Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Heights of Machu Picchu

Headed for the train station,
past the as yet unopened shops
Today started at the Niños gates at 5 AM when I waited for my transport that arrived at 5:30AM, Peruvian time. It was a tourist filled van that picked me up, and I was excited as I got to ride shotgun for the hour it took to get to the train station.

At the station, everyone raced to the train station with oxygen deprived me, gimping along in the rear. 

The train station
The Machu Picchu Express awaited
We milled around the station for nearly an hour, which gave me time to get my first Matte de Coca tea. I needed that tea, as I've heard tales of how it helps with altitude sickness, which even after 3 days was still keeping my head in a spin and my body's internal energy bars registering minus one.
The train interior was nice & lush
When we arrived at the village below Machu Picchu, my fellow passengers disappeared up the hill like scattering game birds. I was quickly left alone, lost! I headed where I thought they'd disappeared, beyond the walkway bridge over a little river.  
View looking towards the walkway from downhill
(taken during my return later in the day)
I meandered around lost for maybe a half hour. Finally I spotted tourists lined up where several buses were lined up. Boldly (for once!) Panicked, I rounded on some guides. On of them spoke English and checking my papers, he shrugged, pointed to a blue ticket and told me it would gain me passage on any of the buses to Machu Picchu. Relieved, I boarded one such bus, which so help me had the narrowest aisle and seats of any bus I've been on in my life. I felt like I must have gained 500 lbs since the previous day. 
Glared view out the bus window on the way uphill

I've heard the bus ride to Machu Picchu is steep, treacherous and terrifying. Uh... no, not really. The bus route went up hill but it wasn't any steeper than any drive in the California Sierras, or maybe the route is steep but how would I know? I'm not afraid of heights.

When I got off the bus, I realized the 7,972 foot above sea level altitude was still kicking my butt. I took my time climbing steps up to a little square where tourists milled about before crossing the gate onto the grounds of Machu Picchu. I was light headed and seriously needed a seeing-eye llama or better yet, a saddle horse. I sat on a low stone wall and was feeling good and sorry for myself. Then, out of the blue, a gentleman seated next to me and chatting on a cell phone shouted at the top of his lungs, "NORMA MILLER?"

I almost fell off the wall. "I'm Norma Miller", I shouted back at him.

Uh yes - "Norma" which I'm stuck with as it is my first name and it is on my passport.

The man was with Inca Connections which was actively - seated-ly - trying to locate me. He happily told HQ over the phone that he had found the lost tourist, Senora Miller. Then he told me who my guide was and how to find him so I could rejoin the tour. I told him there was no way I could hike uphill and keep up with a pack of snails, much less other tourists. He told me just to make sure I made the last bus back to the train station at 5 PM . 

So I was off to give myself a tour of Machu Picchu. I showed the guards my official Peruvian government permit to tour the ruins, and I was on the grounds! After crawling up the rising walkway you see signs that mark Machu Picchu as... uh... well hell, they were all in Spanish so I don't know what they said exactly but I'm sure it was cool stuff.

Finally I made it to the first Y point where I could either go uphill, downhill or forgetaboutit. I decided to go uphill figuring if I went down, and couldn't get back up again I'd be Peruvian toast.
As I tackled the ancient stone steps, old ladies
wielding canes, raced past me, shouting "Vamanos Senora!"
I took forever to get up the couple of switchbacks. I was so out of energy. Wasn't anyone else as tired as I was? The answer is 'no'. I suspect people with altitude sickness as bad as I had it, had the good sense the stay the $#%& home.
The view downhill from the switchbacks
Hurrah! It took perhaps an hour, but at last I was at the top of the switchbacks. At sea level the climb would have taken me perhaps ten minutes. I could finally behold the beauty & mystery that is Machu Picchu.
My view
I had hiked as far as I thought was possible for me. I got out my eensie little hiking chair and sat facing the terraced hillsides. I did some people watching as I seemed to have chosen the best spot for 'selfies' in the country of Peru. I watched Americans, Japanese, Germans, Brits, Australians and of course Peruvians, taking photos of their own smiling faces. I didn't have the energy for a selfie!
Tourists were everywhere and I
sincerely wished I had the energy to join them

 I was at the very cusp of a walkway down to the terraces and though I eyed tourists crossing them enviously I didn't go there. Woe was me!

