Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conclusion of South America Adventures

Wow. After three months of crazy adventure through the heart of the Andes mountains, Matt and I have made it back to the good old USA.  But first, a summary of our final adventure, which was climbing the Misti Volcano in Arequipa, Peru.  This started with me developing a horrible case of food poisoning on the ten hour bus ride from Cusco.  Things weren't feeling much better as we set up base camp at 13,000 feet.  As the temperature dropped that night, I had a fever so bad I was almost knocking the tent poles loose from shivering.  At 1 am we got up to prepare for our summit attempt.  There were clouds just above us, but we could see the lights from the city spread out directly below us in the valley.  After some bread with jam, a lot of coca tea, and an ibuprofen for the fever, I was as ready as I was going to be.  Our group of five started climbing the steep volcano wall through the dark.  After climbing through the cloud bank, we were treated to a ghostly sunrise, followed by more clouds.  The climbing got monotonous, only the once an hour water stops to break up our constant trudging.  Strangely enough, as we got higher, my symptoms pretty much disappeared.  By the top I was feeling great and arrived in a white-out to the highest point on the volcano rim.  I sat down next to a huge cross planted at the top, covered in snow and ice.  Whoever decided to haul that thing all the way up there must have been crazy as far as I can tell. Because of the wind, snow, low temperatures, and zero visibility, there wasn't a whole lot of reason to hang out up there, so after the other's arrived, we took a picture or two and started the descent.  This was far more fun than the ascent, as we were able to slide down through the volcanic ash.  What took nearly six hours to climb from the tents took less than an hour of sliding to descend.

After this, we returned to Lima to await our flight home several days later.  This turned out to be quite an anticlimactic way to end our trip, as there really isn't much to do in Lima besides drinking or shopping, both of which were out of my budget range.  One day we did go to see the old historic downtown.  Matt and I were pretty sick of colonial buildings by that point, so it didn't take long to become bored of that and we went in search of a cheap lunch.  We followed our usual formula of walking out of the center until mugging or kidnapping seems imminent, then turning around one block to look for the cheapest chicken and rice lunch menu available. It didn't take long before we found ourselves in the unsavory Lima that no normal sight-seeing gringo would ever visit.  Having walked past the military station, armed with assault rifles and tanks, we soon found ourselves confronted by two very concerned taxi drivers who were shouting "dangerous, dangerous!" to us and waving for us to turn around.  Figuring that they knew best, we went back one block and bought lunch.

With our last adventures behind us, we spent our final two days apathetically waiting for the plane to take us home.  Finally it was time, and we miraculously made our 30 minute connection in Houston, even after having to clear customs with a passport full of South American stamps and no real purpose for my travels to speak of.  After landing in Boston, Matt's parents arrived bearing Christmas cookies, hugs, and news from home.  A couple last minute phone calls, and I was in a airport shuttle to go visit my old junior team director Toby, and Matt was on his way home.  After visiting my friend Paul in Connecticut, I found myself on one last bus, taking me to Burlington, Vermont.  And just like that, the South American Odyssey was over.

Sitting in a warm living room, enjoying things such as peanut butter sandwiches, warm showers that don't involve all the risks of bare electric wires next to water, and other comforts that I haven't had in months, I can finally reflect a bit on my past twelve weeks.  Unfortunately, I can't speak to any huge philosophical enlightenment, or a discovery of a new life purpose.  I can say that I got to see more places, try new activities, meet new people, and experience more adventure in three months than I could have thought possible otherwise.  I'd like to think that I even helped some people along the way. I have gained an incredible amount of respect for the people living in these countries, and an appreciation for the natural beauty that they call their home.  I am grateful for the comforts of home, but I have not lost the desire to wander down paths less traveled and to experience the world as someone ready to accept change or adventure at a moment's notice.  I know that the opportunities such as these don't always come often, but I intend to try my best to be ready when those opportunities come knocking again.

As far as what's next for me, I will be going back to the University of Vermont to focus on my studies for the time being.  Even that was up in the air until a day or two ago, since I was gone for all of the class registration and rooming assignment times and deadlines.  Big thanks to my brother for impersonating me in my absence to get me into some classes!  Regarding cycling, which has been a major part of my life for the past seven seasons, I think I will be taking a step back from the world of professional racing for now.  While I am extremely grateful for all the opportunities and experiences it gave me, and the memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life, I want to take this chance to explore some of the many other options that are available to me as I begin to look towards my adult life.  At the moment, my future is a completely blank slate, and I have no idea what to expect.  This can be a frightening situation to be in, but one thing that I've learned over the past three months is how awesome that can be as well.  Thanks to everyone who has helped me and followed me in my racing through the years. 

