Saturday, June 29, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 12 –Iquitos and the Laguna Quistacocha

We slept in, but by the time we had taken the last sip of coffee our plans were well laid. We were going to take the bus to Laguna Quistacocha, which is about 15 south of Iquitos. This was identified in the guidebook as a place popular among the locals for some weekend relaxation. Unfortunately the people here are not very good at giving directions, so their default is to defer you to a “moto-kar”. These are the same as tug-tugs or chug-chugs, as found in places as diverse as Merida, Calcutta, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Taipei, or Manila, and like their evil counterparts elsewhere in the world they have taken over the streets of Iquitos like a swarm of bees. The problem is that the driver of the moto-kar may have no idea of where is the place you want to go, but will full confidence will offer to take you there for a nominal fee of 2 Soles. Because we are foreigners we often get the “oh, that is so far” line and we get to pay 3 or 4 Soles for what end being a ride around the block!

So we fell in the clutches of an evil moto-kar driver, who after driving us all around dropped us a couple of blocks from the hotel, smack in the middle of the Belén market (the big, central market of Iquitos), to wait for a mini-bus to Quistacocha. Fortunately for us the Peruvians are very kind to foreigners, so they ushered us to the front of the mini-bus, and in total comfort made the 15 km to Quistacocha.

This is a recreational park in which, for a flat fee of 9 Soles (4 Soles for nationals) you get to visit the zoo they maintain, walk in the jungle, visit the exotic tree nursery, and bathe in the maintained beach of the lagoon. For little additional money you can have a delicious meal at one of the two waterfront restaurants. We dutifully visited the animals (a pretty good zoon for its size and budget), walked (and got lost) in the jungle, admired the exotic animals, walked in the wading beach, and plopped in one of the restaurants to quench our thirst with a couple of caguama-size Cristal beers, and to eat the biggest fish I have sank my teeth on, ever. It was deliciously delicious!

Our last hurrah brought much enjoyment to Annie. I didn’t know that dolphins are common along the Amazon, and that they are particularly abundant in the area of Iquitos, where several rivers come together to feed the Amazon. The place where two rivers meet is called the shock zone, and apparently fish get disoriented when they cross it, which attracts the dolphins. The most remarkable fact about these dolphins is that some of them are pink! Yes, quite pink as a matter of fact, a like flamingos likely a consequence of the creel they eat. Anyway, at the zoo they have a pink dolphin that they are training, and we stopped to see the training. After several tricks the trainer asked if anyone wanted to kiss the dolphin. I immediately lifted Annie’s hand, who had no idea of what was going on. She was thus one of the three people selected, and when the dolphin puckered up she quite fearlessly smacked a good one on the tip of its long snout. Annie was radiant. As a kid she had always wanted to be selected to pet the dolphins or whales, and finally she got her chance here in Quistacocha. She reports the “lips” of the dolphin are firm, a bit like the tip of your nose.

On the way back we took the simple bus and, because it was getting late, had to put on hold a boat trip to the jungle. We did arrange for a trip the following day with a young man doing business off the malecón. Then we bought some food to take along and came back to the hotel to veg and work on our notes (Annie is now writing the anti-blog, so between the two of us we might get most of the stories correct.) Unfortunately as I was writing late in the afternoon I had an attack of the munchies and had to go foraging for some potato chips before I could settle down to write. This diet of mine is not working . . . at all! 

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 11 – Cusco to Iquitos

Up at 4 am to get ready for our early flight to first Lima and then Iquitos. Because of the early hour the father of the family offered to take us, so we had the privilege of waking everybody up at 5:30 am. Let me say here that we were very happy at Hotel Fuente de Agua, in San Jeronimo. It is far from city center (San Jeronimo is past the airport), but the buses that stop at the corner are only 80 cents of a Sol, or US$ 0.32, and the taxi from Cusco is anywhere from 12 to 15 Soles. These small inconveniences were nothing compared with the care and attention we got from the two girls and one young man who ran the show. Even Dad contributed to our well being by driving us to the airport! The food was good and prepared with care, our room was clean and luminous, and the living room became our own to read or receive visitors. A great experience!

The flight to Lima was uneventful, and so was the one to Iquitos. The most significant event was that I immediately fell asleep in both flights and woke up only when the plane bumped against the tarmac on landing. My Honey, on the other hand, was awake all way long, still excited by the experience of being on a plane.

We got to Iquitos and found—thanks all merciful Good Lord—that the temperature was a mere 31 degrees, so we didn’t melt on arrival. A taxi brought us to our hotel, which just by chance is located one block from the malecón (the river boardwalk). After we dumped our stuff we went out to walk the malecón and to find a place to eat. It is a very pretty walk, and it was a thrill to see the Amazon in full flood. After many pictures we found a great café along the boardwalk, but we ordered too much: A ceviche for piqueo, a fish chowder for me and a French potato salad with fruits for Annie as second plate, and a chicken cordon bleu for Annie and a fried piranha for me. I ended taking most of the ceviche home with me, and devoured it for my supper (for those who wonder whether “ceviche” should be written “cebiche” I can only tell that the Peruvian people are not a lot of help; half of the time you see the first spelling and the other half you see the alternative spelling.

After dinner I made the mistake of taking Annie to see the boats. I needed to know the cost (70 to 100 soles per person for a cabin and meals), on what days they departed (pretty much every day), and how long it would take to reach Leticia, Colombia (three days and two nights). Annie was horrified when she saw there were no showers on board, that the cabins were little more than a hot an unventilated metal box, and that the sleeping deck could host 300 hammocks! She had expected to shell an extra ten dollars for a cabin with its own bathroom and shower, but there none to be had at any price.

 Seeing the horror in my Honey’s eyes I quickly reassessed the situation and decided to make the trip with the fast boat down to Leticia (departure on Sunday, and 8 hours of travel time in a glider ship.) We went to the agent to buy the tickets, but Annie was so upset she could not make up her mind just then, so we said goodbye to the agent and headed back to the hotel.

On the way we got sidetracked by the office of Amazon Tours, who after much fanfare offered us a 1 day trip to the jungle for 120 Soles. Not bad, but we are independent travelers and wanted to plan our own adventure, so we thanked them and went back to our hotel, to catch up on my blog and ponder the plan for tomorrow.   

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 10 – Return from Aguascalientes to Cusco

Remembering that the last day still counts, we tried not to be in much of a hurry getting back home to Cusco. From Aguascalientes we took the train to Ollantaytambo, in a beautiful glass-ceiling car that allowed us a full view of the majestic Peruvian Andes.

Once in Ollantaytambo we were picked up by a guide and a van, who drove us to the mountain fortress of Pisac. This is one of my favorite Inca sites, although in fact it is three sites connected by a path that runs along the cliffs. Alma and Tom decided to get back when the stairs started (we are still hurting from the climb to Huayna Picchu), but Margarita, Annie and I made the whole circuit, in awe at the bird’s eye view we were getting over a good stretch of the Sacred Valley.
An hour later we were deposited in our hotel, and Alma finally had the chance of letting the guide know what she thought about his services. Although all other people we dealt with had been friendly and helpful, this particular guide was rude to her, and kept her waiting for nearly an hour at one of the pickup locations. I tell you, he must have felt the wrath of old Wiracocha come onto him!

We passed the afternoon packing and getting ready for our respective departures the following morning, and in the late afternoon Alma, Tom, and I took Tita back to her room back in Cusco, and finally had a quiet drink on a second floor restaurant overlooking the Plaza de Armas, where we made wild plans for the future and eventually said goodbye. They are all off to Key West in Florida, to look at buying a house there, and Annie and I are off to the second part of our trip, the Amazon.

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 9 – Inca Trail from Intipata to Machu Picchu

Last night we said goodbye to our porters and cook. They are a bunch of fine fellows and we will certainly miss their quiet, almost invisible services. We didn’t have much of a chance to meet them, as they are very deferential toward their “passengers”, but we all know how hard they worked and will remember them fondly even if we cannot remember their names.

Speaking of our porters, they used to wake us up around 5:30 am, with a hot infusion of coca leaves, so we could wake up slowly and be ready for a 6 am breakfast. Today wake up time was 3:30 am, but alas we had no morning tea (we figured the tip we provided was not sufficient and this was their way to express their displeasure). I was the first one up on that day, and hopefully soothed some ruffled feathers by giving my sleeping bag away to a porter who didn’t have one, and my jacket to another porter who had spent many cold moments looking after our stuff. (They looked after us like mother hens, taking no chances on we being badly surprised by a robbery, so there was always a guard over our tents and stuff.)

