Category Archives: Travel

On the Subject of Crowds

Continuing some shorter reflections on Ireland before we get into some super-long nerd blogs.

My last proper solo vacation was Peru, last year. We’ve talked about it, you remember. No need to go back into it in detail. There was one large difference between these trips. Well, other than language. And amount of hiking. Local alcohols. Weather. Quality of hotel room and existence of night buses and pressure to eat guinea pigs–

Okay, there were a lot of differences. Obviously there is one difference in particular I want to talk about. Hint: it’s in the title. Compared to everything I did in Peru, Dublin was crowded, yo.

Maybe it’s a difference in time periods… Peru was in early March, Ireland was in early June. Those three months seem like they could have an impact on tourist volumes. Peruvian summer was just ending, Irish summer was about to begin. Maybe Dublin’s just a more popular city than Arequipa. I don’t know what exactly it was, I just know this… nearly every tour I went on in Dublin was packed, and nearly every tour I went on in Peru was mostly empty. Cliffs of Moher? Full bus. Dune boarding? Just me, Kate, Amy, and Tayla. Belfast? Nearly full. White water rafting outside Cusco? Just me. 

Well, there were obviously exceptions. There were plenty of people condor-spotting at the Colca Canyon. And Machu Picchu is probably always crowded. That’s the one place that definitely had crowds to match the Guinness Storehouse. Yes, Machu Picchu had crowds the same size as the Guinness Storehouse.

I had to go to a world heritage site in Peru to find crowds that matched the Guinness Storehouse. People know what they like about Ireland, I guess.

The weird thing, though? I actually felt more alone in the larger groups. The more people in a tour, the easier it became to feel isolated. The bus to the Cliffs of Moher on day two hadn’t even left Dublin before I stared to miss Maria and Kate and Amy and Tayla. Before I missed being part of a long-term group.

(I’d miss my same-city friends later, when I lacked people to drink with.)

I guess it’s not that weird. I didn’t invent the phrase “Alone in a crowd.” And it’s not like I was the only person on the buses not bonding. People don’t go on 40 person tours to bond with people. You do that on a 14 person hike up the Inca Trail.

Now don’t go thinking this is some prolonged pity party about solitude. It’s not like I never talked to people. I managed that just fine, albeit often with the assistance of the whiskey tastings that came with distillery tours. One of the bartenders at the Jameson Distillery was particularly delightful, and pushed me in the direction of one of the museums I visited.

I guess the point is, Dublin is a bit on the crowded side during peak season, and the smaller groups were always better. Easier to meet people, easier to chat with. Large tours, people stick with the people they already know. Or maybe they just want to read their comics or listen to their podcasts on the drive to and from places. Certainly some people on my tours did. Well, one. Minimum one on each tour. Doesn’t matter who.

On the Subject of Plans

Day four in Ireland. Day one turned out to be all about visiting one pub and then slowly but surely succumbing to jet lag backed up by two nights of bad sleep. Day two was a day trip through the countryside. Day three was getting a Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tour and hopping off when I saw something neat (primarily the Teeling Distillery, the first new Dublin distillery in 125 years). Now day four… I had a plan.

  1. Up at 8:00.
  2. Exercise?
  3. Breakfast at the hotel. It’s included with the room, after all.
  4. On the hop-on-hop-off bus by 9:00. Ride it to the Dublin Zoo.
  5. Check out the zoo. It’s included with your three-day Dublin Pass, after all.
  6. Back on the bus before your 24 hour ticket expires at… 12:10? Hoo. Thought it was later. That’s fine, that’s fine…
  7. Ride the bus back to the core, find a pub for lunch.
  8. Hit some other attractions covered by the Dublin Pass. Cathedrals?
  9. Back to the hotel by 7:00 for the Dublin by Night tour.

How things actually went.

  1. After a prolonged and unknowable amount of time, give up on getting back to sleep. Check the time. It’s 6:45? Damn.
  2. Instead of, I don’t know, starting the day early and ensuring the success of your timeline, stay in bed and watch another episode of The People V. OJ Simpson on Irish Netflix.
  3. Yeah, exercise.
  4. Breakfast at the hotel. It’s included with the room and lunch might be a ways off.
  5. Back up to your room to use the washroom.
  6. Remember that there’s a new Cracked After Hours this week.
  7. Get briefly sucked into a Cracked hole. Pull yourself out of it before you get too deep.
  8. On the bus by 9:30 and away. Not so terrible.
  9. Spend a lot of time hearing the guide complain about construction and traffic because this route has plenty of both.
  10. Arrive at the zoo between 10:30 and 11:00. Being back on the bus by noon is… problematic.
  11. Monkeys! Penguins! Lions!
  12. Yeah, we’re not making that bus. But on the plus side, red panda! Cuuuuuute!
  13. Leave zoo. Realize that you’re in a lush green park, the weather is the best it’s been since you got here, and maybe a walk back into town isn’t the worst thing in the world.
  14. Reach central Dublin faster than you would have on the bus.
  15. Lunch, later than planned.
  16. Other attractions, as planned. No cathedrals. Line was too slow.
  17. Back to the hotel in time for the Dublin by Night tour at… 9:30? God damn it. Look at the itinerary once in a while, man.
  18. …Italian for dinner?

As Captain Cold put it on The Flash… “Make the plan. Execute the plan. Expect the plan to go off the rails. Throw away the plan.”

I guess I did offer whiskey facts last time. Here’s a few.

  • Spelling “whiskey” with an “e” is something Dublin distilleries did to be snooty and superior.
  • Irish whiskey held 60% of the market share until a few small snags in the early 20th century… refusal to adapt to modern technique, warring for independence costing them the Commonwealth, and Prohibition costing them the US. If only Irish distilleries were as willing to work with the mob as the Scots.
  • In order to make whiskey, you must first make beer. So one could say that beer is just whiskey that someone gave up on.

On the Subject of Jet Lag

An annoying thing about traveling to a different country is that your body has this rhythm. You sleep during these hours, you’re awake during those hours. Then you land in a new country and all the rules have changed.

In recent trips, I’ve discovered a handy trick for this many people claim to know already. They say “take a nap.”

I’ve had some success with this. When Ian and I were in England, and I nearly passed out while standing up during a Beefeater tour, a quick nap before dinner made all the difference. In Peru, a quick nap really helped shake off the fact that I barely slept during the trip down from Houston. On another England trip with my parents, a nap might have really helped had the staff of the hotel not insisted on checking the mini bar no less than 3 times in 90 minutes. I should have started yelling earlier. Or put up a Do Not Disturb sign. I just didn’t think that would be necessary when there was no need for housekeeping.

But there are some situations in which this nap plan will not work.

Maybe on the Wednesday night before the Friday when you left, you had, perhaps, a couple too many adult beverages with the boys. And as such maybe you didn’t get the best sleep that night. So, one would say, that’s not a big problem. You’ll just get better sleep on Thursday.

Except perhaps your traitorous flesh body will betray you. Perhaps you will get no sleep on Thursday either, or at least far less than you intended.

Was it having a Coke at the 10:20 screening of Wonder Woman? That can’t be everything. It might explain why you had trouble getting to sleep, but not why you had trouble staying asleep.

No matter. Now it’s Friday. You’re leaving early in the morning– well not super early in the morning but early enough. And since you haven’t slept well for two nights in a row you’re pretty tired. Well, this must be ideal. Now you’ll be able to sleep on the plane with no problem, right?

Don’t be ridiculous. You have never slept well on a plane and you certainly aren’t going to start now.

So now it’s Saturday morning in Dublin. Your body still thinks it’s Friday evening. More to the point, it has not slept well since Tuesday. So it’s time to try that nap thing, right? Ninety minutes. One full REM cycle. That’s all you need. The problem is, as far as your body is concerned you have now spent two days on minimal sleep, and now your body clock thinks you just crawled into bed at 2 a.m. and then asked it to get back up at 4.  it’s like fasting for a week and then having one slice of pizza and thinking you’ll be full.

And that is how you spend your first day in Ireland too tired to function in public.

Desperate times, desperate measures. Like some 90 year old narcoleptic, you go to bed at the embarrassing time of 5 p.m. The plan? Get those 12 hours of sleep you need in order to make up for all the sleep you haven’t gone since Tuesday.

And that, sports fans, is how you end up awake and ready to go at 3 in the morning while the rest of central Dublin is finally putting itself to bed. But that’s ok. It gives you a couple of hours for Irish Netflix before you have to be at your tour at 6 o’clock. And then all you need to do is stay awake (more or less) for 20 hours and you’re finally ready to be acclimated to local time.

Join us next time when our topic will be: “Before you get off your hop-on hop-off bus tour, make sure you actually are near your hotel. Because you might be in for a longer walk in harder rain than you anticipated and then everything in your jacket will be soaked.”

Huh. Not sure that will require an entire blog now that I come to say it out loud. Maybe just some fun facts about Irish whiskey I learned.

Danny in the Andes: Final Thoughts

People would ask me… was the elevation a problem? Did I notice the thinning air? I’d tell them “I don’t know, I mean I was breathing pretty heavily, but that could have been exertion…”

Anyhoo. Where was I.

Wet and Adequately Wild

Say you’ve just spent four days hiking through the mountains. And that each day involved at least an hour or so of exhausting uphill climb. And that you no longer have young person knees. You’re likely pretty sore, but only in your legs. You might ask yourself… is there anything I can do today to exhaust the rest of my body?

You, sir or madam or non-specific, should go white water rafting.

This was the second activity provided by my adrenaline package, the first having been the horseback riding the day before we left for the homestay. And this time, there would be no burly Australian men to giggle over how I’d handle the endless stairs to Dead Woman’s Pass (adequately, thank you very much).

Actually… there wouldn’t be anybody. Not only did none of my group mates join (perhaps they couldn’t find room for the trip in their budgets), as it turns out, I was the only person who booked that rafting tour. So it was just me and the guides.

