Week 3: Djibouti

I ended up in Djibouti because I have a small obsession with whale sharks, which are usually in residence in the Gulf of Tadjoura until the end of January. Unfortunately, they were all gone or too deep in the water to see by the time I got there. However, this crazy search for charismatic marine megafauna brought me to a country full of surreal beauty.


views from the train going from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City (these are all from Ethiopia)

Before I left on my 13 hour train journey from Addis, everyone told me Djibouti was going to be hot, hot, and hot. It was hot, but tolerably so and while I was there, it even rained. Djibouti is a desert and everything is imported from elsewhere which makes this one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited. It has two main economic income streams: shipping from the port (where everything is currently trucked overland to Ethiopia) and tons of military bases (including the US, France, UK, Italy, Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan). Perhaps not that surprising, I rarely ever saw foreigners on the streets, they seem to stay almost entirely on the bases.


view of Balbala (where most Djiboutians live because they can’t afford to live in Djibouti Ville), old port, house in Balbala

Arta Plage

Since whale sharks were nowhere to be found, I signed up for a kayaking and snorkeling trip to Arta Plage. The day we went kayaking, we were treated to some extremely rare weather: rainy, windy and almost chilly. The water was warmer than the air, which was crazy compared to how hot it was in following days. We did run into hordes of tiny jellyfish, who speared us with their nematocysts, causing some unpleasant tingling in the arms, legs, and especially the skin around the mouth. We took a break for lunch and headed out to rougher waters, where there were less jellyfish and more gorgeous meter wide fan corals. Djibouti has some of the most beautiful reefs I’ve ever seen outside of the Red Sea. (I know nothing about coral identification, as can be seen be the captions.)


coral reef, nasty hordes of jellyfish, coral


coral, fish, coral


fish, corals, giant clam

Djibouti does have some interesting life outside of its water as well.


Djibouti cow, ostrich (squint and you can see it), hamadrayas baboon

Lac Abbé

After a long, long, long Land Rover journey, we arrived at Lac Abbé which is on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. This area sits on top of active geothermal activity. Thousands of years ago, this area was still covered by the salty lake and as mineral-rich and super-hot fluid from underneath the earth escaped into the lake, it formed these crazy limestone chimneys. This area is part of the Afar Triangle, where three plates are pulling away from each other at the same junction. Many of the chimneys are situated along jaunty lines, showcasing the faults below. It makes for some surreal landscapes, both during the day and especially at sunrise.


limestone chimneys


chimney, close-up of rock-hard, bubbling surface, me & chimney


morning steam from hot springs, dawn in Lac Abbé, sunrise at Lac Abbé

This area is dominated by Afars, some of whom have settled into more permanent structures. We stayed in the ones that look like armadillos, which were quite comfortable even in the desert chill. One of the biggest daily traditions in Djibouti is the consumption of khat (also spelled qat, chat). It’s chewed every day in the afternoon, or all the time if you’re a driver. Khat is an upper, making people feel more alert, a milder version of speed. Almost all of the khat consumed in Djibouti comes overland in trucks from Ethiopia. Apparently the smaller leaves are best and it costs about 300 Djiboutian francs ($1.75) for a bundle. My driver went through 2-3 a day.


wooden structure, armadillo structure (wood or rebar framing), khat wrapped in a towel to keep it fresh



view from the Afar camp we stayed in as the goats are taken back in for the evening

Lac Assal

Lac Assal is the other huge tourist attraction in Djibouti. It’s the lowest point in Africa at 509 ft (155m) below sea level. The water from surrounding areas drains into it but the water has nowhere to go. Instead the water evaporates, leaving behind a very salty lake (the third saltiest in the world).


Daouid (my guide), me & Mohammed (my khat-chewing driver), random Afar guy at Lac Assal

I, of course, had to get in and try it out. Because the water is so salty, it has a higher density. This creates a larger buoyancy force pushing up on the human body and humans float higher up in the water (very similar to the Dead Sea). When I got out, I was covered in a light dusting of salt and my guide had to pour two liters of water over my head to make the ride home palatable.


floating in Lac Assal, view from above, walking towards Lac Assal

This means I have been to the highest and lowest points on the continent of Africa. This was not an accomplishment I set out to achieve, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless.


Highest Point: climbing the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lowest Point: swimming in Lac Assal


Week 2: Bale Mountains & Lake Hawassa

Warning, this post is outrageously long because nature is awesome. Also, I have things to say about Addis Ababa, but I’ll be passing through a few more times, so I’ll add my thoughts about the capital to a later post.

Bale Mountains

The reason I’m here in Ethiopia at all is because my amazing neighbor Tselate decided to take a trip back home. For as long as we’ve lived next to each other, I’d been telling her that I was going to come with her the next time she went. She booked her flight, so I booked mine. In spite of growing up in Addis Ababa, she never really got to see a lot of the country and she told me she really wanted to see the Bale (pronounced bah-lay) Mountains, so off we went.

