A little piece of heaven in the hills

helen signA spur of the moment purchase of a mountain home in Helen, Georgia flung my husband and me into an unexpected trip and immersion into a country lifestyle.  We won the high bid on a foreclosure and decided to turn it into a vacation rental for ourselves and others.  Collecting furniture from auctions and personal knick-knacks from our Florida house we hit the road with the goal of having it ready for the rental market in a week or less.  Game on.  It was not my first rodeo doing this, we’d done it twice prior.  My ten pound snorkie was accustomed to the drill and probably thought we were professional movers.

It was my first time seeing the house, hubby flew up and checked it out prior to our bid.  It blew me away instantly. Within walking distance to the quaint Bavarian styled village, yet in the woods in a gated golf course community and we are the only house on the street.  Hiking trails are nearby as are wineries, ATV rentals, zip lines, mini golf, German restaurant galore and my favorite country store Betty’s.betty country store

What surprised me as the crème de la crème and the real gem of north Georgia are the super friendly people.  They are warm, sociable, helpful and generally pleasant folks.  We made friends everywhere we went, already feeling like part of the community.  Before we even arrived in Helen we got stuck in gridlock traffic on Interstate 75 due to a fatal accident.  We backed up an interstate ramp and pulled over to figure out directions around the traffic jam.  A local pulled up in a red dodge asked where we were heading.

“Follow me.” He suggested.

We sped through winding country roads, landing us just north of the accident and continued on our merry way.  During our detour I spotted a unique bright yellow government issued sign reading “Quiet Sickness,” and silently pondered its meaning.  Does this mean I’m in danger of getting sick and why the quiet part of sickness.  Weird and strange things to discover on country roads in Georgia.  Winding paths I’d become all too familiar with over the course of the week.georgia sign

The gate guard at our newly acquired house as well as the young freckled blond at the local convenient store were smiling and congenial.  As were our few neighbors who went out of their way to introduce themselves, welcoming us to the community.

The best part of our initial stay was the interaction at bars and restaurants.  One night we joined a biker party singing Karaoke combined with a separate birthday party group from Atlanta.  Everyone laughed, toasted drinks, exchanged home states and even shared an impulsive parking lot mob flash dance.  Many of them were in a band and we applauded their performance. I smiled all night including our stop at the local pub where we mingled into the wee hours.  One woman was a little too friendly and a fight between two men almost broke out.  My hubby grabbed the bartender, our new friend and neighbor, warning him of the tension building.  He was quick to react, diverting any fight.

At Lowes when I couldn’t find something the clerk was readily available and walked me to the item.  At Betty’s, when ordering lunch, the boys behind the counter were attentive, assuring me that my sandwich was made with care and the best I would have.  They were right.

helen roadSo with all the love is there any downside to Helen?  Just that’s it far from some basics like large chain stores.  Groceries, home improvement, Wal-Mart and anything other than a small country grocery store will be at least a 45 minute drive or more.  But I’ll take that given all the natural and cultural beauty of the place.

Breakfast in Bimini, Chapter 10 excerpt

I realized the music was coming from our Intrepid, Russ’ choice I concluded. Fileted Tuna spread across a wooden picnic table with soy sauce and wasabi.  The smell of burgers soured the salubrious air.  I munched wasabi drenched Tuna, numbing my senses with an intense burn.  Inhaling the brief pain, I turned towards Russ arranging hamburgers on the public grill, “So do you always fish and boat in cowboy boots?”

“No Ma’am,” his grinned widened.  “Just for my flight here.  I brought shorts and flip-flops for the rest of the trip, but I’m always prepared for a rodeo.”

“We definitely have some sort of goat rodeo going on.  Maybe a little different from what you’re used to.”

He snickered and shook the ice against his otherwise empty glass. “It’s all good.  Hell, we’re in Paradise.”  Handing me his glass, “Would you mind getting me a rum and coke, some buns…and all the burger fixings?”

“Sure.”  I walked off, past the cloud of smoke encircling the Hillbilly Express, returning with a few drinks, a soy burger wrapped in foil, and all the accoutrements.  I threw my foiled veggie burger on the crowded grill.  Yoda was patiently sitting next to Russ, her nose wiggling at the meaty environment.

“What’s that?” Russ asked.

“A soy burger,” I nonchalantly answered.  “I’m a pescatarian.  I don’t eat any meat except fish.”

