Saturday, December 1, 2012

Torturous Beauty: Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I'm finally back in the States - clean, rested, and catching up with life. I wish I could travel for a living, but don't we all? So I'm sure you're wondering how the hike went. If I had to describe the experience in one phrase, I would describe it as "torturous beauty."

We signed up for the three day Inca Trail hike back in the end of August. By the time we signed up, the date we originally requested was full and we took an alternative date within our time frame. A whole three months early and dates were running out already. We found out during our hike that only 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail per day, 200 visitors and 300 guides/porters. Insane, right?

Travelers usually book the 4 day/3 night hike. We were unsure of how long we wanted to be hiking and camping for so we debated between the 2 days/1 night, 3 days/2 nights, and 4 days/3 nights. Little did we know that the 3 days/2 nights hike was equivalent in distance to the 4 days/3 nights hike, but just packed into a shorter amount of time. Boy did we wish we knew about that.

Our 3 days/2 nights hike included 33 miles of hiking between 8,000 ft and just under 14,000 ft elevation. Not only was the hike really hard, it was hard to breathe at some points at such high elevation. During the morning of our hike, the porters would wake us up by banging on our tent and cups of cocoa tea to help with the elevation. I've read it in tips that having some cocoa eases the elevation but you won't get the effects if you were to take cocaine. Yes, same plant.

So the hike - the first day and a half was the hardest. It was almost comparable to hiking the Great Wall of China. The stairs were huge and steep at times. We hiked for eight hours the first day, ten hours on day two, and about six hours on day three. By the end of the first day, my knee was killing me and I felt so soar. I was funny on the first day and more than halfway through our first day hike I asked our guide - hypothetically, has anyone turned around at this point? He just laughed at me and never answered my question. I'm sure people have as we saw people turning around on our way up. Some people just can't take the altitude.

By the end of the second day I wanted to cut my legs off they hurt so much. There was a lot of giant stairs going up and then giant stairs going down. Not good for the knees. We hit the highest point on the third day, right after breakfast. We thought from there things could only get better. Negative. Going down seemed harder than going up at times. Definitely harder on the knees. Even with a knee brace it was pretty painful. At the end of the second day, I actually thought I was hallucinating. Through the pain, the hiking, the clouds, the darkness, I just focused so hard on not falling off the mountain. It was so foggy and such a long day that I was just really exhausted. We were so close to the edge and it was so foggy I couldn't tell if I was getting closer or farther to the edge. I would like to say that was one of the scariest moments of the hike. Thankfully just around the corner we saw our campground and knew we were safe.

Past the pain though, the views were gorgeous and breath taking. At points, we were so high that we were floating in the clouds. It felt surreal. We saw all sort of creatures and flowers, and even slept next to llama's on our first night. Imagine walking back to the campground from the bathroom and a llama being in your way. Where else would this happen? They seemed to like us though and ended up letting us go.

Once we came around the mountain and saw Machu Picchu, oh man, we were so thankful. Little did we know it would like another 30-45 minutes to get to the bottom though. But the view was breathtaking. The clouds hovered over the ruins giving us a peek once in awhile. But then to finally be in the ruins, it was unbelievable how accurate the stones were, how lined up they were. The architecture of it all, just unbelievable. I felt accomplished, like I earned the sight. All these other tourists who just took the train in, meh. We should get a medal for everything we went through.

As hard as the hike was, I'm grateful for the experience. Having never hiked that long or gone camping before, I was proud of myself. The pain was temporary and I'm now fully recovered. Our guide was fantastic as well as our porters. Our guide pushed us along and had a great humor. He's been a guide for almost 20 years I want to say, perhaps even more. Before that he was a porter. He learned English by going to Plaza de Armas in Cusco and just conversing with others. That takes a lot of dedication. If you're thinking about doing the Inca Trail, or any trail for that matter and just traveling to Cusco, I'd check out Big Foot Tour Operators. They were awesome to work with.

The porters, where to even start. We had four porters total. A chef, assistant chef, and two others that carried supplies. They were around my age, 25-28. Apparently there's a porters race on the Inca Trail and the fastest porter went through the 33 miles in 3.5 miles. Crazy! Throughout the trip we continuously watched the porters fly past us carrying bags on their back that weigh at least 55 lbs. They're in incredible shape. They're not even out of breathe. Apparently sometimes when they get to a campsite early, they'll take out a soccer ball and kick it around or lay in the sun and take a nap before preparing the next meal. The meals they prepared for us were phenomenal. We had rice, pasta, chicken, beef, soups, desserts - you name it. We were curious how they kept the meat fresh. Did they carry a cooler with ice for three days? Not at all. Apparently wrapping meat in parsley can keep meat fresh. They've done 22 day hikes (who would do such a thing?!) with carrying meat in parsley and it keeps fresh. Who knew, right?

