Hiking the Huayhuash Solo: Logistics

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

So you want to follow in the footsteps of Joe Simpson from Touching The Void? Or you just want to see some of the most remote mountain wilderness outside of the Himalayas? You’re looking for the Huayhuash mountain range.

For 10 days during October, 2015, I hiked alone through the Huayhuash Mountain range. For those of you who are feeling a bit left out at the moment, let’s back up and go over some basic information to answer the question:

What exactly is the Huayhuash?

The Huayhuash Mountain range is an independent chain of mountains located in the Andes mountain range of Peru. The range contains some of the highest mountains in the world outside of Asia’s Himalayas. The highest mountains in the Huayhuash include Yerapuja, Peru’s second highest mountain, rising to 6617m (21,709ft!!), and Siula, the mountain you may know from Joe Smith’s book and subsequent movie “Touching The Void” which ascends a jaw dropping 6,344m (20,813ft). In short, these mountains are big, very big, some of the biggest mountains you’ll ever see.

Peru-SAM-Map

This map. So funny. The more you know.

The weather in Peru’s Andes is fairly regular. From May to September is the dry season. During these months you will almost never see rain, the skies will be mostly clear and you’ll get the best views. From October to April is the rainy season, with cloudy skies, rainy days and nights, and generally terrible conditions for outdoor adventure sports.

The dry season also means boat loads of tourists, yes even in the remote Huayhuash. It’s just not THAT remote. And during the wet, the views are worse, but you’ll have the place to yourself.

Rainy Season Hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash

Conditions you can expect to deal with if you choose to hike during the rainy season.

So Megan, you said you were there in October?

Yes, I happened to do the Huayhuash in mid October. My trek through the Huayhuash was unplanned, through circumstances that don’t bear talking about, I ended up in the area of Huaraz with not much to do. Huayhuash it was.

If you hike during the wet season, know this: the mountains are reliably clear in the morning, with clouds arriving before lunch and rains arriving before dinner. Get up early.

Personally, I think the wet season was worth it. The place was close to empty and I had beautiful views 8/9 days.

So now we’re all oriented and we know where the Huayhuash is and why I wanted to go there, let’s get down to the business of logistics.

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Most people take on the Huayhuash with an organized tour which can be easily booked online, or from the nearby major tourist hub of Huaraz. But unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a lot of info on hiking the Huayhuash solo.

My first word of caution is this: if you aren’t an experienced backpacker, and if you don’t have a lot of experience in extreme mountain environments like those found in the Peruvian Andes, go with a tour. The Huayhuash circuit is long, arduous, and at times, dangerous. If you feel nervous about taking her on alone, don’t. There’s no shame in having a guide.

If you ARE experienced and want the challenge, here is where I suggest you begin:

  1. Get to Huaraz.

This is a city in the Peruvian Andes from where you can organize your gear, purchase maps, find friends to hike with, and get a bus to the Huayhuash starting town of Llamac.

A bus ride from Lima to Huaraz is short and can be pretty cheap. There are the expensive “safer” options of Cruz Del Sur and Civa, but you can also take the cheaper Z buss and I’m willing to bet you will be fine.

  1. Organize your gear.

This is probably the toughest bit of hiking the Huayhuash solo. Most backpackers don’t go around carrying tents, sleeping bags, or stoves. Ask around at your hostel or at the various tour agencies as most of them will rent out gear.

Casa de Guias is a good place to start for research.

http://www.huaraz.com/casadeguias/

Gear List

  • REI 2 person, 3 season, lightweight dome tent
  • Marmot Sawtooth Sleeping Bag (-9C/14F)
  • MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove
  • Pinnacle Soloist cooking pot and cup
  • MSR plastic collapsible spoon
  • 2L Camelpak
  • Steripen
  • Solomon hiking boots
  • 1 pair silk pants
  • 1 pair hot chilis fleece pants
  • 1 pair prana hiking pants
  • 1 pair rainproof pants
  • 1 rainproof shell
  • 2 fleece jackets
  • 1 underarmor shirt
  • 1 daytime lightweight hiking shirt
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • 2 sock liners
  • Topographical Map (purchased in Huaraz)
  • Notebook and 2 pens
  • Smartphone (to take pictures)
  • Kindle
  • Pair of collapsible Leki hiking poles
  • Kelty Coyote 65L Backpack – NOT RECOMMENDED, but it was a hand-me-down and super old and heavy.

