Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On The Way Out

Ushuaia, Argentina

Jarah is back with the OC. We're sitting in the waiting room of the Hotel Albatross, now, waiting until we can join the rest our our group for an Argentinean BBQ. The gaggle of honkies going with us to Antarctica jumped on some buses to visit the nearby national park, but we had all been there within the past coupla days, so we skipped out. Instead, we'll catch up with them at some other hotel for our bon voyage lunch. Then, around 4pm (local time), we'll be boarding the Orlova, and heading south.

I'm not sure what to expect on this trip. Mike was in charge of organizing the whole affair, so he probably has some intimate knowledge about what we're getting into. I know that we're going to the Antarctic Peninsula, and we'll spend some time on land, and perhaps in a Zodiac. There may or may not be snow. That's it. I kind of like not knowing. The unknown nature of it makes it feel like a bit more of an adventure.
The other two things I'm looking forward to are simpler, but it's the simple things you miss on a long trip like the OC.

Simple Thing #1: I've heard a rumor that there will be a gym on board. It's been over six months since I've had any serious exercise. I've done my best to stretch out and do some basic work-outs on the road, but it's hard to maintain a regular schedule. Traveling through the fatty, mayonnaise-laden food-fest that is South America for the past two months hasn't helped, either. I'm used to being pretty physically active, so the lack exercise is a definite drain on my energy level. Plus, it's making me feel like a fat-ass.
Hopefully, I'll get in some daily work on the boat. It'll be nice to have a little physical re-invigoration. I'll need all my abilities if I want to be able to capoiera my brains out in Brazil.

Simple Thing #2: Busing through southern Peru, I got the sudden urge to check out the old Far Primus D&D page, which is still mirrored on my laptop. Looking through it brought back some fond memories and gave me a strong desire to pick up the dice again.
When the trip first started, I figured we would have a shitload of free time to deal with. So, I came up with a bunch of hobbies to keep us occupied on the road. One of these diversions was a D20 campaign. So far, it's been a failure, but in a good way. The trip itself has been so engrossing that we haven't needed any outside diversions. No free time = no D20.
But, there should be plenty of free time aboard the Orlova on our way to and from the cold plains of the Antarctic. So, in between our bouts of snow-covered binge drinking, we should be able to squeeze in some righteous RPGing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Radio Silence

Ushuaia, Argentina

Tomorrow the OC boards a boat for Antarctica and will not return to land unil January 6th. We ain´t gonna have no phone, no post, and no Internet. If you need to get in touch, the Psychic Friends Network is your best bet. Happy New Years to one and all. We will be full of stories about ice and photos of penguins when we return.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Photo Album: Navimag

The southern patagonia portion of Chile is basically impassable by land. So, we took the sea route.

Photo Album: Drink Chile

Mike and I had an alcoholics tour of Chile. I'm sure it would have been totally awesome if I remembered any of it.

Video Gallery: The Hunger

A terrifying movie about a monster so powerful he could eat us all.

The Hunger (little) (big)

Remember, VLC Player is the official player of the OC!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Chilean Chow

Chile

Common dining options in Chile are not that much different from those available in Peru. Breakfasts are of the bread and coffee school, lunches are big, and dinners are taken late. Salads are large and enforce strict segregation between different elements. Almost everything is served with rice or potatoes. The soups are nice and served in large portions, but not quite as nice as those found to the north. On the upside, waiters tend to be very friendly and conversational. Their affable demeanor can not spice up the monotonous grub, but it does make you feel better about leaving a tip.

Some notable details:

Locos - This is some sort of sea create that >might< be the same thing as abalone, but I am not sure. They are served cold on a plate with mayonaise, have a meaty texture, and a taste that is somewhere between fish and shellfish. They are nice, if a bit chewy.

Picorocos - This is one of the most adventurous shellfish I have seen - barnacles. The ones I had were served hot (probably steamed) in a point bit of shell. You eat just the stringy white meat around a repulsive testicle-like center. They have a very nice taste that reminds me of very good crab. Who knew that something you scrape off of a boat or dock could be so nice?

Lomo al Pobre - You find this dish in just about every restaurant in Chile. It is a hearty piece of beef loin topped with two fried eggs and some fried onions. The rest of the plate is filled with a mountain of french fries. It is nice, but nothing really special. The eggs are a fine touch.

