A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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Just Call Me Resourceful Rhonda

For those of you that know me, you’ll know that I frequently talk about how when the apocalypse comes, I’ll be the first to die.

Despite a couple years of being in Brownies, I just don’t have a terribly impressive amount of survival skills (though I CAN sew a mean sit-upon). This isn’t something I necessarily am looking to change — I’m just aware of it.
And for those of you that also know about Jorge, you’ll remember that I frequently tout him as my key to survival for when the apocalypse comes. The guy grew up in rural farmland, knows how to light fires, spent most of his childhood barefoot and pooping in the wild, and can ride a horse bareback. Furthermore, he has uncanny and ingenious solutions to common household problems. Whenever I need to fix something, I hand it to him — work your crazy magic, I tell him. And he does. 
Well, it appears Jorge’s resourcefulness has rubbed off in our 1.5 years together. Let me explain.
We recently moved into a new (mini)apartment in Lima. Though our landlord provided some basics, like a bed, and plates, and a toilet, there weren’t important things like knives or French Press coffee makers. 
Being that I am an American Coffee Drinker with a pound of hazelnut coffee burning a hole in my backpack, I had to remedy this situation quickly. However, the nearest supermarket only sells food — no household products, no sprawling aisles of coffee makers, not even cheese cloth, for god’s sake.
So, one our first morning in the new place arrived, I had a brilliant idea. 
I wear a lot of leggings (ahem, actually maybe only leggings), and some of my current pairs in rotation are about to die. On our way back to Lima, Jorge pointed out in the middle of the Miami airport that I was essentially walking around naked since my leggings had grown so threadbare. Oops. 
Time to throw them out — or is it? I decided to use these very same leggings for a couple different purposes. 
Purpose #1: CHEESECLOTH FOR COFFEE.
Purpose #2: Cloths for the sink area/cleaning the bathroom.
Okay, okay, hold your horses, you might be thinking. How can a self-respecting human being use leggings to make coffee? I’ll explain.
Step One: Snip off the bottom fourth of one of the legs.
Step Two: Sew the bottom of the snipped-leg-portion shut. 
Step Three: USE THIS AS A COLANDER FOR SEPARATING COFFEE GROUNDS FROM COFFEE.
Freaking. Genius.
However, our (mini) apartment, as I explained, came equipped with only the bare minimum of kitchen necessities. So on our first morning, this is what happened.
I sprinkled an appropriate amount of coffee grounds into a bowl (re: one of two bowls available in the house). Once my water was boiling, I poured this into the bowl. I let it sit for about five minutes. Then, having fastened my legging-colander to a mason jar ring using a hairband, we poured the coffee out of the bowl into the coffee cup via homemade colander.
Jorge pours bowlofcoffee into cup.

Coffee grounds remain securely in the homemade colander.

Final product: cup of coffee.

Over time, my coffee-making methods have varied. I went from strictly French Press/Keurig/locally bought to drip filter, to colander method…and now, to bowls. Some people might find this method unseemly or gross; I, however, pride myself on my big city survival skills. 
Let’s be honest, I might not be able to live very long once the apocalypse hits…but dangit, I know I’ll be able to fashion myself a good cup’a’joe when the time comes! Provided I can figure out how to boil some water, that is. 

Why Growing Up Near an Amusement Park Might Permanently Taint My Career

We all know that the best writers take moments, experiences and relationships from real life and inject them into their writing with a finely-disguised syringe, sending a therapeutic jolt of relate-able life zipping through the blood stream of their prose.

I try to do this as well. Really, it’s the natural byproduct of what happens from living life — writers observe people, the ebb and flow of relationships, striking life moments, dull life moments, and these all collect into a Pool of Usable Material at the fingertips of a writer. Or in the tip of their Bic pen, or under the keys of their typewriters.

Jill and I have been talking a lot lately about our craft, why our stable middle-class childhoods both helped and hurt our art form, and why it might not be a bad idea to take a quick dip into the pools of Suffering and Addiction — just momentarily, for the sake of the craft. But scheduling heroin cycles and past domestic abuse isn’t something you can just decide to weave into the tapestry of your existence. Actually, hold on — I suppose I could start with the heroin or instigate some highly unhealthy domestic habits and make my life go south, but I’m not going to do that.

That being said, I’m stuck with my middle-class stability…my relatively non-traumatic childhood, my degree, my job(s), my good health, and my loving, supportive family. SHEESH, GUYS!

