travel

Dream Achieved – Ngorongoro Crater

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.

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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. 

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Looks like we made it!

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.ab47

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.

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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.

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You know what they say about the honey badger

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.

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Crater traffic jam

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.

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Get off my back

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.

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Land Cruiser picnic

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.

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Tires look good, says Steve

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.

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. IMG_6366

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.

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Coffee, Dik-Dik, and Lake Manyara National Park

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Caffeine addicts rejoice!

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.

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Zazu and Mrs Zazu have breakfast with us

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.

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Everyone came out to say goodbye

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.

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Female dik-dik….try not to fall in love

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.

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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.

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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.

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That face, though

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.

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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.

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.

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Living the dream

My Wandering Heart

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India photo op 

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”   ~Elizabeth Stone

Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.

The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.

Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.

It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.

Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.

Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.

I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.

Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.

Justine 2.0 Eclipses The Original

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Our Nebraska eclipse home

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 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.

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Rocking their eclipse glasses waiting for totality

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As midday became night

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.

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The one photo I took during totality that proves you can’t capture an experience with an iPhone

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.

True Story…And That’s No Bull

 

Park at your own risk…including damage by stubborn bulls

Life is funny. There you are, going along on autopilot, head down, cruising blindly through your day when suddenly something completely unexpected happens to remind you that you’re alive.

The day started out as our typical travel day. We were up at the butt-crack of dawn to head to the airport. Got there early, checked one bag, cruised through TSA-Pre and were sitting at our gate guzzling lattes with an hour to spare before our flight. (Don’t get me started on how early my husband finds it necessary to head to the airport. It’s been a 20-year battle for which I’ve only ever managed to negotiate a 15-minute delay in the alarm clock.) Flight took off and landed on time, we breezed through the rental car counter, and were quickly on our way to a top-rated, Trip Advisor restaurant for a Montana-sky-sized breakfast. So far, so good.

During breakfast we discussed our options for the day. It is rainy and cool here in Billings, so we decided to take a scenic drive to see some pictographs. The drive took fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. Why is everything so much closer in a smaller town? So much for killing time before our family dinner meet up. As we checked in at the visitor center, we discovered the cave where the pictographs can be viewed was closed due to a rock slide earlier in the year. Bummer. We took a short walk around, but decided that cold and wet was no way to spend vacation. We got back in the car and discussed an art museum visit and a mansion tour. Both options were met with grunts and eye rolls. We negotiated a settlement. We would check in early at the hotel and, if the boys let their exhausted parents catch a quick nap, we would hit the pool. It was the most optimistic and ambitious plan we had all day.

The boys let us sleep about thirty minutes and then began their pacing. I could hear the drum beats getting louder and more insistent. The natives were getting restless. I gave in to the increasing volume, sat up to offer an ultimatum, and spied out the window a man on horseback in the hotel parking lot. Only in Montana. I mentioned it to the boys who ran to the window.

“There are three guys on horseback out here!” Luke exclaimed.

“What the….there are cops out here with rifles!” Joe added.

“What?” I questioned. “Are the rifles drawn?”

“Yes!” Joe exclaimed.

This piqued Safety Dad’s interest. He went over to the window to investigate. I gave up and crawled back under the covers, hoping to extract a few more precious moments of rest.

“There’s something on the ground back there behind the horse trailer,” I heard Steve report from the depths of my semi-conscious state. “The police keep walking back there and taking photos.”

I turned over toward the window and opened my eyes. They were all three lined up at the window, staring out of the partially drawn curtains like nosey neighbors.

“Why don’t you go walk around the hotel and see if you can figure out what is going on?” I suggested, hoping they would all leave so I could get some decent sleep.

Does this qualify as an Act of God?

Steve’s phone rang. He looked at it and mentioned it was a local number. I sensed something was amiss. The only person in Billings who would be calling us did not know we were here. Fifteen seconds into the call and I had determined we were involved in whatever was going on outside.

“I’ve got to go downstairs and meet a police officer,” he said. “Apparently a bull hit our car.”

“What?” I said, jumping out of bed. He repeated himself as means of explanation.

