Monday, September 22, 2008

Happy Equinox

Yesterday I celebrated spring equinox (unlike those of you in the Northern hemisphere who rang in the fall) by going to my first official Argentinean asado, or barbecue. I felt a pang of regret on the subte (metro) ride home as I realized I’d brought my camera and neglected to take even one photo to commemorate the experience, but it was a memorable day nonetheless. Not that there was anything out of the ordinary about it, but that’s just what made it unique, for me at least.

After an underground and a bus ride that combined took 2 pesos and 45 minutes past flower stands and mausoleum-capped cemeteries, I arrived in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Villa Puerreydon to a new friend’s house. We sat in the backyard under the overcast sky and chatted about local and U.S. culture as two porteños (the name for BsAs natives), cigarettes dangling, faithfully stoked the coals under the various cuts of meat piled on the grill above. We drank wine and beer and coca-cola. I ate blood sausage for the first time – the consistency threw me for a loop, and while it was not that apetizing on its own it was delicious spread on bread like pâté. After the meal we drank sweet coffee as the rest of the group participated in riotous imitations of their favorite and least favorite commercials and quips from television, which naturally evolved into a lively conversation about favorite shows to which, due to the high rate of U.S. importation, I was able to contribute.

From there the sky threatened to dump so we moved inside to the cluttered, long-lived-in house, windows shuttered and cigarette smoke spiraling through the dusty air, to watch an important tennis match from which Argentina advanced to the finals against Spain in the Davis cup. Round after round of mate (mah-tey) was poured and distributed, one after another, in local tradition of sharing a single cup among a group of friends and refilling it constantly, for hours on end, recycling the same mate leaves. Each small cup goes down in a few pulls from the metallic straw, which is then returned to the mate maestro, as I called him, to add hot water and pass it to the next in line. It’s a simple, common custom here, and I was able to share it with locals, like a local. No one drew particular attention to me. No one thought it odd that a yanqui was invading their Sunday traditions. I felt comfortable, and welcome, and despite the cigarette smoke, enormously content. I understood the jokes and made a few of my own. I commandeered the remote control and participated in poking fun at whatever and whoever came on screen. I explained Thanksgiving at their request and one girl giddily offered me the use of her house if I would host a real “Turkey Day” (their words, not mine!) for them to experience. I was, in an incredibly short time, assimilated, yet appreciated for the very differences I was ostracized for in their neighboring country.

It took me four months in Chile to arrive at a point of integration with a very small group of friends that took less than four hours in Argentina. My Chilean woes were all but erased from memory until two nights ago at my friend's hostel, when I picked out two Chilean girls by their accents and phrases. I called attention to a chilensimo I always liked and commented that I had lived in Chile before. Rather than opening a dialogue like it would have in the majority of such situations, it bought me two snide, sideways looks. The one retorted that I had misheard her, they both turned back to each other and snickered, and that was the end of our interaction. I was suddenly and violently reminded of that horrible, small feeling I had escaped with my decision to live here instead. What did they have against me? What threat did I possibly pose? I was reminded of the many times I was intentionally made to feel uncomfortable in Chile, unwelcome, unwanted.

With the perspective Argentina has given me, I have that oft-cited hindsight and it is definitely 20/20. This short yet markedly unpleasant exchange made me much more aware of just how depressed and insecure I had become while living in Chile, two otherwise unfamiliar states of mind. Perhaps not being used to these sensations is why it took me so long to recognize them, or maybe it was a defensive reaction to my hostile environment: after all, who wants to feel depressed and insecure? Whatever the case, coming to Argentina has taught me way more about my life in Chile than simply going back to the U.S. would have, and for that alone I would be grateful to be here. But life here has far surpassed gratitude, and although I am in awe at how normal it seems to be here, I am in no way taking it for granted.

At the very least, it was an equinox to remember.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Week Four In Buenos Aires

Today is the four-week mark. I can't believe it's already been a month - and that I only have three more left! Now that I've had some more time to enjoy Buenos Aires I have a few more observations to make on the country, the culture, and of course, the cuisine (although that will have to come in another blog, since we all know how much I usually have to say about food).

