Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Riding on the top of trash, and paying for it!!

MACHU PICCHU

"Unless hiking the Inca Trail (to Machu Picchu), visitors must come by train to Aguas Calientes. There is no other way." (Lonely Planet South America). Hah!! There is always a back door my friends, always some other way, never listen to the rules, I bite my thumb at them. The train to Machu Picchu may well be nice, I would sure hope so for the now cheapest price of $30 dollars US for one way from the town closest to the town situated below Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes. This train lasts about an hour or two, for those of us from New England, it's roughly equivalent to the exorbitantly priced Amtrak line down to NYC.

This obstacle confronted Tatianna and I when we arrived in Ollantaytambo, the last station foreigners can board the PeruRail train (actually owned by a Chilean-American conglomerate, like all of Machu Picchu), and the place to catch the "backpackers" train to Aguas Calientes. Now, for some that may not seem like much, but for two erstwhile kids trying to make a dollar out of a fifteen cents while we wander and wonder at this great continent, $30 bucks one way is a little prohibitive to one of the most famous sites of South America.

Some time ago, while surfing the internet, I stumbled across a note that told of another way, a "backdoor" if you will. A little more adventure, a little more time, but a lot less money, and that's why I travel. Unfortunately I was unable to find that gem again, and could only encounter rare stories of people walking the 30 km along the railway. Honestly, this is tough, but doable for me, however, given our backpack weights and the burden of a sack of potatoes that we must now carry like an albatross or scarlet letter, the price of a few free nights stay, Tatianna and I decided 20 some odd miles might be pushing it. Luckily, along with the potatoes came the gem again. A Peruvian friend told us of another way to reach Aguas Calientes, a bit of walking, but nothing too much. And so when we arrived in Ollantaytambo and saw the prices, we hopped on a bus across the Andes.

Climbing up out of the Sacred Valley we summited a beautiful pass, sequestered in the driver's cabin of a rambling peruvian bus on an endless dirt road. As night fell we dove into the jungle on the Amazonian side of Perú. After some hours we arrived in a one horse junction town where we would stay. We were told there was another little van that took off into the mountains to the next village on our trek at 3 am, a little early. Instead, we slept in, had a nice breakfast, and caught the afternoon one. Climbing higher and higher into this valley to the north of Aguas Calientes, well off the map, I could feel a tinge or two of excitement. End of the line, a half horse town, and depending on who you believed we only had two or more like five hours of walking ahead of us.

It being 2:30 or so in the afternoon, 2 hours seemed fine, so we started. Crossed a river via a little basket on a wire, and got back on our feet. The way was beautiful and fairly desolate, a dirt road winding along a river. Incredible waterfalls and mountains rose to either side. Finally we arrived, or so we thought. Where we were was the Estacion Hidroelectrica, the end of the railway, and another two hours walk from Aguas Calientes. It was 5, but we pushed on. If you've ever hiked with a 30-40 pound pack for a ways, you know it's tiring, if not, believe me, it's tiring. Trying to focus on railroad tracks as the sun disappears and leaves you in an ethereal grayland for another hour or two makes one cross eyed. A hard slog, but we arrived, found our place to stay, and saved $30!

Machu Picchu, a lesson in how to not push your girlfriend over the edge. Machu Picchu is more expensive than the Taj Mahal. In keeping with the rampant overpricing, the short bus ride from the bottom to the top is about $20 one way. Student tickets are "cheap" but as I am sadly an adult now, entrance is roughly $25 US. Under my petulant impetus, we arose "early" and started the 1-2 hour hike up the mountain, passed continually by hordes of comfortable tourists riding Mercedes Benz "ecologico" buses. We arrived for the beautiful early morning sun hitting the ruins, obscured only by a pea soup of clouds that would last at least another two hours. Oh well. Hiked about some, then continued the climb up the mountain that rises over the ruins.

The Incans were some kind of masochists in my opinion, and perhaps I am as well. The thousand or so stairs to the top were all well and good, and the view fantastic. I then wanted to view another temple down the backside, little did I assume it would include another two thousand stairs, two plus hours more, and the end of Tatianna's energy. (She was a little bitter.) We limped back down after a little more exploration, again surpassed by endless hordes of tourists a bit more sensible than I.

