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Yellow Plantains, Green Palm Fronds and Blue Skies

September 26th, 2012 No comments

The fast-becoming characteristic colors of Nicaragua are so very, very agreeable to me.  All of Nicaragua is agreeable to me, in fact, so much so that its agreeableness extends even to the process of getting here.

It started will our taxi ride from Miraflores to the Lima airport, generously arranged street side by the woman from whom we rented our apartment (apparently only about 1 in 10 taxis in that neighborhood have the appropriate licensing to be able to enter the airport for proper passenger drop off; our hostess hailed and subsequently waved off seven that didn’t make the grade before finding one that did).  From the airport we proceeded to move smoothly to our gate, and I burned through some of the leftover time and local currency savoring six pieces of tuna nigiri at the airport sushi bar.  Then our six hour flight, which seemed to fly by with tunes, e-books, and an episode of Sherlock.

Upon exiting customs we were greeted with immaculate timing by our Miami hosts, Katie and Ryan, a couple that Tracy photographed a few times back in St. Louis (including their ’07 wedding) and who were so bold and generous as to answer Tracy’s facebook post, a simple note about our pass through seeking whomever might make our 22-hour layover more pleasant in exchange for the company of some vagabonds with tales of travel to share.

Man did they make our 22-hour layover more pleasant.

I’m talkin’ a ride from the airport, choice snacks back at their lovely home (including a Colorado micro brew or two), laundry privileges, and a guest room so comfy and well appointed it made a delightful reminder of how nice the standard of living in the US so often is.  On top of that, it turns out that for me (who was meeting them for the first time) they were ready-made friends, absolutely the kind of couple we should hope to have double dates with whenever in the same town.  It was all we could do to buy dinner and offer up a gift of a tin of Vizios, super tasty chocolate covered almonds smuggled in from Peru.  With other nuggets like water bottles ready for us as we got in the car, an offer for a Target run in case we needed anything, and the house wi-fi password written up on the chalkboard the whole situation was a show of some serious hospitality, the kind that inspires Tracy and I to up our own game as hosts1.

In the morning we were blessed by another instance of being taken care of by rad people.  Greg, my best friend from childhood, came down to pick us up for some hang out and catch up time, ending with a ride to the airport to see us off to our next country2.

At the airport I still had a handful of soles, coin form which neither travels well nor can be exchanged.  Luckily, just down from our gate, a flight to Peru had its passengers congregating about.  After a miss talking to a small family in awkward Spanish (who was actually going to Honduras), I found a nice group of older women who were playing cards and were, in fact, Peru-bound.  “Yeah, I’m about to fly to Nicaragua and they won’t take these for exchange.  It’s like five bucks US, I figure better to give these to someone who can use them.  Would you mind?  Cool, yeah, have a Cusquena on me–it’s the beer from Cusco, really tasty.  Thanks, have a good trip!”

“Did they think you were trying to sell them your soles?”  Tracy asked after overhearing the exchange.  “Oh yeah, that would explain their initial reluctance.  Wow, I didn’t even think about that.”3

Our flight to Managua was swift, and our progression through customs and immigration was the fastest I’d ever experienced.  Back in a Spanish speaking country after a 22 hour hiatus my Spanish seemed well rested and ready to roll again, and it got its first practice in negotiation with the cab driver who insisted that the price to the bus station just happened to be the most common note in an American’s wallet, $20USD.  “Bueno, pienso que esto es un poco caro, entonces me voy a pergunta un otro manihar de taxi.”  Okay, I think that’s a little expensive so I’m going to ask another taxi driver.  $18.  “That’s still a lot.”  $17.  Sigh.  “Fifteen and we’ve got a deal.  If that’s too expensive I completely understand, and I’ll just go ask over there.  And who knows, if it turns out that $15 really is too cheap, I’ll be right back here and we can go at $17.”  Pregnant pause, lasting I’d say about 8 seconds.  Ok, $15.  “Bueno, vamos.”  But I don’t have any change, so you need to have exact change, our driver stated.  Turns out I had a five and a ten on me, so no worries.  He seemed a little defeated to learn as much.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that locals pay something closer to $5USD from the airport, but it still felt good to stand my ground and chip away a relatively steep gringo tax, all in Spanish.

From the airport we were taken to the bus depot, where two fellows immediately started vying for our business, yelling in sync “Granada, Granada!” but literally pulling me in opposite directions, one towards a conventional bus and the other towards the express bus, a mini-van, both a dollar4.

The callers for this sort of transportation are amazing.  As our mini-van got on he was hanging out the side calling his war cry, “Granada, Granada!” to anyone on the street who looked even remotely interested in going to Granada.  And before long he filled that mini-van.  It felt like a striking model of efficiency of carpooling, self organizing in real time with driving and caller working together, and ultimately getting a lot of folks to their destination with a just single vehicle5.  I found myself rooting for him to get people even though if meant cramming more into my seat.

Granada was suggested to us by Gene & Terry back in Agaus Calientes, a charming colonial town that had much to offer while being plenty cheap.  It did not disappoint.  Our meals were all quite good, my favorite being the dishes at El Gordito6.  One example: a pile of pork on a pile of fried yucca root, topped with a shredded cabbage salad and served upon a banana leaf.  Add in fresh pinapple banana juice and charge 80 cordobas for it all (about $3.50) and you’ve got me quite happily as a regular.

This would be an experience which I label as having a high “Thunder Quotient”.  The “Thunder Quotient” is my own device for rating experiences7.  It’s the absolute amount of awesome/goodness/flavor/enjoyability/whatever that you get from experiencing something, and then divided by the dollars you paid to experience it8.  So, for example, if you have a darn good steak but paid $50 for it, that’s a low Thunder Quotient.  But if you have a darn good pile of pork on some fried yucca and pay $2, the Thunder Quotient is quite high.  I find I generally experience more happiness from high Thunder Quotients than from high raw enjoyment, probably because my brain extrapolates future enjoyment for things that are cheaper, because given finite cash one can do those things more often.

So far Nicaragua seems to be really high Thunder Quotient all over the board.  After a really great lunch with sandwiches and smoothies ($6 covered both Tracy and I) we were welcomed to loaf in the hammocks in the gorgeous courtyard of that colonial estate.  Late one night I went out for a snack and $2 got me plantain chips, sweet fried bananas, and a piece of chicken all wrapped in a banana leaf.  Throw in the entertainment of begrudgingly sharing with children asking earnestly for a bite and turning down prostitutes who assure me it’s okay that I’m married, and you’ve got another wicked-high Thunder Quotient night.  These experiences keep coming up.

Topping it off quite literally are the blue skies.  Apparently we’re here in the off season, most tourists cleared out two weeks ago due to the now regular rains.  But it only seems to rain for maybe an hour in the afternoon, and maybe again at night.  And it all happens out of big, blustery clouds that roll in, do their thing, and then move along again.  None of the incessant dreariness of Lima’s winter to speak of, most of the day is bright and sunny with blue skies and superb sandal weather.  For visuals on the situation, see Tracy’s photography of Granada.

Yeah, I’m quite liking Nicaragua indeed.


  1. This game may have to wait a year to be exercised again, unless someone takes us up on our offer to come stay with us wherever we are whilst World Touring about.
  2. He was also a sport and indulged us a run to the local FedEx office, that I may send off my alpaca slippers to their new home in Chicago with my sister.
  3. It’s fun to make  the world a little weirder, like dabbling in the unexpected realms of the expectations of others.  Exchanges of random, reason-less generosity are as good a way as any to do just that.
  4. To put our 15-minute private cab ride into perspective, this dollar was the price of a 40 minute ride on shared transportation.
  5. In the US just 2 people in a car earns the perk of the carpool lane.  In comparison to this, that seems like a paltry excuse for carpooling.
  6. Literally, “The Fat Kid”
  7. The roots of the name lie in Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, where he reviews and rates wine.  Dubbed “The Thunder Show”, he expresses the awesome of wines by how much “thunder” they pack.
  8. Probably better to divide by dollars plus one, so that your brain doesn’t explode from infinite delight when you divide by zero for enjoyable free stuff.
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Legs Fully Recovered from Machu Picchu

September 21st, 2012 2 comments

The disappearance of soreness took a while–that was ten days ago.

Aguas Calientes turned out to be a well-oiled tourist processing machine, and with the rivers that run through and lush mountains in every direction it is a pretty one at that.  A flood of well appointed restaurants promising the same deals like menu completo and 4 for 1 drinks lined the main drags.  Strangely some 60 or so percent of restaurants seemed to think it vital to maintain and promote a suite of Mexican food offerings, in addition to the Peruvian dishes.  Pizza and Italian were close seconds in the race to pander to foreign tastes.

The morning of our tour we awoke at 4:45am to catch 5am breakfast in our hotel lobby.   There we found an older couple also assembling their breakfast plates from the spread.  After exchanging good mornings I had the surprisingly good sense (considering the hour) to ask point blank: “Would you guys like some company this morning?”