And there you have it, add in enough food for 10 days and that was my pack. It was heavy and cumbersome but I did it.

Topographic Map for the Cordillera Huayhuash

My map and planning notebook

  1. Buy a topographic map.

If you’re going to hike the Huayhuash alone, a map is pretty important. There are a few spots where you might get lost. Also consider buying a compass. It isn’t necessary but it can’t hurt. Modern hikers have GPS machines ppppphhhttttt.

Inside the Mercado Central in Huaraz, Peru

Shot inside Huaraz’s Mercado Central

  1. Plan your menu and buy your food.

This is probably the biggest challenge of doing a solo hike in Peru. You do not have access to those pre-made camping meals from REI that are so popular in the states these days. Get yourself to the Mercado central in Huaraz and familiarize yourself with what is available.

There are 3 medium sized grocery stores in Huaraz where you can buy supplies but everything there is overpriced. Asked around and find the Mercado Central and you’ll find a giant warehouse full of vendors selling everything you need. There is even one woman who has a dry goods store with all the food you find in the grocery stores at half the price.

Take the time to plan a menu before you go shopping. I have met so many hikers in Peru who simply didn’t bring enough calories with them because they didn’t plan a menu. Its an easy thing to fix.

  1. Make sure you have a way to clean your water.

The water in Peru is undrinkable. Even up in the mountains in the remote Huayhuash there is livestock everywhere, pooping in streams and making you sick. Get a filter, a steripen, or iodine pills. You can buy the iodine pills probably at any botica, or outdoors store in Huaraz.

  1. Sorochi Pills

If you are new to the Peruvian Andes, you will feel the effect of the altitude. If you are nervous about this, it makes sense to purchase some sorochi pills, available at every Botica in town. If you’re into the more holistic approach, consider eating a lot of garlic, onions, or drinking coca tea.

One positive of the Huayhuash trek is the terrain. You will ascend to a pass and descend every day, so you will always camp lower than your highest point.

  1. Buy your bus ticket to Llamac.

There is a bus company right on the main road which leaves at 5am, getting you to Llamac around 11am. Tickets are fairly cheap, s/30 as of October, 2015. You should buy your ticket at least a day ahead of time.

  1. Make sure you have enough money!

Bring at least s/250 with you if you are planning to hike the whole Huayhuash. Every time you pass by a village, which is at least once a day, you will be asked to pay between s/10-s/45. They tell you that it is for “protection” but it is extortion and it is the worst part of hiking the Huayhuash.

The Peruvian government recently incorporated the Huayhuash as a protected area but not a national park. Before this change, the people who lived there were on their own. As such, there is no entrance fee, but every village charges a protection fee. Why?

Back in the 1980’s there was a known Sendero Luminoso training camp up there. You can apparently still find it, but I didn’t personally notice I was hiking by that lake until I was below it.

Two foreign trekkers were killed in 2002, and another four were shot in 2004, one of whom died from blood loss. These shootings were a result of people resisting robberies. Nowadays you aren’t at risk of being shot but you do need to pay the local strongmen close to $100 to hike through the mountain range.

Okay back to the cheerier subject. The Huayhuash is completely safe from violence today, and if you plan your trip well you will have an amazing experience.

Cordillera Huayhuash on a Solo Trek

Look out for my next post. I’m going to go through my 9-day itinerary, including suggestions of alternate routes and best hiking choices.

Happy Trails!

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Hiking Peru's Cordillera Huayhuash Solo - What to pack and how to plan

Busco Un Burro: Buying a Donkey in El Perú

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

It turns out that buying a donkey in Peru is not the easiest thing to do. Which, if you have ever been to Peru, may surprise you. Donkeys are everywhere. More ubiquitous than the llama, almost as common as the cow, donkeys are used on every trek and they can be found in every field.

Understandably, after a year of living in close contact with Peruvian farmers and their donkeys, I came to the conclusion that buying one would be a simple task.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Buying a donkey took me 4 weeks from the day I started looking.

Okay, so why on earth was I trying to buy a donkey in the first place?

