Sunday, January 14, 2018

On the National Geographic Endeavor II

On the National Geographic Endeavor II...

my fellow guests were Doctors, lawyers, CFO’s, realtors, pharmaceutical researchers, IT Wizards, Board of Director members, college professors, factory owners and than...there was Me. 

My shipmates wore age appropriate clothing. They owned grownup luggage. I on the other hemisphere sported baggy black shorts, a tank top and carried a sweat stained backpack. Once again, this Jewish Gringo sort of stood out. 

With a five-figure per guest price tag, I shouldn’t have been too surprised. My Blue Collar ways and net worth were more in tune with the Crew than the Clientele. So...I decided to be an Equal Opportunity Grinner and chant English or Espanol salutations to all.  I didn’t want the other 93 guests (mostly families and couples) or 62 crew members to make me take a long walk off a short plank. I swim as well as a barbell. 

Before boarding, I read the brochure Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic sent to all us Darwin wannabes. It promised that “in no time, the ship will feel like home.” I had my doubts. First off, my old home didn’t sway with the ocean’s currents. Secondly, I envisioned my cabin to be a tiny affair with a miniature porthole for my ocean view. I wondered if my bed would be a hammock strung out between the walls. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. 

Well, I’ll say it now. Everything about this weeklong surf and turf trip was way beyond my lowball expectations. For a change, all the hype was justified. I hadn’t been this pampered since my Mom (May she RIP) spoon fed me chicken soup. My cabin was cleaned three times a day. (including a turning down the bed service. Yes! There was chocolate on my pillow too.) The meals were lovingly prepared. The ingredients were fresh and locally produced. The desserts added a kilo to my waistline just by looking at them. The diet starts manana. It was all so sinful.

I established a routine of waking up early to score some quiet time. At 5 am, it was just me, the coffee machine and the crew members going about their chores.(They really did swab the decks and polish the brass.) I’d then gag my way through a few pages of the NY Times to catch up on the latest news emanating from the United States of Dark Ages. (Did the Commander in Tweet really call a Continent’s worth of countries and then some  “shit holes”?) By sunrise, I’d be on the Observation Deck drinking more coffee with my graceful Frigate Bird Buddies. I highly recommend this as a way to start your day-minus reading the News. 

After breakfast the activities on the Galápagos Islands would begin. There was snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, glass bottom boat tours, beach bumming venues and Zodiac boat rides. The few hikes were more a mellow mosey than lung burners. (The stop and go pace was challenging for me). All events included a knowledgeable guide who spoke at great lengths about the breeding habits of all Galápagos creatures great and small. 

Seeing the not-so-wild wildlife was the primary reason for my journey to these remote volcanic islands. With little effort, every photographer can score an up-close and in-their-face image of the unique residents. IE: flightless cormorants, ocean going iguanas, giant tortoises, booby birds with red or blue stomping feet and the only species of penguin found in the northern hemisphere. 

The animals are incredibly photogenic. They don’t move! It’s not rare to hear someone shout out a warning. “Don’t step on the iguana!” or “Don’t trip over that sea lion!” Personally, I think they are all stoned on some Equatorial grown drug. The whole week was similar to an episode of “Best of Animal Planet.” Once again, the reality outperformed the hype. 

Which leads us somehow to Darwin! 

Charles was sort of a rich slacker who hitched a ride on the HMS Beagle as the ship’s Naturalist. In 1835, he spent five weeks on the Islands taking wildlife samples, making observations, looking at rocks and pondering the subtle differences of finches and other animals occupying the isolated islands in this vast archipelago. Darwin was no Speed Demon when it came to putting pen to paper. It wasn’t until 1859, when his game changing “On the Origin of the Species” was published. 

On the 100th anniversary of the book’s printing, Ecuador established the Galápagos Islands National Park. Coincidence? I think not. 

I’m still up after a Quito to Fort Lauderdale Red Eye, 

No sleep for this blogger. 

I’m missing my Frigate Bird Buddies.

Spend the money and visit the Galápagos. It lives up to the hype.

Cheers from West Palm Beach with an IPA Happy Hour,


Last photo: that’s me with Obama. It’s his fault there’s Evolution. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

“I’m nervous, very nervous...