This was a good move, for Gene and Terry turned out to be exactly the sort of folks Tracy and I enjoy meeting in our travels: they’ve been to 177 countries together1, and are still (clearly) at it.  As bon vivants the phrase role models seems quite fitting: living within their means, traveling well on the cheap, and generally having a lovely go of life.  They even had stories to share about traveling while raising their one daughter, good nuggets worth tucking away for the future2.

In Aguas Calientes the first bus up to Machu Picchu leaves at 5:30am, and there is a sort of magical air about the city at that time.  Here as darkness slowly fades you have this unidirectional flow of traveler types from all around the world, converging from side streets onto the sidewalk that goes along the river, and walking eagerly towards the nexus of the bus system.  The buses are all lined up, and as one bus fills and starts up the winding road the next one pulls forward into loading position.

The road up consists of something like 16 switchbacks as you ascend about 1500 feet.  When you get off it’s you and a hoard of other tourists awaiting entry as gate agents check tickets and match them to passports.  For me it was deja vu of the excitement to enter a Six Flags first thing in the morning, so you could make a beeline to the Batman roller coaster before a huge line formed.  Here instead of Batman we had sunrise, which upon ancient city set against impossibly tall mountains and deep valleys was easily every bit as worth waking early for.

Machu Picchu was voted in as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and I reckon it deserves its place. Now that I’ve been there I get the hype, and agree that, if you have the means, you gotta see it.  The scale, the stonework, the terraces that transform steep hills into arable land all lend the site a sense of real wonder. The build site alone would qualify even a modest fortress as impressive: it’s so greatly elevated from its surroundings that the logistics of building anything of scale must be a feat.  There are no shortage of locations where, if you got a good running start, you could jump off the edge and fall more than 1000 feet before the steep grade of the land caught up with you again.

Oh, and yeah, it does look really cool when this vast architectural expanse is bathed in the first light of morning as the sun climbs above the threshold of the next mountain over.

To be more hardcore, Tracy and I paid more in our admission tickets for the right to be of the 400 people that day permitted to climb Huayna Picchu, the emblematic rock overlooking the city which you’ve seen probably countless times in the classic postcard photo of the site.  Huayna Picchu is a course of perhaps some 2500 stone steps roughly carved into the side of the mountain leading to a ruins site at the very top and offering quite excellent bird’s eye views of the ancient city below.  At a net ascent of about 1100 feet it’s quite a climb, and again 1000+ foot falls are thoroughly available to those keen to running starts.  One of the rocks at the top features a little groove carved in, perfect for sittin’.  I’m struck to think that my butt has now set perched on the same groove as at least a few ancient Inca Kings3.

To be even more hardcore, Tracy and I paid less in our bus tickets for the right to walk down from the site back into Aguas Calientes (i.e. we bought one-way tickets).  While on Huayna Picchu we made some friends, and those friends let us know about mid-way that it was about 4000 steps down, steps rough hewn into the rocks of the mountain and very much non-uniform.

After enough steps going down is every bit as hard as going up, and uses different muscles that are not so often worked.  Wobbly, jello-like legs marked most of this part of the day’s hiking, and it took a lot to prevent a misstep or a fall.  Had we to do it over again, we would have stopped short of the walk down, content with the hardcore points earned on Huayna Picchu.  Our companions it seemed were faring better with the fatigue, and since they’d climbed these very stairs earlier that morning I was given cause to miss being in my mid-twenties4.

Tracy’s got beautiful photography of the whole scene, check it out.

Back in the city we managed only one small beer with the gang before hunger and fatigue set us off for a quick meal and a nap back in our room.  The remaining 24 hours Aguas Calientes are a blur, basically us biding our time before our train, hobbling about to a restaurant as needed, hopefully not up or down too much hill.

When we returned to Cusco it felt like coming home, back to streets and venues we knew, a climate that was familiar, and prices back to normal (I found I could pretty accurately guess the price of commodity items in Aguas Calientes by tacking on 50% to the typical Cusco price).  It was with bittersweet nostalgia that the time back seemed too short when we headed off to the airport the next day5.

Now we’re back in Lima, this time for a 9 day stint.  With its always-63ish-degree weather it’s much nicer for sleeping, and with its always-cloudy-and-gray state of the sky it’s much less nice for exploring.  Aside from a few world-class ceviche and grade-A sushi meals, and a lovely night walk through a park with lit up dancing fountains,I haven’t found much to recommend about the town.  It’s winter here, so the endless cloudy days is apparently a fixture for about 8 weeks–I’m sure it’s better with sunlight (although yesterday we did see some in the afternoon, which I took to be Lima’s birthday present to me).  Beyond that, it feels like any big town in the world, visible in all its glory from our 9th story high rise apartment.

Tomorrow we head off again for Nicaragua, and only a 22 hour layover in Miami separates us from diving into our next country.  I’m excited to bask in the sun again, and I reckon my sandals will be happy to get out and about again as well.

  1. I honestly thought there were only around 160, shows what I know.
  2. “Gene & Terry” seem awfully close to “John & Tracy”, which I take to be a nudge and wink from the universe for me to pay attention to the insights and perspectives they have to share.
  3. Mainly I wonder if their spirits are at all pissed about the situation.
  4. Now at 33 this feeling is still a rare thing–we’ll see how long that lasts
  5. A feeling which I may as well grow fond of, since I hope to experience with every place we call home for the next year.
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Open Air Markets and Other Choice Dining Experiences

September 10th, 2012 No comments

It was during our ten-hour tour of the Sacred Valley that I finally dove into the culture of what I’ll call “Peruvian micro restaurants”.  By this I am referring to the common setup of a (typically older) Peruvian woman having a picnic table at which they’re putting on lunch for whomever should come by and take a seat on the bench.  It’s just a step or two up from street side food vendors in terms of formality.  These women make a rice, potatoes, meat, salad, and soup in bulk and will serve you up a plate and hand you a set of silverware, often within 30 seconds of you sitting down1.  The cost is between 3 and 5 soles, or under $2.

After experiencing and delighting in this a few times, the model of the conventional restaurant is starting to look like a little, well, oddly inefficient and isolating.  At the picnic table the food you get is really delicious (these women know what they’re doing in Peruvian cuisine: it’s like your mom feeding you a nice home cooked meal, as opposed to having your order slapped together by some line cook who may or may not hate his job), the portions are ample, it’s super cheap, it’s super fast, and you get to meet and mingle with others in shared table/come and go atmosphere.  The obvious cons: you don’t get to pick what’s being served today, any more than you could order something different from your mom when she lays out dinner for the family2, and you don’t quite have the privacy and ability to exclusively choose the company at your table.  Health and sanitation concerns are also present, for just as your mom doesn’t need to take laborious measures to meet OSHA and FDA requirements, well, neither do these Peruvian ladies3.

So indeed, conventional restaurants have their place: when you have a particular taste, have a date or other social purpose, or are the type to keep a bottle of Purell at your desk and don’t trust anything with less than a 4-star government sanitation rating.  It’s just that after experiencing this way of going out for a good meal I’m a bit crestfallen that this model, with its massive efficiency and down-to-earth charm, is so thoroughly absent in the US.

While in the Sacred Valley visiting the sites of Incan ruins we stopped in a colonial church dating back to the Spanish conquest.  This church, with its centuries-old blend of ornate and dank, gave me the creeps about this particular slice of Christian history.  Topping off the feeling was learning that devotees had adorned statues of the virgin Mary and Jesus with real human hair, and that even one of the statues of Jesus back in Cusco has some human teeth in it, taken no less from the mummies of pre-Conquistador Incan rulers.  Our tour guide implied that this was a way of honoring the native Incans by including them in the artwork of the new religion, but I like to think that, coming from a conquering people recently descended from the Spanish Inquisition, the gesture was at least in part to remind the natives who’s boss.

See Tracy’s blog for full pictorial coverage of our visit to the Sacred Valley.

Ten days ago we did a cooking class taught by Erick, a local chef who owns several restaurants in town.  As part of the experience he took us to a market and told us about various plants, fruits, and other products were available that might be otherwise invisible to our gringo eyes.  The class was great and we made some fantastic dishes, but what I find most worth telling about is my learning of coca leaves4.  Erick mentioned some of the history and cultural importance of chewing coca leaves, and the beneficial effects on digestion, nutrient absorption, and metabolism.  “It was a tragedy when someone worked out how to make cocaine from the leaves, because then the world went crazy about this very important and beneficial crop.”  I was intrigued by the benefits and asked if I might get a few to try.

And this was when it started to feel like I was making a drug deal.  “Sure, there’s a woman who sells them at the end of the market over here.”  We walked.  “How much would you like?  Half a pound?”  Um, sure, I guess?  The woman filled a bag chock full of leaves, big enough to barely fit in the pocket of my hoodie.  2.5 soles, or $1 for what looked like a ridiculously huge stash.  Then she broke me off a piece from what looked like a stick of gray chalk.  Erick narrated like a pusher explaining to a first timer: “You take a little bite off of that, the calcium carbonate allows the oil of the coca leaves to better absorb.”  How many leaves should I, um, chew?  “Take 3 at a time, chem them but don’t swallow, and then spit them out and take 3 more.  Do this for like an hour.”  I was assured they were completely safe and non-addictive.  Oh, and that I had best not take any back to the US, as customs might not be too keen.

