Posts Tagged With: Machu Picchu

First Mission In Europe: The United Kingdom, Stonehenge

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That’s me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

Nobody likes a nag. So why is my backpack acting like one?

“Time to pack, Michael!”

“Get cracking, Michael!”

“Don’t wait until the last minute, Michael”

“You need to do this, Michael!

“I need your attention, Michael!”

Blah blah blah blah blah bluh bluh bluh….SHUT UP ALREADY!

Sorry, didn’t mean to lose my cool. I  don’t usually lose my cool. I have to be *really* pushed to lose it. I definitely shouldn’t let a dumb backpack get to me.

But Kelty– that’s my backpack’s name – is right to nag. I do need to get on with packing. Otherwise, I’m going to find myself up against a wall I don’t really need  to climb.

And misleading them! 🙂 I kid. Here, leading a CouchSurf bike tour of South Beach. Photo swiped from Rob Greeley, whose camera needs a time check 🙂

This is my last full week in Miami, and I really should start packing this week. Next week I leave for London to restart my world trip. First big mission, a trip to Stonehenge and an attempt to topple it. Okay, Scotland Yard, that’s a joke. I will not attempt to knock down your piled on flat stones. Who do you think I am, Monty Python?

I just want to see this mysterious centuries-old structure. It’s just one of those ancient ruins (is that what it is?) I’ve wanted to see for as long as I can remember. For me, it’s a must-see wonder on par with others I’ve already seen:  the Eiffel Tower; the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the Statue of Liberty; Machu Picchu; the Great Wall of China; and others I’ve yet to see: the Egyptian Pyramids and so many others. And yet, it’s one of those that get an “awesome!” that you plan to visit, to a “why?” would you want to see that? And I must say, most of the negative feedback about visiting Stonehenge has been coming from people who are British and largely live in London. It’s a total bore, is what I’m getting. Really?  Maybe they need to stand on their heads and have another look 🙂

No matter, I’m still determined to go. If once I get there, have a look and yawn, so be it. I would have at least fulfilled a wish, even if I have to look at it from every angle, including on my head, to see something of significance in it. I am of the school that things aren’t boring, people are.

So since I expect to encounter all sorts of weather in Europe, even in full on summer, I need to start sorting out now what I will need to pack, and yet keep the stuff I intend to lug around to a minimum. Packing for all kinds of climates is a huge challenge. You need cool clothing for summer; warm for the cold and snow, and waterproof  for rainy days and London.  I plan to do some camping, so must make room for my tent. My hammock would be nice to have along, but that may be a luxury – and extra weight – my shoulders and back can’t afford. Hammock stays home. I think 🙂

And having a good time! Here, with the co-owners of the The Abbey Brewing Company in Miami Beach, celebrating the bar’s 17th anniversary. Co-owner Carlos is on the left in green shirt, and co-owner Ray in tie-dye shirt is next to me. The people in the middle, well, I have no idea who they are! 🙂 I joke. They are the contractors who built The Abbey 17 years ago and expanded it last year.

A rant about these past three months in Miami. I am really glad I came back and spent them in Miami and Miami Beach and places in between. Meeting old friends and making new ones showed me how much my year away in South America changed me. You can’t go away on a journey for that length of time and experience different cultures and not be changed, hopefully for the better. Miami allowed me to clearly see the good and the bad in people I thought I knew. When you’ve spent a year in the Third World, the negativity of too many people in the First World bursts forth with a bang. In these three months, I often sat listening to a friend or acquaintance go on and on about his or her woes and thinking in the midst of their baffling discourse: “You think you have problems, try living like most in rural Villavieja, Colombia, or urban Quito, Ecuador. I am, of course, not minimizing the problems people face day in and day out, but some of y’all need to get some real problems. In his song, “You Will Know”, Stevie Wonders rightly recites “Problems have solutions”, and indeed they do for most of us in the First World, with our First World educations and First World resources. But again, some just live for drama. They’re miserable without it. Travel makes you see that your “problems” pale and a positive outcome of that is that it makes you get off your behind, quit feeling sorry for yourself, and address the problems head-on with solutions.