I guess March is the off season for Peru? Because this happened a lot. There were only five of us on Peru on a Shoestring. Our dune buggy trip was just four of us and a pregnant woman who couldn’t even go to the dunes. There were two people horseback riding with me, and just me and the guides on the raft. Sure, there were other, usually larger groups scattered here and there, especially at the two largest attractions we visited (the condor-viewing portion of Colca Canyon and Machu Picchu… would have been three if I hadn’t skipped the Nazca Lines), but… either it was the slow season, or G-Adventures picks sketchy, unpopular vendors, and they seem to have their shit together way too much for that.

Anyway.

The tricky wicket was that unlike horseback riding or dune boarding, white water rafting is an activity that is easier with a lot of people. Because of the rowing, you see. There’s a lot of rowing. And it’s kind of important to aid in not hitting rocks and whatnot. And not having a large group meant that there were only two of us rowing.

This was initially troubling, as my arms were getting tired faster than I was comfortable with, but then I remembered how to row properly (use your whole upper body, not just your arms) and I was okay from there. Love a good rafting trip. Also there was lunch. Good morning, especially since I spent my afternoon trying to find a place to buy duct or packing tape to patch up my backpack. Which meant finding a Peruvian equivalent of K-Mart that looked like a department store you’d build after the rise of the machines.

Also got rained on a bit, but there was an upside.

Also got rained on a bit, but there was an upside.

Final Dinner

One last time around the “special tip presentation” block… I mean, sure, yes, these tips were well earned, but I had not put aside enough currency (US or Peruvian) for all of this, so there were a few last minute trips to the ATM to cover me until the airport.

For our last dinner together, Ellard took us to a fancy restaurant across the small square from our hostel. He wasn’t paying for it or anything (I think he even got his meal comped, given that he keeps bringing his groups there), but everyone understood… this was a special occasion. It warranted a special place.

This was our last night as a group. And given how spread out we are, possibly (even probably) the last time some of us would see each other. It’s easy to succumb to melancholy at an event like that, but… I am in theatre. Multiple times a year I let go of a show, of a cast who had been a big part of my life for months, sometimes that meant the world. So after two decades of closing nights and cast parties, I’ve learned how to roll with these things. You savour. You savour every moment you can for as long as you can, and you forget about the goodbye until it’s staring you in the face. And when that comes, try to be too tired and/or drunk for it to sink in right away.

Once again, coy was on the menu, but the most expensive thing, so I saved money by getting a steak. Saved money by getting a steak. Alright, Peru, I know a scam when I see one, “Come to our country, oh, we have this delicacy, it’s an adorable pet in your country, spend all of your money to eat one,” I am on to you, Peru. I also considered buying a bottle of wine for the table, but… 90 US? Okay, I adored these people, but I was already over budget…

As soon as Ellard left the table, the discussion swiftly turned to how to give him his tip. After Brian’s heartfelt speech to Evert and company the previous night, the ladies felt that I should say a few words and present him with the tip. I reacted as I always do upon being asked to say something heartfelt on short notice… with a brief panic attack and a few cries of “What the shit, why me, why you even gotta do a thing,” and brief mental calculus as to whether saying “But Tayla’s his favourite” was going to open up a greater can of worms than I was prepared for (decision in the moment: yes, yes it was, even if I didn’t feel I was wrong). In the end, we all agreed to take turns thanking Ellard before we gave him his tip.

Okay, yes, fine, mine was the best, or so said the ladies, I didn’t say I couldn’t do it, it’s just Brian’s was really good so that was some pressure, and I’m not crazy about being volunteered…

After dinner, people were excited to get back to the club. I’d not gone dancing with the others yet, in at least one case for stupid, stupid reasons… (“I’m sleepy.” Jesus, old man, get it together…) but like I said. We’d been a family the past two weeks, even when Maria was on her own and the rest of us were part of a larger, more Puma-based family. And if this was the end, I was going to cherish every second I could. So, drinks and dancing it was.

Right up until the moment when my presence no longer seemed necessary. Or, rather… noticed. Everyone seemed to be busy elsewhere, I’m not one to force myself into a conversation… or dance… so I quietly took my leave.

People at home hate it when I do that. There have been threats. But they were all on other continent, so…

Final Day

The final day was awkward in one way. All of us (expect Ellard, early flight back to Lima) were still in the same city, but none of us were hanging out. Well, okay, Kate and Amy were, but they’re travel buddies who still had a couple of weeks in South America, of course they were. Maria would fly out first, then me… Kate and Amy were waiting for their night bus to Bolivia, and Tayla still had a day or two of immigration hangups before heading the same way. I bumped into most of them over the course of the afternoon, helped Amy find the chocolate museum, hugged Amy and Maria farewell… next time I’m in New York (and I often feel a trip to New York is in order) I was told to let Maria know… but we’d already said our farewells over Whatsapp, so running into each other at the hostel or town square felt a little like in university when we’d all say goodbye for the day and then go to the same bus stop.

The real problem was that I had very, very little to do.

I slept in until check-out, found lunch, went to the chocolate museum, which wasn’t exactly… it’s kind of minimal. Though I did enjoy having a crepe and a beer in their cafe, and picked up some chocolate liqueur to take home, so, worth the stop.

And then I had a few hours to kill. And the good museum (the Inca museum) was closed. And the museum that was open (pre-Inca art) I’d already gone to the week before. And I was trying not to need more cash, which meant massages were out, last minute tours anywhere were out, not that I had time for one by this point anyway.

Maybe there was still an option other than “Find and outlet in the hostel lobby and borrow their WiFi/play Monopoly on my phone for two hours” but that is what I settled on. But I just needed to kill two or three hours and then my cab would take me to the airport.

So that my flight to Lima could be delayed by about an hour and a half.

Road Home

That was a long, dull wait in a tiny, boring airport, wondering exactly where the plane was, given boarding was supposed to be underway.

There was a time I was slightly irked by how my flight from Lima to Dallas kept getting pushed back, extending my first layover. I was soon glad for it, since the delay meant that a lot of people on my flight were scrambling to make connections once we landed, got our bags, and were confronted with a slow-moving line to check back in.

You ever been in a long, slow-moving line? When you were, could you see the people at the counter? If so, you may have noticed how easily you begin to judge the people behind the counter. I’d noticed it once before in Vegas, when for a spell everyone who checked someone in suddenly went on break and didn’t come back. Like three or four in a row, what the hell was happening back there? So while I wasn’t as pressed for time as some others, I was getting surly. And anxious about check-in deadlines, since my initial check-in back is Cusco didn’t seem to count here. From how long they were taking to check people in, to leaving their station after doing so (There. Is. A. Long. Line. Where. Are. You. Going.), to my personal favourite, the attendant fighting a language barrier to try and ask a Japanese woman her occupation.

You are not immigration. This is not information you require.

All was fine, though. I was checked in with time to spare, even though my layover had been cut from fiveish hours to 3ish. I even had time to hit the food court before security, looking for something to order that would cost just enough to ditch my remaining coins. (Appies from Papa John’s.)

This flight was also delayed. More time sitting and reading by my gate, suddenly realizing this was not and had not been my gate, and then sitting and reading by my actual gate before boarding the plane and taking a couple of Gravol in an attempt to get any sleep between Lima and Dallas.

I did not feel that going through security again in Dallas was super necessary, but I guess it killed half an hour. Then breakfast at TGI Friday’s and onto the only flight, since leaving Calgary over two weeks earlier, to depart on time.

Managed to sleep on that one, too. Not on purpose, I was trying to watch Skyfall…

The worst part about coming home is how quickly it feels like you never left. If home felt like a barely-remembered dream by the time we reached Arequipa, being away from home feels that way after one night in your own bed.

I still miss my group sometimes. They were good, cool, and fun people. And now I fight the urge to turn all conversation topics into “things I learned on the Inca Trail,” because oh my god nobody likes that guy.

There’s still a lot of South America to see. Perhaps I’ll get back there sometime. For now… I feel the pull of the Motherland. The United Kingdom calls to me. Yes, I was “just there last year,” if that’s a thing we say now, but you must recall… I have never “just been” to London. I have only restarted my involuntary exile from my spiritual home.

So thus ends Danny in the Andes. Back soon with… something else?

Danny in the Andes: The Old Mountain

When last we left our hero… well, when we last left me, anyway, maybe you think the hero of this story was Amy the whole time… day two of the Inca Trail started in hardship and ended in fellowship over rum tea.

We proceed.

Day Three: The Long Walk

Day three started much better than day two. I had improved my makeshift pillow by wrapping my hoodie around my book instead of my shaving kit. More comfortable and fewer toothpaste explosions. Also, it had the benefit of taking two items I’d brought for, as it turns out, no reason, and forming them into one item of actual use. Plus two Gravol helped ensure that I got some actual sleep that night.

When 5:30 rolled around, the porter made his rounds, with gentle wake-up calls and coca tea. A simple breakfast later, it was time to pack up and hit the trail. While day two is the hardest day of the hike, day three is the longest. Over 13 kilometres from Pacaymayo to Wiñaywayna.

Camp for night two was nestled in a valley between two peaks, 600 metres downhill from Dead Woman’s Pass, 360 metres uphill to the next peak. Which meant that day three opened with a quick refresher on the worst parts of day two. Which meant, once again, hiking alone.

This happened a lot. I was with a good crew, good people, and I enjoyed our times in the meal tent, even when long hours of hiking with a heavy pack made me question how long I could deal with the less-than-comfortable stool. And we had good chats in the times when we were hiking near each other. I just wish I’d been able to spend more time with them while hiking, rather than the voice in my head saying “You didn’t train. You said you were going to train, then you didn’t, and now this is happening. Are you happy with your choices?”