Check back here soon for some more photos from the trip (when I get the chance to look through all of them)!

"The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”  -John Krakauer, Into the Wild

Above the clouds at sunrise
Base Camp
Volcanic ash and a steep drop

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Machu Pichu and South American Football

Well, I´ve seen plenty of postcards, posters, and school print outs of Machu Pichu, but seeing it in person was a whole new level of jaw dropping.  After 8 hours crammed into a minivan through mountain gravel roads, a two hour walk to the valley town and a 4:30 am wake up to walk up the mountain, Matt and I were among the first into the ruins.  At first, there wasn´t much to see, until the sun rose and the clouds began to burn off, revealing the massive stone city, a testament to pre-european power and ingenuity.  The stones, some of them thousands of pounds, had been fitted to each other in perfect jig-saw puzzle style, still standing 500 years after their creation.  Temples, palaces, homes, and terraced farm fields stood just as they must have when the last Inca king decided to destroy the roads leading to it to protect it from the Spanish, hiding it from the world until 1911.

After our guided tour, Matt and I wandered through the ruins and also out towards the Sun Gate and the Inca bridge across the mountain side.  We were suprised to learn that the Inca runners carried  messages from Cusco to Machu Pichu in 7 hours, faster than our mini-van ride.

We would only learn just how much longer that distance could be the next day, when our guide took us off of the arranged van back to Cusco and put us instead into a taxi.  This taxi dumped us off in a fork in the road known as Santa Maria, still 5 hours from Cusco.  When it became clear that our guide had duped us and pocketed the cash, we were forced to wait in the rain on the side of the road for 7 hours for the one and only bus going to Cusco, which arrived at 4am.  At the advice of some locals, we asked the travel agency we had booked the Machu Pichu tour through for a refund.  Several hours of arguing yielded $30 and an admonishment that ¨this is South America¨.  Lesson learned, we have succesfully avoided guided tours for pretty much our entire trip aside from the two times it was pretty much required (Machu Pichu and the Amazon).

Happily, the next day we got to experience the uncontrolled chaos that is a Latin American football match.  We went to see the Peru final with the owner and some employees of the hostal.  After standing in a gargantuan line outside the stadium for about half an hour, word spread that the stadium had over sold tickets by about twice the actual number of seats.  Everybody in the line charged the gate, and chaos broke loose.  Fortunately, our friend from the hostal yelled to us to follow him, and took off running through the crowd to a back entrance, where he had a brief conversation with some police officers who rushed me through the door and into the stadium.  I still have no idea what happened, other than that our friend said that ¨he plays some football and knows some policia¨.

Things didn´t calm down any inside the stadium, where the away fans created a constant ruckus and were surrounded by riot police.  Firemen kept watch from around the stadium, and referees had to be protected under police shields after some unpopular yellow cards.  The hostal owner joined in by managing to hit the opposing goalie with a well aimed remnant of his lunch, and the game was a fiercely contested battle that ended 1-0 for the away team (Lima).  While no riots did break out, I was quite pleased with my first South American football match.

After that, Matt and I reluctantly made the decision to take another 10 hour bus ride south to Arequipa, Peru´s second biggest city, in order to get the most out of our remaining week.  Predictably, I developed a horrible case of food poisoning part way through the bus ride, which I am still fighting.  Hopefully it abates soon, as we have arranged for a guide to help us make a summit attempt on the 5,750 meter tall Misty Volcano tomorrow.  Ugh.

Regardless, we´re in the home stretch now, and though I´ve had a blast the past three months, I won´t mind going back to some home cooked (and safe) food and clean clothes.  (the frequency with which I have machine washed my two tshirts and pairs of pants washing has dropped to a level that I am too ashamed of to admit).  Hopefully this last week will finish off the adventure with a (metaphorically speaking) bang.  Anyway, thanks for reading!

Riot police keeping the home and away fans away from each other at the Peru soccer final

Enjoying a South American soccer match

Clouds clearing off the ruins

There it is!