“I’ve gotta see this,” I said.

I started pulling on street clothes while the boys began grilling their dad about the phone call. Steve was anxious to get downstairs so we rushed out while I was still pulling on my sweater and boots. We headed down the stairs, four people armed with three iPhones for photos and social media updates.

We popped the fire door to the parking lot and saw a fire truck, wet, soapy pavement, and the rental car we had left in perfect condition looking no longer perfect. The hood was dented, the grill was cracked, and the plate had been knocked askew. Damn. Should have sprung for the rental car damage waiver. An officer approached us and told us that a bull had gotten loose from the stockyard downtown, run amok for miles, and ended up in the parking lot of the Hampton Inn. They had to put the frothing beast down. After they shot him, the bull lurched and fell onto our car for a moment before his last bit of adrenalin kicked in and he took off running around the corner to the other side of the hotel where he eventually died on a grassy lawn. You had to give it to the bull who saw the writing on the wall in the stockyard and stubbornly determined he would rather not end his life in a slaughterhouse and chose one last adventure instead. I tried to imagine us explaining it all to the rental car company, though. Dog ate my homework. Bull fell on my rental car.

Went out with a bang and not as a steak

Fire personnel were hosing off the sidewalks and parking lot, leading us to discern that the bull left a bloody trail before succumbing to his fatal wounds. The officer gave us a business card with his name and a case number, and we headed back inside to figure out how we’d be paying for the damage to the car. Steve waives insurance coverage every time we rent a car, citing that our credit card will insure us if necessary. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if that is true. In the meantime, we finish our trip here with a big, old bull-dent in the hood of our Nissan Sentra. And to think we’d fretted about the little paint scrape over the gas tank when we conducted the vehicle once-over before driving off the Alamo lot.

When I woke up on Friday morning, I could never have guessed that our rental car would be a victim of the running of the bull. Life is stranger than fiction…or at least as strange. I am convinced that things like this happen once in a while to remind you you’re alive. If only occasionally, life can be unpredictable. Pay attention, people. You just never know.

**We did actually settle the insurance claim through the credit card company as Steve expected and we got it all worked out. It took a year, almost to the day, but we eventually freed ourselves just like that bull.**

Unload The House And Upload The Memories

Happy boys visiting San Diego

Happy boys visiting San Diego

As my husband and I have gone along together over the past twenty years, one thing has become increasingly apparent to us: we spend too much money on things that don’t matter and not enough money on things that would truly increase our life satisfaction. We try not to dwell too much on money we’ve thrown away on pointless items because…well, it’s depressing. (I mean, seriously. A panini machine? Like we were going to be whipping up Cuban sandwiches on a daily basis? What the hell were we thinking?) We both agree, however, that the best money we’ve ever spent was for traveling or taking classes or participating in events. This is a very real phenomenon. Scientific research has proven that our satisfaction in life is tied more to experiences than possessions. A new possession might make us feel good in the beginning but, as soon as we adapt to it, the thrill is gone and that item becomes just another thing to take care of. As many couples our age are settling into bigger, nicer homes, we have spent long hours discussing our desire to downsize, to reduce the collection of crap we use once a year, to unload our baggage, and to make room in our budget for the things in life that stretch our minds and not our square footage.

Now, I say all this as if it’s going to be an easy transition for us. The truth is the exact opposite. We are long-time early adapters. When the new iPhone comes out, we’ve got it. Our thirteen year old son has already begun asking for the iWatch. We realize that as parents we’ve set a bad precedent, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to teach our children to be happy with what they have and to value life experience more than shiny, new toys. But we’re heading that direction, and we’re committed to proving to our children that it’s the best way to live.

Everything is awesome at Legoland!

Everything is awesome at Legoland!

