Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Why oh why am I suddenly cleaning my apartment?
Monday, 27 September 2010
Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Good Lord, it doesn't take long for a holiday to feel like a dim and distant memory does it? I'm only 2 days through my second week at work after returning from Peru and already I'm back to being overworked, sleep deficient with my 11am latte ritual has been re-established after being usurped by chamomile tea last week during those halcyon days when I was still optimistic about retaining that well rested feeling for a few weeks longer. What a naive fool I was!!
I had my weekly meeting with my manager, Ryan, this morning and since I've been going on about it for long enough I decided it was about time I vocalized my potential interest in any opportunities that may arise in San Francisco over the next 12 months, which got him quite excited at the idea of my leading a department out there. Um...steady on...I'm after more of a work life balance and I'm sure that running a department wouldn't exactly fit into that ambition, but we'll see. Senior types seem to making it something of a priority to get the west coast practice up to scratch, and there's a job advertised to for the practice lead - I was trying to coax Miles into applying as he doesn't seem to be having a great time of it at the moment, but he's having none of it - so I think my request was well timed, however I made it clear that I am not interested in rushing into anything. It feels good to get the ball rolling, but I'll have to see how the land lies with whoever gets hired to run the west coast division since I'd likely end up reporting into that person if I moved out there and who knows, they might hire an arse. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.
Anyhow, back to more Peru chat. After the arse numbing 7 hour journey from Puno we arrived in Cusco just before 3pm and by 3.30pm we were checked into our hotel, the Cusco Plaza II, by which I was pleasantly surprised since I was ready for the worst after some of the negative reviews on TripAdvisor, but it seemed okay, basic but fine like most of the hotels we stayed in on our Peru trip and it was well located a short walk from the main square.
After strict instructions to be back in the hotel lobby by 6pm for the Inca Trail orientation with our trail guide, Efraim, we set out to explore the Cusco.
Cusco is an incredibly pretty city with a population of about 400,000. It also appears to over-index on women working in the manicure/pedicure/massage business, because you can't go anywhere without being solicited about your interest in such a service. It drives you mad after a while!!
We took a tour of the cathedral, which is well worth the S./25 admission, however they unfortunately have a very strict no photography policy, so sadly I don't have any photos to share.
The cathedral was completed in 1654 and, like much of Cusco the cathedral, was built on Inca foundations, or to be more precise, on the foundations of Kiswarkanchar, the Inca palace of Viracocha, who was king of Cusco about a century before the Conquistadors discovered the city.
The Incas worshiped many animals they considered to be sacred and went so far as to design some of their cities in the shape of some of these animals with Cusco apparently designed in the shape of a crouching puma signifying the city's importance as a center of worship. Ornamental lamp posts adorned with puma faces can be found around the main square.
You can see the original Inca bricks at the base of many of the buildings around Cusco.
We made it back to the hotel with 10 minutes to spare before our Inca Trail orientation. In total there would be 11 of us doing the trail together, Jamie, Sarah, Melissa and I, plus 7 members of the other multi-national group we came across when we visited Amantani.
The orientation started well with Efraim, our guide, letting us know that we'd take it easy. The fastest porter may well have completed the whole 46km in a mere 3hours 45minutes - 2004 porters race - but we would walk 12km on the first day, 12km on the second, 16km on day 3 and a mere 6km on day 4. "Piece of cake," said Efraim.
He reassured us that we would be taking frequent breaks and that the longest we would walk without coming across a bathroom would be 4hours. I didn't plan to eat much on the trail to minimize my need for bathroom breaks as much as possible.
I was feeling pretty good about the trail, my fears had abated as Efraim spoke. "I can do this," I thought, "it will be fine." Sure the bathrooms may well be 'nasty' on occasion, but I'd get through it, I'd be fine. That is, until he started talking about how on the 3rd day we'd descend 1000metres in altitude and that it wouldn't be easy. Phrases like 'ankle breakers' and 'knee killers' were casually tossed around to my horror.
