Sunday, May 31, 2009

Nepal - Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

After an exhausting 220-km hike through the Annapurna Circuit, I'm currently resting in Pokhara. I expected the trail to take 18-20 days, as suggested by Lonely Planet and other apparently conservative sources, but happily hustled through the route in 10. The trip was gorgeous and tiring, given the pace I chose. Some highlights:

-Hiked about 80% of the trek with a 28-year old Israeli named Shlomi. He'd been on the road for nearly 7 months, seeing just about every part of Asia (including an Auggie-esque bike trip through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Yunnan Province). Shlomi's "everpresent frugality" helped keep costs low: the guy's one helluva bargainer. An example of one day's costs on the trek (1 USD = 75 Nepali Rupees):

Breakfast (Black tea, chocolate biscuits): 40 rupees
Lunch (Instant Noodles, hot water): 30 rupees
Dinner (Fried rice with veggies): 150 rupees
Room at guesthouse (split with Shlomi): 50 rupees

So I spent about 4 - 6 USD per day. Pretty awesome. Then again, all I was doing was eating, walking, eating, walking, eating, and sleeping. Like Michael Phelps with shoes.

-One uncomfortable night of sleep. On day 6, we stayed in Upped Letdar at 4200m. The weather was particularly bad, though we didn't pay much attention. After a delicious potato-curry dinner next to the kitchen fire, we retired to our rustic room, oblivious to the light rain dancing off the mud-and-wood roof. After fifteen minutes, we noticed a pair of leaks dripping onto the bedroom floor. No problem, we said. We just put our packs on top of our beds and went back to sleep. After fifteen more minutes, more leaks. Though these were positioned above our beds, striking the thick blankets provided by the guesthouse. No problem, we said, and repositioned our beds diagonally to avoid the water. After fifteen more minutes, we heard a plopping sound striking the floor. Using a candle and my handphone to survey the situation, we discovered that the rain had softened the mud-roof, and our room was essentially collapsing (the "mud" was probably mixed with yak manure, meaning that it was quite literally "raining shit"). Our patience tested to the brink, we finally gathered our things, woke up the owners, and piled into the dining room with the rest of the 8-person family for our sleep.

Sadly, we did a poor job of reciprocating this hospitable act, as neither Shlomi nor I remembered to shut the door of the failing bedroom. Come morning, the bedroom's second guests, a pair of cows, had left two large piles of excrement on the floor. Only in Letdar.

-Visited the World's Highest Lake: Took the time to make a two-day side trip to Lake Tilicho, the world's highest at 4919m. The sight was beautiful: half the lake remained frozen from the relentless Nepalese winter, while the other half shone a deep blue. A truly awesome experience, well worth the brutal hike (and shivering night of sleep).

-Thorung La Pass: The pinnacle of the Annapurna circuit was the 5416m high Thorung La Pass, a torrid wind-tunnel through the Thorung mountain-range. Due to bad weather, the visibility was quite poor but it still felt like a great sense of accomplishment to reach an altitude of nearly 18,000 feet. Breathing was akin to inhaling through a crazy-straw.

All in all, the trail was relatively deserted, given that this is the start of "low season," which pretty much means that a monsoon blankets all of Nepal from 5PM until 5AM. Pros: more privacy, more negotiable room costs, less touts. Cons: incredibly wet, stinky socks. Shlomi's were worse: he wore the same pair 8 days straight.

Currently chilling in Pokhara, a touristy lakeside town with plenty of cheap food, odd massages (I paid 80 rupees for a 20 minutes "eyebrow" kneading at a barbershop: no joke) and independent travelers happy to share their experiences and views (legalize marijuana, free Tibet, ban razors and haircuts, etc). Though traveling alone has been exciting, I do miss the four-person globetrotting dynamic: it takes more than just one to Do The Earth.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

(NOTE: Phil had to post this on my behalf from Singapore because the Chinese government has caught on to our act and blocked access to the blog)