To that end, my husband jetted off with our youngest to California this past weekend for a three-day, father-son trip made possible by a small bump in our income tax refund and my decision not to use it for a selfish, solo beach vacation. Luke had been telling us (for about six years) that he wanted to visit Legoland and, as he approached his 12th birthday next month, I realized he might just outgrow it before we managed to get him there. Deciding I could not let that happen, I booked a surprise trip for them. Last Friday, Steve and Luke headed to the airport bright and early to board a cheap, Spirit airlines flight to San Diego for Luke’s first trip to California. Over the three days, father and son visited the San Diego Zoo, Legoland, and the beaches in La Jolla and Carlsbad. Luke took his turn piloting the USS Midway. They enjoyed a harbor cruise. They walked on the beach and nearly stepped on sea lions that were resting in the sand. They skipped chain restaurants and sampled local cafes and coffee shops. As they went about their days, I received texts and photos. Each time a photo arrived, my heart smiled. Even though I wasn’t there with them, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for their opportunity to experience new things together. And while the Lego set Luke procured at Legoland will eventually be broken apart and end in pieces in a large, plastic, storage bin in the basement, this trip will remain with him throughout his lifetime and will hopefully inspire him to reach continually for new experiences and to voyage to different places.

"Please except this doggy pen." Best thank you note ever.

“Please except this doggy pen.” Best thank you note ever penned by Luke.

When I awoke on Monday morning after their late-night return, I found a small treat they had purchased for me in California, a $5 token of their gratitude for my unilateral decision to send them on a trip they hadn’t planned on. The note, written by my thoughtful, dyslexic son, read: “Dear Mom, I love you and I am so greatful [sic] that you spent your trip money for me and dad to go to San Diego and please except [sic] this Doggy pen.” If I’d needed any proof that our decision to move from possessions toward experiences was the right choice, this was it.

Our sons are growing up so quickly. We’re inches away from the day when it will be woefully uncool to hang out with Mom and Dad, so we’re focusing now on using our time with our sons wisely. At the end of May, I will be taking our oldest son on a mother-son adventure to celebrate our birthdays. We too will be heading to California for three days so we can experience the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a place Joe has talked about for years. We have no plans other than to visit the aquarium and to drive along the coast to enjoy the ocean we are sorely lacking in Colorado. I’m looking forward to living in the moment with my teenage son as we both make discoveries on our own adventure. Hopefully, when the trip is over and only a memory, we will be able to see our lives with a new perspective, one that will remind us that it is not he who has the most toys in the end that wins.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~ T.S. Eliot

Peru Adventure – Final Day in Lima

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

On our last day in Lima, we knew we had a few things to cross off our list. We hadn’t yet made it into the main part of the city nor had we taken the time to visit a museum. We decided the best way to knock these things off our list would be to take a tour. We’d seen some red, double-decker tour buses touring the city during the earlier part of our visit. That seemed like the way to go. So after taking time to work on our repacking a bit, we made our way to the tour bus kiosk located in Parque Kennedy. Our earlier research told us that there should be a tour leaving early in the afternoon. We made it our mission to be on it.

After we purchased our tickets, we walked across the street to a local jugeria and sandwich shop. One of the things I’ve loved in the past about traveling to Central and South America is the freshly squeezed, tropical fruit juices that are readily available. So far on our trip, I’d missed out on this. I was not leaving this country without having a juice. I decided on a orange, pineapple, and strawberry juice and shared a grilled ham and cheese. It was a simple, comfort-food lunch and it was heavenly. Now all we had to do was keep the cats in Parque Kennedy from jumping into our laps to eat our food.

On top of the world...or at least on top of the bus

On top of the world…or at least on top of the Mirabus

The Mirabus tour began at 1:30. We boarded the bus and found our seats on the upper deck. As we were about to depart, the tour operator told us that we would need to watch our heads and be sure not to stand up while the bus was in motion due to low-hanging power lines. That got my attention. I looked up as the bus took off down one of the main thoroughfares in Miraflores and was surprised to see the faintest bit of blue sky peaking through the lightly overcast sky. Could it be that we would finally see some sun and blue sky in Lima the day we were leaving?

We toured through the Miraflores district and then into the upscale San Isidro district. I was enjoying the opportunity to see Limeños in the midst of their daily lives. Sometimes when you travel to a location that is very touristy, your view of what is normal life for the locals can become skewed. Riding down city streets during the midst of lunch time rush offered an opportunity to see men and women in business attire going about their usual routines. Lima is a bustling, lively city. It was fun to be in the thick of it.

