Hill Country

Day 741 – 11 March, 2017

After a short(ish) bus trip from Mysore to Bangalore, Mel and I booked a double bed on an AC sleeper bus while Jill booked a single on a non AC bus. Both were scheduled to depart in the evening and arrive around the same time in the hill country of Munnar. In spite of the winding and bumpy mountain roads, I slept relatively well. Morning condensation beaded on the windows but I could still make out the rolling green hills of the Kerala tea plantations. Cows, dogs, and pedestrians shuffled through the dust clouds thrown up by buses and auto rickshaws.

Mel and I were dropped off by a fruit stand on the southern edge of the small town around 7am. We had not booked a place to stay yet, but we dropped our bags at a tea house where we could order breakfast and a hot drink while we waited for Jill. The tea house didn’t have its own toilet so I went for a walk to find a place that did. The Green View Inn was two doors down on a side street. They offered me the use of an outhouse with a western toilet that barely fit the room. I had to prop the door open to have room for my feet. Besides, the lightbulb was burned out so I needed the natural light anyway. The front desk clerk possessed that wide smile and infectious good humor so typical of Kerala. I noticed they were displaying a flyer for trekking adventures so to kill time, I inquired about the cost and options as I was pretty sure that both Mel and Jill were game for a trek. The gentleman was so kind and helpful that I also asked if they might have any rooms available. He bobbled his head, “Well, yes, yes, of course we do. Would you like to see the room?”

The building was narrow but had 4 floors. Rooms were on the second and third level and a covered roof patio, free library, and meditation area were on the fourth level. The man showed me a few different rooms that cost 750 rupees/night (just shy of $12USD). I was convinced. It seemed that I should wait and check with the other two if this would be ok, but I was comfortable paying the full price myself if they didn’t want to split it. I decided that if they didn’t want to stay here, that was fine and I would just go it alone.

I retrieved Mel from the tea house and she was agreeable to the room and location. Meanwhile, a few hours had passed and we were still waiting to hear from Jill. We had each messaged her a few times, posting her on our whereabouts and plans to no avail. We could only assume that she was still en route. By the time we finally connected with Jill, we had already moved in and Mel was elbow deep in removing the box braids and extensions from her hair. Jill had been dropped on the north end of town and feeling kind of bad for not consulting her about the room first, I began walking toward the main hub of town to meet her.

I had a renewed sense for us to start fresh. She thanked me for meeting her. I was optimistic for the next couple of weeks together. I excitedly told her what I had learned about trekking and I gushed about this cute cheap guesthouse I had discovered, but I wanted to be clear that she did not have to stay there if she didn’t like it. She did not object, but opted to sleep on the hard tile floor, the reasoning for which never really became clear.

We had dinner at an oft-recommended restaurant with a delectable traditional thali. A banana leaf was draped straight on the table in front of each of us while the server spooned heaping mounds of curried eggplant, turmeric-infused okra, and a rainbow of chutneys and pickles before topping us off with fiery sambhar (lentil stew), a generous helping of steamed white rice and papadum (crispy fried lentil bread) balanced on top. There’s no point in ordering thali if you aren’t hungry. Refills are endless as long as you keep eating. We had grown adept at scooping up mounds of rice and a pinch of veggies with our greedy fists and clumsily slurping the food through our lips with only minimal mess. We laughed every time the attendant came to refill our plates and only knew to point to which accompaniments we wanted to see more of. An obviously upper class family of Indians at the table next to us, who were probably only in Munnar on a vacation of their own, ate their thali with proper utensils and looked down their noses at the sticky curry-covered gluttonous white girls nearby. Regardless, it felt good that we seemed like friends again.

The next day we rose bright and early to join a trekking group straight from Green View Inn through the tea plantations and the early morning mist snaking its way through the hill station. Our group was about 8 people, but I was feeling introspective so early before dawn and I chose to wander along alone (which I suppose only an introvert understands). Compared to the bustling city streets of the cities, the atmosphere was so quiet; only the chirping of birds and the gurgling of a shallow creek filled the silence.

Mel said she had never been hiking before so Jill and I encouraged her along to the top of our route, where our guide unpacked cheese sandwiches, pineapple, omelette, and baby bananas for us to share for breakfast. From a metal thermos, he poured steaming cups of chai. It was idyllic and hard to imagine the cacophony of city noises from so far out here.

