Author Archives: Blake

Bus Ride from Hell

April 21st, 2011-

Once we were happy. We ate sunshine and optimism for breakfast. Then came the Bus Ride from Hell.

Here’s the story. We needed a bus from McLeod Ganj to Manali, a 10 hour overnight journey through the valleys of Himachal Pradesh. I asked around at many of the local private bus ticket sellers, but each was selling only tickets on “small buses”—i.e. 9- to 12-seater vans. As a skeptic of the 12-seater van and a happily grizzled veteran of the South American overnight big bus system (a wonderful system that actually grants one a chance at sleep), I held out for a big bus.

Finally I found a company offering a big bus: Akash Adventures. That I will forever damn this company is not important at this moment. But I will.

Akash said that the first Manali-bound big bus of the season was leaving on Thursday the 31st. He showed me the seating map, and yup, there were 40+ seats on this bus, and the seats pushed back, and we could have seats #11 & #12, right near the front. Fantastic.

That was five days ago. Fast forward to today. We walk to the bus terminal at 9pm and look for our bus. We spot two big buses hanging out in the parking lot and make a bee-line for them when a nearby Indian man asks us a one-word question: “Manali?”

“Yes, we’re going to Manali.”

“Oh okay, come over here.”

He leads us to—none other than—a tiny 12-seater van. I say, no, sorry, this isn’t right, we’re on a big bus. He looks at our ticket. Akash Adventures—yes, this is your bus. And you have seats 11 and 12. And naturally, in a 12-seater van, those are in the way back.

I call Akash on my cell phone. He says sorry, when there aren’t enough people to fill up a big bus, they put you on a small bus. I tell him that’s a terrible way to run a business—assuring me that I’ll get one kind of service and delivering another. So sorry, he says. Click.

Well, crap. We got screwed on this bus thing. But at least we had a bus. It wasn’t all that bad. Three British blokes and a French girl joined us, and it seemed that we’ve have plenty of room to stretch out on our ride to Manali. That’s when I took the above photo. When life was still good. When birds still chirped and babies still giggled.

9:40, time to go. This guy takes off like it’s the fucking grand prix. There’s hardly anyone else on the road—that’s why night buses are generally a good idea, you’re not stuck behind and endless procession of trucks, auto rickshaws, taxis, bikes, horse carts and cows—but the driver obviously has a family member in the hospital or a terrorist plot to foil or some other rational reason for driving like a stunt man from the Fast and Furious movies.

Brenna and I quickly realized the direness of our situation. We were in the back of a tiny bus (tiny enough to allow the driver to drive wildly) instead of the front of a big bus (which naturally must drive slowly) as we expected.

Within five minutes Brenna turns to me and calmly says, “I see vomiting in my not-too-distant future.”

Fortunately the French girl overheard Brenna and gave her a dramamine pill, and there was space for Brenna to move to the front. But then the van stops to pick up five more passengers. Now it’s packed. Brenna moves back to her assigned seat #11. Damn.

Off again we go, speeding down the winding mountain road from McLeod Ganj. The nausea returns. Brenna asks me if I think the cracked window next to us will provide enough space in case of vomiting. I say no, and that she should tell me if it’s going to happen and I’ll get the driver to stop. But by then it’s too late. Brenna’s got her hand over her mouth, a sickly pale look on her face, and starts making convulsive motions. I scramble for the closest bag-like object, and I find: my man-bag. I dump the contents into my lap—an iPad, notebook, and camera—and then hand her the bag, which she summarily consecrates with her vomitus.

I tell the van to pull over. We walk to the nearest ditch and decide to just leave the bag there. (While it was a stalwart Guatemalan man-bag, the zipper was broken, so I didn’t cry too much.) Before leaving we double check to ensure that no other valuables were left in the bag. We find one victim: my 1960 paperback copy of The Last of the Mohicans which I’d picked up in Arequipa, Peru. Sorry, James Fenimore Cooper. The book was good, but not puke-stained good.

Back on the bus. I demand that the bus driver put down the fold-up shotgun seat that’s in the front next to him. He accedes, and Brenna moves up there. I give her my Nalgene bottle in case she needs to puke again. And then I settle into seats number 11 and 12 for the long ride to Manali.

My rest of the ride is fairly uneventful from my perspective. The seats reclined slightly, and I manage to steal little snatches of sleep. But every bump or hard turn is an opportunity to knock me back into consciousness.

Around 1am we stop at a roadside restaurant and the driver disappears for roughly half an hour. Taking a power nap or amphetamines, perhaps. I’m pretty sure there are laws against bus drivers going so long in a single stretch in the United States. Regardless, at the bus stop I discover the Brenna had puked not once, but twice into my Nalgene. Poor girl. Being in front is helping her, but she’s still nauseous and certainly can’t sleep.

Back in the bus/van/torture chamber. Now for the next surprise. The ride, according to Lonely Planet, is supposed to be 10 hours long. That makes sense—leave around 10pm, arrive around 6am. I foolishly forgot to ask Akash Adventures how long our ride would be. Only now, in the middle of the night, do we confirm that thanks to the clear roads and our Formula 1 driver, we’ll arrive in only 7 hours—i.e. 3am.

Who the hell schedules a night bus to arrive at 3am?

I fume over that question through broken sleep until, roughly around 2:30am, I notice that bus is getting really cold. Everyone is cold. Just as cold as the mountain night air would be, in fact…but all the windows are closed…ah yes, there it is. I look behind me and lo and behold, the double doors in the back are OPEN. There is a five inch gap between where the doors should be and where they are. They’re still latched, and that’s why all our luggage isn’t falling out, but nonetheless, the doors are open.

I go up and tell the driver to stop and close the doors. He hastily pulls over, gives the doors two half-hearted slams, failing to attach them to the van’s body. And then gets back in the front and says “No problem, only 10 kilometers more to Manali.”

“Really?” I say. “Only ten kilometers and our luggage falling out is no problem?”

The driver mumbled something and took off again like a bullet.

*Nineteen* freezing kilometers later (roughly 3am) we arrive on some desolate stretch of alley that is the Manali Private Station. The other passengers ask about hotels, and the drivers says that we need to go to the villages of Old Manali or Vashist, 2km away. “Can you take us there?” asks one British woman. “Fifty rupees each,” responds the driver. Here we are, being dropped by the side of the road at 3am, and this guy is squeezing an extra 500 rupees out of his passenger load. Admittedly, 50 rupees is not much more than 1 US dollar, and I could have seen this situation coming. But it still hurt. Especially with that unsafe cracked door pouring frigid night air into the cabin.

We, the passengers, concede to this offer and he drops us in front of an Old Manali hotel. When collecting 50 rupees from everyone, I’m the last in line and I ask the driver about the 50 rupee discount for a freezing cold cabin caused by cracked doors that the driver would not close. He gets the gist and drives on.

We land in a 300 rupee hotel and collapse on the sheets. Thus ends the Bus Ride from Hell.

Silver Masturbating Monkey Charm

April 19th, 2011-

Today we shopped. Brenna bought some nice gifts which she doesn’t want me to reveal by posting photos on the blog. So instead, I bring you…

The silver masturbating monkey charm.

For a mere Rs.1500 ($32), you too can own this fine piece of Indian handicraft.

Yes, the arm moves. Just twist the pin under the opposing armpit.

(No, I didn’t get it for anyone. The monkey was too rich for my blood. And too saucy.)

In other news, it rained.

Hike to Triund

April 18th, 2011-

Today is hike day! We set out for the mountain village of “Triund,” not quite sure where we were supposed to go. We eventually got (most of the way) there.

Two canine amigos joined us for much of the early hike.

A sweeping view of the Kangra Valley below McLeod Ganj.

Brenna and I reached a tea shop en route to Triund when the weather started looking iffy. We decided to turn around there. (We also wanted to make it back in time for English class volunteering at 4pm.) You can see our starting place in the cluster of white houses below.

On the way home we discovered a shortcut thanks to the help of a Hungarian windsurfer and Russian yoga teacher. Our same two canine friends found us and escorted us back down!

After volunteering, we finally got a chance to see Black Swan in the underground pirate movie theater. As you can see, the house was packed. One of the seats up front smelled like vomit. And every 20 seconds, the volume would cut out for 1-2 seconds. But for $3, we didn’t complain too much.

Power Down

April 17th, 2011-

Every morning, the street-side shopkeepers unpack and hang up their wares. And every evening, they take them down and pack them away again. 7 days a weeks, over and over again.

I, the tourist, watch from my cafe window with an omelette and toast.

Later, I go to the local pirate movie theater to watch The Black Swan, but the electricity in the entire town goes out. No one has power except for a few restaurants with generators. Alas!

Coming soon: Blake Eats!

Dearest readers of Blake Travels,

As many of you know, my travel plans for the second half of 2011 recently changed. The Unschool Adventures “Eurosurf” and “New Zealand Ultraventure” trips didn’t garner enough interest to become viable. Thus, I will no longer be traveling internationally after my India trip.

But fear not, as I intend to continue blogging for the rest of 2011–but the name and theme of the blog will change from “Blake Travels” to “Blake Eats.”

Yes, that’s right. I eat. And I like taking pictures of what I eat. You may have noticed that. I’ll post every day about something awesome (or not awesome) that I ate, along with a photograph and the occasional nutrition commentary.

Thanks for following my blog!





April 16th, 2011-

Scenes from a momo (Tibetan dumpling) cooking class.


Lhamo: the man behind the action.

Pinching, very delicately.


Lhamo told us his story. He came from Tibet in the late nineties, studied English for two years, worked in a restaurant for nine months, and then started first cooking class in McLeod Ganj. He learned everything about cooking from his mom.

Cabbage, carrot and onions: my favorite momo.

Brenna hand-built.

Our army assembled. (Two Canadians and a French guy helped.)

Ready for the steamer.


In other news: Tibet loves Legolas!

Lion Man

April 15th, 2011-

Brenna got her appetite back! Happy days! Goodbye, stomach bug.

This is Lion Man. He’s found us almost every day that we’ve been in McLeod Ganj and told us about his “show.” This was the third time that he asked us to come (cost: Rs.100, about $2.40). He was such a nice and enthusiastic guy that today we decided to oblige him. The show was later that night.

There was a show of a different kind going on: active construction in the hotel restaurant where we ate breakfast. This has been a theme in India. People will grind metal or cut railings or do other remodeling in the middle of a busy restaurant. This poor guy on the left got a big dust cloud shot into his meal before the workers transitioned into (the below featured) noisy hammering.

(As Brenna pointed out: At restaurants in India, you only pay for the food. Lack of flies, lack of noise, waiter service, drinking water, and any other “normal” amenities are not part of the deal.)

