Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Monday, July 12, 2010

A final word about children: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

While we were in South America, we encountered only a few USAian children. There were plenty of South American children, but they are unobtrusive because they learn how to behave in a civilized manner at an early age. We saw them dressed up and going to school, working farms, working in the markets, and traveling on foot and waiting at bus stops. In other words, they were busy, not hanging around being useless, noisy pains in the ass.

Of course there were none on the Millenium, except the large Continental children who don't all know how to behave, either. But at least their parents aren't there to run interference for them.
As to the American children, there were two boys misbehaving in the hall of the hotel our last night in Quito, and we took turns opening the door and asking them if we should call management, since they were screaming for help and there was no adult in sight. I don't think anyone had ever challenged their out-of-control antics in their lives. They ran in their room and slammed the door. They were at it the next morning again at 6 AM. We were already up, so we took the trouble to explain to them they were not in the USA and this is not civilized. So they ran away again. At that point, we didn't know for sure there were no children on our boat, and we were concerned they'd show up, but we never saw them again, thank God.

The next one was at El Monasterio in Cusco, This was the screamer I referred to early in the trip blog. He was maybe two and screamed so long and so loud that Joyce finally told his parents to shut him up. Remember, she is large and sounds larger. So they took him out. What the hell was he doing in the restaurant anyway? Why was he even there?

The last ones were two delightful kids with their parents and grandparents on that hellish ride back from the train up Machu Picchu, back to Cusco. You couldn't even tell they were on the bus. We complimented their parents and learned these kids had been in travel training from infancy. Their mother had herself been schlepped to India and Turkey when she was eight and eleven, so she knew how to do it. Now if she, and her family, could do it, why can't other American parents do it? Huh?

This is why, American travel industry, we will be leaving the country AGAIN on our next trip, in a lesbian cruise (On a ship we've sailed on before. With elevators!) of the Mediterranean, where no children are allowed. And then probably on to Kracow and Budapest, where we hope American parents will not venture with American children. If you can't shut the buggers up, leave them home until they figure out how to escape. We'll take it from there.

See you next summer!

Lessons learned: sick of it.

I'm sick of learning lessons when I travel. I don't mean lessons like, every now and then, the school children of Cusco stage environmental demonstrations that shut the whole city down for ten minutes at a time. That's fun learning, like the mating habits of blue-footed boobies.

The kind of lessons I'm sick of is that boats in the Galapagos don't carry marine toilet paper, and you apparently can't fix a damaged railroad track in four months, and you get charged out the ass for every airport you fly through. Or that catamarans are not more stable after all, or that there are no benches in any museum in South America. I could go on, but if you've been reading, you have learned these lessons, too. I hope they help.

We don't have any immediate plans to return to South America. We would like to try an Amazon cruise, but we wonder what lessons we might learn there that we couldn't discern while still at home, sometime before making a down payment.

Here's a big, important lesson: get a good in-country travel agent with a private guide. I can't say too much about Galasam.

From now on, I will be a lot more aware of and prepared for airport departure taxes. We want to leave, so we pay. Like luggage fees on US domestic carriers.

From now on, if a boat is involved, I will ask how high all the steps are, and if they use marine toilet paper. In my own defense, I DID ask if they had laundry, and they said yes, but they didn't. Likewise computer facilities. So sometimes knowing what to ask, and actually asking, don't help at all. For one thing, actual lying may be going on, and by that I mean, the Millenium people TO the Galasam people. The Galasam people did their level best, but they can't go out and ride every boat every year. Sometimes they may be hoping, but they don't know. Sometimes they are telling the truth, and the truth changes. The washing machine breaks. The engine quits. They don't have what they once did. Or they have something new: silverfish and waterbugs.

From now on, I will ask how many animals we can expect to see, and how hard or easy it is to see them. As we learned in Africa, seeing a white rhinoceros doesn't mean up close, or frequently, or even "white."