My then partner and I had this crazy idea to walk across Peru from the ocean to the Amazon. But we really didn’t fancy carrying all our supplies on our backs. So we decided to buy a donkey to help us out.

The mission started when we arrived in Chimbote in late August, 2015. Chimbote is a fairly large port city in Peru. We got a room in a small hospedaje, the cheapest version of a hotel in Peru, and went out to get a feel for the town.

 

A young girl, probably late teens/early 20s was working at a cell phone booth and we started talking with her. Eventually we mentioned that we were in town to purchase a donkey.

Her shock was plain to see.  Not in Chimbote, she told us, incredulous, but outside in the chakras (farm fields) in a town called Santa. But, she warned us, donkeys were very expensive, 2,500 soles, or about $700… WAY more than we wanted to pay.

Still, it was our first lead. So off we went next day to Santa, a smaller much more agricultural town outside of Chimbote. We soon found an agricultural products store and asked them, Busco un burro? Donde se vende? (I’m looking for a donkey, where are they sold?)

Our timid questioning was met with much belly slapping hilarity. Not in Santa! This is a town! Silly gringos, go out to the chakras!

Into a moto and out to the rural area we went. And that was how we found ourselves standing in a deserted collection of 5 mudbrick houses. No one around. Donkeys in all the open spaces. I could just see the tumble weed floating by in the distance.

What was there to do? We didn’t know, so we walked down the street until we found someone. Eventually we ran into a guy using an ox to plow his field so he could plant his quinoa. He said he might know a guy with a donkey and calls a friend. Pretty quickly we get the standard response ‘nooo, no hay’ (There aren’t any).

Why do we want one? He askes. And we explain that we are looking for a donkey to carry our stuff from the ocean, across the desert, up and over 2 mountain ranges, and out into the Amazon jungle.

He looks alarmed.

No, these donkeys, he tells us, are burros costeños (coastal donkeys). A walk like that would kill them. They aren’t made for carrying heavy things.

 

Well there was the crux of our mistake. We had been living high up in the mountains near Cusco, where all the donkeys were hearty mountain donkeys. We had completely forgotten to take into account the fact that coastal donkeys would be as ill equipped for high altitude life as we were.

We decide, with much trepidation, to complete stage one of our walk, across a desert and over one 4,800m (15,700ft) mountain pass, without donkey.

Probably the most painful decision of my entire life. I was committing myself to two weeks of walking through unforgiving terrain with up to 50 pounds on my back.

14 days later and we’d made it to the end of stage 1 and the bustling metropolis that is Huaylas, Peru.

Did I say bustling metropolis? No sorry, I meant completely dead mountain town.

Huaylas, which had been our mecca for 2 weeks, is a ghost town. The tiendas are empty. There is one hotel and we appear to be the only guests. The market has one lady in it who, at 2pm, doesn’t appear to be serving lunch.

Having placed all our hopes on this town as our best option to buy food and a donkey: we despair.

But over the next 4 days, this ghost town slowly comes to life around us and I begin to love it.

The one lady who works in the market is Maria and she becomes our biggest supporter in town. Every day she makes us breakfast and asks how the donkey search is going.

On day 2, Maria calls up her son, and he and his cousin take us up into the mountains to several villages, asking around for a donkey. We head up to tiny rural communities without cars and ask everyone we see if they have donkeys available. We are greeted by a chorus of ‘nooo, no hay’. But to give our guide, Ibo, credit, he never gives up and even commiserates with us: que hacemos? (What are we going to do?) I had this beautiful sense that we were his friends and he was going to help us until the very end.

On day 3, Maria takes us herself through town to ask some friends about donkeys. Even when we are away, she goes by herself to a different pueblo and actually finds someone willing to sell a donkey to us.

Not to mention Maria is incredibly kind, friendly, and welcoming. Her help turned Huaylas from a ghost town to a living Peruvian community of which we are briefly a part.

On Day 2 in the morning, before Ibo can take us up to the mountain villages, we take a walk through Huaylas and up to the next town, passing through all the farm fields in between. We speak with everyone who crosses our path. People ask us where we are staying so they can find us if they do find a donkey. A man offers to sell us his, but he wants 800 soles, still way more than we are willing to pay.

