Category: travel

Notes from the Road: Mountain Muling

Friends, If I told you that the main ingredients in our three day mountain trek were:

  • One non-English speaking guide
  • One very gasseous pack mule
  • Three days of hiking at 4,200 meters above sea level

You would think this was a recipe for Disaster Salad wouldn’t you? I mean, it would fit right in at a Minnesota church basement potluck. All orange jello and grated carrots and mayonnaise.

But, you guys? Trekking through the tiny villages and mountains of rural Bolivia is awesome!

And because I´m a little psychic, I knew that this trek was going to be awesome from the moment I laid eyes on our intrepid guide, Mario. Mario resembled nothing so much as an overgrown third grader, complete with a bowl cut, missing front teeth, teal track suit and orange Jansport backpack. To complete the look, he also carried every nine-year-old´s favorite accessory, the all important Stick. The Stick was obviously used for bashing threatening bushes, poking into mud puddles and menacing at our pack mule.

Yes! Our very own pack mule! Granted, this gentleman was prone to tremendous bouts of gas, refused to eat my apple cores and spent most of the trip engaging in disapproving, doubtful noises. But then so would I if someone piled 60 pounds on my back and pulled me by my face up a mountain.
As we started our hike it occurred to me that we were making our way up a path that was more than twice as high as Denver and was that a minor coronary that I was experiencing? And when had I developed asthma? I felt like I was living through one of those dreams where you´re trying to run away from A Scary Killer but your limbs won´t move and you can´t get any traction.
But in this dream I kept getting farted on by a mule and the soundtrack originated from Mario´s hand-held radio.
But as we made our way higher into the mountains, my newly developed breathing problems took a back seat to the insane surroundings. Lush valleys! Sweet little sheep being herded through the passes! Tiny cemeteries crammed to the gills with orange lilies and sparkling statues! As the afternoon wore one, the clouds began to roll in and eventually engulfed us, making things completely surreal. We could only see the path directly in front of us, unable to tell exactly how sheer that drop off on the right was.
As we neared Mario´s village, a tiny woman with gold teeth, black jelly shoes and a pick axe leapt down out of the fog and handed Mario her bag. Mario informed us that the tiny elf was actually his mother, and when I told her that my Spanish was very poor she slapped me on the arm like this was the funniest thing she´d heard all week. We trundled on to their village which consisted of 20 houses and lots of sheep, tucked among the clouds.
Mario kindly offered to let us sleep at his family´s house instead of camping out in the fog. And I was thrilled when I saw their house.
Now, you may not know this about me, but I am total nerd for anthropology. I go absolutely nuts for adventure and cultural difference and any travel experience in which I get to see an authentic, not-put-on-for-the-gringos corner of the world. And this house fit that bill perfectly.
While Mario put the mule out to pasture, we took stock of the digs. Drying sheep skins? check. Some sort of bone hanging from the rafters? check. Root cellar full of tiny red potatoes and onions? check.
Oh wait. That root cellar is our bedroom.
And again, I was oddly thrilled! Because this was a proper adventure! And, more importantly, we were not surrounded by nine other backpackers and an English speaking guide. We hunkered down into our bed (re: structure made of sticks and straw) and set to work charming the family´s puppy.
But despite all my best clicks and whistles and broken Spanish, Pups was having none of it. Mario laughed and informed us that Spartakou didn’t speak Spanish and only responded to commands in Aymara, the indigenous language spoken in the mountains. So once I started hissing ¨Chi-choo¨ at him, our young friend was all over us, jumping up into the stick bed and trying to lick our noses.
After some more pup cuddling, we ate dinner with Mario and spent a good hour making shadow puppets on the wall of the root cellar with our head lamps. In the morning we awoke to the requisite rooster and ate our ridiculously gringo breakfast of yogurt and muesli. We poked around outside till Elfin Mother motioned us over to the tiny windowless kitchen where she was boiling some potatoes.
As I watched her stoking her fire with what appeared to be dried cow manure, I caught sight of something small and scuttling under a bed in the corner. And what did I see there, crouching in the corner? Guinea pigs, guys. Four of them.
Now, I knew that guinea pigs were a common Andean treat, but I rather believed that these guinea pigs would be, um, wildish guinea pigs. With gray fur and long, fierce talons and sneaky, intelligent eyes. Not the white and tan dudes from your local pet store. But there they were, all fat and sleek and white and tan, crouching in the corner of the kitchen.
Elfin Mother laughed and handed me the flashlight so I could better inspect tonight´s dinner. ¨They´re big enough to eat now,¨ She told me in Spanish. ¨Two or three is enough for our family.¨

I nodded and thanked the travel gods for the Cliff Bar I knew I had somewhere in my backpack.

