Leaping Into Life

Falling Never Felt So Good

Swimming out of the Swamp, Sailing Into the Bay

It’s been a year and a half since I left the life that I knew in Washington to take a leap into a world that I had only dreamed of from my desk.

With the release of “This Town,” an inside the beltway book revealing all sorts of dirt on Washington’s political elite, I was recently asked a few questions by a reporter about why I left Washington, my motivation for leaving and what I’m doing now that I swam out of the swamp.

This is what I sent him.

I left the District in January 2012 after a decade of working overtime for the Democratic party, politicians and an international non-profit. The world was bigger than an office with five TVs blaring news of fiscal cliffs and Congressional stalemates. Every day felt like the movie Groundhog Day. It was time to hit the road across four continents and 11 developing countries alone and armed with a backpack.

Traveling was hard and humbling, enlightening and enlivening. I didn’t read Politico’s The Playbook anymore. The drama of the 2012 election cycle and beltway gossip faded from my day-to-day. I read the Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games series (yes, all of them). I built websites for guesthouses in exchange for free room and board. I went on safari, learned Spanish, visited development projects in the field, bummed around on beaches and wrote about all of it in my own voice for once – and not as a spokesperson.

After a year on the road, I returned to one of my favorite places from my travels: India. For a few months, I helped run the international media operation for an environmental non-profit at the largest spiritual gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela. It was like working for a campaign again at a chaotic Indian pace, but infused with an Eastern influence of meditation and yoga.

I look back at Washington as a memorable chapter where I cut my teeth and grew thick skin. At times, it seemed like life was ripped out of a script from the West Wing. Riding in Black Hawk helicopters and casually chatting with the President backstage at an event. It was exciting and exhausting, but the problem with getting wrapped up in Washington’s game was that I lost sight of what brought me there ten years earlier.

I came to Washington at 18 because I wanted to be the White House Press Secretary and help make the world a better place. I worked for people and causes that I cared about and believed in. My reason for leaving was to get out of the bubble and experience the real world. To see how people were making a tangible difference outside of Washington, DC. I left mildly disillusioned and disappointed in government and media, but proud of a few accomplishments and grateful to work for some passionate public servants.

I’ve been in San Francisco since March, where I launched my own public relations firm that works with social good start ups and non-profits. While I may not be in politics anymore, the experience of engaging an audience and building influence translates from voters to consumers, congressional offices to companies.

There is an entrepreneurial spirit here that is action-oriented. An entire start up industry around social change, education, and development is emerging that rivals Washington in impact and access to investment. So while I look back at my time in D.C. favorably, the swamp was not meant for me so I sailed around the world and dropped anchor in the City on the Bay.

Pictures from the past to come! Posting from Seal Beach, in LA volunteering to promote International Mandela Day and the unveiling of a mural in his honor.

Did you take a leap into life or want to? If you’d like to be a Featured Leaper, please contact me. Let’s build a community together.

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My Introduction to the Kumbh Mela, The Largest Spiritual Gathering on Earth

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We began our journey to the main Kumbh Mela grounds at 2am, piled three on a motorbike that would take us only a few kilometers closer before our feet became the only transportation. It was one of the main bathing days when tens of millions of pilgrims come from hundreds and thousands of miles away to dip three times at the intersection of India’s most sacred rivers with the hope of achieving moksha, for one’s soul to be released from the cycle of reincarnation and transcend beyond the physical world after death.

The roads all around the Kumbh’s mega tent-city, which will host more than 100 million pilgrim throughout the two-month long festival, begin to be cordoned off to only foot traffic the night before as rivers of people come streaming in guided by miles of wooden fences. Imagine those lines at Disney World or Six Flags that you snake around for half an hour before boarding a much anticipated roller coaster, now put that in India with muddy dirt roads and millions of people. Image

Entering the grounds so early, there was a peacefulness to the surroundings like a calm before the storm. The yellow flood lights peered through an ever-present mist of dust and dirt stirred up by the shuffling of the oldest man taking one of his last bathes to the mother carrying her newborn baby for the first of many lifelong rituals here in India.

Our hope was to catch the running of the Naga Babas, naked and covered in ash, surging at the head of the masses to be the first to take the holy dip as they have for hundreds of years. But, like most things in India, if you hope and plan something, it’s probably not going to happen.

We arrived at Sector Four expecting the major akharas (different sects of holy men and women) to be preparing their chariots for the procession of saints and a flurry of activity, but it was quiet. Apparently, it would not be until the following bathing day on February 10th that they would march.

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Onward we walked toward the Sangam, which is the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers to witness the growing crowds and flowing of hundreds of thousands on the singular mission to be blessed in the waters.

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I watched every sector of society from saints to tattooed tribal women from the North that looked more Nepalese than Indian emerge dripping wet from the water having completed the task that brought them there.  My friend began to disrobe for a dip, but I stayed back – partially because I didn’t feel connected enough to appreciate the meaning of immersing myself in the water — but also because my spare pants had ripped right through the crotch area earlier and one must be modest in India (just another sign that the time wasn’t right).  Image

From the Sangam, we walked back to the Avahan Akhara where we found ourselves sitting with a Naga Baba, tending to his fire and chasing off onlookers, who stared too long, with his fire poker. We spent sunrise (Brahma Murat) with him which is considered the most auspicious time when god is on earth.

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Unlike the sightseers, we sat as he made chai in a dented tin pot over a fire tendered with the crudely chopped trunks of trees. As the milk came to a boil, he fed the pot and the fire with sugar to sweeten one of India’s more popular beverages. He again offered the fire a taste of chai before serving us in small plastic as fire is said to be the mouth of god and the great purifier.

