First morning home

It’s quiet when I wake up. My eyes are still closed and my first thought is that it must be small hours, because there is no sound – no gurgle of coffee or the hushes of morning conversation. 

This wouldn’t be unusual: Most mornings I have awakened in small hours and put myself back to sleep, usually resulting in being among the last up and about.  Read more of this post


A week in Myrtle Beach

It isn’t a new destination for any of us, not by a longshot. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been, but it’s enough times that there was a pattern emerging of major career upheavals after every fourth visit.

(My company got bought while I was touring the Grand Canyon two years ago. I’m going to say that Myrtle Beach passed the torch.) 😉

The weather was fine and sunny for the first few days, then overcast, then stormy, and then sunny and warm again.

And it all worked out pretty much perfectly.

There were fun and silly car games and beach days and arcade days and dinners at the places we traditionally try to fit in. (Chances are good that one of those is coming off the short list in future, the prices having stayed ridiculously low but the food quality seeming to have been reduced to match.) Read more of this post

Fly away home (if you can)

The Andes from above

My original flight plan would take me nearly 24 hours, inclusive of security lines and layovers, but on arrival to Miami I am able to get in an earlier flight, so I can already be home hours before my original flight would have been boarding. 

It’s a shock to the system, to get back on an American flight and the cramped space. Two days later I will hear something from the airlines – as they prepare to further restrict the space- about how passengers don’t mind because they don’t opt to pay more for a better seat. To which I call bullshit. Charging more for that space is a money-making device for the airline not a social experiment, don’t let’s kid ourselves, and there are certain fees we might avoid on principle in protest. (Example: I prefer and choose when I can the airlines that don’t charge for luggage, even if I’m not going to check a bag, for instance, and under no circumstances am I paying for a checked bag even if it means traveling that much lighter). In the same way that I might pay more to board early / ensure I can get my carry-on in the overhead compartment but, though it’s a distinction without a difference, I will promptly stop flying an airline that charges me for bin space. Count on it. 

I back that up with action: They supposedly get the best ratings of any major US carrier and invested a lot in improved customer experience (recent news articles notwithstanding) but there is one airline with whom MY experiences were so bad that I will not fly with them. Period. Even if it costs more. Even if it means having to make stops/layovers. If there is literally ANY other airline option, I take it. Because all I can do is vote my displeasure with my wallet. 

/End rant. 

In any event, it is good to be home. To shower in clean water. To be able to brush my teeth from the tap. To drink iced drinks and eat raw, fresh vegetables. ( Salad! Oh I missed salad! )

To sleep in my own bed. 


Day 4: Final tours and departure

This morning’s tour takes us above the city. Our first stop is the Cristo Blanco, a small replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer Statue, which I’d seen in the distance on our way to Cusco a few nights ago. 

There are also three crosses up here overlooking the city. And an entire retinue of police. It’s their Labor Day and there are apparently fears of demonstrations at key points in and around the city.

Saqsaywaman (which only sounds like “sexy woman”) is estimated to have been   built at the height of the Incan civilization, The sheer size of the stones is amazing.

Three tiers of stones in three nested zigzag or lightning patterns. Both sacred symbols to the Incas. The lowermost stones tower 10-20 feet up, to give a sense of scale.

We also visit Q’inqu, Poca Pocura, and Tambomachay. 

At each one, our guide talks about the spiritual meaning of the Incan structures and symbols, and how these are expressed today. 

Then it’s time for a final lunch together as a large group (one of the few times we’ve all been together vs exploring in smaller subsets). Funny moment: three people have a newer model Fitbit that reminds them to move every hour. They get their alarm, and a whole group of us dance in our chairs to “get our steps” – laughing at ourselves as we do it. )

And then begins the long, long, long trek home again, at first all of us together from Peru to Colombia, a few headed elsewhere but most still together as far as Miami, and then the group splintering as we have different flights to other cities. 

This was my first tour with Gate1, and I had a great time. It was very well done and reasonably priced to boot. 

But of course the part that really makes a trip special are the people you meet along the way. 

Love you guys!  God bless!

Tour Day 3: Cusco

Today’s tours – all of which I’ve signed up for – attempt to share with us an authentic (less “touristy”) Peruvian experience. 

The morning starts (after a quick breakfast) with a healing ceremony. A Peruvian healer in traditional dress joins us. He speaks the native language, while our tour guide explains the what and why to us. (I am reminded a bit of the idea of bringing first fruits). The culture here is a mix of Catholic faith, introducesd in colonial times, and the Incan polytheistic faith. But we will learn more about both later. 

First, we have a tour of the local marketplace – not the plazas of kiosks for tourists, but where the locals buy their fruits, vegetables, meats and medicines. Our guide walks us through, letting us try select items and chatting with the various vendors. 

From there, he takes us to the local cemetery, on the way talking about various traditions and festivals (including All Saints Day) that are celebrated. At the cemetery he hires a couple of local boys to assist us in cleaning and decorating a grave (a Friar). We visit the church nearby, discretely joining Mass for part of the service. 

