Hiking the Inca Trail

February 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Posted in Cuzco, Mountains, Peru, Travel | 1 Comment
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Everyone says go to Machu Picchu in June and July. When it is dry. And warm. But for me, I say that is ridiculous, and both times I have visited Machu Picchu have been in the final weeks of January at the height of the rainy season.  This second visit included hiking the Inca Trail with my parents who were visiting Cusco for the week.  Results> fog, rain, rock solid calves, and a sense of accomplishment.

The Inca Trail is 42 km of work. Although there are numerous porters carrying your tents, food, and everything to make backpacking seem less like actually backpacking, you still carry your sleeping bags, mats, and clothes.  After months of research (and searching), I settled on going with Cusco Explorers for $250 which is… the upside to hiking it in the rainy season.  Less tourists, less money.

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The first day is a 11km walk up the valley over a relativity flat trail. The second day is where it gets intense. You start at 2900m and go over a pass at 4200m (dead woman’s pass) before dropping down to 3800m over 12km.  The result? Coming into camp with my legs violently shaking.  The third day is longer, 16km, with stops to some ruins along the way before getting into a campsite 6km away from Machu Picchu complete with hot showers and a restaurant.  This doesn’t feel like backpacking.

Unfortunately, there had been a landslide on the last leg of the trail, so we had to hike down to Aguas Calientes and arrive to Machu Picchu (not via the Sun Gate) wet, tired, happy, accomplished.

As our guide said, the trail is challenging, unforgettable, and eunich (wait thats not right, he meant unique). The experience of a lifetime and the chance to check yet another thing off my bucket list.

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The Machete Heist

December 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm | Posted in Cuzco, Kiva, Peru, Philosophy, Travel | 5 Comments
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I am literally writing this with blood on my hands.  O and if you are my parents, lets just skip over this blog post.  This happened less than one hour ago, and is the most crazy thing that has ever happened to me in a South American country.  I mean more crazy than being robbed in Guatemala City, or having a tire iron being waved in my face by a taxi driver in Argentina, or even seeing 4k of coke being pulled out from the seat in front of me the last time I was here in Peru.

Here is what happened. This morning, I decided to go for a run to start training for the Inca Trail or even more immediately, my potential backpacking trip to the Lares valley next weekend.  I headed up to the Temple of the Moon (ok, I didn´t run up the hills, but did some trail running once I got up there) where I had gone hiking with some friends the week before.  At the end of my run, I decided to hike up to the top of the tallest hill in the valley to rest and take in the view.

As I approached, I saw three 15-17 year old Peruvians coming up at the same time.  I didn´t think anything of it until I saw one coming up my left hand side, and the other two (one in a Yankees cap…I think this speaks volumes) walking behind me.  My very imaginative mind flashed to all sorts of movies where they were surrounding me and cutting off my exits and saw a place straight ahead where I could run down unobstructed.  I immediately dismissed this as ridiculous because this only happens in movies right?

Less than ten seconds later, the kid I saw on my left hand side ran up and sat down by me, put his arm around my neck forcefully and said “tienes sencillo” more or less meaning do you have exact change.  I jumped up realizing what was happening and tried to throw him off me when I saw the kid in the Yankees cap with a two and a half foot machete run up and tell me to hand over all my stuff.

The rest is a blur. I remember trying to get loose and telling them both ok I´ll hand over my stuff (then I thought about my brand new canon camera and my credit cards in my bag and knew I didn´t want to do that) but told them to let me go first.  I remember thinking about yelling, but who was around? I remember the kid in the Yankees cap holding the machete low and swinging it at me and me jumping back. And I remember trying to grab the machete so it won´t hit me. I remember finally grabbing kid A and throwing him into the kid with the Yankees cap and rock hopping and scrambling down the mountain.

Then, I all out sprinted a kilometer (which is superhuman at 12k feet) through some trees downhill to the Temple of the Moon (they chased me for a while, but thank God for long legs).  I got chased by the dog of a couple of older Peruvians who I warned about the robbers.  And finally, finally, I made it to the security guard who stands guarding the site, and told him all about it.

I ran/jogged back into the city with a don´t mess with me grimace on my face. I don´t know how all of it happened, but I assure everyone that I am fine, that I will find people to hike with, and that the cuts on my hands from scrambling and from the fight will heal.  Below is a picture from the moon temple. It all went down on the hill a little to the left of the photo:

From Templo de la Luna

50 Hour Weeks and Climbing Peaks

September 1, 2010 at 9:26 am | Posted in Aldea Nimasac, Guatemala, Kiva, Microfinance, Mountains, Travel | 1 Comment
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Read this is you are really bored or if you care about me and about what is going on in my life. Contents: rainy days, movies, books, working Saturdays and climbing everything in sight. And a video of the valley I´m posted up in.

