One of my biggest surprises during the trip to Perú was how much I enjoyed Machu Picchu. I’d come there expecting a relatively small archeological site, enough to see for an hour or two but not much more. After spending about 5 hours getting sunburnt and hiking on a broken toe, I still found it hard to leave. The ruins were massive, and the terraces (built both for structural support/erosion prevention and for planting crops) descended all the way down the length of the Macchu Picchu mountain (“old peak” in Quechua) into the valley. It still amazes me to this day how they were able to build such structures, much less descend and ascend to plant and harvest potatoes and other crops (I doubt llamas would have had a much easier time than humans).
There was something eerily beautiful about the blue-green mountains cropping up from the Urubamba Valley (the Sacred Valley of the Incas), with the Urubamba River meandering below and eventually flowing into the Amazon. It made me wonder what those people who had lived there in Inca times thought of their surroundings–did they ever tire of seeing the same mountains? Did they–or anyone else–grow immune to the beauty? How can someone train themselves to not take such things for granted?
In huge contrast to the lush trees, bushes, and flowers (with vines and epiphytes growing between branches) growing by Machu Picchu, the southern coast of Perú is anything but. With the Humboldt current rising up from Antarctica and bringing cool air currents up the coast, the coastal [Atacama] desert in southern Perú and northern Chile isn’t as hot as the Sahara or Arabian deserts, but it’s much drier (in fact, the world’s driest; we didn’t see so much as a cactus). We went sandboarding and rented sand buggies (think 1000-ft-sand-dunes-like-a-roller-coaster-but-real-life) at sunset; I probably wouldn’t ever ride a sand buggy again for fear of a heart attack, but it was completely worth doing once. Apparently, there are even dance parties held at night deeper in the desert, under a blanket of stars.
With the Humboldt current also come nutrients that rise up and support marine life (and all the rich seafood you’ll encounter in Peru). Unfortunately, the waters seemed too warm for some… when we were in Paracas (on the southern coast, by the desert) and went out on a small boat into a bay, dead jellyfish and rotting algae littered nearly every inch of sand within twenty feet of the shore. The jellyfish were deep red and easily the largest I’ve ever seen; I can only imagine that the other marine life are just as fantastic.
And then there was Lima. As I mentioned in my previous post, I preferred Cuzco to Lima. Maybe it was the fact that cuzqueños took more pride in their culture, and were able to because they were more geographically isolated, while residents of Lima were more likely to be immigrants and often held the view that imported products and ideas were generally superior. Mostly though, it was the more obvious income divide, the traffic, the grime, and the lack of duende/soul in Lima’s architecture. But of course, there were still places to see and enjoy: my favorite neighborhood in Lima was Miraflores (considered relatively affluent), and in particular the coast: it was refreshing to get away from the simultaneously hectic and dazed, almost claustrophobic city center. There’s also a park further up the Miraflores coast (Parque del Amor, or Love Park) with gigantic statues and Gaudí-esque tiled walls, like a bit of Barcelona in South America.
Three weeks ago, I spent seven crazy, sleep-deprived days flying and driving around southern Perú with nine other friends. I could probably write a 50-page essay on my impressions, but I will try to sum it up crudely in a few words:
llamas-donkeys-bowler hats-ponchos-coca leaf tea-Inka heritage-ceviche-income disparity-tourism-poverty-agriculture-Andes-desert-terraces-writing on mountainsides-generous people-promising path to development-Lima < Cuzco
Even today, most Peruvian women of non-European descent (i.e. indigenous) wear knee-length skirts–even in the cold, even when they’re farming in the fields. Why? Because Peruvian women were traditionally judged by the size and strength of their calves, as an indication of how capable they would be as farmers, and therefore as good wives. The farms I saw while driving around Lima and Cuzco had tractors, yokes with oxen, and everything in between–but most of the manual work still seemed to be done by women.
