Friday, February 25, 2011

Cusco and the Surrounding Ruins


Cusco's Plaza de Armas
 After our morning at MP, we picked up our stuff from the hostel, took our train back and then took a split cab (with two Australian dudes) to Cusco. Cusco is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the ancient capital of the Inca civilization - so I was pretty excited to see it. That night, we didn't get in until dark with just enough time to locate our hostel and eat some dinner in the town square.

The next morning, AF flew in to join us and we spent the day exploring Cusco. In peru, you can get the Boleto Turístico or Tourist Ticket which is around $10 and gets you into many of the sites in and around Cusco. We had purchased one to see the ruins in Ollantaytambo. and wanted to get some more mileage out of it. After seeing a few of the churches in the plaza de armas we had lunch and then took a horse ride to some of the surrounding ruins of  Tambomachay and Sacsayhuamán.

After the ruins, we went to a cultural dance show which our tourist ticket gave us entrance too. The dancing was...touristy to say the least but we had checked our of hostel so had to enjoy it for the next several hours while we waited for our bus.

The night was our first experience with the infamous overnight buses as we made our way to Puno on Lake Titicaca.



Thursday, February 24, 2011

Machu Pichu in 10 easy steps - Part 2

Dogs chilling at the train stop
We had now successfully made it to our trains point of departure. Our next step was to depart Ollentybaro for the small town near Machu Pichu.

Step 6) Train to Aguas Calientes
We had some time to kill before our train departed. Luckily we had some dogs and some off brand chips to keep us company. Eventually the train pulled up and it was chaos trying to figure out where to sit. Eventually we located our car and took our seats. For the record their our several classes on this train to Aguas Calientes:
I have no idea why this photo is black and white
  1. The first (and cheapest) is the 'backpacker' which is what we took on our way there. The seats aren't assigned you just go to the correct car. Its crowded and the seats are hard. The windows are also pretty small, which wasn't a big deal because our train ride was at night.
  2. One the way home, the only tickets available were the more expensive 'vistadome' which basically just offered slightly better seats, large windows, and some truly bizarre live entertainment. This included a llama wool fashion show, some kind of 'original dance' and other runnings around throughout the aisles.
The train ride wasn't long and before we knew it we were at the top.

Step 7) Buy Entrance Ticket To Machu Pichu
After locating our hostel and dropping off our bags our next step was to purchase our actually Entrance tickets. Luckily it was still open, even though it was getting late and the girl at our hostel was able to tell us where the ticket stand was located. Finally after buying some water and snacks for the next day, we headed back to the hostel to try and get some sleep.

Step 8) Wake up a 3:00 AM

Early Morning on the streets of Agaus Calientes

If you have ever seen the iconic photos of Machu Pichu, you are familiar with the mountain rising behind the ruins. The mountain is Huayna Picchu and they only let 200 people climb it each day. Obviously I wanted to be one of those people. According to our hostel lady, we had to wake up at the ass crack of dawn, also known as 3 am to get to the there in time to get a ticket.  So we woke up and went and got in line. Even though we had gotten the entrance tickets, we still needed to buy our bus tickets to get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Pichu. Then we had to actually wait in line to get on the bus.

Step 9) Bus to Machu Pichu and race to get a Mountain Ticket
Bus route to Machu Pichu
Line for mountain tickets
After waking up at 3am, and sitting in line for a few hours, we were still only on the second bus up the mountain (as opposed to the first). The bus ride is around 20 minutes and is pretty treacherous. In the photo you can see that the entire road is basically switchbacks over drops to the bottom. Luckily we made it to the entrance without any incident and waited for the gates to open.  Unfortunately, we were pretty unclear on where the ticket booth was to get a mountain ticket, but we followed the many other people running through the ancient ruins to the complete other side of the park. The whole thing seemed a little strange, here I was in this hugely famous archeological site as the sun rises over the stones and I am running as fast as I can with no time to look at anything. By some stroke of luck, we actually got a Mountain ticket and were able to go up with the first group of 100.

Step 10) Wooo Machu Pichu

The book
After signing our name in the book (apparently to make sure we came back...wtf) we were allowed to make the climb to the top. The view is pretty great, and its a fun, if a little scary, hike. After the climb back down, we were both exhausted, so we stopped to eat our fruit and gronala bars with a pretty fantastic view. We spent the morning exploring the ruins and climbing to the top of the other side for the classic photo op.

Cross that one off the bucket list. :-)




Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Journey to the top - Part 1

Look Familiar?