The star of the show in the Bale Mountains is one of the most endangered mammals in the world: the Ethiopian wolf. There are less than 500 of these creatures left on the earth and about 50% of them live in the Bale Mountains. We were lucky enough to see two of them, one of them crossed the road right in front of our car! They are threatened not only by rabies and canine distemper, but also climate change. They live at a particularly high altitude and as the climate gets warmer, they’ll move higher up the mountain until they run out of mountain to go up. I’d recently read the book Inheritors of the Earth, that mentions their plight and some possible solutions.


Ethiopian wolf (3 photos because they are beautiful and rare creatures) known in Amharic as Ky kebero which means red jackal

We were also able to see the mountain nyala, another Ethiopian endemic. There were large groups of females and babies along with a few lone males loitering around nearby.


mountain nyala – baby, female adult, male adult

I have a special fondness for primates, and although I’ve seen lots of baboons and vervet monkeys in my life, the colobus monkey is stunning. Their long black and white fur and long shaggy tails make them extremely distinctive.


olive baboon, colobus monkey, vervet monkeys

Totally unscientific and very subjective comment: warthogs are really cute when they run with their tails wagging. I am aware that the photo of the giant forest hog below is a bit lacking, but apparently it was a rare find (our guide Ahmed had only seen it three times).


warthog, local impressively-crafted houses, giant forest hog

The flora is the high afro-alpine environment is quite unique as well.


spiky plant that I can’t remember the name of, moss-covered heather trees in the Harenna cloud forest (at a slightly lower altitude), giant lobelia

In the Harenna forest, there’s a couple of beautiful waterfalls that we hiked to.


Ahmed relaxing by the upper waterfall, Tselate celebrating our hike, me by the lower waterfall

One of the days we drove three hours (each way) to see a natural limestone cave, known as Sof Omar because of the religious Muslim who lived in the caves for many years along with his daughter. The cave actually continues on for a couple kilometers, but it is full of water at this time of year. The outside was particularly beautiful and it was Tselate’s first time spelunking.


Outside of Sof Omar cave


Tselate, me, Tselate and me after I convinced her to skootch up the side of a rock

Lake Hawassa

On our way back we stopped at Lake Hawassa and took a short boat ride around the lake. It’s not very hard to see why this place is beloved among birders and fishermen.


Egyptian goose, marabou stork, malachite kingfisher


African fish eagle, fishermen going out to fish (mostly tilapia and catfish), boat loaded with nets

Beneath its calm exterior lurks some pretty dangerous animals. There are a few groups of hippopotamuses that call the lake their home.



more hippos, me with a colobus monkey on my head, vervet mama carrying child

Pictures can never fully capture the whole experience. Being trapped in a car for five days means getting to know people in different ways. Ahmed (our guide from Bale Mountain Tours) is from the Oromo tribe, which is the largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia. He taught us some really basic greetings in Oromiffa.

Hello. Ah-kem.
Response to hello. Na-ga-ha.
Good morning. Ah-kem bul-ten.
Good afternoon. Ah-kem ol-ten.
Good night. Hal-kan-ga-ri.

In addition, Tselate, Mohammed (our driver) and Ahmed all helped me learn how to count in Amharic. I still can’t always hear the numbers people say to me, but I can stumble through saying them. Speaking and listening are such different skills.

One of my favorite moments of the trip had nothing to do with nature at all. On the way back from the cave, we got a flat tire and the guys put on the spare. We drove onwards to a small town and while stopping for a coffee break, they realized that we had another flat tire, so Mohammed took the car to get the tires fixed at a shop down the road. Next to the tire shop, there was a small shaded area outside of a restaurant where we perched on benches out of the sun. We watched as the tire guys took apart the hubs using giant hammers and crowbars to get to the tubes inside. Once the tubes were out they had to be taken to a different shop down the street to be patched. A faranji (foreigner) like myself attracts quite a bit of attention in small towns and pretty soon there were a group of young people peering at us.

Tselate asked them about themselves and then encouraged them to practice their English with me, but after a few introductory phrases the kids and I were all stuck. I looked over the woven reed wall separating us from the tire guys and the guy who left with the tubes was nowhere to be seen, so we still had to pass a bit of time. At that moment, I realized we could continue to sit there awkwardly gawking at each other or we could actually interact with each other. The teacher in me took over, and I started teaching the girls how to play Slide, the hand clapping game that one of my campers taught me twenty years ago in Los Angeles. If you’re not familiar with Slide, it’s a simple pattern of hand claps that gets repeated based on the number of turns you’ve completed. The first time, the pattern is repeated once and then the second time, twice, the third time, three times, etc. I’d just learned Amharic numbers, so this was perfect practice. Ahnd, hu-let, sost. One, two, three. As I showed one of the girls the pattern, she started to catch on and count with me. Then Tselate got in on the fun and clarified my instructions in Amharic with the first girl and I started teaching another girl. Just as Ahmed told us the car was fixed, we had gotten the two girls to play Slide with each other. As we walked away, we heard them counting and clapping.

I am so deeply appreciative of Tselate for all the hospitality she and her family have shown me. We’ve lived next to each other for years, but nothing brings you together like sharing the same space. I am deeply grateful for everything she has shared and the depth of our friendship that has developed because of this time. Am-se-ge-ne-she-a-le-hu, Tselate. May we have more exciting adventures in the years to come. 🙂


Tselate in a field of flowers, Tselate drinking mango juice and making new friends in the town of Adama, Tselate drinking her beloved coffee


Week 1: On the Road Again & Doha

I’m on the road again for the spring semester. Here’s the map of my planned travels, but it is four and a half months of movement so things may change over time.

The Plan



My first stop on this trip was a long layover (by design) in Doha, Qatar. It’s a tiny little country on the northern side of the Arabian Peninsula. You may have heard about it in the news, because a bunch of other countries cut ties with them awhile back for supporting terrorism. This BBC article is a good read on the subject.

Qatar is oil rich and only 88% of the people who live there are actually Qatari. It’s a nation of immigrants, and walking down the streets you are as likely to hear Tagalog and Hindi as you are to hear Arabic. Immigrants are imported to do all the jobs that Qataris don’t want – waiters, fishermen, maids, nannies, construction workers, even tour guides! English becomes the lingua franca because so many people are from somewhere else.

After landing at the airport, I hopped on a bus into the city and walked along the beautiful La Corniche since it was still quite early in the morning and nothing much was open. There’s a huge developed skyline across the water that contrasts intensely with the old dhow fishing boats lined up along the harbor.


dhow on the harbor, view of the skyline, the Pearl monument

One of the highlights of Doha is the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art, which is a collection of art from the Muslim world, stretching from China to Spain. Because of Islam’s prohibition on representing figures in religious artifacts, geometric patterns feature prominently in the work. Muslim artists were not only fabulous artisans, they were also mathematical geniuses. I particularly enjoyed seeing how a tessellated shape can be entirely transformed when crafted in different styles of woodwork.


Can you see the same pattern in all of these?

The room where I spent quite a bit of time was the one showcasing art and science. (Imagine that. Ha ha.) Astronomy was a huge source of interest for Muslim scholars, partially because prayers that occur five times each day are set according to the rising and setting of the sun. After collecting years of data and making observations, Muslim scientists had some deeper understandings of the universe than many others around the same time. I just saw this decolonizing infographic showing how so much of what they knew was “discovered” by later Europeans.


astrolabe used for calculating latitude, a description and model for how eclipses occur, celestial globe of constellations

For being a huge city, I was surprised by how many animals were hanging out in the area. There’s a random pen of very unhappy camels right off the main road and a huge stable filled with Arabian horses. In addition, there are rows of shops filled with falcons for sale since using them to hunt other animals is a tradition among Qataris. Falcons cost anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000, which explains the need for the falcon hospital nearby.


camel in the middle of the city, falcon (with eyes covered) in the falcon souq, Arabian horse

Some folks have requested more food photos this time around, so I’ll do my best to provide. For breakfast I had giant Yemeni bread with beans and a spicy cheese sauce, chased down by sweet milk tea. I picked this restaurant solely on how delicious the food looked when I walked by and I was right. The guy who ran the restaurant was so happy that I spoke some Arabic. I learned the Darija dialect when I lived in Morocco, but Gulf Arabic is quite different, so I needed to look up some words. As I was leaving, I heard people speaking Spanish and after finding out they were from Peru, Argentina and Chile, we talked for a short time in Spanish about my recent travels. Then I went to the counter and told the man how delicious the food was and how full I was in Arabic. It was a strange small-world polyglot moment.


breakfast in Qatar, afternoon treat of thabakath juice (strawberry, avocado & papaya), beautiful Turkish lamp fixture

One last photo of the beautiful skyline from the outdoor patio at the Museum of Islamic Art.


After Doha, I headed to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Internet has been a bit challenging here and my phone was stolen (again!). Apparently it has become a right of passage for me to lose my phone the first week I embark on a long journey. Fortunately, the rest of my time here has been great so far. My photos weren’t backed up, so my fabulous museum and church visits from the past few days are not visually documented. I’m safe and happy and having a wonderful time!

Week 13 & 14: Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine


As soon as I knew that I was awarded a sabbatical, this was the part of the trip that I knew I had to do this year. Hiking in Patagonia can only happen during summer in the southern hemisphere, which is a time of year that I’d normally be teaching. Because I knew I’d have December free, I centered the rest of my trip around making sure I’d be at the tip of South America right now.


First stop en route to the park was the nearby town of Puerto Natales. It’s the town everyone passes through on way to the park. I spent a whole day getting supplies and packing up my things and managed to do a little bit of sightseeing along the fjord as well.

One of the most unique things I found out about were mylodons. They’re extinct ground sloths that would have been about 10 feet tall and weighed about a ton. Some very well-preserved remains were found in a cave nearby and brought the town a bit of fame in paleontology circles.


view of the fjord from Puerto Natales, life-sized statue of a mylodon, Monumento de la Mano


The roughly 80 mile trip I did is colloquially referred to as the “O” because on a map it’s basically a big circle. A lot of people hike the “W” which is the bottom half of the “O” and is half as long. In the map below, the “W” is the blue line and the “O” is both the red and blue lines.


Because I’m crazy and figured I’d only get this opportunity once in my life, I booked my campsites for the longer 9 day, 8 night trek almost six months ago. It’s a beautiful circuit of glacially carved landscapes and pictures will never do the actual views justice. Nevertheless, here are my favorite 3 photos from each day of the trek in hopes of giving you a small glimpse of the wonders of Patagonia.

Day 1: Welcome Center to Serontdp1
Day 2: Seron to Dicksontdp2.jpg
Day 3: Dickson to Los Perrostdp3.jpg
Day 4: Los Perros to Pasotdp4.jpg
Day 5: Paso to Grey (plus kayak to the glacier)tdp5.jpg
Day 6: Grey to Italianotdp6.jpg
Day 7: Italiano to Los Cuernos (including hike up the French Valley)tdp71.jpg
Day 8: Los Cuernos to Chilenotdp8.jpg
Day 9: Chileno to Welcome Center (including hike to the Torres)tdp9.jpg
Bonus PanoramasPANO_20181205_135806.vr.jpgPANO_20181206_163910.vr-001.jpgPANO_20181208_101814.vr.jpgPANO_20181209_095531.vr-001.jpg

This is, by far, the longest solo trip I’ve ever done. However, the path is filled with other amazing hikers and I never felt alone for very long. Since everyone is moving in the same direction and campsites are mandatory, I ran into people over and over again and made some true friends for life.

There are many things that went wrong on this trip. My stove was giving my trouble and I had to take it apart and put it back together twice. My aging backpack basically fell apart: one of the metal support spines broke, the front left pocket zipper is broken, and four growing holes appeared along pocket seams that I patched with duct tape. I tripped over a rock, leaving a big bruise on my left leg and my face was attacked by a couple of mosquitos. Yet somehow, looking back on the trip, I feel nothing but incredible wonder and joy for the beauty nature provides. The last few months have been a journey towards mental and physical healing and this trip took me a long way back towards feeling like myself again. Crazy, but blessed.



Week 12: Valparaíso & Santiago



Hanging out in Valparaíso was basically a vacation from my vacation. My former colleague Cata picked me up from the airport and whisked me to her beautiful place that she and her husband are running as an Airbnb. No buses and taxis. Just an old friend and conversation. After we arrived they showed me all over town and even invited me to a friend’s Thanksgiving celebration. I made a cherry blueberry pie (and Cata helped), because they are fresh in the market right now. (It’s summer here!)


Cata and I posing next to beautiful art, view of Valpo, Cata learning how to weave pie lattice

Valparaíso is known for its beautiful murals and one of the coolest is on their hotel (the one with Van Gogh below). The best thing to do is just walk around town and run into awesome art. Here’s some of my favorite ones:



I finally had to say goodbye and headed into the capital city where I was able to indulge my love of museums and beautiful outdoor spaces. The most important place I visited was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Most of the museum is dedicated to exploring the terrible crimes committed while Pinochet was dictator. Many people were tortured, many died, and many disappeared (almost all of those were presumably killed). The museum is a reminder to never forget what happened under the oppressive regime, so as to hopefully make sure that it never happens again.


tribute to people who died and disappeared under Pinochet, reminder that indigenous people are still here, the first article of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Just in case you wanted to read what that last photo says in English:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

If you’ve never read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s great and you should take a moment to look it over.  I had a simplified version of it up on my classroom wall. Read the whole document here.

I also visited several art museums! The quipu in the photo below needs some explanation. These were used in Inca times to record numbers, probably for taxation purposes. Powers of ten are signified by different regions along the strings and the numbers of knots at each location indicates how many digits are in each position. So for example 7 knots in the tens section and 2 knots in the ones section would mean 72. (Although this is a simplification because knots in the ones sections are actually done a bit differently). Scientists figured this out because there are certain strings that add up to all the previous strings. However, other quipus might show maps or other information and no one really knows what the colors are for. It appears the Inca didn’t have a written language, but these quipus are certainly part of their recorded history. (Note: Santiago was an Inca city, their empire stretched this far south.)


exhibit at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, my favorite sculpture at the Parque De Las Esculturas, quipu at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

I also climbed a few hills to get some beautiful views of the city. I loved that Santiago is full of parks and nature spots. It makes the crowded spaces feel very liveable.

view from Castillo Hidalgo on Cerro Santa Lucía

The picture of the sunset below was quite nice, but the funicular that goes down the mountain stopped running at 7pm. The sun doesn’t set until 8:30pm, so I started walking down the hill as it was getting darker. Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned my route back very well and ended up on a mountain bike path (with fortunately no bikes on it). However, that path didn’t actually connect to the street, so I decided to go on a little adventure off trail and bushwhacked my way through plants as I basically slid down the rest of the hill. I was covered in tiny spiky plant parts, had a couple tiny splinters in my hand, and got several scratches on my leg, but I survived! 🙂


view of Castillo Hidalgo on Cerro Santa Lucía, sunset from Cerro San Cristóbal


This offer is still valid. 🙂 If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States. I just sent a bunch from Chile!

Week 11: Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Nasca & Lima



The White City of Peru, apparently named not only for the color of the buildings, but also because it was the city with the highest number of European immigrants. My two favorite parts of Arequipa were the queso helado and the incredible sunsets in the main square. Queso helado isn’t actually frozen cheese, but a delicious and yummy local ice cream.


sunset over the cathedral, queso helado, sunset over the Plaza de Armas

Arequipa is known for the Santa Catalina Monastery, which is basically a small city within the city. Wealthy Spanish sent their daughters to live there until they died, paying a monthly sum for their daily upkeep the rest of their lives. Each nun basically had their own apartment within the complex, but weren’t allowed contact with the outside world except in one small room.


laundromats for the nuns, beautiful fountain, walkway of a plaza


On the way to the canyon, there is a famous stopping point known as the Cruz del Condor where there are almost always Andean condors flying in the morning hours. This point is at the cross-section of winds and the condors ride them all morning scavenging for food. We saw quite a few before venturing on to start our trip into one of the deepest canyons in the world. This overnight hike into Colca Canyon involved a really, really long and really, really hot walk down into the canyon and a really, really steep hike out in the morning starting while there were still stars out.


Andean condor, view from the start of the hike, view from the end of the hike


oasis where we spent the night, early morning hiking, hexagonal basalt columns

One thing I failed to capture on camera (sorry!) was my first introduction to cochineal bugs living on prickly pear cactus. Squishing them exudes a red dye that can be used to decorate skin and (if enough are harvested) color clothing. I’d seen these dried bugs in markets, but never actually seen them alive on cacti.


The only real way to see the Nasca Lines is to get up in a plane, so I paid the money and hopped aboard a little prop plane to see these beautiful creations. They were made by digging small trenches that removed the top layer of gravel and exposed the subsoil underneath which is lighter in color. Their cultural importance is still up for speculation and there are way more designs than the ones here.


top (l to r): tree, monkey, spider
bottom (l to r): condor, hands, hummingbird


I don’t usually take photos of museum pieces, but the Museo Larco in Lima is a pretty exceptional museum. I find the patterns on Nasca (also written Nazca) pottery to be stunning, so I thought I’d share a few of the more spectacular pieces. This type of art was actually the inspiration for many modern and cubist artists of the 20th century.


Nasca pottery, top of a Nazca drum, close-up of Nazca pottery

Other highlights included skulls that were opened up in Inca times. This brain surgery would have been performed to help hematomas or remove parts of the skull that had been fractured in war. The skull on the left doesn’t show any bone regrowth so the person probably died from the effort. However, the one on the right shows lots of growth so that person lived quite a while after the surgery was performed.

Also on display were sculptures depicting cultural scenes, textiles covered in feathers, and rooms full of jewelry. Many rulers of early Peruvians wore giant earplugs as a symbol of status. Some of these are 3-4″ across, so you can imagine how large their earlobes had to be stretched to accommodate these works of art.


skulls after surgery, decapitation ceramic, mosaic Moche ear plug


This offer is still valid. 🙂If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States.

Week 10: Puno, Inca Trail & Cusco



An early morning boat ride whisked me out to the floating islands of the Uros on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. This is a group of people who were sick of fighting with other people on the mainland, so they made their permanent home in the middle of the lake on artificial islands they made out of plants. The woman in the photo is demonstrating how this works: a large layer of floating roots tied together, followed by reeds, then houses go on top. The plants are constantly decomposing, so there is constant work to maintain and upkeep the islands and structures.


floating reed islands (with solar panels), explaining how the reed islands are built, incredible reed boats


Day 1: We left before the sun rose and the first day was a relatively easy wander along the Willkamayu River (also known as the Urubamba). To the Incas, this river was the earthly version of the Milky Way and reflected the duality between the heavens and the land. After passing the agricultural city of Patallacata, we camped in the middle of some gorgeous mountains.


start of the trail over the Willkamayu River, Patallacta, view from evening campsite

Day 2: This was a shock to the system with a never ending set of stairs towards Dead Woman’s Pass, named because of the shape of the mountain. I’d been at pretty high elevation for the last two weeks, but I was still moving slowly, especially towards the top. There’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but the scenery and company was fantastic.


hiking through cloud forests with awesome people


on the way to the pass, celebrating making it to the top, the view down from the pass

Day 3: After waking up at the break of dawn, we headed out for a full day of ruins. In the morning we stopped at the beautiful temple of Sayamarka.


cloudy view from Sayamarka window, chillin’ in the old temple, flowers growing from a crack


view of Sayamarka

Although the rain picked up after lunch, we were able to visit more Inca sights after lunch. Their splendor and size got grander as we got closer to Machu Picchu. The current theory is that Machu Picchu was a country estate designed for the Inca ruler Pachacuti. When he left Cusco, he would take up residence in this citadel. As his entourage moved along the Inca Trail, there would have been teenage sacrifices (some self-chosen and some chosen by parents) and celebrations in his honor. For this reason, there is a sacrifice table at one of these temples and the blood would run from this spot higher up to the temples at the bottom of the mountain through a series of canals.


Phuyupatamarka, the group in our colorful rain gear, Intipata

Our guide gave us a special evening tour of the beautiful ruins of Wiñay Wayna. Inside of this temple there would have been an Inca mummy that continued to dispense advice and wisdom even after death.


view of Wiñay Wayna, after dark special effects

Day 4: One last ridiculously early morning and we were finally on our way to Machu Picchu.  The clouds were out as soon as we started walking, so there were no beautiful views. The spectacular tourist shot that everyone takes was a giant cloud when we went by. After dropping our bags off, we went off on a tour of the ruins. Machu Picchu has a little bit of everything: deluxe bedrooms, temples, vast terraced agricultural lands, educational spaces, intensive plumbing, and astronomical observatories. I had gotten a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu, but after 4 days of non-stop hiking, I only made it up the slightly smaller hill nearby to capture a photo of its incredible beauty.


Sun Temple, Room of Three Windows, Intihuatuana (used for observing astronomical events)


Machu Picchu in the clouds


Machu Picchu, me and our guide, view from nearby hill

By the way, if you’re looking for a company to hike the Inca Trail with I highly reccommend Evolution Treks Peru. They’ve got women porters, excellent guides, and treat their workers extremely well.


I ate a huge meal of Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food served with limes and ají) and promptly fell asleep at 8:00pm. When I woke up, my calves were a tingling mess of soreness, but I endeavored to get moving regardless. I wandered through some museums and markets, but my highlight was going to the family-run Cusco Planetarium. I learned all about the black llama that can be seen in the Milky Way. Its eye is one of the pointer stars to the Southern Cross. In addition, I found out that Incas most likely used the Pleiades to determine whether or not they were going to have an El Niño year. When they were bright and clear they would have a regular year, but when they were blurry and faded, they would have an El Niño year. This has do with the arrangements of winds, weather, cloud cover, and geography (scientific article in Nature).


Milky Way dark constellations (from display at Qori’kancha)

I also spent a day exploring some ruins near to Cusco known as Inkilltambo, the Garden Hostel. There were beautiful terraces for agriculture, a jail, and a place for storing grain. The Inca empire mastered agriculture in a very difficult and mountainous terrain. Even the Spanish recorded that no one was hungry in the Inca Empire. (This can probably be attributed to the m’ita system of forced labor, which has some elements of public service and some elements of straight-up oppression).


Inkilltambo: sacred rocks, grain storage, reconstructed housing


This offer is still valid. 🙂 If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States. I can’t guarantee it will be delivered, but I will send it. The first set of postcards has already departed Peru!

Week 9: Uyuni, La Paz, & Copacabana



I came to Bolivia specifically to see the Uyuni de Salar (salt flats of Uyuni). A geologist on my Antarctica trip recommended it to me and it’s been on my wish list ever since. When it rains, people take incredible photographs of the reflections, but since I was there on a very dry day, we took lots of fun optical illusion photos instead. Because there is nothing to help your eyes gauge distance (trees, houses), objects that are very far apart can be creatively arranged in such a way that they look like they are the same distance (albeit with different sizes)


In the middle of the salar, there are islands covered in slow-growing cacti and fossilized corals. The salt flats were once giant saltwater lakes that slowly dried out over many years because their link to water was closed. Remember these salt flats are at almost 12,000 ft in an area that gets little rain. The islands that stick up now would have been seamounts in the old lakes, covered in marine organisms. Over time, as the sea level dropped, these landmasses emerged out of the water and new life forms gradually colonized them.


view of the Salar de Uyuni from Isla Intahuasi

After the salt flats, we spent most of the next day looking at flamingos. I always thought these creatures lived in hot areas, but these species like the high altitude. My favorite were the Andean flamingos, which have wide red stripes and black tips on their wings that can only be seen when they fly.


flamingos, flamingos, and more flamingos (close ups are hard because they’re so skittish)

I was also excited to see a few more creatures I’d never seen before. The vicuña is a relative of llamas and alpacas (in the camelid family), but so far have escaped domestication. Because of this, their wool is the most expensive in the world. The Andean fox, like foxes everywhere it seems, is incredibly shy. This one was hovering near our lunch spot, just out of range, most likely waiting to enjoy some crumbs after we left. And last, but certainly not least, is the incredibly large rodent known as the viscacha that looks like a combination between a squirrel and a rabbit. It’s about the size of a jackrabbit, but in reality, is more closely related to the much smaller chinchilla.


vicuña, Andean fox, viscacha

Near the end of the trip we stopped at the Sol de Mañana, a geothermally active region near the border with Chile. It reminded me so much of Yellowstone National Park, full of steaming hot water, fumaroles, and a strong smell of sulfur.


Sol de Mañana

Mud pots are just collections of dirt and boiling hot water. I tried out my phone’s slow motion setting and found the way the bubbles burst to be mesmerizing so I thought I’d share.