He shook his head, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Well now you have,” I smiled widely.

It was happy-hour on the dock with newfound friends meandering by, swooping up sushi and burgers, like the pelicans I’d watched earlier.  Yoda ate every scrap hitting the ground, spotting an airborne crumb as if a missile-launch, occasionally snapping at a fly.  Small talk buzzed around the now tropical storm brewing in the Caribbean and the deadly oil spill.  Apparently, this storm at the end of May was one of the earliest ones on record.  I kept my mouth zipped about our friends oil spill involvement, most fishermen were very environmentally conscious and although the Kramers had nothing to do with the tragedy, just being associated with such a disaster was a conviction.  The oil was already harming fish and wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the long-term effect on the ecosystem.  The Kramers just provided the insurance, they weren’t responsible for the explosion or its aftermath.  But I’d learned the hard way as a junior archaeologist that most people can’t detach or comprehend associations when dealing with environmental issues.  I was hired to help excavate one of the last remaining wetlands in Los Angeles County.  Protesters would show up every day and spit at me as I entered the site.  I wasn’t developing the area, but I was sure as hell going to save and preserve any artifacts discovered.  Sometimes you just can’t fight ignorance, development and strong, yet faulty beliefs. To top it off, I rollerbladed to work the wetlands while the protesters parked their SUV’s on the grass lot.

Glancing at Russ and Luke chatting with the Davy Jones family, I grinned knowing I didn’t have to watch the news while in the Bahamas.  After all we didn’t have electricity for the rest of our trip except when docked at night, and then we were too busy drinking.

Russ winked at me.  “So pescatarian, do you play the hook game or pool?”

I tilted my head realizing I had a winker, and a bit thrown off by a hook game.  “I play pool and I’ve heard of Captain Hook, any relation?”

He cracked a smile, “Let’s go play in the yacht club.”

Russ took the lead as a gaggle followed, including Yoda and a stray yellow lab. Luke and his buddies lingered at the bar, passing the two of us cocktails:  rum with coke and a white wine spritzer.  Cowboy held a silver circle in his hand attached to plastic fishing line.  The object of the game was to throw the circle onto the hook attached to the wall.  He tossed the swinging line ten times, hooking two of them in the process and then handed me the dangling circle the size of my wrist.  I flung it too aggressively and it bounced off the wall three times.

“Easy,” he said.  “Like your hitching a tame horse, not a mustang.”

Okay, not sure what that means, but I threw a mellower version, only bouncing the hook off the wall once.  It still swung wildly and I was nowhere close to hitting the target.  I played with my footing and focused on the task at hand, finally getting the circle to catch within ten throws.  I threw my hands in the air and jumped up and down. “Yeah.”

“That’s better,” he gloated as a successful teacher.  “A rematch?”

“Hell yeah.  I got this.”

He rolled his eyes and started the challenge.  He championed three hooks within ten shots, grinning with a knowing win, and then handed me the ring, “You’re turn.”

I studied the angles and found my sweet spot. Concentrating on the target, I hit the hook on my first throw, and then the third.  Four and five was a miss but then I mastered six, seven and nine.  I felt like Duane Wade on his best night.  I waved my hands in the air and turned towards Russ.  “I got this,” I rejoiced and added, “Do you want a rematch or a pool tournament?”

“I think you may be a pool shark, but let’s give it a go,” he said wryly.

Luke and Jeff stepped up to the hook game and Russ barely beat me at two games of pool.  I somehow accidently pocketed the eight ball by not paying attention to the task, forfeiting one of the games.  I was more into the Bahamian music leading my feet and mind to sway with the beat.  Jenny joined us, and hit a few of my striped balls.  We danced around the billiard table like courting Blue-footed Boobies.

Captain Nemo’s “Message In A Bottle.”

Sierra Michaels:

I love this story by fellow blogger Joseph E. Rathjen, so I’m reblogging it, especially since I’m currently writting a novel taking place in the Bermuda Triangle. Enjoy.

Originally posted on The Political and Social Chaos Blog:

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

For The Daily Prompt:SOS

I will never forget the day that I found, on a beach by my home, a bottle containing a handwritten note signed by Captain Nemo of the legendary submarine the Nautilus. At first, I thought it was a joke. After all, there was never a real Captain Nemo who built a submarine named the Nautilus and navigated the oceans 20,00 leagues under the sea.

