Adventures of DJ and M | Traveling with friends

This adventure has been a long time in the making and it’s nearly polar opposite from what I usually do or how I normally travel.

More than a year ago, my work mate DJ said “I want to go to Europe with you” and like everyone who says that I say OK and figure absolutely nothing will happen. Because nothing ever does. So I was somewhat surprised when she brought it up again, and this time my response was ‘where do you want to go?’ because if someone only wants to go to Rome or Paris, I’m not the person they should go with.

Her response “I don’t know… I’ve never been to Europe…”  Great… I have got a geographically challenged person with no idea of what they might like to do.  Europe is pretty big, I say.  It include Istanbul, Greece, London, Moscow, Stockholm, Barcelona, and many places in between.  I begin to think that this may not be happening.

Over time, DJ and I become good friends.  She cons me into running a 5k at home and a 10K in Charleston; I conned her into staying in a hostel while running said 10K.  And driving. It was a wash. Eventually we decide on summer 2015 as when we should  go. My vote was May or September (shoulder season and not 1000 degrees); her vote was July or August, based on kid’s school schedules (hers, obvs).  We finally decide on last week of August and first week of September.  I should mention that I’ve never been to Europe in the summer and what I know I know from reading and talking to others.

We probably did about 50 trip combinations before settling on out actual route.  She wanted to go to the beach; I wanted to go somewhere I haven’t been before. Croatia, Italy, and Spain were some of the finalists, but in the end, the planes, trains, and boats just wouldn’t work out financially. DJ really wanted to go to Barcelona, Paris, and London; I explained that those cities were probably the most expensive and with the budget we were working with, we could do one, maybe two, but not all three.

Paris and I are not friends

I got an email alert for a really good price on a flight to Budapest. Normally, I fly into one city and out of another, but this time, we did a round trip for <$700 in August/September. I call that a win.

Now from Budapest, we could go south, or north. I was pushing for South… Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece. DJ was deterred by the lack of tourist infrastructure and the Cyrillic alphabet so we went North.  We eventually settled on Budapest–>Vienna–>Prague–>Berlin–>Copenhagen–>London–>Budapest circuit over three weeks.

I was a little bummed to be missing out on Spain… yet again, but London for the 5th time was an acceptable substitute.

London is awesome

Because London is awesome, and no matter how many visits I have, there will always be more things to do.  And Berlin is awesome too. So I knew that at least those two cities were going to be OK. The other cities were a toss-up. Even more interesting would be the accommodations. I’ve always stayed in hostels and if I am really feeling flush, I’ll get a private room.  DJ was a hotel girl.  We settled on guesthouses and apartments plus a hostel in London with two beds and a bathroom.

Different styles… different expectations… let’s hope the friendship survives.

Parts 2 and 3

Three flight delays from Greenville, a close call in Washington DC, an uneventful overnight flight to Munich, a much-loved [and craved] pretzel during the Munich layover, a short flight to Budapest, a visit to passport control, and DJ has her first ever passport stamp.  Currency exchanged [dollars to fornits], train tickets purchased, subway passes bought, and a 15-minute walk while carrying our luggage in the 100 degree [no exaggeration] heat, we’ve arrived at our first stop.

I’m always nervous booking places on-line.  Now for me, my expectations are low, and whatever the place looks like, as long as there are no visible bugs or drug needles, I am generally OK with it.  DJ’s standards were a bit higher. Luckily, my first guest house was a winner… two beds, and in-room bathroom, and a central location.  What’s missing is air-condition.  Now, while I expected this, I did not expect it to be 100 degrees.  DJ is dying; I’m surviving but only barely. Thank God for the small, but powerful fan inside our room.

For our first meal in Budapest, DJ wants to go to… McDonald’s. For a cheeseburger. No street food for that girl. No sidewalk pizza will do.  A plain cheeseburger.  We traveled 6000 miles for McDonald’s. [me… shaking head in disbelief]  Luckily, I have been here before. I know there are multiple McDonald’s in Budapest, including one just a five minutes walk away, but that’s not the one I suggest we go to.  Budapest has quite possible the world’s nicest McDonald’s [or at least the nicest one I’ve ever seen] inside the Nyugati train station.  I discovered this gem when I was in Budapest in January 2013 freezing my ass off. [Irony upon irony:  first visit to Budapest I nearly froze to death; this visit I may die of heat stroke]  I was just looking for some heat when I happened upon this mirage inside the train station.

DJ agrees. And it has air condition. I am a hero… At least for a little while.

Michelle in Budapest. Never mind the bra showing through the t-shirt. Or the purple hair. The FitBit said we had done more than 30,000 steps, and I was celebrating by eating a deliciously (cold) coffee flavored gelato.