What the hell was I doing?
Suddenly Melissa and I both felt really scared of the days ahead and it was with butterflies zooming around my stomach that I picked up my duffel for the trail - we were allowed to pack 6kilos only which the porters would carry, anything more would have to be carried by ourselves in our daypacks - and put my name down to hire a walking stick!!
Ashen faced our group headed out for dinner at Nuna Raymi restaurant before returning to the hotel to pack our duffels, weeding out unnecessary fleeces and toiletries so as to make the 6kilo weight for the next day in Ollantaytambo and the following 4 days on the trail. Eeeek!!!
Sunday, 19 September 2010
Mmmmm mmm mmm mmm mmmmmmmmm!!!
I just made the BEST Pisco Sour. I'm having the girls over for drinks on Friday and I've been trialing recipes this weekend. The first recipe I tried was awful calling for 4 parts Pisco to 1 part lemon juice, it was way too strong and I had to pour it out, wasting precious Pisco in the process, but the second attempt....divine!! I'm thinking of bringing back cocktail hour. Here's the recipe in case any of you want to try it at home.
For best results chill all the ingredients in advance:
4 tablespoons of Pisco
2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons of simple syrup - make this a day or so ahead and chill
1 egg white
Dash of bitters
Bartenders will probably cringe at the following instructions, but throw all the ingredients, except for the bitters, into a blender with 2 ice cubes and blend for 10seconds or so. Pour into a martini glass, add a dash of bitters and enjoy!!
I thought about making zabaglione with the leftover egg yolks, but I didn't trust myself to be large and in charge of a double boiler after two Pisco sours - yes two, I had to make 2 drinks just to make sure I really had got the recipe spot on!! I do have guests to consider on Friday ;-)
As for the Pisco I brought 2 bottles of the Demonio De Los Andes brand - as recommended by our tour leader, Ybone - back from Peru. They were about $10 US. The popular brand is Biondi, however it's twice the price and according to Ybone it's mainly purchased by tourists.
How much can I honestly say about a 7hour bus trip from Puno to Cusco beyond the fact that I needed a buttock transplant by the end of it? Don't get me wrong, Peruvian buses are pretty comfy - although don't tell the Peruvians, but Chilean buses are comfier - but 7 hours!!! Whew!!! Not fun, especially when I had to endure the movie "Dear John" for half of it.* What a pile of bollocks!!! Ugh!! If only I'd had a Pisco sour on that particular trip. It was nice to watch the change of scenery though as we left the Altiplano and the landscape became more deciduous as we approached Cusco.
*We had no choice they played it on all the TVs that were bolted in the aisles of the bus
Wednesday, 15 September 2010
Ugh I'm being eaten alive by midges/mosquitos at the moment. Usually I'm one of those lucky people whom the Manhattan mosquitos tend to ignore - clearly I am not fashionable enough - but as soon as I am bitten by a non-New York mozzie then the Manhattan ones suddenly find me palatable. I was bitten half a dozen times by Machu Picchu mozzies and since I've come back I've had half a dozen more bites from Manhattan mozzies. My poor hands are covered in these huge swollen mounds. It's not pretty. I'm not one of those disciplined people that can stop myself from scratching them; the itching drives me mad and it's woken me up early twice this week. As children we used to kill the itch by putting malt vinegar on the open bites. It hurts like a bugger, but it works. I've tried the old British antiseptic standby of TCP, but it's not quite working, so I was looking through my cupboards this morning to see if I had any vinegar lurking back there, but all I could find were 3 different bottled of Balsamic vinegar!! I'm such a yuppie, that is if yuppies even exist anymore. What a 90s throw back I am with my yuppie chat and Balsamic vinegar in my cupboard. Anyway I'm guessing Balsamic is not quite as effective as malt vinegar when it comes to midge bites, too sweet I'm thinking!! Knowing my luck I'll probably attract more of them.