General Notes

First let me say that I have been thrilled with my time here so far and every day I have new affirmation that I made the right decision to leave Chile. The people are warm and welcoming, funny and outgoing. The Spanish is easier to understand and fun to listen to. Without giving away too much for the next blog, the food is fantastic and - despite insane levels of inflation recently - still relatively cheap. Public transport is easy to use and vendors sell used books and fresh flowers on the streets, two of my favorite buys. All in all, Buenos Aires has been a trip thus far.

Housing, Revisited

I've spent this first month in a posh neighborhood called Palermo, about a 20 minute metro ride from the heart of downtown, but by no means a suburb: this is very much part of the city, and definitely the dining/going out center of it all. Tomorrow I will move to my new apartment in Congreso, much more central but not quite the culinary center I've been enjoying these past few weeks. I expect to return many times to Palermo, but the new place is happily accessible to everything so it shouldn't be a problem.

I also wanted to mention, as an addendum to the last blog, that I spoke a bit too soon about my sweet new set-up. It turns out that a contract and even a deposit here provide you with almost no legal protection, and the very next day I got a call from the real estate agent telling me the landlady had come to her senses about the price and was asking for more. This was, quite frankly, probably my own fault; in my giddiness I mentioned to the person who showed me the place what a good price it was, not realizing she was a friend of the family. So, instead of $500 she now wanted $600 a month. If I didn't want to pay it, I could come pick up my deposit any time. After making a good case for myself I offered $550, which fortunately she accepted, especially since this apartment could easily go for $800. I am holding my breath until I am actually in the apartment sometime tomorrow.

What's In a Name?

I have noticed an abundance of oddly named stores and restaurants, some stemming from a weak grasp on the English language. Here are a few of my favorites:

*The Crack Café
*The Fly Lamp - literally a store dedicated to lamps in the shape of flies
*Diego Mother F***er - It wasn't open yet, but it looked like it would be a furniture store
*Te Mataré Ramirez - an artsy/punk restaurant, translated as "I will kill you, Ramirez"
*Beth Bilingual - less a weird name and more a random coincidence; this is the name of a primary school a few blocks from where I've been staying.

Paid Services

Buenos Aires is the city of doing as little for oneself as possible, and I don't really mean that in a bad way. For instance, it's highly common for people - not just rich people - to have maid service once or even more than once a week. Almost all the apartments I looked at offered this service, and I found out a going rate is about $10 for 2-3 hours' worth of cleaning. Insane! I have to admit, I sort of enjoyed the experience, and although the new place doesn't include servicio de limpieza, I may just hire one anyway...

In this same vein, I finally had to give in and send my laundry out, which ended up being an altogether pleasant experience. In other countries they charge you by the kilo, so I expected the 4 peso price to be on the same weight scale. When I went to pick it up a mere 4 hours after dropping it off, I found that, no, it was 4 pesos to wash a whole load, and 4 to dry - thus, all the laundry I could muster cost me approximately $2.50. It was even soft like they had used good soap! So, it makes sense to send it out rather than doing one's own laundry, especially since it isn't normal to have a washer (and certainly not a dryer!) in-home here. There is also an ironing service that I will definitely be taking advantage of. I am a wretched ironer, just ask my Dad.

For Your Consideration

Although I don't get any real sense of racism against Asians here, it is custom to call every Asian person a chino. I've pointed out that there is an abundance of Asian countries and that someone from Vietnam, for instance, looks nothing like someone from China, but I've been waved away by saying, "It's just easier. They don't care." I'm not so sure about that, as I had this conversation in a "Chinese" grocery store run by a family of people obviously not from China since the store owner rolled his eyes while his wife shrugged her shoulders at me, as if to say, what can we do about it?

I think the Chinese bit speaks to the general lack of consideration for others that is common throughout all of South America. In the U.S. there is a sense of anticipation that I think contributes to (at least in Seattle) a high level of consideration for each other. For example, if you see someone looking lost and holding a map, it's not uncommon in the U.S. to offer directions. If you see someone walking your way, it's general practice to move a bit to let the person pass. Not here! Crowded sidewalks are impossible to navegate as no one walks a straight line, and no one lets you pass even if they see you trying. It's much worse in bars and clubs: if someone sees you coming, they seem to actually try to make it HARDER for you to pass, stepping in your way, throwing an elbow, etc. Sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes it makes me furious. I'm sure I'm hyper aware of this behavior since I come from the world's most polite city, while here it's just a normal way of life. They probably don't even realize they do it.