Chilean Hot Sauce - The standard table condiments include a plastic squeeze bottle of chilli sauce. I love this stuff. It is quite hot at first with a pepper/vinegar taste but very quickly cools off and disappears entirely and does not interfere with the basic flavor of the food. I particularly like it on meat dishes as the portions are generally so large as to become boring halfway through the meal.

Ceviche - You see this on menus, but at time of writing there was a ban serving uncooked seafood, so no dice.

Completos - Chileans have a thing for hot dogs. A popular snack food is a pile of french fries with stuff (cheese, tomatoes, pickles, etc.) cut up and buried in it. The best hot dog treat of all is the completo, for sure. It is a normal wiener on a toasted bun topped off by saurkraut and tomatoes. An remaining space in the bun is then sealed off with avocado in a spackle-esque manner. Add a healthy line of mayo on the top and you have yourself one fine snack.

Sandwiches - Often imaginative and always huge, Chilean sandwich fair is a good alternative for those bored of the "meat and no veg" style of plate. Sometimes you see examples posted in a glass case in front of restaurants. You might find carefully arranged shrimp on cheese or hotdog slices mixed with pickle to your liking. Many of these offerings tend to sacrifice taste in favor of visual style, though.

Video Gallery: Da Glacier

As we've gotten further south in South America, shit's gotten much colder.

Video Gallery: Completos and Conversation

There is a culinary masterpiece in Chile known as the completo. Truly a marvel of modern cuisine. Watch a master at work.

Merry Christmas

The OC has made it to Ushuaia, Argentina, the ¨southernmost¨city in the world (even though there is a Chilean city at a lower latitude). We spent Christmas Eve in a fancy Argentinean restaurant eating steak & crab and drinking Coke. Today, we´ll probably wander around for hours trying to find anything to do, as everything appears to be closed.

Anyway, I justed wanted to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Hopefully, you all got some kick-ass presents.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Fairy Ride

Between P. Montt and P. Natales, Chile

We just finished a 3 night boat journey through the fijords of southern Chile. The OC opted to pay the extra seventy US for places in a 4 person cabin. The next class down (the lowest) would have us in a dorm of some 32 folks. We figured the extra money was worth it for the little bit of privacy it affords. The two other beds in the cabin were filled by a young-ish Australian named Chris (never asked if that is short for Christen or Christine or something else) and a Frenchman called something that sounds like "Yuan". The latter was so scarce that I did not meet him in person until well into the 2nd day at sea.

The accommodation was of a very good standard. Unlike many beds in the recent past, this one was long enough for me to sleep in a state of complete erection. The boat must have been refitted recently. It certainly had that new boat smell. We had a bathroom just for the 4 of us with hot shower. Above the cabins was a galley that doubled as conference facility for the daily program of talks and presentations on wildlife and culture in both English and Spanish. The top ("pub") deck was a bit smaller leaving room for a large outdoor area with plenty of benches to the rear.

Meals were served in two shifts and where always abundant and usually tasty. Even vegetarians were catered to with some care. Nothing makes an alpaca-clad hippy happy quite like vegan eats served with style. Thankfully, that description did not extend to all of our fellow travelers. Many were young backpacker types, but there were some older couples and even the odd family. Most were European of some stripe and English was far more commonly spoken than Spanish. Memorable characters included Andrea the soon to be law student from NYC and the Storm Troopers of Love - a couple of Polish motorbikers in matching cycle armor.

Almost all of the journey is through an inland waterway. It was mostly cold and rainy with rocky hills or tree-covered slopes on each side. We passed through a rough bit of water for 10 hours when crossing a bay. I spent this time unconscious due to the effects of surprisingly strong anti-motion sickness medication. The disorder in my locker caused by the lurching of the ship was a testament to the size of the swells, though. There was also some physical evidence of puking here and there around the ship. The scenic highlight was a close approach to a particularly nice glacier. The blue color and melting ice flows were very striking on the clear cold day.