Although this is just a sampling of Those That 
Constitute My Genes, I am so blessed to have the 
family that I do. 

I guess the only thing I can do is use my formative years to my advantage. Much to my chagrin/delight, the most resonate aspect of my childhood is Cedar Point. That’s right — America’s Rockin’ Roller Coast. Located in Sandusky, Ohio, this gem of a thrill-seeker’s oasis constituted the bulk of my introduction into Real Life. Summers were focused on obtaining season passes to Cedar Point, from my youngest memories until present day, and then abusing those passes to the fullest extent. Winters were spent pining for a variety of wood and steel-based experiences. Falls were spent being haunted by local ghosts and riding the last wave of available thrills, and springs were spent waiting desperately for the Opening Day.

It comes as no surprise, then, that my adult years are spent relating a majority of my life experiences to the cycles of Cedar Point. I didn’t realize this right off the bat — in fact, it took a good number of years before I realized how ingrained Cedar Point and its environs were in the fabric of my being….all the way to my artistic metaphors.

This came to my attention for the Nth time when Jill and I were caught in a rainstorm on our way to the Chilean version of Wal-Mart way across town. We had been dodging various gushes of water from the streets, multiple dripping gutters and a whole slew of rain-borne lakes when I mentioned (i.e. screamed over the downpour), somewhat offhandedly given the storm, “This is worse than Thunder Canyon!”

Any Cedar Point Aficionado will know exactly what I’m talking about — the desperate unknowing of when the next gush of frigid water will unexpectedly saturate, douse and completely chill you to the bone. Will the raft rotate enough for you to miss the waterfall, or will it place you directly in its torrential, unforgiving path? The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming…and apparently a life experience that resonated most strongly with me via Thunder Canyon.

This is not the first time Cedar Point and its rollercoasters have been the subject of my (select one: poorly-timed/lame/ambiguously creative/regionally-based/mildly interesting) metaphorsimiles. Once in Europe, Jill and I encountered a museum with a line so long it prompted me to shriek, “This is worse than when Raptor opened!”

See, Ohio-folks? You know exactly how long that line was. INSANEly long.

This emergence of a Cedar Point-focused understanding of the world around me has led me not only to seek an appropriate diagnosis in the new DSM-IV, the giant book of  disorders that was recently re-issued, but also to delve a bit deeper and find out what else, exactly, I understand in terms of roller coasters and amusements parks.

Childhood Amusement Park Coming of Age: A bit different than the classical coming of age later in puberty, this experience coincides with finally reaching the height requirement for the Big Kid rides. Any Sandusky native knows about waiting with desperate, nearly fatal excitement for the time when the height stick is the same level as the tippy top of your head (possibly with hair teased a bit higher by mom). This milestone of reaching the height requirement for all the cool rides inevitably forms the foundation around which Childhood Life is based. (“That summer we finally could ride the Magnum”, or “The day you finally made it onto the WildCat”) Boasting to your friends that you finally rode such-and-such roller coaster proves to be good fodder for street cred later in the halls of Perkins Schools once the end of summer hits.

The “Holy Shit What Did I Get Myself Into” Second Thoughts: A brand of roller coaster regret that, although short-lived, is soul-piercing and also nearly fatal. Occurs most often once boarding a new ride, or one you haven’t been on in a very long time, just after your window for changing your mind and getting off has passed and the car begins heading up the first hill. Usually accompanied by an intense urge to pee and or defecate. This is when you shouldn’t look down.

Coaster Second Thoughts tend to occur
at about this point in the ascent.

Amusement Park Exhaustion: A specific brand of exhaustion that occurs only after a special cocktail of elements are mixed, including mid-summer Ohio heat, twelve hours of walking/roller coaster riding/line waiting/greasy food ingesting/water-logged pants from the water rides you swore you wouldn’t go on in your clothes but you did anyway because it was so damn hot out/refusing to sit down and rest because we’re going to ride as much as we possibly can today/lines that reach the 2 hour mark or higher, and sun burns.This exhaustion is usually accompanied by the notable scents of sun screen, body odor, sweat, aforementioned fried food smell clinging to your clothes, and the lingering grit of countless metal hand rails.