I did know to ask what kind of people go on a given kind of trip. But there is no control over which people go on YOUR trip. We knew we'd be on a small boat with 14 total strangers for eight days and no means of escape. That's the chance you take. Again, adult Eurotrash beats kids hands down. It could have been so much worse. It could also have been better.

We did pack right. We didn't starve, although there were times we didn't eat very well. We didn't get very sick. We didn't sustain permanent injuries. It didn't kill us. If the steps on an Amazon river boat aren't too high, I might go. But not if there's no marine toilet paper. That's too much even for me.

Some final thoughts next time.

Home again. Jiggety-jig.

We had asked for late (as in 1 PM) checkout, but come 9 AM, we were both awake and dying to see the dogs. We got up and packed, and that was when I found something funny: the security guy in San Jose had overlooked all my other batteries, around 12-15 of them all in various places around my carry-ons, including the one he went through. Joyce thought he just needed some batteries.

The last week or so of the trip, I had been wanting a sandwich. I know it sounds strange, but we were always eating such formal meals, even on airplanes. All hot, all the food groups. So as we left the airport, we ate breakfast in Burger King, our first fast food since we ate in McDonalds' on our way down. And we haven't had any since, either.

Off to Hertz, canary yellow Aveo this time, and much better directions through town to I-75. Did you know cars can fly? Well, this one did, except for those fancy coffees they sell at McDonalds. We didn't even eat lunch. They weren't quiiiiiiiiite ready for us to turn in our car, so to save time, we zipped home and got the van so we could go straight to Dora's and get the kids.

That's when we discovered the AC had died. And we thought "Fuck." And we said it, too. Joyce immediately called for emergency service, but no one could come until the next day. We had no time to fool with it, so we dumped off the rental, got the dogs, brought them home and tried again. And I did all the trouble-shooting steps, too. It didn't work, but Joyce said, "Well, leave the house-fan on, and at sundown we'll open everything up."

We were sitting on the patio drinking ice water under the fan when we heard a funny noise. Circuit breaker? House breaker? Went in and felt cool air coming out a vent! Couldn't believe it! Temperature stared dropping a degree an hour. Yippee!

We'll never know what it was. We watched it like hawks and nothing happened, so we cancelled the service call, left loads of crap in the living room, didn't unpack or clean anything, just made sandwiches and went to bed.

Tomorrow I'll deal a little with lessons learned and reveal the location of our next trip!

Heading North

We knew this would be a long day. One thing that makes days of flying long is, sometimes, you have to retrieve all your luggage. You can't check it all the way through. Other things are so many stations of the airport cross, where you pay and show ID, and pay, and show ID. And nothing is ever next to anything else. They get your itinerary in advance and re-arrange the airport so this can never happen.

First flight: Cusco to Lima. We hiked all through all the stations and when we got to the gate, we had to go outside and climb up the steps to the plane with our carry-ons. That did it. Joyce finally cried, and that was about my lowest point, too. So we sat there and cried together. I think it honestly helped, because somehow it never got that bad again.

Then along came a smelly little man. I have so sense of smell, but Joyce does, and he was on the aisle and turned toward us constantly trying to see out the window. His first flight ever, I think. So we rearranged ourselves and he sat at the window with me in the middle. So what? It's just an hour.

At Lima we had a LOT of time so we spent our last Peruvian Soles on some keychains and just waitied anxiously, wanting so bad to get on a plane and go home. You know it's bad when we want to get on a plane. This happened right on time, as usual, and we flew to San Jose, same as when we flew down.