So, I only have two weeks here. Which means I have a lot to get done. On my workplan I have implement the “Cerise Questionaire” and do Borrower Verifications. All of last week I spent in the office trying to convince people to talk to me about social performance in the ASDIR office. Essentially, Cerise is a social performance metric that quantifies how microfinance institutions measure up against their own goals and mission.  This data can be used by funding institutions, can be used to benchmark their progress in the future in the field of social responsibility, and is a standardized measurement that can be used to benchmark microfinance institutions against others (a great tool considering the depth and breath of services that microfinance institutions can offer). Read here another fellow´s blog about the subject. So, I collect data and do interviews to fill out this 60 page questionaire.

My other job is doing borrower verifications. Basically, for a random group of ten borrowers, I check all the data surrounding their loan between Kiva´s system, the institutions MIS (read management information system), and the borrowers passbooks. It´s checks like these that allow Kiva to say with reasonable confidence that all the borrowers on the site are legitimate. So, there is my 50 hour week (even came in for a half-day Saturday!).

In my free time, I love Climbing Peaks around my house. If I don´t have access to sand, waves or the beach, I´d say that this is one of my favorite activities. Everyday after work, I change clothes, don my rain coat, pick an apple for the road and rise from 2500m to well over 3000m as I work my way out of the valley where Aldea Nimasac lies.  I drag myself up and slide down.  All for that great view at the end of the climb. Of sweeping fields, pine forests, and not one house in sight.

I come back as the sun is setting (although I never get to see it because of the cloud cover), and settle into the hammock with a good book or movie. And wait for Andreas to get back from work so we can chow down on his wife´s delicious cooking. Read: fresh tamales, tortillas, and platos típicos everyday. I know its a lot of work (helped chop wood for two hours for the word-fired stove and hot-water heater), but I could get used to this lifestyle.  If only I could stay for longer.


Stop and Stare

August 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm | Posted in Aldea Nimasac, Guatemala, Mountains, Travel | 3 Comments
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Read this if you wonder what exactly makes my life a One Republic song, if you have ever been out of your element, if you love thrift store shopping or lived in a town with less than 10,000 people.  If you have ever been the first white person a kid has seen or if you were wondering what happens to criminals in small towns in Guatemala.

Aldea Nimasac: population 6,591, elevation 2531m, 6.5 km from Totonicapán.

This is where I live. Well for now. As a roaming Kiva fellow, I get to work with multiple organizations here in Guatemala.  The first, in the capital, and the second here in Aldea Nimasac. The closest big town is… well small.  At least by my standards. I am used to Camarillo: which I consider a suburb of Los Angeles with over 600,000 people, not a suburb of a town of 50,000 with suburbs of less than 10,000 people.  Add some zeros….

Over the weekend, I trekked down to Totonicapán to pick up a sweater: yes, at 2500m, it is cold here, and the clothes I brought (an old sweatshirt, a long sleeve tee and a very thin shell) just don´t cut it. As I walked through town, I stopped every half a block at these second-hand clothing stores. Asking if they had sweaters or jackets in my size.  The store owner´s eyes traced my feet up to my head. They would laugh. No, we don´t have anything. Then, when I would ask about the biggest size they had, they would pull out a used, small A&F  sweatshirt. Does this fit? After the first store, I wouldn´t even humor them by trying it on.

I finally stumbled on a used clothing store and went through the same dialogue. But as I was browsing the racks, I found a large Eddie Bauer sweater. Yes, a little small, but this would do. I wondered what part of the U.S. it came from, and at 10Q ($1.25) I knew it had to have been donated to down here. In the U.S., I clean out my closet only to repurchase it six months later down south.  At least I didn´t have to pay to get it shipped? A whole industry based off the things we Americans no longer find useful.

Passing through the market, I stopped at a stall to buy some bread and papaya.  As I was paying, I felt something on my arm. A four year-old boy poking me. Seconds later, he had his foot pressed up against mine and his finger in his mouth looking down at his foot. He smiled and laughed. Am I really that big? As I walk through the town, the kids whisper gigante as I pass. I smile and say Adios–the standard greeting here–unsure of what else to do.