Loss of a Beloved Coaster: Cedar Point deals with limited real estate (but really, can’t we extend the peninsula by now? COME ON) which means that certain rides and coasters get ousted in favor of the latest and greatest. Many of my childhood favorites have been heartlessly canned — such as the Pirate Ride and, more recently, Disaster Transport — but at the very least this teaches us an important lesson in the changing nature of life and love. Everything must come to an end. We all get dismantled and discarded eventually….which, I guess in human terms, would be dying. Even Disaster Transport, which, to be honest, I still haven’t dealt with that grief. (Roller coaster counseling, anyone?)

In reality I began detaching myself from 
Disaster Transport when they removed the
outer space theme and the all moving bits and bobs
in the repair bay.

New Coaster Excitement: This is a type of excitement that, for coaster enthusiasts like myself, penetrates deeper than most anything else in life. Let’s talk about Gatekeeper — I’ve been watching simulated video footage of this beast for over a year. I’m living in Chile but I’ll be damned if I don’t get a season pass for the four weeks I’m in Ohio just because I am positive I will go enough times to more than pay for the cost of the pass. This isn’t just excitement, this is dedication. Sure, the ride will be over in a matter of minutes, but that’ll be some damn thrilling couple hundred of seconds. Also including in this branch of excitement are people who track time in terms of number of days until Cedar Point opens.

The “One-Chance Shot” Letdown: This is a brand of disappointment that thankfully doesn’t strike often, but when it does, can be highly disruptive. The scenario usually goes as follows: you’ve either left the city or state for work or school or pursuing-life-goal purposes, and either don’t have it in your budget or priorities to purchase a season pass for Cedar Point. This means you visit once, and during your trip to Ohio you buy a day pass, probably from Meijer. You have one chance to go, and you plan to make the best of it and ride as much as possible, but the one day you’re able to go between park hours, family obligations and general vacation timetable is….the one day it rains. Or the one day all your favorite coasters are down for repairs. Or the one day the wind is so strong that Wind Seeker is closed due to weather and you still haven’t had a chance to ride it since it came out. So what do you do? Ride Calypso? Play Skee-ball? Oh, like that’s worth $50? This is the one-chance shot letdown. Better luck next year!

Other Cedar Point-Specific Phenomena: the Gray-Out that occurs after the first hill on Millennium Force, the specific emotional arc that accompanies Top-Thrill Dragster (anticipation–surprise–glee–one moment of heart-stopping beauty and adrenaline from the front seat at the top curve–glee–feeling like you’re dying/being born–the come down as the ride stops), the spine-jarring experience of the Mean Streak, and the dismay when you realize the Back Lot is full…

As evidenced by this excessively lengthy post, Cedar Point is near and dear not only to my heart, but to my understanding of the world around me. Though there are some life moments that are best understood in terms of roller coasters and amusement parks, I will make a sincere effort to wrangle this probable disorder so that it does not negatively affect my creative fiction. Unless, of course, I decide to get into Roller Coaster Fan Fiction writing…now that might be a real moneymaker that combines all my passions!

Rapa Nui Bliss

Tell anyone you’re going to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, and the response usually begins with an exclamation (“How cool! Bakan! I’ve never been!”) followed immediately by a piece of advice (“Go to this restaurant. Visit this place at this time. Watch out for the moai at night.”).

The night before my flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui, I was lingering outside my hostel and got to talking with a random passer-by. The conversation of course led to Rapa Nui (all conversations end in Rapa Nui), and when the Advice Portion of the conversation rolled around, this is what he said first:

“Oye, chica, los pascuenses te van a comer.” (Hey, girl, the Rapa Nui men are going to eat you.”)

Unsettling.

I’m proud to report, post-Rapa Nui, that I was never eaten by the rabid Rapa Nui men, nor was I molested in the night by the moai. I was, however, fully and completely satisfied by my trip in every possible way.

Let’s start the Rapa Nui Review with some stats.

Number of empanadas consumed: 2. One was tuna and cheese on the beach for my birthday, the second was shrimp and cheese. Both were mouth-wateringly fresh because, well, fishing is pretty much the only option for fresh food round those parts.

Number of volcanoes climbed and conquered: 2. I climbed Rano Kau via a pedestrian trail, then continued on to a ceremonial village higher up named Orongo (long, hot, sweaty, lovely hike, accompanied by a totally unexpected but perfectly matched stray dog, whose tale I will relate another time); also ascended Rano Raraku on foot, which was a far less impressive feat but still beautiful and useful in my stats nonetheless.

