Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Illegal Immigrant

A colectivo bus
The high winds of the Juan Rey barrio whipped through the air, rippling my heavy pull-over fleece as I huffed and puffed up the steep incline. Instinctively, I threw a look over my shoulder every five or six steps to watch out for potential muggers. I was in the No Man’s Land between Nueva Esperanza and my bus stop where anything could happen.

Nearly to the top, I spotted my bus slowly chugging along on the road running perpendicular to the one I was currently on. Sprinting the final fifty yards uphill, I managed to wave down the bus in time.

Gasping to catch my breath in the thin Andean air, I boarded the bus, saying “Buenas tardes” to the driver as I handed him the pesos for the fare.

When I turned to take a seat, the driver said, “¿Tu eres extranjero? (Are you a foreigner?)

“Si,” I replied, “Soy de los estados unidos.” (Yes, I am from the United States)

“¿Cuál parte?” he asked. (Which part?)

“California,” I said, “San Francisco.”

Much to my surprise, in relatively good English, the driver said, “I used to live in California!”

“No way,” I said.

“Come sit next to me!” the driver invited, “I need to practice my English.”

I figured what the hey and sat down in the passenger’s seat.

“My name is William,” he said, extending his hand to shake as he narrowly avoided running over a stray dog that had dared cross to paths with the colectivo bus.

“Mike,” I said, shaking his hand.

Over the next hour or so, I listened intently to William’s story of his life in the U.S., jotting down what he said like some kind of wanna-be journalist.

 William’s Story:

Medellin, Colombia
William was born in Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. He spoke of Medellin as being a “magic city” with clean streets and having some of the most beautiful women in the world. His whole life, William was into martial arts and earned a black belt in more than one discipline.

In 2000, William secured a student visa and entered the United States to study martial arts at a special school in California and after securing tourist visas for his wife and two children, they joined him in California. As the days drew ever closer to William’s visa’s expiration date, he feared returning to Colombia, as it was facing escalated turbulence after the initiation of the United States’ controversial Plan Colombia campaign.

When his visa expired, in hopes of creating a better life for his wife and children, he decided to illegally stay in California, settling down in the San Fernando Valley and finding work as an apprentice electrician. His children began attending public school and soon their English skills surpassed their Spanish abilities.

San Fernando Valley, CA
In trying to make enough money to both support his family and send money to relatives in Colombia, William worked thirteen-hour days and was paid far less than what the typical American doing the same work received. His work brought him as far south as San Diego and as far north as San Francisco. In fact, he often worked in San Bruno, only two cities over from my hometown of Burlingame. One time, he met The Transporter star, Jason Stathom, while working at his home in Beverly Hills, CA. William avoided as much as possible going to San Diego because of the major immigration police checkpoints set up on the highways in that area. Luckily for him, he was never caught.

As the years went by, William continued to work hard, learned English, and saved more money than he could ever have hoped to in Colombia. But all the while, he lived in fear knowing that without legal documentation, he and his family could be uprooted and sent back to Colombia at any moment. William set his hopes on the talks about the U.S. Congress passing an amnesty law for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants; he thought that if he just held on a little bit longer, he and his family could become legal U.S. citizens and finally live with peace of mind in what they hoped would be their permanent home.

Jason Stathom
In 2007, when the economy went the way of Ben Affleck’s acting career, William had an increasingly more difficult time finding work. With construction projects screeching to a halt, firms were willing to work for pennies for the little work that remained. William found himself working even harder than before for significantly less, but he kept going in hopes that the U.S. government would soon make his dreams of citizenship a reality.

By the end of 2009, with the economy still in the gutter and the immigration amnesty bill way off the U.S. government’s priority table, William decided it was time to return home to Colombia, thus he moved his family to Bogotá.

Luckily, William had been able to save up enough money in the U.S. to purchase his own colectivo bus. Although he works heroically long hours driving the same route through southern Bogotá, unlike most colectivo drivers, he works for himself because he owns his own bus. If it weren’t for his time in the U.S., he never would have been able to afford his own bus, which today allows him to make a decent, honest living…  

Fourteen months after returning to Bogotá, he picked up a tall gringo from California in the least likely of places, a bona fide ghetto in southern Bogotá.

My life is random, what can I say?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Conference in Cartagena

The moment I stepped off the plane at the Cartagena airport, I was encompassed by a strange, sweltering sensation. My body began to secrete driblets of moisture and even the air seemed to be contaminated by some kind of alien property.  

What was it?

Wait…could it really be…heat?

Indeed, it was.

With Bogotá’s utter absence of warmth, I had forgotten that climates such as this even existed.

