Friday, 25 May 2012


Our time in Chile was largely spent with my biological family in Santiago, Concepción and Nacimiento. Interestingly, the names of the latter 2 cities mean “conception” and “birth”. Besides wondering what it may have been like to grow up in Chile instead of Belgium, I (Wim) had the chance to get to know my biological parents and half-sisters a bit better. It was good to see that they are doing fine, although Chile is going through a tough time at the moment. Communication was sometimes a bit difficult, especially when the conversation went to more complex issues, beyond figuring out what we’d like to eat or drink or what time the bus will leave.

It is difficult to describe the thoughts and interactions that emerge when people meet who share no joint history, no mother tongue, no upbringing, but only genes. When random people meet and show each other how they live their lives, it is normal that there is some overlap in attitudes, ideals, preferences and fears. When I was having conversations with my biological mother, biological father or half-sisters, or when I was just observing the interactions between them, I always wondered to what extent similarities with my own attitudes and behaviour were purely coincidence or a result of genetics.

Another train of thought that continuously ran through my head was how difficult it would be to stay connected with my biological family once back in Cape Town, when it is already hard enough to make sure I stay in regular contact with my family and friends in Belgium. I guess, until suborbital transportation becomes commercially available and affordable, a big part of the answer is setting realistic expectations and enjoying the moments spent together.

After about a week of meeting biological uncles and aunts and grandmothers and step grandparents (who own a farm and where we enjoyed fresh milk and got to help letting the animals out in the morning after staying overnight), we decided to spend 2 days in the South of Chile where the nature is quite beautiful. We rented a car and drove south for about 3,5 hours to Pucón, a little town nestled between a huge beautiful lake and a volcano covered in snow which is close to the border of Argentina. We stayed on a farm owned by a German couple with 4 dogs who treated us to hearty breakfasts and a fire in our cottage all day and all night. We took a walk in the rain on the first day, enjoyed hot chocolate in town  and on day 2 we were greeted with sun, blue skies and crisp mountain air with the most beautiful views of the volcano (no longer active and has a ski station). This was sadly all we had time for before we returned to the cities, but we will certainly be back to see more of the south of Chile...

Day 4: Machu Pichu

 Machu Pichu is the biggest Inca site. It is a sacred temple built by the Inca´s and purposefully hidden deep in the Andean mountain range surrounded by the majestic mountains of Machu Pichu and Wayna Pichu.
A few times a year the Inca noblemen would travel along the Inca trail to Machu Pichu to worship their Gods earth, sun and water on holy days and to celebrate their festivals there. No one lived at Machu Pichu except those who were responsible for maintaining it.

When the Spanish arrived, they plundered many inca sites which were temples and burial sites in search of the gold found at these sites. The Incas ran away from Machu Pichu to other sites and fought there, sacrificing these sites so that Machu Pichu remained hidden, safe and undiscovered by the Spaniards. Of course the inca´s and the peruvian descendants always knew about this place, but it was only in 1911 that it was discovered by the rest of the world. An American professor from Yale on another expedition to study the inca culture and learn about the independance of Peru heard from a local farmer about the remains of a site hidden deep in the mountains and set off to find it...

On day 4 we raced out of our tents at 03h30 since our group wanted to be one of the first to queue at the gate of Machu Pichu which opens at 05h00. Wim and I did not see the point of this as once inside, the other groups can pass anyway if they are faster and since its still a 2 hour hike once inside the gates, the tourists who have taken the train will already be inside, making viewing sunrise alone in Machu Pichu, almost impossible. Once in the queue we tried to keep warm and awake in the pitch dark and cold. The 2 hour hike was not bad since it was inca flat and once the sun came up it was quite pretty. I knew the last part was going to be bad. It was about 50 steep steps called ´gringo killers´ (gringo is the term given by South Americans for white westerners by the way which I took offence at when they called me one!) Nevertheless, by the time we arrived at the sun gate (which is the point on which the sun shines during the winter or summer solstice (cant remember which one)) and when one gets the first view of Machu Pichu, I was surprised to find that the steps were already behind me and that I had done them without much difficulty.

