Friday, March 16, 2007

South American Adventures- Part 4: Machu Picchu and Titicaca

Hola de La Paz, Bolivia!

Immediately after sending out the last update I took several public pickup trucks to a very very remote town called Palestina, to live with a man named Joel Puac who had approached me a week earlier at Las Cristalinas and kindly invited me to live in his home for as long as I liked in exchange for some English lessons. It was a big risk to go solo into the mountains of Gautemala with just the man's name and his town (he doesnt have an address... he just lives at the end of one of the dirt roads) but it turned out to be one of the best travel experiences I've ever had.

I could write about my three days in Palestina for hours, but I'll make an attempt at brevity. After boarding a truck to Palestina several people directed me down a dirt road where I found Joel tending to his chickens. He showed me around his small property (two multi-purpose rooms, chicken stalls, three dogs, a cow, some space for growing coffee and corn). His wife and kids were in another town for the night so he introduced me to his father, a man who lived next door and only spoke in whispered "ahhs" or sighs that could express any emotion. He proudly wiped the dust off his 40 year old framed picture of the NYC skyline, and the three of us talked for several hours about life, religion, family, youth, and American vs. Guatemalan culture. Pretty soon Joel pulled out his massive portable cassette recorder, a Spanish-English dictionary and two books. He said "these are how I study my English everynight" and my eyes almost bugged out of my head...

The first book was the Bible, which I completely expected and respected. The second was a pamphlet, sponsored by Phillip Morris USA with two fakely smiling Latinos on the cover, called (I swear this is true), "Raising Kids Who Don't Smoke"!!! I thought it was too absurd to be true (like the kid I saw earlier that week in Guatemala wearing an orange shirt that said "White Plains Basketball"), but apparently life has a lot of humor to it. He asked me to read as much as I liked into the recorder, which he would then listen to via headphones everynight to improve his English... The American Dream man, the American Dream. Over the next three days we visited the indigenous town of Santa Clara, I read the first 50 proverbs from Salomon and the entire pamphlet into the recorder (2 hours worth), his wife taught me how to make corn tortillas and educated me on raising chickens, I spoke with several of his neighbors who told me a non-Guatemalan had never stayed in their village before, we walked to an amazing lookout over Lake Atitlan, and generally enjoyed mutually eye-opening conversation. Before leaving I exchanged gifts with his son Elgar, and thanked them for the incredible experience.

After a night in Santa Cruz la Laguna and another in Guatemala City before a 7am flight, I flew to El Salvador for a 5 hour layover and arrived in Lima, Peru at 7pm that night. From there, things got damn tasty... About a week earlier I had tried using a site called (where people offer travelers a free nights stay at their homes) and was led to a 26 year-old Peruvian named Henry Laureano. After some email and IM banter, he ended up deciding to pick me up from that airport, give me a brief tour of Lima that night, take me to this amazing Peruvian hole-in-the-wall hamburger joint, provide a bed at his parents' home and they drove me back to the airport at 3:30am for my 6am flight to Cusco! Henry had a real penchant for using the English word "deleeseous" when describing burgers, so I believe one sentence went something like, "McDonalds is very deleeseous like Burger King which is huge deleeseous, oh and Wendys is so so deleeseous, but I think this place is muy muy deleeseous, more deleeseous than the others because it tastes so natural deleeseous." Clearly he is the absolute man and the generosity that the entire Laureano family displayed towards me was truly unforgettable.

Upon arriving in Cusco I checked into a hostel and immediately jumped on a tour of the ruins around the spectacular city. Cusco, aka the Navel ofthe World, was the center of the Incan empire when it stood at its height before the New World took over... I went to 5 different sites, the highlights of which were the Sun Temple Qolcancha and the incredible, get this, say it aloud, Saqsaywaman ruins. Yup. Awesome. After the tour I had a fantastic 4-course meal for 95 cents with a lovely 30 year old Argentinian girl I'd met on the tour who I am hoping will host Scott and I when we venture to her hometome of Buenos Aires in a month. Always great to meet good people on the road. The next two days consisted of hours spent drinking in the city by the gulps- Cruising around the San Blas barrio, bargaining for a gorgeous piece of abstract art, witnessing a wedding at La Merced Inglesia, taking in a great cultural dance show, going out until 5am on the Plaza de Armas where every bar gives you a free drink upon enterring, learning salsa from Peruvians in an unmarked 3rd floor locals club, shopping in markets while speaking with vendors about their lives for hours, and then taking a late-night train to Aguas Calientes so I could see Machu Picchu at sunrise.