Seatbelts, Please

As in all South American countries, the driving here is generally terrifying. People accelerate as fast as possible only to slam on their brakes five seconds later when they come to a stoplight or a car they can't swerve around. Busses are no better. Traffic control is more like 24 hour chicken. There are often no stop signs or lights (also common in Peru and Bolivia). Unlike our own uncontrolled intersections, however, there is nothing resembling an even rotation of one car from this lane, one car from the next. Literally, whoever has more pelotas to push through and hope the other peson doesn't run into him is the one who goes first. Often people will honk several times before and during an intersection to warn other cars "coming through!" The system, not surprisingly, doesn't work very well, and traffic accidents are common.

I have noticed something unique to Argentina's driving, which is that it is totally normal to drive without headlights at night, especially taxis. I'm not sure if this is a form of uber-conservation (do headlights really use that much of the battery?) but it definitely seems odd. They will flash their headlights at you if you are, for instance, a pedestrian they are worried might cross into their trajectory, but otherwise seem to rely on the infrequent street lights for illumination.

Craziness on the streets is not limited to driving. In the spirit of paying other people do to things for you, dog-walking is a very common service offered. (In general there are fewer feral dogs here as compared with Chile, but way more pets, which does not mean there is less dog poop on the sidewalk as very few people bother with the plastic baggie routine.) Perhaps in the spirit of saving time, perhaps out of laziness, many dog walkers do not walk so much as roll. I have seen countless such "walkers" holding up to five full-sized dogs' leashes while riding a bike through some of the largest and busiest streets of the city. This, to me, is sheer madness; with ONE dog it would be difficult to manage, but with five dogs who don't know each other and don't care if they pull you off your bike, navegating the streets with crazy drivers on either side is a death wish.

I wasn't kidding about the large streets: Buenos Aires is actually home to the world's widest street, Avenida 9 de Julio (it's very common to name streets after dates and dead people here). It is, I believe, 9 lanes wide with three traffic lights separating one side street from the other, and takes at least two light cycles to walk across it. The world's widest eschuary is here as well, Mar de la Plata.


On Monday, September 1 - two weeks ago today - I went to the World Tango Competition final event. First of all, that's just cool. Second of all, Argentina is RAD and the event was completely free. Even the snacks they hawked inside the event were reasonably priced! There were 16 couples from Argentina, Columbia and, oddly enough, Japan (tango is apparently big there) who competed for the world championship title, which earned the winning couple a whopping $2,000 plus a 2-month "artistic tour" dancing through Tokyo. The couple I liked the best took 3rd, and the couple I liked second best didn't even place which I think was sort of an upset, especially considering the woman's face when she realized she hadn't won. The couple that did win was definitely good and when they danced their encore "holy crap we're world champions!" dance they blew us away. It's amazing how much better some people can perform when the pressure is off. And, as the judges deliberated we were treated to a short concert by a world-famous tango pianist plus last year's world champion couple.

There were two final events, the one the night before was for more technical tango (I believe) and the one I saw - apparently the bigger event - let the couples be more artistic with the dancing. A few of the couples had really creative dances that told fun stories, including one that wore plastic wigs and even used props (they took 5th place). There was some jeering when not once but twice the wrong music was queued up, proving that Argentine audiences are unforgiving, but they were extremely supportive of the couples whose music was biffed and applauded extra loudly for them when they finally danced last. Overall it was an amazing night and I'm so grateful to have had the chance to go. (Special shout out to my new gringa friend Kirsten who studies here and let me use her ticket since she had class, and her visiting friend Maggie for agreeing to go with me instead!)

Photos, you say? No way.

