Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Peru - The end of our epic journey

After a little over a year now I have decided to come back to this blog or as I have labeled it, “A labor of love” and finish it once and for all. I came very close to finishing it a year ago. The only part of this unbelievable journey that I have yet to chronicle is Peru. It is possible that I may have saved the best for last in many ways. Peru is a magical place on many levels, as you will soon see. Why it has taken me this long to finish it I have no idea other than I just had it my mind that I would close it out at a time that made sense to me. Now is that time. Part of the reason for that is because I have very recently returned to a beloved part of this trip, Indonesia, and it has brought back so many memories that I now feel that I am equipped to finish the job. Truth is, I have traveled to a couple of other far away obscure places since this trip as well like Costa Rica and Nicaragua but neither of these trips have triggered the heart felt memories of the wonderful experiences I had on this voyage around the world that I took. I had to return to Indonesia for that to happen. It is interesting to witness the many ways the mind works sometimes. A distinct sight, smell, or even sound can trigger a treasure trove of memories all tucked away in the back of the mind somewhere at a moments notice just waiting to be released.

With that I am going to finally finish memorializing my journeys around the world I took for what seems like a millennium ago even though it has not been that long since I came back from this whirlwind adventure.

On to Peru: So after securing a new passport in La Paz and being rudely asked to leave Bolivia or better said, kicked out of the country we hopped on a bus and headed to the other side of Lake Titicaca where we were welcome to continue our journeys. After looking on the map we realized that there was just as much to be seen on the Peruvian side of the lake if not more. Our first destination after yet another grueling 9 to 10 hour bus ride was Puno. It is a small town on the northwestern side of the lake. After settling in and finding a suitable hostel we set out to explore the town and get a feel for it. It was a very poor run down village town that reminded me in many ways of some of the less attractive towns along the US and Mexico border. No worries, it really served only one purpose for us. We would use it as a launching pad to get a chance to take a boat ride on the fabled Holy Lake of Titicaca. After all, it is the very lake that the Inca Gods were said to have formed and come to be in existence. There was no way we were going to miss a chance at cruising around in a boat over Holy Water. As it turned out there was another reason to come to Puno. I can’t remember if we knew this ahead of time or if we found out at the hostel we stayed at but as luck would have it the famous Floating Islands, a place called Uros, just happened to be right off the shores of Puno. This just so happened to be a highly traveled tourist destination that was a must see. Booyah! Pass Go and collect $200. Who needs Bolivia to explore Lake Titicaca when you have Peru to come to the rescue. So we booked a boat trip the next day to go exploring the Lake and the Floating Islands. The boat was your typical lake tour boat complete with guide on the microphone shouting out historical landmarks along the way to the floating islands. It was very fascinating to hear the history of the Inca people as you were perusing the different coves and bays of the lake. It is a very large lake, the largest one in all of South America by volume. The deepest part of the lake is over 900 feet down. Five major rivers feed into Lake Titicaca. I would say that puts it in the behemoth category. Often called the highest navigable lake in the world because it sits over 12, 500 feet high. We were after all still in the Andes.

Uros is a contiguous set of 44 man-made floating islands made out of reeds that grow near the shores of the lake. Yes, if you can believe it these massive floating surfaces were created by many painstaking hours of man-made labor. Their original purpose was as a defense tactic that could be moved should a threat be eminent to their wellbeing. A few of the islands have watchtowers that can be seen as you approach them from the boat. So after disembarking we hopped around from island to island to get a first hand account of what it is like to walk on on. There are actual tribes people that still live on these islands today. Of course the one key difference that you can see right away that did not exist in the old days is electricity (via battery generators) and some other modern day amenities. Of course once you land you are bombarded by a slew of local women wanting to sell you a scarf they knit or perhaps a nice beanie or some rainbow colored Peruvian style thermal socks. It is a way of life for them and a major source of income. I think I bought a beanie in the end to help their cause. The floating islands were truly a wonderful sight to see and to walk amongst the local people and get a taste of what life is like on a floating island.

After getting our fill we headed back to Puno en route to our next destination, Arequipa. Arequipa was not an original destination of ours. We were mainly just killing time because we had planned to climb the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu about 3 months before our arrival and we weren’t scheduled to do that until a couple of weeks down the road which meant we had lots of time to kill. The base of the Inca Trail starts on the outskirts of Cusco that was a good days ride from us. So our choices were to go the long way and see some sites in Arequipa or maybe take a small plane ride to see the famous Nasca lines. Turned out that to see the Nasca lines would take way too much dinero and we were both pretty much running on empty at this stage in our epic journey. So off we went to Arequipa. This turned out to be a smart decision with lots off payoffs in the end. Arequipa like Lima is a modernized town. There are many restaurants, coffee shops and stores that line the streets and it even has a main square with lots and lots of action going on. It is known to the locals as the “White City” and is the second largest city in Peru behind Lima. It also happens to be a protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site due to its vast historical importance on the region.