 

 

 

Exploring Arequipa over a weekend

Exploring Arequipa

Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru with approximately 1 million city-dwellers, was formed by Spaniards in the 1500’s after conquering the Incas. As you enter the Plaza de Armas at the heart of Arequipa, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into time and place outside of modern day Peru. Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, the view from Arequipa would have been reason enough for the Spanish to settle there. The sillar from these volcanoes is what forms much of the architecture surrounding the Plaza de Armas and crowns Arequipa as the white city. At 7640 ft (2300m) above sea level it is not the highest city in Peru, but it still has an altitude associated with some of the higher cities. If you are coming straight from Lima, you’ll definitely feel it; if you are coming down from Cusco, you’ll hardly notice.

If you’ve been to Machu Picchu, you may think that nothing can top that.  And while it’s true that Machu Picchu is amazing (or at least I’ve heard it was pretty awesome), but Arequipa can certainly hold its own and is well worth exploring and a great starting point for many other outdoor adventures in the area. Want to hike into a canyon?  Or go white water rafting?  Or explore volcanoes?  Arequipa is the perfect place for all that. Want to learn about the naughty nuns?  The ice princess? Or are you OK with just people watching.  Once again, Arequipa is the answer.

My weekend in Arequipa went something like this:  People-watching, nerding out on history, hiking down the world deepest canyon, people watching, and market exploring.  My sole reason for coming to Arequipa was to visit Colca Canyon.  I am not missing out on another awesome hiking expedition

One of my favorite things to do is just hang out in the square and people-watch, and the Plaza de Armas is the best place to do just that.

Nerding Out Part One: The Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the main tourist attractions in Arequipa and anytime I can get a glimpse of nuns behaving badly, I’m all in.  As a bonus, the cafe was serving apple pie and lemonade so I indulged my appetite after indulging my nerdy side.

Nerding Out Part Two:  After the monastery, I checked out the Andean Museum to see the “ice maiden” Juanita – the body of a young Inca girl found completely preserved (frozen) at the top of a nearby volcano.  To go in, you have to do a guided tour, which includes a 20 minute video about the discovery of the body.  The guide told us about the sacrificial rituals and the other artifacts found with Juanita’s body.

Day Two and Three:  Hiking that massive canyon

Day Four: More exploring Arequipa walking to the neighborhood of Yanahuara and its plaza for views over the city and of the El Misti volcano.  Market exploring and market eating.

Those view were well worth the walk up and Arequipa is definitely worth the time if you happen to be in southern Peru.

 

Adventures in Colca Canyon

Like many things I do, my trek to Colca Canyon was not carefully planned; it was more of a spontaneous impulse.

I arrived in Peru mid-March hell-bent on hiking Machu Picchu.  The universe was equally hell-bent on making sure that didn’t happen. As always, the universe won.  I poked around Cusco for a while, contemplating where to go next. Arequipa seemed like a logical place.  It has everything I look for in a destination: history, interesting architecture, something special in the vicinity that you can’t find anywhere else.

Enter Colca Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world, and home to the world’s largest and most romantic bird:  the Colca Condor.

The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet, can live to be 100 years old, and mates for life.  In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

After poking around Arequipa for a few days, I headed out to Cabanaconde, a small town nestled in a chasm deeper. I had nowhere to be until May so I planned on doing a little hiking/backpacking in the area knowing that I’d be back in Peru in the fall [technically, I suppose I mean spring since seasons are reversed] I had just returned from a short day hike and was admiring the view of the canyon while sipping what would become one of my top five all-time favorite alcoholic beverages–a maracuya sour– when I saw it far off in the distance.  What ‘it’ was was a small white waterfall standing out against a wall of green. At that moment, I knew that I’d have to get a lot closer, and I wasn’t leaving the canyon until I felt that cold water on my feet

 As it turned out, the white blip was the Huaruro waterfall, a 250-foot behemoth accessible from the small village of Fure on the opposite side of the canyon.  A hiker and explorer by heart, a mountaineer I am not. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with the curse of self-awareness, and knew that getting there completely on my own was so far outside my comfort zone it would not be advisable to try.  Enter my new best friend, Jose [maybe not his real name, but he answered to it]. As a solo female traveler and even more so as a solo female adventurer heading into a canyon where I could be raped and dismembered and left for the condors to eat, I have to trust my gut when meeting guides.  After all, I am literally putting my life in their hands–at least for a few days. I met my tiny Quechua guide the day before and maybe he recognized my hesitation since he invited me to meet his family.
Meeting the family put me at ease that this wasn’t some serial killer trying to get me alone and away from civilization.  Dinner was potatoes and meat, probably alpaca–I didn’t ask–and chincha, a drink I’ve already come to loathe, and conversation was probably 75% Spanish and 25% Quechua. Don’t worry, I didn’t know I could understand Quechua either, but apparently having studied/lived with Mayans 10 years ago

After dinner, the women-folk did their cleaning up and Jose and I discussed the particulars of the trek. We would start at 7:00 in the morning, and hike from Cabanaconde down to the bottom of the canyon [a descent of approximately 3,300 feet]. After that, we’ll cross the Colca River, have lunch in Llahuar, hike up about 1,650 feet to the town of Llatica and then continue up another 600 feet to Fure, where we would sleep that first night.

