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March 31, 2010

Photos From Peru

Here are some photos from Peru.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

House Overlooking Cusco

Dog In Cusco

Narrow Street In Cusco

City In Clouds, Cusco

Woman Vender In Cusco

Llama Outside Of Cusco

At 5000 Meters, Outside Arequipa

Near Canyons Outside Arequipa

At "Deepest Canyon In World"

Vender At Canyons Outside Arequipa

Fruit Venders In Small Village Near Arequipa

Rickshaw Near Arequipa

Plaza de Armas, Lima

Hillside In Lima

Parade In Streets Of Lima

Kid In Parade, Lima

Tower In Lima

Terrifying Mannequin

Public Transport, Lima

Until next time, be safe.


March 13, 2010

Back In The US Of A

We've been back about a week now, which has turned out to be quite nice. It's interesting the types of things that you take for granted when you go without them, or at least have them in limits amounts. Take for example washing machines, or showers with a decent pressure and water temperature greater than icy, or beds that are not only warm and comfortable but insect free and sheets that have been washed since the last occupant. Better than that, though, is the reception that we have received. After a tiring but uneventful trip from Lima to Charlotte, NC, Jess's parents met us at the airport, and from that point on, we've enjoyed sharing our experience with pretty much everyone we've met. Strangely enough, for the few days after our return, we spent so much time getting everything squared away (phones, finances, car insurance) that we sort of put our trip out of our minds. Getting out photos so that we could view them on our computer and then showing folks some of the nearly 5000 photos that we took has changed that; suddenly we are faced with the scope the trip, looking back at photos from the beginning of the trip in Portugal and Morocco all the way through the end of the trip in South America.

Getting situated has been a bit startling. Our job situation isn't as ideal as I would have preferred; one of the reasons we decided to take the trip was to hopefully get us through the drought of travel nursing positions that make finding positions difficult. We've come back to a job reality where available positions aren't much more plentiful than they were six months ago. We've had our applications submitted for positions in Washington state, Washington, D.C., Arkansas, Arizona, and Texas, with few hits so far. Given the limited numbers of positions, as well as the competition, I can't imagine that having an eight-month gap in our employment record is doing us any favors. I'm keeping the faith, though, I am sure we'll be gainfully employed soon enough.

We've had some good time to sit back and consider the last six months. Living a certain lifestyle over a period of six months, in particular a lifestyle that is completely different than one's normal lifestyle in every way, definitely will have an impact on the way a person views the world around them, and we've thought a lot about how this trip has impacted us, perhaps even changed us. It wasn't just an escape from reality, it wasn't simply just a vacation or an adventure, and we didn't just travel because it is something that we love. It had some of all of these ingredients in the mix, but also it was an opportunity to expand the way that we view the world. We had the opportunity to see how people live their lives in twenty different cultures (as well as the subcultures), from the some of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations to some of the world's poorest and most desperate folks. We had that opportunity, and we jumped on it.

An idea that slowly developed over the course of the six months was how fortunate that we are. Obviously, we are fortunate in the sense that we left employment behind and hit the road, tramping our way across the globe, enjoying fulfilling every whim that we had. We had that sense of fortune before we left, we knew that we were lucky and we found that very exciting. That idea grew throughout the trip, in particular as we began to work our way though South East Asia, where abject poverty became more and more common, where our few belongings on our backs became glaring examples of the material wealth that we as Americans possess. It continued to grow as we crossed the Pacific into South America: first there was Patagonia, which is a big outdoor playground for the rich Europeans and American tourist to enjoy, while many Chlieans and Argetineans will never visit such beautiful parts of their countries. We then had a very clarifying experience in Puerto Iguazu, sitting in a hostel, in the kind of encounter that one must wonder if you can ever have at home.

