A Travellerspoint blog

Chi-Town

STATE 5 - ILLINOIS

sunny 80 °F

Chicago, the 3rd largest city in the US, has many endearing characteristics that draw tens of millions of visitors each year. Wonderful museums, deep-dish pizza, the two tallest buildings in the country, and a beautiful setting on the shore of Lake Michigan contribute to Chicago's popularity. However, there is even a stronger draw to Chicago for me. Not only does it give me a chance to hang out with my cousins, I get to watch the Cincinnati Reds beat up on the intradivision rival Chicago Cubs.

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Megan and I left Raleigh after work on Friday afternoon to head to Chicago. We met my cousins, Jill and Bobby, after a quick ride on the 'L' (the "el"-evated rail system Chicago uses instead of an underground subway system) and went out for a bite to eat at Fireplace Inn. Eager to try a local Chicago beer, I tried out the Goose Island Matilda. It tasted great, went down smooth, and I couldn't keep but ordering more. Upon receiving my check, I realized that good beer comes with a price, Matilda costs over $8 per beer!

The next day we made our way to historic Wrigley Field for the noon baseball game. The game atmosphere was electric, especially with all the Reds fans in attendance! Although our seats didn't seem like they would be that great (we were in the last row of the upper deck), we still had a great view of the game (which was probably due to the fact that Wrigley Field is one of the smaller ballparks in the MLB). From our seats we also had a great view of the downtown skyline.

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Fittingly, we also were also sitting directly above the Cincinnati flag flying outside the stadium.

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The baseball game had a very classic feel. The stadium sits in the middle of a neighborhood and the scoreboard is still updated by hand. Ivy grows over the outfield wall. Bleachers have been built on top of buildings across the street from the stadium. The weather was warm, the smell of popcorn was in the air, and the beer man had no problem marching up to the last row in the ballpark.

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The game ended up being very close. The score remained tied until the 8th inning when the Reds took the lead. Going into the bottom of the 9th, the Reds were up by 3 runs, and we were ready to celebrate a victory...until Cordero came in to pitch the last inning. The Cubbies scored 2 runs, and Cordero got pulled from the game. With 2 outs and the bases loaded, here's the final play of the game:

The Reds win! You can also see why Chicago is the windy city in that video as well, we had a stiff breeze the entire game. Miller Lite had put up a mocking advertisement that read "Cincinnotoday". It was, in fact, "CincinYEStoday".

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To celebrate we left the stadium and ventured down Clark street. The street was PACKED. Seemingly every fan, both Reds and Cubs, had the same idea. Every bar was filled to the brim and everyone was having a great time. The crowd kept growing, and we got hungry. It was time to experience the deep-dish pizza.

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I've had chicago-style pizza before, but Pizano's put them all to shame. This was deep-dish pizza. It probably took 10 cows working all year to make the cheese for just 1 slice. It was delicious, but very filling. After eating, we hopped on the 'L' to head back to Jill's and get ready for the night.

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The pizza and long hours of standing on our feet took its toll. Our Saturday night consisted of hanging out in Jill's apartment and catching up. As I mentioned before, the real draw to Chicago was the family, not the night life.

After a quiet night, we got an early start the next morning. Jill wanted to take us downtown to walk the Magnificent Mile (a stretch through the center of Chicago that featured shopping and eating). After a short bus ride, we entered the heart of downtown.

In 1871, a massive fire destroyed 4 square miles of downtown Chicago. The colorful story behind the fire was the Mrs. O'Leary's cow tipped the lantern one night and caught the city ablaze. However, the real cause of the fire was the combination of overuse of wood in construction, a drought, an exhausted fire fighting crew, and strong winds from Lake Michigan. The fire was one of the the largest disasters in the 19th century in the US, but there was a silver lining to the smoke cloud. Relief money poored into the city to help the rebuilding effort. Architects from around the world came to Chicago to build new skyscrapers. The population tripled in the next 50 years. The city flourished.

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Eventually we crossed over the Chicago River, the source of another disaster in Chicago's history. In the late 1850s a cholera outbreak killed over 5% of the population. Typhoid came next and steadily rose until the turn of the century. The problem was that the Great Lake's drainage system was not quick enough to handle the waste coming out of the Chicago River. To solve this problem, engineers made the river flow backwards to drain into the Mississippi River. Another fun fact, the river is turned green for St. Patty's day.