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It finally hit me that I was at the Kumbh Mela, where the masses come together to commune with god and reach a deeper connection in themselves to the divine. And as the sun rose above the rivers of people flowing toward the river, we were blessed by ash and began the long walk home to begin another day of work for the Ganga.

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Namaste my friends. Til next time.

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A Day in Hampi with Hanuman, the Boat Man

Note: This is a post for Travel Dudes People Pics competition. If you’re interested in submitting your travel photos, the details are here.

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But more than fifty years, Hanuman has spent his days rowing visitors around the idyllic and picturesque Sanapur Lake, a short scooter ride from the historic ruins of Hampi, India, and set in what feels like the land before time, surrounded by a landscape of boulders. Lifting more than 200 pounds with his teeth in his younger days, Hanuman was the village strong man back in the day.

At the lake, the 73 year-old grandfather is one of those people whose picture shows a thousand moments in every crease and line on his face. One whose wife sends a lovely traditional Indian lunch for a group of strangers to devour amidst giant rocks.

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The day this photo was taken, we went out on his traditional bamboo basket boat and he proved his strength as the paddles became extensions of his arms and our amateur attempts were short-lived.

It was one of those days when a stranger becomes a friend. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for that simple gift that travel gives us.

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On Living Life Like the Flowing River

There are more stories to tell, but sometimes you have to take a break to say what’s on your mind. I’m sitting on a porch covered in colorful tapestry leaning back against a turquoise wall overlooking the light green water of the Ganga River in Rishikesh.

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The Ganga River, Rishikesh, India

With only two weeks left, I find myself reflecting more about the many places I’ve visited over the past 11 months and also, the many rivers I’ve gazed and sailed along the way.

A yoga teacher in Pai, Thailand, said during practice one morning to “let your life flow like a river.” She said not to waste your time and energy fighting upstream and that while the river races and gets rocky sometimes, that is part of life.

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A Stream in Koh Chang, Thailand

Travel can show you the world, open your eyes to breathtaking places and your heart to humanity in it’s rawest forms, but more importantly, it gives you the time and space to go with the flow.

A few days ago, I randomly picked up a Paulo Coelho book, Like the Flowing River, which contains an inspiring mix of short stories and random thoughts on life and death. He begins the book with a poem by Manuel Bandeira that I’d like to share with you.

Be like the flowing river,
Silent in the night.
Be not afraid of the dark.
If there are stars in the sky, reflect them back.
If there are clouds in the sky,
Remember, clouds, like the river, are water,
So, glad reflect them too,
In your own tranquil depths.

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The Nile River, Jinja, Uganda

Modern life is busy, connected to an electronic leash, with constant pressure to stay that way in order to climb society’s ladder of success. In that frenetic, first world pace, we see hot water, electricity, and internet as inalienable rights. Maybe in some ways, these luxuries magnify what we lack and distract from appreciating the world’s gifts…to take even a moment to be mesmerized by a rainbow or a butterfly’s flutter from flower to flower.

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The Inca Trail, Peru

On the river, the day begins at sunrise and ends at sundown. A hot shower is replaced with a bucket of cool water freshly collected through the floor of the bathing hut. Dinner is supplied from the day’s fishing catch, rice collected from paddies nearby, and vegetables irrigated by the river’s runoff. The Amazon, Mekong, Nile and Ganga rivers are each incredibly unique, but all of them are a source of life for those living in their reach.

Every night in several towns along India’s Ganga river, an Aarti ceremony is performed to thank the Mother Ganga for this holy lifeline of water. Every day, there seems to be a different festival celebrating one of the Hindu religion’s million gods and each represent a different aspect of life from Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, to a day committed to remembering and honoring one’s ancestors. Maybe only in the developing world do people with so little, put so much time into appreciating the simple blessings of the world around us.

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Ganesh on the backwaters of Kerala

Over the past year, I’ve learned to appreciate so much more my friends and the people I meet, things that I assumed were necessities like hot showers, electricity, internet, and clean drinking water, and the awe-inspiring animals and nature that this world has to offer.

More than anything, I’ve learned to let my life flow like a river. In my former life, I was a planner whether it was what to do for the weekend or the ten year life plan that I made at the age of eighteen to be White House Press Secretary before I was thirty. I realize that tunnel vision focus on the future may have blinded me from seeing other opportunities to pursue my passions in the past. I’m here now, in the present, and ready for this next chapter.

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By coincidence, serendipity, or both, I met a man working to clean up the Ganga River – after a bumpy 16 hour overnight journey from Puskar – on the local bus to Rishikesh. I had no idea that I arrived during the celebration of Pujya Swami Chidanand Sarawati’s 60th birthday (who counts the Dalai Lama as a colleague) where he and dozens of spiritual leaders are asking their millions of followers to join in serving the Mother Ganga and protecting her for India’s future.

Through his ashram, Parmarth Niketan, Swami Sarawati has started a non-profit called Ganga Action Parivar. The initiative, to protect this highly revered river that supports more than 500 million people along her banks, is a full-fledged public awareness and action campaign with an ambitious, but achievable plan.

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Yesterday afternoon, I walked the two kilometers down a dusty dirt road littered with cows, monkeys, and pigs toward the Swarg Ashram area of Rishikesh to visit the man and learn more about the project. The ashram was buzzing with people and while incredibly busy, Sadhvi Adityananda Saraswati, invited me into her office for a half-hour exchange about Ganga Action Parivar’s work and my journey up to this point. Tomorrow, we have plans to meet over a chai to learn more about her work and the journey that led her here.

We’ll see where the river goes from there.

Shanti Out!

