Adios Zapatos part 2

30 01 2008

For a girl who loves her shoes, I haven’t had much luck with them on this trip (See Adios Zapatos Part 1).

While at home in California for Christmas, I went to several stores with my brother Scott on the quest for the perfect pair of hiking boots for my trek in the Andes. At the first store, we told the salesman that it would be cold because of how high I’d be, and he tried to sell me a shoe that would be good in negative 30 degree weather (that’s Faranheit folks). Perhaps he misheard South America and thought I was going to the South Pole?

At the second store we fared little better. The girl said she knew nothing of Machu Picchu but she did know a little about hiking. When we explained that this would be a little more intense than hiking, that I would be trekking in the Andes, we could see the wheels in her brain moving. In the end she couldn’t make it past the after-dinner mint. Finally, however, I went home with a pair of shoes.

After two days of wearing them around the house per Scott’s orders, I decided they were uncomfortable and we were back at the store, this time with a girl who knew her stuff and who sold me the other shoe I had been looking at the first time.

I took them back to New York and wore them to run my errands (yes, I did in fact go out in public in Manhattan in my hiking boots), and by the time I got to Cusco they were comfortable and fantastic.

All through days one and two Hans and Frans (as I christened them because they did in fact “pump me up”) held strong. They kept my feet dry and happy no matter how much it rained of home much mud I stepped in. But come day three, I accidentally plunged my whole foot in the river while trying to cross: waterproof does not work if the whole shoe is sumberged.

Nontheless Frans served me well, and Hans was great too despite a little water. By the end of the day, however, my feet were less than happy, and when I finally sat to take off the boots, I found that my brand new shoe (Hans) was starting to fall apart. The leather on one side was coming away from the gortex, which doesn’t quite help with the whole water thing. I tried to patch it in the morning, but the thing about sticky-backed gortex is that it only sticks to dry things, which Hans was not.

So now Hans and Frans are sad, broken, and muddy, but still hanging out in my backpack, unlike the heels that were worn once and sent back to New York with the girls.

Lesson learned: My flip flops haven’t failed me yet.

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Olfactory Overload

29 01 2008

Some things that smell worse than the lady on the plane from Buenos Aires to Lima…

1) Me, on days 2-5 (ok, day 1 too) of the Salkantay trek. There is just something about mud and sweat (and possibly horse excrement) caked on your body that smells just lovely. Did I mention there were no showers?

2) The “ladies” on the plane from Cusco back to Lima. Yes, we did spend day 5 (after showers at the hostel, please be impressed) hiking at Machu Picchu, and arrived back in Cusco at 10 p.m. to throw on clean clothes and hasty makeup jobs (no showers here folks) and meet the rest of the backpacking gang for a night on the town. And yes, the next morning saw us rolling out of bed after two hours of sleep to make our way to the airport. Please don’t ask if I was able to locate my toothbrush before the cab picked us up.

3) The lady on the plane from Lima back to Buenos Aires. This time, not me. The woman next to me looked like she might be addicted to any number of drugs, had the nervous habit of picking at her very dirty nails, and radiated an un-defineable stench that seemed to be a mixture of dirtiness and gasoline. (Payback?)

4) My fleece, which I had to put on this morning for the bus ride to my hostel. Somehow the mud/sweat mixture, combined with having been thrust in a bag with the cigarette-smoke-ridden jeans from the night out in Cusco meant I felt a little ill on the bus.

Laundry time?





I May Cry, But…

28 01 2008

I am still hardcore.

After a very trying day three, I awoke for day four—feet no less blistered and muscles no less aching, but refreshed nonetheless. Running through a river with no bridge meant squishy shoes, but when we reached the entrance to a portion of the Inca Trail, physical discomfort ceased to matter.

Lush jungle and centuries old stone steps made for a hike I can only describe as spiritual. There was something intense and heady about walking a path that the Incas themselves climbed, and I once again found myself overwhelmed: all the physical and emotional trials of the past three days had led up to this moment. And that I had survived them made me (yes, I admit it) tear up yet again.

But when we found ourselves face to face (literally) with the end of the road, I held it together. There we were, two hours into the six hour hike, and a landslide had broken the trail, leaving a gap about thirty feet wide in the mountainside.

Even Roberto looked nervous, though undeterred. After making it halfway across the gap trying to recreate a tiny trail, he gave that up and came back to our side. The only thing to do was to climbe up and over the gap. Through the jungle.

Soon I found myself hoisted into the trees, weaving Tarzan-style in and out of the tangled vines as I gripped larger trees and tried not to hyperventilate. When halfway through the venture Roberto asked if anyone had a knife the comedy of it all was only a slight relief.

But when I reached the midway point I finally looked out. I saw not only the gaping hold over which I was standing, but the thick jungle below, and the valley beyond that, and, remarkably, all anxiety melted into exhilaration. Even fear can’t overpower a once in a lifetime experience.

I won’t lie: I was much relieved to feel solid ground under my feet again, but I made it through what should have been a far more terrifying adventure than the previous day without shedding a tear.

Lesson Learned: I am Inca.





Boys Don’t Cry

27 01 2008

Nor do hardcore girls.

I, however, do cry. But I don’t think that makes me any less hardcore. I survived day one’s bumpy ride (on narrow mountain roads in the back of a truck) with a smile on my face. And come day two I climbed to 4600 meters (15091 feet!) without complaint.

But when day three rolled around I found myself (aching muscles, blistered feet, backpack and all) on a seemingly crumbling trail barely wide enough to fit both my feet, miles above a raging river… and crying. Yep, right then and there, I lost it, feeling, mid-mountain, as though I simply couldn’t go on.