I tried chewing a round of 3 finally a week later.  For me it was a mild stimulant, and gave me mouth a sensation like when novocaine wears off.  Other than a that and a few cups of coca tea, my stash languished on the counter of our apartment kitchen.  I found the whole experience was a very visceral glimpse of how arbitrary drug criminalization seems.  Here my bag was a cheap commodity, a commonly enjoyed and completely accepted substance.  To fly back to the states (or many other countries) with my one dollar purchase in tow might well get me in a heap of trouble.

Speaking of substance use, the other day at a cafe I met a fellow who just returned from five months in the jungle, having just undergone an extensive vision quest under a naturalist shaman.  When we met he was six hours away from his bus back to Lima, en route to pick up life again back in the US.  On ascertaining what an interesting fellow I was talking to, plus his current condition of just killing time, I believe my exact words were “Well fuckin’ A, why don’t you come over and have dinner with my wife and I?”  Talk about a great dinner guest. He told of many ceremonies involving Ayauaska (a plant with hallucinogenic properties), and the resultant insights, visions, and vomitings he underwent.  From my western vantage point I find this a fascinating branch of medicinal wisdom and practice.  It is not clear if such an adventure will present itself on a sufficiently silver plate to entice me to experience it firsthand, but if nothing else the practice of inviting a stranger to dinner is most welcome, and suggests a skill well worth cultivating.

I did have one memorable moment of experiencing more traditional medicine just yesterday, however.  The Healing House was having a “Dia del Bienestar”, or “Day of Wellbeing”: a smorgasbord of hour long classes including yoga, tai chi, reiki, and a fire ceremony meditation.  I partook of four of them throughout the day: tai chi, Pranayama, Ayurveda, and the meditation.  At the Ayurveda class I acquiesced in the opportunity to have my nostrils violated.  They had this little pipe where the short end is shaped to fit up a nostril and filled with a brown powder of ginger and various Indian spices.  The practitioner rests the butt of the pipe on your forehead and chants a brief blessing5.  Then the pipe is moved down, and the short end positioned in your nostril.  Then he or she blows.  In this moment, even though they’ll assure you there is not, you would swear there was cayenne pepper in the mix.  This, they say, clears out the sinuses, cleanses the frontal lobes, and awakens the mind and spirit.  Check, check, and check.  (Well, probably on the frontal lobe cleansing.)  They advise you to wait two or three minutes before you (mercifully) blow your nose.

After the fire ceremony Tracy and I got dinner at a restaurant.  I’d been meaning to try cuy, a.k.a. oven roasted guinea pig, for a while now: it’s on all the menus of fancy restaurants around Cusco, and at 50 soles is about double the cost of most nice entrees.  I wanted to like it so much, but alas I would not recommend eating guinea pig: they bring it out to you whole (for a photo op), and then cut it into six pieces.  I found it to be not very meaty, and not very tasty.  Couple that with very poor sides and it turns out my last dinner in Cusco was the very opposite of everything great about the micro restaurants.

This morning we moved out of our apartment, all our possessions in tow.  Despite last night’s cuy fiasco I’m leaving Cusco on terrifically good terms.  Now as I write this we are on a train to Aguas Calientes, the city that, I suspect, exists only to serve as a base camp for visitors of Machu Picchu.  The slow train through the valley is gorgeous, and we are excited to see what’s next.


  1. Actually if there’s soup they’ll serve you soup first, and, like a fine meal broken into courses, have your main dish in front of you when you’re a few spoonfuls shy of finishing.
  2. Although the workaround for that is simply to go to the next table: in markets you can usually find at least 5 such establishments to frequent, all cooking up their own thing.
  3. This is the reason I took so long to try a sit at such establishments: after our first week illness I was a bit gun shy about anything which might require a strong stomach.
  4. Mostly because Tracy already has great coverage of the event.
  5. This part is kinda like when Tyler Durden kisses Ed Norton’s hand before giving him a chemical burn in Fight Club.
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Of Suffering and Redemption

August 27th, 2012 No comments

The integration into Cuscan living was a little more rough-and-tumble than our swift apartment find had led us to think it would be.

First our apartment, despite being pretty upscale and modern, was not of a high enough echelon of modernity to warrant central heating.  The nights were cold which took some getting used to, and the apartment would take until the afternoon each day to warm up again.  Second, Tracy and I got violently ill within 48 hours of move in.  Details are sketchy, but the money’s on the black beans which were soaked for a day in water that hadn’t been boiled in advance.  For two days we both underwent complete and involuntary system flushes, and that was our veritable moment of weakness.

World Tour just wasn’t looking that good.  After the rough stint in Cuba and generally a lot of being on the go, we were hungry for settling in to more real and regular life that didn’t so much resemble the oft-tiring backpacker’s lot.  And yet here we were, cold in our home, afraid to drink the water we’d boiled, and practically plastered to whichever horizontal surface seemed a fitting resting spot at the time between bathroom visits.  Adding to the distaste of the situation was the suddenly fresh memory of being similarly sick in the Philippines, the last time we traveled out of the country.  It seemed all too recent, like an undeniable and unpleasant pattern was revealing itself.

We did what there was to do: give ourselves permission to frankly explore the possibility that we were getting too old for this sort of adventure, that world tour wasn’t such a great idea, and that it might be really nice to retreat.  We did this to keep it real.  For you see a part of the ego and identity of both Tracy and myself is the notion that “Yay!  We’re good travel people, we do cool travel stuff and that makes us interesting, yay!”  So what if we’re not good travel people, then what does that make us?  We were of sound enough mind to realize it would be a fool’s errand to pretend we were enjoying ourselves when we were not, just to keep that piece of our egos in tact.

Our conversation to vent about and explore the degree to which World Tour was sucking lasted about 10 minutes.  With all complaints on the matter out in the open and ripe to catalog & objectively assess, we recognized that not all in fact was horrible: it just can seem that way when you and the only person around you are both in the throws of bodily distress.  Really you can only take the misgivings of someone as sick as us only so seriously, for when it passes one’s outlook changes mighty fast.

Sure enough, when we were fully recovered a day or so later, the world seemed beautiful, and World Tour once again a darn good idea.  There’s nothing quite like feeling near death for a few days that has being up and about alive seem so fantastic.

Which then thus takes us to the matter of living in Cusco.  Let me start by saying  I just DIG Peruvian culture: I dig the music, I dig the food, I dig the art, I dig the women dressed in traditional garb leading their alpacas through the streets.  Cusco is delightfully walkable (we never have to wrestle with getting a cab and attendant gringo taxation), and while winding through the narrow cobblestone streets there is no shortage of opportunities to see instances of these four categories and more.  Tracy has fantastic pictures of both the main plaza and the streets of Cusco.  (In fact you should probably click around to others posts: her Cusco coverage is quite comprehensive.)

Shortly after regaining my appetite, I discovered the ubiquitous Cuscan “polloria”.  They are like carbon copies of one another, a simple and well replicated model for selling chicken dinners.  Five soles ($2 US) gets you a decent sized piece of chicken, a bowl of soup, a pile of fried rice and french fries, and access to the salad bar (a few metal tins filled with tasty cooked beets, a carrot and onion medley, and some other prepped veggies).  Oh, and the chicken, prepared as it is upon a bunch of rotating skewers over a wood fire oven, is like the best chicken you’ve ever had at a summer BBQ with someone who really knows what they’re doing with chicken.

Talk about a ready made meal.  It has come in handy on more than one occasion, and for 19 soles you can get half a chicken, which I refer to as “strategic reserves”.

In the interest of adjusting and fostering a certain resilience in our cold apartment, I set out late in the first week on a small shopping spree of warming alpaca garb.  Knit gloves with the fingers cut out, long knit socks, and a pair of alpaca slippers that to me are both goofy and loved marked my spoils, and I’ve had less to complain about ever since.

Speaking of commerce, entrepreneurship is alive and well in Cusco.  Many laundromats, restaurants, yoga studios, general stores and more can be recognized as simply the front room to someone’s place, meaning it appears as though setting up a business can be as simple as setting a “Laundry – 2 hour service” sign outside your door and having the right appliances in back.

Reliability, reputation and customer service seem to be equally casual affairs, though.  Three for three times I’ve had to return to the laundromat at least twice because either our clothes were not ready when promised or the proprietor was just, well, out.  One night I was particularly peeved by the situation as I’d paid double for same day service1.  The owner of the store next door told us “she’s out, try back in 30 minutes.”  Lemons to lemonade, we took a walk up the steep hill from our house and enjoyed a spectacular sprawling night time view of the city.  Cusco is nestled in a valley, so there is no shortage of high perches from which to look down upon its charming, skyscraper-less neighborhoods, dotted with warm lights at night, and featuring the Andes in the distance during the day.  We’d lived here for two week and still not come up for the view, so this was a win.

