Monthly Archives: December 2017

Finally getting to Machu Picchu

I arrived in Peru at the tail end of February 2010 in preparation for my awesome Machu Picchu trek leaving the first of March.  That didn’t happen.  I was a little bummed about not getting to see Machu Picchu, but in true adventurous spirit said to myself “I’ll be in South America for a while… we’ll see what happens.”  I explored Cusco and Arequipa.  I went on a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca.  And went sand-boarding on the dunes in Huacachina.  I flew over the Nasca lines and marveled at the shapes.  And then I put Peru out of my mind.  I started on my first volunteer project in Cartegna and promptly put my missed opportunity at hiking the Inca Trail out of my mind.

But when meeting other travelers the conversation always seems to go somethitng like this:

Random Traveler:  How long have you been traveling for?  Where have you been?

Upon hearing that I have already been to Peru but did not get to see Machu Picchu, it inevitably goes like this:

Random Traveler:  Dude!  You have GOT to go to Machu Picchu.  It’s EPIC.  Your trip will be nothing if you don’t get to Machu Picchu.

At this point I don’t even bother trying to explain that a natural disaster occurred not long before I was to hike Machu Picchu and that I am grateful that said natural disaster did not occur while I was hiking Machu Picchu.

More time passed and I helped build eco-friendly hiking trails and count howler monkeys in the dry forest [which is a total misnomer since it’s soaking wet 6 months out of the year]. I catalogued orchids in a cloud forest.  I tagged turtles on the Galapagos Islands.  I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador. I caught malaria in the Amazon Rainforest.  I volunteered in a health clinic and taught classes on respiratory infections, influenza, and tuberculosis. I chilled out and took surfing lessons on the coast.  I went hiking in Keulap and Chachapoyas.  I met up with friends in Cajamarca.  I rented an apartment and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with and for travelers.

Kuelap view
Kuelap view

And then my roommate asked me this question. In Novemeber.

 “Someone just cancelled in my tour group to hike Machu Picchu.  Do you want to take their place? It’s the first week of December.”

Did I?  After all, 8 months earlier I came to Peru a month earlier than my first volunteer assignment required for the sole purpose of hiking Machu Picchu.  But was that still a goal?  At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, Machu Picchu was becoming just another box to tick… just a way to impress my fellow travelers. I wasn’t helping anyone by climbing it. I wasn’t learning Inca culture and this wouldn’t be a culmination of assimilating all that knowledge. I had done so much more than I had originally intended to do, and I still had a half of a continent to explore.

“Oh and this isn’t the standard 4day/3night trek This is a 9day/8night 100km hike”

holyfuckingshit…. that’s a long ass hike I thought. And my roommate… she used to climb mountains. For fun.  And for fun I like to sleep. And then before I realized the words were out of my mouth “I’m in,” and I had a paltry 6 weeks to get my ass into shape. There was no turning back after that.  My previous longest hike was a measly 2 day 16 miler in Chachapoyas.

Kuelap 1

Did I go?  Oh hell yeah.  Was it amazing?  Incredibly so.  Was it the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my life?  Without a doubt.  Was it worth it? 

inca trail 3



Machu Picchu fail of epic portions

So perhaps you all are waiting to hear about how cool Machu Picchu is. Well, I hear it’s pretty awesome. I mean a lot of people have told me how awesome it is.   How spiritual it is.  How life-changing it is.  I wish I could say the same.  I wish I could say Machu Picchu fucking awesome.  But alas, I cannot.  At least not today. My first attempt to hike Machu Picchu in March 2010 and experience the amazing-ness that is  Machu Picchu was a big-time epic failure. [spoiler alert: I finally did make it to Machu Picchu]


Machu Picchu, alpacas, hiking, amazing scenery, volcanoes… This is what I had in mind when I booked my flight to Peru and arranged my trek to Machu Picchu. What a perfect way to celebrate turning 30. The universe; however, had other plans. In January, there was a massive mudslide related to heavy rains in the area. The mudslides knocked out the train tracks and washed out some of the roads to the area. But this was January… surely everything would be fixed by end of February/first of March, I reasoned. But it was not to be. In typical Latin-American fashion, it took the government well over two months to restore the tracks and roads. Machu Picchu is by far one of the biggest sources of tourist revenue for the country. Around 2500 tourists per day visit Machu Picchu so you’d think opening the tracks would have been a bigger priority.