In short, more than learning about friends, I learned something about myself: that I am a different person, more analytical and less critical, and far less judgmental. I returned to Miami, I think, improved as a human being, with greater compassion and caring for the planet and the people who live in it. At times I was tested. But I think I emerged on top and right. So now, as I continue this journey – this time across largely First World countries in Europe – I believe my year in South America will serve me well. My plan is to spend the rest of the year in Europe, and perhaps even the beginning of 2013. Brrrrrrrr…European winter, yes, I know.

As I make my way across the United Kingdom, up to Scotland and Ireland, I will have time to decide whether or not to return to London for the 2012 Olympics. London during the Olympics could be a lot of fun – or a huge mistake. One part of me screams that an international event of this magnitude is a big target for would-be terrorists, at worst, and at best, an overcrowded city overrun by chaos. But the Summer Olympics happens only every four years, so what a wonderful opportunity to experience it, no?  We’ll see. Plenty of time to decide.

So, I bid you adieu, ciao, goodbye, adios Miami. And I say hello Europe at the end of the month. I look… I mean I really, really look forward to seeing my friends scattered across Europe, who have been patiently awaiting my arrival. I know that because they keep asking me when will I get there! I can’t wait.

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A Love Letter To Ugly Americans

When traveling abroad, some things you just have to accept and learn to live without. My last grande soy vanilla latte, four months ago, in Piura, Peru. Haven't seen a Starbucks since then.

This is my love letter to you, my dear Ugly American. There are things I so love about you, that I’m willing to hang in there with you for the sake of our relationship, stick it out for the long haul, make our time spent together abroad work.

Oh, sure, you can be loud, arrogant and disrespectful of the customs and cultures of others, and there were times you made me cringe, but we share so much in common that I’m willing to forgive your overseas foibles – well most of them.

I still somehow can’t bring myself to forgive your decision to climb that fragile stone archway to that ancient sacred temple in Machu Picchu, despite posted signs not to do so. No, you didn’t care. All you cared about was snapping some “cool” photo to text to your Facebook friends. And when a group of stunned visitors – myself included – implored you to get down, your reaction was classic Ugly American, spitting out f-bombs and telling all to “mind your f’u****ng business!” Oh, you were brilliant that day.

And when you threw that large rock down an Inca well that has stood for centuries, simply to check if there was actually water at the bottom, remember how angry I got? Oh, and how could I ever forgive or forget the time you tossed your empty Coke can toward a trash can in Barcelona and missed? You didn’t even think to pick it up, did you? No way. That’s just not your style. But, you know what, I applaud your effort to at least put it in the trash bin.

I…Oh wait, remember that summer we spent in West Africa? You proceeded to offend every person with whom you came in contact. You snapped your fingers at waiters like they were dogs, complained about everything, demanded the comforts of home, and when you couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, well, that’s when you completely lost it.

I know you as an American expect -wait, demand! -that any given country you visit be like America in comfort, custom and language. In short, in every way. So you get incensed that nobody in Middle Of Nowhere, Boltusa, speaks a lick of English. Heavens to Betsy! The Boltusans speak only Boltusan! What gives?!

As we’ve traveled around the world, the one question you’ve never heard me ask on approach of a local person is “Excuse me, do you speak English? That question lobbed at locals in Not My Country irritates me to no end. Think about it. You are in Your Hometown, U.S.A., and you’re approached suddenly by some inappropriately dressed jughead with a camera that looks aimed at you who asks: ” ‘Scuse me, do you speak Boltusan?”

Of course, your response would be a quizzical no. And  would you expect the Boltusan to get angry that for the past five minutes he’s been striking out finding anyone in America who speaks his language?

