Friday, November 30, 2012

Heading Home

We're in the Lima airport right now, about to board our flight to Atlanta, and then back to Seattle. It's much quicker this way than on our way out, because it's more of a straight shot to America North from this coast of America South than the other coast. It's only a three-hour time change from here to Seattle at this time of year, so our readjustment should be relatively easy. If you don't take into account the vastly different temperature gradients and amount of daylight.

Since I last wrote, our trip changed. We left the high elevations for the Amazon basin, which was AWESOME. I look forward to continuing my story wrapped in my new baby alpaca shawl, as well as many, many blankets, curled up in front of our fireplace and our twinkling tree.

But now, time to find our boarding gate.

one-fingered on my phone

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Machu Picchu and the Sanctuary Lodge

Machu Picchu is pretty spectacular, and I can see why folks are awestruck when they see it in person. Not *all* of the stones in the terraces, walls, and buildings appear to have been melted together--there is some use of mortar in places--but enough of them are laid gaplessly stone-on-occasionally-giant-how-on-earth-did-they-get-it-there-stone to be impressive, and a little unbelievable. Many of the best-constructed walls have stones that are perfectly, uniformly curved at their meeting edges, slightly recessing the seams between rocks, and adding to the aura of unreality. How did these stonemasons shape this granite so uniformly?

Yesterday afternoon, Ian and I, clinging to the cliff-side so we wouldn't plunge to our untimely deaths hundreds of feet below on the banks of the Urubamba River, took a trail out the back of the site to an old Incan bridge. Fortunately, the final approach to the bridge--a deep, stone U-shape in the cliff wall trail, crossed by four, several-yard-long warped planks of hardwood--had been blocked by park officials. Who knows what tragedy my love of a challenge may have led to.

The main site was overrun by teenagers maniacally taking pictures of each other with digital cameras. "They really have become a scourge," Ian said. About the cameras.

The Sanctuary Lodge itself is a boutique, breathtakingly expensive, all-inclusive hotel just outside the gates to the park. You can see a bit of the Machu Picchu citadel from the stone hot tub up at the top of the garden, and Ian and I watched the last light fade over the mystic city from there.

This would all, in fact, be a completely magical place if it weren't for one thing: it's in Peru.

Peru gives the impression of being an up-and-coming, well-established and organized place. Peru excels at marketing. You can book tickets for all sorts of things online from the US: train tickets, tours, hotels (even the $10/person/night hostel we used in Puno). Airplane tickets on LAN Peru were a bit more difficult, as we had a complicated itinerary (Iguacu-Sao Paolo-Lima-La Paz, then Cuzco-Lima-Iquitos, then Iquitos-Lima), so I spoke directly with an agent for those. Marsh had voiced worry about the reliability of plane reservations in South America in general, and I assured him that LAN was a global company and part of OneWorld with British Airways and other well-established international carriers. Even so, I called an agent before leaving Seattle, just to make sure. Veronica assured me that we had E-tickets and our seats were confirmed.

This is perhaps not the fault of Peru, but our first troubles of the trip came when we went to check in at Iguacu to come to the Altaplana. Our reservations had been dropped. We got on our flight with no real trouble, but we were seated one by one in middle seats. This happened again from Lima to La Paz, with the added complexity of different information about where and when to pick up bags, with the result that some rode with us to La Paz and some didn't (they arrived late at night in La Paz).

For our trip across Lake Titikaka, I had booked through a glossy Peruvian website that implied we'd steam up the lake from Bolivia to Puno, Peru, visiting, among other things, a floating reed village. We did not. We steamed around the Bolivian end of the lake and then were put on a bus to the Peruvian border, where we had to get off the bus and collect our bags and cross on foot, then put our bags on a different bus for a three-hour ride through shockingly litter-filled countryside to Puno, where torrential rain was flooding the  streets. In Puno we had to get out of the bus in that rain and transfer our bags to a minivan to get to our hostel, with a terribly ill trip member (this was our first clinic night). Strike one, Peru.

Our bus early the next morning, a clever tourist bus going to Cuzco with several stops along the way and a toilet on board, was close-by the hostel. The company wanted to be paid in US dollars, $180 of them. I handed over a wad of twenties I'd received from my bank just before leaving the US.and boarded the bus. Marsh got on several minutes later and told me that he'd had to exchange several of my bills for some that he had, because mine were "broken." My new twenties weren't good enough. Strike two, Peru.

The bus trip was okay--we did have several opportunities to get off and walk around, but the "bilingual" "guide" was a hyper-chipper fast talker who had only a bare grasp of English. Since by this point I understand Spanish pretty well, at least tour-contextually, and mostly what I wanted to do was sleep, this endless nattering and, at times, wild conjecture about what we were seeing, was hard to take. At least the English version of everything was relatively short. Strike 2 1/2.