I'm going to be honest, I think the reason I wanted to go to Peru to begin with was to see Machu Pichu.  So of course we decided to do it first thing... well sort of. Getting to Machu Pichu has got to be the most difficult thing in the entire world. One just doesn't hope off the plane in Peru and head up the mountain. No, its like a freakin adventure quest. Not to sound like a huge nerd, but it reminded me of the Zelda 64 game I played when I was younger where...okay stopping before the nerdiness gets worse...
Lima - Plaza de Armas

Step 1) Fly to Lima
We flew into Lima and took a cab to our hostel. It was late and we were tired so we had just enough time to get some dinner and see the Plaza de Armas or town center. We also found the most amazing churro place. It was the start of a life long love of churros. Lima wasn't great, it was a little overcast and kind of reminded me any other big city. Lima was also absolutely freezing, luckily we had brought sleeping bags so we were able to use those in our beds and get some rest which was good because was had an early flight the next morning.

Step 2) Fly to Cusco
The Sacred Valley
The next morning we woke up early to catch a flight to Cusco in the southern part of Peru. I was super relieved when we arrived and it was warm and sunny. We had train tickets that afternoon from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town MP is located near) so instead of figuring out the bus situation we decided to hire a cab for the day to drive us through the Sacred Valley on our way to Machu Pichu. This had several advantages not the least of which was I was tired as anything. Plus it meant we got to stop at a lot of cool places on the way.


Step 3) Llama Farm (Note: Not an essential step)
Sup?

Women weaving llama wool
The llama farm was awesome. I imagined it to be a haven of cute llamas running around in some little mountain stable where I could feed and pet them - and it totally was.  They had about 40 llamas running around and you could feed them grass and pet them or just generally hang out. There was also a museum and a store showing how llama fur was used to make sweaters and other wool products. I just loved petting the llamas. At one point, I was in the llama pin and I had stuck my bag with my camera and money in my back pocket. I had heard about how bad the pick pockets were in Peru, but I mistakenly assumed I was safe in the llama pin. Suddenly, I felt someone tugging on the zipper pull, try to get the bag out of my pocket. I turned around to catch the thief only to find this:
Notorious Peruvian Pickpocket
Step 4) Pisac Market (Also probably not essential)
Girls at the Market

Pisac Market
The next stop on our way through the valley was the town of Pisac. There wasn't much to see here, but as luck would have it, our journey through the Sacred Valley was on a Sunday which is the day of the weekly Pisac Market. The market sold all sorts of handicrafts and food as well as the usual tourist stuff. It was really fun and I ended up getting two llama fur blankets. I didn't really have the room to carry around two blankets in my backpack, but oh well.



Step 5) Ollantaytambo
The town of Ollantaytambo

Dinner - It was amazing

 We finally made it to our first 'destination' the town of Ollantaytambo. The only way to get to Aguas Calientes is by train - there are no roads to the town. Because of this you can imagine that their is quite the monopoly on these tickets. The train leaves from several locations, including Cusco, but by the time we bought our tickets, the only available departure place was Ollantaytambo. So we had our cab driver drop us off there to wait for our train. We had several hours to kill, which was good, because there are some pretty famous ruins in the town that are worth seeing, and it gave us time to eat dinner before we got on the train.

The ruins were pretty cool. It involves hiking up a lot of stone steps and at the top you have a decent view of the town. Dinner was amazing. I think I also might have been starving. 

Ruins at Ollantaytambo.

Llamas in the Sacred Valley

Yarn made from llama fur


Pisaq market


Peru - August 2009

Pick one that looks yummy!
Destination: Southern Peru
When: August 2009
Who: Me, CP and AF

We shall call Peru the guinea pig. That is for multiple reasons:
  1. Peru was my first 'adult' trip...basically it was the first time I had money from working and decided I was going to go on vacation and I was going to plan the whole thing.
  2. In Peru, they eat guinea pig. They call it cuy. You can go to the market and pick your desire guinea pig out of little guinea pig village and they will fry it up right there.
For various reasons, we could only go for a week - which is a pretty short time to try and see an entire (or just half) a country. With the exception of one inter- country flight, we planned to get around mostly by  overnight bus. We had heard these weren't the safest and that people often got their luggage stolen out from under the bus. To avoid this, and to make life easier we all decide to pack light - very light. We each brought one school sized back pack and a sleeping bag (the buses were supposed to be cold). My bag had enough room for underwear, toiletries, a few t- shirts, one extra pair of socks, shorts, and flip flops. I wore my jeans and sneakers on the plane and that was it.

