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What’s in New Jersey?

“What’s in New Jersey?”

That is almost always the immediate response when I tell people I’m headed to New Jersey. Once associated mainly with Atlantic City and its casinos and boardwalk, the mention of this northeastern state now provokes loud images and soundbites from “Jersey Shore”, the MTV reality TV show that followed several housemates spending their summer in the borough of Seaside Heights, which sits around the halfway mark on the coastal stretch known as the Jersey shore.

“I’m going to visit friends. They live by the water… the town has a really chilled and relaxed vibe,” I reply. 

“By the water…” The pondering begins. Silence follows. “You mean, the Jersey shore…???”

Sigh. No more needs to be said. Unbidden visions of JWoww and Snooki are suddenly bursting before our minds’ eye.  Locals are quick to counter that all that went down in Seaside, far south of Highlands and Monmouth Beach where I spend my time.

So… why a 3-week stay in New Jersey?

My friend, K, and her husband, S.

I met K almost 7 years ago in Tibet. She was traveling around Asia; I was taking a circuitous route back to Toronto from Auckland, my ‘home away from home’ for (almost) two glorious years. We met on a G Adventures tour (GAP Adventures at the time) that started in Beijing, took us on a 48-hour train journey to Lhasa, continued overland via jeeps through several smaller towns in Tibet, before ending the trip in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Point-and-Shoot Photos from Tibet, 2007

Lhasa – Circling the Potala Palace

Lhasa – Spotting the Moon

On the Road To Gyantse

On the Road To Gyantse

Desert Road, To Gyantse

Prayer Flags at Everest

Prayer Flags at Everest

Although we tried to keep in touch during the first few years after returning to our respective homes, life got in the way as it often does and contact became sparse and then more or less trailed off. In 2012, I had some time off and decided that it was about time to reconnect.

By this time, K and S had moved in together. While K was thrilled that we would be meeting up again, S was a little more wary. He’d never heard mention of me and the details of our friendship hardly allayed his concerns: we met halfway across the world 5 years before and the sum total of our interaction since was a few emails. And now I was coming to stay with them? To say he was concerned about his physical safety is not an exaggeration… he’s from Queens, NYC.

His reaction was understandable. Friendships are normally developed over months and years, not a week to 10 days. But there’s an intensity to travel and to the bonds that are formed during it: you begin to rely on one another, to look out for each other and to admit truths that you might be loathe to express to those who you see day in and day out. Your ‘travel friends’ are getting to know the you that’s coming into being, the one that changes and grows because of the travel, at the same time that you yourself are. And the longer you’ve been roaming, the more you look for those true connections, what with all your old and familiar friendships feeling so very far away.

Fast forward to today and I’ve met the families of both K and S, stayed in relatives’ homes near and far and had the privilege of attending their wedding.

When they think of me, they now also think of food.  Generally meat. Often on a spit. Did I mention I was invited to their Greek Easter celebration last year?

Greek Easter 2013

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Homemade Dessert

Homemade Dessert

Food, Food and More Food

Food, Food and More Food

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb Close-Up

Lamb Close-Up

So it all seemed very natural that my stay ended up being dominated by food. Poor K now had to put up with two large appetites, her husband’s and mine! She would wake up thinking: What are we going to eat today?

Ingredients

Ingredients

I watched as K’s practiced hands made pita after pita after pita for one of the 4 or 5 savoury veggie pies (her own variation of spanakopita) we consumed during my stay. She’d layer the bottom of a cast iron pan with one pita before adding the filling (a combination of various veggies she’d grown in her garden, onion, garlic scapes and feta cooked down in a pot) then covering it with another layer of pita, folding over the edges of the bottom layer to seal everything in, then adding a generous topping of extra virgin olive oil. I very quickly understood why they purchased their olive oil in one gallon cans: it is used in a huge amount of Greek dishes from sauces, to appetizers, marinades and mains.

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

K's Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

K’s Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

One Gallon of Olive Oil... Disappears in No Time Flat

One Gallon of Olive Oil… Disappears in No Time Flat

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

 I learned how to make proper tzatiki, draining the cucumbers of excess water with a sieve and salt. Unsurprisingly, the larger the container of greek yogurt the happier everyone is. The tzatiki is topped off with a few whirls of extra virgin olive oil.