I’m not having fun. I’m nervous.” 

My Father, Sid Sambur circa 1988, The above quote was his mantra on steep and narrow Independence Pass, Colorado. I was driving. He was my passenger. 

We are all the product of our parents. 

My Dad (May he RIP) was a high strung, energetic, opinionated, small in stature, nervous Jewish man. Does this sound familiar?

So...prior to going way, way south of the US Borders, I was feeling nervous, very nervous. 

My fears were based upon Internet gossip and other sources on the country’s I would be traveling to:  Peru and Ecuador. 

The Salkantay Trek didn’t cause me any phobias. 

Cusco, Peru wasn’t too scary, once you got past the gauntlet of hucksters selling tour packages, goo-gags and massages. (“Señor! Two women for an hour massage. $50!)

The constant hassles of playing dodgeball with humans got old. I sequestered myself in my hotel room, to avoid this daily bombardment. Toward the end, I only ventured out for errands and Happy Hours. 

Onto Quito, Ecuador: A few weeks ago, I read a letter sent by my Galápagos Islands Tour Company. (National Geographic). The memo warned their guests to be extra cautious in Quito. Prior to leaving the US, I phoned the company to gather more specifics. I spoke to Mark, who was my Go To Guy when I had any questions or concerns. As usual I was to the point. “Mark, is Quito as scary as the letter describes it to be?”

He answered politely, “Mr. Sambur, a guest recently had her backpack stolen off her back, in broad daylight. Please be careful there.”

OY! OY! OY! I like my backpack. I don’t want a Bad Guy to get it. 

I arrived in Quito on New Year’s Eve. After checking into the Hilton (that’s how I roll when it’s part of the tour package), I went out for an early Happy Hour. The crowd density was beehive thick. A bit much for me. I slid off to a side street and made my way for a beer and meal. In Ecuador, people don costumes, garish wigs and many men dress in drag. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that). To this Gringo, it was more reminiscent of Halloween than another year gone by. I was back in my comfy room before nightfall.

An all night downpour quenched a lot of the NYE revelry. At Midnight a few rockets went off, a couple of Boom! Boom! Boom! and that was about it. I rolled over and fell back asleep. 

I hit the streets early on New Year’s Day. They were devoid of people, traffic and any open businesses.  (Even the Supermarkets were shuttered). A great day for me to get acquainted to Ecuador’s second biggest City of 2.6 million inhabitants. I headed towards Quito’s Historical Old Town, just like all the Gringo Tourists are directed to do. This being Low Season for Tourism, there was a dearth of fellow sightseeing Gringos. In fact, there were a lot more Policia walking their beats than people like me.

I stand out like a Peter Max DayGlo poster in a Church. I began to feel less angst. Besides, I’m bigger than most Ecuadorians! 

I decided to visit another Gringo Destination. A supersized aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary. She resides on the edge of a hill overlooking her admirers. Of course, I walked. That was scary. The stairs leading up to the prominence are rife with gangs of Gringo hating hounds. They snarled at me, chased me and invaded my personal space. Those mean mongrels made me nervous, very nervous. 

Sure, there are Locals selling pretty much everything from Selfie sticks, wool hats, Street food, watches, and items I couldn’t even identify. But! They don’t  hassle you. That’s why I’m liking Quito mas than Cusco. 

The week I’ve spent here went by fairly quickly. I managed to stay busy and engaged. I hiked to a nearby 15,000’ plus volcano, took a 10 Hour bus tour to Cotopaxi National Park and wandered the streets. Pretty entertaining stuff. 

It didn’t hurt that I’ve been in a comfy, spacious, 12th floor Hilton Hotel room. Now, I’ll be honest here. My pad is more comfortable than Barley the Van. There’s indoor plumbing, hot water, soap and even a toilet seat. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed my stay here, but I’m not going to become an expatriate Gringo. 

Quito is a dirty city. There’s garbage and graffiti everywhere. The air is use a knife and fork thick. It’s not tasty either. Often seen are blue buses belching gray-black as they ply the city streets. There’s a lot of blue buses here too. Right now the air quality is measuring “Unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Well, people have told me I’m sensitive. My eyes sting. I’m coughing. This can’t be good for humans. The World Health Organization deems Quito as having high levels of particulate matter pollution. 