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

The tour landed us in the Plaza Mayor where streets were closed off for a political rally. At the same time, a local cathedral was also having a street parade with the requisite pageantry. The area was so congested that we had to disembark and walk for a bit, which was fine with us. We entered the main plaza where riot police were ready near the political rally, just in case. One thing we noticed quite often in Lima is the number of uniformed, armed police officers on the street. They are everywhere, on foot, on bike, on horseback, and on motorcycle. The Limeños are under constant surveillance. There are cameras everywhere. The police presence was far more noticeable than it is in the States. Oddly, the predominance of uniformed police officers made me feel more safe in Lima. I’m sure some could argue the opposite.

The colonial-influenced architecture in this part of Lima is striking. What is interesting about it, though, is that it hasn’t been around as long as you would think. The Basilica Cathedral of Lima was built between 1535 and 1541. It was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1746 and then rebuilt. The cathedral, along with other structures in the Plaza Mayor, have been damaged and redone after multiple, strong earthquakes, the most recent one in 1940. Maybe that’s why the old looks so new here.

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Blue sky in winter at the Museo Larco

The main stop on our tour was to the Museo Larco. The museum is in a lovely, 18th century building that was actually build over a 7th century, pre-Columbian pyramid. The museum houses an impressive, privately-owned collection of Peruvian pre-Columbian artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years. It also houses a large collection of ancient, erotic pottery, which we ran out of time to see. It’s too bad too because that would have made for some amusing dinner conversation once again.

The tour ended with a lovely drive down the coast and back to Miraflores. The blue skies were fading with the sun, and our time in Lima was wrapping up as nicely as it had begun. We were worn out after 11 days in Peru and opted to return to our new favorite restaurant right around the block from the hotel for one last round of Pisco Sours and a flawless meal. Then it was back to the hotel for final packing preparations and to await our shuttle to the airport. We had an overnight flight this time, for which I was highly grateful. Amazingly, I slept most of the way home, a feat I nearly never accomplish. It must have been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that gave me the peace of mind to rest. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several “trip of a lifetime” experiences. Our time in Peru reminded me that nothing I can own is as important as spending money on experiences that will live a lifetime in my memory. So…where should I go next?

Peru Adventure – Cusco/Lima

July 15, 2014

Coffee!!!!

Coffee!!!!

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.

Just another morning in Cusco city

Just another morning in Cusco city

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.

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

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.

Salud!

Salud!

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.

Dinner at Saqra

Dinner at Saqra

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.

Peru Adventure – Machu Picchu

Postcard photo

My personal postcard photo

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.

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

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.

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Rocks imitating art imitating nature

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.

Help! I'm lost in Machu Picchu and I can't find my llamas.

Help! I’m lost in Machu Picchu.

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.

Close enough

Close enough

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.

Worth 27 long hiking miles and three nights on the ground

Well worth 27 long, hiking miles and countless stairs and three nights sleeping on the ground

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.

 

 

Peru Adventure – Day Four on the Inca Trail

Pichu...because nothing says ancient ruins like a plush toy from China.

Nothing says “ancient ruins” like a cheap, plush toy from China. I will do anything for my sons.

The wake up call for the final day of the hike was 3:30 a.m. I eschew any wake up call that happens at an obnoxious time, for example, 3:30 a.m. But on this particular morning I flew out of my sleeping bag ready to hit the trail. It had been a long, life-changing hike, and I was ready for the big finale. I was also growing weary of my filthy hiking pants and sports bras, and I knew at the end of the day there was a hot shower waiting for me. It was somber that morning at breakfast. Maybe we were all just sleepy, but it seemed like there was something in the idea of this journey being over that made us all a bit more contemplative than we had been. We loaded up our gear for the day, and I dug to the bottom of my pack to bring to the top something I’d been waiting until Machu Picchu to break out. Before I left, the boys had given me a Pokémon plush to bring along, 1) because they wanted me to have something of them with me (as if any part of me is ever without them) and 2) because they wanted to see a photo of it at Machu Picchu. I was merely glad they wanted me to carry a plush instead of, say, a rock. Either way, today it would fulfill its destiny and Pichu would visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu with me. The boys would be thrilled.

