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Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park) — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)

Why South Africa/Kruger National Park?

  • I wanted to go on a safari, to be in a vehicle and check out animals in their habitat.
  • I wanted to visit Africa, partly to accomplish my goal of having been to six of the seven continents before I turn 30, and partly to get a glimpse of life there.
  • I wanted to visit Johannesburg and South Africa because of the eventful recent history.

Itinerary

  • Monday, 13 Oct: Arrived in Johannesburg
  • Tuesday, 14 Oct: Ride from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park area. Mini-safari at Kapama Game Reserve
  • Wednesday, 15 Oct: Safari in Kruger National Park
  • Thursday, 16 Oct: Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre
  • Friday, 17 Oct: Ride back to Johannesburg, Blyde River Canyon
  • Saturday, 18 Oct: Leave Johannesburg and South Africa

My Impression

Full photo and video album on Flickr

The safari was nice. And the experience overall was pleasant. There was a lot of riding in vehicles, both during the safari and to and from places. I lacked the time to really check out and explore Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. I would consider returning and do a bigger tour of South Africa if the opportunity presents itself.

Getting There

I flew to Johannesburg from Lima, Peru. As part of my Round-the-World itinerary, the route took 23 hours and three flights, from Lima to Panama City, to São Paulo, and to Johannesburg. Had I booked the trip a week earlier, I could have skipped Panama City and fly to São Paulo directly from Lima. The whole route still would’ve taken 23 hours, though.

When I got on the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, there was a package of blanket, socks, sleeping mask, toothbrush and toothpaste for every passenger. That made the flight feel more luxurious than most airlines, sort of like when I used to fly EVA Air across the Pacific.

Blanket, socks and eye mask on South African Airways.

No need for transit visa in Brazil

One concern I had as a US Passport holder is the connection in São Paulo, Brazil. Americans planning to visit Brazil must apply for visas, which were hard and expensive to get. I researched the immigration and visa rules on government and airline websites, I emailed the airlines and airports, and I even printed out their responses as proof just in case. I was assured that if I had an international outbound ticket, I would not need a transit visa at São Paulo. I even checked and double-checked the airport terminals where my flights would arrive and depart to make sure I would stay airside, especially since the airport just added a terminal in time for the World Cup. At the Panama City airport, the staff made an announcement asking US Passport holders to check at the counter. They asked me about my visa to Brazil, but I showed them my ticket to Johannesburg, and they were okay with it. Connection in Panama City.

When I debarked the plane in São Paulo, I followed the paths to the queues for immigration, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to go through it, so I looked for other paths to go. I was pretty sure I was in Terminal 2. I got to a security checkpoint and asked the staff in English where to go for my flight, showing them my ticket. The staff didn’t seem to understand or speak English well, nor were they certain where the terminals for South African Airways were, but they signaled me to go down the path after the security checkpoint, which would lead me to Terminal 3. I wasn’t too concerned about the security checkpoint; I was just worried that if they led me the wrong path, I may not be able to return.

It turns out my main problem at the security checkpoint was that I had a full bottle of water at the security checkpoint, and told me I couldn’t have it, so I went to use the restroom and chug as much water as I could and dumped the rest in the sink. I went through the security checkpoint fine, and I proceeded to make my way to Terminal 3 in the longest path I had ever traversed in an airport. There were long halls with moving sidewalks after moving sidewalks. Usually, I have patience with walking long distances, but this inter-terminal path was mind-numbingly long. I was fortunate that I still had hours until my flight and could take my time.

Multiple long moving sidewalks at São Paulo airport.Once I got to the gate, my name was called to check my passport for some reason, and they reissued me a flimsy boarding pass. I waited in the terminal for hours where there were shops and restaurants that only accept Brazilian currency, so I toughed it out and waited until I got on the plane to eat.

South Africa Immigration Did Not Ask about Yellow Fever

Another concern for this leg was that coming from Peru, I was supposedly at risk for exposure to Yellow Fever, even though Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu were not listed as such. To be safe, I got for a contraindication from the travel clinic in San Francisco as a pass for not taking the Yellow Fever vaccine. South Africa and China were the two countries on my itinerary that required proof of that. So I made copies of the contraindication in case the officials wanted to keep a copy, and I also had a PDF of it on my phone and tablet. I was very prepared. When I got off the plane and was directed to the Immigration queues, people were unsure about needing to fill immigration forms because some of the staff continuously yelled out that we don’t need the forms under certain conditions. So I filled one out just in case they asked. While in line, I noticed what seemed to be thermal cameras and small signs about Ebola. When it was my turn, all the officer wanted to know was where my flight was from (Brazil) and that I had a US passport. Very quickly I was dismissed and I proceeded to the main airport lobby. It happened pretty quick and there was no time or opportunity to mention Peru or Yellow Fever. I think the people there were more concerned about Ebola than other diseases at that time.

Accommodations

 

Johannesburg: Brown Sugar Backpackers

Photo Slideshow: South Africa - Brown Sugar Backpackers - LBT 2014

The safari tour I booked recommended staying at a few select hostels as a pickup spot, one of which was Brown Sugar Backpackers. For convenience, I booked one night there before my tour started, and another night after the tour ended.

The hostel offered airport pickup service, but I had to call them when I arrived, and it took about 30 minutes. Without cell service, I resorted to use the airport Wifi to call the hostel with Skype credits that I bought before the trip.

The place was nice. It had a lived-in feel. There’s a main lounge with a TV playing American shows and movies all day (I think it was playing Spike at one point). It had a bar on the side but it wasn’t really open when I was there. From the lounge, you could get to the outdoor patio where there are a bunch of table benches and shade.

The other side of the lounge opened to the Internet room with two Windows laptop computers for guest use, an ATM (which was useful since that’s where I got my cash for Kruger), and it’s also where the Wifi worked best. There’s a table and a couple of chairs, but it got uncomfortable sitting there for too long using the Wifi, but stepping outside of the Internet room reduced the Wifi strength significantly. There’s a small balcony next to the Internet room that had a couch, and it had medium Wifi strength.

The dining room where breakfast is served is a narrow room of tables. But there’s a wall with awesome quotes painted in different styles. It was inspiring, memorable, and motivational for my trip.

Brown Sugar – Room

On the first night, I stayed upstairs in a 12-person room, but it was just me in the room so I could pick whichever bed I wanted. Like Pay Purix in Lima, I picked the bottom bunk. After returning from Kruger, I stayed downstairs in another 12-person room, and I also picked the bottom bunk. It was fortunate that there weren’t that many people staying at the hostel, or at all in the room, because the bunk beds were arranged kind of tight together where moving around would’ve been more troublesome if there were more people.

Brown Sugar – Beds

The bed and sheets were decent. They felt kind of homey. There were mini wooden storage cubes next to the beds, with a metal loop for mini locks. Above the cubes were outlet with a switch to turn it on. It’s always neat to have simple conveniences like this.

Brown Sugar – Lockers/Storage

There were larger metal storage locker along one wall of the room, but I didn’t use it because it didn’t fit my carry-on luggage. The hostel also allow luggage storage in the form of putting them in a nook on the main floor and closing access to it with a metal folding gate and a lock.

Brown Sugar – Bathrooms

It’s a dorm-style bathroom, with a few toilet stalls, a few shower stalls, and a few sinks. I don’t believe the hostel provided towels so I used my own.

I stayed at the downstairs dorm my second time at Brown Sugar, and that bathroom had three shower stalls. I chose the middle one and it had a thin almost-see-through curtains. I wasn’t concerned about privacy since I was the only one staying in that dorm that night. I thought the curtains would block the water but after my shower, I discovered the water had leaked to the bathroom floor and moving towards the bedroom! So I tried to stop the flow by throwing wads of toilet paper on the floor. It was still soaking by the time I went to bed, so I left it there overnight. Fortunately, by morning, it had dried up pretty well, and I cleaned up the toilet paper and no one knew.

Brown Sugar – Staff

The staff was nice. There was one lady who took care of the guests’ stays, and another lady who was the cook. She would make lunch and dinner, and after dinner, she tried to clean up after diners as quickly as possible so she could go home. During my second stay, as I was hanging around the hostel waiting until it’s time to head to the airport, I noticed a lunch menu I could order from. But I felt bad asking because I was the only one ordering lunch and the lady cook would have to open the kitchen to make one meal for me. So I asked to make whatever was the easiest, but the front desk lady insisted that I order what I wanted, so I did and they made me lunch. I was very thankful when they served it, but they didn’t really have a response to indicate whether it was an annoyance or totally fine. I was still trying to figure out the South African nonverbal culture.

Kruger: Thornhill Safari Lodge

Photo Slideshow:

South Africa - Thornhill Safari Lodge - LBT 2014Thornhill was a nice little camp of single-floor room-cabins that surround the outdoor dining area, the pool, and gazebo. The entire area was surrounded by natural land on the gated property, so it’s isolated from neighboring properties. Getting there required getting off a highway into a very bumpy, unpaved road for about ten minutes. There’s a main congregating area at the lodge that is covered but still exposed to outside, where there are a few couches as well as a dining area for guests to have breakfast, and also dinner if it’s raining.

Thornhill – Room

My room was large for one person. It had a king-size bed and two twin beds, with benches at the foot of each. Based on the tour I purchased from Intrepid Travel, I thought I would have to share, but the staff assured me it was all mine. Each bed has bed nets set up, though they weren’t completely seal-proof, but it was okay; I think mosquitos weren’t that smart in navigating around the bed nets. I still wore my bug-repellent long sleeve shirt to bed just in case. The entrance to my room was a glass door that opens out to a shared porch with chair outside, facing a field of trees, so it felt pretty private. The decor was very themed to have an “African” feel, with earth tones and rich-color tiles. The bathroom had a shower stall and a sink counter that seemed to have been created along with the wall because of the way they flow from one surface to another. Above the toilet was a fan that can be switched on to improve ventilation.

