Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Wonderfully Small World of Travel (and How Everything Relates)

The vast preponderance of my traveling, to places near and far, has been solo.

This has been by active choice only in the sense that I've never let the lack of a traveling companion impair my passion for exploring the world.

And while I would be happy to travel with someone of similar interests, outlook and temperament--and have done so on occasion--I'm likely more comfortable on my own than having to make compromises I wouldn't much like.

When traveling--and even in general--being alone doesn't usually make me feel acutely lonely. 

Certainly, on this trip, I've been able to communicate with those I typically do, via Facebook, texting, What'sApp and these blog posts.

And while knowing virtually no Spanish has lessened my ability to talk to fellow travelers and local Peruvians, I've chatted with some Americans and other English speakers I've encountered, including tour guides at Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, both of whom were terrific.

I returned to Machu Picchu again this morning hoping to catch the sunrise, but despite waking at 4:45am and getting out a half-hour later, the line for the first buses was far longer than I anticipated and I didn't reach Machu until almost 7am.

Though I did catch part of daybreak, I didn't see the sun rise or knowingly strike certain sections that it's said to specifically on June 21.

Without a guide, I just wandered to wherever I felt comfortable, though jagged stairs made coming down more daunting than wheezing my way up.

But the sights themselves were again astonishing and if it didn't provide much beyond yesterday--despite having already bought a ticket I considered not ascending again today--well, it was a twice in a lifetime experience.

I didn't cut short any quality time at MP, but after 2 hours I caught the 9am bus down intending to find somewhere to watch Peru play in the World Cup against France at 10am.

After unsuccessfully trying a couple restaurants that either didn't have a TV or weren't yet serving food, I wound up at La Boulangerie de Paris, a French patisserie in Aguas Calientes I had read about and was intending to visit anyway.

A gregarious man I presume to be the proprietor was wearing a double-sided Peru and France soccer jersey. He didn't speak English--I have assume he's a French expat--but warmly welcomed me and everyone else who dropped by.

Though some Peruvian boosters were also on hand, it was kind of cool to be watching Peru play France in likely one of the few places in the country where many were rooting against the home team. (France won.)

After doing some souvenir shopping on the hike uphill to the Taypikala Boutique Hotel--I like everything about it but the location--I watched Croatia beat Argentina, then took a nap.

On the plaza right next to my hotel I had noticed a little restaurant advertising that it had a pool table and whose decor included a Bob Marley poster.

I was the only patron of El Generalle--which doesn't seem to be listed even on Google let alone any tour books--but as it was run seemingly by just a single woman, I enjoyed the quaint ambience.

The woman's adorable daughter--neither spoke any English but I learned the girl was 5 and named Bala or something akin--brought me my menu, and came around to sweetly pester me throughout my meal.

Noticing my iPhone--I was using Google Translate as best I could--she had me take a selfie of us, and seemed to want to toy around with the phone, as kids often do. She kept talking to me in Spanish but I had no clue what she was saying.

I felt bad that I had no games on my phone to let Bala play, so I pulled up a Bugs Bunny cartoon on YouTube, which seem to mesmerize her. She even asked for another one, I think, and I obliged.

It was a nice moment, along with some Lomo Saltado--a traditional Peruvian meat dish--and some dessert.

Given that my Facebook news feed is filled with friends and media decrying Trump's inhumane border policy separating kids from their parents, I couldn't help think this is probably happening to precious children who look somewhat like Bala.

In various ways, today was another wonderful day--as much for the patisserie owner, Bala and her mom as for Machu Picchu--and while I feel quite fortunate, it made the heartbreaking news back home all the more so.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Magnificent Machu Picchu

To call something "the greatest thing you've ever seen" seems to imply just one absolute singular sight.

So even in keeping such acclimation to the same idiom--i.e. not a Springsteen concert or Hamilton or the Cubs winning the World Series--you should only get one choice.

Fooey, I say.

Just within the vernacular of sights seen in traveling around the world, I've seen many astonishing things including the Pyramids of Giza, the Treasury at Petra, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, Bryce Canyon and myriad more.

So is Machu Picchu the greatest thing I've ever seen?

Today, just hours removed from seeing it, yes it is. It was ever bit as breathtaking as I could've imagined.

If you can see the pictures I shared on Facebook, take a look. They're worth every word I will write here, and many more.

As for a paramount proclamation across time, place and different sorts of "sights," even within a travel realm, who knows, who cares?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Spectacular Scenery in Ollantaytambo Well-Worth a Spell

I've ventured to too many places around the world before going to Peru to be able to fairly call doing so a "lifelong dream."