Phil and I split up on Thursday (just a separation, it's only temporary), saying our goodbyes before dawn as he headed to the airport to try and find a way to Nepal. As for me, I took a cab to Chengdu's long-distance bus station and boarded a 6:30 a.m. bus to Danba, 10 hours west of Chengdu. The ride ended up taking 13 hours, for a few reasons: First, the roads are already in horrible shape in this region following the destruction of last May's Great Sichuan Earthquake. In addition, We stopped for an hour on the side of the road when heavy rains made Chengdu's suburban roads undriveable. Then around 3 p.m. we ran into a roadblock near the county of Kangding, and waited for two hours while China Hydroelectric Bureau Number 5 deployed and then detonated dynamite ahead to aid its construction of a dam.
The latter delay reflects a general trend here in Western China, that of the government investing billions of dollars towards infrastructure development to bring the country's economic miracle to those least attached to the idea of a Chinese nation, people like the large groups of Tibetans that live in Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. What Tibetans consider Tibet actually includes a much larger area than what the Chinese Central Government has arbitrarily deemed the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Small towns frontier towns like Danba, which has a large Tibetan population, would fall inside greater Tibet if the Tibetans had their way. More important, for foreigners who want to avoid the ridiculous rules that the Chinese government has placed on foreigners travelling to Lhasa, towns like Danba are a great way to experience Tibetan culture. That's why I went.
Danba proper fits the description of other towns in minority areas of China: It's pretty boring and soulless, mainly because Beijing has done its best to dilute and marginalize the Tibetan heritage here in favor of the conformity of a bland Chinese town. The nicest and newest building here is the government's Public Security Bureau. The people out here are among the poorest people in a nation with the world's largest wealth gap, and the construction of electric dams, power lines and other efforts to develop the region represent an attempt by the Chinese government to rein in the disgruntled masses of the west. Chinese business has reached Danba as the government has tried to prop it up as a tourist destination for the Han Chinese (The Han Chinese, one of China's 56 different ethnic groups, make up more than 90 percent of the population). Tibetan culture still thrives out here, you just have to venture outside of Danba to find it. Luckily, a man named Ah Ba offered me a ride from the bus station to my hostel and a friendship was born. Ah Ba, a Tibetan, hails from the nearby mountain village of Suo Po. Ah Ba explained that Suo Po not only offers a glimpse of real tibetan culture, but it also can lay claim to containing the world's only 13-angled watchtower. Believe it.
Stone watchtowers up to 40 meters tall, built by the locals around 1000 years ago, line the hills around Danba. Some of the watchtowers have four angles (or points), some five, and a couple even have eight. Most tourists can pay an entrance fee to take a tour and see some of them. But only one watchtower has 13 angles, according to Ah ba, and you don't need a ticket to see it. Daring Ah Ba to prove it to me, I arranged for him to pick me up early the next morning and take me to his village.
Ah Ba showed up outside my hostel door in his beat-up VW sedan at 7 a.m. and we began the rocky drive on a winding dirt road into the hills above Danba. Ah Ba explained to me that the Tibetan people who live in this area might resent the disruption brought on by the influx of Han Chinese influence from the east - especially the introduction of power lines - but things here have still remained peaceful. Protests in March 2008 between Tibetans and Han Chinese in Lhasa spread to other parts of Western China, but not here.
On the way up the hill, I also learned a little more about Ah Ba. He's 43 years old and a chain smoker, like virtually every other adult male in China. He has a wife and his 17 year-old son attends high school in the nearby county of Kangding. He lived in Chengdu for about 6 years, but didn't like itwhere he bought his wheels and drove it all the way back here to make a living as a driver. Ah Ba said he makes 2000 RMB (about US$300) a month, in-line with the average monthly wage nationwide but pretty good for these parts. Other than a visit to Kunming in neighboring Yunnan Province, he's never left Sichuan.
After about an hour Ah Ba pulled the car over and pointed me up a path, saying if I followed that path for about an hour I would reach the watchtower. He said he would accompany me if his lungs would allow it, which they wouldn't, so I was on my own. The walk up began along a stream rolling down the river underneath a forest canopy, but the path eventually emerged above the trees and wound its way up a sprawling hillside grassland. With the tower not yet in my view, I ran into a few Tibetan peasants who showed me the way.
Eventually I saw it. The 13-angled watchtower reached up into the sky, high up on the mountain above the village of Suo Po. It overlooked the whole valley and the dozens of other inferior watchtowers scattered below. Words can't do it justice, but I'll try. I sat in the watchtower for about an hour, peering out into the distance and (poorly) imagining myself as a guard 1000 years ago on the lookout for mongolians or whatever other pests were feared to be invading from the north or east. Talk about having the high ground. Despite its odd construction, I don't know if Ah Ba was right about this being the only 13-angled watchtower in the world. Either way, it was worth taking Ah Ba up on his offer and seeing it for myself.
I made the 13 hour journey back to Chengdu today (with another long stop so China Hydroelectric could blow up some more dynamite). I'll spend the night here and then take the 19-hour train to Kunming tomorrow afternoon. I had planned to fly before losing my wallet this week (see Phil's latest post), so now I have to conserve my remaining cash and give up the sleeper bed in favor of the hard seat. I'll let you know how it goes.