The train seated 4-people per section facing one another, and of course I got seated with a Danish family of Jehova's witnesses. The kindly 70 year-old father was politely engaging when telling me that I had to read the Bible in its entirety and recognize my path to G-d. I decided to forgo mentioning the heresy of my Hebrew tattoo, but I came very close after his wife fell asleep and he spent the next hour incessantly picking his nose and overtly scratching his balls... we were directly facing each other with less than 3 inches separating our legs, and yet this guy was pulling off the lift, scratch and tuck every 5 mins! I just started laughing out loud after one particularly vigorous ball tug, to which he closed his eyes, tilted his head back and smiled through closed eyes of pure content. Ohhh the glories of man...

To put it simply, Machu Picchu is my favorite site I have ever visited... better than the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Western Wall, Vatican, the Louvre, or Christian Sorensen's left trapezius muscle. I woke up extremely early to make sure I was one of the first to enter the site at 6am, and the result was breathtaking. Misty chilled rains exuded an eerie feeling of ancient mystique. Tired clouds exhaled along the mountain sides, eventually enveloping the few silent spectators in the serene air. After several hours just staring awe-struck from a distant terrance, I explored the ruins from up close for about an hour before scaling the large mountain behind the site called Waynapicchu. The challenging 45 minute hike ended with a spectacular view from the fortressed ruins above... Again as one of the first few at the top, I spoke with a humble Peruvian groundskeeper for about an hour before descending to a slightly lower terrace, where I spent 3 hours just staring through echoed eyes, listening to music, writing in my journal and meditating. Eventually the sun shone through around 11am and motivated by the warm heat I ascended to the beautiful peak of the mountain before hiking back down, exploring the ruins further, and finally leaving around 1:30pm... 7.5 hours after enterring Machu Picchu's entrance gate. Chills from head to toe.

The natural high I felt upon returning to Aguas Calientes seeped through every cell in my body, and fed me in my return to Cuzco, immediate overnight 8 hour bus to Puno and then the 7am bus over the Bolivian border to Copucabana. From there I ventured via a \n1.5 hour boat ride to Isla Del Sol on Lake Titacaca with two great 28 yaer-old travelmates, Connie from Ireland and Joe from Australia. Lake Titicaca is the highest lake in the world at about 4000m, and La Paz in the highest capital city in the world as well... Anyway we checked into a gorgeous hostel for $2 each and hiked up the island to have some of the famed fresh trout. The result was Scott Braun (equation: Scott Braun=Amazing). After a delicious meal overlooking the gorgeous lake, surrounding Bolivian hills, the nearby Isla del Luna, and the Andes Mountains in the distant horizon, we hiked to some Incan ruins and took 360 degree panoramic pictures of what I can only describe as a draw-dropping sunset. We then returned to get another trout and mate (tea) meal in a candlelit restaurant because the island had no elecricity. Magic. Pure magic in that place. Upon leaving the restaurant we were greeted with the most brightly visible Milky Way I've ever seen and a congested sky of welcoming stars... I saw my first satellite (like a small star but moving.. sooo cool) and after the dodgy 30-minute walk back in the dark we went up to the hostel roof to take pics while sharing glorious conversation and local cookies.

The next morning we returned to Copacabana and took a stunning drive through the Bolivian mountains to reach La Paz, where we relaxed at an Irish travelers pub and I had my first-ever helpings of both lasanga and hot whiskey (great for relieiving congestion)... La Paz is a wild capital city, built literally into the mountains but a full city nonetheless... For now I'll be in Bolivia for 10-12 days before returning to Peru to travel the southern coast... Life on the road has truly never been better.

The greatest lesson I've learned in the past two weeks has been to take chances; trust in the inherent goodness of others. As a traveler you are often told not to trust anyone. Keep your eye on your bag and your hand on your waistpack that should be tucked as close to your goods as possible. Well, the recent exposure to people like Joel, Henry, Joe and Connie have taught me that great people do exist in every corner of the globe, but their light can only shine when you remove your personal blockades of inherent fear. Perhaps it's naivete on my behalf but this trip has certainly had its few downs and many ups so far, and the greatest highs have only been reached through the trusting interactions and guidance of others. I have no guidebook with me, just the kind words of advice that I receive from fellow travelers and locals. I urge anyone who has read this far to take a chance next time you hesitate to trust a friend or a stanger. Put your faith in the inherent goodness of others, and the positive vibrations you spread will likely be reciprocated exponentially... and if that doesn't work, try :-)

Challenge the assumptions,

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 44
Showers with Heat- 5
Beard Status- Semi-Wolverining
Song of Choice- "To Let" by Xavier Rudd. Didj, guitar, throbbing drums and a spicy time had by all.
Book Selection- Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre... Hysterical first-person narration with biting wit.
Quote of Note- "Knowledge can only take us to the end of the diving board. It's faith that gives us the courage to jump." -Elizabeth Lesser
Random Person- Richie Sambora

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