Friday, September 13, 2013

Lima Volunteering - Homestay

Arriving back in Lima after the Inca Trail was surreal. The grey city, with dirt, grime and so many people and the impending change of feeling for the trip weighed heavily on me while I wanted to be picked up by the folks from the group I was volunteering with. When I did get picked up, we took several taxi rides across town, picking up other volunteers along the way and arriving in San Miguel neighborhood, a working-class area full of parks. In each park in San Miguel you'll find a small statue of a Saint Bernard dog with a pile of bags and a hole to drop your dogs droppings after walking them. Going back and forth from the house we stayed at - Celia's house - to Lydia the program coordinator's home, we passed through so many of these parks on streets without names I could hardly get my barrings - not common for me!

Celia's home was really comfortable. Like many homes in Lima, the home that has been in her family for many years was originally two stories with a living space below and bedrooms upstairs with a small outdoor patio area. Later, at a third floor was added later on top without permits or any legal regulation. I visited several houses that felt like a labyrinth of stairs going round and round to different floors each with a kitchen and bathroom of their own. In Celia's house, there was more or less an entire detached apartment with three bedrooms at the top floor, where we stayed. There was internet, hot water, excellent food and great company: everything you could need from a home stay. 

Celia, our Mama, had two grown children who both lived at home, as well as a house maid who lived in the house with her son. Her sister, brother in law and their young daughters would come by several nights of the week. Around the house, English was being learned slowly, but luckily one of my house sisters had been studying at a school in Lima for the semester and spoke incredible Spanish. Between the two of us, my broken Spanish and Celia's broken English, even the sister who had no Spanish whatsoever felt at least a bit engaged during the long meal time conversations. 

"Our kitchen" at the homestay. Notice how cloudy Lima is in the winter...

Our homestay living room.

Our view from our third story window, looking out onto the street.

Separate stairwell down to the main gate. 

Front gate.

It was during the homestay part of the trip that I felt my Spanish truly improved. With Alfred, I could allow him to speak Spanish and on the Trail there was no need to actually converse in Spanish since we had our guide with us. When I got home, I daresay my Spanish is better than it will ever be in my life, which still wasn't fantastic, but I was moving towards pretty good comprehension and could nearly use the passed tense by the end!

Each day we would get picked up by friends of the program coordinator Lydia, young people who attended the church she was a member of who got a small paycheck to cart us foreigners around from homestay to volunteer site. We would walk through the streets of San Miguel and I'm embarrassed to say I never quite figured the neighborhood out - being so dependent upon these guides the whole time. This nearly proved to be disastrous one day when no one picked Sarah and I up from the orphanage (another story for another time) but we did make it home before nightfall, which is the most important thing. Typically our days would start around 7am, we'd come home for lunch around 2 and leave again for an afternoon/evening work day then dinner after 9. Lunch was the biggest meal of the day in Peru. Dinner was usually a delicious, warm soup - perfect before getting into bed on the chilly chilly nights. For those who were staying for longer volunteer time periods, there was flexibility to not work all day every day, but for those of us only around for a week or two we could fill all day long at different sites, getting a feel for a bit of everything. 

That's Celia and I on my last night.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Inca Trail: Machu Picchu

I would like to say that with all the sweat, vomit and tears I gave to the Inca Trail, my sacrifice was received and we were given such great weather the morning we arrived in the city of Machu Picchu. Whatever divine or natural intervention played a role - the day we arrived was spectacular and picturesque, which is good because apparently Machu Picchu is either cloudless and hot or rainy and wet. 

The final morning, all of the tourists who have walked the Trail are camping just before the final check point you have to go through in order to hike the final few kilometers to get to the city. The gate opens at 5:30 am, but people are let in on a first come, first serve basis. Everyone wants to get to the Sun Gate before the sun rises to stake out the best spots to watch the sun rise - though of course the time of the year we were there (just a few weeks after winter solstice) you have plenty of time to arrive before the sun rises. We woke up at 3:30am, were given a little hot water and a tea bag and some bread, then hurried down the hill to sit down in the dark and wait two hours for the line to start moving us forward. 