In the cities, tourism was certainly a big industry–in Cuzco, it accounted for 60-95% of jobs, depending on who you asked–and not everyone was happy about it. Judging by the graffiti, some Peruvians felt like they were sell-outs, catering to foreigners instead of preserving traditional occupations. But tourism revenue can also have its benefits: when my friends and I were walking by the historic center of Cuzco (the traditional seat of the Inca civilization, and a city which, by the way, is much more impressive than most parts of Lima, the capital), we were approached by two siblings, trying to sell us hand puppets that their mother had made.
After one of us caved in and bought a few, things got more interesting. The boy, 7, told us that he wanted to be a musician, architect, scientist, chemical engineer, and writer (in roughly that order) and was better at multiplication than we were at that age. (We decided to motivate him by buying a bottle of Coke and some mints for a little experiment. It was a bit anti-climatic; I think he almost expected the mini-explosion…) As for his younger sister, she told us about how she’ll be performing Gangnam Style in her first-grade class. This is a city in the middle of nowhere, between the towering Andes and the Amazon. The tourists brought McDonalds, and the internet brought Gangnam Style; I’m thankful the government (and likely private funding) brought decent schools.
I can go on, about how the residents of Cuzco still seem proud and a bit resentful of the Spanish conquest, even 500 years later, while the residents of Lima seem to have forgotten … or of how we saw someone unloading alpaca stomachs from an unrefrigerated truck, still dripping blood, into the main bazaar in Cuzco … or of how we ran into a herd of lambs crossing the road near Moray (close to Cuzco). But instead, I’ll just show a few of the thousands of photos I took in this warm, photogenic country.
Next post–Machu Picchu, Lima, and Paracas. Next time I visit–the Amazon (Puerto Maldonado) and areas further inland and to the north. I’d love to hear about other places as well though!
In the spirit of awesome global cities, here are a few photos from a week spent in Istanbul this spring.
As my neighbor on the flight there said: Paris is a beautiful city. Istanbul is an ugly city with beautiful places.
I might have to agree, to a point: Istanbul still feels like a developing country, even in Taksim (a lively neighborhood near where we stayed)–but the beauty of the mosques on every other corner and the ability to cross over to another continent [Asia] on a 30-minute ferry more than make up for it.
There’s so much I can say about Istanbul and my time there–equal parts getting ripped off and finding many warm, hospitable people; eating great kebabs and shaking my head in disbelief at how popular fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice is in Istanbul (in case you’ve never tried it, it’s the most sour taste I’ve ever encountered); the mix of secular European and religious Middle Eastern influences, possibly skewed by the many Saudi tourists with their women in full head-to-toe burqas and hijabs [some with no eye openings]… I could go on for days.
Following a weekend in cold, cloudy Edinburgh, I spent the next weekend in Milan and Genoa (Genova in Italian). Expecting cold stone buildings reminiscent of Paris in another “world capital of fashion,” Milan instead surprised me with its color, warmth, and friendly people, and a distinctly more relaxed charm than Paris. I still associate it with walking by the business district and seeing a 50-60 year old man, well-groomed, in a well-fitting black suit and crisp white shirt–and a neon orange silk tie.
Some people fall in love with Indonesia for its orangutans, others with France for its food–and I, with a country that most would name “unexotic” at best. I’ve wanted to go to Scotland since I was about 10 years old; I had neither Scottish ancestors nor living relatives to relate to, but rather, only an inexplicable fascination with its early history of conquests, tribesmen, and magical stories.
Well… maybe being exotic isn’t everything. After visiting Edinburgh for [sadly] only 3 days, I could see why so many writers were inspired while living in Edinburgh… the views from Carlton Hill are breathtaking, and the moody skies are straight out of a gothic novel. I had to wear fleece gloves to sleep at night and three sweaters to explore during the day [and this was in May] but the people of Edinburgh couldn’t have been warmer and more hospitable.