Then we have a local cooking demonstration and lunch (while a parade goes by), before heading back to the hotel to collect others for the afternoon tour. 

In the afternoon, we visit the central plaza of historic Cusco, essentially encircled by cathedrals and basilicas (the largest and oldest built by the Dominicans, others by the other orders that came over the years), each one built over the footprint of the Incan temples that stood when the conquistadors arrived. The same would have happened to Machu Picchu if they’d known it was there. 

We visit the basilica, large and ornate, built to Spanish standards but using local artisans – elements of their influence (or protest) in artistic decisions – Jesus before Pilate surrounded by “Roman” guards in clearly conquistador dress; a last supper where Judas has the face of Ferdinand Pizarro and a cuye, rather than a lamb, is served. 

After the churches, we walk through the town, our guide pointing out differences between Spanish and Incan architecture, side by side.  Then we visit the temple of the sun, a restored Incan site and museum. 

That evening, two groups of us join a local family to share a meal in their home. They prepare common dishes; we help serve, handing out plates or clearing — as guests rather than patrons. It’s a lovely if unusual meal, and we make ourselves eat, appreciatively, even what isn’t most pleasing to our palate. 

Even the cuye, which is, in my opinion, simply horrid. Fortunately it’s a delicacy so we only got a small piece to try to begin with. 

Tour Day 2: Machu Picchu 

It’s dark and early in Urubamba, as we gather ourselves to check out, have breakfast, and head to the train station for the ride to Machu Picchu. 

We’re at lower altitudes than when we arrived in Cuzco, but with Machu Picchu at 6-8000 ft, the sun is still strong, so the morning preparations include sunscreen (in case it turns sunny) and mosquito repellent.  

A combination which will, by the way, strip the color right off the ubiquitous water bottle by the sink (for drinking and tooth brushing, etc). Which becomes noticeable immediately if one then touches their face leaving a pronounced bright blue smear. 

Sigh. Scrub. Start over. 

And then, just in case the day isn’t interesting enough, lock oneself out of the room while placing the luggage outside. 

Yeah, good start

Breakfast is basic, but I’m not a breakfast person anyway. Anyway, we are all so excited for what the day will hold!

Urubamba is just 15 minutes from the train. The Machu Picchu Express takes us 1.5 hours to the town just below the site, and then buses take us up a series of switchbacks by which we ascend the next 2000 feet up to the base of Machu Picchu.  Cloud cover threatens to obliterate views, and in fact our first glimpses of the surrounding mountains are sometimes lost behind the clouds. 

We see it, as we’ve seen it in pictures , but the actual scale of it is impossible to describe. 

Zoomed in to one small area to help give a sense of size. (Can you see the tiny specks that are the tourists?) And this is just zoomed into one section of the site; aside from what is accessible today, they estimate at least another 30% of the site yet to be reclaimed from the jungle around it.

We are taken on a tour of the major areas of the site – as the weather turns first to rain then sun – and then some of us opt to hike up higher to get another view…

The altitude/thin oxygen, the ascent, the speed and the backpack I was carrying made me think I might die en route. So glad I didn’t give up, though.

Thank goodness the Spanish explorers and colonists didn’t find this place, or they’d have built over it or used it as a quarry for building elsewhere, as they did with other sites. 

After an amazing morning exploring the site – the size and the precision of the building both amazing, and my pictures can’t convey it – we descend back into town for lunch (I try a bite of the alpaca steak someone orders, just for the experience – not bad), the return train to Urabamba, and the transfer to our buses to get to our hotel in Cusco, over 2 hours away. 

I expect but fail to sleep en route. It is dark by the time we arrive. 

When we get there, we are at our discretion for dinner. Some go into town for nightlife or to see the plaza. A handful of us go to a local restaurant nearby. Pat, Ron and I have dinner together. At a nearby table Christie  (who arrives well before us or we’d have her join us) orders the baked cuye (guinea pig, a local delicacy). It is presented, positioned on its hind legs, whole, teeth staring her down, with a carved tomato on its head like a helmet. 

I suspect we enjoy our dinner more than she does, but she has an unforgettable experience and the picture to prove it!

Back at the hotel for the night, I have multiple tours for tomorrow, so I try to get some sleep (mostly succeeding until the restaurant downstairs opens in the small hours of morning and the staff elevator beside my room comes into heavy use… combined with the banging on a door of another guest on another tour, who has apparently overslept their planned departure.)

Ugh. Do NOT make me come out there. 😉

Tour Day 1, arrive Peru

It’s a bit after 6 am when we land in Colombia for our connection to Peru. 

I say we, because it turns out the 2 ladies next to me on the Miami flight are on the tour as well (2 of 4 sisters who will be traveling together). 

Announcements in the Bogota airport are of course made in Spanish, then (sort of) in English. Their TSA-equivalent, as here, is not a tourism service but a security detail, and mostly speaks Spanish. My grasp of Spanish, which mostly covers greetings and food will not serve, but being a frequent traveler helps; the rigamarole is close enough to the same. I find my gate, and spend the couple of hours until we press on trying to rest and trying to guess who in the crowd is also on the tour with me. 