I was in Cartagena—the pride of the Colombian Caribbean coast—for the WorldTeach Mid-service Conference. All of the volunteers from all over Colombia would be descending upon the coastal city and over the next two three days, discuss our progress thus far, exchange teaching ideas and simply catch up with one another—many of us had not seen each other since WorldTeach orientation back in January.

Super secret WorldTeach business
Since what actually went on during our meetings is highly classified information, I will tell you a little bit about my impressions of Cartagena.

First and foremost; I could not believe it was in the same country as Bogotá. Climate differences aside, Cartagena had an absolutely different feel than Colombia’s capital. It was, in a word, laid back. Whereas in Bogotá people seem to always be in a hurry to get somewhere, those here hung out on the streets, socializing and gossiping. With the overbearing and oppressive heat, who could blame them for just wanting to chill?

Secondly, the people themselves were distinct from those residing in Bogotá. During the Spanish colonization of Colombia, a large number of African slaves were brought to the coast; today, most costeños, as they are called, are Afro-Colombian; much different than Bogotá’s white and mestizo majority. Although I might pass for Colombian in Bogotá (if I sit down and don’t talk), here there was no fooling anyone about my gringocity.

Cartagena coast
Thirdly, the place was filled with gringos. Being Colombia’s main tourist city, there were a lot of non-Colombians walking around. Since the city is used to catering to gringo desires, for the first time since I arrived in Colombia, I was offered sex and drugs by some wretched-looking hookers on the street corner near our hostel.

Let's just say they called me a bad name when I said, “No, thank you.”

Although we didn’t have a lot of time to play tourist, one day I had the chance to walk along one of the old Spanish walls. Back in the day, Cartagena was the most important port for exporting plundered South American gold back to Spain. Naturally, it became an attractive target for English and French pirates and after renowned English explorer/pirate, Sir Francis Drake, sacked the city and made off with 107,000 Spanish Eight Reales (or $200 million in today’s U.S. dollars), the Spanish began an exhaustive effort to fortify the city against future attacks.

On the old Spanish walls
As I strolled over the old walls, I imagined what it would have been like to be there centuries earlier with pirates pounding with cannon balls the very place I walked. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the famous Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the Spanish colonial fort overlooking the city. Next time.

Overall, my trip to Cartagena was enjoyable albeit brief; I hope to return later this year to see more of the beautiful, historic city.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Video: Halfway Home

Since my recent posts have been a bit verbose, I thought I'd give you all a break from reading with this short video about my recent travels in Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica!


Sunday, July 24, 2011

A second wind

I have a confession to make.

Since returning to Bogotá two weeks ago after three amazing weeks away, I have had a tough time readjusting. Prior to vacation, I was struggling to maintain my morale and when I got back, the problems I left behind were here waiting for me.

The bulk of my frustration is directed at the multiple organizations involved with me being in Bogotá in the first place. Nearly eight months into my service, my role in the classroom is still fraught with ambiguity. Since Nueva Esperanza already has Colombian English teachers, nobody seems to really know the purpose for me being there and there are days when I feel useless.

Although I came here because I wanted to teach English, I feel that I am being denied the opportunity to achieve this goal. Especially when I see that many of the other WorldTeach Colombia volunteers have been given greater freedom to make a real difference in their schools, I feel like a racehorse stuck in the starting gate while the other horses are well on their way to the finish line.

Of course, this only serves to compound the other struggles I face in Colombia every day.

I won’t equivocate; I miss home.

I miss seeing my family and friends; kicking the soccer ball around with my dog; real Mexican food.

I miss the taste of the San Francisco air, the comforting sight of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the familiar expanse of the Central Valley.

A year is a long time to be away from all of that.

Life in Bogotá is also not easy—for those actually from here, much less a gringo. The city is overpopulated, polluted and dangerous. With no real community to integrate with, I find myself trapped in the lonely caverns of anonymity.

A year ago when I sat in my cubicle thinking about how great it would be to go teach English in South America, what has come to pass is hardly what I imagined.

But if I have learned one thing in my short time on this earth, it’s that you can’t always get what you want; and even when you try sometimes, you don’t always get what you need; but you must nonetheless find the will to carry on.

Many nights, I've laid awake wondering if I’m just not cut out for this; if I should throw in the towel and hop on the next flight back to San Francisco. I imagine that no one would really blame me—that I showed enough guts sticking it out in Colombia for as long as I did. I would settle back into a comfortable American life, find a job, and do just fine. But I know that if I were to do so, every time I looked in the mirror, I would be dissatisfied with the person looking back.