And this is where we had a small adventure. It seems, perhaps, for some reason (they tell you nothing) there was some sort of security problem in San Jose. They had the whole airport blocked off into sections and a cop of some sort every few feet. We had to empty all our luggage onto tables while they picked through it. They were very nice, really, and we had to laugh at how they reacted to some of our stuff and then they would laugh, too. The had an incredible pile of contraband on the floor and Joyce whispered she thought she would lose all her medications and liquids, and she had even forgotten to check her toenail scissors. So we waited anxiously (again. A lot of anxiety on this leg) to see if she'd be hauled off or something, but they took nothing from her. Meanwhile, the guy going through my bags confiscated four rechargeable AA batteries from my underarm bag, which was not a big problem, because I hadn't been able to recharge them and they were probably dead. So I said, sure, take them, and we went from there to a body search, (they had a very attractive young officer for us) and onto the plane, which was being held because of the security delay.

So as soon as all the passengers had transferred, we took off for Miami, and again, got a meal and arrived on time. We had reservations for the airport hotel, because we knew damn good and well we'd be going nowhere fast after such a long day and a late arrival.

There was a tremendously long check-in line, a surly porter and a crazy person in the lobby, but we blew all that off and just had a drink and went to bed. The end. Almost.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

No, you didn't fix it.

Next day, before we left we took pictures with the kids in the hotel gardens.

The hot tub is just up the stone path behind her.

After lunch, we went back down the mountain early in order to see the town and go to the market before getting on the train.

This is the center of town with a statue of an Inca king and a couple of those figures of ancient Inca to pose with. We chose this one because she could hold the kids. Click to see how clever this is.

This is the flag of Cusco City and Province. We like it a lot. Guess why.

The market here is gigantic and you can get lost easily in it. Because they want you to, because you will buy more stuff while trying to get out. But we did get some neat, cheap stuff, so we're really not complaining. In the train station waiting room, we met one of the backpackers from the Millenium. He had broken off from them to get up to MachuPICCHu alone. He was more pleasant by himself. They all were, to give them credit. In a pack, they are a huge nuisance. Individually, they are just people.

Now, we have to backtrack a little bit. After our harrowing ride and climb the previous day, I told the people up at the Sanctuary, who are also in charge of the train (it's all Orient Express, and so is El Monasterio), that there was no way Joyce was going to climb all that way up that horrible hill, and I wanted someone to meet us with a wheelchair or a dolly or an alpaca or whatever. I expected porters to meet us as well, because they showed up before and helped us down. We reviewed this with train personnel at the station. Someone would be there to help us.

Well, they weren't. They lied again! Not only was there no one there to meet us, there were no porters at all! Not even for luggage. Joyce got out her stick and I took both bags and started up the hill. We were a third of the way up before one poor clown in a train uniform offered to help with the bags. Not with Joyce, just the bags. I was livid, or as they say in Great Britain, incandescent. Furious. I rose hell and hollered bloody goddamn murder all the way up the hill. Meanwhile, porters came out and physically carried a severely disabled woman up. But no one helped Joyce. She had to do it herself, and God bless her, she did. I asked her after how she could possibly and she said, "It was a ramp. If it had been steps, I never could have. Period."
Well, Elson got an earful after that insane bus ride back in the dark through herds of cattle. Luckily on this bus was an American family, three generations, including kids, who had obviously travelled together a lot, and they made us laugh all the way back with their commentary on the godawful aspects of everything that was happening. Pretty soon we were joining in and laughing, too. Anyway Elson raised hell at El Monasterio and we got some discounts off our bill to sort of appease us, but that was just fucking inexcusable. So screw Orient Express. We are done with them forever.

That night we were back in our same room as before, the one with this reproduction of the Pirate Madonna and Chucky. You have to click it.

We totally repacked everything, making sure we carried all souvenirs, checking all other baggage. Elson had arranged a later flight for us because we had a lot of time between stopovers. Too bad the sleep machine batteries chose that night to die, and as much as I recharged them, it never worked right again until I charged them at home. So not a lot of sleep again. But onward! Only two days to do, and only one required flying. Yay!

Friday, July 9, 2010

There! We fixed it!

