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A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain

Yesterday was a high point of my trip in South America–not only because it was my birthday (27 years young!), but because we trekked up Vinicunca Mountain (otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain!). Rainbow Mountain is a recent discovery and opened in April 2015 to tourists who dared to make the trek. Starting at 14,000 feet, the trek takes you across 10 miles, ultimately ending at an elevation of approximately 17,000 atop vibrantly painted mountains rich in minerals and undisturbed by human touch.IMG_9405.JPG

 

Back in January, when Sarah and I started planning this trip, we discussed in detail what exactly to do on my birthday. Our first thought, naturally, was the majestic Machu Picchu, which is arguably Peru’s most famous attraction. However, the more we saw and read about the Rainbow Mountain, the more convinced we became that this was the ideal trek for June 13.

 

But was this the right plan? The more we talked to people along the way once we arrived in Peru, the more worried I became. One guy who had hiked it legitimately laughed when I told him we were hiking Rainbow Mountain on my birthday. The trail is known for being extremely tough given the altitude and steepness, and people sometimes fall ill along the way or have to get a horse to ride as they can no longer walk the trail. “I’m sure we will be fine!” I responded to his laughs. Still, my anxiety secretly grew! Were 3 city girls from NYC who relied on running, SoulCycle, and yoga for fitness ready for this trek!?

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Tres NYC chicas…ready for this trek!

 

Finally, the day arrived. Our alarms sounded at 1:45am, and our guide, Abel, picked us up at our hostel at 2:15am sharp. It was entertaining to watch people stumble back from the bars as our bus took us out of Cusco, knowing the arduous trek that was ahead of us in just a few hours. It took 3 hours to reach our “base camp” site, which was a hut with no electricity or running water with a herd of alpacas right beside. I tried to sleep on the ride, but it was too cold. Therefore, I had the pleasure of watching our bus make some extremely sharp turns along a narrow mountain pass. Once, the turn was so sharp our driver put it in reverse, and I honestly thought we were going to back off the cliff! I grabbed my friend Rachele’s hand and said a quick prayer…fortunately, we survived and continued on! We also got stuck on a bridge, but this was not life-threatening, so I wasn’t as worried.

 

At our base camp, we had breakfast of bread, fruit, and tea. Once the sun rose, we started on our trek, passing through a herd of alpaca and scaling our first steep hill. Our group consisted of Abel (our guide), Sarah, Rachele, and myself, as well as a really nice girl from Boston. Our Boston friend quickly realized on the first hill she needed a horse, so we trekked onward and let her and Abel catch up with us on the first mountain pass.

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The start of the trek…passing through a herd of alpacas!

 

Abel was an amazing guide! He looked out for us “chicas” and was dedicated to making sure we were the first group to reach Vinicunca that day, meaning we could enjoy the vista views undisturbed by other trekkers! With our Boston friend on the horse, we kept a steady pace, and reached the mountain over 2 hours ahead of schedule (which was ideal for our type-A group)!

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Sarah and I at the very top with Abel. He was the best guide, and anyone who wants to visit should special request him through FlashpackerConnect!

We also had another informal guide, a dog that we named Rainbow (she didn’t have a name already!). Rainbow lives at the base camp, and walked with us the entire way up the mountains! She also loved to play, although sometimes she was a little rough (I tried to discourage her by saying “no morder!” because…rabies. But she was so cute and sweet!) Rainbow was seriously one of the highlights of my day!

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Our second fearless guide…Rainbow!

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Rainbow on top of Vinicunca…all in a day’s work for her!! ❤

Once on top of the mountain, we took time to soak in the view.

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IMG_9406The altitude did not hit me until the trek downhill. We were well-stocked on natural supplements in the form of teas, pills, and candies to combat the altitude, but I think these items can only help so much. Somehow, the way down was much harder for me than the way up. Although I did encounter some shortness of breath on the trek up, I had a terrible headache and achy knees on the way down. Abel had some special liquid that he put on his hands for us to inhale that helped a bit. After what felt like forever, we were back at the base camp, where they prepared a huge lunch for us! Sadly, we were all feeling a little nauseated, so we didn’t eat a lot.

