Some final thoughts about my trip.

Now that I’m settled into my new home (apartment), these are a few last contemplations about my journey.

A few indispensable items 

1)      Black fleece.  It appears in 99% of my pictures, but I swear I did change the clothes underneath it.

2)      Kindle Fire (a mix between an e-reader and a tablet but at a fraction of the price of an iPad).  This was amazing not only for checking email at wifi spots, but mainly for reading on buses because the font can be made extremely large so that it doesn’t aggravate motion sickness.  I have managed to read over 5000 pages in the past six months and for the most part kept up with the Wall Street Journal digital edition.

3)      Peanut butter because it’s stock full of protein and a cheap easy meal to take along on my 10-15 mile urban hikes I’m so fond of.

I have learned a lot (because I do truly view this as an educational experience – it’s definitely not all fun and games).  At a minimum they have been “character building” exercises, and hopefully these skills will be transferable into my new career.

1)      First and foremost is becoming comfortable while being in uncomfortable situations.  This sounds like an oxymoron, but I assure you I was constantly testing and expanding my comfort zone, so that it’s like my brain has been lifting weights continuously for five months.  My mind has no doubt gotten stronger – though right now it just wants to rebel against me and hibernate.

2)      Problem – solving.  Traveling, especially in developing countries, you learn very quickly that things don’t always go according to plan, and thusly you have to be flexible enough to adapt to the current situation and creative enough to problem-solve your way out of it.

3)      Cultural exposure.  As the cliché goes:  the world is a global place and I’m optimistically a step or two ahead with understanding different cultures and people.

4)      Patience.  Ok, I’m still working on that one because I still get very aggravated at inefficiencies.  In my mind everything should run like a well-oiled, profit-earning company, but obviously that’s not how the real-world actually works.  But at a minimum I am aware of my shortcoming…

Differences from my trip a couple of years ago.

1)      This time I am coming back to something – grad school.  To know what is coming next provides a huge sense of relief and purpose.  Though unfortunately this choice is not a boon to my bank account…

2)      I did much less planning this time around.  Part of this is because I am more comfortable with uncertainty now, and part of this is because of the locations I visited.  Not having something booked in Australia could result in the decision to either sleep in the car or spend a fortune on a fancy hotel room which would blow the budget for the entire next week.  Not having something booked in Egypt allowed me to negotiate a better deal than websites listed…

3)      Traveling by myself.  I met so many more great and interesting people on my trip this time around than I did the first time.  Though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, I feel I learned a lot more going it solo.

Unfortunately my travel habit/addiction will have to be curbed for a couple of years while I am in school and then while I’m paying back my private school tuition…  However, if all goes according to plan, I will get a job with an international portfolio of projects.  Then I will still get to travel, but this time on an expense account and getting paid for it!

My final thought is that I’m more than happy to dole out advice/opinions/etc. about traveling to anyone who is interested in listening to me ramble – so just ask!

Categories: Pre-Trip | 2 Comments

New 7 Wonders

For those that don’t know, my goal of this trip was to visit the New 7 Wonders and the other 14 finalists (which helps explain some of the randomness of my location choices) that were determined by a world-wide vote several years ago.  The premise was that these are the 21 coolest things in the world.  As of right now, I have seen 20 out of 21.

New 7 Wonders

Great Wall of China – July 2007

Christ the Redeemer (Brazil) – February 2008

Petra (Jordan) – August 2008

Chichen Itza (Mexico) – April 2011

Taj Mahal (India) – February 2012

Pyramids of Giza (Egypt) – February 2012

Macchu Picchu (Peru) – June 2012

Finalists

Statue of Liberty (New York City) – June 1996

Eiffel Tower (France) – May 2005

Newshwanstein (Germany) – May 2005

Colesseum (Italy) – June 2005

Kremlin and the Red Square (Russia) – November 2006

Anchor Wat (Cambodia) – February 2007

Sydney Opera House (Australia) – April 2008

Stonehenge (England) – June 2008

Kiyomizera (Japan) – May 2010

Acropolis (Greece) – March 2012

Alhambra (Spain) – April 2012

Easter Island (Chile) – May 2012

Left to See

Timbuktu

My only remaining wonder is Timbuktu.  Unfortunately while Morocco (I was there in March) is geographically close to Mali, it is worlds away in safety.  There were regular reports of kidnappings in broad daylight in and around that area, so that my “last wonder” will have to wait until the political situation changes or I win the lottery so I can hire a private army to protect me.   And apparently rebels are currently destroying parts of the adobe village, so I may not ever have this opportunity.  The lesson I took from this is that I shouldn’t have waited.  The lesson my mom took from this was that I should never go there…

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The Price Is Wrong, Bob!