They lied. They lied about having fixed the train tracks after the February landslide. The tracks are still under it. What they did do was to invent a fantasy that they fixed it. You used to drive about five miles out of Cusco and pick up the famous train and go about 40 miles to Machu Picchu. Now you drive about 60 miles in a miserable cramped minivan over the roughest roads, absolutely not navigable and completely unsafe by American standards, and then hike down a steep gravel path at a temporary train station where the toilets don't work, and take the beautiful train about 12 miles to Machu Picchu.

Were we pissed off? You bet. It would be one thing if they told you this in advance, and offered a refund if you declined to go, but they didn't. Peruvian vans are made to fit Peruvian people. Joyce couldn't even move her legs all that time, and neither could anyone else over 5'6". Then with her bad knees and labyrinthitis (courtesy of a high-performance jet ride when she was in the Air Force), she was expected to haul her own luggage down a small landslide to the train at a very high altitude. Luckily the locals discovered an opportunity here, and hired themselves out as porters. So all we had to carry was ourselves. They told us it was definitely going to be fixed by June 29. I bet it's not, but I don't care enough to find out.
The train itself was good, but the way they arranged to get to and from it stank. Not everyone who wants to visit Machu Picchu is an agile young backpacker, but they have no accommodations for anyone who isn't. We arrived at Aguas Caliente and were herded through the train station market to real buses to take us the last eight miles up. So if they had real buses for this crazy, narrow switchback, why not for the endless crazy ride to the temporary "train station"?

We got up to the top, to the Park itself, and there was the Sanctuary Hotel. Yeah, it's five stars and just outstanding, but even THEY don't have a friggin' ramp up to the front door. And no elevators, either, not even a dumbwaiter for luggage. Our guide met us there, we checked in, and prepared to see the site. We went through the gates and took a look, and Joyce turned around and left. The "steps" are huge and uneven, and not a railing to be found. With any balance or mobility problems, you are not going there, period. They don't accommodate you, and they don't tell you. Their only "accommodation" is that if you are limited, you may use hiking poles. That's just not enough, folks. Some ramps and railings, some leveling of the walking areas, would not destroy the authenticity nor the ambience of the site. Shame on Peru for this. Failing any accommodation, let people know that this is not something everyone can do. Even though it's a valley, it's still high in the Andes. It would be hard even if it were at sea level.

I spent about two and a half hours with the guide myself. I made an immediate rule, two up and two down from the entry level. I would not even attempt anything higher or lower, and I had to rock-climb my way up and down the walls most of the time as it was.

Here's that postcard picture that everyone takes when they arrive. Look carefully. We'll be returning to this later.

This is right at the entrance, which is paved and level. After that, forget it.


People should know several other things before going. It may be very hot (our first day) or very rainy (our second), for which we were prepared. It may be extremely crowded, and you may not be able to enter. This didn't happen to us, but it does happen. You must carry water and there are no bathrooms. These are understandable, but you should be aware well in advance. Not everyone was. Some people had no clue.
As to the Park, well, it's beautiful. The Inca made sure of that, and the archaeological authorities have done a superb job of restoring it, even though it is far from generally accessible. You know what Machu Pichhu is? Probably the royal Inca summer home. And they did a lot of astronomy and artisan work up there, too. So this was an indication of the advanced nature of their culture, that they could create a basically superfluous site for the pursuit of self-actualization, at least for some people. It's a really, really nice spot for these purposes. All those pretty terraces are agricultural. They were pretty self-sustaining up there.
I like this site:

Cleverly, the authorities of today realized llamas eat grass, are gentle and visitors love them. So guess who does the gardening? They really are adorable. Just don't step in the llama shit. They avoid the stone steps, so this isn't a big issue. Don't forget to click on the pictures. You can see a lot more detail if you do. Like the baby llama.

Here's one of my favorite things, the reflecting telescope.

It may look like two dog dishes, but the concept is you use it at night to look at the stars and chart their movement. Only works when it's clear, but I guess it worked often enough since their calendar and star charts are flawless.