Okay, I see you right about now scratching your head wondering where in God‘s name is Boltusa? You are notoriously geographically challenged, I know. And you are widely known as a monolingual species. So let me bring it back to reality. [Forget trying to Google Boltusa! It doesn’t exist. I made it up to make a point. Sheeez, you know so little about the world. ]

Okay, stay with me this time. Imagine the French, who are notoriously fixated on keeping France free of American culture – a losing battle that at times compels them to issue the most stupid declarations in the name of conserving French purity – visiting the United States and expecting every other American he or she encounters to speak French. Now do you get it?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You are breathing fire at this point and firing up your e-mail mailer to teach me a lesson. But I heard it all before. You will tell me that English is the world’s common language, and that it’s spoken everywhere, so it should be normal for you or anyone else to ask that question and expect an affirmative answer. I say to you and them check your attitude on the Ugly American scale. Where is it written, dearest one, that it is the responsibility of locals to learn your language for your convenience? And who came up with the rules that the good people of Boltusa – sorry – must have English at the ready and deliver it at your command? Worst yet, why do you grow so angry if  the lovely Boltusans only speak their native language?

Let me share with you this story.

I once met a man from Ohio on a train platform in Japan who walked over to me and asked “Are you American?” When I responded yes, he said: “Thank goodness, someone who speaks English! Can’t find anybody who speaks English in this God-forsaken country!” Really Mr. Ohio?

Not a fact that in Japan it’s hard to find people who speak English, but if that were the case, why be surprised? You are in Japan, my good man, where they speak Japanese!

If I am planning a trip to Japan or Boltusa -can’t let it go – the first thing I do is try to learn a few survival words and phrases in Japanese and Boltusan. If I make the attempt to speak Japanese and fail and the Japanese person responds to me in English out of the kindness of his heart, great! I at least didn’t insult him by expecting him to speak my native language. That’s what mainly drives the French nuts about Americans. I don’t believe it’s a French unwillingness to speak English. I believe the French rightly get incensed when Americans on first approach practically demand that the French person direct them to the Louvre but do it in English, please, and thank you for speaking the dominant language. Perhaps these Americans who didn’t take the time to learn a few simple phrases in whatever native language should have stayed home in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A., where everyone speaks English. Well, almost everyone.

I suggest a better approach is to first try to communicate with the person in their own language combined with the true international language: point, gesture, smile. Give the local person the respect and courtesy and allow them the switch to English, if they so desire. Nine times out of 10, people who speak English in addition to their native language will gladly speak to you in English if you are struggling with their language. And they appreciate your attempt to first try to communicate in their native tongue. But strutting around the street like a bull asking one person after the other the dreaded “Do you speak English” question labels you right off the bat as an Ugly American and some locals – some French are evil about this – will say they don’t speak English, even if they do, just to stick it to you. Why? Because you are the umpteenth American to ask that question.

Two "ugly Americans" of another sort left in the wild in Chile

Another story, dear one, if you please.

On my third trip to Paris I was with an American woman I met during a casual stroll on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Together we had reached the imposing bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle and we had questions.

“Excuse me, we need someone who speaks English to explain this statue,” she shouted to the first presumed Frenchman who walked by. His response, in English with a strong French accent: “You are in France. We speak French. You must try it.”

As the man kept walking, my very temporary travel companion blurted out “How rude!”

“How rude, indeed,” I said. “How rude of you!”

I spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince her that she was in the wrong. She never got it. We parted ways when we reached the statue of Winston Churchill, the one with the words “We Shall Never Surrender.” Can’t you just hear Churchill saying those words? I will never give up on you – surrender, if you will – dear Ugly American. The world is a different place and you must come around. So surrender those bad habits that make me, and I’m sure others, cringe.

In very few instances, say in a life or death situation, should you approach someone with the “Do you speak English” question. That’s different. There’s no problem there.

I love to be with you abroad, dearest compatriot American, though you know I’d rather spend time with local people. This notion that all Americans must flock together in a “we” versus “them” front is warped. Of course, I’ll hang out with one or two of my compatriots but you do know if they start to keep me from my mission of being with locals I bid them adieu. Ah, did you like my use of French there?

Not that I don’t find my traveling compatriots interesting – many of them are – it’s that I find the Boltusans far more fascinating.