The next day, we’d set out for the waterfall and then hike back down the canyon to the Sangalle oasis, where we’d spend the night. Then, early in the morning of the third day, we’d leave the oasis to hike up back to Fure and on day 4, it’s back to Cabanaconde and civilization.  Looking back, I’m grateful I’d mention up front that I wanted to go slow since I’d would be taking a lot of pictures because Jose said in the past, this had always been a 3-day trek for him.

Jose said he didn’t do this route often; not many guides did since most people just wanted to see the canyon, but for 4 days he charged me $50. Food was extra, but in reality still only amounted to another $25 for the two of us for the four days. So $75 total for four days of guiding, food, drink, and our one night in a shelter.  What a deal. Fortunately, or maybe not, I had no idea of what I was in for.

Colca Canyon Sunrise.

Into the canyon

The next morning, I was up at 5 for breakfast and last minute backpack arranging. As promised, Jose arrived promptly at 7 and off we went. We walked through the town of Cabanaconde, passing an empty bullfighting ring and the goal of an abandoned soccer stadium. From there, we descended into the canyon.

I was weaving my way down Colca Canyon, slowly– little by little, when I caught my first glimpse of the Colca River. This glistening sliver of hope encouraged me that I was getting closer to reaching the bottom of one of the deepest canyons on the planet and helped me carry on.

Almost immediately, Jose started pointing out all kinds of indigenous herbs and fruits. A plethora of plants with a variety of uses grow in the canyon: muña for indigestion, cactus fruit for asthma and jatupa for insecticide, for starters. The canyon also hosts an incredible bounty of fruit. Peaches, apples, papaya, several different types of squash, lucuma, corn, mango and figs all flourish there. And you know this just fed my little nerd heart so much.

Five hourse later, we crossed the rushing Colca River and arrived at Llahuar, a small settlement consisting of two guesthouses, where lunch was a hearty heap  of protein in the form of trout, and the requisite unidentifiable soup with a mass of avocado or potato in it, and rice.  The view was simply amazing–an overlook of the convergence of the Colca and Huaruro rivers.

 

After lunch, more hiking, this time up as we ascended to the town of Llatica, a sleepy place with a rundown church. At the end of the first uphill leg of our trip, I was completely winded. I maintain that this was due to the altitude (about 12,000 feet), not the fact that I was, well, a bit out of shape.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Right outside Llatica, we met the bearer of bad news. A group of three Peruvians guys told us the path to Fure had been blocked by a rockslide, and we’d be unable to continue. Specifically, one of the guys said that I wouldn’t be able to cross the affected path, which was now apparently a heaping pile of boulders. I am at most most effective [and stubborn] when someone tells me that I can’t do something. The guys pointed out a different trail, one that went almost to the top of the mountain and then descended to Fure.

I, of course, was not in favor of this option, considering the dire state of my knees and lungs. However, if we reached the rock slide and couldn’t get around it, we’d have to return all the way to Llatica in the dark for the night. Night hiking is not my favorite. By this time, it was already 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d been hiking since 7A and sunset would be about 6P. If I’d been smarter, I would have suggested staying in Llatica for the evening and re-evaluating my options. I wasn’t smart.

Thinking about what to do

Obstacle surmounted–chasing waterfalls

We soldiered on to  Fure where we met a young teenager who seemed more confident about our chances with the rock slide. The catch, though, was that we’d have to rock-climb up a 20-foot chasm in the mountain. There were no ropes and no harnesses, and there certainly was no emergency room close enough to make any difference. Rock-climbing has never been an interest of mine, and now I’m mentally cursing myself for never having visited a rock-climbing gym. And I was tired.  Bone-tired, but I was not at a place to stop.

By the time we got to the slide, I was running on fumes. The path ended and in its place stood a substantial rock face, which there was now no choice but to climb. On either side of the rock slide, the mountain shot straight up and dropped straight down, so there would be no walking around the boulders.

My new friend took my backpack up the crevice. Then it was my turn. My new friend and Jose told me where to put my feet and hands, and I inched up the mountain. About 15 feet up,  I got stuck. For nearly a minute, I balanced on one toe on the crack in the rock, using three fingers to grip the rock above my head. I held myself there, paralyzed, unsure whether my next move would hoist me up or land me with a broken leg.

Honestly, though, the climb was almost a relief, because I was able to make use of my arms in addition to my legs. With one big heave that involved placing my other foot on the rock above my hip and hoisting myself up, I cleared the worst of the climb. From there, just two more moves took me to the top. My new friend (I never got his real name) helped me up at the end, and Jose scrambled up quickly behind me like the native pack mule he is.

We picked up the trail again on the other side of the rockslide, and from there, we crossed a rickety bridge to Fure, where we were shown to our room for the night: a mud hut with four walls, a dirt floor and a mattress propped up on bamboo and logs.