I sat right by a structure the Peruvian Government had 'restored', adding a thatched roof. The government is restoring many structures of the ruins. No one really knows how the structures were thatched or what they may have been thatched with, i.e., straw, wood, what? I would have just left well enough alone myself, but that's just me.

I sat by a structure with a thatched roof
In the late afternoon, I returned to the square by the entrance and while there a little tropical butterfly that conveniently landed at my feet.

A little distraction
I decided I was done in after my afternoon of panting and roasting in sun, so I got on the line to the buses. It was Disneyland on grad night long, but it moved briskly. Soon I was stepping off the bus and into a blinding whiteness as my altitude sickness bleached my eyesight again. *sigh* I stumbled back uphill, and along the way saw one of only two Peruvian Orchids I've seen in Peru thus far. Earlier today I saw 2 such dogs race by, and hound was one of them. I had no trouble recognizing the pup in its stylish pink pajamas.
Inca Orchid - the hairless dog of Peru
It took me more than an hour to trudge to the train station, but still, it would be dark by the time my train chugged out of the station 2 hours later. The train arrived back in the little departure town and again, my fellow tourists disappeared in a blink. As I headed for the exit I wondered what I would do if I missed the van back to Cusco. But when I got to the exit I saw there were dozens of tourist group leaders holding up signs to signal their passengers and I spotted 'Norma Miller' on one of the signs. Hurrah! My Hurrah turned to $#*@& when again, my group & tour guide, disappeared rapidly up the hill, leaving me panting in their dust. The cold mountain air had triggered my asthma. RATS! I slugged it uphill to discover the lady tour guide again. She escorted me to a huge bus which I climbed into. I promptly sat, falling into a lovely deep sleep.

I was jolted awake when the bus halted an hour later, and the bus driver yelled in broken English, "Senora! Los Niños Hotel!" I got off the bus, realizing the hotel's street was so narrow there was no way I could be dropped off at the hotel gate. So, off I drudged downhill, thankful it was and not uphill.

Then I freaked. I spotted a sign, "Los Los Niños Hotel" on the right side of the narrow street. Why did I freak? Because there are dos Hotels Los Niños in Cusco, and if this was mine, it would have been on the left side of the road. I was in serious danger of bursting into tears on that long dark street as I wondered how the hell I was going to make it to the correct hotel at 10PM when I had no clue where the hell I was... taxi?

"Senora!", a call echoed up the street. Hurrah! far downhill, on the left side of the street I saw the same hosteler waving at me from downhill. I was on the right street! I very nearly broke into a run as I tromped downhill, grinning like a jack-o-lantern, and profusely thanking him for keeping an eye open for me. Soon I was unlocking my hotel room door, where I took two big steps, and landed, WHOMP on my face on the floor. I'd forgotten there was a step just inside the dark room. Oh well. At least I was face down on the floor of my own damned room.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On to Cusco

On the last day in Nazca, Peru, Ingrid and I visited the Museo Arqueologico Antonini where many  treasures excavated from the ruins of Cachuachi are kept. The woven rugs, wraps and bags fascinated me the most, as they are often still amazingly colorful considering how ancient they are. Another marvel is how pottery so ancient can still exist as whole, and unbroken.
Look at the colors on these thousand year old woven bags
Strange, coiled, two-faced pushme-pullyou pot
After our museum visit, in the early afternoon Ingrid headed out to return to her work. We plan to meet up again in Cuzco next Sunday. Meanwhile I worked on my handwritten journal until it was time for me to catch the overnight bus to Cuzco.

My view on the overnight double-decker bus

 The bus was scheduled to leave Nazca at 9PM sharp, so as it was on Peruvian time, the bus pulled out of the station a little after 10 PM. Took me ages to get comfortable but eventually I nodded into slumber land and woke somewhere on the uphill climb to Cuzco the following morning.
There was a stop at a small town, which has me startled as I thought the town might be Cuzco, which it was not. An hour after that we stopped at another tiny town where everyone was expected to buy their breakfast.

The roadside village where we stopped for breakfast
I took my time getting off the bus as I am not a morning person wherever my locale is for the moment. Lots of passengers bought meals at the little shops and sat on the roadside for a fresh breakfast setting.  Most hoovered over this outdoor stove featuring the local fare of Incan corn cobs and beef knucles (or at least I think that's what it is). I must say, it took me ages to realize the gigantic corn kernels were just that - corn.
I would have leapt on this for any other meal than breakfast
My bus transport to Cuzco
The bus made it into Cuzco (and only three hours late!) where I successfully negotiated an undoubtedly still overpriced cab ride to Los Niños Hotel, where I had a reservation. 