Thornhill – Food

The first night was kind of neat. We sat in the outdoor dining area around a fire bit. But it was really dark so I could barely see the food that I got. I thought the experience was mediocre, but someone from my tour group who was assigned to stay at another lodge was hoping to eat around the fire like I did. I would’ve given him my spot if I knew how. Every night, someone from the cooking staff would beat a large drum by the gazebo to announce that it’s dinner time. Then when everyone’s at their seats, someone from the cooking staff (could be the same person, I wasn’t sure) would recite the menu. But honestly, their accents were very thick and they spoke relatively quickly that I could not catch half of what was said. Then they would decide the order in which the guests would get their food, either by gender (ladies first), or by the table that the guests were sitting. It’s different every night. The meals were mostly a buffet, except for dessert, which was also different every night. One night it’s pudding of some sort, another it’s ice cream. For the main and side dishes, it’s a good range for everyone’s tastes, including vegetarian. The portions were just enough (probably small by American standard) without feeling super full, although I could eat more if I didn’t have to be polite and save any for others. There’s also a bar with beers, wines, and mixed drinks. They also served lunch supposedly, but I never got to have it since I was always out on an activity. 

Thornhill – Staff

The staff are good folks. It’s hard to tell just by looking at them, but they worked hard to make sure the guests have a good stay. I also noticed (along with other South Africans) that they tend to have an honest attitude and rarely fake friendliness like Americans would. They’re professional, respectful, and direct. That said, it’s a bit hard for a shy American like me to open up and truly relax when there seems to be a awkwardness between the staff and me. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing that I just needed to get used to. Nonetheless, they are good people.

Thornhill – Wifi

Wifi costs 50 rand for the whole stay. Those who purchase it are given a code. It only worked in the main “indoor” area. It’s fast enough to check emails and browse sites, but it’s hard to do more than that.

Getting Around

In Johannesburg, I stayed at the hostel the whole time. I didn’t have much time to go outside, and I read that the streets could be dangerous, especially for travelers. In Kruger area, going to places is a scheduled event. I got to places via safari jeeps or vans from and to the lodge, since things are pretty far from one another.

Climate/Clothing

      • Time of year: Mid-October.

 

 

    • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

 

 

Climate – Johannesburg

The city was nice at this time of year. Sunny but cool and breezy. T-shirt or one-layer long sleeve during the day should be fine.

Climate – Kruger Area

      • The morning was surprisingly incredibly chilly, especially when riding in a open jeep. Long sleeves and jacket is recommended.

 

 

    • It warmed up by mid-day and got warm and a bit humid in the afternoon. T-shirt is fine. The warm breeze in a moving jeep could get a bit uncomfortable.

 

 

    • By nightfall, the temperatures dropped again and a light jacket is recommended.

 

 

    • One night, there was a huge downpour that went on through the night. The next morning, it was sunny again.

 

 

People

The people are generally nice. It’s probably because I mainly interacted with people who interact with tourists everyday. However, they are different from American customer service in that Americans seemed to put more effort into appearing friendly and making the customers feel good, whereas the customer service in South Africa seemed to be more direct. If you ask a question or request something, they reply with a straight answer, and then they move on with no follow up.

Language

Everyone spoke English. Most black South Africans have an African English accent, and most white South Africans have a mix of European and African English accents.

Tours

I purchased a safari tour from Intrepid Travel. It only occurred to me after the manager at Thornhill explained to another guest that companies like Intrepid Travel and G Adventures work with local tour companies around the world and book tours for travelers, and then mark up the price. If the travelers book the tour directly through the tour companies, it would be cheaper. How much cheaper and who the tour companies are, of course, aren’t always known to the customers. The safari group I was with came from the States, Europe and Australia, so I doubt they all booked the tour through Intrepid. My four-day tour package included a pickup from Johannesburg, a five-hour drive to Kruger area, a small safari at Kapama Game Reserve, three night stays at Thornhill, an all-day safari at Kruger National Park, a free day which I filled with a visit to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre, and another five-hour drive back to Johannesburg with a stop at Blyde River Canyon.

The Pickup and Ride to Kruger

The first morning, at Brown Sugar I got up and ready, had a quick and light breakfast because I didn’t want to have to use the restroom on the ride to Kruger. The pickup was late however, and after a while, I was getting worried, especially after what happened that one time in Peru, so I used my Skype credits to call the contact number and asked about the status. They assured me the pickup is coming, so I had to take their word for it. Somehow I discovered that there were two other people at Brown Sugar also waiting for the pickup. They were two girls from Germany who were cousin and one knew more English than the other. That made me feel slightly better that I wasn’t alone and forgotten. After some time, they went back to their room to wait. After more time, the ride finally came. We gave our luggages to the driver, who put them in a small trailer behind the van. I felt a bit unease about being separate from my one luggage, but I didn’t really have a choice. There were already a Swedish couple and a English couple in the van, and with the German girls and me, we picked up more people in neighboring cities: an Australian couple and another American who happened to be from the Bay Area as well. The ride was long and there was small chats once in a while, since no one really knew one another. Parts of the road reminded me very much of highway 280 in San Mateo and Redwood City area back at home, where it’s just nothing but brown hill after brown hill. Reminded me of Highway 280.

We stopped a few times along the way for gas, lunch, and snacks. The driver told us there’s not that many places in Kruger area to buy snacks, so we needed to get them at the stop. So I got a bunch of biscuits and water, hoping it would be enough for the next four days or so.

The biscuits were were too good.

Kapama Game Reserve

Photo Slideshow: South Africa - Safari - LBT 2014

We arrived late at the hotel, and once we dropped off our luggage in the room, we hopped on the van again to head to our first mini-safari.

Mini-Safari at Kapama Game Reserve.The Kapama Game Reserve was a small site, relatively speaking, It’s still a large area. We drove around, spotting giraffes and birds. I had trouble grasping the concept that these animals are living in a natural environment, as opposed to a zoo. So other than me being in a big 10-person jeep in Africa, it felt a bit underwhelming to me. Taking a break at Kapama Game Reserve.

We then took a break in a designated area where we were allowed to get off the jeep. It still boggles my mind how the animals would know it’s a designated area since there were no fences at all; it’s just an unusually open are with no plants. Our guides set up a table and laid out snacks that included nuts and chips and different types of biltong, which is jerky. I was too afraid to try to biltong so I stayed with crackers and chips. I then took a sufficient amount of sunset photos and panoramas.

Safari break snacks at Kapama Game Reserve.Sunset in Kapama Game Reserve.

As the sun set near the end of the break, we heard the roar of a lion nearby, so we quickly packed up and continued the drive. Sure enough, we spotted a lion on the side of road. The guide explained that when the sun set, the lions make their calls to claim the territory for the night, warning other male lions to stay away. I couldn’t tell the difference, I was still frightened by the sound the lion kept making, even if it wasn’t directed at me.

After about twenty minutes with the lion, we moved on to try to spot other animals in the dark. We were surprisingly successful and spotted zebras, water buffalos, and a bunch of other animals whose names I forgot.

Kruger National Park

The next morning I got a knock on my hotel room door to wake me up. Without breakfast, my group got on a jeep and made our way to Kruger National Park. Riding fast down the highway early in the morning was incredibly chilly. We got to the entrance, took our restroom break, and started exploring. It was still chilly but since it was later in the morning and we were moving slower, it was less bad.

At one point that morning, we were riding down a road that looked out far in the horizon, and it felt very open and free. I thought how I was very much not in the office at that moment, how I felt a little sorry for my teammates back home, and how I was right when I was supposed to be.

Openness at Kruger.After about an hour, we stopped for breakfast at a stop area. There were sandwiches, fruits, juice-boxes, and hard-boiled eggs! One of the German girls teased me because of how much I love eggs, since she noticed it when I had a second helping of eggs back at Brown Sugar. Breakfast break at Kruger. I ate at least one hard-boiled eggs.

A lot of the safari, I realized, was driving around trying to spot animals from fields of nothing. It helped to have the guide talk about the different animals and about African culture along the way, but there was still plenty of nothing. It may be a combination of nothing to see for most of the ride, the gentle vibration and white noise of the moving jeep, the waking up early in the morning, and the possible jet lag I was still experiencing, that I dozed off for most of the morning. My jeep-mates definitely noticed, since they giggled when I mentioned at lunch how sleepy I was.

For the safari, I chose to sit in the middle seat because everyone else had a fancy camera, and they were clearly prepared to take professional-looking photographs of these animals. And there I was, with my iPhone 5s. My goal of the trip was the experience of going on a safari and seeing things in person. I didn’t have a mission to spot particular animals or collect photographs of as many animals as I could find like the rest of my tour group did. So I let them sit on the sides and get clearer shots of what they wanted.

After lunch, it got a warmer and I was sort of afraid that would bring me back to sleep. But it was more exciting than the morning, since we heard someone spotted a cheetah. Surprisingly, to our guide’s quick response, we found the cheetah and followed it for a bit. Apparently it was chasing after its prey, but the prey either disappeared or climbed up a tree for refuge and the cheetah lost its lunch.

Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre

South Africa - Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre - LBT 2014The day after the Kruger safari was a free day. Guests could either pick an activity from a list or hang out at the lodge. One was to go on more game drives, and I felt that I had handled as much day-long driving as I could this trip. Another was the Cheetah Project, which involved rehabilitating injured cheetahs. And the other is Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre which is more for all types of animal. I was undecided since none of the activities appealed to me. The thought of hanging out at the lodge and maybe by the pool felt much closer to what I really wanted to do, albeit slow and kind of boring. But when the manager walked around after dinner and asked what I was going to do, before I could really answer I wanted to stay at the lodge, she recommended me to go to the Moholoholo activity instead of doing nothing. With little motivation to decline, and trusting her advice, I agreed to it. Moholoholo was pretty much like a zoo of African wildlife. It’s a bit more exciting because we had guides leading us through the campus explaining things and feeding animals. So I went along with it and it was actually cool to see these animals up close. But they’re mostly in cages so it could only be exciting for so much. My highlights were being a fence and few feet away from a lion, and I got to pet a cheetah, although it felt just like petting a big dog or animal with coarse fur. The moment went by pretty quickly, and I would’ve forgotten it if there wasn’t a video. Petting a wild cheetah at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre. Closest I got to a lion at Moholoholo.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow: South Africa - Food - LBT 2014

South Africa was a good example of “eating what I can get.”

At Brown Sugar, one can buy a dinner meal, which comes in two options: meat or vegetarian. The first time, I had a burger and fries. The second time, it was spaghetti bolognese. Both were delicious. For lunch, I ordered from a menu, but it was just me in the hostel ordering a lunch that day, so I felt bad that they had to open the kitchen just for me. I forgot what I ordered, but it probably had chicken in it. And breakfast was pretty standard, so I choose anything with eggs and meat.

On the road to Kruger, I bought biscuits for the trip. I also got some sort of chicken dish from a fast food place at a rest stop. And on the road back to Johannesburg, I got a burger from a place called Spur, which had a Native American drawing on the branding, which made me feel more uneasy at the insensitivity the more I thought about it.

At Thornhill, dinner had a set menu. There was meat dish, a bunch of sides, and a dessert. Even though the setting was a bit casual, the food was served with a level of professionalism and procedure where guests were sort of made to feel more cared for. Breakfast was a level higher than standard, with a few cooked items, like potatoes, which I had, and french toast, which I didn’t have.

I got to be picky when there’s a selection to choose from, and when there wasn’t, I ate what I had.

Getting out

After my safari tour, I was driven back to Brown Sugar Backpackers in Johannesburg. I arranged an airport ride for a fee and was taken to the airport at the time specified. It was quite easy.

From My Travel Log

14 October 2014, 8:48am, Joburg van to Kruger

  • Places so far feel similar, particularly cars and roads. SA highway feels just like the 280 in Bay Area
  • SA feels like “home”
    • being greeted on boarding plane in English just feels welcoming
    • radio talk pretty normal like in US
  • hard to realize I’m in a diff country/continent, with so many things the same
  • radio music very American Top 40

17 October 2014, 2:09pm, Brown Sugar

  • There are so many commonalities I’ve experienced with things at home, including technology, media, languages, daily interactions. I think it’s all standardized/westernized so that the way things are carried out were very different if I had visited 100 years ago. The similarities, while seemingly good, like when I visited Hong Kong or Melbourne, make me more homesick. It’s usually more prominent in the last few days of my trips where I’m itching to go home. So hopefully, I still get to enjoy Hawaii.

Thanks

  • “Tuso” (Brown Sugar driver)
  • Tina (Brown Sugar staff)
  • Asaf and Shif (sp): travelers from Israel at Brown Sugar. Ate dinner with them
  • “Dais”: traveler from Australia at Brown Sugar
  • Inger and Geza: German travelers at Brown Sugar and Kruger
  • Ollie and Dannee: English travelers at Kruger
  • Miranda and Adam: Australian travelers at Kruger
  • Chandra: Bay Area traveler at Kruger
  • Anders and Cecilia: Swedish travelers at Kruger
  • Jerry: J-Burg to Kruger driver
  • Victor: Kapama driver
  • Tim, Jaden, Charmaine (Thornhill staff)
  • Patrick, Remco, Mariana (fellow Thornhill guests)
  • Kent: Thornhill guest from LA and interested in traveling to Japan
  • German couple, Jors, Ralph, Dutch people, German people
  • Pechu (sp?): Thornhill driver

Tips

  • Bring cash for tips for the many drivers throughout the trip
  • Wear as many layers as possible for the morning drive to the safari. Even then, the face will still get numb from the wind.
  • Thornhill has adapters to borrow during the stay.
  • Thornhill: the toilets and sink next to the outdoor dining area are kind of shoddy. It’s best to use the bathroom in  your bedroom.
  • Thornhill: random creatures/insects will appear on sofas and chairs. There is no “indoors”, so just be aware if you’re squeamish like me.
  • This is a heads up: the final road to get to the hotel is unpaved and very bumpy. I was very happy the last day when I rode that road for the last time and got on the smooth highway.
  • Try to stay in Johannesburg for more than a day at a time so you can take advantage of day trips into the city that Brown Sugar offered.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of [location], feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu) — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque

Why Cuzco and Machu Picchu?

Short answer: Because it’s there.

Long answer: In the few years before the trip, I had heard so much about Machu Picchu, and the photos I’d seen were always so majestic. It’s always had this mystical feel to it, and watching The Motorcycle Diaries just made me more interested in it. Also, I wanted to have been six of seven continents by the end of the trip, and this was my South America stop.

Longer answer: After the trip, I shared with my relatives the places that I had been. Whenever I mentioned Machu Picchu, none of them had heard of it, which made me think it might be a Westerner fascination. That led me to wonder why I really wanted to visit it other than that other people say it’s a place to visit. And the answer is, “I don’t know.”

Itinerary

  • Monday, 6 Oct: Arrive at Lima at night
  • Tuesday, 7 Oct: Fly from Lima to Cuzco
  • Wednesday, 8 Oct: Inca Museum, Cuzco region tour
  • Thursday, 9 Oct: Machu Picchu
  • Friday, 10 Oct: Zip-lining in Sacred Valley
  • Saturday, 11 Oct: Fly from Cuzco to Lima
  • Sunday, 12 Oct: Fly out of Lima

My Impression

Cuzco is a lovely town, larger and more developed than I thought. While the people spoke limited English, English-speaking travelers can get by in the main (touristy) part of town.

Machu Picchu was majestic. I used that word before, but it’s the closest description I could think of. It was exciting to see it, mainly because I had heard and read so much about it, and I finally got to be there in person. Otherwise, it’s just an abandoned ancient city at the top of a hill with two taller hills as an iconic backdrop. I’m currently 50/50 on returning, and if I do go back, I am also 50/50 about doing the Inca Trail. But I’m probably 90% sure I want to climb up that iconic mountain Wayna Picchu once I get there.

Getting There

To get to Machu Picchu, most people start at the closest major town, which is Cuzco. And most people get to Cuzco by flying from Lima. I flew from Albuquerque to Lima with a connection in Houston.

I arrived at the Lima airport at night, and the flight from Lima to Cuzco was at six in the morning, as most flights with route were apparently, so I decided to spend the night at the airport. In my research, this is very common, and someone even outlined their experience with tips.

Lima airport food court

I bought a tour package for Machu Picchu via G Adventures, so when I got to the Cuzco airport, I had someone waiting for me with a sign that had my name. That was the first time it had happened to me, and I felt a little bit special.

Accommodations

The first three nights in Cuzco were part of the G Adventures tour, so I stayed in the Antawasi Hotel. The final night in Cuzco, I was on my own, so I booked a night at the Pariwana hostel. And when I got back to Lima, I stayed in the nearby Pay Purix Hostel for the night.

Antawasi Hotel (Cuzco)

Compared to the rest of the city, I would say it was a pretty nice hotel. A large part of that was how clean and well-kept the place was. One time, I came back to the hotel in the middle of the day, and I noticed at least three cleaning staff in the hallway, with face masks on, mopping floors, wiping surfaces, coming in and out of rooms with bags of trash. Every night I get back to the hotel, the bed was made with sheets tucked in squarely, the trash was emptied, and the bathroom counter was tidied up. I’m sure it’s the normal housekeeping stuff that American hotel cleaning staff do, but at this hotel, you actually noticed it.

The room

My room was small by American standard, but it was just me so it was quite sufficient. There’s a full or queen size bed, nightstands, built-in closet, a table and chair, a TV hanging high up, and a basic bathroom. For power source, the outlets were either behind the nightstand or on the far side of the wall, so charging my phone took a bit of effort. First world problems.

My room at Hotel Antawasi

The Toilet-Paper-Free Toilet

I noticed this at the Lima airport, but I thought it was just the airport. But it occurred to me at the hotel that most toilets in Peru, or at least in the area, can’t handle toilet paper, and one would need to put used toilet paper in a garbage bin next to the toilet to be emptied. This reminded me of the story when Olympians and visitors went to Sochi in Russia for the Winter Games and experienced the same culture shock. Now I know why the cleaning staff wore face masks. Sign in hotel bathroom.

The water

As I was doing medical preparation for the trip, I learned that visitors in Peru may want to avoid drinking the local water there and should drink bottled water instead. Not taking any chances in the bathroom, I got a jug of water and used it to brush and rinse my teeth. It was a bit of hassle transferring water to a glass then sipping it to rinse. I also trained myself to not aim my open mouth at the shower head when showering. At the beginning, I got water in my mouth in the shower and quickly spit it out, but I left Peru without any medical problems, so all of this was probably overkill.

Wifi

The Wifi Internet was basic, but slow by American standard. It’s available in the room and also at the lobby/reception. Checking emails and browsing sites are fine, and maybe streaming short videos. Uploading batches of photos may take more time.