This is also the beginning of the Google Document. For me, vacation planning is a serious affair. Its not just pick a flight and see what happens. Sometimes I will do that, but i've decided that I seem to have the most fun and get the most out of vacation when things are planned in every tiny detail. I don't always follow the plan - in fact there have been times when things change dramatically. But, its there if needed. It also means that all my necessary travel information is available in one convenient location. I usually print it off and bring it with me to have throughout the trip.

Peru was the first vacation where I used the Google Document. Its shared with all members of the trip so that details can be added and referenced as needed. You will notice that as time goes on these get more and more complex.

So without further ado, here is the original Peru Google Document.

Sat 15
Depart IAD at 6:30 am- Arrive Lima, 3pm
Transfer from Airport to Hotel Peru in Lima - Hotel Espana ($18 a person + $10 hotel transfer)
Sightseeing, rest, dinner for remainder of day

Sun 16
8:30 am flight out of Lima into Cusco, arrive at 10:30 am (Airline is Star Peru)
Explore Sacred Valley (Taxi/Bus = around $30 a person)
Possible Locations
Awanakancha Llama farm - Phone: (51 84) 20-3287 / 962-3240
Pisaq Sunday Market
Moray Ruins
Ollantanbara Ruins
5:30pm train (peru rail) from ollentanbara to Aguas Calientes Stay night at Pirwa Hostels Machu Picchu ($15 each)
Need to buy MP tickets in AG- 124 Soles, Bus ticket is $12

Monday 17
Day at MP - arrive at bus station at 5:10 am
Information about MP:
Our train leaves at 3:30 to bring us back down to ollentanbara
Return to Cusco 
hostel: Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta, Cusco ($12 a person)
AF arrives in Lima

Tuesday 18
Day in Cusco
AF arrives in Cusco at 7:04AM
Overnight to Puno - arrive early morning.
 
Wednesday 19
Arrive early from bus
Early Morning trip out to islands.
Tour- Classic Taquile 6:30 am -5pm ($23 per person)
Overnight in Puno -- Camino Real Turistico ($15 each)--> hopefully can stow our bags here before the boat

Thursday 20
Early Morning bus to Arequipa 
Day Arequipa 
Overnight in Arequipa - hostel: Colonial House Inn, Arequipa ($8 each)

Friday 21
Day in Arequipa
Overnight back to Lima (or other coastal city near Lima)
AF flies to Lima

Sat 22
Day in Lima/ Nazca/ Ica - depending on time/ tiredness level
Overnight in Lima - need hostel (or use Hotel Espana)

Sun 23
Morning in Lima
2:30 pm, leave to fly back to IAD


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Accra

So I finally made it to Ghana. After some drama regarding who would take me to my hotel (La Palm Royal Beach Hotel), I eventually made it and got settled in. The hotel was a little... strange. It felt like a really nice hotel that maybe was abandoned for 20 years. There were lots of long empty hallways leading to even bigger empty rooms. All of the rooms were cabana style and my cabana was really far from the main lobby. Technically our hotel was on the beach, but the gate to the path that led down to the beach was locked for "safety reasons."  Ok.

The next day was Sunday so I didn't have to work and I went out sightseeing, still in my jeans and sneakers from the flight. It was about 90 degrees and I was ready to die. Luckily Accra didn't have much in the way of sightseeing options so the day didn't take long. We were able to rent a car and driver from the hotel for about Cedis. Which is a little less then $10.



Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park


The first place we went to was the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. The park was made in honor of Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of independent Ghana and (I think) their first president. The park was interesting and was accompanied by a truly bizarre and empty museum. I think it had things like "Presidents first chair" and a few framed photos of his life.


Carving a wooden elephant

 The next place we went was W.E.B Dubois Center, but unfortunately it was closed because it was Sunday. So instead we went to the market. It was definitely a tourist market, but it was still fun and interesting to see all the handicrafts. Apparently, Ghana is famous for their wood carving. They seriously had every possible kind of carved wood you could hope for - Masks, animals, tables, statues, beads, etc.


The rest of the week was spent working, hanging out at the pool and swim up bar, and eating. At one point I thought about going down to the beach, but when I walked to the gate I noticed that all the people hanging out down by the water were fully clothed and sitting in tents. At one point two guys riding bareback came galloping down the sand. I felt like a total lame tourist, but I decided to stick with the pool.


I meet a girl in one of my training classes, H, from Cairo. We were able to hang out for the rest of the week so that I could go out and see a little more of Accra. One evening we did go to the more legit market in the town. The masks in the picture below were made of wood and metal, and the metal came from hammered down coke cans. I bought one where the coke label is still clearly visible - I don't know why for some reason it seemed that much cooler.