The background story to the Niños Hotel is it was started by a Dutch woman for the purpose of funding the Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundation which supports Cusco's neediest children. Currently the Foundation cares for 600 children a day. During my week long stay at the hotel I saw many of the children in their little uniforms with book laden back parks, going to and from their lessons. Great, well behaved kids.  For me, the hotel was a wonderful & relaxing hacienda. 

Los Niños Hotel's pretty

There are two Los Niños Hotels; one with all the rooms named after boys, and the hotel I stayed at had rooms named after girls. The hotel I am in has rooms named after girls. I'm in 'Esmeralda'. 

Because of a mix-up in reservations, I ended up in a 'share the bathroom' room. That is kind of a pain, but at least the shared bathroom is adorable and clean. Can we talk? One of the things that drives me nuts down there is you cannot flush toilet paper. Think about that... whatever is on toilet paper and all of it's icky contents have to go in little trash bins next to the toilets. That grosses me out in a manner that actually surprises me about myself. When did I get so damned dainty? I find myself longing for the ample plumbing and flushable toilet paper of  Los Estados Unidos .
My little room with its windowed door
I loved the deep set windows and their view of the courtyard
Now! Anything else getting to me? Uh.. yes... the altitude! I am sick as a pup, feeling slower than molasses in the arctic and every time I step in to the courtyard, the entire thing bleaches out and all I see is a fog of white for about 20 seconds. The bleaching of eyesight is the weirdest symptom of my body's version of altitude sickness, along with total weakness as I am not getting enough oxygen to fuel myself so I am as weak as a handicapped kitten. Am counting on this improving as the week progresses. I started taking altitude sickness pills the day before I arrived in Cuzco but so far it's not doing a thing.

The only Andean Condors
I saw n this trip - Cuzco garden decor

On Day two of my stay in Cuzco, I queried the hotelier about arranging a visit to Macchu Pichu. I was advised to visit Inca Connections downtown. So I braved an outing to get to the travel agent, hiring a cab and pitching a fit when the driver of the cab let me out downtown and as far as I knew, no where near the travel agency! I was as lost and frightened as that kitten I mentioned in the previous paragraph. But soon I rallied, and in my broken Españole, asked directions to Avenue El Sol. I tended to ask los Policias, and they pointed to all corners of the earth so ignoring them, after an hour or two I finally got myself to the correct avenue.  Eventually I found a little hole-in-the-wall tourista place and I decided one travel agent was as good as another, I took a seat to wait for the next available agent. Only after a few minutes did I look up and see the sign: Inca Connections. Nothing like some good old fashioned dumb luck.

The next day, a lady from Inca Connections showed up at Los Niños. She gave me all my necessary paperwork, my federal permit and bus an train tickets. Amazing how much paper work was needed to arrange my Machu Pichu Visit for tomorrow. 

I have hung around Niños Hotel, hoping my altitude sickness goes away, but so far no luck. I was lounging around the courtyard when I heard music that reminded me of the Sicily scenes in the movie the Godfather II. I first watched through the bars on the front gate, then went into the street to watch the procession pass. Then I followed everyone, ever so slowly up to the top of the hill. Interesting! Listen to a bit of this video and tell me you aren't waiting to hear Vito Corleone's gunshots?. 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Sign of the Thick Knees

Star shaped ancient aqueduct

Lunch started with a nice bowl of hot beef knuckle & noodle soup

This morning's flight over the Nazca lines wasn't the only adventure of the day. I thought it was borderline too hot, when we headed downtown from our hotel, where we enjoyed lunch at a tiny shop full of Peruvian locals.

After lunch we strolled around stopping at two 'adventure' purveyors, each of which promised us the thrill of a lifetime. Local adventures around Nazca include desert dune buggy rides to see ancient aquifers, ride down the world's biggest sand dune on a board, viewing ancient Peruvian mummy grave sites and seeing ancient Peruvian aqueducts. As is customary, Ingrid bargained with the adventure sellers, and finally put her foot down that no way were we going to go out into the hot desert on a open sided dune buggie that seats more than a dozen people at a shot. The guide shot back that for a paltry 70 Soles (which is about $24 USD) he could offer us our own personal English speaking guide who could take us to see an aqueduct and a ruins, and he would do it in an enclosed van. Deal!

