Archive for the 'travel' Category

Peru – Inka Trail & Machu Picchu

An online search on Inka trail will bring up many detailed descriptions of the route. So I decided not to record my chronicle experience here. My main takeaways (plus some physical achievements):

a) I did not smell too bad after four days’ of no shower.
b) The trail can be finished in three days instead of the standard four days. Although it was the second time our tour guide had done so, out of more than 160 trips he made.
c) Hiking at altitude above 4,000m was possible, but made one feel like a 90 year old.
d) Waking up at 3:30am and started hiking before dawn was no longer an issue.
e) If I could carry only two things on the trail, they would be water and a good camera.
f) Mountains are majestic.

2010 Travel – Peru Inka Trail
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Peru – Lima

A city where I lived for 18 days.

2010 Travel – Peru Lima

Peru – Cusco

I am in love with this city.  Cobbled alleys, colorful doors, blue sky, street foods, people are out having fun, traditional outfits, chic restaurant full of arts, strangers watching soccer together in the hostal, smiles on people’s faces…

Yes, there are thefts and granny asking for money just because she walked into my picture frame.

Life is never perfect, and this is almost a perfect “tourist” city for me.

2010 Travel – Peru Cusco

Peru – Day 22

How does it feel sinking to the bottom and staying there, with no desire to get out?

In the past two days I did just that. I had given up and stopped calling for the update on the visa. There was a huge fire of anger inside me. However, since the anger could not be targeted at one person or one thing, the fire was consumed by the equal amount of frustration. This internal combustion left me numb.

Knowing that I might be stuck for longer, I decided to pick up the new ATM card from the bank. With my previous experience of dealing with banks here, I called the US bank first and obtained the exact delivery address. When I got there, I was told by a very nice lady that the true delivery location was 3km away. She shook her head and said, “We really don’t know why US always gave the wrong address.” “Hell,” I thought to myself, “Has anyone told US that they’ve got it wrong all this time?!” I then spent 15 minutes to show her how to print out a Google map.

With the printout in my hand, I set out on foot to the other location. My confidence of maneuvering the city had been steadily growing ever since the first successful trip to Miraflores using the public transportation.

Unfortunately the heavy pollution from the cars, especially the old cars, discounted the excitement of exploration. One can easily tell these cars already lived their lives in other countries. Some of them still have Chinese logo printed on the bodies.

Forty minutes later, after passing some rich looking neighborhoods, I arrived at the bank location on the sixth floor of a shopping mall. An office lady came out, took my passport, emerged a minute later and said, “No, your card is not here.”

“UPS record showed it was delivered on July 5, two days ago.”

“No, we don´t have it. It is not here.”

“I can show you the UPS record.”

“No, we don´t have it. Maybe it was delivered to another branch.”

“Which branch? I came from the Principle branch and they told me all deliveries from US came here.”

“No, we don´t have it.”

“Can you call the other branch to find out whether they have it?”

I was not ready to let the issue go. If I learnt anything from getting through various systems in Lima – one got to drill until they gave you a real answer.

Just when she was about to repeat herself one more time, somebody called her from the back office. She went in. Half a minute later she came out with a UPS envelop.

“Sorry. It’s here. Your name is different.” She looked more annoyed than apologetic. (Totally reminded me of the TACA counter person who pulled me off the plane.)

“Thank you.” I took the envelop and thought to myself, “How many ATM replacement cards you got from US for clients with distinct Chinese names?!”

Did I say bureaucracy was huge here? It was also everywhere. When every single person failed to do their job well enough, deficiency built up in the whole system.

With the new card safely in my bag, I took a bus with “generally right direction” and walked from the stop to the market. I sat down at a food stand with items I had not seen elsewhere. It took a long time to order. Customers and passengers all contributed a little English to getting an order for me. Cured meat and sausage, deep fried, with deep fried plantains, roughly smashed and pressed into a cone. Tasty, but heavy like hell. I knew nothing about this kind of food until a lady sat down next to me and ordered the same thing. In broken English, she told me that she had been living in SF for two years and she was in Lima on vocation. “Do you like jungle food?” she asked. “Jungle food? Oh, this is jungle food! Do you like it?” “Yes, I was born in the jungle area.” “Good!” I was getting one step closer to sampling all types of Peruvian cuisine.

I got back to the hostel half past two. The minor success of the morning encouraged me to make another round of calls to the Embassy. The soft-spoken Agent 15 was understanding as always, but had no information. While I was on the phone, a call came in through the hotel line.

“Hi, this is US Embassy. Your visa is ready. You can come to pick it up.”

I could not believe this was real, and insisted on hearing the confirmation one more time from a person who can converse better in English. Then, dropped everything and rushed out.

It might not make sense to take a bus to the Embassy considering the extra time it would take. But I did it anyway. Felt almost like a reverence, to some extent, with no clear explanation…

In all buses and minibuses here in Lima, there was one person traveling with the driver. His or her job was to stick their heads out of window, wave the cardboard with hand-written destinations, jump on and off to catch the attention of the waiting crowd, open the door, help people getting on and off, and sell the tickets. They also did a good job of “guessing” where I was going, without speaking any English themselves. In today’s case, the guy passed me onto another bus, which dropped me off right in front of the consulate. The whole trip, although doubled the time of what would take a taxi, was 1/10 of the cost.

