adventure


Curious kids entertaining our train and hoping for some handouts.

The Peru and Galapagos trip continues with our final days in Peru. With my Fitbit registering a ton of steps and my knees sore, it was a relief to go by bus and train from Machu Picchu back to Cusco. The train had to stop a few times and we would see some locals asking for money. It’s always a reminder of how well off we are and how just a few dollars can make a difference to their day. We saw a local women who looked elderly and her back was bent pretty bad—probably from years of hard work.

So many of these people like to be self-employed. We met a few of them all over the Cusco/Machu Picchu region as they were friends of our tour guide. They called themselves names such as Diana Ross and George Washington. As a marketing professional, I can say I am impressed by this tactic.

Street vendor.

On the way and throughout the trip we would see kids and women in tourist areas with lamas, alpacas, and even baby sheep because they looked cute, dressed up to take pictures and collect money. We noticed the kids would get upset when they weren’t picked for the photo or didn’t get a U.S. dollar if another did. I got my photo taken with some kids who started singing a song. I asked our tour guide what the words meant and he said it was a drinking song. (See below for video of them singing.)

Coca leaves to chew on to help with the elevation were in a big bowl at the airport. I preferred the candy and tea versions.

Back in Cusco, the elevation was making me take deep breaths and hurt my lungs and head a bit. Our hotel was really interesting—it was an old monastery and each room had a lot of character. We took a tour around town to a cathedral and enjoyed a big party and parades going on around the main square. We saw military members walking with those old German type straight steps, guys dressed in cowboy outfits shaking beer and spraying it around, college groups dressed in black and white business clothes, and more. We were told there are so many “holidays” that get celebrated there were too many to count or know all of them.

We went to a lama/alpaca farm where they let us feed them. There were also demonstrations by locals who learned the tradition of weaving the wool and making the wonderful cloths they sell today. Baby alpaca is the first “shaving” of an animal and is softer, costing more. There were several breeds of both kinds of animals and all were fun to and interesting to see.

As we went through a beautiful church, we learned how the Peruvians really mixed their pagan traditions with Christianity. There is lots of that all over the world; however, I was somewhat shocked that they didn’t only observe old traditions, they still “worship” pagan symbols. At the risk of sounding judgmental—I’m surprised they can’t see the outright contradiction with the first commandment. For example, there was a stone from pagan religions that sits in a glass near the door. On Sundays, the people line up after service and put their hands on the stone and pray. The priests say “it’s just a door stop” but the people believe it’s more. There are other symbols including statues and paintings depicting Mary in clothes that are like triangles (mountain shaped and hiding her feet)—she symbolizes Mother Earth who they worship. And paintings of her pregnant that contradict the Catholic religion, but not Protestant. Throughout the trip we were told of many other pagan worship rituals that still happen. While a little disconcerting, it was a good lesson of their culture and I found their architecture and people to be quite beautiful.

Dad and I did our traditional shopping trip around town and then went back to rest before dinner and another very early morning wake up to catch the flight to Lima and then on to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We landed in Ecuador and took a short city bus tour. Our hotel rooms were big and we explored the main street around us—not really finding anything but banks, disease-welcoming restaurants, tiny mini markets, pharmacies, etc. Our next morning was brutally early and back again to the airport to catch a flight to San Christobal in the Galapagos.  Goodbye beautiful Peru and more on the islands to come!

 

 

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Two porters start out with huge packs on the Inca trail.

Our Peruvian adventure continued with a train ride through the countryside to Machu Picchu. Along the way we passed by the beginning of the Inca trail. This is the 28 mile trail people hike to Machu Picchu, but the entire “trail” is much longer and starts back near Cusco. In fact, the Incas actually created 24,000 miles of trails through South America. The people are more adapted to the elevation and can handle the hiking better than the rest of us. How they carried their stuff or walked on the uneven stones without hurting themselves is a mystery.

A few years ago, they had a contest to see how fast the porters who help hikers on the trail could hike it on their own. Usually it takes four days for hikers. The winner of the race got there in just over three hours. It’s hard to believe that considering how long it takes to run a marathon and this is up over mountain trails at eight or nine thousand feet. My dad and I were bragging/laughing that it was no big deal, because we hiked the Inca trail. (Okay, it was about 100 yards of a slight incline, but we were on it!)