After some hot showers, a little hot springs action for myself, we prepared for the next day's return. The railroad tracks were much easier in the day, and we met a friendly Peruviano along the way who was doing a little fishing. He informed us a train would come along and it was only $8 US for the ten km ride or so. We'll keep on walking thank you very much.

Well, the train did come, and as it passed, Tatianna fulfilled one of her lifelong goals of leaping onto a moving train, leaving me standing on the side of the tracks. Not to be outdone, I got to hustling, sprinted alongside, pack filled with potatoes et al, grabbed a bar and swung on.

A friendly Peruviano let me in the locked car, and I sat down as if nothing had happened. The conductor came through, and even though I tried valiantly to ignore him, he informed me I had to move to the "tourist" car, thbbtpt. Then he requested I pay the 8 dollar tarifa. I began a long spiel about how I didn't have the money, I had only recently boarded the train (which he didn't appreciate) and I felt it was unjust to be required to pay the full fare for half the ride. 8 dollars, he repeated, and kindly showed me the tariff list. Yes yes, and I went on with wild gesticulations of disagreement, when suddenly, another conductor threw open the tour and shouted "Hay una turista en el maquina!!!" (There is a female tourist in the engine car!!). I smiled, that's my Tatianna.

They took off to apprehend the "turista," and left another less diligent fellow to mind me. At one point the train slowed to a stop and I tried to make my break but I was told to sit back down. Being a well mannered individual, I complied graciously. A few minutes later, my "guard" decided to relieve himself and visit the little chico's room and I surreptitiously unlocked the door and gingerly stepped off with only a slight stumble. Waved the train goodbye and continued on my merry way, hoping to run into Tatianna.

After some time and questioning of the locals, who all knew of the gringa that jumped the train, I found her well back on the tracks. Apparently the first stop of the train had been the conductor throwing her from the train in a rather ungentlemanly manner, shame on him. Milling about, completely ignored by the train officials we had so recently duped, we waited for the truck that would return us to the town we had started from two days before, this time, no walking thank god.

The truck arrived, and after they loaded it with suspicious blue barrels, we were told to hop on. The driver wanted Tatianna and the other gringa (white female) to ride in the cab with him ( suprise ), but Tatianna being game, we clambered on top and let the other less adventurous couple ride inside. "What's in the barrels?" we asked. "Oh all the trash from Machu Picchu!" Super, and with us as the additional trash on top (they all liked that joke) we lumbered on out.

After only a minor fiasco with the dump truck driver ( trying to overcharge us for riding on his trash, the nerve) we crossed the river via basket on a wire again, and set up camp with a truckload of gringos on some sort of tour that had found our little backdoor. In the morning, hiked down to some incredibly well done thermal pools and then ran back to town for the van that would take us out of there. Junction town revisited, and grabbed a bus for Cuzco. Only slightly delayed by a wall of rocks in the road, but these things are normal when travelling through backdoors. All told, we had a three day adventure for about the same price as the one way train ticket, hoorah as Al Pacino would say.

CUZCO

Due to random connections of Tatianna's, we had a free place to stay in the Sacred Valley, in the town of Urubamba. Lovely joint, wanted us to go horseback riding with them at a measly 40 times the going rate of other places, but oh well. We decided to take a day and go visit some ruins in Cuzco. On the bus ride there, Tatianna slept while I saw all these fascinating ruins from the window. We arrived and realized, those were the ruins we had come to see, drat. So we set about walking around.

Stumbled across a bunch of people in costume getting loaded and dancing. Well, as you can imagine, soon we too were imbibing in the local culture. While I negotiated a reasonable bride price for Tatianna with a lecherous man named Jesus, she danced with a man with a 10 inch tongue and colorful socks. The situation got a little awkward, it tends to and I don't know why, so we took our gracious leave.

Filled to the brim with national pride and the national beer, we were absent mindedly looking for a baño when we stumbled across a crowd and some street performers. Gringos not being so common in that area of town, and my long blonde hair being something of an abnormality, we drew a little attention and were invited into the circle and the performance. This is how I came to dance with a short man in a seventh grade pink prom dress, and subsequently whip him.