It's true. I have finally posted pictures online! I've switched from the limiting world of Flickr to Google's superior Picassa. I uploaded 150+ from my vacation and will soon upload more from my time here (though I always forget to take my camera places, something I especially regretted on an epic walk on Friday). I was sad to discover that I had somehow deleted all my pictures from Copacabana, Peru, as well as my trip to Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. I had some good ones, but my friend KaLeah took some that I will steal and share with you to get a sense of my time there. Otherwise, enjoy what I've posted: most of them have captions so it's sort of like my blog for visual learners / people with ADD. You can see the pictures here:

More soon! Please send positive thoughts my way tomorrow as I once again lug my luggage across town to my new digs. (Which, contrary to original information, does NOT have internet. I'm hoping the neighbors do.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

¡Tengo Donde Vivir!

This phrase literally translates as "I have where to live." After three long weeks of searching, including extending my original temporary apartment by two weeks (which afforded me a full month to live in the lovely neighborhood of Palermo), I have finally found a great place to live. Here are a few highlights of the search.

First, the temporary housing industry in Buenos Aires is booming. Booming, I tell you! This means there are a ton of places available, which is a double-edged sword that involves a lot of picking through the debris to get to the gems. In three weeks I estimate I looked at over 1,000 properties online, and about a dozen in person. I was chained to my computer. Now, Argentina doesn't operate on the same level of efficiency or urgency, and only about 1 out of every 5 e-mail inquiries I sent recieved responses. I finally figured out that making phone calls was much more effective, and even better yet was going into the actual real estate offices. Luckily Palermo has a high concentration of said offices, so I spent all day yesterday on foot. Although at first I tried to find commission-free housing, I finally decided it might be easier if I were willing to pay a finder's fee, and lo and behold, one day after making this decision I have a place to live. Of course, I JUMPED on the apartment when they showed it to me today. I had previous experiences of informally reserving two different places, only to be told they were no longer available when I arrived to pay the deposit. Like I said, the good stuff goes FAST.

I almost died when I saw this place. I've been looking in the $500 price range but was willing to go up to $600 just to find something by the 16th (when I have to be out of this apartment). Now, most of the apartments I saw were just "meh": each one had its set of flaws, including but not limited to being on the ground floor with no light/lots of street noise, poorly or under furnished, no real kitchen to speak of, a sofabed instead of a normal bed, a crappy neighborhood, etc. There were two that were just plain creepy: cement floors, peeling paint, sagging beds, surely rodents in the walls. I decided I could live with the right roommates and that the social aspect might even be welcome, and I did see one shared space with two really cool (presumably gay?) guys that I would have taken if this apartment hadn't presented itself today. (On a side note, by far the most amusing experience was with a seemingly lonely TMI-sharing [too much information for those not in the know] guy who owned his own apartment and made showing it to me date-like; he arrived 15 minutes late because he went out to buy wine and snacks for us, and then proceeded to talk at me for 3 hours straight like every idea he'd ever had was shockingly original, before I was able to escape. I wrote a story about it, if you're interested let me know and I'll send it along.)

Anyway, the apartment. It started with the cab ride. All this looking has admittedly had the benefit of getting me better acquainted with the city and I'm a pro with the subway, several busses, and getting myself to the right place with a map and minimal wrong turns. Today I was running late so I took the subway as close as I could get and then hopped in a short cab ride (when normally I would have walked, and it turns out it's super close to several subways). As we drove through the neighborhood, I noticed it had a lot of what I was looking for: central, with lots of shops and restaurants around, but also neighborhoody, with plenty of trees that will soon be in bloom. Some places in the center clear out on weekends and aren't necessarily safe at night, but this area (Balvanera near Congreso if you're familiar with the city) is always filled with residents. All in all a good vibe. The building itself has kind of a fun address: Bartolomé Mitre 1943. It's a good number since it's a year after my grandparents were married and I like to think of them as war-corresponding newlyweds that ultimately had a great marriage. Anyway, the building itself is sort of oddly big: the entryway is giant, as are the hallways between the elevators and apartments. No problem by me as I only have one neighbor to the left, next to the kitchen and not the bedroom where I will peacefully sleep 11 floors above the street noise. It doesn't have a balcony which was one concession I made, but it has FANTASTIC views and windows in each room, which is rare. Also, one floor up is a rooftap terraza, so I'm not complaining. It has a full, separate kitchen with ample counter space, a stovetop AND an oven, four things you rarely find together in my price range (often the kitchens are incorporated into studios as closets - imagine me trying to cook in one of those). It also has a dining/living room with a big table and this amazingly comfortable chair that turns into a single bed (hint, hint, would be visitors). The bedroom itself is a good size with a comfortable double bed, and it has a great big closet. I especially love that there is no TV suspended above the bed as is common here, since, well, television is addictive and I'd prefer not to get sucked in (though there is one, with cable, in the living room). All in all, YAY! The price is seriously absurd. I have seen tiny studios on the ground floor with a sofabed and a closet kitchen in the same neighborhood for $600. I did have to pay a comission but I am just going to think of rent as $575 a month and still call it a hell of a deal.