But for the past decade or so, seeing Machu Picchu has been on my travel shortlist and my bucket list. And barring any train wrecks or other misfortunes, I should do so tomorrow afternoon.

I'm certain there are any number of other amazing sights and beguiling places in Peru, but in being able to budget a weeklong excursion, I planned on taking the typical route. 

Without being fit or hardy enough to consider hiking the Inca Trail, this meant flying into Lima, then flying to Cusco and taking a train to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu, with a 20-minute bus ride to the plateau at a ticketed time.

So my initial itinerary/routing did not include Ollantaytambo, a small town between Cusco and Aguas Calientes.

Although I hadn't read much about the historically Incan city with a fun name, my not intending to stop there was due far less to conscious aversion than an express desire to reach Machu Picchu, expressly. 

But in reading about issues some travelers have with altitude sickness, rather than start the trek with 2 days in Lima, 1 in the mountainous Cusco and then onto MP, I decided to give myself a second day at high altitude before reaching Machu Picchu.

This prompted me to read more about Ollantaytambo's impressive Incan ruins--and note that it has a train station en route to Machu Picchu--and decide to instead begin with 1 day in Lima, a flight to Cusco and rather than a second day there, a taxi or Uber to Ollantaytambo.

Given U.S. norms and costs regarding transportation via a personal driver, it may seem odd to take a cab or Uber for a 2 hour ride. (Ollantaytambo is 26 miles from Cusco, but via roads twisting through mountain terrain.)

Although I had booked an Uber, the driver asked if I could pay him "off-book" given commissions he'd be responsible for paying. This seemed odd, but we agreed on a price of 60 soles, approx. $18.

The ride featured some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen, with not only mountains but snow-capped mountains.

The driver did a nice job with terrain that would've scared me to death--it reminded me of beautiful yet treacherous mountain passes I used to drive near Los Angeles--and in getting me as close to the Intitambo Hotel as Ollantaytambo's narrow streets would allow, I happily gave him an extra $10.

The main thing to do in Ollantaytambo is climbing the ruins of an Incan fortress--to the Temple of the Sun--embedded in the side of a mountain.

This entails 200 steep and jagged stairs. Being old and fat--and not wanting to kill myself, literally or figuratively before Machu Picchu tomorrow--I was a bit wary about attempting this.

But I'm rather intrepid for the sake of good photographs and then figure I give it a go and get as far as I comfortably could.

An enterprising tour guide named Fernando wisely pounced on the old fat American guy there by himself, and while this essentially doubled my cost, I was actually quite glad I took him up (or more so he took me up, and then down, allowing me to pace myself and likely saving my life a dozen or so times).

I can't say I learned that much, but having survived not too worse for wear, it was a rather amazing experience.

Then, hanging out on Ollantaytambo's main plaza, having a croissant at the Choco Museo, wandering ancient streets back to my hotel and getting dinner nearby made for a really wonderful day.

Ollantaytambo is in the heart of what the Incans called the Sacred Valley, and the astonishing mountain scenery--and old ruins--make it rather majestic.

Even though I haven't been much rather by the altitude, I'm glad I got to see Ollantaytambo on my way to Machu Picchu.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Enchanted by Cusco

One of my favorite things about travel is the way it makes the whole world seem smaller.

I've found that visiting places around the globe clearly reveals that for all our wonderful cultural differences, we are quite similar in many of our essences. 

From Dallas to Delhi, Paris to, well, Peru, I haven't noted anything all that shockingly unique in terms of people, parents, children, food, art, gift shops and whatever else.

And I love how being in one place can trigger a recollection of an entirely different place, often on a quite personal level.

In walking around Cusco today--really only from the main square, Plaza de Armas, where my hotel is located, to Qorikancha, a mostly destroyed Incan temple on which a church and convent were built--I was reminded of being in Kraków.

Yes, the city in Poland.

I loved my visit to Krakow in 2013 and it's been on my mind lately because a friend will soon be going there. 

But between Cusco likewise having a vibrant main square--in which there were massive celebrations today for reasons I'm honestly too tired to research--a delightfully walkable center and colorful gelato displays, my mind made an ethereal connection, if only for a moment.

Technically I didn't do all that much in Cusco.