We also were duped into hawking wafers for the buskers (street performers) for their day's take. I must say I sold the most by far, I think the people were sympathetic to my plight, for if I did not sell all my snacks, the performers were going to steal Tatianna. We then sat down to enjoy the rest of the show, sort of obligated as the guests of honor in the center of the crowd. All the while, the few bottles of beer and water we had taken were rising to our ears, finally we could take no more, leapt up and dove out of the crowd, not even taking the time to say goodbye.

Ah sweet relief, we ambled through some markets, came across the most delicious thing ever, churros, fried dough stuffed with some sort of sweet lard (don't knock it 'till you've tried it) and grabbed the next bus home. The next day, bid our farewells to the horseback folks, they sang us a sweet song and the son told us about the backdoor to MP. The father then asked a "small" favor of us. Could we please take a small sack of Peruvian potatoes to his daughter in the States? Sure! Oh, five pounds of potatoes, and so, I have five pounds of peruvian potatoes in my bag, my albatross for three free nights stay.

NOW

We are in Ayacucho, birthplace of the "Sendero Luminoso" ( or Shining Path ) a guerrilla terrorist group responsible for 40 to 60000 "disappearances" in the late 80's and early 90's, it's a great little city. To arrive here, we arose at 5 am in our Cuzco hotel with no water ( don't worry, we didn't pay very much ), took a 4 hour bus to Abancay, from there a 6 hour bus on a terrible dirt road to Andahuaylas, and then a ten hour bus on a worse dirt road over night. Yeah!

Ayacucho is great, maybe three other tourists in the whole town, bumping action in the plaza and market place. Had a discussion about meat prices in Croatia with a butcheress (we're from there, didn't you know?), held a set of bull horns, part of the bloody skull still attached up to my head for a photo, watched a man remove a frog from it's body ( this is difficult to explain ), and did a little anonymous people watching while indulging in a local treat, like a milksicle. Soon we head to the coast, a little sunworship and fish eating.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Soy Federale!!

Today we arrived in Cuzco, Perú. Once capital to the Incas and now to fanny pack toting tourists from the world over. Lovely city though, as we arrived at about 6 am, we headed into the central plaza, and what luck, the giant cathedral looming over the gardens had it's doors flung wide open. Odd thing, the churches here charge an entry fee, unless you happen to arrive during the hours of worship, when tourism is strictly prohibited. Tatianna and I put on our best Catholic school girl faces, difficult considering I have a month old beard and a confounding pounding in my head from the night before (more later), and went in to pay our respects and gawk at the awe inspiring carved wood altars and 30 ft portraits of Jesus and his lambs.

Afterwards we sated our hunger with real breakfast!! ( a much bigger deal than you might think sitting comfortably in your American kitchens with all sorts of goodies for the breaking of the fast ). The coffee was more like three espressos in a large cup, and after two, I am writing this email with a little bit of the jitters.

So my confounding pounding. We left Copacabana, Bolivia yesterday on a busload of Israelis for Puno, Perú. Dropped off our bags in the bus terminal and meandered into town. The main drag was just one large market, getting increasingly interesting, climaxing with an endless array of parilladas (bbq's) featuring all sorts of meat, my favorite, whole guinea pig. We had a bite to eat on the family side, then headed over to the pounding disco side for a little revelry. Peruvian beer is not particulary strong, but combine terrific deals with terrific altitudes and latin music, and you have a party. Tatianna made friends with some local boys, who gave us chiclets. Well, I suppose they were more friendly with me, but their intentions were plain, I am one good looking rubio (blonde) but I imagine the latin boys fancied the gringa to my side a shade more.

Anywho, they left, and a great bear of a man that had been trying to get us to join him at his table brought us another round of cuenqueña (peruvian beer), so we were obliged to go an join them. After many, arriba, abajo, afrente, adentro ( to the up, down, out front, and inside ) cheers, we were a littly rosy. Turns out, the whole place was filled with Policia Nacional de Perú. As Tatianna said, muy buen compania, very good drinking company. After a round or two, one of them gave me his badge for a photo op, and then to keep, which is what I have hanging around my chest right now. Hence, I am a Federale!!