Staff

The receptionist who was working for most my stay, whose name was Yolanda, was very helpful. She knew limited English, but she made up for it through the nonverbals like smiling after every sentence and being extra nice so I feel comfortable.  She helped me take care of issues with my tour arrangements by talking to my local contact at G Adventures on the cellphone in Spanish, and then relayed the important information to me. I was glad she was there.

Coca tea

When I arrived at the hotel, I was quickly greeted and asked if I wanted some coca tea. Yolanda quickly made a cup at a self-serve station and served it to me. I had heard about the use of coca tea in Cuzco to deal with the altitude, but I thought it was something you had to order at a restaurant, and here at the hotel there’s a giant bowl of dried coca tea leaves ready to be brewed. I also took medication for the altitude, but I actually stopped taking it while I was in Cuzco. So either the combination of the medication and the tea worked very well, or that I adjusted well with the altitude. Still, I continued to drink the tea just because I felt like it.

Coca tea

Food

The hotel offered free breakfast, but the selection was relatively basic. I noticed only about three or four pairs of guests when I was there, which was fine, because the quantity of food was sort of low, or at least the portions were small by American standard. There were hard boiled eggs the first day, which I was very excited about it. I took only two but I would’ve taken more if there were more to share in the tray. There were sausage links or smalls slices of ham, and the usual toast, fruit, butter, jam, granola/cereal, teas, and coffees. Again, by American standard, it’s quite basic. One would probably need to have a second breakfast after leaving the hotel to start the day.

Location

The hotel was relatively nicely located. It’s tucked in a quiet alley, but a few quick turns and you would get to one of the main streets, and then you’ll be five to ten minutes from the main town square. School near the hotel.

Personal note, around the corner of the hotel was a school, and there’s a large gate. That street very much reminded me of my school in Macau when I was young. Above is a picture of the street with the next to the school with the gate in Cuzco. Here is a Google Street View of my childhood school:

I know they don’t look exactly the same, but the mood of the alley triggered a memory. It’s one of those cases of strange faraway places evoking familiar feelings.

Pariwana Hostel (Cuzco)

With an extra day in Cuzco after the G Adventures Machu Picchu tour ended, I filled it with a zip-lining activity and came back to Cuzco and stayed at the Pariwana Hostel.

In my opinion, I see Pariwana as a tightly-run grown-up dorm. I think it’s because there are so many guests coming in and out every day that they had to implement an efficient system to keep things running smoothly. The staff communicated with guests and one another seriously and professionally like businesspeople. Everything was a task; when one staff asked another to do something, the command is received with a straight face, and the person proceeded to do what was asked. There were signs posted throughout the place for guests, like a noise curfew. People could still socialize after 11pm, but they had to do it in the bar room while the rest of the hostel was lights out and all quiet. All guests had a durable wristband attached when they checked in so they know who to charge meals and purchases, and I think to also prevent outside people from coming in.

Facilities

Despite the slightly repressing feeling, the hostel had a lot of fun things to offer. The night I was there, they were organizing a weekly barbecue and were asking if people were interested in joining. There’s a giant activity board for day trips as well as tour packages to go to Machu Picchu and other places. On site, there’s TV/movie room, a bar room, a cafeteria, an Internet room, and laundry service and bottled water for sale at reception, all surrounding an open courtyard of ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs. It’s definitely aimed towards the college crowd or younger twenty-somethings, but there were people around my age as well. If I were to come to Cuzco again, I would stay here and for longer than one night, and I would probably bring one or more people along.

The Room

I stayed in a six-person room. It was a narrow room with three bunk beds and a couple of lockers. I had the bottom bunk and there was only one light in the room, so I had trouble seeing clearly when I had my stuff on my bed. The only source of natural light was a small window above the metal door, which had a slight problem opening and closing.

Pariwana Hostel room.

Locker

The lockers were tall and had loops to place your lock through. It’s a bit noisy to open since it’s all metal. Inside, there’s an outlet that you can charge your phone with! However, there were no outlets next to the bed. My locker.

Wifi

Wifi Internet sort of works in the hallways and courtyard. It works best in the Internet room. Still slow by American standard.

Pariwana Internet room.

Bathrooms

There’s a bathroom area with several separate shower rooms and toilet rooms. The toilets again had trash cans next to them to place used toilet paper. The showers were basic with a rack to place toiletries. I accidentally left my travel-size shampoo bottle at night and the next day it was gone. I was hoping they were more lax about cleaning the bathrooms, or that they would have a lost-and-found, but neither of those things were true, it seemed. Oh well, It was far from the most valuable thing I lost on the trip anyway.

Towels

During the day, the balconies all had personal towels hanging off them to dry. With my room being so crowded and the only ventilation being by the door, I followed everyone else and tried to dry my towel in public as well. But it was already later in the evening so I only got to hang it for so long, so I took it back to my room and hung it at the foot of my bed.

Roommates

There were two couples in my dorm that night. One was in their early twenties and were from England, and they gave me tips and places to visit when I get to London and Paris. The other couple was heading out for their Inca Trail journey to Machu Picchu the next morning. I know because there was ruckus in the middle of the night as people were coming in and out and asking for one of them.

Food

The food at the cafeteria was good, probably because it’s paid food. I almost forgot that fact since everything was put on a tab to be closed at check out. In the evening, I ordered a chicken and rice dish. It was delicious but a bit of the medium portion size. In the morning, there was free breakfast, which was toast and other basic foods, but I ordered an “American” breakfast, which was eggs, sausage, etc. because I somehow needed a full breakfast for my travels back to Lima, and it would be hard to get full with just toast. The “American” breakfast was good but also on the smaller size, so the free breakfast items helped supplement that. Chicken dish at Pariwana Hostel

Check out

Check out was at 11am and I forgot that since the hostel had so many people, there would be a line to check out right before 11. Fortunately I made it, but there was a taxi waiting to get me to the airport, arranged by my G Adventures local contact (More on that later). Even with the rush, the hostel staff made me fill out a survey about my stay. So I more or less rated everything in a positive light, even though I would have rated differently had I been given more time. Also, I had to do it in front of the staff, which was sort of unfair and awkward.

Pay Purix Hostel (Peru)

I booked a night at the Pay Purix hostel near the airport because I wanted to avoid spending the night at the airport again, and my morning flight out departed a little later than my Cuzco flight, so I had a bit more time to sleep in a real bed. Aside from the fact that it was known as an overnight airport hostel for travelers, especially those on their way to or from Cuzco, from the reviews and photos of many websites, this hostel seemed to be a very happening place with many opportunities for socializing, so I was sort of curious to check it out.

Airport pickup

I arranged for an airport pickup since I read about the safety issues in the neighborhood around the Lima airport. Once again someone held a sign with my name on it (as well as another guest’s) at the airport lobby. Once both of us were picked up, we rode in the taxi to the hostel. The other guest was Swiss, I believe, and he just completed the Inca Trail or something.

I tried to Google Street View the exact location of the hostel before the trip, but I had trouble pinpointing the entrance, or the building for that matter. When we arrived, I thought the taxi driver was dropping off the other guest at his hostel because I didn’t see any sign that says “Pay Purix”. It turns out the entrance was a metal door on a giant metallic facade. Looking back, it was probably like that for security reasons.

Check in

Right after walking through the door was the tiny reception desk underneath the stairs. I paid for the night in cash and was directed to my room upstairs.

I booked a spot in a four-person room, but I was the only one there. In fact, the entire hostel was the opposite of what the pictures online were. Instead of a happening hostel full of people hanging out, there were probably only a handful of people staying there. Maybe it was slow season.

The room

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Pay Purix Hostel - LBT 2014There was a double-bed in the middle of the room, and a bunk bed by the wall. I wanted to be considerate (to whom?!) so I took the bottom bunk. Also, the double bed felt too open in case someone else happened to be staying there as well. As I was settling in, one of the staff came in to the room without realizing I was in there. She made an apologetic face and backed out of the room. But since the rooms had windows near the ceiling that were opened to the hallway. I could hear her talk to another staff about what just happened, and after an exchange of words that I couldn’t understand, she laughed as if she made a joke. I assumed that she was laughing at how I took the bottom bunk when I had the chance to take the big open double bed. On each bed was a nicely folded towel with a small slice of unwrapped soap. That was nice, I thought, until I lifted the towel and a bug scurried out of the way. I decided then that I was going to use my travel sheet and my own towel. 

Bathroom

I took a shower and noticed the shower head had a interesting contraption to adjust the water temperature. There was also a sign next to the shower that said the water pressure needed to be lowered to get warm water. To this day, I still don’t know how that actually works, but I made it work and had some warm water for my shower. The provided soap pretty much washed out after my shower. I suppose they gave their guests just enough soap for one shower.

Lockers

The room had “lockers,” which are giant cupboards with metal loops for mini padlocks. I chose one that happened to have an outlet on the wall and charged my phone while I was hanging out in the common area.

Common Area and WiFi

There was a relatively good size common area, with a pool room, a WiFi/couch area, and a TV room with a bunch of VHS tapes on a shelf. The only problem was that only I was there, and for only a few minutes, so did the Swiss guy who I rode in with from the airport. Wifi only worked in the Wifi area, so I hung out there with my tablet and surf the web a little bit. The speed was very basic, just like in Cuzco. And the Wifi area also had no roof, so it was starting to get dark as the evening arrived and it got chilly, so I went back to the room.