Day 3 of the Huaylas search was the day of success. After Maria took us to meet her friends without success, we went back and asked the man who owned our hotel if he knew anyone. He turned out to be yet another incredibly helpful and friendly character from Huaylas.

And so we are off again, following señor through the town to the house of a woman who may own a donkey. Well, she doesn’t know of anyone, we get another ‘noooo, no hay’ and are about to give up, when a tiny campesiña woman walks by and our host calls out to her. Asking, does she know anyone who wants to sell a donkey?

For the first time, we don’t hear ‘nooo, no hay’ Instead, as if in a dream, I hear her say, my mother wanted to sell hers, let me call her.

Her mother is an 88 year old Peruvian woman who is as small as child, but tough as nails and sweet as sugar. She says yes, she has a donkey, a female, who is made to carry things through the mountains, and she would like 250 soles for her.

Perfect.

Off we go with Felicity, not the 88 year old mother, but the daughter. She takes us down ‘just 15 minutes’ to the chakra where the donkey lives.

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Chana looking gorgeous on the day we met her

And the donkey is perfect. She is sweet, mild tempered, with healthy teeth, healthy feet, a good weight, and a clean, healthy coat of hair. I couldn’t be happier.

We work out the details with Felicity and head back up towards town. I expect it to be the end of it, but no. Felicity takes us into her home and makes us a delicious lunch from scratch. Canchita (peruvian toasted corn), a pea soup, and a vegetarian dish of veggies and potatoes over rice. During all of this she tells us about her life, raising a daughter by herself, making sure her daughter stayed in school. Her problems with monkey and her life struggles. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had in Peru.

And after lunch? She has us help her herd her sheep down to the fields below town.

And that is how you buy a donkey in Peru.

Riding The Bus In Peru

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

I enter the terminal to the sound of men calling out the various destinations. “Cusco! Cusco! Chincero!” “Ollantaytambo!” Occasionally I am noticed and one calls out the name of some nearby tourist destination for the gringa. “Maras! Moray!”

But today I am not traveling for pleasure. Today I am heading to a different place, on a bus that las turistas rarely take. And why would they? There is no obvious reason to go to Yanahuara.

I step onto the bus and take a seat on the front bench, facing the rest of the passengers. We are waiting for the bus to fill up near to bursting. The driver will not leave before then.

The bus is in fact a van, converted into a combi of sorts, with four or five rows of seats bolted to the floor, and a bench along the front, facing the rest.

Here I sit.

Slowly the bus fills with characters from agrarian Peruvian life. At first glance they are all quite similar, in speech, in appearance, in attitude.

But look more closely.

Here is a stout old campesiña woman, carrying my weight worth of vegetables on her back in a brightly colored tapestry. And behind her a younger woman in traditional dress, a similar brightly colored tapestry on her back, but within it? A baby.

Next, a couple step on who, by appearances, could be from the United States. Modern clothes and modern cell phones, the only thing giving them away is the way they speak Spanish.

An elderly man enters, draped in a brightly colored traditional poncho and hat, and close behind a young boy similarly dressed.

And last, a group of school kids, middle school aged, talking loudly and teasing one another. To listen to their conversation they could be from anywhere. From Tokyo or Seoul or nowhere, USA.

The bus is full at last and we pull out of the terminal. Slowly we inch out of town and up into the farmland. Every once and awhile a “baja sol y luna” sounds and a few passengers step off. Later the bus pulls over and a few more step on.
There are no designated bus stops. The system has no order. And yet somehow it works perfectly.

The sounds on the bus rise and fall. Conversation switches from Spanish to Quechua and back again. Everyone seems to be at least some little bit bilingual.

Occasionally there is a furtive glance at the gringa. Children stare, openly curious. But mostly I am left alone, neither harassed nor treated like some special being. It is in a way comforting. To be left alone to observe. To people watch. To disappear into the tapestry.

Eventually my turn arrives and I say to the driver, “baja allyupampa”. I step off and pay my ochenta centimes for the ride and the bus drives off along the single paved road in the valley, leaving me in the dust.

 

And such is my experience riding a bus in Peru.