Ingrid & our tour Guide

Our guide was an interesting guy. He was the United Nations personified in one person; being part Asian, part Peruvian and Heinz 57 in general. He was a great guide - chock full of knowledge about Nazca and its specialties.

Our first stop was to an ancient aqueduct, shaped like a star. The aqueducts were built by ancients to allow desert access to ground water. There is a series of round aquifers as well, which Ingrid saw already so we had opted for the one she hadn't visited yet.

The rock lined stairs and terraces were amazing
Ingrid & the guide walked base of the star aquifer, but I stayed higher up because frankly, I was more into photographing the birds at the aquifer than the landmark itself.

Croaking Ground Dove
Hooded Siskins
Our next stop was the ruins of Cahuachi, which was relatively recently escalated recently in 1982. 

The Ruins of Cachuachi
In a nutshell, our guide said the set-up there were ancient holy men who lived and worshiped at the site. Local desert dwellers brought offerings and what-not to the holy men in exchange for interceding with the gods for everyone's benefit.

We hiked up to the top of Cahuachi, viewing the many terraces of the site. Lots of pottery, food offerings, and a great number of other objects were 'discovered' and 'recovered' from the site. Ingrid and the guide went on to view another area of the ruins, while I stayed close to where we parked. I was interested in an as yet unidentified by me flock of small birds in a parking lot tree.

Vireo-ish flock of birds continue to evade my ID
The grave remnants; hair, shroud, twine and pottery

I had a second reason for hanging behind. Back in the 1970s, my friend Barbara & her Mom visited Peru. Fast forward to recently, Barbara discovered her mother had removed items from one of the Peruvian grave sites they visited. Yikes! Barbara was horrified to discover the bits her mother brought back to the states include a shock of dark hair, a bit of shroud cloth, grass twine and shards of pottery.

The grave bits, laid to rest, more or less

Barbara asked if I would do her a HUGE favor, and return the bits to their homeland. I agree. I know the stuff taken originated in Peruvian desert, and I decided this site was as good as any a place to return the artifacts, I had traveled with, carefully wrapped in cloth. With a few good thoughts for a peaceful return to its homeland, I laid the little objects on the desert floor and left them there.

I was a little weirded out by the grave bits, and I wished there were was some way I could know I was doing the 'right thing' by the bits. I mean, I had no way of knowing where exactly they came from, so returning them to Peruvian ground - sacred or otherwise - was the best I could do. I figured if I'd done right, maybe I would 'feel it'.

When Ingrid and the guide returned I told them nothing, and we headed off back towards Nazca. We had only traveled a kilometer or two when I spotted two weird little birds on the side of the road. I shrieked, "BIRDS!" The guide was amiable and soon we were stopped across the dirt road from the strangest birds I've seen in ages.

The strange little birds, the size of skinny chickens
I was besotted & thrilled! I have seen such birds before but only in photos and in zoos. I could only guess 'knees' and 'stone curlew' in connection with the name of the little buggers. The guide said he never saw such birds before, but driving past them the way he did, no surprises there.

The birds rose to their feet.
I felt bad that the pair rose up to their feet after we stopped. However, when two full dune buggies shot past at at least 60 kph, raising clouds of desert dust, I was certain the birds would fly off.  Nope! the birds looked a bit startled - not surprising with those huge pale yellow eyes - but miraculously they stayed put.

Peruvian Thick Knees - a nocturnal bird
Later as we drove back to Nazca, I decided if I wanted a sign I'd 'done the right thing' in my choice of where to leave the grave remnants, well, for me, that pair of birds were as good a sign as I could possibly hope for.

Nazca and the Lines

A Peruvian town, alongside the Pacific shore
Yesterday Ingrid and I headed out of Lima via bus, for a trip that took around 6 hours. We passed a lot of Peru along the way - most of it reminded me somewhat of Nevada or some other sparsely populated state.
Peru seemed to be all farmland and pastures
Along the way Ingrid pointed out interesting things, such as little houses where citizens stake their claim on spots of land. It was as if the days of the Oklahoma land rush were still on, just a bit further south.
Little huts that seem deserted but are not

We had to stop and change to a another bus along the way.