20121103-141041.jpg Photo Credit: Ganga Action Parivar

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Rockin Bombay in Two Days

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Bombay brought a whole new layer to India with the shine of glamorous Bollywood and impressive architecture echoing the age of art deco and Imperial influence. On the ride from the airport to our budget hotel, in the nice Colaba area where most of the sites and restaurants reside, we drove over the harbor past young Indian couples making out on motorbikes along the concrete boardwalk and no cows. What was this strange place where we had just arrived?

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Cosmopolitan, Bombay still retains it’s port city charms with narrow bustling sidewalks, friendly locals, and sights that surely impressed merchants arriving into the Port of India hundreds of years ago. We stayed at Hotel Everest, a budget business hotel with a retro vibe, loud air conditioners, and in the first room, no shower or hose connecting the sink. But, with free WiFi, TV and a convenient location, it was fine for two nights.

A Visit to Historic Leopold’s Cafe

For our first night, it was off to Leopold’s Cafe (made famous by the book, Shantaram, and infamous as one of the sites in the 2008 terrorist attacks). The establishment founded in 1871, gave off a warm, Casablancaish vibe complete with beer towers and overpriced food. At around 11pm, we found ourselves ushered upstairs to a neon lit bar room where you can drink before the bar closes at around 12:30am. Some clubs stay open until 3am, but it’s pricey.

A/C and Non-A/C Menus

A real amusement in Bombay was the two-in-one restaurants that had an air-conditioned area complete with a marked up menu of about 30 rubees (about 60 cents) average on items. The best is the front of the menu says A/C Menu or Non-A/C and I have to say that it is totally worth the extra pennies, especially on a hot, humid day.

Exploring Bombay

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We had two full days before my first night train to Goa and did a full sightseeing walk of Bombay’s unique buildings, parks, and sidewalk vendors (Mike bargained for socks). At the Port of India, there was a line about ten Indians long to take photos with us which was a fun experience. Walking down Mahatma Gandhi Road, I pointed out various art deco, Gothic, and Victorian buildings from the Lonely Planet guide and Mike bought a sweet Olympus camera with all sorts of effects which you can see here if you have 3D glasses.

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Stealing Some Treasures at Thieves Bazaar (Chor Bazaar)

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When the cab dropped us off at the area where Chor Bazaar is located, I thought we were in the wrong place. In my mind, a bazaar is like a market – a tented series of stalls selling all sorts of stuff from terrible souvenirs to pashminas. That is not Chor Bazaar.

Chor Bazaar is a few streets of shops nestled within a huge local commerce section of Mumbai and is filled with antiques (and some impressive knockoffs) which transports you back in time with immaculately carved wooden and stone statues of Hindu gods and sacred animals, retro artifacts from the seventies like a toy yacht that was actually a clever scotch caddie with four delicate glasses hidden under the deck, and old school cameras, compasses, photographs and phonographs.

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Entering some stalls, I had the feeling of going through the closet to Narnia in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A maze of small rooms – each getting smaller as you dug deeper through the stacks of objects. I found the shopkeepers to be very kind, not pushy, and genuinely happy to show off their wares.

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I already shared with you the story of the compass, but I also bartered for some East India Trading Company coins with Queen Victoria, King George, Buddha, and Rama, as well as a mongol coin that the young seller claimed was 700 years old. Looking for a miniature accordion, I was shown shining brass horns, drums, and phonographs from back in the day. On our way out, an old man urged us to visit his store which was down a narrow alley and consisted of five shelves of various items. A pendent stood out to me imprinted with an image of Sai Baba, a deeply respected and worshiped religious leader from the 1800s, which I snatched up for 200 rubees ($4).

Mike picked up a 300 year old giant lock with two keys and quite heavy as well as an Egyptian-looking vase. Justin and Sarah bought some coins and a metal figurine. I highly recommend a visit to this authentic escape from the shiny side of Mumbai.

On the Boardwalk: From Bazaar to Beach

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After a long day rummaging through hidden treasures, we headed to Chowpatty Beach to watch the sunset. To be honest, the place is more trash-dump than sandy swimming area, but the view shows yet another facet of Mumbai and her masses. The boardwalk stretches along for miles and is a nice spot for a stroll and some people-watching.

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Night Moves

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That night, we caught a taxi to the Victoria Terminal, a beautiful piece of architecture and hectic intersection of people and trains bound for all over India. Sharing a 2AC cabin, we settled into our section which consisted of four beds bunk style and a small table opposite our blue curtained divider. 2AC is a step down from first class, but comfortable and overnight trains range between 1000 to 2000 rubees ($17-38).

We had bought some Kingfishers on the way to the station and popped them open with a cheers as the train began the more than 600 km journey toward Goa’s gorgeous beaches. Shortly after, we were caught and told by the ticketmaster that alcohol was not allowed. With one last chug, the beers went down the Indian-style drop toilet onto the tracks and, with a 500 rubee fee avoided, we settled into our cubbies.

The next morning, the landscape had transformed into a lush jungle of trees and grassy green fields. It was time to see a different part of India with a slower pulse complete with hippies, trance parties, and a better understanding of the term Goa “freaks.”

Til next time… from Gokarna for my last beach stop of my trip.

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Varanasi: Holy Crap!

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Take everything you’ve heard about India and multiply it by ten and that is Varanasi… people and cattle streaming through the streets to a symphony of horns threatening to bowl anyone over that doesn’t get out of the way (the sacred cows are safe though, watch out for cow pies). India is known as a spiritual place and Varanasi, it’s holiest, is where the living and dead come together to cleanse and worship in the great Ganga (Ganges) River.

The legend goes that Shiva brought the Ganga down to earth so that the 60,000 sons of a great King could be set free into the afterlife. Ganga was such a powerful goddess that if she came down in her full force, she would destroy much of earth. So Shiva captured all of the Ganga’s water in his hair and gently released the holy water onto earth in what is the Ganges River today and the rest filled the holes dug by the sons fighting for their father which became the oceans.