We also learned a great deal about Peruvian culture, mainly that of the Highlands and Cusco. We discussed topics ranging from politics to religion, to marriage to divorce. During the first day on our hike, as we were climbing down a mountain, we saw a mother and two days. Then seconds later the two boys got in a fight and started tumbling down the mountain. Just tumbling. I thought you could die from that but I guess it was worth it. From translation from our guide who was asking the mother questions, one of the boys had raped her daughter. I think she was around 8. The other boy in the fight was the son/brother. This family lived on the first leg of the Inca Trail. There were many villages, and even this happens. Apparently punishment in the highlands for rape is being set on fire until death. Harsh, right? Knowing this, wouldn't you think people would stop? Is raping someone really worth your life? If you were caught cheating on your spouse, you would be banned from your village and wouldn't be able to return for 20 years or so. Total abandonment. You wouldn't even be able to see your family or kids. The cheating better be worth it I suppose. That's just in the Highlands though. In Cusco, it seems like it's like any other city. Rape = jail or court rule. Cheating = divorce.

Learning about the Highlands was definitely interesting. We learned that they get married around 15 years old. Could you imagine. Our porters could be married for nearly 10 years now and they're my age! I'm not even ready to get married now! So apparently there's this festival where girls where hats with flowers in different colors. I think they're red, white, and blue. I may have gotten that wrong but the point is, the colors coordinate to single and looking, single and not looking, and not single. The boys wear a sash with a flower of the same significance as well. Typically, it seems that the boys always ask the girls out on a date, but in the Highlands, it's the girls responsibility. The girl will walk around and if she's interesting in someone, she'll elbow them, even when a guy is in a group with his friends. When she elbows the guy, she'll run around the corner and wait for the boy. If the boy is interested, he'll follow her. And then I guess the love begins. It's just so fascinating. And I thought my parents still trying to implement arranged marriages was crazy. But I guess whatever works for then.

I could go on and on about my experience but I think you get the jist. I'd highly recommend doing the hike. We've heard that they plan on closing the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu sometime soon but they've been saying it for years. Our guide didn't think it was every going to happen. They close the attraction every Tuesday for renovations. Would I do the hike again? Probably not. Would I go back to Peru? Even Cusco? Yes. There was just so much to do there. Rafting, horseback riding, ziplining, hiking, etc. I feel like you could do anything outdoorsy there. And don't forget to try the local cuisine, Alpaca and Guinea Pig.

Until next time!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 4: Rafting

Today we got an early start to the morning and went rafting down a river about 2 hours south of Cusco. There were 15 of us in total, 10 rafters, 4 guides, and our driver.

The scenery on our way there was beautiful. Tons of mountains and we passed through many local villages. It actually reminded me a lot of the villages I
saw in China. Wheat fields with locals in their traditional gear and the homes seemed to look unfinished with unfinished sides when in fact I believe that's how they live. It would be amazing if we could talk to the locals and just learn about their daily lives. Hopefully we'll get to learn about some of that when we go to the Pisaq Market.

So rafting, we stopped at our base to pick up wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. Thank goodness for wetsuits, it would've been pretty cold without them. After putting on our gear, we hopped back in the van and drove for about 15 min to our starting point. We split up our groups and got into our rafts.

Overall experience was great. Our guide was funny and the safety guide who paddled along in his own kayak was hilarious. Thankfully we had a good sense of humor, more than I can say for the couple that was with us. Party poopers. The river was a grade 3/4 level so we got some pretty good action. Thankfully none of us fell out though we did fall into the raft at some points. I'd say one of the highlights was the guides letting us do a Rose from Titanic at the front of the raft. It was pretty cool to get a front look on everything. We did have to stop at one point and get out and walk past a section because it was too dangerous for us. The other raft missed the stop and was about to head straight in when our guide through him a rope and pulled him in. It was pretty intense and I imagine its pretty dangerous.

Once our ride was done we hopped back in the van and headed back to our base. There were showers, a steam room, and they even had paintball. I've never gone paintballing and totally would've been down if I wasn't so exhausted. Rafting and paintballing all in one day sounds intense. The company offers overnight camping trips which seem awesome. If I was here longer I'd be down.