(Pictures to come. - Phil)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

If I had another chance, I'd Cheng-du it all over again...

As I prepare to leave China tomorrow enroute to Nepal, I thought I would cover some of the highlights of my 2+ weeks here.

- Purchased a host of fake clothing at the Pearl Market. It turns out that wearing Lacoste and Polo shirts is actually recession proof. (Each shirt cost about 12 USD).
-Camped out on the Great Wall. Our local guide, Aseem Nambiar, offered to help organize an overnight trip to the Great Wall in exchange for us picking up a foot-long Italian B.M.T. from Subway for him. Fair trade.

After a 60-minute public busride and a heavily negotiated private car trip, we arrived at Jinshanling, a portion of the Great Wall. We set up shop in an old guard tower just before dark, and did what the guards 600 years ago always did: we ate Subway sandwiches, using our battery-operated headlamps for lighting.

Later into the night, we passed around a bottle of Bai Jiu - literally "white liquor", a Chinese-made concoction of ethanol, baby tears, and Satan's urine, which made our poker game much more entertaining (we used peanuts for playing chips, and Aseem's Bruce Lee playing cards, each of which had some blurfled English quote - "Bruce roundhouse kick inspires for all pretty girl"). Under the stars, with the wall all to ourselves, we all fell into a firm, Bai Jiu-induced sleep.

At 4:45AM, we packed up our sleeping bags, gathered our empty bottles and sandwich wrappers, scratched our bug bites and began the 10km hike towards the Simatai entrance. The sunrise struggled to break through the Chinese pollution, but it didn't matter, we practically had the entire wall to ourselves. (I say "practically" because we did come across two other tourists who had opted to stay overnight, in a different tower. We found them naked in their sleeping bags, facing a camcorder and a giant photo-studio light. Gotta love home movies...)

By 8AM we arrived in Simatai, happy to avoid the flock of daily tourists, and once again negotiated a ride back home.

- Visited a gym for the first time in over a month. I used one of Scott's friend's membership cards to enter Physical Fitness.
-Celebrated Scott's birthday prematurely at an awesome nightclub, right on the Bund, with a view of the Shanghai skyline. I met a bunch of really cool people doing really cool things in China, thankful that our generation is so worldly and adventurous.


There are Cheng-do's, and there are Cheng-don'ts:

-Pandas! Went to the Chengdu Panda Research Base, where I got to witness over 30 pandas living in captivity. I envy their daily regiment of eating and sleeping. I think I could do it with more style (seriously, doesn't bamboo get boring eventually?).

-Celebrated Scott's REAL birthday. In search of the famous Spicy Sichuan Hot Pot, we considered ourselves blessed when a local Huo Guo joint offered both the cuisine AND 1 Kuai beers (1 kuai = 15 cents). Upon sitting down, Scott informed the restaurant owner that today was his 23rd birthday. Immediately she ran to the refrigerator and returned with three beer bottles and took a seat at our table, kicking off what would turn out to be a long - and frugal - night of drinking. Following our initial gan bei (literally "empty cup", it's the Chinese version of "cheers"), the owner had a waitress blast "Happy Birthday", in both English and Chinese, on the restaurant's PA system. As luck would have it, another patron was celebrating her birthday too!

We continued to drink Green Dragon Beer (hey, for 15 cents you can't be picky) and sweat from our food, while the Owner explained a bit about herself:

1) Her restaurant had suffered because of america's poor economic policy-making
2) She had served in the Chinese army for 15 years, based in Lhasa
3) She was best friends with China's national badminton coach (who we spoke to on her phone)

Thirty minutes into dinner, the restaurant patron adjacent to us returned from outside with an 8-inch birthday cake. With little explanation, she lit five candles, sang Happy Birthday to Scott, and promptly sat down, failing to remove her gaze from Scott (her daughter arrived at the restaurant soon thereafter). After blowing out the candles, Scott received yet another surprise when the Owner dug a spoon into the cake, reached across the table, and SMEARED frosting all over Scott's beard. I guess there are some Chinese customs we have yet to learn or understand.

Sixteen Green Dragon Beers later, we settled the bill, and in an inebriated state, hopped into the cab, already reminiscing about how we loved Chengdu. Scott, in a subconscious effort to give something back to Chengdu, left his wallet in the front seat. In the final moments of the night, I can proudly say I saw Scott run down Xing Huixi Lu barefoot, screaming for the cab (and his personal effects) to stay.
They did say it would be tough to leave Chengdu.

