Friday, November 27, 2009

Money Math

Shockingly almost everyone in South America seems to want money for their goods or services. In my bank account sits the money that both they and I desperately need. Finding the best way to access this money is a recurring problem that I have been studying for the last few months. With globalization on its unstoppable march it is now possible to walk up to any ATM and withdraw money in your choice of US dollars or the local currency, nuevo Peruvian Soles in my present location. Sounds incredibly simple, but lets take a deeper look. A quick look at my online bank statement after my first withdrawl showed a 5 dollar foreign ATM transaction fee in addition to a $1.50 fee charged by the local bank. The maximum amount of Soles that can be withdrawn from most ATMs is maddeningly capped at 400 soles. At the current interbank exchange rate of 2.88 soles per dollar that amounts to 138.88 dollars. Now with fees equaling 6.50 dollars per transation, 4.8% of my money is lost before it even reaches me. Another look at my online bank statement and a little more math shows me that they have not given me the interbank exchange rate of 2.88/dollar, but instead 2.79/dollar. This is a 3.2% gap. If we add this to our transaction fees, we see that a full 8% of my money disappears in the move from Bank of America to my hand in Peru. This was an unacceptable situation; maddening in fact becuase the money simply vanishes and I have nothing to show for it.

After a bit of investigation I discovered it was possible to withdraw larger amounts from the bank tellers. This requires one to jump through a number of hoops, your origanal passport is necessary and also possibly another form of picture ID, driver´s licence; the bank may also want you to produce copies of these document that they can keep on file. But eventually they will give you a large lump sum of US currency. They will then offer you an insultingly low exchange rate which you refuse.

Now you step out on to the street with 500 dollars in your pocket. Your eyes are a little sharper. You are a little more aware of your environment, who and what is around you. Near the banks you find ´casas de cambio´, money changing shops. People sit in small booths advertising what currencies they exchange, almost always only dollars or Euros. Shady looking men sit outside the shops with huge stacks of dirty looking bills in their hands. They try to catch your attention, promising higher rates than the people in the booths. They have no real estate overhead so they probably do offer marginally better rates, but making these transactions on the busy sidewalk doesn´t feel right. You´ve also been warned that many of these individuals are slight of hand artists and operate with ´fixed´calculators to fleece the mathmatically lazy. After entering a number of casas de cambio you decide the best rate you can get is 2.87 soles/dollar, wonderfully close the official rate. You tell the woman behind the glass that you would like to change 200 dollars. She punches some buttons on her calculator and pushes it toward you through the hole, it reads 574. You take a few second as the gears in your head go to work 100 x 2.87 easy 287, multiple that by two...... yes 574. OK, you hand over the two 50´s and one 100. She inspects them very carefully and when she is satisfied begins counting out your money below the counter out of view. She passes it to you through the hole in the glass. Now, when you turned down the bank´s exchange rate of 2.80/dollar the friendly teller lady told you to make sure and check the bills from the casa de cambios. A quick inspection shows you that the bottom 100 sole note in the stack is clearly a counterfit note. It is dirty and worn, probably in an attempt to hide the low quality of the forgery. The real give away is that the purple ink forming the large 100 does not change to black as you tilt the note to an acute angle to your eye. "Este billete no esta valido", you say, handing the note back through the glass. The woman on the other side cracks a knowing smile and changes it for a real note. After one more count you pocket the bills and walk out. It´s one of the only times on this continent you have neglected to say "gracias" after a transaction.

The bank would not say how much the transation fee would be for a 500 dollar withdrawl. A quick look on the internet shows the withdrawl and directly after it a 15 dollar fee, an even 3%. The difference between the official 2.88 rate and the 2.87 is about .3%. So, was this all worth it to save 4.7%? You think so, if only to abate your anger at some faceless corporation skimming your hard earned money with impunity.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lucuma Haiku

Lucuma ice cream
Is my favorite thing ever
When it is hot out

It tastes like a fruit
But also like cookie dough
How can that be true?

