Monthly Archives: June 2017

Wandering around Lake Titicaca

I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times.  Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner.  What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions

After a spontaneous 100 km trek to  Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia.  On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet.  Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno. 

 

Puno,  a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.

Puno is  a quiet, quaint town with all of the attractions located on the main plaza. Spanish is widely spoken as the town’s main source of income is tourism, but the town still has indigenous ties and as such, Aymara is spoken by most citizens.

Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course,  visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively  inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.

The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.

The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia.  He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.

How the Floating Islands are made Lake Titicaca Puno

The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork.  Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.

After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house.  In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…

The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner.  I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted.  I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it.  Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the marker, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.

Reed boat construction is rather fascinating.  The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.  But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles.  Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in  Peru.
Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.

 

Hanging with manatees in Crystal River

In forth grade, I discovered coelacanths.  At the time, coelacanths were thought to be extinct, and I became fascinated with extinct and endangered species…especially water animals.  I had just given up my astronaut dreams for marine biologist dreams–trading the wild blue wonder for the deep blue. Manatees were endangered; coelacanths were extinct (since my time in 4th grade, coelacanths have been rediscovered in the Indian Ocean). I made it my 4th grade passion to learn everything possible about these two animals, and since this is about manatees, not coelacanths, here are my 4th grade reasons for falling in love with these critters.

  • Manatees are called ‘sea cows’, and they are just as cute as land cows
  • Manatees are herbivores and spend their waking hours eating
  • Manatees breath about once every 3 minutes…up to once every 5-6 minutes when they are sleeping [fascinating fact for someone who used to be all about how people breathe]
  •  Manatees can live in both fresh water and salt water, but can’t pressurize their ears so you’ll always see them on the surface or just below.
  • Manatees are related to elephants and still have little nail on their flippers
  • Manatees prefer to move at slow pace but can swim up to 25 miles per hour in short burst if they need to get away–quick!
  • Manatees can live to be 60 years old.
  • Manatees have no natural predators…meaning they are naturally curious and humans can be their worst enemy.
  • Manatees prefer their water to be >70 degrees, but can tolerate temperatures down to about 60.
  • Early explorers thought manatees were mermaids.

 

See. All perfectly good reasons to love these gentle giants.  But gentle giant babies.  I can’t even.  Like most babies and toddlers [or kittens, puppies or whatever] baby manatees are very curious.  I say baby, but it certainly isn’t like a kitten. This little guy make 300 pounds look awful adorable. The little guy would come  right up to me and nibble at the wet suit.  It’s quite an odd feeling to have this 300 pound baby nibbling and mouthing at you like it’s going to eat you alive.  But these creatures are vegetarians so my meat carcass was totally safe.  The little guy either a) thought I was it’s mommy and could produce food or b) like the feel and textures of the wet suit material.  And just like a baby kitten, the little guy often like to nibble on my toes as well.  Here’s the thing about my feet:  they are so super sensitive and ticklish that the lightest touch makes me move them about.  Cats love to attack my toes in the middle of the night but given the choice, I’d take the 300 manatee-baby nibbling on my toes with it plant-eating gums than my little 6 pound house panther on nightly patrol for anything that moves.  I got lucky and spent nearly 20 minutes playing with the little guy.  And we [the baby and I] were away from the crowd so it was just the two of us.  Hanging out like old friends…

While manatees prefer a comfortable 72 degree water temperature, this water baby likes it about 10 degrees warmer and despite the 5mm neoprene suit on my body, after an hour or so, I was a frozen Popsicle.  So back on board it was for me.  And hot chocolate and dry clothes were waiting for me.  Once the wet suit was off, and I was back in normal clothes the 75 degree air temperature felt just fine.

My Favourtite European Cities

I have traveled a lot. Not as much as some, but a lot more than most of the people I deal with on a daily basis. I often get asked what’s my favorite city/country area, and it’s hard to say.  Sometimes it depends on my mood.  Sometimes it depends on the reason they are asking.  So, I’ve come up with a list to answer what’s my favorite.  OK two lists:  one for smaller cities and one for European capitals.

First up, my favorite European cities.

  1.  Kotor, Montenegro
  2.  Belgrade, Serbia
  3.  St. Petersburg, Russia
  4.  Krakow, Poland
  5.  Bwets-y-Coed, Wales
  6. Cardiff, Wales
  7. Quedlinberg, Germany

Next, my favorite European capitals.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that, in general, I don’t love large cities. Luckily for me, some of Europe’s capital cities are quite small.  Europe is so diverse and every country is so different that it is often impossible to make fair comparisons.