The town of Machu Picchu Pueblo at the base of the mountain.

The ride along the river to the mountain was filled with gorgeous scenery and when we pulled into the town at the base of the mountain, I was amazed at the smells—good food cooking, all the hotels, buses, people, guys hauling drinks and supplies, and a market jammed with stalls of people selling lots of souvenirs. There’s not a lot of room in that valley and with so many more visitors showing up every year, it’s packed to the gills with entrepreneurs staking their claim.

A view of the winding road leading up to the mountain.

We got on one of the many buses making the loop up and down the mountain. I was glad the drivers were so experienced because the winding steep climb took my breath away. They had to be careful passing other buses and watching out for hikers who were walking up and down the mountain. Hardy young people for sure. Once there we checked into the one hotel with limited rooms located at the entrance of the park and then headed in for our first view of this magnificent archaeological find.

For some reason we had to show our passports to get into the park (but got another stamp)! Our guide Diego took us around the main part of the park and I was so glad to get views of the entire community. Most people only see the one “National Geographic” shot from the top. It’s amazing how big it is and how they were able to build out so many terraces down the side of the mountain. The people who lived here were the upper crust of the Incan society. Most likely the “court” of a King. In fact the people weren’t actually called Incas—only the King was the Inca. He had a house (a room that probably had a “bathroom” and a “bed” near the temple and his wives stayed in another house/room next to his.

A view of the community from the top.

The buildings had very deep foundations. They knew how to build solid structures to withstand earthquakes. And they built out the terraces instead of digging them out of the side of the mountain. There was an area with a number of loose boulders which was probably where they got all the stones to make all the buildings. On a hill in the community, they built what looked like a sun dial but was probably for ceremonies as sound traveled easily to the open plaza below where the people probably gathered.

A view of the terraces and the guard house.

After a nice evening with our tour group partners and some Alpaca steak for dinner, we got up early the next morning and hiked up to the guard house for that famous view. It was a brutal climb but worth it. We got a view of the sun gate, where the Inca trail hikers come through—at the very top of the mountain, and went on to see views of the surrounding mountains and the entire complex. Wow.

After stopping to pet an Alpaca, we went down some treacherous steps, where I twisted my ankle a bit, to the lower section of the community called the Temple of the Condor. They considered the condor part of their spiritual realm so this section was where they buried some people and also served as a dungeon for prisoners.

The guard house at the top of Machu Picchu.

There is a book written by Hiram Bingham, the explorer who with the aid of some locals was the modern discoverer of the ruins. The book was a bit dry, but the explanation of how he got to the site and some of the history of the Incas was very interesting. The fact that this site was hidden for so long is evidence of what a great defensive location it was during the Spanish conquest of Peru.

Upon leaving the park on a narrow path near the exit we hear some exclamations coming from behind us—look out—ahhh and hear a lot of running-type noises. When I turned around and saw everyone suddenly leaning into the mountain, I was more than a little surprised to see two Lamas stampeding down the path. I was even more shocked when the guard just up ahead at the exit stopped them and turned them back toward us. I got some video of them running back into the park (see below). Probably just as well, because all the stray dogs that hang out at the entrance (that I fed from the buffet in the hotel) might have been miffed at the intrusion. They were so laid back and would sleep right in the middle of the midst of thousands of people walking by.

Yay, bucket list check! Many years on the wish list, I waited until I was fit enough and glad I was since it was hard walking in high elevation. Also glad I did it now, as more restrictions are going into place. Now, back to Cusco and off to the land of Darwin.

The dogs hung out all over the hotel grounds and entrance to the park.

A lama at the guard house.

A Typical Inca door.

Ancient and modern stairs.

Ear itch.

Temple of the three windows.

A new across the plaza from the temple.

Across the plaza.

A view of the left side looking at Huayna Picchu beyond where a few hundred people a day climb the ruins.

Another view of the end of the plaza and residential area.

A view of the terraces and guard house.

At the base of the mountain.

Dad and I near the guard house at Machu Picchu.

The Inca trail that leads from the sun gate to Machu Picchu.