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We stayed at Ganapati Guesthouse between the Manikarnika “burning” ghat and Dashashwamedh Ghat, where pilgrims bath in the river every morning. At sunrise, we rose to an almost misty landscape of the twisting Ganga. On our way to Dashashwamedh Ghat, streams of Indians, holding water jars, flower garlands, and milk for the river, flowed forward as they have for 12,000 years.

I got blessed by a shadu, with a kum kum (a red dot to the forehead) and wished good luck and a long life. Though he was mildly disappointed in my offering, saying that other Westerners gave upwards of $20-40 bucks – he even had a book with entries to prove it. I wrote down my name and put 100 rubees ($2), he took it gracefully in the end.

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Accosted by boat touts, we eventually succumb paying 200rs each for a hour-long ride along the Ganga – it’s a must and perfect way to see the life that flows through the city and different ghats. Particularly the burning ghat which is bursting with firewood to consume the 300-350 bodies daily that are carried from all over India, wrapped in bright gold lame fabric, through the winding streets on their family’s shoulders.

Like all long term travel, you are always dealing with logistics and in India, it’s more difficult than anywhere I’ve travelled. We grabbed a tuk tuk to the railway station to book tickets to North Goa from Mumbai in five days because trains book out fairly regularly (travel tip: book as soon as you can, use the foreign ticket reserve and if crunched for time, check out flights – cheap in India).

Varanasi, like many Indian towns, does not serve alcohol or meat. There are few bars, but in inconvenient places. If you need any libations, there’s a liquor store next to the train station.

My favorite experiences in Varanasi were with her people. Prakash picked me up from the airport, a well-spoken, eighteen year old, who worked with Ganapati to offer his help to tourists in exchange for whatever visitors feel is deserved. Ambitious and a social media butterfly, he can be found at the local internet cafe chatting with friends from Australia and others who have befriended him during visits to Varanasi.

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He said on the way into town that too many people come and just see India, but you have to feel it to really see the real India.

After 48 hours there, India started to feel warmer to me (and not just because it was over 30 degrees celsius) and the chaos and honking began to have it’s charms.

For me the honking was the hardest part to deal with because I abhor it, in the U.S. feel it’s a form of bullying, and something about the decibel level sets me off like nails on a chalkboard. But, a warning signal is necessary in India so you see it more as a security screech after a while.

We spent a day with Prakesh where he showed us an excellent restaurant for lunch and took us to the shop where he worked and slept. I was in dire need of some light cotton pants as most of India is much more conservative than the beach towns where I’d spent the last six weeks. I bought two pairs and am thankful as it’s only gotten hotter down south.

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Our last night, we experienced the Aarti Ceremony, a nightly ritual of blessing the Mother Ganga with fire, smoke, and melodic chanting. We sat to the side with the locals as tourists were shuttled through the crowd to boats. The touts were insistent that we see the ceremony from the water, but if it was good enough for the two lovely Indian women sitting next to me, it was good enough for me. The crowd snapped pictures with us and we took and showed them their photos. We laughed and exchanged words that each only understood by the look in our eyes and smiles on our faces.

It was at that moment that I fell in love with India.

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The next morning, I met Prakesh and saw the ruins of Sarnath where Buddha gave his first speech on enlightenment. By afternoon, the Peru crew plus Mike (Justin’s friend from Australia) flew to Mumbai to start heading south to Goa and Kerala.

Mumbai was a different world compared to Varanasi that demonstrates the incredible diversity of India. More on that later! Til next time…

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WTI: Welcome to India… Oh My Shiva

Touching down in the chaotic Kolkata

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As the vintage taxi swerved and sped through the crowded streets, behind my sunglasses, my eyes absorbed the intensity of a city packed with 15 million people (all of whom seem to be in the road). My Couch-surfing host, Chiru, had warned me that it may be a shock and to count the red lights en route to his home to distract myself, but I totally forgot as I took in the different scenes of daily life from kids playing in a spouting water pump to a group of women haggling with a gold dealer for a necklace to signify a new marriage.

Despite the distractions, the cab driver seemed intent on almost hitting anyone or any vehicle that was remotely close to us and after an hour and a half, I had begun to reach my limit. We were going in circles and at every corner, he stopped to ask directions as Chiru began calling to ask where we were. It was dark, my nerves were frayed, and my eyes began to fill with tears. I had no control over the situation, only a girl alone in a new, strange city at the mercy of a crazy cabbie. And this was only my first three hours in Kolkata.

My first time surfing… on a couch that is

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Seeing Chiru at the roundabout, my spirits began to rise and nerves began to settle over a home cooked meal and Indian red wine (Sula, it’s quite nice). While a member of couchsurfing.com for a year, I had never surfed before and I’m so happy that I did. The community is friendly, helpful, and a wonderful way to meet people that love to discover and meet the world, one couch at a time. Chiru took me to a roof top garden utopia owned by a fellow CS host and topped off the night with some tasty Indian food that reconfirmed my long-standing love of Indian food.

Well, I had such a good time that my alarm was set on silent and I awoke at 6am, 50 minutes before my flight would take off for Varanasi to meet friends and fellow travelers, Sarah and Justin, who I trekked the Inca Trail and Colca Canyon with in Peru in March. After a momentary panic, I thought, “Why am I stressing? The flights gone,” and proceeded to get to the airport, rebook for the next morning on a more direct flight (no fees!) and head back to Chiru’s for another night of surfing.