We found ourselves sharing a six bed bunk room with a fellow from Poland. Sometimes you hit it off with folks you meet in the bunks, other times you never speak a word. He seemed a bit quiet, so it was looking to be the latter sort of relationship. Then he introduced himself, and turned out to be a Polish guy named Cezari, who had worked in Ireland for some time before meeting a Brazilian girl he ended up marrying and following to Brazil, where he ran a hostel. This ended up being a defining introduction, for soon I was telling him that although we'd passed through Poland and really enjoyed it, we hadn't met that many Polish people in the duration of our travels. From there we entered a very long conversation, that to give the gist of it, basically concluded with the idea that we are privileged as Americans. In fact, most (western) European countries as well as countries like Australia and New Zealand are privileged. He managed to make this point without causing me to become defensive because he explained it in terms of the Polish nation, a country that while it is not as wealthy as the neighboring Germany, it is still quite a bit better off than somewhere like Cambodia. Yet, even in a country that has well-developed infrastructure, decent leadership, and a strong culture, the material wealth of its inhabitants isn't enough that they would be able to quit their jobs and head off on a six month trip. In fact, many people in Poland cannot afford many of the things that middle class Americans take for granted: home ownership, their own vehicles, etc.

This set us to thinking about our lifestyle and circumstances. True, we were living out of a bag, carrying the only belongings that we needed on our backs, eating as cheaply as possible and living as rough of a lifestyle as our standards would permit. The difference between our living circumstances (including the current circumstances of living on the road) and the circumstances of someone such as Cezari's parents, who were living in an apartment building, just like they'd done all of their lives, was that we'd chosen to live our lifestyle. That was a vast change in our thinking. For most Americans who are at least middle class, you can choose whatever lifestyle you want, whether it be in some incredibly excessive digs with a pool house in the back to the most basic cabin in the woods--we know people in those circumstances and in all of the spectrum in between. The one thing that both lumps all of those people as the same as well as separates them from a huge part of the world is one thing: choice. They've chosen the lifestyle they want. I'm not making a judgment here, people including Americans have the right to choose their lifestyle, and what's more, they don't need to apologize for their lifestyle (well, maybe when you have a pool house as well as a stand-alone garage with an apartment upstairs and both of which are nicer than most American's homes...). What I suddenly began to understand is that no matter how simple I was to make my life, no matter if I were to choose that cabin in the woods, no matter if I were choose to drive a 1984 Pinto and only make purchases at Goodwill, there will always be a difference between myself and people living, say, in Warsaw or Phnom Penh or some one room shack in the middle of the desert outside of Lima: choice.

This isn't to say that I was becoming paralyzed with some guilt complex where I wanted to give away all of my belongings and move into an unpowered, one-room shack in the desert. What it did make me is much more appreciative of the opportunities that I have. As people frequently tend to do, I take a lot of things for granted, and this trip served to open my eyes a little to what I do have, just a little bit at least. I don't want to make this trip sound too revealing: there is a difference in passing a shantytown on a bus and actually walking into it, opening up the door to a shack, and moving in. I don't understand the lives that people in underdeveloped countries lead, I don't understand the hardships that they have, the suffering they endure, the lack of opportunities that cripple them in their efforts to better their lives. What this trip did reveal to me (to more of a degree than before) is that these things do exist, for an enormous number of people in the world. I think that once you understand this simple point, once you have seen its existence, you can never go back but by choice. Ahh, that word again. This time, though, having a choice isn't such a great thing. Suddenly, you have been exposed to something, and whether or not you choose to do something, even if it is a drop in the ocean of human suffering, is a choice that speaks volumes of your character. Suddenly choice has consequences. Needless to say, this was a pretty heavy consideration to be presented with. Unlike being in the insulated world of Western civilization, it's hard to ignore the rest of the world when you are walking through it. But, anyhow, I'm ranting now.

Standing at the figurative end of the road of this trip, we can definitely say that this was a really great trip, that we thoroughly enjoyed it. As we reflect on it, we have been trying to decide what it was that made it so much fun. Of course, the scenery was spectacular; our route took us through some really great parts of the world, scenery that was breathtaking and inspiring. From the little that we saw, it was proof that this world of ours has more variety and beauty than I could have ever imagined. It would be hard to beat the scenery we saw as far as a highlight on our trip, but I really believe the interactions that we had with travelers and other folks we met along the way was the best part of our trip. One might think that hanging out in a 14-bed bunk room that smelled like unwashed socks (or worse) wouldn't be much of a highlight, but we met very interesting and fun people nearly everywhere we went. We met people that inspired us in future plans, people who changed our conceptions of entire countries, people who made us laugh, who made experiences even better than they would have been. There were folks who made us mad, people who we couldn't stand, but these people were far less frequent than the people we would gladly invite into our homes, people we really hope will visit us in the States one day. Without these interactions, our travels would have just been a change of scenery for six months straight; meeting these people made it an experience.