Luckily we did find a decent restaurant (by paying more money!) on a rooftop. Check out the my massive chicken tandoori.

The following shot is reminiscent of my steak post from Bariloche, Argentina. If that steak was reason #1 for not being vegetarian anymore, this is #2.

Later we went to the Lion Man show at a nice rooftop restaurant.

I’d buy a Sprite from her.

Lion Man started his show, half an hour late, by recounting the story of how (at age 15) and another group of refugees had snuck out of Tibet in 1998. At this point, I had quite a bit of compassion and patience for the guy.

Then he prepared to sing his first song. Unfortunately he cracked up, laughing to himself, within 5 seconds of attempting to begin. And then he did that over—and over—and over again. He couldn’t get started for roughly 15 minutes. The small crowd was supportive, and he finally started singing.

He then progressed into a very slow dance, culminating in the act of spinning in a circle for literally 10 minutes.

By the time the power cut out, it was 8pm. We’d been there two hours and our patience had worn thin. We bailed at the intermission. Thanks Lion Man, you tried.

I Do What I Want!

April 14th, 2011-

Animals in India don’t talk, but this is what I hear.





and on a totally separate note… Brenna ate pie.


April 13th, 2011-

To add to the menagerie, today we crossed a pack of (seemingly) wild mountain goats.

We made it to our first volunteering class today. Unfortunately we were asked not to take photos of the students (and post them on the internet), many of whom were ex-political prisoners, for the sake of their safety and the safety of their families (many of whom are still in China-controlled Tibet). But I did manage to snap a photo of some instructional role-playing by the other volunteers—in this case, two blokes from Scotland and Ireland—with the wonderful volunteer teacher Amanda, from England.

Brenna was still feeling nauseous. Even plain white rice and a banana lassi wouldn’t go down.

The traveler who shared our dinner table was a woman from Chile named Macarena (“yes, like the dance”) who just finished medical school. She had three months off to travel the world before getting psychiatry training and starting full-time work in Santiago. We chatted for an hour. It felt great to use my Spanish again, like the first run weeks after a marathon (i.e. the Unschool Adventures South America trip).

Tibetan Buddhist Temple

April 12th, 2011-

This morning we visited Tsuglagkhang, the main complex of important Tibetan temples and buildings, including the official home of the Dalai Lama. I didn’t see the Lama himself, but I did think often and fondly of Bill Murray’s Dalai Lama story in the movie Caddyshack.

Good views of the Himalaya and central McLeod Ganj were in abundance.

We spun the wheels of time, adding one mantra to our karma for each revolution. (“So I’ve got that going for me—which is nice.”)

Apparently no shoe was safe at the entrance to the temple. (Read the sign.)

One of the main temples, when empty.

Tibetan Buddhist monks chanting in the same temple. (I think I burned up all my karma by taking this photo.)

Our irrepressible simian friends patrolled the grounds.

Brenna snapped this photo of a fellow tourist’s sleeping child. She talks more and more seriously about stealing an Indian baby each day. I fear for the children.

Around 2pm, monks started gathering in the central courtyard. We were just about to leave but decided to stay and see what’s up. We weren’t disappointed.

The monks paired up and began conversing—arguing, more like it—with one sitting and the other standing, swaying, and intermittently emphasizing a point with a stomping of the foot and a clap of the hands. Each monk fingered a string of rosary beads in the process.

As we later learned from an elder monk in a restaurant, these young monks were debating Buddhist philosophy: one of their many forms of meditation practice. The standing monk posed philosophical challenges or questions to the sitting monk, who then had to respond.

Some of them REALLY got into it. I was a little jealous. I wanted to participate, but it was all in Tibetan. And, I suppose, I’m not a monk. (But there were a handful of apparent lay people in the mix.)

That evening we attempted to join our first conversational English class (as volunteers) for Tibetan refugees. We were a bit late, so we grabbed dinner at the “Peace Cafe” instead, where we ran into a weird, weird old man (more on that later) and a positively delightful little Korean-Tibetan girl.

Brenna asked me to get the chloroform and burlap sack. I resisted.

The Stomach Bug Attacks, and a Journey from Zanskar

April 11th, 2011-

This morning Brenna and I grabbed breakfast at the “Italian Restaurant” above our hotel. (The quotes indicate that EVERY restaurant here is an Italian restaurant…and a Tibetan restaurant…and they serve Chinese and “Continental” [European] food, too. No restaurant is really that different from another.) Brenna ate a perfectly normal looking “farmer’s omelette”—and then started feeling nauseous, with intermittent stomach cramps. This affliction was destined continue for the next three days, limiting her ability to do much more than lay in bed and listen to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials audiobooks. Pobrecita!

She did manage to attend a nearby film screening with me that evening. In her own blog post, Brenna wrote beautifully about it, so I feel my best option is to plagiarize! Without further ado, Ms. Brenna McBroom:

“Last night we attended a screening of the movie ‘Journey From Zanskar’ about a ‘Geshe’ monk (the highest title that one can achieve as a monk- it takes 26 years of study) who took fourteen children on an extremely dangerous journey from Zanskar to Manali, so that they could study in a Tibetan school. The movie was amazing, and the coolest thing was that the Geshe monk was present and sitting right in front of me! The screening took place in a small room above a cafe, and when the movie was over he talked with us and answered our questions.”

I asked the monk if he had heard of Greg Mortensen or Three Cups of Tea…he hadn’t! I wrote it down on a piece of paper and said “READ THAT BOOK!”

(No photos today! Sorry!)

McLeod Ganj is SWEET

April 10th, 2011-

The rest of India: hot, flat, smoggy, noisy, everyone trying to sell you something.

McLeod Ganj: cool, mountainous, clear, quiet, no hard selling.

Double room with private bathroom: 400 rupees ($9).

Cafes with free wi-fi: EVERYWHERE.

Tibetan monks: EVERYWHERE.

Ex-pat hippy factor: minimal.

Lovin’ it. Tomorrow we start looking for volunteering opportunities (probably teaching conversational English) with the Tibetan refugee crowd.

Travel Day

April 9th, 2011-

Short post today. We traveled via bus from Amritsar to McLeod Ganj (just north of Dharamsala), the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile.

Lots of sitting and praying that our bus driver can communicate telepathically with the drivers of oncoming cargo trucks (in our same lane).

But do you know what makes long hauls so much better? That’s right. Miniature cans of THE DEW.

The Golden Temple

April 8th, 2011-

Brenna and I snagged an overnight “sleeper” train from Haridwar to Amritsar (in the Punjab, near the Pakistan border). Cost: $5. Experience: not as nasty as I thought it could be. Almost pleasant.

Brenna taught some young’uns to play SET. And an old guy who just couldn’t quite get it.

We arrived bright and early at 7am and bee-lined it The Golden Temple, the holiest of holy places for people of the Sikh religion. It was pretty sweet ass.

Even in our dirty, sleep-deprived state, the temple left us awe-struck.

And we left the locals awe-struck, apparently. Five different groups asked us for photographs—mostly young men who approached with a big smile and “Hello! How are you?” in decent English.

We spent the rest of the day napping in a noisy hotel room. Brenna was sick with a cold, so I went out looking for wi-fi, unsuccessfully. What I did find was a nice guy, around age 30, named “Raj” who chatted me up in his internet cafe. He told me first that he worked for Microsoft, and later that he actually worked at a call center for Virgin Broadband in Delhi. Very nice guy. He asked to become my Facebook friend. That’s the new international hand-shake, it seems. I agreed.


April 7th, 2011-

Features of a Bad Hotel Room:

1) Dirty, dusty, stained sheets & comforter. Check.

2) Constant deluge of water running from one end of bathroom to the other. Check.

3) Mosquitos pouring into room via hole in the wall above the toilet. Check.

4) Threat of monkey attack. Check.

5) Showerhead non-functional—front desk guys insist that the “faucet shower” is just as good. Check.

That’s all that needs to be said about our POS hotel. Luckily they were nice enough to hold our bags while we spent a pleasant day exploring the town of Haridwar.

Little kids and old men got naked to go for a dip in the Ganges.

A giant Hindu god looked over the highway.

We got bindis from two lovely little girls.

Our favorite new (free) dessert: anise seeds with sugar. YUM.

Brenna browsed the world’s most phallic vegetable stand.

Finally we found our most entertaining destination: a clothing shop and one of its tailors, Robbie.

Brenna finally got a chance to buy her own shalwar kamiz.

Robbie was an enthusiastic salesman. Are you sure you don’t want 2 or 3 shalwar kamiz, not one? Maybe try on a sari while you’re at it?

Brenna held strong. Robbie did manage to sell me a pair of underwear (which turned out to be too small)…that sly dog.

Tonight: an overnight train to Amritsar (in the far north, near the Pakistan border) and the famous Golden Temple.

Down the Ganges We Go

April 6th, 2011-

Ashram life quickly wore thin.

Maybe it was the 5:45am wake-up for the 6am mandatory yoga class. Maybe it was the the skimpy dinner (one big ladle of rice-curry-gruel) followed by a skimpy breakfast (two chapati and a spiced pickle). Or maybe it was the incomprehensible yoga teacher who continuously insisted that we breathe into “both of our two lungs” (hmm, not sure how to do fail at that!) and spent too much time chanting.

Any way you look at it, we were ready to peace outta there and Rishikish in general. So I risked damnation by the Hindu gods and took a photo of our ashram door. (Funny story: When we first arrived, I thought that our room number was 30. Then I noticed that everyone else’s room number was 30. Then Brenna told me that that symbol means “Om,” not the number 30.)

We grabbed a bus 30km south to the holy city of Haridwar, also on the Ganges. Tired from lack of sleep and too much bad yoga, we grabbed a hotel room near the bus station and crashed out to bad American movies.

For the rest of the day, we spent an obscene amount of time in the nearby restaurant “Big Ben,” watching the noisy Haridwar traffic pass by through thick glass windows. Here Brenna sips on my mango lassi.

Our hotel room was ridiculous. More on that in the next post.

Unicorn says…

April 5th, 2011-

Today we moved into a yoga ashram called Anand Prakash. They fed us lunch (first of three daily meals), put us up in a private room, and gave us our first yoga lesson (of two daily) for 600 rupees total (~$13).

It didn’t feel right to take photos in the ashram. So I instead found an inspirational life poster that I now share with you.

We Don’t Swim in the Ganges Because of High Fecal Content

April 3, 2011-

In Rishikesh, and perhaps all over India, locals will ask to take a picture with you. One guy told us that we “look like a nice couple,” and that was his justification for photographing us. Here, three dudes asked for our photo while walking along the Ganges. The one in orange was holding my hand directly before this photo, which is normal thing for guys who are friends to do in India.