A view of our hotel from above. Our rooms are hidden by the trees.

A view of the main plaza.

A view of the gate house from below.

The storage houses.

Our first view of the park.

One of the stair cases leading down the mountain.

The trash cans looks like frogs.

A view along the river on the way to Machu Picchu.

The beginning of the Inca trail leading the Machu Picchu.

A Peruvian woman outside our train.

Some market stalls at the base of the mountain.

Me, mom, and dad.

View of Cusco.

Our Peru adventure continued with a very early flight to Cusco. At an elevation of 11,100 feet, the flight in was a bit scary. I could only see high snow-capped mountain tops out the window, which was disconcerting as we heard the sound of the wheels being lowered, meaning landing was imminent. A very steep banking curve brought us down to a strip that was completely surrounded by buildings. I was thankful when the plane came close to the end of the runway that there was a church there to break our stop if need be.

Bulls on the roof are a symbol of prosperity.

For the first few moments off the plane I felt really dizzy, but was able to adapt to the elevation a little bit better during the bus ride through a town crowded with houses half done and lots of wires between leaning telephone poles.  On our way up and out of town, we passed homes that had two small bulls and a cross on the roof. Evidently that is a symbol of prosperity. Many people take years to finish their houses. For one thing, they save up bit by bit for the parts and construct it over time. Also, once the house is done, they have to pay taxes, so there is little rush. They typically leave some rebars up to make new levels for kids when they grow up.

Our guides explained the culture a bit as we rode through the Sacred Valley. Peruvians have public schools but only some are lucky to attend the private schools that go all day. Others can only go half days—they accommodate everyone by having two shifts in the am and pm. Some of the universities are public but there aren’t a lot of openings. I always think of the USA as the melting pot, but all over the Americas we can see diverse populations and Peru is no exception. The original habitants have mixed with Spanish, African, Asians, Italians, and more.

Storehouses at Ollantaytambo.

Evidence of the vast agriculture can be seen all over the mountains. The Incas built terraces everywhere and stored up years’ worth of food in storehouses. There were ancient potatoes recently dug up that when treated and cooked were still edible. Some terraces are still in use as the Peruvians cultivate about 4,000 varieties of potatoes. The soil there is so varied and in fact some is similar to what is on Mars so they are doing some agricultural testing for the Mars missions.

Guinea Pig on a stick.

Some of the sights along the road through the small towns included rainbow flags—the ancients were rainbow worshippers, red flags on poles outside of some homes—which was a sign that they served Chicha or Corn Beer there, and painted advertisements on homes. The ads were mostly political signs for the recent elections. The people would consent to the painted signs because basically they needed their houses painted and could get it done for free. In random places on the road and on small fields, people were drying corn on blankets and they would store lots of corn cobs in chicken wire bins.

One town was famous for its Guinea Pigs. In many homes in Peru, they have a dozen or so pigs living in the house (which is usually just one stone room) and when dinner time comes, they pick the fattest one and cook it up. As we went through this town, outside a restaurant with Guinea Pig on the menu, there was a 6-ft. plastic statue of a pig and a woman holding a roasted Guinea Pig on a stick. I tried fried Guinea Pig at dinner that night. The closest I can describe it, would be like duck. It wasn’t too bad.

Ollantaytambo terraces.

Mom and I went on a tour to Ollantaytambo, a village near our hotel that was once the site of an Incan emperor and a stronghold for the Incas who were fighting during the Spanish conquest. As we started the tour, Mom got hurt on a step and cut her leg. Not to downplay her pain, but it was just a cut and the reaction from our group and the town officials, which was very kind and caring, was on par with a five car pile-up. Some police showed up and wanted to whisk her away to a local medical hospital of sorts. I thought maybe a bandage and some rest would be fine, so she hung out at a café and people-watched while we took a short tour. We saw how buildings had Incan foundations and doors, Spanish walls, and then modern materials toward the tops of the homes. The next day we all came back for a tour of the ruins.

The sun temple at Ollantaytambo.