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

K showed me how to cut up the tomatoes properly for the Greek salad: take a small knife and make a scooping motion to carve out a section that includes a good chunk of the “meat”. If you do it well, you should be left with just the top of the tomato in your hand. I, however, did not do it well and was left with, instead, a tomato that looked like it had been cored. I hid my tomatoes under hers.

Finished Product: Greek Salad

Finished Product: Greek Salad

And, ah yes, last but not least, the meat! The marinade is a basic combination of oregano, salt, pepper, lemon juice and, of course, extra virgin olive oil, but man, is it ever A-MAZING! Grilled on a bbq or skewered on a spit and roasted, the combination of the sour bite of the lemon juice and the slight bitterness of the oregano with the salt and flavour of the meat (usually pork, but chicken occasionally) was drool-inducing.

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

My three weeks in New Jersey were food-filled, rather than activity-filled. I wanted the opportunity to hang out with K and S, something we’d never really had an opportunity to do given how we met. I wanted the chance to get to know them in their space, doing nothing special, the way you do with friends who live in the same city and the goal is just to spend time together.

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The Inca Trail… Part II

Checking an item off your bucket list sounds exciting, right? Fulfilling, dreams coming true, etc., etc. And it can be all those things, but I think it also creates a little… anxiety. What if it doesn’t live up to the expectations you’ve held in your head for so long? What happens AFTER you check it off the list?
A View of the Terraces at Machu Picchu
Friends who’d walked the Inca Trail provided varying reactions and regardless of what you read here – good and bad – I very much believe that it’s a trip worth making: different people will get different things from it.
And in that vein, I’ve been wrangling with exactly what I should write here about the trip. In the end, the initial question in the first part of this post : How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years? 
I could describe it to you in literal detail, the schedule, the terrain, give you stats about distance covered and height above sea level, but you can get all that from a thousand other sites and blogs (If you really want to know about these details, though, please feel free to get in touch). Instead, I’m opting to share with you some of my personal story – the sensations, challenges, thoughts and conclusions that formed over the days and hours of the journey. 

One of the Ruins Along the Inca Trail
Completion

If it’s physically possible (and safe), complete the trail. Our guide was quite excited that none of our group quit. You should’ve seen our reactions – part disbelief, part hilarity: we had no idea that was even an option! Apparently, it’s not uncommon at all and one girl in our group told me that her friend’s group had two individuals quit after the first hour of the trail! Hmmm… perhaps a very wise and strategically well-timed decision on our guide’s part not to impart this knowledge to us until after we’d finished.

Believe me, it’s not easy. I was not prepared for how much the altitude would affect my breathing. I’d been at higher altitudes before – base camp at Mount Everest – and hadn’t experienced any significant symptoms other than a little shortness of breath. In Peru, leading up to the beginning of the trek, I’d also not had any other symptoms, not even shortness of breath – no headaches, nausea, dizziness or loss of appetite. So, it completely caught me by surprise when very quickly after we’d started the walk, I found myself already needing to take a break to catch my breath. For me, this was the most physically difficult part of the trek: as the days and kilometres continued on, and particularly on the ascents, frequent stops were needed for me to get air into my lungs, sometimes as often as once every 10 or 15 paces. Some people advised me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to slow my heartbeat down, but the thing was, my heartbeat was fine. I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen in.

Pausing for a Look: The Valley Below
Psychologically, though, it never entered my thoughts to quit or to stop. I was always going to complete the trail. That was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Difficulty breathing just meant going much slower. In all honesty, this was the bigger mental challenge: I finished last for every section, every day and letting go of my embarrassment over this fact was far tougher. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s not a race, after all. But for me, it signalled a weakness – I am not used to finishing last (in fact, I work very hard not to finish last in all aspects of my life – yes, I am a Chinese-Canadian ambitious, perfectionist female… can you believe we exist? Ha!) and though I wasn’t at the peak of my fitness level, surely it was better than this… wasn’t it? Eventually, the embarrassment subsided – it’s amazing how the little things stop troubling you when something like breathing becomes a struggle – but in actuality, fitness level and susceptibility to altitude aren’t correlated. Some people just adjust better to the decrease in oxygen. I am not one of those people. 
Take it Slow