Exploring Kolkata, absorbing India

After a short recovery nap, I hit the streets to see Kolkata armed with a handwritten map from Chiru with some sites, metro stops, and the hotel where we’d be meeting several expats and Indians for dinner and drinks later.

I’m sure there are other Westerners here, but with 1.2 billion people, you can easily feel like the only foreigner and quasi-celebrity as Indians sneakily take a picture of you as you wait for the metro or flat out ask to be in a picture with you at more touristic parts of a city.

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My first stop was the Victoria Memorial, a palatial white marble tribute to the late Queen built in 1921, and a hybrid of the U.S. Capitol and the Taj Mahal accessorized with Roman columns. Inside showcased Kolkata’s rich history and role in encouraging civil discourse and India’s independence which my inner history geek loved.

Walking through the streets, I saw St. James Cathedral and colonialism’s colossal impact on architecture. I took in the sights and smells of India, a case study in contradictions. Whiffs of incense with the occasional shot of bodily fluids, bright colorful saris accompanied by dirty, calloused bare feet, this is the place that I had the most trepidation to travel, but couldn’t imagine a year around the world without setting foot in this chaotic country.

After a quiet, yet lively evening at the Fairlawn with new friends, I had a good night’s sleep and set three alarms for the following morning.

Cruising the streets in an ancient Ambassador taxi to the airport, I felt more comfortable – India was starting to grow on me – and began to laugh at the quiet breakdowns that I’d experienced in my first 48 hours…

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…Than I got to the holiest and oldest city in India, Varanasi, where cows roam the narrow alleyways as Indians come to cleanse themselves in the sacred (and septic) Ganga river and to burn their dead….til next post.

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Where in the World is Kim?

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So I’ve been on the road now for seven months and am currently taking a three or four week break from traveling in Diani Beach, Kenya. These past months have been quite a world wind with more than 100 hours spent on long distance buses and many a moto-taxi, boat, and even a few elephants and horses thrown in for good measure.

Same, Same, but Different: Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand

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Since leaving South America in April, I spent two months traversing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and absorbing lush green landscapes, world wonders, and delicious pho noodle soups and beautifully spiced curries (for around $2 a pop). SE Asia was a vacation after South America given it’s long history of hosting backpackers, the quantity of English spoken compared to latin american countries, and the ability to live, eat, and drink on the cheap.

Highlights include:

Spending three days sailing, kayaking and swimming in Ha Long Bay, located in the South China Sea. The “Bay of Descending Dragons” features 1969 limestone islands that creates a skyline of dragon-like pitons emerging from the water.

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Trekking through Sapa, on the border of Northern Vietnam and China, to visit the minority hill tribes that cultivate the stunning landscape of rice terraces and whose women produce exquisite hand-made bags and jewelry (and are also the most aggressive – albeit friendly – that I’ve met to date).

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Beaches! While the beaches of Thailand are stunning, the less-touristic beaches of Vietnam and Cambodia offered a more authentic experience with the over-sized fishing baskets of Hue and Hoi An and the peaceful Otres Beach (just outside of Shianoukville) where a two night stay easily turns to four or five.

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Learning about the atrocities of the Vietnam War and Khmer Rouge at Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison and the killing fields was grotesquely eye-opening. The Khmer Rouge’s deadly reign took the lives of one in four Cambodians and made intelligence and even wearing glasses cause for detainment, torture, and death.

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I felt this same disappoint in humanity learning about the atrocities at Hoa Loa Prison under French colonialism and the Vietnam War. Talking to Vietnamese, independence and freedom fueled their fighting in both conflicts. More on all this later in other posts – this is suppose to be a brief update accompanied by the juicy details in the coming weeks.

Meeting people.

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I’ve met some amazing people since starting my world tour and have learned a lot about myself in the process… mostly, that I am a people person, but also from fellow nomads and local comrades because everybody’s story is a perspective and a piece of history. In every country, small bands of travelers are brought together by a passion to see the world. I admire their bravery and have been inspired by each of them.

Witnessing the ancient wonders of times past. From the intricate stonework and sheer size of Angkor Wat to the gold-leafed and elaborately tiled wats and temples of Thailand, seeing these sights have given me a greater appreciation of the civilizations that came before us.

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Spending time with my sister Jessica and friends in Thailand was definitely a highlight, a respite from the steady stream of hostel-hopping and short-lived friendships (but with Facebook the friendships remain and I’ll be hitting you up when I hit your town!).

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From the buddhist temples of Chiang Mai to the bustling beaches, we flash-packed around and slept in comfortable beds with white linen sheets and hot showers (with towels – wow). If you think these are necessary for travel, you now have a better idea of how you afford to travel for a year around the world and why these ten days seemed so luxurious to me. It was also wonderful to spend time with people who have known me for years and have them in my life again in of all places, Thailand.

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After my jaunt with sis, I spent a few days in Bangkok with Andrew, an old friend from DC, and explored the markets, enormous temples and mega malls. During my time there, I learned about hi-so and lo-so, and watched Prometheus (horrible) on a VIP couch in the movie theater. It turned a city known for swallowing people whole into an adventure with a tried and true buddy.

TIA – This Is Africa

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With two continents under my belt, it was off to Rwanda, a small country in sub-Saharan country known for coffee, Lake Kivu, and it’s thousand hills (as well as a three month genocide that claimed the lives of a million Rwandans). My dad and step-mom, Susan, were in Kigali, the capitol, as part of their regular visits to Projet San Francisco, an couples HIV testing clinic operating in Kigali for 25 years and in Zambia.

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We traversed Rwanda, sailing Lake Kivu, tracking the majestic Silverback mountain gorilla, and going on safari in Akagara game park. The two weeks flew by and before I knew it, we were saying goodbye and it was off on a 5am bus to Kampala, Uganda.