So once we were all cleaned up they were just set to serve lunch. Lunch was pretty good - rice, seasoned chicken, vegetables, potatoes, and bananas. Engulfed all that pretty quick. Afterwards we headed back to Cusco and I basically snoozed all the way back. Once we got back we went to get an early Italian dinner to prep for our next days of hiking. Hoping its not too cold! Until then!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Day 2: Yum, yum, Yum

I've arrived! I've made it to Peru all in one piece after a 10 hour flight with a stop in Panama City. I came to a conclusion that learning Spanish before my trip would have been a good idea. I know none though I'm learning. I have learned how to say "bano" (bathroom), much needed.

So we landed in Lima and were picked up by our hostel, Pay Purix. It's pretty close to the airport which was great for us since we had a flight to Cusco the next morning. The hostel had a pretty cool vibe, almost like a club scene or a cool bar. Plus they had a pool table, which we were horribly bad at. Overall a great experience for a quick night stay. Though I'd highly recommend if you have a baby, don't stay at a hostel. No one wants to hear your baby screaming all night. And then the next morning you ask for all the milk, which is concentrated and used for coffee, for your baby. Very odd.

So we were off to our flight to Cusco. Upon arriving, we thought we would feel a bit sick adjusting to the 11,000 ft altitude. They recommend drinking a cocoa tea that helps relieve the altitude sickness. We've felt pretty fine, though we bought some cocoa candy for fun.

We pretty much bummed out all day. Our first Peruvian meal was awesome though. Chicken!!! My god, this chicken was so delicious. So juicy and tender and so much flavor. I'd go back for some more, for sure.

Then we went to Plaza de Armas and chilled in a bar and had a grande beer. Pretty sweet way to spend our first day I'd day. After our beer we walked around the square and found a place for dinner. Just as we found a place for dinner it started hailing. Like CRAZY hailing and then downpour. It was crazy. 70s and sunny all day and then crazy rain. Dinner was great though, lamb and alpaca. Alpaca which perhaps ill be riding in a few days, mmm.

After that we went back to our hostel, taking a shady cab but can't be that shady if the police got us the ride right? We made it back okay and now chilling in our room.

Not so much of an eventful day but quite relaxing. The next couple should be. We're going to get a massage for $6 tomorrow, can't wait! Then Wednesday, rafting! And then we begin our trek to Machu Picchu. So more to come and I swear more exciting!

Day 3: Massage, Trek, Chocolate, Quinoa, Creeper

I'd say today was pretty productive and chill. Highlights of our day...

Massage - We read on this website things to do in Cusco that don't include treks and it was pretty awesome. One one them was getting a massage. The site advised you could get a massage for $6. We found a place that had massages for 24 soles but when we went to check out the beds, they were kinda dirty. You could see stains and small pieces of hair. We ducked out of there, it was kind of gross. 24 soles is about $9, but you get what you pay for. We found another massage place that was pretty decent and we were able to negotiate an hour Swedish and hot stone massage for 70 soles, about $28. There were 5 beds in the room and 3 of us. I guess community massages are a thing here. While we were getting our massage 2 other people walked ingot massages. Kind of weird, but I guess normal? The massages were pretty good and strong. That was the first time I had a hot stone massage and it felt like taking a hot shower. I'm down for doing it again. After we come back from our trek we'll probably get another one.

Trek - We went to meet our tour guide to get briefed on our hike today. Our guide seemed pretty cool and we'll probably be quite entertaining. We found out there's just the 3 of us soon the trek which was kind of disappointing as I was hoping to meet other hikers. We'll be doing 3 days and 2 night of hiking. About 10 hours of hiking each day, tell me again...why did I sign up for this? Hah, it should be good though they said we won't be able to run without gasping for breath. Can't wait. Our first day hiking will be Thanksgiving which should be interesting. I wonder what's for dinner, Alpaca?

Chocolate Museum - Also on the list from the website was to check out the Chocolate museum. It seemed in a very odd spot but we checked it out anyway. It was pretty cool, although we did lounge for a bit in their comfy cushions. Try have us chocolate tea to try, delicious. It tasted like hot chocolate but not as heavy. It was chocolaty and light. Sweet deal. We also got to see how they made they're chocolate. It seemed like a pretty sweet job. Mixing chocolate on a balcony and staring at the beautiful scenery. We also obviously tasted the chocolate, so fresh. So chocolaty. Mmmm...they were also selling chocolate deodorant and condoms. So odd.