They also hold girls’ hands.

We walked down to the “Swarg Ashram” area of Rishikesh, which was supposed to be more holy, but it felt rather like all the other (commercialized) areas of the town. Brenna contemplate this fact (or an avocado sandwich, I’m not sure which) as the sun set.


Oh, and guess who we found laaaazing around on the holy ghats of the Ganges? Yup, Mr. Bull. I could virtually hear him saying “I’M SO HOLY, I DO WHAT I WANT! NO BURGERS FOR YOU!”

And to top it all off: Myspace shot on a Ganges river boat!!

(Sorry, the title of this post has nothing to do with the content. But it is true.)

Rishikesh Menagerie

April 1, 2011-

So here we are in Rishikesh, one of the holy cities along the (very holy) Ganges river. There’s a bunch of holy stuff here, like shrines, ashrams, yoga and meditation courses. But all we can pay attention to are the holy cows.

They’re everywhere.

Just lining the streets, acting like they own the place.

Crapping wherever they damn well please, rooting through the garbage.

(The previous four bovine photos: credit, Brenna McBroom)

There are two pedestrian bridges spanning the Ganges here in Rishikesh. “Pedestrian” means “foot traffic only,” right? The motorcyclists don’t seem to care—they just zip down the bridge and honk at everyone who gets in the way. And neither do the holy cows.

This cow was saying to Brenna: “I do what I want!”

There are also monkeys.

They look cute and harmless from a few feet away, when you’re just observing. But bust out the camera and they turn vicious. This one almost leapt at me from its hang-out on the side of the bridge. Maybe they need to clarify that’s a “human pedestrian bridge.”

Oh, look who was waiting for us on the way back! Our old friend! (He tried to gore me with his one functional horn directly after this shot.)

Monkeys everywhere!

And…this was great. (Photo: Brenna)

Chandigarh to Rishikesh

March 31, 2011-

View from a rickshaw to Sector 43 bus station.

View from a rickshaw back to Sector 17 bus station (where we originated). So much for bad travel advice.

View from our Rishikesh-bound bus. This kid was taking pictures of us with his mom’s cell phone.

In between all this was roughly 7 hours of incessant honking, slamming on brakes, near-misses with huge transport trucks, stopped traffic, touts, bumps, and more honking…most of which I don’t care to remember. On the upside, there was gorgeous rural scenery and the whole trip cost roughly $4.

A Rock Garden Dystopia & Pakistan v. India

March 30th, 2011-

Matt took us to Chandigarh’s big tourist highlight: the rock garden. Built by a local artistic “visionary” and made of largely reused materials, this rock garden (entrance fee: Rs.15, a.k.a. US$0.33) is not to be missed. Does YOUR rock garden have waterfalls?

Or midget-sized gateways separating its various chambers?

Or Indian people who insist on taking a family photo with you?

Or menacing metal gnomes sentries?

Or funny mirrors?

(Hey there cowgirl.)

Or a CAMEL? (Photo credit: Brenna)

After all that rock garden adventure, we needed a nap. Unfortunately I discovered Brenna cheating on me with an inflatable penguin named Pedro.

Later that day, the cricket world cup semi-finals were on: India v. Pakistan. Apparently Indians don’t really care about winning the world cup so much as beating Pakistan, their long-time nemesis. The match took place just a few kilometers away from Chandigarh, so the streets were packed with fans and gawkers.

We Americans celebrated by eating. Kate’s friend from the internship program, Maria from Siberia, joined us. This time: South Indian “domas” and my first Chai Masala tea. YUMMMMMM. Best meal yet.

Our group caught the end of the match at a local pub. Kingfisher is the Budweiser of India.

Brenna got TRASHED for the cricket game! And by that I mean: we shared a beer and then went back to the hotel at 10pm to fulfill our jet-lag-sleep-urges.

India won. The various explosions and wild cheering coming through the window told it all.

Delhi to Chandigarh

March 29, 2011-

We grabbed a 4.5-hour-long “second seating” train form Delhi to Chandigarh for the bargain basement price of $3.50.

We were definitely the only white people on this train car.

First autorickshaw/moto-taxi/tuk-tuk ride.

After we found our friends Matt & Kate (Kate is doing an internship here, and Matt is her boyfriend visiting from Boston), we took even more autorickshaw rides! And I made even stranger faces.

YUM first Indian food dinner! Picture below is my “thali” (= a little bit of everything) with hot naan bread to the left. YUM YUM YUM.

I’m purposefully not eating any “sweets” on this trip (defined as chocolate and sugary snacks), but I made an early exception for these fruit-based Indian desserts. They were pretty weird (and most Indian sweets look equally or more weird), so I don’t think my goal will be a problem.

Welcome to Injia!

March 27-28, 2011 (including time travel)-

Two weeks after returning from South America, I’m on the move again—this time to India for 5 weeks.

Why India, Blake? Well, good question, Blake.

Honestly, India isn’t the big attraction for me: it’s the Himalaya.

Ever since I watched Seven Years in Tibet and met my friend Dan, a Brit who treks and works in Nepal, I’ve had the urge to visit the Himalaya mountains. I have no desire to do some monstrous climb of K2 or Everest or something like that, and I never have. I just love the beauty of the mountains, and the Himalaya combines that with the chance to experience a new (and, for a westerner, affordable) foreign culture.

So when I was planning my year out, slapping an India trip into my travels just made sense. I had the time, money, and no binding commitments in the States, so I jumped on the opportunity. I’m going to die sometime, right? Do it while you’re still young!

Another big plus for India was that my girlfriend, the esteemed potter Brenna McBroom of Asheville, NC (, also wanted to visit India. She threw a bunch of pots and saved up, and now we’re traveling together. Hot dog! It doesn’t get better than this.

A final motive for the trip is: to do research for a potential future Unschool Adventures trip. India is not a place that I would send a group without checking out myself, so here I am, and maybe we’ll run a trip there in 2012 if it all feels right.

Okay, enough background story. On to the photos!

Directly after the conference, Brenna and I got a ride to Chicago O’Hare airport to await our direct flight to New Delhi on a big fat 777 aircraft. Here she poses with our chariot.

The big novelty of this flight is the length: 14 hours. This is my longest flight ever. We entertained ourselves with reading, movies, uncomfortable napping, snacking, and joking about the older Indian man behind us who would forcefully push our seats into their upright positions when we attempted to recline.

My eyes often returned to the big flight information board in the front of the passenger area. Those hours ticked away slowly.

Arriving at New Delhi, Brenna was confused by the airport’s lack of bathroom signage. Which one to choose??

We waited around for our pre-arranged hotel taxi, which was an hour late, and then we waited a bit more for the driver to get gas, since he was on empty. In India, you have to pop the hood to fill the tank.

Now it’s 5:30am Delhi time, which is really 7pm Chicago time, and my body is hating on me for the jet lag. Our next stop is Chandigarh, four hours north of Delhi.

Travels Between Travels: Asheville & Chicago

March 13-26, 2011-

Between South America and my next big international trip—India—I spent time at Brenna’s house in Asheville and presented at the InHome Conference outside of Chicago. While there were many highlights, here are the ones that I managed to photograph!

Hanna, Jonah, and Garrett wished me goodbye after all the other South America students founds their flights home from Miami.

I crashed with my old friend Tom Fiori (from Bakersfield and UC Berkeley) and his wife in Miami. He’s a radical anarchist, and we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things politically nowadays, but it was great to hang with him nonetheless.

In Asheville, Tara Dean (another former Unschool Adventuree) and her friend found us while driving across the country. A few days later, Tara was taking off to volunteer in Africa delivering babies. Dang unschoolers!

Fast forward to March 23-26, where I presented a ton of workshops at the InHome Conference—a 1000-person, all-inclusive homeschooling conference drawing people from all over the midwest. Here I led a teen workshop entitled “Indescribable Sexiness” (edited by the conference board to “Indescribable Attraction”).

Many former Unschool Adventurees were at this conference! Featured here (from the top-left, clockwise): Aytch, Nicolette (who applied to go on a trip that was canceled), Paige, and Claire.

They helped me run my exhibitor booth, along with Erica and Luke.

You gotta watch out at these homeschooling conferences—lots of tricky Christian games and curricula out there. Here, someone apparently redesigned the (excellent and non-religious) game “Settlers of Catan” to become “Settlers of Canaan”, where your goal is to lead your tribe of Israelites to salvation or something. I was offered 20% off because I told the guy that I was going to India, which he immediately assumed was discount-deserving missionary work.

But really, the highlight of the whole conference was seeing my name on a foil balloon. What more does the human heart desire?

Wrapping up South America

March 10-12, 2011-

After Machu Picchu, I was spent. The next two days (the 10th and 11th) consisted of prepping for the return home, enjoying our time in our new-and-improved “party hostel”, The Point, and doing closing meetings & feedback forms.

Before the South America trip, Julie made plans with me to extend her travels. She flies out of Cusco, but not until early May! To fulfill her big plans to visit Patagonia and Bolivia over the next seven weeks, she grabbed a bus back to Arequipa the night before our group took off. Here, Jonah showered her with goodbyes, a.k.a. party foam leftover from Carnaval.

It’s okay, she forgave him…and Wyatt, at the same time. We bid farewell to Julie and wished her merry adventures (and lots of steamy hot Argentine men). She will be missed.

I did some last-minute gift shopping. I typically dislike bringing back touristy crap that no one will actually use. Luckily I found a nice lady who agreed to knit a custom cap for Brenna, inscribing the phrase “Throw or Die” on alpaca yarn. Unfortunately she neglected to include the spaces, and the inscriptions reads more like “THROWORDIE”, which throws many people for a ringer.

On Saturday morning, we grabbed three taxis to Cusco International Airport. After seven weeks of highly responsible room sweeps and maintaining control of virtually all my stuff, I forgot my shoes in the hostel in Cusco. South America strikes again!

Ingmar accompanied us to the airport and left us whimpering like puppy dogs behind a glass wall. (He’s also staying in South America a bit longer—just one week in Cusco.)

Here the group awaited our connecting flight to Miami in Lima, Peru.

Upon arrival in Miami the students kissed the floor, remembered what non-concrete-90-degree-angle architecture looked like, and thanked their creators for clean drinking fountains and reliable porcelain toilets. And ran up and down the moving walkways.

LAN Airlines courteously put us up in a four-star hotel for the night after not-so-courteously canceling our original return flight. The students pitched in and I ordered a Papa John’s pizza feast delivered to our rooms. Between this and the hot tub, we had some happy campers.

Not as happy as Jalen, who one week prior had pre-ordered a vegan carrot cake with “cream cheese” frosting to be delivered to the hotel.