At least, I never thought there was one – until I found that bottle and note that was rolled up inside and sealed with a gold, wax seal emblazoned with a big black “N ” in its center.

“What an odd object to find,” I thought to myself.

“It’s genuine!” said Max, the eccentric, and scruffy, antiques dealer who operated a shop by my oceanside home, and who I had brought it to for examination. “And from the…

View original 1,392 more words

Breakfast in Bimini, Chapter 8 excerpt

staniel cayWalking off, I scouted the docks for Luke.  He was talking to a few guys near the fish cleaning station.  Nick was at the opposite end checking out a large European yacht I recognized as an Azimut, from three distinct windows on the side and its aerodynamic design.  One of the few boats I could spot and identify, it was also my dream boat.  This one was curiously named Davy Jones. My mind raced to where I’d heard that name.  One of the band members names in The Monkees, I knew from my youth growing up watching and listening to the pop group, but also from somewhere else.  I shook off the mystery name and strolled over to Luke gabbing at the fish station.  Nurse sharks swarmed below in a feeding frenzy for fish scraps, attacking like Komodo Dragons on raw meat.  They didn’t look so peaceful or harmless now.nurse sharks

Luke noticed me standing by his side.  “Hey, sweetie.”  He turned to one of the guys filleting fish, “This is my girlfriend Kelly.”

The tall, thin, shirtless stranger greeted me with a nod, “Nice to meet you.” He glanced at me then the fish he was cutting.  “I’d shake your hand, but they’re a bit bloody right now.”  Two large fish were splayed on the filet table and a bucket full of fresh meat lay between his feet.  He was wearing plastic blue fishing waders. “I’m Paul, and this is my buddy Randy.”  I smiled at the younger, less messy fisherman.  His fish scraps seamlessly fell from the table into the shark infested water.  He was barefoot wearing only a bathing suit and a knife attached to his calf.

“Dolphin?”  I asked, with my newfound yet limited fishing lingo.

“Yes Ma’am,” Paul answered.  “Got a few at sunrise, just out yonder.”

Luke chimed in, “They’re from Fort Lauderdale.”

“Neighbors,” I offered, peering into the sea for another glimpse of the bloodbath.  Although the accent was a bit country-strong for southern Florida.  My eyes drifted toward Luke, “I’m going poolside until we leave on the golf cart.”

“We’re leaving in forty-three minutes.”  Where does he get these numbers?  Not forty or forty-five.  So random.

Jamie, the blonde and the adorable dog, Yoda, were all sunbathing at the small pool. “What are you drinking?” I called out.

“Pina Colada,” Jamie responded.

I returned with two Pina Coladas and a small bowl of ice water for the dog.  “I brought some water for Yoda, if you don’t mind?” I asked, placing the bowl on the ground.

“Ahh, thanks.  I’ve been giving her ice cubs from my drink and she swims in the pool.”

“She’s such a cutie.”  I sat in the lounge chair between Jamie engulfed in a magazine and the blonde. “And a good traveler?” I added with a quick sip from my sweet cocktail.

She beamed a new motherly glow.  “Yes, I’ve only had her for about nine months.  But she goes everywhere with me.”

“Where do you call home?”

“North Carolina is home, but we’ve been traveling for the past few years on our boat.” She paused.  “I’m Jenny.  I’m here with my husband, it’s our fifth anniversary.”

“Congrats on five years.  I’m Kelly.”  I raised my drink to her unknown cocktail.  She lit a cigarette and I borrowed one.

“You smoke? I thought I saw you running.”

“Yes. I do both.” I mumbled.

She giggled with a knowing uninhibited grin. “No worries.”

I glanced at Jamie still absorbed in her magazine.  Yoda was under her lounge chair, resting in the shade.  “So you’re sailing around the Bahamas?” I probed for conversation.

“Yeah.”  She pointed to the marina.  “Our boat is docked over there for the next week.  It’s called Davy Jones.

My eyes widened through my sunglasses.  I’d assumed she was on one of the many sailboats.  “An Azimut.  My favorite boat.”  I took a sip, “And is your husband Davy?”

She giggled.  “No, it’s Jeff Johnson.  Davy Jones is a reference to shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea.”  She extinguished her cigarette into a close-by empty glass.  “Most people don’t get it, but he’s a treasure hunter looking for Spanish shipwrecks, mostly in the Bahamas.”  She clarified.  “He does web design and hosting for a living, but his passion is treasure hunting.”