My flight from Lima and the taxi from the airport got to my hotel around noon. I took a bunch of photos of the festivities in the Plaza de Armas, took a catnap, did some strolling, had empanadas and gelato in a nicely non-descript shop, spent a couple hours at Qorikancha--it was quite impressive--and dinner at a friend-recommended place called Inkazuela.

I had one of their specialties, Alpaca Stew, which was a bit odd coming shortly after seeing and being photographed with an adorable alpaca.

Though it's not even 9:00pm, I think it's time to call it a night.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Hola Lima

I'm sure this isn't quite true, but it seems that no leisure traveler who ventures to Peru primarily dreams of seeing Lima nor likely winds up finding it the favorite part of their trip.

In this way, the massive city feels akin to Dublin, Rome, Madrid and Delhi, capital cities rich in history and tourist attractions, but a bit too large and cosmopolitan to seem truly exotic or as beguiling as other locales within their countries.

Still, although Lima dates to 1535--as it was founded after Peru became a Spanish colony--and therefore isn't quite as old as many other cities in its country or Europe, Asia, etc., for those of us from the United States, any chance to see stately edifices from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is pretty cool.

Somewhat similarly, seeing ornate churches probably isn't as spiritual or emotional an experience for me as it likely is for others--I'm Jewish, largely agnostic and dubious of grandiloquent cathedrals amid considerable squalor, past and present--but simply in terms of beauty, I saw some splendid ones today. (Interesting, I'm reading Dan Brown's Origin novel, which so far includes repudiation of organized religion as a major theme.)

Lima's primary Cathedral sits on the Plaza de Armas--the city's grand main square--along with the Presidential Palace and other stately buildings.

I went there this morning, as part of a City Tour of Lima, booked through and run by Viajes Pacifico. The host was friendly and informative, and this proved a fine introductory excursion.

We also saw (but didn't tour) Huaca Pucllana, an adobe and clay pyramid within Lima dating to the first few centuries AD (long before the current city was established) and spent a little time in the Museo de Arte de Lima.

Also in the Centro area near the Plaza de Armas--where a large TV showing the World Cup reminded of a different kind of Peruvian religion--the Convent of Santa Domingo was really beautiful (so much so that I nearly lost the group taking pictures).

Not on the tour but a reason for me to remain in Centro was the Monastery of San Francisco, with a magnificent church and a guided tour including the catacombs, full of once buried skulls and bones.

After a return to my Ibis Larco hotel in the Miraflores part of Lima and a little nap, I've walked 2 blocks to Larcomar, a shopping mall embedded in a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It's pretty cool, and has a nifty art exhibit featuring a Liman artist named Fito Espinosa.

I have dinner reservations at La Rosa Nautica, a noted restaurant sitting on a pier that juts out into the ocean. The seafood is said to nearly equal the view.

Will head there in a few and likely not recap again tonight. Tomorrow I fly to Cusco, first step in closing in on Machu Picchu.

I'll be back in Lima at week's end, and while I feel I've seen the main sights, I'll be staying in a different hotel that should provide a new perspective if nothing else.

Plus I have reservations at two of the top-rated restaurants in South America.

Based on my one day in Lima, I would say that in terms of sightseeing, photographic splendor and overall vibe, it isn't the equal of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, the Latin metropolises I've been to before.

But much as I truly enjoyed my time in the gateway cities mentioned at top, I've been delighted to get to know Lima a bit.


On the Plaza de Armas, a college student asked if she could interview me about travel. The talk proved a fun reminder of how many amazing places I've been fortunate to visit. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Bangalore: Not Quite Sights Galore but Enjoyable Nonetheless

My reasons for being in Bangalore right now have almost nothing to do with specific sightseeing attractions I wanted to explore.

As I discussed in some detail a couple posts ago, I have a couple friends who live in the southern India city of 8.5 million people, who I met when we lived in Los Angeles in 1990.

Both Yashu and Harish grew up elsewhere in India and have friends & family in various Indian locales, but whatever their variety of rationales for settling in Bangalore, it seems like a good choice from my much more limited purview.

Evidenced by the 2-hour traffic jam we were caught in this afternoon, the vast metropolis can be quite congested and chaotic. And as elsewhere in India, dogs, cows and other animals roam the streets freely.

But compared to Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Agra, Bangalore feels considerably more modern, organized and clean. (Even the more homespun shopping strips are fully paved here, unlike the prevalent mud and dirt elsewhere.)

Known as the Silicon Valley of India, the country's third largest city has grown by more than 500% since 1971, with population doubling just within the 21st century.

