Monday, April 11, 2011

Navigating la Navidad (Part 2)

Next stop: Nazca.
Yes, the infamous, enigmatic Nazca lines. Ok, so here`s a little history for those who are interested. Basically, spread across an arid 500km rock-strewn plain, lies over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and over 70 animal designs. But as to how they got there or why is one of the world`s greatest archeological mysteries! It`s pretty difficult to see the lines from ground level, but viewed from above you can see how they form a network of enormous figures and channels. They are HUGE! Many of the lines run for several kilometers across the desert. To me, the animals are most intriguing. There`s all types: a monkey, hummingbird, spider, frog, lizard, and many more. There`s even this little figure that looks like an astronaut man! Maybe Elton John was involved in creating these lines???

While the lines have been counted and identified, they remain myseterious and have many theories behind their construction. A popular theory is that they were an astronomical calender, another is that they were used for agricultural purposes, some think the lines were used to worship the gods, others think that they were important walkways, linking important sites together. People have come from all over to try to reason the lines and with them have come some pretty wild theories. One that tickles my fancy is that scientists suppose the Nazca people knew how to construct hot air balloons, and that they would go on "joy rides" and observe the lines from the air! Haha! The other theory I enjoy, that I want to discuss with my Aunt Ann, is the one that the lines were constructed as alien landing sites!

Victoria believes that the lines marked mummies and treasures buried beneathe them. An intriguing theory!! I think we just found the plot for Dan Brown`s next novel! Anyways, we passed on doing the flight over the lines because we had heard horror stories of plane crashes, hijackings, and major motion sickness. Instead we opted for the cheaper version which consists of climbing a three story observation tower. Pretty dinky but it gave us a good few of a few designs. Nothing spectacular but definitely interesting (and kind of frustrating that they don`t have any concrete answers).

After poking around Nazca a little more, we caught the 10 hour bus to Arequipa where we were to reconvene with the `rents for Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, when we met up, Mom wasn`t feeling too well (Peru can be pretty harsh on the digestive system) but it was a happy reuninon nonetheless! Christmas was very relaxing. We went down to the main plaza and we watched some traditional parades and dances and enjoyed the pigeons in the park. We also snacked on some Panèton (Peruvian fruitcake)! It`s funny because in the US, fruitcake is such a joke, but they go NUTS for it down here! It`s EVERYWHERE and you can`t escape its wrath!

The day after Christmas, we toured the Monasterio de Santa Cantalini. I was kind of churched out by this point, but this place BLEW my MIND! Back in the day, the monatery held a whole society of nuns. But this was no Sound of Music, this place was absolutely atrocious. I have to say I was kind of horrified the entire time (I think I was taking the whole thing a little more personally because back in the 1500s, it was obligatory for the second daughter to become a nun). Basically, if I had lived in Arequipa at this time, I would have been ripped away from my family at the ripe age of 12 and sentenced to a life of praying and solitude. I wouldn`t have been allowed any communication with the outside world for 4 years. After my 4 years of being a "novice" was over, I would be allowed to talk to my family through a dark screen that didn`t allow a clear view or any physical contact. Say goodbye to hugs and kisses. I wouldn`t be allowed to talk to anyone besides the preist, except for two hours out of the day. My daily schedule would consist of praying or listening to sermons. Many of the nuns fasted often and had to pay penance to their dear lord (penance meaning beating their chests with rocks or wearing vests of barbed wire under their clothes). The girls really had no escape because if they refused to be a nun, they were cast out, shunned, and sentenced themselves and their whole families to eternal damnation. Yeah, pretty disturbing. Today, a group of nuns live secluded in the monastery, but now the rules aren`t as strict and they get to choose that lifestyle. Not like I would have anyways, but after that tour there is NO way I would ever go into nunnery.

To contrast the sanctitude of the monastery, we went to a Peruvian bullfight afterwards. Now don`t be alarmed, Peruvian bullfights aren`t as bloodthirsty as the ones in Spain. In Peru, it involves putting two bulls against each other (supposedly for the favors of a female cow) until one of the bulls realizes he`s beaten and runs away before any real damage is done. It was an interesting cultural experience, but definitely not my sport of choice. It honestly seemed like the equivalent to an American baseball game because it was fairly slow going and was more of a social event and an excuse to eat junk food and drink lots of beer.