(Lack of) Food

From the pictures of the hostel online, the ones where people were socializing and laughing with drinks in their hands, I thought I saw food as well, so I assume there was food I could order. I noticed a small kitchen next to the Wifi area, but it was fairly clean and empty with no signs of being used any time soon. I also heard it is possible ask the staff to order takeout from outside the hostel and have them bring it in. But that felt like too much hassle and I wouldn’t know what to order anyway. So I just ate whatever snacks I had in my luggage as my dinner and went to bed early, and hoped to get something at the airport the next day.

New guest

In the middle of the night, I got woken up by some people at the door stage-whispering. A guest had checked in, and I somehow felt obligated to chat with him a little bit. The guy was from Korea and just landed. We chatted for a few minutes, longer than I expected, though I forgot his story (he may be a student) and where he was going. As he was settling in and started using the bathroom, I just went back to sleep.

Check out and airport pickup

The next early morning, I woke up and quietly got ready. I was very aware of where my things were so I could almost navigate around my luggage in the dark and without waking my new roommate. Then I went downstairs to check out and ask about my ride to the airport, which I arranged the previous evening. But there was already a couple there with the boyfriend talking to the receptionist about how their ride was fifteen or so minutes late. At one point, the impatient guy went outside of the hostel on the curb to wait for his taxi, but the receptionist told the girlfriend to ask him to come back because it wasn’t safe. That made me glad I decided to get a ride to the airport instead of trying to be self-sufficient and make the ten-minute walk by myself before dawn. When a taxi came, the couple was very ready to get in. It was also around the time when my taxi was supposed to arrive, so I was hesitating, not sure if it was my ride, too, but the receptionist confirmed that I should get in that taxi as well. Thinking back, I had paid the same flat rate as the couple for the taxi, and we both shared the ride, which means the hostel made a profit that way by packing the guests, paying for one taxi, and keeping the rest of the money.

Getting Around (Cuzco)

As I mentioned, I was picked up by from the airport via the tour package that I got. There are tips online for how to find the right taxis to get you to the town center. Once I got to the main tourist area, it’s relatively walkable. Many of the streets and alleys were narrow, with an occasional open courtyard popping up, and they are all paved differently. There are minor hills, and the altitude may make them require a bit more effort to get up.

Climate/Clothing

Time of year: early October. The weather was generally mild, with a bit of humidity. A t-shirt or short sleeve is generally fine, especially if you’re walking around and up small slopes.
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

Spurts of Rain in Cuzco

One evening I was walking back to my hotel from dinner and I started feeling droplets of water on my head. It started with sprinkles but the droplets started getting bigger. By the time I got back to the hotel, it was pouring, and since the hotel had a central open atrium where all the rooms face out towards it, I could hear the roaring of the water just continuously dumping onto the courtyard on the ground floor until late in the night. So I guess it’s common to have these localized pockets of rain in Cuzco.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is actually lower in elevation from Cuzco. The weather was partly sunny and the temperatures were cool down at the base at Aguas Calientes and warmer at the actual site. With all the hiking up and down the different parts of the site, I started working up a sweat. My tour guide also took out an umbrella to block the sun, which felt a bit excessive at first but was very helpful and necessary.

People

The people I encountered were nice for the most part, and they did what they can to help foreigners like me. I would say a third to a half of the people I’ve interacted with speak limited to basic English. If you don’t speak Spanish, most people still try to help you, or defer you to someone who spoke English. Since I stayed mostly in the tourist areas, there were plenty of workers with flyers or their portfolio in hands trying to sell your packages or paintings. For the most part, I just said “No, gracias.” and they would go on their way, though I was always afraid that if my eyes lingered just a bit longer at the paintings, they would be more persistent and I’d have to be more firm in getting them to stop following me.

Language

This was my first time in a Spanish-speaking country by myself. I had been to Nicaragua two years previous, but I was in a group with a few people who knew Spanish. As I said before, in Cuzco, about a third to a half of the people know limited English. Fortunately, with whatever English they knew, I was able to get by with basic requests. In preparation for this trip, I tried to learn/brush up five languages through immersion audio lessons. I started the Spanish lessons after I started Italian, so it was sort of confusing between the two, especially with numbers and some of the conjunctions and prepositions. While I didn’t learn enough to have a conversation. I had learned enough words to build common traveling phrases and use the right conjugations, gender, and tenses. My proudest moment was on my last day, at the Lima airport, where I already got rid of most of my Peruvian soles and I had to pay for some food in U.S. Dollars. After hearing Spanish and thinking about words in Spanish for the past few days, I asked the cashier, with good confidence in my conjugations and grammar, “Puedo pagar in dólares?” (Can I pay in dollars?) And the cashier replied normally, “Claro!” (Of course!)

Tours

G Adventures

This was the first time I used G Adventures. The site was relatively easy to use, with very detailed information about each tour. I would recommend it if you have little to no idea how to take the trip you want to take, like this Machu Picchu one.

City Tour

My first official day of the tour package was a free day, and the day before, I met with my local contact Wenny, and in addition to all the paperwork for the Machu Picchu trip, she gave me a list of optional activities to do on my first free day. She assured me I didn’t have to decide then, but when I have, I could let her know and she would arrange it.

Arrangement

I decided to do the half-day city/region tour of Cuzco. So that evening, I let Wenny know but she still said I didn’t have to decide then, so being polite, I took more time to think about it. The next day, I told her I still wanted to do the city tour, and she said she would arrange it, and that I should wait at the hotel at 1pm for pickup. So I waited at the lobby at 1pm and about fifteen to twenty minutes past, I asked Yolanda the receptionist to call Wenny to ask about the tour. After a long conversation between the two, I found out there was some sort of miscommunication, and Wenny asked Yolanda to call a taxi for me and get me to the tour group.

The Cathedral

I got dropped off in front of the cathedral next to the town square, got led to the front door by several ladies and one boy, paid for a ticket, was asked to remove my cap, and the boy brought me to the tour group I was supposed to be with. I thanked the boy but he lingered a little bit, unsure what to do. A few minutes later he finally left. Only afterwards did I realized he was probably expecting a tip, and that made me feel a little bad. The tour guide walked us through different parts of the cathedral, telling the history of the natives and how they interacted with European foreigners coming in and spreading the religion. It was interesting to see large paintings depicting the Europeans as the aggressive conquerors forcing their way into the land, whereas a few weeks later, my visit to museums in Europe would depict the sentiment of how the saintly Europeans were doing the good work of taming the people in distant lands.

Cuzco Walk

After the tour of the cathedral, we walked through certain parts of the town while Claudio the tour guide pointed things out and talked about the history, as tour guides do. This whole time, I kept wondering to whom I should pay the the twenty-dollar tour fee. In the rush to get to the tour group, no one from G Adventures asked me for the money, so I thought it was an pay-on-the-spot type of tour, if such a thing exists. So I asked Claudio whether I should pay him, and he just said yes.

Cuzco Ruins

After the tour of the city, we hopped on a bus and made our way up the hills to the ruins. There were four sites, and there are tickets for individual sites or all of them as a package. We gave Claudio the money and he bought the tickets for us. The first site was Saqsayhuamán, which sounded like “sexy woman” said in a funny way. Right after entering, I gave Claudio the twenty dollars for the tour, and I felt cleared that I didn’t owe anyone anything. We continue to check out the four sites and learned about the history. Near the end, I more or less got the gist of the story and was getting tired and a little bored. In front of Inca wall in Saqsayhuamán

Alpaca Store

On the bus ride back, the sun had gone down, and we were brought to an Alpaca wool store. We stood in front of a salesperson and was taught how to spot real baby alpaca wool from the fake, and they said that their store only sold the real stuff, so we should buy from them. I walked around the store once or twice and waited back at the bus, knowing that 1) I didn’t need any wool clothing, and 2) I didn’t have room in my one carry-on luggage, and I’d have to carry it with me throughout the trip. A while later, everyone from the tour finished their shopping and got back on the bus. The tour ended when we got dropped off in the city.

Machu Picchu

On my first day of arriving in Cuzco, I met with my G Adventures local contact Wenny at the hotel lobby and she gave me a big envelope of documents and explained how the Machu Picchu trip was going to work. It was all very detailed, which honestly went over my head. I reviewed the stuff later on to make sure everything was set.

Photo Slideshow:

Peru - Machu Picchu - LBT 2014

Taxi to Poroy Train Station

Early in the morning, I got picked up by a taxi at my hotel. Before I left the hotel, a different receptionist asked me to leave my key. I didn’t know why, but I figured it might be in case I don’t make it back, like if I fell down the side of Machu Picchu? I don’t know. It turns out I would be riding with two other people, who also bought the G Adventures tour and were staying at the hotel across from mine. They were a Chinese couple from Canada, Felix and Grace. We made small talk in the 25-30 minute ride to Poroy station, and the ride gave me a brief look at the conditions in the outskirts of Cuzco for the first time. When we got to the station, it was pretty packed. It turned out most of the people there were waiting for an earlier train. Once those people boarded, the station almost emptied. While waiting, I bought two overpriced croissants from the cafe counter, since it was going to be along train ride. I hung out with Felix and Grace some more and we talked about their travels.

Train Ride from Poroy to Aguas Calientes

The train was pretty nice. I sat at a four-seat table with Felix, Grace, and a French man who was in Lima for a conference. The tables were a bit tightly spaced so if people facing each other slouched a little bit, they would awkwardly touch knees. It’s definitely more uncomfortable for taller people like me. The train played “folksy” Peruvian music with flutes and things, then it got remix-y with some digital/house music spin to it, possibly as a way to wake people up. There were two main staff members in our car. And they were serving drinks and food at some point, and then became salespeople selling Machu Picchu souvenirs and DVDs. It was kind of weird. The train ride was about four hours, and I nodded off here and there. Other than looking out of the train at the farmlands and Peruvian landscape, which became repetitive after a few hours, there was very little to do.