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Notes from the Road: Worst Busride Ever

Remember, about a month ago, when I rocked some impressive travel karma? To the tune of a $500 flight voucher, a swanky hotel stay and a first class upgrade where I drank my weight in free Diet Coke? Well, the travel gods saw to it that any karmic imbalances created with all that good luck were righted during our most recent busing adventure.
The Mister and I had just finished a three-day tour of the salt flats, hanging with some fantastic Wellingtonians that we met at Carnival. Uyuni, the tiny dust bowl of a town that serves as the gateway to the salt flats, cleverly offers train service out of town only twice a week. Our bible, The Lonely Planet, called the buses out of town ¨cold, bumpy and inadvisable¨but then we know how they felt about the awesomeness that is sandboarding, don´t we? ¨We´re rugged!¨we cried. ¨We´re rough and tumble travelers!¨we challenged. ¨We don´t want to stay in this shit hole another minute!¨we wept.
So we were more than pleased when we found a bus out of town that would take us all the way back to the capitol in seven hours. We rounded up snacks for the bus, inflated those nerdy neck pillows and settled in for what we were sure would be seven hours of lovely mountain scenery and Pringle nibbling.
Here are some highlights of what transpired during my own personal version of hell:
  • We find our seats at the very back of the bus and are immediately surrounded by a huge group of silver miners
  • They pull out several bottles of rubbing alcohol, mix them with bottles of Fanta and begin drinking before the bus pulls out
  • They joyfully (and repeatedly) offer us this delicious drink while asking Sam who is the hottest American actress. “Angelina Jolie, yes? Yessssss?!”
  • After several drinks, they begin peeing into Sprite bottles
  • As we drive over the rutted dirt road they spill beer, Fanta/rubbing alcohol and pee all over.
  • The bus fords several rivers successfully. Then the driver stops the bus, asks us all to get out, wade across the river on our own and guns the engine over it.
  • The miners take turns carrying each other across and in the excitement of all the wading and drinking, one of them gets left behind
  • As night falls, the miners begin to drunkenly sign folk songs, getting louder every time someone shushes them.
  • The two babies sitting in front of us begin to cry
  • My seat doesn’t recline
  • Lather, rinse and repeat for sixteen hours.

There´s a special place in heaven for us, right?Got the travel bug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making long-term travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

How to Survive a Road Trip with Your Grandparents, or Why I Believe in God. Pt 2

(This is part 2 of Erin’s tale of dealing with geriatric travel mates. Usually, she blogs at The Fierce Beagle. Also, she can probably out-dance you.)

Uncle R: Every time we go on a trip, we stop at Mickey D’s ‘bout ten for coffee, orange juice and some fries, right, Mom?
Grandma: [fumbling with the digital controls for the air conditioner, which is on full blast] What?
Uncle R: [unfazed] Every time we go on a trip, we stop at Mickey D’s ‘bout ten for coffee, orange juice and some fries, right, Mom?
Grandma: [louder] WHAT?! [Pushes wrong touch-screen button; snow is now starting to form around the window panes]
Uncle R: [unfazed] Every time we go on a trip, we stop at Mickey D’s ‘bout ten for coffee, orange juice and some fries, right, Mom?
Grandma: [louder still] WHAT?!? [pushes two or three more buttons; air conditioner shuts off in flourish of industrial-grade noise]
Uncle R: [unfazed] Every time we go on a trip, we stop at Mickey D’s ‘bout ten for coffee, orange juice and some fries, right, Mom?
Grandma: [with exasperation] What’s “Mickey D’s?”

I was in no mood to appreciate the absurd humor of this exchange between my uncle and grandmother, and not just because we were deep into a road trip that I was sure would end in mortal catastrophe. You see, we had just spent the night with front-row seats at the second circle of hell.

Aside from hopping in the van and conquering long-distance travel for the fun of it, my apparently younger-than-me-at-heart grandparents also love spontaneity. Though we had embarked on a three-day tour of New Mexico, they hadn’t planned so much as what towns we would stop in for the night, nevermind made reservations at a hotel. So after our rather fascinating trip into the Carlsbad Caverns, our spur-of-the-moment plan to find lodging in Alamogordo went to pot upon discovering that every hotel in town was booked solid because of some biker convention. Or, to clarify, I should say every reputable hotel in town was booked solid.