 

Then, Abel brought us all outside, where he brought out a special birthday cake our cook had made for me while we were trekking! It was a beautifully decorated chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter cake…3 of my favorite things! I was so impressed he made such a delicious and intricately decorated cake on such short notice in such a deserted area! I shared my cake with some of the local farmers who also help with the treks, and we had a wonderful birthday celebration! This was truly one of the most special birthdays of my life, and I am so grateful to Abel and the locals who live here for that! 🙂IMG_9425

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The creator of my beautiful cake!
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Sharing cake and having a very special birthday celebration with some of our local hosts!

Rainbow Mountain was tough, but rewarding. Although I was covered in dirt and exhausted by the end of our 9 hours, I felt cleansed and energized for what the future holds. I am so happy I was able to start my 27th year in such a special place with amazing people. Last year was one of the best years of my life, and I can’t wait to see what 27 holds. It is already off to an amazing start!

Hanoi: Ups (Temple of Literature) and Downs (Hanoi Hilton)

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Hmmmm… really?

I’ve finally arrived at my last stop in southeast Asia–Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. I can’t believe how quickly these 3 weeks have flown by, and how much I’ve seen and experienced. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, I was struck by how busy, narrow, and winding the streets are. Hanoi is only slightly smaller than Saigon (and NYC) at 7.5 million people. And as in Saigon, everyone seems to drive motorbikes and there are very few traffic signs.

 

One of the first things we did in Hanoi was visit a water puppet show. While a few weeks ago I didn’t think I would be interested in this, I am so glad I decided to go last minute…it was so cute! The play was conducted in Vietnamese, so I tried to follow along as best as possible. The traditional music was really nice too. The dragons breathing fire over the water and the story involving the war general and the turtle were my favorite parts.IMG_8448.JPG 

 

After getting a late start to the day this morning after a late night last night, a few of us went to the Temple of Literature. This was by far my favorite part of Hanoi! The temple was the first university in Vietnam and was built in the 11th century as a temple to Confucius. Students would travel from far away to take the entrance exam given once every 13 years (meaning if you failed, you had to wait 13 years to try again). Once admitted, students lived at the temple and studied the theories and philosophy of Confucius, as well as literature. Math, history, and sciences were added to the curriculum once the French arrived in Vietnam in the 19th century.

 

The temple features rows and rows of stone turtles with names engraved on tablets on their shells. These names represent the graduates of the university. If any graduate did something to shame his family, his name was removed from the tablet. Sadly, women were not allowed to attend the university. Apparently, one brave girl dressed like and pretended to be a guy for years, and graduated with honors. Only after accepting a position in the king’s court did she reveal her gender. The king was furious, but allowed her to keep the position. However, he still did not open the doors to women to study (women were allowed to attend in the 19th century).

 

Legend holds that it is good luck for scholars to visit the temple of Confucius and the statue of the turtle, which is a sacred animal in Vietnamese culture, before their exams. As I walked throughout the temple, I couldn’t help but think about my decision to go to law school and how the next 3 years of my life will be so completely different and challenging. I felt a lot of peace about my decision to go to graduate school, and I hope the good vibes I felt in the temple will carry me through 3 years worth of law school exams and the bar exam! Especialy after the visit here, I feel excited and ready for this next page in my life.

 

In the afternoon, I struck off by myself to enjoy some solo wandering around the city. I enjoyed sitting in a tiny child-size chair (which is the norm in Hanoi) and sipping tea, as well as walking around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. I also had some traditional Vietnamese coffee and green tea cake for lunch (so nutritious haha). Vietnam has amazing coffee, and it should be a destination for any coffee lover.

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Kiddie chairs on the sidewalks of Hanoi!
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Hoan Kiem Lake ❤

 

The most shocking part of my visit to Hanoi was the Hoa Lo prison. This prison was used to imprison Vietnamese rebels during the French war, but was also used by the Vietcong during the US war. This is the famous “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held captive after his plane was shot down over Hanoi, as well as many other US soldiers. I have very mixed feelings about my visit to this prison. A good portion of the exhibit focused on the sacrifices of the Vietnamese prisoners during their war of independence against the French. Many exhibits had lifelike statues of prisoners in the dark cells and rooms, and I found myself wishing I had not come here by myself! It was really creepy.

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“Hanoi Hilton”

Towards the end of the exhibit, the materials focused on the US war and the treatment of US war prisoners. According to the museum exhibit, American soldiers “deeply appreciated the humane treatment of the government of Vietnam.” The exhibit claimed “their privacy and personal time were also well respected.” I really had to bite my tongue. The torture that so many American soldiers endured in this prison was not mentioned a single time. It was tough to stomach reading such a one-sided representation of history. Even though most would agree the US made some terrible policy decisions in Vietnam, it seems unjust for the suffering of US soldiers who were willing to fight for their country (even if it was a flawed calling) to be so glossed over. 