My irritation mellowed from time well passed, we returned 30 minutes later.  “She’s not here, just wait, I’ll call her.”  With my mellow once again harshed by 10 more minutes of waiting, we found solidarity in another gal who came along and knocked upon the vacant door.  “Necassitas sus ropas tambien, eh?” I asked.  “Si.”  “De donde es?”  “Angleterre.”2  “Ah, well in that case we’ll have no trouble conversing in English!”  And that’s how we made the acquaintance of Tammy, a med student from England.  In ten more minutes of waiting we learned that Tammy was well traveled and a great conversationalist.  After we all got our laundry and headed our separate ways home, we learned she was our downstairs neighbor, sharing her flat with 3 other med students from England.

I figured it fitting to secure our new acquaintance as a friend: “Listen, we were down by the plaza earlier today and there’s this bakery that has these big, amazing looking cakes.  Tracy and I would never get through one of those on our own.  What do you say you and your flat mates come up for cake some night next week?”  And thus a plan was made for the next Wednesday, and that’s how we got to host our first gathering at our place since moving out of our place in Denver.  A lovely time, too: three and a half hours of chatting over cake and tea and we’ve got peeps in England.

The days here spent working have been uncommonly productive.  Perched at the dining room table with laptop, gloves, hat and ear buds the outside world just sort of melts away whenever I go in for deeply focused programming.  So much so that Tracy has declared spousal neglect once or twice, and for it insisted I unplug and get out to enjoy the town with her.  Yesterday it was a hike to Sacsayhuaman, the ruins of an Inca fortress on grounds high above the city.   Fantastic views of the city, larger than life Inca stonework, and watching a group of 10 alpacas graze about were the rewards of this mandated unplugging.  Again, Tracy’s photography does our experience more justice than my words.

Truly, despite its rough beginnings, this town is growing on me.


  1. Not to mention this was the second time the reunion with our clothes was greatly delayed with this particular merchant–fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, etc. etc.
  2. Translation: You need your clothes too, eh? / Yep. / Where are you from? / England.
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Cancun to Cusco

August 9th, 2012 No comments

After the wedding Tracy and I laid low a little in our swanky condo 3 stories up from the beach, where we enjoyed meal after meal of simple and fantastic local flavor from the nearby grocery store: rice, black beans (prepared from dry as opposed to canned), slices of avocado, spritzes of fresh lime, Cholula hot sauce, and (for me) carved off slices of rotisserie chicken, all wrapped up in fresh flour tortillas.  We had essentially this meal eight times in our 3 days, with zero qualms about its repetition.

One afternoon while returning from a walk on the beach and washing the sand off our feet in one of those cool little outdoor shower spigots, a native-looking fellow called down to us from the second floor balcony of one of the units.  “Are you guys on your honeymoon?”1  A few more moments of our exchange and he invited us up: “We’re having a party, would you like to come in?”

Brief flashback: before leaving the states, a friend challenged me to, in his words, “Not exactly ‘put yourself in danger’, but say yes to- and go along with situations when you don’t know how they’re going to turn out.  I’d like to see you go through your travels with this sort of measured recklessness, and for it have a lot of cool experiences you might have otherwise missed.”

There on the beach that afternoon my friend’s words popped right into my head.  With half a moment’s consideration I replied “Sure, unit 5?  We’ll be right up.”

Our measured recklessness was immediately rewarded by a welcoming gang of gringos gathered ’round a dining room table, whereat we were quickly offered sangria or beer, and chips & guacamole.  We were in the vacation condo of a lovely couple from Berkley.  We had been invited on up by Chino, an artist of the Mayan carving tradition who was in from his village to showcase a bunch of his work to one of his patrons.

It was way cool to see his work, including a carving-in-progress that had been commissioned by our hosts.  His pieces were of a caliber and consistency to look right out of the pages of National Geographic.  Tracy and I each independently had a pang of concern that we’d been roped in to buy something, but nothing of the sort came up.  Just a bunch of travel savvy ex-pats plus Chino and his wife, just hanging out, swapping stories, and talking art.

Thanks Chino, I hope your fab pieces constitute a career-making find for an archaeologist in 500 years (and, of course, that your art career continues to go swimmingly in this era).

One night we spent enjoying the better part of a bottle of Havana Club Cuban white rum.  I mention this not because getting blitzed on rum is a particularly intriguing or impressive tale of travel, but just to reiterate and remember how uncannily good that stuff is.  I hope to enjoy it again in other countries that are willing to import and sell Cuban goods.

Oddly enough our lay low time would have been more relaxing had we not had such a primo view of the bay, for that gave us a front row seat to the developing weather patterns of what would become hurricane Ernesto.  As winds, clouds, rain, and choppy waves all picked up I’ve never refreshed a page on so frequently, concerned to be stuck in a tropical storm and concerned for how our flight out might be impacted.

In hindsight I worried about it much more than was due.  After a restless night of sleeping to on and off howling winds, we awoke to howling winds that were then decidedly off.  Our drive to the airport saw roads that were clear and already nearly dry.  The only strife that morning was a stop at a gas station where a number 2 was of imminent importance and then stupidly leaving my credit card behind with the attendant (ugh!).

And then we flew to Peru.  Business class.  During our 4 hour layover in Houston I had the thought whilst walking through the terminal: hey, we’re probably entitled to go hang out in the United lounge, right?  Like a kid who’d just rifled through his father’s wallet and was now reservedly brandishing his ill-gotten credentials, I asked the lady bouncer perched behind the desk outside the doors to the luxury lounge.  “That’s only if you’re flying internationally.” came back the answer with slight reproach, as if speaking to some rube who has clearly no business in high society2.

“Ooh, yes, that’s us!  We’re going to Peru this afternoon.”  I replied like a kid who was too proud to have succeeded in his effort to sneak some free drinks and snacks.

We were welcomed in and on our way.  The funny thing is we found it hard to shake the feeling that we were just two punk kids who weaseled our way in among the business folk.  After all we hadn’t paid 2-5x for our ticket, it was a trade in for frequent flyer miles.  And our attire was, unsurprisingly, a lot more backpacker than business suit.  I even felt like I pulled one over on the bartender when I asked for a beer and he actually served me.

Fortunately we had a much easier time settling in to our business class status during our 6-hour flight.  Ample wine, great food, and spacious seating all had me better understand the allure.  I even got a kick out of hearing “Thank you for flying with us tonight, Mr. and Mrs. Larson.” at the end.  I don’t know if we’ll ever be ballin’ enough to want to splurge on business class with real cash in the future, but the experience taught me that investing in a few glasses of wine is probably good for reliving about 60% of the upgrade experience.

In Lima we were slightly crestfallen to see the customs agent write “30” next to our passport stamp (meaning we had 30 days to be in Peru), and then happy again to hear our hostess’s assurance that extensions are available at $1US per day.  Our hostess was a USA’ian woman3 married to a Peruvian fellow, and together they run a top-rated AirBNB place complete with optional service to pick you up from the airport4.

The next day we flew to Cusco.  The Andes is a good lookin’ mountain range for sure, and stellar views thereof made our 2 hour flight pleasant and memorable.  Like a highschooler cramming for 5th period test during lunch hour, I spent most of the flight skimming Lonely Planet’s Cusco entry off of Tracy’s Kindle.  Apparently, I read, it should cost 5 Peruvian Soles for a cab to the city center.  I was quoted S./20, and reluctantly went along when I got the driver down to S./15, which despite S./5 savings was not a very satisfying bargaining outcome.  However at S./2.6 to the US dollar it wasn’t worth losing sleep over.

What was worth losing sleep over was the cold: our room at the Hospedaje we chose for the night had fab views of the main city plaza, but it was merely wood shutters that constituted the closing of those windows.  Year round, Cusco, with its 11,000 foot elevation, gets up to the 70s during the day, but down to the 30s at night.

Before turning in that night we did our homework.  Seven soles worth of phone calls and internet access got us in touch with Javier of the Condor Lodge, a purveyor of fully furnished apartments quite close to central Cusco.  “We’d love to see the apartment tonight, if possible.”  30 minutes hence Javier would pick us up from the steps in the main plaza.  30 minutes more and we were handing over $100US for the deposit with both keys and a plan to return the next day to move in.  “This was just vacated this morning, I need to clean it tonight and you guys can come back whenever tomorrow and settle in.”

Beautiful.  A chilly night in our Hospedaje was all that separated us from our new home in Cusco for the month.


  1. Do we still give that vibe whilst walking hand in hand on a beach?  Sweet!
  2. To be fair, she was simply addressing the very tone of voice that had originally inquired.
  3. Now that we’re in South America, it’s really kind of gauche and literally vague and/or incorrect to call someone from the US an “American”.  I still haven’t worked out a succinct replacement for the term, so USA’ian, even though my spellchecker decries it, will have to do.
  4. That’s right: after flying business class we rounded out the experience by having a guy holding a sign with our names on it as we exited the airport.
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Somebody Got Married on a Beach

August 6th, 2012 2 comments

And I had more to do with it than usual, probably more to do with anyone getting married than I’ve ever had before1.  For the beach wedding of Jon and Morgan in Akumal, Mexico I had the profound privilege of officiating the ceremony.  I’ve been excited about this since first asked by Morgan, by phone, while in the middle of the cornfields of Illinois en route to visit friends back in May–so tickled was I that I think I’ll always remember where I was when that invitation came my way.