Having lived in France (where “socialism” is a positive buzzword) and in the US (where it isn’t), I had mixed emotions about state-sponsored healthcare, education, construction, etc., especially after witnessing firsthand the many ways in which it failed in the former Soviet Union. But if a positive, purer example of socialism were to exist, Scotland might be a great starting point. (To clarify, by positive I mean that the population doesn’t abuse the system and overwhelm the economy). I encountered a fair share of immigrant families and the elderly, but virtually nobody who was either very rich or very poor. Despite the brisk wind, frequent rain, and decades-long economic downturn, people were content.
There were many charity shops benefiting Goodwill- and UNICEF-like organizations, but there were also plenty of small businesses and private ventures, many with names borne of a distinctly Scottish humor; all in all, I got the impression that the Scots were both extremely proud of their origins and history, at the same time that they were wise enough to open their borders and communities to new influences. (Of course, this was not always so: Scotland also saw “witches” burned at the stake, different tribes turning against each other, and more recent incidents of ethnic violence, often targeted at South Asian immigrants.)
Aside from the scandalous bits I picked up about Scottish culture (like how a “real man” wouldn’t wear any underwear beneath a kilt), I also got a better sense for why, perhaps, Edinburgh worked. Because the city center is fairly compact, there’s a sense of community among the pubs and coffee shops, a sort of beckoning that leaves even foreigners feeling welcome. The eroding, darkened stone buildings hint at the city’s age, but the greenery throughout the city is so lush that you don’t want to stay indoors. It’s a great balance between the brown–historical buildings and business parks–and the green–the many urban parks and open spaces. It finally made me realize that a city girl doesn’t always need to escape to a forest to be inspired by old trees.
This post (and my visit) has been a long time coming, but I hope to post again soon–next time about Italy.
…. until I leave behind the soaring stained-glass windows of Sainte Chapelle, the miles and centuries of skeletons stacked inside the Catacombs, and the glow of the Eiffel Tower at night [as well as a few more wondrous things I mentioned here.]
Three months ago, I came with no grand expectations, no lengthy to-do lists of shopping on the Champs-Elysées (too expensive), climbing up the Eiffel Tower at night (worth it, no matter how cheesy), or trying overpriced macarons (definitely not worth it; alfajores are much better). In about 11 days, I will leave this barbaric paradise, appreciative and relieved.
Appreciative for the chance to get the living-in-romantic-Paris-for-a-few-months bug out of my system; to witness a city that’s changed much in terms of history and architecture, but very little in terms of mindset over the last few centuries; to eat the best crunchy-outside-and-soft-interior baguettes you can imagine; to better appreciate [American] washing machines that don’t jam your fingers as you attempt to close them and [American] windows that have screens to keep out mosquitoes and [American] diets that include real vegetables and fruits, not drenched in butter or syrup.
Relieved to find out that I will not need to move to Paris to be happy, as I had naively thought as a kid. I’ll miss the endless array of colorful, completely unhealthy pastries on display in neighborhood bakeries; the ability to walk along the Seine on a warm night with the yellow haze of lights transforming the water into Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône; and the inevitable respect for the old and older while walking down the small, winding streets of the Marais… But I won’t miss the many rude waiters, the urine-stained streets, the racism and resistance to change, the need to wear heels to a grocery store to fit in.
My humble verdict: Is Paris worth visiting? Absolutely. Is it worth living in? Only if you live with friends.
Taken during the Nuit européenne des nuits (European Museum Night), when many, many museums all across Europe are open much later than normal operating hours, often with free admission to the general public. Unfortunately, “night” is meant only loosely, as most museums closed by 11:45 PM, with only the Centre de Pompidou (Paris’s main modern art museum) open until 1 AM. The shots above are from the inner courtyard of the Louvre (I didn’t make it there early enough to get inside).
As a little girl, I had this whimsical idea that Paris was like Disneyland, except for grown-ups–particularly, grown-ups who loved romance and passion, culture and art, and were fairly creative and open-minded.