Then there’s the problem of poverty. Ecuador is a poor, crowded country. There’s 16.5 million Ecuadorians residing here. For comparison shopping analysts, it’s about the size of Colorado. There’s 5.5 people living in the Rocky Mountain High State. The latest figures I found, (World Data Center)  showed a poverty rate of 23.3% in Ecuador. My Home State has an 11% poverty rate. (US Census Bureau). Last night I was saddened to see a teenage/adult couple with four children in tow. The husband/father was making a living shining shoes. His young wife was selling cigarettes. Business was not booming for either one. This is the face of poverty. 

Then there’s the matter of Civil Unrest. On my bus tour to the country, a crop’s worth of farmers decided to shut the Pan American Highway in both the North and South direction. There method? Place tires end to end, add diesel fuel and flick their Bics. They were protesting produce prices. Apparently, they strongly felt they were being shortchanged. Our bus had to detour around the noxious pyre. I never saw that on the America’s Interstates! 

Other than that, I can’t complain. People are nice, food is tasty and edible and there’s plenty of places to get a beer. Ecuador might be worth a second look. 

Manana, the Galápagos Islands on the USS Endeavor II. There will be 94 Gringo Guests and one Wandering Wondering Jew. This could prove interesting.

See you on the other side,

Last photo: Scoring the traditional overseas haircut. How do I look?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Four Peruvians and

A Gringo Jew hike the Salkantay Route.

Or...the Coca Leaves vs. Starbucks Challenge

I met my Guide Walter on Christmas Eve. He sported a cherubic face, a ready smile and a baby bump belly. Upon meeting, I exchanged a handshake, followed quickly by a bottle of beer. I thanked him for showing up to this Holy Night.

Walter then began his Cliff Notes version of our hike. He gave me estimated hiking times per day, the need for staying hydrated at altitude, the benefits of layering in inclement weather and the fact theirs less Oxygen the higher one ascends. 

I smirked and shook my head as he gave his spiel. Afterwards when he was done, I summed it up this way, “Walter! This ain’t my first Rodeo! I hike a lot. You don’t have to worry about me on this Trek.”

He smirked back. We said “Goodnight!” in order to get some rest for our 5 am start. (This isn’t a siesta-in vacation). 

Sleep wasn’t  meant to be. In Peru, Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. The Boom! Boom! Boom! of fireworks began promptly at 9:30 and  steadily continued until 3 am. Who knew? 

I estimated I scored less then 127 minutes of slumber. Needless to say I wasn’t full of vim and vigor when Walter arrived at 5. Other crew members stumbled in, except for our driver. He and the Van didn’t show up until 6. Maybe he was the one setting off the fireworks?

We piled our gear and ourselves in. All the passengers except me and our tardy driver passed out with no problemo. I sat back and took in the scenery on Christmas morning 2017. 

We climbed out of Cusco, crossed some Pass and dropped down along a surging river before ascending once again. After 2 plus hours we stopped for breakfast in a sort of down trodden town. I was led to one room while the Peruvians were deposited in another. A tray of toasted flat bread and a cup of bitter coffee were placed in front of me. I assumed that was my meal. I nibbled on a few slices and downed my coffee. Not very satisfying and highly overpriced for Peruvian standards. This wouldn’t be my last time I was charged the Gringo Rate. 

Forty-five minutes later along a rutted dirt road, we halted at a nondescript hairpin turn. A few skittish horses and a burro were standing by. (One could say the horseman was responsible for getting this “Ass” over the Pass). These Beasts of Burdens would be our SAG (Support and Gear) transport. 

Walter and I shouldered our packs and off we went. He walked in my wake and called out directions. It didn’t take long for this old hiker to realize we were shortcutting the switchbacks. I whirled around, “Walter! We are shortcutting the main trail. These steeper grades will wear us out faster than sticking to the longer gentler switchbacks. Besides, shortcutting accelerates erosion. You love your country and this trail, don’t you?”

That was the last time he directed me to take a shortcut. 