The long ferry ride was a welcome change from the long bus rides that have characterized most of our travels in South America. It was also a bit of a training session for the even longer (13 day) trip to and from Antarctica to come.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Richard Bananarama, Part II

Temuco, Chile

We're on the train from heading Santiago down to Puerto Montt. We just finished the overnight section, and we should be arriving at our destination in about six hours. It's time to finish my thoughts about Richard.

We stepped out of the closing bar into the cool Santiago night, and hailed ourselves a cab. After we got in and sped off, Richard asked us where we wanted to go. Since we had tried but failed to find a dance-club earlier, I was still of a mind to go out dancing. We told our man that we wanted a place where we could find dancing and women. Richard started speed-talking to our cabbie, and his face brightened up. He pantomimed the international dance of the stripper and raised his eyebrows. Not exactly what I had in mind, but I am not averse to the naked ladies. Mike and I gave our assent, and we were off.
About twenty minutes later, we found ourselves a few levels below ground, in a musty, 70's era mall. It had clearly been closed for the night, but some dudes in leather jackets had let us in through a small door-gate, and down we had gone. This last store-front at the bottom with the tinted windows was the only place open, and it had some generic latin music pumping out of it. We handed over 10,000 pesos (~$20) for the three of us, and walked in.
The black room we found inside was filled with crappy, fading leather couches and poorly constructed wooden seating booths. There was also a "dance" floor and a bar of sorts, but these were clearly ancillary. The main draw for this particular location was supposed to be the dozen or so women strewn about the room. They were lounging in couches, and strutting around in high-heels and the shortest of skirts. They all seemed uniformly bored, and none of them were particularly attractive. Apart from these women, the club was pretty empty. There were maybe two bartenders and two or three other patrons, but that was it. It was a pretty depressing sight.
But Richard, undaunted, eagerly sheperded us across the room to a booth in the back, and we sat down. He smiled, lit up a cigarette, and we were Instantly swarmed by four girls. They squeezed into the booths with us, sitting on our laps and chatting away. I had no idea what they were saying. At this point in the evening, my spanish reserves were completely depleted, so I just sat there with a half-smile on my face, trying my best not to look uncomfortable. Mike seemed to be doing the same. Richard, on the other hand, was spurning the girls' attention altogether. Although he was the one who was the most eager to be there, he appeared to be completely uninterested in interacting with the girls in any way.
That went on for about half an hour. We just sat there, drinking some really shitty pisco cocktail, smiling and nodding to whatever the ladies said. Eventually, the girls realized that we weren't going to be paying for much, so they ran off. Then, there was a half-hearted strip-tease on the dance floor, and the club started closing. It was time to go.
As we were exiting the club, Richard kept insisting that we move on to another venue that he knew, and this time, he would pay. I was doubtful. About two minutes after he made the offer, he patted down his pockets and "realized" that his wallet had been stolen in the club. We offered to go back with him to find it, but he flat out refused, saying that we should just move onto the next club, on our peso, obviously.
At this point, I realized the night was over. Luckily, the club that Richard had chosen was two blocks away from our hotel, so it would be a quick walk home. It took a bit of convincing, but we eventually bid farewell to Richard. Since he had "lost his wallet" in the club, we had to give him 5,000 pesos for cab fare. Before we parted ways, he got my cell phone number with a promise that he would call me the next day so we could meet up again before we left Santiago.

Thankfully, he never called.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Richard Bananarama, Part I

Santiago, Chile

I'm sitting in our Gotham-style hotel in the middle of El Centro, in Santiago. Today is the day that I came into this earth, and, hopefully, we will be going out for some hard-hittin' drum'n'bass to celebrate my first annual 29th birthday. Last night, we went out to the Barrio Brasil part of town to do a little pre-party, where we met an interesting chileno named Richard.