It was such a new listing they never even took pictures for their website, so I have none to share (plus I plan on doing a little rearranging) but as soon as I'm in - this Tuesday! - I will snap a few and post them here. I also have another blog half-written about my non-housing-search life here, which I will get posted soon, now that I don't have to dedicate myself to searching for housing. Can I get a booyah?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Post-Peru Post

So, rather than revising my original stream of consciousness Peru post, I've decided to add what was missing here. I left a lot out about the Inka trail and Machu Picchu, not because it wasn't incredible but because Robyn and I were on a time crunch and hungry and as we all know, I'm wordy and just couldn't get it all written in time. Robyn added some excellent points in her comment, and I'd like to address those in more depth.

First, I was remiss in not mentioning the bathroom situation on the trek. I may have left it out intentionally since it was still rather close at hand and there were some less than savory memories made on the trail. I will try to be as delicate as possible, suffice to say the facilities were lacking. First of all, during the hike, if you need to go, you just hop off the trail and, well, go. This I have no problem with since it's a pretty standard camping feature and doing #1 in the wild is not that hard. When we arrived at our actual campsites which did technically have toilets, however, I ran into problems. First, the Peruvians dont' believe in toilet bowls: the bathrooms were literally concrete squares surrounded by partial walls that you sort of hovered over. Or at least, I'm assuming that's what one did with them, since not once during the four day trek did I enter any of them; instead, I spent most of my time running past them holding my breath. I'm not sure how many people know this about me, but I am quite senstive to smell and bad smells lead to pretty severe gagging on my part. Robyn can testify that this gagging was actually debilitating and there was not a snowball's chance in hell I'd be able to make use of the "official" bathrooms. We adopted a "leave no woman behind" policy and formed some pretty lasting bonds in a variety of situations and, well, I'll leave it at that. Finally, on the last night at the most modern of all the sites, I got to them early - pre-smell - and there were actual toilet bowls, if not seats. I didn't think it was possible to enjoy teetering on the rim of a toilet so much. I will sum up this section by saying that our impressive stock of baby wipes were indispensible, and I was so grateful to Matt and Robyn for having thought of bringing them. Matt had his own internal issues what with being deathly ill and all, and I want to once again give him a shout out for never once complaining, even as he had to make use of the foul facilities for relief from, ahem, both ends, and THEN wake up and hike at 4 a.m. Truly amazing, and my own bathroom woes were nothing compared to what he must have gone through.

I can't write this post without mentioning at some length the South African girl who had an unnatural hatred for me. She was ultimately just another snobby, socially maladjusted "world traveller" who thought she had my number because I was, after all, just another idiotic, spoiled American, but the absolute highlight of my interactions with this girl revolved around a conversation about Gatorade. The Irish boys and I were all consuming said wonder elixir (for obvious reasons, we were tuckered out and needed a little boost) and Robyn mentioned that it had originally been created by a football coach in Florida. I added that this was why you often see football teams dumping coolers of Gatorade over their coach's heads after a win, to which she replied haughtily, "There are starving children in Africa." The entire group, including her friends, were stunned; eyes downcast and embarrassed for her idiocy. Robyn later commented that she had to catch herself from saying, "You better get back there and feed them then!" I wish I had been so quick on the draw because I would have actually SAID it, but I was too stupefied - it's not like I personally ever dumped gatorade over my football coach's head, after all, and even so, would Gatorade really nourish Africa's youth? I believe my response was, "There are starving children in Peru, too." Not sure what I was trying to get across with that other than there are starving children everywhere.