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We eventually made our way into Grant Park. Large portions of the park were closed due to Lollapalooza, but we could still hear the music. The park contained the last thing Jill wanted us to see, The Bean. I admit, I was skeptical when Jill told us about it. A giant sculpture is a must see, and its name is "The Bean"? Interesting? Highly unlikely. However, I began to warm up to the idea when we passed a couple other sculptures on the way. It's always more fun when you can relate to the art, and dinosaurs appeal to everyone!

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Another piece of art on the way to The Bean was a giant fountain. The fountain had two main sections, each with a face on it. The face made different expressions, and Jill insisted that we wait for a special facial expression.

No, the special expression was not in the video. I don't think I had enough memory in my camera to record for that long. After what seemed like a millennium (just kidding Jill), the faces eventually looked like they were spitting out a new stream of water. However, the spitting fountain and the dinosaur sculpture paled in comparison to The Bean.

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Two of the pictures are from outside The Bean, and two are from inside. You may not be able to tell, but we are in all the reflections. The Bean also reflects the skyline, which was a pretty cool idea. I guess the real appeal to The Bean is the same as a kid in a FunHouse at the fair, it was funny looking at how everyone's reflection got distorted. I think the girls got embarrassed by me and Bobby dancing around and laughing at each other, and eventually I was pulled away.

Bobby and Jill had to leave to head back to Cincinnati, so Megan and I continued southward through the park. The gardens were very nice and offered some great views of the city. The first is a picture of people scurrying into Lollapalooza, the next two are looking north towards the city, and the last is a view south.

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We made our way to the Field Museum, one of the largest Natural History museums in the country. They had more dinosaurs!

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We went into the "live" dinosaur display. It was a cacophony of roars and foot stomps. They had velociraptors that jumped out of tall grass. A triceratops stomped around and let out a roar every couple minutes. The T-Rex stood dominant in the back of the room and tracked you if you got too close (and you could see the T-Rex vision on a monitor). It was awesome.

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We walked around to some of the other exhibits, but the most fun was the stuffed animal section. It was almost as cool as going to a zoo, and they had tons and tons of different animals.

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Here's a video where you can hear the noise inside the room.

Our legs were tired after walking around for 8 hours and decided it was time for a break. Leaving the museum you are presented with a great view of downtown Chicago. On the left you can see the two tallest buildings in the US, the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and the Trump International Hotel and Tower. Lake Michigan is off to the right. Soldier Field was also viewable in the other direction.

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We walked down towards the water to rest our legs. It was beautiful. Boats were everywhere and people laid out to soak in the sun. After a quick rest, we walked back along the water to grab some dinner and catch the 'L' back to the airport. It was time to head home.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 12:34 Archived in USA Tagged museum local_food professional_sports Comments (0)

Gator Huntin' In the Bayou

LOUISIANA - PART II

sunny 95 °F

After 3 days and 2 nights on Bourbon Street, it was time to get out of the Big Easy and head south to the bayou.

We boarded a bus outside our hotel and drove 45 minutes south of New Orleans. We passed the levies and drove to the end of the highway. The gulf was still another 20 miles away, but I got the feeling that not too many people lived in that direction. The heat was overbearing, and the humidity felt like a lead weight on your chest. Spanish moss hung from trees and marshy water was visible in every direction. We had arrived in gator country.

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Finding our fanboat at the dock, we boarded and plopped on the protective headphones (when the fan blades get turning, it is pretty loud). We pushed off and slowly made our way out to one of the main channels. Once we hit larger water, the guide punched the engine, and we buzzed across the water.

We used the channel lines made by the oil companies to access deeper into the bayou. The first area we arrived in looked like a giant, grassy field. The water was only 1 or 2 feet deep here and large mounds of dirt floated everywhere. The grass was light enough that it could grow on the floating dirt, but no trees could be supported here. The guide said that it felt like walking on a water bed, and it was pretty likely you would fall through. It was a little eerie seeing the grass constantly shift and move out of the way for the boat. Since the boat didn't have any parts that went into the water, we could move pretty easily through the super shallow water. Just as we were turning around to leave the first area, we spotted our first gator.

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Surprisingly, we used very different bait than the last time I went gator hunting. When attracting crocodiles in Australia, we used chicken and red meat. In Louisiana, the gators like a sweeter treat, marshmallows. Here's a video of the gator viciously attacking the bait.

