My Trip To South Africa & Dubai

In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.

Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.

The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?

Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.

The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting long-hulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.

We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.

When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.

After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.

Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.

Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.

As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-malarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrhea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.

I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.

As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.

Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.

The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.

On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.

We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.

The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!

Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.

And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.

All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.

The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).

On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.

I was really happy we only decided to spend a day there!

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Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership

I own a working breed dog, but I do not have a working purpose for the animal as I live in a suburban community that is at least a one hour drive away from the kind of terrain and property arrangements where one might actually be able to put a dog to work. Currently, I also live in a smaller-sized apartment with my wife, the Wolf, which meets our space needs in large part without being wasteful, but which is not ideal for the dog who would do better with a yard to run free in. I have several friends who think our dog ownership decision is something of a lifestyle mistake– they see only costs and are unclear on the benefits.

In the interest of trying to think objectively about my life choices, I want to explore their skepticism as if it were my own. Why do I own a dog? What am I getting out of this seemingly parasitical arrangement?

In many ways, owning a dog is like having a child who never grows up:

  • the dog is dependent upon you for its feeding and care
  • the dog imposes additional costs in terms of food, occasional medical attention, dog equipment (leash, collar, dog toys, etc.)
  • the dog has limited communication capabilities and often leaves its owners guessing as to what its needs are and how they might best be resolved
  • the dog has a penchant for behaving in unpredictable and undesirable ways (barking at strangers, pacing about the bedroom late at night, distracting visitors)
  • the dog puts severe constraints on your ability to travel and come and go as you please, requiring special arrangements anytime you’re out of town for extended periods of time
  • the dog thrives on routine and predictability, which means your life becomes more routine-based and therefore monotonous to the extent you decide to cater to your dog’s needs
  • the dog represents a commitment and the responsibility which entails can not be shed at a whim

These shortcomings and limitations of dog ownership are very real. I have counseled many a friend and young family member to think twice before taking on the responsibility of a dog while single and resource-light. The demands of letting the dog out throughout the day and giving the dog substantial exercise can be extremely stressful to a young professional or amateur careerist operating on their own, not to mention the hindering effect dog ownership has on the attempt to have a nightlife and with it, a sex life! Taking on a dog before you take on a full time partner is like turning on a homing beacon for the irresponsible and imbalanced that simultaneously sets off an ear-piercing frequency that can only be sensed by the collected, cool-headed types you’d ideally want to attract but are instead unwittingly driving away.

And while the ongoing costs of dog ownership are fairly minimal (dog food is the gag fate of impoverished elderly people everywhere for a reason), dogs seem to have a nasty habit of swallowing things, breaking things or otherwise becoming near-fatally ill in the most costly and inconvenient manner possible for those least able to bear the financial strain, and such situations can be an impressive financial setback for those just starting out in life. How would you like to shell out $2,500 cash for surgery on a recently discovered tumor your poor old dog has developed? Or spend multiples of that treating an animal who is congenitally predisposed to the painful and debilitating disease known as degenerative myelopathy?

One of the supposed joys of dog ownership is taking your dog out in public as you traipse about town. But in doing so you take two major risks. The first is that you will attract a crazy person with an obsessive compulsion to pet or otherwise inappropriately interact with your dog. The second is that your dog will become frightened or alarmed by another animal, ideally a small child, and bite, at which point you will now have a dead dog (put down by the authorities) and a costly lawsuit to defend yourself against from the animal’s owners (parents, other dog-owner, etc.) which you will undoubtedly lose.

To avoid such troubles, you might think of taking your dog to the park, where it can roam and run and chase a ball to its heart’s content with little risk of an upsetting interaction with a stranger. But if you live in a town like I do, with strongly enforced leash laws and bans on dog activity on school grounds, which constitute a majority of the open public spaces nearby, you’re kind of out of luck on this draw. You can’t let your dog, legally, off its 6-foot leash which doesn’t make for a fun game of fetch, and you can’t, legally, even go to most of the places otherwise suitable for playing with a dog unless you’re interested in attracting a dog catcher and paying a fine and/or losing your “privilege” to own a dog (said privilege operating on two levels of irony given the tenor of this post so far, and the views of this author on the role of governments in society).