Some groups ended day two with this second surge of seemingly endless staircase. I’m glad ours didn’t. There’s a relief in knowing that the hardest part of your day is behind you. Also, once you clear that next peak, things get interesting. You’re back into Incan ruins and, in theory, great views.

In theory.

Because here’s the thing about day three. Day three it rained. And when you’re on a mountain, 3600 metres above sea level, and it’s raining, you are in the rain cloud. This meant that instead of appreciating the beauty of the Andes, we were more stuck in a bank of Doom Mist.

Doom's a-coming...

Doom’s a-coming…

Still. We did gather at one fort, up a set of stairs from the day’s first big downhill stretch. Which made for a cool group rest stop.

20160310_101522

On other days, you can see the path behind you and the path in front of you. On this day, we saw the fort.

There was a second fort down the hill from there, but I gave it a miss. It was rainy, kind of cold, and unlike everyone else I lacked a plastic poncho, so I and my day bag were getting soaked through. More than that, I thought this might be a chance to not be in the back of the group for the first time since day one.

The hike from there was pretty good, actually. Sure, there were a lot of vistas where I’d stop and think “Bet this is a great view when the mist isn’t in the way.” But the terrain wasn’t too hard, and I thought I was, actually, in the middle of the pack. After all, Kate was nearby, chatting with Evert about life and love, two topics I really didn’t want to weigh in on but enjoyed listening to well enough. Then after a short burst of uphill, the illusion was shattered, as we reached the lunch site, to be greeted by a clearly large group of people cheering us from inside the meal tent. Turns out I hadn’t been making better time, Kate had just been enjoying a leisurely stoll with Evert.

But that’s okay, because this was the best meal we’d bee served yet. Huge trays of beef, chicken, potatoes, salad, and quina… plus an eggplant cut to look like a condor, but which ended up looking like a pengiun.

Which is clearly great.

Best use of an eggplant I’ve seen.

And to top it all off, the chefs baked us a cake. On a mountain.

And a tasty cake it was.

And a tasty cake it was.

There were only two downsides to this lunch. First, it was a little cold. Quite cold for some. Even the Norwegians, so let’s not be casting aspersions at the Texans. The hot water kettle ended up finding uses beyond making teas and whatnot.

B and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.

Bergljot and Kate snuggle with a kettle for warmth.

On that note… it was around this point that I noticed I’d been overdoing the hot beverages. Or maybe just doing them wrong. Drinking coca tea or hot chocolate was starting to hurt, burning all the way down.

Anyhoo, lunch over, we began our trek down the mountain to Wiñaywayna. I thought it would be eaiser to keep up with people on the way down, but the steepness was hard on the knees, and I prefered a more cautious pace, having already taken a tumble earlier. So, yeah, I got passed, just more gradually this time.

Some groups had stopped at the lunch break. Worn down by the cold and the rain, they pitched tents and called it a day. Those people were going to have to get up two hours earlier the next day, at a time no rational person would call “morning,” so I stand by our choice to push on, especially since the rain stopped and the clouds parted, and we finally had views again.

Our last stop before camp was at another Incan site, full of terracing and llamas. Always loved a good llama sighting.

20160310_162050

Llama!

Llama!

Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.

Worth a jump for joy from Kate and Amy.

This stretch of the hike became more of a treat than a burden. I wasn’t the last person to reach camp, as Rusty had a harder time going downhill than I did, but I was still pretty far back, meaning I got to find camp alone.

See, it was at this point that it became really clear just how many groups are on the trail. Because we all shared one large camp site at Wiñaywayna, and G-Adventures, our group, had secured the spot at the far, far end. They did this so that we wouldn’t have other groups walking through our camp the next morning, which makes sense, but that was a lot of other groups to pass through trying to figure out which was mine. (It wasn’t that hard, mine would be the one with porters applauding for me.)

As it turns out, it was this night that Team US and Team UK got into a fight over Jelly/Jell-o and Tic-Tac-Toe/Knots and Crosses. Really thought that argument would have required the rum from night two, but Robbie’s blog (which was far more punctual, despite that fact that he’s still on the road and I’m not) informs me that it was night three. Oops. Also, during happy hour, I gave up on the hot beverages. They hurt too much on every sip.

Following dinner, we held a thank you ceremony for the porters, in which we presented them with a tip and thanked them for their help. And after three days of hauling our stuff, and one mountain-baked cake, that was well earned.

One last thing from night three. I made my way to the washroom before heading to my tent for the night, to find a few people from the neighbouring camp clustered around the two stalls. The stall on the left was open, but no one was going in, because apparently there was a giant bug just inside the doorway, and nobody wanted to deal with it. I chose not to get a look at the bug myself (you had to go into the stall to see it), and just waited for a turn in the stall on the right… only to find a giant-ass bug lurking on the wall.

Which nobody was talking about.

Which begged the question… how big was the other bug? If the monster bug I saw didn’t even warrant a discussion, how the hell big was the other bug no one was willing to share a bathroom with?

No, I didn’t get a picture. My phone was my only light source, so night time photos were problematic.

Only one day to go…

Day four: The Arrival

Day two was the hardest (unless you’re Rusty, who preferred a lot of up to a lot of down). Day three was the longest. Day four is the earliest. The porters came to wake us at 3:30 AM. Which wasn’t, like, super easy, especially since my tent was next the porters, who were up playing music and chatting after we’d turned in. And I’m like, “Aren’t you getting up at the same 3:00 we are? Earlier, even?”

“But it’s worth it, right?” people ask. Well. Sort of. Though not really. You’re not up at three in the morning to catch the sun rising over Machu Picchu. We got up at 3:30 then walked for a half hour to the check-in point, which wouldn’t be open until 5:00. Because you aren’t getting up at 3 AM for you. You’re getting up at 3 AM because the porters have to make a 5 AM train, and before they do that, they need to break camp, pack it up, and haul everything to the train station. And for them to do that, you can’t still be in the camp.

The wait at the checkpoint would have been a good time to chat and bond with the group, since we’d be parting ways sooner than I liked to think, but… fun fact about me. I am not a morning person. To the point that I do not socialize well before, say, 11:00. 4 AM is, in fact, a good deal of time before 11:00. So instead of chatting with the others, I pulled out my iPod and watched some vintage Doctor Who.

See, I feel sad because I have trouble connecting with people in group settings, then when I’m in a group setting, I do stuff like this. My own worst enemy some days, I’m telling you.

Five o’clock came, and we were back on the trail… for the last big challenge of the hike. The Monkey Stairs. The Monkey Stairs are a staircase right before the Sun Gate (not an actual big stone doorway like I thought, but a gap in the mountain that the sun shines through at a certain time of year when watched from Machu Picchu), said to be so steep that you need to climb them on all fours like a monkey. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that path gets steeper and steeper as you approach the Monkey Stairs. But then, at long last… you make it. And in the distance?

Bingo bango.

Bingo bango.

Machu Picchu awaits.

There is a definite feeling of triumph. You’ve made it. Three days and a wake-up of hiking, some very strenuous, three nights of camping, but now you’re here. Just one last stretch of gentle downhill and you’re at a world wonder.

Also flush toilets. And a cafe. And did I mention the flush toilets? With seats and toilet paper? That were regularly cleaned? Because some of us were really looking forward to that.

Upon arriving at Machu Picchu we had some time on the outskirts to get pictures and have a reunion with Ellard and Maria.

SUCCESS!

SUCCESS!

Also to finish a video project I’d been working on.

The ladies enjoyed taking turns hamming it up as models for Brian, who’d call out things like “Now you’re a condor! Flap! Soar majestically! Now you’re a puma!” Sadly I have no photos of the results, because I didn’t think to take any, and harvesting photos off Amy or Kate’s Facebook feels uncool.

Then we had time to relax and snack in the more touristy area outside of the old city (Machu Picchu was like the Hamptons to Cusco’s New York… a place where the rich went to get out of town and relax over the summer). The food wasn’t exactly a blessed relief, because we’d eaten exceptionally well the last few days, but it was still welcome. Lunch at 8:30 is an odd experience, but it worked. What I wish I’d done is grab a beer with Robbie and Tayla instead of getting a Coke. Sure, there’s a chance I would have been having a beer near Robbie and Tayla rather than with them, but Robbie said some great things about that morning beer. Me, I was just happy throwing my bag into the bag check and exploring the area unencumbered.

After a few hours exploring the area, with and without a guided tour from Evert, I grabbed a bus down to the town to meet everyone for a lunch before our train ride back to Ollataytambo, where we’d split back into our original groups for the drive back to Cusco (which Evert, with Peruvian pride, stubbornly pronounces Cosco, as the Incas did). And at lunch, I did grab a beer. And a pizza. And it did feel good.

Not as good as my first shower in three days felt upon returning to Cusco, but good just the same.

That night… yes, amazingly this is still day four… we all met for dinner (save, sadly, for Rusty, who tended to value resting over meal times on the last two days). A final Puma Family meal, all scrubbed up and looking our prettiest. We presented our guides with their tip (there was a lot of this the last few days of the trip) in a ceremony led by Brian, who even threw in a “My dear family” to kick it off. And as a final… I’m going to use the word “treat,” but your mileage may vary… Evert ticked off one more box of the Peruvian Vacation Experience, buying the whole table a guinea pig to share. Which I also appear to have not bothered to get a picture of.

I ate a small piece. Partially because over a dozen of us were sharing one guinea pig, and partially because it turns out coy, as they call it, is really gristly. And I mean, I don’t even order prime rib often because it’s too fatty and gristly for me. So I don’t really regret not ordering coy more often, because it was always the most expensive item, usually by a fair margin, and it turns out to be gristly and organy.

Yes, organy. You eat the organs. You have to, there isn’t that much meat on a guinea pig.

Following dinner, a contingent headed out to a nearby club, as apparently Evert (at a point I’d missed) issued a challege to be up for 24 hours straight. Our day started at 3 AM, and some were determined to end it at 3 AM. Some of us were in extreme pain from the waist down, given how rough the past few days had been on our knees, and elected to go back to the hotel. As did Tayla, for whatever reason.