Arthur Golden writes in his novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears from us all the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”

Although I face a long list of difficulties in Colombia, how I respond to them will ultimately reflect the kind of person I am; one who resigns when faced with adversity or who stands fast and endures?

I am making the decision, here and now, to be the latter.   

I will not turn my back on Colombia.

I will endure.

When I came to Colombia, I made a promise to myself, as well as to the children of this country, that I would give a year of my life in the service of something greater than myself. Although day-to-day it is difficult to see that I am making any significant difference, I know that I am part of a process of positive change that will, in the aggregate, set the foundations for a better world.

Whether I like it or not, I am and always will be an idealist. Just as I will always believe in such quixotic things as inherent good and romantic love, I will never stop believing that a better world is possible.    

Because just as a new day’s sunrise brings with it renewed light and warmth, so does it bear a new set of opportunities and, through them, hope.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Travels Part 3: The Rich Coast

Saying hi to mom
Drowsy and discombobulated, I awoke in an air conditioned hotel room.

Where was I again?

Then the previous day’s travel hell entered my mind and I remembered—Costa Rica.

Sleeping in the same room were my two brothers; my parents slept in the next room over. With my brothers still asleep, I headed to the bathroom to take a shower. Turning on the light, I was immediately taken aback by its niceness—this was certainly no grungy hostel bathroom.

By the time I was done with the bathroom, my brothers were stirring and I borrowed some of their clothes, as mine were conveniently lost somewhere back at the Bogotá airport.

A while later, my parents came to our room and the whole family reunited for the first time since my January departure.

At the Sarapiqui hotel
After a posh breakfast, a van came to take us to our first destination; Sarapiquí. We left San José and over the next few hours, passed through the beautiful Costa Rican countryside. At one point we stopped at small tourist tienda, which was surrounded by a band of lizards. Most of the lizards just stood there, motionless, although some were apparently in the middle of mating season.

Finally, we arrived at our rural hotel, deep in the heart of the Sarapiquí jungle. The hotel consisted of a main lodge with several surrounding “huts” containing the bedrooms. Once we settled in, we went to the pool area to have a few drinks.

When I went to the bar to order a beer, the bartender tried to speak to me in broken English and I responded in Spanish. She looked at me with pleased amazement.

A gringo speaking Spanish… was it even possible?

One of the things I would learn about Costa Rica is that its economy is completely dependent on foreign (mostly eco) tourism and as such, everyone speaks English, or at least tries to. But I was in Latin America and I wanted to speak Spanish, so I stubbornly refused to let people speak to me in my native tongue.

Later that day, a van came to take us down the road to spend a few hours doing canopy, or zip-lining. Although I had done canopy early that year in Manizales, this canopy course was way larger, having sixteen zip-lines as opposed to Manizales’ one. The zip-lines passed over rivers and passed tall jungle trees—it felt like being on the Forest Moon of Endor.

Didn’t see any Ewoks, though.

The rapids
The next day we took to the rapids, doing some pretty hardcore river rafting and battled aggressive alligators and man-eating piranhas as we flowed down the current.

…okay maybe that was a slight exaggeration. But we did get to eat watermelon.

When we got back to the hotel, I was delighted to hear that my long-lost luggage had finally arrived along with my clean clothes. No more bumming clothes off my brothers for me.

Done with Sarapiqí, we headed west to the Arenal Volcano, where we stayed at a nice hotel that had pool with a bar in it.

I will repeat that; a pool with a bar in it.

God is indeed great.

On our first day in Arenal, we went on an ATV tour. Back in California, my family owns ATVs and I have been driving them longer than I have been driving cars. Every summer, we take them out on the trails in the Lake Tahoe National Forrest, roaming freely wherever the paths may lead. Although it was slightly annoying to be treated like an inept tourist and having to follow a guide, we still got to drive through some breathtaking countryside. I waved at the locals as we passed.

About an hour into the ride, we stopped at a tourist-looking area and dismounted the ATVs. Crossing a bridge, we passed through a forest of gift shops and arrived at a platform overlooking a bowl-shaped valley with a powerful waterfall… falling at the valley’s opposite edge.

The rope swing
Continuing on the trail, we eventually came to another stop—a river that created a small swimming lagoon. By this point, I was covered with dust and dirt from riding at the back of the pack and I welcomed a chance to get fresh.

Heading down a rocky embankment, we soon arrived at the swimming hole, which was marked with a small waterfalls created by the river and a rope swing. Although I wasn’t sure if the rope would hold the weight of a tall gringo, I said to hell with it and swung away, nearly belly flopping into the lukewarm water below. My dad and brothers followed suit while my mom gave us moral support from the embankment.