The Incas built their sun temples high up on the hillsides. We took a long steep climb up the ancient stairs with lots of breathing breaks. The ruins were impressive as somehow they managed to get 50 ton boulders set in place with ancient earthquake-resistant building techniques. When the Christian Spaniards came, they made the locals toss some of the big boulders of the temple down the mountain and when they told the Incas to build a church there they said, “You should have told us that before the boulders were tossed.” So the church was built in the valley. The Incas had built their temples every 20 miles or so and once had a pyramid there that was bigger than the ones in Egypt.

Ekeko dances.

We ended the day with an interesting exhibition of dancing and storytelling. Peruvians tend to mix their Christianity with ancient pagan religions. One of the things we saw in the house and was also part of story/dance was this strange looking guy called an Ekeko which is the mythological god of abundance and prosperity. The people would place the statue in a prominent and comfortable place in the home and load it up with things like money and other symbols of what a person desires. These offerings are meant to bring wealth to the worshippers.

More about the deep rooted mixture of ancient pagan religions and Christian worship later after we return to Cusco from Machu Picchu!

Locals drying corn and potatoes.

Large Christ statue outside Cusco.

Looking down the terraces at Ollantaytambo.

Locals store corn.

Hillside outside Cusco.

Fried Guinea Pig

Guinea Pigs live in a local home.

A street in Ollantaytambo with a channel of water running in front of some homes. Stone steps act as mini bridges.

Menu highlights Guinea Pig and Alpaca which tastes like steak.

Siesta time on a local farm.

Guinea Pig is on the menu here.

Locals hanging out in front of a house painted with a political advertisement.

The Sacred Valley

 

 

 

Female police officers keep things moving at rush hour.

The Crowe family adventures continued in 2017 to a long-awaited (three years in the making) trip to Peru and Ecuador. Initial thoughts are it was beautiful, fun, interesting, exhausting, and worth the wait. I’ve never taken a Spanish course but found that all the Spanish we see in the States gave me enough to work with when needed. However, as usual, many people in the world know English at least a little.

So, day one we arrive after a very nice comfy flight into Lima. In the morning we grabbed a 30-minute cab ride into the center of town. It cost the three of us a whopping $6. I can only explain driving in Lima as a ride on the Tower of Terror. I was upfront for the action and took it on faith alone that we would arrive alive at our destination. Lane lines are merely suggestions and spaces between cars are measured in millimeters. Cars without dents are non-existent and cabbies have mad reflex skills. Good brakes and a horn are necessities. Also, the intersections were managed by female police officers. Evidently the ladies were less prone to corruption and don’t take crap from anyone, making them perfect for the job.

There is no metro in Lima—politics and infrastructure make it an impossibility. There are a lot of private busses and here’s the fun way it works. As the bus runs down the road, a guy on said bus yells out where he’s going and solicits prospective riders standing on the curbs. Then they pack the busses to the gills. They also have Uber there; however the low-cost cab ride didn’t incentivize me to look elsewhere for savings.

Church in Lima.

After touring through a cathedral and the central square, we visited the St. Franciscan Monastery and Catacombs. Since so many people needed to be buried in the limited consecrated ground (that they conveniently paid for), they would throw the bones from the older burials into pits to make room for new burials (we saw a lot of those bones and some mummies). There were hundreds of old/ancient books in the library. To our surprise they were left out in the open, unprotected to the elements. It was a beautiful place with hidden paintings under plaster and complex baroque-style artifacts.

For lunch, we walked around and found a Peruvian/Chinese place which we later discovered was very popular in Peru. A lot of Chinese immigrants had arrived there in the past and they would call people over to “come eat rice.” The Peruvians couldn’t understand them, they just heard the word “chifa” so the Chinese restaurants are now all called Chifa. We had potato/egg-like tortillas with chicken and meat. It was pretty good.

As we walked around the square, we saw a small protest going on. A number of police in their riot gear were there but it was peaceful and we saw them shaking hands with the protestors after. Evidently there is a lot of corruption going on with business and government leaders. Sounds familiar. We bought a few items from the locals and managed to negotiate a cab ride back to the hotel. The next day we started bright and early with a group tour to an interesting museum.

Some of the 45,000 artifacts at the Museo Larco.