Quinoa - Amazing. Lets start there. It was the first thing we had in Peru and we had a large bowl of Quinoa soup tonight. Definitely hit the spot. It seems to be popular here with potato and carrots in soup. We may just have to have a bowl every day while we're in Peru. Potatoes on the other hand, way too much. I feel like potatoes are served with everything and they're either dry or not fully cooked. Quinoa is probably the most memorable food we have had here. Though we've had tons of really great meals. I love the salty chicken.

Creeper - So we checked out this bar lounge called Mushrooms tonight. Drinks were okay. But we did make friends with some locals and played pool Peruvian style. Apparently the 8 ball means nothing as well as stripes or solids. It's just whoever gets a ball in get a point. If you get the white ball in or don't hit a ball, you lose a ball that you've scored and it goes back on the table. Interesting way of playing. A creeper did come up to us an tried asking if we spoke Spanish or English. We moved away. After our game we saw some friends we met at our hostel and hung out with them. The creeper followed us and sat next to us. I went to the restroom and when I got back he scooted smack next to our table. Really, is that necessary? I made him move so I could sit back down. Then he started touching my arm and asking me if I spoke Spanish or English. I told him I didn't speak any Spanish. Then I think he tried asking me for my number. Hellz no. He continuously touched my arm and kept trying to talk to me until I literally put my hand in his face and told him to leave me alone. Thankfully the bartender came over and asked if we was bothering me and I said yes and asked if he could ask the guy to move. He guy moved back to the pool table and tried talking to these other girls. Then the bartender got security who escorted him out. Geez, no matter what city, there will always be creepers.

Onto tomorrow! Rafting! Until them, adios!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

New Restaurant Opening: Embeya

Last night I was greatlyfully invited to a new restaurant opening in the West Loop of Chicago, Embeya. Opening officially on Tuesday, 9/11, the restaurant represents a twist and mix of Asian and French cuisine. The decor is modern with some unique touches. The sides of the shelving of the bar reminds me of Greek colosseums with the texture. The lights over the bar tables reminded of the Lorax and I really enjoyed that it was an open kitchen.

Our Thai
Now lets get to the good part, the food. We had a number of dishes and overall felt the same about all of them. The presentation was great, the food was prepared perfectly, but when it came to flavor, it lacked. Lets start with drinks. I had the Our Thai which was described to me as a Mai Thai. I love Mai Thai's but this didn't quite touch the spot. I was expecting more of a fruit flavor than bitterness. Love the dehydrated pineapple though. My friend ordered the drink with tomato juice, I forget what it was called. Waaaaay to bitter for my taste. Though they did advise that they're still in the process of perfecting the cocktails so I'd give it another try.

Into our appetizers - small clams, summer roll, and stuffed squid. Again, all great presentation, cooked to perfection but all just missing that kick in my taste bud I was looking for. Small clams really just needed that kick, as well as the stuffed squid. I loved the concept of the stuff squid and can't believe no one's introduced it before! As a squid lover, I'm in love with it. The meat just needed to be marinated or additional spices. Then it would've been PERFECT! The summer roll was not what I expected. I was expecting the pork belly to be inside the roll but it was on the side. I wasn't sure I understood how to eat the roll, was it supposed to be eaten separately, together? If it was supposed to be eaten together, I would've expected the pork belly to be inside the roll or the pork belly thinly sliced instead of in chucks. When we asked the waiter, he advised that you were supposed to take a bite of the roll and then the pork belly. It just didn't quite flow and the skin of the pork belly was crispier than it needed it to be. You could almost lose a tooth on that. But the pork belly was great, LOVE pork belly.

Stuffed Squid
Small Clams
Summer Roll
And now our main event! I'd like to start to say that I was hoping for more creative names than just Ribs and Salmon but that could be coming when they open. The ribs couldn't have been cooked any better. The meat fell right off the bone. So delicious! Only complaint would be is that the sauce was a little sweet. I finished the whole plate though and boy was I full! And the salmon was cooked in a fresh tomato sauce. Definitely different and a little bland. 

Then there was dessert. A creme puff with creme in it with green tea powder. Love green tea and drink it all the time but green tea powder? Didn't quite enjoy it. But my friend loved it so definitely give it a try. We also ordered the flan which I did enjoy. 

So overall, we had a great night and enjoyed great food. The staff was super friendly and eager to get everyone's feedback before their opening this week. I can't say Embeya would be the first restaurant I'd recommend to others but I would give it another shot in a couple months hoping their flavors have improved. If you have a different experience, please share your thoughts!