Please, allow me one more travel tale.

I was in Beijing, China, for about a month some years ago and was doing just fine eating Chinese food. It was delicious and healthy! And I was even speaking enough Chinese to get around on my own. Then I met a group of prissy American girls who told me they, too, had been in China for a month and they were “sick of Chinese food.” They said they had spotted a Pizza Hut and invited me to join them. After I told them I found the food in China amazing, I nevertheless decided to join them at Pizza Hut, where, one of them pointed out, “the signs, even the menu is in English.” Umm, did she say her name was Ditz?

The first bite into a slice of the pizza I thought it had a weird taste. I took a second bite and still felt it didn’t taste quite like the pizza from home. At a slice and a half I quit eating. That day is etched in my mind as a pivotal moment in my travel history. I thought I was going to die in China of some uncharted form of food poisoning. The pizza made me so sick, I broke out in a cold sweat, spending countless hours on the toilet, then weak and bedridden for a week! Under the care of a Chinese doctor who gave me natural Chinese medicines, I was able to bounce back, but was so weak for days after I was barely able walk. Lesson learned: stick to local cuisine that is working for you and stay away from prissy Ugly American girls who look and sound like they’re from the California valley.

A final story, I promise.

This week I witnessed a culture clash between Americans and Chileans. And it was ugly. It ended badly. And it left individuals on both sides of the cultural divide with battered feelings. And it was all just a series of misconceptions that blew up into misunderstandings and produced casualties of a cultural war.

I am not suggesting that the teachers at the institute where I teach English are Ugly Americans. They very well  may be, but I don’t know them enough to say. I do know that some of them expect things to be the way they are in the United States, all nice and neat and orderly, and that isn’t always the case in many countries.

Complain and try as we might, Americans will never succeed in forcing others to conform to American ways and standards, especially in the workplace. This holds true for Chile. Chileans admit that they are a notoriously tardy people. They joke about it. Set a meeting for noon, you’re lucky if it happens a half-hour later. More likely than not, it happens an hour or more later or not at all. Or try to get Chileans to follow through on anything.  Or do what they say they will do “al tiro”, meaning right away. Doesn’t happen. This irritates the heck out of Americans for whom punctuality and keeping your word are important in a work environment. Chileans are irritated by Americans’ seeming lack of flexibility. But the way I see it, it’s not my country, I’m just a guest. So who am I to try to change the way people run their country? Mine has enough problems to be fixed. In six months, I will be in another country with different customs and ideals. Shall I try to change them, too?

I say as long as no one has a foot firmly planted on my bald head, I will work with what I have to work with, be it Chile, France, Japan or Boltusa. To get angry, throw adult tantrums or insist that things be a certain way in a country that is not your own is to be an Ugly American.

Want to speak English only. Stay in America or travel to English-speaking countries. Try Britain. You won’t understand half of what comes out of their mouth anyway. Want the comforts of home. Bring it with you or stay home. Hate Chinese food? Don’t go to China!

All this I say out of love, dear Ugly American. Because I know you will have a more pleasant experience traveling abroad if you let go of your ugly ways. And I won’t have to keep explaining YOU.

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What Has Stuck With Me About This Place Peru

EAT, SMILE, EAT, REPEAT:

The New York Times said it a bunch of times. Other newspapers and magazines have been saying it. And a gazillion trillion others have continued to echo it: Peru has the best cuisine in the world! But don’t listen to any of them. What do they know? Listen to me. It’s true! I may not be able to cook a lick, but I know food that goes beyond the ordinary when I see and taste it. I have not had one bad meal in Peru. You just have to know where to look, but you don’t have to look very hard or even far. Just about anywhere you turn in Peru, you will bump into great cooking. People who know a great deal more about food than I do credit Peru’s diverse cultures that have borrowed from each other – a spice or two here, a cooking method there – to create unique dishes and presentations. So Europe meets Africa meets Asia meet Indigenous meet in Peru! And Le Cordon Bleu Peru continues to crank out skilled chefs in the great tradition of the acclaimed Gaston Acurio. I had the pleasure of dining at two of Acurio’s restaurants – Tanta in Lima and ChiCha in Cuzco – and it made me happier than a fat kid in a bakery. The dishes were a burst of flavors. At ChiCha  where I struggled to get a table, I had a seafood risotto that was killer. I ate every grain and wanted more. And just as ChiCha, I found Tanta purely by accident: I was walking around looking for a place to eat and noticed the crowds. If you don’t take my word for it, listen to the New York Times and the gazillion trillions. And the other newspapers and magazines that have continued to extoll Peru as a gastronomic powerhouse. It truly is.