And it was every bit the honor I thought then that it would be.  Tracy and I headed for Akumal in our rental car late Friday night, and got checked in to our swanky digs2 at around 9pm.  From there I went straight to the resort to pick up the bride and groom for a night-before jam session to polish up the ceremony and give it practice run.

It was fun.  The ceremony that Jon and Morgan created was very deliberately crafted.  They started with a blank ceremony, and added only what they wanted.  Everything in the ceremony was there because it was personally meaningful: there wasn’t an ounce of including bits in order to check things off of some (real or imagined) list of external expectations.  Bits that constituted the ceremony included the mutual welcoming of the new son- or daughter-in-law by the parent pairs, a remixed Celtic hand fasting ceremony (of which I am most certainly a fan), exchanging of rings, and a unique Water Ceremony to honor the parents, crafted by Jon and Morgan based on Chinese tea ceremonies.

For practice that night we had to improvise a little on props, and fortunately I had some local coinage on hand to fill in.  See if you can recognize this line with its impromptu edits:  “Jon and Morgan, you now exchange Mexican pesos with one another. When you give each other these Mexican pesos, you are giving and receiving a symbol of your eternal love.  A love that, like the circle formed by each of these Mexican pesos, has no beginning and no end.”  By midnight with a little practice, a medium amount of word smithing, and a lot of humorous non sequiturs, we were all ready for tomorrow’s ceremony.

9am yoga by Tracy marked the beginning of the big day.  I hadn’t been in one of Tracy’s classes in a long time, man it was good.  Her classes are as fitting a source of a slowly percolating nerd crush which ultimately culminates in marriage as I can imagine.

Anyway, personal nostalgia aside, it was a good class and a fine way to bond and connect with the wedding attendees.  After class we had an hour or two to scope out the ceremony site, make some logistical arrangements (a 3-ring binder and a print job were of unusually high importance to me that day), and hang a little with the gang.  Tracy and I then retreated to our place for a nap and to get into suitable officiant garb (khakis, sandals, and a nice white dress shirt from Cuba–Ron kindly lent the shirt to me: we are the same build, after all).

Back at the resort 4pm came quite quickly, it was go time.  I was referred to mistakenly as “the minister” once or twice, which gave me more of a kick than it probably should have.  With sunscreen and beach formal attire donned,  I strode confidently along the resort walkway towards the ceremony site, brandishing the binder and playing the role of authorized practitioner of the officiating arts as best my first-timer status would allow3.

I played the part, and had such a good time doing it.  My great joy was to watch Jon and Morgan both nearly lose it, with glassy eyes clearly moved by the words which they had created and I was delivering.  Seeing the parents in the front row similarly moved at the sight of their children’s nuptials was further assurance that I was getting my job done.

The only gaffe in my officiating was one of the last lines: Morgan and Jon had handed out beach-style woven hats and fans for everyone in attendance.  After their kiss my line was “In the interest of keeping this beautiful landscape in pristine condition, Morgan and Jon would like you to toss your hats in the air to celebrate.”  Now then, you may be familiar with the near-ubiquitous lyric “throw your hands in the air / like you just don’t care”.  I sure am, and so I accidentally/effortlessly subbed in the word “hands” for “hats”.  A few chuckles and seconds later I realized my mistake, corrected course, and presented for the first time Mr. and Mrs. Jon and Morgan Meredith.

I can’t think of a more delightful role to play as an attendee in a wedding, especially of such close friends.  My gratitude to them for trusting me with such a position on such a meaningful day.

Such is my gratitude and overall joy with the position that I say this to everyone else: if you want a destination wedding somewhere around the world this year, pick a place where Tracy and I are at and I will avail myself to officiate the heck out of that thing.  I will even waive my standard, not-yet-existent fee for officiating services.  Satisfaction guaranteed.

The rest of the wedding was a joy, with the great food, great toasts, and rollicking dance party that a summer full of weddings has me well attuned to reveling in.  We said our meaningful goodbyes to bride, groom and company around 1am, and headed back to our place having officially wrapped up our summer of wedding attendance.

For some quite pretty pictures of our surrounding in Akumal, see Tracy’s blog.


  1. Except for with Tracy: I had really quite a lot to do with that one.
  2. More swanky than we bargained for, actually.  We originally booked a more modest place just up the street, but our delightful hostess informed us two weeks prior that there was construction going on around that building, and so asked if it would be okay if she moved us to a nicer alternative.  Yes, please, and thank you!  People are awesome.
  3. In case you were wondering, I am not ordained by any particular authority.  Here all the paperwork was handled back in L.A. beforehand, which was good because I hadn’t packed my chemistry set, necessary for processing blood samples to prove the non-relatedness of bride and groom.
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Isla Mujeres and Castro’s Kingdom

August 3rd, 2012 2 comments

Our first order of business upon landing in Cancun was to hop a ferry over Isla Mujeres, which translates as “The Island of Women”1.  Our friends are house sitting on the island and were able to put us up for the night.  Like Tracy and I, Anne and Mike are world nomads, but in their case it is indefinitely so, a fact which I find delightfully hard core of them.

Our “hop a ferry” motion was actually a 7 hour journey from the moment of stepping off our plane, consisting of immigration, customs, a bus wait, a bus ride, a taxi ride, a ferry wait and ride, plus a few errands.  Accordingly, our friends were so very much the welcome sight when we arrived around 9:30pm.  The upside to the long travel day is that I slept like a baby on the futon in their delightfully appointed (yet wickedly warm) living room that night.

The next day was a very vacation-like day of island life.  Breakfast consisted of exceptionally delicious coconut pancakes at a place called the Mango Cafe.  Midday was a jaunt to the beach featuring every aspect of perfection you would expect in your standard issue platinum-grade beach: white sand, turquoise waters, palm tree shade, and guacamole & beers never more than 100 steps away.  Evening was burritos on the street-facing terrace of a restaurant located on what I would call “tourist row”: the pedestrian street lined for blocks with lovely street-facing restaurant terraces.  Night featured beers under the stars whilst on the rooftop terrace back at the house.  A perfect day in paradise, and our hosts, as folks who have been living outside of the US since December, were the perfect people to spend the day swapping stories, perspectives, and ideas as we embark internationally.

A word about outdoor showers: they are one of the most delightful ways I think one can experience running water.  On the rooftop terrace of their house, there is an outdoor shower.  Third floor, above the tree line, and with views of the Caribbean Sea to both the east and the west.  If you ever have the opportunity to take an outdoor shower in the tropics, especially if elevated views of nature are involved, do it.  It is brilliantly refreshing, a veritable communion with Earth and its majestic scenery.   When a bird squawks in the distance, it’s like being cat-called by God.

The next day our gracious hosts dropped us off at the ferry as we set off for the Cancun airport once more, this time to fly to Cuba.  Now then, it turns out that going to Cuba is, well, kinda frowned upon by the US state department.  So we didn’t actually go.  Nope, during that week we had earmarked for it, we just laid low in Cancun.  Fortunately for this narrative, however, we met a couple named Ron and Jaycee who just went there and told us all about it2.  So I’m going to co-opt Ron’s story and use his words as my own to describe what he saw and experienced there.

Our first impression of the efficiency of Cuba’s industry was a poor one: our Cubana Airlines flight was, after a gradual sequence of push-backs to the departure time, 8 hours late.  This got us into the country with a local time of 1am.  Add on the usual dance of entering a country and it was 2:30am when we left the airport.  Finding a taxi was no problem, and after piling in with another couple we met at the airport we headed off into Havana.

At that early hour the Cuban countryside had a peaceful, almost magical feel to it.  The air was sweet from the nocturnal perfume of tropic vegetation.  Our cab driver narrated with prideful knowledge the make and year of the numerous classic cars we passed: a ’48 Chevrolet here, a ’54 Chrysler there, and so on.

“Where are you staying?” he asked us.  “No idea: a friend recommended we start at the Hotel Nationale, but since it’s so late we wouldn’t get to enjoy it much.”  It was one phone call and about 45 seconds later he said “I’ve got you set up at a Casa Particulare3, I’ll drop you right off.”  Ten minutes later we pulled up to an unassuming 4 story apartment building whereat a fellow in his mid-40s was sitting on the steps.

After paying the fare and bidding our companions safe travels, we were quickly escorted in and up the stairs by our host, Jaime.  In his 4th floor home we met his wife, Katty (pronounced Katie) who eagerly greeted and welcomed us with energy and awakeness seldom to be expected for strangers barging in at 3am.  We were shown where to find water in the kitchen and then swiftly escorted to our room, complete with wall AC unit and its own connected bathroom.  After being bid goodnight we breathed a collective sigh, and admired how refreshingly simple and nice it was to make such a smooth landing into an above-average foreign country, especially at the late hour and having made zero preparations.

The next day was a joy.  Our hostess laid out a varied spread for our breakfast, consisting of guava, mango, cucumbers, eggs, fried pork, juice, coffee, bread and butter.  Our host then walked us out street side and got us a taxi taking us to central Havana.

After changing money in one of the hotels on Parque Centrale, we were relieved of our first peso by way of a photo op with a compelling Castro4.  We wandered the tree-lined plazas, took in the architecture and well-preserved cars from the 40s and 50s, and marveled the degree to which being here was like stepping back in time.