Breakfast was Spartan, but most importantly had no coffee (were we out of coffee, or was this another sign of displeasure this time from our Cook?). Now, some of us can switch to tea if needed, but Margarita turned into another being (the Exorcist comes to mind), and in a hoarse voice, totally unlike herself, croaked: WHAT? NO COFFEE? After that we all gave her a lot of space and tried to appease her by pushing with a stick a toast bread with marmalade in her direction.

So here we are, at 4:30 am, ready to go. We walked maybe a couple of hundred feet to the control point, and then sat until 5:30, waiting for the officials in the checkpoint to open shop. The Australians right away brought out the dice and immersed themselves into a game of Zonk, while most of us fell asleep on our seats, waiting thus for opening time. Today the idea is to walk 10 km from Intipata (3,250 m amsl) to Machu Picchu (2.400 m amsl), and to arrive in Machu Picchu at about 8 am.

It was an easy walk (well, there were a couple of spots where the trail was so steep that we had to crawl up like monkeys, holding on all five), and we had plenty of opportunities to look at the landscape and ponder: The famous peak you see in all the photos of Machu Picchu is a spire of granite, from the Vilcabamba batholith, but its most distinctive characteristic is a strong vertical foliation, which is actually pervasive in all the intrusive and metamorphic rocks we have crossed so far. It is very similar to what we see in Kings Canyon National Park, in California, and probably signifies the vertical stretching of the continental crust, as new plutons moved through a “crystal mush” which could be foliated but not induce a metamorphic event. The fact that you see the same foliation in the older metamorphic rocks suggest to me that the crust was overall hot enough to flow vertically as the plutons went past pre-existing rocks. The sedimentary sandstones and conglomerates of the Valley of Cusco, by the way, are a good example of the back-arc fold-and-thrust belt of the Andes. Too bad I could not get hold of a geologic map of the Sacred Valley.

We were half way down to Machu Picchu when Eder figured out that he had forgotten his aluminum walking stick at the checkpoint. Poor guy. He has been more than generous lending out his gear to us (though I still hold him responsible for encasing me in plastic and forcing me to carry a portable sauna with me for the best part of the night hike from Hell).

Once in Machu Picchu we took the obligatory photos from the Puerta del Sol (the Sun Gate), and then farther down to get the full view of the site and the small mountain that forms its backdrop. This mountain is called Huayna Picchu, and I will go back to it later in this narrative. Once we took the photo we went out of the site completely to visit the restrooms, have a drink, and have Tom meet Alma. It was a very touching reunion. Alma and Tom were celebrating Alma’s birthday, and 35 years of marriage, while we were on the trail, so Tom had arranged with two of Tita’s yoga friends to bring flowers to the hotel, to which the girls added a freshly baked birthday cake! Is that romantic or what?

Once rested we went back into Machu Picchu, for a quick guided tour of the site. It had to be quick, because Eder had to deliver us to the foot of Huayna Picchu, which Alma, Tita, Annie, Tom and I were going to climb, just so we could say we did. Let’s see, Machu Picchu is at 2.400 m amsl, and Huayna Picchu reaches only to 2,700 m amsl, so all we were going to do was 300 vertical meters (about 1,000 ft). Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. It was a grueling torture in our already strained knees and ankles, both climbing and going down. But the view from the top was magnificent and, as Annie put it, we are not likely to come anytime soon.

On the way down we visited a couple more temples in Machu Picchu, which is indeed a marvelous piece of engineering, before deciding that we had done our duty as hard core tourists and could now retire in honor. I will say, however, that with all its monumental architecture it is very impressive to me that the inhabitants never carved an image on the walls, left a stele, or placed a monument to the memory of its builder, the Inca Pachacute. Was this because they were forbidden to leave text or statuary art behind? Or did old Hiram Bingham did such a good job looting the site that nothing was left for future generations to enjoy? (Incidentally, word is that Yale University recently returned to the Peruvian people about half of the artifacts “collected” by Hiram Bingham, with the other half still being subject of negotiation.

So tired and almost without energy we joined the queue for the bus that was to bring us down to the town of Aguascalientes when I see, not ten people ahead of me, the profile of my good friend Raul Morales! Raul and I biked the Camino de Santiago a couple of years ago, and Raul and his wife Georgina joined us for the China tour last summer. What are the chances that we were to meet, in a remote corner of Peru, in a place where thousands of people were passing by? We could have been delayed by a few minutes and thus miss them completely, or I could have been facing the other way, or they could have taken an earlier bus, or … The fact is that we met, and for the half hour ride down to Aguascalientes we jabbered away happily, taking stock of our different families and common friends. The only other amazing encounter I have had was when Ramon Arrowsmith saw mw crossing the lobby of a hotel in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia about 10 years back. Again, it was a chance occurrence that could have failed if I had been a couple of minutes too early or too late. Keeping this in mind, how many of those encounters have I missed, just by a few minutes. Well, for all I know I may have almost met at least a dozen of friends in this way. Isn’t life stranger than fiction?

Aguascalientes is the perfect tourist trap, and we loved it. It is full of hotels, restaurants, and shops, and the night life is gay and vibrant. After taking long, long showers, and washing what was washable (Annie, the “I keep my things forever” kind of a person was so disgusted with the shirt she had been wearing for four days that she unceremoniously chucked it into el tacho de la basura), we gathered and went to look for dinner. I had asked and had been recommended El Indio Feliz, but before going there I asked on a couple of restaurants to see what they offered in the form of roasted guinea pig (Annie almost puked at the idea). But no, El Indio Feliz it was going to be, and an excellent choice it was too. The décor was more that of a Caribbean tavern, but the chef was a true master of international cuisine. We ordered the menu, with onion soup for Alma and Tom, an avocado and papaya salad for Tita and Annie, and quiche Lorraine for me as the first course. Then came chicken in ginger for Alma and Tom, pasta with all sorts of delicious trimmings for Annie and Tita, and a salmon trout with mango sauce for me that was to die for. Pie and ice cream for all of us, and we could fall in a satisfied moment of contemplation. Alma, Tom, and I have known each other for 30 years now, and we have had many an adventure together. To have Annie join this select group was indeed a delight, and we were all happy—even if exhausted—that we had tackled Machu Picchu together. Now to plan the trek of the Himalayas for next summer!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 8 – Inca Trail from Pasaymayo to Intipata

[My Honey reminds me that just because I become comatose at night, she does not share this useful trait, and that for the last two nights she has been “called” by the full moon to dance in the middle of the night in her birthday suit. Fortunately she is a big girl and has quashed the commands of the full moon at the expense of her beauty sleep.]

I was thinking that permanent damage was unavoidable, as I limped to the mess tent for a cup of coffee. Every muscle was hurting, and my ankles felt like they were made out of rubber. Amazingly we all rallied and after a few warm up steps were kind of ready for the day ahead. According to Eder all the difficult parts were behind us, and the way ahead had easy ups and downs (easy for him to say!). However, we had to make for the distance lost in the first two days, and the goal was to cover 15 km from dawn to dusk.

It was not as easy as Eder had claimed, and I had to tackle every uphill with the old technique of walking 50 steps and then stopping for a little rest. I was back to carrying my backpack, and so was Tita, who alone of all of us carried her full load for the full trip (Brava!).

The road was very beautiful, and once we got on our stride, we actually enjoyed ourselves very much. Our dear Aussies, being full of youth and energy, soon disappeared behind the horizon, but Annie, Tita, Tom, Eder, and myself stayed together as a group, which afforded us a good chance to talk.

Eder is a very smart young man, who studied Biology in high school of JC, worked as a porter for a spell, and then studied and passed the examination required to get his license as a guide. He is now studying Environmental Engineering, and I have no doubt that he will eventually realize his goal. He is in true love with Peru and its ancient cultures, and has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Upon knowing that I was a geologist he asked me all sorts of interesting questions about the rocks and the origin of the mountains. (Andrew, one of our Aussies, also asked me a couple of questions that required a long answer, and he complimented me by saying that he had never learned so much from such a short conversation).

Along the way we visited two or three Inca sites. Each is amazing in the scope of its engineering and architecture, and I wish  had the words to express my admiration for these fantastic engineers and agronomists. For example, they had terraces that extended over a 100 m altitude range. They would plant thousnads of low elevation plants (say potatoes) in the lowermost terraces, waiting for only a handful to survive. Then they would plant the potatoes from the survivors at that same elevation, and pretty soon they had a strain that would thrive at that elevation. Afterward they would transplant a few thousand plants to the higher elevations, and again only two or three would survive. The survivors were selected and planted again, until a whole new generation was “created” that could survive the high elevations. In a similar way they adapted many of their basic plants from the lowlands to their preferred high mountain environment. Pretty clever folks, those Incas.