We made our camp, ate a petite lunch and headed uphill again for a few bonus kilometers. Our goal was a lagoon with a view. Walter pointed me in the general direction and said, “Follow those other hikers. I’ll catch up with you.”

 He didn’t. 

However the over 14,000” view was simply amazing. See for yourself. 

That evening (after a paltry dinner), my guide and I sat in a drafty see-through shed and talked. It was time for me to learn more about this Peruvian pperson I would be spending the next five days with. 

Walter is 38 years old. He’s been guiding for Valencia Travel for nine years. He lives in Cusco with his Mother. He doesn’t own a car, “too expensive.” He’s never been out of Peru or on an airplane. He went to school  to learn English so he would be more employable in the skyrocketing Tourism industry. This being Christmas, he spoke about his religious beliefs. 

“I’m a Christian.” He then went on to talk reverently about the Inca’s ancient deities. There wasn’t any mention of the White Man on the Cross. I noticed whenever he drank a liquid, he sacrificed a few drops to the Inca God of Mother Earth. As Stevie Wonder once sang, “Very Superstitious.” But then again, who am I to judge? 

The next morning dawned with more blue than gray. From our vantage point below, we could see Salkantay Mountain. In other words, the reason I came to Peru. Our day’s goal was 15,200” Salkantay Pass, where splendid close-up views  of this muscular broad shouldered peak was to be had if the Goddess of Weather cooperated. 

It was not to be. A foggy, damp cloud bank roared up the valley. The Sacred Mountain of the Incas had now gone missing. Bye! Bye! 

My breakfast was calorie and protein deficient. A few slices of toasted flat bread, (my leftovers from the morning before?) and a single crepe with a squirt of gooey Nutella on top. Yech. It was too late to say anything. It was time to go. Fortunately, I had my secret liquid weapon in me. Two shots of Starbucks Instant Pikes Market Blend. 

Immediately, I went into my tried and true hiking style. AKA.  Don’t stop until you reach the top. OR: A short step is better than no step. Because of the low lying fog, there wasn’t much to see. I passed a covey of hikers, lots of boulders and a few local stranglers. A steady flow of Salkantay glacier water was my one constant companion. The stream was good company. 

When I made the Pass, I realized I was standing on the Continental Divide of South America. Water flowing east would make its way to the Amazon and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. The creek which had been my constant neighbor on the way up would become a larger waterway bound for the Pacific Ocean.

I pondered all this as I donned dry clothes and a poncho. I inhaled a snack or three and waited. A Local Hombre sat a few rocks away from me. Every now and then, I’d hear him performing a melodic chant. It was all so fitting for the scene. 

Walter showed up  twenty minutes later. We exchanged High-Fives, shot some pictures for posterity and Facebook and exchanged some words. Then I announced, “I’m getting cold. I’m heading down.” With that, I took off at a trot. 

After a few kilometers downhill, it was noticeably warmer. I was also very hungry. I ate my emergency fuel supply, a 240 calorie Clif Bar. I decided to wait for Walter.  I didn’t know the where or when of lunch. While I sat on a soft rock the “Boys” went by. That is the Cook, Assistant Cook and the Horseman with his four-legged menagerie. They told me Walter was a kilometer away “Mas o menos.” 

When he made the scene, I got to the point.

 “Walter, I’m going to speak to you Hombre a Hombre. You guys have to start feeding me more than what’s been showing up on my plate.That breakfast wasn’t enough to get me around a city block, let alone up a Pass and more.” 

Walter thought about this a moment and gently asked, “What do you normally eat for breakfast?” 

“Three eggs with veggies, a potato and some toast ought to work.” 

From that moment on, all the meals were plentiful, hardy and delicioso. See? There are times the trickle down effect works. 

After this brief interlude, Walter and I continued downhill in a steady rain. At the end of a 14 mile day, we waded through a muddy lane to access “Camp Florintina.” We’d be staying within the confines of the Florintina Family Compound. Skinny chickens and dirty dogs loitered around. Dried mud covered most surfaces. The buildings were in need of repair. This was no KOA. 