WITHOUT ME YOU ARE NOTHING!: 

Peru has a race and class problem that has led to a bit of an  identity crisis. You see, white, wealthier Peruvians tend to look down at the Afro-Peruvian and indigenous populations. They don’t value them. If anything, they treat them as a thing to be scorned.  Of course I’m not talking about all Euro-Peruvians, those with Spanish backgrounds. Just some. It’s not talked about much. But ask any Peruvian about it and they will open up about it. A great deal of this disdain is reserved for the indigenous population. You hear the word “cholo” directed at the indigenous population and you know it’s not exactly a compliment.  This has lead to young descendants of the Incas denying their heritage. Some refuse to learn or speak Quechua. They are conflicted about who they are. They want to be identified as anything but from indigenous stock. And yet, were it not for their culture and the heritage that their ancestors built, Peru would lose a huge chunk of its tourism. You think the tourists are coming to see white Euro-Peruvians dressed in their suits and ties? No, they want to take home photos posing with indigenous people in Machu Picchu. Snap your finger and rid yourselves of the indigenous populations and Peru would be just another mediocre country known for not very much.  Well, except it’s good eats J Anyway. It’s time the indigenous populations of Peru – Cuzco, by the way, is somewhat of an exception – start fully embracing who they are and that white Peruvians stop painting them as low class nothings.

THAT’S SO RUDE!:

Okay, so I completely understand that what works for the United States and other supposed “civilized” and “refined” countries doesn’t necessarily work in other countries where chaos is somewhat of a norm. But rude to me is rude. If I’m standing in a crowd watching a parade and you come along and shove me aside to get a view of the parade with not an “excuse me” or “sorry” you are rude! rude! rude! Pushing and shoving people to take their spot was a daily occurrence in Cuzco. I thought at first it was an individual and isolated thing but it just kept happening. So I asked several Peruvians from Cuzco about it and they all said the same thing. That they were aware of this rude behavior and that it was due in part to people simply not being taught manners at home. It’s accepted behavior. Other outsiders – i.e. visitors – experienced this and also wondered about it. Sorry to say this behavior was largely in the indigenous population, i.e., poor and largely un- or miseducated.  Now, I’m taller than most in Peru, so being shoved to the back didn’t trouble me much. I could still get a good view over the people in front of me. But still, manners, manners!

THE PRICE IS WRONG!:

Cuzco is so expensive  it has priced out even Peruvians. Many Peruvians are poor and can’t afford to travel beyond their borders. But I found it interesting that many Peruvians can’t afford to visit Machu Picchu and never have. The entrance fee, the transportation and other related costs put Machu Picchu and other Inca sites out of reach. I understand that governments try to squeeze every dollar or euro out of tourists, but they some seriously need to evaluate the money they ask their citizens to pay. This is especially true of Peru. One of the employees at my hotel said he had been to Machu Picchu only because someone else paid the costs, but his wife – a Peruvian born and raised in Cuzco – had never been to the site. They simply could not afford it. Just about every South American country has two or three different prices – one higher price for tourists, one for citizens of the country and one for locals. Galapagos, for instance, has such a system in which locals pay no entry fees or very little. Peru, it’s time you get a clue.

WARTS AND ALL:

With all its faults, Peru is magical, breathtaking, beautiful, fun, and rich in Pre-Columbian and colonial history. And the civilization that the Incas built is everywhere, not just Machu Picchu. I loved Peru!

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