Thursday, January 25, 2007

Day 2 & 3, Lake Titicaca- Walking On Water, The Ball Drops, We Discover A Miracle Drug, Rocky Defies The MPAA

Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca

New Year's Eve. Parties, fireworks, the ball drop, Ryan Seacrest. That's how we do it up in the States. In Peru, we were to have quite a different experience... staying with a family on tiny Amantani Island, 2 hours from the mainland in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

That morning we visited the Uros Islands, floating islands woven out of reeds by an indigenous group that was forced into the lake hundreds of years ago by encroaching civilizations.

I'm Walking On Reedshine.. oh oh!
Walking On Reeds

The Uros still live on these overgrown lilypads, in simple teepees and shacks. They have to maintain the islands with new reeds every few weeks, otherwise, the ground rots and it becomes very easy to step through and end up in the lake. When we were sitting listening to a family on the island sing a traditional song, a wave rippled through the lake, causing the island to buckle briefly. It was pretty cool.

They not only use reeds to build their islands, homes, and boats, they also eat them, peeling back their green sheaths and munching on the white, waterlogged stalks underneath.

We thought we'd be staying on an island like the Uros, but Amantani was a lot nicer. First, it's a real island. Most homes have solar power, and clean beds they make available to tourists. While they live a simple lifestyle, it's far from sleeping in haystacks under thatched roofs, which we thought it was going to be.

On the way to the island, we started to feel seasick-- in addition to our lingering health problems. By the time we got to Amantani, Jay was in bad shape, barely making it to our host family's house, passing out the moment he collapsed on the bed.

Before we left on our trip, I got a prescription from my doctor for Cipro, reccommended in case of anthrax attacks and also a powerful antibiotic useful for fighting funky bacteria introduced to the body via bad water or, as it was in our case, bad food. There were ten pills, and the instructions very clearly said to be sure to finish the whole dose, or risk creating a superbug that could wipe out humanity 12 Monkeys-style. (Do you want your future in Bruce Willis's hands???)

When we came down with our illness, I considered taking the pills. Why didn't I? Well, I felt a bit guilty that Jay didn't have any. I reasoned that if I took them and felt better, Jay would still feel like shit, and my trip would be ruined cause I'd be wanting to go out and do things while an ill Jay would hold me back. Better for us both to be suffering than just one of us. Also, I wasn't quite sure what the antibiotics would do. I already witnessed the effects of the Australian antibiotics on Jay, and was not impressed with the results. So we suffered, while the bottle of miracle pills went unused.

Until New Year's...

I decided to fight off my desire to sleep and hiked up to the Temple of Pachytata with some other members of our Lake Titicaca group. Then I ate dinner with our host family. Thankfully, it was rice, potatoes, and a thin broth. That was about all I could handle. The family was very nice, although I suspected the little girl hated me.

"Tonight," our guide told us, "The villagers will be hosting a New Year's party for you." The dress code, he explained, would be traditional Amantani clothing. Dancing and music would be provided. Beer would be available for an additional charge.

Even though I wasn't in the best of shape, I sensed that this was an experience not to be missed. Jay meanwhile pondered his own funeral arrangements. The family kept offering him herbal tea, which Jay had little faith in. One person on our tour was a Dutch pharmacist. He gave the family some pills to give to Jay. The fact that Jay took them with little hesitation should show you how sick he was feeling.

I think however, his spirits were somewhat buoyed when he saw me dressed like this:

Poncho Man
Me, In My Normal Clothes

The youngest girl of the family led me down to the rec hall. There were the other 20 or so members of our group, all dressed up like natives. I hung out with an Irish guy who was here with his Chilean fiancee, who he had met online (what's with all these long distance internet relationships??). Also chillin with us was a very nice French guy, the Dutch pharmacist and his mistress/girlfriend/fiancee, and a 40 year old American woman who was spending a college semester abroad in Peru. Yes. Everyone we met on our trip led more interesting lives than us.

New Year's Partyers
I Left Before The Ponchos vs. Skins Limbo Contest

The band consisted of drummers, two pan flutists, a guitarist and guy playing a ukelele (a ukeleist?). They opened up with a rousing traditional number, which they proceeded to repeat, with minor variations, throughout the night.

Traditional Dancing
Ashlee Simpson Was A No-Show

After a few awkward dances with my host mother and the host daughter, I decided I needed a beer. One beer turned into two, and in the high altitude, two 22 oz. bottles was all I needed.

"Estas borracha," my host mother said.

I knew enough spanish to know she was calling me a dirty drunk.