As with every morning on the Inca Trail, we headed to the passport station to be checked onto the trail for the day. The reason for the early morning wake up call was so that we could get onto the trail and through the Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise on the ruins. The passport station did not open for a while, so we stood there in a line in the dark with other hikers, headlamps on, waiting for daybreak. This only added to the novelty of the day and our growing anticipation.

The Monkey Stairs

The Monkey Stairs

Finally the passport station opened and we were on our way. The sun began rising so we could jettison our headlamps and enjoy the last of the scenery on this hike. We were slowly heading our way up to the Sun Gate. I stopped a lot on the way to the Sun Gate. Not because I was gasping for air or needed to lower my heart rate but because I knew these were our last couple hours on the trail and I wanted to soak it all in. I stopped to take mental photographs and simply to be present in the Andes and appreciate all I had done to get to that point. It’s easy to rush to the denouement when it was the whole impetus for your journey. But, over the course of the past three days, I’d had the opportunity to focus solely on the journey. It transformed what would have been a great trip into a life-altering one. It’s our rushing through life to the next big thing that ruins us.

The last section of stairs you climb are aptly called the “Monkey Stairs.” This is because you more or less climb them on all fours because they are so steep. There’s no way to capture adequately a photo of these stairs, but imagine that you’ve just hiked nearly 27 miles, slept on the ground for three nights, and are dog tired from getting up at 3:30 a.m. To make matters worse, you’re wearing a pack. You approach a significant length of steps. They are uneven, worn, high and, frankly, the last thing you want to see at this point, but they are the final obstacle between you and Machu Picchu. You suck up your pride and begin climbing, hands on the stairs ahead of the ones your feet (or knees) are on so you can keep your balance. No point in getting this close to Machu Picchu and then injuring yourself so you can’t walk around and experience it.

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The end of the line

When we got to the top, I realized we had reached the end of our hike. I hadn’t realized it was that close. At the top of the stairs is a sign that tells you that you’ve finished the Inca Trail. With a bit of melancholy, I took this photo of the sign to mark the occasion. I looked ahead of me, but the Sun Gate sits around a corner and there are people at the top resting from the stairs. The view is obscured. I finally summoned the courage to walk ahead to find the actual Sun Gate and see what I’d only read about. The Sun Gate itself is not something special to look at. It’s not a gate of any sort any longer, just a bit of ruins with windows overlooking the scene ahead.

Machu Picchu before sunrise

Machu Picchu before sunrise

I walked through the group of people gathered there, and it took me a minute to adjust myself to the view and what I was seeing. You’re still a hike away from Machu Picchu. It is there ahead of you and you can make it out, but it is a faded image in the distance. Because it’s still a way off, there’s some sort of mental acknowledgement that you’ve made it but the excitement of being there hasn’t kicked in because, well, you’re not there yet. The Sun Gate is an excellent spot for a photo-op, though, so we hastened to get that done while we waited for the sun to begin lighting up Machu Picchu.

We had timed our hike perfectly because the sun was on the hill directly behind Machu Picchu but it hadn’t yet landed on the ruins themselves. We all realized we needed to move it in a hurry if we wanted to hike the 1.5 miles down from the Sun Gate to watch the sun slowly sneak over the ruins until they were totally bathed in sunlight. The weather had been with us the entire trip. We’d encountered not one drop of rain, and the sky this day was again clear. There were no low-hanging clouds to obscure our view. It was literally a picture-perfect day.

Getting my zen on

Getting my zen on

I found speed in reserves I didn’t know I had while trying to reach Machu Picchu and enjoy it a bit before the crowds became insane. I am not afraid to admit I was nearly skipping my way down the last of the Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. I had done it. There I was. And there it was. My lifelong goal of being at Machu Picchu could be crossed of my bucket list. There aren’t many things that can eclipse the feeling of a long-term goal achieved. All that’s left is to savor it.