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Flash Mob Dinner: Chicago in White

Oh its been a crazy year so far and so much has happened, including a blogging hiatus but lets bring that back, shall we? Last weekend I participated in an event called Chicago in White, basically a flash mob dinner. You sign up ahead of time, get communication via email of what to bring and where to meet, get your picnic equipment and dinner, dress in white, and meet at your assigned meeting point. Then at 7pm we all jumped south on the Brown Line and got off at the Merchandise Mart. We walked to our assigned rows and set up our table and chairs, and set our dinner. At 8pm the twirling of the napkins started and the rest of the night was spent in good company with a glorious view. 

Chicago in White Set-Up
The event started in Paris, France (originally known as Diner en Blanc) and has since spread all over the world, including 12 cities in the US. It's an honor to have been able to participate in this event. Over 1,600 people participated in the Chicago event this year and this is the second year its been in here. 

The purpose of the event? Not sure but it's pretty freaking awesome! I encourage everyone to sign-up for their emails so you don't miss out on the next city event! 

Chicago in White - so beautiful!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Second Place in the Duck Wing Eating Contest!

YES, I placed second in the duck wing eating contest! Well I technically tied but the owner said I could say I placed second so I am.

There were 4 of us altogether, me being the only girl, as you can see from the picture below. To my left was another Asian guy who was actually disqualified when things came down to it. He "ate" 9 duck wings but when you looked at it altogether, half the meat was still on the bones and there was a bunch of meat on his plate. So much for telling me before the feast that you leave the cleanest bones. The tall skinny guy to my right was actually the winner and the guy all the way to my right was who I tied with. I tied the biggest guy there! I'd say that's an accomplishment.
Duck wing competitors at Union Sushi and BBQ

So now that you know who is who, I'll provide more details on this wonderful experience. The experience first began with a free ride from work to Union Sushi in this private car provided by Uber. It's actually not that badly priced, $7 as your starting fee and then it cost goes up from there with mileage but it was certainly quite the treatment. We pulled up to the restaurant and as soon as I got in, arriving 15 minutes late of course, I was bombarded with cameras and questions and a consent form to sign. After I signed my life away I had my pre-interview where I basically told them why I decided to enter and how I thought I was going to do. Then it's time to feast. 

As we're seated and waiting for the countdown, I tried not concentrating on the 50+ people staring at me and just on my duck. They started us with 30 duck wings, bleu cheese dip (which I didn't use), and water. We also had personal water refillers so we didn't have to worry about that. These wings might not look big but they're about the size of your hand. 
30 duck wings!
Before we started, the owner explained the rules, that all the bones that to be clean to the bone. Unfortunately not everyone knows what that means. I had the cleanest bones, voted by everyone! Anyway, back to the eating part.
Cleanest duck wing bones!
COUNTDOWN TIME! As soon as I heard 0, I bit into a duck wing and started chewing like crazy. While I was chewing, I'd rip the meat off the next wing and start stuffing meat into my mouth as I could see fit. I drank water when I could. I guess I could've had the meat go down faster by swallowing whole but I was too concerned about choking, that wouldn't have been too fun. Duck meat is actually harder to chew than I imagined. Eating it like a normal human being, it didn't seem that bad, but stuffing it down your throat and trying to chew, quite hard. 

So I'm chewing and chewing and by the time I hear the 2.5 minute mark (oh yeah, the contest was who could eat the most duck wings in 5 minutes) I'm only on my third one. I take a scan around as I'm chewing and the other bowls look like they have a lot more bones in them. I guess that was my mistake was assuming I was in last place. The restaurant employees actually betted on how much the winner would eat and those numbers were between 20-30 wings so that certainly threw me off. Little did they know...that's impossible in 5 minutes! 

So as we run out of time, I try to chew as fast as I can. I guess I should've asked if the  contest applied to how many wings you ate and digested? Or just how many you could get in your mouth. If I knew it was how many you could get in your mouth, I probably could've fit another one and a half in my mouth, then again my mouth is really small so maybe just one. 


I finished 5 duck wings. The winner finished 8 but he had to chew for like another 5 minutes in order to get it all down. He still would've beat me even if I did get that extra duck meat in my mouth. Shucks. And if I did that, I probably wouldn't have tied second but just WON second. All things to learn! 

So after that, I cleaned myself up, thanked the owners, and then left with some friends to get dinner! You're probably thinking I'm crazy but 5 duck wings isn't dinner! Don't judge the little one, I can eat A LOT:)

The duck wing contest was just my debut of food eating competitions. I want another! Give me noodles! Give me sushi! Give me dumplings! OR GIVE ME CHICKEN WINGS!!! That would be love. Until next time, keep practicing! And if you hear of any food eating competitions, send them my way!