Hanging out with the family
That night, the whole family hung out in the sports bar attached to the hotel. It was a bona fide gringotopia, complete with banners from American sports teams and a pool table. Although the bar tender was kind of a sourpuss, we had a good time hanging out.

The following day, we went on a nature hike next to the Arenal volcano. The guide told us some pretty terrifying stories about people who had died hiking near Arenal—a very active volcano. Except rather than spitting up molten hot magma, the volcano shot car-sized balls of superheated volcanic rock. In other words; a wonderful way to die.

And by wonderful, I mean excruciatingly painful.

Regardless, the jungle near the volcano was lush and beautiful. Although the area had been completely destroyed during Arenal’s last major eruption, in only a few decades the jungle had made an impressive comeback; there was a wide array of plant and animal life. At one point, the guide threw ants at a spider web so that we could watch a Shelob-sized spider devour its prey.

In front of the Arenal Volcano
After the hike, we headed to a hot springs resort to enjoy the thermal waters. The springs were located at a fancy hotel that made the place we were staying at look like a Motel 6. We had a good time relaxing in the waters and I was particularly delighted when we stumbled across a water slide. Good times.

Most of the next day was spent driving to the distant coastal town of Manuel Antonio. Along the way, we stopped at a cloud forest for yet another nature hike. We looked at trees and ants and hummingbirds then continued on our merry way.

The next day—our last full day in Costa Rica—we went on another hike, this time near the coast. Although most of us were sick of walking around humid forests and looking at the same wildlife, this time we got to see some cool animals, including sloths, toucans and spider monkeys. The path passed by the ocean and we spent some time dunking in the ocean.

Spider monkeys on da roof!
Later that day, we headed back to San José and our final hotel. Tomorrow, my family would be heading back to California and I, back to Bogotá.

The following morning when we arrived at the airport, I wondered if the aviation gods had changed their minds and would finally bestow their favor upon me.

As it turned out, they hadn’t.

After waiting in a long line to check in, the airline attendant told me that I had been kicked off my flight due to overbooking. He put me on a later flight—that would depart seven hours after my scheduled flight—and gave me a $150 USD voucher for a future flight and $14 to buy lunch in the airport.

Seriously, aviation gods… wtf.

After passing through security, I waited with my family at their gate and soon it was time for them to depart. Saying our goodbyes, I reassured them that the next five months would fly by and that I would be home before they knew it.

I watched them board and minutes later, the plane left the terminal and took off.

Waiting at the airport with my dad
Passing the next seven hours alone in the San José airport, I contemplated my return to Bogotá. The last three weeks had been incredible—the life of a backpacker is indeed a lot different than that of a foreign language teacher in Colombia.

But I still had work to do in Bogotá.

And so I went back.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Travels Part 2.5: Travel Troubles

The defective cab looked a lot like this
Waking up early on a Saturday, I quietly gathered my things and slipped out of the hostel dorm room so as not to wake my anonymous roommates. After paying my bill, I asked the hostel receptionist if she could call me a taxi.

“Oh, we can’t do that,” she said.

“Why,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

Slightly irritated, I threw on my travel pack, now weighed down with alpaca attire, and headed out to try my luck hailing a cab on the streets. Loitering on a busy street corner, I attempted to hail the passing taxis, but to no avail.

Like a lost duckling, I wandered further down the street and came across a doorman for a nice-looking hotel.

“Buenos días,” I greeted him with a smile, “Me puedes llamar un taxi?”

“Claro,” he said, turning to look down the street. He held out his hand and a vacant taxi miraculously appeared, pulling to the curb.

“Él es mi amigo,” the doorman assured me.

I nodded and said, “Mil gracias, Señor.”

I threw my bag in the back and got in. Looking at my watch, I was pleased to see that it read 8 a.m. My flight was at 11 a.m., so I should get to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Over the next ten minutes, the taxi navigated the Lima maze, speeding ever closer towards the airport. Like most taxi rides in Latin America, it was faster and more reckless than the average gringo was comfortable with, but after seven months in the region, I was used to it.

Suddenly, my head whipped forward when the driver slammed on the breaks and nearly rear-ended a bus, killing the engine. When the driver repeatedly failed to restart the engine, he got out and popped the hood. After a few minutes of messing around with the engine, he got back in the car and once again failed to restart the car.

The driver got out and pushed the dead car to the side of the road. I debated whether I should get out and help the guy, stay where I was or get out and try to find another, less broken taxi to take. I decided to stay where I was and give the driver another couple of minutes to get the vehicle running.