Alright, so the attack is a little anticlimactic. Marshmallows don't require much stealth or viciousness. Raw meat bait would cause the gators to attack the food much more aggressively (as we saw in Australia). An aggressive gator could spell trouble, as I was only separated from them by a little chain (instead of the steel enclosed box we used in Australia). Apparently the sound of the marshmallow hitting the water gets the gator's attention, and the contrast in color between the green of the water and the white of the marshmallow make it easy to spot. The gators aren't the only things that enjoy marshmallows, a bird came in and snatched one away too.

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We moved on to some smaller channels, slowly scooting up and down looking for the bigger gators. It was amazing how well our boat was able to navigate the twisted and narrow channels, our guide was obviously an expert fanboat operator (fanboats can not go in reverse and have to be moving to turn). Here's how it looked in the channels.

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We saw a couple of baby gators swimming eagerly out to the boat, so we pulled one aboard.

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This little guy got more than he bargained for when he got too close. Everyone aboard held the gator (except Freddie) and posed for a couple pictures. Our guide talked a little bit about the gators and how they live in the channels before releasing the little guy back into the water (in the previous video, you can hear his N'awlins accent).

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We moved deeper into the channels towards an old oil connector. The guide knew several gators frequented this area because it was more open than the narrow channels. Sure enough, as soon as we made it into the area, two big gators came right up to the boat.

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I thought the boat was about to tip over as we all crowded to the side to see the big guys. The larger gators like marshmallows just as much as the smaller ones.

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As guys tend to do, we have to keep pushing the envelope. No longer just satisfied with being a foot away from a 12 foot gator, our guide decided to start messing with him by trying to grab the gator.

He eventually grabbed hold of the biggest gator.

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We headed back towards the dock, but took a detour through the lake. The lake was enormous. Balls of dirt floated in the water, but much less frequently than in the area we first stopped. The fanboat skimmed over the water as we drove around at full throttle. After doing a large loop, we went back into the narrower channels.

Just before we got back to the dock, we passed a raised cemetery. The cemeteries are often raised due to the high water table, which would push the air filled coffins out of the soggy ground (eventually the coffins would flood and sink back into the ground). It was still a cool thing to see. This cemetery was only accessible by boat as the original pathway was washed out in one of the passing hurricanes.

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We exited the boat, said thanks to our guide, and then boarded the bus to head back into New Orleans. Leaving in the same manner as we arrived (in style), we called the limo to shuttle us to the airport. It was rush hour traffic, so we took a detour through some of the neighborhoods that had been affected by hurricane Katrina several years ago. 4 out of 5 houses were boarded up and in total disrepair, but then you passed a house that looked in great shape. The driver explained that a lot of people took the money from the government and moved away, while some actually used the money to rebuild their destroyed houses. Our driver proudly boasted that he had used his money to buy a new truck and moved in with his sister. It left me with mixed feelings about donating to the Katrina relief fund.

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Arriving at the airport, our trip to Louisiana was over, but it had been a great time.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 18:54 Archived in USA Tagged animals boats marshes tour Comments (0)

N'awlins and Bourbon Street - DO YOU!

STATE 4 - LOUISIANA

sunny 96 °F

If I were to ask you to name the biggest party cities in the US, you would most likely include the location of the largest party in the country, New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz offers plenty of ways to have a good time, and its great food, soulful music, and colorful people offer a very unique experience. For these reasons (and the infamous Bourbon Street), New Orleans was our destination for Kortney's bachelor party.

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A quick background on New Orleans. Originally founded by the French (and temporally occupied by the Spanish), Louisiana was purchased by the US in 1803 in preparation for Napolean's war with the English. It was at one point the 5th largest city in the United States (up until the civil war) and is one of the largest ports in the world. The city sits below sea level and has retaining walls to hold back the waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. However as I mentioned before, these facts were not the drawing points for us to come to New Orleans. New Orleans is home to one of the largest Fat Tuesday parties in the world, Mardi Gras. Although we missed Fat Tuesday, we certainly came to party.

After arriving at the airport, we made our way down to the taxi stand to catch a ride into the city. After discussing various options with the dispatcher, we figured out that the cheapest (and most stylish) way to enter New Orleans was via limo.

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After a quick beer run, the limo driver started the 30 minute ride into the city. When asked if we could see the Superdome (home of the New Orleans Saints) and about the possibility of doing a shotgun in front of the stadium, the limo driver responded "do you". Slightly confused by her response, we repeated the request, and she replied "do you" a little more forcefully. She then explained that it was slang for "I do me, you do you" or "do your own thing". So with her approval and a quick scan for police, we jumped out of the limo to shotgun a beer in front of the Superdome.