So, take it slow.
Altitude: A slower, steadier pace will make it easier on you and your lungs. Also a slower ascent overall helps your body acclimatize.
Attitude: It really isn’t a race; take the time to look around (which, coincidentally, is a very rewarding thing to do while catching your breath) and enjoy where you are and what’s around you. The ruins are amazing, in the truest sense of the word, but so are the natural aspects. 
Day 3: The ‘Easiest’ Day of the Trail Brought us a Rainbow to Enjoy

At numerous points, the four of us at the tail end of the pack would pause, thus allowing us to take in our surroundings. We looked backwards, observing our trail snaking back down the mountain and realized just how far we’d come. At other times, we would look up and ahead, suddenly aware of just how close we were to the top of the mountains. I couldn’t take my eyes of the peaks. 
I’m a sucker for mountains, valleys, dramatic skies, cloud formations… really anything and any moment that reveals to us, yet again, the beauty that Mother Nature has bestowed upon us. It’s an addiction – I fall silent in awe, so grateful that I get to see it in person and I only end up wanting to see more. Enjoy it, take it in because no matter how well you’ve captured it in a photograph, there’s nothing like being there to smell the moss, hear the waterfall, see the shades of green and feel the texture and edges of the rocks and stones. 

If Only….

As the attempted (and ultimately successful) conquest by Spain of the Incan Empire wore on, the Incas living at Machu Picchu were instructed to take their belongings and abandon the site and to make their way to Vilcabamba, the last capital of the empire and the last refuge of its people.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, though, and you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if those who lived there had never left. Would some of the Incans have survived? Would there be individuals today with 100% Incan blood and ancestry? Would there be fewer legends and more facts?

Mountain View from Machu Picchu
Achievement
The Incan Empire was, in a word, impressive. 
Geographically, it stretched through 6 countries of western South America: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Despite the numerous nations that were enfolded (by force or otherwise) into the empire, there was one language and one religion. At its core were the Andes mountains and a 14,000 mile long network of trails/roads was constructed in and amongst the range to link all its inhabitants together, thereby allowing for efficient communication and travel. Much of this network still exists today and is in relatively good condition, some of which we traveled on during our 3.5 days on the trail. 
The Incans were also well known for their architectural achievements, their legacy evident in the structures that still stand today. The blocks that were used to construct buildings were finely cut into precise shapes and angles, perfectly fitted and held to one another without mortar, so close to each other that a knife cannot be passed in between. Their construction methods also essentially made buildings “earthquake proof”, with small occurrences having no effect, while larger events caused the stones to jiggle, for lack of a better word, and then fall back into place once the earthquake ended. 
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of its existence endures, that we can still touch, walk on and see the work produced by this remarkable people, in spite of the long span of time that has passed since their disappearance, which we find simultaneously so sad and yet so alluring, that lead thousands to visit Machu Picchu a day. 
Machu Picchu, Another Look
After
For me, walking the Inca Trail was an achievement. Knowing what’s involved – the sleepless nights, the physical challenges, three days without showering, less than ideal bathroom conditions (by the way, there are way worse) – I would happily do it all again and then some. 
The memories of that trail will stay with me: the ‘gringo killer’ sections where you forbid yourself from assessing the degree of steepness and how easily your momentum could carry you forward into a tumble; the closeness of the rainforest, the weight of the humidity bearing down on your sweat and your shoulders while its thickness made you feel like you were trying to breathe in something solid; the rare quiet moment where it was only me and the sound of the birds and a distant waterfall; the realization that you had so much farther to go and the immediate impulse to just continue putting one foot in front of the other; the consummate satisfaction and happiness of arriving at Machu Picchu, the ‘end goal’; the admiration for the scale of the site and learning that it was not even the biggest Incan settlement. 
Machu Picchu did not disappoint: its magnitude and its endurance, an embodiment of the lost empire. 
The Inca Trail was not what I expected. In fact, I’m not sure that in all my imaginings of this trip, I ever gave due consideration to the trail itself, but rather only thought of the ‘end goal’. In this sense, the trail was much more than I expected, a true experience, one that taught me lessons and challenged me. 
So what happens now? 
Well, I suppose I should find another experience to add to the bucket list. 
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