After a delicious breakfast of pancakes, our Amantani mommy/sister, Madelana, walked us down to the docks to meet the rest of our group and catch the boat back to Puno via the Floating Uros Islands and we were all happy to see Dinh perched on the harbor wall looking healthy after his health scare the previous night. He told us that he felt much better, but was unsure of whether he would hike the Lares Trail as planned, a two day hike which peaks at a higher altitude than the Inca Trail at 4600m vs. 4200m for Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail.
There are over 40 Floating Uros Islands made of totora reeds which lie approximately 3 miles (5km) from Puno. According to our guide, Oswaldo, the Uros people originated from Bolivia and used to live on the shores of Lake Titicaca, but when the Incas began to advance on the region the Uros people hid among the reeds. The islands are anchored to the bottom of the lake with sticks which go through the reeds. "If the islands are not anchored they may wake up in Bolivia," joked Oswaldo.
An Uros gentleman demonstrating how layers of totora reeds are used to build the islands. The reeds compress after a while so every 35-40days a new layer is added to the surface of islands.
The island we visited, Isla Vinay Tortora, had 20 residents divided among 6 families. Overall the community has more than 1800 inhabitants across the 40+ islands. Not only do they use the totora reeds for building the islands they also use it for firewood and as a food source. Apparently it tastes similar to celery.
As well as the totora reeds the Uros residents also collect eggs from the reeds for food and hunt for ducks and fish on the lake.
Here's Oswaldo showing us a dried duck!!
The residents also go to the market in Puno on a weekly basis where they barter goods, such as the reeds which farmers buy for their pigs, sheep and cows to eat, in return for potatoes and what not.
Uros ladies demonstrating the barter process.
The Uros women also create tapestries that tell stories of their culture
Here's Sylvia showing me around her home.
Sylvia dressed me in traditional Uros dress the style and colours of which were indicative of my single, childless status. Sylvia and her friends were shocked that at 39 I wasn't married. I'm an old old maid by Uros standards. By New York standards too I suppose, but what can I say, I have more sense ;-)
Anyway there's no way I am posting a photo of myself in traditional dress, however here's a photo of Jacqui who was happy to pose, "I have no shame," she laughed.
Not only do the Uros people make their islands of totora reeds, they make boats out of them too. Apparently these reed boats absorb a lot of water and as a result they only last 7-8months. For S/.5 each we took a spin around the island on a reed boat.
We were back at our hotel in Puno by 1.25pm, just in time to take a quick shower before Melissa and I were picked up at 2.15pm for the optional tour to see the funerary towers, or chullpas, at Sillustani, a pre-Incan burial site just a short trip from Puno. The setting is magnificent, I highly recommend it if you have a chance to go.
On the way back to Puno we stopped at a local farm for a brief tour, where our guide - Hugo - told us about the agriculture local to the region, the 4000 different types of Peruvian potato, the local cheese and the clay that is dissolved in water and eaten on top of potatoes because the minerals are believed to aid digestion.
"Come on and try the potatoes, the cheese and our special mayonnaise," urged Hugo.
Why the hell not!! Melissa and I each tried half a potato topped with a little clay.
"Maybe it's a trick they play on the tourists," quipped one woman, "let's see if we can get them to eat mud." Ha!!
It didn't really taste of anything much, but the potato was pretty good.
Oooooohhhhhh, such cute little guinea pigs....tonight's dinner????
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Our host 'mommies' were waiting for us when the boated docked in Amantani after the brief trip - 30mins or so - from Taquile.
Like the Taquilenos the inhabitants of Amantani (approximately 3,600 people) primarily speak Quechuan, a native language spoken in the Andes region of South America. Some families speak little to no Spanish and as for English....fuhgeddaboudit!!
On the ride over Oswaldo provided us with a sheet of paper with a few Quechuan words and phrases and their English and Spanish translations so that we'd be able to at least greet our host families and ask them their names. Madalena was to be the host 'mommy' to Melissa and I - or sister since she was younger than both of us - for our homestay on Amantani.
