Saturday, May 5, 2018

Urubamba, Peru

Not going to lie, I was very doubtful of the soundness of my decision to book a few nights in Urubamba earlier on.  As we rode away from the bright and cheery city of Cusco into the dust, my apprehensions were confirmed when our driver mysteriously got pulled over by two policemen.  It was entirely too easy to fall in love with cutesy Cusco, but Urubamba was a place that we had to figure out.  Maybe it wasn't quite as raw and rugged as the wilderness where we were trekking, but we had nobody to lean on this time around.  Soon, though, we realized that the rhythm of life here is just as real as it gets.  It's a small town.  There were no coffeeshops, English menus, or people dressed in traditional garb walking around the plaza with llamas like Disney characters asking you to pay to get your snapshots.  We drank chicha in somebody's house, not in a picanterĂ­a.  We stayed at a quinta with Peruvian families, not a hostel with young globetrotters.  We ate food that was cooked using methods passed down for centuries, flavors intact, untouched by Westernization or mass production.  We actually didn't meet any other tourists here - it is always fun to talk to other tourists about their travels or about their countries of origin, but for these few days in Urubamba, we were talking only to people who live here (thank goodness I speak some Spanish).  Some people came from different parts of the world and found their hearts at peace here, building a new life off the beaten track.  Others are native to this land and follow the same traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Everyone showed us through their beliefs and warmheartedness that they are extremely proud to call this place home.

Known as the "Sacred Valley," the Urubamba Valley was formed by the Vilcanota River, which was (and still is) worshipped as the wellspring of life by its inhabitants.  But we think that it's the inhabitants themselves who make this valley sacred and special.  We didn't know what to expect, coming way out here for a few nights, but we left feeling that we had been touched by the true spirit of Peru.  People were kind, and not just pleasant and polite, but so eager to share and wanting to include us.  There weren't a lot of foreigners around, so maybe people were excited to have us, even if we were just a pair of sorely clueless foreigners.  Here, we never got the sense that we were being looked down upon, or looked up to, or treated with any kind of bias or reservation.  It was amazingly easy to bond with people, even though my Spanish was not good.  It's no wonder that people from different parts of the world fall in love with Urubamba and settle down here.  I wonder if people all come back from the Sacred Valley in Peru still dreaming about it at night or secretly making plans to move out there to start life afresh.  We did, for a little bit.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Feeling Young Climbing "The Old Woman" in Joshua Tree

It was a crisp December day and winter break had just started for me.  Christmas was just two days away and I was looking most forward to spending time with my family this year.  We planned no trips, so that we could be ready to do anything on a moment's notice.  So... when my sister suggested rock climbing in Joshua Tree the day after my brother's return from Mississippi, we were all up for it.

Alas, my brother's flight ended up arriving at 2:15 AM due to a delay and we were planning on leaving at 7:00 that day.  We didn't let that stop us, though.  Despite having only slept three or four hours each, we all dragged ourselves out the door and two hours down the highway bright and early.  We were probably all delirious from lack of sleep, but it was so worth it.  I thought that it was lots of fun clambering over boulders and watching the pros scale these huge cliff faces... until I put a helmet on my head and clipped into a harness.  I didn't think that I'd make it very far, but we were all surprised that I actually inched myself all the way up to the top of "The Old Woman."  It was a grueling slog up a long, vertical crack, involving fist and hand jamming and a LOT of deep breathing.  The official name of this route is called the Double Cross, and I can proudly say that I conquered it on my first outdoor climb ever!

Wes wasn't able to try climbing, but he avidly documented the day's events in these photos.  We stayed out until the sun set and really had a good time with my sister's friends, who were all like monkeys on these walls.  I am so grateful that she invited us along and so in awe of what climbers can do when they are released outdoors.  I am also grateful for the perspective that I gained from this climb--literally (it was a grand view from up there!) and figuratively.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cusco, Peru

Cusco is such a beautiful and cheery city in Peru that it's striking to think of how it holds within its heart a very dark and brutal past.  Built on Inca blood, sweat, and tears, it was then worshipped as the greatest citadel in the Inca empire for several centuries before it was completely ransacked by Spanish conquistadors.  Now, it is sustained primarily by tourism.  Indeed, we experienced Cusco as dutiful tourists would: we saw and appreciated how Inca roots, Spanish colonialism, and modern-day comforts intermix to form the hybrid culture that makes Cusco what it is today.  Cusco had so much to offer, and we tried to see as much of it as possible during our two days there before the start of the Salkantay Trek and the one day after we returned. Get ready for lots of photos of food (whole roasted guinea pig!), sexy women (okay, it's Sacsayhuaman), and TMI (when you travel to Peru, you'd better be prepared for lots of bodily dysfunction).