This was just one in a series of incidents with our precious South African crankypants. Another favorite involved the very tacky subject of tipping. As a group of 17, we had 18 porters, three guides, and a chef working for us. Naturally, four days of being waited on should include gratuity at the end of it, which is pointed out - rightfully so, since some people are idiots - in the trek brochure and on the company's website. The total cost of the trek was $460: if you subtract $80 for the entrance fee to Machu Picchu and another $80 for transportation, that means we each paid a whopping $300 for four days and three nights of camping in one of the most high-demand tourist destinations in the world, eating until we were blue in the face, and having cultural and architectural information provided to us at our every whim (our whims were less frequent than Hilbert's, but still). It really was quite reasonable, and yet the two South Africans, the two Irish boys, the two Brits and the obnoxious Puerto Rican were irate that on top of paying such an exorbitant amount we were also reminded to leave a tip at the end - the nerve! (Note that the recommended tip was, if I remember correctly, about $25 each.) After biting our tongues while listening to an obnoxious conversation about the injustice of it all through our thin tent walls ("They're bascially asking us to shoulder the porter's salaries/I thought this trip was all-inclusive/you get the point" Give me a break), I stepped out and said my short bit, something to the extent of: "If you knowingly go to an expensive restaurant, you don't leave a bad tip because the food was pricey." To which Irish replied, "You can't really compare the situations." And I said, "You're absolutely right, because at the restaurant you'd leave a way higher tip for an hour of service than we're being asked to leave people who spent the last four days waiting on us." Someone shot back that as Americans we're accustomed to tipping, and I said, well, lucky for you half of us are Americans, so you can leave a crappy tip and it'll all even out (I should mention we were expected to pool a 'group' tip, adding to the badness of the situation). They were trying to argue that they were on a budget - as if we weren't - and my last comment was, "If you think this trip is so expensive, why didn't you opt for a cheaper package?" I then walked away, very angry, partly at their absurd attitudes, partly for bringing us down on a trip that we all paid the same amount for and should be able to enjoy without unecessary stress, but also because I knew they'd been having the whole conversation within earshot of our English-speaking guides, who no doubt felt awkward and also underappreciated having heard it. When push came to shove (and after they had all consumed their fare share of rather expensive beers, a fact which did not go unnoticed by all us tip-happy Americans who never said Boo about the obvious notion of tipping for a service well rendered) people did dole out a reasonable amount and we gave the porters an average of 37 soles each, or about $12 - bearing in mind the legally recognized porter tip minimum (a fuzzy concept since it was technically optional to tip) is 35 soles. It's interesting how cultural divides can occur at the most unexpected times, but we were pretty much in U.S.A. and Not-U.S.A. camps on this issue, something which I found interesting (and for the first time in awhile I was proud to be on the American side). This may seem long-winded, but I'm leaving out a whole other complicated money argument regarding single-day porters, which also involved South Africa and me getting into a skirmish.

Robyn would hate for me to write this whole post without more mention of the hilarious Puerto Rican dude, so here are a few highlights: he was the most egotistical dude I think any of us had ever met. He constantly wanted pictures taken of himself, BY his girlfriend and never once WITH her. In each picture he proudly displayed a Puerto Rico flag patch he wore rubber-banded to the sleeve of his shirt, and less than proudly sucked in his gut, which he was clearly embarrassed about having developed in the last few years. He was also a complete know-it-all, and since their tent was right next to ours the last day we got to listen to him lecture her about a variety of issues on which he was just plain wrong, with her incredulous reaction being (read in a southern accent): "Now, do you KNOW this, or are you just guessing?" (On a side note, his girlfriend Michelle was one of my favorites in the group and I hope I'm as active - and as hot - as she is when I'm 50). All in all our group could have been composed of better, more interesting, less grating people, but it made for good stories and for the most part everyone was fine and got along swimmingly. No lasting friendships made, but it could have been a lot worse.