We played 20 questions and other games in the dark, huddled together for warmth in the cool, humid air of the cloud forest. We were probably the 5th group in line. Finally we started moving, and as instructed by our guide Rosa, we moved through the check point, then one by one turned on our headlamps and walked in single file along the skinny, treacherous ridge path, through the forest.  

Below us, you could hear the train whistles bringing the first morning groups of tourists up to Machu Picchu, and when you looked forward and backwards the whole ridge trail was a line of headlamps moving at a quick clip along the rolling hill of the mountainside. Hundreds of us rushed in single file - we had been warned about a young woman just a few months before who had tried to run pasted her spot in line and had fallen off the mountain to her death - as the sun began to light the world. We crawled on our hands and knees up the 50 "monkey stairs" at a nearly-90-degree-angle up the hillside, then finally reached the crown of the Sun Gate, where Rosa gave us each a hug and we got our first views of Machu Picchu City, an hour's hike still below us.

The Sun Gate - the place through which the sun rises on the summer solstice, right into the window of the Sun Temple below - was already bustling, and after a few quick photos, Rosa rushed us down the hill a little, to reach her favorite place to watch the sun rise, where there would be less people.

Looking through the Sun Gate down onto the city.  

The Sun Gate from down the Trail a bit. Already crawling. 

Slightly away from the crowds, we made our way to a spot where we could all sit and enjoy the unblocked views of the city as the sun rose, fierce and hot, over the eastern mountain tops.

The city from our view. The pyramid building was the sun dial, and below is the Sun Temple and other royal buildings. 

The end of the road. Another hour hike down the mountain (past several tourists who had clearly taken showers and done their makeup that morning in order to get the perfect photos) and we arrived at the edge of the City, where we took a few postcard photos (greatly helped by our forceful guide Rosa who asked everyone to step aside for us like we had earned it - which, let's face it, we kind of had). At this point we had to exit the ruins for about an hour (but there were working toilets and a place to buy coffee and food while we waited) before we could get the paperwork sorted and get let back in for our tour.

The big money shot.  

The whole group, not looking too smelly and greasy, really.  

You can read all about Machu Picchu, what they think it could have been used and built for and all the things they have no idea about the place, so I'm not going to put those details here. I'll just photo dump with all the details I loved.

 Aqueducts run through the entire grounds, 
though they don't allow water to flow through anymore because of erosion. 

 Ceremonial baths and fountains right beside the Sun Temple.

The Sun Temple (above) and Royal Tomb (below) 

The sun dial, or the "Hitching Post of the Sun"
Thought to be the most holy and central place of the ruin.
There were a lot of barefoot tourists dressed in white tunics around here,
soaking in the raw energy of the sun dial. 
I feel like we had enough of the raw energy of the place out on the trail. 

Llamas, of course.  

 The school, where elements and celestial patterns were studied in reflections. 

The Temple of the Condor. You don't see them around the city any more with all the tourists, unfortunately.  

After several hours in the city, we made the curvy, steep trip down the mountain to Aquas Calientes, a town made especially for tourists of Machu Picchu and all felt awkward in a fancy restaurant. Most people visiting the ruins stay in this city the night before or after, where they can shower and go out and eat good food. There are two roads by the looks of it - one where the buses up to the ruins drop tourists off and one of train tracks where the trains come through on their way to and from Cuzco. After lunch, the beautiful weather was disappearing and we grabbed our duffle bags before hoping aboard our train back to Ollamtaytambo, from where we took a bus back to Cuzco.

That night in Cuzco, we went out to sample all the dishes we were not given on the trail - guinea pig, alpaca steak and ceviche, a dish made with raw fish. We were exhausted and turned into the hotel early, all of us heading somewhere else new and exciting the next morning. Maybe I'm flattering us all, but I felt like the group I was with was excellent in a rare way. Even the guides commented on how much they enjoyed us as a group. You never know what you'll get with group activities, and G Adventures did an excellent job with the tour, but the group really made the experience. I hope that into the future I can run into these folks throughout the world, if I or they are passing through each other's homes. The whole experience was unforgettable, and I'm so glad I did it, and I'm so glad we picked G Adventures - really truly.