After inspecting and dismissing more than one motel, the grand’rents decided on a rinky-dink motor inn near Holloman Air Force Base that was clean yet kitschy. Like in a movie, I told myself. And for a good two hours, it was like being in a movie: We watched TV on an old 13 incher, and cuddled up in a bed that looked and felt like it could belong in your sweet Aunt Mildred’s attic guest room.

Then our neighbors arrived. And suddenly, our wholesome family film turned into a horror movie of the Zodiac variety: No calamity befell us (the protagonists), but the feeling that we were on the cusp of something terrible hovered constantly. Especially after the tone of the terrifying sounds emanating from just inches on the other side of the wall changed suddenly and ominously after we called the front desk to complain. To this day I don’t know exactly what was going on in the room next door or the parking lot outside, but I do know that we had stumbled into a favorite locale for some of the guys from the base to party with their hookers. ’Nuff said.

One benefit of traveling with elderly grandparents is that they just don’t question your motives when calling their motel room at 6 a.m. and asking if we couldn’t leave already.

One disadvantage of traveling with elderly grandparents is they take life at a leisurely pace when you just want to get the hell outta dodge.

Lucky for us lucky lucksters, Denny’s was open. So instead of adiosing Alamogordo posthaste, we sat down to a three-course breakfast. My uncle, who eats excruciatingly slowly, ordered the biggest meal of all: a short stack (with whipped cream), eggs and bacon. Four hours later (or so it seemed) we were finally on the road again. For about 15 minutes. Because then, Uncle R’s watch went off.

The sun rises and sets according to Uncle R’s watch. When the alarm goes off at 5:30 p.m., he makes his way to the table with the conviction of a farmhand who just heard the dinner bell. So when Uncle R is tasked with timing the grandparents’ two-hour driving shifts, he takes that job Seriously.

When that wristwatch alarm went off barely a quarter of an hour into our second day on the road, I foolishly dismissed it. When Uncle R dutifully uttered “Mom?” I still didn’t clue in. But when my grandmother pulled over to the shoulder to switch seats with my grandpa, comprehension dawned: She had just completed the final 15 minutes of the previous day’s two-hour shift.

Truth be told, after that, the last leg of our trip was fairly uneventful: We frolicked across the dunes of White Sands National Monument; we indulged my fantasy of visiting the Very Large Array outside Socorro (where Jodi Foster discovered the extraterrestrial broadcast in Contact).

By the time we were pulling back into Albuquerque, I erroneously believed we were in the clear and started jovially chatting with my grandma while my grandpa eased the ship safely into harbor. Then the van (and my stomach) lurched as we swerved across three lanes to make the exit to home; my grandma forgot to shout her driving instructions from the back row since she wasn’t paying attention, and so my grandpa wasn’t paying attention either.

So, how exactly does one survive a road trip with elderly grandparents? Put simply: Prayer. Start praying before the trip, if possible, so God knows you’re serious. If you’re Catholic, I might even suggest having a ritual Mass done on behalf of your upcoming journey. And if you’re not much of a religious type, a road trip with your elderly grandparents is definitely occasion to reconsider.

Notes from the Road – Death Cab for Pukey

So. The Mister and I decided to take a slightly less beaten path to Machu Picchu. And if you´re wondering exactly what that means, it means we followed the directions in the Lonely Planet under the heading “Off The Beaten Path.” So it was just us and 400 other travelers attempting to get away from it all.Though we were probably the only ones who didn’t have dreadlocks and were over the age of 23.

Instead of spending $100 on 12 hours of train ride, we spent several days riding $1 local buses through The Sacred Valley, poking through sweet little towns and drinking a lot of coco tea. All was going quite well, all paved roads and flush toilets and such, till the last leg of our journey.

We discover that we need to take a taxi to the little town of Santa Theresa, where we´ll hike along an abandoned railway for three hours till we get to Aguas Calientes. We pair up with a Chilean couple so that the two hour taxi ride will run each of us $5. We pile into a slightly beat up Toyota station wagon for what I´m sure will be a pleasurable ride filled with small talk and travel stories. Maybe we´ll all be Facebook friends after this!