The evening started with a spicy bang at Plaza Garibaldi with some surprisingly tasty mexican food (that was the first time I had had good mexican food outside of Mexico or SoCal). We were decked out in the best 80's gear we could find so we could attend Blondie, a goth/brit-pop club that was supposed to be the shit. I had noticed that the Santiago youth seemed to be knee-deep in its goth phase, so I figured the place would be "jumping", as it were. Unfortunately, there was some kind of private party going on, so, despite Mike's smooth dance moves and my totally sweet pink tie, they wouldn't let us in. Dejected, we roamed the empty streets of the barrio for about half an hour, trying in vain to find something to pass the night away. We were minutes away from calling it quits when we heard the sounds of drunken revelry blaring at us from a local pub. We stepped in, ordered a huge Escudo, and sat down in the no-man's land between the grizzled old beer drinkers, and the boisterous, screaming college kids.
Richard was sitting with us.
He seemed like a regular middle-aged dude, just sitting in a bar at 1 am, drinking away a hard day's work. We exchanged introductions and pleasantries in broken spanish, clinked together some plastic cups, and began to imbibe our cheap chilean beer. With the sounds of Bon Jovi, Madonna, and raggaeton blasting out of the jukebox behind us, Richard regaled us with stories about how much Peru sucked (the people, mind you; not the land) and how much he liked former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. We awkwardly conversed for a half-hour or so, and ordered some more Escudo before he dropped the bomb on us.
At first, I was sure I misheard him. Chileans speak in a very quick, clipped manner, frequently dropping entire consonants. That compounded with the loud music, my poor spanish skills, and my increasing blood-alcohol level, made it very difficult for me to understand anything he was saying. So, I made him repeat it four or five times, and each time, he leaned closer to me, until he was finally clutching my arm and almost screaming into my ear. Ah, so I hadn't misheard him. He was in fact telling me that his wife died less than a week ago.
O.K.
I wasn't sure what to say. Even if the guy spoke english, I wouldn't have known what to say. But, in spanish, I was worse than useless. So, I just sat there dumbly for a few minutes while he stared unfocused at the drunken college brats murdering some Snoop Dogg track.

Eventually, he came back around. It seemed like getting that piece of sadness off his chest made him feel a lot better, because he started to perk up. We drank a few more Escudo's a talked a bit about our world trip. We bellowed along to some Metallica songs, and scared off the rest of the college kids before the bar eventually started closing. I was thinking that the night was over. It was around 3am, and I wanted to save all of my party hearts for the next night. But, Richard wasn't done. He was ready to keep on keepin' on. And, it was hard to disappoint the man. From talking to him, I definitely got the impression that the past week had been a bit rough, and he didn't seem to have too many friends. So, if he wanted us all to go out and do it proper, who was I to wimp out?
Mike agreed, so we left that venue in search of bigger and better...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Video Gallery: Take That Photograph

We have discovered, through much experimentation, that it is possible to get drunk in Chile.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Video Gallery Additions

Happy Birthday - A look at Peruvian festivities and bad impressions.
Machu Picchu - It's in the mountains, huevon.
Little Girl in a Big Jacket - She's small, but her jacket ain't.

Photo Album: Peru

What did the OC do in Peru? I have no idea.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Quickie: Living It Large in Chile

La Serena, Chile

¡Hola amigos! I know it has been a bit since I blogged at ya, but Old Mike been in a heap of trouble lately. I got mucho drunk, spent all my dinero, and ended up in Chile with a whopper of a hangover. Such is the life of the OC warrior, I suppose. At any rate, Jason and I are well and fixing to head inland to find the home of pisco. More to come.

A P.S for AM/FM - We did not die in a bus crash.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

!@#$%^&*()

I just gotta start off by saying that this is the first blog thing that I've ever done, and I must say I feel like such a giant nerd right now! Anyways, I've been ordered to talk about my Peruvian experience, but unfortunately I wasn't able to stay long enough to form much of an opinion of Peru. But that's ok, I didn't go to Peru to see Peru, I went to spend some much needed time with good people and I'm happy to say my mission was accomplished! I guess the best part of my week in Peru, was me learning that it's quite possible that not ALL men are assholes. So, thank you so much, Jason and Mike, for letting me join the OC. I love you guys very much and I'll be praying (shut up) for you guys' continued safety for the rest of your travels. I hope I wasn't too much for ya'll to deal with.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I Lost My Watch

Arica, Chile

Just before leaving LA, I received a wristwatch with my initials engraved on it as a parting gift from my girlfriend. The thing was a constant source of frustration. I could not for the life of me figure out how to turn off the alarm. I could change when it would start beeping, but was unable to silence it altogether. Jason thought this was hilarious because I take so much pride in being a master of all things one and zero. Once a day I was assured of at least one of those trademark Briceno laughs at this dent in my digerati armor.