Some very busy llamas

Enjoying a sunrise over the ruins of Machu Pichu

The Inca king´s "throne".  His was the only house with this essential bit of indoor plumbing

Famous Inca sun dial in Machu Pichu

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ecuador To Peru

Well, it´s been a while since my last post, and so much has happened that I don´t know quite where to  start, but I´ll try my best to give a quick synopsis.  After visiting Quito, and then  the volcano town of Quilatoa, Matt and I went to Banos, where  we rented some five dollar bikes that we used to spend the day motorpacing off of tour busses on our way to a series of waterfalls.  We then booked a two day tour into the Amazon.  The first day was a nightmare of a crowded tour bus where we were herded around to various tourist points at local villages.  Fortunately, everyone went home after the first day, and the second day was just Matt, an awesome (albeit crazy) guy  from Spain, and our guide.  He decided to screw the planned tour itineray and just spend the day hanging out with his friends at the Indi Churis tribe.  After a day spent in a blow dart shooting competition and rope swinging into the river, we were invited to a tribal party that night, where we danced like complete fools and drank way too much of the horrible fermented yucca and corn drink called ¨Chincha¨.

After that, we continued travelling south to an organic farm that we had heard about from some other travellers.  We worked there for a week, which included helping to slaughter a bull, waiting and bartending at a local wedding, helping to build an mini hydroelectric plant, and usual farm chores of taking care of the animals.  We also got to know the locals of the tiny town of Tumianuma, where Matt helped to repair a community center building and I helped take a paralyzed girl to the city to see a doctor.

After this much needed break from the constant travelling of the previous two months, we crossed into Peru and arrived at a relaxed beach town near the city of Trujio.  After trying my hand at surfing for a day, Matt and I visited the pre Inca ruins of the Temple of the Sun and Moon.  These massive pyramids were built up over about five hundred years starting in 100 AD, and every one hundred years, the old temple was covered up with an entirely new, and bigger, one, creating a huge pyramid.  Then, mysteriously, they were abandoned in 600 AD.

After this, we returned to the high mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, near Huaraz.  There we spent a week trekking through awe inspiring backdrops of glacier capped mountains and incredibly thin air.  Despite being in the midst of the rainy season, we lucked out and had a great week camping in the mountains.  We were also treated to a sighting of the Andean Condor, a massive bird with a wingspan of about 8 feet.  After our return to civilization, we did our best to replicate Thanksgiving dinner despite being forbidden to use the oven by our extremely strict hostel owner.  With only frying pans and a swiss army knife to work with, we pulled off a respectable Thanksgiving dinner, mostly thanks to frantic skype calls to our mothers. (Thanks Mom!)

After the weather in Huaraz took a turn for the worse, we continued south to the 9 million strong Peruvian capital, Lima.  Rather than take the 24 hour bus ride over death roads, Matt found some cheap flights from Lima to Cuzco.  Just before boarding, Matt googled our budget airline, and discovered it had just come back from a forced grounding due to safety concerns.  Oops.  After surviving this dubious flight, we arrived in Cusco, once the capital of the massive Inca empire.  From there, we managed to find our way out to Machu Pichu, an amazing but incredibly trying ordeal, that took three days to pull off and involved returning at 4 am last night.  More pictures and descriptions of that to follow!
Now I´m off to the stadium in a couple minutes to watch Lima battle Cusco in the Peru Soccer championships.  Then, Matt and I will have one week of adventuring left, before heading back to the real world.  I´m certainly ready to go home, mostly thanks to the ordeal that is South American public transportation (think nauseating, death defying rides over mountain passes crammed in between chickens and snoring locals, that end up dropping you off only half way to your destination).  But I know that as soon as this is over, I will miss all the adventures and experiences. I just have to make sure to enjoy this last week to the maximum.
Thanks for reading and I´ll do my best to get another update up before heading home.  As always, check Matt´s blog for more and better photos!


Bar tending at the wedding

Ecuador waterfalls

About to take the plunge

Sunset through the clouds on a night bus to Banos, Ecuador

Apparently the Peruvian north coast looks like Baghdad

Bridge to the trail that leads to the farm

Just avoided this flash flood

Not a bad view from the farm

The closest town to the farm was a one road affair where the locals spend their afternoons playing cards at the store or working on the new community center (to the right of the church).  This picture was taken during morning rush hour 

Matt and I rented $5 bikes and spent the day motorpacing off of tour busses to the waterfalls

We gave Thanksgiving dinner our best shot, despite being limited to a stove top and a swiss army knife.  Pan fried turkey aside, it was a huge success!