And to top it all off, Garrett (a former Unschool Adventuree) showed up.

Thus ended the Unschool Adventures South America trip!

Machu Freakin’ Picchu

Wednesday March 9th

Guess what we did today? Yup. Visit Machu Picchu.

It all started at 4am, when we woke up and joined the line of people waiting for the first buses to Machu Picchu. We did this so that we could be some of the first people in the NEXT line, outside of Machu Picchu’s entrance gates, to get an authorization stamp to climb Huayna Picchu (only 400 people get to climb it each day, and it’s first-come, first-served).

Ahh, 4:30. What a magical hour.

After entering the park, our first stop was the “guardhouse” where we awaited our guide. Hey look, it’s Machu Picchu!

The last time I was in Peru (2007), my friend Patrick and I skipped Cusco and MP because they’re so touristy. Well, they are touristy—that’s a fact. But I really enjoyed finally getting to see the ancient Incan kingdom.

Requisite butt shot.

Trip leader shot.

Myspace shot.

…and a few more group shots.

Our tour guide loved talking about the triangles that are everywhere and how they relate to the glaciers and asked if we were “CLEAR TO THE IDEA?”

Vicious wild llamas wandered the ruins.

Wild “chinchillas” too.

And “Andean eagles”

We climbed up Huayna Picchu, the big mountain that you typically see photographed next to Machu Picchu.

Goodbye Machu Picchu.


Tuesday March 8th-

We spent all day in transit to Aguas Calientes, a.k.a. Machupicchutown. This consisted of a gorgeous 2-hour bus ride from Cusco to Ollyatatambo folllowed by an equally gorgeous 2-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes.

Look how excited Lani was!

So Much Yet So Little Water

Monday March 7th-

The hills of Cusco are steep.

Maybe that’s why there’s no WATER in our bathrooms from 6pm-6am. It’s just too hard to travel uphill at night. Despite the rain every day.

But really, Inca Wasi Hostel, don’t tell me every day that “we’ll definitely have water tonight”, and then leave me confronted with three unflushed toilets.


Sunday March 6th-

We hiked to the “Christo Blanco” on the hill above our hostel this morning…Benji held a striking resemblance.


The early morning hiking crew.

Today, Cusco celebrated Carnaval. For those of you who don’t know what Carnaval is, it’s when the locals stock up on water balloons, buckets, spray guns, and foam spray canisters…and wait for the gringos to walk by.

Jalen felt the wrath of this group of locals.

Nor were the rest spared.

Lunch made it all better.

La Cuerva de las Ladrones

Friday March 4th-

Last night I took the students to a discotheque that Malena (of the Spanish school) told me was hip with all the young’uns in Arequipa. The students reported a much higher incidence of balding middle-aged men. Ha! Too bad.

Today everyone packed up and moved out of their homestays and (staff) hostel in preparation for our night bus to Cusco. We did internet’ing and last-minute city exploring. Julie and Ingmar took Benji, who’s been dying for a good climb, to the lock rock gym, the Cuerva del Mono (¡que divertido!):

Unfortunately, Benji’s luck took a turn for the worse at the bus station. He left his camera out on a chair and a team of four female thieves distracted him (and the rest of group) while one of them “bumped into” the chair and grabbed the camera. (I wasn’t there—this is the story I got.)

Benji was thankful that this happened near the end of the trip. The camera was covered by traveler’s insurance, but there was no tourist police to file a report in the bus station, and police from one district (i.e. Cusco) won’t create a report for a crime that happened in another (i.e. Arequipa), so Benji is SOL in terms of getting compensated. Bummer!

You Can’t Slick the Slicker

Thursday March 3rd-

[OKAY SO, it’s actually March 14th today. This is the farthest that I’ve been behind on my blog, but I’m determined to catch up.]

The highlight of this morning was tricking not one, not two, but THREE of the students into owing me a frappucino!

I did a classic card trick where they cut the deck, look at a card, put it back in the middle of the deck, and then I flip through the cards and tell them that I’m using my psychic powers to determine when the card is near. I purposefully flip past their card, play dumb, and tell them that the next card I’m going to flip over is theirs. I then get them to bet against this proposal, and then I crush their dreams by flipping over their card from the pile of discards.

Kina and Benji were the first to bet against me (a frappucino each), and Claire later did the same. Here’s me cashing in on my sweet victory with Claire.

On another sugary note, Inca Kola is the official soda of Peru. It tastes like a cross between bubble gum and vanilla cream.

Five Shots

Wednesday, March 2-

A shot from our daily morning meet-up at Cusco Coffee:

A shot of Mount Misti, the volcano next to Arequipa:

A shot of Julie traversing the bouldering wall at La Cueva del Mono:

A shot of Ingmar scoping out the Mono himself:

And a shot of Ingmar doing a sick dyno:

Gatto in the Park

Tuesday, March 1

This morning our group (minus Quinn, the late-sleeper) walked to Yanahuara’s central plaza and scoped some epic views of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes.

We discovered a few pleasant and quite side streets.

And we spent the rest of the morning discussing John Taylor Gatto, unschooling, and education theory in the sunny park. Very nice!

The Best Photo Ever

Sunday, February 27-

Our two homestay organizers and Spanish teachers are Malena and Pepe of Juanjo Spanish School. They lead classes in two downstairs rooms of their multi-story house in the Yuanahuara neighborhood of Arequipa. Somehow they juggle having four kids, teaching hours of Spanish each day, and running a business. Malena told me that she hasn’t taken a vacation in 10 years!

I caught the students looking a bit weary after their first afternoon of Spanish class with Pepe:

And Malena:

Before our meeting on the roof of Pepe and Malena’s house, I snapped this photo of the group in the light of sunset. It’s my favorite picture from the entire trip.

The full resolution photo is available here:

Finally, we found this little bugger on the walk home. Looks like he had a run-in with someone’s boot. I’m glad it wasn’t with my flip-flopped foot.


Saturday, February 26-

Today we went for a hike in the terraced countryside outside of Arequipa. The destination: Sogay. The students had a lot of fun with that one.

We crossed a treacherous river.

Kina soaked up the sights.

A fierce game of Ninja appeared after lunch.

The students waited for their return “combi” bus—a 15-person transport van typically packed with about 30 people.

Hike day: success. Tomorrow: Spanish classes begin.

Arequipa, Week 2

Friday, February 25-

Our first week in Arequipa was flexi-week. Now we enter our second week: back to the grindstone! Home stays, four hours of Spanish classes per day, and the occasional group activities in the mornings.

I’m writing this post almost a week late, so I apologize for the lack of details in this and the upcoming posts. They will be spartan.

But you won’t care because…here’s a picture of Julie with a baby!!

Fin de Flexi

Thursday, February 24-

Today is the last day of flexi-week and the students are going hog-wild with their leftover budget! We spent a big chunk of the day touring the Santa Catalina Monastery, the high walls of which we’ve walked by every day. This monastery is OLD—like 500+ years old. Lots of neat photos to be found.

A cloister:

Kitchen facilities:

Well-tended roses and colorful walls everywhere:

Ye-olde facilities:

Monastery pigeon spying on my nap spot:

They finished the day off by taking everyone out to the wonderful Mexican food restaurant. I was so happy.

Josie and Quinn went big.

Hanna (top-right) died a little bit, again.

Cameron and Tara joined us for their last full night in Arequipa. They depart tomorrow on a night-bus.

Fin de flexi! Tomorrow: back to the oppressive rule of Blake, Julie & Ingmar!

Los Museos

Wednesday, February 23-

More Starbucks this morning. I’m working toward merging my personal website (, blogging website (currently Zero Tuition College), and a new consulting/guidance service together under one banner. Lots of writing to do.

This afternoon the students got their act together and walked us across Arequipa to find the free art museum.

Unfortunately, it didn’t exist. They walked back to the Plaza de Armas and talked with the tourist information center, where they found about a free archaeological museum nearby. That seemed to be closed too (a sign above it read: “On vacation for February!”), but then a guard opened the door. I’m impressed by the quality of museums thus far in Arequipa, and this one was filled with a satisfying number of cadavers, bones, and artifacts.

Afterwards, the group hung out in Cusco Coffee, which is Starbucks-wannabe with bigger couches. This photo adequately captures their raunchy humor. (Kina was sick, poor girl!)

At night the group played soccer at some sort of empty pond (?) and had a few locals join in. I stayed in town and researched Machu Pichu options.

The S/8 Cappuccino

Tuesday, February 22-

There is a Starbucks that opened just down from the historic Plaza de Armas in central Arequipa. Some call this a blight; I call this awesome.

Here’s why: this Starbucks is the first coffee shop I’ve found in Peru and Chile that doesn’t have blaring horns 2 feet away from your table, or swarming flies, or odd and illegible hours. It’s clean, quiet (outside of normal Starbucks music), has fast wi-fi, opens reliably at 7am every day, and the staff are consistently friendly. The staff also seem very glad to be working at a Starbucks (compared to all the other restaurants and cafes I’ve seen, where listlessness is common).

The drinks cost twice as much as other cafes (S/8 instead of S/4 for a cappuccino), but I still go here every morning.

Today was a day of not much happening. The students had plans to visit a free art museum at noon, but those fell through. On the upside, I got a lot of writing done, which makes me a happier trip leader.

We ended the day with a delicious student-cooked meal and meeting on the roof.

Snapshots of Arequipa Life

Monday, February 21-

Today I present you with snapshots of our life here in Arequipa, Peru. The students are keeping flexi-week pretty flexi, with only lunch, dinner, and a museum visit as the scheduled group activities today.

The view from our hostel’s roof:

The mini rooftop kitchen where the students whip up delicious meals:

Bags of milk are very popular in Peru (and South America in general). Here Jalen shows off her bag of soy milk:

Wyatt puts away about three of these per day:

The hostel has pug puppies and photogenic bean bag chairs.


Okay, time to dial down the cuteness. Seriously.

Josie at the museum:

A mini replica of downtown Arequipa:

Day Off #2

Sunday, February 20th-

DAY OFF! Wooh. All I can say is, thank god for the Arequipa Starbucks (opened 3 months ago), because it’s the only thing open at 7am in this entire city.

I’ve been waking up around 5:30am each day because we lost two hours crossing the Chilean/Peruvian border…but we only traveled north! Go figure. So the sun rises really early, and I with it.

Today I wrote, wrote some more, watch The Black Swan (El Cisne Negro—in English with Spanish subtitles) at a movie theater (they don’t butter their popcorn!! What’s the point!?), napped, wrote, and ate more Mexican food.

Oh, and Cameron Lovejoy and Tara Dean (two unschoolers who I know from many different places) showed up! They’re traveling around Peru for a month and coordinated their visit to Arequipa to match ours.