Somewhere in here--the oxygen-starved memory is foggy on the details--I received an email from LAN saying that our flight from Lima to Iquitos had changed and they were sorry for any inconvenience. The inconvenience with this turned out to be that our flight from Cuzco to Lima had not also changed, and so we were set to arrive in Lima 30 minutes after our plane took off for the Amazon. Strike 3 1/2.

We had one full day scheduled in Cuzco, and Ian and I spent it, not unhappily, managing plane reservations at a LAN office and mailing a box home. I do like to get into the nitty-gritty of a place, and figuring out how to find a box for our belongings and get them in the mail definitely fit the bill.

At the main post office there was a little kiosk with a stack of used cardboard boxes outside. We brought in our things and a little lady packed them in, then taped the box closed, then wrapped it several times in stretch plastic both directions around the box, then taped the stretch plastic down on the ends and the edges multiple times. It's a good thing I'd written the address in a super-big font. All this for about 10 soles. I then went across the street to get a copy of my passport (Peruvians are big on wanting to copy your passport), and when I got back, the lady took us through behind the counter at the PO and handed us off. I filled out a customs form in quintuplicate, put a fingerprint on each of the five pages, gave over my passport copy and 185 soles for our 5.6 kg box (much of that tape and Saran wrap), and we were on our way. We did add 20 postcard stamps to our order, which brought the total up another 120 soles. At that rate, it looks like our box will be sent by paddle boat.

My one finger is cramping, and my phone-holding hand is numb, so I'm going to sign off for the moment and continue this story  later . . . stay tuned.

one-fingered on my phone

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pinnacle and Nadir

Lake Titikaka is a truly surprising place. It is somewhere around 13,000 feet in elevation, and has no outflow except occasionally during the rainy season. It's huge--in many places you can't see land across it--but it's too saline for the people eking out their livings along its vast shores to use as a source of water, either for drinking or as irrigation. There are trout farms anchored around many of its shorelines, and countless villages and even some significant towns dot the barren, tundra-like land. Tundra-like in vegetation and chill, but hilly, with snow-capped peaks in the distances . . . when the distances are visible.

We did one hike of about 3 km on Sun Island, on the Bolivian side of the lake (part of our catamaran tour), which was gravely difficult for four of us, and nearly killed A, who suffers from migraines with much more regularity and severity than I ever have, and who had had one in La Paz the night we arrived (which was the night before our hike). She had been given oxygen in our Radisson, and used up her migraine meds, which themselves had not responded well to the altitude. Mom and I and Wendy, our tour guide, did a bunch of doctoring on the boat, but it was all we could do ourselves not to collapse.

It turns out that for me, the best way to deal with the altitude has been to sleep on all buses, my head lolling against Ian's shoulder, for pretty much the whole of any trip up in the Altaplana. On our boat, I asked for my bed the moment we stepped on board. I have never slept so easily or so completely or so often or so long in my life, even as an infant. It's been glorious, the sleep, but it does mean that our trek from La Paz to Cuzco has been dreamlike. Ian, fortunately, has been in relatively good shape, so there is a good photographic record that I can look at to remember what we did.

We ended up cutting our boat tour short in Copacabana, Bolivia, known for having a cathedral that blesses cars, by several hours and another hike. Ostensibly this was to aid A, but we all benefited from time to shop and chill out a bit. We hit an internet cafe and Ian found a clinic in Puno, Peru, where we were headed, and where A was able to get some excellent medical attention and some different headache meds.

And the next morning, yesterday, we got on bus number 7000 and I slept through most of the end of the Altaplana and on into Cuzco.

I was awake for the highest point of our journey, however, long enough to take the picture above. It was about the elevation of Mt Rainier, around 14,000 feet. And we drove there!

Aside from a cold (me) and some runs (all of us), we seem to be on the mend. Three more nights at altitude, and then we're on to Iquitos on the Amazon.

Things are looking up! And down!

one-fingered on my phone

Sunday, November 18, 2012

(Gasp! Gasp!) Bolivia!

