He found a dirt path that led down towards the water, reasoning we could skirt the shoreline until we found it. It was a good assumption, but it ended up being more difficult than we had hoped.
On the way down, we dodged prickly plants and kept our eyes out for snakes. When we reached the shoreline, we began walking along the gravel. It was about at this point that I began to wonder what I had been thinking. I was one day straight off a spa-quality pedicure and here I was wandering through brush and rocky gravel shoreline in my flip-flops. I clearly hadn’t thought it through. The whole way, though, Joe was ridiculously excited. He was talking non-stop, thoroughly enjoying the time to explore and investigate. I have to give it to him. He was doggedly determined and incredibly upbeat. As I struggled over the rocks, trying my best to avoid soaking my new leather flip-flops, he up-talked me. He walked ahead, telling me the best way to go, trying to help me out. I think he was afraid I would give up.
In the end, we found the spot. Or at least I was sure we’d found it. I took a photo of it and sent it to Steve for verification. We jointly decided this must be the place. Joe seemed satisfied with the discovery and we beat a hasty retreat to the car, all the while searching for an easier way to get to where we had just gone. Joe was already asking when we could bring Steve and Luke to the spot. And here I’d thought we’d get it out of his system and would move on. Ha.
There was a time when our boys were younger, when I was exhausted from the everyday business of being their mother, when I would not have made the time to wander around the reservoir in search of a fabled place in my son’s memory. I would have made excuses. I would have decided it was a waste of time. I wouldn’t have gone for the folly. But as we’ve gotten older together, my boys and I, I have realized something very important. If I don’t make time for them, they’re not going to make time for me. If I don’t show them that I care about what they care about, they will stop talking to me. How can I expect them to lean on me later when I don’t offer myself to them now? I knew that spending an hour traipsing around the reservoir, more likely to find a snake than a sledding hill, would pay off eventually. And the most amazing thing happened on the six-minute drive home. My not-always-on-top-of-it son thanked me for taking the time to go with him. He apologized for messing up my new shoes and asked me if my feet were okay. Most importantly, he talked to me, really talked to me about how happy he was to find the place he’d been wondering about all that time.
The smallest amount of bunniness dedicated to others is more precious than anything dedicated to oneself.
How true that statement from Bunny Buddhism is, but how hard it is sometimes to make the effort. My poor landlocked son is a beach kid at heart. I don’t share his excitement about the reservoir and I never will, but going on this explore with him was something I won’t forget because these moments with my nearly teenage son will soon become fewer and farther between. Don’t tell him, but I honestly enjoyed that hour with him and I’m glad he dragged me along on his little adventure. It was worth messing up new shoes and a pedicure. Every day with my sons is a gift. And even if some days I feel too tired to unwrap the package, I’ve got to remember to make the effort because the gift is always much better than I thought it would be.