That’s all! No photos today—day off 🙂

The White City meets Flexi-Week

Saturday, February 19th

In yesterday’s post I omitted a rather important announcement: Friday was the beginning of South America trip’s “flexi-week”, in which the students design the travel. They choose the lodging, buy the food, budget the money, plan the activities, and arrange the transportation (except where border-crossing is involved). On the Unschool Adventures Argentina Trip in 2008, the group did two weeks of student-designed travel, and it was a big hit. On this trip, the students are designing one week of travel in Arequipa, Peru: The White City.

Originally I suggested that the student’s do homestays (which include breakfasts and dinners for a bargain price) for the flex-week, but they weren’t into that idea. So they went online to and found the Bothy Hostel instead.

The Bothy turned out to be a great find. Aside from the hot water problem (they’re solar-only, and it’s usually cloudy in the summer, so…no hot water!), it has everything that our group needs, including a movie room that’s just the right size for our 13-person meetings.

The students spent their first full day in Arequipa exploring the city, buying groceries, and thinking about possible activities for the rest of the week. I spent the day scouting out all the awesome, awesome restaurants that the city has to offer. I ultimately decided that the Mexican restaurant “Tacos & Tequila” was the highest priority. Jonah, Hanna and I went there for a post-dinner snack.

Hanna went into a little food coma after the first bite of her burrito.

My taco was a work of art. LOOK AT THAT GUACAMOLE!

So happy.

International Child Abduction, My Ass!

Friday, February 18th-

Border crossing day: Chile to Peru. I was seriously stressing, because Chile has some draconian regulations regarding international child abduction. Prior to the trip I asked all the parents to sign and notarize an authorization form for the Chilean authorities. I had also spoken with the Chilean consulate in San Francisco and a trip leader from a South American adventure kayaking company, and they both indicated that authorization paperwork was definitely necessary. I felt confident that my authorization form (which I drafted myself, in English and Spanish) met all the requirements, but when dealing with bureaucracy…who knows! Thus, I was stressed.

The border crossing was also stressful because the (apparent) best option for crossing was to hire three taxis to take our group across. I don’t like handing out the student’s passports when I don’t have to, and especially not to Chilean taxi drivers who are yelling at me because I don’t understand the intricacies of the Chilean-Peruvian border paperwork. I also don’t like splitting the group up, but Julie, Ingmar and I each had cell phones with unlimited calling time between each other, so that was good.

All this leads to the requisite anti-climax: We got across without problem.

The taxi drivers got us into all the right emigration/immigration lines and blasted through our paperwork. And the Chilean authorities never once asked for a shred of authorization paperwork. We arrived in Tacna, Peru, earlier than expected.

While I’m glad that I was prepared for the worst-case scenario in the Chilean border crossing, I also think that the whole ordeal took a few months of my lifespan. Oh well!

The rest of the day was: a long bus ride to Arequipa, Peru, and arrival at our hostel for the upcoming week. More on that in the next post!

(Sorry, no photos today!)


Thursday, February 17th

Today passed like a dream! We woke up at 7am in the Arica bus terminal and walked to our sweet-ass lodging which I had reserved for one night: The Arica Surf Hostel.

The Surf Hostel was by far the nicest hostel of the whole trip: huge common area (pictured above), spacious rooms, uber-friendly staff, and a free breakfast with espresso and scrambled eggs (compare to: bread and jam, the typical South American hostel “breakfast”). It was also the most expensive hostel of the trip at roughly $20 per person per night.

Because yesterday was a bus today, and tomorrow was going to be a bus day, we just rested more today. Everyone in the group needed it. Jonah and Ingmar went surfing, and I poked around the downtown walking promenade. I found a Govinda restaurant (a chain which serves all-vegetarian fare run by Hare Krishnas) and convinced them to open up at 8pm for our group—so we enjoyed a lovely vegetarian fixed-menu in our very own restaurant! A great ending to a restful day.

From Desert to Desert

Wednesday February 16th-

Today we slept late, packed up shop, and said goodbye to San Pedro de Atacama.

Roberto the desert hippie helped shlep our bags in his Scoobie Doo van.

We took a short bus to Calama (which Lonely Planet unapologetically calls a “shithole”) and spent two hours in the bus terminal eating greasy chicken and fries, and then hopped onto our second-to-last overnight bus to Arica: the tip-top city of Northern Chile.

Flamingos Do Exist in the Wild

Tuesday, February 15th-

This morning we toured the Salar de Atacama (world’s third largest salt flat, after Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni and Utah’s Great Salt Lake) and a few high-altitude lakes. Epic photos below. The rest of the day was spent recovering from the oppression of waking up at 6am. Also: eating incredible veggie burgers (the best we’ve found in South America).

The flamingos eat the krill which eat the minerals produced by the endless volcanic activity in the region.

Benji and Lani chatted up a group of university students from Concepcion (in central Chile) who were on our tour. Great to see those Spanish classes put to use!

Forgot to mention: in the restaurant adjacent to the wonderful veggie burger joint, they served a dish (Chori..something??) that consisted of a pile of french fries covered by diced beef, chicken, pork, and sausage, onion, and a fried egg. The meat fanatics of the group rejoiced.

Valle de la Luna

Monday, February 14th-

This morning I haggled a few companies for a big group discount on tours of the Atacama desert. We ended up with two tours: the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) tour today, and Lagunas Altiplanicas (high-elevation lakes) tour tomorrow.

Valle de la Luna is just outside of San Pedro. It’s a wholllle lot of crazy rock formations caused by violent tectonic and volcanic action over the past six million years.

Our guide was a bit nuts, having led these tours for 12 straight years. He rocked the glacier goggles pretty well.

Rock strata in three directions! Crazy!

This rock made little crumbling sounds when we were really quiet, which was disquieting in a safety sense.

Erosion explosion.

Sunset over the valle.

Julie hales the moon.

All is quiet.

Sweet tour. Tomorrow morning at 6:30am: high-altitude lakes and flamingos!

The Driest Place on Earth

Sunday, February 13th, 2011-

Our bus from Santiago arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, in Northern Chile near the Bolivian and Argentine borders, at 6:20pm, right on time. The manager of our hostel in San Pedro, a total desert hippie named Roberto, picked us up in his puke-green van. San Pedro is where we’ll spend the next three nights, touring this barren land which is apparently the driest place on earth.

At the hostel, Julie led a four-chord sing-along with Quinn on ukelele. We crashed early, as it’s difficult to sleep well on a long-distance bus (with most of your body at a 30 degree incline).

Tomorrow: our first desert tour!

27 Hours in a Bus!

Saturday February 12, 2011-

What’s more fun than a 24-hour bus ride from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama? An additional 3-hour bus ride from Pichilemu to Santiago! That’s our Saturday.

Here the students display their endless enthusiasm for long bus rides.

And…that’s it.

Last Day in Pichilemu

Friday, February 11, 2011-

We’ve reached a nice daily rhythm here in Pichilemu. Too bad we’re leaving it all tomorrow.

This morning our group met after classes, as we always do, on the school’s terrace overlooking the ocean.

I joined Quinn and Jonah’s homestay family for lunch. They were very nice and cordial, but there wasn’t much conversation as the entire family watched Spongebob Squarepants during the meal. (Claire and Jalen’s host family, with whom I ate on Wednesday, were much more talkative!) I snapped a photo of the boys with their homestay mom.

For my dinner: two sweet sweet empanadas with mashed potatoes. YUM.

And as an added bonus, here’s a shot of Punta de Lobos, where Julie and Ingmar took a small group of students yesterday.


Thursday, February 10, 2011-

Not much to report today, except that we are all officially addicted to the fresh, homemade empanadas that two ladies bake all day just outside of downtown Pichilemu. Here are group meets at the backyard oven-plus-eating-area in the afternoon:

And the nice empanada lady shows us her wares:

There was surfing and classes and such today too. But really. Empanadas.

Pichilemu Days

This morning I snapped a few photos of stduents in their Spanish classes. 9am is an unknown hour to virtually everyone in sleeply Pichilemu…but not us!

Each morning while the students are in class, Julie and I wait for the hotel next door to open (around 10 or 10:15am, which is considered “the beginning of the day” here). This hotel has an espresso machine. It fuels the 45 minutes of quiet reading and writing time that we both enjoy.

During the rest of the day our group met and discussed the consensus process (which the students will use to determine their “flexi-week” itinerary), went home for lunch (Julie, Ingmar, and I each joined one of the families for lunch), and surfed (I surfed!). At night the students met up for a dinner out, and Julie and I went back to the cabaña because we’re old and tired twenty-somethings.

Day Off

Today I took a day off. No camera, no photos, and lots of quiet time. I walked for an hour and a half between Pichilemu and Punta de Lobos, the famous surf spot. Thank you to Julie and Ingmar for running the show while I was gone.


While the students studied Spanish this morning, Julie and I explored “downtown” Pichilemu and the beach. We spotted a llama that was unquestionably outside of its natural environment.

After Spanish class, group meeting, and lunch with their homestays, we met the students at the surf school. Everyone got fitted for wetsuits.

This was very exciting.

Lani even got a hood!

The exhausted-looking, late-twenty-something Swiss surf instructor led the group in warm-up stretching.

His Chilean counterpart walked them through three basic steps for standing up on a wave. (Paddle hard; do a push-up with elbows tucked at your side; hop one foot forward and crouch low, arms out.)

Each person demonstrated their mad skills for the group.

And I took portrait shots with Claire’s digital SLR camera.

The group headed out into the crowded Pichilemu beginner waves, a beach break with a sandy bottom. Three instructors accompanied them and I kept a watchful eye from the beach (I’ll surf later this week!).

Out they paddled.

Suerte chicos! Tomorrow, we do it all again.

Killing Time in Santiago, Arriving Pichilemu

Not much to report this morning. We killed seven hours in Santiago’s Alameda bus terminal, playing cards, surfing the internet, eating expectedly mediocre terminal food, and buying bus tickets for next weekend. Then we boarded yet another bus: three and a half hours to Pichilemu, Chile, where our group will spend the next week doing homestays, Spanish classes (two hours per day), and surf classes.

Chris Wilcox, the owner (with his wife Valerie) of Pichilemu Institute of Language Studies, met us at the bus stop. I had worked with Chris and Valerie over e-mail since last March to organize our group’s lessons and accommodations, and it was a pleasure to finally meet them in person. Chris is a former Truckee and Monterey, CA, resident, so Julie and I immediately started talking favorite California beach and mountain spots with him. Chris is incredibly friendly and a gracious host. He walked us a few blocks to the school where the students met their homestay families.