Now let us tell you about that first view of Machu Pichu. I had heard from some who had taken the train that Machu Pichu was a bit of a disappointment. I had heard from others who had done the trail that it was worthwhile when one had walked all of the 45km to get there. I assumed that, having seen many inca sites along the way, that Machu Pichu would be wonderful, but that the depth of the experience would have come from the days spent on the mountains before Machu Pichu. But I was wrong...To us Machu Pichu was huge and beautiful. Mystical stone buildings and terraces for farming built into the mountains at just the right angles to get the sun reflection during the solstice. Huge blocks of polished stone created walls built at an angle of 12 degrees and defects built purposefully into the walls to absorb the shock from earthqaukes...Such was the Inca perfection beautifully preserved...

After donning our Llama Path T shirts which were gifts from Reuben and posing for photos, (and witnessing a proposal by a man on bended knee), Reuben took us through the site, giving more explanations and clearly proud of his history. By 11h00 we were exhausted, but there was more...

Mackenzie, Wim and I had purchased tickets beforehand to also climb Wayna Pichu that day. This is another peak which is higher than Machu Pichu and thus affords amazing views, but it is a steep 45 minute hike each way, and by then it was pouring rain. Since the number of visitors each day is limited we felt that we had to do it. Wim was feeling sick (he had been nursing a cold for a few days already on the mountains), Mackenzie had sprained her ankle, but still we set off. half way through I began to think I had made a huge mistake...It was pouring rain, it was steeper than I expected and very dangerous since it was very high up and the paths were very narrow with a chain that had to be held onto, and it was slippery. Also my body was exhausted and begiining to resist. Nevertheless we made it to the top, but I refused to do the very last bit to the very top which involved a rickety narrow ladder. Wim and Mackenzie of course went ahead while I stayed behind on a safe ledge to enjoy the views..
The steep path to the very top of Wayna Pichu

At the top of Wayna Pichu

Mackenzie showing off on a ledge with Machu Pichu in the background

And then it was finally over....the descent was quick and accident free, we literally ran through Machu Pichu to get the bus to Aguas Calientes, a little town at the bottom of the mountains.We met our group at a restaurant where we indulged in nachos and pizza, said our goodbyes to Reuben and the other groups and took a train to Ollayantaytambo and then a bus back to Cuscoe. By the time we arrived at our hotel it was midnight....That night and the next day I was a stiif, sore mess. I felt like I had been run over by a train, but we were very happy that we had shared the experience together and had so many memories.

Two days later we were off to Chile...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Day 3 Inca trail
This was a day of chillaxing. We walked what they call 'inca flat' which means ups and downs repetitively, but was also very scenic and interspaced by more of Reuben´s history about the Inca's, their religion and way of life. The group stayed together, it was a sunny day and I found myself nodding off in the sun at one of the Inca sites while Reuben drew pyramids in the sand to explain the different Gods...At one point the 5 of us (ie our group minus Reuben and Katrina) were walking along quite happily when we heard a high pitched sound in the bushes off the path. This sound repeated itself until Mackenzie spotted a baby bear on the path. She knew (studying environmental studies) that this is a sound of distress and we soon spotted a second cub also crying. Ruth started feeling all sorry for the lost cubs until Mackenzie spelt out that lost baby bears equals angry mama bear!!! This got us all running back along the path from which we came, Mackenzie Just managing to catch it on film and we waited for our guide or other groups to arrive seeking safety in numbers.
When another group arrived, no one believed us since bears have not been spotted on the inca trail for 3 years and the guides are on the trail 6 days a week. But our photo convinced them and we were soon feeling very chuffed with ourselves. Another inca site, more lazing in the sun and we descended to camp for the afternoon. I thought since we had the afternoon off that we would play cards or football, but Wim and I crashed in our tent, exhausted from the last 2 days and did not emerge until happy hour while the others visited yet another inca site.
This would be our last night together and it was indeed a feast, but what was more delightful was the fact that our chef had baked me a cake!!! (I say baked but I dont know how He did this wth no oven). Reuben had told him that it had been my birthday and so there I was on the mountains of matchu pitchu, dead tired, dirty and hungry, but with a big smile on my face grinning into my birthday cake. We toasted and ate cake and enjoyed happy hour (Javier was also lurking around muttering to himself that their chef never made cakes) and then of course we still had supper. After supper we bade a sad farewell to the red army, thanking them ad handing out the tips. We would be leaving very early the next morning in order to catch the sunrise within Machu Pichu and the red army would be leaving Just as early to get the first train back...