After a ride on the top level of the obligatory double-decker sight seeing bus, taking in all form of tastefully executed nationalist propaganda (turns out they’re still really big on Che here), we stopped in a cafe for a snack and our first sampling of Cuban rum.  It was, much like the many to follow, about the best mojito I’ve ever tasted.  I’m usually a vodka man ma’self (it just agrees with my system much more than any other), but Cuban rum to me was uncommonly good, in all categories of taste, buzz, and the feeling afterwards.

In our inspired state we walked 150 paces to the waterfront, a lengthy series of rocky outcroppings that, amid the milder setting sun, was dotted by hundreds of locals reveling in and around the water.  I was content to just sit and watch from my little patch of rock, enjoying the cool air and happiness about.  My love meanwhile struck up a conversation with a local, a sort of language exchange wherein he practiced his English while she practiced her Spanish.

When the sun hung low and dinner time felt near, we wandered along the waterfront in search of a suitable venue.  We soon noticed a restaurant visible only by its second floor veranda, and decided it would do.  A great find: setting sun, sea breezes, then candle light marked our meal.

That marks the gist of our first day.  I would love to tell you that the remaining 4 were quite so charmed, but our experience fell sharply from there.  To illustrate why, I’ll enumerate the conditions which I feel are necessary in order to have a really good time in Cuba (as opposed to offer up a string of whiny tales of what exactly disenchanted us, which I could also do but I think few would care to read).

Here they are:

1. A really good handle on Spanish.  We’re historically pretty solid with our ability to comfortably get by in Spanish speaking countries, but the Cuban accent is different enough to be quite disorienting.  We found even our hosts to be quite difficult to understand for all but the most basic things.  Furthermore, strong Spanish would make a fine defense against gringo taxing which, in Cuba, we found to be well above par rampant.  Over charging and “accidental” short changing happened with almost comical regularity.

2. Plenty of money and ability to access it.  Our Casa Particulare was about $35 US a night, but got old after a while (you’re essentially someone’s house guest).  Not caring about money would have meant some fancier hotels and going out to nice restaurants or clubs, which would have been nice: the novelty of Cuba wore off by about day two, when it then became clear we were in just another Central American city with its fair share of poverty, decay and pollution5.  The problem is that, for a US citizen, what you’re willing to pack in cash is all you have to work with: there’s no way to get more when you run out, because your credit or ATM cards can’t be used.  Accordingly, we felt compelled to be ere on the conservative side in our budgeting.

3. Native family or friends.  There are actually two distinct currencies in Cuba: one for the tourists, and one for the locals.  Pricing is way different between the two,and it seems to split the country by its commercial offerings into two separate worlds.  It could be merely a lack of savvy on our part, but this seemed to make the tourist bubble quite difficult to penetrate indeed.  Knowing a native I think opens up much more of Cuban culture, beyond what is setup as for tourists to play (not that that’s not great, see again my account of our day one).

If you meet at least two of these conditions, you’re probably all good to go.  If you meet only zero or one of these conditions, you might want to skip Cuba: it just got old for us quickly, and thus we wouldn’t recommend it to a friend.

Further damning to Cuba (though certainly not fair as this certainly needn’t apply to everyone) is that our trip ended with me getting sick.  The rounds of marching about the high heat and sun (93F in the shade) while exploring the town found me getting a cold sore on my lower lip, which our hosts reason got infected to subsequently cause my fever and diarrhea6.  On the plus side, they were able to hook me up with a course of antibiotics without batting an eye.  I recovered just in time for our flight back, delayed this time by a mere 3.5 hours.

So that was Cuba.  When we returned to Cancun it seemed positively bright, clean, and modern by contrast.  We were told that we had to go check out Cuba soon, while it was “still all Communist and AWESOME”.  I so wanted to dig on Communism, but alas our rough experience has that desire fall short.

Thanks Ron, for that account.  Looks like Tracy and I dodged a real bullet by being law-abiding citizens!  For photos detailing the country obtained by perfectly legal means, visit Tracy’s blog.

Tomorrow is the fourth and final wedding that Tracy and I are attending this summer.  Time to get my game face on and tend to my preparations: I’m officiating the ceremony.


  1. I like to think that this naming was a smart effort on the part of the island’s tourism board, wishing not to be outdone by Cancun in its promise to collegiate spring breakers of abundant drunken hookups.  (“Hey dudes, we should totally go to the Island of Women!” “Yeah!”  “Woo!” etc. etc.)  I’m fully prepared to be proven wrong on this one: the comically-colored glasses through which I sometimes view the world do but entertain, and are not threatened by contradicting facts.
  2. Like me, Ron is also 6′ 5″, and married his yoga instructor.  Unlike me he and his wife had a General License for academic, research and religious travel, with which it is perfectly legal to visit Cuba.
  3. A Casa Particulare refers to a privately owned home that hosts tourists, as opposed to a public one.  The government of Cuba wants your money if you’re a tourist, thus it is illegal to lodge in just anyone’s home.  Thus your options are a hotel, a public lodging house, or a registered Casa Particulare.
  4. I have digitally altered Ron in that photo to look more like me.
  5. Incidentally, there is a real downside to the abundance of really cool classic cars.  Whether you like or hate the environmental lobbying groups that have passed the host of mandates on clean emissions for automobiles in the US, a trip back to a land of abundant 40s- and 50s-era cars makes it clear that those mandates are, well, kinda nice.  Formidable clouds of smog bellow from each car’s tailpipe as they accelerate from a stop, and the net effect is evident to anyone breathing within 30 feet.
  6. My friend succinctly summarized my situation as being trapped in a “Communist Herpes Deathtrap”.  Not a kind or even fair phrasing, but hilarious enough to include as part of the poetry of this report.
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Recap of the US Phase

July 26th, 2012 No comments

Today we fly to Cancun.  With its reputation as a party outpost for the states1 it may not be the most exotic remote locale, but this step officially commences the international potion of our 16-month walkabout.  At this point it seems appropriate to reflect on the experience and lessons learned of the last three months spent as domestic vagabonds.

As an aside I’d like to point out that there’s something great about being on the cusp of leaving the country for a while: it can serve as a delightfully irrefutable reason to politely decline any manner of sales pitch.  While at the Safeway the other day I was asked by the cashier if I’ve enrolled yet to their “Deals 4U” program (or whatever it’s called).  I said no & no thanks: “Yeah, I’m leaving the country next Thursday, for… a while.  So I’m going to pass.”  This is great because not only does it curtail any push back, but it also opens up more lively and interesting dialogue between you and someone who is suddenly, magically, less of a company agent and more of a real person.  Fun (even if fleeting) conversation ensues, and it’s enjoyable enough that I’m tempted to use that line with customer service people again when I get back2.

Here’s the breakdown of how we spent our nights, accommodations-wise, since undergoing voluntary homelessness:

  • 11 nights of camping (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 2)
  • 37 nights of longer-stint stays in places to ourselves (8 + 4 + 4 + 7 + 14)
  • 9 nights crashing with family in Denver
  • 6 nights crashing with family around Milwaukee & Chicago
  • 4 nights crashing with friends
  • 4 nights in hotels
  • 7 nights as camp counselors
  • 4 nights of short stints at hosted AirBNB places (2 + 2)
  • 8 nights in quasi-vacation mode for the weddings (2 + 6)

The cost of our nightly accommodations has been, on average, $40.68.  Take out the pricy week in Cape Cod and it goes down to $27.60 per night.

This summer “home” has indeed been a rather vague and ephemeral concept, and fortunately that’s been a-okay with us3.  I’ve come up with an alternate construct for the concept: home for me is pretty much wherever Tracy is.  Plainly, Tracy is my home.  Is that a cute and sappy sentiment?  You betcha.  But it’s true, and in practice a quite fitting designation.

The time has largely served as a microcosm of how the rest of world tour will go: a comprehensive survey of the various lifestyles and living arrangements we’re liable to experience overseas4.  This summer has taught us that we’re way more happy to be in domestic mode than in travel mode.  For example, our days spent settled in Aurora were, on average, more enjoyable per day than touristing around in Boston5.

Domestic mode is great because it’s a break from the regular need to sort out where you’re going to stay next, you get to have a sense of familiarity with your surroundings (and with it a pleasantly orienting sensation of home), and there’s way less reliance on eating out when you’ve got unfettered access to a kitchen.  It’s also generally much cheaper per night, when you stay a while.

This suggests the question: if we like being settled into a quasi-normal living arrangement so much, why travel at all?

Fortunately the answer to that is clear: getting settled in to a living space and exploring our new surroundings is really enjoyable.  It’s fun to make that initial trip to the grocery store to newly set up your pantry and deliberately choose what you’ll be cooking and eating the next few days or weeks.  It’s fun to have novelty cause you to pay attention to (and thus appreciate more) the niceties and nuances of where you’re staying.  It’s fun to discover the features, establishments and choice walking routes of a new neighborhood.  Throw in how the whole experience bumps you out of established routines (thus freeing you to make up new ones), and you’ve got a really nice set of reasons for traveling slow and savoring the domestic aspects.  Even a short 4-day stint like ours in Granby revealed all of these positive qualities.