After introductions our hosts walked us up the hill to their homes. A long steep steep hill as it turned out which our hostesses trundled up extremely slowly. We were almost snapping at their heels and it appears to be the Quechuan way to walk up hill slowly and downhill fast, whereas my natural inclination is to do just the opposite, but perhaps I have that all wrong since I ended up breathless and knackered and our Quechuan Mommies just carried on like it was a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park, but after just 24hours in high altitude the hill was a slog for all of us, especially Dinh who lagged behind the rest of the group. Once we arrived at our host's household we had 20minutes to settle into our room on the second floor - our own room as it happens. Perhaps when Oswaldo told Jacqui that we wouldn't have our own rooms he meant our own individual rooms, since we were all paired up - before heading up to the soccer field, the social center of the community we were staying with. As we left our hosts loaned us each a tradional chullo cap to wear which they'd knitted. "All tourists look the same to them," explained our tour leader, Ybone, "the hats are so they will recognise you when they come to pick you up for dinner later." Truth be told we tourists also occasionally struggled to distinguish between our 'mommies' in their identical traditional dress.
Two other tourist groups joined us at the soccer field: a fairly large and boisterous group of Australian tourists and another multi-national group of New Zealanders, Malaysians, Canadians and assorted Europeans. A few members from each group plus locals and guides made up 6-aside teams (hats vs. no hats) for a brief kick about, brief being the operative word since the breathlessness caused by the high altitude soon saw the tourists tire. "The locals usually win," said Oswaldo triumphantly. I wonder why!! Unfortunately Dinh from our small group was unable to join us as he wasn't feeling so well.
After watching the footie for a short while Oswaldo asked us if we were interested in taking an evening walk up the mountain. Thinking it would be good practice for the Inca Trail Jacqui, Sarah, Jamie, Melissa and I all agreed. Bad idea!! It was soooo tough and after 15 minutes I found myself short of breath. Despite this I planned to try and push through, but then Jacqui called from the back that she was giving up and before I knew what I was saying I heard myself agreeing to quit with her. Melissa soon followed suit and the three of us went for a short, and more importantly, non-vertically challenging, walk across the island before returning to the footie pitch to sit with Ybone. The experience left me feeling very concerned about my ability to do the Inca Trail in a couple of days and I said as much to Ybone. "You'll be more acclimatized by then," she assured me. I certainly hoped so!!
It dropped cold rapidly on Amantani once the sun had set and we soon scampered inside the small cafe/store by the footie pitch where we tucked into steaming mugs of hot chocolate before our 'mommies' came to collect us for dinner. There's no such thing as street lighting on Amantani and we picked our way home by torch/flashlight trained on Madelena's swift llama skin sandal clad feet.
At 7pm we joined Madalena, her mother and sisters Gladys and Flora in the small family room (about 10ft by 6ft) on the first floor where they served us a dinner of vegetable soup with quinoa - a high protein Peruvian staple that I've been adding to all my soups since I got back. It's pretty good and I feel so healthy I've been celebrating with a glass of wine ;-) - followed by vegetable and potato casserole with rice, which sounds carb heavy and bland I'll grant you, but which was in fact incredibly tasty.
The simplicity in which the family lived really surprised me, it was a bit like being thrown back in time with Madalena preparing our meals by tending to cauldrons of food and water over an open fire in the far left corner of the room. Flora sat opposite her washing and peeling dozens of multi-coloured potatoes - did you know Peru has 4000 varieties of potato? I love a potato. Peru is my kind of country - while her mother and sister, Gladys, chatted to them and Melissa and I politely and quietly sat at a small rickety table at the opposite side of the room.
The photo below shows Madalena preparing pancakes for our morning breakfast, while occasionally shoo-ing away a couple of chickens. Pancakes!!!! They were soooooo delicious!! Sumaj!!! As they say in Quechuan!!