We had a long but pleasant day, and were happily trudging along, until we realized that its was 5 in the afternoon, and we still had 5 km to go. Now, up here where the atmosphere is thin we have a very short dusk, so all of a sudden we were facing the prospect of a night walk.

Meanwhile, our Aussie friends were already in a site that is close to the campsite, and they were all alone, and the moon was rising early, and they are slightly insane, and their insanity led them to take off all their clothes to do the ol’ dancing under the moon. And a fine spectacle they did of themselves when the camera went off!

Night did come upon us, together with a light drizzle. Now, our amazing Eder, who is some kind of Peruvian McGyver, pulled out his poncho and insisted I had to wear it, so soon I was encased in this tube of plastic, which in no time whatsoever raised my temperature to sauna levels. Annie took the lead, with her powerful REI headlamp; behind followed Tom, who had no headlamp but who has a good night vision and could follow on Annie’s footsteps, then came Tita, me (sweating like the proverbial pig), and then Eder. After about 5 minutes Annie’s mighty REI lamp took a crap, so Eder exchanged lamps with her. As they were doing this Tom spotted a little snake across the road and started playing with it. Eder froze as he warned Tom to leave it alone, because the little guy is one of the most poisonous snakes in this region. Annie had just stepped over the viper, and when she heard that she almost fainted (have I told you that Annie is snake phobic?). So Annie refused to stay on the lead, which was taken by Tita, and I was ready to faint inside my personal sauna, so I had to get rid of it, and in that sorry way we made our way down to the Intipata campground, at 3,250 m amsl. Our excellent Australian friends cheered us in, and broke open the victory beer they had been carrying since Cusco, so we could all toast to “all that ends well is well”.

That night we talked about the origin of llamas and alpacas. It is an interesting story so let me repeat it here. Camelids evolved in North America, and were quite abundant during the Pleistocene, about 5 million years ago (Ma). Then, about 3.5 Ma a group of islands detached from southern Mexico (imagine a long island group like modern Cuba-Santo Domingo-Puerto Rico) migrated southward by plate tectonics and plugged the opening between North America and South America, to become Central America. All sorts of things happened because of this joining of the two continents: Dolphins could no longer swim between the two oceans, so two distinctive groups of dolphins evolved only a few kilometers apart; the circum-equatorial current could no longer follow the Equator, and the Gulf Stream was born; the warmth and moisture of the Gulf Stream brought much rain and snowfall to the northern hemisphere and the Ice Age got on its way; and … the camelids were able to migrate first to South America, where the guanaco served as evolutionary stock for the llama, and the vicuña served as evolutionary stock for the alpaca. Once the Ice Age got on its way sea level dropped, and the North American camelids (and the horses) were able to migrate through the Behring land bridge into Asia, where eventually they gave rise to the dromedary and the camel. Paradoxically, camelids (and horses) became extinct in North America by the middle Pleistocene, about 1 Ma ago. Who would tell the presence of the cute llama bears testimony to the vagaries of plate tectonics and evolution!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 7 – Inca Trail from Wayllabamba to Pasaymayo

Nothing like a good sleep to recover the strength and spirit. And we will need both because ahead of us is the prospect of Dead Woman’s Pass (4,700 m amsl or 14,000 ft). Tom decided to handicap himself a little with a good crack at the head against the dinetel of the evil pit toilet, plus the beginning of something that looked like Wiracocha’s Revenge.
Me, I hired an extra porter and wore the thick jacket I had bought in the Cusco market precisely for this day. The extra porter was a 67 year old local man, but I justified it to myself by thinking that it was not that I couldn’t do it, but rather that the porter would be better adapted to the high altitude. Besides, he would only be carrying my backpack, which was no more that 10 kg. Later I saw my backpack strapped to the already ridiculously large load of another of the porters, and the old man carrying a large combined load of tents and kitchen implements. What they had done was simply use him to lighten a little everybody else’s load!
We started at an elevation of 3,000 m at Wayllabamba, so we had quite a slope toward Dead Woman’s Pass, only 5 km away but with a gain in altitude of 1,700 m. The canyon we followed was beautiful, and a fabulous example of the Andean cloud forest. We saw a giant hummingbird, endless orchids, and all sorts of interesting plants. Our guide, Eder, was an endless fountain of biological information, although I felt he was trying to hang out behind me to shoo me along. Finally I had to tell him to go ahead, “porque no me gusta que me andes carrereando.”
The goal was to reach the pass by 11:30 am. Ha! It was the never ending story, with one false summit after the other, and it was not until 2 pm that we reached the top. It felt good to be on top of the world, and to see how far we had come, but I felt the pass could be renamed the Dead Mexican Pass and that would not be too far from the truth.
Then came the killer descent. From our lofty perch we had to descend in less than 4 km to Pasamayo (3,650 m amsl), where we would have a very late lunch and camp for the night. It was miserable. Imagine descending a million steps of uneven height and you will have a pale idea of what that ordeal was all about. The first half we made still happy and cheerful, but the mood turned somber as hour after interminable hour we battered our knees against the cold stone. Actually, it was only two and a half hours later that we reached camp, at about 4:30 pm. Again the Aussies (arrival at 2:30 pm), and Margarita and Tom (arrival at 3:30 pm), accorded us a cheerful reception, and Annie and Tom dove into their respective tents to recover for a few minutes, the former from exhaustion and the latter from Wiracocha’s Revenge.
I don’t quite remember exactly what we had for lunch, followed 30 minutes by Happy Hour, in turn followed 30 minutes later by dinner, but whatever it was it tasted delicious, as only a repast in open air can taste. Needless to say we retired early, and despite the chill of the evening we slept the deep sleep of the exhausted.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 6 – Inca Trail from Piscacucho to Wayllabamba

I am back to our chronicle. The following morning we woke up way too early, and by 5:30 am were ready for pickup, together with Margarita and Tom, who had woken up even earlier. The outfitters were there on time and after loading our gear we went back to central Cusco to pickup the rest of our party, which consisted of two young couples of Aussies: Marikki and Andrew, and Kira and Ross. We couldn’t have asked for better traveling companions! They were sociable, and funny, and altogether great sports.

By 7 am we were on the road to Ollantaytambo, where we made a short stop for coffee and breakfast, and then proceeded to Piscacucho, which is the traditional start of the trail. It is a small town with a train station and enough place for outfits to spread their stuff and pack. In our case we had seven porters and a cook, so we were on a one-to-one ratio between helpers and visitors. The porters are local farmers, who in the tourist season might make the minimum salary of 650 Soles per month (about US$260 per month). It is hard to be a porter. Presumably they are limited to a load of 25 kg (50 lbs per person), but I am pretty sure each of them was carrying close to 50 kg (100 lbs). We tried to alleviate the load by paying for an extra porter, but I suspect that the original seven just took their share of the fee and distributed amongst them, rather than getting an extra man. I chose to carry my full load in solidarity to the porters, with the idea that I would hire an extra local man for the second day, which promises to be the toughest.

Today we only walked 10 km, with a relatively modest gain in altitude from Piscacucho (2,700 m amsl) to Wayllabamba (3,000 m amsl). The initial walk was delightful, as it followed closely the Rio Urabamba, and I couldn’t help but remind Annie that this very river would empty into the mighty Amazon. In a way, then, we were walking on the headwaters of the Amazon!

Along the way we saw in the distance the remains of the Inca sites of Qanabamba and Patallaqta, at which point it became time for lunch. Lunch is a grand affair here in the trail. The porters hurry along the way, and have the mess tents set by the time you get there. The cook gets busy and as soon as you arrive there is a fresh glass of lemonade waiting for you. Then comes a five-course dinner with soup, salad, rice, main meat dish, and dessert. Everything tastes so good!

Annie and I met our old nemesis along the trail: The pit toilet! My first encounter was particularly gruesome, because the “stuff” was all over the floor. What poor aim some people have! Later I found a cleaner version of the torturous contraption, which requires you to get rid of jacket or vest, to minimize smearing them with you know what. Then you have to squat (something that becomes harder with age) making sure you are not likely to pee on your leg, and planning distances well enough so the bombs go down the tunnel. Then you have to clean yourself, trying not to drop your glasses, camera. Or iPod into the depths of Hades. It is definitely a performance that improves with rehearsal after rehearsal.