to be continued...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Peru: Cuscoe

This was definately one of the highlights of the trip and the only city that we did not want to leave. The peruvians are warm people with pitch black hair, tanned skin and big smiles. Each taxi driver wanted to chat and ask where we are from and tell us a bit about their city. Cuscoe is a city which appears to be very much in development. Many of the houses are unfinished constructions. We were told that this is because Peruvians don´t have to pay tax on a house that is not yet finished, but this was never confirmed...Nevertheless Cuscoe is nestled by mountains and demonstrates remnants of both its Spanish heritage by way of huge cathedrals as well as it´s Andean Inca ancestors in the form of cobble stoned streets. Many of the streets are so steep that, together with the altitude (Cuscoe is at 3300m), simply walking these streets takes your breath away and leaves your heart beating in your throat. Yes, it is a touristy place with vendors and restaurant hostesses often beckoning at every corner for you to buy their jewellery or eat at their restaurant or have a massage, but by now we were used to this having travelled for 3 months so it did not bother us. Cuscoe is also a culinary delight and we took full advantage of this after the terrible food in Cuba. We tucked into local delicacies like Alpaca meat (cousin of the Llama and tastes like beef-delicious!), salmon tuna, tuna juice which is actually the juice of a type of cactus fruit, delicious breads and pastries and of course the pisco sour which is a cocktail made of rum and lemon juice and is delicious though the amount of alcohol in it leaves one very tipsy.

A building in Cuscoe

Cathedral in Cuscoe´s main Plaza de Armes

City Hall Cuscoe: Plaza de Armes

Cusoe: rooftop view

In Cuscoe we stayed with a family who owned a restaurant which served traditional Peruvian food and so we also had the oppurtunity of tasting home made dishes like soups and stews. The initial 4 days were spent resting, acclimatising to the altitude and stocking up on our gear for the mountain trek.The sunday before the trek we did a day tour to some of the Inca sites and climbed some super steep steps and visited a few local markets where the mountain villagers go on a sunday to swop their produce.

Local market

We also watched a demonstration of how local women make Alpaca woollen garments: from the wool which is dirty when it comes off the animal, through the dyeing process, the creation of the woollen strands and finally the weaving of the garments. I bought an Alpaca scarf in hues of burgundy, green and red which is super soft and warm.

Local women demonstrating the process of making wool

the wool and the products from which they get their colours

the end product

The day before the trek was my birthday. Wim made me a delicious breakfast and then took me to lunch at a french resturant where we had a 3 course meal and a dessert buffet made especially for me! We retired to bed early since we had to be at the agency at 04h30 the next morning...
Happy birthday: showing off my Alpaca wool scarf

The mountain trek: Inca trail to Machu Pichu

We woke badly...Wim had a terrible cold and I had not slept much, being very anxious for what lay ahead for the next few days.We arrived on the main square at 04h15 and met our fellow hikers: Mackenzie, a 21 year old American girl who has so much energy and laughter and is so down to earth that in the end we were peeing in the bushes together, Katrina, a a 57 year old American woman with a strong will for adversity, and  Beth and Nick, a couple from England, quite talkative and jovial. And then the bus with the tour guide (Reuben) arrived and we met our red army! An army they are indeed! 11 porters and a chef who are tiny peruvian men but as strong as oxen and so light on their feet. They literally ran up that mountain carrying our bags, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, food, tents and all the necessities for a camp. Donning red tracksuits with our trekking company´s logo "Llamapath", they really resemble an army. 

