Fall is in the air, Northern Georgia



Fall is my favorite time of year along the eastern coast of the USA, with a change in temperature, foliage and festivities.  I took a week to admire and appreciate this yearly change of seasons in the northern Georgia mountains.  A hike in nature revealed its beauty after a day of chilly deluge with radiant earthly colors and cool crisp air.  The trail was soft and spongy from pine needles and the previous day’s rain.  Yellow, red, brown and unturned green maple leaves scenically littered the path while other leaves endlessly floated in the wind. Sourwood and dogwood trees were equally colorful and abundant. Soggy chocolate-brown pine cones and sturdier acorns appeared on parts of the trail, some broken, others in tact.  I imagined squirrels stockpiling for the winter, but I didn’t see a single animal large or small. A burbling creek ebbed and flowed, sometimes growing louder, other times just whispering in the distance.  I crossed over the creek via wooden tree planks on a few occasions, paralleling it during the most of my walk while meandering past boulders and tranquil Raven_Cliff_Falls_GAvalleys.  Ancient tree roots sprouted through the organic trail, well-worn and glossed over like a penny rubbed too much for good luck.   The air was fresh, clean, oxygenated, and slightly petrichor. The trail ends in a grand finale, a hill of slippery boulders flanked by a gigantic granite rock split in two with a waterfall splashing and cascading to the bottom.  I cautiously climbed the smaller rocks to the top of the waterfall, admiring for a brief moment its magnificent beauty.

Fall in the alpine village of Helen means Oktoberfest, one of the longest and largest Bavarian festivals held in the United States.  Crowds flock to the quaint town to celebrate from September 17 to November 1st.  Weekends are packed with beer drinkers sporting traditional Bavarian hats called Tirolerhüte, many exhibiting pewter pins based on personal interest and cities they have visited.  A man with many pins is either well-travelled, very active, or just a tourist collecting pins for Oktoberfest.  Woman also wear these hats in the United States, but it’s not traditional garb.  If you want to stick to custom, their outfit consist of a tight-fitting white Dirndl dress and blouse showing ample cleavage.  An apron wrapped around the dress with a bow tied on front and flat shoes complete the outfit.

octoberfestThe festhalle housing the main event was full of people, beer, bratwurst, pretzels and dancing to live music. First on our minds was buying a stein full of Oktoberfest Warsteiner which we accomplished immediately.  After securing a seat at the common long tables, food was next on our agenda.  For a vegetarian that means a pretzel at this event and a bratwurst for my husband.  Beer would be my nourishment for the evening since the pretzel was dry and less enticing and flavorful than the beer, although the beer cheese dip helped the dehydrated dough.  Apparently fine cuisine was not the strongpoint of the popular festhalle, but music and socializing was the highlight.  The band, people watching and making friends beat out the lack of flavorful fare, but well worth it.  Although I love a good meal , it’s not  always my top priority.  At the end of the night I was singing and dancing to Rocky Top and doing the chicken dance thanks to Warsteiner and a lack of vegetarian options.

The next few days we explored the many pop-up tents housing beer gardens and festivities surrounding Oktoberfest.  Every major venue had their own personal tent and talent for the occasion.  One thing that stuck out in my mind was the ubiquity of boots among females, an appreciation I held being a lover of a good pair of boots.  My husband and I made a game of it, him not noticing the Northern Georgia boot culture until I pointed it out, and then he could not stop noticing it, almost becoming obsessed.  We started taking pictures of the various boots and he approached one couple.

“My wife loves your boots.  Can I take a picture?
The boyfriend almost fell over, “Your wife loves her boobs?”
“No, Boots. Not boobs.  Don’t get too excited.”

We laughed and took a picture along with photos of ten other boots.  Oktoberfest in Helen, the boot culture.  I better find a good pair.

bootsboots 7boots 6

boots 4   boots2


Discoveries along the east coast

Our annual trip in our single engine plane from south Florida, north to Philadelphia and Ohio, began with adventure. Scooting around thunderstorms during takeoff, our airspeed indicator failed.  The transponder, what identifies our plane to Air Traffic Control, was intermittent, and the two iPad’s we use for backup navigation were quickly losing power.  We only needed to make it to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for our first leg of the trip.

shipwreckWeather cleared within a half-hour flying north, so we flew along the central Florida coast with a flawless view of the unusually transparent water.  I have an archaeological permit allowing exclusive exploration to search for shipwrecks in a small portion of the Atlantic Ocean. I took the opportunity to visually inspect the area from air, knowing I would return in a few weeks by boat… an anticipated pre-planned mid-July expedition.  I spotted a curious dark outline the size of a ship.  Scribbling notes, coordinates and drawings, my mind raced through the possibilities as if I was winning the lottery before checking the numbers.treasure chest

A storm was nearing our destination, competing in a marathon for the runway.  One iPad died, the other had 8% power, and our airspeed indicator was still unresponsive.  We won by about five minutes, but we would continue the race the following morning.

Mossy trees, crickets and the faint smell of rain greeted me during a morning jog.  Roadside motels, restaurants and an amusement park provided visual stimulation as I listened to my audiobook.  I briefly peaked at the ocean waves and slightly turbulent sky at my turnaround point, arriving back at our hotel an hour later.

After fixing our airspeed indicator we were again airborne heading to the Philadelphia area, a three-hour flight.  I was flying, circling up between the bulbous clouds building in the region.  This tropical disturbance would later become the first hurricane of the season, Arthur.

robinFor the first time I found  simple but familiar creatures interesting while socializing outside in the summer air.  The ubiquitous northeast coast american robin was funny to watch hop around in the grass.  I’m sure other birds hop, but robins are like the kangaroo of the avian kingdom.  Blue jays and cardinals flew by, sat on fences and studied me as much as I watched them.

At night lighting bugs lit up the fields, bringing back memories of light bug 2my youth.  Similar creatures roamed Ohio, my hometown and our next stop on our journey.  I recalled catching lightning bugs and throwing white objects at bats for entertainment. Bats would dive white balls as we dove into the grass to escape. Simple childhood fun. Damn, I hope I don’t see bats this trip?

Our next stop in Georgia brought about a different kind of animal analysis, that of my little crazy dog.  Last time we visited our home in the Georgia mountains, just three weeks prior, a mini tornado formed as I was walking my pup.  It was brief, just a few minutes of high winds spinning at 70 plus miles per hour, but she remembered.  When it happened she didn’t know what to do and I grabbed her before she bolted into the woods.  I teased her about being Toto in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.  Now she won’t go outside past 6 p.m. about the time she was almost”Totoed,” she needs a psychiatrist. wizard oz



Wizard tornado 2


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.