Number of moai visited, spotted, witnessed and otherwise enjoyed: Upwards of 40, easily. It was hard to keep track of them all. Forget naming them, too. I thought that was a good idea in the beginning (wrong).

Time spent lingering, wandering, oogling and otherwise admiring the shit out of the island: innumerable hours.

Shades of tan acquired from sunbathing, hiking or just standing on the corner for too long in mid-day sun: 4

Amount of money spent on the island: [this information is currently not available nor will it ever be analyzed]

Number of caves spelunked: 1, La Caverna de Las Dos Ventanas. This number should have been higher. Next time, Rapa Nui. Next time.

Number of 4-wheeler breakdowns: 2. One of them occurred just as a policeman was signaling me to stop so he could check my driver’s license. Little did he know I was in panic mode and desperate for someone to explain what was happening with the gears and why it would no longer shift out of 4th gear. We never got around to checking my license.

Average cost of a meal in any restaurant on the island: About $20, conservatively, not including drinks, appetizers, desserts, or anything.

People told me, prior to my trip, that 6 days was too long there. “Baaah, you can do it all in three days! Four, tops!” As an official Rapa Nui Veteran now, I can say with a firm word and soft heart that 4 days is an injustice, 6 days is a tease, and three weeks is ideal.

However, in fiscally responsible terms, 4 days is sufficient, 6 days is stretching your budget, and three weeks will leave you penniless and scouring the earth for extra income. Although I am still a “budget traveler” even when I splurge, Easter Island hit me way harder than I thought. I sort of knew this in advance – being the most remote island on the planet, one can’t expect them to have cheap amenities. Everything, save the seafood and the moai, must be shipped in from Elsewhere. Farming is hard on the island due to rain and crop loss. Deforestation has altered the landscape, wildlife diversity is limited, and there’s a history of cannibalism when protein sources dwindled. In other words, shit is expensive there.

My splurging consisted of the following: one meal out per day, usually with an adult beverage or two, a 4-wheeler for 24 hours, my own private room in some cabanas away from the city center, and the entrance ticket to the two main parks. The rest of the expenditures consisted of food for me to eat at the cabana, an occasional taxi and internet use, and the inexplicable disappearance of pesos when one is on Rapa Nui. (Most likely the moai in the night.)

However, let me make one thing clear: every last peso was incredibly well spent. Was I paying double or sometimes triple the price compared to anywhere else in the world? Yes. Was I still shocked and dismayed even coming off the tail en of a stint in Puerto Varas, one of the more expensive cities in Chile? Quite. Was it irrefutably worth it and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat and if I’d had more money I would have stayed for two more weeks? YES. YES. YES.

Sunset on Rapa Nui, my first night there.

Fun and festive cemetery. 

On the north-eastern part of the island, during my four-wheeler adventures. See the moai on the hillside?

I was the girl zipping around in the chic black helmet with dreads flying in the wind.

At Ranu Raraku. The site of the quarry, where the moai were carved.

Hiking along a twisting dirt path, rocky and impassable for cars, with the vague idea that a cave was somewhere along the way after about an hour or so of walking. I found it, eventually. But only after a few piercing moments of doubt where I mistook nearly everything for a sign to the cave entrance.

View from La Caverna de las Dos Ventanas. Spelunking is funlunking.

In case you wondered, this is what the face of spelunking actually looks like in Spelunking magazines.

A bit of a funky shot from Anakena Beach, where I spent my birthday reading, writing, sunbathing, and reveling in that tuna empanada.

One of my favorite shots. Tongariki, the day of my 4-wheeler excursion. The day was too gorgeous for words. Tongariki sits on the sea (like the whole island, technically?) and features 15 moai.

This shot looks like something from a video game to me. This is Rano Raraku, the quarry. The moai are essentially in various points of a tumble down the quarry hill. Their transport was halted for unknown reasons and they were left abandoned. I like to call this shot “Moai Rush Hour”.

Tongariki. Hanging with 15 of my closest buds (not all pictured here).

A shot from my hike to the cave on my last full day on the island. The views were stunning, and the hike was hot but pleasant. I passed maybe 4 people the entire way there then back. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful, and humid sea air. That dirt road is among my favorite places in the world.

I spent the majority of my time alone during the day, finding company in the moai and my journal. At night, I spent time with my fellow cabana mates; one Spaniard who had moved to the island trying to start a massage/holistic venture, a Chilean couple who came to get married and then spend their Honeymoon there, and a Chilean journalist who was one of the most educated and well-spoken people I’ve ever met.