Main Street–Fure

After a long soak in the town’s natural spring and a dinner of soup, squash puree and white rice, I went to bed and slept like a dead animal until sunrise the next day.

The Waterfall

After a relatively mild hour-and-a-half hike, we approached the waterfall. At first, all we could see was a watery mist drifting up into a vivid green pasture. Then we turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the foot of a mass of water plunging to the ground. The vegetation was dripping wet from the mist, and the noise from the water’s 250-foot drop silenced our conversation.

The hike to Sangalle oasis was thankfully, drama-free.

Colca Canyon has more to offer than resounding views and an oasis.  It has the power to challenge us both mentally and physically whilst giving us strength and a connection to the world around us.

 

 

 

Take me out to the ball game

“Whooo!” my dad shouts, cheering loudly with the fans sitting next to him.  I look at him like any teenager looks at their parent when said parent does much more than breathe. A player for the Orioles has just hit a home run, bringing in the two guys already on base home making the score 5-2. The crowd, evenly split between Orioles and Red Sox fans, is a mix of cheers and groans.

I look at him strangely, questioning, “Wait,” I turn to my dad. “Who are you rooting for again?” From early childhood the Orioles have been my team. This game was sort of a peace offering. We haven’t attended a sporting event together in nearly 10 years… before I was even in high school.
His reply “I just want it to be a good game.”


I started playing organized baseball in the form of T-ball at age 5, but I’d been playing at home much earlier than that. My first T-ball stand was constructed from a wooden table leg. I got pretty good a whacking the ball because too many misses damaged the stand. I started league play at 5, was the only girl playing Little League at 8 and switched to softball to play on the high school team beginning at age 13, in 7th grade.  Baseball has always been a part of my life.


I’m on the bottom row all the way on the left. I’m a whopping 5 years old. And 12 years later, the boy on the top right would be my prom date. [Ahhh, the joys of small town life]

I have been a Baltimore Orioles fan and a baseball fan for as long as I can remember.  I’m not sure why Baltimore became my team as I grew up more than 500 miles away from Baltimore. While other girls had posters of the latest teen heart throbs decorating their childhood bedroom, I had posters of Cal Ripken, Jr, Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina, and a few of my favorite Cubbies too.

We didn’t have cable when I was growing up, and even if we had, I sincerely doubt Orioles games would have been broadcast in South Carolina. Instead, I listened to the games on the radio… WBAL to be specific [an AM radio station… I was still barely within reach].  When Camden Yards opened in 1992, I was ecstatic. It is [in my humble opinion] one of the best baseball stadiums in the USA.

I was determined to see a game during the inaugural season. As a youngster in the 1990’s, and by youngster I clearly mean a time before my driver’s license, I saved up all my pennies [and I do mean pennies] in a cardboard box creatively called ‘The Baltimore Box’ and when I had enough for a baseball ticket, snacks, and transportation, I bought a round trip Greyhound bus ticket to Baltimore and treated myself to an Orioles game. I saw the Orioles beat the Detroit Tigers 12-0. I came and went in just under 24 hours. And it was awesome. [Oh, I was such a sneaky child. I look back on some of the things I did as a kid and am amazed that I did not die. In my defense, I said that I was running away; it’s not my fault no one actually believed me.]

In 1995, the streak captivated me.  I was glued to the TV every time I could find an Orioles game. [which wasn’t very often, mind you] How could one person play in more than 3000 consecutive baseball games is beyond me, but Cal Ripken did it.  I still remember watching the unveiling of 2131. That was September 1995. I watched it on ESPN. I was in awe. Even though for the past 15 years the Orioles have been one of the most laughable teams in the major leagues, they have still been the team I rooted for… kinda like a marriage… for richer, for poorer… and it’s been hard times, people, hard times.


We found our seats – right behind home plate. As a former catcher, I staunchly refuse to sit anywhere other than behind home plate.  Maybe higher than field level, but sitting behind home plate is a must. A few drinks, hot dogs, and pretzels later, we  settled in, intently watching every pitch, predicting where all the fly balls would land, and analyzing strategy. For a few hours for two days, we had something to talk about. Something that we both loved; something that used to unite us. Sport– it this case baseball, a game that I know intimately.

I think it’s for this reason that I always seek out sporting events when I travel. I’ve been an athlete or fan my whole life, and I  know the power it has to unite [and divide] families, communities, and friends. Whatever the sport, even if it’s one I don’t truly understand, I find that I really get into it and really enjoy the passion and zeal of the fans and the strategy of coaches.

I’ve never been one to shy away from doing things on my own, but going to sporting events alone is hard.  I’ll still go, but it’s hard. Partly because sports remind my of my childhood, and partly because sports are a community event. I will go to sports pubs on my own to catch some games on TV when I’m out on my own because I think sport is fabulous insight into a community’s culture.

 

Wandering around Lake Titicaca

I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times.  Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner.  What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions

After a spontaneous 100 km trek to  Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia.  On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet.  Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno. 