Of course, the kinds of people that we met often were kindred spirits. By this, I mean that travelers tend to be addicts of sorts: we have been introduced to the idea of travel, and we are frequently addicted to it. Once you know the feeling of walking out into a city, a people, a culture completely different than anything you've seen before, once you've tasted a country's food in that country, once you’ve had those experiences, you've crossed into a different era of your life. At least in my experience, from that point on, you'll look back at that time before you've started traveling, and wonder how you got without it.

That is why I recommend that everyone at least give traveling a try. I want to make addicts of everyone.

Until next time, be safe.

March 05, 2010

Winding It Down

We are spending our last evening in Lima--in about four hours we will get into a taxi and head out to the airport, for our last flight of the trip, which is back to North Carolina. Our six month trip has come to its end. While I have more to say about our trip, as well as plenty of photos I want to post, let me describe our adventure in Peru (i.e. this isn´t the last entry).

We have had a great time in Peru. Reading the Lonely Planet guide, which has a longer than usual Dangers And Annoyances section for Peru, as well as embassy website, we certainly had our reservations about Peru. We thought that it might be a bit on the less secure side. Yet, we have had no issues in Peru, and have found Peruvians to be considerably more affluent as well as more courteous and friendly than Bolivians. Beyond that, the bus system and roads here have been eons ahead of Bolivia; our night bus from Ariquipa in the south to Lima (which in particular was warned about in the LP) had more security measures than most flights we have gotten onto. For example, they were pretty thorough about searching every passenger, they had GPS monitoring on the bus for the trip, and a security officer came through the bus prior to departure taking every passenger´s photo, which I´m sure is a deterent to those considering a midnight hijacking.

After leaving Puno as early as possible after a single night´s stay (it turns out that our cheap hospedaje became a per-hour hospedaje after midnight, as Jess found out with loud neighbors), we headed up to Cusco, which was nearly ten hours away by bus. Both the trip to Cusco and then back out through the same valley on our way to Ariquipa were very scenic as we crossed over a high mountain pass then dropped in a verdantly green valley filled with adobe villages and farmland. We ended up staying in Cusco for three nights; we found a great hostel where we met several very nice European folks and enjoyed several days´ good company. Cusco itself is a pretty fun city; like La Paz, it is built into a valley, though not as dramatically as La Paz. Its center is very colonial and beautiful, and the hills leading up from the center are lined with narrow little passageways that seem to be straight out of history. Naturally, most people come to Cusco to visit Machu Pichu, but landslides have closed the famous park until probably April; we could have visited other less famous ruins, but we were too cheap to pay for the tours, especially considering they required an additional $25 entrance fee each. We´ve seen enough ruins anyhow on this trip; as my friend Will would describe castle ruins, they ain´t nothing but piles of rocks. Besides, there are enough ruins scattered around Cusco proper that you get the idea, and seeing those piles of rocks are free.

At any rate, we could have definitely spent more time in Cusco, it is the kind of chill town that weeks slip by in before people realize it. It is very easy to do absolutely nothing in Cusco, especially in the afternoons when the clouds gather, and as rain starts to fall, and there are plenty of cafes and coffee shops to relax in. For us, we did a fair amount of walking and exploring, but definitely we could have done more. We spent a fair amount of time with our friends, just enjoying a fun city and good conversations over food and drink. Alas, we had to continue on, so we bought tickets to the town of Ariqipa, which is Peru´s second largest city yet seems more like an overgrown town. The big attraction of Ariquipa is that it is a couple of hours away from two very deep canyons that are billed as being the deepest and the second deepest in the world. One of our days we spent walking around Ariqipa, which is a beautiful city; the other day we took a single day tour out to one of the canyons. After all, it´s not everyday that you are just outside the world´s deepest canyon, and besides, I was curious about the comparison it would have to the Grand Canyon. The tour itself was nice, we stopped in a couple of villages for photos and food, and of course we headed out to the canyon. Actually, honestly, with no bias, I can say that while we did come to a section of the canyon that was very deep, the scenery as a whole wasn´t as impressive as the Grand Canyon. At that park, you can stand on the lip of the canyon all along its length, and you can look straight down 1000 or more feet; that is not to mention the vibrant colors of the Grand Canyon. This Peruvian canyon didn´t have the vibrant colors, though its green walls were beautiful; most places were not that deep, only sections that passed through higher mountains. It was beautiful territory; the valleys were filled with little villages and hills covered in terraces that likely dated back to Incan times. We really did enjoy the tour.