Life In Urubamba: The Beginning

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

Ok, It is now the start of my second week living and working in Urubamba, Peru. My brain is a little tired from using Spanish, even though I am able to use English at home. Every day, all around me is Spanish. This is good, this is great. I can feel myself learning every day. But it is an exercise in patience. I want to learn faster, to see myself improve faster. I want to be fluent now. But with patience, and hard work, I will gain close to fluency. I hope.

Many of the people here, even the tourists, they speak Spanish. Though at least two of my fellow teachers are at a low Spanish level, much like I am. That helps, because I am human and I do compare myself to others. When I am only around fluent Spanish speakers I feel that I have so far to go. But really, I am able to communicate… most of the time. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to express an idea and not having the words to do it. Imagine human life before the development of language. There is a chicken and the egg debate for you.

My ability to speak Spanish also impacts my teaching. Right now I teach 3 classes, and will be adding a private this week. My first class is hotel English. This is fairly simple because the employees at the 5 star hotel that I am working with already have a high level of English, so what we work on together is more like troubleshooting. For example we explore how best to give a sales pitch for their membership program, and how to reply to guest complaints. Things like that.

Next I teach a class por los niños que tiene 5-7 años. So far my attendance has been spotty so I have only had one kid at a time. This makes it quite enjoyable because normally I’m not so fond of working with little kids. I prefer preteens and teenagers. I’m strange. I know. Anyway, the kids and I have mostly been working on numbers and colors and shapes. We do a lot of coloring, and then I read one of the Dr. Seuss books that I brought with me from my parent’s house in the States. I mostly use Spanish to communicate to the kids, but I am trying to include more and more English as the weeks go on.

Then there is my adult class, Basic 2. This is by far the most challenging and the most rewarding. I really need to use Spanish to make sure they understand what I am asking them to do, but in reality I try to use only English in the classroom. This makes it very challenging for them, I can see this, but in the end it will earn the best results.

The style of teaching is completely different from what I learned in Korea. The atmosphere in my classroom and my style of classroom management is the same, but the material is different. So, what I love about teaching, that stays, and what I disliked, has changed. Now I am teaching more grammar. Yesterday we worked on Can/Can’t. The students really enjoyed learning that unlike in Spanish (yo puedo, tu puedes, él puede, nos podemos, ellos pueden) in English it is actually simpler, I can, you can, she can… etc. Always can! Then by contrast we went over Do/Does. He does. Megan does. Everyone else do hehe.

Anyway I really enjoy it. I love seeing the moment in the student’s face when something clicks and they hurriedly scribble down a note to themselves. Also, now in the second week the students are getting to be more comfortable with me and as a result are asking more questions. My absolute favorite part of teaching is when students get engaged enough to start asking tough questions.

What else can I tell you about my life in Urubamba? There is so much to tell!

Overall, I feel happier and healthier and more centered here than I have since.. well… childhood really. I know that sounds extreme but I’ve been thinking about it and it’s true. For the first time since I hit 13 years old and noticed I was a female human and not some fairy creature from Narnia, I am happy with my body and not critically examining every inch of myself. I eat what I want, and eat healthy. Am I losing or gaining weight? I don’t know and I don’t care. It is liberating.

My meditation and yoga practice has become effortless. I wake up with the sun most mornings between 5-6:30. I know that is a big window but there it is. I practice meditation for 20 minutes and then go through an asana practice. A few mornings I have felt no desire for asanas and I did not punish myself for this. For example this morning I have woken up with a touch of a parasite and I know that my body needs rest. I also knew I wanted to focus on writing, and so instead of meditation and asana, I am writing this. And it feels right. I feel no guilt.

Hippies will say that the Sacred Valley of the Inca (where Urubamba is located) is one of the energy centers of the earth. A chakra, if you will. If you don’t believe in that sort of thing then maybe you wouldn’t feel it. Or maybe you would. I feel so in tune with myself, and as a result, so in tune with everyone around me. I try to remain skeptical about things that cannot be observed but there is something about this place…

And I’m not the only one that feels it. I have accidentally stumbled into a hippie enclave, and I love it. All of the expats here are of the earthy-crunchy-burning man variety. Last weekend I went to a little festival during the day where people were exhibiting their own projects, I bought a handmade crystal wrap, some Maras salt mixed with Andean herbs, and cerveza artesano. The best part? There actually is a mixture of locals and expats in this crowd! So it doesn’t feel completely like neocolonialism (just a little bit…) And everyone speaks Spanish. Or at least tries to. So different from Korea…