In that case, you might go to a dog park. These are specially designated areas where a variety of dogs of differing size, temperament, training discipline and owner profile all congregate and go nuts on one another, rolling in fleas, transferring diseases to one another, pissing and shitting all over the place and more than occasionally getting into fights. Many of the owners are the same caliber of insane as the standard weirdos who might try to approach you when you’re out about town walking your dog, which is also enjoyable. And you can still get sued if something goes wrong. (You could also be mauled yourself!) A dog park is actually a good case in miniature for a broad policy of social segregation, of dogkind and mankind alike.

It’s actually difficult for me to think of anything I enjoy about owning a dog that I could not enjoy without the dog itself. I could say that owning a dog is a good excuse to get some exercise and walk the neighborhood, but I could surely do that without the dog and in fact many people do, some jog instead of walk but nonetheless they get it done without a four-legged friend. I could say that a dog is a good home security system, but it’s probably inferior to today’s WiFi and app-connected DIY home monitoring system technology in both cost and effectiveness, and unfortunately this “security system” goes on vacation whenever you do, needing to be boarded at additional expense away from home when you’re away. I could say that a dog provides one with warmth and companionship, but that’d be an indication of an imbalanced, emotionally needy mind that could probably get that relationship more authentically from another human being after some workouts with a qualified therapist. And I could say that a dog adds a playful spirit of spontaneity to one’s life, but I’ve never been fond of jumping out of airplanes and I imagine you could accomplish much the same thing that way if you really wanted to do so. Besides, as I said before, where I live there’s no place to play with my dog and it’s hard to be too spontaneous in the living room in the small hours of the evening.

What value, then, is there in owning a dog? For someone with a working purpose connected to their lifestyle (shepherding, farming, mountain rescue, police/security work), dogs probably make sense. In fact, anthropologists and evolutionary theorists posit that dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago precisely because of the important functional relationships they could establish with hunter-gatherer societies.

But we don’t live in those societies anymore, at least, I don’t, and for the modern, non-rural person such as myself a dog doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose.

And since we all live in interventionist welfare societies now, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to have children, either.

Review – Restrepo

I watched a NatGeo documentary last night called “Restrepo.” It’s about the conditions and objectives of a small US Army platoon in the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan.

Very little happens in this movie over its 1.5hr runtime. There is a lot of buildup and talk about how often the base is attacked, and this is depicted several times, but overall nothing happens. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the plot (“the futility of the Restrepo mission”) or if it’s bad editing or belies a fraud about the claims being made in the film about what it is like for these troops, but it is not entertaining. And by that I don’t mean, “Gee, I wish there were more poor, dumb soldiers getting wasted in this real life documentary” but rather, “Gee, what am I getting out of watching this film?”

That being said, this is not good propaganda for the US government’s desire to nation-build overseas. Why does the military allow journalists and documentarians to embed with their troops? Restrepo is an offshoot of a slightly larger but still insignificant base tasked with enlarging the “security bubble” in the area so that a road can be safely built connecting two hapless economic regions into one, which is supposed to bring jobs, incomes and peace and happiness to the land. Every bit of tactical maneuver in war seems really stupid when studied by itself — “50 men gave their lives for a bridge that was ultimately destroyed by the enemy anyway, why did 50 men die for a bridge?” — but the Restrepo mission seems especially stupid not because these men are fighting and dying and accidentally murdering local civilians for an unbuilt road, but because the premise behind building the road is itself very stupid. Do the local Afghans even WANT this road? If they did, why didn’t they build it before the US Army showed up?

