A Travellerspoint blog

Chicago

My love affair with a beautiful city

sunny -17 °C

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I never thought about starting a travel blog until my recent trip to Peru. I wish I had started blogging once I started traveling, but guess better late than never! I always tend to wordsmith and be too verbose when writing, so my challenge is be to be concise...

I guess it's best to start with where I am now - Chicago. I can't describe Chicago in a simple blog entry ... even after calling Chicago home the last few years, I still feel like there's so much more I could get to know about this wonderful city. All I can say is that despite suffering from homesickness and winter blues for a lot of the time that I've been here, I love this city and I have made it my home. During the fall last year, I wrote a list to help remind me during the unbearable January/February winter months of why I love this city:

- Lake front for running, biking, swimming, beach-going, picnicking
- My triathlon group and training
- Public transport system that allows me to not need a car
- Great offering of concerts
- Summer!!
- Snow, bright sunshine on a freezing cold day, White Christmas/
- Easy access to travel
- Cost of living that enables me to live alone in a nice neighbourhood

Next Sunday will mark my three year anniversary with Chicago. This milestone brings me to stop and reflect on my time here. Looking back, my decision to come to Chicago was more a push to leave Melbourne, rather than a pull to go to Chicago. I was stuck in rut and had a couple unhealthy relationships that I needed time away from. I craved independence and needed to find something to be passionate about. Being so far away from home allowed me an excuse to take a time-out from "real" life expectations. Being able to "start fresh" in Chicago without existing boundaries and expectations, I have been able to stop and get to know myself. I discovered what I want in my life, what makes me happy, what I am passionate about. I've been completely selfish the past three years, and I don't feel guilty about it. Cheesy and cliche, huh?

Because of these reasons (and many others) of why I love Chicago, it was very hard to finally decide on a date to leave my lovely city. This week I had an "official" meeting with my manager, to get the ball rolling on transferring back to Australia. We're talking about something that's not happening for another 6 months or so, which seems a bit silly cos it sounds forever away, but I feel in a way I need the time to mentally prepare to leave. If you haven't figured by now, I'm a bit sentimental. For a while now, I've been discussing my ideas with my friends, but the work meeting has made them feel real and tangible.

It is this feeling of setting my ideas in motion and making plans to reach my goals that has inspired me to start this blog. They are by no means grand plans or anything crazy, but they are pretty significant and kinda scary to me. I'm hoping that by blogging and thinking that someone is reading, it will keep me accountable, and more importantly, prevent me from chickening out! So here it goes...

Goals for 2013:
- End of August/Early September: Finish work in Chicago
- Early September: Take ~2 month sabbatical and travel around North and South America
- November: Move to Melbourne (hopefully with a job lined up)

I know this is a travel blog and I'm not really writing about travel right now... but I think the process behind planning a big trip/moving countries kinda counts, right?

Until next time,
A

Posted by alwaysexploring 03.02.2013 19:40 Archived in USA Tagged city chicago skyline Comments (0)

Inca Trail | Day 2 | “The Challenge”

sunny 24 °C

Maximum Altitude: 4,200 m/13,776 ft
Minimum Altitude: 3,000 m/9,840 ft
Distance Travelled: Approx. 16 km
Approximate Walking Time: 7-8 hours / Ascent up: 900 m

Click here for The Inca Trail Photo Album

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Starting at Ayapata, ending at Chakicocha
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

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Day 2 - The biggest climb of the trek
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

Day 2 we were woken up by our porters with coca tea in bed at 6am – lovely. After brekky we met our porters. We formed a circle and introduced ourselves with names and where we're from, and going around the circle and shaking hands. (On a side note, I had to stop and consider which country to say I was from – Australia or Chicago? It felt weird but good to naturally consider Chicago - my second home). It sounds like a corny exercise, but it was really, really nice. The team was 15 men in total - 12 porters, Head Porter, Chef and Assistant Chef.

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Our group of chasquis (porters) and chefs

After a slip, slop, slap, we were off again. The first half of the day was all uphill – a 900 m ascent. Our guides explained to us that we’d be going through several different ecosystems. It was cool to see and experience the distinct differences. At the start of the day, the environment around us was cooler, with more a rainforest-type feel. Then we moved to more dry climates, with more sunshine and dry plants.