After watching cows all afternoon, we realized we were craving some major steak! We went to a fancy steakhouse called ZigZags and got ourselves some nice juicy meat! We even tried alpaca and austrich. It was all delicious and was the perfect end to a good day.

We toured around Arequipa some more. Poked our heads in some churches and even saw "Juanita, the Ice Princess". Juanita is a mummy they found in the Andean mountains that gave anthropologists heaps of information on the Incan culture because she had been perfectly preserved in ice for all these years.

Overloaded with info, we decided to get some air in our lungs and some movement in our muscles and we headed out to the Colca Canyon. The Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the US`s Grand Canyon at an impressive 4,160m. It is the world`s second deepest canyon and only loses to its neighbor canyon by a few meters. We signed up for a trek that would take us down to the bottom of the canyon and back out in two days. The landscapes were spectacular and reminded me of a weird combination of Middle Earth and the landscape from King Kong. We hiked all day to the bottom of the canyon and stayed in this random, but beautiful, oasis at the bottom. We were all feeling a little sore from all the pounding of the down hills and I was very impressed with my mother who climbed down like it was nothing. I think I felt older than she did! I hope I can do that when I`m her age! The next morning, we woke up early and climbed a few thousand meters to get out. You know, just a few thou. It was quite the feat and we all felt proud when we reached the top! Colca: check. Next stop: Kilimanjaro :)

The high of conquering the canyon was soon followed by the bitter taste of having to say goodbye to Mom and Dad. They unfortunately had lives and jobs they had to get back to and had to leave Victoria and I as a duo once more. We said a somewhat tearful goodbye, and as they caught a plane to the US, we caught a bus to Puno.

Puno as a town, isn`t all that interesting to me (no offense Puñens!) but the real attraction is Lake Titticaca. I mean the name itself is a total crack up, how could you go wrong?? It is supposedly the lake at the highest altitude in the world. Also, according to Ican mythology, it is where the world was created when their god emerged from the Lake. Well phew! I was able to make at least one pilgrammage before I die.

Lake Titticaca held one of the weirdest lifestyles I have EVER witnessed. The people who live there, live across the lake on FLOATING islands. We joined the masses of tourists (which weirded me out a little) on a boat tour and saw how the people there weave grasses and reeds together to create these super thick floating islands. Who the heck would ever thing to live on a bunch of reeds in the middle of the lake?? Well, as a defensive mechanism from preIncan days, these people escaped to their own little private islands. This must be where all those crazies in Dubai got the idea! It`s a pretty funny lifestyle. If they need to get to another "neighborhood," or the "bathroom," they have to go by paddle boat, or pull it over by rope. Most of the islands are anchored down though, as to not float off to Bolivia. The people there have been majorly influenced by loads eager tourists (the positives and negatives of tourism can be argued here) but at least many of the islands stay secluded, away from the direct tourist path.

Our boat tour also took us to an actual land island where we got to experience the community of Taquile. This was another interesting culture because here, they live in a style of communism. The people here live off the land, pretty simply, but are actually able to function in the communistic system without any corruption. They only have three concrete rules: Don`t be lazy, don`t lie, and don`t steal. Seems pretty reasonable no? They also have some other intresting traditions. For example, a couple must be together for at least three years before marriage. And then, when the couple wants to wed, the town decides whether the couple is suitable for each other. Divorce is also strictly prohibited, and divorceès are forced to leave the island. Survivor status! I enjoyed seeing the people there and how much culture they had. We saw some really beautiful traditional song and dances. The people also all wear traditional clothing and the color of their hats have very specific meanings (single, married, or even job descriptions). Everyone in Taquile seemed pretty content with life and I admired the superb simplicity of it all.

We headed back to the mainland to celebrate New Year`s Eve. Victoria and I were just by ourselves but we went out to this restaurant and got to experience the whole shebang. It was a whole fancy meal combined with a show. They seem to have a lot more traditions in Peru than we do in the states for this day. First of all, everyone and everything is decked out in yellow because it is the color of good luck. They also have all these different acts you can perform if you`re wishing for things for the new year (aka. run around the block with a suitcase if you want to travel or take a bath with rose petals at 12 if you want love). Vicki and I didn`t have the chance to do either but we ate 12 grapes for 12 wishes and were then blessed with cocoa leaves. At 12 everyone toasted and got up and starting dancing. We continued to dance the night away-- a good way to start of the new year :)

2011 is going to be awesome!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Navigating la Navidad (Part one)

Well hello there!
It`s been awhile. I guess I am officially the worst blog-keeper ever considering it`s been over three months now.... but here I am, once again, apologizing profusely, and hoping you will forgive me and read my following posts summarizing the past few months. I know the faithyou had will probably never be able to be restored, but here it goes if you`re interested....