The second half of the walk was fairly sedate, but we were beginning to gain altitude and I was definitely puffing. I was glad to see in the distance our Aussie friends, cheering us as we came into camp, a couple of hours behind them. Tom and Annie made a beeline for the tents, which were already pitched and ready for immediate occupancy, and took a nap. I hung out with the younger generation, which were in the middle of a hotly contested game of Zong, a game played with dice. Just as they finished and I was getting ready to join them we were called for “Happy Hour” (pop corn and coffee), and shortly thereafter we were served supper. This was a chance to get some hot chocolate inside us, because as soon as the sun set a chill settled on the land.

Annie padded our nest as well she could, because she was afraid of being cold, but the liners worked wonders, as always, and we spent a very good night.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 5 – Saksaywamán

Happy Birthday Annie! At least that is what I was planning to say when I came out of the shower but, oh surprise, instead of my bodacious babe I saw a giant amoeba wriggling on the floor. It took me but a moment to recover from my surprise and put two and two together: My Honey is a devotee of her morning floor exercises, but the morning was chilly, so she pulled down not only the blanket to cover the floor but also the bedspread to cover her while she twisted and turned. That was certainly not what it looked like from the outside!

After a good laugh we had a typical American breakfast, with the cutest tiny pancakes. Why is it, Annie pondered, that folks assume that Gringos will only eat pancakes? Why don’t we get a Peruvian breakfast? I had to bite my lip not to start laughing, but took the opportunity to interrogate our waitress about the identity of the old lady who sat in the living room when we arrived last night. I was curious because when we came in she confused me with someone else. She turned out to be the great-grandmother of the family, and had just turned 99 years old on June 5. Admirable as getting to such venerable age is, it pales in comparison to the fact that she moves around pretty well with the help of her cane, and she climbs up every evening the six flights of steps to the family apartment in the fourth floor! I tried to start a conversation, but I suspect she is pretty hard of hearing and I only got a non-committal grunt for my efforts.

About 9 am sharp met with Alma and Tom to head out to downtown Cusco. We took the bus, as usual, but after we went half of the way the bus went down we had to troop down (I did get a 40% refund on the fare). So we took a second bus and, much to our surprise, found that this time the assistant was a girl! I have never in my life seen a girl do this job, but she was on the ball and kept the chanting going pretty well. In fact, after 20 minutes we started finding she did her job a bit too well. Her sing song about where the bus was headed, and as to whether there were passengers getting down at this stop or not got a little annoying. We finally concluded that the driver must be her father and that he must be very proud to have his girl break the glass ceiling.

Once in Cusco we slowly crossed to the start of the hill where sits Saksaywamán, the Inca ceremonial center that was the heart of the Inca empire. We are starting from about 3,200 m above mean sea level (amsl) near the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, and will be climbing to 3,700 m amsl to the top terrace of Saksaywamán, so we figure it will be a good warm up for the first day in the Inca Trail. I can only say that if our performance here is any indication of anything, the next four days promise to be full of pain and agony. But we are nothing if not stubborn, so we finally made it to the top, and had a good visit of the site.

Saksaywamán (some irreverent people suggest that phonetically it sounds like “Sexy Woman” with the accent shifted to the last syllable) was basically a very large public space, where the Inca could hold gatherings great and small. There are at least three major plazas, and in the largest of them will take the Inti Raymi celebration next Monday, June 24. The celebration should be celebrated today, June 21, because it is meant to be the adoration of the Sun in the summer solstice. Wiser heads have decreed, however, that it makes for a better celebration (and better cash flow for Cusco), to host all the visiting delegations for the weekend and then have the Inti Raymi as the grand finale on a Monday, after which everyone goes home.

But I divagate. Saksaywamán is famous for its three parallel rows of zig-zag walls, which some fancy look like the fangs of a jaguar. The walls are truly impressive, and are a fine example of the monumental stone work done by the Andean cultures, where one block weighing hundreds of pounds is exquisitely fitted onto another similarly large block, without mortar, so you cannot insert the blade of a knife between them. About the walls looking like the jaws of a jaguar I simply don’t see it. I went to Google Earth, looked at the site, and remain unconvinced. By all means, try it, don’t take my word for it. Search for “Saksaywaman, Cusco Region, Peru” and you too can look at the zig zag walls, the grand “L”-shaped plaza where Inti Raymi will be held, and the circular plaza to the north, where the Inca used to sit (to count his llamas?).

Hunger made us quit this fabulous site, and we headed down a steep path to look for a good place to it. On the way we found a señora selling choclo (steamed corn on the cob), and that helped to quench our hunger, but since it was Annie’s birthday we all agreed that it was time to treat her to real meal in a real restaurant. We did find one who fit the bill, and we all had a great lunch. Annie has a monster salad, followed by the potato dumplings filled with picadillo that she likes so well, Alma had shrimp grilled on a hot stone and surrounded by several tasty sauces, and Tom and I had sautéed alpaca morsels served on a bed of something that looked like polenta. It all looked oh, so posh, and Annie had a good time. As a present she got from me a charm of the Inca cross as a memory of this trip. How can you go wrong celebrating your birthday on a unique city, of a fabulous country, in a continent you are visiting for the first time!

It turns out that we still had a bit of preparations to do for our 4-day trek to Machu-Picchu, so we came back to the hotel, used Skype to call Alma’s bank to make sure her card was cleared and its limit raised, and met again with our contact with the trekking company. He told us that they would be able to provide one porter for every two people for an additional U$ 120, so Annie and Tom took advantage of the opportunity. I declined in my name and that of Margarita (you are welcome Tita), which got me a serious look from the rep and a scalding suggestion that “Since you are fat you may want to consider getting a porter at least for day two.” Fat! Me! I am deeply hurt.

So this is it for the next four to six days. I will take notes for as long as the battery of my computer holds, but it will take me some time to organize them in the form of coherent stories, so it may not be until we arrive in Iquitos that you will get further news of our travels.

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 4 - Cusco

After the sleep fest I felt refreshed and ready to go. Alma and Tom came down from their mountain retreat, we had breakfast together, and then adventurously jumped on a bus (0.80 Soles or US$ 0.30) that with many starts and stops took us to the center of Cusco. All buses here have a driver and a helper; the latter drums up business for the bus, collects money, runs little errands on the go, and acts as tourist guide. The driver drives, oblivious as to the activities of the helper, who sometimes has to sprint to climb back on the bus at the conclusion of one of the many errands.

Cusco was boiling with activity, partly because the dance and music groups that will take part in Inti Raymi are rehearsing all over town, and partly because commerce is alive and well in Peru, and all sorts of tiny businesses, street vendors, and big emporia are making a brisk business these days. Annie and Alma unerringly found one of the many courts where several artisans have come together to set shop, and in no time both were sporting handsome sweaters with llamas and monkeys all over them (let’s not forget that Peru has its fair share of both the Andes and the Amazonian jungle).

We crossed the Plaza de Armas, which was in total festive mood, and then headed up one of the narrow cobbled streets toward Plaza de la Soledad, to meet up with Tita. On the way we admired thick walls built by the Incas, where each stone is milled so exquisitely that they interlock perfectly without the need of mortar. When the Spaniards conquered Peru they tried to demolish many of the buildings, but they found them to be so difficult to take apart, that instead they used the Inca walls as foundations for their own adobe public buildings and residences. A piece of good luck for us, who can now admire this beautiful architecture.

We finally came upon the yoga academy where Tita has been doing her teaching certificate for the last three weeks. She was delighted to introduce her parents to her six classmates and instructor, who were very welcoming to all of us, and on the spot a lunch was organized to the local vegan restaurant. Pretty good fare, if I say so myself, although vegans appear to be difficult restaurant costumers, who want all sorts of swaps in their dishes: “Can I have qinoa instead for rice as side?” “Of course, but that will be an extra 2 soles.” “What about pawa (avocado)?” “That will be an extra 4 soles.” And so on, and so on. Another interesting thing was the multiplicity of slogans for the philosophy of veganism: “Why would some be pets while others are eaten.” “I don’t want to kiss you. Your mouth smells like carrion.” “Animals are not on Earth to be our subjects, just like Blacks are not subjects to Whites and Women are not subject to Men.” Heady stuff!

Tita is having her final exam tomorrow, so after dinner we said goodbye to let her free to study and we headed for the local archaeology museum (nothing in comparison with the Larco Herrera museum) and then walked back to the Plaza de Armas. Alma and Tom had to find the DHL office, because they needed to send some papers back to New Mexico, so they took off on the errand, while Annie went back to the small market she had visited in the morning and completed her outfit with leg warmers, a hat, and a double-layer scarf or chalina, which with suitable ingenuity can turn itself into a hat that extends as a scarf that you can wrap around your neck (something I remember seeing in the Tatooine bar where Obi Wen Kanobi first met Han Solo).