When we got off the bus in Nazca - a small desert town, Ingrid went to the restroom while I nervously fended off a half dozen taxi drivers and others who all assured me they were my good amigos and had a great hotel for me and good transportation. When Ingrid returned we chose a couple of likely fellows and after driving to two hotels, that didn't quite fit our needs, we arrived at a third, Locki Nazca Hotel. There we got a double room with a private bath.

 We figure the taxi driver, his friend and the hotelier were all in cahoots together. The hotelier said he could arrange for us to fly over the infamous Nazca lines.

So, early evening I signed up for an flight to take place early the following morning. The guy had me stand on a scale. He then eyeballed me carefully, then told me he, being charitable - could 'cut me a deal' as there were only three skinny Swiss ladies also signed up for a flight, and they would offset my weight so I needn't be charged for two seats. Ingrid looked mortified, but I figured, my weight is not exactly a state secret. I can add, Ingrid had recommended I skip the flight, as a couple of years ago, she & her brother took a flight over the lines, but it amounted to an aerial barf bag party for both of them. I assured her I am motion-sickness proof.

There were NO Swiss ladies on my Cessna flight!

Next morning we were up early for my flight, which was scheduled for 7:45. I paid my previously unmentioned 15 Soles airport tax and then we waited. And waited. My flight didn't happen until around 10:45. Ingrid said I might as well get used to doing things on 'Peruvian Time'.

Looking over the pilot's shoulders

It was a good thing my fellow passengers and I were shown what to look for from the air. The time over each figure was brief, being no more than 2 minutes or so per figure, with the plane tilting first right (my side of the plane) then left for the other passengers. The entire flight was about 30 minutes. I found that interesting as the guy who signed me up had told me the flight was four hours long!

When I first took these photos I could barely make out what I'd caught on digital. I was certain I hadn't gotten more than a couple of the figures. But closer examination on computer revealed I did better than I thought. This Astronaut was probably the easiest to see being carved on a reddish mountain side.
The first picture & easiest to find is the 'Astronaut'
Here is my bird's eye - or ET's - view of the Whale

Here is my photo of the Whale, which at first I had trouble seeing, then it seemed to just 'POP' right off the ground and I could easily see it.

Here is an easier to see version of it I found on line

The Hummingbird was pretty easy to see, as it is on top of a rather flat plateau so there hasn't been any damage done it it by miners or over enthusiastic fans.
Here is the Hummingbird - quite easy to see.
My view of the Monkey's Tail

This is what I call 'the Monkey's tail'. From the air, I couldn't make out any bit of it in the time I was given. I just shot pic after pic, hoping for the best.

The Monkey

Here is how the Monkey used to look in its entirety. I'm not sure if it ever looks that distinctive any more.

My digital of the Parrot

This figure is easy enough to see if you know what you're looking at - The Parrot.

On-line photo of the Parrot

Tinted and easier to see version of the Parrot

The modern or new age view of  the Nazca lines that the lines were attempts of the ancients to communicate with extra terrestrials who had visited them.

The Peruvian view is the ancients, made the lines of tropical rain forest creatures  - Monkey, Parrot, Trees - to attract the attributes of the rain forest to the desert. The 'make it rain here' view makes as much sense as any other explanation I suppose.

This next shot shows at the top center, looking all tiny is a viewing tower that sits right on the Pan American highway. We actually passed it and the figures beneath it as we rode past it on the bus ride into Nazca. I got this photo but didn't actually see the figures when I was over them at all, and didn't see them until I viewed them on a computer. The one of the left bottom is the 'Tree' and the one at the right is 'Manos' or 'hands'.

'Tree of Life' on the left, 'Manos' on the right

<--- The tower view from the ground. From there you can view the lines or get your daily dose of exercise just walking up those stairs.

It was a one time thrill getting to view the famous Nazca lines from the air. The Cessna I took held four passengers a pilot and co-pilot and due to its size, it was able to view the lines from a low height. Ingrid said the flight she took was in a larger plane so they were higher up, and all the twirling they did over the lines were what made her stomach twirl.

I never thought I would ever actually get to see the lines for myself and I'm grateful for that thrill of a lifetime. And as I told Ingrid, even ignoring the lines, any time I get to fly in a small plane is a big day for me regardless of what I get to fly over.