So we’re in a really nice position: we’re going to have a lot of opportunities to settle in to weeks-long living arrangements, and they’ll be bases of exploration in locales way more exciting than a suburb of Denver.  As I write this, our plane will land in Cancun in about 2 hours.  International World Tour begins!


  1. To wit, many of the plane passengers “Woooo!”ed when the flight attendant said festively “Let’s go to Cancun!” just before takeoff.  Kinda like being on a party bus, really.
  2. I probably won’t since I’m a terrible liar.  Good thing I enjoyed declaring my imminent departure from the country with a completely straight face while I could.  If you’re a good liar and can cook up answers to the predictable questions that follow, you might give it a try.
  3. Any semblance of homesickness has yet to come up–not bad for nearly three months without a regular bed, and my heartfelt thanks to the many friends and family who allowed us to feel at home while saying at theirs.
  4. Minus of course the camping: amid the roughly 28lbs per person of worldly possessions that we are shlepping, you’ll find nary a tent nor sleeping bag nor other such gear.
  5. This saying a lot, because as cities go Boston is way cooler than Aurora.
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Understanding World Tour Finances

July 16th, 2012 No comments

The other night a friend was describing to me how when he describes what Tracy and I are doing to his friends, they invariably ask “How?”, usually within the first 30 seconds.

As in: how do we manage to take (what appears from the outside to be) a year+ long vacation when there bills to be paid, jobs to be worked, mortgages to be kept up with, and any other manner of life’s responsibilities1 that need to be regularly tended to during a typical sixteen months of American adulthood?

A reasonable question indeed.  Tracy and I get it regularly too, though to our faces I think people are a little more reserved and roundabout with what is, in essence, an inquiry into our personal finances.

I’m happy to share, and in the process hopefully demystify the whole thing.  Perhaps I can even convince a few that this sort of adventure is more widely attainable than it looks by making it clear that neither lucky lotto numbers nor trustafarian status are requisites.  More over, I’d love to remove at least some of the illusion that we’re “lucky” to be able to do this, and convey that this “privilege” is mostly the result of conscious choices guided by a clear intention (and, incidentally, not a whole lot of self-sacrifice)2.

There are a couple of pillars which collectively comprise the answer to “how”: a year’s worth of regular savings, elimination of carrying costs in the US, being able to work remotely, and traveling slow.

For Tracy and I a year’s worth of modest savings was relatively simple and painless: Tracy made a practice of squirreling away $200 each week into our travel fund.  We live regularly pretty well within our means, so this wasn’t hard to do.  Since we had conceived of World Tour nearly a year before it began we had a lot of weeks to rack up savings, leaving us with about $10K built up by go time.

The elimination of carrying costs in the US is probably the greatest hack that makes it all work.  I think the reason vacations feel so very expensive is that, while you’re enjoying the fruits of your plane ticket purchase and accommodations spending, you’re ALSO still paying rent, utilities, insurance, cell phone plans, and other manner of things back home which have little-to-no bearing on your vacated self.  Drop those expenses and then suddenly “vacation” (and other things that resemble it, ahem) come down massively in average daily cost.  Doing so is feasible and practical when you’ll be away for a good long while–this is an instance in which “go big or go home” is quite fitting, literally and otherwise.

A side note about eliminating carrying costs: mortgages.  If we had one, that would probably kill this step and take world tour down with it.  God I love that we don’t have a mortgage3.  No sir, in our case the end of our apartment lease marked the beginning of our adventure; no fuss, no muss.

Being able to work remotely takes the edge off the need to save.  With it, there exists the opportunity to lace out our savings, possibly indefinitely.  Here is one instance in which I grant I am blessed with a bit of luck to make a world tour happen: though they are becoming more common and will likely continue to do so, not every job can be performed with just a laptop and wi-fi connection.  Being self-employed helps too: my boss has no problem with my remote working arrangement.  Were I not self employed and without option to work remotely, it would have taken a willingness to leave a job, at least temporarily4.

Traveling slow is the last major piece of the puzzle: for many countries the cost of getting there WAY outweighs the cost of staying there.  By corollary, if we slow down and stay a while in some fun and interesting part of the world, our overall cost per day goes down relative to the pricy cost of transportation.  To wit, the accommodations for our stay in Guatemala cost $800 for the month, wi-fi and utilities included.  Contrast this with about $1100 that it would cost for round trip flights for two, and you get the picture.  (Our upcoming residence for that month in November is rather dope, by the by.)

This practice of traveling slow and settling in to the countries we visit will have the pleasant side effect of causing us to go deep into our experience of a given locale and culture, rather than quickly skim the surface and remain trapped in one tourist bubble after another.  To become a regular at some coffee shop, to cook in our kitchen with local foods bought in the market5, to discover the great little establishments beyond what is recommended in the pages of Lonely Planet.  These and more are the treats generally reserved for those with enough time to settle in.

Those are the four big aspects of World Tour’s affordability.

There are a lot of other little things that are part of the picture but don’t quite fall under those four umbrella concepts.  Here are the nuggets worth mentioning:

  1. We don’t have debt of any kind.  Again, living within our means has afforded a lot of perks.
  2. We don’t have kids yet.  Obviously that’s a huge leg up.  (For tips on how to travel the world with kids in a savvy and affordable way, check back in about thirteen years.)
  3. For the last 18 months we’ve been using a United Mileage Plus credit card for our normal expenses, and with miles accrued have redeemed about $2500 worth of flights6.  I don’t know if United’s card is the best possible one for travel miles, but that sort of rewards card is a very good fit for people traveling a lot with serious flexibility.
  4. Having people in town to store what possessions you do keep saves on the $50-$80/month storage fee.  Tracy’s parents were a boon on this one, though when I went to Argentina I had little problem striking a deal with a buddy who had a basement7.
  5. Together we possess one car and zero car payments.  This is a fine simplification, and working out a non-commercial arrangement to garage that saves around $200/month (thanks again to Tracy’s parents).
  6. Consistent with leaving our car behind, we’ve accordingly minimized our car insurance.
  7. For health insurance we’re using World Nomads, coverage at about $100/month for the both of us.  We’ll keep our plans here in tact so that we don’t risk getting screwed by a lapse in coverage, but with a way-high deductible.
  8. Our love of and savvy with cooking for ourselves is going to save us a ton relative to eating out 3 meals a day (which, travel experience shows us, gets super old quick) .
  9. VRBO and AirBNB are excellent venues to find fully furnished long term accommodations overseas.  Properties tend to give very steep discounts for longer stays (e.g. the aforementioned place in Guatemala: $120/night, $800/month), and there are even more and better deals to be found off of the well-tread path of these American-friendly listing sites.
  10. Though we haven’t landed a gig yet, house sitting opportunities listed in places like the Caretaker Gazette make it possible to live rent free for weeks if not months, provided you’re reliable for watering plants or caring for pets.  According to one woman in Panama, we represent very well on paper as candidates and would have made a great fit for her fab gig had it not already been filled a month prior8.

Our rule-of-thumb daily budget is $100/day.  For some countries we’ll be well under that.  I’ll need to do some work abroad to make our savings last, but it’s heartwarming to think that, even if I couldn’t, our setup would afford us over 3 months of slow travel.

So there you have it: that is how we’re affording a year long World Tour.  It is, I think, surprisingly affordable.  Even without the benefit of years of savings, a baller salary, or some chance windfall.


  1. Or, “shackles”, if you will.
  2. Why do I care?  Well, if it’s luck, then this sort of adventure is just for Tracy, myself, and other such “lucky” people.  If it’s a matter of conscious choices and deliberate lifestyle design, however, then there is room for many more to play in this fashion.  The latter is a recipe for a much more interesting world.
  3. Seeing as how most people and couples that we know of with mortgages seem to feel “meh” or worse about having one, plus the fact that statistically, on average, folks are only in them for 7 years (meaning folks pay mostly interest and build very little equity), mortgages seem like such a terrible idea and I can’t wait til our generation is collectively over the con that is “buying” a home that you cannot afford.
  4. I did this when I did a month-long tour of Europe back in ’04: my employers then were willing to let me take a month-long unpaid sabbatical.  It was a situation in which, while I would be missed, if I was going to go I would be welcomed back when I returned.  May it come as good news to people with a more conventional job that that sort of rapport can be cultivated more readily than full-blown self employment.
  5. Especially in countries not “developed enough” to have some bullshit like hard, mealy tomatoes shipped in in January: you know whatever you find is going to be good, seasonal and fresh.
  6. Plus a business class upgrade to Peru: I don’t count that value towards our $$ savings since we’d never have opted to pay for it, but it is a nice perk.
  7. In exchange for 12 square feet of squatter’s rights, I gave him my fish tank.  Both of us are certain we got the better end of the deal.
  8. The Caretaker Gazette erroneously re-ran her ad, the poor gal got 56 unneeded replies besides ours.  Darling of her to give us such encouraging feedback amid such a deluge.
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On the Ranch

July 8th, 2012 No comments

I swear I didn’t throw the archery contest.