Back at the hotel in the evening we had a briefing from the outfit that is organizing our walk up to Machu Picchu. The big surprise, or difference from when I went up five years ago, is that porters are now limited on the weight they can carry, so they no longer carry your sleeping bag or clothes. They carry the kitchen, the food, tents, and sleeping mats. I am OK with the change, because last time it felt too weird for someone else to be carrying my stuff, but it will require rather drastic downsizing on the amount we carry. We are going through an elevation change of 3,000 to 5,200 m above mean sea level, and every gram of excess packing will be an extra pain on every step. My Honey is not at all happy with this scenario.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 3 - Cusco

4 am and we are up. Today we have an early flight to Cusco so we have to wake up and pack, to be ready for the 6:15 pickup. Everything went without a hitch and by 8:30 am the plane was departing. I was feeling very tired so immediately zonked out and missed the whole crossing of the Andes. Rats!

We landed around 10 am, and right away felt the effects of the high altitude. We have to move slowly and with purpose; otherwise we risk ending huffing and puffing. Quickly we arranged for a van to take us to the hotel, and Tom chose the moment when we started moving to let me know that he had booked a different hotel than that Annie and I had booked. “OK, what is the name of the hotel?” “I am not sure. I think it is called San Jeronimo” The driver made a blank face and for a while I had the vision of us driving up and down Cusco to find this hotel. It turns out I had booked a quaint and inexpensive hotel, in the part of town called San Jeronimo, which is a good half hour from the center of Cusco, so the name of the area and the name of the hotel offered some hope. “Let’s get there and we will ask.”

The driver, being a man, did not believe in asking, so I had to be attentive to the names of the streets and, yes, there was the street where our hotel was located. We arrived, were greeted by a very friendly young man who had a vague idea that the Hotel San Jeronimo was located three streets down and three streets up. So there, but for the Grace of God, went the taxi and I promised we would come look for them in an hour or so.

First thing to do was to take a couple of cups of coca tea, much touted by the locals as the best way to deal with altitude sickness. OK a bit tasteless, but who are we to buck tradition. We unpacked and the bed looked very inviting. I must have been bitten by a tse-tse fly. I fought my lethargy, and within the hour my honey and I were on our way, to look for the Hotel San Jeronimo, which turned out to be way, way up along the side of the valley. Wonderful view but we were completely winded by the time we got there. Alma and Tom were also installed and happy, and were waiting for the arrival of Margarita, who was coming to lunch.

A few minutes later Tita arrived, and her parents beamed with happiness. She is a delightful young woman, who for the last month has been staying in Cusco, taking a rather intensive certificate course as a yoga instructor. She will be finishing the course this Friday, and on Saturday will join us to walk the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu. So the team is now complete!

After lunch Tita went back to her course, and Alma, Annie, Tom and I walked down to the center of the old town of San Jeronimo, where I wanted to buy a jacket for the Inca Trail. Size was the major issue, because Peruvians are generally small and trim. Quite a contrast with my ponderous girth! Eventually I found something that would work, for the shocking price of 50 Soles (about US$ 20), to which we added gloves for US$1 each pair, and a belt for US$2. There are certain advantages to being off the tourist path.
By now it was 4:30 pm, and I was falling asleep on my tracks. So we said goodbye to Alma and Tom, got to our hotel by 5 pm, and I proceeded to have 14 hours of sleep! I hope that even the account, and that from now on I will go back to a more regular schedule.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 2 – Lima

We all “slept in” until about 7 am, and were down to breakfast at 8 am. We have a long day planned and there is no time to lose. From the time I was here before, I remembered a very interesting archaeologic site that had a super display on the Lord of Sipan, but everyone I asked assured me that there was no such thing, and that we would have to go to Chiclayo (outside of Lima) to see the original site. Well, as we were driving in from the airport I saw the sign for the Parque de las Leyendas, where the zoo is located. That was it! It had been at the zoo that the site was located. As luck would have it, the Parque de las Leyendas is but a short walk from the hotel, through a park strip. Interestingly, there were plastic molds of Saint Bernards throughout the park, as part of a campaign to teach people to clean after their pets. We think the campaign is working, but now and then you find a landmine in your path, so you have to be careful.

Yes, as soon as we got to the park I knew this was it. The Lima culture (and many of the coastal cultures) built their pyramids out of adobe and river gravel, because there was no stone nearby they could quarry. It is fortunate that it never rains in Lima, so the big mounds of adobe are well preserved. The ones in the park have been stabilized by archeologists, and it is easy to see that they were important civil structures in their time. The Inca came and took over many of these sites, and changed them into granaries to store local tribute, which would later be distributed little by little to the local population. These pyramids or public buildings are called “Huacas” and in the park there are four of these, including the amazing Huaca San Miguel.

We were a little early, so we had to go for a walk through the zoo to wait for the small archaeology museum to open. It starts with a scale model of the site, and the chronology of the different occupations (the Lima culture blossomed around 200 AD) and then, all of a sudden, you were transported to Chiclayo, to see the excavations of the Lord of Sipan. They had amazing, full size reproductions of the gold and silver artifacts found at the tomb, mannequins dressed with all the pomp and regalia due to the Lord of the region, and then, la piece de resistance, a full-size replica of the tomb itself, with the skeletons of the three young wives of the Lord, the lookouts, the llama and the dog, and of course the Lord himself, covered by layer after layer of textiles, gold necklaces, pectorals, and other treasures. I have gone into some detail here to express my surprise that this fabulous exhibition is located in a tiny museum inside the zoo, pretty much unbeknownst to the inhabitants of this fair city.

We strolled through the park and admired the few animals that were awake at that time, and the adobe wall built during Inca time to protect the compound. Incidentally, Tom and I concluded that they must have poured the adobe as concrete, rather than making bricks, because there are no joints, and the adobe is stratified. Clever fellas!

Full of archaeological fervor we took a taxi to the Larco Herrera museum, famous for its amazing pottery collection. Larco Herrera was a politician (eventually became the VP of the country) with vast estates in the Moche Valley. One day a worker came in, to show him a pot. He told the worker to pass the word that he would buy any pots they would bring him, and pretty soon he became the main collector in Peru. The collection is now housed in a colonial mansion, which operates as a private museum. The pieces in display are absolutely exquisite and show that the Moche had achieved unsurpassed mastership of the art of representing just about anything in pottery. Famous are the face pots, which by the thousands are a remarkable portrait of Moche society, the animal pots, and last but not least the erotic pots. The Moche were not shy about representing sexual intercourse in every shape and form, venereal diseases, and vaginal and phallic closeups.

Interesting that we men go through that part of the collection quiet and circumspect, whereas the women were heard making ribald comments and laughing loudly throughout the exhibition. Later Annie boasted, much to my prudish surprise, that sex was a common topic of conversation at the family table. Really? Clearly I still have a thing or two to learn about the Barber family.

We were getting hungry, so we headed for the Plaza de Armas, where we were told it was easy to find a good restaurant. The food was very good, but definitely tourist priced, and our quick lunch evolved into a two-hour affair. I had a starter of Peruvian ceviche (delicious), followed by a main plate of steamed fish in a salsa de aji (again delicious), while Annie had an artichoke stuffed with ham and tuna salad, and a beef stew with a rice/bean/aji mixture rolled into a spindle shape. Then we inquired about dessert, and our waiter recommended Suspiro Limeño. Annie wanted to know what that meant, so the waiter translated it as Breath of a Woman, but we were still muddled by our visit to the museum and everybody understood Breast of a Woman, so we just had to order two to keep the symmetry.

We wrapped the visit to Lima by taking a touristic bus that, for 8 Soles each, took us all around the old downtown so we could see the sights that every tourist has to see. It was nice, but sleepy heads told us that it was time to call it a day and go back to the hotel. I was still hoping to convince my little band to go to visit El Callao, but had to give up that idea. I guess I am the only one that gets excited about the ports of old.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 1

Like I said, nothing could go wrong, so after traveling all night we landed in Fort Lauderdale, near the tip of the Florida Peninsula, where Tom Olson picked us up from the curb. Alma and Tom Olson, their daughter Margarita and their son Thomas, are dear friends from our Whittier times (1985-1988). Alma was Fabiola’s 3rd grade teacher, and Margarita (aka Tita) is one of her best friends. Tita, Alma, and Tom are joining us for this trip.