A round or two more, and the gun was brought out for authentic Dirty Harry style photography. All the meanwhile, Tatianna and I had been pretending to be from Croatia, so as to avoid awkward conversations and english. Trouble with these sorts of lies, someone has always been there and wants to know things that any decent Croat would know. The guy that gave me his badge had studied in Croatia some years before, drat. Needless to say, we covered up our deceit with aplomb.

As things were getting a little blurry, we made for a bathroom break. Tatianna danced with an old red haired lady in the baño that had been pounding them back at the table next to us for at least twice as long as us, while I made use of the urinario, half of an oil drum behind a stack of plastic buckets next to which were sitting the ladies that charged the entry fee, what privacy, how posh! Almost right up there with the bathroom in the Felix, the bar at the top of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong ( a must see in the world bathroom tour ). Upon leaving, we were "accosted" by another parillada operator, also a little tipsy it seemed, trying to solicit some business. Luckily... I suppose, the bear of a man, who happened to be some sort of police "jefe" (chief), showed up out of concern for us, and escorted us most graciously back to the table. At this point it became obvious that the "jefe" was interested in being more than just friends with one of us (sadly not me) and our little world got a little uncomfortable. After much debating, we made it clear it was time to go, and beat a hasty retreat. Tatianna singing a stirring rendition of an Irish drinking song in Spanish all the merry way back to the terminal. Then a bus ride, and here we are in Cuzco.

La Paz was a fun city, truly breath taking, as in, it is difficult to breath. It runs down the center of a valley, which climbs steeply from either side of the main drag. We stayed on the quiet side, and traversed each day to the more raucous. I unfortunately left my mp3 charger in southern bolivia, and after much confusing debate over the phone with the hotel in the south that I knew had it, I gave up and decided to try and find a replacement charger. Thus began our foray into the Bolivian electronics world. We found a Bolivian super geek who seemed more than up to the challenge of making a replacement charger. With my player in his hands, and a hefty fee, we went on our merry way. He showed up at the hotel that night ( what service! ) with my replacement and was all smiles and grins. Looked like it worked, it didn't.

Went back the next day and dropped it off again, still no worky later on. In the end, I got nothing, he got some of my money ( something about these latin countries is really making me soft ). We had lunch in a little hole in the wall place with WWF (world wide wrestling) on the big screen, in spanish. The best was the match between "The Legend" and "Icon" For those of you not into wrestling, "Legend" is the almighty Hulk Hogan back in action ( if you don't know the Hulk, well, I'm sorry) and Icon is the reincarnation of Shawn Michaels a great one from the early nineties. The old lady that ran the joint sat down and watched a few suplexes with us, good times.

From La Paz to Copacabana. We sneaked onto a boat out to the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Inca, with a Bolivian couple and an Israeli couple. As it was nearing the end of the day, and Lago Titicaca was beginning to put up some waves, the boat driver convinced us it would be much easier to let us out early, and it was only a short walk. We jumped off, and I swear over the boat engine and waves I heard maniacal laughter. So the Bolivian guy had a few broken toes, and thus an entire foot cast. We hiked up the stairs from the dock only to find ourselves fenced inside of some Incan ruins. I made a quick escape over the fence, thank you college days, but the rest were not so foxy. The rest made a prison break under the fence, a few torn pants, but none the worse. We then began the hour plus long slog in the dark, with 2 and half flashlights for six people along a rocky manure strewn trail. With a thunder storm closing in, how exciting.

I learned a few new curse words from the Bolivian chap that evening, and as the couple was most grateful for our patient assistance and carrying of their luggage, they took us all out to dinner. Bolivian dining is even slower than Argentine, so after two hours of waiting, some food finally arrived, and it was gone in as many minutes. The next day Tatianna and I hiked to the north end of the island, slugging all our gear, well, I with a mine and her's, but hey, that's what I'm here for. She had joked about hiring a burro, and I'm free. We camped out on the shore, but as we were with spitting distance of the water, and another thunderstorm was passing close by, the fright of the waves taking us out to join the long lost Incans kept one of us awake most of the evening, which of course meant both of us. The next day, tired and sore, made it back to Copacabana, and then on to Perú, today.