The dancing was pretty fun. I especially enjoyed my dance with an attractive Argentinian girl. Had I not been suffering from fourteen different intestinal parasites, I maybe would have made a move.

But as it was, I was drunk, sick, and tired. I didn't make it to midnight. At 11, my host mother led me home (much to her relief, I think) and I collapsed onto my bed.

"I'm not doing well, man," Jay says.

"Neither am I," I reply.

"Maybe we should just fly back to Lima early," Jay says.

"Maybe we should just fly home early," I say.

There's a silent pause. "Adam, I'm serious about this. If I'm not feeling better in the morning, we've got to take a boat back to Puno and maybe look at flights to go home."

It was the moment of truth. Minutes to midnight, minutes to a new year of hope and promise, and we were at our most desperate hour. I reach into my bag and pick up the Cipro. Future of humanity be damned, this sickness could not go on.

"I have ten pills," I hear myself saying. "We have five days left. It's one pill per day. If we split the dose, we can get new prescriptions back in the states."

"Maybe we can have a doctor meet us at the airport."

"Yes! That's completely possible!"

We decide to take the pills the next morning. "Happy New Year," I say to Jay, even though its only 11:30. "Happy New Year," he says, and we both pass out until the bah-ing of our host family's sheep wakes us up the next morning.

Cipro, Breakfast Of Champions

One of the first things we do is take the pills. Only afterwards do I look at the label. Take TWO a day. Not one. I ask the dutch pharmacist if I've inadvertantly doomed myself and mankind. He assures me we should be fine.

Traveler's Tip: Bring Cipro or a similar antibiotic. A lot of it. If you don't, however, it can be purchased without a prescription in a Bolivian pharmacy for a little over 2 bucks for ten pills. Something we found out later.

We tour the island of Taquille (see the video above), have lunch, walk down the island's giant staircase, head back to Puno. The views around the lake are beautiful:

One Tree Island
I'm Accepting Photography Awards...

We both feel a lot better already. Our boat rescues another boat that's stranded, and together, our tied together boats slowly eke towards shore. Another boat speeds past us heading into the harbor--weirdly enough with the two Irish guys we met on the bus from Cusco on board.

The Rescue
Jay Participates In The Rescue Effort

We get back to the Qelqatani and watch USC clobber Michigan (hey, um, Michigan, might wanna use the Shotgun formation). We flip through channels, and see one of the Rocky movies is on. "Which one is this?" we wonder. We figure it must be Rocky 4. Later, when we flip back, we realize it's the brand new Rocky that's just been released in theaters. That can't be legal. Great TV in Peru!

Rocky, Pre-Geriatric

We get some more lomo saltado room service, and I finally get in touch with my parents, who I find out had called every hotel in Puno looking for me (no cell phone reception on Lake Titicaca). Ah my parents, such worryworts.

And that's 2 & 3 in Lake Titicaca. The next day, we planned to travel by bus to spend two days in Copacabana, Bolivia, primarily because we wanted another stamp on our passports and wanted to relax at "Bolivia's Largest Beach Resort." In a land-locked country, I can assure you, that claim is boldly misleading.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Day 1 Lake Titicaca - The Day I Almost Lost Jay

High Drama Unfolded Upon Our Arrival In Puno

The next stop on our Peruvian adventure was the world's funniest named lake: Lake Titicaca. Also the world's highest lake, Titicaca straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia. For the next few days, we planned to base ourselves in Puno, touring the lake's islands and recovering from our trek.

We booked our activities in Puno in advance, through our hostel in Cusco. Vicki, the woman who worked at our hostel, sold us a tour package for 45 dollars each. That included a boat ride to the Uros' Floating islands, an overnight with a family on Amantani Island for new years, a trip to Taquille Island, and transportation to and from our lodgings in Puno. She also made a reservation for us at the Hostel Margartita in Puno. We'd be picked up from the bus and driven there. It seemed like a great deal.

The six hour bus ride gave us both plenty of time to do something we should have done all along... actually read the guidebooks we had purchased back in the States. In them, we found out some fascinating information. Including the following tidbit:

"Tours of Lake Titicaca, including the floating islands and an overnight with an indigenous family on Amantani Island start at around $12."


We asked these two Irish guys who were on our bus how much they paid for their Lake Titicaca tour.

"20 bucks," they said.

So we got screwed out of $25 bucks each. Not a huge deal. But it got us thinking. After 4 days roughing it, and a week of nice but basic hostels, we weren't sure we wanted to stay in the hostel Vicki had set up for us. We hadn't paid for the hostel yet, so it seemed we were free to look around. The guidebook listed about a hundred different places to stay in Puno, including 4-star hotels for just $45 a night. We decided that there was nothing we could do about overpaying for the tour, but at least we could find a hotel on our own that was worth the money.