 London, England

 

I have been to London 5 times, but only in the last two years have I gotten out and truly explored the city.  I have barely cracked the surface, and there is so much more to explore. I am absolutely head over heels for it. If I could magically get a work visa and a job offer in London [not sure if the NHS hires foreigners or if I’d want to work there, but I digress], I would move there tomorrow; that’s how much I love it. I’ve never pictured myself living in a big city — until I finally explored London for the first time.

Things I love about London:

    • The variety — neighborhoods, food,  museums, parks, historical sites; they’re all here
    • The location — London is situated perfectly to explore Europe, which this traveler loves.  The only time I haven’t flown into London for a European holiday was when I solely toured Italy.
    • The Englishness — the Tube, the castles, the red  double decker buses, the black cabs, the pubs, the tea… it’s all so quintessential English!

Berlin, Germany

At the Olympic Stadium in Berlin

 

 

Berlin doesn’t get the attention than Munich or Bavaria does, but that’s OK by me…  I’ve never been one to fall for surface flashiness, and on the surface Berlin is grungy, but it’s OK.  I’m not ashamed to admit it: I am in love with Berlin.  You could actually say that it was love at first sight, as I felt an immediate connection with Berlin from the moment I arrived. I don’t know if it’s the alternative culture, the history, or a mixture of the two that draws me to Berlin. But there’s no denying that it’s a place I can see myself spending a lot of time in in the future.

Things I love about Berlin:

    • The history — from Nazis during WWII to the  Berlin Wall during the Cold War, Berlin has a fascinating (and very recent) history
    • The creative side — because I have a soft spot for hipsters and street art
    • The vibe — it’s a little gritty and a little alternative, but Berlin is evolving in a way that I find very  exciting.

Budapest, Hungary

August 2015–Danube River–basking in the summer moonlight

I never planned to go to Budapest at least not the first time, but a cheap flight  from Geneva on EasyJet had me landing there one  January afternoon, and my oh my was is bone-chillingly cold.  The capital of Hungary was a bit of a surprise for me — I never expected to like it as much as I did. But, whether it was strolling along the Danube, visiting the Semmelweis Museum, or soaking at the Szecheni Baths while watching snow fall,  I found myself loving everything about Budapest. It’s also seriously awesome ( and hot!) in the summer.

Things I love about Budapest:

    • The two halves of the city — the Buda and Pest sides of the city have completely different feels to them.
    • The bridges — which are attractive and offer up nice views of the Danube.
    • The buildings — from Parliament to Fisherman’s Bastion to Buda Castle, there’s plenty of amazing architecture here to view.

Edinburgh, Scotland

 

The capital of Scotland is one city that I probably will never tire of visiting. It’s not a large capital like the others listed here, but it still has a unique character all its own. Whether it’s roaming around the Old Town or climbing up to quieter parts like Calton Hill, Edinburgh is always enjoyable — even in that unpredictable Scottish weather.

Things I love about Edinburgh:

    • The architecture — with the gorgeous Victoria Street being my favorite example
    • The history — the entire city is recognized by UNESCO, which tells you something
    • The people– Scottish people are a treasure

Cardiff, Wales

Cardiff Castle–Cardiff is home of the 2017 champions league and the Welsh dragon is guarding the trophy.

Cardiff, the smallest capital in the UK doesn’t get near as much attention as London, Dublin, or even Edinburgh, but it’s still pretty amazing. Only two hours by train from London, and 45 minutes to Bristol, you can easily get to a bigger city quickly if the small town feel of Cardiff starts to get to you.

Things I love about Cardiff:

  • The size–For a capital city, Cardiff is small.  And that makes it easy to navigate. And that makes me happy.
  • It’s location–Cardiff is perched on a river, quite close to the Atlantic Ocean, and on the Wales Coast Path.  Coastal Welsh weather is unpredictable, but on nice days, Cardiff is close enough to the beach to make an afternoon of it.
  • The Language–Welsh is a language I’ll probably never master, but I love that every single sign is in both Welsh and English.  The history and architecture are pretty great too.

It’s no secret that I prefer small cities to large ones, but this list is a good mix of both large cities and small villages.