Look at that amazingly blue water

Puno,  a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.

Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course,  visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively  inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.

The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.

The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia.  He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.

How the Floating Islands are made Lake Titicaca Puno

The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork.  Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.

After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house.  In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…

The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner.  I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted.  I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it.  Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.

Reed boat construction is rather fascinating.  The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.  But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles.  Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in  Peru.



Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.

 

6 years ago

A twist on the popular saying: What goes down must come up. After two days of descending into the canyon, I could think of just one thing: it was time to go up… on an ankle that was most likely broken.  Fabulous.

I was as rested, iced, compressed, [and well, elevated was going to be a problem] as one can be and by 4:30am, with the ankle wrapped, boots tied, and backpack on, I, along with the rest of the group was ready to start the upward climb out of the canyon.

grand canyon floor
One last view of the Grand Canyon floor and the Colorado River that runs through it

I puttered along, using my stick more like a crutch, but putting one foot in front of the other and more or less keeping up with the group. It wasn’t long until we reached the Colorado River and came to my Kryptonite.  I’m not sure why crossing bridges on foot scare the bejeezus out of me, but for some reason, I almost stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and went back the way I came.  The bridge was not the most sturdy [but certainly not what it could have been considering what it is], but what I can only attribute to nerves of steel and some deep, well-hidden vat of courage, I crossed the Silver Bridge to begin the ascent toward the South Rim.

Silver bridge colorado river

silver bridge
The bridge… that caused me to act like a stubborn mule who refused to plow

The early part of the hike followed the Colorado River on a slight incline, alternating shade and sun. Temperature was manageable, probably in the 80s-90s, but the hardest section for me was a series of switchbacks and stairs which nearly brought me to my knees. But I am a stubborn wench, and I refused to be med-a-vac’ed out of the canyon.

One stubborn gal I am

stairs
Stairs that made me want to cry

Five or so hours later, I limped into Indian Gardens, the campground for the night. I debated the wisdom of removing the hiking boots that were acting a a de-facto cast for my ankle. I compromised. One boot on, one boot off. And I elevated, rested, and compressed. Icing was a no-go with the foot still in the boot. But I lunched and rested and later in the day, I took some time to wander around the campground to take some more photos because a good patient I am not. It was much greener than I had anticipated, with a plethora of flowers adding even more color.

grand canyon hike flower
A pretty white flower

grand canyon cactus flowers
pretty red flowers

grand canyon catcus flower
I often say I’m as cuddly as a cactus, but upon seeing these, I might be *slightly* more huggable.

mule corral
Oh look.. apparently there are some of my relatives. Did someone mention being as stubborn as a mule?

Nap, foot propping, photo shoot, dinner, then a short hike up to Plateau Point for the sunset.

plateau point
Perspective.

Sitting on the plateau looking over the canyon gave me perspective on how far we had come in three days and how much of the canyon remained. On the walk back to the campsite, I could see flickering lights far in the distance.

Grand-Canyon-sunset-at-Plateau-Point
a fabulous colorful sunset

Here’s the thing about hiking a canyon: the hardest part comes at the end, when you are the most tired and you have to go up to get to your destination. And because I like to make things extra difficult for myself, I get to hike up and out of a canyon with only one good leg/foot. Yay me.

We were up once again by about 4a eating breakfast, packing up our gear for the last time and getting our feet taped up. I made the executive decision to sleep with my boots on, because I have the feeling that once that left boot comes off, no amount of ace wrap at KT tape will make it fit in again.

tent in the woods
last night of sleeping in the tent for a while

It wasn’t a terribly long and arduous hike from Indian Gardens to the Bright Angel Trail Head. This particular section is popular with day hikers and the like. ANd by 10 am…we were D.O.N.E

indian gardens
More people, more need to display the obvious

A lot of people don’t like for group activities to end. They’ll hang around, take picture with, exchange numbers, and promise to stay in touch. It rarely happens though. For me, though, after being with strangers for four days, I really just want to be alone. However, this time, I had to hang out with people just a little while longer so that I could hitch a ride to the nearest urgent care clinic to confirm the obvious.

bright angel hike
The last hiking I will do for a while, just take it in, OK.

Communing with nature at the Grand Canyon

It was twilight by the time I finally dropped my pack on the ground nearly twelve hours after my day had begun. My legs didn’t ache as bad as I anticipated and my neck and shoulders didn’t pinch the way I feared. Considering how nervous I was in the days leading up to my “rim to rim” hike through the Grand Canyon, I considered Day One a resounding success.

I arrived in Las Vegas four days earlier, jet-lagged, road weary, exhausted and increasingly worried that I would not be able to handle this trek. However, at the orientation meeting the night before, the guides went through our itinerary and emphasized the importance of going at a comfortable pace. With two of them, one would always be at the front and the other at the back, meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting left behind if I went too slowly!  Score!