Sooo... after departing from the jungle of Puerto Maldonado, we were dumped back into the jungle of civilaztion-- the capital of Peru: Lima. In a city with a population of approximately 9 mil, we were waaaay over our heads. I literally had my nose squased up against the foggy cab window the whole hour drive from the airport to our hotel. The jumble of billboards, restaurants, high rises, cars, roads, and the sheer amount of people was quite a contrast from the vegetation and the animals of the jungle. Lima was completely awesome though. Between the culture, the company, and the spectacular ocean cliffs, we couldn`t go wrong.  We absorbed quite a bit about Peruvian culture in Lima because we jammed in as many churches, museums and archeological sites as we possibly could! We saw history museums, art museums, and a museum that had pots documenting everything from their lives (including a whole gallery of erotic and penis pots haha!). It`s really fascinating being in a country that has so much history and culture. They have hundreds of typical dances, songs, foods, festivals, and traditions that go back hundreds of years. I have to admit, I`m a little jealous of the unity that this brings to the country.

The greatness of Lima was amplified by the company we were with. We got to meet up with multiple friends from Taricaya (Yannick, Sheyla, and James randomly), Rodrigo Laguna and some of his family, Chelan Pauly (who is in Lima on Rotary exchange), and even my parents!! I know all teenagers think at one point that they just want to break free and never come home... but.... after boarding the plane to Peru, I definitely haven`t had such dramatic views. Oh was I ever so happy to see my parents again! I guess I wasn`t as rebelious and vegabond-y as I thought I would be because I had definitely been missing them! I was also very grateful to have my family around for the holidays.

Unfortunately, after Lima, we had to split off from my parents for a few days. They were going to go through Cusco and do the whole Machu Picchu deal while they could ( I hear it`s a can`t miss) but Vicki and I were going to be in Cusco later so it didn`t make sense for us to visit MP so early. So while my parents made their way clockwise over to Cusco and Puno, Victoria and I went counterclockwise and headed down the south coast.

Travelling down the south coast, we spent many, bumpy, uncomfortable hours in a bus. Though, I don`t regret these rides in any way. The drives were spectacular (and somewhat terrifying as we flew around corners where the road was inches from an edge of a cliff) and driving it all gave us a much better view of Peru`s landscapes. From the metropolis of Lima, the land fades into an arid desert covered in slums that sprawls for miles. The poverty level was incredible here and I still have no idea how these people can survive in the middle of these sand dunes without arable land or a close-by water source. They live in tiny little cement cubes that are just big enough to lie down in. Life is pretty dismal here-- a reality that many tourists don`t see. It`s hard to truly understand their pain without having lived it. Malnutrition, disease, dehydration, alcoholism, sexism, and uneducation are unfortunately all issues they deal with everyday. They fight so hard just to survive.

On a more positive note, it was interesting to see how diverse Peru is for such a small country. Within a few hours of driving, we saw the flourishing city of Lima, the slums, a barren desert, jagged coastlines with cliffs that dropped straight into the ocean, beautiful beaches, and then even fields, vineyards and random oasises.

After passing through Pisco, a town that is still dealing with the devestation of a large earthquake from 2007, we ended up in Paracas. Paracas is a dinky little town that consists of a plaza and then extends outwards for about three blocks with restuarants and hostels and tourist agencies. What gives this quaint town its appeal is that it is situated right on the beach. The sand literally overflows on to some of the streets. It was very casual and laid back and everyone was walking around in sandals or barefoot and enjoying the warm ocean air. After dumping our stuff off in the cheapest hostel we could find (less than 5 US dollars a night), we shedded our sweatshirts for suits and beelined it for the sandy playa. AHHH! Now this was a vacation!