Traveler's Tip: The bus service we took from Cusco to Puno was iMexo, for $20. Comfortable, pleasant ride with free cake and fanta. Also stopped at a great viewpoint, see below. Highly recommended.

I had a lot of fun looking out the windows while we were on our long bus rides. They may seem like the perfect time to sleep, but if you keep your eyes open you'll really get to see the Peruvian countryside.

On The Way To Puno
A Quick Stop Along The Way To Puno

Our bus arrives in Puno, and the second we step off, we see a woman holding a sign with my name. Vicki's counterpart at the Hostel Margarita. She's with a cab driver and another guy, who's some sort of tourist agent.

We get in the car, but try to explain that we're not sure if we want to stay at the hostel. We'd like to look around and see what else is out there. The woman doesn't speak a word of english, and doesn't seem to understand our butchered spanish. Luckily, the tourist agent translates our message. The woman seems fine with this.

We get to the hostel, check it out. It's nice enough, but nothing special. Jay meanwhile, has already picked out a hotel from the guidebook. "Large spacious rooms, cable tv, room service, three stars..." I have to agree, it sounds awesome.

So we tell the woman thanks, but we'd like to look around. We may end up coming back
if we don't find another place that's better. We walk out into the street and begin heading down the block.

Suddenly, the woman races down the street after us, shouting in Spanish. We stop. "Tu Pagas Para Taxi," she demands. "Dinero para taxi."

She wants us to pay for the cab, which we were pretty sure was included in the $25 bucks we overpaid. We're tired, we're pissed, we just want to get away from this woman. She demands 3 soles... 1 buck. But I don't have any small change on me. Not that I feel like paying anyway. We said we might come back... if we went back, would she give us the cab money back? All this shouting just convinced us not to stay at her place.

"Come on, we don't have to deal with this crap," Jay says, and starts walking away.

I continue trying to reason with the woman, who is becoming more irate each second. A woman on the street connects eyes with me and gives me a "I-feel-your-pain" look.

I turn around, and see Jay disappear behind a corner. "I've got to go... mi amigo..."

"Tu es rata! Rata!" The woman snarls angrily.

I assume that means I'm a rat. I apologize, and run down the street, my huge backpack bouncing up and down.

But I get to the corner, and don't see Jay. Maybe he headed towards that hotel... what was it's name? Started with a Q? How do you say Q in spanish?

I walk further down the block and reach a main street. I look off in both directions. No giant backpacks. No Jay. Did he run to get away from that woman? Where could he be? I'm starting to panic. Jay doesn't have a cell phone. We've been in town for five minutes and don't know the lay of the land. We have no established meeting place. To top it off, I'm pretty paranoid that the lady at the hostel called the cops.

I wander down to the Plaza de Armas. Still no Jay. I'm a little afraid to head back to where I lost him, because that woman might still be there. But it's the best option if I'm ever going to see Jay again. Now... where was it? Did I turn right or left?*t.

I'm lost in a foreign city, no way of contacting Jay. I almost sit down on the curb and cry. Then a little boy comes running around the corner.

"Buscando por Tu amigo?"

My heart leaps. "Mi amigo! Si! Donde esta?"

The boy beckons me to follow him. We walk up the street, turn a corner, and there, in the distance, is a big gray backpack.


He turns. "Huntman!" (its a nickname)

We hug. Yeah, its not manly to admit that, but it was a pretty cinematic moment.

The woman who witnessed the argument with the hostel lady had sent her son to reunite us. We thanked her profusely.

Then, together, we walked into the Qelqatani Hotel. Or as I call it.. heaven.

The Lobby
They've Put In A New TV Since This Pic Was Taken

Big, american style hotel rooms, plush king size beds, a shower with a detachable showerhead, room service, complimentary bottled water... Jay and I immediately decided that this was where we'd stay.

We decided then and there to cancel our plans to travel the 12 hour or so bus ride to Arequipa (where we would probably have to do more hiking) and stay instead in the Lake Titicaca area.

That night we dined on lomo saltado (stir fried beef with tomatoes, onions and fried potatoes) with apple pie and ice cream for dessert. And a bottle of wine. All delivered to our room while we watched "The OC." After four days of living the dirt life, we were ready for a bit of luxury.

Double Room
A Qelqatani Room, Similar To Ours

Qelqatani, how I love thee.