To make the journey from Lima to Los Angeles, I had four flights (layovers in Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, and Las Vegas).  I can’t complain though because those flights cost less than half the price of the other more-direct options.  So after literally sprinting through the Fort Lauderdale airport immigration and customs (because of a mere 45 minute layover) I was back in the good ole US of A!

I found it necessary to rent a car in Los Angeles, and found that after a couple of months of not driving, it was a shock to suddenly deal with the notoriously horrible traffic in the area.  I also very much missed my car, mostly because it’s a hybrid and that would allow me to drive in the carpool lane by myself.  Every time I see the high-occupancy-vehicle signs I think of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode where Larry David picks up a hooker so he can drive in the carpool lanes…  Just to be clear – I did not use this loophole.

I wanted to make the most of my time in LA and do some fun stuff before the “real world” and networking conference began.  My first fun stop was to view a taping of the game show “The Price is Right”.  The whole task of viewing the taping was a cumbersome and inefficient process.  After reserving a voucher a month in advance for the specific show, I was still obligated to show up nearly four hours before the scheduled time in order to actually preserve my slot.   The people with “priority” (given after showing up early) got shuffled to some benches within the CBS lot.  In the next six hours we had to fill out paperwork, have our picture taken, be “interviewed” by the producer (so he could hand-pick the contestants), and then hand over all electronics before being allowed into the studio for the 41 minute show.   After this arduous process, I got seated in the first row!  I was actually hoping to just anonymously sit in the back, and not have to become an unnatural version of my “cheerleader” self; continuously clapping and high-fiving everyone.  By the end of the show my hands were swollen from clapping so much and I lost my voice from hooting and hollering, but I think I successfully fulfilled my role in “winners’ lane” (as the producer called it when he came down and told the group of us to be ‘extra energetic’ because we’re on camera a lot).  I guess I’ll find out how I actually did when the show airs in January…  Unfortunately I didn’t get called to “come on down”, so I didn’t win anything…

My next fun stop was to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.  And to explain, I really do think that this is a fun activity.  It was definitely a fantastic place!  Probably the best library I have been to, and that list is fairly extensive so there is some competition…  The setting overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains was specular and the guts of the museum were very good as well.  Probably my favorite part was reading the script of Knute Rockne opposite Reagan and then viewing the ridiculous playback; it’s a good thing I’m going back to school because it’s pretty obvious I have no future in acting…

My conference involved two and a half days of seminars, lectures, and networking receptions at UCLA (a very pretty campus, fyi).  The conference was for the Forte Foundation – a group that emphasizes giving women opportunities in the business world.

My final stop before heading home was in the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda (south of LA).   So yes, I choose presidential libraries over Disneyland, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, etc.  One of the many ways that my nerdy travel habits sets me apart from the norm…   But bonus, libraries are air-conditioned and have far fewer lines!

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Machu Picchu

To my dismay (and my mom’s delight), my trip got cut a bit short.  An obligatory networking conference in Los Angles for school is taking the place of Ecuador and Colombia.   So anyway, Peru was my last real stop on Around-the-World Part II.  And now Los Angeles is my final stopover before heading to Michigan for two weeks and then moving to my new home in South Bend!

From Cusco I took the train (the lazy persons alternative to the four day sold-out Inka Trail hike) up to Aguas Calientes, the “city” at the base of Machu Picchu.  I spent the first day going to the supposedly informative museum, but unfortunately didn’t find it nearly as stocked with information as what Lonely Planet described it.  Maybe a lot of the explanations were lost in the English translations…

On day two, after waking up at 4:30am, I made it out of Aguas Calientes on the first set of buses up the 12 kilometers of winding road to Machu Picchu.  Inopportunely, it started to rain about the same minute I disembarked from the bus.  Luckily, this weather cleared out after about an hour.  Unluckily, the oftentimes dense fog took much longer to finally dissipate.  But it all worked out ok for my hike up Waynapichu.  This is the mountain behind the civilization in all of the famous pictures.  It is possible to hike it, though an additional ticket at a specified time is required.   I had heard some horror stories about six inch wide wooden bridges without handrails crossing ravines (with the potential for fire-breathing dragons chasing you down…) that you have to traverse in order to complete the climb.  Auspiciously, this wasn’t actually the case.  Parts of the climb involved relatively steep steps but that was about the extent of the scariness factor.  All of the walking I’ve been doing has paid off because somehow my legs weren’t even sore after the two and a half hour journey.