We came to Cusco simply because it was the starting point for the much-anticipated Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.  All the guidebooks say that tourists should spend a few days in Cusco adjust to the altitude (Cusco is at 11,152 feet elevation), and if you were at all sensible, you'd follow the rules and rest often and eat lightly.   In a city as culturally vibrant and as walkable as Cusco,  you can't follow those rules.  Of course, it was literally impossible to resist indulging in Peruvian food and we unwittingly booked two tours within the first hour of our arrival.  We probably paid for it on our third day, eating plain crackers and tea for the better half of the day due to food poisoning (ice!!) and traveller's diarrhea (well, that's a given) - but overall, no regrets.  In fact, getting sick made us appreciate the hospitality and care of everyone around us so much more.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

New Years' Resolutions, Inspired by Backpacking

It's hard to believe that there was a time, not even a year ago, that I'd drag Wes, kicking and screaming out of bed, to go on hikes with me.  Just this past summer, he magically started suggesting going on hikes sometime in April, and then it all erupted into a hiking/trekking/backpacking bonanza almost every weekend.  Suddenly, he was shopping for trekking poles, hydration packs, good socks, and even breathable hiking underwear!  Okay... hold up... I'm not sure how this happened!!  Did I create this monster?!

I could have been cheering and thanking the gods, but that horrible miserly side of me took over.  There were differences in opinion regarding how much to spend on specific items and when to put a cap on it, although admittedly I wasn't even aware of how expensive backpacking gear was, and there's that irrational fear of overspending money.  I worried that Wes's old impulse-buying habits would kick in.  Man, I hated those a point where I would grill him about everything that he bought, even though he no longer is the shopaholic who he once was.  In the name of backpacking though, I stopped myself for a second.  Backpacking is a hobby that I never thought he would be interested in when I first met him six years ago, but one that I had always hoped we could enjoy together.  If I am gonna be so uptight about it, I'm taking away the fun.  So after the sticker shock wore off, I learned to give in and to stop being so controlling and nitpicky.  It wasn't easy, but I was able to actively make an effort to be more supportive and respectful of his decisions.

This was in late October, hence the shorts and tanktop.  With all of our new colorful gear, we set out on our very first backpacking trip, just up to Henninger Flats in Pasadena.  It was so spontaneous that we didn't even bring a camera.  I have only phone photos, but they're better than nothing at all! 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Big Santa Anita Canyon Thanksgiving

Got leftovers?  We did, and we had some big plans for them.  We decided to go backpacking after Thanksgiving to burn off the feast and just to ditch the Black Friday madness and get some much-needed time to ourselves.   Just the week prior, we were hiking in the Big Santa Anita Canyon (Chantry Flat) area and came upon the Spruce Grove Campground.  It was so perfect-looking, with a leafy orange carpet and a canopy of evergreen spruce branches, a creek running to the left and hiking trail to the right.  Apparently, you don't need a permit to camp here at all.  Since we had everything that we needed for backpacking already (thanks to Wes's research and deal-hunting skills), we immediately planned to head over here ASAP.   It was very exciting for us because not only was this going to be our first extended backpacking trip, but also a good opportunity to enter in this Outdoor Research contest that I found out about...

For the contest, all you had to do was take a picture of your leftovers in an outdoorsy situation and post it on Instagram with the hashtags: #leftovers, and #optoutside.  They pick twenty winners to receive a free Outdoor Research active hoodie.  I really didn't need another hoodie, but the contest sounded easy enough - we always take photos of our food during our hikes anyway, so I made Wes get on board with this (it took a little convincing).  Yeah, I felt like a bit of a sellout entering a contest, but why not give it a try if it's something that is up my alley already?  So the night before, we had vacuum sealed and frozen our Thanksgiving leftovers and even some pumpkin pie (which didn't collapse because it was already frozen).  Wes stuck a water bottle into the freezer to use as a small ice pack, which was smart because it also served as yet another water resource after it melted. 

The best part of this trip into the Big Santa Anita Canyon was stumbling upon a group of people who not only shared their leftovers with us, but also their perspectives on our many common interests.  Quickly after we all sat down together and introduced ourselves, there was much name-calling, finger-pointing, and table-slapping good humor.  We talked about lots of things, but they told us so much about their adventures as experienced backpackers who have been doing it long "before it was cool," and it was great to have some stories from our own encounters around the world to share too.  It was great to meet likeminded people who are from the generation before our own - truly serendipitous and not taken for granted.