The group departed Flagstaff shortly before 7 a.m. for the drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After one stop at the Navajo Bridge crossing the Little Colorado River, we arrived at the north rim just after noon.

By just after 1:00 p.m., we hit the trail.

Day 1:  This day’s hike is entirely downhill… 7 miles and drop 4,000 feet! . I was immediately amazed and surprised by the scenery – so much more colorful and so much greener than I expected! The trail was dirt and rock, but not nearly as slippery as I thought it might be. I rarely felt like I would lose my footing. With a fairly narrow trail, my little group of 6 hiked single file.

grand canyon hike
The narrow trail, and my little group making the way one-by-one.

I caught my first glimpse of the agave plant and of tiny circular shaped cacti with flowers of yellow or fuchsia. I had to control my urge to stop at every turn to take pictures!

cactus flower
Cactus Flowers!

As mentioned earlier, the hike didn’t start until about 1p. It was overcast when we started, and like clockwork, soon after the hike began, it started to rain. The rain wasn’t entirely unwelcome as it helped to cool me off. We were already lucky to be walking in the afternoon shade. It was probably the best possible weather we could have asked for. It was just a shower, and unlike at home, the air didn’t turn unbearably humid after the short lived shower, and the skies were clearing as we reached camp.

Home for the night was a campground where we had a group primitive campsite reserved. Nearby was a water fountain with potable water and toilets that, while not flush-able, were at least composting so we could put the toilet paper down. Pack in-pack-out is kinda nasty when that includes carrying around used toilet paper.

grand canyon hike agave plant
Agave Plant!

Day 2 started out with a bang. Literally. It was about 4AM on day 2 of my rim-to-rim hike.  Pitch black dark, chillier than I would have liked, and I had to pee.  I grabbed my headlamp and boots [but didn’t lace them all the way up!] and made my way to the toilets.  No spiders. No scorpions. No snakes.  Completely uneventful until BAM!  The Earth jumped up and hit me square in the face.  I slowly got up and wiped the dirt off my pants. Sitting down at the picnic table in the dark, I aimed my headlamp at my foot to get a good look at my ankle. I had just tripped over a large root between the picnic tables at our campsite, turning my ankle in the process.  It hurt, but nothing major.  I’d sprained my ankle many times in my sports career so I was sure that was what had happened this time. So I applied the ankle brace that I carry with me in my first aid kit on all hikes.  Socks on.  Boots laced up tight, and on my merry way.

The goal was to be on the trail by 5:00, arriving at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by 9:00 or 10:00, escaping as much of the canyon heat as possible. Despite the early rising, we didn’t get everything together to actually leave camp until after 5:30 a.m. Needless to say, by the time we got going, I was ready to hit the trail.

Day two was another mostly downhill hike, although much flatter than day one. Early on, we made a detour to Ribbon Falls, a small waterfall tucked away several hundred feet off the path.

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 4

grand canyon hike ribbon falls

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 3

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 2

We alternated between shade and sun and followed mostly red dirt paths through the canyon. The scenery continued to amaze me with its diversity and the rocks continued to change as we descended further into the canyon. I smiled at the sight of sparkly quartz along the path – such a contrast to the rough limestone and the red dirt. The final leg into Phantom Ranch and to our campsite at the Bright Angel Campground was the toughest because it was the hottest. Can you say 104F – in the shade! But it’s a dry heat, they say. They can suck it. It was hot as blazes. Luckily, the campsite came with a stone shelter so we quickly dropped our packs and took off our shoes to relax in much needed shade. As I did, I checked out my ankle, which was suddenly throbbing as I removed my boots and brace. The skin around had turned a bunch of pretty colors. And then I realized I could hardly move it. Well,fuck! It suddenly occurred to me this *might* be more than just a sprained ankle.

left ankle
oops!–look at that bruising and swelling

Luckily, Phantom Ranch has a cantina so I was able to buy a bag of ice for me to ice the foot a bit. The campsite was also near a creek so I could sit on the edge and soak my feet in the cold water. Because we arrived so early, I had the whole day free and I took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some alone time – for an introvert like me, it was much needed after being around other people for the last 36 hours. I hung back at camp before heading to the cantina for some air conditioning and lemonade. Then I returned to camp to read, snooze and ice my ankle once again.

Here’s the thing about the hiking the canyon: Personally, I think everybody who can, should. The Canyon is truly one of the wonders of the world; one exhausts superlatives describing it. Every twist in the trail brings a new wonder; one walks in beauty and lives in awe.

The Canyon is also humbling, incredibly so. Our egos, our self importance, our absorption in the fleeting concerns of our lives, all shrink into insignificance before the awesome magnitude of the Canyon. The scale is beyond comprehension; we reveal ourselves to be the tiniest motes of dust within its walls.

The Canyon reminds us not only that we are tiny specks, it tells us that the vanity of our existence is but a blink of an eye. When travelers reach the Canyon’s bottom, they walk among rocks formed 1,800,000,000 years ago. A third of their time has passed in the sterility preceding this planet’s first life. Humans have been around for barely one ten-thousandth of that time; what loosely passes as civilization accounts for only 1/200,000th of that period.