The Museo Larco has 45,000 artifacts, dug up on an estate nearby by a private family. The objects were all from graves—funerary items to help the dead with all they need in the afterlife. They were a pretty advanced civilization and had beautiful pottery, textiles, and jewelry.

For lunch we went to a hacienda where they bred Spanish horses. We saw a little show and some dancing. The horses have a special gait—only one hoof touches the ground at a time. I got a little “pony ride” and then went on to have some pisco sours and munch on the buffet. I also tried Inca Cola, a yummy yellow soda and some Peruvian food, which is delicious.

A coffin carried through the streets of Lima.

Some sights we saw on our ride included communities that formed by squatters. In Peru, you can build a house on an empty lot (some of them had foundations built on old tires) and if no one tells you to leave after a few years (5 or 10), then you are good to go. After a while, neighbors form official communities. We laughed at a casino with a name that translated to “coin swallower.” And we also saw a coffin carried through a street, a couple of prisons right in the middle of the city, lots of car repair shops, and a lot of street entrepreneurs selling water, juice, and an assortment of crap to pedestrians and people in cars.

Dinner at one of the oldest homes in Lima.

After a tour through a gorgeous church and a walk through the town, we made our way to a one of the first homes built in Lima back in the 1500s. Descendants of the original family still own the home and it’s right next to the Governor’s Palace. The beautiful woodwork, very old furniture, and an open ceiling with a tree in the courtyard, were our backdrop for dinner. Our group heard a talk from a British ex patriot and a local Peruvian woman about their life and the local culture.

The adventure continues with a flight to Cusco, then on to Machu Picchu, and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

 

 

 

These wonderful dancers entertained us during lunch.

The Spanish horses at the Hacienda.

Chinese restaurant–Chifa!

The church in the central square of colonial Lima.

Siesta time in Lima.

Guys sell water, news, and more to drivers.

Groups of kids on a school outing at the museum.

the Museo Larco.

Mom and Dad at the beautiful museum.

Life in Lima.

A shop waiting to open.

The houses were build on arrid land by squatters.

A house gets built slowly in Peru and laundry is done on the roof.

Pisca Sours, a favorite drink in Peru. Yum.

Training one of the young horses at the Hacienda.

Santiago, Cuba was our first excursion port. As Americans, we were allowed into Cuba as part of the People to People program that included educational lectures and excursions as well as opportunities to meet Cuban people and learn about their culture from their stories, dance, music, and history.IMG_3792

At each port we learned that the Cubans could decide from one day to the next what restrictions and procedures they wanted to put in place to welcome us. For our first visit, we were to line up in the entertainment lounge to have our temperature taken before being admitted into their country. Their free health care system lends itself to some pretty good care for their people and some paranoia about Ebola and other diseases.

IMG_3937After getting the okay from the doctors, we boarded our buses for our first glimpse at the forbidden land of Cuba. We expected to see the old cars, and did, but I think the presence of horse-drawn carriages, and packed trucks stood out as well. I also noticed numerous women pedestrians with their children walking with umbrellas—to keep out the sun, since there was no rain in site.

We seemed to circle the same main area of town stopping first at a large square—mostly empty but surrounded by monuments and several buildings with wire framed images of their “heroes.” Our guide said the Cubans like to celebrate their heroes but I had a feeling that who they regarded as heroes was subjective, regardless of the monuments and statues littering the land. The outlines of faces depicting Castro and Guevara were on buildings here and elsewhere and the huge statue of a man on a horse on top of the hill in this square was of a 19th century leader for Cuban independence, Antonio Maceo Grajales. IMG_3827The statue is massive and there are a couple dozen large steel structures coming out of the ground at various angles that represent machetes. We didn’t’ get a lot of history lessons outside of the Castro revolution but there is a deep history with a mix of cultures in this large Caribbean country.

We were taken to what most Americans may recognize as part of our own history, San Juan Hill. Teddy Roosevelt won the day and ground here with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war (which the Cubans called the Spanish-American-Cuban War). It was somewhat nondescript but it had a beautiful view of the mountains in the background. I never thought of Cuba as having mountains but it’s a sizable and includes several mountain ranges and reefs off the beaches.