Now a word about hygiene in Peru. If you are germaphobic or a clean freak, Peru might stress your comfort zone. In a country as poor as Peru (20.7% poverty rate, more than double that in the rural areas), things many take for granted in other Nations are sadly lacking. Many WC’s have no hand soap, no toilet paper and  no toilet seats. There won’t be warm water to wash up in even if a sliver of soap is available. Potable water must be bought or local water boiled. Don’t think too much about the fact all your eating utensils are washed in the same water you aren’t supposed to drink. Of course,  money is the issue. The average yearly salary in Lima, Peru is $590. It’s no wonder all those above mentioned items are considered a luxury. Let’s just say, I made an extra effort to stay as clean as possible.

Even the Natives aren’t immune to whatever germs are lurking in this moist, warm climate. That night, both Walter and the Assistant Cook had a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. Walter claimed it was the “Bad Wind” on the Pass that brought about this malady. 

My reply, “Walter, I was in the same wind longer than you. I’m fine. Stop touching all the animals you come in contact with along the way. They are filthy!” 

After a REAL breakfast, we packed our gear said goodbye to our Horseman and his charges, and hit the road. Walter led me to a trail off the dirt byway, “Stay on this until you get to a parking lot. Please wait for me there. See you later, Mi Amigo.” 

Just like that I was off. It was a beautiful trail. I passed waterfalls, rain forests and oh-so-many pretty flowers. A thundering coffee colored river was on my right. I had some of my most memorable views along this stretch. The Salkantay Trail isn’t always Wilderness. It trespasses through many family compounds. Most are selling or offering something in return for a few precious Sols. It’s a hard life here in Peru. 

Walter caught up with me in the parking lot. He arranged a Taxi pickup to take us to the campground. The CCapacnan Family compound was immediately different than the rest. In lieu of mud there was grass and landscaping. There was a poultry-free porch to relax upon. Best of all, the WC was clean AND there was a toilet seat. I’ll admit it, I had to fight back the tears. 

By 1:00 we were done with our day’s hike and lunch. “Walter! Please take the rest of the day off. I’m just going to relax and read.” Translation: Leave me alone. I need some quiet time. 

By 4ish, I was ready for a pre-dinner beer. “Walter! If you see the owner, can you ask her if I can buy a beer?” A few minutes later, I had a cold brew in my paws and was about to resume my position of sloth. That’s when the International Incident began.

“Jeff! She would like to show you her coffee making process.” Trapped! I saw trouble brewing. 

Next thing, she was showing me the coffee beans from her small plantation. I smiled appreciatively. Then she began to grind a few handfuls of copper-colored caffeine. She poured the fresh ground into a bag. She wanted to make a sale. 

“Walter, please tell her I’m traveling light. I don’t have anyway of making the coffee either. Please tell her the coffee looks and smells great!” (The real reason: I did not want to cross Borders with coffee in my backpack. Drug smugglers stuff cocaine in coffee sacks to fool the drug sniffing dogs. I wanted to avoid a body cavity search!) 

Her feelings were obviously hurt, and I felt like the Ugly American. We made a compromise that I would have a pre-hike cup in the early morning. (It was the strongest cup of Java I ever drank. I paid her well to ease the International tensions.) 

That evening, I had another Hombre a Hombre chat with Walter. 

“Please don’t put me in these awkward situations anymore. Couldn’t you tell, I just wanted to hang out?”

He shook his head, and went into his Guide speaking to a Gringo pre-hike speech. In other words, like many times before, he wasn’t listening. 

“Jeff! Tomorrow’s hike is very long and steep. We need to start walking earlier. You should bring extra clothes and layer if you need to...” ETC. ETC. 

I let out a frustrated sigh. “Walter! Haven’t you figured out by now, I know what I’m doing. You don’t have to babysit me. You are preaching to the choir.” 

The next morning, I set off at a brisk hyper-caffeinated pace. The climb wasn’t steep or long. It was quite scenic. I scored smoke ring views of the Machu Picchu site. Walter barely looked around. He was too busy texting his girlfriend. 

We covered the seventeen miles to Aguas Caliente in short order. Walter led me to my hotel.

“Jeff! Later on, I’ll meet you for dinner at the pizza place. You already paid for your meal.”