Jorge Chavez Airport, Lima
Again, the driver popped the hood, doing God knows what to the engine. Much to my delight, this time when he turned the ignition, the engine roared to life.

With the same reckless abandon as before, the driver floored the accelerator and we were off. Twenty minutes went by and I knew we had to be nearly there. Praying to the automotive gods that the vehicle would make it the rest of the way, I cursed them when the engine died, yet again—this time in the middle of a busy thoroughfare where a speeding bus could kill us at any moment.

The driver got out to do his thing with the stubborn engine and after three failed attempts, finally managed to get it running. I glanced at my watch and winced; it was almost 9 a.m. and I had an international flight to catch.

I would be cutting it close.

Much to my gringo delight, the Jorge Chavez International Airport finally appeared and the taxi dropped me off at the international terminal.

Entering the terminal, I was horrified to see an enormous line running way passed the check-in area and nearly out the door. Getting in the back of the line, I feared I wouldn’t reach the front in time. As the line slowly inched forward, I happened to look up and noticed the flight departure screen.

Next to my flight number it read: demorado.

My flight was delayed.

Although I was at first relieved, it soon turned to worry when I realized that I couldn’t afford to have my flight delayed—I only had an hour and fifteen minutes to make the connection to Costa Rica in Bogotá.

By the time I had checked my bag and made it through security and customs, it was 10:30 a.m. With my flight now delayed, I headed over to a random gate to sit down and watch the flight information monitor.

Bogotá Airport International Terminals
After 11 a.m. came and went and the screen continued to read demorado, I grew more and more impatient. I figured that as long as the flight left by 11:45 a.m., I would still be able to make my connection in Bogotá; however, every passing minute made it more likely that I would be quite completely screwed.

Sure enough, noon came and there was still no change in my flight’s status. At 1:00 p.m., the monitor finally changed, telling me which gate my flight would depart from.

When I arrived at the departure gate and asked what had happened, they simply told me that the plane “had arrived late.” I told them that I would be missing a connection because of the delay and they told me to talk to their people in Bogotá to rectify the situation.

I sat down, bubbling with frustration, and another hour passed before the airline made the first call to board. We finally took off just after 2:00 p.m., three hours after we were supposed to.

A few hours later when we landed in Bogotá, I had missed my connection by nearly three hours. Exiting the plane and walking down a long corridor, I came to a crossroads: customs or connecting flight?

Although I wasn’t sure who exactly I needed to talk to, I decided it was best to stay in the departure area, so I passed under the connecting flight sign. Entering the international departure terminal, there didn’t appear to be anyone from the airline to talk to. Luckily, a helpful security guard directed me to a departure gate where there were people from the airline working.

I approached the desk and mustered every bit of my Spanish abilities to try to explain the situation and ask if they could put me on another flight to Costa Rica. The attendant called her supervisor and told me to wait for her to arrive. Since the airline people were distracted by a flight they had just begun boarding, I sat down to wait for the supervisor.

The luggage I lost
Thirty minutes later, the supervisor was nowhere to be found and I once again went up to talk to the airline attendant. With unmistakable annoyance, she told me to wait until they had finished boarding the flight and then she would help me.

I took a deep breath and nodded, figuring that getting mad wouldn’t get me what I wanted.

After what seemed like an eternity, they finally finished boarding the plane and I returned to the desk. I stood there for a moment like an idiot, waiting for her to acknowledge my existence. When she didn’t, I again told her what I wanted. She took my boarding pass, passport and luggage claim ticket and spent the next fifteen minutes pattering away at her keyboard. She printed out a new boarding pass for a later flight and handed it to me. When I asked her if my luggage would also make it on my new flight, she nodded in reassurance that it would.

With my travel troubles apparently resolved, I spent the next three hours killing time in the Bogotá airport. At 9:30 p.m., I finally got on the plane to Costa Rica.

The plane landed in San José, Costa Rica just after midnight, sixteen hours after I had left my hostel in Lima. Exhausted, I trudged through customs and made my way to baggage claim. I waited, chatting with a girl from New Zealand I had met on the plane, but twenty minutes passed without any luggage coming out.

At 12:30 a.m., the conveyor belt came to life and I watched intently for my bag to pop out. As the passengers began to filter out after claiming their luggage, soon only me and New Zealand girl remained.

Eventually, the conveyor belt turned off and a man from the airline came over to tell us that our luggage had been lost.

Finally arrived in Costa Rica!
At this point, my eyes should have turned green, my muscles exploding through my shirt as I mutated into the Incredible Hulk. But rather than breaking into a furious rage, I instead began grinning like an idiot.