From Ariquipa, we continued on to Lima, in the forementioned night bus. We´ve had quite a good time here. We spent our first two nights in a hostel, which was a very nice hostel considering we paid $5 each per night. Last night, though, we decided that we needed to finish our trip in something a little more luxurious than a 10-bed dorm room, so we found a decently priced hotel (these are surprisingly expensive in Lima), which I´d thought was a 3-star hotel from what I saw online, but was surprised to see was a 4-star hotel. Indeed, it was quite nice, in particular its restaurant, where we rang up quite a bill to celebrate our last night of the trip. But back to our explorations of Lima: our first full day, we explored the Miraflores area of Lima, which is definitely the more affluent area. Prices there were much more expensive, and the area itself felt a lot like any European country or America. There were Starbucks and KFC abounding, very nice cars drove around, and the beachside cliffs had ritzy condos along sidewalks with running paths, complete with ladies in fancy tights jogging. Though we felt a little out of place, being that we are a bit grungy these days, we still enjoyed walking around the area. For lunch we found a little restaurant where we tried the classic Peruvian dish, cerviche, which is raw fish marinated in lime juice; it was wonderful.

Our explorations of central Lima have been a little more of the edgy experience that we definitely prefer. Lima is a massive city (it has over 8.2 million people living in it), and even though our hotel is definitely in the center, it is still a long way from the Plaza de Armas, which in Peru and Bolivia is every city´s center. In Lima, this is the nexus of not only the touristy colonial buildings but apparently a good number of government buildings. We wanted to get into the center, but it was quite a hike, so we instead jumped onto one of the micros (minibuses), which was quite an adventure. First, it´s never really clear where their destination is (they follow circuits) because they don´t seem to have any labeling; also, even if our Spanish was better than it is, we still didn´t know exactly how to describe where we wanted to go, so we just offered money and told them norte (north). Our first trip into the center didn´t go as planned when the micro took a left midway and headed away from the center, but after that trip we understood the system enough to get back to the hotel last evening as well as head back into the center this morning. As I´ve mentioned before, taking the public transport is all part of the immersion process and important for getting a feeling for a city.

Exploring Lima has been quite fun, from taking a tour of the creepy catacombs beneath one of Lima´s oldest cathedrals to strolling through this city´s numerous, well-kept plazas and parks. I even taught a young Peruvian a cuss word in English when I muttered it as our bus made an unexpected stop and bounced my head off the seat in front of me; he repeated it very well. Jess and I understand that this is a huge city with plenty of poor folks; we saw the shantytowns on our way into the city, unpowered shacks out in the bland desert that surrounds this city, whole areas of what they call young cities here, where the quality of life is surely much less than what we´ve seen inside Lima. We have understood that with such poverty in the outskirts, opportunistic crime is an issue. On the other hand, we haven´t felt like Lima deserves a worse reputation than a city such as Phnom Penh in Cambodia, for example. There is an edge here, yes, but that is what we like.

At any rate, we are sad to be bidding this city farewell this evening, for it is the last destination of our trip; therefore we are bidding farewell to our adventure as well. But there are many things from home that we have missed and are looking forward to returning to: our families, our dog, having a routine again, washing machines. We were discussing it this afternoon strolling around in Lima: it´s sad to have our trip come to an end, but there is something about the anticipation of both an upcoming trip as well as the return home that is great. Once you´ve been out for six months, for example, that anticipation fades, and being somewhere great like South America becomes familiar, the background of your life. That is when you know it´s time to head elsewhere, to another country, to your own backyard. That anticipation is quite a great thing.

Until next time, be safe.

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