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The limo wound through New Orleans to pull up in front our hotel. We had made it to Bourbon Street!

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After dropping our stuff off in our rooms, we began making our way down Bourbon Street. The street had some pedestrians walking down the sidewalk and the occasional car, not quite the swarm of boozed-up miscreants I had envisioned (although it was only 10am). Balconies overhung the street, some overly ornate with decorated railings, others seemingly secured with century old rusted trusses and rotten wood. A saxophonist was playing some jazz for spare change. Walking the length of Bourbon Street didn't take too long as it was only about six blocks until you reached the gay district. The repeating theme on Bourbon Street was bar, restaurant, tacky tourist shop, and strip club (see the picture of Ryan taking a break in front of one).

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After spending more than 30 seconds on Bourbon Street, something hits you pretty hard—a putrid stench. At first you think it may be a draft from a trash can or overfilled sewer pipe, but when the smell doesn't ever quite go away, you realize it is just Bourbon Street. Some areas are definitely worse than others, but don't ever expect "fresh air" when walking down this street. Sections of the street stay permanently wet, despite the upper 90s temperature, and who knows what diseases and bacteria are brewing in the puddles. A grime covers the sidewalk and street. It is bad enough that I wouldn't pick up dropped change that landed in the street.

We continued walking down to the waterfront of the Mississippi. The water was moving very fast as large barges and paddle boats zipped along with the current. The sun was beating down and the humidity was suffocating, but we took a stroll down the waterfront to take in the sights. We passed by some more musicians and saw a sign for a local brewery. The thought of sipping a cold beer in air conditioning was heavenly, so we left the mighty Mississippi and went back into the French Quarter.

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We never actually found the brewery, but we did find something else—the casino! The casino was almost as nice as a brewery, it was air conditioned and waitresses brought you free drinks. Kortney, Willie, and I pretended to play a slot machine to continue being served. We eventually moved to a blackjack table when the rest of the group came over, and actually made a couple dollars.

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Leaving richer than when we arrived, we headed back to the hotel to get showered up and ready to hit Bourbon Street at night.

Bourbon street transforms at night. The smell is still present, but the street is jam packed full of people. Cops ride up and down the street on horses that put Clydesdales to shame. Every balcony has people tossing beads, and nearly everyone has a drink in their hand. The occasional scantily girl walks by handing out free passes to one of the various strip clubs. Bars compete with each other to see who can play their music the loudest, and potential patrons are treated to a variety of musical genres while walking down the street. The bars get so packed that dancers often overflow into the street.

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After taking a loop down Bourbon Street and checking out a few bars, we elbowed our way up onto one of the balconies. From above we could get a great view of the crowd below.

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We sipped a couple beers and then abandoned our lofty post (we happened to be on one of the balconies supported by rust and duct tape) and continued roaming Bourbon Street. My memory starts getting a little fuzzy, and coincidentally I don't have any more pictures from our nights on Bourbon Street. Here are some remaining highlights: Kortney on a whale, Willard river dancing, a dance off in the middle of the street, shot girls forcefully dumping shots down your throat (despite you saying no repeatedly), and a late night run to Krystal Burger (which was definitely regretted later).

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New Orleans was a lot of fun, but 3 days was enough of an experience for me. We ate some awesome seafood and partied in a nightlife that never seemed to stop. It was cool hearing jazz being played on the street and seeing the boats chug up the Mississippi. However, I'll leave the smell, grime, and overabundant strip clubs behind. We did spend one more day in Louisiana, driving out of the city limits and heading out to the bayou. That story, however, is another blog post.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 14:09 Archived in USA Tagged beer bachelor_party Comments (0)

Cuzco & Farewell to Peru!

sunny 70 °F

After hiking through the Colca Canyon and climbing Machu Picchu, I was ready for a nice, relaxing walk through a modern city. Unfortunately in Cuzco, it wasn't going to be that easy.

Here are a series of interactions between me and the local street walkers:

Vendor holding open a portfolio: "Painting? My work! 1 sol! Free to look!"
Me: "You are very talented, but no thank-you."

School age boy: "Postcard? 3 for 1!"
Me: "No thank-you."

Older woman: "Blanket? Alpaca wool, very soft!"
Me: "No thanks."

5 year-old boy: "Cigarettes? Cigarettes?"
Me: "No."