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A rainforest-y part of the Inca Trail

The whole time along the trail there would be shouts of “Chaskis!!” (Porters!!) and everyone would move to the mountain side to allow the porters to speed past us with their massive packs. Still baffled at how they do it. I don't think you could be a porter and have a fear of heights!

Dead Woman’s Pass

When I was planning the trip, my friend who’d done the Inca Trail had warned me about the challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass. I had no idea what to expect, but when I saw it, I knew we had reached it. It looked like a never-ending uphill, with no shade, just sun beating down on you. After Aldo and Danny told us we had reached Dead Woman’s Pass, we continued, all silent except for our panting; sighing when we’d turn a corner and saw more uphill. It was nice to go at my own pace, and I felt the competitive side in me keep me going. I was not going to be beaten by this hill! :) Every time I turned around and saw how far I’d gone, I felt like I was on top of the world.

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The start of Dead Woman's Pass

Periodically on Dead Woman's Pass, porters would run past with ease, carrying their big loads and being light on their feet. I also watched Nick with his full backpack breezing up the hill. I was very glad that I had opted out of that challenge and had the porters carry my stuff ;)

For the last part of Dead Woman’s Pass, I walked with Becca. She asked me if I found this part of the trek harder than the marathon. I can’t remember what I said at the time, but looking back, it wasn’t. But, the feelings were similar to the feelings at mile 21 - you’ve come so far, and you feel like you’re close, but you can’t see the finish line. Also, for me, the sense of achievement after conquering Dead Woman’s Pass was a sliver of the feelings at the marathon finish line. Feeling adrenalin from the phenomenal view, and feeling as high as the sky being at the same level as the clouds.

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View from Dead Woman's Pass

It wasn’t over after Dead Woman’s Pass. After a quick break and some pictures, we started going downhill. This was a whole other experience that my knees did not appreciate. When running, I find it harder running downhill than uphill because it feels like the impact is harder on the knees - it was the same for me when hiking (sounding like an old lady now!). I was really glad I opted for the trekking poles that helped me balance and took a teeny bit of the weight off.

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Doesn't look like it, but the start of a steep downhill climb

We stopped for lunch before starting another ascent to the ruins at Runcuracay. These ruins were small, but it’s cool to know that you can only visit them if you trek the Inca trail. The view from the ruins made you feel really secluded and hidden. The guides said it might have been used as a lookout, which totally made sense.

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Ruins at Runcuracay

After Runcuracay, we did another descent to make our way to the ruins at Sayacmarca. Before heading off, Aldo and Danny told us about a sacred stop we'd pass along the way. I can't find any details on the origin, but I think the explanation was that one should bring a stone from the valley to leave at this point and make a wish because the Inca Trail was a sacred pilgrimage for the ancient Inca. We all brought a stone and made a wish.

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Inca wishing rocks

After making our wishes and arriving at Sayacmarca, I was just plain tired, and when I’m tired I get a tad bit grumpy. It had also been a day and a half of being with people all the time, and I was beginning to crave some alone time. Unfortunately, to welcome my tired and grumpy self was massively steep and narrow staircase to get to the ruins. Wooh!

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From the Sayacmarca ruins, I could see across the valley, getting a great view of Dead Woman’s pass and the massive mountain that we had just climbed. Wow. At this moment, I thought, what a wonderful world we live in and how lucky am I to be physically fit enough able to experience it. It was re-energizing. (Yeah, I'm cheesy).

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The view of the mountain we had climbed to get to Sayacmarca

Our second campsite wasn’t far from Sayacmarca. I decided to take it slow, stopping to take photos and enjoyed a nice chat to Katrina. When we arrived, we were welcomed with more beautiful views of the Andes. I felt that where our tents were set up, was engulfed by mountains and clouds - again I felt like we were in the sky. No matter how many photos I took, I couldn't capture that feeling. More delicious food and drink, and another early night to bed. Only our second night and already we had gotten used to the 7:30/8pm bed time. Tomorrow would be a “sleep in”, with a wake-up call of 7am.

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View of our second campsite

Posted by alwaysexploring 21.11.2012 17:00 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains sky hiking peru trekking camping inca_trail Comments (0)

Inca Trail | Day 1 | “Acclimatizing”

sunny 20 °C

Maximum Altitude: 3,300 m/10,824 ft
Minimum Altitude: 2,680 m/8,790 ft
Distance Travelled: Approx. 12 km
Approximate Walking Time: 6-7 hours / Ascent up: 620 m

Click here for the Inca Trail Photo Album

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Starting in Cusco, ending at Ayapata
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

The night before the first day of the trek, I didn’t sleep much. I stayed up to pack my things, trying to keep it within the 9kg limit that the porters would carry. I’d originally booked for a 6kg limit, but after realizing the sleeping bag and mat rented from the company alone weighed 4kg, I had to increase. There were extra camera batteries to bring, as there would be no electricity along the trek, except for my final night in Aguas Calientes. For the entire Peru trip I had limited what I brought, so there were no temptations to over-pack. This was my first big trekking and camping trip, so the nerves and excitement made it hard to sleep.

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The first day of our trek was an early one, with the bus picking us all up around 5am. In the hotel lobby, there was a couple who I remembered from the briefing night who were packing and weighing their packs. They were busy with their pack arranging, and I'm not a sociable morning person, so we hopped straight on the bus without introductions. After about 30 mins of driving and picking up others, we arrived at a small shop where we had breakfast and an opportunity to buy coca leaves (to help with the altitude sickness), beanies/gloves, and other forgotten items. We met our second tour guide, Aldo. It didn’t seem like Aldo or Danny were going to do introductions, so we took this first chance to introduce to ourselves. The couple from my hotel were Katrina and Shenny from California. There were 6 Aussie girls -Lauren, Rachana, Shan, Emily, Rebecca and Tamsin. I learnt that they studied at Monash University where I went, and lived in the Eastern suburbs near where I used to live – small world! Angela and Jim were a couple from Colorado who had very calm and chilled personalities that I really enjoyed being around. Nick, from London, who coincidentally worked for the same company as me - super small world. And finally, Sabrina, the Brazilian with a strong and fun personality that I felt matched her current city, New York.

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We hopped back on the bus after a very simple brekky, and for about an hour we were on the bumpy and windy road up to the first check-in point - Kilometer 82. We had to show our passports and trekking permits before entering. Here we met our porters who very efficiently took our duffel bags and went off on their way. It was amazing to see how much they could carry! The maximum a porter can carry on the Inca Trail was limited to 20kg. Seeing the porters and the massive packs they carried was jaw-dropping, but to think there used to be no limit and they would carry more, was mind blowing. These tiny men with unstable footwear were definitely inspiring.

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During our trek, we heard many stories about the life of a porter. Some saddening - where porters are paid only 40 soles for the whole trek (~ US$10), but they do it because they need the extra income as their farming income is not enough. Some were more heart-warming - where we heard about a porter who was in his sixties but still doing the job because he loved the scenery and the “atmosphere”. Or where a porter is paid so well they do it for a few years, save up money to buy a car and become a taxi driver. It reminded me that it is extremely important that when I travel, particularly to developing countries, that I need to do it with ethical companies. Despite the hard work required, whenever porters would pass us on the trail, it would usually be with a nod and a smile. I need to remember them and their attitudes next time I’m struggling on a rough run.

So we began the start of trek – Day 1 is supposedly the “easy” day. After taking the obligatory picture with the sign of the Inca trail, we were off on our way. It was approximately 10am and within an hour it was so hot, most of us shed down to our lowest layer. Who would have thought there would be a day that I would be thankful for zip off cargo pants? Actually, who would have thought I’d ever BUY zip off cargo pants after year 9 camp?!. The slower pace was a great opportunity to talk and get to know others in the group. I chatted to the Aussie girls and learnt about their amazing round the world trips - the rite of passage for Aussie uni graduates. I felt that travel bug inside of me get inspired (and jealous!) by their itineraries.

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Llactapata, a.k.a. Terrace Town

Day 1 was hard because most of the group were still adjusting to the altitude. Afterall, this part of the trek was called “acclimatizing” according to SAS Travel. I thought I had adjusted to the altitude pretty well after my three days in Cusco, but I was still getting pretty puffed. How could months of marathon training not help me with a 12km / 7.5 mi walk?! I chose to blame the altitude and heat rather my level of fitness and lack of hiking/trekking training ;) It’s sad to say, but I also took a while to adjust to the simple fact of being outside for so long. It’s depressing, but I felt like I was just let back outside after being cooped up in a cage (slash office). It was really nice.

We stopped for lunch and it was the first time (of many) that we were amazed by how luxurious our porters made our dining experience. There was a tent which picnic tables and chairs, and a massive amount of delicious, hot food. They gave us lemonade, which tasted delicious after the hiking, and provided little buckets to wash our hands. How did they carry it all up, set everything up AND cook, all while getting there FASTER than we trekked?! Our minds were blown. I would have been happy with a Vegemite sandwich.

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Lunch on Day 1

We were able to set down our day packs (our wonderful porters would keep an eye on them) and began to furiously reapply sunscreen and insect repellant. After lunch, I walked with Nick. I was so caught up talking...well, let’s be honest, whinging about work, that it wasn’t until we stopped that I realized I was walking at a pace much faster than normal. Probably not the best idea keeping up with a 6ft man on the first day of the trek. Once we got to the campsite, we were all exhausted and just wanted to crash. Thankfully, we were welcomed with “afternoon tea” – hot drinks and popcorn. After 6 hours of hiking, it was the most delicious popcorn I’ve ever tasted. Aldo and Danny told us that we were a “fast” group, having gotten to the site an hour earlier than planned. We needed to slow down – no one objected to that feedback! We enjoyed a delicious dinner and not long after, we all crashed.

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Our first campsite, at Ayapata

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Day 1 completed!
Source: www.sastravelperu.com

Posted by alwaysexploring 20.11.2012 17:00 Archived in Peru Tagged hiking trekking machu_picchu camping inca_trail Comments (0)

Cusco

Getting ready for trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

sunny 20 °C

My journey from downtown Lima to the airport, to catch my flight to Cusco, made me realize that Peruvians have a different measure of time than I do. In my job, I work with different cultures, so I should have been conscious that a “ten to fifteen minute” wait for the taxi driver could easily mean thirty to forty minutes. Despite this, and the language barrier, my energy of anxious urgency seemed to translate, and my taxi driver pulled through, getting me to the airport with 5 mins before the check-in cut of time. Phew!

I flew LAN Airlines to Cusco. The service and experience was really pleasant; with refreshingly friendly flight attendants, comfy seats and... food and drinks included! It reminded me that I have grown accustomed to grouchy flight attendants, crammed seats and expensive but yucky food commonly found on airlines in the US. The flight was only about an hour, but I wish it were longer so I could soak up the amazing view. The scenery flying into Cusco is magical - the Andes mountains making you feel teeny tiny, reminding you how big the world really is.

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In the little car that was my taxi, driving from the little airport to the hotel I got my first impression of Cusco. It seemed to me to be a poor town, very run down and in desperate need of a good clean. But there was an energy to the town and the people that I really enjoyed. Despite being uber touristy, it was bursting full of culture, friendly locals and content-looking dogs allowed to roam free. I am glad I had three nights in Cusco. Not only because I liked the vibe of the town and there’s so much to see, but also because my body felt the impact of the altitude. I thankfully took my friend’s advice and took altitude tablets so I didn’t feel sick, but still I felt very fatigued. I did a couple of day tours – one of the city and nearby areas, and one of the Sacred Valley. I don’t have the words to describe it, so I’ll let the pictures say the thousand words.

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Click here to see more from the album

On the tours, I learnt about the Peruvian culture and the history on how the Spanish conquered the Incas. It was fascinating - particularly coming from the perspective of our Peruvian guide, who seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about the Spanish invasion. Spain is one of my favourite countries, and it was like I experienced another side of Spain. It amazed me how people could be so disillusioned and cruel on the basis of religion. But more importantly, it made me feel awe in the human spirit and traditional cultures, how they can be so resilient.

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A funny situation in Cusco that got me thinking about being a woman travelling alone - I had discussed when paying for my tour that I was fine to share a tent with one of the other single girls. When I found out that I was charged for a single tent, I went to the office to explain that I was incorrectly charged. The original guy I spoke to wasn’t there, so I had to explain the situation to someone else. He couldn’t understand because he was focused on me being a girl traveling alone. He kept repeating, “You didn’t book the trip with your husband or boyfriend, so you are single!” Yes... but that’s not what we’re talking about here. 15 frustrating minutes later, they understood and agreed to do a refund. I was interested to see how the guides

In Cusco, I started to relax and enter full holiday mode. Being alone and not checking my BlackBerry or Facebook was strange, but also made me feel like I could breathe again. Not having your smartphone to focus on forces you to be open to people and environment around you. One of my favourite parts of travelling is crossing paths with other travellers. I came across a girl and two guys from Japan, who were living in New York. We enjoyed a nice dinner, sampling alpaca and a traditional Peruvian dessert. An inspirational guy from Berlin, who had lived in NY for the past 6 years and currently a nomad in the middle of a monumental road trip. He had started in New York, drove through the States and down through South America. Wow. An American who quit his high power job to travel the world, not knowing what would be after his adventure. I’ve always had the travel bug, but it had been dormant during my adventure in Chicago. Meeting these people, I felt like it was being awakened again.