The owner of the cabanas, Carmen, was pure Rapa Nui and she and I spent a few nights talking about life, culture, the real reason behind the moai, and yoga. All in all, I spent my time expressing myself on paper in English and verbally in Spanish, which is why upon my return to Santiago where I met Amanda, we noticed that my English skills had…slipped, to say the least.

Traveling alone to Rapa Nui was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Plenty of people commented negatively about this decision (“You’re traveling alone? How boring. And for your birthday no less? Why would you do that?”) but for me, it was a liberation that I didn’t know I’d been craving. Everyday I woke up and asked myself,

Hey, Shannon. What do you want to do? Feel like going to the beach? Maybe you want to meander slowly to the coffee shop and write for few hours? What about a hike to the summit of this volcano over here? Caves? Maybe caves? What about a FOUR-WHEELER. Well, at any rate, do some yoga, eat that fruit and nuts, take your time because no time schedule exists and you can do anything you want to do however fast or slow you want to, and then I’m sure there will be moai somewhere along the way. Just make sure you get really sweaty throughout the course of the day and take a thousand pictures. And also make sure the Rapa Nui don’t eat you today.

I really like to be alone, though I’m not a perpetual introvert. I need a healthy dose of socialization. However, this trip came at just the right time. It was a nice (and needed) break from the rhythm of Puerto Varas. And far more physically taxing than what life has been for me in the south so far. I’m not sure how many miles I hiked/walked during my stay there, but it was far more than anything my body is used to.

Furthermore, one of the reasons that I think extra time is not only a plus but a necessity for travelers like me (who find that delicate balance between budget and personal satisfaction) is that ‘conquering’ Rapa Nui is technically feasible in a day, if you rent a car and whiz between sites or, worse yet, come in a group package that ushers you blindly from one thing to the next.

That doesn’t allow for the quiet wonder and wander, the light sea breezes that caress your bright red boiling cheek in the middle of a hike where the trail end seems to be more of a fantasy than fact. Nor does it allow for the unexpected entrance of stray pets into your life (like I said, story pending), nor the discovery of caves, moai sites off the beaten trail, and more.

I think Carmen, the cabanas owner, thought I was a bit of a rogue – some mornings I showed up at her cabana asking roughly how to do one thing or another, she would show me on the map, and then I’d go do it. Planning was at an all-time low on this trip, even by my standards.

This approach saves money, sure, but more than that I feel like I really connected with the island. With so much time spent knee-deep in it’s hills and crevices, but yet with so much left to explore, I’ve got a good start on the journey to really know and appreciate this ridiculously remote gem of an island.

Also, please, can someone, anyone, give me a truly feasible answer for how anyone found the dang island in the first place?

Guess what? Couldn’t hold it in.

Like I said, I’m bad at holding it in. Farts, laughter, secrets about what I’m getting my friends for Christmas/birthdays, and more. I’ve been hanging with the moai here on Easter Island since Friday and, well, my harddrive space is filling up at an unprecedented rate.

Before I bore you all with this megalithic monotony (just kidding: far from monotonous. Sorry, moai. That was just a joke. Please don’t haunt me in the night), I would like to pose a riddle.

How many dark silhouette photos of moai-against-sunlight can you have before it’s too many?

Do you know the answer?

….Yeah?……Do ya?

Time’s up!

The correct answer is: It was a trick question, YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY! My iPhone and laptop harddrive serve as testament to this little-known but deeply true FACT. I present to you all now a sneak peek of Easter Island. Much more words and pictures to come, this I promise you.

Enjoy!

P.S. I think I may have to move to an island soon. Not necessarily Easter Island, because it’s relative remoteness makes me uneasy on the inside (seriously, once plane fuel prices go up, they are so screwed). But this sun? These palms? This ocean and sand and view of various cliffs and volcanic remnants? Yeah, I’m ready for that kind of stuff in my life. Plus the humidity isn’t bad. I never thought I’d miss humidity, but DAMN YOU OHIO SUMMERS you’ve crept into the fabric of my being.

Found this on accident my first day here during my walk to town.
This is the ceremonial site of Tahai. 
Literally can see it from my cabana. 

Found this guy today on my way back from a 
dirtbike expedition around the island. I don’t know what
site it is yet, but he was very stern and didn’t talk much. 
He’s probably upset because he’s got some ancient paint on his face.