Oswaldo arrived at the end of our dinner and told us that Dinh was having trouble acclimatizing to the altitude and that he'd had to take him the oxygen tank that they keep on the boat. Eeeek!! Poor Dinh!!
"He won't be joining us for the dancing tonight, he'll be resting at home," Oswaldo informed us as he ushered us to our room to get ready for the party.
"Madalena's going to come and dress you in traditional clothes," he said "so go!! Go get sexy!!"
Sexy is the last thing I felt as Madalena threw a large white embroidered shirt over all the other layers of clothing I had on - 2 tank tops, a long sleeved zip up sports top, a fleece and hiking pants - and then added a thick orange underskirt, followed by a red woollen overskirt, then cinched me in tightly with a cummerbund type thing and then added an embroidered shawl.
I could barely breathe and I can say without hesitation that it had absolutely nothing to do with the altitude!!
With all those layers I looked like I weighed a good 250lbs - more than double what I weigh normally for the record - and could have only been considered sexy by someone with a Michelin Man fetish!!
Me, the Michelin Man!! Separated at birth?????
"How yooo doin'?" said Oswaldo in his best imitation of Joey from Friends as Melissa and I waddled downstairs. He was dressed in the traditional men's costume of a poncho with a chullo cap over his regular clothes. The men get away much more lightly than the women, their poncho's lending them something of a Clint Eastwood vibe.
Our group was one of the first to arrive at the dance, but the Australians and the other group arrived shortly after. Everyone clapped the arrival of the band - none of whom looked older than 15!!
Madalena came over, arms outstretched, to pull me up onto the dance floor. We held hands and she motioned that I should twist to make my skirts flare, then she spun me under her arm and back before we resumed twisting. It was a fairly straightforward dance, but one that easily left me breathless in the high altitude, although worse was to come when the band kicked it up a notch for the second song and the locals launched into what can only be described as a violently energetic Hokey Cokey which left me gasping for air, my throat burning for water. Honestly the altitude combined with the high energy dancing made me feel as healthy as someone with a lifelong twenty a day smoking habit. I sat out the next song, however fared even worse with the one after that, a high speed conga style.
Unfortunately I have dusty dots on the following photos, but I felt the energy of the dance was well conveyed.
The group and their mommies
By 9.30pm I spotted more than a few tourists yawning and making a move to leave so we followed suit, admiring the stunning night sky over Amantani on the way home. "The sky is so clear you can see the milky way," Ybone had told us earlier. To be honest I thought she was exaggerating, but she wasn't. I was completely gobsmacked by how gorgeous the sky was and I was kind of surprised that the island wasn't swarming with astronomers, or that the homes didn't have perspex roofs to better admire the view. If I lived on Amantani I'd permanently be trying to sleep out under the stars among the llamas.
By 10pm we were home and tucked up in bed, pondering why the American tourist we had met in the lounge of the Hotel Italia had been so negative about her home stay. Sure, you have to sacrifice a few comforts - there was no running water and the beds we slept on were tortuous - but the experience as a whole was amazing and Madalena's family were incredibly sweet and gracious. To be honest I think our hotel friend must have been more than a little spoiled and lacking the sense of humour she was instructed to bring, because personally speaking our stay on Amantani was definitely a highlight of my Peru trip!!
Monday, 13 September 2010
Ugh, first Monday back in work and am sooooooo not feeling it after being out for 2 weeks. 53-days to go until San Francisco!!! Not that I'm counting or anything. I have to put on my 'it's fun to work here' face today too, for my new starter - help at last!!! Fortunately she is in orientation much of the day so I only have to fake my enthusiasm intermittently!!
Anyway back to Peru. So despite tossing aside one of the two pillows I was supposed to sleep on to maximise my intake of oxygen on I woke up very much alive in Puno on day 3 of our trip, although I slept horribly and woke up with a pounding sinus headache. Apparently headaches and insomnia are a side effect of altitude adjustment. Fun!!