On the train ride back to Cusco, I had to splurge and spend an extra $8 for the “luxury” train because the cheaper train was sold out.  The extra $8 bought an on-board fashion show!  The crew members modeled alpaca clothing they were selling – mildly entertaining for ten minutes of the three and a half hour train ride…

Categories: South America | 1 Comment

A few things that I should clear up about my trip

I feel there are a few things that I should clear up about my trip…

An important item to clarify is that despite the general tone of some of my posts, I am not a masochist.  But I do think that it is important to portray the fact that I am neither traveling on an expense account, nor on a trust fund.   My family has provided valuable support in various forms including scanning and emailing my W-2’s so I could do my taxes while in Egypt or mailing dress clothes to my hotel Los Angles so I could still go to Machu Picchu before having to head to my conference.  However, every last cent of my travel money has come from scrimping and saving in my “everyday” life; not from credit card debt or financial support of others.  And while I feel that traveling financially independently is a very important part of the adventure, it does lead to having to “count pennies” where a lot of other vacationers have many more luxuries available.  So that while overnight buses are not necessarily my preferred method of travel, it is compulsory in order to see all of the places and do all of the things that my vast travel checklist contains.  I feel its a very good trade-off!

Secondly, despite an apparent stereotype of long-term travelers, I can absolutely guarantee that I have not turned into a hippie, living the bohemian lifestyle.  I have maintained and probably intensified my strong desire to attend (business) grad school in the fall and my super nerdy reading list over the past several months can definitely attest to that.  Additionally, I have successfully submitted and gotten both site and construction plans approved for my civil engineering job (and ahead of schedule I might add, despite being thousands of miles away…).  So rest assured that my hair is not in dreadlocks and I haven’t traded in my ratty running shoes for a pair of birkenstocks.

And lastly, is the aspect of travelling alone.  When I initially told people about my second trip, they reacted with a mix of surprise and shock, and then when they found out that I was heading out alone I got the distinct impression that most thought I was nuts.  Which, yes I realize that traveling like I do is relatively rare in the US, but for the rest of the world I would not be considered nearly as much of a leper.  In essence, there are lots of people who traverse the world for extended time periods, and consequently meeting people is relatively easy.  Protocol dictates that you hang out with people while your schedules and wish-lists line up, and then move on either on your own or with your new friends.  So that while I may be officially traveling alone, you make friends along the way and I don’t spend all of my time alone – though I make certain that I get enough “Jill” (alone) time to maintain my sanity.  It does take a certain personality type in order to successfully deal with this situation though because there is no one there to take care of you when you get sick (in India…) or to complain to when your feet hurt because your bag is too heavy.  But on the other side, while traveling alone you meet many amazing and interesting people that most likely you wouldn’t have met with the comfort and convenience of a travel companion.

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Peru

First stop in Peru was the city of Puno, also located on Lake Titicaca.  Once again the lake is the main draw here and the city itself didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of entertainment.  But a side excursion to the Uros Islands was mildly entertaining.  These floating islands are often referred to as “reed Disneyland” and I can definitely understand why that connection is drawn.  Several of the islands seem to only exist for tourism purposes.  When our boat docked at one of the islands, the Peruvian women greeted us with a less than enthusiastic rendition of “row row row your boat”.   To be honest, in their brightly colored outfits, singing the song they very much reminded me of the animatronic dolls in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.

The “tour” of the island included the natives showing us their reed houses (which contained a tv and lights powered by solar panels), and the lady showing my group around prodded us to play dress up in her clothes.  I of course choose a blue and yellow ensemble.  Additionally, the guide gave a pretty thorough explanation of how they make the islands.  While I found this interesting, I must say as an engineer, I didn’t have full faith in their engineering standards or construction techniques.