Horse riders on the beach near my hotel

I am really glad I got a chance to go to Accra - it was my first time in Africa and the only time I've been to sub-saharan Africa. However, I am not sure I am dying to return any time soon. I do regret that I was not able to see more of Accra and to visit areas in the rest of Ghana. Maybe I need to see some other cities in the area to make a better judgment.

Gone (or attempting to be gone) to Ghana

Destination: Accra, Ghana
When: March 2009

In 2009, I got to go to Ghana for work. At this point I decided that I was an official baller. Delta, as always was ready to crush my spirit. This is the story.

The original plan was to fly from Dulles to Ghana through Amsterdam. I had an 8 hour layover in Amsterdam so I was even plan to leave the airport for a quick canal tour. ProTip: Don't ever make plans that rely on the punctuality of Delta.

So I arrive at the airport, check my bag, get my tickets and head to the gate. I've been there for about 2 hours and my flight is boarding in five minutes when suddenly an announcement is made that the flight is canceled. Canceled - not delayed, just plain canceled. No further announcements. I head over to the counter and am told that I will need to go BACK TO TICKETING to find get rerouted. That means back out of security, three terminals over to the Delta counter.

This can't happen to me. I'm a Baller. I can't be about to miss my first work trip because Delta felt like calling in lame today.

So I do what I have to do, I grab my carry on and sprint like I've never sprinted before through three terminals. There was no stopping for things like the terminal shuttle. Or old ladies. Eventually I make it to the delta counter and somehow manage to beat around 200 angry dutch people who line up behind me.  By this time I am an approximate a 8 on the 1-disgusting scale. My mad dash sprint has left me sweaty and disheveled and I'm pretty sure I didn't seem like a professional on a work trip as I claimed to be. I would assume I looked more like some kind of desperate fugitive from justice.

Anywho, 20 minutes and an additional trip through security later I'm rerouted through London to arrive in Ghana only a few hours after my original arrival time. Unfortunately this new ticket doesn't include my luggage which is conveniently trapped on my now canceled flight. Pro Tip 2: Never check a bag.

So I arrive in London with only the (now very sweaty) shirt on my back, and immediately go and buy toiletries so that I won't be a complete stinky mess.  My next move is to find something to wear to work. It has just occurred to me that Ghana will be 90 degrees and all I have is the jeans and tshirt that I used to race through the airport. I figure London will have something that I can wear... I was wrong. The closest thing I find is a store where a woman tries to sell me a black linen, sleeveless jump suit ("trust me this is VERY in"... rioght).

Eventually I give up and just board my plane to Ghana. Luckily I only spend 2 days without my suitcase before I am able to locate it at the airport. I have my work clothes in time for training day one.







Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tokyooo



Okay so now that I completely bored you with a pointless post about a city with a mall, I'll move on to the main attraction: Tokyoooooo (extra Os optional).

(Side note, I feel like everyone should be impressed that I made it through an entire post without talking about how much I hate Delta airlines. Its not just that I think they are the worst, most poorly managed airline in the entire world. Its also that I think they are owned by Satan. But I didn't mention that once through that entire last post.)

No Boys Allowed!
So anyway, we did the 'bag drag' to Tokyo, which means we took the train. It only took about two hours to get to our hotel which wasn't bad. One thing I forgot to mention in the last post about the trains is that they are super crowded. Go to Youtube and search for crowded tokyo trains and you can see the videos of people literally being shoved on by employees. Apparently, this has also led to some issues with men groping the women who were jammed into the car with them. To combat this, they created women only cars on a lot of the trains. They are signified by little pink signs at the boarding locations.

Anyway, in case you didn't know Tokyo is kind of intense. Not like Cairo intense, more like NYC on acid intense. But apparently its very safe. I think it has one of the lowest crime rates of any major city.

Just another day at the office
The first thing we did was to go to a Sumo Wrestler Practice. I think it was basically in someones house. As far as I could tell, they all trained at this place and practiced here until they somehow hit the Sumo big time. Sumo is really kind of amazing, the guys are huge and they hit each other really hard. They also wear basically nothing and yell a lot. I've never tried it, but I think I wouldn't be a natural.

After the practice, we went upstairs for some noodles and tea. I didn't love the noodles, I'm going to be honest. For some reason, lunch and tea time was also Sumo dude hair appointment time. They all came up and got their hair done while eating their noodles. So we watched that for a while and then left.

Next we went to the Tokyo tower which give you a really good view of the whole city. Tokyo has a really pretty skyline so it was pretty cool to see.