Young woman: "Massage?"
Me: [Stares blankly past girl in attempt to ignore.]

Older woman: "You want bowls?" [clacks bowls together loudly in an attempt to catch my attention]
Me: [Scowl and shoot a dirty look.]

5 year-old boy's friend: "Shine shoes?"
Me: "Don't think of touching me with that nasty brush."

Woman in traditional get-up: "Picture? Picture?" [offers baby alpaca]
Me: D*mnit! NO! ARRRRGGHH! [Punches lady. Punches alpaca.]

Repeat each of the above 100 times. Cuzco is a beautiful city filled with many churches and pretty parks. However, it also filled with obnoxious street vendors that incessantly nag you to buy their worthless crap. At first I was polite in refusing, often offering a little smile while saying "No thank-you". It quickly turned to a desire to punch every street vendor in the face after having dirty, cheap souvenirs shoved in your face (saying no didn't always work, especially with the shoe shiners who would try to grab your foot and wipe it with the dingiest brush known to man). I began to feel like a giant $ sign walking around, and every person in the city was out to get their piece.

Not every vendor was an evil, blood-sucking, tourist leech. After politely refusing a man selling paintings (I hadn't reached punching women and children level yet), he showed us to a nice cafe to get brunch. One little boy sat down next to me on a bench after I refused to buy some cigarettes to practice his English and look at the pictures in my guidebook (his English phrases were "Washington is the capital", "Barack Obama is the president", "I am 7 years old", "give me money since you are a tourist"). Anyways, here is a picture of us eating breakfast.

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Cuzco really is a pretty city. Houses climb the hills creating a nice backdrop. Buildings had a Spanish feel with white exteriors and red tile roofs. Fountains were in the middle of parks, often decorated with colorful displays or ornate statues. Churches were everywhere (4 in one corner of the main square alone)!

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The cathedral sits just off the main square in Cuzco. There are also churches on either side of it. At some point after the cathedral was build, the Jesuits came in and decided to build the most grand church in Peru. The bishop thought that nothing should be more grand than the cathedral, and petitioned to have the church's building plan revised. The issue escalated all the way to the pope, who sided with the bishop. However, the Jesuits church, Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús, was already completed. Megan and I looked inside, and the entire area behind the alter was covered in gold. I'd say the Jesuits accomplished their goal. The first couple pictures are of me in front of the cathedral (and the two other churches).

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And here are some pictures of the Jesuit church sitting not 50 yards away.

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While standing in between the churches, a mini-parade came through carrying a large cross. I'm not sure what they were doing, but mass didn't start for another hour and a half. They were brave souls to be walking down the middle of the street.

We decided to hike up the hill to see the artistic area of San Blas, which supposedly offered great views of Cuzco.

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After a leisurely 30 minute hike straight uphill, we ran out of road. Megan stopped to get a water, and when she was only charged S/.1, we realized we had wandered out of the tourist area. I walked up a side street to take in the view of Cuzco.

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You can see the belltower of San Blas in the background of that picture, so we backtracked a couple of blocks. Several artists had set up in the courtyard, and we browsed through their paintings (it was nice not being hounded and badgered into buying something). San Blas looked nice, but I didn't quite see why it was such a large attraction (it had its own section in the guidebook).

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We walked back down through the Plaza de Armas and made our way to the other side of Cuzco. We passed by several more churches and convents. I woudn't be surprised if there was more than 20 churches in a mile radius of the main square. I really wanted to go into one of the churches that was completely covered in mirrors on the inside, but the church wasn't open when we went by.

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One thing that intrigued me about clothing stores in Peru is that they often had mannequins out front of their stores modeling their clothes. US stores do the same thing, but the US mannequins are often featureless and a single color. Mannequins in Peru are fully painted and posed, looking like giant Ken and Barbie dolls. One mannequin in particular caught my attention. I don't know what clientele the store was looking to attract, but it must be the mullet-sporting, gold-tooth, overbite plagued redneck market. Just look at the picture (with me doing my best impression, it's a shame you can't see the mullet or overbite).

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Megan and I also took pictures with a baby alpaca, but immediately regretted it once the woman started complaining that S/.2 was not enough for two pictures.

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To end our trip in Peru, Megan and I decided to get a nice dinner. Megan had claimed she was going to eat a guinea pig, but she ended up "chickening out", literally. It was actually a delicious meal. I ended the night with a "Choco Princess".