This week we had five homestays for our ten students, with two students (of the same gender) staying at each house. Julie and I purposefully mixed up the homestay combinations to combine group members who didn’t know each other that well. Many of these families were first-time homestay hosts, which was a refreshing change from the Bariloche families that seemed to host students year-round. (Chris interviewed or had previous relationships with each of the homestay families.) The students departed with their families for the evening. They will be eating three meals per day at the homestays, with lunch being the biggest.

Only the three staffers remained. Chris took us to the local supermarket, which was a mob scene on Sunday (remember, this is summer break for Chile) and then to our hilltop cabaña accommdations. Julie got stoked for the sunset, and we called it an early evening.

It’s good to be on a warm beach, with nice people, in early February. That I know for sure.

Chau Bariloche, Hola Chile

Much traveling today. Early this morning we took taxis to the Bariloche bus station and grabbed the 7:30am bus bound for Osorno, Chile. The five-hour-long ride over the Andes passed gorgeous, sky-blue lakes, and endless rocky peaks. I didn’t take any photos because I’m really not a fan of bus-window shots, sorry!

We spent the majority of the day passing time in Osorno, Chile, a large city in Southern Chile with no particular tourist draw. We walked to the Plaza de Armas and napped on the grass.

Julie and I bought new cell phone sim cards, Jalen bought a new camera, and we all bought supermarket dinner food (at an overwhelmingly large Wal-Mart like store). I feasted on a Granny Smith apple imported from the U.S. I thought that was funny.

Our bus was a sweet “coche cama” ride with lots of space for everyone to stretch out.

Julie and Jalen (sporting her new camera) approved.

At 9pm I passed out on my seat and slept for a glorious, uninterrupted 10 hours.

Bariloche Hike

Our final day in Bariloche. The students said goodbye to their Spanish teachers, we ate our last sandwich lunch, and we said “feel better!” to Lani and Kina, who were feeling under the weather (and went back to their homestay).

Then we went for a hike.

Cerro Campanario is a popular day hike accessible by bus from Bariloche. We hiked up to the Cerro and soaked in the grand views. The beauty drove many to embrace each other:

And look generally adorable:

The whole group, minus Kina and Lani:

Claire, being dramatic:

Just the dudes, being manly:

Just the dudes, being seductive:

We dropped the students at their homestays on the bus ride back. Julie, Ingmar and I grabbed our last hit of Bariloche chocolate and some cena para llevar, and we then ate at the hostel in the company of a group of musicians from Buenos Aires. Much jamming and butchered acoustic versions of American songs.

Bife and Blogs

Julie took the day off to go bike around a peninsula, so today was a lot of solo trip leading for me. I changed dollars (both into Argentine pesos and Chilean pesos), bought pastries for snacks, took lunchtime sandwich orders, and answered business e-mails. Before lunch I snapped a few shots of one of the student classes playing Spanish hangman.

Jalen entered the hangman’s letters.

Aren’t they a photogenic group? (Teacher on the far left)

The other students gang-petted the school’s cat.

After lunch #1, I convinced half the students to join me for lunch #2 at El Boliche de Alberto, where I’ve been eating once per day to keep la fiebre away. Here’s Wyatt being very civil with his bife de lomo.

Quinn had a love affair with his.

Quinn also loves to engage me in political debate. I acquiesce. He’s a quick study and talented debater.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the internet cafe, where the students caught up on blogging. I later caught up on their catching up, and they have some really quality blogs. Both in photos and writing. I recommend that you check them out here:


A Non-Sick and Very Pleasant Day

Today was very pleasant because it was my first 24-hour period without sickness in a week. Also because I’m surrounded by very pleasant people in a pleasant place. Here are some of those people waiting for there Spanish class in the morning.

And two very pleasant coffee addicts.

This afternoon we had a lovely group meeting and played bonding games by lake.

Chocolate made the meeting even more pleasant. Here’s Julie getting some chocolate rama:

…and enjoying the subsequential spiritual moment.

Very pleasant.

Bistec de Lomo en mi facehole

Tuesday February 1-

Here’s our group at Spanish school in the morning. Everyone is chipper.

The classroom assignments.

Today I was moderately functional in the morning, and then la fiebre wiped me out mid-day. I missed the group meeting and, apparently, a very funny story crafted by Kina, Lani, and Jalen in which I play some sort of demonic role. I hope to hear it tomorrow.

By 5pm I recovered and was ready for dinner. I’m avoiding caffeine, dairy, and fried foods in my attempt to get well soon. I’m also slowing giving up on my 10 years of vegetarianism as I learn more about the benefits of pasture-raised meats. These factors all conspired in the direction of: El Boliche de Alberto.

El Boliche (for short) is an Argentine steak restaurant that I’ve twice visited but never enjoyed as a flesh-eating customer. The first time was my inaugural backpacking trip around South America with friends Matt and Patrick, and the second time was the Unschol Adventures Argentina trip (where my brother Cooper and fellow students dined). Now it was my turn.

At El Boliche, everything is made out of leather. Ingmar, Julie, and I each ordered the “Bistec de Lomo” after discovering that it was the filet mignon cut. Price: 65 pesos, or roughly $15.

Here our meat sizzled on the Argentine parilla.

We enjoyed an epic view of Lago Nahuel Huapi while waiting.

The meat arrived (plus a stack of fries) and we were pumped.

The first bite was epic creamy delicousness.

As was the last.

I left no survivors.

I would like to dedicate this post to everyone who ever gave me crap for not eating a steak while I was a vegetarian, most notably:
– Bryan, Russ, and Steven Elrod
– Mehar Sethi
– Patrick House
– Matt Davis
– Donny Watrous
– Cooper Westerkamp (probably)

On a final note, Julie’s jacket looks a lot like the Via Bariloche bus fleet.

La Fiebre Returns!

Monday January 31-

All of the students got up around 7 this morning to arrive at the Spanish School early for placement interviews. No one complained (there has been very little complaining whatsoever on this trip), which impressed me, and the group at the far homestay were even more impressive, because they need to take a bus each way, and they were super on-time.

The students did their interviews, were split into three classes (max four people per class), and then went off for there first lessons. And I…got la fiebre again.

I’m pretty sure that I caught something last week—a sort of acute bronchitis that’s been passing around the group—and this week I caught something new. I won’t bore or disgust you with the symptoms, but they’re different from last week’s fiebre. This is an all or nothing fiebre. Either I’m laid out in bed with the grim reaper over me, or I’m walking around fine.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day in or around the bed. And at night I got really loopy—a changed level of consciousness, as the EMT would say. My fever never really gets about 101, so I’m not super concerned, but it’s still strange.

Thanks to la fiebre, no new pictures today. Here’s one that Julie took from the bus ride en route to Bariloche.

Stumbling around Bariloche

Guess what hour 18 of a 22-hour bus ride feels like? Yup, you guessed it. Just like all the others.

The students slept soundly in the wee hours.

After arriving, Julie and I tried to buy next weekend’s bus tickets to Santiago, only to be told that we needed to pay in cash. Cash. Really? We’re going to pay more than a thousand dollars in Argentine pesos when I can take out maybe $250 at a time with $10 in ATM fees? Try getting a POS system, Tas Choapa (that’s the bus provider we wanted to use). Julie and I decided to patch together a bus trip from two other companies that accept credit cards, perhaps with a stopover day in Valdavia.

To stretch our legs, we decided to walk into Bariloche instead of taking a bus or taxi. Poor Claire came down with the fever bug during the night, but walked the 4km nonetheless. What troopers they are.

Bariloche is great for epic background shots.

Ingmar was pumped.

We grabbed lunch at a restaurant, dropped the students off at their homestay family houses, and then crashed at our hostel.
Tomorrow: Spanish classes begin bright and early at 8:15am!

Posh Bus to Bariloche

Our first epic 22-hour bus journey! How exciting.

This morning we packed and cleaned up our apartments. A representative from the rental agency checked us out and discovered three towels missing in total from two apartments. Where could those towels have possibly gone?? Our students didn’t have them, and we didn’t go walking down the streets of B.A. in them. And when we checked in, no one counted these towels.

Alas, none of this logic worked on the rental lady. US$15 charged. Just another one of those little financial hits that are a part of this kind of trip.

We walked to Retiro bus station and waited for our chariot.

As promised, our double-decker bus was hella posh. The students enjoyed the view

and the fully-reclining seats

while Julie enjoyed the meal service

Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of the outside of the bus!

We slept as well as you could sleep on a bus. Which for me, wasn’t that well, especially with residual illness.

La Fiebre

Latin America gets the worst of the worst American B-movies. That’s what you learn when you’re sick with la fiebre (fever) in Buenos Aires.

Today I suffered from the 48-hour cold/flu/fever bug that our group has been passing around. I stayed in bed all day while Julie and Ingmar took the group to their final tango lesson and grocery shopping for the bus trip tomorrow.

And now, as to not end this post on a low note, here is a picture of delicious Argentine medialunas!

Seeing BA with a Mercedes

Thursday January 27-

A day of great group photos. Here are the students on the corner outside our downtown Buenos Aires rented apartments.

This morning we enjoyed a guided tour of Buenos Aires by Mercedes, a Spanish tutor with whom I worked over Skype in November.

We learned the history behind places that we had previously visited, like the Casa Rosada (Pink House).

The tour ended in photogenic La Boca.

Tango, dinner, repeat!

Las Violetas

Wednesday January 26-

Not much to report today. We took it easy in the morning, hung out at my favorite cafe (Confiteria Las Violetas), tango’d, and enjoyed a great soup dinner created by one of our students, Benji.

Evoking Evita

Tuesday January 25-

This was our first “normal” day of the trip. We walked the shady streets of Buenos Aires toward Recoleta this morning.

Even tiny public parks have a Facebook page, apparently.

In Recoleta we toured the famous cemetary, home of the monied aristocracy of Argentina. The big attraction is Evita (Eva Peron).

Other famous people were to be found as well.

Crypt cats lazed.

Next stop: ice cream. Josie works at an ice cream parlor in Asheville, NC, and she was sooooo excited!

Kina displayed poster-perfect ice cream posture.

Wyatt, Quinn, and Kina practiced their Spanish with a national newspaper.

Next door to the ice cream was El Ateneo, an opera house-turned-bookstore.


We grabbed the subway to tango lessons, where Alicia taught us the salida a.k.a. cruzada a.k.a. “the cross”. Ingmar and Claire demonstrate.

Jalen, one of our two vegans, was delighted to find a frozen block of squid in the supermarket—but still no soymilk.

We enjoyed a light rain on the way back. Buenos Aires is HOT, man!


Settling into B.A.