It clicked.  That’s how I know the name Davy Jones.  It’s an idiom for the bottom of the sea.  Davy Jones’ Locker, or death to sailors. I started to fluster, my mind spinning through everything that had happened during our trip; boat disasters, pirates, my idol, portals, and nightmares.  Sensing my fear, Yoda jumped on my lap.  Jamie lowered her sunglasses and whispered through her teeth, “I caught part of the conversation, and I can see beads of sweat forming all over you, and you’re as pale as a ghost.  Breathe. Just breathe.  This has nothing to do with your dreams.”

“The symbol of death was just dropped on my feet,” I teeth-whispered back. “And the sweat’s from the hot sun.”

She smiled thinly toward me then to Jenny who was unaware of any conflict.  Jamie quietly nudged me and then turned towards our newfound friend, “We are going to change for our island exploration.   See you later this afternoon, I hope.”

“I think Yoda likes you Kelly,” she uttered.

“And such a cute name, how did you pick it?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t some omen.

“Oh, we’re Star Wars fans.”

I calmed at the response.  Great, the Star Wars Jedi master meets the sea devil. Following Jamie to the cottage, I imagined the dog and horned demon dueling it out with lightsabors to save the galaxy.  Somehow in my mind’s eye, the adorable pup won the battle before I even reached the doorstep.

Nick and Luke were waiting, ready to sightsee, “Has it been forty-three minutes?” I called out to Luke.

“Forty-four,” he taunted

We perambulated to the golf cart with no plans but to be at the airport around 3:00, or whenever we saw the Caravan fly overhead.  I wanted to stop by a local grocery store because I liked checking out foreign food, and Jamie sought boutiques, if we happened to pass one.  We were all in our bathing suits with cover-ups.  Jamie and I on the back of the four-seater with the boys navigating in the front.  Crossing the rickety bridge over Bonefish Creek, Luke in the driver’s seat, decided to stop and admire the fleeting fish.  A Piper Aztec buzzed us. “Not a Caravan,” Luke announced.

A small grocery store sat across from the creek.  “Can we check that store out,” I pointed to coral shack.

Luke pulled in front and Jamie and I jumped off the cart. I perused the can goods and cereal boxes.  Plenty of beans, rice, oatmeal and a few boxes of Captain Crunch and Cheerios.  The elderly Bahamian lady watched me like a bird stocking its prey.  “My God. You can’t come in here without a shirt,” she chided.

“Oh, I didn’t know.  Sorry,” I murmured.

Exiting the shack I glanced at Jamie wearing a cover-up.  She wasn’t far behind carrying four opened Kalik lights.  “I don’t think she liked your cleavage,” she kidded.  “What are you like a 36D?”

“C,” I corrected.  “It’s the islands.  Who knew?”

“Hey Kelly, did you tell Luke about the Davy Jones boat?”

“I met the owner, Jeff.” Nick said. “Nice guy.”

“Well we met his wife and dog at the pool.  Jeff’s a treasure hunter.  That along with the Davy Jones Locker euphemism leads me to believe my idol is still at work.  Maybe it wants to return to the bottom of the sea.”

The threesome snickered with Luke going into a lingering belly laugh.  “I think maybe the owner watches too much Sponge Bob,” Luke managed to cackle.

I blinked at the three, raising my lips slightly.  “Do you know what Davy Jones means, sweetie?”

His laugh teetered to a perpetual grin.  “Yes.  Sponge Bob had a locker at the bottom of the ocean that he kept some socks in.”  He went to a full belly laugh again and stopped the cart.

Nick spoke through his smile.  “I don’t know a thing about Sponge Bob, but in pirate lore it’s the devil of the sea and it’s meant to cause fear among seamen.  It’s mentioned in Moby Dick and Pirates of the Caribbean.”  He glanced back at me.  “But in reality, it’s just a name some guy picked for his boat.  Besides he looks harmless.  You should show him your idol.”

I shrugged.  “He’s still a treasure hunter.”

“And you’re an archaeologist.  You two should have a lot in common.  I’ll introduce you two tonight,” he concluded.