On the way back, the “bus shouter” (as I would call them ;-)) was kindly enough to negotiate the route for me with the driver. Right before I got off, he gave me a ticket, written on it were a phone number and the name “Alex”. For a second I was confused, then I chuckled, and laughed all the way back to the hotel. After two weeks´ living in Peru, well camouflaged in dusty hiking outfit, I now looked local enough for a bus guy  to give me his number :-).

Money cannot buy memories, but money can help to pay for it.

The flight back was booked for Friday.

I still have one more day and one more thing to try – Ceviche.

Peru – Day 20

Yes, I am still here. Peru is becoming the second country where I live the longest outside home. It’s getting too comfortable living in a hotel, working with Spanish keyboard, and getting around by using only hand gestures ;-).

As a data person, it is ironic that my return now depends on a single data entry in the US Consular database. This is how the lawyer explained it.

Once a H1B petition is approved by USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), a copy will be sent to the Kentucky Consular Center. The Center will input the approved petition to a system called PIMS (Petition Information Management Service), through which the Consular posts around the world access the details of approved nonimmigrant visa. Although my most recent H1B petition was approved in Feb, 2010, somehow the Kentucky Center never updated the record. Without my petition record in PIMS, US consular in Peru could not issue the visa.

This situation begs a few questions.

a) Is USCIS database not connected to PIMS? If every approval record exists in USCIS, why is a separate database needed?

b) If the Peru Consular contacts USCIS, within a minute they will be able to confirm my petition. Instead, the “written” and therefore “right” process ask them to keep on hitting a button and check whether the record shows up in the PIMS.

c) What is the work efficiency in Kentucky Center? Anyone who has been waiting for green card for years can well imagine the efficiency of US immigration services. Backlogs are not news. However, once a missing record is identified, how long will it take for someone in the Kentucky Center to put it in the database?

Once a living person becomes a record and a record gets into systems after systems, be prepared for many people’s lives wasted in the “processes” and “procedures”.

I would never have imagined that I’ll be spending the July 4th in Lima.

On the brighter side, I made some breakthrough over the weekend. First time getting around by local public transportation on my own. Visited the most chic neighborhood (Miraflores) in town. Enjoyed the ocean view. Today I walked into a Chifa restaurant for the first time, after avoiding Chinese food for the past 20 days. The Chinese couple who opened the place six years ago were delighted to see me. The wife asked me to drop by for a chat any time and did not even want to take my money. What did I have for lunch? Stir fried rice with noodle with bean sprouts with chicken, accompanied by the Inca Cola.

Yes, I can survive in almost everywhere. So are Chinese restaurants :-).

Peru – why was I really there

Most people who know me would consider me a city person. What most people don’t know is that I grew up in a small town surrounded by villages. My daily walk to school passed through farm lands. My little friends and I did not have manufactured toys to play with. We invented our own way of amusement. And nature was a big toy house we all played in.

Having lived for years in a highly organized society, a consistent-temperature office, on wheels,  I felt the urge to reconnect with the raw world. Tibet and Machu Picchu hold the promises of mysterious culture, nature wonder, and unfamiliar environment that can break up the routine.

The physical challenge also played a part in my choice of the destinations. For Tibet, it was the high altitude. For Machu Picchu, it was the Inca Trail. The body would be pushed to where it had never been. Surviving that challenge would be the icing on the cake.

After Tibet I knew what to expect at the high altitude – short of breath, fatigue, funny stomach, headache, insomnia. This time the lack of sleep started when I took a 1:30am, 10-hour flight from SFO to Lima; and had to be in the Lima airport at 5am the next day to catch the flight to Cusco. Ever after my arrival until the end of my trip, I had not be able to catch more than five hours sleep each night.

But who needs sleep when there was all that excitement being in a totally different world?

– Cusco

Peru – Day 15

For a life time in Peru, I can live three times in US. This is how fast things move here.

Lima is not an ancient city where one would naturally expect a slow pace. Although I have not figured out the exact reason for its love of bureaucracy, I had sensed it even before arriving (in the Peru Consulate). There are no lack of forms, reports, processes, procedures, talking to my supervisors…

It took me over two hours to withdraw emergency cash from the Citibank principle branch today. This process included a 66-minute phone call among the branch manager (who spoke no English), a bank teller (who spoke good English), a US CS representative and her supervisor, and me. During the call, my information was repeated multiple times and the same form was filled out three times by different people. When all was said and done, the teller went to her counter, took out a huge deck of cash, counted the money and gave them directly to me. The final one-minute transaction felt almost too causal compared to what was done in the previous 119 minutes.

But, I could not get mad at anyone. Everyone was nice and really tried to help. What frustrated me was the system they operated in.

It also took me an hour to get through to the right person in the Embassy on the phone. Again, people were trying to help, but there was little they could do. The  bureaucracy, made up by so many little people and the very specific instructions they were given to, was a vast jungle where no one person can navigate or see through. I am now jumping up and down in this jungle, trying to get some attention.

What is fast here? Food service.