I am not the only one playing that game. 😊

Avianca airlines planes feel spacious- it strikes me that these are old planes in the old configuration– remember when we thought this was a small space because our leg might occasionally brush up against the person beside us, instead of today when we fly in a seat that veal would find cramped? And yet on this flight, there’s actually room at my feet to store my personal item and still cross my legs if I want.

The luxury of it!

On the next and final leg of the trip I sit next to Pat. She and her husband Ron are on the tour (for some reason none of the couples have been seated together on the flight) and we hit it off immediately. 

There’s a bit of brief confusion in the pickup process, but we’re sorted shortly. Pat Ron and about half of the group are taken back to the hotel, while the other half of us take the optional tour of the Pisac Market. 

Llamas, Alpacas and other cameloids abound on our trip. We hardly needed a specific stop to see them.

Several hours later, having met more of my tour mates (Linda and Joe, Sue and Ken, Chelsea and Ryan, Jenny and Lynn, Doug and Yung, and so many others), seen alpacas and llamas, had a demonstration of local silver works, learned a bit about how to spot real baby alpaca products vs fakes, spent far too much time (for my liking) in the market proper, and felt a bit of the unevenness of high altitude –  the length of this sentence well mirrors the length of the day – we get back to our hotel in time to change for dinner (if desired) and our group tour kickoff meeting. 

My hotel room is sparse but lovely, and a shower and bed sound delightful. I sleep very soundly – which is good, because tomorrow will be an early, long, and utterly amazing day. 

Sleepless in South Florida/South America 

Because I’m back, I can begin the telling…

I’m restless the night before my flight. Logistics, what I’ve forgotten, what I might need. I remind myself that I’m in the care of a good God who knows my needs, and anyway I have a full day in Miami to acquire anything I forgot, sleep fitfully for a few hours, and wake early to prepare to depart. 

I have my bags ready, have just finished my exchange with the boy, and have the house clean (the better to come home to a clean house) when Sis arrives to drive me to the airport.  

It’s nice to have this time together, even though I know and feel bad that she’s making this drive amidst the morning rush. I leave my personal cell with her; my network won’t work internationally but that’s the phone my bank or cc will try to reach if they need me or If I need to verify my identity to them. Meanwhile I’ll have the work mobile. 

It is smooth sailing to Miami, even if there is so little legroom that it’s literally impossible to cross my legs 

Beautiful morning to fly

But I don’t sleep well the night in Miami either, passingly emotional, and tossing and turning worried, among other things, about finding a power converter for my mobile, and the schedule for the day to come. 

In the morning I get up early (easily done, as I am still on my work schedule and barely slept anyway). Overnight I’ve learned that Google says the local Home Depot is 15 minutes’ walk from the hotel, and that the local Home Depot says they have travel converters in stock.  

I get about a half block into the mission, however, when I realize Google’s route means walking in a freeway (with no sidewalks, of course). I return to the hotel, to inquire about a taxi; the shuttle driver offers to take me there and back for a few dollars while he’s between routes. I get the last one in the store. 

I get back to the hotel with plenty of time to enjoy the morning; to have coffee and yogurt, to pace each floor in search of my step goal, to pack up, check out, stow my bags with the bell captain, and – for want of ways to pass the hours before my flight more than actual interest- to take the bus service to Dolphin Mall. 

I have a delicious palomilla with rice and plantains (one of my favorite Cuban dishes) at the food court, walk the circular route of this massive shopping center, browse lightly, get my steps for the day and basically bore myself to tears at the mall. 

When I can stand it no longer, I catch the return bus back to the hotel, have dinner, and get my bags to head to the airport. 

Basically I am just filling time as best I can, because my flight departs Miami shortly after 3am, for the first leg of the trip, to Colombia. Of course there is no sleeping at the airport, and I regret to report that there isn’t any en route, either. 

But…. I’m on my way. 

Here comes the sun (final hours in Puerto Rico)

It’s just a partial day remaining, and since there isn’t sufficient time to catch a puddle jumper over to Vieques, I opt to just drive and explore for the morning.  

Bright, sunny and beautiful

Driving is a bit more challenging since I can’t really read the signs. But I enjoy it anyway, and there’s no rush because my flight is leisurely hours away. 

It’s a lovely day, but too short. 

Well worth a return visit

Old San Juan (or, When It Rains, It Pours)

The plan for my only full day here includes a walking tour of Old San Juan. I’m up early, knowing I will fight rush hour into the city on my way and not sure where I’ll find parking. As it turns out, there’s a paid lot just 2 blocks from the meeting point. I have time for a macchiato and a small pastry. 

Puerto Rican coffee is so strong that it needs the doctoring. But it’s good.  

Flavors of San Juan puts on a good tour, including an exploration of rum (and piña colada to start the day right). We sample a variety of local cuisines as we walk through the city. It rains in and off (and a magic jacket with bug spray makes me some new friends) as we cross cross the city. Afterward, I trek back to the far side to El Morro….

While the sky just absolutely opens over me. 

Soaked to the skin and resembling a drowned rat, I nevertheless get a photo before trekking back again. 

A rain soaked fortress