Sure, on some level I wish I’d stuck it out with everyone else. But in the moment I was sure I’d have a terrible time attempting to club through leg pain. So… choice made. Goodbyes said. And two last days in Cusco remaining.

Next time, a farewell to Peru, before I start ramping up to rant about superhero TV again.

Danny in the Andes: The Trail Begins

Okay. We’ve talked about my arrival in Peru, we’ve talked about night busses, and we’ve talked about the various stops and shenanigans my tour made. Now let’s get to the main event… the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

(Sidenote… apparently you’re pronouncing that wrong. When you read it just then, you pronounced it wrong in your head. It’s “Machu Pik-chu,” which translates to “Old Mountain,” not “Machu Pee-chu,” which translates to “Old Penis.” Or so our guide Evert claimed. Our guides were known to stretch the truth from time to time.)

On day one, we arose in Ollataytambo, grabbed the complimentary hotel breakfast… which, let me just say, there’s a lot to recommend about the places we stayed, but not the complimentary breakfasts. They made “continental breakfasts,” a term I have long equated with “minimal effort,” look like glamourous buffets. Anyway. Maria left for her tour, while Amy, Kate, Tayla and I met our new companions. Evert called us the Pumas, or “Puma Family.”

He said “family” a lot, greeting the group or calling for attention by calling us “family,” “dear family,” or “Puma family.” I would make a joke here. I’d invent something called the “Dominic Toretto line,” claiming that if you say “Family” more often than Vin Diesel does in a Fast and Furious movie it begins to lose meaning, but damned if it didn’t work. We did become a kind of family those four days.

The last time we'd look this good for a few days.

The last time we’d look this good for a few days.

There were Steven, Leigha, and Will from Texas, two brothers and Will’s wife who were all med students on spring break. Heidi and Berjldot (who said we could call her “B,” as she didn’t love the odds of us pronouncing it right) from Norway. A third, unconnected woman from Norway whose name I don’t recall because I waited too long to write this and she’s not on Facebook and why was I born a fool who “roomed” with Tayla. Rusty from Florida (though now living in North Carolina part time), the only member of the Pumas older than me, and his sons Josh and Brian. Robbie from Devon and Alex from Bristol, who hadn’t known each other prior but formed “Team UK” in later debates with the Americans. I’ll get to that.

Porters

This is a big enough part of the experience it needs its own section.

You'll know them from the backpacks that could hold a teenager. And from hiking better than you.

You’ll know them from the backpacks that could hold a teenager. And from hiking better than you.

I believe I mentioned that you don’t have to carry all of your equipment on the trail. Our group of 15 came with three guides, two cooks, and twentyish porters who carried our personal tents, the meal tent, the chairs, the food, the cooking supplies, and all of our 6 kilo duffel bags. And while carrying all of that, they still do the hike twice as fast as any of us. In sandals. They break camp, dart along the trail, and set up either the lunch break or camp site while you’re hiking, then applaud you as you arrive at camp, and not even sarcastically. They are rock stars, served some of the best meals we had the whole trip, and make the entire hike a far better experience.

That said.

Every time a porter comes up behind you, there is a call of “Porters!” and everyone moves to the side. Like pulling over for an ambulance. This… happens a lot. Like, a lot. There are many groups on the trail at any given time, each with their own troupe of porters, meaning there are over a hundred porters that will pass you at some point during each day of the hike. Twice on days one and three. Never all at once. It can get old. But you don’t complain, because look at all that shit they’re carrying and they don’t even get to come to Machu Picchu.

Day One: The Warm-up

Together, we bussed down to Kilometer 82, a common starting point for the Inca Trail. When Evert said “Inca Trail,” which as our primary guide he did frequently, his accent could make it sound like he was saying “Inca Trial.” Which… was not an unfair assessment, all things considered. The beginning was simple. A fair amount of up, sure, but jovial chatter among we Pumas, and a ceremony asking for blessings from Pachamama, Mother Earth, who the Incas worshipped. That is, I’m told, the reason that the Inca Trail weaves its way up and down the mountain rather than following the river… to truly savour the views along the way. Which, sure, were impressive. There were plateaus, old Inca ruins, it was definitely a hike but not an arduous one at the beginning. The sort of hike that boosts your confidence for the days to come, even if those Australians from the horseback ride have hammered the notion of being sent home back into your head and now on every hill you find yourself thinking “Not yet, flesh body, we can’t get tired yet, so far to go…”

I’m sure everyone thought that. Feels universal to me.

There was also a lot of dung on the trail, because this section is dotted with villages that sell supplies to hikers, and they transport said supplies via horse and donkey. Hence dung. But complaining about feces must not be super Pachamama-friendly, as I seemed to be the only one who noticed or minded. So, whatevs, I guess.

My duffel bag carried shirts, socks, and underpants for three days, plus pajama pants and a hoodie that I was told I would need. I wanted to say “Dude, I’m Canadian, I’ll be fine” but they seemed insistent, so I brought it anyway. In my day bag, which was starting to tear open, but that’s neither here nor there, I had a wool hat (didn’t need), five litres of water (did need), my shaving kit with pills and minimal toiletries, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, a book (for real, Past Dan?), my new scarf (again, from Canada, why did I think I’d need that), a bag of popcorn from our homestay (which was already stale, why did I wait until after the hike to bin it), tour-provided snacks, and my jacket (when I wasn’t wearing it). Not present? A flashlight (didn’t think to pack one) and one of those plastic ponchos everyone else bought at the start of the hike. “Bag’s too full,” I said. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s not like it can fold up even more than it is, being made out of thin plastic,” I said.

Why do I make these decisions.

Especially when they were so stylish.

Especially when they were so stylish.

Anyway, the point is that my bag was pretty damn heavy. But I managed it.

Views were already pretty good.

Views were already pretty good.

After some gorgeous plateaus, we descended to the river for our lunch break, being applauded into camp by our faithful porters, which was a good feeling every time it happened. After a lunch/washroom break, we were back out on the trail… realizing my concern from the previous hour. See, there was a long stretch of downhill right before lunch, which was fun and easy (spoiler alert: not something we’d be able to say about all downhill stretches), but I knew what elevation we were aiming for. Camp at Wayllabamba  would be at 3000 km, over three hundred kilometers above where we’d started. So every metre we went downhill would be a metre we’d have to make back up. Which we did. After lunch.

Still, can't complain about the lunch spot.

Still, can’t complain about the lunch spot.

Evert said the terrain would be “undulating,” implying a series of ups and downs. As I said before… sometimes Evert lies. It was up. All up. The first big challenge… though only a taste of what was to come.

Once again applauded into camp by the porters, we found our tents and settled in. Dinner would be a few hours later, but first, 5:00 happy hour. We gathered in the meal tent for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and popcorn. We bonded as a travel family, and eventually dinner happened. We ended night one with a ceremony introducing us to our porters. There were a lot to get through, so the intros were limited to name, age, and number of children/marital status, for both them and us. Our porters were all locals to the hills, most speaking Quechua, not Spanish. The sun vanished during dinner, and after a full day of hiking, no one found it that tricky to head to bed. Well, okay, after a half hour of tentmate chatting. If you had a tentmate. Which I did not.

I also learned that flashlights were not provided, and I would have to use my phone to have any light. My phone was on airplane mode from the moment we left Ollataytambo, so this turned out to be a minor issue, but suffice to say flashlight duty burned through more of my phone battery than anything else during the trek. I guess since “Everything else” amounted to “Being on but not used,” that’s not surprising.

Day Two: The Ordeal

This was it. The day I’d been dreading. The day generally known to be the most challenging of the entire hike. And it did not… it did not get off to the best start.

I barely slept the night before. Like, night bus-level bad sleep, where I only had the vague sensation that I must have been asleep at some point, but rarely seemed aware of it. Dogs were barking. My makeshift pillow, which involved wrapping my hoodie around my shaving kit and shoving it under the air mattress, was not super comfortable. Also I guess I’d overdone the coca tea, because in the middle of the night I really had to pee. I was, however, unwilling to deal with the effort of getting my boots on, finding my glasses, and getting my phone out, so I just walked in my socks to the bushes I knew to be nearby.

Those socks remained damp for the next three to four days. So, as decisions go, I give it B, B-.

When “morning” came (said it before and I’ll say it again, if the sun is not up, it is still night), things did not super improve. I discovered that my makeshift pillow solution had caused my toothpaste to explode, getting toothpaste all over my tent, sleeping bag, and pants. I admit this made it easier to find my tent on subsequent days, but overall, I wasn’t thrilled with this turn of events. Also, when I attempted to put my contacts in, one of them fell out. A falling contact violates the laws of physics. It never manages to land, like, directly underneath where it was. I can be leaning over the sink, and the dropped contact will end up behind where I was standing. As such, I never saw that contact lens again. It belongs to Pachamama now. It was glasses from thereon out.

So, you know, doing great on the start of day two. If you’re about to embark on the most physically demanding day of your hike-slash-vacation-slash-adult life, possibly, the last thing you want is to be well-rested. And if you can have a wave of annoyances on top of being tired, even better.

Anyhoo.

A brief and simple breakfast later, it was time to begin. Camp at Wayllabamba was on an Inca terrace partway up the trail to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest elevation of the trail, and a full 1,000 metres up from camp. Hence being the toughest day… it’s four to five hours of constant climbing, and it only. Gets. Steeper.

Day two was also the loneliest day of the hike. We all went at our own paces, because of course we did, meeting up at the pre-planned break points and meal stops, but day two is when my pace and the rest of the group’s pace really began to noticeably differ. I found myself in the back of the pack both soon and often, so for long stretches I hiked alone. Well, with occasional visits with whichever guide was assigned to taking up the rear, which on day two was Daniel. So he was the main person I saw on my way to the pass.