Orange colored ice cream
Normally is not my thing
Lucuma is orange

What is lucuma?
National fruit of Peru
Chile would argue

I eat lucuma
Whenever I can find it
Almost everyday

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rise and Shine

Rise and shine, Anika hates that phrase, probably becuase of its repeated use when the need was to rise from a warm soft bed. To emerge from the world of cozy, fuzzy dreams and face the sometimes cruel cold morning. Luckily that phrase was not in Alberto´s volcabulary when he approached our tent at 1:30am. ¨Hola chicos, breakfast is ready¨, our guide said in his mix of English and Spanish. The annoucement cought neither Anika nor I by surprise. We had been awake for hours, Anika had slept none at all since we retired to our tent 7 hours earlier at 6:30pm. The air was thin and the night was bitterly cold. Stones were piled waist high around our tent but at 5200 meters (17060 feet) the cold tendrils of mountain air still managed to reach into our shelter and through the three sleeping bags that covered the two of us. We were ready to get out and get moving.

We emerge quickly after Alberto´s wake up call, wrapped in all the layers we possessed. A clear night sky of stars greated us. A welcome replacement to the overcast sky that covered us when we retired. A few cups of coca tea and a light breakfast were quickly consumed and we found ourselves on the headlight lit trail at 2am. The summit of Chachani stood a little over 800 meters above us at 6075 meters, but we would have to traverse the flanks of two lesser summits before tackling the final, highest peak. We kept our pace slow and steady stopping infrequently and for only enought time to drink some water and eat what little food our disgruntled stomachs could manage. We reached a gently sloping shoulder withing the first hour and began our traverse of the first peak. Our eyes were glued to our feet and the small portion of the trail illuminated by our head lamps. As we cleared a ridge to our left our attension was drawn the sparkling lights of Arequipa, roughly 3000 meters below us. It was somewhere between 3 and 4 in the morning and I though of all the people down there sleeping peacefully as we trudged along the steep volcanic scree. The sky began to lighten as we reached the saddle between the first and second peaks, Angel and Fatima. We steadied ourselved with our ice axes, planted into the uphill slope. We began the traverse of Fatima gaining more altitude, with numerous switchbacks. The thin air made itself felt and I was forced to rest more often than my ego would have prefered. Our climbing partners, Emily and Andy, provided well timed encouragment and the four of us pressed on at a slower but steady pace.

Rounding the second peak into the final saddle brought us into the path of a powerful and bone chilling wind. We covered our faces and began the final accent toward Chachani´s summit. My feelings on the switchbacks alternated between a steady determination as I leaned into the wind with eyes downcast, to an almost giddy lightness as I would round the turn and let the wind push me upwards for a stretch. I have never felt so inexplicably out of breath as on that last trudge to the summit. I put my fingers to my neck and my pulse felt as if it were trying to knock my whole hand away. Breaths between each step were needed as I approuched the top. Once again my climbing partners provided needed encouragement. It was a funny feeling approuching the climax of the climb, being so close to the summit, but still needed to rest. There the top was 10 yards away and I was waiting to catch my breath.

Miracously the summit was sunny and calm, as well as free of snow at this time of year. We reveled in the unobstructed 360 degree veiw. We took silly pictures, laughed, and hugged. Anika was all smiles and I´m sure she could have climbed another 1000 meters with little trouble. The sun was starting to make his presence felt and it was nice to have an external source of warmth. We shed layers as we decended, cutting out all the switchbacks and letting the loose volcanic soil cushion out steep plunging steps. By the time we reached base camp 7 and a half hours had elapsed and we were all suffering headaches in differing degrees. A surpisingly short one hour break only intensified the hammering behind my temples and I was pleased to decend further to the road where our 4X4 awaited. The 3 hour drive back to Ariequipa lacked the anticipation of the trip up the mountain, but we suffered the curved and bumps with zombie like stocism, even as the jeep broke down, was fixed, then broke down again.