The city was founded in 1541 under the name “Villa Hermosa de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion” in the name of Don Francisco Pizarro. You see the Spanish Armada came under direct authority of their Queen and in the name of Christianity basically killed and almost completely wiped out all the Inca’s and established a town in the name of Christ. How convenient to kill and annihilate civilizations in the name of your God for completely selfish interests. I’m sure Christ would have done it the exact same way if were leading the charge himself. Genius! Sound familiar? I guess some things will never change. I can only hope so. The Spanish basically tore down most of the magnificent structures that the Inca’s erected and replaced them with Spanish churches and forts. It was so obvious while walking around the city streets which buildings were Spanish. You could see the foundations as clearly being Inca and of a much better quality than the structures that were on top of them. The Inca’s were known for their extreme building prowess. They were way ahead of their time. Their building methods were so precise that the margin of error between the bricks or stones was almost zero. They were likened to have the same abilities as the pyramid builders themselves only on a much smaller scale. We visited a few churches and made the rounds to see a couple of the very few Inca structures that were left in tact. It was educational and very interesting to say the least to see the vast differences in building techniques between the two cultures.

Another notable in Arequipa was the food. We found out very quickly that the food in the south is much different than the food of the north. Because the Inca presence was far greater in the south the food they ate was more prevalent. They were potato eaters mainly because they figured out ways to store them for long periods of time. So I guess you could say that they mastered the art of eating potatoes and it was obvious once you say the menus in the restaurants. It was mostly a potato with this and a potato with that. I must say that I thoroughly indulged myself on the little things. They were prepared with other foods that are indigenous to Peru quite nicely.

We also went to a couple of museums in the main square area because we wanted to learn about the Inca Empire as much as possible because of it’s great historical importance to our world today and because we were scheduled to go on a four day trek along the Holy Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in a couple weeks time. We wanted that trek to be as memorable as possible since it is such a special place that is timeless. The museums did a very good job of preparing us for our upcoming trek. We also got a very interesting look into the Inca mind as well. One unforgettable item was a display of a mummy of a tiny little girl who’s name was Juanita. This ended up being a very special treat for me to see so special that I will now tell you the story of “Juanita” as I came to know it.

The Incas were known to be a people to offer human sacrifices to their gods in return for favor from the Gods and protection from any and all evil. Well as you now already know a lot of good this did as they were wiped out in the end. Go figure. Anyway Juanita is known today as the “Inca Ice Maiden” because she was found at the top of a live volcano fully preserved completely by accident. As the story goes, she was offered to the gods somewhere between 1450 and 1480. She was approximately 11 to 15 years old at the time of her offering. She was discovered by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his climbing partner Miguel Zarate during one of their exploratory expeditions. The discovery of the body caused a stir in the scientific community due to its overwhelmingly mint condition after all those years of being mummified. So much so that Time magazine chose it as one of the top ten discoveries of all time. During an ascent up the volcano in September of 1995 Reinhard and Zarate found a bundle in the crater that had fallen from the burial site above. To their astonishment when they opened it up they found the mummy of a young girl still perfectly preserved. The reason the mummy was so well preserved was that it was perfectly nestled in an icy grave all that time. Volcanic ash from multiple eruptions eventually unearthed the grave and exposed the mummy to the elements. The reason she is so special to the scientific community is because she was naturally mummified unlike the artificial methods that the Egyptians used. Her skin, organs, tissues, hair and even blood were all well preserved. And believe you me when I tell you that was so obvious when looking at her through the glass cube that surrounded her in the museum. I can tell you from personal experience what a site it was to behold since I have had the good fortune of staring Ramses himself right in the eye, well what used to be his eye, inside a glass container as well when I was in Egypt. His mummy was nowhere even close to what I saw when I stared at Juanita. It was as if she was buried just a few months ago. That is how perfectly preserved her body was. I know it is hard to believe but it is true. Such an interesting site to behold. Her position even told how she spent her last moments. She was sitting down with her arms around her legs crouching over as if saying a last prayer before her last breath of air. As the tour guide informed us she did not suffer much. They made sure she died a quick and fairly painless death. A quick blow to the back of the head to stop the brain from functioning and it was over. It has been determined that she was selected from a very noble family. It was considered an honor to die by sacrificial offering to the gods. A life that was unfathomable would await those that were chosen and eventually offered to the gods. Good for her. What a treat it was for me to get a firsthand glimpse into the Inca way of life. I will never forget what that experience felt like.