Humility and awe. It’s good for the soul. Hike the Grand Canyon to discover wonders you’ve never imagined, to realize how small we humans really are.

Coming Soon: Communing with nature in the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Snowshoeing in Sarajevo: An Olympic Adventure

When I’m at home, I hate all things winter.  Being from the southeastern United States, winter [meaning snow, skis, cold] is still a bit of a foreign concept.  Just the threat of snowflakes sends everyone scurrying about buying up all the milk and bread in sight.  Should the grass actually be covered, expect the entire city to shut down. For days.

An example of a recent snow that shut down the town for 4 days.

So my position statement on winter has always been I like to visit winter; I do not like winter to visit me.

My previous adventures on skis consisted of one adventure when I was 16 to the North Carolina mountains and my recent trek in the French Alps where I discovered that I LOVED cross-country skiing So, bolstered by success in the Alps, I knew skiing would be on the agenda when I ended up in Sarajevo.  Why Sarajevo you ask? Sarajevo [as Yugoslavia] hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics than Sarajevo, and if you know me, you know that I love all things related to the Olympics.

 

 

Sarajevo is a city surrounded by mountains which makes for some awesome outdoor adventure activities. These mountains have seen a lot in their day–from being a world-class Olympic destination in 1984 to being occupied by Serbia in the 1990’s to being used to attack the city in the Siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo the city has experienced peaks and valleys just like the mountain that surround it.  Sarajevo’s popularity is surging yet again as it is much less expensive and much less crowded than say -France and Switzerland, and it’s mountain are just a good for a variety of winter sports.

 

Jahorina and Bjelašnica are the two of the most popular ski resorts in  the area; both are approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Sarajevo city center.  If you are new to skiing, I’d recommend Jahorina Olympic Center. It’s perfect for skiers of all levels, offers ski equipment rental, but not clothing rental, and has cheap ski lessons for 10 euros/hours. A day pass can be had for less than 20 Euros.

The great thing about this resort is there are fewer crowds. This resort is probably Europe’s best kept secret. I am not a downhill skier. And I know my limitations, so lucky for people like me there are other options such as hiking and snowshoeing and just riding the ski lift. On this trip I opted to try snowshoeing, and man, is that a workout. My heart was pumping; my lungs were screaming, and my legs were crying by the end of the trail.

 

But to see these views, to do something new, and to experience these mountains…

 

It was completely worth the time and effort and expense it took to visit the mountains surrounding this city on the rise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naughty Nuns of Santa Catalina

It’s no secret that I’m a history nerd. Throughout school, history was always my first choice of electives.  Need a religion credit– Catholic History and the secret lives of Monks and Nuns was a much better choice than Old Testament 101. My favorite time period depends on my mood and sometimes my location.  I have written a thesis about the Mayans of Mexico, a lengthy paper about the Witches of Salem, and traced Spanish explorers around the world.   My interest in English history began while exploring/ living in England and German/Prussian/Austria-Hungarian history while hanging out in those countries.  I was a kid and somewhat remember the Yugoslavian conflict and was fascinated while walking around Belgrade/Zagreb, Serbia, and Montenegro.  Italy is a history nerd’s dream, and Greek military history is fascinating [and a perfectly good reason to visit Greece]. My year long plus jaunt around South American had me dabbling in history of its countries, and there is much more to the continent than Incas, narco-terrorists, and dictators.  Enter Peru and its colonial history.

Arequipa is a #historynerd’s dream and is a great place for anyone who loves history.  If you don’t love history, but like pretty buildings, it’s good for that too. And if you’re overloaded on all things Machu Picchu, come to Arequipa; it’s like the Incas never existed. I went without any fixed plans and was content to wander and enjoy its colonial structures.  Arequipa might be my favorite Peruvian city. Lima, the capital, is rough, gritty, and crowded. Arequipa is more refined. Cajamarca, in the north, has interesting history as well, but overall  Arequipa, having better infrastructure, is just a bit better suited to travelers; it’s quieter, cleaner and moves to a slower pace.  It is just my style.

I always thought that had I been born in a different time and place I would have been a nun. Not necessarily because I’m a devout Catholic or would honor vows of purity, chastity, or poverty, but because nuns were the original bad-asses.  In societies where marriage was a means to an end, nuns spat in the face of that. And they were bad-asses in the health care arena too.  Yep, had I been born in the 1500’s, a nun was a much better deal than serf or some lord’s wench.