I am off for Nepal tomorrow morning. Zaijian, Zhongguo.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Phil's Gastronomic Adventure #6: Seoul, Korea

The Location: Seoul Fish Market
The Dish: Live Octopus
The Ingredients: octopus?

Thanks to the mass production of guidebooks and travel channels, eating live octopus in Korea has lost some of its mystery.  But let's face it: it still sounds gross.  After a tour of the DMZ, we headed to the Seoul Fish Market and came across a lady selling small octopi out of a plastic washing basin filled with water. Making a gesture to our mouth with our hands indicating "can we eat that?", the old fishmongress with rubber gloves and boots happily nodded. We shelled out 4,000 inflated Korean Won (about US$3) for a pair of the tentacled creatures.  

We brought the pair in a clear plastic bag to the second floor of the market, where a japanese-korean restaurant accepted our raw ingredients and offered to "prepare" them for us. Two minutes later, the chef delivered a plate of furiously wriggling tentacle pieces.  We dug in, watching the pieces cling on for dear after-life to our chopsticks.  Each bite was an adventure, the suckers latching on to my tongue or the roof of my mouth. We chewed ferociously to put them down, surprised at how good live octopus actually tastes. Like calamari, but with feelings.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Who needs a toilet made out of solid gold when Japan has these?

Phil said it best: "Japan is the best place in the world to get diarrhea."

The folks at Phil and Scott and Chris and Auggie Do Earth can go no longer without shedding light on the wonder of Japan's sanitation services, by far the cleanest and most technologically advanced in the world.  We could eat food off the bathroom floors, even in subway stations.  We wouldn't — and didn't — but we could.  And the toilets feature not only heated seats, but spray, bidet and dry features as well.  It's enough to make the guys want to pee sitting down.  No, really.  

We didn't, but we still spent plenty of time sitting on these bathroom beauties.  At least I did.  Something (maybe all that raw fish?) did not sit well in my stomach during several days this week, leaving me thankful that I found myself in Japan and not in North Africa or Peru (where running water had run away).  

But enough about toilets.  We've had an unbelievable time during our week in Japan, during which we've exhausted our vocal chords singing countless cheesy yet classic karaoke songs till dawn, watched a fish auction, eaten breakfast sushi, gone to arcades and maid cafes, learned Japan's revisionist war history, watched Japanese baseball, seen old friends and met new ones.  Our Asian re-entry could not have gone better, and today we're off to South Korea.

Look out for our run-in with soft-shell turtles, to likely be featured in Phil's next gastronomic adventure.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Singing and Fish

Auggie, Chris and I took a nocturnal adventure through Tokyo. We started with some shisha in Kitazawa, followed by an emotional Karaoke session with our Tokyo-based friends Kumiko and Kelly. All Journeyed and Bon Jovied out, we waited in a local McDonald`s until the first train of the "morning" rolled in at 4:40AM. Parting ways with our hosts, the three of us took the train to Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced kind of like "squee-gee") to watch their famous tuna auctions. Big Bluefin Tuna can fetch up to US$185,000 at the world`s largest fish market. Still traveling on a budget, we kept our cash in pocket during the auction but did cough up some Yen for a plate of the freshest sushi in the world. Toro (tuna belly), Uni (sea urchin), Unagi (grilled eel), Maguro (tuna), squid, and an unidentifiable white fish. All washed down with an icy Asahi beer. All consumed by 6:15AM.

We took the train home, wandered the streets of Roppongi and got lost in the sea of briefcases and suits making their way to work (including one Gary Wigmore - no joke). The clock struck 9, and we went back to Motoazabu Hills #24-06 to find Kelly on her way to class. It`s nice not having responsibilities.


Intending to take the subway back after a late dinner, I ended up riding to the Wigmore's apartment in the back of a Tokyo Metropolitan Police squad-car.  My crime?  Not having my passport, therefore having no way to prove to the police that I legally entered Japan.  

Maybe the beard tipped them off, but who knows.  Standing in front of a ticket machine in the Ebisu Station with an "I have no idea what I'm doing" look on my face, a policeman approached me and asked for my I.D.  I pulled out my ISIC student card (accepted everywhere, my ass) and my driver's license, but he was unimpressed.  He tried for a while to talk to me, but I speak no Japanese and he spoke no English, so we got nowhere.  It's amazing how much people keep trying to communicate in a language even if they know the other person can't understand.  What, did he expect something to suddenly click in my brain?  Did he think that if he said it enough times it would finally process and I would go "Ohhhhh, THAAAAAT's what you said!"  Frustrating.