Is military Keynesianism a viable structure for developing foreign economies? Keynesianism doesn’t seem to work to develop domestic economies. And the military, professional murderers and demolishers, don’t seem to be the right people to task with building things, let alone people’s economies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send overwhelming military force through the area, wipe out/expel the organized Taliban elements and then let civilian diplomats and construction contractors come through and negotiate new power structures and infrastructure plans?

The Korengal Valley itself, where the drama unfolds, is truly magnificent geography. It reminds me of the valleys I hiked on the Inca Trail in Peru on my way up to Macchu Picchu. In fact, the remoteness, the terraced cultivation and the “primitive” lifestyle and social organization of the Afghans looked nearly identical to what I saw in Peru. It seems like a perfectly nice place for the locals to live and you get the insane idea watching the movie that they never asked for the US Army to invade their territory and murder their wives and children in helicopter gunship assaults, and they’re not all that thankful for their service now that they’ve shown up. Would it be unpatriotic, dare I say even treasonous, to suggest that the Afghans are getting a raw deal here and it’s hard to wonder why they wouldn’t want to overtly or covertly support the Taliban in these circumstances?

That old quip about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” runs hard through the film’s narrative. We see again and again the way the local commander makes big promises and doesn’t follow through– he murders a guy’s cow and offers no agreeable compensation, he disappears a local who he suspects of being an accomplice of the Taliban and then offers the vague assurance that he’s being treated nicely and will soon return though he doesn’t, and he responds to an attack by calling in a fire mission on a neighboring village that kills and maims several women and small children. I don’t care who someone is fighting for, if I had to hold the charred body of my innocent two year old in my arms and watch a bunch of crude monkeys rifle through the smoking remains of my home looking for contraband after such an incident, I think I’d lose my shit.

And what IS the best solution to murdering someone’s cow, anyway? If you could get your higher-ups to release the $400-500 cash to pay the guy back (I think the village elders took the US Army for a ride on that request, by the way, there is no way a cow is worth half a grand in the mountains of Afghanistan) doesn’t that incentivize them to let more of their cattle wander into your concertina wire whenever they lack liquidity? And if you can’t get that cash released, aren’t you guaranteed to keep pissing off the locals while insisting you’re there to win hearts and minds?

The long and the short of it is that imperialism is a terrible idea in the first place, but the United States government isn’t even good at imperialism. It is very half-hearted and half-assed in its attempts to brutalize and control foreign peoples and spends more time apologizing and groveling about its numerous mistakes than making any meaningful progress in terms of rapine and pillage. It makes you wonder the whole time how such a pointless and ineffectual system can sustain itself, until you realize that the people who are really getting mulcted in this process are the guileless American people “back home.”

And the poor, dumb US foot soldier is the tool used to tug at those people’s heart strings while picking their pockets clean. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.

From Zonghli

We arrived in Taipei around 1030pm last night, which was on time despite an hour delay in departure time. We were picked up by an extended family member and stayed overnight at their town home in Zonghli city, a suburb outside of Taipei (approx 80km?) And another 40km from the airport.

I found out this development was constructed 30 years ago. There is another development across the way in the process of finishing up construction. There are 6 floors and each floor is to be sold for $5M NTD. At 3200 NTD/100USD, this is about $150K for a floor of 5-6 bedrooms. A similar size townhome across the street rents for $1000USD equivalent per month. So this is about an 8% gross income rate. I have no idea what utilities and taxes cost.

I would call the urban design aesthetic in this area “eclectic”. American fans of the “walkable city” would be aghast, mopeds and small cars seem to dominate the traffic planning mindset.

Despite little sleep on the 13h flight and going to bed around midnight on the top (3rd) floor in humid 80 degree weather we awoke around 6am, well ahead of our planned 7am alarm. A short walk into the town proper for some steamed pork bun and potstickers for breakfast. Also tried soy congee and fried youtiao. I got a few looks from some of the patronage trying to figure out what I was doing in their breakfast spot at 7am.

Heading into Taipei to check in to our AirBnB and take a food tour.