La Paz is a city unlike any other I've ever seen. I don't think the mental, oxygen-deprived fog that I first saw it through influenced my appreciation of its varied charms, but it was, and continues to be, quite the fog (excuse my less-than-perfect writing--the fog, the fog).
We've only been here a couple hours; the first 1 1/2 spent going through customs and retrieving 2 of our 5 bags. What's surprising about this is that any of or bags made it at all, as our itinerary to get here was Iguacu-Sao Paolo-Lima-La Paz, with about ten hours over night in Lima. In Iguacu we were told to pick up our bags in Lima (I assume because we were transiting through Peru from Brazil, and would need to go through customs). In the event, our bags were checked through to, in teeny print, LPB, and they did not appear in Lima. We had not received boarding passes through to La Paz. This morning in Lima we checked in, only to be told our reservations had been canceled (yes, midway through our flight). The agent was able to get us seats (4 middles and an aisle), and she stuck one each of our baggage claim tags, which Marsh was carrying all in a bunch, on our boarding passes. Not necessarily the passes that belonged with the bags, although the passes DID belong with the tags. Confusing traveling with five.
Time went by.
We landed in La Paz at a higher elevation than airplane cabins are pressurized to, so my half-drunk water bottle let air out when I opened it instead of in, and I realized I felt pretty woozy, a feeling familiar from 2008 when my lungs were half full of cancer. And then I got pneumonia.
This altitude stuff had me worried from the start, and I was quite anxious last night from Sao Paolo to Lima, and I was not at all surprised, when I pulled out my handy oximeter while waiting for bags to be located at the La Paz airport,We that my blood oxygen level was around 82%. That's pretty low, folks.
Anyway, I was able to appreciate the sights from our taxi: dirty and cobbled roads, women wearing traditional Andean skirts and bowler hats, and lots of busy-looking short-legged dogs. And then our taxi driver arrived at the ridge above the actual city, and it was spectacular, with two snowy peaks guarding the cram-packed valley. Steep neighborhoods of brick homes with football pitches carved out of hillsides march down to a colorful center of high rises. And all the way down, women still appeared in traditional garb.
I'm sorry we don't have time to acclimate here; we're getting on a catamaran across Lake Titikaka tomorrow morning super early, but I would love to come back some time.
While I've been writing this Ian got a call from the luggage agent that the three missing bags--his, Marsh's, and A's--had been found in Lima and will be here by 7 pm tonight. And I've found, maybe with the assistance of the coca tea served on arrival at the Radisson here, maybe just from lying down, maybe from the anti-altitude sickness meds, that my oxygen levels are doing better. Up to 93% if all I'm doing is breathing and staring at my oximeter.
Phew! Nap time!
one-fingered on my phone

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


We've had a lovely time with weather that, while not always clear and sunny, has been very tropical both in humidity and torrential downpours (and warmth!). I have tried to link to Ian's photo album: if it didn't work, I'll try again. If it did, awesome! Keep checking for new pics, and possibly a new album.

one-fingered on my phone

Friday, November 09, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me!

One issue I’ve discovered—at least over the last year—with giving up writing a blog exclusively about my health and my cancer situation, is that I have very little to write about other than my travels. Or, if that is not exactly true, I have had very little time to write about anything other than my travels. Even my last stay in Jerome Creek, with all the troubles (manufactured and not), afforded me more time to write than being back in Seattle has since them. This has not been an altogether bad thing; on the contrary, I’ve greatly enjoyed flitting all over the globe, filling my thickening passport with extra pages and stamps and visas. However, it’s meant that when I’m home in Seattle I am necessarily spending a lot of time living health care. It doesn’t leave a lot of time to just live.

I am writing this from the SCCA clinic today,  my 40th birthday (holy cow—FOUR-ZERO!), because tomorrow morning we leave on another sweeping international adventure. We’re going to South America with my mom and Marsh and a friend of theirs. I’ve been the main only travel agent (with the exception of our lodging in Rio, which Ian secured), and even though I have a small grasp of Portuguese and a smaller grasp of Spanish, and even though Ian and I could make our way reasonably comfortably across our neighbor continent to the south, I’m looking forward to handing in my keycard and company computer at SeaTac tomorrow morning and letting Mom do the speaking in Brazil and A.T., a retired high school Spanish teacher, lead us through Bolivia and Peru.

I already feel different today. I have spent 2012 thinking about how I’d like to change my ways of being. How to stick up for myself and my needs (including how to recognize my needs), while still being a force for good in the world. How to determine which parts of my life are necessary and which parts are chaff. How to recognize Truth in others; how to protect myself from exploitation—whether conscious or not—from those who haven’t yet found their own peace. I have begun a practice of energy work and introspection that has allowed me to flush mental chatter and open up vast swaths of space in my days. I am still doing as much, but I am now usually on time and unhurried.

I am looking forward to calendar space as well as mental space in the coming year. As I’ve cleared clutter, I’ve come to re-recognize the beauty of my surroundings here at my home in Seattle, and at our budding home on Orcas. I am excited to spend time here, in the coming year, that is free from medical appointments, and free from travel planning. I have spent 13 weeks away from home since last November, more than 3 months, on 4 continents. I’ll hit continent 5 on Sunday, 5 within a year. This is, and has been, thrilling, but 3 months away doesn’t begin to include all the time involved in planning those trips. Not surprisingly, healthcare became truly a full-time job when I was in town.

My time at the clinic today has come to an end and I’m back home, and now I am in desperate need of getting the actual items into the actual luggage so that I’ll have, at the very least, a change of clothes for balmy Rio Sunday afternoon. And maybe my meds.

Yay 40!