It’s with that mindset that Santa Catalina was high on my list of places to visit on my stop in Arequipa. Built in 1579, the monastery is a huge mini city within the city that was founded by the Dominican Second Order nun, Maria de Guzman. The Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena was initially meant for rich upper-class women from Spanish families [I would have had to settle for a bit more spartan monastery] and each family would have to pay a dowry upon their daughter entering the monastery. Some dowries were as expensive as 2,500 silver coins which would be the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency.  For their dowry, each nun got up to 4 slaves to do their daily chores but were also required to bring things like paintings, intricate tapestries, clothes, and other things would make the environment quite luxurious.  Nothing like the message “God is #1, but luxury is a close second.”  Maybe they didn’t get the memo that avarice was one of the seven deadly sins.

But gluttony and lust were equal pursuits

It was also pretty common for the nuns to throw extravagant parties in their quarters and rumor has it there are tunnels that connect to a local church so Mother Mary wasn’t the only invited guest.  On even more scandalous note, there are stories of pregnant nuns and monk baby daddies were fueled by the allegation that a baby’s skeleton was found encased within the monastery walls. [The Catholic Church denies the claims.]

The Santa Catalina Rave raved right on for nearly 300 years until 1871 when Pope Pius IX sent a strict nun [read: not part of the cool kids] to shut down the party at the Santa Catalina social club. Uncool nun also freed all the servants and slaves [OK, that part was cool] and sent all of the coins, paintings, tapestries, ect back to the Catholic Church in Spain in order to  reform the monastery.

The monastery is constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone quarried locally and painted blue and orange within. The convent is considered the most important and impressive colonial structure in the city. Since Peru is known for its earthquakes, these continual earthquakes and tremors have forced changes in the structure of the monastery and thus is has some singular architectural characteristics.

In the 1960s, the monastery suffered significant structural damage due to two earthquakes that struck Arequipa. The 20 remaining nuns voted to open the monastery up to the public as a tourist attraction; it was opened to the public on August 15, 1970–a mere 430 years after the city of Arequipa’s founding. The nuns used the funds to pay for restoration costs, install electricity, and install running water.

These days #historynerds like me can freely roam around the beautiful grounds and learn about the naughty nuns that loved to have a good time. And for the navigationally challenged– there’s an interesting twist.   From the instant you walk in – you can only make left turns. I spent 5 hours wandering the monastery only making left turns.  It’s impossible to get lost, and for someone like me, who likes to wander and not pay attention to which direction I came from, it’s a godsend.

That time I went to the Galapagos Islands

I don’t know if I ever mentioned that time I went to the Galapaos Islands.  I think going to the Galapagos Islands are one of those things that are on nearly everyone’s [ok maybe not everyone, but every traveler, animal lover, and science nerd I know] bucket list.  My own adventure to the islands involved a bit of serendipity and a lot of  meclizine.

Flashback to 2010:

It was September 2010, and I was working for an ecological research/preservation company.  The original plans were for me to split time between the Mindo Cloud Forest, the Lalo Loor Dry Forest, and the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest.  I did all that and more. But the highlight of my conservation internship was when I was asked to spend 10 days on a research boat on the Galapagos Islands tagging turtles.

galapagos islands turtles

These guys are huge and can live up to 175 years in captivity or 100 years in the wild

galapagos iguanas

and checking on these guys

galapagos island marine iguanas

don’t forget about these fellas

galapagos island sea lions 1

and revel in the cuteness of these lovable lions

My home for the 10 days was spent between living on a boat [not ideal for someone who gets motion sickness as easy as I do while on a boat] and spending time at the Charles Darwin Research Center. There were not a whole lot of tourists on the islands. I don’t know if it was due to it being the low season [September] or the fact that back in 2010 there weren’t a whole of of tour groups coming to the island.

galapagos research station

Before he died in 2012, Lonesome George was the center’s most famous resident. He got his nickname because he was the last surviving member of his species. Scientiests tried mating George with several different ladies who were genetically close to George but nothing happened. He died without having reproduced and with his death, his species became extinct. I feel a little bad for him, living his last years in comfort but without the friendship of someone of his own kind.  George was also known for being a little bit of a recluse.  Each time I saw him, he was hiding behind something or behind the trees, but always munching on grass.

The giant tortises like George can weigh up to 800 pounds fully grown.

galapagos island baby turtles

Hard to believe that these little fellas will still be with us in 2180 and will be 800 pounds. I’d be lucky to survive to 2080.

One of the cool things about being a ‘researcher’ is getting to go where is usually off limits to tourists. And when you are in places not often frequented by human, you catch animals, or in this case turtles, having sex. I’ve never thought about tortoises having sex before, but I sure didn’t imagine them doing it ‘doggy-style’.

more turtle sex
Tortoise style

It must have been giant tortoise valentine’s day or something. I found another couple doing the same thing.

even turtles do it

All that tortise sex results in lots of babies, and it was because of the babies that I was there. See that yellow writing on the shells? That’s my handiwork…tagging baby land tortises for future scientific research.

baby land tortises

giant turtle
These guys have such personality. And they are only found on the Galapagos Islands. A lot of the creatures on the islands are like that. Being located over 600 miles from mainland Ecuador equals not a lot of genetic diversity. And that is a good thing especially from an evolutionary point-of-view.