A 2 hour bus ride took us out of the city to a place called Ollayantantambo (or Oliver Tambo as Wim and I called it when we could not remember the name), a little village with cute hostels and restaurants and a plaza not far from the inca ruins where we had breakfast. Another short bus ride took us to the starting point called km82. By then the sun was out, we donned sunhats and sunscreen, took our day bags and cameras, stepped through the checkpoint where our passports were stamped, posed for photos and then we were off!

The red army packing the bags

Kilometre 82:starting point Inca Trail: Mackenzie, Sheron, Nick, Beth, Katrina, Reuben and Wim

starting off!

Day 1 of Inca trail

Day 1 was easy. We walked slowly, the initial part of the route was flat and very beautiful. We were surrounded by mountains and and could see glaciers in the distance, we walked through green paths and trees and had enough sun to make it pleasant and warm, below us were sometimes Inca ruins or water. Our guide (Reuben) stopped often to feed us interesting titbits of information, give us a snack or make us rest. He showed us how to squash a parasite grown on the cactus tree which makes the red dye that is used for dyeing Alpaca wool and with this we painted our faces and called our little team the Warriors.

Wim wearing war paint

enjoying the views:day 1

another trekking company´s army having a rest

After a bit of an uphill climb and meeting some of the other trekking groups along the way, we reached lunch camp and were warmly welcomed by our red army who had already set up the eating tent (having passed us hours ago on the trail) had water ready for us to wash our hands, and our cheff had prepared lunch.

Reuben chillaxing at lunch camp

Lunch camp day 1

The things that that man can make on a mountain with only a gas stove is remarkable! We started with stuffed avocados, then soup and a main meal which I can no longer remember, but over the course of the next four days we were served such treats as chicken, platters of fresh vegetables, baked yams which were so delicious and fluffy, baked yellow potatoes, pasta, beef stew, soups made of chinoua (a legume) and vegetables, empanadas (pies stuffed ith cheese and deep fried) and so many other platters which now escape my memory. Desserts were bananas flambeed in rum, apricots in chocolate sauce or platters of fresh fruit.

After lunch we had another 2 hour uphill hike which we did mostly on our own since Reuben walked slowly behind with Katrina, and by 16h30 we reached camp for the night, again applauded by our red army.

slowly does it, end of day 1

Camps are shared with other trekking companies and so there is a lot of atmosphere at night with the sounds from other campers, smells of supper and sometimes someone playing a flute or singing. By the time we arrived at camp every night our tents were set up and 5 minutes after our arrival, bowls of hot water was provided for washing. I have never washed myself so thoroughly before from head to toe while sitting in a tent with a little bowl of water as I did on those nights, but I savoured every drop of hot water and used
wim´s as well, since he preferred washing with wet wipes which he had learnt from me in India's mountain treks...
 and then HAPPY HOUR!!!

This means huddling in the food tent which is warm since it is connected to the kitchen tent and thus warmed by the the heat from the gas stove (although it was not as cold as it was in the India trek)and talking utter rubbish, making jokes, telling ghost stories and just getting to know one another. Happy hour means huge bowls of popcorn and a snack (which can be warm bread or empanadas or pizza slices) and bottomless coca tea (made from the leaves of the local coca trees and which helps with the nausea and headaches of altitude sickness, keeps one warm and somehow helps stiff muscles), bottomless tea or hot chocolate.