For the first month or so, the watch alarm would go off at noon every day. Somewhere in Siberia, I changed it to seven in the morning. That proved to be a bit optimistic and I reset it to 10. Experience showed that the watch alarm is not really loud enough to wake me up, so I changed the time again to ten until one in the afternoon. In theory, this was meant to remind me to take my doxy (anti-malaria) pill for the day. In practice, it was more of a reminder of the giver, my fond feelings for whom more than overwhelmed any discontent resulting from Jason's reliably explosive guffaw.

I had arranged to spend my short time in LA between NZ and Peru in the company of this much-remembered woman, but things did not go my way. She was not waiting at the airport as expected and I found out a bit later by email that she no longer wished to see me and asked that I make no effort to contact her. That hurt quite a bit and was made more difficult by the daily reminder of my now estranged love interest. It was a few days later that I resolved to rid myself of the watch and the reminders along with it.

My original plan was to give it to a beggar, preferably one of the handful of kids that approach me every day asking for food or money. It is a nice Phlippe Starck watch - very modern and fashionable. I liked the idea of a Peruvian street urchin walking around with my urban hipster timepiece. Maybe he could tell his friends that he got it from some crazy gringo and later sell it for a few bucks. I never acted on this plan, though. It was not until the middle of Chile that I parted company with the watch.

During a night out in Arica, we accidentally went to a nudie club. The Lonely Planet described the place as a "popular and lively bar" or something like that. We probably should have known better since it had no windows and two suited bouncers out front, but I still claim innocence. The bar operates like a hostess club. You buy expensive beers for under-dressed girls and in return you get to enjoy their company. From time to time they dim the already dimness and one or a few of the girls does a dance.

Probably because we are money-soak gringos, Jason and I each got our own stripper to hang out with. Three awkward exchanges into the conversation, almost on script, one of the girls pointed out Jason's necklace - a dog chain secured by a small padlock. Not missing a beat, he took it off and put it around her neck. On impulse, I put my watch on the other girl's wrist as a joke, then set about drinking myself forgetful. We stumbled out of the place some hours later and left the watch behind. I say that I "lost" it, but I knew as soon as I took it off that I was never going to see it again.

Giving away the watch did not solve the core problem. I am still smarting from the especially sudden and ferocious dumping and think about the dumper a great deal. There is no longer a specific daily reminder, but I remember just the same. This must be one of those wounds that only time will heal. I tried booze, but that just makes it worse. I wonder if that stripper will figure out how to turn the damn alarm off.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Incan Vittles

Peru

I figured that food in Peru (and the rest of South America) would be similar to food in Mexico. Not so. I will not go so far as to call the cooking of Peru "distinctive", but it is certainly distinct from that of Mexico. There is probably a burrito hiding around Lima somewhere, but I did not find it. And there are times when it would have been most welcome.

Meals are served in what I would call a European style. Breakfast is generally small - bread, butter, jam, toe or coffee, and milk. I did not see any breakfast cereal and only on the odd occasion did an egg make an appearance and it was always hard boiled. Peruvian bread seems to come perforated in puck-sized discs. It can easily be split into two sides, affording double the target area for your chosen spreads.

Lunch is the big meal of the day and comes in the holy gastronomic trinity of soup, main meal, and dessert. Dinner seems to be something of a matter of personal taste and for us it almost always rivaled lunch in size and complexity so there is really no need to distinguish. Main dishes are generally meat with sides of rice and potatoes. Those of you used to meat and two veg need be prepared for the extra bulk of meat and two starch. Spicing is minimal and I never ate anything that could be described as "hot as in spicy".

A few specifics:

Soups - For me, the soup was often the highlight of the meal. Peruvian broth are often subtle mix of new flavors and the substance of the bowl an unusual combo like noodle and goat or quinoa and llama. Bowls of soup are big and taken with a bit of bread and could be considered a meal on their own. On one notable occasion, I got a bowl of seafood soup that contained just about everything in the sea. It was garnished by an entire crab sitting menacingly on the summit of a mountain of ocean critters.