Monday January 24-

This morning our group caught up on sleep and e-mail and then enjoyed a brief picnic in Parque General San Martin. We took our first subway ride to tango lessons with Alicia Pons and hit up a gloriously large supermarket on the way home. Unfortunately, even the gloriously large supermarkets don’t have peanut butter, black beans, soymilk, and many other staples that we’re accustomed to. Nonetheless, Julie whipped up a mean Mexican-style dinner. Benji was impressed.

Jonah and Hanna loved it.

I stayed up until 11pm searching for missing apartment keys. Fun!

Exhausted Mayhem

Sunday January 23-

Few of us slept well on the international flight. Arriving at Buenos Aires Ezeiza airport, we grabbed our pre-arranged taxis to our rental apartments, moved in, and then walked to the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where we found an endless street fair and live tango.

Benji and Lani caught up on sleep, slum-dog style.

Ingmar, our trip leading assistant (and former Australia trip student), was already in B.A. when we arrived.

We strutted along Puerto Madero on the way back to the apartments.

Ready? Set? Sleep.

Vamos a Argentina!

Saturday January 22-

This morning Julie and I found some sleepy students in Miami Int’l Airport. Their red-eye had arrived at 5am. Our int’l flight didn’t depart until 9pm. 17 epic hours in Miami!

Eventually they woke up, and the rest of the students arrived. What a nice group we have.

On the plane we enjoyed plenty of space, a great movie selection, and sweet meal service.

A Buenos Aires, vamos!

To Miami

Friday Jan 21-

Three flights today: Eugene to Seattle to Memphis to Miami. All were pleasantly on-time and on the third I even got my own exit row! One of those minor traveler’s victories. I carried the final dose of my live oral typhoid vaccines in a tiny styrofoam cup with ice refilled from plane drink carts.

At Miami I found Julie, my South America trip coleader, and we hit up a late-night Honduran restaurant. There was karaoke.

Jules was stoked.

Goodnight, Miami. Tomorrow: llegan los estudiantes!

Fighting the Typhoid

Okay, I don’t actually have typhoid. But I am taking an oral live typhoid vaccine (over a one week period) and it gave me terrible stomach cramps yesterday. Not even True Grit and all of its epic Westernness could cure me.
Luckily I felt better enough today to bike around Eugene and brainstorm my life at Perugino. They didn’t make the fancy cappuccino flower design so I snapped a shot from my seat.

The Willamette river was running wild.

Nick and I ran wild that night. I drank a whole two beers… Whoo!

Tomorrow: Miami, and then the UA South America trip!


(My iPad blogging tool is giving me crap. Photos are coming out tiny and I’m not able to change datestamps. While figuring this out, I’m going to post multiple day’s blogs together.)

Ahh, glorious rest! Friday I lounged around Suntop (Tilke and Nick’s house), rode Nick’s bike to Paychex to discuss payroll for Unschool Adventures, lounged around a Starbucks even more, and then returned to Suntop to help vacuum for this weekend’s anticipated lounging. Luna, one of two pugs in residence at Suntop, did not approve of my vacuuming.

That night we met with Grace, Nathen, Evan, and Grace’s son, Yarid, for dinner in Eugene.

Thus began our little informal gathering known as Not Back to Not Back to School Camp (NBTNBTSC).
On Saturday we recreated Christmas morning and shared stockings with each other. Evan was chomping at the bit to open his.

Nathen’s stocking was a shoe.

Santa delivered lots of chocolate. He’s got our numbers.

The rest of the day (and weekend) was spent in discussion of topics camp-related, and those wholly-unrelated, in Tilke’s living room.

On Sunday morning we visited Grace’s “Ecstatic Dance” workshop (no photos allowed) and then returned for more discussion and life-timeline creating.

Pages from my timeline:

Yarid scratched me back. He loves it.

Nathen and Evan, each looking a bit off.


Thus ended: NBTNBTSC.

To Eugene

Today I grabbed an early lunch with my dad and then got a ride down to Vallejo, CA, where I met my craigslist rideshare going to Eugene, OR. The guy driving the blue VW was Antony, a personal trainer and non-profit owner from San Francisco. I sat in the front and we talked for a number of hours about unschooling, nutrition, international travel, and everything in between. He warned me that his recent (first) trip to New Zealand in early December–the same time that I’m planning the Unschool Adventures NZ trip–was rainy 13 out of 15 days. Uh-oh! Here we gassed up somewhere south of Redding.

Two other ride sharers were in the car, and we dropped the first one off at the Jackson Wellsprings resort in Ashland, OR. The VW wouldn’t start up again, which Antony assured us was not normal, and so we pushed it around the the muddy resort RV campground once to kickstart it, unsuccessfully, and then jumped it successfully.
At midnight I arrived at my friend’s house in Springfield (just east of Eugene) and found this note waiting for me:

It’s good to have friends in warm places.

Packing the MLC

This morning I nursed a cappuccino at the Sunflower Cafe in Sonoma and caught up on Unschool Adventures paperwork. This afternoon my sister Liza visited and challenged Ben to a game of connect four. Ben destroyed me at connect four this morning, so I cheered for Liza.

Liza also helped me trim down my first aid kit to only the bare essentials. Between that and the innovative technology of rolling my clothes, I managed to fit everything I need for the next six months into my new Patagonia MLC (maximum legal carry-on) bag. Here’s a shot of the guts:

And Liza with the demo:

Vaya Con Dios, Guatemala

100% travel today. Car to the airport, planes to Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco, airporter bus to the north bay, and car to my dad’s house in Sonoma. En route I ate the best donut ever in Guatemala City (brand name: “American Doughnut”) and my first salad in two weeks. I am so happy to eat salad again.

Antigua Via the Chicken Bus

Julie and I each caught five hours of winks on the overnight bus and then grabbed a taxi to Hotel San Pablo, our hostel for the evening. The nice older lady who runs the place (with her husband and one-footed parrot, Paco) let us store our bags and then dropped us at the pickup spot for the “chicken bus” to Antigua. These buses are fast and furious, and they only cost 8 quetzales (one dollar) for a one-hour ride. We spent a few hours wandering around Antigua.

We enjoyed endless tourist watching (there’s tons of them) and such luxuries as espresso drinks and a genuine supermercado. After taking the chicken bus back, we spent 20 minutes talking with a middle-aged guy on the street who claimed to have helped a girl from Colorado after she was robbed in Guatemala City. He told us that he had friends in high places–literally, in Colorado. At least I think he made that joke.

Flores Chillin’, Round Two

Guatemala in general, and Flores in particular, is plagued by a never-ending stream of firecracker explosions. Apparently it’s a custom to be woken up by firecrackers on your birthday. This morning I woke early and walked around the island, and at 7am I found the asshole who was shooting mortar firecrackers into the sky. I suspected a kid, and it was a full-grown man. Alas.

Today was a kick-back and blog catch-up day. In the afternoon, the homies enjoyed some large frosty beverages on the roof of our hostel.

And we snapped the obligatory sunset shot.

Julie and I hopped an 8-hour night bus back to Guate (Guatemala city). We purchased the tickets from a somewhat sketchy travel agent at the hostel, and at midnight a guy told Julie that he had a reservation for her seat—and he did. Jules chatted up the bus driver and made all well. Guatemala City hooo!

No Jungle = Yes Ice Cream

At 7am we dined on our last Guatemalan desayuno típico (typical breakfast) of eggs, beans, and tortillas and bolted back toward Flores as fast as our little mules could carry us. We tipped the guides, ate shrimp tacos with guacamole for lunch, checked into our 3rd-floor hostel rooms, and promptly showered ten days of accumulated sweat, grime, and vaporized mule poo off our bodies. That felt damn good.

David Evitt, our friend and former camper & co-worker from Deer Crossing Camp, found us in Flores. He’s working for two years on a low-cost, sustainable stove project with other engineers in Western Guatemala. He, Vince, and Jim planned their route for the next week (Julie and I need to get back soon to run the Unschool Adventures South America trip).

A spontaneous Flores parade appeared. To mark our return, assuredly.

Sunset from the roof top terrace.

And the rest of the day was spent…eating more food that wasn’t beans, eggs, tortillas, canned tuna, canned sardines, and white rice. Here is me enjoying my third ice cream of the day.

I counted roughly 30 total mosquito bites over the course of the trip–let’s hope none of them were malarial!

Climbing the Giant Ceiba plus a Crazy Professor

This morning we caught up on our cheap reads. Vince blasted through “Fault Line”,

and Jim admired his jungle hero.

We rode and hiked a few short hours to our last ruins site, La Florida. There weren’t many ruins, but we did find one giant-ass ceiba tree.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala (which apparently means “land of the trees” as well). When it’s young, the ceiba is covered with nasty spikes on the trunk and tops of the branches, which made virtually all the ceibas we found unsuitable for tree climbing. This old man, on the other hand, had zero spikes. Like a fine wine, the ceiba gets better with age. Julie represented.

One of my favorite pics from the trip: our equipo with guide assistant Juan Carlos.

This was a tough tree to scale: our anchor saddles were roughly 80 feet up. Everyone gave the Big Shot a few tries until we finally got a successful shot. Jim demonstrated proper Big Shot form.

We snapped a few epic tree-top photos, but I’ll upload those later because they’re on other cameras. After the incident with the leaf bug, I didn’t feel like subjecting my camera to an 80-foot “whoops”. Two green parrots squawked at us on their sunset fly-by.

The other big highlight of the day happened back at the campground. We ran into another North American, a middle school science teacher from Davis, CA, named Mike Reed. Mike was the quintessential nutty professor. He had apparently visited the Mayan ruins in El Petén twice a year for the last six years, found multiple artifacts and undiscovered ruins, and participated in some sort of academic feud with Richard Hansen, the professor who originated the Mayan Petén research thirty years ago. Mike traveled with an assistant named “Hiro” who looked and spoke like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid and force-fed canned peaches to Mike in an effort to get him moving (they were only stopping at our site for a brief respite). Walfre and Mike had worked together before, and Mike said that we were very lucky to have him as a guide. Mike also showed us pictures from his travels in the rainy season, when he would literally be swimming the same bajos (low areas of the jungle) that we had been hiking. He didn’t take anti-malarials in the dry season (now), which gave me relief (since I’m not either), but his story about almost stepping on a six-foot-long Barbara Armarilla (the most deadly snake in Guatemala) gave me pause.

Ticks and Slovenian Dentists

Early this morning the temperature dropped to around 60 – thank god – and subsequently deposited a load of dewey moisture on all our stuff. Jim had a surprise visit from the duende (i.e. Vince, Julie, and me) who hid his climbing gear 15 feet up a tree. Jim relieved his frustration by borrowing Walfre’s machete and hacking his way through the jungle back to Tintal.

Hack it, Jim, hack it!