I arrived on a night bus from Uyuni, not quite sure what to do with myself with hours to kill before I could check in at the hotel. I ate a huge breakfast and wrote tons of postcards before finally wandering over to the Iglesia de San Francisco, which included some great views from the roof. The tiles on the roof were made using people’s legs as molds which is why they are slightly different sizes and shapes.


view from the roof, the tiled roof, me in the tiny stairwell

My favorite part of La Paz was riding the cable cars everywhere. For less that 50¢, I saw incredible views. Because of the tremendous difference in elevation between different parts of the city, cable cars make more sense than subways or bus lines. The president Evo Morales finally pushed through this amazing public transportation system that goes all over the city.  (In case someone forgot that he was taking credit for this achievement, his face is plastered on every single cable car.) Another unique La Paz attraction is the clock that runs counterclockwise on the Bolivian Congressional Building. Apparently, this was installed to represent how sundials actually move in the southern hemisphere and symbolically celebrate that difference.


Mi Teleférico cable car, Bolivia’s “clock of the south”, street art


No, not *that* Copacabana. This one is on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In order to get there, the bus had to go on a separate ferry over the Straight of Tiquina. I climbed up a big hill to see an Incan stone doorway that lets light through on the summer solstice and although that was a bit disappointing, I did get a wonderful view of the city.


bus on a ferry, view of Copacabana from a nearby hill, Copacabana sunset

The next day, I rolled out of bed to catch an early ferry to the Isla del Sol, a small island located relatively close to the mainland. There is an ongoing feud between different communities on the island, so visitors can only go the southern part of the island. I hiked up to the top and decided it seemed like a beautiful place to read and enjoy the scenery.


view from Isla del Sol to the mainland, view of another part of the island from the same spot


Here’s a reward for making it to the bottom of this blog post. 🙂 If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States. I can’t guarantee it will be delivered, but I will send it.

Week 8: Sucre & Potosí



After my weekend getaway to vote (VOTE, PEOPLE!) and see some friends, I flew into Sucre in Bolivia. One of the highlights was stopping at the San Felipe de Neri which is a beautiful colonial convent and church. I helped a nun take a picture with a friend of hers and she then decided to show me the underground crypt where nuns had previously buried. We literally opened a door in the floor in one of the rooms to step down into the all white room.


view from the roof, patchwork tiles on the roof, me & the gorgeous view of the city


view from the rooftop

But really, my favorite place was the Parque Cretácico which contains a giant wall full of dinosaur footsteps.


the wall!

The footsteps were discovered when the cement factory was digging through rocks and finally decided the limestone they were digging wasn’t good enough. They stopped and a few years later, the clay and dirt on the outermost layer eroded to reveal the footsteps beneath.


dinosaur footsteps!

About 68 million years ago, this was a shallow lake bed and dinosaurs happened to walk through it. Luckily, enough sediments were deposited in a short enough time, that those footsteps became fossilized in the rock. This area is prone to a lot of volcanic action and plate tectonic movement and over time, this particular rock was tilted all the way up into the vertical position it is in today. There are four types of dinosaur footprints: theropods (like velociraptors), ankylosaurus, ornithopods (like duck-billed hadrosaurs), and sauropods (like brontosaurus). The sauropods in this case are most likely Argentinosaurus, which is a truly giant creature that is pretty awesome. You should probably take a moment and Google it now. In the photo below, see if you can identify the different footprints.


footprints, guide to the footprints, and my favorite strange angle photo of a sauropod replica


Onwards to one of the highest cities in the world at 4,067 m, which is known for its extremely dangerous and deadly silver mines. (Side note: Altitude headaches suck.) I arrived on a Sunday when hardly anything is open, but set off to explore anyways. I heard music playing, so I wandered in that direction until I found a dance competition about to begin and I, of course, stayed to witness the incredible talent.


The next day, I went on a tour of the infamous silver mines. During conquistador times, Incans were forced to work in the mines. When too many of them became sick or died because of the work, the Spanish important tens of thousands of African slaves. Guayasamín (the Ecuadorian painter I mentioned in an earlier blog post) has a painting called Potosí in the main dome in the atrium of his museum. It depicts the suffering of the miners after a collapse as they struggle to reach for the light. There are still deadly accidents, 5-10 people die every year, but at this high elevation there are little other options except to leave and find work in Santa Cruz.  Silicosis, a disease that damages the lungs when too much silica gets in, also shortens the life expectancy of miners.