At the first break, it began to sink in… I hadn’t seen Rusty all day. Or his sons. Not at breakfast, not on the trail, not with the group at the break point. This caused a wave of panic and a touch of despair. Had it happened? Had Rusty been sent back? The hike was already hard, but going back still seemed unthinkable. Turning back was failure. But if Rusty was gone… was I next?

At the next break point I found out that Rusty had not turned back. Knowing that he had the slowest pace of any of us (even me), Rusty had decided to get up and leave an hour before the rest of us. Josh and Brian, dutiful sons, went with him. This was a relief, and knowing this, I pushed on, up and up the increasingly steep stone steps. Pausing when I had to, sitting to drink water when I had to, just trying to get up the next section.

View wasn't bad, though.

View wasn’t bad, though.

There is a long stretch where you can see Dead Woman’s pass in the distance. And it doesn’t look that far away. But this, ultimately, doesn’t help. The endless staircase of day two constantly curves its way along the mountain, but it never seems to be curving towards the pass. Every time you round a corner you see another stretch of stairs that is not leading where you want it to be. Which is not encouraging.

Nor is it encouraging when two people come up and just stand behind you, glaring, while you pull yourself up the next step. Yes, fine, Beardy McGlower, I am taking my sweet time right now, and yes, we all were encouraged to aim for the lowest part of the next step, but that isn’t mandatory. Go around me if you’re in such a god damned hurry. Bad enough I was pulling over for porters every ten minutes.

There were times when I felt like I honestly didn’t have the strength for another step up, let alone another flight. I was as tired as I could remember being, depleted… but through force of will and plenty of water, I pushed on. And eventually, the pass was ahead. Encouraging calls from Kate, Amy, and Tayla rang down from above. Each step was a struggle, had been for a half hour at least, but the end was truly in sight. I pulled myself to the top, dropped by bag, and rested, triumphant. And then filmed the second segment of a video I’d decided to make.

I passed Rusty on the way down. As always, he had a big smile on his face, was a delight to talk to. Turns out he did okay on the uphill sections, but climbing down the same stone stairs after the peak was far harder. I see his point. The stairs were easier on the way down, but not easy. They were hard on the knees, and it was easier to roll your ankle a little stepping down. The walking sticks were still a big help.

I’m pretty sure that’s the area where I slipped and fell off the path. A combination of fatigue and a misstep sent me, somewhat gradually, off the steps and into the tall grass. This was not one of the sections where I hiked alone, as it turns out. Heidi and B were there. Possibly Leigha. So I felt a call of “I’m good, nothing hurt but my pride” was in order.

Around 2:00 I arrived at the campsite, in time for lunch. Yes, for day two, our lunch stop was also our campsite, something we were all grateful for. Others had to hike back up for two hours after lunch. We got to just collapse. And collapse I did, quite literally. Once I found the tent that was smeared with toothpaste, I unzipped it, and flopped face-first onto the air mattress. There I remained until the lunch call, five or ten minutes after.

Our port of call for night two.

Our port of call for night two.

The hero of the day was Robbie. One of the rest stops on the way to the pass is also the last place to buy supplies. Sure it’s expensive, but it’s your last chance for snacks, water, or, and this is the important part… booze. The Australians had recommended buying beers to share with the porters. Robbie took it one step further, and bought us all a bottle of rum. Happy hour truly was happy hour day two, as Evert took the bottle and whipped up a rum/tea concoction. We played drinking games and fell into spirited arguments over proper language, with Robbie, Alex, and Tayla campaigning for British terms like jelly, jam, and noughts & crosses, while Team USA fought for Jell-o, jelly, and Tic-Tac-Toe. Yes, each side had a jelly. The Brits thought jelly was the gelatin desert we were served after dinner, the Yanks claimed it was the breakfast spread. We in Team Canada were stuck in the middle, while Team Norway got to just laugh at our antics.

Robbie has, on his blog, accused us of not sufficiently having the motherland’s back in these arguments. While I will admit that Noughts and Crosses does make more sense as a name (provided that you call zeroes “noughts”), because what even is a tic or a tac, but I’m sorry, Team UK, Jell-o is a brand name so is technically correct regardless of continent.

Day two was a struggle, for a long while. Five hours of increasingly difficult climb. Moments of doubt, times when I had to fight through the urge to just stop. But if there hadn’t been hardship, there couldn’t be triumph. And there was triumph. And in the end, fellowship. Laughter and good times, buoyed by Robbie’s rum.

triumph

Wow this got long. Next time, Doom Mist and the Old Mountain.

Danny in the Andes: Road to the Trail

Before I get into this, a few things I’d forgotten about the trip thus far.

First… It amazed me how little time it took to get used to the trip. The different culture, the constant moving, it became the new normal almost right away. So thoroughly was it the new normal that by Arequipa I already couldn’t believe that I’d only been in Peru for four days. The group was my home, my companions my friends. Home as I had known it was a distant memory, an incorrect life I no longer maintained. My other friends merely ghosts. Ghosts with Facebook accounts I checked up on when I had WiFi and who liked my Instagram photos like ghosts do my metaphor is flawless.

Second… The road to Chivay provided some of our better llama viewing. Llamas and other camelids. During my bus tour of Arequipa, I learned about the various types of fur-bearing camelids found in Peru: llamas (which you know), alpacas (softer fur, fuzzier), vicunas (non-domesticated, but provide the softest fur), and guanacos, which people didn’t seem to care much about and really only came up the once. The drive to Chivay included a herd of vicunas and a few herds of llamas you could get pictures with, although we were expected to slip the kid minding them a few soles.

Vicunas in the wild,

Vicunas in the wild.

And again.

And again.

The llamas have accepted me as their cute and fuzzy brethren.

The llamas have accepted me as their cute and fuzzy brethren.

Third… no one in Peru looks Spanish. I began to wonder about that. Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand… the Europeans moved in and shoved the locals into isolated pockets, so the population became mostly white. Some native Mexicans have more European features, but a lot still look Mayan. Peruvians look entirely native. Get inland, and a lot still speak their original language instead of Spanish (also true of Mexico, now that I mention it). I guess the Spanish conquered the area, but didn’t have any interest in living there.

Fourth… as long as I’m addending old blogs, when I ranked the best picture nominees, my gag title for Room was “Not THE Room, Thank You,” when it should have been “The Somewhat Breakable Kimmy Schmidt.” My bad.

Cusco

Formerly the capital of the Inca empire, the city typically used to acclimate to altitude before tackling the Inca Trail is Cusco, sometimes spelt Cuzco, and formerly known as Cosco until the Spanish decided they didn’t want it to be confused with discount grocery chain Costco a few centuries down the line. Or because they found “Cosco” tricky to pronounce. They told me the second one was the real reason, but does it actually sound more likely?

Parts of Cusco, notably near our hostel, still incorporate ancient Inca walls into their buildings. It wasn’t uncommon to see a building that was Inca to about chest level, then more modern from there.

My arrival in Cusco was a little different than the rest of the group. They went on the standard intro/city highlights walking tour with Ellard while I finally reached the first portion of my “adrenaline package,” the one upgrade I chose to get. (I considered the “my own room” upgrade, decided against it, then got it for free by being the only guy in the group. Score!) So while the others checked out the town square (warned you) and other nearby sights, I was horseback riding on the hill overlooking the city.

That's Cusco in the background.

That’s Cusco in the background.

In addition to a couple of old Inca temples, the horseback ride featured two Australians who were doing the ride the day after their Machu Picchu hike (as I was supposed to, but the river was too high for my other activity).

This was… informative, if harrowing. They both had a lot of tips and insights, but the guy was determined to talk about punishing day two was. I tried to mention how hard the climb up the sand dunes had been, but it didn’t deter him.

“You have a stairmaster at home?”
“No, but I’d take one over the sand dunes—“
“Because that stairmaster feels like heaven next to the stone stairs on day two.”

Here I began to wonder how necessary I was for this conversation, since I hadn’t engaged him on the stairmaster topic at all. He also seem quite amused picturing me on those stairs. So, you know, that was a little hurtful.

That night we (save Maria, who booked too late and had to go on a different trek) were introduced to our guide-to-be, Evert. He walked us through what we could expect from day to day on the Inca Trail. His accent meant that it sounded a little like he was saying “Inca Trial.” Which was not… not inaccurate.
We also had the opportunity to rent equipment for the hike. But each piece had to be considered carefully. Budget issues aside, our G Adventures duffel bags (which, unlike our day bags, we wouldn’t have to carry) could only hold six kilos of stuff. An air mattress would make nights in the tent more comfortable, but would also take up one of your kilos. A sleeping bag keeps you warm, but that’s another two and half kilos. Two walking sticks? Those you carry yourself, so… those are fine.

I got the lot. Only left me two and a half kilos for clothes and whatnot, but I do value my sleep.
One group dinner, in which everyone opted against the guinea pig (partially because it is hell of expensive), and our intro day in Cusco wrapped up.

The Homestay

Next up… a traditional homestay with a women’s weaving collective the village of Ccaccaccollo. I could tell you to pronounce it but I think you’d learn more looking it up yourselves and then reporting back. We arrived, were split between Fransisca and Patricia, two sisters/civic leaders, and were shown to their homes, where we were served lunch. From there, we were handed traditional garb and brought to the potato fields to assist with the harvest.

There were two opinions of this particular stop. Some had been looking forward to this the entire time. They saw this as a trip highlight. These were, shall we say, the outgoing people. Other members of the group… say, the more introverted members, who aren’t great with strangers even when they do speak the same language… those who perhaps don’t see chores in a potato field as an exciting vacation experience… maybe those people weren’t looking forward to this stop so much.

Yes, fine, me. I was talking about me. That second bit was all about me. If you didn’t get that.