For me it is challenging to “observe without judgment”. I find myself looking around at everything trying to “make sense of it” when it’s a bit soon for such reflections. Still, I think one way for describing the concept of culture is to say that if you are in a new place and it isn’t immediately obvious to you why things are the way they are as you observe them, you are bearing witness to different culture at work.

Also, my first Chinglish sighting!

Inca Trail Day 4 & Machu Picchu (Peru)

We’d dunnit!! We finally reached the last day (9/4) of our four-day journey and was going to see the revered Machu Picchu…

The night before, our tour guide, Elvis, explained the itinerary for Day 4: we were to go to sleep early after dinner that night with no coca tea, and then we will get our wake up call at 3 am and be ready for breakfast at 330 and hit the trail as soon as possible bc the porters need to catch the 500a train back to the city. I don’t know about our fellow hiking mates, but I was definitely holding my breath as I listened to Elvis, both from nervousness and excitement!

Our dinner that night was wonderful, as always. The chef even carved pretty things out of vegetables that he had brought, including a condor from a cucumber and pretty lily flowers from bell peppers! The best part was dessert, of course, where we had some jello with fruit and a cake! After dinner, the porters gathered around the meal tent and introduced themselves to us. It was so sweet to finally get a chance to meet them, albeit for only one night. Ideally, we would’ve met them the first night, but due to time constraints, we had to wait. Many of our porters weren’t a part of our tour company, Llamapath, but were actually hired from Ollantaytambo, when our guides realized we were short on help. A representative of our group thanked the porters, and we headed off to bed (read: sleeping bags) shortly after.

The next morning was a mad rush to get ready. Not to mention, we were trying to get dressed and ready in the dark, literally two or three feet away from a sheer drop (we camped on a cliff ledge…). Somehow we all managed to get up and ready for breakfast. We anticipated a simple breakfast of carbs, but the chef and his sous chef actually prepared quite a spread, including fritatas!

After brekkers, we head off. The porters stayed behind, scrambling to clean up after us and head to the trains. We bid them farewell, and walked for literally five minutes to the entrance of the last part of the trail. When we arrived, we found that we were the first ones in line, hooray!! With that in mind, I decided to stumble back in the dark with another hiker to use the restrooms… Thank goodness for his amazing flashlight. We ended up waiting in line (aka sitting in the dark, freezing our butts off) for a couple hours, umtil the gate opened up at 530am…

…And then we were off! It was a mad dash to The Sun Gate, with the hope that we would make it to the gate to see the sun rise and shine through the gate to Machu Picchu. Needless to say, I didn’t make it, but of course, Elvis did, as did a couple of other people in our group. The trail to the Sun Gate was not any less intimidating or difficult. We were still walking thru the rainforest, and the early morning dew and the birds and butterflies made me feel like I was in a jungle! …with a lot of tree roots sticking out waiting to trip you, random rocks and mounds of dirt for you to climb over, and and all kinds of bugs swooping into your face. There was one set of steps that was particularly intimidating; it towered over me andΒ  literally went straight up. I’d learned to just keep my head down and step up without looking up to see how much I had left… Seeing that you had 4647392 more steps to go was just too depressing, it was easier to just keep pushing up and forward. But we finally made it to the Sun Gate! And Machu Picchu was just a large speck in the distance… We stayed for a bit, catching our breaths and taking some pictures, and then we were off again, more steep steps with no railings:

After another hour (?) of hiking (why doesn’t the government fix up these rocky trails?!?!), we had finally reached Machu Picchu… And it was such. A. Relief. We made it!!!