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We made our way to the airport and prepared to say our farewells to Peru. I had saved some cash so that we could pay our airport taxes. Peru has this absurd policy of charging non-residents a tax for every airport they go through. For the domestic flight from Cuzco to Lima we had to pay $7 a piece. I knew we would have to pay the tax again when we got to Lima (and that it would likely be more expensive since we were leaving the country), so I had a cool $61 in my pocket. We get to the tax gate in Lima when I find out that the departure tax is $33 a person. I went up to the service window and tried to explain that I only had $61 to my name, and that I had no way of getting any more cash (since Peru does not accept credit cards). The woman at the window seemed sympathetic and called her supervisor over. The supervisor turned to me and said, "You can't leave, you are $5 short. Maybe you go beg, it is only $5." ARE YOU KIDDING ME! It's one thing to tell me that I don't have enough money, but you don't have to tell that I need to beg. We went back into the main terminal. My plan was to use my credit card to buy someone's souvenir in the gift shop in return for the cash. We found a nice British woman who gladly gave us $5 (it was a pretty humiliating experience). All the repressed frustration at being treated like an easy source of money while in Cuzco started resurfacing. I paid the $66, and without a cent to my name, made my way to customs. We were ushered to the front of the line and I presented our passports. The customs agent looked at me and asked for my "piece of paper". I had no clue what he was talking about, so I gave him the only paper I had, the crumpled receipt from dinner. He frowned at me and said, "No. Important piece of paper." I started to lose it, I had no clue what this man wanted from me. He kept repeating "important piece of paper" over and over again. Megan pulled out the stub from her customs form we had received 8 days ago, and his eyes lit up. He flipped it over, smugly presented it to me while pointing to the obscure fine print. "Please retain stub." Well, I didn't have it. I threw away the seemingly useless paper that had my name and job description (in my own writing) in the first available trashcan after entering Peru. Just as I was about to go to the back of the room and rip off the stub to a new customs form, he turned to me and said "You no leave." The supervisor came over, and she also tried to get me to read the fine print of Megan's stub. She then informed me a new policy, where $5 could clear me through customs. I absolutely lost it at this point, and I made a scene, full of desk-slapping and foot-stomping fury. I refused to pay another dime (one, because I didn't have any cash, and two, out of principal). As I was making it known to the entire airport that I was now a permanent resident of Peru, Megan ran to the only person waiting to clear customs to "borrow" five more dollars. Once the bribe was paid, I grabbed our passports and made the way to the gate.

Peru was a great country to visit, but thank goodness I could finally head home.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 06:13 Archived in Peru Tagged churches travel_trouble world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Machu Picchu

overcast 65 °F

We are finally going up to Machu Picchu! It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world and the main drawing point to Peru (for us at least). Our goal was to get up early so that we could see the sun come up over the mountains and climb the mountain peak overlooking Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu (only the first 400 people can climb Huayna Picchu daily). The first bus left at 5:30 am, so we planned on getting to the bus stop a little before 5. Despite getting there early, 250+ people were already in line ahead of us waiting for the buses. I tried to patiently wait for the buses to start running, but I couldn't wait to get to the top!

The buses finally started to run, and Megan and I attempted to calculate exactly how many people were ahead of us (really it was the only thing to pass the time). We boarded our bus and took off up the zigzag path up the mountain. It seemed like I wasn't the only one who was nervous and excited about reaching the top, as almost everyone was anxiously snapping pictures as we went up the mountain. People weren't taking one or two pictures, but filling up memory cards constantly taking pictures of the EXACT SAME SCENERY. It was a half hour bus ride, zigzagging up the side of a mountain, but people kept taking pictures, and taking pictures, and taking pictures. It was a cacophony of beeps from digital cameras. I tried taking a couple pictures, but it was a fruitless endeavor as they ended up being blurry or blocked by a tree. I upped my game and took a video between two of the turns up the path.

We arrived at the front gate and rushed to join the long line of people waiting to get into the park. Everyone who was in line in front of us for the bus was now waiting in front of us at the gate. Two men were making their way down the line to hand out passes to climb Huayna Picchu, and Megan and I got our entrance tickets stamped. I decided to make a quick pit stop to "drop the kids off at the pool" since the only bathroom was outside the front gate. I paid the S\.1 bathroom entrance fee and ventured in. However, just like everywhere in Peru, there was no toilet paper, and I decided to hold it.