After pickup Tom took us to breakfast, and to a walk by the beach so we could stretch our legs. We then went to meet Alma, who was at the hotel, waiting for some tax papers from their accountant. Like us, they are working until the very last minute so they can enjoy our vacation. Annie and I took showers, Tom and I went to buy some needed supplies, and finally we all went for lunch at a Cuban restaurant, where Annie had a potato dumpling stuffed with picadillo (papa rellena), Alma had deep fried pork with plantains (masas de puerco), Tom had a Cuban sandwich (torta cubana), and I had a delicious dish of shredded beef cooked in a tomato and olives sauce (ropa vieja), black beans with white rice (moros y cristianos), and plantains.

 We made it to the airport with lots of time to spare, which was a good thing because it took forever for Alma and Tom to check in, because the service desk was soooo very slooow. We were finally set and waiting at 3 pm for our 5 pm flight, which actually didn’t depart until 5:30 pm. Again an uneventful flight, and by 10:30 pm we were landing in Lima. Long lines at Immigration and Customs, and a bit of negotiation with the taxi service, so it was not until midnight that we reached the Hotel Melodia, on Avenida La Marina in the San Miguel District, which will be our home for two nights. We are finally in Peru!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 0

Today is the day. Annie woke up early and worked, and worked, and worked until at last she produced a large backpack bursting at the seams and with an 8-month pregnant belly, a slightly smaller backpack from which dangled a pair of sandals, and a lot of loose little packages that I was supposed to carry in my backpack! All this took until 3 pm, so I had to find alternate forms of entertainment.

Part of my fun was to help Aunt Nancy with her computer. She is fairly good with the computer, which she claims as her own domain. Uncle Grady, on the other hand, has little to do with the computer and bitterly complaints that “Nancy is just trying to keep me out of it.” I hear the same complaint from my Mom with regard to my Dad, as she is convinced that “He is keeping me in the dark.” Sounds like a common ailment.

After helping Nancy with the computer I headed for downtown Glendale, for a couple of hours of book browsing and people watching. I ended buying an old John Carter book, and a rare Tarzan and the Foreign Legion novel, a Lonely Planet guide to Peru, a book on the Archaeology of Agriculture, and three books of Comissaire Maigret. Not to worry, I am not carrying all these books with me in our adventure. They will stay in Annie’s car, which is now parked on the side driveway of Nancy and Grady’s house.

Nancy finally found last month’s Consumers Report, in which the magazine had rated all the domestic airlines in terms of value for your money, service, cleanliness, meals, entertainment, and comfort. And there it was, in black and white: Spirit Airlines ranked at the bottom of the pile, last of last, worst of worst! Oh, crap. Fine, it is only a 5 hour trip to Fort Lauderdale, and the another 5 hour trip from Fort Lauderdale to Lima. What can go wrong?

Finally it was time, and Nancy and Grady drove us to the airport, and sent us on our way with all sorts of recommendations to be safe. We stepped into the airport, to see a gleaming array and computers and not a person in sight. The stupid computers were, of course, not working, so we went to the counter where the sign clearly said the counter was open from 4 pm to 12 am. I checked my watch: 6:30 pm. There was nothing else to do but wait, and go to the bathroom, and wait some more, and weight the backpacks (Annie’s came in at 38 pounds, just right for the 40 pound limit!), and wait, and weight ourselves (enough to say that I should loose a few pounds if I want to make it to old age), and . . .  finally the people from Spirit came, cool as lettuce, and in five minutes we had our boarding passes on hand. Of course the flight does not depart until 10:15 pm, so we have a couple of hours to kill, but now nothing can go wrong.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day -1

Annie has a new motto: “Todo cabe en un jarrito, si se sabe acomodar”. Trub is that the optimum interlocking of stuff is still escaping her, so she spent all day packing things one way, then another, and so far she still has half of what she wants to carry strewn all over the room.

Nancy and Grady are two old dears who are simply delighted to have Annie visiting. She spent many happy summers with them and cousin Michelle, so for her is like coming home. To make the feeling stronger last night we had Nancy’s famous pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy. Yum! Talk about soul food!

Since the last thing Annie needs today is for me to be making derisive comments like “Simplify!” or “It will just have to stay back.” I was invited to take myself out and not return until late. So I went window shopping down in Pasadena, drove aimlessly for a while, and then came back to have lunch. Work is still in progress, so I took off once more and went to visit the Palombo family. Everyone was home, so I got a chance to say hello to all my dear friends, and spent a nice afternoon catching up on all that has happened since I saw them last one or two years ago. Dinner time came and Tina put together this enormous Mexican meal, with carne asada, pollo asado, ceviche, salsa, and frijolitos. Love coming to visit the Palombo’s!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day -2

This is the story of the trip Annie and I took to go “Up the Hill and Down the Creek”. The “Hill” are the Peruvian Andes, and the “Creek” is the Amazon (no, not the e-store but the mightiest river of them all). We figure this was high up in the bucket list, and that we had to make it while we are still young and beautiful.

Packing for this trip has been a massive effort. Two different philosophies of packing have come head to head. Me, a minimalist, would rather buy whatever I might need along the way so all I need can be comfortably stuffed in a backpack (well “comfortably” is a bit of a euphemism since my backpack is straining at the seams). Annie, on the other hand, must have everything she can possibly need from the get go (brand new if at all possible, and with a brand name that would not embarrass her in front of the Peruvian and Brazilian aristocracies), which means that her packing occupies a full room (she remembers that Pizarro once demanded a room full of gold to a man’s height, and she is trying to do the same with overpriced REI gear to a woman’s height; nothing like being a history buff!).

After much pain and agony she took the whole shebang and stuffed it in her car, with the idea she will pack it tomorrow in Los Angeles. So we are ready to start: We have checked that we have our passports and wallets with us (and computer, iPad mini, two Kindles loaded with well over a hundred books each, and two iPods loaded with Portuguese phrasebook, 20 books on tape, 500 songs, and two exercise videos), and started on our way to Los Angeles, to pay a one-and-a-half day visit to the family and then to take the flight to Lima from LAX. Annie is behind the wheel, so it will take us less than four hours to get to La Crescenta to meet with Aunt Nancy and Uncle Grady. The adventure starts!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ireland 2013 – Day 8 – Cork to Dublin

We woke up at 4:30 am, because Annie wanted to get back in Dublin with enough time for a last, to-the-death shopping spree. By the time we took showers and drank a cup-o-tea, we moved through Cork like wraiths escaping from the dawn. We actually got to see quite a good portion of Cork, which in many respects reminded me of Amsterdam, with the warehouses and homes of the original Huguenot merchants lining the main canal. The university was particularly handsome, sitting as it does on the high bank of the River Lee. We need to spend more time here on our next trip, as I expect the city has a long and distinguished history.

Once we were out of the town Herself took the wheel, flew along the highway, and I slept the dreamless sleep of the condemned. But alas, my fears were groundless since my Honey brought us safe and sound to downtown Dublin. She then proceeded to give me apoplexy as she was trying to park, and finally told me that if I whimpered one more time she would kick me out of the car.

My mother would say we were the abominable tourist of nine, because as we looked for places for Annie to spend her last 100 euros all we found were closed shops that would not open until 12 noon (today being Sunday). In a high level of frustration my Honey paced through the empty streets of Dublin like a lioness is search for prey. We finally stopped at a small restaurant for breakfast (Annie had a delicious croissant with Canadian bacon and melted cheddar cheese), where we let time pass until quarter to twelve, when my Honey sprung into action. She was a true force of nature, and in less than 20 minutes ran her credit card to her limit, exhausted but with the satisfied mien of an Olympic athlete.

From there we rushed to the airport, this time with yours truly at the wheel, and made it in record time to the rental car place, where Annie tackled the last big packing, trying to consolidate her many shopping bags into a manageable number of bags and parcels. When she was done she had redefined the term bag lady, and thus loaded we made our triumphal entry into the airport. It was tight, but we made it in time and are now waiting for our flight to board.

We leave Ireland with a bit of sorrow, for we have had a jolly time here. Everybody we met was kind and welcoming (hard not to be, since Annie single-handed has rescued the Irish economy), the weather could not have been better (but as we came unto the airport I felt the first drop of rain), and our visit was one beautiful experience after another. It is indeed a blessed land, and we are already looking forward to our next visit.


Ireland 2013 – Day 7 – Ring of Kerry

We pondered whether to move forward and drive the Ring of Beara (ring here referring to the road that goes around the peninsula of Beara) but at the end decided to drive the Ring of Kerry instead. It was a good decision that led us to one of the most remote corners of rural Ireland. The landscape is wind-blown and stark, and one cannot but wonder what it is that these folks do for a living.