It was great to spend a month with familiar faces, but the road calls and were more places to see and hostels to sleep in.

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I spent two and a half weeks in Uganda in Mutchison Falls, the Nile in Jinja (great for outsdoors activities, as I rafted down grade 5 rapids, stand up paddle boarded, and went horseback riding), and spent four days at an eccentric German couple’s campsite in the Sseses Islands on Lake Victoria.

It was quick, but I was on a deadline to get to the beach, Diani Beach on the Indian Ocean, just south of Mombasa. For three weeks, I’m staying at Stilts Backpackas (helping to develop a new webpage), spending my days in the sun and catching up on this blog (for seriously people!). I also already got to visit a local school project nearby so hoping to do more WorldChanger posts as well!

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Looks like Lao and India are next in September, October, and November… have you been? Any tips? Advice? Places to see?

Also, I’d love to have more interaction with anyone reading so if you have questions, comments, and want to share any insights of places that I’ve been, please chime in!

If you like my posts, please share on Facebook, Twitter, and with other friends!

Rock on. Till next time.

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Adventures in Argentina, Part 1

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The Bus Ride from Hell

I dreaded the long, cumbersome overland journey that awaited me from Arequipa, Peru, to Mendoza, Argentina. More than 2,000 kilometers and three arduous bus rides (including a 26 hour journey thru Chile with a mild case of food poisoning and a seven hour stint in a passenger van traveling over the Andes), I made it to Mendoza in one piece at 4 o’ clock in the morning.

4am Fiasco in Mendoza

My 4am fiasco taught me the value of a little preparation before traveling to new countries. After more than two months of travel, I had begun to develop the easy-going “everything will work out” backpacker mindset. I learned early on in Colombia that best laid plans mostly led to headaches as long-term travel is not a two week vacation. If you’re always planning, you’re not experiencing your present surroundings… but as I learned, at least write down a place to stay before you arrive.

I had assumed that I could access internet at some point during my 40 hour haul to Mendoza by way of Santiago, Chile. I arrived with no hostel name or address and no Argentinean pesos (this will definitely be in the top ten FAILS of this trip). I am thankful to the passenger van driver, who grasped after our five minute exchange of 4th grade Spanish that I was in need of assistance and offered to take me to a hostel that he knew of. Arriving at Hostel International, I learn there are no beds so a few phone calls later and a taxi ride – essentially back to the bus station – I made it into bed by 5am.

Malbec and Red Meat

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I came to Argentina to do three things: drink wine, eat steak, and ride a horse… with learn how to Tango as a distant fourth. I wasted no time in achieving the first two with a leisurely lunch with a milanesa steak sandwich and a small bottle of one of Mendoza’s famous malbecs.

I was later joined by Karen, my Deutsch friend from Cusco, who had spent some time in Chile, while I was trekking Colca Canyon. It was a pleasant surprise as we didn’t know the exact days that we’d arrive, but with a few Facebook messages, it was apparent we were in the same city, just different internet cafes. Observation: Facebook has become a world traveler’s rolodex and is the best way to get connect on the road.

We enjoyed steak dinners as big as my hand and shared bottles of malbec at Happy Hour beginning around 4pm. After two months of traveling where wine was not the country’s forte, I was in heaven. Give me a bottle of wine, some friends and I’m happy as a clam.

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After one wine-filled night, our rag-tag and hungover bunch from Itaka hostel embarked on an biking tour of the vineyards and wineries in nearby Maipu. After conversing between single beds from 10am to noon that we should really do this, that we needed to get up, that we should already be en route… we finally emerged from the hostel around 1pm and arrived by public bus (which requires coins, but there are no coins in Argentina so good luck and hoard your coins!) to Mr. Hugo’s Bike Tour around 2pm.

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As we signed away any liability, Mr. Hugo offered us a glass of red wine and I turned green as my hangover stripped me of any enjoyment in taking a sip of that sweet, sweet nectar. I drank half and queasily mounted my bike for the eight kilometer ride to the first winery. Determined to shake it off, I did the tasting of 4 different wines and slowly, the nausea began to subside.

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We visited a range of wineries from small stone buildings producing only 10,000 bottles a year to the modern, almost factory-like establishment with more than 100,000 bottles a year. The bike ride was fun once we got started and by the end of the day, we joined with other bikers/boozers for pitchers of wine back at Mr. Hugos.

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The next day, I said goodbye to Karen and headed to Termas Cacheuta with Paul from Holland for a day of hot springs and hot chorizos off the grill. Termas Cacheuta is a two-hour ride from Mendoza and for 50 pesos, you can enjoy the day soaking in pools heated by a nearby thermal springs. As you can see there is also a few slides for kids (and me).

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Paul’s friend fell in love with a girl in Santiago and left him to return there to see her before meeting back up with Paul in Buenos Aires. Lucky for me that they had already purchased a bus tour with a couple of wine tastings and tour of a olive oil factory, so I buddied up with Paul and sampled some delicious products of Mendoza on my last day there. I still wish that I had bought the olive tapanade… guess I’ll just have to settle for a jar from Whole Foods when I get back.

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Cordoba

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After Mendoza, I was off to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina, nestled in the Pampas region known for estancias (ranches) and gauchos (cowboys). Jess, my fellow dorm mate, was also heading to Cordoba, so we banded together to take the 10 hour night bus journey and arrived by 8am the following morning.

We stayed at Palenque Hostel, which was more like a huge flat than hostel. On a main street and walking distance to the Plaza San Martín, Palenque is homey and comfortable (just don’t forget to check out, they will charge you. I found out the hard way.).