We continued further into the valley, through tea plantations and family farms. Lazy cows and weathered dogs alike swatted flies with their tails and watched us with apathy. It was surreal to feel so isolated in rural life in such a populous country. Finally completing our trek at a sister guesthouse to Green View Inn just in time for lunch, our hosts served us steaming lentils and curried vegetables with rice while we rested our tired, dusty limbs after the day’s hike. Jill, Mel and I were in good spirits. The fresh air had really done some good.

Back in town, we separated for awhile so I could do some writing while they did some shopping in the winding markets of herbs, essential oils, tea, and home-made chocolates. Later on, we met back at the same restaurant as the previous night for more thali, where eventually the discussion turned to what our plans would be after leaving Munnar. We knew we wanted to go to both Alleppey and Varkala, but disagreed on which one first. Mel would have to leave for her flight home before we had visited both so ultimately, the decision was up to her. I briefly considered doing the opposite of what they decided so that I could be on my own again, but it would have been a blatant jab and besides, we were getting along fine as far as I could tell. Reluctantly, I agreed to take a sputtering municipal bus with sunken collapsing seats overnight to Trivandrum where we would transfer to a local train to continue one more hour to Varkala.

The next day, our last in Munnar, we woke up to a light rain. We had been thinking of hiring an auto rickshaw to take us to some viewpoints and maybe a waterfall or two, but abruptly Jill changed her mind and didn’t want to go. Mel seemed noncommittal and I was just tired of constant activities so we each went our separate ways. I spent most of the day on the covered terrace lost in my own thoughts, save for the bit of time when I indulged in a variety of chocolates at the market. When we all met at the bus station in the afternoon, I gathered all the resolve I could muster to endure another uncomfortable night on a bus. Jill seemed annoyed with me again for some reason, but I just couldn’t be bothered to care why anymore. There wasn’t a place to stow our backpacks underneath the bus so we carried them onboard and hefted them overhead to a bin over our seats. The bus wasn’t full, although we stopped several times in the night to load or unload passengers, arriving in Trivandrum just at dawn.

The three of us were the last to disembark and just as I tried to wrangle my pack from the overhead bin where it had become wedged between two pegs in the night, I felt my shoulder pop. Likely, my rotator cuff didn’t agree with the tight angle in which I was wrestling with a heavy backpack. And just like that, after two years of carrying around this beast, every unit of gravity became my arch nemesis. I winced with pain during every step as we hustled across the street to catch the next train to Varkala. My companions knew no sympathy.

Conquering the Canyon

Day 96 – 8 Jun, 2015

Most long-term travelers will celebrate a birthday on the road and for me, it was fun to plan ahead to pick a perfect spot for the occasion.  Seeing as I’m a big fan of trekking and the outdoors, the timing seemed to work perfectly for a 3 day excursion into Colca Canyon, a canyon that is reportedly more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in some places.  It is also one of the best places in the world to watch the massive condors that soar on the updrafts the canyon creates.

From a home base of Arequipa, would-be trekkers are picked up from their hotels and hostels at 3:00am for a 4 hour journey to the village of Chivay, where there is a brief stop for breakfast, and then continue on to Cruz del Condor, another hour in a cramped van.  By the time we reached the condor viewpoint around 9:00am, we were excited for the fresh air and chomping at the bit to start the trek.  But FIRST, there were condors to admire and they did not fail to disappoint.  As if on cue, we saw one condor sail past, then, two…three…..twenty….  They truly are magnificent.  I had reconnected with Dave, from my Death Road adventure, for this trek and he declared that if he could be any animal in the world, a condor would be it.

   
   

Trekkers are given the option of spending 2 days/1 night or 3 days/2 nights in the canyon.  It’s the exact same route, but the 2 day people cover twice the distance on the 1st day.  Physically, this didn’t sound like a problem but I’ve made a habit during this journey of not rushing.  You miss out on experiences when you rush…..so the 3 day trek it is!

Besides Dave, we were joined by Ariana and Virginia, both from Switzerland who had been teaching in northern Peru, and our guide, Juan Carlos, who had grown up on these very trails where we were about to trek.  The first day involved a very steep decline – we were making our way to the canyon floor after all.  Now, for me, I feel less surefooted going down than going up.  When loose rocks litter the path, there is always something to slip on and you need to keep your concentration focused.  While I often like to pretend that I’m 25, being as it was my birthday weekend, I was all too aware that I am NOT 25 and the last thing I needed was to slip and fall off a mountain!  At one point, Dave and I were following Ariana and Virginia, who took a “shortcut” down a steep enbankment.  Before we knew it, we were all in over our heads.  I immediately retreated and climbed back up before I found myself sliding down on my behind.  The other three were too far down to go back so they carefully picked their way along the steep path.  Unfortunately, Ariana wasn’t so lucky.  She slipped and landed in a thorn bush so when we were all reunited further down on the path, she had the other 4 of us to help pull thorns that nearly covered her from head to toe.