Once we were almost to the end of the peninsula we came to the small fishing village of Portmagee, where we stopped for our elevenses at a tiny bakery with a marvelous view of the estuary and its fishing fleet. The coffee was nice and strong, and the scones with cream melted in the mouth, which brought us happy memories of past trips. Then Annie spotted a low stone building on the other side of the estuary channel, so we had to go investigate.

It was the visitors’ center of the Skellig Islands, two steep and jagged rocks that jut out of the Atlantic a few kilometers offshore. In themselves they would not be any different than many other rock promontories offshore, but their unique call to fame is that the largest of them, Skellig Michael, was the place chosen by a handful of monks to retire into a life of contemplation sometime around 550 AD! It is thus the oldest monastery in Ireland, one of the oldest in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monks were tough hombres, and built thousands of steps leading from the three “landing” sites to the monastery, which was little else than three stone “beehive” cabins, a few walls, and a very rudimentary chapel. They survived on sea birds, mussels, and the occasional seal, and managed to keep their isolation for several centuries. In the 8th century they survived through several rides by the Vikings, but their order was finally extinguished in the 10th century by the growing hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

I was ready to jump on a boat to go see this wonder of history and human resiliency, but unfortunately the only excursion had departed at 10 am, and likely there would not be another until the following weekend. I am just going to have to come back to Ireland to check this item off my bucket list!

For the rest of the afternoon we marveled at fabulous cliffs, emerald bays, and very quaint cottages. We were definitely in leprechon territory, and it was with some difficulty that I restrained Annie from jumping on a portly old man sporting a green coat, to force him to disclose the location of his pot of gold!

We concluded the day with a shopping spree in the handsome town of Kenmare. Annie has lost all sense of proportion, and will come back home with a mountain of bags with presents for everyone. Still, it was fun to walk to the sunny triangular “square” and to marvel at the number of Bed & Breakfast places. In fact, this is true of all we have seen of Ireland. It seems that not to miss the opportunity to make an euro everyone with a house offers a room or two to visitors to their fair country. Annie keeps threatening with rebellion against hostels given the offer of B&B’s.

To amuse ourselves on the way to Cork, where we will spend our last night, we were looking at the road signs that have amused us so much in our way. For example, “Severe bends ahead” means sharp curves in the road ahead; “to let” does not mean toilet, but they write both words so close together that we have been fooled more than once; “traffic calming” means slow down because you are entering a town; and “No Scootering” means do not pass (this last one Annie made up from the original Irish “No Scoiterin”. Finally, it took me a while to explain to Herself that a camera on the road signs does not mean “Vista Point ahead”, but “slow down because we are ready to take your picture speeding and you will receive a fine on the mail.”

We entered Cork while it was still daylight, but by the time we were ready for our pub crawl the night had set, and the young people were getting ready to go party (after all, it is Saturday night). Minis and stiletto heels are very much in fashion among the girls, even though there was a chilly breeze swirling through their very exposed legs. Finding a pub that would serve food was harder than we thought, but at the end we found a suitable one where we were able to order a Shepherd’s Pie and a pint of Murphy’s Stout. This may not be a culinary paradise, but the beer is always creamy and strong. We will definitely miss Ireland.  

Ireland 2013 – Day 6 – Killarney

Even though we had a reasonable start in the morning, the day simply evaporated without much to show for. Breakfast was luxurious, a we are getting unto our stride and incorporate into breakfast the leftovers of the previous day. Afterward we went to the town of Killarney, where we visited their modernized cathedral. They did a great job at combining the original Neo-Gothic of the 1850’s with modern looking crosses and effigies.

We then walked to downtown, where we rented a couple of bikes and went wandering through the Killarney National Park. The details are a little fuzzy, but it seems an Irish American man rescued a large tract of lake and forest from development (he bought out the other investors), and then gifted it to the state. This must had been the kernel of what was to become the National Park, which today starts but a wall away from the city. We were enchanted biking through the forest, which originally had been the land of the Chieftain O’Donogheu (Irish), and later became the estate of the Earl of Killarney (English), and which includes a large lake. After half an hour we came to the tower/castle of the Chieftain, which was restored in the 1980’s and is now one of the best preserved in Ireland. We took the guided tour of the tower and learned much about the way in which these towers were built, lived in, and used to repel attackers.

We continued our bike ride but somehow managed to miss the road around the lake, ended in a cute little peninsula, and had to backtrack all the way into town. At that time it was beginning to get chilly and it was time to get lunch. We found a family restaurant packed with locals, and had a fabulous meal with leg of lamb with a mint sauce, braised pork chops, all the potatoes one could ever ask for, and tasty dessert of Apple Madeira with Custard and rice pudding. By the time we rolled out of the restaurant the notion of undertaking a long distance trek in the bikes had lost its appeal. We went around the town for the sake of form, but soon came back to the bike shop to turn in our trusty steeds.

We had had the plan of driving the Ring of Kerry (the road that goes all along the periphery of the Kerry Peninsula), but our friend from the bike shop told us that it took a full day to drive the whole thing, assuming you stopped here and there, or at least four hours to drive it non-stop (although he made it clear that he wouldn’t think much of a tourist who would commit such a sacrilege). So, we agreed that you cannot see it all, and instead opted for a short circuit around the McGillycuddy Reeks, the local mountain range. It was a very beautiful drive, in a road so narrow that the car was scraping on both sides at the same time. Annie timed her comments to perfection, so whenever she said “Look, how pretty” a car would come flying in the opposite direction and I would have to stand on the breaks and back to the nearest opening, and then watch in horror as the other car passed us with about a millimeter width to spare.

For a change we made it back to the hostel by 6 pm, which gave me time to slow cook my famous Irish lamb stew. In the meantime Annie got in the internet and talked to Kait on Skype, e-mailed Katie and Jake, and we both read in the library room of the manor where the youth hostel is hosted, and even took a snooze or two. At 7 we sat down to dinner, and found that the stew was even more delicious than we had expected (and our expectations are pretty high).

Well, every traveler deserves a lazy day from time to time.

Ireland 2013 – Day 5 – The Dingle Peninsula

We woke up real early because we had a long way to go to our next destination, and to our good fortune the kid looking after the desk of the hostel told us about taking the ferry across the bay, rather than going all around it. We made it on time for the first ferry run, at 7 am, and by 8:30 we arrived to Tralee, where we treated ourselves to a traditional Irish breakfast with one egg, a fried tomato, thick slices of ham (here called bacon), a pair of rashers (susages), blood pudding, lard pudding, and a potato cake (well, I had the traditional breakfast, while Annie gagged at the sight of the blood pudding).

From there we went through Connor pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland (which was not that high anyway, because there are not that many mountain passes in fair Ireland), and dropped into the super charming town of Dingle. Now, Annie was still picadita de la araña with respect to the long hike of the previous day, and she was ready to spend the day shopping. But I spotted a place where they rented bicycles, and suggested that we could go for a nice bike ride. She looked at me with distrust, but I was able to assure her that in a couple of hours we could go to the end of the peninsula and back, and finally convinced her.

Everything worked as planned, and we had a fantabulous time biking along the coast, stopping to see fine pottery, visiting historic displays about the Celts and the peasants who lived the Great Famine of 1845, 1846, and 1847, and finally riding on the edge of eerie coastal cliffs that extended for ever. The day, like all of those we have enjoyed in Ireland, was absolutely glorious. Three hours later we stopped at the westernmost point in Europe, and celebrated this geographic landmark with two stiff Irish coffees and a slice of Guiness and Baileys chocolate torte.

A little wobbly after the celebration we took the way back, against a most uncomfortable head wind. Spirits were high, however, and we seemed to be in good time for Annie’s planned shopping spree. The way back was feeling a bit long, and Annie’s legs were starting to protest, when all of a sudden my front tire popped loudly and I was suddenly without wheels. “No problem”, I said to Annie, “you go ahead and ask the folks in the bike shop to pick me up in their van. Town is only 3 km away.” So there goes my honey, on an errand of mercy and at top speed, while I took my time and gently strolled back to town. The van reached me when I was coming into town, so I thanked them but kept going on foot, since I was almost there. The guy at the bike shop told me Annie had gone up to the pottery shop she wanted to visit, and five minutes later I saw her stiffly walking down the street. She was happy to see me, but at the same time was angry with herself, because once again I had suckered her into another ordeal and she was on the point of exhaustion. It seems she exerted herself to arrive as soon as possible, but the slopes and head wind were killers, and she had only arrived in town half an hour before me, ready to drop dead. We later covered the ground with the car, and the tire had popped 5 km from town (not the 3 km I had guessed), and the total trip had been 20 km one way, and 20 km back. So much for a 2-hour bike ride!