Breakfast in Bimini: Chapter 7 excerpt

Chapter 7

Exumas

Wading through the water I spotted the duck pacing and wondered if it sleeps at night or if ducks dream, recalling my crazy dream of drug-stuffed idols.  Heading towards the runway, I passed Kevin and waved with a quick flip of my right hand.  Sea Grapes edged the landing strip as I caught a glimpse of the ocean in the distance. With music blaring through my iPod, I barely heard the faint sound of an engine landing behind me.  A Piper Aztec touched down as I jumped into the Sea Grape bushes in astonishment.  Where in the hell did that come from?  I was running on a runway with music blasting in my ears, probably not a good idea.  Continuing past the dilapidated airport I observed a plane resting in the shallow water just feet from the shoreline.  It was almost identical to the book cover ‘Turning the Tide’ I was introduced to just yesterday.  With enlarged eyes I scooted closer to the water’s edge.  I embraced the moment of historical relevance and continued running the shoreline until my turnaround point back to the ship.  The pacing goose greeted me yet again for the last time.

Aboard the Cabin Fever, the crew was intensely looking over charts and planning as I arrived drenched in sweat and salt water.  “Wow, that was an exciting run,” I exhaled while approaching the threesome on the bridge.  “An Aztec landed and I saw the plane from the cover of the book.”

The three looked up with approval.  “Did you have a good run?”  Jamie asked.

I nodded. “Yes, awesome.”

“Good, we are setting sail soon so if you need anything on land, then now is the time.  Including toilets,” she emphasized.

“Oh, that’s right.”  I turned around and dove back into the water feeling more confident with my swimming abilities.  Dripping wet I visited the outhouse and mumbled a quick goodbye to Kevin in the restaurant.  After a swift shower I was ready to tackle the day in my bathing suit.

In the cabin I was informed of our plans for the day as we lunched on fresh-baked cheese croissants compliments of Jamie.  We would cruise past several small islands and then Luke and I would jump into the Intrepid for some fishing and meet up with the Bluewater at Compass Cay then onto Staniel Cay where parts were being flown in to fix the toilets.  The ocean was flat calm and fairly shallow except for the Exuma Sound dropping to almost 6000 feet, similar to the Tongue of the ocean.  We would only be in the deep fishing on the Intrepid.

I grabbed my book, cigarettes, a towel, and a bottle of water setting up for a few hours of sunbathing. “Anybody want to work on their tan,” I threw out there as I set-up on a large cushion at the stern of the bridge.

“I’ll join you,” Jamie answered.

Returning minutes later she sat down on a cushion next to me spraying tanning lotion on her shoulders, neck and face.  Holding up her sun kissed brown bottle, “Would you like some?”

“Sure.”  I took the lotion from her outreached hand and sprayed my chest, already having SPF on my face as a daily routine after my shower.  I’d spent some time with Jamie but I didn’t really know her outside of the four of us having dinner a few times in Florida.  I knew she was a strong person and often commanded the room.  She was a leader, as was I when nobody else stepped up to the plate.  I was usually willing to let someone else take on that demanding role.  She definitely wore the pants in the family, although Nick was no pushover.  We were both laying horizontal as I glanced sideways through my sunglasses. “So how did you and Nick meet?”

Her face lit up and an uncontrollable smile swept across her face. “Well it’s kind of a funny story.”  She glimpsed at me then back up at the sky.  “Have you heard about Columbus Day Regatta?”

“Luke said it’s a party on the water and that he wants us to go this fall.  September, right?”

“Yes, the first weekend in September.  And party is an understatement.  Everyone is drinking crazy amounts of alcohol and bathing suits are optional.  It’s like an orgy in the middle of the ocean.”

I cracked a smile as my ears perked.

“So I took my boat down with about six girlfriends.  At that time I had a 36 foot Contender and we anchored next to Nick’s 56 foot Hatteras.  He was there with about ten guys and they started throwing beads at us to remove our tops.  So I tossed my top onto his boat, dove in the water and emerged on his stern.”  She propped herself up on her elbows and motioned to her breasts.  “And he kept staring at these, so I said, are you going to get me a drink.  Still stunned he handed me the one in his hand.”

I giggled.  “I’m sure he did.”

Her smile widened.  “And we just really hit it off.  It was a crazy weekend.  All of my crew ended up spending the weekend on the Hatteras.  Naked guys and girls floated about the sea, music blared, and come Monday we decided to keep in touch.  The Hatteras and his captain stayed in Miami as Nick flew in from Texas almost every weekend.  That was over ten years ago.”

“Do you go to the regatta every year?”