Anyway, after a fruitless back and forth he escorted me to the station's police hut, where 5 other eager officers surrounded me and tried, in Japanese, to explain the situation.  It was like a scene out of Harold and Kumar - "This one's mine, this one's mine!  Finally, some action!"  Once aware that I could not understand a word (incredibly observant, these ones), they phoned police headquarters and put me on the phone with somebody who could speak to me in English.

Once connected, the police officer handed me the phone and the man on the other line said that I was required by law to have my passport on me at all times so that the police could verify my status in Japan during random midnight subway station checks.  I explained to him that I had just gone out to dinner with my friends and was unaware of the strict rules.  I explained to him that while I always carried my passport while in such police states as Egypt and Peru, I did not know the same would be required here in Japan.  He was not amused with the comparison, but still conceded to me that pleading ignorance helped my cause.  It's better to just not know the law, he said.

The back and forth (and forth) which continued for over 30 minutes went something like this:  The policeman would bark something to the man on the other line in Japanese, then hand me the phone so the other guy could explain to me (in English) why I had been detained and what I needed to do, then I handed the phone back to the policeman so the guy on the other line could tell him (in Japanese) what I had said.  The scene resembled a horrible bi-lingual rendition of "Who's on First?"  I played Abbott, they all played Costello.

By now, with the clock on the wall moving torturously past 12:30 a.m., I had lost all hope of making the subway before it closed.  Eventually, through my new translator, the police agreed to drive me back to the apartment I'm staying at so that I could show them my passport and put them at ease.  I was escorted to the squad-car surrounded by 4 officers because apparently they viewed me as a flight risk.  Two officers drove me back to the Wigmore's, where I'm staying, and accompanied me upstairs.  A little peeved at the whole situation, and at the fact that they wouldn't let me listen to my i-Pod in the car, I made them take their shoes off at the door.  I showed them my passport, assured them it was real, they wrote down my information and headed on their way.  After almost two hours in their custody, the whole thing ended in about 3 minutes.

What to take away from it all?  It's tough to say, really.  On one hand, it all could have been avoided if I had carried my passport with me.  On the other hand, who does that?  Especially in a place like Tokyo.  In the end I cut my losses and, in a rare moment of optimism (for me), went to bed thankful that I had gotten a free ride home.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Photo Links

Time to purge South and Central America from my camera and mind (though I had a blast) and enjoy my Asian re-entry. Enjoy the photos:

Buenos Aires


Western Argentina



Machu Picchu




Back in Asia

It has been a while since my last post. It has also been a while since I have typed without the use of an apostrophe key (which, on Japanese keyboards, is so disguised it is obsolete), so please dismiss my uncondensed typing.

It has been great to return to the continent we call our own. Right now I physically sit on the foot of Chris Wong (please remember I have no apostrophe key, and that Chris can sleep in any orientation, even standing up), three hours removed from an all nighter in Tokyo. A lot has changed since I left Japan in 1995 (is that right, Mom?), but not Shibuya. The "Times Square of Tokyo" still permits pedestrians to cross the busied intersection diagonally, something we partook in to save time when meeting Kelly and her friends at the cheapest bar in town (where beers still cost 300 yen, or 3 USD). Afterwards, Scott and I watched a British soccer masterpiece at an English bar, eager to see Everton take on titans Manchester United in the FA Cup Semifinal (see results here). We finished the night in Asian fashion, meeting the gang at a congested Karaoke bar down the street. We wailed away on American classics like "Proud Mary" and "What a Wonderful World", eager to impress (see: embarrass) Kelly and her friends. Post wailing, we took an expensive cab home, now cognizant of the non-frugal Yen and our forgettable bid for singing stardom. Ten cuidado, Japan: the boys are back in town and ready to wreak havoc (exchange-rate permitting). Did someone say Instant Ramen?

Back to sleep, I need it. Hopefully Chris can sacrifice 30% of the mattress, since I still physically sit on his foot (does he really not notice?). It is great to be "home".


Friday, April 17, 2009

"Ruins and Shit"

We paid nothing for our guided tour through Guatemala. Our esteemed guide, Andrew Wigmore, met us at the airport last Friday with printed itineraries for Easter Weekend (Semana Santa, as they call it here) and the rest of our six-day stay. Andrew's friends Marilu, Jose and Eddie joined us for the weekend and we hit the road. We spent Friday heading away from Guatemala City - "only stick around if you want to see nothing interesting and then get mugged," according to Andrew - for the beach on the South Coast.