Aguas Calientes

Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, I was picked up by my tour guide Jose at the station. Felix and Grace had their own guide. He swiftly led me through a maze of vendors in Aguas Calientes, across a bridge, through more shops, and waited in line for the bus. We made obligatory small talk and talked about our jobs.

Bus Ride from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu

The bus ride up the mountain to the Machu Picchu site was surprisingly long. It was probably 20-25 minutes. It was basically a back-and-forth winding road along one side of the mountain gradually getting higher and higher. As the bus turned at a corner on one side of the mountain, I could get glimpses of Wayna Picchu, peeking out and more visible as we got higher. For some reason, I imagined it like a giant inanimate T-Rex’s head.

Machu Picchu

After getting off the bus, we walked straight to the entrance and the staff checked and stamped my ticket with pasport. We walked past a small table where people could stamp a Machu Picchu image on their passport. After a few more climbs, we got to the main site area, and around the corner appeared the iconic postcard image I had seen for years, right in front of my eyes. It was almost surreal. From the way it looked, I could tell I wasn’t at the “correct” spot like I’ve seen in photos, so I was ready to keep walking and continue the tour until I get to that “spot.” But Jose convinced the me to just get a picture with it, because he could tell I was somewhat excited, so I did. First photo at Machu Picchu.

I followed Jose through the route of the site, which surprised me that there was a route. I thought people just freely walked around. Apparently, you must go in the direction of the route. If you want to go back to a certain area, you’d have to continue the route back to the beginning and walk through it again.

Jose was very knowledgeable about the different sections of the site and their history, which made the place more fascinating and rich with meaning. The tour took about two hours to complete. When the tour ended, I thanked Jose, took a selfie with him, tipped him, and then he left. The itinerary allowed me to stay for another hour or so exploring until I had to head back to catch the bus and train.

My tour guide Jose and me.

So with just me at this point, I climbed up and down different elevations trying to find the “right” shot. I also recorded my daily video among other footage. I said to myself that I could stay there longer, but I felt that I reached my picture quota, I was a little tired, and while I wasn’t hungry, I could eat. I pretty much took in as much of the Machu Picchu as I could. So I made my way to the exit, got my passport stamped, and headed to the bus stop to get picked up. Machu Picchu stamp on my passport.Since I wanted to leave in the afternoon like almost everyone else, I waited about an hour in line. Near the beginning of the wait, I thought about going to the bathroom, but I felt that I could wait. Besides, the bathrooms charged money (a few coins). I also thought about getting food first but I felt that the wait for the bus probably wouldn’t be too long, so I forewent both. Luckily, I made it down to Aguas Calientes without any urgent need to use the restroom or to eat.

The Return

At Aguas Calientes, there was time left before the train arrived, so I tried to find something to eat and to buy couple of souvenirs for myself. I couldn’t decided which grab-and-go type of food I should get, since I wouldn’t have time to sit down at a restaurant for a meal. I ultimately choose an empanada, and it tasted decent. I rode the train back with Felix and Grace, but this time, everyone was more tired and napped more. After the three-to-four hour train ride, I felt I was so close to the hotel, but I remembered there was another 25 or so minutes of taxi ride from Poroy back to Cuzco, which felt unfairly long.

The taxi driver, with his limited English, was trying to talk to us and make jokes. It was sort of obvious he made an effort, so we agreed to give him a decent tip. We got dropped off at our hotels, Felix and Grace exchanged emails with me, and we ended the night.

Zip-lining

I decided a few weeks before the trip that on the free day I had in Cuzco after my Machu Picchu visit, I would squeeze in an item from my “Before 30” list and go zip-lining. I found a company (Natura Vive) that did it in Cuzco and made arrangement to go. One reason I went with this company was that they offered six zip-line rides instead of one or two like other companies, supposedly.

Another early morning, I got picked up again, this time in a van. I honestly did not know how far it was going to be, other than that it was in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco. In total, I think the ride took about two hours, including picking up other customers and stopping at the company “headquarters” to pick up the zip-lining gear. We finally got to the side of a mountain and set up our gear. Before we got to zip-line, we had to hike our way up to the first spot. I wasn’t aware of this, and neither did some of the other customers. But I was fine with it because I was in shape and could do some hiking and climbing. A few others, one in particular, took longer to make his way up. Less in shape, he was devastatingly surprised this zip-line tour involved hiking. At the midway point, we took a food break, which were sandwiches and a piece of fruit that they provided. They even had bottled water for us.

The first spot was probably two-thirds to half way up on the side of the mountain. From there we just let gravity lead our way down the mountain six times. With this being my first time, it took getting used to with the breaking mechanics. We had heavy duty gloves on but placing our hands on the zip-line while it’s moving just subconsciously trigger possible rope burns in my mind. But for the most part, it was neat. While the speed of the zip-line was fast, it felt less so being in such an open space surrounded by tall mountains.

I tried taking videos of one of the rides, but it mostly aimed at the sky and zip-line. I also passed my phone to the person ahead of me and asked him to record me, which was out of focus at the beginning but came into focus in the end. That one made it to my daily video. Good enough.

My attempt at POV shot.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts. Photo Slideshow: Peru - Food - LBT 2014

Other than ceviche and guinea pig (neither of which I ate while there), I knew very little about Peruvian cuisine. I went to the Agua y Manto restaurant the first night and had a fancy-looking chicken dish, but I wasn’t sure if it’s Peruvian. The chicken and rice dish from Pariwana Hostel was nice and delicious but again, I don’ know if it’s Peruvian. Other than that, I ate mostly snacks I got at the grocery store or American style foods.

Getting out

I got a taxi ride to the Cuzco airport that was arranged by my G Adventures local contact. I thought it was a nice gesture until a representative from G Adventures waited for me at the airport, helped me get my boarding pass, and then asked me to pay her the twenty dollars for the city tour that I signed up for, which I thought was paid for when I gave the tour guide the twenty dollars. He fooled me out of twenty dollars.

And I got a taxi ride to the Lima airport through the Pay Purix hostel.

From My Travel Log

6 October 2014, 11:41pm, LIM Airport Food Court

First time in South America! First night will be spent at an airport food court!

When I left Houston, I was terrified of coming to a country where I don’t speak the language. Hearing the bilingual flight attendants speak Jibberish made me really nervous. But after finishing review for Pimsleur Spanish for the third time, I felt slightly better, at least I know how to say “I don’t understand.”

As I prepare for my short long night at the airport (flight’s at 6:30 so I go through the scans at around 4:30/5am), I went and bought a giant bottle of water. As I went to pay, I think the lady was already speaking English, but she spoke so fast with her accent that I froze and immediately dug out “no entiendo” to place at the tip of my tongue. But when she repeated, I caught “plastic bag” and I took a few seconds to confirm and responded “No.” When the transaction was complete, she said “thank you” and I mumbled “gracias” to redeem myself in the most subtlest way possible.

Also on the flight, the flight attendants were passing out immigration and declaration forms. The immigration form had both Spanish and English, but I took a look at the declaration form and it was all Spanish. I went back and forth as I looked through the form “I can do this.” and “I don’t know what this mean.” and “I think that’s this.” I wasn’t sure if there was an English version, so I really tried to take a stab at it and used the Word Lens app to see if it can translate. It’s actually pretty good. I would give it a 65-75% helpful rating. But I still wouldn’t be able to fill this out with full understanding of what I just wrote. So I finally asked for an English version and sure enough, there was one. In hindsight, it was interesting that the flight attendant gave me the Spanish version.

8 October 2014, 11:55am, Jack’s Cafe, Cuzco

  • Impression of Cuzco
    • Out of breath: hills, thin air, exhaust
    • Interesting combo of old and new, similar but different than Hong Kong
    • Glad I learned about water and toilet beforehand.
    • “I’m really here!” after being in place where street view was.
    • Inca Museum – very comprehensive, lots of pots and vases artifacts. Still not understanding full history.
    • Lots of ATMs, almost obscene
    • Lots of water bottles for sale
    • Agua y Manto – hard to find entrance, but chicken really good. Banana blend really good
    • Very few speaking English really well. Some only words and phrases, some not at all.
    • Non main streets have different names at every block.
    • Really annoying to make change for S/100

9 October 2014, 2:17pm, Machu Picchu

It’s magnificent! In many ways, like the city itself, it’s perfect. The experience is perfect. I can see myself being back here again like NYC. Maybe next time, I will do the Inca Trail, but probably with somebody. And having the guide definitely helped me appreciate and understand the place more. It’s hard to find myself walk away and return to Aguas Calientes, but I must.