 

SC State Parks | Stepping back in time

The region south of the Mason-Dixon line is dotted with historic antebellum plantations, but few of them have the history of Rose Hill Plantation.  Built in the 1830’s, Rose Hill Plantation was the home of William Henry Gist, the governor of South Carolina from 1858 to 1860.  Gist is most famous for his leadership of the south’s secessionist movement following the election of President Lincoln, a movement that led to the Civil War.

Rose Hill– shrouded by magnolia and oak trees

In 1860, the plantation reached its apex, producing nearly 300 bales of cotton and over 4000 bushels of corn.  These products would be floated down the adjacent Tyger River or, because the Tyger River is only navigable part of the year, transported by cart to the Broad River.  The plantation survived Union General Sherman’s destructive 1864 march because the flooded Broad River made the plantation inaccessible to his army.  After the war, Gist received a pardon from President Johnson, after which he returned to Rose Hill to lease the plantation to sharecroppers.  Gist died in 1874, and he is buried in a cemetery plot adjacent to the plantation house.

The Gist family headstone.

Today Rose Hill Plantation house sits on the 44-acre state historic site that bears its name, but most of the plantation grounds lie in Sumter National Forest, which surrounds the historic site.  Plantation house tours are offered at 11A, 1P, and 3P Thursday-Monday, but the plantation grounds are open during all daylight hours.  For hikers, two short trails tour the grounds: the 0.6 mile nature trail loop and the 0.94 mile out-and-back Tyger River Trail.  This hike combines both trails to see all the site has to see.

The Tyger River in the spring… water levels don’t get much higher than this

The town closest to Rose Hill is Union, South Carolina although Cross Keys, a dot on the map, has a little interesting history as well.  According to local legend, Jefferson Davis ate his last meal there prior to his final cabinet meeting as president of the Confederate States of America.

Cross Keys House

 

Paris is a bitch

This
paris-nye-2012was my introduction to Paris. And to be honest, it was a bit much. Beautiful, but excessive. I’ll be the first admit that I came to Paris, not wanting to like Paris. I knew it is an expensive city and I didn’t need yet another expensive city to be crazy about [London, I’m talking to you]. I knew a lot about Paris before I came here. I knew that if I didn’t resist its charms, I would regret it later. Sort of like that extra bottle of wine at dinner.

If cities were people, Paris would be a supermodel. Super hot, but incredibly high maintenance. It’s unreasonably expensive if you want to take full advantage of what the city has to offer. Compare that to Krakow, Budapest, or Prague; they are just as amazing– just not as famous.

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Yes, Paris is beautiful. Gorgeous even. But still I think it’s overrated. But tourists seem completely infatuated with the city. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eiffel Tower gets dry-humped a few times a day by overzealous tourists. [yes, I realize I am being crude]

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Perhaps if Paris had been my first adventure instead of London [although to be honest, it took me years to warm up to London], I’d have a different opinion. Or maybe one needs to visit Paris as a couple. Or in the spring. Or perhaps I just have a completely different idea of romance than most.

Admittedly, I am sure I missed out a lot by not knowing French or not having a background in art history or not being a culinary snob. But I can see the city  as a very livable city, if you are earning a local wage. The public transport system [I used it over the holiday weekend; it  was vomit-covered, but free] and bike-sharing system are among the best I’ve encountered.

paris vomit
Parisian Metro vomit–not quite the introduction that I was looking for

I can see the appeal of Paris as a vacation spot for tourists. Amazing art and architecture are everywhere so it’s like a massive orgy of tourism.

notre dame gargolye

And I guess therein lies the problem. I stopped being a tourist about 7 years ago. My ideal way to travel now is slow and easy… to feel a city as a local. I don’t always get to do that, but it’s what I would prefer.  And when you try to do that in Paris, you feel like a low-born serf. Cheap in Paris is still expensive.

In the two days I was there, I found people pretty helpful especially considering I can’t speak any French apart from “Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais?” and “s’il vous plait”. I mean strangers weren’t exactly inviting me home for glasses of wine, but I didn’t find them any more rude than say people in New York City. What I did see was rude tourists rambling on in English without any introduction. And if they weren’t understood, they would just speak louder. Parisians aren’t fucking deaf – they just don’t speak English.

a-bit-touristic

My favorite parts of the city were Pere LaChaise cemetery and Notre Dame cathedral. Maybe it says more about me that I preferred hanging out with the dead than engaging with shopkeepers, waiter, or merchants.