(In case you're wondering, we did go back and pay the woman her 3 soles. People hate Americans as it is)

Tomorrow, the floating Islands, New Year's Eve on Amantani, and The End of El Corazon.


On a different note:

Did you watch Fox News call Obama a terrorist? Let the ridiculous smear campaigns begin.

Fox issues a half-assed mea culpa.

Tonight, The State Of The Union. Don't you wish it was the season premiere of Lost instead??

Monday, January 22, 2007

Inca Trail Day 3 & 4 - Making Friends, Real Beds, Slowpokes, and Macchu Picchu, finally

The Group after Day 2
Our Group Before Heading To Winay Winya

Day three was a lot more relaxed than day two. With only about 11 km to cover until our next campsite of Winay Wayna, we could move at a slower pace and got to actually know the other people in our group.

I ended up teaching a bit of American History to Kerry, who was on our trek with her husband (the other) Simon from the UK. "What did that George Washington fellow do?" she wanted to know. "What was that whole civil war about?" In her defense, I couldn't tell you the first thing about British history. I think I impressed her. Unfortunately, I didn't impress the Advance Placement board, which gave me a 3 on my high school exam (out of 5). But that was Mr. Winkler's fault for telling us we didn't need to know about anything past 1940.

But I digress. Kerry, for her part, taught Jay and I a wonderful English phrase, "Timmy Trots," in reference to a certain stomach ailment.

Another couple we got to know on our tour was Janette and Esmond, from Australia. The Inca trail was actually their third adventure in South America... they had come straight from hiking in the Amazon jungle for a week, and had been in the Galapagos before that. Janette very nonchalantly showed us where an unknown rainforest insect had bitten her, causing a fist-sized welt on her leg. She then showed us where she had gashed her leg before going into the lagoons in the Galapagos. "It was bleeding everywhere," she said. "And then I looked down into the water, and there was a shark coming right at me." Her husband, Esmond, who brought with him a professional grade camera, had apparently just stood by snapping pictures while his wife tried to avoid becoming shark food. "The photos came out beautifully," he said.

They were prepared for everything. They gave Jay an antibiotic so powerful it only had to be taken once (at this point, we'd take medicine from a witch doctor), and on day three, when blisters on my feet threatened to reduce me to tears, they produced special blister band-aids from their knapsack. They also must have had a stash of uppers, because they were always so cheerful throughout the grueling hike.

Day 3 Hike
Day 3 Wasn't All Puppy Dogs and Ice Cream

Midway through day three the group all stopped at a lookout point for a rest. Simon and Avi threw a raquetball around, which shortly bounced off the mountain. Two of the girls from the OC braided each others hair. The other one sauntered slowly up the hill with one of our porters, Oscar. That morning, when we had been introduced to all our porters, Jay and I commented on how all of them looked 20 years old than they actually were. Apparently chicks from the OC are into that, as we'd find out later in our trip.

A little after noon, we arrive at Winay Wayna. There's a small lodge with a bar, some showers, and the dirtiest bathrooms you've ever seen in your life, unless you've seen the bathrooms elsewhere on the Inca trail. Nevertheless, it's wonderful to have some semblance of civilization after two days of nothing. Jay collapses in the tent while I go to check out the lodge. There's a bunch of other groups staying in the surrounding campsite, including SAS, South American Explorers, which has a bunch of blonde girls from Holland or some place like that. I'm checking one of them out when Avi gives a nudge.

"Hairy legs."

I check it out. Sure enough, he's right. Yuck. Then again, after 3 days of hiking, I'm not exactly the height of attractiveness.

At that moment, Lobo comes by, dangling a key. "Simon, Avi. Here's the key. The hostel is right up this hill."

My brain does a double take. Say what? Hostel?

"There's an abandoned hostel up on the hill that they used to use for people on the two-day hike," Lobo explains.

Say what?

"Because our tent got flooded last night, they're putting us up in the hostel," Avi explains.

I go with them to check it out. It's pretty basic, but it's got some advantages...

A) It's indoors
B) It's dry
C) It's got beds

"Lobo... um... you think Jay and I can stay here too?"

"25 soles."

I never ran so fast in my life. I dash down to the campsite, and unzip the tent. Jay is tucked into his sleeping bag, looking like he's at death's door. "Jay! Jay! You won't believe it!" I shout. "There's a hostel, they've got beds, real beds and... WE CAN STAY THERE!!!"

"Let's do it," Jay says.

Lobo didn't want the word getting out, because technically, I guess you're supposed to stay in the tents. But everyone found out anyway. I admit, I felt bad getting ribbed about it by the OC girls. But only for a second. I got a bed, bitches...