cuszo walkabout 2

But no, it was still closed when I arrived in Cuzco, and my dreams of hiking Maccu Picchu dashed. I kept hearing different reports of when they would reopen, but turns out the roads/tracks re-opened in April… far later than I would have liked. The upside was that there were almost no tourists in Cuzco, and I had the city basically to myself, which was awesome! It was also a lot cheaper too. So yay for saving money.

cuszo walkabout 3

So what do you do when your dreams of exploring Machu Picchu on your birthday are dashed? Drop back and punt, so to speak. Enter Cusco. Just as there’s more than one way to skin a cat; there’s more to the sacred valley than just Machu Picchu.

cuzco walkabout 4

Cusco is an incredibly historic city. Back in the day, it was the capital of the Incan Empire, and is home to some pretty impressive Incan ruins other than Machu Picchu. It also has some impressive Spanish colonial architecture.

cusco walkabout 6

cusco walkabout 5

But there are some really cool sites around Cusco that I don’t think get the attention they deserve.  First up Písaq. The Spanish built the present-day town of Pisac along the Urubamba River half a century after the conquest, but the surviving terraces of its predecessor, Inca Pisaq, are still draped across the mountains above less than three miles drive away.

The signature terraces – stacked 40 high –  are visible throughout much of the switch-backed drive from the market.  Their design takes advantage of mountain runoff by channeling it through the fields on its way to the river below. The terraces also served to prevent erosion and landslides, and contained rich soil hauled from the valley below that enabled Inca farmers to produce crops otherwise unsustainable at these altitudes. The buildings are scattered across nearly two square miles of the slope, and include fortifications, aqueducts, granaries, homes, and ceremonial spaces.

Pisaq 1

The ramparts of the Q’allaqasa – the citadel – contain 20 towers that overlook the site from a perch on the ridge above the terraces.

What appear to be the mouths of small caves in a nearly inaccessible hillside across a ravine from the settlement are actually the face of an Inca cemetery not yet fully excavated by archaeologists. pisaq-ruins 3
Incredibly enough, skeletons are still visible in some of the open-air crypts.

Next up, Ollantaytambo.  In my opinion, Ollantaytambo is where Inca ruins come to life. The town is much bigger and better preserved than Písaq.  Several Inca structures survive and have been continuously inhabited by their descendants. Ollantaytambo boasts some spectacular scenery, as well as agricultural terraces, well preserved Inca walls, as well as a partially constructed sun temple at the top. Built by the emperor Pachacuti, and a stronghold of the last independent Inca ruler, Manco II, it was eventually conquered by the Spanish. Ollantaytambo fell into to decline and ruin, although native Inca continued to live there and was rediscovered by European explorers in the 19th century.



So my amazing Machu Picchu trek where I hike for miles and commune with nature and have a spiritual experience was a bust, but it wasn’t a totally wasted trip to Peru. I did get to learn a lot about Inca history and it was the perfect jumping off place for my 16 month trip around South America.

The story of Szimpla Kert

Budapest is an odd little city, and part of what makes it odd also makes it cool. Budapest is home to ruin bars, and a visit to the capital of Hungary isn’t complete without a drink (or two) at one of these bars which are unique to the city and unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen [and for the non-drinkers among us, most of these places have offerings such as  fresh lemonade,coffee, or devine hot chocolate].  I visited my first ruin bar during my first visit to the city in January 2013. Back then, I did Budapest’s version of a ‘pub tour’ and got to visit quite a few of these establishments. My favourite by far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer’s market/local hangout/shisha bar.  Whatever you can think of, it’s happening here.

Budapest Ruin Pubs

Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.


The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.