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Looking bewildered on the day I moved to Urubamba

How about some of my adventures since getting to Urubamba:

First off, I am living with Elise, the young woman who founded El Arte Sano, the NGO that I work for. She lives in a really charming house in the countryside outside of town. The house is four rooms and a kitchen, and all of them open onto a courtyard that would be more accurately described as a whimsically overgrown garden. There is a vine with habañeros, or some kind of spicy pepper, strawberries growing out from under the stones beneath your feet, mint everywhere, and even an apple tree. It is quite wonderful and I am truly grateful to be staying in her spare room. Though at the same time I am excited to get my own place and begin the nesting process.

The first weekend here I was invited to go on a hike with Elise and three other teachers from the school: Jessica and Shane, both from the US, and Henri, a Spanish teacher from Cajamarca. Also on the hike was Ho, a guy from Urubamba who runs mountain bike tours, and a woman from Lima whom Elise had met at a workshop in Cusco the day before.

Anyway, we took a combi van 20 minutes away from Uru, towards Ollyantay and stopped next to the Cervezeria. We began walking on some paths that ran along corn and potato fields. Before beginning the meat of our hike, Ho stopped, took out 3 coca leaves and offered them to Mamapacha, or the Incan mother earth, as a prayer for a good day.

Sidenote: coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, are common as dirt here. You can literally buy them from every stall in the market. It isn’t taboo in the least.

Ok back to the hike. Our first stop was an Inca ruin in the mountainside. At first glance it was just traditional terracing, with none of the monumental stone architecture that the Inca are so famous for. But we climbed to the top of the terraces and there found a cave. This cave was undoubtedly a sacred space. A large alter had been carved into the rock facing the valley while a false door was carved into the side of the cave, facing into the mountain. I felt as if I were standing in an ethereal portal at the top of the world. The serenity of the space compelled all of us to have a meditative moment of silence. It was a beautiful welcome to the Sacred Valley.

From there we headed up, and up, and up, and up into the mountains towards a waterfall. Ho, our guide for the day, kept insisting that we were almost there, for nearly 2 hours. That said, I really did enjoy it. The hike took us along more farm fields, through a few indigenous mountain villages, and then up into the craggy mountains. I love the mountains so much, and the Andes are truly spectacular. They compare favorably even with the Himalayas. And the variety of the ecosystems is something to behold. Over the course of 4 hours walking we crossed a river and farm fields, through arid near desert low bush covered mountains, and up into a densely forested deep green chasm between two huge craggy peaks. Increíble.

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At long last we made it to the waterfall, a 30 meter tall crescendo. Sorry America, I do metric now.

Speaking of which, Urubamba exists at an elevation just below 3,000 m (above 9,000 feet). I’ve been here a week and a half now and I feel as if I have adjusted to life at this elevation. Unless I try to do difficult aerobic exercise. Like walking up hills.

Okay one more adventure. THIS Saturday that just passed was Urubamba day, or Urubamba’s 175 anniversary. The party in the central square went on all night. There was a huge stage set up with Peruvian bands playing and I danced and danced and danced. One old man taught me some traditional peruvian dance and he twirled me around on the dance floor for ages. The cerveza was flowing generously and dare I say… dangerously?

The Peruvian style of drinking should be approached con cuidado. Someone buys one grande cerveza and one cup. Both are passed around and everyone in the circle fills the cup and drinks before passing it on. So you think you are only drinking a little. Well lots of a little is a lot. So let’s just say it was a good night, and leave it at that, hmm?

And then I discovered that my wallet (with my debit card) and phone (which was also my camera) had fallen out of a massive tear in the side of my $1 purse I had bought in Thailand last year.

Oh well, I still have another way to access money and my person is fine so all is good. These are just material things.

Overall I am happy and healthy and looking at an option for an apartment in a few hours!

If you love mountains, architecture, archaeology, the intersection of ancient and modern cultures, spiritualism, South American Andean culture, or well.. if you love exploring, I can’t encourage you enough to make Peru a priority. I know I am in the honeymoon phase but seriously, WHAT a honeymoon. I am so in love with this place.