After the seven weeks I’ve now spent here, I can say without a doubt that this is at most 5 % true. I share the same streets as men who think it’s perfectly fine to urinate against a wall in public (and have been doing so for centuries without fail); as men who think it’s perfectly fine to shout sexual slurs at women walking down a street alone, as if that automatically makes her a prostitute; as men who step on you or push you while dancing and never think to apologize. Forgive me for having expected to live amongst an advanced civilization. No, instead I find people living in Paris who’ve never heard of Moldova, even though this is just past the edge of the European Union; people who unabashedly make assumptions about Americans and the British without having ever visited either country; people who call themselves socialists living in a country of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” while still holding onto extremely xenophobic views.
As for creative and open-minded: if there’s one thing that my class on Parisian architecture taught me, it’s that the French resist change, and hate foreign influence even more. Throughout Paris’s history, many of its most influential architects, ministers, and kings have pushed for a “French” style. The result: homogenous (“harmonious”), colorless (mostly limestone and blue roof tiles), classical and neo-classical style, no matter the arrondissement or its history. When architects like Hector Guimard tried something different and innovative, the French thought it was over-the-top. The result is a city that is far from romantic, even in the springtime (which just means rain and/or clouds 90% of the time.) It’s saying something that Paris is more romantic and colorful at night–the yellow street lamps and black surroundings result in more color than you’d see in the daytime.
(Further examples of non-open-mindedness: Music? French music must be on radio airwaves at least 40% of the time during prime hours. Wine? Nothing but French will do. (It’s also usually cheaper, possibly because of government subsidies.))
Yes, I still have pretty pictures from my time in Paris so far. Some hidden gems are the interior of the Opera Garnier, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the Musée du Monde Arabe… and of course, the inside of Notre Dame. But will these spots of beauty overshadow the unpleasantries enough for me to want to live here? Probably not in the long term, though I’ll wait one month more to be certain.
After weeks of seeing limestone upon limestone (not to mention rain every single day) in Paris, going to Giverny made me feel like a kid in a candy store–except the candy became flowers. There was just so much COLOR!!!
As a bit of context, Giverny is a small French town in Normandy, NW of Paris, where the painter Claude Monet spent most of his later years. I was extremely surprised by the house itself: it was relatively small, and infinitely more humble, than most French houses of people who were as wealthy and popular as he was by the end of his life, and especially given that he was born and raised in Paris. I had the impression that his biggest investments were his collection of Japanese prints and his garden. At any rate, it was interesting to see where such a well-known artist spent his life and gained inspiration.
The town itself was very bucolic–ivy everywhere, brick and green.
A view of Monet’s house from the gardens
These two looked almost like they were talking to each other
Walking towards the lily pond from Monet’s gardens
The lily pond!
The cheerful kitchen of Monet’s house (with Japanese prints on every wall, bien sûr)
The view from Monet’s bedroom window. I can’t really blame him for being inspired.
I’ve been meaning to post photos for some time from Istanbul, Barcelona, and Paris–all wonderful, beautiful, and ridiculous places in their own ways. But I’ll start with a much less well-known spot of Europe: the region of Auvergne, in central France, where I spent this past weekend. Many of the towns we visited were part of the Santiago de Compostela route in France–a holy pilgrimage for Christians that links to where St. James is believed to be buried, in NW Spain. One town that we drove through even seemed to be throwing its own medieval fair–everyone in the streets and in the shops was strangely minding their own business, as if their stockings, colorful dresses, and frocks were completely expected in the 21st century.
There is some truth to my growing suspicion that most medieval towns in Western Europe are very similar… nonetheless, this region still had its own flavors:
- lace-making (which we learned was much more complex than previously thought),
- the bright-green, surprisingly strong liquor called Verveine,
- black foxes running along the highways,
- the icy-cold rapids of the Loire, and
- plenty of extinct volcanoes (Auvergne is in the heart of the Massif Central mountain range).
I’m also starting to think that they don’t care about diets like the Parisians do; the general population in Auvergne was of a healthier weight on average–perhaps partially because they were older, and central Paris’s population is much younger… The people of Auvergne (and particularly the staff of restaurants) were also thankfully friendlier than in Paris. 🙂