Tourists at the Tokyo Tower

The next day we went to see a Japanese tea ceremony and learn how to give (present, host?) one. Although its a valuable skill, I have yet to find myself using it in my day to day life. However, I haven't yet ruled out the job of Geisha so there is still hope. Japanese tea ceremonies are incredibly complicated. Each step is meaningful and must be performed in a specific precise way.

On the last day, we took a ferry to see the very famous five storied pagoda of Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa. The temple was a bad house that day. People everywhere. You enter the temple through a gate with a giant lantern and then walk up a path to the main temple. Along the path were tons of vendors selling food, toys, offerings, etc
Lanterns at the Temple
Five story pagoda
At the top is the temple and the pagoda. My favorite part of any temple is the offering board. (I am not really sure the real name, so lets go with that). Basically for a few hundred yen you can buy a little wooden board and you can write your prayer or wish on it. Then you hang it on the board and I guess then it comes true. Obviously most of them are written in Japanese, but a good amount are written in English. Its really interesting to go through and read them.

But that isn't the only way to make a wish. You can also go over near the pagoda and donate a coin to find out your fortune. Once you pay the coin, you shake this box until a stick with a number comes out. That number matches the number on a tiny door. Once you find that door, you open it and then you will find your fortune. If you like it, you keep it, if not you tie it onto these wires and I guess the spirits take it away.

I wished that delta would stop sucking so bad.




Thought I would share some of the other wishes made by fellow visitors to the temple.

Some chose to express themselves in a more artistic manner

"Please keep my Fathers safe while they travel for work"

"I WISH FOR A HUSBAND AND KIDS - All of my own! Thank you"

"Help my Daddy Get Better from his <3attack. And my mommy get [home] safe!"

Japaneese
 High hopes tempered with some realistic fears:
"I hope I become a Ships captinand I hope that the ship Will not sink."

Spanish

Don't ever forget about world peace:
"I wish for everyone I know to stay healthy & happy for their lives to be long and fulfilling. Oh, and world peace."
 Some people had a lot on their minds. Its important that you hit the global as well as the personal issues:
"Peace to the World and by the way fix my shoulder please. I would like a delicious dinner. General relief to all world suffering and I would like to improve my singing."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Japan

Shinto Gates as Tokyo Shrine Sale
Date: December 2008
Where: Japan... Mainly Tokyo
Who: The Family
Why: Christmas

My parents actually used to live in Japan, so this wasn't my first time in that neck of the woods. I had been there a few years prior and got to see Kyoto, Mt Fuji and some other parts of Japan. This time we decided to spend a week in Tokyo so that we could really see the city.  On a personal note, I had been referring to Japan as the land of sadness for about three years, so it was a good chance for me to get on better terms with an entire country that has never done anything to me.  The first few days, we just chilled in the suburbs and did day trips....

First stop: Yokohama.
The trains in Japan are amazing and insane. They will take you anywhere in Japan that you want to go. If I didn't know better, I would think you could get to Japan on a train. Seriously, give them 10 years and they will have that all worked out. But all the lines are owned by different companies, so you have to constantly switch tickets and go through turnstiles and of course everything is in Japanese so I pretty much never had any idea what was going on. But somehow, you always eventually end up somewhere and sometimes you just have to pretend that is where you wanted to go. Also there is this situation pictured.

I felt bad breathing near them.
So anyway, we (me and my brother) took a train to Yokohama. We actually wanted to go there, so we got lucky this time with the trains. Yokohama is basically just a city with a big mall, a tall building, and a random amusement park. But it seems cool to me because, you know, its Japanese. Also, they really like their tall building, a lot

Bam - Yokohama


Its a very friendly building
So there is lots of really funny things to take pictures of like badly translated english, stores devoted entirely to Pokeman, etc. It helps you look like a really toolish tourist. "Omg haha so funny, look at this Wendy's sign in Japaneese! Lets take a photo of it"

Fact: That happens.

Fact: That happens
So anyway, we went to the mall and then to the amusement park mainly to ride this giant ferris wheel which give you a pretty good view of the city. Plus, its pretty warm for it being December. I had been to the amusement park before, but I am glad I went again, because just for Christmas they had set up what I can only describe as a 10 square foot dance floor made up of snow.  Every half hour they would turn on the snow machine, turn on the techno and everyone would run to the dance floor to dance like crazy for the next 5 minutes.  I'm not going to say that I danced for five minutes like a crazy person to xmas techno music, but if you want to believe that I will let you.

So that was our day in Yokohama. Exciting, No. Did I still write an entire blog post about it, yes. Next Time, Tokyo!

The 'dance floor' when there was no music.