The Story of Szimpla Kert

Szimpla originally opened in 2002 as an indoor cafe in a location a few blocks away from its current location, but the ruin pub trend didn’t actually begin until 2004 when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street.  Before Szimpla moved in, the area was a relatively quiet spot in the VII District or Jewish Quarter, and the future ‘pub’ was a dilapidated building was a former stove factory. Through the magic of vision, it was transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever seen.

It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi [kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian] and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they’re still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.

Budapest Ruin Pubs - Szimpla Spiral Staircase

One of the criticisms of Szimpla Kert is that approximately 80% of the guests are non-Hungarian.  In fact, while the menu and signs were in Hungarian, the languages I heard most often were English [Australian version], German, and maybe Czech [I’m a little fuzzy on that one]. Nonetheless the place represents the rebirth of Budapest.  It represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city’s ruins. Szimpla Kert changed Budapest’s international image and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.

It’s hard to put the atmosphere into words but I’ll try… Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor are where you’ll encounter dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor,  anything goes; don’t be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You’ll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn’t ‘belong’ in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.

Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.





The Sunday Farmer’s Market

I’m a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmers’ market stands. There are several local vendors selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There’s also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.

Szimpla farmers’ market breakfast meat spread


Szimpla for Coffee

They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn’t think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you’ll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer’s market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it’s nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won’t find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually…






I hope by now you’ve come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It’s an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and you can be sure if I ever find myself in Budapest again, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what cool and amazing things they have added there.

Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.

Photos to make you want to move to Wales

To date there are 195 different countries in the world and I have visited roughly 1/3 [65] of them. To some that’s simply an amazing accomplishment; to others, it’s a drop in the bucket.  When I think that I’ve yet to visit anywhere in Africa, Oceania, or Asia, there’s still a lot of the world left for me to see.

Even though there is still a lot of the world left for me to visit, there are a few corners of the world that I find myself returning to again and again.  Within the US [and to a lesser extent, Canada], I find myself drawn to the Pacific North West.  PNW is almost as foreign in every way to South Carolina as say Berlin. We speak the same language, but that’s about all we have in common. I love this region so much, that I’ll probably live there at some point in my life.

I’ve also been to Mexico several times, even living there for a year. Germany, especially Berlin, feels like home, and surprisingly so does Budapest and St Petersburg. I’d love to return to Mendoza, and I’ve set foot in some part of the United Kingdom every year since 2012. London is amazing, but the area of the UK that has totally won my heart is the often overlooked western part, the wild and rugged Wales.

There are so many things to love about Wales, from the UK’s smallest capital, Cardiff, to the  incredible Wales Coast Path. North Wales boasts of the Isle of Anglesey and the incredible Snowdon National Park. Sheep and cats rule the countryside, and  the Welsh language is difficult beyond measure, but sounds amazing when spoken by a native. The Welsh accented English is my favorite English dialect. The best part of Wales is how relatively few tourists go there, and how sparsely populated the country is

I freaking LOVE Wales [although I do admit, Scotland is a close second].

And to convert you to #TeamWales, here are some of my favorite photos from one of my favorite places in the world.

[A word of caution: These photos may indeed make you want to pack your bags and move to Wales ASAP. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.]






welsh windmills



The-White-Arch irish sea anglesey wales


Peace Corps Interview

Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context.  I don’t really like talking about myself.  I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.

Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession:  this was my second Peace Corps interview.  The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later.  I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true].  Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.

In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.

So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.

So  here’s is what I’ve determined…

Practise is important

Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it.  It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.

I took a screenshot of me before the interview so that I’d know how I’d look on webcam. Was lighting adequate? Did I look presentable?

Display professionalism

From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and ready. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting.  I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting.  My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to act like its a face-to-face meeting.  Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.

When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.  

Research the country

The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.

Know Your Assignment

My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development?  Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.

While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be theirmistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident.  Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.

Print out your resume and aspiration statement

Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and  did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?”  or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.”  On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or  how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.

Pray. Meditate.

Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up a whole hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance.  I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Of course you do. Write them down so that  when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”

Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French.  How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions:  If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]

At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.

Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show.  Go to a movie.  Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork  and clearances that you have to complete.

Welcome to the Peace Corps!

Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.