Okay. Until next time,

 

Ciao!

Lima: First Impressions

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Uncategorized

I’m doing it again. I’ve moved to a new continent and am attempting to adapt to life in a new culture. This time around I’m not even going to live in a big city, but a small village high in the Andes mountains. More on that later, as of this time of writing I haven’t even seen this village, so it would be more than a little presumptuous for me to write about living there.

Where have I been? Lima and Cusco. With a 22 hour bus ride in between.

First, Lima.

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Lima’s Imposing Judicial Palace

Lima is huge. Lima is spread out. Lima is dirty. Lima is crowded. Lima is deserted. Lima is beautiful. Lima is old. Lima is new. Lima is a city of contradictions.

My flight landed late, 10:30pm. I had one day of exploring, and left on a bus at 5:30pm the following day. Less than 24 hours in a city, is it possible to get a sense of it?

Yes and No.

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After a quick hostel breakfast, I headed out to the nearest site, an archaeological site called Huaca Pucllana in the Miraflores district of Lima. A really pleasant 20 minute walk from my hostel, I avoided the major roads and instead wandered around back roads taking in the interesting mix of architecture. Miraflores, I would realize later that day, is a wealthier area of the city.

The site itself was closed. Only on Tuesdays. This was a Tuesday.

My next stop was the city center to see the Monastery of San Francisco. I thought I was being so clever, taking public transportation to get there instead of shelling out the 10 soles ($2-3) for a cab. So I took the metro to la estación central and exited, heading confidently in the way of my dreams.

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Lima’s Plaza de Armas

This should not surprise you when I say I instead wandered around the very crowded, very interesting, very disorienting city center for 3 hours, without seeing any of the major sites I had intended on seeing. In short, I was completely lost.

I did stumble onto a street FULL of street food vendors, most of which I could not recognize but the smell was divine. I also found el centro mercado, a massive MASSIVE central market. There was a whole block just selling zapatos. A whole. city. block. And another of clothes. Another of electrical kitchen appliances. You get the idea. The energy of the place was electric. I managed to buy a SIM card for my phone.

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Oh also, I did not use English once this whole day. It is so thrilling to communicate entirely in Spanish.

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Eventually I wandered to a park that had a bunch of food stalls. Here I had chincharrones for lunch, having no idea what chincharrones actually were. The meat itself is deep fried and I can’t say I was that in love with it. But la mujer quien servirme served the meat over steamed and fried corn. But not the traditional sweet corn, instead some crazy HUGE kernal really crunchy stuff. I love it. And the salsa picante era muy muy muuuuuuy picante. Me gusto mucho.

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After my lunch I did hop in a taxi and ride for half an hour or more to another part of the city to visit the Larco Museum. Although pricey, I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient peruvian culture.

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Ancient Peruvian Sass

The collection is huge and well displayed. The presentation is thoughtful and you get a sense of the many different cultures that led up to the Inca.

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Other bonuses: the museum has an erotic sculpture hall. And these aren’t your standard phalluses either, but a whole range of sexual deviancies preserved forever in the medium of pottery.

And lastly, the museum lets you see into their storage hall as well! That was my favorite part. Floor to ceiling shelves FULL of different ancient peruvian artifacts. It was an archaeology nerd’s wet dream.

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After that excursion I headed to the bus station to take a 22 hour bus ride across the country. It was the longest time I have ever spent in one single mode of transportation. Got my first view of the Andes (Stunning, of course) and made it to Cusco. I love it here, but have only had one night of exploration. Will be in Cusco one more day and then I am heading out to my new home, Urubamba.

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Adios Amigos.

Skiing in South Korea: High 1 Resort

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

 

My first winter in Korea was my first winter in 5 years. The initial adjustment was difficult, dare I say bordering on traumatizing. But thankfully my 18 years in New England came through for me and I adjusted. Buying some thermal leggings and knock-off ugg boots helped as well. But god damn it was awful at first. Los Angeles, I hope you realized how very blessed you are.

Aside from trauma and freezing cold feet, winter does have its benefits. Primarily: SKI SEASON!!

Yes there is tons of skiing in Korea. Like, tons and tons of it. This whole peninsula is covered in mountains so it makes sense that they’d cut some trails into a few of them. I managed to get out skiing a couple times, which was pretty miraculous considering how exhausted I was after a week of teaching Korean school kids how to speak English.