So after making a few more rounds around town to soak it all in we bought a bus ticket to Cusco and prepared ourselves mentally for the Inca Trail Trek. And oh what a trek it would be. The Inca Trail actually consists of three overlapping trails: Mollepata, Classic and One Day trails. Mollepata is the longest highest and hardest of them all. Only a few people are allowed to use this trail every year due to Peruvian concern of over erosion. Since the Inca Trail is nestled high up in the Andes altitude sickness can occur and sometimes does for inexperienced climbers. The highest point for the Mollepata trail is around 13,800 ft above sea level. No small feat by any means. We chose to do the Classic route which takes about 4 days to finish. Also not a small feat by any means either. There were some areas of this trail that were extremely hard to traverse but luckily for us there were only a few of these areas and the main parts of the trail were of long and of a smaller grade that was more negotiable. The trail starts right on the outskirts of Cusco at the famous Mile 82 marker on the Urubama River. There are several tiny villages and old ceremonial Inca sites along the trail. Some are still in use today and some that have been preserved because of their holy significance to ancient Incan lore. After 7 or 8 hours of trekking each day we would set up camp and sleep in tents along the way. Everyone has the option to carry your own tent and supplies or pay for a porter to carry the items for you. I will give you one guess what everyone opted for. You got it, help me carry my stuff please! It did not come cheap but it was well worth the money. These porters were virtual athletes. Seriously. It was hard enough carrying yourself especially through the hard parts. These guys were the real deal. The most embarrassing part was at the start of each day they would break down camp, pack everything up and in two to three hours time that would catch up to us with a 70 or 80 pound bag on their back and go right passed us as if we were just standing still. So embarrassing. The worse part is we would arrive at the next camp site and they would already have our tents set up and a warm fire waiting for us and all the while asking us what took us so long to get there. Geez! Whatever! After day two I got used to them zipping by me and just started to enjoy the sites at my own pace. One of the games we played early on that quickly died out was lets see how far we can get before the porters pass us. Uh, what a dumb game that was. We had a great time making new friends and taking in the whole trek for what it really was: Another chance to get close to one of the greatest civilizations that have ever walked the face of this earth. It was a moment for me that transcended time. Hard to describe in words what it really felt like being on that trail. Words wouldn’t do it much justice. As if the trail itself wasn’t enough to satisfy the mind, body and soul for such a feat the crowned jewel was an astonishing Machu Picchu at the end of this most famous of treks. I will never forget what it was like to see Machu Picchu at first glimpse. They would get us up just before sunrise so that we could see Machu Picchu just as the sun kissed up against in the early morning dew. If you were fast enough you could do the last leg quickly and get there in time to watch it slowly come into view. I of course would not be this fast. Truth is, I really didn’t want to. I noticed that the people that were hoping to do this were literally running through the last 3 or four miles to get there. To me this was just a waste of precious time. There was so much beauty still to be seen within those last three or so miles. So we took our time at getting there and were all the better for it. One of the most memorable moments was the moment upon arriving at the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is a stone formation that is the final gateway to Machu Picchu. It is an unmistakable site. Upon arrival you are fully aware that something very special is about to come into view. Once you get through the gate your reward for 4 days of hardcore trekking sits in plain view. Immediately you are overcome with a feeling of euphoria. It is such a beautiful place to behold. I felt at that moment a kinship with the Inca people that can only be experienced by performing such a feat. After all these little guys used to travel these trails on a weekly basis just to get to Machu Picchu to worship their gods. The interesting part is that the reason that built this magical place so high up is because they believed that their gods actually lived in these mountains. It was without a doubt a surreal experience. Interestingly enough this would be one of the top experiences if not the top experience of the entire journey I took around the world. I knew it would be special that is why I saved it for the last part of the journey: so that I could go home with something very special to hang on to for a while.

Upon reaching Machu Picchu we took a bunch of pictures to make sure we commemorated the journey. Afterwards we all took a small bus to the nearest village and had some long over due beers and cheers and shared some laughs and good stories with eachother. The streets were lined with markets with locals selling all sorts of trinkets and textiles. I ended up buying a couple stone carvings to take home with me as a reminder of where I was and how lucky I was to have been able to take this magnificent trek in the heart of the Andes mountains.

After getting back to Cusco we stayed a couple of nights just so we could get acquainted with one of the busiest cities in Peru. Cusco is an uber cool kind of place. So many cool ass coffee shops and restaurants line the streets on every corner. We ate all kinds of Peruvian delights during the two days we spent galavanting around the town and just hanging out with the new friends we made while hiking the Inca Trail.