Don’t get me wrong, other happenings of the week as a camp counselor at the Roundup River Ranch would make clear that I reveled in performance opportunities.  But in the contest of counselors versus campers in archery, where having to don costumes and sing “I’m a Little Tea Pot” for the whole camp was at stake, I gave it my all with not a trace of mercy for the potentially stage-averse little ones.  I can prove it because I hit the target every time, making the maximum points on my turns.  It was thus my follow counselors who missed enough to have us down by 6 at the end of the match.

Whether or not they missed on purpose I never got really clear, but whatever their intent we suited up right after lunch that day to give a stirring a cappella exposé on how a tea pot works for the 90 odd folks gathered in the cookhouse.  One fellow dressed like a 20’s flapper complete with wig, another in a rather impressive chicken suit, and me as a banana.

And we rocked it.

At least in spirit, anyway.  I messed up the lyrics once or twice during the 4 lines, had my handle/spout turned opposite the way of my co-stars, and I’m pretty sure our entrances were sloppily uncoordinated.  But still, it had heart.

Backing up a little let me say that camp counselor life agreed with me.  On the second day shortly after the campers had arrived en mass via bus, Tracy said to me “You’re perfectly built for camp.”  I found this a strange statement, and thus asked her to clarify.  (“Darling, I agree that my tall slender frame is quite nice, but I’m not sure how that really translates to an edge in a camp setting.”)  She explained: “You love to sing, you love to dance, you’ve got drawing abilities, you’re goofy and do all kinds of crazy accents.”


The previous day I painted a rather kickin’ portrait of Bender, the robot from Futurama, to serve a suitable target for archery (consistent with the time-travel theme for the week).  Song and dance would be invoked throughout the week after all meals when a quasi-structured line dance party/sing along was administered.  Goofiness & accents would be doled out at regular intervals in interactions with both campers and staff alike.

What really warms my heart about the dancing is the unintended consequence of my zeal.  We counselors in general have the task of setting the tone for the campers: at dance time that looks like being all out silly & involved to encourage them to do the same.  I was assigned to the cabin with the oldest boys (our gang of six consisted of ages 11 through 14), and as you might imagine for the age group they started the week out with all six just sitting at our table during cookhouse dance time.  By the end there were always at least three, sometimes all six of them busting a groove.

Our youngest camper explained it to me with all the candor and frankness that 11-year-olds are blessed with: “You dance really crazy and weird, but it’s kinda cool so it’s okay.”  That was the turning point by which I think I made dance look fun (cool?) enough to join in, and I was goaded on to lead dance-time operations for my camper crew regularly from then on.  This culminated with their earnest request to make our Stage Night1 sketch be a bit where I would dance and they would follow as one big merry troupe.  We settled on something approximating that, with me way less the focus but still helping the cause2.

Getting the kids in our cabin to warm up to public displays of dance-time silliness was the most surprising accomplishment of the week for me, and I can’t help but notice the probable significance in the fact that I never pushed for it.  I just consistently had a great time of dancing myself and curiosity to follow crept in among my campers of its own accord.  I reckon there’s a lesson in child rearing in there somewhere, methinks I’ll tuck it away and revisit it in a few years whenever personally relevant.

The natural scenery in the valley that is the camp’s setting was spectacular: pristine and delightfully isolated.  Silvery moonlit skies compelled me to sit on the grass and just stare for about an hour one night, a sort of moon meditation where the stillness and beauty of everything had me convinced of the majesty of this world (to say nothing of the myriad stars beyond), the relative and humbling smallness of me (to say nothing of my petty problems or concerns), and the profound privilege of having this world be the playground of my existence for this handful of decades.

A train track running parallel to the length of the camp was but a few hundred feet away, and trains would go by several times a day. It was rather welcome in that it made you feel like you were in a model train scene all nestled in the valley, and if you played your fist-pumping cards right the conductor would totally sound the whistle for you and fellow campers.

On Wednesday we had a serious downpour from clouds right above while the setting 5pm sun brightly illuminated it all.  One of my personal myths is that sunny rain is good luck.  (It may as well be, I figure, since it’s both pretty and rare.  I heard one of the campers had said that in her family they believe that sunny rain means the devil is beating his wife.  Since they’re both made up fictions I’m content to stick with my “good luck” theory.)  This was one of the sunniest and most intense downpours I’d ever seen: the dense droplets looked like a golden flurry of snow falling slowly against the tufted valley hills.  Amid such a gorgeous good luck downpour I could hardly be bothered to do anything stare for a while.  A triple rainbow marked the finale of our quickly passing valley weather.

On the floor in the Arts & Crafts yurt was painted these words: “Don’t just leave a legacy, Be a legacy.”  By about day three this got me thinking: how might I approach being a legendary sort of volunteer counselor, one that sticks out in memory as having been uncommonly good?  This inquiry gave me a game.  I was going to spend exactly 7 days on the ranch either way; win or loose, the aim of leaving as a legendary volunteer gave a delightful aim to my participation.  A personally motivating theme to my presence, if you will.

Relative density of high-fives given, dance mojo exuded, and laughs administered are all hard to measure, and though I held my own in all three categories I don’t think any would have qualified me legendary status anyway.  But there was one thing that might make me fit for counselor canonization.  You see, camp songs in this microcosm of culture are limited in breadth: there were maybe a dozen of them led by counselors for singalongs in repeat-after-me fashion, and reruns were in full swing by the third day3.  My act of doing something memorable, therefore, was to jump into the middle of the singalong circle4 after lunch on Thursday and lead a rousing delivery of the Tooth Decay song from Sifl & Olly, adapted for call-and-response participation with 56 kids.

It was my privately held hope that this song would make it into the regular cadre of camp songs, and I would know my intention was fulfilled were someone on staff to hit me up for the lyrics.  I got laughs during the song and the usual clapping and cheering when it was over, but for hours that day no one but Tracy said anything to me about it, as though I’d perhaps surprised and dismayed the higher powers that be for going off book.  It was only later that night I got word that it was truly liked, and indeed the lyrics were wanted for future camp use.  Legend or not, I was delighted to leave a lasting contribution on camp culture (I was also told it’s super rare for volunteers to jump in and lead a song, so that too was memorable-making).

All told it was a treat to be part of the crew enabling a fab week of camp for kids who would otherwise not be privy to such an experience, and the staff with which we worked were nothing short of fantastic.  Warm fuzzy moments abound, from seeing our cabin campers all gel into a tight group, to enjoying big smiles while unharnessing kids coming down from the zip line, to the uncannily positive energy of everyone cheering each other on during stage night (the place went nuts when one of the more reserved girls rocked out a singing of Katy Perry’s “Firework”, a most fitting song since Stage Night fell on the 4th of July–kinda made up for the fire ban which put the kabosh on any actual fireworks).

At the little root beer float party for the counselors held on the last night, us volunteers were thanked for taking a week off to do this among all things we could be doing with our vacation time.  This was a sweet sentiment for sure, but for me the irony is that this, as vacations go, was WAY more memorable and satisfying than, say, getting drunk on a beach somewhere.  Cheaper, too.  Truly time off well spent, and I wonder if this couldn’t come more into vogue as a vacation-esque option for folks with the right personality strain (i.e. amenable to camp counselor life).

Now we are back in the Denver area, laying low in our charming little AirBNB rental for a few weeks.  Our first order of business upon arrival was Naked Retreat (that’s when you spend 24 hours with your beloved and without clothing, I daresay the perfect remedy after a week of staying in separate cabins).  Now it’s all about getting some work done and tending to final preparations before we leave the country.


  1. Think “Talent Show” but without any presupposition and/or requirement of “talent”.  Verbiage carefully and skillfully chosen to take the edge off.
  2. Our 4 minute sketch went approximately as follows.  One: all but one of the guys would start off break dancing to a Justin Bieber song, intentionally tripping up and falling one by one for maximum hilarity.  Two: I come in from stage left and see the wreck of fallen dancers, pantomiming a certain anguish.  Three: I get a stroke of inspiration for the solution, and motion to the DJ to put on “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”.  Four: I start dancing, and one by one gesture to the kids for them to magically revive and dance beside me to the tune.  To the first one I give a microphone so that he may beat-box rap to the song.  Also, he is wearing a chicken costume.  Five: from offstage runs in the last camper, wearing the banana costume and rocking out with a maraca per the bygone internet meme.  Six: we all dance our way offstage stage right, the Bieberian dance tragedy thoroughly overcome.  We rehearsed it for about 12 minutes, but for the near spot-on execution, hearty reception and big laughs, you’d swear it was at least 24.
  3. Not that I’m complaining.  I think there are very good reasons for maintaining a small set, like quicker familiarity and comfort for the campers.  Through repetition they’re quite catchy, too: I’ve had several nights since the start of camp where songs floated in and out of my head for an hour or more while winding down for sleep.
  4. “Jump in” is actually giving me a bit of undue boldness credit: I was goaded publicly to get on in there after earlier whispering into the activities director’s ear that I had a song I could lead, wondering if it would be okay for me to do so.  My thanks to her for pushing me off the ledge, making chickening out no longer an option.
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