Some other interesting shots of the restoration:

The top one of these three is the Temple of the Moon, the bottom is the Temple of the Sun, and the middle is a pretty picture of the landscaping originated by the Incas. They had beautiful little gardens all over.

Following my exploration, we had lunch and then a very long nap, after which we were scheduled for the spa. When we made that reservation we had no idea how high we'd have to climb to reach it, but guess what. When we got up there, we had the same view of the postcard I mentioned above! A little further back, a little higher and not as bright, but Joyce got to see the Park after all. And the hot tub was stone, and we had it all to ourselves with fuzzy robes and slippers. We only got out when the mosquitoes came to supper.

That night we had a fantastically elegant dinner including music by local Inca musicians. I bought their CD and have actually been playing it since we got back. You can see them here:

YouTube - Allpa Machupicchu

Joyce ate alpaca and swears it tastes like veal. I had alpaca burger in Cusco, and I thought it tasted like beef. Very rich. For Joyce, the evening was the highlight of Machu Picchu so I'm glad we stayed up there, and that she enjoyed it so much. At this point, I was feeling terribly guilty about the difficulty of the trip, and both of us pretty much wanted nothing more than to go home. Knowing the next couple of days were very likely to be pure hell, we went to bed about nine and slept twelve hours. Damn good thing we did.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Marching through Cusco

I think I said earlier that all flights to Cusco from Lima are in the morning. And there are about a dozen of them! Anyway, we got back across the street to the airport from the hotel (awful breakfast, by the way) and went through several confusing interludes attempting to get boarding passes, get our luggage checked, pay the departure tax, find the gate. It really was hell because our Spanish isn't that good and our experience with automated check-in quite limited. Finally a LAN agent checked us in manually. If not for her, I think we'd still be there. And we had to get Peruvian momey at some point, too. Then it turned out they took dollars. I gather the US dollar is becoming the Euro of South America.

The flight to Cusco is very short. They still managed to serve breakfast, take off and land on time, and so on. Every flight there is a nail in the coffin of US domestic airlines. The more USAians that fly foreign carriers, they less they are likely to put up with crap. So fly foreign, everyone!

We were collected at the airport by the best travel agent in Peru, Elson Espinoza. He had an air conditioned van parked inside the airport. Imagine that! And they took us to the first five-star hotel either of us ever visited (I guess the Swissotel Quito is a four), El Monasterio.

Here are some pictures:

Ignore my exhausted expression and ever-present cup of coco mate tea and just look at how beautiful these surroundings are. The building dates to 1495 and became a hotel in the 1940s. They play tapes of Gregorian chants all day and have a small but fantastic chapel still in use. Here's their site:

They did our laundry and held our extra baggage while we were up in Machu Picchu. This is how they say it there: MachuPICCHu.

After a couple of hours rest and some soup (during which we encountered that horrible screaming child in the restaurant), Elson put us on a bus for a whirlwind tour of the Inca and Spanish and archaelogical sites of the area. Unfortunately, we arrived right in the middle of the Feast of the Virgin where they carry the huge statues through the streets. Traffic was awful, it was crowded, and they tried to take us into way too many sites. Joyce and I only actually went through maybe three, and stayed on the bus otherwise. You really need much more time than this to do Cusco properly, which we didn't really know and wouldn't have done if we had known. But if you are interested in Inca culture, you should plan accordingly. I enjoyed Sacsayhuaman, an ancient Inca site, and the Cathedral best.

Here's the main square, with the Cathedral, from up a mountain outside town. THE Cathedral is the one whose towers are on the left. The other one is just a local one that happens to be right next to it.

Here's why there are so many cathedrals cheek-by-jowl in South American cities: they were established by four different orders: Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits and somebody. Lots of competition for souls.

More photos:

Taken from where we took the previous picture.