IMG_3870Part of our cultural experience included a stop at the African Cuban Institute. We were entertained by dancers and singers, and a lesson in the history of the various groups that mixed to bring each of their historical traditions together to form a unique Cuban culture. The music and dancing were fun and I was grateful they didn’t force us to get us to dance with the rest of the group during the unending song, Guantanamera—which became one of those songs that stuck in your head for days.

As we left I noticed familiar human interactions—such as a local cop scanning a smartphone with his friend, some locals earning cash selling produce out of wheelbarrows, those selling wares of all kinds from little stands, and more (not so different from our small entrepreneurs in the country and city).IMG_3842

We drove back to the ship after stopping at a “western” hotel for a break. We had a little laugh at the gift store/bookstore that sold primarily books by the Cuban leaders and anti-American stories about Guantanamo Bay and endless shots of Che Guevara, which I was to later understand was a revolutionary “hero” of the Cubans (but probably not really since he murdered so many of them).

We set sail that afternoon for a rough ride around the island passing Guantanamo Bay in the evening. We could see a number of lights on shore shining on the compound and base as we headed east before turning north and west toward Havana, our next stop. It would take us some time to get there as Cuba is quite large. During sailing hours our crew offered a number of lectures and fun sessions on food, cigar rolling, dancing, and more.

Next post covers our wonderful stay in Havana.

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This is the first post in the story of my family’s trip to Cuba. The secret, mysterious land just off our coast has been one of the few places closed off for Americans. And when you suddenly tell Americans they can now go somewhere they couldn’t before, it becomes a lure, a top-of-the-bucket list desire.

Hell Cuba, meet Mrs. American tourist.

Hell Cuba, meet Mrs. American tourist.

For my parents and me, it was a free cruise we had been given as a result of the ship/tanker crash we survived last summer while visiting Greece and Turkey. As we boarded that very same but now fixed ship in Jamaica, we were a bit wary but noticed a few upgrades, including the deck off our nice room. The food still was not so great and the cruise line’s staff and crew were disorganized, but almost everyone was very pleasant and kind and willing to serve with a smile.

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The new American Embassy in Havana

My trip started off at an ungodly hour for me on December 24. I paid for a seat upgrade so I could get on early and sit in an exit row with some more room. But with some “turbulence” occurring near our Hub destination we sat and sat and watched the clock go past our now missed connections. Finally arriving in Charlotte and winded from a sprint to my connection gate, I headed back to the help desk and was told I missed the last flight to Jamaica. Fort Lauderdale and a lonely Christmas Eve was in my near future. One of my favorite hours of the year are usually spent with my family in Christmas Eve services so this vacation was starting out not so good.IMG_4155

Another super early morning got me on a very empty flight to Montego Bay where I landed safely and met my parents at the port. We had a nice Christmas day afternoon on board in our old boat—hoping we would avoid any collisions his time.

Our trip was scheduled to take us to Santiago, Havana, Maria de la Gorda, and Cienfuegos. Overall, the trip was interesting, the seas were really rough, and we ended up sailing past Guantanamo at night and going all the way around this very large island nation (or more accurately, this archipelago of islands nation).

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Cubans are working hard and smart–giving taxi rides and tours in the old colorful cars.

The Cubans are just getting ready to become a destination for tourists. They have a lot to do to prepare for a rush of Americans (if they want to keep up the tourist trade from our countrymen). The lack of Internet access, luxury hotels, and more organized tours and sites won’t live up to most standards in the long run but at the moment the mystery of the destination and having the cruise boat as a home, provided the comforts the first adventurers need. We overhead many people saying they were glad to get to Cuba before the Americans came and ruined it.

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They love to show off their revolutionary “hero” or mass murderer if you will, Che Guevara.

Many people envision Cuba as a place out of time. I would say that is somewhat true. The cars are vintage for sure and there were lots of people using horses as transportation, but beyond that and the items found at their “flea markets,” it was very much like visiting a somewhat poor Caribbean country. When the Soviet Union ended, so did the rich support Cuba was getting. And while they have excellent health care and a nice education system, most people are poor. But not necessarily unhappy. The politics are complex and we got a balance of truth and propaganda—certainly seeing the “evil” portrayal of American politicians and the CIA and their hurtful policies during and after the revolution.