Still, the ladies were excited enough for this stop that I allowed myself to believe I was worrying for no reason. And by and large, I was. The people we stayed with were far too friendly, welcoming, and generous for the stop to be considered any sort of burden, potato chores or no potato chores. Our homestay consisted of lunch with our hostess, an hour or two of chores in the potato fields, dinner (featuring a few of the potatoes we’d helped harvest, also lamb), then a night in the guest room(s).

Yes, Maria and I ended up way further uphill than the others, and the climb up the hill to Patricia’s house was… daunting. (There was a less steep path, but I was forced to admit it was longer.)

Decent view from her balcony, though.

Decent view from her balcony, though.

Also the doorways weren’t quite designed for average North American heights…

20160306_134741

On the other hand, Patricia has a proper flush toilet (even if the “flushing” has to be done by pouring in a bucket of water) and a bathroom door that went all the way to the floor, unlike Fransisca, who had a hole in the ground and a door that ended at squat-level. So we had that going for us. Also, we had easier chores.

Post lunch, we were given traditional Peruvian garb and led to the fields. While the others had to actually dig up potatoes (save for Tayla, who maimed enough potatoes that she got moved to babysitting), Maria and I only had to gather them and rub off excess dirt. And avoid spiders. And look like we weren’t avoiding the spiders, just causally moving to another part of the field.

That last part was also just me.

Maria, getting into the harvest.

Maria, getting into the harvest.

Kate and Amy harvest spuds, Tayla enjoys some playtime with one of the kids, Ellard... is also present.

Kate and Amy harvest spuds, Tayla enjoys some playtime with one of the kids, Ellard… is also present.

Also, Patricia’s daughter spoke decent English, which was a perk. She was studying it at university, which surprised me, because she did not look older than 13. Between that and Patrica’s mad cooking skills, it was a decent lunch. Her son did not speak English, so Maria did her best to use her limited Spanish to chat with him over dinner. Apparently he used to be a porter on the Inca Trail. That’s… the main thing I was able to pick up.

Post-chores, Ellard gathered the ladies for a fashion shoot in the traditional skirts, something he does with the women of all of his tours. Just women. Not the guys. He says he doesn’t enjoy or see the point of photographing dudes. Which, you know… that’s fine. That’s his call. It’s just not something Citrus Photography’s Tim Nguyen or Abby + Dave Photography would say. For what that’s worth. (Okay, Abby and Dave are wedding photographers, so that’s not entirely fair…) Since “being photographed” lands slightly beneath “chores in a potato field” on the list of things I enjoy, so no, I wasn’t exactly miffed about being left out.

The skirt wouldn't have looked as good on me anyway.

The skirt wouldn’t have looked as good on me anyway.

Amy on the left, a more-cute, mostly-equally-fuzzy stand-in for me on the right.

Amy on the left, a more-cute, mostly-equally-fuzzy stand-in for me on the right.

In the morning, we were given a tour of the weaving process. We felt the differences in four types of raw wool, in order of softness… from sheep wool, which we soon knew to be garbage in comparison, to llama, to alpaca, to baby alpaca, to ultra-soft, luxurious, largely unaffordable vicuna. We watched how it’s spun into thread, and saw how one seed is used to dye the wool. Different colours are achieved through additives like lime juice or by simply rubbing the dye with a certain crystal. No, for real. A crystal. I saw it happen. Otherwise I wouldn’t buy it either.

Speaking of buying… the weaving collective’s creations were available for purchase. Scarves, blankets, sweaters, hats, made from llama or alpaca… I checked out a nice green baby alpaca scarf my hostess had made. At first I thought it might make a nice present, but then I felt it. It had to be mine. Also Patricia gave me a discount because she made it personally. Kate eyed a headband, but wasn’t sure she needed it.

“Do you need it?” I asked. “Possibly not. Are you working it? A little bit.” That may not have been the deciding factor, but she did buy that headband, so I like to think it had an impact.

We also got our first glimpse at our trailmates for the hike to come, as their more basic tour stopped at the village that morning.

Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo… roughly translated, the town of Ollantay, an Inca warrior of sufficient renown to be promoted to the nobility, but who got into a Romeo & Juliet situation with the Emperor’s daughter. Or so the legends say. I mean, it definitely probably could have happened.

Ollantaytambo was conquered by the Inca emperor Pachacuti, who incorporated it into his estate. It would later become a key Inca fortress: when the Spanish took the Inca capital of Cusco, the Incas fortified themselves in Ollantaytambo, managing to hold back the invaders. These days, it’s the last port of call before the beginning of the Inca Trail. Well, the typical start point of the Inca Trail. It actually goes all the way to Cusco, but that version takes 15 days.

There are two old Inca forts you can climb to: one of which costs money and is more official, and one which is free, but has posted signs saying (basically) “No railings, please don’t climb up here, but if you do, please do it before 4:30 ‘cause that’s when we close this gate.

Ellard told us it should take 20 minutes to climb to that fortress. So I took this as a test. I’d been anxious about day two of the Inca Trail since before I left, and was even more so after my encounter with the Australians (I mean, he didn’t have to tell me he found the visual hilarious, did he?). So if I could make it up that hill in twenty minutes, taking my time and enjoying the view as the Australians recommended, then I’d be good. Or so I was choosing to believe.

Success selfie!

Success selfie!

I made it, and on schedule, and the view was impressive. Thus emboldened, I gave a wave to Kate and Amy, who were on their way up while I was on my way down, and returned to town for… erm… a last burst of internet access before being unplugged for most of four days, IF you must know.
One last group dinner before the six of us parted ways for a spell, a final attempt to see how much stuff we could take with us (2.5 kilos goes fast), and then resting up for a big day ahead.

Next time… the trail.

Danny in the Andes: Pre-Andes Adventures

Let’s get back into this.

Last time we talked about the buses that carried our little group through Peru. Well, parts thereof. As we discussed, it’s a big country, and our tour allowed us to see a wide variety of places. Let’s talk about a few of them, shall we?

Nazca

If you know the name Nazca, you probably know it for the Nazca lines. A series of drawings in the desert that can only be seen from the air, and thus were forgotten for centuries. Near those lines is the actual town of Nazca, which is… a place people go when they want to see the Nazca lines and then leave really quickly. It’s a tiny place. Ellard, our guide, did not advise walking into town, feeling that the town square was safe but the surrounding town was… less so.

Now that I’ve limited Nazca’s appeal to the World Heritage Site it’s next to, it’ll probably seem weird to admit I didn’t actually see the Nazca lines.

See… maybe you were hoping to go easy on your credit card, since you hadn’t 100% paid off the trip itself. Maybe you were trying to see how long the cash you picked up before you left was going to hold out. And if those things are true, maybe you balk a little at the fact that between plane fare, park fees, and other fees I can’t quite recall the Nazca line tour came out to $140 US for a half hour flight.

Whereas, if you chose not to take the flight, you could a) sleep in, and b) lounge by the pool all morning. If you’re not going to see another hotel with a pool this trip, that option has a certain appeal. And lord have mercy the water was incredible. On a hot day in the desert it was the exact, and I mean exact right temperature. Sun, swimming, and the Welcome to Night Vale novel made for a perfect and relaxing morning, followed by lunch in town with the ladies (save for late riser Tayla, who was on the group’s tightest budget, and was just getting into her pool groove, and elected to stay at the hotel).

The restaurant strip near the town square of Nazca reminded me a little of the walk to Moulin Rouge in Paris. Or Chungking Mansions, a shopping centre in Hong Kong that I can only assume was named ironically. There are people stationed outside each restaurant on a mission to get every person they see into their restaurant. Some would find that entertaining. I find it kind of awkward. That’s more attention from strangers than I really need. Menu could be interesting, though…

Fried rice with which species, exactly?

Fried rice with which species, exactly?

Post-lunch, Maria (the only one of us to do the Nazca line flight) took her turn at the pool while the rest of us headed further into the desert for a tour to the sand dunes. We got a chance to see the heart of the former Nazca civilization, the aqueducts that provide Nazca its water to this day, as well as old burial sites… which sadly have been just super looted over the centuries. Still, it means we didn’t have to keep our distance. So if super close looks at old bones is your thing, that’s the place for you.

Then the buggy broke down. And not just a little. After a series of alarming clunks, our tour guide pulled to a stop in the middle of the dunes in order to search our tracks for pieces of the engine.

Into adventure!

Spirits remained high.

That’s not the most comforting thing that can happen to you mid-desert.

Fortunately, the same company had a second tour that was just behind us. Once their people were deposited at the top of a dune for some dune-boarding, the second buggy returned for our roller-coaster ride through the dunes. Which, as it turns out, was a way more thrilling ride than the actual dune boarding, and involved way less climbing back up the steep-ass sand dune in between. Don’t get me wrong, sandboarding was fun, just closer to crazy carpeting than anything else.

IMG-20160307-WA0015

Adequate thrills, ahoy!

We returned to the hotel with just enough time for a decent shower to rinse a surprising amount of sand off of ourselves before our traditional Nazca dinner.

Not that anything could free us of the sand. Not completely. I couldn’t wear my shorts again for the rest of the trip for fear of my phone or iPod being damaged by the sand I couldn’t get out of my pockets. My camera stopped working, meaning I had to take all of my pictures on my phone. Which, yes, is technically superior to my 11 year-old digital camera, but still.

Totally worth it, though. Good day.

Arequipa

With Arequipa we were now firmly out of Spanish-influenced Peru and into Inca territory. We weren’t what you’d call well-rested, but bounced back for our tour of the… I’m going to be using this term a lot… town square. Which we were excited to learn was going to end with crepes. Ellard is a good guide, because not only does he know the historical facts, but also where to get crepes.

I like crepes. Is that clear? I think it’s clear. God I should find a place to get a crepe this week… sorry, I’m back.