11 October 2014, 11:34pm, Cuzco Airport Gate 2

  • Cuzco – so much to explore
  • Next time: Inca Trail, Wayna Picchu
  • Cuzco, it’s a good town – NOT BAD
  • Almost like Macau, people come here for the main attraction (Machu Picchu/casinos) but it’s a hard working town with its perks and issues.
  • It doesn’t feel like I’m in Peru, whatever that means. I’m just in a place with different language, different customs and traditions, and different way of living, but not too different; we’re still all human, looking for the same things in life.
  • Cuzco Airport security – just bag and trinkets (wallet, phone, coins, etc.) – no shoes, liquids

Thanks

  • G Adventures airport pick up driver
  • Yolanda, the receptionist at Hotel Antawasi
  • Wenny, my G Adventures contact
  • Yolanda, the Tatoo Adventure Gear shop clerk who understood English and accepted my payment for the zip-line trip
  • Claudio, city tour guide (who fooled me out of twenty dollars)
  • Sergei, a fellow city tour customer
  • Felix and Grace, my fellow G Adventures Machu Picchu train mates who are from Canada
  • French man from Lyon on train to Aguas Calientes
  • Jose, my G Adventures Machu Picchu tour guide
  • Cynthia and Cesar, my zip-line operators
  • Jacob and Tammy, and Henry, my fellow zip-liners.
  • Jenny, the lady who showed me around Pariwana and my room
  • May and Bryson, my Pariwana dorm mates who gave me advice about London and Paris
  • Mariana, my Pariwana breakfast table-mate (from Brazil?)
  • Simon, my fellow Pay Purix guest and taxi buddy from the Lima airport
  • Jeremy and Angelina, my fellow Pay Purix guests and taxi buddies to the Lima airport
  • taxi and shuttle drivers

Tips

  • 100-Peruvian-sole bills are hard to break. When you get cash, get 50-sole bill as the largest denomination (though even then it’s hard to break), unless you are making large purchases.
  • If you’re exchanging currency, either ask to get 50-sole bills (or smaller) denominations, or exchange one 20-dollar bills at a time. I made the mistake of exchanging two 20-dollar bills at the same time and got a 100-sole bill and change. As soon as I uttered, “Can I…” to ask for smaller bills, the guy wagged his finger and shook his head. His rudeness took me aback and I felt too defeated to try to ask again.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with how to do Machu Picchu, I definitely recommend buying a tour like I did, because they took care the taxi ride from Cuzco to the Poroy train station about 30 minutes away, the train tickets from Poroy to Aguas Calientes, the bus tickets to get from AC to Machu Picchu, the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, and the return trips. It would require me a lot more time and research to try to get all of that arranged.
  • Get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp right after you go through the entrance (if you’re coming in from Aguas Calientes). There should be a small table on the side with two pads of stamps.
  • If you are taking the bus back down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes in the afternoon, expect to wait for about an hour in line to get on a bus. So go to the bathroom and eat something before getting in line.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Cuzco or Machu Picchu, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Albuquerque International Fiesta 2014

Part 1: Albuquerque — Little Big Trip 2014

Why Albuquerque?

Whenever I started listing my itinerary for the Little Big Trip (LBT) to people, they were surprised that Albuquerque was on there, let alone my first stop. (Some thought it was because of the show Breaking Bad, which I have yet to watch.) I wanted to visit Albuquerque to check out the annual International Balloon Fiesta. A few months earlier, I saw photos of a field of hot air balloons somewhere and thought it would be a great sight to see.

Getting There

My entire luggage: a carry-on bag.After carefully packing my things into one carry-on luggage for the six-week adventure, I flew from San Francisco to Albuquerque (or “ABQ” as I refer to the entire city now) with a connection at Phoenix. While I had flown over the American Southwest before, this was the first time I really looked out the window and become mesmerized by the alien-looking landscape. It may also be the time of day when the sun hits the land with a warm color. The Phoenix airport, maybe because of the openness of the land, also looks out to beautiful skylines in the evening time. Beautiful Phoenix landscape from the airport.

Accommodations

I stayed at an Airbnb in Albuquerque. Since I was one of the hundreds of thousands of spectators coming to Albuquerque for the Fiesta, a lot of the hotel rooms were booked in advance, and any rooms left would be expensive or low quality. This would be the perfect opportunity to book an Airbnb and be economical and self-sufficient to start off the trip.

I chose the place I stayed at based on its relatively close location to the pick-up spot for the Fiesta. The Fiesta offers these “Park & Ride” tickets where you meet up at one of four locations in the city and they would shuttle you to the Fiesta park. I looked up the Airbnb spot on a map and it was about a 20-minute walk to the meet-up point at Coronado mall, and I felt that 20 minutes was totally doable. The listing was also relatively inexpensive.

After landing at the ABQ airport at night, I Lyfted to the Airbnb house. I could go into detail about this place some other time, but basically, the place belongs to a young guy who’s starting a business and has this large house, so he’s renting out some of the rooms to Airbnb guests. This is one of the listings. The house was large, and it definitely has a 20-something guy’s pad feel to it, as in under-furnished with mismatched pieces of furniture. My room left something to be desired. But at this early point of the trip, I had an open mind and was glad to have a place to stay.

My Airbnb room. Very very basic.

Getting Around

Most of the traveling I did in the city were 1) walking to and from the Airbnb place and the Coronado Center, 2) the school bus shuttles from the Coronado Center to the Fiesta Park and back, and 3) riding a bike I borrowed from the Airbnb place for a special errand (more on that later). I forewent the idea of renting a car because I felt that it was too much trouble, responsibility and money for an “easy” 20-minute walk. After settling into my Airbnb place that evening, I woke up very early the next morning because I had to walk to the Coronado Center for the Park & Ride. The walk was much longer than I anticipated; it may have been 25-30 minutes. It was around four in the morning, so the temperature was cool. During the day, however, when I returned from the mall (Coronado Center), it got a bit warmer, and the walk felt even longer. I believe I walked this length six times during my stay. In retrospect, I would rent a car. Albuquerque is very spread out with most of the streets in a grid.

Climate and Clothing

Time of year: Early October
My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

  • At night, it’s cool. A light jacket would suffice.
  • But at the Fiesta Park, since it’s a big open field, it gets really chilly before daybreak. So wear layers to get ready to take off as the day warms up.
  • During the day, it’s sunny, with barely a cloud. Sometimes there’s a breeze. Short-sleeves are preferred. Long pants are still okay if walking.

People

For the most part, the people are nice. I would say it’s the standard American polite etiquette for interacting with strangers. Small talks come up, especially around big events where there are out-of-towners and they’re generally in a good mood. Actually, on my first Park-and-Ride shuttle ride to the Fiesta park, I sat next to a woman who I honestly would not have a reason to talk to at home. I remember thinking on the bus that as I began this trip, I should start being more open and outgoing and try to talk to more people. I debated whether I should just break the ice with this woman; I would have doubts and make assumptions based on how different both of us looked and that we would not have anything in common to talk about. Finally, if I remember correctly, she broke the ice for us and asked whether I’ve come to this before. I said no, and then we found out we were both doing some traveling. She told me about her plans of traveling across the country, and I told her about my stunt to travel around the world and how this is the second day of my trip. By the end of the bus ride, I made a Facebook friend, and she had followed my journey ever since.

The Fiesta

Photo Slideshow: Albuquerque - Balloon Fiesta - LBT 2014

The Fiesta lasts for nine days, starting with one weekend, running through the week, and ending on the next weekend. Weekends are when most people visit, so they have “mass ascensions,” where a lot of balloons go up at the same time. On the weekends, there’s a morning session and an evening session. I attended the first weekend, morning and evening sessions on Saturday, and the morning session on Sunday.

There are many ways to attend. There are general admission tickets where guests would just enter the park on their own. There are the Park & Ride tickets, where guests meet up at one of many locations in ABQ, and get picked up through an enormous, organized network of school buses driven by real school bus drivers from schools in the area. There are also special VIP-type tickets that cover parking and food and an area at the Park to watch the balloons from. You can also buy tickets to ride one of the balloons. But a quick research showed how out of my price range it was (a few hundred dollars) that I didn’t look into it any more. I got the Park & Ride tickets and I would recommend this for most people. It just takes a lot of the hassle out of figuring out the logistics of getting to the Park.

On the way to Coronado Center.I arrived at my Park & Ride pickup spot, Coronado Center, at around 4:30 in the morning. I thought I would be too early, or that there would be only a few people there, but when I arrived, there was already a long line snaking from the side of the parking lot. The system was pretty organized, where the workers scanned people’s tickets and led them to pens to be loaded onto a bus once the pen is full. There seems to be a never-ending queue of empty buses waiting to fill with people. It’s like the scene at an airport where taxis line up, except it’s school buses, and there are a lot more of them. There were so many visitors, and the Fiesta organizers knew this and were ready for it. It’s a huge operation, and they don’t mess around. From maps online, the driving distance from the mall to the Park seems short, but the bus ride was probably 20 minutes. Once there, everyone enters the booths area, which is a long strip of vendors selling souvenirs and whatnot. But first, I got an overpriced breakfast burrito from the first booth at the entrance. It’s still pretty dark out, so none of the balloons were up yet. So I walked along the booths, checking things out and killing time. By the time I got to one end of the strip, a few balloons were setting up on the field so I walked towards it, along with everyone else. By the booths at the Fiesta Park.

One row of balloons had set up and seemed to be doing synchronized burner firings to make the balloons glow together against dark sky. Other than that, for about an hour, there was very little happening. Only when the sky lightened a bit more did more balloons start filling up by rows, which were perpendicular to the strip of booths. When I read “mass ascension” on the website, I thought the balloons would go up all at the same time. But what actually happened was that they ascended in rows, so it would take a while before all the balloons would be in the air, and by that time, some of balloons launched earlier would already have landed somewhere else in the city.

American flag balloon glowing.

The field before the sun showed up.

It was a gradual process, but pretty soon, the sun came up, and a lot of the balloons were in the air. But the wind moved them away from the Park so they looked like a bunch of small semi-colored dots in the sky.

There were a bunch of adorable balloons with different markings and shapes in the form of animals or characters. I tried briefly to invoke my inner child to pick a favorite, but there were too many good ones to choose.