So while there are several new high rise complexes--such as the one in which Yashu and Harish reside--some of the surrounding infrastructure lags. (We tried to order from Pizza Hut last night but they wouldn't deliver to here.)

And while there is considerable history to be explored and attractive temples throughout the city, from a sightseeing and photographic perspective, Bengalore (aka Bengaluru) lags behind the other cities I visited.

This isn't a complaint, as sightseeing here wasn't my reason for tacking 5 days onto my trip, and seeing--and just hanging out with--my friends has been wonderful.

I've also been beset with a minor ear infection, something of a cold and some muscle soreness, so I'm happy to take it a bit easier.

And it's not like I haven't seen some amazing sights.

Thursday Yashu and I went to the vast ISKCON (Hari Krishna) temple, yesterday was a private driver tour to Mysore and today another driver took Yashu, Harish and me around Bangalore.

At some sites I was happy just to snap a few photos--such as of the Vidhana Soudha government building--but we toured the Bangalore Palace, Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace, strolled the Lalbagh botanic garden and quickly visited a few temples.

So my camera--and legs--still got a decent workout. Pix are up on Facebook for those who have access.

No big plans for tomorrow, my last in Bangalore...and India.

But especially if it helps me rest up and feel better before a 3-hour flight followed by a nearly 15-hour one, I think that will suit me quite fine.

Sometimes on vacation one needn't run around all the time, snapping the shutter like a madman.

Heck, some actually champion the idea of rest and relaxation.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Mysore: My Sore Ear, My Sore Caves, but My What Beauty

I traditionally exert myself more on vacation than I do at home.

And I rarely make it through a trip without at least some soreness and weariness, if not outright illness.

But though I can readily identify with a tourmate earlier on this trip referring to India as a country that will "chew you up and spit you out," I have largely felt pretty good throughout the past fortnight.

Sure, there were times my stomach begged me not to overtax my tolerance for Indian curry, days when I was glad I packed Immodium and some moments of travel fatigue or even exhaustion, but--knock on wood--I haven't been truly sick or injured or inconvenienced.

In flying to Bangalore from Mumbai I developed what I perceived as an infection in my right ear. Fortunately my primary care physician had prescribed a travel dosage of "just in case of whatever" antibiotics and though his team fumbled the online communication process while he too is away, a friend with a doctor in the family was able to corroborate my sense that 5 days of Levoflaxocin should remedy the ear pain. (It seems to be, though not completely.)

I felt good enough to carry through with my Friday plan to have a private driver recommended by Yashu take me from Bangalore to Mysore (traditionally: Mysuru) and take me around to various sights.

Though it was a 3-hour drive departing at 7:00am, and I was glad not to have eaten a heavy breakfast, the ride with Rakash went smoothly (though he, like everyone in India, honks way too much for my tolerance).

But almost as soon as I got out of the car at the Tipu Sultan's Summer Palace--about 15km from Mysore--I started to feel sharp pain in both my calves.

I'm writing this nearly 9 hours later on the ride back to Bangalore so I think it's just muscle stiffness/soreness and not blood clots. 

And--in part because Rakash doesn't speak English well enough to discuss possible alternatives--I pushed through the full day of sightseeing, albeit with a bit of a grimace.

Rakash seems like a fine man and good driver, but not gregarious or fluent enough in my only language to make for much of an enjoyably conversant or enlightening drive.

But I'll happily settle for not being stranded anywhere.

And the sights--most notably the Mysore Palace, where an on-site guide proved rather amiable and informative--were phenomenal.

The Palace is the most popular tourist attraction in India, more so than the Taj Mahal.

It was about the 12th site on this trip where custom required me to walk around barefoot or in socks--perhaps not ideal for health concerns--but hell, you only live once.

I also entered the Chamundi Temple, way up in the hills, saw some Indian art in the Jaganmohan Palace, went to a large Catholic church (St. Philomena's) and enjoyed visiting a sand sculpture museum.

I had a good lunch of crispy fried lamb, got some sweets at a notable shop in Mysore and photographed & strolled--gingerly--the Lalitha Mahal Palace, which is now a posh hotel.

So it's been a bit of a struggle but worthwhile nonetheless. Truth is, I'll do almost anything for good photographs.

As I write this as Rakash approaches Bangalore, I'm glad to have some Springsteen to blot out all the honking (earbuds perhaps aren't ideal, but I can only try to solve one problem at a time).

And I can't wait to get back to Yashu's place to apply some Aspercreme to my aching calves.

Perhaps I'll take it a bit easier tomorrow.

Or not.