In retrospect, I'd even say I'd do it all again, though I'd probably give myself more time in Cuzco and do a trek or two from there to adjust to the altitude and get more ready for the whole trip - plus one could easily spend way more than a day in Cuzco. And I say I'd do it again from the comfort of my big, lovely bed in Pasadena, California. I'm sure if you had asked me on the way up Dead Woman's Pass, I would have given you a very different answer.

Rosa, the guide who took such good care of me along the way.  

Here are the details of our trek - the Inca Trail in red - with details of the altitudes below. Lares is another Andean trek nearby, which another group set out on the same day as us.

Inca Trail Day 3

The third day of the Inca Trail was probably my favorite. Maybe it was because I felt a lot better, maybe it was the going down and down and down the mountain, maybe it had to do with the unbelievable views and maybe we were finally hitting our strides as hikers and enjoying each other's company more and more. 

You can see the Night 2 campsite here, and in between the two tall mountains, Dead Woman's Pass, which we crossed over the day before.

The day started out with more uphill, not quite as high as Dead Woman's Pass, but about an hour going up, stopping along the way at a way-station which would have been more or less a hotel for those making the pilgrimage along the trail, standing guard against anyone who might have not been allowed on the route.

Made it to the top of the next pass in one piece, though it's not fair to say I felt TOTALLY better. I still wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but I was not throwing up any more, so I suppose my memory would tell you that I was feeling great at this point. From the top of the pass, we could see snow-capped glacial mountains, and towards Machu Picchu mountain. After another deep inhale of the flowery alcohol solution, my lungs opened up and I felt pretty good.

Once we reached the top of the pass, we hiked for several hours rolling up and down along the top of the mountains, following the path through caves, more ruins, lots of llamas and the beginnings of the cloud forest, where we were told to anticipate some rain, but found nothing but sun filtering through the trees and hanging moss.

We ate at the top of the final tall peak that day. After lunch, the cooks brought out a frosted and beautiful cake for Alex, a police officer from Manchester, who was celebrating his birthday. Apparently they steam-cooked this masterpiece, and even wrote his name on it. After blowing out the candles, they cut it up and we enjoyed just one more thing we never thought we'd be given while in the wilderness.

All of our porters, guides and cooks on the last day. Remember there were only 16 tourists this group of 21 cared for on this trip.

After lunch, it was time to begin the descent lovingly named "The Gringo Killer". This was 2-3 hours of straight downhill stairs, winding steeply through the forest, with a foot or more between many of the steps. The most terrifying part of this trek was the porters who would come up behind you at a jog, propelled down the mountain by the sheer weight of the bags on their backs. The shout of "Porters!" was common throughout the trail, but here it spurred a moment of panic as you jumped to the left and hugged up against the mountain so you didn't get carried down with them.

This part of the trail was probably my favorite, as we descended into the cloud forest, where it became more humid and green. The ancient trail is still totally intact here and I couldn't be happier to be going downhill, no matter how steep the steps. After days of feeling awful due to the altitude, I realized that my months and months in the gym had actually payed off on this third day, when I felt pretty strong going downhill for hours on everyone else's least favorite part of the trip.

If you had taken the train to Machu Picchu, this is the river you follow through the mountain valleys to arrive at the city. Joining up with the sounds of the trains below felt strange, but not as strange as arriving at the bustling tourist location the next morning. We were on the south side of Machu Picchu mountain that final night, with only a few more kilometers to arrive at the ancient city - the final bit we'd take in the dark hours of the morning to see the sunrise through the Sun Gate.

That last night we stayed at what is the busiest campsite of the trail. More or less all 500 people who are on the Trail on a given day stay here their last night so that they can reach the city for the morning sunrise as soon as the last checkpoint opens at 5:30am. We had a nice night together, now that the group had really gotten to know each other and the hard work was more or less done, opening a bottle of wine to toast the two couples who were on their honeymoon and playing cards before and after dinner. It was an early night, though, since we were getting up at 3:30 in the morning the next day to line up for the last mad dash to Machu Picchu.

Finally at the site - the best part of each day.