For the rest of the day, most of the group chilled in the dining tent, trading riddles back and forth. Then at about 4:30 we went to the most impressive ruins before Macchu Picchu: Winay Wayna. After the group had a heated discussion on how much to tip the porters, cook, and guides, Jay and I explored the ruins for about an hour. Then the fog and rain and night rolled in, seemingly all at once, and we headed back to the campsite.

Tip Talk
How much do we tip???

That night we all chilled in the lodge, playing cards and drinking beers. Afterward, Jay and I went back to the hostel, having to climb over the numerous porters from other trek groups using the building's overhangs as shelter (not every Inca trail group treats its porters as well as our group did). Jay and I discovered that the hostel housed some of the largest insects we'd ever seen, but somehow got over it (spraying lethal amounts of deet helped) and we tucked ourselves tight into our sleeping bags, calling it a night. We'd have to wake up at 4 so we could leave and catch the sunrise over Macchu Picchu.

The next morning, it was pouring. Every group at the campsite huddled in the lodge a little after 4, waiting for the right time to depart. Our group was among the last to leave because, as Lobo said, if it's raining, then there's no rush.

Before we depart, me and Jay switch iPods and pump ourselves up. I select "Born To Run," and somehow, it's like Springsteen himself is injecting power back into my legs. Jay listens to Leaving Las Vegas by Sheryl Crow.

The final leg to Macchu Picchu sucks. Not only isn't there anything to see through the dense fog and misting rain, but the trail is a traffic jam. All during the hike we've barely seen other people, except at the campsites. But now, every Tom, Dick and Sven is in front of us, walking slowly. Using my best Madden juke moves (R button), I weave my way past the slow pokes. This causes some people to get upset. One man tries to trip me with his walking stick. Another yells "It's not a race." One woman stops to look at an orchid, and her fat ass is blocking the narrow trail. "Excuse me," I say, as I almost fall off the mountain to get past her.

"How rude," she says.

"You're a bitch," I say. It's Day 4. Don't f-cking mess with me.

I reach the sun gate third out of our group. Simon and Avi are long ahead. Just before the sun gate is a flight of stairs designed by M.C. Escher. I finally get to the top, expecting to see the view of a lifetime. Instead, I see this:

Beautiful Macchu Picchu

Nobody is happy. Four days, and all I get is fog?? Dejected, our group walks down to Macchu Picchu.

Then, the most magical thing happens. The fog parts, and the sun comes streaming in. Suddenly, Macchu Picchu is bathed in white light. It's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen.

Macchu Picchu
That's More Like It

Words can't really describe it. Pictures don't really do it justice. Kicks the Parthenon's ass, I can tell you that.

Every so often we'd see some day tripper--who had arrived that day by train, walking up a few steps in their clean shirt, clean pants, clean underwear, clean everything. "Ooh, I'm so tired, it's so hot," they'd say. I couldn't help but laugh.

Huyana Picchu?? Not a chance. We consider hiking up it, but when they say it's a long wait, we decide to head to the bus station. We get a little food once we're there. The first time we've eaten in 4 days. I have a hamburger. Jay has a panini. "Best panini I ever ate," Jay declares.

We take the bus to Aguas Calientes, a town that I can best describe as a tiny mountain town that had spring break vomited onto it. It's pretty damn touristy. But we did get to see entertaining signs like this one:

Restaurant Sign
A Typical Aguas Calientes Restaurant

Even though we knew it was like a municipal pool, Jay and I decide to take a dip in the hot springs. Peter and Belinda, an Australian couple from our tour, were already there. We chilled with them in the hot pool, until some young punks came and started doing chicken fights.

Aguas Calientes
Jay and I with Peter

On the train back, we sat with Alper and Camilla, another couple from our trek. Alper was from California, Camilla from Hong Kong. They had met online, and now Alper was considering moving to Hong Kong to be with her. I have to say, if they could survive four days hiking with each other, camping in tents, I think they've got a future.

There were some beautiful views from the train. Snow capped peaks, corn fields, tiny farming villages. I bought some giant-kerneled corn and snacked on it. Jay mostly slept. Upon arrival in Cusco, the train did about 4 or 5 switchbacks down the mountain, which took forever. It turned out the hostel where we had stayed before didn't have room for us, so they set us up at their "sister" hostel. We drove in a cab over to a very luxurious looking hostel... before walking a block to a hostel apparent located behind someone's chicken coop. It didn't matter. There was a hot shower, the first either of us had taken in days, and we were happy with that.

Sweet Dreams
Jay On The Train

Tomorrow morning, we'd catch the bus for Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Visitor Map: