Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ring in the New Year 2012

Here we're sitting in the Hilton Budapest Executive Lounge, snacking on goodies and sipping Hungarian red wine, reflecting on the past 30 hours or so here in what used to be called the Paris of Eastern Europe.

The Hungarian House of Parliament
After arriving here yesterday afternoon by plane from Dortmund, Sabine and I have been trying to slowly get a grasp of this European capital that was never really Communist and is certainly not really Capitalist now. It's not a place where one goes to shop; like Vienna, it moves a little slower than some of the glitzy metropolises of the west. One comes here to catch a glimpse of the past with the amenities of the present. Case in point: our digs in the Hilton.
One of the amazingly (really) steep and (really) fast escalators in Budapest's underground system
Budapest (and Hungary) have a few claims to "firsts," among them the use of the word "hello," which was used by a Hungarian operator of the first telephone line from Boston to somewhere—"hallom" simply meant "I hear you." Also, the first subway ran here in Budapest, a tiny little thing that has not changed much from Line 2, which took us to ... the baths. And really, for me, the main thing in coming to Budapest was just that: sharing some of the city's many baths with Sabine.
A man after my own mustache: Tas, one of the legendary Magyars

Today we paid a four-and-a-half hour visit to the Szechenyi baths close to Heroes Square and City Park, on the Pest side of Budapest. (Buda is the old-town area with the castle and also the stunning Hilton, where we are staying.) It was Saturday and New Year's Eve all in one, so people were out in droves to either ice-skate or take the waters. We took the waters.
Winter Wonderland in City Park
For about $10 one buys weekend admittance to the largest of all the spa complexes in Budapest, and if you've ever seen the iconic travel-guide picture of the old fellows playing chess while sitting in what seems to be steaming water, well, you've seen a pic of Szechenyi. We spent most of the day either inside of the sprawling complex, sitting with dozens and hundreds of people in small and large basins with sulfuric (or plain) water at temperatures from 16 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees—about 66 F to right around 100 F). Old and young, skinny and fat, Speedo-clad or Bermuda-shorted, they come out en masse. THIS is what you do in Budapest! There are flip-flops everywhere, people stroll between basins, and bottles of water mingle with bottles of vodka, beer, and champagne. It's life, man!
Old and young, lovers and singles, skinny and fat—they all participate
Indoors are the various medicinal baths, while the outside features two symmetrical 36 C basins and a lap-swimming pool. Better wear your bathing cap to swim laps, lest you want to be rudely told by the lifeguard to get out of the water! Bottles of champagne abounded, probably because it was New Year's Eve, and beer flowed happily thanks to the on-site commissary.
Ringing in the New Year in a Speedo
Yes, we did see the iconoclastic chess players, and yes, I am sure that the fat guys in the four-sizes-too-small Speedos would have stood around with a beer in their hands even if the sun had not shone brilliantly, warming the air temp to about 5 C.
Using the noggin while getting pruny
I decided that, by golly, next time I go to Budapest I will bring my own Speedo, which by now is about appropriate for Hungarian haute couture. We spent an absolutely fabulous day, taking the waters.
Taking the waters in Budapest

And now it is almost time to get gussied up for tonight's New Year's Eve celebrations. I've made reservations for the Budapest Jazz Club's NYE bufe and jam session, and it's about 7:30 p.m., and we better find something to wear. Well, not what you think: Last night we had tried to have a late-night beer in the trendy district where the cool pubs are, and every time we opened a door we simply couldn't make ourselves cut through the unbelievable curtain of smoke! While most of Europe has gone smoke-free in most commercial establishments, Hungary has no such restrictions, and it seemed as if every smoker in the rest of Europe has now been banished to one fo these pubs to create the second coming of Mount Vesuvius. So, when I bought tonight's tickets online a few days ago I did not take the smoking factor into consideration, and thus we may get pipped hard. So, whatever we wear tonight, it will probably already be stained, spilled with beer, and rolled over by a truck because we know that when we get home tonight, we will stink to High Heaven.

With that happy thought, here's a very Happy New Year from Budapest, wherever you may be!
Happy New Year 2012!!!!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy 80th Birthday, Dad! And Merry Christmas To Y'All!

And while we're at it, Happy First Anniversary, misterjurgen.blogspot!

But first things first: Today, on Christmas Eve 2011, my dad is celebrating his 80th birthday, here in Berlin. Well, he tries to celebrate as little as possible because he has never been too fond of birthdays, but such a round number is difficult to ignore, even for him. In the background I can hear the fourth congratulatory phone call of the morning ringing, interrupting his usual routine of reading the newspapers on his computer while puffing on a cigarette. "Festive" is not a word in his active vocabulary, and getting a smile out of him this morning over breakfast with two of his small presents took some real cunning.
Happy 80th, old man!
Christmas Eve is a much bigger thing in Germany than in the US as presents are distributed late in the day. There's a simple reason: Santa Claus has to come by in the evening of the 24th so that he can visit all those kids in the Americas by morning! So, with that in mind, we will be picked up this afternoon by one of my dad's grand-kids (my nephew Dennis) for the short drive over to my brother's den, where we will celebrate birthday and Christmas with an 8-person dinner. After that we will exchange gifts, which is always a multi-hour affair even though my brother's two kids are starting to grow up. I spent yesterday afternoon packing little knicks and little knacks that I have brought over with me. I feel like Santa Claus.
Santa Jürgen wrapped for hours...

And finally, this blog entry—number 91—represents an anniversary of its own: It was exactly 365 days ago that I started the Jürgen Chronicles, which, according to my buddy Howard, are labeled way too Narnia-ish and should rather be given the moniker Jürgen's Stories (Without All The Naughty Bits). When I started the blog I had just recently started a new life, the one without Judy. On December 25 of last year, I expressed hope that "this blog will allow me to go back in time and look upon where I was one month, one year, maybe longer ago." I wanted to share with friends and family what might become of me, without being intrusive in the form of a barrage of e-mails or the like. Well, almost 12,000 hits later (man, maybe I should try to "monetize" this blog!) I am assured that there is some relevance to at least some of the posts, enough of it to make some of you come back on a regular basis. For me the blog has evolved into a conversation with you, a way to share my absolutely wonderful life with all its many facets.

So, with all of that said: Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, and to a Healthy & Happy New Year 2012!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Logistics of a successful trip

While I am sipping a Sierra Nevada in the Admiral's Club in DFW's D Terminal, I am finally finding the time to write this brief entry that is as much meant to remind me in the months to come of the logistics of my Peru trip as it might serve as some inspiration for you to go out and seek some adventure.

Looking back on my Peru trip, I am still amazed how everything came together with such ease. The internet has most certainly made foreign travel an easier proposition, with information at our fingertips that we could have never found just 20 years ago. I had decided on this trip after seeing a post on FlyerTalk in regard to good connections to Cuzco. Hmm, I thought, I wonder how much a ticket would cost me? When I say "cost," I was thinking along the lines of "how many frequent flier miles would I have to invest," since I had already requalified for Executive Platinum for 2012 and thus could actually burn a few of my (tidy stash of) miles. A quick search on American's website yielded a huge surprise: On two dates in early December, one week apart, I could snag a First Class ticket (not Economy) from Lubbock all the way to Cuzco and back for a paltry 35,000 miles. To put this in perspective: With my EXP bonus, I will be credited a little more than 23,000 miles for today's trip to Germany (my reason for being in the AC) and back. Buying an Economy ticket would have cost me, for the same dates, about $1,600. The $80 in taxes that I had to ante up covered two internal Peruvian airport departure taxes fo $16 each plus the international departure tax out of Lima, at $36. The rest was the usual silliness fees.

So, the flight was easy. But how about getting to Machu Picchu? Martha and Alan had hired a tour organizer for their trip this summer, and from talking to them I realized that travel from Cuzco to MP is not as easy as just hopping on a local bus. The guidebook, which I finally pulled out maybe five days before my departure, only reinforced that. Limited entry tickets to MP, the need for a private driver or taxi, expensive and limited train travel—they all started to rear their ugly heads. So I did what M&A had done, scour the internet and find a tour operator (and there are many for Peru, a tourist destination!). Yure Chavez was very quick in replying to my inquiry only four days before my departure, and he suggested a trip that pretty much coincided with what the guidebook described. I was ready to pull the trigger, at a land-cost of close to a grand for five days—mind you, time was advancing quickly now, and the last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize my chances of actually seeing Machu Picchu because all the tickets were sold out. But then there were problems with making my lousy deposit—no credit cards, no PayPal, only a bank transfer to a bank in AZ or NM which involved a fee, plus another 3% convenience fee. Well, the thrifty (and also the independent and stubborn) Jürgen came out of me, and I said to myself, dammit, I can book this myself! And so I did, thanks to the internet. Four hotels, each at $35 to $40, via and; the train via; and the attempt to reserve MP tickets via the government website—which turned out to be futile since the site has problems accepting payments. With the help of one of the inn-keepers (Chrissie from the Apulodge in Ollantaytambo) I even arranged for a driver for a day.

So when I arrived in Lima at almost 1 a.m. after flying LBB-DFW-MIA-LIM, I knew that only a few hours later I'd be in Cuzco and at least have a hotel. With an early-morning flight at 7 a.m. I simply bunked out in the terminal, a safe, clean place where other travelers were catching some zzzs, too. After getting to Cuzco, I started to walk away from the airport to avoid the usual tourist trappings and hailed a taxi a mile later. My $40 hotel—clean, with a good bed and a hot shower, and a fabulous buffet breakfast—was awaiting me. Note: Peruvian hotels have early check-in and check-out times; this one had to be vacated by 9:30 a.m., and at 10:00 a.m. was the check-in. Of course, it is light by 5 a.m.

While in Cuzco my most immediate concern was to snag MP tickets, and after a bit of a wild-goose chase that took me to three or four different places upon the advice of the guidebook, the hotel, police officers, and a tourism employee, I ended up in a tour operator's den just off the Plaza de las Armas who arranged for my two one-day tickets for a surcharge of about $3 per day. Money well spent!

The last worry that I had was the train, as the railroad's website (the thing is owned by the same company that also owns the Orient Express) is rather adamant that no luggage larger than a small backpack and weighing no more than about 12 pounds will be allowed on the train. With that in mind (and also to lighten my own load) I had packed in the minimalist fashion. Those who know me have observed me usually carrying everything plus the kitchen sink and a bicycle around, so this was definitely a challenge. I used a simple GoLite backpack (without internal or external frame) to pack two wool Icebreaker undershirts, another Icebreaker zippered wool top, two ExOfficio travel shirts, one extra pair of lightweight zip-off travel pants, a few pieces of underwear, and several DeFeet's Woollie Boollie socks. A light pair of Cushe slip-ons provided relief after the hiking boots came off after a long day in the ruins. Additionally, I used one of Patagonia's super-light down jackets and a GoLite GoreTex raincoat. I never needed the (fairly heavy) umbrella, but the Marmot GoreTex rain hat came in handy as a sun hat that shielded my neck. Add the toothbrush kit, a small GoLite day pack, a guide book, a flashlight, various adapters, the iPod, and the Nook, and I had a tidy bundle that did not set off the alarms in the train. I surprised myself. The magic about wool is that you can wear it for days on end, sweat in it like crazy (and I did!), dry off, and then repeat the cycle, and you still don't stink! And today's Merino wool garments are so soft you'd think you wear silk or the softest organic cotton you can imagine. The stuff ain't cheap, but it's magical.

Knowing Spanish obviously helped, and with my various drivers it worked the intended effect—one comes across as less of a tourist or gringo. But if you don't speak Spanish, you'll be just fine in Peru, where many, many people speak English. It's a tourist destination, after all, and it's not France! (Just kidding!)

The whole trip cost me about $800, plus the 35,000 miles. That includes five nights' hotels (the cheapest, in Lima on my last night, the very pleasant Hostal Las Fresas at $13!), the train ($100), entry fees to all the sites mentioned in my blog entries (maybe somewhere around $150), my driver for the day and his tip ($110), the bus up to MP ($45), various taxis, transfers, and other buses, good meals and quite a few beers (not cheap in the expat bars), and a few souvenirs. I figure that's not too bad for a week-long trip of a lifetime, in First Class at times, on the airport floor at others. You got to go with the flow, and you need to be a bit flexible. Had I gone with Yure's outfit it would have been a few hundred more. Travel doesn't have to be expensive to be rewarding.

If you want more information because you are thinking that you might want to go to Peru, well, you know how to get a hold of me.

And now it's time to drink the last of my (second) Sierra Nevada and get ready for my Business Class flight to London. If my memory doesn't fail me I wrote an explanation of how one can invest a moderate amount of money into one's travel and then start to travel upfront, but I'm always happy to explain....


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Well folks, I'm sorry that it has taken a few extra days for me to finally start this blog entry, three days after returning to Lubbock. Since my last entry I have managed to add a fair number of additional photos to my earlier posts, but this is the first time for me to actually sit down, collect my thoughts, and write a few more lines about this unforgettable trip to South America.

Altogether, I spent 4½ days "on the ground" in Peru, but it seemed like weeks. In my last entry you had read about Day Two, a day marked by brilliant sunshine and a veritable smorgasbord of visual stimuli. My driver had taken me to the wild animal refuge, the ruins (and rather touristy market) of Pisac, and then to the high-elevation town of Chinchero at more than 12,000 feet. On the way to Ollantaytambo, where I was going to spend the night, we detoured to two more tourist attractions. First there were the salineras close to Maras, salt pans that are communal property that have been "farmed" since pre-Inca times. A small rivulet of super-salty water exits the ground, and the water is channeled through an intricate system of tiny canals into the many hundreds of salt pans, none of which is much bigger than a hottub and only a few inches deep. The intricately terraced site produces—through evaporation and a skilled collection process—thousands of pounds of pure salt that is supposed to have medicinal value and is an outstanding choice for the discriminating cook. More importantly for the itinerant tourist is the absolutely stunning visual impact—please remember that clicking on a photo will open it with much more detail:
Hundreds of salt pans above the Sacred Valley close to Maras
Salt that is ready to be collected

Check the salt-encrusted hands and feet of these local salt "farmers"
Close-up of the salt crystals
The contrast between deep, blue sky, the white of the salineras, and the verdant green of the Sacred Valley far below was overwhelming. Rarely have I seen something as unusual as this.

Onward we drove, across what looked like something out of movie from Mongolia. Sheep, potato fields, earth-tone colors, glaciers, and immense skies made for an unforgettable tableau.
Is this Mongolia or Mars?
Eventually we arrived at Moray, an ancient Inca agricultural laboratory where the best growing conditions and species improvements were researched in intricately designed growing terraces that featured a myriad of different growing conditions. it is said that each one of these terraces has a different microclimate, and that the Inca (who did not know how to write) kept detailed records by means of their quipus, strings of knotted yarn that served as memory aids. To descend the terraces one uses the projecting stone steps built into the walls.
The biggest of the three circular "labs"

The Inca improved the yield of crops through research

My driver and guide for the day, Jaime
Maybe you can understand why, after just these two days, I felt as if I had been traveling for weeks! So many impressions, so many sights—and the next one just around the corner, as I wasn't done for the day, yet. My hotel (the highly recommendable Apu Lodge in Ollantaytambo) is situated in a village that remains much the same as it was in the days of Mancu Inca's last stand against the Spaniards. Narrow, cobbled streets that are not fit for cars give Ollanta, as it is called, a historic charm that I found nowhere else in Peru. The ruins (there are actually two complexes on opposite sides of the valley) are spectacular.
Downtown Ollantaytambo
The lovely Apu Lodge in Ollanta
Looking from the ruins toward the ruins (more visible when enlarged)
I know, this is a long entry, but I can't help it: he highlight of the trip is about to come. It was in Ollanta that I caught the morning train to Machu Picchu, one of the most scenic rail journeys I have ever embarked on. when you look at the pics, please keep in mind that this was supposed to be the rainy season in Peru! I still can't believe my luck (even though my house doesn't have a good-luck charm like almost all places in Peru.
Good-luck charms abound on Peruvian roofs, covering marriage, work, and health
The train trip to Machu Picchu is not cheap. There are various comfort levels (I went with the least costly "Expedition" service and was quite comfy), and trips at different times of the day are priced differently. My ticket from Ollanta to MP (about 1½ hrs) and then back from MP to Cuzco two days later (about 4 hrs) cost $100. One explanation, of course, is that this train services mainly tourists, and the rail line is owned by the same company that also runs the fabled Orient Express. Anything having to do with MP and being involved with tourists carries a $$$ premium. Be that as it may, the train was on time, clean, and super-scenic.
Expedition # 83 servicing Machu Picchu rumbles into Ollanta Central
The train travels along the east bank of the Urubamba river, a wild river that eventually empties into the Amazon. The Sacred Valley narrows down considerably, and soon the mountain climb steeply from river's edge. i had to think of the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon as well as some of the impossible landscape in the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) of Mexico, where I had traveled before it became a tourist mecca in the 20 years ago. There are no roads that lead to Aguas Calientes, the small station that serves as a gateway to Machu Picchu. Come by train, or don't come.
Rolling downriver along the Urubamba, about to exit the Sacred Valley
Even the Expedition service features Vistadome windows
The valley narrows, and the vegetation slowly changes
The next two days I spent in Machu Picchu, which is at a much lower elevation (around 2,200 meters) than Cuzco (1,000 feet higher). I climbed around the ruins, hiked up to Huayna Pichu and the Sun Gate, and sat for hours in the sun, marveling at these exquisite ruins. Since it was low season the number of tourist seemed rather light, even though this was the 100th anniversary of the (re)discovery of MP by Hiram Bingham in July 1911. The hiking is not easy and my legs were pretty shot after two days of steep ups and downs, but every step is worth it if for nothing but the amazing vistas of the surrounding Andes. Here is a sample of the many pics I took.
Rainy season at Machu Picchu
80% of what you see is original, 20% is restored

The Urubamba surrounds MP and Huayna Picchu (the "sugar cone" in the back)
Remove the boards, and traversing this section becomes impossible

The "sun dial" in what may have been the main temple

Unbelievable stone work abounds

Vizcachas, a mixture of rabbit and squirrel, it seems
MP as seen from Huayna Picchu, early in the morning clouds
Macchu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the back

The clouds are lifting

In the afternoon of Day Four I took the late afternoon train back to Cuzco. No problems finding a taxi that took me the final 20 minutes from the terminal to my hotel (it was a rather entertaining trip as the driver chatted incessantly, telling me about his great desire for "cachar" (check the Andean meaning of the word if you can't guess it) and his inquiring into my sexual prowess and habits. I spent another half day in Cuzco on Tuesday, witnessing the big parade on occasion of the Dia de la Policia in the main square, wandering the local indoor and outdoor markets, and eating a final meal of alpaca before flying back to Lima in the afternoon.
Olives, not potatoes
Indigenous women wear some of the strangest hats
Chicha (a type of corn-based beer) street seller
This is a gigantic squid! I couldn't believe my eyes.
Too much chicha

Peru, land of 5,000 varieties of potatoes
Beans, peppers, spices, corn—all the good stuff in life
Fine beef tongues and other yummy parts

Modern art in the streets of Cuzco
Have a close look at the repair/patch job of these pants!
On Wednesday morning I started the 4,000+ mile trip back home via Miami (shame on ICE and Officer Cuneo, who thought it was necessary to treat me like a drug-running thug upon re-entering the good ol' US of A), and shortly before midnight I was back in the flat and rather unexciting Hub City. What a trip!

Thanks for reading. In the next day or two I'll add some info on the logistics of this trip.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

One of the Seven Wonders of the World: Machu Picchu

What an absolutely fascinating past two days it has been! I´ve seen ruins, salt mines, convents, glaciers, and the unbelievably scenic Sacred Valley, first by car, then by train following the swift and menacing Rio Urubamba all the way to the town of Aguas Calientes. And from here I have taken a final bus to one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.
It really looks like that!
I am sitting in an internet cafe in Aguas Calientes since the connection in the hotels is so incredibly slow that uploading any pictures is out of the question, and even so I´m not so sure how far I will get. So, I´ll invest a buck for an hour of access since I am bursting to tell you about how miraculous this country is. I´ve been to Ecuador and Bolivia, but what I had seen there cannot measure up to what I´ve been seeing here in just 48 hours. Here is a quick rundown of what I have been doing since leaving Cuzco 24 hours after my arrival.

A hairless Peruvian dog at the sanctuary
 Punctually at 7:00 a.m., my driver Jaime showed up at the Hotel Prisma in Cuzco. Jaime´s services had been arranged by Chrissie of the Apu Lodge where I was going to stay in Ollantataybamba last night. Jaime was from O. and must have left home early! Together we went on a grand tour of some of the finest sights of the Sacred Valley that stretches along the Rio Urubamba. On the way to our first stop in Pisac, where some of the most fantastic ruins are located that I have ever seen, we stopped at a small animal refuge where among llamas, alpacas, cougars, and condors I also saw my first pero Peruano, an almost hairless Peruvian breed. The condors with their 11-foot wingspan were impressive, and I even got to get close-up with a one-year-old condor.
Meet Alpaca (left) and Llama (right)—see the differences?
On we went, with us chatting about life in Peru, in the US, his kids, my retirement. Although I suspect that he spoke pretty good English we talked all day in Spanish, which is a good thing for me. Our next stop was the old Inca town of Pisaq, or Pisac in Spanish. Here we visited the terraced ruins that overlook the Sacred Valley. Just like at all the other places, we beat the tourist crowds by just a little bit, leaving when they arrived. It´s fantastic to have these places practically to oneself.
The Sacred Valley near Pisac
In the ruins of Pisac

After paying a short visit to the very touristy market in Pisac we drove on to Chinchero, high up on top of the world at something like 3,800 meters or so, topping 12,000 feet! There the Spaniards built a massive convent on top of old ruins, and once again the sight (and the view from up here) was spectacular. These windswept areas are barren of trees, and corn no longer grows here--it´s all potatoes, of which there are said to be 5,000 different varieties in Peru!
The old Spanish church at Chinchero

And this is where today´s entry has to stop. My time is up, and the video game that has been going full-blast inches to my right is driving me batty. For tomorrow I am planning another excursion to Machu Picchu (let´s see how badly I can hurt my legs tomorrow traipsing up and down all those steep trails) before I will take the late-afternoon train back to Cuzco. I will add more photos when possible (which could be as late as an Admirals Club on the way home), but they will come. I have some really cool ones and may have to add a slide show. There are also some very interesting videos, but they would take days to upload down here.

Also, my first entry from Peru now has a few pics. Yes, it took an hour to upload four photos!

Hasta luego,