And man, was it crowded! There were tons of people who had taken the train up to the site and other hikers who took different trails than us, and it was so odd to see so many people when we had just spent the last few days with only our fellow hikers and tour guides… I suddenly became self-conscious of how I must have looked to these people who had showered in the last day, didn’t smell bad, and were free of aches and pains and not hobbling around…but I got over that quick–“I just hiked the GD Inca Trail for the last four days and survived!!!”–but I was still looking forward to my next shower πŸ˜‰ There were also a lot of alpacas at the site, as you can see. Part of me wonders whether the alpacas were there or if the park directors had alpacas moved there to liven up the park a little…

We left the park to use the restrooms and eat our snacks, and then we all went back inside for a tour with Elvis and David. Apparently, the Incans did not know about the wheel, so all the rocks used to build Machu Picchu were moved by people. We saw the rock quarry that they had broken stones from; the Incans would do so by pouring water into rock crevices, wait for the water to freeze, and then break the huge stones into smaller pieces with force. They also drilled holes into rocks (and probably used this method of cutting stones, as well) by pouring some water and sand onto the site where they want to drill and then vigorously rubbing a bamboo stick between their hands (the end result is pictured below).

We saw the Inca king’s bedroom (pictured below), and his closet, which was 2x the size of his bedroom because he never wore the same outfit twice in his lifetime (Elvis told us that one Incan king had a cape made completely of bat wings…!). I don’t think this is pictured below, but the Incan builders had left these niches in the walls of the buildings to serve as shelves, as they didn’t use shelves that stuck out of the walls like we do. Also, the reason why these Incan ruins are still intact today is because they employed a “Lego” method of building, where they would carve a niche in the bottom of every rock and a nubbin on the top of every rock that would fit perfectly into the niche so that the blocks would stay tightly together. Elvis claims that there are some walls where not even a knife can get in between two rocks because the rocks are so tightly put together.

And I don’t know if the pictures I included here can help clarify this distinction, but the builders of Machu Picchu distinguished between “sacred” buildings for gods and the king versus housing for servants, civilians, etc. by using different materials (…much like we do today, I suppose!). You will see in some pictures that some terraces, the steps, and some buildings have more “shoddy” handiwork, where stones of different sizes are kind of “jammed” together to form the wall or object. In contrast, some buildings (like the Inca king’s bedroom) have more rectangular blocks of rock that are smoother and more “put together.” The picture of the ruin that’s falling apart is presumed to have been the beginnings of a temple that the Incans were working on before the Spaniards came (note the niches for god statues, the texture of the stones, and the uniformity of the blocks).

We spent a few hours exploring the ruins and teasing the llamas, and then took a charter shuttle bus down to Agues Calientes, a town adjacent to Machu Picchu, for lunch. There was a cool-looking statue (below) where they let us off the shuttle. I’m not sure exactly who the guy is, but I presume he is suppose to represent an Incan king. As you can see, he’s flanked by a a condor, a panther, and a snake. This is because the Incans believed that there was three religious realms, the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, which were represented by the condor, the panther, and the snake, who the Incans believed lived among these respective places. These three types of animals were considered sacred by the Incans and thus were not hunted or eaten (at least, you weren’t suppose to). In one picture above (the one just below the temple that’s falling apart), you can see three tiers, thought to represent the three realms or worlds.

Soon we had to say goodbye to David and Elvis and our 11 other hiking buddies, though we vowed to keep in touch. I felt sad–we had just gone thru a lot together!–but I think we were all ready for some privacy too… This was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I’m so happy that I have a blog to document it all. I hope to write more posts on Machu Picchu, perhaps a reflection and/or a “tips & tricks” entry!…

Mendoza (Argentina)

Mendoza turned out to be quite different than what the Lion and I had expected it to be like…

We left Valparaiso around 8a (Sept 8) for a 7h bus ride with Cata Internaccional. Armed with snacks, fully charged electronics, and the expectation of first class seats that cost $4USD more than coach, we set off for what we were told would be a gorgeous ride through the Andes and into Mendoza. The ride was indeed nice, with clear skies and huge snow-capped mountains flanking both sides and; We actually passed some skiers who were trying to get their last run in before the snow melted. As we drove through, I reminisced about our Inca Trail hike the whole time we drove through the mountains. It was interesting to see such different “sides” of the Andes.