Arequipa was a free day. Recommendations included a convent, a famous mummy (or at least a well-preserved mummy), and a monastery. I opted for a bus tour of the city, getting a good sense of Arequipa as a whole. Highlights? My first sighting of a restaurant whose sign included an adorable (and realistic) cartoon guinea pig gesturing for you to come in and devour the flesh of his kin. This gets more common in smaller towns.

Also, a building in the… downtownish area that was done up like a castle, complete with Smurfs waving from the windows. An adorable, if questionably legal, family restaurant? That’s what I thought too. But no, once we got closer, it turned out to be a dentist’s office. Not sure unlicensed Smurfs and medieval décor are going to lure in the kids like you think, Mr. Dentist.

Arequipa was unique in one way. Apparently the more rural areas in the hills view Arequipa as a great place to go for new opportunities. Which isn’t odd, people do that in cities around the world. No, what made Arequipa different of the cities we saw was that people don’t move to Arequipa. They sort of shimmy up next to it.

Arequipa is surrounded by unofficial shanty towns. People come, put up a house, maybe open a garage or a restaurant, but do not officially live in Arequipa. Which is a problem for the city, because they don’t pay property taxes. Pretty sure they have power, though, I guess they pay for that? I doubt entire neighbourhoods are running off an extension cord to the nearest outlet.

This was one of the LESS shanty shantytowns.

This was one of the LESS shanty shantytowns.

 

Arequipa is also the first city where we went drinking together. Happy hour drinks, two for 15-20 soles (7-10 dollars). Which started as “Maria and I split a happy hour special” and turned into “Hey, now I have two drinks” before long. Right around the time Amy showed up. Probably a coincidence. She’s a lovely girl of strong moral character, who said she wasn’t?

Turns out “I Never” has a phone app. We learned some things about each other.

Good night. Noisy hostel. Did not sleep great. But frankly “did not sleep of great” nights really outnumbered “fully rested,” and I didn’t die, so whatevs.

Chivay

Time to leave the “big smoke” as people say. Not people I like or respect. Why did I say “big smoke,” off to a terrible start on this section…

Nestled in the Andes.

Nestled in the Andes.

Chivay is a small town near one of Peru’s more impressive natural sights, the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Observe.

Observe.

Also a good place to see giant condors. Which, yes, are immense, majestic birds. Birds that are super hard to get a really good compelling photos of if all you have is your phone and it’s super bright out so the screen is hard to see but damn it you’re trying your best.

Gonna have to trust me a little on "big" and "majestic."

Gonna have to trust me a little on “big” and “majestic.”

I got to spend some time with Maria, checking out a church and the local market. Fresh juice, ice cream, and addressing the fact that when I was picking out one day’s worth of stuff to bring to Chivay (leaving the bulk of our luggage back in Arequipa), I neglected to bring my swimsuit.

Yes, that’s right, sports fans, I created an opportunity to play “What Did Dan Forget to Pack” mid-trip. That is dedication to a bit. Or to not thinking about what I need to bring with me for the day leave me alone I have a condition.

I needed a swimsuit for the hot springs. That would have made this part clearer. Kate, Amy, Maria, and I had a relaxing trip to the hot springs that afternoon. Not much more to say about than that, except it was a nice time. But that’s why I now own three swimsuits, which just… it’s insane. That feels like way too many swimsuits for someone who is in water once a year. Gonna have to do some river rafting this August, that’s all there is to it.

Okay. Shake it off. Proper story.

Our guide for the Colca Canyon portion of the trip brought us to the local dinner theatre that night. They performed a variety of local dances, including a traditional wedding dance, and a dance sequence meant to indicate catching and curing malaria. Although the curing involved more suggested sexual activity than I think is medically advised.

Here’s the thing.

Midway through the wedding dance, their first number, the worst case scenario came to pass. They started wandering into the audience and pulling people out.

Few facts about me… I enjoy scuba and rafting, I love cheese, I gag on eggs, and I hate, I hate, I HATE audience participation. And mere minutes after the chilling realization that it was happening… they came for me.

I mean, it could have been worse. I only had to make and dance through arches. I did not have to catch or cure malaria. Others were not so fortunate. Or were more fortunate, I guess? Really a matter of perspective.

Also I found out I like alpaca. But did not bother to order guinea pig because, like always, it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Seriously, steaks cost less than guinea pig.

Next time… our tour through the south comes to an end, and the road to the Inca Trail begins.

Danny in the Andes: Another One Rides the Bus

When talking about being on a tour-style vacation, the least glamorous thing you can mention is buses. Being bussed around a country doesn’t sound appealing at all. Slower than flying and none of the space, amenities, or being on a boat of a cruise ship. But here’s the thing…

Peru is a big country. Quite big.

You might not think so, looking at a map, but you should know that your map is almost certainly a dirty, dirty, liar. Why don’t we let the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality explain?

For those who didn’t watch… for nearly six centuries we’ve been using maps that distort the relative size of countries in the north vs. south. In short, if your map claims that Alaska is larger than Mexico, or that Greenland is remotely the same size as Africa, your map is lying to you. Sadly, being on a West Wing episode does not make something common knowledge. We know this because “the bible says being gay is wrong” is still being thrown around as an argument after President Bartlet thoroughly, hilariously destroyed it waaaaaaay back in the fall of 2000.

Okay, really getting sucked into a pit of West Wing clips here. Shake it off, back on topic…

The point is, the areas of interest in Peru are pretty far apart. And when your tour has “on a shoestring” in the name, there’s no quick and easy way from one to the other. In fact, I’m not even certain there are regular commuter flights to Nazca. It is a small town in the middle of a desert that happens to be next to a world heritage site. It does have an airport, but I’m pretty sure you’d need to charter a plane there. At that point, you’re not doing “Peru on a shoestring,” you’re doing “Peru with the sort of opulence that makes people resent you.”

And so you need a bus.

We’ll now break from covering the trip sequentially in order to talk about the buses I was on. Because they get a little samey and we may as well do it all in a row.

The Bus Experience

Aside from the private vans G Adventures provided for shorter jaunts, there were three buses, all from the same company. The honest truth is that comfort-wise, there isn’t a big difference between an economy-class bus and an economy-class flight. Your leg room isn’t ideal, your seat isn’t going to recline much (at least it shouldn’t), the seat is moderately comfortable but gets old after seven hours… the food/beverage service isn’t what you’d get on a plane, sure, especially overnight, but that matters less than you’d think. In the end, you’re on a vehicle for a long time, hoping you’re near a window and that there’s something worth seeing on the other side of it. Because the in-drive movie options are probably going to let you down.

There were two types of movies on my various buses. Either they’d show something I was somewhat interested in, but dubbed into Spanish and subtitled in English (diminishing its appeal), or something in English with Spanish subtitles that I had no interest in. Interest was especially low when we were on a night bus and trying to sleep, but we’ll get to the greatest offender on that. Weirdly, nothing Peruvian. Or even from somewhere outside the States. Only Hollywood.

Bus One: Lima to Nazca, seven hours

After a morning exploring a section of Lima’s coastline (not, ultimately, a section with a beach… I did not do well there), we left for the bus station for our seven hour drive to Nazca. It was at this point I realized the size of the country, because on a map of South America they do not seem that far apart. But I suppose if you look at a map of North America, Calgary and Golden don’t seem that far apart, and yet it’s six hours if you drive like you mean it. And I’d like to think passenger buses drive more conservatively than my friends do when trying to get to the houseboat by noon.

This the only bus we took that left during the day, as well as the only bus we took that had a stop along the way. And as it turned out, that town (whose name I never caught) was where just about everyone on the bus was trying to go. Once we were back on the road, we learned that the six of us were now the only passengers on the entire bus.

“Really?” asked Tayla, after Ellard broke the news. “It’s just the four of us?”

“Um,” I replied, from the row behind. “Five. There’s… I am also here.” It was that kinda day.

The potential perk of this was that since it was now just us, we were told to feel free to move to whatever seats we liked, even the nicer lower-floor seats. However, the ladies had all scored front row seats: it was just them and the windshield, with an unparalleled view of the landscape and bonus legroom. So they weren’t in a hurry to move, and I wasn’t so in need of a slightly comfier seat that I wanted to split off from the group. (Tayla having briefly forgotten I existed might, might have had something to do with that choice.)

Movies? We had two, one from each category. Our “dubbed into English” selection was The Walk, from Robert Zemekis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I kind of got the impression that I might like this movie… the visuals seemed impressive, and what isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt good in, but the dubbing was annoying and the small screen wasn’t doing the story of a wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center justice, so I only caught bits and pieces.

Prior to that was 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown, our Spanish-subtitle option. I paid vague at best attention to this one, which the “WWE Studios” logo indicated was all it would require or deserve. I feel I can be forgiven for thinking I might have to figure out the previous two movies’ history and character relationships, since it had the number three in the title and was about a cop’s first day back to work after an injury (and something about a dead rookie, but maybe that wasn’t backstory? Maybe it was something that happened when I wasn’t looking?). Turns out, no, the “12 Rounds” movies are just a set of unrelated action vehicles for WWE performers. Different leads, different characters, different stories, because John Cena apparently felt doing a second one was beneath him. And the one they chose to show us was the one John Cena’s replacement felt was beneath him. Let that tell you the level of quality we were dealing with here.

So what did you do? I read things and watched Dr. Who on my iPod. Turns out, in airplane mode and when not left in a cold car, the battery on my iPod lasts impressively long. So I burned through some combination of Time and the Rani (the newly regenerated 7th Doctor takes on rogue Time Lady the Rani, aided by a local forced to collaborate who ultimately sacrifices himself), The Green Death (the 3rd Doctor and departing companion Jo Grant face an evil computer and its human collaborator who ultimately sacrifices himself), and Seeds of Death (the 2nd Doctor faces the Ice Warriors and the human collaborator… who… sacrifices… hey…).

Bus Two: Secret of the Ooze Nazca to Arequipa, ten hours

Our first night bus. Leaving around 10 PM from Nazca and driving through the night.