I don't want to give a negative impression of the trip, because really, it was amazing. Right before we started - as we were repacking our packs, spraying bug spray, and shooing away women trying to sell us hats and walking sticks (we were the only three not to succumb to the ridiculous practice of carrying said walking sticks, and gratefully so) - I got nervous. What had we gotten ourselves into?? But as soon as we started it melted away and I decided to just take it one step at a time. It was a nice practice in patience for me: I went very slowly, and loved taking it all in. We went through a variety of ecosystems, and we spent most of the third day in the jungle, filled with happy insect noises and beautiful flora. During the course of the trail we also passed a ton of other Inka ruins, some of which I think I enjoyed almost as much as Machu Picchu, partly because I could enjoy them ALONE. Which brings us to Machu Picchu itself: what can I say? It's an experience of a lifetime, but one you only really need to have once in that lifetime. It was hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of the site, made even more difficult by the hundreds and even thousands of other people also taking it in. I said it before, but I wish we had been more rested so we could have enjoyed it a bit more. We were more of the "thank heavens its over'"attitude by that point, and although I did appreciate the tour Hilbert gave, I found myself forcing my eyes open during a lot of it. But, yes, it was absolutely beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and not easily captured by the camera's lens.

Speaking of, I should mention now that Matt took a ton of pictures, and pretty early on I started neglecting my own camera since I figured whatever he was getting was 10 times better than what I would snap. So, eventually I will get those pictures from him and make them available to all of you, and until then, you'll have to make do with the few I did take. (On a side note, I am happy to report that Matt cunningly talked his delinquent airline into buying him a ticket on a more reputed one, and he made it to the wedding in Brasil in time.)

In the hopes of making you forget all the badness I've just discussed, here's a brief photo tour of our four days on the Inka Trail (note that comments come after each picture, not before).

Here are Hilbert, Matt, and Robyn standing in front of the train to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. This is about 5 minutes after we started walking. Don't worry, the train is stopped. The first day was warm but Robyn didn't shed any layers for fear of ruthless bug bites.

These are the first ruins we stopped to discuss - a.k.a. the first time long-winded Hilbert made a few people fall asleep. It's tough to wake up so early, force your body to go up and down hill, and then STOP for an hour to get a cultural lesson. I think the wind kept us up more than Hilbert did.

This is the start of our second day of walking, also the most difficult day. In a few short hours we'll be several thousand feet higher, crossing the tallest peak of the trail.

This is the several hours later I mentioned... as far down as you can see is where we started the day. Yikes. We were lucky it was cloudy; on a hot, sunny day it would have been 100 times worse.

Some ruins from day 2 or possibly day 3... these days sort of blur together.
Day 3 ruins - the Inkas are famous for being able to "bend" rocks and this is a perfect example.

Going downhill was in many ways worse than going up. Our knees were definitely hollering by the time we reached the bottom of each set of stairs (only to go straight back up).

An eerily sea-scape-seeming landscape from day 3 in the jungle. Matt took a lot of flora pictures this day.

These were the ruins near where we stopped on day 3, by far my favorite of the trail mostly because I was able to enjoy them in solitude (after poor Oscar gave a very awkward, borderline painful lecture on them in his nervous, broken English). For a sense of scale, check out the people in the upper righthand corner. This was HUGE. Each individual terrace has a slightly different temperature, and the Inkas grew different crops on each terrace based on those fine-tuned temperatures. They were really smart, ok?

Our faithful porters the last night of the trek. They were so great! Other people were embarrassed when a porter would scurry past them carrying 2-3 times the weight, but they were raised here and they are paid to do it, so I mostly just enjoyed watching them go.

6:00 a.m. and we reach Machu Picchu. Hooray! Can you tell just how badly we need to shower? The shower that night will be, without a doubt, the best shower I've ever taken in my life.
The money shot, as they say, and also the famous image you've all seen before, only this time taken from my own point and click. We were lucky to get a clear day; often it's clouded over and you have to rely on your imagination more than your camera for memories.

More pictures pending - I'm in the process of switching from Flickr (bad) to Picassa (good) and once I get that squared away I'll have all my photos from the past 6 weeks to share. I'm also working on a new Buenos Aires post, so don't go too far!