Smiley balloon taking off, among dozens more.Bear balloon taking off.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

I looked up foods of Albuquerque, and there was very little special, regional dishes that I really had to try. So, I had pretty ordinary food while I was there, including a small, overpriced breakfast burrito at the Fiesta, a chicken salad at Jason’s Deli near the Coronado Center, and a sad salad from Target with sliced turkey added.

Sad salad with sliced turkey.

Losing My Wallet

Long story short, on my second day of trip, while I was riding the Park & Ride bus back from the morning session, I took out the new travel zip wallet I got for the trip to take out some cash to tip the driver. I saw people do it earlier the last time we got off the bus, so I felt I should do the same. I was still getting used to having a special wallet and putting it in a different place than I normally do to prevent theft, so I somehow forgot to put the wallet back in my pocket. On my walk back to the Airbnb house, I realized my pant pocket felt a bit empty. This led to about 28 hours of dread, disappointment, depression, and desperation that involved calling the Fiesta hotline about their lost-and-found process, asking as many bus drivers and staff members at the Coronado Center as I could about any returned wallets, asking the lost-and-found station at the Park many times, moping around during the evening session, feeling very disappointed at myself, escaping the problem for a few hours at night while I slept, emailing the Fiesta organizers about my situation as a last resort to plead for some help, calling credit card companies to cancel and reissue my cards while arranging with the hostel in South Africa via email to accept the packages two weeks away when I arrive, borrowing a bike from the Airbnb host to get to the FedEx Office store to complete and fax the paperwork to reissue my cards and to send them to South Africa, getting a call while I was at the FedEx Office store that my wallet’s been found, and riding one of the buses to the Park to pick up my wallet. The lovely people at the Fiesta who helped me recover my wallet.

I consider myself incredibly lucky for many reasons. First and by far the most important, the only reason my wallet was found so quickly was that moments before I got on the bus where I lost my wallet, I casually noticed the bus number, and I saw that number again in passing in the later session, and I mentioned that number in the email to the Fiesta organizers, hoping that was the right bus. Second, this happened while I was still in the States, where I still had cell and data access, the people spoke English, and I still had time to arrange for replacements with access to places like a FedEx Office. And third, there are people in Albuquerque who are kind enough to help out-of-towners like me and in a timely fashion. I am very grateful for this and it was definitely a lesson for the rest of my trip.

Bought these at target to mark my stuff in case I lose any more things.

From My Travel Log

 

October 4, 2014, 4:44pm, ABQ Balloon Fiesta [at the Saturday evening session]

 

Learned about self. I immediately thought of backup plan and steps to take care of mishap. But this is relatively not a trip-ending mishap. Losing my passport or getting stuck at a place would be really bad, and costly. Also a big disappointment on my trip.

 

October 6, 2014, 11:54am, ABQ -> IAH [on the plane to Houston]

 

One thing to note: It’s amazing how my day could turn from really happy to devastated to okay. This incident was a wake-up call, a practice round, for how to deal with problems. With hindsight, this was a relatively common problem with no real permanent damage. I don’t know what the next 42 1/2 days will bring. What I worry most right now are being stuck somewhere and/or not having enough money, not being able to communicate successfully with the different languages, being cold/not having enough clothing for Tromsø and Beijing, and maybe Cuzco.

 

Getting Out

The day after my wallet was found, I Lyfted again to the airport, heading to my next destination. On take-off, I noticed more of the unique landscape of the Southwest. More interesting Southwest landscapes on flight to connection in Houston.

Thanks

  • Lyft drivers: Danny (from the airport) and Chad (to the airport)
  • Airbnb hosts: Travis, Reese, and Ryan
  • People I met at the Fiesta
  • Cynthia, the lady on the bus who broke the ice and became Facebook friends with me.
  • Elaine, Janice, Trigo (sp?), the Park & Ride staff who helped me get my wallet back.
  • Kathleen (sp?), my special private bus driver who drove me and only me back to the Coronado Center after I picked up my wallet from the Park.

Tips

  • Rent a car, even if you are doing Park-and-Ride. It’s much more convenient to get around the spread-out city.
  • If you do Park & Ride, tip the drivers (but make sure you still have your wallet).
  • If you do Park & Ride, depending on your interest in spending time at the Park, try to leave the session very early or very late, because the lines to get back to your Park & Ride location is ridiculous. After all the balloons left the park, the booths and exhibits were still open.
  • As far as I know, most of the booths at the fiesta park are cash-only, especially the food stands. Maybe booths selling expensive things will take cards. There are ATMs scattered throughout the strip.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of the Fiesta, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 2: Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)

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The Olympics is My Life Inspiration

In the year 2000, I was watching the closing ceremony of the Sydney Summer Olympics when the president of the IOC admired the spirit of the Australian people and said in a monotone voice, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.” to which the crowd instead responded in three simple but enthusiastic grunts, “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

I always go back to that moment whenever I think about how passionate a united group can be. This is what I want to see in the world.

The Olympics is one of the few times in life where the world peacefully gathers in one place, both physically and virtually, to celebrate the best of humanity (by having people in their best physical and mental shape show us how much more we humans can push our limits). It was such a powerful symbol to my fifteen-year-old self that I had remained optimistic to this day (and foreseeably for the rest of my life) about the future of human race.

Ever since then, I had become more fascinated by everything about the Olympics: the human stories, the history of past Games, the bidding process, the mascots, the opening and closing ceremony, the lighting of the cauldron, etc. As someone interested in graphic design, I absorbed as much content as possible related to the visuals: the logo and branding, the medals and their traditions (the medals from every Summer Games are the same on one side, whereas the Winter Games medals are more open to different designs), the pictograms, and the torch and cauldron designs.

The Sydney Olympics was the first time I was opened to the world. In school, my social studies teacher created a special unit on Australia to go with the Olympics. And the TV coverage painted a very beautiful and inspirational picture of Sydney and Australia, with the iconic images of the Opera House with the Harbor Bridge, the Outback and Uluru, with the aboriginal people and the sounds of the didgeridoo, and the native animals of the kangaroo and the koala. At fifteen, I had come to believe this is what the real world feels like and that it is waiting for me to join it.

Finally, four years and a week ago, after ten years of making that wish, I finally got to visit Australia. I even got to count down and watch the fireworks off the Harbor Bridge and in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. A panoramic photo of my view that day still hangs above my bed. In terms of the Olympic park and stadium, I missed my chance to visit them, but it will definitely be on my itinerary next time I’m in Australia.

In my recent travels, though, I visited the Olympic parks and stadiums of the two most recent Summer Games (Beijing and London). I also checked out the site of the current (and future) Olympic stadium in Tokyo. I hope I can return in five and a half years and attend my first opening ceremony. I would also like to volunteer at a Summer Games someday and be a part of history. Depending on the host city, maybe 2024 will be the year.

See

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My home is Earth.

Just before I turned ten, my family and I moved from China to the United States. As the youngest of my family, I was the most ready to adapt to a new life and therefore became the most Americanized. Even though I am now twenty-nine and only a third of my life was spent living in Macau (and probably only half of that has real memories), my perception of time is distorted to a point where I still think of Macau as spanning half of my life.

Similarly, I’ve been having problems defining my identity, especially in the past few years. Technically, I am Chinese-American, but can that title be split up and still have it sufficiently define me? Am I Chinese? Ethnically, I am. Culturally? I can read a good amount of Chinese and I can speak Cantonese. But I have limited knowledge and experience with customs and traditions; I only know whatever I was exposed to before I moved to the States and during occasional family events like weddings and holidays. Traditional ways of thinking about family structures and behaviors, while I obligatorily follow to a certain extent and when convenient, are lost on me, especially if there are based on ancient superstitions or how the pronunciation of the phrase is similar to another good or bad luck phrase. So one might find it hard to make me pass all this on to my future children, unless I was asked to by my family. I also find that Chinese shows and movies are two-dimensional in plot lines, character development, and acting. Those more familiar with the Chinese culture (like the rest of my family) would look past that and better relate to the stories and be emotionally invested in them.

Well, then how American am I? Do I share the ideals? I favor and prefer individuality and freedom of expression. I believe everyone is responsible for their own success and can do whatever they dream of if they put their mind to it and work hard. Do I think “America is number one”? Sometimes, sure. But there are many things (especially social issues, from what I’ve heard) that other countries (usually European) are much better at. Do I follow American football or baseball? Only bandwagon-style. Do I eat fatty and deep-fried foods? Only on rare occasion.

So what does that make me? Where do I belong? At the very least, I know I am a citizen of the world. My home is Earth. As my first trip around the world nears its end, I realize that a lot of places are practically the same, all thanks to globalization and sharing of best practices. In the metropolitan areas, there are usually subways or trains, there are supermarkets, and there are bottled waters. All places have a complicated past, documented in museums, bring to front painful events and celebrating proud moments.

After being in so many places in a short amount of time, I somehow feel numb to these similarities among cities, but it’s the type of numb that makes me comfortable and feel like I could belong in any foreign place, even for a few moments.

When I watched the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I felt some pride for the Chinese people for putting together such a spectacular show, but the pride can only be the smallest possible amount for I have very little to do with the seemingly amazing outcome, other than the fact that I share ethnically with majority of the people who put it together.

At the same time, I felt just as much pride for the successes of Michael Phelps in the ’08 Olympics, while the only links I had with it were that we both live in the same country and we’re both swimmers.

Instead, I felt more pride, the most pride, for humanity, because whenever I see people come together peacefully and show the world the best that they could be, I feel belonged and safe, like I’m home. Even though the Games are a competition among nations, I focus on the “human spirit” story and just be proud of anyone who’s overcome hardship and succeed to the world stage, and I get all inspired and motivated to be a better human being.

See

6, 15.