A day and a half proved sufficent recovery time and Anika and I then booked an overnight bus to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and today Peru´s biggest tourist town, providing a gateway to Machu Pichu. We arrived this morning, so far so good. I wish all of you the best.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

It Doesn´t Get Any Better Than This!

Many people begin the Santa Cruz trek fearing that because there is so much literature and hype about it and so many people tackle it either solo or with a guide each year that maybe their expectations will be too great and by the time they reach the end, they will feel that it hasn´t lived up to those expectations. I admit, I even had this thought because back in January when I started paging through my guidebook months before we started on this adventure, I had highlighted the Santa Cruz trek in yellow meaning it was a not-to-miss stop in our travels. However, Brad and I completed the trek a couple of days ago and I believe that I have never seen so many natural wonders packed into a mere 30 or so kilometers and 4 days of walking! Every meter farther along the trail or up the next switchback revealed something new and completely amazing!

The trek started in the tiny town of Cashapampa, about 3 hours and 2 very packed colectivos to the north of Huaraz. Cashapampa´s backdrop is massive rock face that soars out of the valley where the town is located and we realized as we got closer that the minute sliver of a canyon visible from the trailhead was our route through that wall and into the Santa Cruz valley beyond. We headed up the trail following the Rio Santa Cruz the whole way. It was a steep beginning as we climbed on a rocky trail beside massive boulders which seemed to have been randomly plopped into the valley and up into the canyon before the valley widened a bit and the trail flattened out onto the green riverbank. We saw several other hikers either walking the opposite direction as Brad and me or we passed them going the same way and everybody had a recommendation for side trips or places to camp. The guided trips on Santa Cruz start from the opposite direction, at the town of Vaqueria, our ending point, so the people we were hiking with were all carrying their own big backpacks with tents, food, and stoves and we ended up getting to know a nice group of people that we would see and camp near throughout the trip. The first night, we camped in a green field beside a massive emerald green lake that filled up the valley and ended right at the foot of a 6000m snowy mountain that peaked through the valley walls and watched over us in our little tent that night. The wind blew pretty hard right at sunset and it was bitterly cold overnight because there was not one cloud in sight, providing no insulation from the cold. It was tough getting and staying warm, but when the sun emerged on day 2, it was hot and I used a shit ton of sunscreen!

On the second day, we hiked farther down the canyon and took a sidetrip that switchbacked up the left side of the canyon and into a higher valley that gave us our first look at Alpamayo, a mountain that the Peruvians brag about as being named the world´s most beautiful mountain this past year. I´m not sure exactly how you can rate a mountain on it´s beauty but apparently there is a such a measurement! Alpamayo is not quite 6000m but it is flanked by at least 4 other peaks that are. And looking behind us down the high valley, we could see at least 5 other razor sharp, pointed mountains that stood out beautifully against the perfect blue sky that accompanied us throughout our second day of hiking! Above the valley, we hiked through a morrine and into a bowl that held a aquamarine lake with chunks of ice floating at it´s surface and a glacier from the mountain just above touching the water at the other end. As we relaxed beside the chilly water, a thunderous crack broke the silence and we watched as a seemingly small chunk of ice from the glacier plunged into the lake! It is very exhilerating to watch a glacier move and we felt lucky to be the only witnesses to that moment. That night, we camped on a meadow below, you guessed it, more snowy, insanely tall mountain peaks and millions of stars.