The first weekend I went to a smaller resort in western Korea. For those who do not know, let me take this time to illuminate for you the geography of Korea.

635px-South_Korea_location_map_topography_with_taebaek_mountains_marked
Map of Korea with Taebaek Mountains in Red (wikipedia

In its western half  Korea is more “flat” which by Korean standards means peppered with small mountains. Then as you drive east the mountains get bigger and bigger and you enter the Taebaek Mountain Range. In there the towns are smaller, you finally lose sight of the army of huge apartment buildings that cover this country, and the landscape becomes breathtakingly beautiful.

So the first weekend I went skiing in the west. The resort was tiny, 6 trails and about as many lifts. Only one real expert slope, and to be honest it was an east coast (of the US) blue square. Still, I had a BLAST and in 3 hours of skiing I got in so many runs and was exhausted the next day.

 west korea ski
View from the Top of the smaller Resort (Western Korea)

By the way, skiing in Korea is ridiculously easy. Many resorts have free shuttles to and from Seoul, you can rent all your kit for less than $30, and you can rent pants, a jacket, and goggles if you need. It’s really absurdly easy. And Korea is so crowded and overpopulated that they are GREAT at dealing with crowds. Even at a small resort there are almost more lifts than trails, so you never really have to wait in a long lift line. And you can buy lift tickets for just 3 hours, instead of purchasing a whole day and wasting half of it in the lodge!

So then this past weekend, I made a longer trip out to a resort in the Taebaek Mountains in the East called High1 Resort. I stayed in a hotel nearby that was really nice. Check out the view from my 11th floor window!

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I was lucky enough to have a friend at work take my only Monday class, so I stole a 3-day weekend for myself. I traveled on Sunday, and skied in Monday, so there was almost no one at the resort!

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Me rocking rented jacket and goggles

The lodge of the resort was located in between 2 mountains, and there were lifts going up both and trails coming down on either side of this valley. On the one side were some advanced and intermediate trails, and that lift was slightly crowded. But on the opposite side there was a lift that only accessed 3 expert trails. They weren’t very long but they were super steep, wicked fun, and there was nobody on the lift. I almost had the trails to myself!

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View of the other mountain, from the top of the expert zone

I spent the entire day on those 3 trails, only going on the other side once, decided it was boring, and went back to my private expert only zone. It was amazing!

Just to be clear: Skiing in Korea is hassle free, and awesome fun.

  • You can easily rent all your gear, including snow pants, jackets, and goggles, for less than $30.
  • You can buy a pass for the number of hours you want to ski, or for a whole day.
  • There are free shuttles from Seoul to the nearby ski hills.
  • There is night skiing.
  • There are no lines, even when there are crowds.
  • It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Alright so there is a recap of my skiing experiences. I have one more story to relate. High 1 Resort is also the location of Kangwon Land: the one and only Casino in Korea that lets in Korean Nationals.

That’s right.

There are casinos all over Korea, but they only allow in foreigners like me.

Except at Kangwonland. So of course I had to check it out.

First shocking fact: no alcohol. So in Korea, you can drink to excess, and you can gamble, but you cannot drink to excess and gamble at the same time. I even had to blow into a breathalizer before they let me in!

Once inside, no pictures allowed. So unfortunately I have no pictures for this part of the post.

The atmosphere inside was kind of dark and tense. Picture hundreds of Koreans all packed around tables looking really intense and losing all their money. If you know Koreans at all, you know that they are really tight with their money. It makes sense when you think about it; the nation only became wealthy recently. This is a people who are used to poverty and hard times. So they all seemed angry or at least upset, but at the same time… they weren’t cashing out.

Then on top of that, I was the only foreigner in the place. I was traveling with a Korean. My daily life includes people staring at me everywhere I go. It has become normal now and I don’t really notice it anymore. But being in this Casino was like my first week in Korea all over again. Every time I turned my head I made eye contact with a curious and possibly hostile Korean.

But the upside of this strange experience was that I gambled for the first time in my life. I played a slot machine and won the equivalent of $5. So ha ha, Korea, I win.


me garden

Megan xx

four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


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The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.