I rejoined Megan in line, got stopped by security because I didn't sign my name on my ticket (I didn't get the point, no one collected my entrance ticket, so why did it matter if I signed it?) which was a pain since I didn't have a pen. After getting into the park, we followed the people in front of us to get to the guard house, which was supposed to be one of the best places to watch the sunrise. However, the people in front of us had no clue where they were going either, and we ended up on the path to the Sun Gate (which was an hour trip hike to the far end of the the site). I decided it was time to be ultra-tourist and pull out the map. By coordinating with our lost companions and using 3 different maps, I was able to point us in the right direction. We made it to the guard house and got the grand view of Machu Picchu just as the sun was rising.

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As you can see, it was a little cloudy early in the morning. We hung out for a while at the guard house to appreciate the view and to see if the clouds cleared. Every time the clouds cleared, several oohs and ahhs came from the people seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. It was really an impressive sight, albeit a cloudy one. You could barely see Huayna Picchu in the background. A couple of llamas were hanging out inside the guard house, so we posed for a picture. Here is also a picture of Megan walking up the hill to the guard house.

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The clouds didn't really clear out, so we decided to start making our way around. A misty rain started to fall, but it only lasted for about 5 minutes (you can tell when it is raining in the pictures because we put our jackets on). We entered through the front gate and walked toward the royal quarters. They believe the royalty lived in this section of Machu Picchu because they would have had the first access to the clean water, the rooms are large, and it is next to the "most beautiful wall". All the stones in Machu Picchu were carved out of granite, not molded like bricks. This means every stone was shaved down using hammers and rocks to get their shape. The "most beautiful wall" is a wall where all the stones are roughly the same size, perfectly smooth, create nice straight lines, and is literally the most beautiful wall in Machu Picchu. As we passed the wall, the "most beautiful man" took a picture with the "most beautiful wall".

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I also stopped to take care of business on the real royal throne.

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Before I go any further, let me explain something about the "mystique" of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu first started being built in the 1400s. Several people have asked me if it was a defendable fortress. While it is secluded and has some natural defenses (like cliffs on three sides), it is not really a fotress. The city walls do not resemble medieval castles and could easily be hopped over. There were sentries, but as it took a week to hike to Machu Picchu, an approaching army would be easily spotted. There were no barracks or stockpiles of weapons found at Machu Picchu. The largest evidence against Machu Picchu being a fortress was that people abandoned the site once the Spanish invaded (instead of retreating there). Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire, and it is more likely that Machu Picchu was a holy site and retreat for royalty. Remember a couple entries ago when I listed the things the Incas found most sacred? Mountains, earth, the sun, and water (especially water coming from a mountain). Well, Machu Picchu has all 4, including a year-round source of water coming from the mountain. Every other building at Machu Picchu is a temple of some sort. Well, that's what the experts think. EVERYTHING about Machu Picchu is an educated guess. The Incas have no written history, and the Spanish never knew that Machu Picchu existed. It sat unoccupied for 500 years before accidentally being found in 1911. The "mystique" of Machu Picchu is that it could have been anything. It could have been a site to communicate with aliens for all we know. However, in this entry, I'll stick to what the "experts" have agreed upon instead of creating my own theories.

We left the royal residence and walked down the stairs by the fountains. I stopped for a picture next to the llama, and as I was slowly moving in closer for a better picture, the llama whipped around and went eye to eye with me. It may not look like it the picture, but llamas are big, and they spit. The llama let our a huge fart, started pooping on Machu Picchu, and emphatically let me know that I was encroaching on his territory. I sheepishly backed away and joined Megan at the bottom of the stairs.

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We followed the path laid out by the guide book, walked by the Temple of the Sun, took in some of the views through the Temple of the 3 Windows, and paused a minute to rest in the courtyard.

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The coolest part to me about Machu Picchu (and this may be because I'm an engineer) was how the Incas carved useful objects out of huge pieces of rock, integrated the natural shape of the mountain into their buildings, and somehow everything remained perfectly intact for 500 YEARS with NO maintenance. Here is a picture of a torch holder carved from a huge rock. You can also see in one of the pictures how the carved the stones to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The only collapsed wall I saw during the whole day was in the Temple of the 3 Windows, and that happened when the Incas were still living in Machu Picchu.