Jim gave us his life story on the hike back, which I found fascinating. At Deer Crossing Camp we would only get it in snippits. He lived out of his car, or in a tent, or out of a trailer for many years before starting his current, stable life.

Ticks jumped all over our pants as we hiked through dense undergrowth on the way back. Permethrin is supposed to kill ticks, too, but it didn’t. Back at Tintal we caught up on our reading. I read two and a half books (1984, Fault Line, and Narziss and Goldmund) during this trip.

We ran into one small group of tourists headed for Mirador. Two were dentists from Slovenia. They said that we had very nice teeth. We stayed up late talking about pornography, technology, and Jim’s parenting concerns.

The Vicious Duende plus Sleeping on a Mayan Ruin

All the other tourists had left, so when we took off, Mirador was a ghost town.

We hiked and rode to Nakbé, a less-visited ruin site 3 hours southeast of Mirador. We set up hammocks on the top of the big “Lizard” pyramid. Jim got the best spot.

The highlight of the day was learning about the Guatemalen legend of the duende, a dwarf that wears a sombrero and steals your cigarettes and hides your stuff when you’re not looking. He looks like a child sometimes, or he can take the form of people that you know. We got as many different descriptions of the duende as the number of guides & guards we asked.

Other important business of the day included journaling and pedicures on top of the pyramid.

Also, harassing the “ant lion” creatures that build craters and wait for a hapless ant to walk by. We fed this one a spider that was crawling on me.

Obligatory sunset shots.

And self-portrait.

Sleeping in the Trees, Night 2

Today was a kick-back day at Mirador. I hung around in my hammock (45 feet up in the air) until noon reading Jim’s high-action thriller, “Fault Line”. A family of spider monkeys swung past the tree and checked me out. What’s up, distant cousins. Later that afternoon we explored the inner depths of one of the ruins after Jim got special permission from the guard.

I took a long-needed ducha (shower) in the fine Mirador facilities.

Black plastic and a bucket: that’s all you need.

The rest of the day I hung around camp brainstorming about college alternatives. Local wild (but protected) pavos (turkeys) pecked nearby.

Jim joined us in the Strangler Fig hotel this night. Four hammocks in one tree = difficult but impressive! A cool wind picked up and rocked us to sleep like babies.

Sleeping in the Trees, Night 1

La Danta is the largest pyramid in the Americas, and today we climbed it. This monumental achievement took exactly: 15 minutes.

A trail of jungle ants crossed the path to the pyramid. Ancient Mayan spirits, perhaps?

Reconstructed steps guided our way. If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto, you’ll easily imagine the severed heads of defeated combatants tumbling down these.

The top of el Dante. This is the most uncovered rock that we saw the entire trip. All the other ruins just look like hills, and you take the guide’s word that there’s actually something underneath them.

Just near the top, Jim and I ran into a pack of wild boar-like pigs with black mohawks. They took one look at us and bolted. Later, the campground guard told us that a jaguar had killed the leader of their pack, and thus they didn’t know where to forage and were venturing ever-closer to tourist-land.

The view from the top. More jungla, what do you know! To spice it up I experimented with color isolation settings.

Our group with Walfre.

On the way back from the ruins we scoped out trees for climbing and found another huge Strangler Fig. Jim wanted to sleep on El Dante, so Julie, Vince and I set up our Strangler Fig hotel without him. Julie climbed up what happened to become the most important branch, and she did most of the work of tying the hammocks. She didn’t mind.

We got tuna sandwiches delivered to us for dinner. Vincey loves his atún con vegetales.

I read the Sherril Tree catalog and gawked at all the fancy devices that might have saved us time (like a $600 single-attachment tree portaledge) so we wouldn’t be rigging complicated tree hammocks at night.

But in the end I was happy to just be sleeping in a tree.

On a final note: permethrin (the anti-mosquito chemical) is a joke. Five mosquitos bit right through my permethrin-soaked socks while I climbed.

Long Hot New Year’s Walk

A green leaf bug greeted me this morning. While experimenting with manual focus on my snazzy new Canon (to capture this shot), the bug leaped at me and I dropped the camera. Nature strikes back. Luckily my camera is a champ and survived with only a scuff mark.

Julie felt much better, ready for the Mirador trek.

Vince and Jim enjoyed a good night’s sleep in the trees.

Today we walked, walked, walked. Others rode, but I preferred to walk. Mules aren’t my cup of tea, for no particular reason. Here’s what I mostly saw.

Seven hours later we ran into our first manicured Mayan ruin site.

We climbed Mirador’s second-highest pyramid, El Jaguar, for sunset. The international tourist horde joined us.

I taught them to play SET.

Over dinner we conversed with a 9-year-old homeschooling boy who is traveling around Central America with his dad for 3 months. Honestly, what an irresponsible thing to do. How will this child learn anything?

Slow Day at Tintal

We started our hike to the ruins of El Mirador this morning, but Julie threw up twice and didn’t feel up to a 7-hour hike. Luckily we had a flexible itinerary and decided to just take another day at Tintal. We climbed the pyrámida that we missed yesterday with its epicly steep stairs (characteristic of all Mayan ruins, we soon discovered).

Walfre pointed out all the other ruins in the distance, a.k.a. little green lumps.

We talked Mayan history on the pyramid. I noticed that the jungle is flaaaaaaaaaat.

Back at camp, Jim and Vince were jonesing to sleep in a tree. They found two medium-sized trees near the camp and rigged up the hammocks.

I spent my lazy afternoon brainstorming for Zero Tuition College (or whatever it will become). A sunset on the pyramid sealed the deal.

I celebrated the new year somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean by going to bed at 9pm (which is pretty late for the intrepid jungle explorer, especially when the sun sets at 6).


Today we explored the Mayan ruins of Tintal. A pack of howler monkeys greeted us with, you guessed it, some serious howling. (I have a video of this which I’ll get up later.)

We found a sweet “Strangler Fig” tree to climb. This tree sprouts from the ground and wraps itself around other trees like a constricting vine.

I used the Big Shot (a badass $140 slingshot for tree climbing) to put a throw line into the Strangler.

Then I prepared to climb.

We got high.

Vince got realllly high, using our special “Spider rig” technique which lets you move between nearby (10-15 feet away) with ease. On the hike back to camp I spotted a little feral pig. That night we met a few of the other, much larger tourist groups in Tintal, which included Germans, Italians, Swiss, Beligiums, Guatemalans, and Australians.

Bienvenidos a la Jungla

The first day of our 10-day jungle trek started at 5am with Walfre (our guide) picking us up in his sweet Toyota.

Along the way we bought cigarettes with which to “bribe” the guards at each ruins site. (This turned out to be more of a nicety than a bribe.) We also stopped for breakfast at a comedor típica. I peeked into the kitchen.

Vince played ¨Welcome to the Jungle¨on his iPod as we drove farther into the endless green canopy. Bienvenidos a la jungla became our trip slogan.

We picked up our guide’s assistant, Juan Carlos (blue shirt on the left), and the muleskinner, Miguel, in the village of Carmelita. Loaded gear and people on the mullas and off we went.

Tourist’s route. At least they’re honest about it. I read that Guatemala gets 60% of its income from tourism.

Jim fell in love with the pimienta plant, a.k.a. allspice. His mule was also named Pimienta.

Other highlights of the day included:

  • Getting my first mosquito bite. Malaria, hooo!
  • Falling off the mule after it ran me into multiple low branches. Jim fell off too as his mule hit a mud pocket.
  • Checking out some authentico chicle trees.

After 5 hours of walking and riding we reached our first ruins site, Tintal. We set up our hammocks, trying to avoid the mule poo everywhere. My sweet hammock is on the right.

Flores Chillin’

maxin relaxin shooting some b-ball outside of school…eh…okay, that Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference failed. Anyways, today we had a super relaxing day touristy Flores and less touristy Santa Elena (next town over).

Highlights included:

Walking tour of Flores

Helping Vince find a zapataria (since his shoes were “stolen” upon arrival, a.k.a. forgotten at home)

Exploring the bustling Santa Elena market

Taking a tuk-tuk taxi back to Flores (see Julie in the mirror)

Hanging out and eating at a Mayan restaurant (Jim drew a figure out of a German-language Mayan ruins photobook)

…and enjoying a happy hour by the lake. No photos for that!

Tomorrow we meet our guide Walfre at 6am to head out for a 9-day expedition to El Mirador. I’ll catch up on blogging (and postdate my entries) on Dec 8th. Saludos!

A Flores

Seven AM, the hostel manager told us. Seven AM is the only bus from Guatemala City to Flores. So after a scant  few hours of sleep we dutifully got up at five-thirty, which is three-thirty west coast time, and hopped a taxi to the bus station only to discover that the bus in fact leaves at 10 AM. Ahh, travel. How I’ve missed you.

Luckily we found the bus terminal “restaurant” which the manager also assured us about:

To her credit, the single woman managing the restaurant whipped us up some awesome eggs with refried black beans, fresh tortillas, and a side of cream. $2.50.

The rest of our day was spent on the 9-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the northern island city of Flores. When we thankfully stepped off the bus, the weather was a perfect 68 degrees with a cool breeze. The island is mostly filled with gringos and apparently well-off Guatemalan families.

Our hostel dropped our reservation so we stayed at another next door. A few more doors down we dined on some lasagna, burritos, and a fresh local fish for yours truly.

Make sure to check out yesterday’s updated post for pictures of our travel crew!

Bienvenidos a Guatemala!

Today I flew from San Francisco to Guatemala City via Dallas. On the planes I cracked into a faded paperback copy of 1984 and brainstormed assignments for the Zero Tuition College experiment. We found a driver from the lovely, centrally located, and utterly uninhabited Hostal Volcanes waiting for us outside the airport, and now we’re gearing up for an early morning departure to the bus station and 8-hour bus ride to Flores, Guatemala.

In a later post I’ll explain just what I’m doing in Guatemala and tell you more about my three travel partners. I’m taking pretty pictures but unfortunately I won’t be able to upload them until later!



### UPDATE Dec 28

As promised, here are photos of my travel partners! I snapped these in SFO airport.

Here’s Vince with his family

and Julie with her bags

and Jim hiding out all stealthfully by the gate

We’re all friends, former campers, and former co-workers from Deer Crossing Summer Camp in the California High Sierra near Lake Tahoe. We all learned how to tree climb there beginning in 2006, and since 2007 Jim had been scheming up a Guatemala tree climbing adventure. Many were invited but only a few came, and that’s our rock-solid crew. Don’t we look good together?

We’ll be climbing tree and exploring the Mayan ruins of El Mirador while in Guatemala for two weeks. If you haven’t heard of Mirador, look it up on Wikipedia, because it’s pretty awesome.