Andrew stressed the importance of sticking to the itinerary, and for good reason. Our schedule for the beach, jam-packed, included such Saturday activities as "kick soccer ball, float in ocean, cuba libres." The beach in Guatemala looks very similar to that in Bali because of its wide stretches of black volcanic sand. And while the waves pale in comparison to those we encountered in Rio, the current was deceivingly strong. Still, we welcomed the warm water and a chance to relax after our Machu Picchu bonanza.
Saturday night we headed to the center of Puerto San Jose, the town nearest our beach, where "Puerto Rico's reggeaton sensation" Calle 13 held a concert. Our post-taco binge siestas on the beach, however, caused us to be a little late getting to the concert and we missed out on tickets. Dejected but not defeated, we got wind of an alternate party - a surfer rave on the beach - and hitched up our wagons. The rave was, well, what you would expect: lots of surfers camping on the beach in anticipation of a sunrise surf shredding, lots of strobe lights, electronic music, booze and dozens of people passed out in the sand. It was awesome.

On Monday we said goodbye to Marilu, Jose and Eddie, and hopped aboard a chicken bus bound for the town of San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. We spent two nights among the hippies of San Pedro, hippies of all ages but hippies nonetheless, each with their own stash of lanyard material and their own pair of hippie pants. After learning how to blend in, we enjoyed ourselves. The highlight of our visit to the lake, as written in Andrew's itinerary, was an area with "high rocks to jump off, big lake to break your fall." He was right.
In between activities we ate...or rather, in between eating we found time for activities. The cheap Quetzal (Guatemala's local currency) allowed us to dine like kings, and dine we did. Fish Tacos, Beans, Avocado, Shrimp, Eggs, Burritos, Chinese Food, Sausage, Candy, and Pollo Campero (the local fast food chain and one of Guatemala's only multinational corporations, according to Andrew). I gained over 2 kgs in Guatemala, completely negating everything I lost while rumbling up the trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. But it was worth it.

We spent our last two nights in the sleepy town of Antigua, 20 km from Guatemala City and the Cuzco of Guatemala. Old buildings (the tallest building in town had 3 storeys), cobbled roads, and lots of gringos. In between meals and UEFA Champions League fixtures, we followed the itinerary: "wander around town, photos of ruins and shit."

All good things must come to an end, and Guatemala failed to thwart that horrible rule. We said our goodbyes to our tour guide (no tips, though) and flew out early this morning for Mexico City. I now understand why Andrew chose to stay here for the better part of the past couple years.

Not that we can complain with our current situation. Here in Mexico City we are staying with the Neidermires, who lived in Singapore in the early 90s. The Neidermires live in a beautiful apartment, so big that it seems like a house, within a sprawling gated community overlooking part of the city. What part of the city? We have no idea. We do know that the Neidermires have U.S. television channels and a stocked fridge, clean beds and hot showers, and we might not feel like seeing anything else in Mexico City during our two days here. No, serious. We know the backpacking life is rough, but we're just trying to hold ourselves over till we get back to Asia on Sunday...stay tuned.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is no Everest, and it is no Kilimanjaro, but it's also no Bukit Timah Hill. After a 4-day trek of nearly 75 km through the sparsely populated but beautiful and sprawling hills of the Salkantay valley to the town of Aguas Calientes, we found time for a short nap before our guide Milthon banged on our doors at Hospedaje Choquequirao shortly before 4 a.m. and said we had to go. Our journey up Machu Picchu began in darkness, head lights in tow, as we climbed the steps to the ruins for about 75 minutes before reaching the top shortly before the gates opened at 6 a.m.

Hundreds of other people joined us by foot or bus (wimps) to rush the gate when it opened because only a limited number of people (400) gain entry to Waynapicchu, the famous narrow peak which overlooks the ruins. Waynapicchu, meaning "young mountain," proved a greater test than it's older sibling after Phil and I jovially took a turn off to a place marked "the great cave." Our smiles soon followed the lead of the trail as it went down, descending further and further into a valley until we reached the grand cavern at a lower altitude than we had entered Machu Picchu at several hours earlier.

We huffed and puffed all the way to the top of Waynapicchu after our 90-minute detour and caught a fog-filled glimpse of the ruins from above, then bounded down the mountain and down Machu Picchu towards Aguas Calientes for lunch. By the afternoon Auggie, Chris, Phil and I had boarded a train back to Cuzco and said goodbye to the wilderness and the trail we had known for the last four nights.