On the third day, we tackled that highest point of the trek, the Punta Union pass, which is just about 4760m or 15,000 feet tall! It took us almost 2 hours to hike from camp to the pass and once there, we caught our first glimpses of the next valley we would enter. The pass is an unbroken wall of rock except for a notch that the trail goes through that is just big enough to stand in the middle and spread your arms to touch each side! We continued down the next valley to the next campsite, again overlooked by white mountains and we pitched our tent on a flat spot by a river where horses were grazing. We had arrived at the pass just as some clouds were forming and by the time we reached camp, the sky was pretty grey. It rained during the night and the morning looked dreary and foggy. The initial plan had been to hike out of the Santa Cruz trek and then hike to another lake that is on the road out of the national park but we decided that the clouds would obscure most of what we wanted to see at that lake, so we ended up heading back to Huaraz. Plus I had a touch of a headache and was not feeling all that well, so it was great to head back to town. We waited at Vaqueria for a couple of hours and 7 buddies who we had been hiking and camping near us throughout the trek (one couple from Seattle) all finished and we were able to share a colectivo van. The road is so bad, however that each bump in the road sent my brain crashing into my skull and the 3 hour ride started to resemble torture.

Back in Huaraz, after a nap, a large dinner and a beer, I started feeling much better and we spent one more day relaxing before heading out at 9am on a bus to Lima. From Lima, we hopped directly on a night bus for Arequipa, which was a grueling 15 hour trip! I am actually just trying to stay awake right now after arriving a few hours ago so I´m sorry if the description of our trek above is incoherent in any way! Arequipa is Peru´s second largest city and it is directly in the middle of the desert watched over by 2 large mountains, Chachani and El Misti, one of which is the easiest over 6000m peak to climb in the world! It´s really hot here. But from what I have seen it is a colonial city filled with interesting arquitecture and plazas. I´m also hoping to find a good book exchange since I´ve just finished off my 9th or 10th book of the trip and I´m eager for something really good to read! Peru is exciting for sure...I continue to love all of the places I have visited, even the cities have been pretty hospitable and the Peruvian people are extremely helpful, friendly and knowledgeable about their country.

Anyway, check out the pictures of the trek. They don´t quite do the landscape justice but I tried!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cordillera Blanca

Even though it has been 3 nights since we arrived in Huaraz, I am still quite happy to be bumming around this colorful mountain city! We have enjoyed three perfectly clear, warm sunny days that showcase the dozen or so 6,000 meter mountain peaks that surround Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, jutting up just outside of the green valley walls that enclose the city. Especially as the sun sets just around 6pm, the glow of the fading light illuminates the peaks and they are such a huge presence in this place that I feel tempted to climb each one of them! Unfortunately, I don´t think Huaraz will be the place for scaling huge mountains...we will leave that for an upcoming adventure in Arequipe, farther south in Peru. For now, Brad and I are preparing to do a 4 or 5 night backpacking trip in the Cordillera Blanca, a trip called the Santa Cruz trek that has become a big draw for travellers but fortunately we are at the end of the high season for trekking in Peru and we don´t expect to meet too many other trekkers.
Brad has been a bit sick with a cold for these past few days so we have been resting and trying to get in a lot of sleep and relaxation and he is much better today! We actually did a day hike outside of Huaraz today to the Laguna Churup, which lies just at the base of Volcan Churup. The hike took us to a couple of small indigenous villages where they speak mostly Quechua. The women wear brightly colored skirts often embroidered with sparkly threads, similarly colored layers of shawls, and tall cowboylike hats covered with either another bright cloth or some other intricate decoration like feathers or fabrics. I am very interested in the combination of traditional outfits and western clothing that exist in the same space. Sometimes it is the young people that wear sweat pants and fleeces but sometimes they are dressed traditionally and the older women and men have adopted more western attire. The primary occupation in the small towns is definitely farming and raising animals and as we hiked we passed many herds of sheep, cows cutting the grass as they grazed, and burros hauling bags of produce and grains. Leaving the villages, we hiked up a low rocky ridge to the entrance of a massive canyon created by the ancient existence and movement of glaciers coming off of Volcan Churup. We climbed the side of a huge, crystal clear waterfall careening down the canyon wall and ended up at the turquoise colored Laguna Churup over which towered the snowcapped and partially glaciated mountain. Further along the trail was the Laguna Churupita, a smaller aquamarine colored version of the lower lake. It was a perfect start to our exploration of the Cordillera Blanca and I am more excited than ever to start our trip tomorrow!
There are more picture up on picasa though they don´t have captions yet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Swedes in Big Pink Buses