This is me and the moai at the beach Anakena.
I spent my birthday on this beach this past Saturday.
People say I’m traveling alone, but I beg to differ.
These guys behind me were great company.

The International Cookie Conundrum

I don’t know if many of my readers know this about me, but I make chocolate chip cookies. Not just any chocolate chip cookies, mind you – Vaguely Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I sold these things for four years at my local farmer’s market. Initially, the name drove some people off. I frequently heard “Ugh, no thanks, I prefer my cookies unhealthy.” I gently reminded my customers that my cookies were not entirely healthy, thankyouverymuch – just vaguely, due to the fact that I used the best quality and minimally processed ingredients available  in the market.

While my exact recipe remains a secret that I refuse to disclose except in the event of a very large sum of money, what makes my cookies different is the fact that they are infused with a flax meal egg replacement, and feature REAL vanilla extract, alongside stone ground whole wheat flour, kosher salt, and more. It’s a hefty, hearty, vaguely healthy experience. My clientele were testament to this – after four years and one 3rd place award in a general baked goods contest, I was selling out nearly every week at the market and taking large orders for those customers who just couldn’t get enough of my vaguely healthy goodness.

Four years, man. Four years of baking something like once a week for 50 weeks each year. So it stands to reason that I might be going through a little withdrawal here after almost two months without a single sniff or taste of my beloved recipe.

So I broke down and hit up the local Lider store on a mission to bake MY cookies. “It’s almost Christmas,” I reasoned, “I need to share cookies with people.” I make this sound easier than it was – I had to go almost four separate times before I recognized the baking aisle (it was that small), and then a couple more times before they had chocolate chips in stock (one brand, super expensive, one package available). Awesome.

Furthermore, it appears that Chile does not differentiate between baking powder and baking soda. Due to the specifics of my secret recipe, I won’t elaborate on which one I use, nor the brand, but let’s just say that it’s still unclear what I was using, how it was processed, and why the other kind isn’t also made available to the baking public.

i was able to find wheat flour, which was nice, but stone ground varieties were conspicuously absent. I had procured my own sea salt from the local vegan store, which I ground using mortar and pestle. Raw sugar (or what looks like raw sugar) was also available – score. (I am slowly revealing my whole recipe to the general public, and I realize this, BUT I’LL NEVER DISCLOSE MY RATIOS!)

I got a little stumped when it came to Brown Sugar Time. It was nowhere. Like, actually, physically non-existent. Como como?? Hello, I thought this place was founded by Germans. There is an explosion of pound cake around every corner, and while I don’t actually know if brown sugar is a requirement in any of the pastries or baked goods produced in the area, you would think it was.

So I turned to Luz for help. I described what I was looking for, and after much explanation and lack of dictionary and/or online translator, we got to the bottom of it. She hands me a brick of something that smelled like brown sugar, tasted like brown sugar – by god, it was brown sugar in brick form. She told me to use the crazy grater instrument that I have never once in my life used. What a genius implement, I see now.

This was a therapeutic and invigorating experience.

When it was all said and done, I had a basic approximation of my recipe, minus the flax meal, which meant I baked cookies using eggs for the first time in four years. Similar to my Thanksgiving Baking Experiment of 2012, I did this all without a single measuring tool. Boy was that fun. Again.

Uhhh…yum?

What emerged from the oven after a very nervous and pacey 7 to 11 minutes (once again, cannot disclose the time allotted in the oven – also this number is unclear to me because I have no way of telling what temperature I set the oven to, making any attempt at my prior method a total gamble) was this:

Readily identifiable cookies! Chilean Success!

Luz’s reaction after tasting my not-so-vaguely-healthy-anymore cookies?

“La encuentro bien. Muy bien.” I find it to be good. Very good.

My reaction after tasting my not-so-vaguely-healthy-anymore cookies?

Shit, these are buttery. And sorta gummy. And maybe I didn’t use enough sugar. Maybe it was the brown sugar, since I did get lazy and not add the whole [amount has been censored] cup. Is it possible to have a buttery cookie? What purpose does the brown sugar serve, anyway? Why does it not come pre-grated here? Do these chocolate chips actually taste like anything? I better eat another one and find out. 

Next up: making these again, but this time WITH the flax meal, which I was able to find. Now I just have to wait for those chocolate chips to be in stock again…