Though tempted to take a nap, I joined Jess in a sightseeing tour of town that included the Jesuit Crypts (discovered in 1980 during the installation of power lines), the Cathedral, and a stroll down photo-lined street in memoriam of those lost in the Dirty War. Up until 1780, the Spanish had ruled Argentina and with them, the Jesuits went about building schools, estancias, and the Catholic religion within the country. They were expelled with the Spanish, but the architecture and religious art remains – rivaling their European counter-parts.

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The street outside the Memory Museum is in remembrance of the more than 10,000 Argentines who disappeared during the Dirty Wars between 1976 and 1983 when the military essentially turned public discourse into a crime and kidnapped, tortured, and killed thousands in state-sponsored terrorism (a tragedy that seems to repeat itself throughout history and the world, especially as I write this from Cambodia).

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Drinking in the history of Argentina, we caught a midnight Tango show which both impressed and intimidated me. Completely in sync with the music, the dancers moved seamlessly across the open-aired square of the historic Cabildo… and the girl was led backwards the entire time! I’ll explain more in my Tango lesson in Buenos Aires.

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I also may have snuck in a bottle of wine…

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I failed to mention earlier, but I was still quite ill with a gut-punching cough from Peru that launched attacks at the least ideal moments. You can listen to my corporal accompaniment in this beautiful Tango video from the evening captured by Jess right before I retreated to the bathroom in embarrassment.

My last night in Cordoba before heading to the pastoral town of La Cumbre, I accompanied Mike, an aspiring photographer, to an artsy party hosted by his school. There I met some very cool Cordobans and practiced my Spanish over glasses of red wine and crustless sandwiches.

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After, I met up with Sebastian, who is friends with Lorenzo and Eric (from my Colombian travels). It was after midnight and we were off to a concert featuring Juan Carlos of Tru La La (think Argentina’s New Kids on the Block). Women were throwing themselves on stage like he was Wayne Newton as a warehouse of fans sang along and danced (while I lip-synced and did my best latin moves).

Escape to La Cumbre

The next morning was rough as a night out for most Argentines ends around 5am. See photographic evidence below.

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Thankfully, I was off to La Cumbre that afternoon for a few days of R&R that turned into a full week. Arriving in this small town, I splurged the first night on my own room, complete with a TV and my own bathroom (this is a big deal when dorms and shared spaces have become all too familiar). With a bottle of wine and bellyful of pizza (it’s really good in Argentina by the way), I spent the whole night watching whatever was English-language on TV, primarily Law and Order.

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The rest of the week, I spent most my time reading the Game of Thrones book series in a hammock at La Cumbre Hostel. A huge country house on a quiet street, it was the perfect place to just chill out for a few days and try to catch up on sleep, this blog, and did I mention the addictive Game of Thrones? (Two months later, I’m still reading it and just started book 4!)

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I ran into Jess from Cordoba, who had traveled to La Cumbre to skydive and paraglide. While I paraglided in Colombia, I have yet to have the courage to jump out of a plane… perhaps something to shoot for before this trip ends. We wondered around town and found Carmelo to set up my three hour riding session the following day. Later that afternoon, Jess was headed up north to Tucumen and onwards to Salta, Iquazu Falls, and Buenos Aires before heading back to Canada.

I love riding horses. On nearly every vacation, if there is an option to hop on a horse for a few hours, I’m there. For me, you can’t beat the freedom of being on a horse and hitting full gallop on an empty road or beach. For three hours, it was just me and Carmelo climbing the rolling hills of the Sierras and taking in the views of town from above.

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Before I left La Cumbre, I joined Melanie, a German traveller volunteering at the hostel for a month, to take photos as she careened through the sky above Cuchee Coral teethered to a giant parachute. We also met Ayelen, who also paraglided, and joined us at La Cumbre Hostel for a bbq of steak and chorizo sausages (and did I mention wine also… see the trend for most of my time in Argentina).

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With Buenos Aires around the corner, I headed back to Cordoba with Ayelen where she invited me to a house party complete with the classic Argentinean sing-along complete with guitars and a good ole spin on the dance floor.

After two weeks in Argentina, I was starting to like the laid-back lifestyle and the wine wasn’t bad either. With two weeks left, it was off to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of South America,” and the beach getaway of Mar de Plata for the last of my time in Latin America, but I’ll leave that for Part 2 of my Argentinean adventures.

Til next time! Ciao from Otres Beach, Cambodia.

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The Long Journey to Machu Picchu and Trekking in Colca Canyon

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After a twelve hour night bus from Ica, I arrived in Cusco just in time to check-in with Peru Treks for my four-day hike commencing the day after my 29th birthday (now that’s what I call starting the year off right!). Alone again after saying goodbye to Mike, who was heading to see the Nazca Lines, I quickly made friends at Priwa Hostel with some Israelis and Deutsch who happily helped me celebrate my birthday at midnight alongside a fellow traveler who was turning 23 (way to make me feel old!). See the photo of us being serenaded on top of a bar when the clock struck twelve.

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The following day was dedicated to recovery and getting my game face on for the 42 kilometer roller coaster (as in up and down, not fast) of a hike to Machu Picchu kicking off at 4am the next morning. Like others on my trek, we were all a bit intimidated with the physical aspect, but I can report that everyone out-performed expectations.

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There were thirteen people on my trek – I being the 13th wheel as everyone came in pairs. But, it turned out perfectly because I got my own tent and had adequate time to befriend everyone over four days of walking. We also had two guides, 17 porters (carrying camping and cooking equipment), and two cooks – a small army with one mission, conquer Machu Picchu.

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As a side note, I choose Peru Treks because they have a great reputation for not only excellent treks, but also taking good care of their porters (paying the wage equivalent of a teacher in Peru) and supporting the local communities through building schools and purchasing computers to improve education. I paid more than some of the more economical treks, but it was worth it to know that the money spent would do more than just take me on an incredible adventure.