The Pacific coast in Peru, where I took some surfing lessons

Backpacking around 5000 meters meant enough snow to make my first snow man of the year!

Reed boats used by fishermen in Peru

2,000 year old ruins of Chan Chan

Campsite showers.  Cold!!!

2,000 year old Temple of the Sun

Big mountains while trekking through Northern Peru

After getting to the trail head, Matt and I managed to hitch a ride into town on the top of a dump truck.  We had lunch with the friendly driver and his son

The Peruvian hairless dog lives in the desert regions of Peru.  In addition to being possibly the ugliest dog on earth, it´s extremely high body temperature makes it a favorite pet of arthritic patients, who use it as a hot water bottle to soothe aching joints.  I know, sounds rediculous to me too, but I wasn´t going to argue with arthritic locals over the point.

Guineau pig, or ¨Cuy¨, is a favorite in the area.

Pre-Colombian ruins, where human sacrifices were routinely carried out

Matt gets friendly with a llama on the trail

Inca street in Cusco

The Inca cross

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Into Ecuador

After taking a brief respite from life on the road, Matt and I bid farewell to Colombia's coffee region and approached what we were warned was one of the most dangerous borders on the planet.  After many police checkpoints and luggage searches, rerouting of the bus route due to a possible car bomb, and the usual incredibly confusing bus terminal changes, we arrived exhausted but safe in Ecuador.  The first stop was Odovallo, a high mountain indiginious town that hosts the largest market in the continent every Saturday.  A morning spent honing my bartering skills in the midst of countless food, artisan crafts, and livestock sales, and I soon had filled my backpack completely.  No more markets for me!

From there, we spent a day in Quito, before escaping the sprawling chaos of the capitol city for the more remote mountain town of Latatunga.  Surrounded by active and inactive volcanoes, we got a few days of great trekking in.  Next, we´re planning on checking out the thermal springs in Banos and possibly volunteering on a farm for a few days before heading to Peru.

It´s hard to believe the trip is already half over.  Time certainly flies, except for during this morning´s endless and over crowded bus ride which found me paying a terrible price for the folly of ingesting some questionable food items for breakfast.  I have been quite cavalier about eating just about everything up to this point, so I guess I deserved it.  Lessons learned: south american busses require an empty stomach and little to no regard for personal safety or space.

Colonial architecture is a trademark of Colombian towns
Picking up some steak for dinner
What looks funnier than a gringo walking around latin America in blue jeans, t shirt, and flip flops? A gringo walking around in blue jeans and native Ecuadorian clothing, of course.
All sorts of fruit and vegetables on offer at the market
View of Quito´s Basilica from our hostel
Hiking around the rim of a 12,000 + foot tall extint volcano
Getting our Indiana Jones on with some river crossings
A market speciality, extremely fresh (and grinning) roasted pork, cut and served to order
Unbeknownst to me, Ecuadorian dogs can fly
Despite being originally turned away for arriving after hours, a friendly security guard let Matt and I in to see the Natural History museam of Popayan, giving us a high speed personalized tour
The Santuario Las Lojas, just before the Colombian Ecuador border.
A small llama farmer´s shelter inside the volcano crater

Sunday, October 21, 2012


After leaving Cartagena and the Caribbean coast behind, Matt and I have been making tracks south towards the Ecuador border.  After a stop in Medellin, where we took a tour of the famous drug wars of the 80s and 90s led by the Cocaine King, Pablo Escobar, we are now in the center of the Colombian coffee region.
Stairs climbing out of Salento


New Friends!

Medellin building car-bombed by the Cali Cartel during the cocaine wars of Pablo Escobar

Magazine article about recent violence in Villa de Leyva.  That was the first town we visited after Bogota

Ever wonder what ripe coffee beans look like?

Don Elias showing us the coffee making process on his farm

And a fresh cup of coffee at the plantation!

Soccer practice getting started between the old Spanish fortress and the Caribbean in Cartagena
Graffiti in a poor neighborhood of Medellin
^Tribute to the community victims of the conflict^