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According to the exhibit, US POWs led a life of leisure in the jail.

It was extremely interesting to see John McCain’s flight suit and parachute from when he was captured near Hanoi in 1967. McCain was notoriously tortured at Hoa Lo by the Vietcong, and to this day cannot raise either arm above 80 degrees because of the torture he endured. However, I learned through outside research (not at Hoa Lo of course lol…) that he has spent part of his political career to work towards improving relations with Vietnam, which I find extremely admirable.

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John McCain’s flight suit and parachute on display in the same prison where he was tortured

 

Sadly, Hanoi is the only place on my trip thus far where someone has tried to rip me off. It’s happened twice so far–once in the bar where the bartender just did not bring me my drinks after I paid (he finally did after I insisted), and a second time with a rigged taxi meter (my friends and I paid about 4x what we should have because the meter was running so much faster than it should have been). Although all of my other experiences here have been positive, this of course leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, there are so many other things about Hanoi I loved, like the Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake (but not so much Hanoi Hilton!), that overall it’s been a very positive visit.

 

Tomorrow, I leave Hanoi for Lima, Peru, with layovers in Qatar and the US. It will be great to be in the US for a few hours!! To everyone who has made my time in Asia so special, I say khob khun ka, arkoun, and cam on…thank you in Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese 🙂  

Adventures in Saigon

My visit to Saigon was a whirlwind. With 10 million people, it is larger than NYC in population (8 million). The first thing I noticed in Saigon is it seems almost everyone drives a motorbike, and there are almost no traffic rules, which can make crossing the road a life-or-death experience! The motorbikes actually turned out to be a very important factor for me during my time here (more on this later).IMG_8058.JPG

The first thing we did in Saigon was eat at Pho 2000, which apparently is a place Bill Clinton ate at during his visit to the city a few years back! IMG_8042.JPGThen, I and a few trip friends checked out the War Remnants Museum, which documents the “American war.” I was definitely prepared to read about the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, but as an American it was still really hard to see and learn more about the atrocities committed during the U.S.-Vietnam War. In particular, I learned about how the use of Agent Orange is still affecting many Vietnamese today. It really struck me to see a picture of a girl my age who was born with several birth defects because of her parent’s exposure to the chemical weapons, yet who maintains a positive outlook on life. I had learned about this in high school, but not in this level of detail.IMG_8049.JPG

On the second day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and learned about the fighting tactics of the Vietcong during the war. I even crawled 50 meters through a tunnel…not for the claustrophobic! That afternoon, I got lunch at the Ben Thanh market and then met up with my good friends Chau and Will, who happened to be in Saigon from NYC! It was so great to see familiar faces from home in Vietnam. 🙂 We visited the Independence Palace, which was like the Vietnamese version of the White House during the war. Then, we went for a swim on their hotel rooftop. President Obama happened to be visiting Saigon that day, and we could see his motorcade and hear cheering of people lined up along the street from the rooftop. It was a very interesting experience to be this close to the U.S. President on the other side of the world!

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President Obama’s motorcade from the Sofitel Saigon rooftop…lots of people gathered and cheered when he passed by!

Then, I almost got stranded…

My traveling group planned to leave the hotel that evening at 6:30pm to catch an 8 hour night train to Nha Trang. I left Chau and Will’s hotel at 5:30, giving myself an hour to get back to the hotel and meet my group to leave the city. However, the traffic in Saigon (which is already insane) was even crazier than usual due to President Obama’s visit. After 15 minutes, I finally hailed an empty taxi that could take me to the hotel (as printed on a map on a business card from the hotel’s front desk I was carrying). My taxi driver spoke no English, and after sitting in traffic gridlock for 15 more minutes, I knew my chances of making it back to meet my group by 6:30 were growing slimmer. As we sat still in traffic, I kept noticing motorbikes weaving in and out and around traffic, and even over pedestrian sidewalks! I knew this was how I could get back in time. I paid the taxi driver, then hopped out to ask a random (but friendly-looking) Vietnamese lady if she could give me a ride on her motorbike to the hotel. I handed her the printed card, and she motioned for me to hop on. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the back of a random motorbike, in the rain, weaving in and out of crazy traffic with a woman who didn’t speak English, in a huge city where I was completely lost on the other side of the world.

Despite weaving around cars and over sidewalks, traffic was so congested that we had barely made progress in 20 minutes’ time. My phone now read 6:20…my group would be leaving Saigon soon. I realized I would have to find a hotel and book a train for tomorrow by myself if I did not make it to the train on time. We were moving along so slowly on the motorbike at this point. I recognized the road we were traveling on was the road that would take me back to Ben Thanh market. From there, I felt confident I could find my hotel. I thanked the lady, offered to pay her 50,000 dong (she refused), and hopped off the bike to start running down Le Thanh Ton Road. At this moment, my long distance running skills really came in handy!

After running about ¾ mile in the direction of the market (dodging motorbikes all the while), a kind Vietnamese man on a motorbike flagged me down and offered me a ride. I had a good intuition about him, so I handed him the card and off we went. About 5 minutes later, we were in front of my hotel. I thanked him profusely and also offered 50,000 dong (he also refused) and rushed in to find my group had already left. I frantically grabbed my items, caught a taxi, and took off for the train station, praying I would make it in time. Fortunately, traffic had cleared up and I made it on the train with a few minutes to spare.

I learned a few key lessons from this incident: 1- Never underestimate Saigon traffic. 2- Motorbikes are handy. 3- Despite our best planning, we sometimes find ourselves vulnerable. The humanity of helping someone else who is lost and desperate crosses all language and cultural barriers. I will forever be grateful for the woman and man who gave me rides on their motorbikes that evening. Without them, I could have been stranded by myself and had to pay a good bit more out-of-pocket to meet back with my group. I really feel like they were guardian angels to me!
I am taking away so many great memories and lessons from Saigon. I love the energy of this city, and as I find myself saying a lot these days I hope to return someday.

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Siem Reap: Temples and Countryside

After arriving in Siem Reap Monday night and settling into the hotel, our local guide had arranged for us to have dinner in the home of a local who runs a school for children in the town who cannot afford to go to school otherwise. After a delicious meal (amok and curry!), we were able to visit with several students who live nearby who wanted a chance to practice their English. I spoke with some high school students who had pretty developed English skills, and they told me knowing English is really important to get a good job here.

 

The next morning, we left at 4:30am to head to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. It was absolutely beautiful. Even though it was slightly overcast, the way the light reflected off the temple and changed the colors of the reflection in the water was still breathtaking. 

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Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century and was later converted to a Buddhist temple. It took 35 years to build! Our guide, Bunni, did a great job of explaining all of the history behind the architecture. Bunni also shared with me he was never able to attend college because of the Cambodian genocide (the genocide was targeted toward educated people), but his daughter is now in college. He was absolutely fantastic and great at taking pano shots on the iPhone!

My favorite part of Angkor Wat was climbing the very steep and narrow staircase to Bakan, or the highest level of the temple which represents heaven. To enter Angkor Wat, I had to cover my shoulders with a scarf. However, to enter Bakan I had to cover up even more with a tunic I bought for $3 on the side of the street, and remove my hat. Bunni said that to visit Bakan, you were only allowed to think positive thoughts and had to leave all negative thoughts behind. This was amazing experience! 

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This is me thinking only positive thoughts while visiting Bakan!

 

After watching the sunrise and touring Angkor Wat, we went on to the temples at Ta Prohm and Bayon. Ta Prohm and Bayon were also beautiful. Ta Prohm is the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed and the trees are growing over the temple. Bayon is the temple most famous for its stone faces. They were both also built in the 12th century and combine Hindu and Buddhist elements. 

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One of Bunni’s really cool pano shots at Ta Prohm!
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Ta Prohm
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Bayon
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Bayon

In the afternoon, I relaxed by the pool for a bit then joined in on a “quad bike” ride through the Siem Reap countryside. In the US, we call these four-wheelers. By a stroke of good fortune, it was raining, so we hit lots and lots of mud! I also made some small jumps and almost slid off the bike a few times…so much fun! This was definitely a full circle moment for me. In Alabama, this is called mud riding, and the world seemed a little smaller to me as I flew through the mud puddles around Siem Reap. 🙂 It was also very interesting to see the agriculture and some rural areas outside of the city.13221163_10207550233926478_6044351994766734191_o (1)

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Hailey and I were the fastest 2!!

 

Siem Reap has been charming and informative…next stop is Phnom Penh!

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