The first day from Cusco to Wayllabamba was a pretty easy 12 kilometers with frequent breaks, interesting information about Quechua culture (Inca is actually the King, not the civilization), and delicious food. I will say that hardest part was walking after a huge lunch and I understand why they say wait an hour before swimming now (that should also apply to hiking).

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The second day from Wayllabamba to Pacamayo was another 12 kilometers, but is billed as the hardest day as you climb for five hours up to 4,200 meters through Dead Woman’s Pass and then down another three hours (in the rain in my case which made for a slippery descent.)

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The trick is to take long, slow steps up and steady your breathing. Going down was hardest for me as you have to concentrate where you step to avoid failing down the rocky terrain. Also, don’t bother with a rain jacket and a bag cover, just bring a poncho as it is better at the keeping the rain out, easy to take on and off, and helps avoid the feeling of being in your own personal sauna.

That night, everyone attempted to dry their wet clothing and to rest their cold and tired feet. The highlight of the evening was the warm rum beverage that everyone had pitched in a dollar for earlier in the day which provided a much needed warm up and helped everyone to get some shut eye for our longest day from Pacamayo to Wiñay Wayna spanning 6-8 hours and 15 kilometers.

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Day three was long and arduous, but with beautiful vistas and a DOUBLE rainbow! We also visited the most impressive of the Inca ruins, Phuyupatamarca, which means ‘Town in the Clouds’ and was where the Quechuas did rituals to cleanse themselves before arriving at Machu Picchu.

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After feasting on another delicious lunch prepared by our porters, we tackled the last of that day’s trail (much of it in the rain) and reached the final campsite just as darkness set in and I began cursing what felt like the longest walk ever. That night, the porters surprised our English trekker, Owain, with a birthday cake baked in a cooking pot, and treated all of us to mulled wine as I was elected to deliver the thank you speech (in Spanish) to our troop of porters. Afterward it was an early night as it would be an early morning (3:30am wake up call) to be one of the first groups for the last 5 kilometers thru the Sun Gate and to our hard fought prize – Machu Picchu!

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Scaling the last 50 vertical stairs up to the Sun Gate, I was so focused on not falling that I didn’t even realize that in front of me was the world wonder illuminated in fresh sunlight. It was a long four days, but I imagine the exhilaration of reaching this majestic sight was how many of the Quechuas felt arrival hundreds of years ago.

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Three Days and 22 Kilometers into the Depths of Colca Canyon

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After a few days relaxing in Cusco complete with $5 massages (a must if you’re there!), it was off to Arequipa, my last stop in Peru before heading to Argentina. While at first, I only planned on staying a few days, the thought of working through the logistics of multiple buses and boarding crossings thru Chile to Argentina made my Aussie friends’ (Justin and Sarah) invitation to join them on a multi-day hike into Colca Canyon a worthy diversion that I gladly accepted.

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Before beginning our trek, we stopped at Cruz del Condor and witnessed these massive scavengers soaring through the canyon before the masses of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare birds.

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From there, we hopped off our shared bus with our guide, Miguel, for a rocky 6 kilometer hike straight down into the canyon (which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) to our first stop for the night in San Juan de Chuccho. Photo of the 6 km path below… quite a doozy.

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The accommodations were rustic and perfect with the luxury of hot water for the first few to shower and candles provided at night as there are no lights in the dorm rooms. Arriving by 2pm and with four hours to kill until dinner, we did what any normal person would do to keep ourselves busy – played drinking games!

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While some may say, “why would you do that when you have another ten kilometers to go in the morning?” I say that it’s all about timing… playing a drinking game before dinner means that you sleep like a baby right after dinner and wake up with 8 hours under your belt and ready to tackle the next leg!

The next morning, we decided to up the ante a bit and add a hike up to Tapay which features a beautiful square and where we met Pedro, an outgoing nine year old, who elected himself our guide for his village of about 50 families.

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From Tapay, we walked along the canyon wall through the Coshñirhua and Malata Villages which were simple, small, and gave the impression that little had changed culturally there since the Spanish established them hundreds of years earlier – with the exception of the 30-odd trekkers a day that pass through and the few kiosks selling Snickers and boxed wine to buy along the way (both of which I purchased for our evening at the “oasis.”)

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I was amazed that these communities survived in the canyon as almost all provisions are brought in on mule or on people’s backs, as the area itself only really produces a type of cactus that is home to the cochineal bug which is harvested for its powerfully pigmented blood used in European lipstick (eww) and in Starbuck’s Strawberry Fraps (double eww until a recent uproar by customers causing the company to switch to the tomato-derived lycopene.)

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The people continue to speak quechua and most wear the indigenous dress of the area which consists of layers upon layers of colorful, embellished skirts completed with an equally decorated vest and embroidered hat.

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We also saw colcas which the canyon is named for that were used in pre-Inca times by quechuas to store and keep provisions cool.

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Descending into the Sangalle Valley, we could see our prize “the oasis” at the bottom where we would be spending the night, but we also saw what our fate would be the following morning with a vertical trail of about 6 kilometers out of the canyon.

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One step at a time though… we enjoyed the “oasis,” had a great last night playing cards, and awoke at 4am to tackle the ascent before the heat of the day seized the canyon. Reaching the top, I yelled and did a victory dance to celebrate the 22 kilometer journey!

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Travel is all about pushing your boundaries! I think that treks like these have also helped me to push my physical limits and realize the power of perseverance… something that would come in handy as I made the 40 hour overland journey to Argentina the very next day!

Reporting from Jungle Beach, Vietnam… til next time!

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