Our driver pops in his only CD (UB40´s Greatest Hits) and we turn down a narrow, rutted service road. I dutifully gulp down a Dramamine as I am The World´s Best Puker and have experienced the wonder of Peruvian mountain roads before.

Sam chats with the Chileans in the back seat while I notice that this washed out road? With all the bumps and total lack of shoulder? It´s been going on for quite a while. But whatever, right? I survived six hours of this between Siem Reep and Bangkok, it´s all good. This is but another badge on my Girl Scout travel sash, right?

And then we start up the mountain. We are driving through the Andes at 30 miles an hour on a road with no shoulder, no guard rail and one lane. The driver occasionally tries to engage me in conversation, looking at me and smiling as I whisper scream “Fala Portuguese! No Espanol!” and point at the road. He kindly swerves to avoid particularly deep holes which sends me into poorly managed hysterics. The steering on the car is so loose that turning the tires necessitates what appears to be a 90 degree turn over the cliff. The first few times this happens I do that bit where my hands fly up to cover my face and then spontaneously smooth down my hair. Every time we round a corner, he honks to alert on-coming vehicles.

We begin to meet other vehicles on the road, which results in a lot of honking, flashing of lights and our driver staring down other drivers. Eventually they all back up into someone´s driveway three miles back and we speed past them waving nervously.

As we get farther up the mountain, we begin to encounter waterfalls. All this necessitate fording six or seven inches of water and crossing bridges that appear to be, somehow, actually narrower than the car. I begin to write a news clip in my head ¨American Couple Dies in Andes, Attempting to Save $60″ and I look back at Sam and see him eying all the possible exits and testing the release button on his seat belt.

Just as I begin to question my Agnostic religious stance, we turn the corner into Santa Theresa. Though I have pitted out my last clean shirt and probably lost three years of my life to worry, I´m alive! Dusty and dirty and a total nervous wreck, but alive!

I should have known it would turn out alright. I saw the driver cross himself and kiss the Mary hanging from his rear view mirror before we took off.

Got the travel bug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making long-term travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!

Notes from the Road: Sandboarding and Whitewater Rafting

Say, what´s that a picture of?” is what you´re probably asking yourself right now, eh? Or maybe “Is Sarah still trying to impress us with all that talk of sand boarding?” Or probably “What happened to that guest poster La Bellette Rouge? When´s she coming back?”

 

Well, I´m going to go ahead and ignore those last two questions and pretend like you´re thinking about the first, mmmmkay? That photo is us, risking our necks to slide down The Biggest Sand Dune Ever.

 

Dudes. Not one iota of exaggeration: that dune was at least 20 stories tall.

 

In the event that you were concerned, I did not, in fact, die while sand boarding. Though according to that Nervous Nelly, The Lonely Planet, I could have. Here is a video that someone with exponentially better video editing skills than I possess put together that documents the sand boarding experience. (You might want to turn your speakers down or ignore the laid back hippie music. I´m pretty sure a Mountain Dew-esque, mid-90s guitar riff would be more appropriate)

 

So how does one not die while sand boarding in Peru? I can assure you success if you follow these simple instructions:

 

  1. While the dune buggy driver is driving sideways up giant dunes, scream your head off and white knuckle it on the roll bars
  2. Upon arrival at the dunes in question, reconsider your decision but allow your pride to convince you not to be That Girl who chickens out
  3. Rub an old candle on the bottom of a homemade snowboard
  4. As per the instructors directions, lay on your stomach, grab the bindings of snowboard, push yourself up onto your elbows and lock your arms in this position to funnel as much sand as possible into your cleavage
  5. Slide down a giant sand dune, not even screaming because you are too busy trying not to die
  6. When you reach the bottom, try not to act overwhelmed and respond nonchalantly when an Aussie snowboarder asks what you secret is to get going to fast.
  7. Lather, rinse and repeat eight more times.
And, friends? I would do it again. But maybe only once more.

 

As you read this, The Mister and I are headed for some whitewater rafting and then a nine hour bus ride to Cusco, where we’ll head up the Inca Trail. Apparently, Cusco itself is at such a high altitude, one might be inclined to get altitude sickness. Which one might then treat by drinking tea made from coco leaves.
Indeed. Here’s hoping I don’t develop a nasty coco tea habit that leads to bloody noses and visions of grandeur!Got the travel bug?  Check out my ebooks and podcasts on making long-term travel a reality!  Only $15 forpetessake!