Having already been damned by the automotive and aviation gods, it made perfect sense that the gods of baggage reclamation would also forsake me.

After filling out a lost luggage form, I left the airport with nothing but my small carry-on backpack filled with a few books and an alpaca scarf I’d purchased in Peru.

Just before 2:00 a.m., I finally arrived at the hotel where my family was staying.

Por freaking fin.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer Travels Part 2: Perusing Peru


Cusco, Peru
As I sat in the back of the old  taxi-jalopy careening down the bedraggled streets of Cusco, I felt oddly at home. After a week of riding Chile’s pothole-less roads, it was refreshing to return to something resembling Bogotá’s familiar bedlam.

I looked out the window to take in the city. Built in a bowl surrounded by long, barren hills, the former capital of the Inca Empire held an uncanny resemblance to Reno, Nevada.

Conversing with the driver, I learned that I had arrived on the eve of Inti Raymi, the city’s most important festival dating back to the heyday of the Inca Empire. As we neared the city’s historic district and the streets grew more and more crowded, I also learned that I had arrived during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Cusco.

After checking in and dropping my stuff at the hostel, I ventured out into the crowds to reconnoiter the area. As I approached the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square, the concentration of human beings became so dense that I could barely move forward. Thanks to my vertical superiority, I was able to see over most of the crowd at what was going on in the plaza—was some kind of procession made up of groups of indigenous people decked out in traditional dress and carrying large golden idols.

To escape the tourist hordes, I slipped into a small restaurant to try some Cusqueño cuisine. I ordered a dish of Andean potatoes with guacamole and white tartar sauce. Although potatoes can today be found all over the world, potatoes originated in the Peruvian Andes. In fact, the Spanish world for potatoes, papas, is actually a Quechua word (the dominant language of the Incas).

After downing the potatoes, I went to office of the travel agency that was organizing my Inca Trail hike and met with my guide, Socrates, who gave me the low down about what to expect during the four-day hike.

Fiesta time
That night, I planned on laying low and going to bed early, so I could wake up early to check out Cusco’s sites. Tomorrow was Friday and since I was leaving for my hike on Saturday, I wanted to make the most of the one full day I had in the city.

But of course, I didn’t lay low, nor did I go to bed early.

Back at the hostel, a group of people were in the bar drinking and, naturally, I joined them. The bartender, a fiery Italian whose name escapes me, marshaled the guys in the bar into playing flip cup.

For those of you who don’t know what flip cup is, click here.

The flip cup match was truly an international affair—there were representatives from Britain, Canada, France, Israel, Argentina, Italy and of course, yours truly from the US of A. Although I had initially planned on playing only a few rounds, those soon turned into several and I eventually found myself in an international wolf pack headed for the nearest discoteca.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco
The discoteca, called Mama Africa, was filled to the brim with gringos and, much to my chagrin, only played gringo music. When I asked the DJ if he could play some salsa, he said that he was only allowed to play the kind of music he was already playing. Regardless, I still had a lot of fun at the discoteca and surprised some Peruvian girls (and myself) with my ability to successfully converse with them in Spanish. Most of the gringos there spoke only English and it was a rarity for them to find one who could speak Spanish. Needless to say, it was a good time for all.

The next day, I woke up just before noon and feeling like a million bucks. It seemed that the Incan gods, either out of favor or pity, had spared me punishment from my previous night’s excesses.

So I headed out to explore the city.

Overlooking Cusco
When I entered the Plaza de Armas, I was surprised to find it relatively empty. After walking around the plaza and admiring the abounding impressive architecture, I headed uphill in search of the ruins called Saqsaywaman. The running joke in Cusco is to call the ruins “sexy woman” since the Quechua name sounds like it.

As I progressed up Cusco’s steep avenues towards Saqsaywaman, I realized why the Plaza de Armas had been so vacant—everyone was at the ruins. When I finally arrived at Saqsaywaman, there were thousands of people milling about, some sitting in large grandstands and others perched on a high hill overlooking the ruins. After weaseling my way through the crowd, I managed to find a good spot to watch the Inti Raymi ceremony.

Inti Raymi
There were several indigenous people dressed up in traditional Incan attire, some as soldiers and others as Incan priests and nobility. The guy who was supposed to be the Incan leader held his arms up in reverence to the sun and chanted in Quechua what I assumed were praises to Inti, their sun god and chief deity. Every now and then, someone would sound over the loudspeakers thanking the corporate sponsors for making the event possible.