I was surprised at the overwhelming presence of books, postcards, monuments, etc. of Che Guevara. Of course the people can’t speak out against him but on the surface the memory of him is honored and celebrated everywhere. He was a monster in disguise and has a most impressive PR agent—in the form of El Jefe himself who is sliding into history as we speak.

The people were nice and it was a pleasant experience getting to know their culture—a mix of native Indians, Spanish, and Africans who have combined their cultures to form the unique culture that is now Cuban.

Next post, I’ll talk about our first port stop in Santiago.

Dominoes is a popular game played all over Cuba.

Dominoes is a popular game played all over Cuba.

 

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A view of Havana at twilight as we leave port.

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Vintage cars and food sold on wheelbarrows and rolling carts can be seen everywhere.

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Colorful buildings dot the streets. Some are slowly being renovated and some falling apart. A slow process.

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Ahh, such a wide range of interesting topics to choose from at the bookstores.

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Public pay phones. Look like big alien helmets.

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Our ship, the Crystal has been fixed. The bow looks new and sturdy once again.

My family and I love to travel and discover not only the beauty of our natural world but also ancient man-made buildings and structures. We love to learn about other cultures and the people who live around the world—what they eat and drink, what their day-to-day lives are like, their history, and more. Each year we turn the globe and pick a new spot to visit. This year it was a tour through Greece and Turkey.

I was excited to mix a bit of ancient cultures with beautiful surroundings and a relaxing cruise on the Mediterranean. We started our adventure in Athens, Greece for a few days, then went to Istanbul, Ephesus, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete, and Santorini, and a few places in Turkey via an unexpected bus ride. Funny thing is, that was not exactly the itinerary we signed up for.

This adventure included lots of rides on planes, buses, boats, ferries, more buses and lots of hikes up big hills. Those ancient people liked to build their societies on the top of the highest hills. As usual with my travel blog series, I’ll cover the stops in subsequent posts, but I’m going to cover the challenges we met with in this first post and get all that fun stuff out of the way.

It seems like we have this unique ability to get out of the country we are visiting just in time to avoid danger or trouble. For the past several years just after we have left a country, there have been terrorist attacks, bombings, and religious wars. While we were not seriously hurt, we weren’t as fortunate this time. Here are the highlights of the challenging moments of our trip.

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Mom gets a lift to our new, intact boat.

Breaking bones.

As we were making our way back to the hotel on day two after a long day of walking around Athens and seeing some of the main sites, my Mom, who has tendencies to fall and seriously hurt herself, did just that. She took a tumble on a step and hurt her ankle. An x-ray back home showed a fracture. We got her some crutches but she spent most of the trip relaxing on the boat or our room, as most of the excursions involved hikes on uneven pavements up high hills. We are happy to report that she’s doing better now.

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The Greeks lined up daily at ATMs to take out their 60 Euros before the machines dried up.

Going bankrupt.

We knew Greece was going to be in some sort of trouble before we left so we grabbed a bunch of cash out the ATMs in advance of the June 30 financial deadline. There were some protests here and there and during our trip we saw the Greek people lining up at ATMs trying to get their 60 Euros for the day before the machines dried up. But other than the news headlines, it didn’t seem to be an issue for us. We thought that was going to be our “thing” that happened on our trip but it was not to be.

Collision on the open seas.

We were very excited to be on this ship because when we signed up early on, we discovered as a trio we could get one of their two bow-facing suites for a very reasonable price. The Presidential Suite on this boat had a deck out front that was HUGE. I’ll talk more about the cabin and the not-so-great condition of the ship later. As we sailed on up to Turkey on our first night, I woke up around 12:30 am and went out front to check out the view as we were moving through the Dardanelle Straights. I could see land close on both sides but not much else so I went back to bed. An hour later all hell broke loose.IMG_2537

I remember waking up to a loud noise and a big impact. I saw the lamp next to my bed swinging and as I tumbled in my bed. My first thought was we ran a ground. Immediately I slid the curtains on the window open and noticed a large ship right in front of us moving across our bow. I started screaming, “Oh my God we hit another ship, oh my God.” (My dad thought there was an earthquake and later I asked him if he heard me yelling about the ship. He said, “No, I was too busy screaming.”) I then went to the door to go out on the deck but had to walk over the mini fridge that had fallen out of the cabinet and strewn its contents across the room. We were one of only a few cabins on the ship with balconies and one of two with a view of the bow. We had the ultimate up close view of a tanker moving off, listing to its port side and spilling liquid over its side. That liquid turned out to be jet fuel that was spewing all around us.