At 8am the group convened in the lobby, with our day packs readied for our overnight stay in Amantani, to meet with Oswaldo, our Edgar Adventures guide who would be taking care of us over the next couple of days. At our briefing the previous evening Ybone had handed out leaflets concerning what to take for our overnight stay:
1. T-shirt, optionally long sleeved shirt
2. Long trousers, optionally shorts (extra)
3. Warm clothing and a jacket or a fleece
4. Raincoat or poncho
5. Hat and sunglasses
6. Sun screen/block (very important)
7. Walking shoes or boots
8. Camera and film
9. Money in Peruvian currency. Take small change with you (changing a S/. 100 note is virtually impossible)
10. 1 liter of water (available on the island)
11. Extra snacks (optional) biscuits, chocolate - Peruvians generally seem quite obsessed with having enough snacks
12. Toilet paper
13. Items: 10, 11, 12, 14 you can buy at the port before departure
FOR OVERNIGHT ON THE ISLAND ALL THE ABOVE PLUS:
14. Take a gift of fruit or food (e.g. tinned milk, tinned fish, cooking oil, pasta etc) (Opt.)
15. Torch/flashlight and batteries
16. Sleeping bag (optional, there are blankets)
17. Personal medication
18. Personal basic toiletries, small hand towel
19. Sense of humor
Leaving the hotel we were greeted by the sight of 4 pedicabs - for want of a better word. They were a little different from the ones in New York with the driver at the rear rather than at the front putting the passengers at the front and center of Puno's morning traffic - which took us on an exhilarating and often hair raising ride down to the docks for the 2.5hour trip across Lake Titicaca - which means grey puma in the Aymara language - to Taquile. It cleared my head anyway, although I was soon feeling the worse for wear as a result of the fumes coming off the boat.
On the way over to Taquile I tried to keep an open mind about the home-stay visit on Amantani, however if I'm honest I already had some reservations about - I am just not someone who loves the idea of staying at a stranger's home. Give me a hotel any day - nevertheless I was trying my best not to let the experiences of the American woman in the hotel lounge the previous night, the one who had seemingly hated every moment of it, colour my perceptions. "A lot of people list the home-stay as a highlight of their trip," said Melissa, "second only to Machu Picchu!!"
Well we'd soon find out!!
"Will we have our own room?" Asked Jacqui
"No. Most homes only have two rooms" replied Oswaldo
Hmmm!!! Did that mean that we'd be sleeping in the same room as other members of the family? I wasn't thrilled at that idea and if I could have slept on the boat I would have, which incidentally was pretty comfortable with soft upholstered seats. It wasn't long before every member of our group had closed their eyes for a bit of a snooze.
Taquile is inhabited by around 1700 residents and is known for it's high quality textiles, exclusively knitted by the men of the island. Taquile men begin to knit at 8 years of age while women make the yarn. The colour of a Taquileno's hat is indicative of his marital status with red hats signifying married men and mostly white hats signifying single men. Apparently the way single men wear their hats also denotes whether they are openly looking for love or not. Sadly however these traditions are slowly disappearing as Taquilenos increasingly send their children to the mainland for school.
Arriving at the island around 11.45am we walked up a pretty steep hill to the town square - practice for the Inca trail, we really felt the lack of oxygen - and were given 25minutes free for sight seeing before convening for lunch at a local restaurant.
All restaurants on Taquile serve the same choices of omelette or trout, a local specialty although not native to the lake, but introduced (from Canada I think our guide said) in the 1930s. I did ponder passing on the trout in favour of the omelette - all those bones - but I am glad I didn't since the trout was amazing. Butterflied, pan fried and served with rice and chips. Delicious!!
Lunch was washed down with a mug of coca tea, leaves not teabags, and afterwards we walked down a more gentle path to a dock and it was onto Amantani.