After happy hour comes dinner which no one has space for, but somehow we consumed large quantities of food anyway, and then some more tea and coca tea and hot chocolate and chatter before bed time. Sleeping was surprisingly warm and comfortable in the tent Wim and I shared. The only challenge came when venturing out when nature called...

Day 2: dead womans pass

Reuben woke us at 05h00 with hot coca tea and by 05h30 we were in the tent for breakfast which was also often a feast of hot cereal made as a thick liquid in peru, bread with eggs, pancakes, fruit and more tea of course! By 6 we started walking again. Day 2 was the toughest day. It was initially a bit flat and then the steep parts started. We initially stayed together as a group and Wim got spat on by a Llama! (who saw both him and his camera as somewhat threatening), but then our group split up as we each walked according to our own pace (except Wim who walked at my pace).

the wim hating llamas

zigzagging makes it easier....

Mackenzie, Beth and Nick walked quite fast ahead of us, Wim and I behind while Reuben stayed with Katrina who walked quite slowly. And then we hit dead woman´s pass...picture miles of steep steps....I went very, very slowly, but the advantage of this was that I did not have to stop all the time like some of the other people we passed. I also did not have any symptoms of the altitude despite how high we were.

Despite how tough it was there was plenty to distract us: beautiful scenery, the red army or armies from other companies whizzing past us, coca sweets to be chewed,  and lots of other hikers or guides en route to offer encouragement.

One such guide from another company was called Javier. Javier had dark hair, a moustache and a deep voice (with a spanish accent of course). I would sometimes find him next to me without having heard him and thus he reminded me of puss in boots...He would always ask: "senorita, how are u doing, or senorita do you want a cigarette? (Javier said that all the south africans he had ever met smoked and so he believed I also smoked and would not believe that I was not dying for a cigarette) He challenged Wim to race to the top of dead woman´s pass in 10 minutes (Wim did it in 7 minutes) and when Wim left he looked at me and said in his deep accent: "senorita, if he leaves u, he does not love you...." Javier, the continuous flirt made me laugh out loud despite the fact that I was struggling with the last few metres of dead woman´s pass...

the beautiful distracting views

all alone on dead woman´s pass: wim already at the top and so was Javier...

almost there...

And then we made it to the top of the first summit!! 4200 m high and no altitude sickness, but very cold and it started raining.

at the summit of dead womans pass (4200 m ) and those things that look like I have grown tail feathers are our rain ponchos

Our group members were nowhere to be seen, so Wim and I posed for photos alone (taken by Javier) and began the steep descent in the rain with Javier´s group,all clad in our multicoloured rain poncho´s while he told Wim about his wife, his peruvian girlfirend and his german girlfriend....

After what seemed like a long time we saw the tents of the lunch camp and practically ran towards them. The others had been there for 2 hours already and after another 1.5 hours, Reuben and an exhausted but relieved Katrina entered camp. We settled into lunch together and then prepared ourselves for the 2cnd summit.

This was quite steep, but not as long as the first and was interspaced by some good views  and a lagoon. The group split again and Wim and I found ourselves alone since many of the other trekkers had camped at the lunch spot for the day. The descent was long and cold and my feet ached and I was getting quite grumpy.

We reached a fork in the path and were unsure of which way to walk and the sun had already set. I was afraid that we had taken the wrong path and would be lost by the time it was dark, but eventually we reached camp. After what seemed like a long time, Katrina and Reuben arrived in the dark.This was by no means alarming to Reuben since his worst trek had been when  a woman was sick and they were only at the second summit by 9pm and he radioed for help, but no one came. Eventually he said some of the red army came and they carried the woman on their backs, taking turns running down the mountain with her, but they were too fast for Reuben who eventually fell a depth of one metre and was saved by some trees or something, lost his torch, scrambled up and then along the path on all fours in the dark, and cried when the red army came back looking for him (he later saw that the spot he had fallen was about 20m high!)

To be continued...