Our journey began in Cuzco at 4 a.m. Saturday, as most of the gringos stumbled home from the city's clubs, with a long bus ride into the mountains and towards the base of Mt. Salkantay, the second tallest peak in South America. Two muliteers (that's what they call them), who would stay with us to guide the mules which carried our stuff, and a chef named Chef joined Milthon as the local contingent in our trekking party. Two Canadians, Mike and Laura, and a Brit named Joss came along as well, and we started trekking around 9 a.m. on Saturday.

When we started the trek I couldn't help but mourn - all too publicly - the fact that we would miss both college basketball's Final Four and the opening of the MLB season, but by mid-day I accepted that we would probably not find any wi-fi along the trail and decided to enjoy myself anyway. Every day presented us with breathtaking scenery. The first day we went mostly uphil, over the pass which curled around Mt. Salkantay and into a valley to our campsite. We spent the next few days going through the valley which marked the alternate route to Machu Picchu. The very popular but less hardcore Inca Trail limits the amount of people who can enter each day, and we waited too long to book our trek. Our trail had less people and better scenery, though, so we didn't think we missed much.

Our dawn ascent to Machu Picchu made every step, every slip on every rock, and every day without a shower worth it. Though the fog would hang over the peak and the ruins throughout the morning and into the afternoon, it didn't keep me from noticing how incredibly intact the ancient Incan city remained. You could see the royalty sitting on their comfy chairs nearly 500 years ago and accepting offerings of giant boulders (the customary gift of the time) from the visitors and townspeople, all 500 of them, in this cloud-scraping pueblo on a hill. You got a sense that the view of the surrounding mountains, rivers and valleys hadn't changed much at all since then. And for a second, just a second, you looked down on the hundreds of people below you in their "Texas Music Rules" t-shirts and Manchester United jerseys and shook your head that something so beautiful ever had to be discovered and violated by the heavy footsteps of tourism...but you got over that because you, too, were part of the tourist rat-king.

I hadn't seen anything cooler than Machu Picchu on this trip, and doubt I will over the next two months. Still, we welcomed our arrival on Thursday night at the Airport Hilton in Mexico City (thanks Moms) and the soft beds, room service and shampoo top-ups that came with it. We also gained whatever weight we lost on the trip right back during the hotel's morning buffet. We're in Guatemala now (sans Chris, who has made a short detour to Canada before rejoining us on April 19 in Tokyo) visiting our friend Andrew, who printed out itineraries for our 6-day stay. It's great to shun guidebooks and know a local. We spent a couple nights at a beach on the south coast, and have spent the last two days here in the lakeside town of San Pedro. Three more days in Guatemala before heading back to Mexico for a couple days and then flying to Japan.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


We arrived in Cuzco, Peru on Wednesday after a long day of travelling that began Tuesday morning in Arica, Chile. After making our way across the border to the Peruvian town of Tacna, we bought a bus ticket and spent the rest of the day and night travelling north to Cuzco, the old Incan capital.

We weren't just travelling north. We were also travelling up. Cuzco lies more than 3,000 meters above sea level, and the altitude hit all of us almost immediately upon our 6 a.m. arrival. Initial lightheadedness soon turned into a steady headache that lasted most of the day. The altitude hit Auggie the worst, and he took a personal day to rest up. By the end of our first day, we were all hurting. Especially the legs, which became really sore under the high pressure.

The highlight of day 1, other than our altitude issues, was a protest that took place outside the police station in the center of town. 300-strong turned out to protest what Phil translated as volations of social justice by the local government against the people. Eventually the riot police arrived to clear the street, but not before a small flare fragment buzzed by and nicked Phil's nose.

By day 2 we all felt much better and were able to enjoy Cuzco, the natural jumping-off point for anyone looking to check out Machu Picchu. Our guidebook dubbed Cuzco the "gringo capital of South America," and we saw it for ourselves. This place is crawling with foreigners, which made us all feel a little less cool. Still, there's a reason why gringos flock to Cuzco. The city, surrounded by lush sprawling hills, has great old buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. You also feel like you can touch the clouds because you are so high up. The local delicacy here is guinea pig, served streetside (see the before and after photos below). Most restaurants also serve Alpaca meat (very tasty). You'd also be hard-pressed to find a dish that doesn't come with avocado, continuing a much-welcomed trend from Chile.

In between our good meals, we've had a chance to visit some of the Incan ruins in the immediate area surrounding Cuzco. Today we took an all-day tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which started frustratingly as a market-hopping bus ride but culminated in a trip to Olantaytambo and one of the Incan empire's more important temples.