   
 We reached our destination by early afternoon for a late lunch.  It turns out it was the home of Juan Carlos’ family, converted into a lodge for canyon trekkers.  It lacked electricity and shower facilities, but it had flush toilets and amazing meals  prepared with regional ingredients by Juan Carlos’ mom.  We had the afternoon at our leisure to read or take a nap in the sun.  In the evening, we ate dinner under the stars and turned in early because we were due for a sunrise wakeup call the following day.

   
 

Day Two involved simply traversing from one side of the canyon to the other, only moderate inclines and declines. My favorite part was stopping mid-way at a convenience store, if you will, where they prepared fresh juice for us, made to order.  This almost seemed like a mirage amid the scraggly thorn bushes and dusty trails.  By noon, we were expected to arrive at The Oasis, a cluster of lodges with pools and hammocks and incredible views from the base of the canyon.  This is where I was most satisfied with my decision to spend 3 days trekking instead of 2.  Because we had a shorter distance to walk, we arrived to The Oasis early enough in the day to go swimming and visit the river.  The 2-day trekkers joined us around 5:00 when it was too cold to enjoy any of the amenities the lodge offered.

   

  

    

  

   

   
 

Day Three, again started bright and early.  We had to trek all the way OUT of the canyon (which, of course, means a constant uphill climb) in time to beat the mid-day sun and to arrive back in town for our ride to pick us up around 10:00.  Our group pushed on at a good clip with only a few breaks so we beat most of the other trekkers to the top.  It’s always exhilarating to wake up before the sun and feel like you’ve accomplished so much early in the day.  We still had a long drive back to Arequipa in front of us, but with our energy reserves completely spent, it seemed like a reward to settle into the van.

   
 
The following day, back in Arequipa, it was my birthday and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than having lunch with Dave, rehashing our trek, with a pisco sour and a good view.  And with some time to heal, it also seemed like a good spot for me to finally reveal my real birthday gift to myself.  

   
 
With some time to reflect, the gift wasn’t the ink itself like I thought at the time – the gift was the previous 3 months and all the months that are to come.

Wild Patagonia

Day 18 – 28 Mar, 2015

What could I possibly say about the wonders of Patagonia that haven’t been said already?  It is truly one of the most beautiful and wild places on the planet.  Known for its unpredictable and severe weather, my 2 weeks spent near the bottom of the globe were predominantly sunny and mild.

First stop was El Calafate, famous for its proximity to the Perito Moreno Glaciar.  Here, I met Juan and Valeria, an Argentinian couple from Paranas who were also visiting Calafate for the first time.  Such lovely people and I thoroughly enjoyed having dinner with them and sharing travel stories.  Perhaps our paths will cross again one day!

   
   

I quickly moved on to Chile’s world-renowned National Park, Torres del Paine.  I wanted to soak up the outdoors and challenge myself with a self-supported trek on the “W” Circuit.  With a home base of Puerto Natales, Chile, I rented a tent, sleeping bag, pad, and cooking equipment and I bought food for 5 days, a little uncertain as to what supplies would be most necessary.  Luckily for me, I reconnected with my friend, Stuart, that I had met previously in Buenos Aires.  We agreed to complete the trek together so it was settled – trekking from west to east, Stuart and I set off to see some of the most fantastic mountain views in the world.

 

  

    
           

A couple weeks later, with some time to reflect on this trek, I am so glad I did it.  Carrying all my own gear was more challenging than I expected, but I have always liked pushing myself to the limits and beyond and I have a renewed sense of confidence in my capabilities.   Of course, I would have done a couple things differently.  I will write a separate post with logistics for Torres del Paine for those interested in taking on this adventure as well.

From Torres del Paine, it was on to El Chalten, trekking capital of Argentina.  Ursula, a friend I had met my last day in Puerto Natales, also arrived in El Chalten when I did so she and I spent 3 days there together.  We were desperate to do laundry so we sacrificed one day of nice weather to do some administrative tasks.  Little did I know that the weather would turn and my remaining days in Patagonia would go from cloudy to rain to hail to snow.   I continued trekking, in spite of the weather, but I quickly learned that it was time to move on.

   
  

    

 

 Moving on meant a 24 hour bus ride from El Chalten to Bariloche in Argentina’s lake district.  This would be my first long-haul ride and I’m ready to escape some of the cold weather!!