It soon became obvious to both of us that this was soon to be the end of our epic journey. It sort of hits you like a ton of bricks. Oh no, we have to go back home soon. It is a awful feeling that I have never felt before. I think the best way to describe it is that it is like you were in jail before you actually started your journeys and then someone came by and told you that in a few weeks you would have to go back to jail. NO! I won’t go! I am not finished seeing this beautiful world yet. More, more, more!!!! So after a couple of days of being in denial it finally sinks in that you will soon be going back to what we call a normal life these days. The irony of it is that after traveling for almost 12 months straight and being your own boss and being able to do whatever your heart desires every single day from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed every night you become accustomed to it and it becomes the new normal for you. Crazy, I know but that’s how it feels when you travel for that amount of time. The rules change for you and then the gods tell you that the rules are going to change back to what they were before you started your journey. Now go and deal with it. But before we would have to get back to reality we would have one more opportunity to live life by our own rules. We still had a couple of weeks to kill before our final flight was to part for Los Angeles from Lima. So I decided to do some digging around for things to do in and around Lima. As luck would have it, I found yet another surf camp that was nestled just an hours drive south of the capital city. My heart starts to go pitter-patter in hopes that this is a good place to go and that they had room for us. Turns out it was a solid win on both counts. Yippee! I get to do some more surf training. So after going over it a few times in our head and weighing the options which weren’t really much at all since it really just consisted of walking aimlessly around Lima for a couple of weeks. Nah, no thanks, I’d rather surf. So off we went to the surf camp for some more fun learning how to catch breaks. It was November so the water was a little chilly which meant we had to wear wet suits but you get used to it after a while and sorta kinda forget you are even wearing one. We spent the next two weeks going out and getting some much needed training. The camp was rather empty. There was only one or two other people there at the camp with us. My guess was that it was because it was slightly too cold for most people’s preference. It could have also been that we were on a very sketchy side of town. The beachside village centered looked semi-abandoned and literally had no coffee shops or restaurants to speak of. No matter to me, that’s not what I was there for. Antonio was our surf guide. He was a retired restaurant owner/ surfer who traded in his restaurant for a sweet surf shack right near the water. Perfect! One of the highlights was his wife was a retired 5 star chef. They were extremely hospitable and she would make us the most amazing food at the beginning and end of each day. As I mentioned earlier, the food in the northern parts of Peru is very different from the food in the south. In the north there is more of a raw fish type of culture and in the south there is more of a spicy cooked fish type of culture with potatoes as the main side dish in the south. Not so much in the north. In the north the most prevalent food dish is “Ceviche”. Ceviche is basically the Peruvian version of sushi. It is chopped up raw fish with with corn kernels, onions and shredded carrots and other stuff all drowned in lemon juice. Soooooo good!!!!! OMG!!!! It only works if you have fresh fish that was killed that day. It cannot be duplicated with anything else. Lucky for us we had access to all the fresh fish we could ever want being right at the water’s edge and right next to a fisherman’s wharf. Antonio’s wife would just wait for the fishing boats to come in every day and walk down to the pier which was only a couple of blocks down the path and just buy the catch of the day right straight from the Pacific only hours old still swimming around in boat. So cool! It was as if the Inca Gods were following us and guiding us through their great land telling us to eat and be merry. I guess that prayer at the Sun Temple along the Inca Trail paid off after all. Needless to say, we practiced surfing until we could go no more and feasted on Ceviche till our stomachs popped.

As if that were not enough Antonio decided to give us a day off because we were advancing so well through his lessons and take us to a Pro Surf tournament that just happened to be going on in the area as it was high season for surfing in Peru. So he piled us all in his truck and took us to a full on Bilabong surf competition just an hour or so up the road. Once again I got to see a pro surfing competition. One in Jefferies Bay, South Africa and now here in Lima, Peru without any plan to see any of them whatsoever. What are the odds? Hmm?

After a day’s worth of watching guys show us how it is really done we headed back to the surf camp. We only had a couple more days left to surf before the dreaded flight back home so we made sure to make the most of it. Antonio being fully informed of our epic journey was kind enough to take us to some beach breaks that he normally reserves for the premium surf packages because he is just that nice of a guy. Thanks Antonio. He took us to some remote beaches where only the locals really go to and we had a blast learning how to surf.

Alas, the moment we were fearing and dreading all along was suddenly upon us. On the last day Antonio’s wife made us a special breakfast to send us on our way home. She truly was a gift to us the whole time we spent there. She made sure we knew what it was like to be Peruvian and live their lifestyle. Priceless moments.

After said our goodbyes and headed for the last plane ride of the trip. It was a very sad and extremely emotional moment as you might imagine. Tears were streaming down my eyes all the way to LAX. No words needed to be said to each other. Rather just a few hours to take it all in and try and comprehend what we had just accomplished and been through. I realized after getting home that it would take much longer than a plane ride to fully comprehend what I just experienced. In fact, I am still learning even today just what that journey did for me. I am quite certain now that I will never stop learning from it. Every day, month, year that passes since I went on this epic journey gives me a perspective on life that I could never have achieved without such a special once in a lifetime chance to do something like this. I know just how very fortunate I am to have been able to take such a trip around the world and not a day goes by that I don’t think about something that I experienced on that magical trip that changed me as a person that I will ever take for granted.


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