After watching the ceremony for a while, I decided to check out the view from the hill. Along the way, I stepped on a pamphlet for Inti Raymi that had the event's principal sponsor printed on it—NEXTEL.

Leave it to a fledgling phone company owned by AT&T to uphold ancient Inca traditions.

How magical
I watched the rest of the ceremony from the crowded hilltop, then headed back down the hill to Cusco.

At one point, I saw a trio of indigenous women wearing traditional dress and leading some llamas. When I raised my camera for a quick shot, one of the women noticed me and said, “un foto?”

I said, “Si, un foto por favor!”

The women posed with their llamas and I snapped the photo. Then one of the women stuck out her hand and gave me a fish-eyed look.

Crap, I thought when I realized I had just gotten gring-owned.

This picture cost me about $7 USD
I searched through my wallet to find some soles (the Peruvian currency) to give them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any small coins, so I ended up handing them $5 soles each (about $2 USD).

Still astonished that I had just been photographically mugged by a couple of grandmothers and their llamas, I continued down the hill and returned to my hostel.

It was time to get ready for the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail

On the road to the Inca Trail
The van arrived at my hostel at 6 a.m. and Socrates came in to fetch me. Although it was early, my excitement for the upcoming trek overshadowed my drowsiness and I followed him to the van with an unmistakable spring in my step.

I slipped off my travel pack, ducked into the van and met four of my fellow hikers. They were all from Germany and had been touring Peru with a larger German tour group.

I was particularly surprised to meet Dr. Raimer Muller, a retired history professor in his late sixties; hiking the Inca Trail was said to be a physically arduous task and I was impressed by his determination. Little did I know that later he would leave me in the dust huffing and puffing the thin Andean air.

After picking up Scott, a backpacker from Australia, we headed towards the Inca Trail staging area called Kilometer 82.

My Inca Trail group
We left Cusco and over the next three hours, passed through the painfully beautiful Peruvian countryside. The towering peaks of the Andes stood like resting giants in the distance and a large glacier capped one of the mountains near the horizon.

Stopping to eat a quick breakfast at the old Incan fortress-city of Ollantaytambo, we continued down a windy path and eventually arrived at Kilometer 82.

At Kilometer 82, we passed through an entry checkpoint and commenced our trek. The seven of us followed the Urubamba River through the Sacred Valley, Socrates occasionally stopping us to tell us about the plant and animal life we encountered.

One of the most interesting things we saw were these small bugs that live on the leaves of a large green plant. When smashed, the bugs leave a red coloring that the Incas used as a dye. When mixed with other substances, like lime, the Incas could create any color they wished.

In front of Patallaqta
After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at the first set of significant Inca ruins, called Patallaqta. The ancient site aroused my inner history nerd and I eagerly absorbed Socrates’ explanation of the site.  
Continuing down the trail, we had a ridiculously gourmet lunch (the first of many ridiculously gourmet meals throughout the trek) then finished the last leg of the trail to reach our camp site.

That night before going to bed, I stood outside watching the stars, which glistened like so many jewels in the night sky. Getting lost in the stars is one of my favorite pastimes, but one that I don’t get to do often enough. I was thrilled to see the Southern Cross for the first time.

The next morning, we arose just before sunrise and returned to the trail. Socrates warned us that today would be the most physically challenging day, as we would be hiking 1,000 meters uphill. Also, it would be freezing.

Resting near Dead Woman Pass
Well, he was right on both counts.

As I pushed up a seemingly endless incline, I fought to keep my breath and had to stop several times along the way to regain it. I could only stop for short period of time, however, as the pervasive cold prodded me to continue.

Raimer, of course, made his merry way up the mountain, breathing as calmly as if he were taking a stroll down San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Freaking Germans.

The most difficult part of the day came when I approached the summit, known as Dead Woman Pass, named as such because the hills appear to make the shape of a woman laying down. To help get me through, I put on my headphones and blasted some serious Inca Trail pump-up jams.

Finally, I made it to the top of Dead Woman Pass. With my lungs and leg muscles on fire, I feared they would soon need to rename it Dead Gringo Pass, but luckily, Inti allowed me to remain among the living.

That night as we sat at our campsite sipping rum Socrates had picked up for us, Raimer, ever the scholar, asked me, “Do you know what Shakespeare said about alcohol?”

“No,” I replied.

“Alcohol awakens the desire, but takes away the performance,” he said.

I nearly vomited rum from laughing so hard.

In Sayacmarca
The next morning, just as the sun began to rise over the distant mountains, we broke camp and headed up yet another steep hill. We stopped at an interesting ruin Socrates said was likely a resting house for the Inca Army. Located in a seemingly inaccessible area, the structure was a classic example of the Inca’s engineering prowess.