So I had just been out in Huanchaco last night sending some emails in a internet place full of 12 year old Peruvian boys playing online shooting games, when I got back to the hostel only to find two huge pink buses parked outside and at least 30 jolly Swedes mingling around. Fascinated by this sight, I observed as each member of the group set to various tasks in arranging the bus for spending the night. See, these buses are specially equipped with beds both inside of them and on the roof, underneath a canvas tentlike tarp that pops up high enough to provide space for probably about 10 people to stretch out for the night on cots! I talked with one Swedish girl who told me that this group had been travelling together in the Pink Caravan for 3 weeks in Peru and had about 2 more weeks to go. They both travel and sleep in the bus so they can cut down on costs and see a lot of places in a shorter period of time. I mentioned that the Swedes were jolly, well it turns out, according to the girl, several of the men had been drinking whiskey all during the travel day. When I mentioned that my dad's cousin started the only whiskey distillery in Sweden, Mackmyra, the men got very excited wishing that they had that whiskey to drink in Peru but unfortunately it is very difficult to get, even in Sweden!
Well, they got their buses set up and went to bed and bright and early at 7am all 30 or so of them were wide awake and ready to start their day and they just happen to be sharing the bathrooms and the kitchen that the campers (ie Brad and I) use so there was quite a ruckus at that hour. Impressively they hauled in all of the supplies to cook up a large smorgasbord that they all devoured before heading out to view the ruins that are in this area. Later, I looked in the trash and saw boxes of cornflakes, bottles of cream, and hard boiled egg shells...all in the true Swedish breakfast spirit! Dad, I thought you would appreciate this story very much!

We are heading to Huaraz tonight on the 9:15 night bus. More details when we arrive!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Overnight bus trips are long and you don´t really sleep as much as you expect to especially when the bus is driving along curvy, partially paved mountain roads and hurtling down hills in the pitch dark. But overnight trips do save on hostel costs and you get a lot of mileage out of the way in the process. We left Loja, Ecuador at 11pm on Friday and we arrived in Piura, Peru at 7am the next day. At 3am all of the passengers were awakened and ushered off the bus to take care of border formalities - getting our exit stamps from Ecuador, walking across a bridge to Peru, and getting an entrance stamp by a dude in a track suit sitting in a blank room with lizards crawling across the walls and a single lightbulb to illuminate the process. It all felt like a dream when the morning sky started to light up and we became aware of the surroundings in a brand new country! Loja is in the mountains so we had descended to sea level by the time we stepped off the bus in Piura. We then immediately switched buses several more times in Chiclayo and then Trujillo and ended our trip in the beach town of Huanchaco, Peru, a small, relaxed surfing town filled with tourists - both Peruvian and foreigners. This beach, unlike rainy Puerto Lopez, is sunny and warm! And since we are just at the edge of a massive desert that we drove for 6 hours through, the heat is dry and quite perect. Speaking of this desert, I had no idea before I got here that northern Peru, at least west of the Andes, is a huge sandy, flat expanse of desert that goes right up to the ocean!

In Huanchaco we are camping in the beautiful yard of a hostel right on the oceanfront. The tent got too hot this morning so I just took my sleeping bag into the hammock that is set up almost directly outside of the tent and continued to recover from the long bus ride by sleeping for another hour or so, late into the morning. Tomorrow I think we will visit some ruins that are really close, just into the desert a little ways. I am very excited to be in a new country! I am working on learning the new exchange rate for Peruvian Soles and I am listening for what Peruvian spanish sounds like since there is usually a slight difference from country to country! Anyway, the internet is cutting me off now so I will leave you with this...more later!