Today was just an appetizer, and we start on the road to our main course tomorrow. A bus will pick us up at 4 a.m. and take us to where we will start our 4-day trek to Macchu Picchu. We were all hoping to get one last shower in before the trek, but the water supply to the entire city of Cuzco shut down this evening and word on the street is that it won't be on again until 5 a.m. tomorrow.

We will be off the grid until April 9 or 10, but expect major reflections from all four of us following the trek.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Phil´s Gastronomic Adventure #5: Arica, Chile

Location: Arica, Peru

The Dish: Ceviche in a Cup

Ingredients: Tall glass, raw egg, four types of ceviche (raw fish or shellfish marinated in lemon juice), cilantro, onions, scallions, salt, pepper, lemon juice

It comes as no surprise that a country with over 6,400 km of coastline has great seafood (we´ve all heard of the Chilean Seabass, right?). However, while in Iquique for 3 days we had little success finding a cheap, legitimate seafood restaurant. After heading north to the coastal town of Arica, we were pointed towards a Mercado down Avenida Colon. Upon entering, we still felt lost: the place resembled an indoor food court, only three times as chaotic, wet and smelly. Using broken Spanish, I asked a juice vendor which stall made the best seafood. He pointed over his shoulder and said aca ("over there"). We followed his directions to a crowded, sushi bar-esque stall with seven seats and large buffet vats of ceviche. Jackpot.
Auggie and I noticed that everyone kept ordering something in a cup, so we asked for dos copas. What we got was a concoction of raw egg, lemon juice, and raw fish. But it was unbelievably refreshing. I felt like I had just opened my mouth in the ocean. Who cares if it was potentially unsafe, the ceviche was a welcoming change from the heavy meat dishes we´d grown accustomed to in Brazil and Argentina. Following suit, we slurped the remaining juices of the cup after the remaining morsels of whitefish and clams were gone.

Cost: 1,500 Chilean Pesos (US$2.80)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What we learned yesterday...

... is that Chileans don't really like Peru very much. The two fought an intense 4-year war in the late 19th century for control over the abundant nitrates in the northern desert surrounding the town of Arica, where we arrived yesterday after a short bus ride from Iquique.

Chile won the War of the Pacific in 1883 and gained control over this border region, but animosity between the two countries continued into the 20th Century and still exists today. Last night, the two countries battled in a football qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.

It's a good thing Chile won.

Our bus pulled into Arica just after the Chilean national team finished off a 3-1 victory over Peru (in Peru, no less), and the bus driver already knew. He honked his horn profusely as the cars aroud him did the same and the rest of the Arican locals took to the streets. Cars drove by waving Chilean flags, and other people left their homes to turn their car alarms on and join the cacophonic symphony. Eventually we figured out what had happened, and breathed a sigh of relief that a riot wasn't taking place.

As we wandered around some of the more seedy areas of outer Arica searching for a place to sleep, we counted our blessings that Chile came out on top. People seemed to want to drink beers with us rather than strangle-mug us, which surely would have happened had Peru won.

Spent most of the day today in internet cafes trying to figure out our apartment situation for New York when we have to re-enter the real world (barf), but ended up back at square one by the end of the day (due in no part to the efforts of Phil's brother, Nick, who is doing everything he can on the ground in NY to find a place for the three of us). So, we each bought bottles of wine so that we could play catchup and seize back some of the lost day. Tomorrow we plan on taking a bus across the border into Peru, where we will make our way to Cusco in preparation for our trek to Machu Picchu and a glimpse of its famous guinea pirates, guinea bees and the guineasaurous rex.

Freshy Pow-Pow on the Dunes of Iquique

It's true, you CAN sandboard in Iquique. Actually, they invented it here.

On a mission to shred the sticky gnar gnar on the dunes overlooking the coastal town of Iquique in northern Chile, we found an adventure sports shop near the beach and rented 3 sandboards for the day. After lunch at a Chinese restaurant (they're everywhere in Chile for some reason), we grabbed our boards and took a cab to the edge of town.

There are no chairlifts at the sandboarding area here, but there's also no need to pay for an entry ticket. We spent 3 hours or so hiking up the tall dunes (it's not easy to hike up hills of sand) and boarding back down again. Hike up, board down. Hike up, board down. It was tiring but worth the righteous thrill of cutting up the dune on the way down.

If only we were so skilled and graceful. We each had our share of wipeouts, and most of them were caught on camera (look for blooper footage sometime in the next two weeks). By 7, we were covered in sand and ready for a shower and a cold beer.

There's a reason people board on snow instead of sand, but it was worth it.