About three quarters of the way to Mendoza, we had to stop at the border for inspection and such. We stopped at this huge building, though it was more of a former military outpost with a round roof and windowless than a rectangular storied building. We waited around for probably 30 minutes, at least, before we actually lined up for something. Then after everyone on the bus were filed into a single file, we waited for another 30 minutes because the border patrol was dealing with a potential runaway (18yo boy was allowed to leave Chile but may or may not have had his parents’ permission, so border patrol was unsure of whether to let him go or not, despite the fact that he was of age). Finally, it was our group’s turn to move up to the booth to have our documents stamped. But we weren’t done just yet. After stamping our documents, they had to unload all of our bags from the bus and run them through an xray scanner that was in a car (portable metal detector?!). Finally, the process was over, and after some more paperwork with the driver, we were on the road again. As other travelers have warned, the border crossing took us about 2h. What a process.

After about two more hours on the road, we arrived at the omnibus station in Mendoza! Initially, we thought we had to take a cab to our lodging, so we searched for a currency chance center and waited in line at a Western Union (which doesn’t even change money), but it turned out we were already on the street our Mendoza apartment is on, so we headed off on foot towards what we hoped was the right direction. We started off at 500 Alem St and walked all the way to 41 Alem St… The worst part was, we were tired, semi-lost, and hot, which makes for a cranky and unpleasant 20-30 minute walk. And that’s not even the worst part. When we got to the apartment, I realized that I had left my cell phone on the bus…! I was in and out of sleep the whole ride over, and my phone must’ve just fallen out of my jacket pocket onto the seat, so that when I put my jacket in my backpack to leave the bus, I assumed my phone was there too. Of course, this was also the one time I didn’t turn around to scan my seat before stepping into the aisle. I haven’t stopped kicking myself for that yet… Fortunately, many of my photos from this trip are on my point-and-shoot camera, and I have backed up photos of my phone pictures from before this trip, but it still frustrates me that I was so careless. Smh.

Anyway, after arriving in Mendoza, we walked around the city a bit and realized that there’s way more to Mendoza than we thought!! The city actually has a really nice central park with fountains, and there are plenty of nice restaurants and cafes (not [yet] pictured). The city is also relatively clean, in comparison to some of the other countries we visited. There were definitely less stray dogs in the city too. I wish we had spent more time in this city than in Santiago, I think it would have been worth it to spend a relaxing day here enjoying the cafes and people-watching. The nightlife looked interesting as well, though we were still pretty tired from the hike for that.

On our full day in Mendoza, we had decided to do a winery bike tour. We had heard that Mr Hugo’s winery bike tour was the best, so we took a bus and headed out to Maipu, the city right next to Mendoza. As we left the city, I noticed that the area was becoming more dilapidated and dirty… The buildings were older in style, one-storied, and they were mostly housing small businesses (eg, supermarkets, auto repair, vs insurance agency, bank, etc.). There were also more open spaces that were like dumps, full of trash or broken building materials, and there was an increase in stray dogs… In other words, it didn’t look like we were approaching the idyllic, peaceful, wine country that I was expecting…

And indeed, at the stop where we got off for Mr Hugo’s, it was like we had traveled back in time to a simpler place. We went ahead with the rental anyway. This also differed from our expectations. I think the Lion and I both were expecting it to be something like Mr Hugo (or at least an employee of his) to take us in a group with other people around to different vineyards and explain to us the history/culture of the city and the wines, but instead a lady just gave us some old bikes, a paper map, and a cup of lemonade made with pineapple juice bc they were out of bottled water and let us on our way…

We first went to an olive farm that also made chocolates and alcohol mixes. We had a short guided tour and learned a little bit of how they make olive oil. Turns out you need quite a bit of olives, 10kg of olives, in order to make just 1L of evoo! And for the first few years of an olive tree’s life, it can only produce 4-5kg of olives. Then, around 7 years, the tree can produce significantly more as it has matured (please correct me if these numbers wrong, it’s been awhile since the tour…). The best part of course, was the tasting, where we sampled a couple of oils, acids, olive pastes, jams, and alcohols. The Lion got to try absinthe for the first time, but he didn’t hallucinate Tinkerbell, like the guide had warned.