“No, but I’d like to go again this year.”  She laid back down, “It’s fun, but a bit much at times.”

“Sounds like fun.  I’d like to check it out at least once. Where do people sleep if on a smaller boat?”

She chuckled.  “Wherever they fall.  Most people are so wasted that they just pass out on the boat or not sleep at all, or all sleep together.”

The heart of the Inca Empire

Rolling into Cusco after 10:00 p.m., I noticed the sleepy town I once visited was bustling with young twenty-somethings hanging around night clubs blaring hip-hop. They were circulating the streets and sidewalks as if buzzing around a bee hive. The dogs were socializing in a different manner. Packs of them scavenging on garbage piles scattered along the sides of streets and in empty lots.

“Damn, I don’t recall Cusco being this crowded or dirty,” I thought verbally.

hotel cuscoOur hotel was the complete opposite of the litter we had just driven through. With a Spanish castle motif, the Palacio Del Inka, was five-star luxury. It also held almost 500 years of history with some original Inca walls once home to the virgins of the sun. Part of the current structure was built for the Spanish Conquistador, Pizarro and his men. The open-air courtyard below our suite, offered a zen atmosphere where my husband and I could relax with a drink and cigarette.  I kept passing through the courtyard and various other rooms over the next 24 hours, getting lost each time, yet discovering a new maze back to our room.

cuzcoI wanted to run outside the next morning, but the hotel staff strongly suggested I use the treadmill due to pedestrian and car traffic. That combined with our altitude of 11,000 feet, I acquiesced.  A handful of North Americans from our travel group did an optional tour, but we decided to take a leisurely day to explore the city. The historic Qoricancha, or Temple of the Sun, with the omnipresent church of Santo Domingo sat across from our hotel. We agreed to explore the church later in the day and then headed to the main square, passing a original Inca wall along the way. The Plaza de Armas is one of the most beautiful colonial style squares in all of South America. Two enormous churches flanked two sides of the square, La Cathedral and Templo de la Compania de Jesus. I recalled the first time I saw La Cathedral twenty years ago during Easter break. I witnessed the traditional Inca procession of the saints in front of the church. My friend and I were the only tourists then, and it was sublime. Equally rewarding now we just hung out around the plaza. Wooden balconies surrounded the square, most of them part of the numerous restaurants. We had a few drinks with lunch followed by shopping, people watching and a brief visit to the underfunded Inca museum. A visible police presence caught our attention and we later learned that some workers were on strike due to unfair labor laws. They were throwing rocks, wavering on unrest. The police were in full riot gear complete with plastic shields.

We ended our afternoon with a tour through the church adjacent to our hotel, Santo Domingo. With a rich Spanish and Inca history, our local guide only covered the Inca story and she did it well, although I felt like the beautiful Spanish church we were walking through was being ignored. But then again the Spanish did sack and destroy all known Inca monuments, replacing them with their own. Once the Temple of the Sun dominated Cusco, housing more than 4,000 high-ranking Inca priests. Some of the walls, windows and niches are still visible inside of the church and this was the story we followed during our tour.

high pointWe were on the road again by 8:00 a.m. for the last leg of our trip, Lake Titicaca.  I was especially excited about visiting this southern region since I’d hadn’t been there,  although I studied the archaeology found around the lake as a student at UCLA under one of my professors.  Driving through the Andes I noticed mustard colored hills mottled with blackish brown soil, beet-purple mountains, valleys with pools of water, corn fields, a lonely railroad track paralleling the road, wheat-colored sheep matching the grass they grazed,  and simple shacks.  We stopped by an elementary school to meet the children and bring them much-needed school supplies, and then continued to our highest point of 14,500 to breathe the thin windy air and take a picture. Seven hours later after cruising through a town known as the cocaine capital we pulled into our headquarters for the next two nights just in time for a lightning storm over the lake.

I had some time for a light jog proceeding of our morning boat journey.  At 12,500 I was a little winded but after ten minutes I was doing fine.  I kept my jog short and turned around becoming annoyed at the minivans speeding by, men howling and dogs barking.  Although a short run, I was still proud of my highest run ever, gloating by my fellow travelers with several of them suffering from altitude sickness.

“You ran.  I can barely walk,” one of them breathed.