The next day, we joined a boat tour out to the Islas Ballestas. I was instantly satisfied because as soon as we took off, our boat was surrounded by breaching dolphins. Though I`m not as obssessed with dolphins as I used to be (I no longer have my dolphin comforter, sheets, towel set, wallpaper, or collector`s items), they still make me sooo happy and giddy! They must be my spirit animal. Anyways, after a short ride, the tour took us out to the rock formations (the Islas Ballestas), or better known as, "the poor man`s Galapagos." And Oh man! It definitely lived up to it`s name. Every INCH of these giant rocks were covered in either some type of bird or seal. I`ve never seen so many birds in my life! Nor had I ever seen a penguin before!! Not only were the rocks covered with creatures, but so was the sky! I was thankful that I had not seen the movie The Birds, otherwise I think I may have been a little horrified! Though I still had to be vigilint--it was kind of like a war zone there. I felt like I had a big target on my head and I was just waiting to be ambushed from any angle. After an elderly couple got a big white dump on their shoulder, I put my baseball cap on for protection. I ended up getting a little squirt on my arm, but I hear that it`s considered good luck, so I took the situation as the glass half full (and not with poo). So the islands were truly amazing. I have no idea how all those birds can possibly live in such close proximity. It was pretty cute to look up and see these giant pelicans waddling up next to seagulls, who are squaking at some commorants, who are huddled up to some other random type of bird! Somehow, they manage to live in a sort of chaotic peace, and together their calls harmonize into a loud, exuberant chorus, welcoming you to the islands.
*If you are a bird-watcher fanatic, I would put Paracas on the top of your to-see list.

From Paracas, we went inland toward Ica/Huacachina. We passed up the city of Ica and headed straight for Huacachina-- the oasis. Concealed by miles and miles of giant sand dunes, Huacachina looks like a paradise set from a Hollywood movie. It consists of a small lagoon (no bigger than a football field) that rises out of nowhere, sourrounded by palm trees, flowers, and cacti. The lagoon is also surrounded by a row of hotels and restaurants, but it is still very calm and the buildings don`t interrupt the beauty of the place. I actually kind of felt like I had landed somewhere in the Middle East-- Saudia Arabia maybe. Where was my burqa??

The sand dunes were Ah.Mazing. It`s more sand than you could ever possibly imagine. The dunes are no mole hills- they are LEGIT mountains that take over an hour to climb up. And once you get to the top of one, you can see how expansive the dunes are. They spread as far as you can see in every direction and don`t end until they hit the Pacific (miles away). I couldn`t help thinking of the book Dune. Desert planet. Arrakis. I found myself shuffling my feet as to not disturb the giant worms!!

Walking up a dune is no easy task. It`s a calf and butt burner for sure and with every step you take up, you slide backwards halfway. I decided that when I have my own house I`m going to toss out the eliptical and the treadmill to make room for my own personal sand dune. Not only are they good for exercise, the dunes are also a blast! We would jump and sprint down them and we even got to go on a sand buggy tour. Now a buggy tour sounds equivalent to a ride on a golf cart right? Well I have to say, I underestimated the power of the buggy. This tour was a full out rollercoaster ride! I was holding on for dear life as our driver would go raging  up a dune and, without any hesitation, send us flying down the at an incredible velocity. He was a really talented driver and as we were heading for a sand cliff at over 50km an hour, he would turn in the nick of time and go speeding off in the opposite direction. What a maniac! And what an awesome adrenaline rush!
(Warning: this tour is not for those with motion sickness, fear of heights, heart problems, or my mother).

The buggy tour was even better because it was coupled with sandboarding. After taking us up and over a bunch of dunes, we would arrive at a summit with an untouched slope. We were ready to "SHRED the NAR." No one in our group actually knew how to board, so we all went down penguin style (laying on the boards on our bellies)-- I guess I should call it sandsledding. But this was totally sufficient and these dunes were way steeper than any snow hill I`ve ever experience! The sand causes a little more friction than snow does, but we were FLYING!! I was sooo happy that even though I couldn`t go skiing or sledding this winter I could get my fix in with sandsledding! Woohoo!

We went up and over, and down and around TONS of dunes, stopping at slopes increasingly steeper for sledding. Then, right before the sun  was about to dip behind the soft sand, the driver took us to our last slope. No, this was not a slope, this was practically vertical. Double Black Diamond status. But it was balls to the wall and we went blazin raisin down that hill without out pausing or looking back! Let`s just say that was probably one of the best 2 hours of my life.

I will never forget that day. Not only because of the fond memories, but also because I think will continue to find sand ingrained in awkward places until the day I die....