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We made our way up to one of the most holy sites at Machu Picchu, Intihuatana (meaning the "Hitching Post of the Sun"). If you look at the main picture, it is the pyramid in the back left corner. At the top of Intihuatana is a carefully carved rock. Initially this site received its name because it was believed that during the summer solstice (the most holy day) that the sun would align directly over the site and create no shadow, as if the sun was resting all its weight on the rock. More recently a new theory has arisen. Now it is thought that the Intihuatana stone is actually an abstract representation of Huayna Picchu (which rises directly behind the stone), since the rock closely mimics the shape of Huanya Picchu (see picture below). There are also several other examples across the Inca Empire where the Incas paid homage to the mountains by carving replicas (like the rock in the Colca Canyon).

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I mentioned earlier how Macchu Picchu has cliffs on 3 sides. Well, being on top of a mountain, they had to use every available space. The cliff next to Intihuatana was terraced and used for farming. I could barely walk down the steps, much less carry anything down them. I am only 3 steps down and can reach straight out to touch where I started.

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We walked down from Intihuatana and walked to the far end of Machu Picchu near the base of Huayna Picchu. The most anticipated part of the trip was climbing Huayna Picchu, but the rain had made everything super slippery and we wouldn't be able to see anything from the top anyways (even from the top of Intihuatana the rest of Machu Picchu was lost in a cloud). We ended skipping the trail up to Huayna Picchu, although I think it may have been closed anyways (I didn't see anyone make their way up). We walked down past the artisan's wall (giant wall that even had rain spouts) and past the wall that supposedly had a bird in it. I think the experts are really reaching on this one, check out the picture of Megan pointing to it, you can supposedly see the beak, the head (with a little bird on top of it), the neck, the body, and the tail feathers. I also added a picture of Megan walking through a double doorjam (an entry way with two door frames) which usually signified you were entering an important area.

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We walked through some more temples (every room that had a large, carved, flat rock that was supposedly an altar was named a temple). There was a room with some bowls carved out of stone floor. Some think that they were used for smashing grain (but why not use a regular bowl) and some thought it was for carving stones (but why not do that in the quarry area). The consensus is that no one has any clue about their purpose. I took a picture with them anyways. Megan took a ride down the creatively named "slide rock" and walked down stairs carved into the mountain where they also conveniently carved a hand rail. I also took a shot looking back up towards Intihuatana.

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We were at another one of the cliffs of Machu Picchu. Check out this view and how steeply the land drops away (and my nervous expression as I stood on the wet grass).

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We were getting close to completing our circuit of Machu Picchu, but there was one spiritual rock we hadn't seen yet (although I had almost had my fill of rocks). It is directly underneath Megan in this picture.

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I found a pathway that led through one of the storehouses.

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However, the path ended just outside another storehouse. I convinced Megan that we could climb around the outside of the storehouse and down over the rocks to the lower level. She was skeptical, and stayed back as started my descent. I carefully and very slowly started down the rock face, but then I suddenly slipped. I could barely heard her yelp as I fell off of Machu Picchu...

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This picture was obviously a reenactment after I didn't die. Megan rushed around to look down the slope where I had miraculously landed on my feet and prevented myself from tumbling down the slope. This is what it looked like beneath me.

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Megan made it safely down "slippery rock" and we headed towards "spiritual rock". It was not nearly as glamorous as I expected. It was yet another rock carved to mimic the mountain backdrop.

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We climbed back up to the residential area and then went back down to a cave carved into the side of the mountain (down a gentle slope this time). The Incas used this tunnel to detect the summer solstice. First they carved the mountain ridge far off in the distance so that it would pass through a sliver of morning light. Next they carved a tunnel the back of the cave. When the light passed through the notch in the distant mountain ridge and reached the back of the cave, the summer solstice had arrived triggering a series of religious activities. I climbed to the back of the cave to check out the view from the other side.

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Our last temple was actually the coolest. It was called Temple of the Condor because, well, it looked like a Condor. The head was carved into the floor of the temple while two rocks extended like wings in the background. Caves extended under each wing to subterranean rooms.

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My favorite room in all of Machu Picchu was located underneath the Temple of the Condor. This room was where they kept the guinea pigs, which were eaten on special occasions. I doubled checked to make sure that there weren't any hiding way in the back of the holes where they were enclosed.

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We had completed our circuit of Machu Picchu. We took a break on some authentic furniture (of course carved out of rock) while we deliberated about climbing Huayna Picchu. We had expected to spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, but it was only 1 pm. We had read every page and followed the trail of the most in depth guide book available, so we decided we had seen all there was to see. We took one last look, and said goodbye to Machu Picchu.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:58 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains animals historical world_heritage_site Comments (0)

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