“It was just a short run,” I humbly said.

urosA boat ride brought us to a different world, a floating spongy one known as the Uros Islands.  They are floating reeds housing an average of three to five native Uros families per island.  We visited one and sat down for a demonstration. The reeds only last 30 years then they have to build a new island.  If there’s a fight among them they pick up their hut and turn it around, unless the disagreement is more serious, in that case they cut the island in half.  After the demonstration and a few laughs we were free to roam the tiny island.  The huts were modest with just the basics: a bed, roof with a blue tarp under the reeds to keep rain out, blankets, a four-inch black and white tv attached to a golf cart size battery, and clothes tossed in the corners of the room, just like my husband bundles his dirty clothes.  They had no bathroom, you had to jump into the lake for that, they shared a clay oven in the open area for cooking and they got around by reed boats and a paddle.

My husband went to the side of the island and lit a cigarette.

I gave him a sideways glance then looked at our guide standing next to him.”Honey, don’t catch their island on fire.  I don’t think you should smoke with all of this hay, it looks very flammable.”

He pointed to our guide, “Leo says it’s O.K.”

I grunted then climbed aboard the two-story reed boat for a ten minute ride with the rest of our group.

me flat mtAfter an excellent lunch of fresh pizza in Puno half of the group went to the hotel and the rest of us went to the Sillustani Tombs, an archaeological site full of pre-Inca and Inca funeral towers.  It started pouring just as we arrived.  Up the wheat hills, whitherward through the cold rain and mud we listened to our local guide’s brief description.  He offered to take my picture with a beautiful view of a lake and a mysteriously flat-topped hill that some think is a UFO landing site. I tripped lightly and then turned around for a picture, prior to looking down over a deadly cliff.  That could have been disastrous, I realized as I imagined my umbrella whisking me through the air like Mary Poppins.

If I had more time during this brief jaunt to Peru, I would have taken a few more days to explore some archaeological ruins dating to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca.

As the locals like to say, “The titi part of the lake belongs to Peru, the caca part belongs to Bolivia.”

I’m sure Bolivians would disagree and it gives me an excuse to come back to the region.

Our last night in Lima we spent together as a group. Our guide Leo had us all pick a piece of paper from a bag.  Of the twenty-four pieces, only two had “yes” scribbled on them. I received one of these.  Throughout our tour various people carried two small Inca dolls that Leo said we had to treat like our baby, but they would change hands every few days. My husband even kidnapped one for a few hours.  I got to take the female Inca as a reminder of our special trip in the Andes.

The not so lost city of the Incas

church lima 2 Our adventure began in the capital of Peru, Lima.  After a 6:00 a.m. arrival at our hotel and a long nap, a guided city tour of the historic capital awaited us and fellow Gate-One travelers.  The highlight of the tour was the Convento de San Francisco, a Moorish style colonial-era church with underground catacombs.  One of my favorite rooms was the library, with old yellowing books lining the walls from floor to ceiling, falling apart and turning to dust in the musky forgotten time-capsule.  Mostly written in Latin, it was paradise for a colonial-era researcher whom could read the nearly dead language.  I’d secretly hoped someone would transcribe and preserve the important documents the library held.  Natural light beaming from skylights and windows, along with humidity and time, would destroy books holding crucial information by the end of this century.  Two enormous music books the size of a standard suitcase were the focal point of the room.  We later learned these were exhibited on a thick rotating cedar music stand for the entire choir to view during mass, while a boy stood turning the page.

catacombs lima 3The catacombs took us deeper into the belly of the cathedral.  As we followed groups of tourists, my thoughts drifted towards earthquakes and how Lima had many great shattering quakes through time.  “It’s the last and worst place I’d want to be during an earthquake,” I whispered to my husband, lingering towards the end of the line.  I needed plenty of room in case of an emergency.  An extra benefit of this tactic was exploring rooms others mindlessly passed.  We peered into a large circular well filled with hundreds of skulls, a scene straight from Indiana Jones, and The Temple of Doom. My eyes widened as hubby urged me to take a picture since nobody was looking.

“No, I obey the rules as an archaeologist.”  I shot him a sideways look, “Besides, I don’t want any bad Ju Ju.”

bones limaCatching up with others passing rectangular ditches overflowing with large bones, mostly femurs interspersed with hip bones and skulls, I noticed many people covering their nose.  It was dank, but not too different from the library.  Perhaps the sight of numerous human skeletal remains automatically caused some to cover their nose and face, sheltering the possibly contaminated repulsive air they breathed. I shrugged worrying more about an earthquake burying me alive.