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Damage to our ship. The starboard railing was also torn off. Our cabin was just above this area and directly below the “empty” bridge.

The gas smell was nauseating and made it hard to breathe. At this point I’m thinking, holy crap we are going to have to get to the lifeboats because we hit that tanker and the boat is going to sink. So we got dressed and waited a few minutes before the announcement said the boat was structurally okay. That was a good thing because our meeting point in cases of emergencies was on the bow, right where the railing had been ripped off the ship.

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The tanker was damaged and emergency crews kept water pouring over it for many hours.

The next couple of hours were spent wondering what the heck was coming and listening to announcements such as “please don’t smoke, there is petrol surrounding us!” At around 3 a.m. they announced we would be anchoring the ship and then we listened to the anchor going up and down a few times. We didn’t sleep much and spent the entirety of the next day waiting for news. We finally were able to ferry off the ship around 8 pm. Then the fun began. Sixteen buses of people and baggage were disembarking, so we had to find our suitcases, walk a mile (with my mom on crutches) to the bus and off we went. The funny Australian couple in front of us made me laugh when making reference to all the refugees coming across the Mediterranean this last year. The husband remarked that the Turkish people in the sleepy town we were moving through were staring at us because we were now in fact, “the boat people.” I’ve never been a refugee coming off a boat into a foreign land and it seemed strange. It put things in perspective for sure—how fortunate our lives really are compared to real refugees.

But I digress. An hour or so on the bus and a ferry ride took us to the immigration center. A couple of hours in lines there getting visas and passport stamps was fun. We then were back on the bus for another ferry and trip back to Gallipoli—where we got off the ship—before spending another six or so hours driving to Istanbul where we arrived around 7 am to stand in another line to check in at the wonderful and comfortable Hilton.

I’ll talk more about accommodations and Turkey later, but two nights sans sleep and a major collision on the water was enough excitement for me. We saw photos of the ship’s wreckage on Facebook from friends who Googled it. It was bad. Later we learned more and heard radio transmissions that basically told me someone was asleep at the wheel or not there all together. It was a miracle we did not explode or that anyone was seriously hurt. Thank you God!

There were a lot of boats including this large coast guard vessel checking out the damage.

There were a lot of boats including this large coast guard vessel checking out the damage.

I have had moments of wanting to sue the cruise line. I’m not litigious by nature but this was not a normal accident—it was a serious case of negligence. Thousands of people could have died if the ships had exploded. For now, I’m waiting. The crew members were great. Those poor folks went with less sleep than we did and they handled themselves with patience and grace. The cruise line promised to refund our cruise, comped us some hotel nights and a couple excursions as well as a shortened cruise on another of their ships. They also promised to comp us a cruise next year. I’m a bit nervous about that so we’ll see.

So, we escaped once again. God definitely wants me alive for something. I’m not sure what His plan is but as I told my parents before we left, “Nothing is going to happen while we are there, it will happen after, so it’s cool.”

Well, things happen when you leave your house. You either accept it and roll with the punches or stay home and miss out on the glorious world we live in. Remember, you don’t have to go across the world to travel and discover something wonderful.

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Lots of kids hung around the tourists trying to earn money playing music. We had some great food in Greece–gyros were on today’s menu.

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Lots of dogs hung out in the tourist area. The Greeks put collars and tags on them and put water dishes out. The dogs are left to get their own food and love getting hugs from visitors.

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There were a lot of cats just hanging out on ancient ruins, and in this case on a chair in this outdoor cafe. All the cats I approached were very sweet and loved getting pet.

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The financial crisis was in all the headlines. People were hanging around the newsstands reading the latest news.

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Our deck looking off the bow.

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Our deck was huge and included a whirlpool. We didn’t get a chance to use it though.

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