After this tour, we went to lunch at Casa de Campo, a restaurant that was recommended by many Argentinians that we had talked to. I didn’t think the food was that excellent, so I won’t write much about it, but maybe the Lion thought it was excellent πŸ˜› After lunch, we biked a long way out to another winery. Keep on mind, we were biking on our own and through a dirt city, not along rolling hills of vineyards here. We encountered gas exhaust from cars and trucks, dust and debris from construction projects in process and abandoned, and small rocks flying at us from the road as cars and trucks drove by! The Lion theorized that the vineyards were probably farther out into the country, and this was just the “storefront” of the wineries for easy access for tourists.

The winery we went to was a “modern winery,” so the style of the building and the design of their winery had a very different look to it than the more traditional winery you’d imagine. It reminded me more of a loft apartment in a big city than a winery! They had a self-guided tour, and we finished with a tasting upstairs.

We didn’t get to visit any more wineries after this one; we had started later in the day, and the bike-riding took more time and energy out off us than we had remaining, so we called it a day and went back to Mr Hugo’s to return the bikes. After another cup of pineapple “lemonade,” we hopped on the bus and left “wine country.” I was definitely ready to head over to “the Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires, the next day!

Valparaiso (Chile)

I was definitely ready to see Valpo after what was, to me, a less exciting than expected time in Santiago…

We were in Valpo for about a day and a half (arrived Sept 8, left the morning of Sept 10), but we really didn’t understand how to appreciate the city until the next day when we had our tour with The German Pirate!

Our first half day in Valpo was not bad. We arrived in the afternoon after a 2 h bus ride from Santiago and checked into The Yellow House, a cute b&b on the hills overlooking the port and the city. We took one of the infamous ascensors (kind of like an outdoor elevator?) down to the city after checking, ate lunch at a seafood restaurant (not worthy of mentioning), and got lost in the city for a few hours until dinner. The streets were very charming with the colorful houses, and the street art created a pleasant surprise every time we turned a corner. As dirty and dusty as the downtown was, the hills were beautiful (but also still kinda dirty…) and full of color.

 

The next day, we took a tour with the German Pirate, Michael Arnold. We picked up another couple to join us on the tour, and we set off. We walked around on the hills, and Michael described the culture, history, and life of Valpo to us. He also showed us the highlights of Valpo’s street art. Wow, these artists are talented with a spray can!! We also visited some of the more colorful streets of Valpo. I loved seeing all the houses in different colors. It made the foggy morning a bit more cheery πŸ™‚ We even picked up a few stray dogs who followed us around for the duration of the tour!

Michael had a really special treat for us: we got to see inside the home of an elderly Chilean couple. It was a really unbelievably unique experience. The old man is a magician who used to perform regularly but is now retired and only perform occasionally. He showed us a few tricks, and it was obvious that he as quite the performer in his day. His wife was in the kitchen, cooking away. Their house was decorated with a variety of knick knacks, but what made it interesting was all the pictures off Marilyn Monroe scattered around! Senor was so cute!! I thought it was a really unique experience to get to see inside a native Chilean’s home; that’s definitely something I wish I could do in every foreign city. I didn’t take any pictures of inside his home just in case that was rude.. After lunch, we wandered along more streets and took a ton more pictures of beautifully done street art!

Oh, we also tried our first “completo” in Valpo. A complete is basically a hot dog covered with sauerkraut (not as flavorful as the German sauerkraut though), tomatoes, avocado, and mayo. A lot of mayo. So much that even Anthony Bourdain was overwhelmed when he had the completo. I was pretty excited to try this thing because I like hot dogs, but unfortunately this one was underwhelming 😦 Even with all those toppings on it, the hot dog didn’t have much taste… Sad. I don’t have any pictures on this because the ones I took were on my phone, which I’d lost 😦