The next morning we had a quick flight to Cuzco and longer bus ride to the sacred valley, the heartland of the Inca. Exactly twenty years ago I’d visited this region and fell in love with the otherworldly scenery holding snow-capped mountains, winding roads, idyllic villages and green valleys filled with corn, potatoes and quinoa, all of which ended up in our home-cooked lunch.

“They work the land without tractors,” our guide gloated through the microphone.” You will not find more than ten tractors in this area,” he challenged. “If you do, then I’ll buy everyone a Pisco Sour.  Humm,” he added with is usual filler at the end of a sentence.   Not knowing how determined and thirsty his Canadian and American tourists were, our group spotted more than ten questionable tractors on our way to the Urubamba Valley and the Ollantaytambo ruins near our five-star hotel in the middle of nowhere.  Over the next few days ten more tractors would be found for another Pisco Sour, the local cocktail.

The sacred Ollantaytambo ruins were farming terraces for the Inca gods, cyclopean in every aspect coinciding with the stars rising and setting during important harvest times.  We separated, exploring on our own, meeting back at the bus for a brief ride to our living quarters for the next two nights.  Surrounded by the Andes in every direction, the views were spectacular. An unusual hail storm welcomed us during check-in, with frozen white pellets the size of M&M’s falling from the skies and the Inca gods above.  “Priceless,” I whispered to the heavens, admiring the lightning storm in the encompassing mountains.

The following morning I went for a challenging jog up the stone Inca village streets.  Unruffled dogs ruled the streets, sharing with donkeys, pigs, llamas, and kids walking miles to school, smiling while passing a crazy running blonde gringo. I was at 9,000 feet hiking uphill, jogging on flat areas and downhill.  With the sun rising at 5:00 a.m., it was already warming up by 7:00.

moray 3The bus took us on an optional tour to the surreal salt pans of Maras, then to the unique archaeological site, Moray, the highlight of my day.  Historical in magnitude, this Inca site was a testing area for crops, reflecting the importance of farming to the Incas.  At a single location they experimented with a variety of produce at different temperatures using a terrace system utilizing microclimates within the empire.  With this approach they were able to test vegetables in different environments, pushing evolution of corn, potatoes and other plants for maximum productivity.  I marveled at their technique and clever invention. Then I went back to the lodge for a massage and relaxing evening prior to our busy following day at Machu Picchu,the star of the Urubamba Valley and the Inca Empire.

Our group caught the early morning train on the fairly new Vistadome train to Machu Picchu.  It was first class travel with transcendent views of the towering Andes mountains leading up to one of the seven wonders of the new world.  We were dumped into a tourist town that didn’t exist twenty years ago.  Merchants, restaurants,and enormous lines awaited us.  I was flabbergasted from the growth of tourism such a forgotten empire attracted.  I took a breath realizing the world was now aware of the beauty of Machu Picchu, and it was not such a bad thing as long as respect for the site ensued.  Why should I be the only one to experience such beauty?  I was certainly glad I saw it in my youth, prior to the crowds, permits and limitations to visit the lesser known Huana Picchu, now a three-day or more wait.  The line moved quickly and we were on our way via bus along the winding road to the most popular archaeological site in South America.  My hands sweated at the cliffs we traversed in the speeding van, as it did twenty years prior.

machu picchuOne thing about Machu Picchu, you could never visit too much.  Always spectacular with something new to discover. I approached with new eyes and no expectations, realizing  it deserved recognition as one of the seven wonders of the new world.  With only a few hours to visit and feeling relieved that I’d visited before, the pressure was off to see everything within a few hours.  No studying or analyzing with an archaeological mind, just unbiased observation.  I listened to our guide while exploring the less visited areas such as the Inca bridge.   I took pictures from all angles including the spot of Hiram Bingham’s most popular photograph for National Geographic.  The truth is any and all pictures of the site are sublime because the location itself is photogenic, yet pictures don’t do it justice.  Even a panoramic could not capture what it’s like to experience Machu Picchu.  Perhaps that’s why it’s one of the wonder’s of the world.

It has hit the ranks of mass tourism, yet it’s something to see outside of pictures or documentaries.  A perfect end to the day with a beer and pizza after a rewarding hike among the giant civilizations of the new world.

We continued our journey to Cuzco and Lake Titicaca which I’ll continue next week in another blog covering Peru and the Inca Empire.