For the bus ride from Puno to Cusco, I choose the more expensive tourist bus option because it stopped at a few places along the way, most of which I assumed would be either informational or entertaining.  Unfortunately the stops were neither.  Because the guide spoke in both Spanish and English, his explanations took twice as long and I found it extremely difficult to listen to the same things twice (I can understand much more Spanish than I can speak).  Overall a thumbs-down experience.

Once in Cusco, I found out about the chocolate museum and had to get there as quickly as possible.  In this wonderful museum they teach you about how cocoa is grown, and how the beans are transformed into chocolate.  They also do their absolute best to make a case that eating chocolate is a healthy addition to any diet – I really enjoyed that aspect…  I took a “cooking class” where we took cocoa beans from their raw state (in which they are apparently hallucinogenic), toasted them until they began “popping” like popcorn, and then de-shelled them.  An interesting drink involved the cocoa bean shells used to make tea.  Even though I’m not normally a tea drinker, it was pretty good – apparently chocolate makes anything ok with me!   The next step in this process of turning beans into edible deliciousness involved using a mortar and pestle and grinding the beans into a paste.  At this point, the paste needs to be mixed for 24 hours.  Then came the fun part, we were given melted chocolate and about two dozen different toppings and powders to make our own concoctions.  I think my favorite option was putting quinoa into my chocolate trays.  I would compare it to the texture of adding rice krispies, but with the added benefits of anti-oxidants (and now all of my free radicals are gone!).

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I ♥ Bolivia

My next stop in Bolivia was the capital of La Paz.  This city is basically a gigantic market, mostly catering to tourists with llama and alpaca goods along with the standard boot-leg dvds available in most big cities.  Portions of the famous “witch market” are probably geared towards the locals, specifically the llama fetuses used in ceremonial celebrations.  Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of this because my camera and phone spent the day drying after they went swimming when my entire water bottle emptied itself in my purse on a bus ride.   Everything is ok and functioning now though, luckily.

Copacabana on the famed Lake Titicaca was my next destination.  The highest navigable lake in the world is really pretty, but the city itself is nothing to write home about…

Overall, I really loved Bolivia.  Definitely one of the top five places I’ve ever been (if I get ambitious and/or bored, I’ll get a list together of my top 10 favorite places).  The people are so nice and helpful!  The country is still in its infancy of tourism, so for the most part, the people haven’t been spoiled by tourism and consequently don’t have the same “out to get you” mentality as a lot of other developing countries.  A very refreshing change of pace!  And as a huge bonus – they speak more slowly and clearly than in Argentina, so my Spanish skills were much more useful than they had been because I could actually understand when people spoke.

The only real problems I encountered in Bolivia involved the super-high altitudes.  At one point I was up at nearly 15,000 feet (nearly three miles).  When you are this high weird things start happening because of the lack of oxygen.  I’m the first to admit that I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I certainly don’t get winded walking or climbing for short distances.  However, even extremely short distances had me embarrassingly huffing and puffing.  I was even taking altitude sickness medication meant to make your kidneys process the carbon dioxide more quickly.  And it was definitely helpful because I got super sick when I even halved my dosage – a less than ideal night after that decision.  The high altitude also meant the freezing cold temperatures (which normally I would just adapt to, being from Michigan and all), but the entire country doesn’t have the capability for indoor heating.  A lot of places only have electricity for an hour or two per day, depending on how long the gas in the generator lasts…

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Salar de Uyuni – Highlight of Bolivia!

I started my time in Bolivia in the small “city” of Tupiza.  I splurged here and stayed at the nicest hotel in the city (because it had wifi) and still only paid about $8 per night for my own room.  Unfortunately, even the nicest hotel doesn’t include central heating (or any type of heating for matter) even though the temperature drops below freezing at night…   There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Tupiza besides stock up on warm clothes (which for me included a hat and gloves with decorative llamas!) and view the beautiful scenery that looks like it was transplanted right out of the Wild West.

Then my four day- three night trip out into the Bolivian Salt Flats began!   The trip started off with lots of llamas (for some unknown reason I love llamas).  They are domesticated animals (like cows, not like pets) bred for their wool as well as their meat.  I actually tried llama meat, it was surprisingly pretty good.   Owners distinguish their animals from neighboring shepherds’ animals basically by the different “earrings” that the llamas wear.  I must say that they do look pretty…

Day number two consisted of lagoons of all colors!  Greens, blues, and even red!  So amazing!  A quick dip in the hot springs certainly wasn’t bad either, especially considering I hadn’t had a shower in 36 hours…   Definitely my favorite was the red lagoon – also known as Laguna Colorada.   This lagoon was full of flamingos gobbling away on their algae.  Fun fact:  flamingos start off white, and the more they eat the pinker they become.