My guide to the mines had worked in them for twelve years and although the pay of a miner is better (~1000 Bolivanos/week  = $145 US), the risk of dying is much higher. There are a bunch of cooperativas that own specific concessions (entry points) into the mine. Within the cooperative, people work with teams and their teams are paid based on the quality and quantity of rocks they dig. Although in the past, the main mineral of interest was silver, tin and zinc are now the main ores being mined.


cooperativa, carts used to haul rocks, one of the entrances with Cerro Rico towering above

Miners are superstitious and believe that El Tío, a satanic lord of the underworld, watches over the mines. Whenever miners enter, they stick a lit cigarette in his mouth, ask for protection, and then shower his head, hands, and penis in coca leaves and 96 proof alcohol. There is an El Tío statue at almost every entrance into the mines. The miners believe that his needs must be satiated or he will cause their downfall. Llamas are also ritually slaughtered and their blood is splashed on the wall (see black marks in photo below).

inside of the mine, me and El Tío, zinc oxide stalactites (not mined, just cool looking)

My last stop was the the old mint, which in colonial times, used the silver found in the mines to make coins and made Potosí one of the richest places in the world for awhile. Silver was removed from the mined rocks using the patio process, which involved creating a slurry of rock, salt, water, copper sulfate, and mercury. Eventually the mercury and silver would settle out of this solution and that alloy was taken to indigenous (and later African) slaves who melted it down. The heating process evaporated the mercury, leaving behind pure silver. Unfortunately, the toxic mercury fumes blinded the men and then killed them in about 3-4 months. (Between the mines and the mint, tens of thousands of slaves were killed in Potosí.) The silver was poured into molds and then those blocks of silver were brought to a series of three different sized rollers where they were fed through until they were the right thickness (like a pasta maker, only much hotter and requiring two people with tongs to hold above and below).


furnace scene, silver ingot molds, rollers for thinning the blocks of silver

The rollers were each attached to a giant wheel that was turned by a gearing system on the toothed ring. That ring was constantly rotated by four mules below which powered the rollers in the room above.  Apparently, the best job in the mint was whipping the mules to move faster, because every other job was much more dangerous or deadly.


up close of roller attached to wheels, wheels moved by toothed ring, ring moved by mules

At first, the money that was created was mostly silver and very malleable, but over time it was mixed with copper to create a harder, more resilient coin. If you look carefully at the last two coins, in the lower left there is an embossed mark that shows it was made in Potosí. It is a P, T, S, and I layered on top of each other. The guide told an elaborate story about how this eventually became the dollar sign ($), but I’m not so sure.


very old all silver coin, 8 reales (piece of 8) from Spanish empire era, first Bolivian coinage (with llamas!)

On one last note, supermarkets in Potosí take their holiday decorations very seriously. Happy Halloween!


Week 7: Trujillo & Lima



Traveling south from Ecuador, I took a couple of buses for some long travel (14 hour-ish) into Peru. The border between Ecuador and Peru is full of Venezuelan refugees sleeping and waiting to be let in. UNHCR has water and medical stations set up to help, but I’ve never seen a border crossing like it in my entire life. The economic meltdown has led to millions of Venezuelans leaving their country and flooding into neighboring regions. Read more about it in this BBC article. Although many Latin American countries have been very receptive, the flow of refugees hasn’t ceased, which is leading to backlogs and countries starting to close their borders and the situation I witnessed.


Trujillo is known for having some of the most amazing Pre-Columbian ruins in South America, which seemed like a great reason to stop. I set out on a daylong tour to explore and our first stops were to see building constructed by the Chimú empire around 1300 AD. They are called huacas, which translates to tombs, but seemed to be used more for ritual sacrifice and other religious purposes. Their empire used to span a huge part of present-day Trujillo right up to the ocean. Although the area is quite arid now, presumably back in the day it was more lush because sea otters and squirrels are found engraved in the walls.


sea otter engravings at La Huaca Arco Iris and squirrel engravings at La Huaca Esmeralda

The next stop was Hacienda Chan Chan, a sprawling structure in which some parts have been extensively rebuilt. Before these buildings were found, they were protected by the sand and mud that had accumulated around them. Being exposed to the weather has worn down many of the engravings and there is much work that has been done to try and protect what is currently open to the air.


pelican engraving, view of remodeled section of Hacienda Chan Chan, geometric pelican engraving

Next up was La Huaca de la Luna, and a trip back even further in time to learn about the Moche. This sight has one of the most extensive museums I’ve seen so far with elaborate explanations of cultural rituals. This place was built over many centuries, ending around 600 AD. Many ceramics and carved wall paintings have survived and so much more is known about these people, including their practice of ritual sacrifice and that those practices changed based on whether or not they were experiencing an El Niño. Just to emphasize, the Moche knew about El Niño over 1500 years ago.


engravings of spider crab, head deity Aiapaec the Decapitator, octopus legs


incredible painted engraved door


I had a 12 hour stopover in Lima and I really did see many things: catacombs under the Monastery of San Francisco, the coffin containing the bones of conquistador Francisco Pizarro (a.k.a. the murderer of the Incan emperor Atahualpa) inside the Cathedral, and an incredible art museum (I’m in love with the Peruvian graphic designer Elena Izcue who took her inspiration from Nazca pottery). However, perhaps because I was still sleepy or because photos weren’t allowed in some of these spots, I have no photos to share except for a protest I passed which I believe had something to do with the Fujimoris (the former president’s daughter had recently been arrested for money laundering). Nevertheless, I thought the imagery of this bird overlooking the police officers was both creative and symbolic.