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Alpaca dinner

On my last night in Cusco, I went to the briefing meeting with my Inca Trail group. Based on a recommendation from a friend, I had booked to do my trek with SAS Travel. I was a bit unsure how well I’d get along with everyone. Although a natural extrovert, I've lived alone for a while and have gotten used to having my own space and down time - I wasn't sure how I felt about spending 5 days straight with strangers. We met our guide, Danny, who seemed a bit of a loose cannon. He didn’t do introductions and the briefing was pretty unorganized. But, I needed to remember that I wasn’t in the US anymore, and I wasn’t at work - not everything needs to be so structured! He explained what to expect over the next 4-5 days - approximately 7 hours of hiking every day (see SAS map below for details on the trek). The highest point we would reach was 4,198 m/13,773 ft. What had I signed up for?

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Posted by alwaysexploring 19.11.2012 17:00 Archived in Peru Tagged cusco women_travellers inspirational_travellers Comments (0)

Lima

When deciding what to do my vacation time for 2012, I was torn between taking a trip home to Australia, or to take a “proper” holiday and go travel. As nice as it is to go home, to me it doesn’t count as a holiday. There isn’t really any exploring, just lots of running around and co-ordinating get togethers with friends and fam. Aside from Australia, I hadn’t been overseas in over a year, and I was itching to travel. Machu Picchu has been on my list for a while, so Peru it was.

When planning the trip, I felt I needed to do the trip on my own. I was so excited in the planning of the trip, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was traveling on my own to a country where I didn’t speak the language. It wasn’t until I was in Miami waiting for my flight to Lima that the reality suddenly hit me – I don’t speak Spanish. It’s a developing country and I was probably going to experience some culture shock. All the guide books, US and Australian Government travel advice was to “Exercise a high degree of caution” in Peru. The “Women travelers” section in the Lonely Planet guide didn’t paint a very pretty picture of Peru either. Then it was like I had my grandma sitting my shoulder, planting little doubts in my mind by listing all the things that could go wrong. [Insert irrational panic]. I reassured myself by thinking that all the travel advice is over cautious, and that I’d be fine. I’ve done a lot of travel on my own and I was always fine – go about with confidence, and people will leave you alone, right? Go with that. I boarded the plane, replacing my nerves with excitement.

When I arrived in Lima, the hotel was meant to send a taxi, but it wasn't there. The nerves returned – I'd read about being careful about which taxis to take because you could get kidnapped (perhaps I read too much…). But I remembered I’d also read that there were official taxis that you could get from going to the information desk. I managed to find it and arrived at my accommodation in one piece.

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Lima, to me, is just another big city – bad traffic, lots of restaurants and shops, and people bustling on the streets. I had one night when I first arrived, and another two nights before I flew back to Chicago. I could have done with just two nights. I stayed in the touristy neighbourhood near the water called Miraflores (pictured above). On my first day, I was sitting and enjoying the view whilst looking in the Lonely Planet guide. I was thinking there wasn’t much in Lima that I wanted to see, when a guy came up and asked, “Does it have any good suggestions?” It was Charles, from Seattle but currently living in Shanghai. He spoke Spanish, which came in very handy. (He also spoke better Mandarin than I, after only being there for 4 months, putting my 13 years of Chinese school to shame). I had to giggle at myself because my magnetism for gay men seemed to work abroad as well as in Chicago. We did a city tour that took us the San Francisco church (shown below) that had catacombs in the basement. I’ve never seen human bones like this and it made me feel a bit squirmish. We learnt about all the earthquakes that Peru has endured, being on a fault line, and a bit of the history of Lima. I parted ways with my new friend after the tour, knowing we’d cross paths again somewhere around the world.

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More photos here.

Posted by alwaysexploring 17.11.2012 21:13 Archived in Peru Tagged lima Comments (0)

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