The third day consisted of a few more lagoons, but the main attraction was the rock formations.  It was a lot scarier to “rock climb” without the soft cushiony floor at Planet Rock and of course a belayer providing an important sense of security.  At one point I channeled my “inner lion king” and did the pride rock pose…   The other highlight of the third day was accommodation that night – a salt hotel.  This is literally what it sounds like, a hotel made of salt.  And I mean everything was made of salt.  Interior and exterior walls were made of bricks of salt, the bed frames, tables, chairs – all salt.  The cool part was the floor was loose rock salt, that luckily had just been replaced before we arrived, so it was nice and white – it looked like a winter wonderland…  Still no heat in the salt hotel though L.

The fourth and final day was the main reason I came to Bolivia (and handed over the outrageous visa fee of $135 (USD) to have the privilege to enter their country) – the salt flats!  They were definitely worth it!  It is basically a vast “desert” of salt that stretches out as far as the eye can see.  For some reason I was picturing loose rock type salt (similar to the stuff used for de-icing pavement), but it wasn’t like that at all.  It was a solid mass of textured white salt, it looked a lot like snow…  And because of the freezing temperature, it felt like it could really be snow.   This is where you take the outrageous pictures using optical illusions because the background salt goes on forever and ever…  The most notorious picture involves a plastic toy dinosaur chasing people.  Unfortunately, without the foresight to bring one from home, toy dinosaurs aren’t available in the salt flats and I had to make do with what I had.  However, me standing “on top of the world” was a pretty good last minute alternative…

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Getting to Bolivia

So in case anyone thinks that in my old age I’m getting soft, let me assure you that my adventure getting to Bolivia will definitely prove otherwise.  After living for about a month in a penthouse apartment complete with doorman and having my laundry sent out for someone else to wash and fold (only because self-service laundry mats weren’t an option, but still…), I was worried that I had become indulgent in my travel habits.  Well after I left Buenos Aires the “old Jill” returned.  I had a 17 hour overnight bus ride to Iguazu Falls, then my hostel there didn’t have heat (when it was 30 degrees outside).  The next day I left to begin my 23 hour bus ride to Salta (yes, I spent nearly an entire day of my life on a bus :/ ) .  Once in Salta, my hostel once again didn’t have heat (and again it was below freezing). Then true to my recent travel pattern, I left on another overnight bus journey to the border with Bolivia, but luckily that one was only seven hours (mere childs play for me now).  For those of you counting, yes, that is three nights out of five I spent sleeping (or closer to reality – not sleeping) on buses…

Overall, Salta was just a stop-over for me.  I had heard great things about the city located in northwest Argentina, but because I was headed to Bolivia where similar landscapes and the same excursions are available for a fraction of the price, I elected to just stay in the city.  Well, the city doesn’t have a lot to offer other than a bunch of old churches.  What was interesting is that at 4pm on Sunday in front of a church that is located at the north end of a huge public square/park they held an outdoor catholic mass.  The police blocked off traffic from several directions to allow for the mass to take place.  Hundreds of people stopped their afternoon picnic to “attend” church – an unusual, but apparently successful outreach program.

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Iguazu Falls

Well, after about a month I finally left what had become the comfy confines of my penthouse (studio) apartment in the ritzy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  I left behind the luxury of not only knowing how to get “home” without consulting a map, but also a space to call my very own.  I know am once again living out of my suitcase and am on the road again.  If you can’t tell, I’m a little hesitant to go back to the vagabond-Jill of last month, though seeing some new and amazing things is certainly in order!

My first stop was Iguazu Falls.  Even though it took a 17 hour overnight bus ride to get there, it was definitely worth it.  They are spectacular!  Pictures can’t even really do them justice.  My only complaint was that it was so freaking cold there.  Yes, I know that I’m in the southern hemisphere and because it is June, it is winter time here.  Places here are not equipped to deal with this cold of weather (below freezing), and thus don’t even have heaters.  I could quite literally see my breath inside my hostel.   I’m really wishing I would have lugged along my Under Armour right about now…

Categories: South America | 1 Comment

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