We shopped for the makings of a fish chowder, and came to our hostel in Kilarny to prepare dinner, Irish style. When I booked here the only room available was for four people, and I was going to be charged accordingly, but the manager had pity on me and gave me a large discount. The Irish are so nice!

Ireland 2013 – Day 4 – The Burren

Today we decided to go for quality, rather than quantity, and planned to devote all day to a walk along one of the many paths of The Burren. Personally, I think that the name of this region is an Irish mispronunciation of The Barren, because this limestone plateau seems to support nothing but barren rocks and scrawny grasses. Yet, in its barrenness it has an enormous charm. For one thing, it is one of the few areas I have visited where there are miles upon miles of rock walls that separate enclosures of many sizes (the other one that comes to mind is the Yorkshire Dales). Some of these walls, it seems, date back to the time of the Celts, who may have used them to delineate forts, towns, and family parcels. Nowadays some of the enclosures are used for penning sheep or cattle, but the great majority seem to be left alone, as a symbol of times gone by.

The stone fences are also unique in their craftsmanship, because the limestone breaks off in large slabs, so the rocks were accommodated standing on edge, as if they were rows of vertical books leaning against each other, with now and then a horizontal slab to tie the whole complex together. The slabs were also well suited for the erection of dolmens and menhirs, which you see sprinkled here and there throughout the landscape. You get the eerie feeling that you are walking through a ghost town.

Then again there are the fabulous views you get of Galway Bay, which shimmers in the distance as if a myriad of diamonds had spilled over a bed of emeralds. As I was writing the previous sentence I remember my grandfather, who would mesmerize his audiences with stories of “waterfalls that look like cascades of diamonds”. Under his spell one of his favorite nephews would sign up for the next hike, which more often than not would turn into a death march from which my poor uncle would take weeks to recover. Not that history would repeat itself, but what started as “a short hike to the top” evolved into a 13 km death march, at the end of which Annie’s legs were beginning to tremble.

After we came back we stopped for a well deserved lunch/dinner of Irish Lamb Stew for Annie, and Fish Pie for me. It was pretty good, but I had a hard time staying awake in our way to Ennis, where we spent the night at the Rowan Tree Hostel.

Ireland 2013 – Day 3 – The Cliffs of Moher

I woke with a start, to a gloriously bright sun. We had overslept, and instead of our customary 6 am we were lazily waking up at 8 am! By the time we were done with our ablutions, breakfast, packing, and e-mailing it was good 10:30 am before we got on the road, feeling we had wasted the day away. “Calma, calma” I kept repeating. “We are in vacation.” And to force us to believe this we decided to take a long “morning” walk along Killary Fjord. It was fun and invigorating, and we fell we were alone exploring this magnificent bay (but this was only an illusion, because the fjord is being used for raising fish in long net enclosures).

Once back in the car, we braved the narrow roads of Ireland and actually got lost on our way to Galway, so it got even later. But Annie had requested a stop in downtown Galway because she wanted to buy a very special gold ring, referred to as a Claddagh Ring (pronounce it as klah-dah ring). We navigated successfully to the old center of this medieval town, and Annie engaged in the old art of commerce at Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold, to get straight from the original goldsmith a pretty ring that has two hands cupping a heart, which in turn is covered by a crown. The message is one of eternal friendship, where you offer your heart and crown it to show that this friendship will last forever!

By the time we left Galway it was nearly 4:30 pm, and there seemed little use trying to fit something else in an already moribund day. But we did it anyway, and fast as bolids we worked our way around the limestone plateau of the The Burren, and twisted our way through the mountain path to finally reach the Cliffs of Moher. By the time we got there most people were on their way out, so Annie and I enjoyed in almost total solitude the most magical trail along the crest of 200 m-high cliffs, way above the swirling currents and crashing waves. The afternoon was glorious and balmy, and we very much enjoyed a slowly setting sun.

To finish the day we had a typical Irish dinner at a typical Irish pub, named The Roadside Pub in a town with the impossible name of Lisdoonvarma. The feast included their own brand of stout, a bowl of leek and potato soup, a salad crowned with a crisply breaded goat cheese, and “bacon and cabbage” (a lowly name for delicious pork cottelets, served on top of a mountain of mashed potatoes and a side of steamed cabbage, with the whole creation lavishly covered with a mustard sauce). And to finish a perfect meal what would be better than a slice of rhubarb pie topped with a ball of stout beer ice cream! Mmmm … a heavenly meal.

The hostel we stayed in was in Lisdoonvarma.

Ireland 2013 – Day 2 - Connemara

After a Spartan breakfast of toast and cereal we departed our hostel. I was in a bit of a hurry to leave Dublin before traffic got nasty, but no need to worry. Either the Monday after Easter is a bank holiday, or the city wakes up late on its own accord.

By the time we got on the highway, to cover the 200 km to the west coast, we figured it was time for Annie to get her share of driving on the wrong side of the road. She has had plenty of experience driving a car with a manual transmission, so it was just getting used to shifting gears with your left hand, and staying on the left side of the road. Unfortunately at this time she developed a dangerous list to the left, and after getting scared to death when she climbed unto the sidewalk I decided that retreat was the best part of valor, so I closed my eyes tightly and promptly fell asleep as Mrs. Toad careened her way down the highway at full speed.

Once we reached the west coast (amazingly in one piece), we stopped at the first castle (Annie has this fascination with castles), which turned out to be Aughnanure Castle, about 15 km west of Galway. It was a mini-castle by continental Europe standards, dominated by a four-story tower from which the murderous O’Flaherty clan repelled the angry mobs.

From there we drove through the glaciated landscape of the Lake Region, where there are dozens of beautiful, long, wind swept lakes that now occupy the bottoms of the former glacial valleys. The largest extend all the way unto the sea, forming veritable fjords. It was by the shore of Killary Fjord that we stopped for lunch, at the small town of Leenane. Besides a delightful pub, with crackling fire and all, this town’s call to fame is now that it was there that Annie went absolutely gaga over their wool scarves and hats, and in one go spent most of her souvenir money. Then again she got a nice scarf and matching hat that should keep her warm for the rest of the trip (the wind is blowing something fierce!). Unfortunately nice she claims that because wool “breathes” she doesn’t have to wash any of these clothes. So, if next time you are around Annie you detect a musty “fragrance” you will now know what to expect.

We stopped briefly to take photos of Kylemore Abby, at the shores of Kylemore Lake, but I was getting anxious about ever reaching Connemara National Park, so we pushed onward to Letterfrack, where we turned uphill into the “park”. The “park” is a windswept mountain, bare of any trees, where heather, gorse, and scruffy grass have taken over, converting the slopes into vast piles of peat. And this is in fact the park’s call to fame, as one of the few places where peat is “protected” from the relentless harvesting that we could see all around us. Let me try to explain:

Sometime at the end of the last ice age, the glaciated landscape was bare of all vegetation, but in the pluvial period that followed the whole region was blanketed by coniferous forest. Enter the first humans, about 5,000 years ago, and disaster started to brew. In order to farm, the early Irish set fire to large tracts of forest, and the soot and ashes sealed the soil and reduced rainfall infiltration. That caused the soils to become water logged, and grasses and weeds to expand and go on a quick cycle of bloom and soggy death, only to be followed time and again by another layer of low vegetation. Pretty soon all the landscape had been replaced with bogs, and humans did their best to adapt to these soggy conditions (now and then somebody would drown in the bogs, just so archaeologists could discover them a 1,000 years later as a bitumen-soaked mummy), and started harvesting the peat thus formed as a source of heating fuel. They used a long, narrow spade, not unlike what we use today for digging postholes, peeling off the soil long, skinny slabs of peat, letting it dry on the surface, and then using it as fuel. To this day peat continues to be exploited, and you can buy peat at the supermarket in the same style bricks that were used 2,000 years ago!

People who live in the bogs face the problem of a lack of timber wood, but have figured an ingenious way to procure some: They have a rod, about 8 feet long, with which they poke through the thick peat until eventually they feel something hard. Most of the time is one of those trees that lived 5,000 years ago, so they just dig at the spot and voila!

To finish the day we visited the charming town of Clifden, bought the makings of dinner at the local supermarket, and came back to our hostel near Leenane for a well deserved meal. Our room is beautifully located at the shore of Killary Fjord, so tomorrow we will start with a walk along the fjord.