On a separate thread, as I was walking through the town to play soccer with the guy I am staying with, I mentioned how I got robbed in the capital. He grinned, and said I should have been here.  There are no thieves because they kill them. He corrected himself, well in the next village the neighborhood watch kills them. Here, when they catch one, they drag them through the town with a loudspeaker saying come look at the criminal.  When they finally get to the community center (an elementary school) they strip them naked and tie ropes and boulders to their body and make them haul them back through the town. He said, “the police never do anything…so we do”.

And because of this, the thieves flee or never rob again.  So, yes, mom, I feel very, very safe here. Now, I can walk around, and hike and not really worry about anything!

Not all who wander are lost…

August 24, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Posted in Aldea Nimasac, Cuisine, Guatemala, Lago Atitlan, Mountains, Travel | 5 Comments
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Read this if you enjoy ranchera versions of Hotel California, if you like climbing volcanoes at 5am, or jumping off climbs into ancient Mayan lakes. Or read it for the secret location of the best burrito place in Guatemala or perhaps if buried somewhere deep inside you too have a sense of adventure and a little bit of energy.

A sense of adventure and a little bit of energy. That’s all lonely planet listed under the prerequisites to climb Volcano San Pedro, one of the three that rises up from Lago Atitlan. Somehow, I doubted that was all it took as the lake sits at a little under 1600m and the cumber, the top of the volcano is buried by a heavy cloud layer at 3020m. But, after three weeks of smog, and Guate City, I was ready to get out. And an invitation from Tommy, a friend I meet last weekend at the beach, to get some fresh air helped to seal the deal.

The trip worked out well into my workplan. This morning I had to be in Aldea Nimasac to start working to implement the Cerise Questionnaire (a questionnaire that works to measure the social performance of microfinance institutions) with Asociación ASDIR, another microfinance organization in Guatemala. And Aldea Nimasac is a part of Totonicapan which lies an hour away from Quetzaltenago (nickname Xela): so I caught a ride with the executive director of FAPE´s family to Xela on Friday, and made my way to the Lago Atitlan from Xela with Tommy early Saturday morning.

We got to Panajachel, the largest town on Lago Atitlan, (by the way, I was originally going to name this post something along the lines of traveling to places I can´t pronounce but decided to go with the Tolkien quote to reflect my journey as a wandering Kiva fellow) on Saturday and immediately made our way over to San Pedro which lies at the base of the Volcano. We took another lancha (small transport boats on the lake) to San Marcos—home to more foreign hippies than Guatemaltecos, and make our way to some cliffs that Tommy discovered the last time he was there.

We hiked past half a dozen long-term meditation centers and yoga places and finally got to the cliffs rising a good 12m out of the lake (for all us Americans a good 35ft). And jumped off into the warm waters of Lago Atitlan.

On the way back, we stopped at Moonfish for some burritos. Possibly the freshest, tastiest burritos in Guatemala (perhaps California as well). I had a falafel burrito (don´t laugh there is a huge Israeli community around the lake) with homemade salsa, super fresh veggies, homemade tortillas and the best falafel I have ever had (yes, better than Israel). All with the best cup of coffee I have had since Colombia: the coffee plants grew out back and they did all the drying and roasting of the beans on site! French pressed for maximum deliciousness. Needless to say, we returned the next day for some breakfast burritos and nachos—that for sure would have topped Lily´s in Malibu if they had bacon.

Fast forward to 5am. I dragged myself out of bed and threw on my Merrills. We still couldn´t see the top of the Volcano San Pedro, but having located the trailhead on Saturday, we grabbed our headlamps and made our way through sleepy San Pedro to begin our ascent. At the trailhead two natives stamped our hands and made us aware that it was 100Q a piece to climb the mountain with a guide. “And without one?” we asked. “The same.” I panicked I brought only 50Q for a meal after, but Tommy thankfully had enough. I thought they were going to send us the 300m down to the town to get the money if we didn´t have it.

I´ll let the videos tell the story of the climb as I was a little too out of breath to say much. 1400m is a way to climb and most of the time it was stairs straight up. The climb was even a bit harder because I was coming from Guate City. Thankfully, we had homemade banana and chocolate bread that we bought in town for around a dollar waiting to be consumed at the top.

And now, I´m here in ASDIR. Over the weekend, the combination of the climate change and being around some people with the flu caused me to be a little under the weather today, but I´m hoping it gets knocked out by some good sleep and some delicious caldo de res a little later today.

Until next time, your wandering Kiva Fellow.

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