Both of the above are the main square right around sunset.

You can't take pictures inside the cathedral, but it houses the famous Cusco Last Supper. Here's a link for the cathedral:

Cusco Cathedral - Cusco, Peru

And here's a link to the painting. You have to scroll down. It's hilarious.

The Cathedral Of Cusco Peru Travels And Tours Pictures, Photos, & Information.

Look carefully. In addition to the cui on a platter, there's a bottle of chicha (Andean Viagara [the local rotgut]) on the table, and the face of Judas (lower right, looking out) is Juan Pizarro.

Next morning at the butt-crack of dawn, we were scheduled to take the train to MachuPICCHu. So as soon as we got back to the Monasterio, we ordered room service, re-packed (you can only take one bag each on the train) and collapsed. Getting to be a habit.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Easier to say than Eyjafjallajokull

And slightly easier to navigate around, too! Meet Tungurahua!

We had heard about the eruption earlier, while at sea, but what the hell can you do? So we didn't worry. Franklin told us we would be met by a Galasam representative in Guayaquil.

That morning, we went to another sort of museum. No animals this time, just story boards and a few relics of early colonization attempts, and the World War II installation, and so on. We also wandered around downtown eating ice cream until it was time to drive to the airport. All the Americans got off, leaving the Brits and Israelis to finish their trip.

The flight was pleasant and uneventful as we had come to expect in South America. And when we got off in Guayaquil, there was our representative with a letter. He helped us get to our next flight, which was first to Quito and then to Lima. Everything had to be re-routed around the volcano, and the airlines did their very best to accommodate everyone. They escorted us through the airports and held the planes for us. You would never see the in the US. Never. Even when Joyce was struggling in the Quito airport with the altitude, they all slowed down to help her. And somehow we still took 0ff on time. And the flight wasn't full and the entertainment was free and they fed us and you know the drill.

In Lima, the hotel I chose was straight across the street from the baggage claim and there was a representative again to meet us and help us with our luggage. It was very late and we went right to bed because we had to get up at the butt-crack of dawn again to fly to Cusco. It was the worst of all the days except the day we flew back to Miami. Fortunately, due to just plain dumb luck, every hotel I got us into was the best, so we were able to rest between bouts of tourism.

More details on those coming soon!

Hybrid Iguana Island

The Plazas are two teeny weenie islets, one of which (South island) supports both marine and land iguanas. Unfortunately neither island supports average foot traffic, but the lizards hang around the tiny landing, so I went.

And here are some pictures of an iguana. According to the sites I saw, hybrids are darker than this, but I have no explanation for a land iguana OR a marine iguana with these markings.

The white stuff is all petrified guano. Very slippery, which is what makes walking so difficult. So right after I took this picture, I went back to the boat.

Hybrid iguanas are all sterile, the product of marine fathers and land mothers. You can read about it here:

Plazas Island Galapagos

Our final stop was Santa Fe, which is just overrun with sea lions. And while I was there, and the others were hiking, I filmed an attempted sea lion rape by a juvenile male of a still infertile young female. No one likes to see or hear about this sort of thing, but it happens. I have tried to upload some videos but Blogger won't allow it. There have been a lot of recent incidents, according to the log, so we'll see. I'll keep trying.

But here's a still anyway.

Our plan was to pack before bed that night and put the luggage out. It's less formal and hectic than on a big ship. You can see where your stuff is all the time. They can't lose it. Unfortunately Millenium, or the ocean, or the Captain, had a different idea. and so began the night from hell. We couldn't stand up or walk in the cabin, so we had to set the alarm for 5 AM to pack. It wasn't Drake Passage rough, but there was no sleeping and no moving except to try to keep from being thrown out of bed. Luckily, we just don't have that much stuff with a rule about no more than we can carry. But it was godawful, and we knew it would be a long day, flying all the way from San Cristobal to Lima. Unbeknownst to us, it was about to get longer.