Salads - Peru does believe in the harmony of the vegetable world. Salads are served as if the chef expected the asparagus to try to start something with the tomatoes so a bit of beet had to be put between them to keep down trouble. The different citizens of your (surprisingly large) plate inhabit their own little fiefdoms and are served without dressing. It is nice if you like a simple plate of segregated raw plant, but not so great if you are looking for a cohesive dish.

Ceviche - I always associated this with Chile, but Jason tells me it actually comes from Spain. At any rate, it is seafood served raw with onions and a lot of lemon juice. For the sake of freshness, it should not be eaten after 2 o'clock. I tried a special variety comprised entirely of shellfish that is supposed to have an aphrodisiac quality. Even my great love of squishy things from the sea was unable to fully overcome the repulsive qualities of an uncooked pile of goo. The more common and less adventurous varieties are very nice, though.

Fried Chicken - Peruvians seem to have a great love of fried chicken. There are a lot of chicken and chips shop around where you can get 1/4, 1/2, or 1/1 chicken and small, medium, or large mountains of chips to match. There are some nice-ish restaurants that specialize in chickens, but they seem like places reserved for a quick meal, birthday parties, youth soccer teams, and the morbidly obese.

Cuy - This is possibly the worst meal I have ever had. Cuy is a guinea pig that has been skinned, gutted, pressed flat, cooked somehow and served up whole on a big plate. It is considered something of a delicacy. I think it sucks. It looks like roadkill, smells of rodent, and is very difficult to eat. What small amount of meat there is resides under a very greasy layer of fat. Yuck.

Heart Skewers - A common street food is beef hearts cooked on skewers over coals. It is not as good as it sounds.

THE Sandwich - Every country has its apres booze food. It is what you eat after the pub or bar or club closes and you have been at it all night and you are dying for a snack. In England, it is the kebab. In the US, it is a hearty breakfast. In Peru, it is The Sandwich of All God's Creatures. Between two pieces of bread, you get: a fried egg, turkey, beef, hot dog, bacon, french fries, and your choice of color of mayo. I prefer pink. You can not help but admire the audacity and zoological scope of the thing.

In conclusion, Peruvian food is unremarkable except for the odd highlight. I would say that it is nothing to write home about if I was not doing just that.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Happy Birthday to Me

Anapia, Peru

When I was younger, I did not really like to celebrate my birthdays. That changed later on when I figured out that your birthday is the one day of the year that you can be the center of attention and have things your way with a minimum of persuasion. "Come on, it's my birthday" is a thin but effective argument. From about 20, I have tried to gather around as many friends as possible and get drunk trailer park style. Since a mob was not in the cards and (as much as I enjoy it) going out and drinking with just Jason is not that unusual of an event, I decided to look for a more creative venue and format. For reasons not entirely clear, the chosen venue was Lake Titicaca's Anapia Island and the format was left to chance.

In my mind, Lake Titicaca is one of those places that exists entirely to serve the needs of trivia. Like Ulan Bataar and The Caspian Sea, I am generally more likely to see the name on Jeopardy than on a road sign. I reckon that is why I was so keen to go there for my birthday. Puno is the biggest Peruvian city on the shores of Titicaca. A travel agent there arranged for us to stay with a family for two nights on Anapia Island.

Getting to the island is a bit of a trek. The journey started bright and early when we boarded a comfortable bus full of other gringos on their way to Boliva. A scenic hour and a half later, the driver dropped us off on a dusty road just before the border. We stood there for a bit having a North by Northwest moment before hiring a bicycle taxi to cart us into the town of Yunguyo. We were met by at an arranged point by a man who was to take us the rest of the way to the island.

After picking up a few supplies, we walked across town (only a kilometer or so) and boarded a small passenger bus known in these parts as a collectivo. On first inspection, you think that maybe 12 or so people could fit into the available seats. Do to Peruvian advances in stacking technology, they get more like 25 passengers aboard. These people must be masters at Tetris. Our short journey was good value for money at thirty US cents a head despite the discomfort caused by long legs in short seats and the disconcert at having all of our worldly belongings traveling unsecured on the roof.