Pere LaChaise Cemetery Paris, France

Should you visit Paris? Sure, it’s definitely worth visiting. Especially if it’s your first time to Europe. Would I go back? Probably not, but I’d glad I checked it out.

If you’ve been to Paris, what did you think?  Would you go back? What am I missing?

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South Carolina State Parks | Jones Gap State Park

Well, that was unexpected

‘Oh thank God, I made it’ was my first thought when I reached the top of Rainbow Falls at Jones Gap State Park two hours after I started.  To be fair, I stopped a lot, took a lot of snaps, and played with all the friendly puppies that crossed my path.

upper rainbow falls

It isn’t the highest peak in South Carolina nor the most strenuous, but with 1200 ft elevation gain over a fairly short distance, it was hard enough.  Especially with humidity in the 90% range and temps in the upper 80’s.  I checked the weather forecast before I left and with only a 15% chance of rain, I threw a lightweight rain jacket in my backpack, packed myself a decent, trail-worthy lunch, filled up my Camelback with water and set off.

Walking the trail

And that was the last time my day went according to plan.  The main road to Jones Gap was washed out resulting in a 30-ish minute detour.  There was a yellow jacket advisory [which I should have paid more attention to].  The sky was overcast, but not threatening, and so I was off.  I hiked through rock beds.  I criss-crossed streams.  I crossed bridges. I navigated tree roots. I walked across a narrow board.  I went through boulders.

trail-to-rainbow-falls

Not 5 stinkin’ minutes after I reached my glorious summit, I heard a low rumble.  At first, I ignored it.  After all, I had a lunch of a deluxe turkey sandwich, trail mix, granola, grapes, and water to enjoy. I heard the low rumble again; this time is was just a little bit louder. I looked up.

storm clouds

And then I started to curse…loudly. As in F-bombs flying The last thing a novice/intermediate hiker wants is to be stuck on the top of a mountain when a thunderstorm comes rolling in. The very last thing I wanted was to get struck by lightening. Rain I could deal with; thunder and lightening, not so much. Not even two bites into my sandwich, I had to pack up. I barely broke into my granola, and I didn’t even get to eat one little grape! I was pissed at Mother Nature, but I didn’t want to inspire her wrath. As if I needed prodding, the low rumble rumbled again…this time a lot louder. I packed up my sandwich, pulled out my rain shell, and set off back down the trail I’d just made my way up. I hadn’t even rested good, yet! I practically ran down the trail, or at least as safely as I could manage, considering the rocks and roots. I didn’t even get to enjoy the small waterfalls that appeared sporadically on the trail.

Small falls

Trouble…just ahead

About 1/3 of the way down, I hit trouble. Raindrops so big and hard they stung as they hit my exposed skin. I also inadvertently disturbed a yellow jacket nest. I never saw it, but my God, they saw me. A small army flew after me, and at least a couple managed to find their way under my clothes. And that’s when the real fun began. Off came the backpack. Off came the rain shell.  And off came my t-shirt. The bees were still swarming. Off came my shorts. Luckily I was near one of the many creek crossings, and general safety and common sense be damned, I jumped into the creek. It was a part where there was a small plunge waterfall and a shallow pool. I screamed like a little girl getting her ponytail pulled on the playground. The water was icy cold. Icy may be a tiny bit of exaggeration, but 55 degrees still feels like the frozen tundra. Sports bra, socks, hiking boots were all that I had on as I submerged my head! and body! in this shallow pool. Might I remind you, it is 1) still pouring 2) thundering and lightening and 3) I’m still about 1.5 miles or so from my car.

small falls at jones gap

Bees stung me 5 times; once on the neck, once on the leg, and 3 times higher up the leg in a slightly more delicate area.

yellow jacket sting

After drowning the bees and freezing my ass off in the water, I resumed my descent still faster than I’m comfortable with because now, as a soaking wet thing, being struck by lightening was still a very real possibility. I successfully navigated the boulders, the steep decline, and the roots. My God, the roots. They always seem to be out to get me. I have a fear of falling. This is a real fear, not just one that COULD happen.  I HAVE actually broken bones while trail raining:  two to be exact [a wrist and an ankle], sprained an ankle multiple times, required stitches, and have cut, scraped, and bruised myself way  too much.

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But I keep coming back. Because there is beauty in nature. I find answers to the questions of the universe when I am in nature.  There is peace in nature. Even when Mother Nature shows her ass and reminds us mortals who’s boss, a day in the woods is better than a day cooped up in a building any day.

rainbow falls