“No Walter. You won’t see me for dinner. Take one of your buddies there instead of me. I’m going to find a quiet place to have a beer and meal. Where and when should I meet you for the Machu Picchu Tour?” 

At that moment, the Guided Gringo became the Guide. 

It was a drizzly early morning when I met Walter at the Machu Picchu bus stop. We were both more relaxed and jovial with each other. The awkward moments were gone for now. It was quite apparent we both needed a Time Out. 

We did a quick lap of Machu Picchu. Fog and clouds obscured the iconic views. For me, it was never about Machu Picchu, it was all about getting to Machu Picchu. Just like it had been in February 2016. 

We took a deserted bus down. 
On a busy street corner, I tipped Walter well. We said our Goodbyes (Adios) and parted ways. 

Sometimes the gap in cultures, age and life experiences can keep people from becoming true “Mi Amigos.” 

Happy New Year from the Hilton in Quito, Ecuador. That’s how I roll. 

May there be Peace on Earth and less awkward moments for all.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Please Don’t Call Me...

Bwana. (Apologies to Bob Hope’s 1963 Classic).

In 2015, I signed up to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Then the entourage was thirteen other guests, three guides and twenty-two porters who performed most of the sweat labor. Read all about these Uber Athletes below. 

It was a great, beautiful and wonderful meander through Mountain Passes, ancient Inca ruins and rain forests. 

In some ways getting to Machu Picchu was anticlimactic. I enjoyed the hike more than the finish line. (I thought MP would be larger.) 

Before leaving Peru, I already decided to return to hike the Salkantay route to Machu Picchu. It’s famous for being a prettier amble with 15;200”Salkantay Pass being the literal highlight. I wanted to experience being this up-in-the-air without an airplane. 

So I signed up again with Valencia Travel. I tossed out some dates, paid my $$$$ and received a nice looking itinerary. I booked my flights after they assured me I was good to go. 

Since that time, I have been emailing Valencia to get more info. (I ask a lot of questions because I wonder too). One question was, “How many other Gringoes will be joining me?” 

Their answer, “So far there is you and Ms. Alyson. However more people can sign up before your departure.”

Well, since that time Ms. Alyson bailed out. (Did anyone of you tell her I was hard get along with?)’ll be me, one Guide, one cook, an assistant cook and two horsemen. I’m assuming they will bring their horses too. That’s five Peruvian and two beasts of burden to take care of one Jewish Gringo. That’s nuts! Hence the title of this blog.

All but the guide will speak Quechua, the indigenous language of the people residing near the Andes. For them Spanish is a second language. My guide will speak English. I hope he’s prepared for an onslaught of questions from me. I’ll use this experience as a full-on immersion of Inca, Peruvian and Cusco potential knowledge. I like learning. 

So...after a Red-eye flight from Miami to Cusco, I’ve been strolling around the plazas, crowded streets and surrounding hillsides. This is what I’ve noticed and learned.

Cusco was once the Capital of the ancient Inca Empire. All paths, rudimentary roads led to and from Cusco. I’ve included a photo of the size of this historic civilization. It was HUGE!

Now Cusco is the epicenter of Peruvian Tourism. In recent figures, two million tourists sucked hard on the thin air while walking its narrow streets and lanes. Most visitors have aspirations (and lots of inhalations) to visit Machu Picchu. I’m one of them.

Tourism is now the new “Inca Gold.” For many locals learning English is their ticket out of poverty. This morning, I took my coffee outside of my nice hotel. A bellhop named Jonathan followed me out. We struck up an English-only conversation. He was practicing his language skills on me. This polite young man went on to tell me he once was a porter on Machu Picchu treks. He made enough money to go to University. What does he aspire to become? A Machu Picchu Trekking Guide. This career path is a game changer in Cusco. It’s steady work and steady income. 

The other thing I’ve learned while walking around here. By and large the Locals aren’t very, well, large. I’ll give you a frame of reference. If the Cuscoans were going to start a basketball team, I’d be asked to be the intimidating shot-blocking Center. Having the chance to look down at peoples faces is kind of a pleasant change for me.

Well, I know you are all BUSY with the Holidays.
So, I’ll blog to you on the other side of the Salkantay Trek.

Feliz Navidad to all my Christian friends,