Night buses and red eye flights are, to me, a mixed bag. Since I can rarely, if ever, afford business class or better, I don’t have the best sleep on planes or buses. Hence needing that nap in Lima. It’s also tricky to brush your teeth and there’s no guarantee of a shower on the far side, since you’re often arriving prior to check-in time.

That said… the drive to Nazca took up half of day two of the tour. By the time we reached our hotel, there wasn’t time for anything but having chicken dinners delivered and discussing our game plan for the next day. If it’s going to take ten hours to reach Arequipa, why not put those ten hours in a part of the day you weren’t using?

Our seats were not as good this time, as a second, larger G Adventures group was on the bus with us. We also learned that the seats reclined fairly far back, or maybe one was just broken, because Maria spent the night squashed under the seat of the guy in front of us, who either allowed or didn’t prevent his seat from tilting all the way back.

Reclining seats are a zero-sum game of comfort, people. Tilting back gains comfort for you at the cost of taking it from someone else.

Movies? Just the one before lights out: Life as a House, starring Kevin Kline as a former house model designer who, if I followed what was happening correctly, got a terminal disease and decided to spend his last summer attempting to build his dream house with his antisocial son. If you came out of the Star Wars prequels thinking “That was okay, but is there an even whinier character Hayden Christensen could be playing?” this is the movie for you. It was not, I felt, the movie for me, as within fifteen minutes I decided I hated everyone in it and had no desire to spend the next hour and a half witnessing them learn to live and love or whatever it is they were going to do.

So what did you do? Tried to sleep. It was… somewhat successful? Must have been. At some point, at least. I feel like that was the night I had dreams about an unwanted reunion at the Calgary Comic Expo that messed with my head for the next day. Also the drive didn’t feel ten hours long, so I must have nodded off at least once?

Bus Three: The Busening Arequipa to Cusco, ten hours

Cusco is about as close to Lima as Vancouver is to Calgary, or so I assume from how long it would later take to fly the distance. However, to better see the country, we’d gone the long way, and required a second night bus. This one left earlier in the evening… and there our problems begin.

Like every other problematic sleep night, I took a couple of Gravol to try and knock myself out for the drive. The bus and its employees, however, clearly felt I was missing prime bus-party time, and did everything they could to keep sleep from happening.

I expected a certain amount of announcements from the bus staff. There are always initial announcements. Approximate arrival time, reminders that the toilet can’t handle solids, that sort of thing. But then there were just… numbers. Lots of numbers, each proceeded by something I hadn’t been paying attention to. But it just kept going and going, and then the five of us began to put it together, each on our own… before each number was a letter. They were playing bingo.

Somewhere on this bus people were playing goddamned bingo, and apparently we all had to hear about it.

I would later learn that the reason we hadn’t been informed this was an option was that the prize was a free return ticket, and that wasn’t something we needed or could conceivably use. Which made it all the more annoying that everyone had to hear the game over the loud PA system. Once the game was over… she kept talking. And talking. And talking. Only in Spanish. I was tempted to ask Ellard what the hell she was going on about, since it seemed “We’ll be in Cusco in nine hours” isn’t a statement that would require this level of detail, but somehow he (and only he) was already asleep. Finally she gave the mic a rest, and it seemed sleep might be in sight…

Then the movie started.

Movies? Pitch Perfect 2, dubbed into Spanish. Well, the dialogue was, anyway, and therein lay the rub. The volume of the dubbed dialogue (I had even less interest in hearing someone else talk over Anna Kendrick than I did Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the (frequent) un-dubbed musical numbers was jarringly different. Basically, we’d start to nod off, then a song would kick in and the volume would jump and BAM, Gravol or no Gravol, I was awake again… wondering how much movie there was left.

So what did you do? Tried, in vain, to sleep. This time I had a front seat (although there was way too much condensation on the windows for any sort of view, even if we hadn’t drawn the curtains) so leg room wasn’t a big issue, but I was right in front of Maria and didn’t want to recline too far. Also I was paranoid about “manspreading” into Tayla, so I spent the night trying to huddle into the barely-reclined left side of my seat as much as humanly possible to stay out of her space. Between the less-than-ideal seat, trying to make myself as small as possible, and the stewardess talking through the half hour when my Gravol was trying to kick in, I barely slept at all. Which would have a cost the next night, but that’s another story.

Again… ultimately it was better this way. No matter the discomfort, sleeplessness, or ending up knowing that the 12 Rounds movies exist, at least we didn’t lose two entire days of our tour to driving through the Peruvian countryside.

Next time… less about buses and more about sand dunes, as the gang arrives in Nazca.

Danny in the Andes: Arrival

…Or, the Peruvian Whovian.

Or not that? If you like…

It suddenly occurred to me on a Friday evening in late February that, in less than 48 hours, I would be in South America for the first time. Now, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. I booked the trip last June, after all. So that should have been plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that I would, come the end of February, be in Peru for a tour ending in a four-day hike to Machu Picchu.

Yes, okay, elephant in the room… four days of mountain hiking and three nights of camping normally aren’t things I do for fun, so much as things someone would subject me to as some form of enhanced interrogation. But I did just tell a friend that adventure lies outside your comfort zone, and I try to limit my hypocrisy to things like complaining how overexposed Wolverine is while buying every comic about Batman I can get my hands on.

But that’s later. When my plane landed in Lima, Peru, the four-day hike was still a far-away thing. For now, I was in another country, another continent, another culture for the first time, and once I found the hostel where my tour would begin, there was only one thing to be done…

What's your second guess?

What’s your second guess?

A nap.

Don’t get all judgey, with your judging and whatnot. I arrived in Lima at 8 AM (two hours behind schedule, thanks so, Dallas airport, but whatevs), I didn’t sleep great on the flight to Lima. Either of them. I’ve done two overnight flights to London in recent years, and in both cases, a mid-day nap turned out to be necessary in order to avoid falling asleep in the middle of the city. Sometimes while standing up. So, I decided to head that off at the pass, grab a 90 minute nap, and then head out into the city to see what I could see… and maybe buy some toothpaste and conditioner because I kinda forgot to pack those.

Found the touristy spot.

Found the touristy spot.

The hostel was a short walk from the both the beach and Miraflores, Lima’s (and possibly the country’s) most upscale, touristy area. Seemed a good place to try and find some ceviche for lunch. Through some sort of providence, I not only found it, but found a place that made a trio of ceviches similar to the versions I came to love in Belize and Mexico. Not as easy as you’d think, since in Peru it involves much larger chunks of fish (often tuna) on a bed of onions, rather than the smaller-chunk seafood-salsa version I know and love.

I was less successful in finding the beach.

Yes, that one.

Yes, that one.

Yes, obviously I could see it, and there were people on it, but the coast of Lima (at least next to Miraflores and Barranco, where the hostel was) is waaaaaay downhill from the rest of the city, finding a way down wasn’t super easy, and it was really beginning to sink in that I’d completely forgotten to put on sunscreen before heading out for the day, so “inside” felt like my friend.

And to enjoy the fact that as the only guy in my group, I got a room to myself without having to pay for the upgrade. Score.

7:00… time to meet the group. The five people I’d be spending the next two weeks with: our guide and four younger, fitter, and far prettier ladies of my Peru on a Shoestring adventure.

My new peeps.

My new peeps.

Kate and Amy, both from Ontario… despite living in the same province, they met on the far side of the planet, backpacking through Australia, New Zealand, and southeast Asia, and are now travel pals. Which is the sort of friendship I find fascinating.

Tayla from South Africa. Youngest of the group, taking a year to wander the Earth in between school and starting work in accounting. I’ve liked the idea of a “gap year” ever since I heard of it. Which, sadly, was too late to actually have one myself. Although it wouldn’t have helped that the idea of having a job while going to school seemed, like, way too stressful to my addled teenaged mind. My addled teenaged mind had, as I’ve stated in the past, some powerfully stupid and self-destructive notions. Moving on.

Maria, originally from Russia, currently living in Brooklyn and bartending in New Jersey. At first, the quietest member of the group (a group that includes me, a notorious introvert with habitual difficulty entering conversations), but we would learn that those still waters ran deep.

And last but hardly least, Elard, photographer and our guide from here to the start of the Inca Trail. A guide who handily doesn’t just know the historical facts about churches, but also where to find dinner, crepes, and cheap happy hour drinks.

For night one, we grabbed dinner by the hostel, a “getting to know you” style of thing. We were introduced to one of the national drinks of choice, the pisco sour, made from a type of brandy (pisco) produced in Peru and Chile. I also ordered a dish made from strips of beef heart, because I cling to my belief that if I eat enough odd things while on vacation, I will somehow find redemption for eating McDonald’s in Greece instead of discovering souvlaki and flaming saganaki a decade early.

Damn you, Past Dan! Think how many more of these we could have eaten!

Damn you, Past Dan! Think how many more of these we could have eaten!

It was, overall, a simple day. The Lima airport isn’t in the best neighbourhood, and my drive to the hostel felt reminiscent of every movie set in Brazil’s favelas. Miraflores, however, took the edge off the culture shock. Ocean and heat aside, Miraflores now felt like most major cities I’ve been to. Most of them are alike, in their ways.

That… would not last. I would learn that Lima is in a part of the country still heavily influenced by the former Spanish occupation, whereas the areas we’d be travelling to are still influenced by the Incas, some people even still speaking the local languages from before Spanish occupation. Perhaps that’s why Lima was the one major city we visited whose restaurants tended not to carry guinea pig.

But the smaller-town, less affluent, tiny winding streets of inland Peru would have to wait. Tonight, there was just meeting the crew, a brief and unsuccessful attempt to watch some of the Oscars (the Spanish dubbing really drowned out the English, it was annoying to try and follow), and a spectacularly bad night of sleep in my single hottest hotel room.

Next time… buses.