The collectivo dropped us right next to Titicaca where we boarded a small (maybe 15 foot) boat after a short chat with a friendly family enjoying their Saturday by the lake. The boat ride takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes. The scenery made it seem like less. The shore was green with fields and farms and clusters of trees. Beyond those were hills and blue sky and, in the direction of Bolivia, snow-capped mountains. Little groups of ducks scattered from the boat's path and we saw many small boats powered by colorful sails.

Anapia is small and remote. You can walk across the widest bit (taking in the highest point) in less than 30 minutes. Most people live in stone houses, work the land, and raise animals (pigs, chickens, and cows) for a living. I got the impression that much of the local produce is for local consumption. We, at least, were drinking milk straight out of the cow and eating eggs fresh from the chicken. The gift of mangos to our hosts was appreciated as all fruits on the island have to be brought in by boat.

Before leaving Puno, I had stopped at a local bakery and picked myself up a birthday cake. After dinner on the first night, we sat down with the family in a concrete room lit by dim bulbs for a little birthday party. There were no candles, but Jason led the group in song, and we washed down big pieces of cake with steaming glasses of hot chocolate. The conversation was awkward due to language difficulties, but everyone agreed that the cake was good (if expensive by local standards).

Earlier in the day, our hosts had mentioned something about putting flowers in my hair when we were discussing plans for the party. I had passed this off as an idiomatic expression. It turns out to have been literal. When everyone had had their fill of cake, they took turns dumping a handful of flower petals (or small pieces of paper, I never determined which) on my head, giving me hugs, shaking my hand, and wishing me many more happy years. That done, we all went straight to bed. It was about nine thirty.

I woke up the next day with no hangover, not stinking of cigarettes, and with no blank spaces in my memory. It did not really feel like a birthday, but maybe that is for the best.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Machu Pikachu

Machu Picchu, Peru

I am often of two minds when it comes to visiting monuments of extreme fame. The long lines, tacky souvenir shops, pushy vendors, high prices, and flocks of gringos can be a bit much to bear just for the privilege of viewing some rickety old building. In the case of the Great Wall, the annoyances outweighed the enjoyment. This was not so at the Taj Mahal.

Jason dragged my ass out of bed at around 05:00. We had breakfast and arranged ickets all in time to board a bus to the site by seven. When we arrived, it was still a bit dark, the ruins were covered in intermittent fog, and (most importantly) there were only a comparative handful of other souls around to share the scene.

MP lives up to its reputation as a wonder of the ancient lord. The natural setting alone is worth the climb. It is a very steep mountain some 2000 meters high surrounded on all sides by heavily-vegetated rocky peaks and (almost on all sides) a rushing river far below. The human contribution was once a cluster of maybe 100 stone buildings and dense terracing near the summit. On first sight, I reckon everyone asks themselves the same question: "Why would you build a city here?"
Once past the entrance gate, visitors are generally free to walk among the ruins as they see fit. We opted to avoid guided tours and take things in on our own. It is more fun to infer your own purposes for all the stonework than listen to canned (and probably inaccurate) explanations from someone else.

After a good walk around the site, we took the first of two short hikes. It took us across a small valley and up one of the surrounding peaks by way of steep stone steps laid out in switchbacks. I had to stop a few times to catch my breath. A high-altitude stairmaster really gets the heart going. It rained a bit near and at the top, but we made it up the final steps, through an Inca-hewn tunnel, and to the summit in good time. The reward was a marvelous view back down to the main section of MP that would come and go as the fog blew through the mountains.

After lunch, we did a second hike over to what is left of an Incan bridge. This path was nice and flat but along a sheer drop of maybe 200 meters. The bridge itself was out of commission but we were able to admire the effort it must have taken to construct the thing. The locals built paths and bridges by carefully stacking shaped rocks along mountain ledges. It must have been very difficult and dangerous work. On the way back, we had a nice chat with two soldiers that were guarding apparently nothing.

As we were leaving, the tourist mobs were in full effect. The frustration of the noise and crowds made me fully appreciate the wisdom of our early arrival. We pushed our way through the camera-toting senior citizens from Ohio onto another bus and high-tailed it back to town sharpish. MP is more Taj Mahal than Great Wall (and more Raiders than Temple), but only if you get there in the morning.

Photo Album: Machu Picchu

Apparently, there were some people inhabiting Peru before the Spaniards rolled in. They left some of their basura lying around.