A few hours later, we arrived at Sayacmarca, by far the most impressive ruin we had yet encountered. It was a large settlement resting on a large hill overlooking a forested valley that had housed Inca nobility. Socrates explained that the Incas used an intricate gravity-based system to bring water from nearby highland springs to the town.

As we neared the jungle, the mountains began sprouting trees and more and more insects came out to play.

After passing and learning about several other breathtaking Inca ruins, we arrived at our final campsite.

Tomorrow, we would finally arrive at Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

First glimpse of Machu Picchu
The sky was just beginning to show signs of the impending sunrise as I made my way along the stone path, using my flashlight as a guide through the darkness. The trail passed by steep cliffs and a misstep would send an unlucky hiker to a rather uncomfortable landing.

I reached the Sun Gate just as the sun began to rise. Passing through, I found myself in a different world. The craggy peaks stood amongst the clouds and my heart fluttered when I saw the tip of the famous Wayna Picchu, which I knew overlooked the ancient city I had hiked for four days to reach.

Somewhere beneath the clouds were the ruins of Machu Picchu.

After reuniting with the group, together we headed down the path towards Machu Picchu. Finally, the clouds dispersed and I got my first glance of the Lost City of the Incas.

The group at Machu Picchu!
There are a few times in everyone’s life when they experience a moment of absolute clarity; when the earth seems to stop spinning, time ceases to tock and a single thought enters the mind—this is what it means to be alive.

That is how I felt when I first laid eyes on Machu Picchu.

We entered the city from above and after stowing away our day packs, Socrates gave us a tour of the city. I marveled at the sheer size of the place, at the intricate stonework and the audacity the Incas had had to build a city in such an inaccessible area.

After Socrates finished the tour, we had some time to wander the ruins on our own and Scott and I walked over to a grassy area where several llamas loitered. Although the rules clearly stated "no eating in Machu Picchu", we noticed an American girl eating a sandwich on the grass near where the llamas grazed. Sure enough, one of the llamas noticed the food and came over to investigate. The girl screamed and threw a piece of her sandwich at the llamas to make it go away.

Don't feed the llamas!
Needless to say, her actions had quite the opposite of the intended effect.

Now, a veritable herd of llamas migrated over to the beleaguered girl in hopes of scoring a free meal.

The girl ran away, and the llamas chased her.

After laughing at the silly girl’s expense, we left the llama area to explore the rest of the city. We entered the agricultural district; multiple levels of terraces that the Incas used to cultivate the foodstuffs needed to support Machu Picchu’s inhabitants.

Climbing the stone stairs next to the terraces, we made our way to the highest point in Machu Picchu to take the classic postcard picture of the ancient city. When we got there, I felt another shudder of amazement that I was actually standing where I was standing.

After a few hours perusing Machu Picchu, we met up with the rest of our group and took a bus down to Aguas Calientes, where we boarded a train to take us back to Cusco.


Plaza de Armas, Lima
The day after Machu Picchu, I said goodbye to Cusco and headed to the airport to catch a plane to Lima. While in line to board the plane, I befriended a woman from Lima named Yasmin who said she would love to show me around the town.

While sitting on the plane and reading 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia's most famous author), a woman sitting across the aisle from me noticed and (in Spanish) made a comment about how she loved the book. When I told her that I was reading it because I was living in Bogotá, she responded with excitement that she was from Bogotá. Her two little girls sat next to me and her husband sat next to her and I talked to them about my experiences in Colombia. Afterward, we exchanged contact information and she said they would love to have me over when I got back to Bogotá.

My life is random, what can I say?

Pisco Sours with Yasmin!
The day after arriving in Lima, I met up with Yasmin and she took me to the centro area to play tourist. We went to the Plaza de Armas and I saw the Presidential Palace and some cool churches. We also visited an art history museum that had all kinds of pre-Columbian art.

When I told Yasmin that I wanted to eat some authentic Peruvian food, she took me to a restaurant and I had ceviche, along with several other types of delicious Peruvian comida. For dessert, we went to a place that sold Peruvian churros, which taste kind of like doughnuts, except way more greasy and awesome. Finally, we went to a bar/café and I had my first pisco sour, Peru’s famous cocktail.

The Peruvian Coast
The following day, I walked down to the beach to check out the Peruvian coastline. This time of year, there was a permanent canopy of fog hovering over the city and it wasn’t warm enough to get wet, but I had a good time reading down by the water.

The next day I would be leaving Peru and South America to meet up with my family in Costa Rica.

One more adventure lay ahead.