But the beautiful thing about being in the middle of a mountain is that, terrified or not, you don’t have a choice but to go on. So with the help of my superstar guide Roberto and my fabulous friends, I made it across the ledge (and across each of six progressively more dilapidated bridges) to find my triumphant self on solid ground at the end of the day.

I am still terrified of heights, and the thought of day three makes my legs a little shaky and my stomach a little queasy, but the fact of having faced a fear and survived it makes me nonetheless jubilant. (Though not in a hurry to do it again.)

Lesson Learned: Never let ’em see you sweat is not a mantra for the mountain. Sweat (or tears) and a little weakness only means a whole lot more strength.





The Lady on the Plane Has Bad, Bad Breath

18 01 2008

I’m quickly discovering that the problem with travel as work is time. I have so many great stories but no time to write them.

Tonight, as I roll into hour four of the Lima airport and brace myself for the next five (yes, that’s a total of nine hours—which otherwise would be spent happily asleep in a warm bed—but who’s counting?), what’s fresh on my mind is the plane ride from Buenos Aires to Lima.

When I sat down, in my middle seat, my olfactory senses went into overdrive. What was that putrid smell? Then the lady in the aisle seat coughed and it became overpowering.

When the movie came on and she asked me what channel, me holding my breath must have looked like, “I don’t understand you” because she responded to my “no sè” with “do you understand Spanish?” I held my breath, nodded weakly, and used my fingers to make the universal sign for “a little”: I know I want to practice my Spanish, but I have to have my limits…

I pretended to be engrossed in the film, a Bruce Willis action movie with the worst car chase in history. Finally the movie ended (Bruce—in case you couldn’t guess—survived an entire overpass falling on him, among other things). It was a this point that I realized I had gotten used to the breath. Or was it possible it got better after she ate?

So when she spoke to me again I was fine with it. She wanted to know when we would land. When I couldn’t tell her, she decided to ask where I was from and we got into my travel story, then her visit to her daughter, and soon we had discovered that we’d both studied literature.

The next thing I knew I was writing her author recommendations in my notebook. Then my new friend Consuela was writing her email address (making sure I understood that there was a punta before the “com”), in case I ever made it to Columbia and wanted to visit her.

And all this time I never even noticed the breath.

Lesson learned: Never judge by first scent. You never know when you may need to practice your Spanish, or make a friend.

And now I go back to guidebook writing. Stay tuned for amazing alfaores, the best cheese platter ever (can anyone guess a theme in my trip?), the poet/tour guide of Lujàn, and the bizarre holy shrine in Tandil.





Adios Zapatos

13 01 2008

One thing to note about the salsa scene in Buenos Aires: It’s not just about wanting to dance but about being able to. We arrived at the salsa club Azúcar an hour after it opened: 1:00 a.m. There were already several people on the dance floor, dancing with impeccable technique and astounding flare. It seems a new trend in salsa is the use of hidden hand lights which go off at key moments of the dance.

To the side of the dance floor, about 12 females sat alone at about 12 random tables waiting to be asked to dance. More ladies loomed mear the dance floor with the same hope. Capirinhas in hand, we joined this latter group and quickly discerned the conundrum: The men would not ask ladies to dance unless they had seen them dancing already (aka if they had seen skill). They took one look at us gringas and kept on going.

But finally some men took pity on us. As I whirled and spun on the floor I realized it was harder than I remembered—and that I wanted to lead. I quickly got over that, however, and was soon dancing with Manuel, a very good (and very patient) dancer, but next came my second problem: my feet.

It seems that those heels I so hurriedly purchased the night before my trip in case of just this scenario were not such a good idea after all. The backs kept sliding down my heel, which was not only uncomfortable but meant that my foot kept twisting and turning sideways, making it extremely painful and difficult to dance.

So I did what any real salsa dancer would do: I carried on. This meant stumbling far too often and exclaiming to Manuel, “Son mis zapatos” until, exasperated, I finally took the shoes off. Then I was holding my own on the floor (at least in my humble opinion, that is) and had a ball twirling and dancing the night away.

And now? Well, now I’m stuck with a pair of uncomfortable shoes that I most likely won’t wear again on this trip and that most certainly take up too much space in an already stuffed backpack. Stupid shoes.

Lesson learned: Don’t salsa in uncomfortable heels. Don’t pack them either. And while we’re at it, don’t even buy them the night before your trip in the first place. Perhaps next time I’ll go dancing in my hiking boots…





What Is Travel Writing?

10 01 2008

Thursday, 10 January, 2008.

Day four of an interesting but rather grueling traveling writing course. The day we spend entirely “in the field,” researching and writing a full “city guide” for one neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

I spent the morning becoming an expert on Retiro but could not find the Plaza de Embajaro Israel, all that remains after the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy. My intense thesis work not having satiated this obsession I seem to have developed with loss and memory, I was determined to see this monument to the lost and learn how Argentines remember their turbulent history.

I was looking at my map when I encountered Julio, a thin man in his sixties with thick coke bottle glasses. He bounded up and asked what I was looking for. Confident that I had already figured it out, but eager to practice my Spanish, I told him. Then he told me how to get there. I understood about half.

Julio walked four blocks with me, and we spoke (in Spanish) the whole way. Then he pointed out the Plaza and I realized (though I didn’t tell him) that I had been on this block earlier the same morning and had merely forgotten to look. Thank God for forgetfulness. After pointing out the Plaza Julio proceeded to tell me its history. And very patiently repeated it until I understood. I’d read the history in my guidebook, but it was much more poignant hearing it from Julio. This is the real key to memory I had been seeking.

Then we parted, Julio wishing me buena suerte (good luck) on the rest of my travels. I understood that part perfectly, and I walked on feeling a bit happier, and a bit giddy that my job (at least for this week) means not just seeing amazing places, but really seeing them, through the eyes of those who live there.