2.5 Weeks in Peru (and Inca Trail Hike): Planning Guide

Ok, it’s been a while.

My honest intention was to write a series of blog posts documenting my travels (Brazil, Argentina, India, and Peru), but life got the best of me and I never followed through. The last 12 months have been wild, but more on that later.

I recently took a trip to Peru after quitting my job. A good ex-coworker moved to Peru a few months ago after he quit the same company, so I guess it was on my mind. Apparently Peru is trending (#sohotrightnow) since a lot of people have been asking me for recommendations and itinerary tips for their upcoming trips. So I decided it would be best to document my planning and itinerary in a blogpost (similar to the Brazil one I did) to maximize reach and efficiency, because, that’s what I do.

I was in Peru for 2.5 weeks. March is Peru is considered “off season” due to the rain, but the most amount of rain I experienced was 1-2 hours a day. Most of the rain happened at night. I always enjoy traveling off season, because 1) things are cheaper 2) you get more done in a day because there are way fewer tourists trying to do the same tourist shit you’re trying to do and 3) locals are more patient. Thank goodness it was off season, I was able to get my Inca Trail permit 2 weeks before the trip (people usually secure the permit 6 months in advance, since there is a limited number of daily permitted hikers). I later learned that they only admit about 200 tourists per day on the Inca Trail (~300 are reserved for guides, porters, and cooks, etc.). So first things first — if you want to go on the Inca Trail hike, get your permit ASAP. Of course, don’t forget to do the same for Machu Picchu.

I wanted to see a few different cities, but I was pressed for time. I actually really wanted to go to Bolivia to go to Salar de Uyuni, but there wasn’t an easy way to get there from Peru. My only options were 1) take a long ass bus ride or 2) take a long, expensive multi-stop flight (Lima -> Cuzco -> La Paz -> Uyuni). Nope, it wasn’t going to happen. I was sad but then I realized how much there is to see in Peru and I calmed down. I was looking up multiple bus options for traveling in South Peru — seemed somewhat complicated and inconvenient, but then I found Peru Hop. It’s a hop-on, hop-off bus that travels to popular cities. It saved my trip. Here are the things I liked about Peru Hop:

  • Flexibility: You choose how long you want to stay in a given city. There’s no “set itinerary,” although the one they recommended ended up working out perfectly with my tight timeline (I had to be in Cuzco by a certain date for the Inca Trail trip). You just need to email them the day before you want to get picked up. You specify where you are staying, they come to your door, drop you off at any location of your choosing along the route.
  • Convenience: I booked most of my hostels myself, only because I am a type-A freak and I have to know where I’m going to sleep in advance, review the reviews on Hostelworld, and secure my bed. Most people on Peru Hop just booked the hostels through Peru Hop, got special deals, and were happy. Peru Hop gives you options (party hostel vs. quiet) and their recommendations often matched what my personal research found. They also booked all tours for me — it wasn’t much more expensive than what I would’ve paid through another agency / hostel, and it was so convenient.
  • Safety: For audacious folks traveling alone, especially women, this is an easy way to relieve some stress around safety. You’re on the bus with a bunch of gringos, people who speak English, who are all broke / traveling. No worries here. Your stuff is safe (still keep your passport and wallet close to you!), especially relative to those overnight local buses.
  • People: As I mentioned in the previous bullet point, you get to meet other travelers. So much of your travel experience is defined by who you spend time with, so being able to make friends so easily and travel the same route with a somewhat constant group of folks was awesome.

So yea, do it.

As for my itinerary, I got a lot of help from Peru Hop. I basically did the full South of Peru trip. Here is my detailed itinerary (I told ya I’m psycho type A).

Peru Trip Itinerary

The itinerary will take you to a desert, beach, canyon, farms, mountains.. you name it. It was truly a beautiful, nature-oriented trip. Every city was very distinct and I enjoyed that aspect very much.

Here’s a short list of the “must-do’s” in each city:

Super Efficient Must-Do List

Lima

  • EAT GOOD FOOD — explore this culinary mecca by trying these must-eats: Anticuchos (tender, grilled beef heart skewers to die for — don’t bother going anywhere else but here), ceviche (Punto Azul is great), lomo saltado, and picarones (deep fried dessert with molasses syrup, death by foodgasm. Tio Mario‘s was great). I also went to Latin America’s #1 restaurant, Central, for a 11 course meal. Honestly, though, you don’t need to spend a lot of $$$ to find great food in Lima!
  • Walk around Miraflores, Downtown, and Barranco (be careful if you are outside of Miraflores at night)
  • Drink pisco sours
  • If you have time: Walk along the water (not actually on the beach, but above, since there’s not really a good walkway along the sand) and check out the beautiful mall Larcomar
  • One random tip — Peruvian cabs don’t have meters. Negotiate the price before getting in.

Paracas

  • National Reserve Park was stunning. So weird to see the desert / cliffs meet the ocean. Beautiful scenery
  • The standard route will take you to Islas Ballestas, aka “poorman’s galapagos.” I wasn’t all that impressed with the animals (mostly sea lions, which I see a lot of in the Bay Area) but maybe it’s your thing

Huacachina

  • Dune buggy ride and sandboarding — ask for the “psycho” driver (there is one popular dude). Not all drivers are crazy. You want your driver to be crazy. Trust
  • Chill by the pool
  • Tip: stay at Banana’s Adventure. It’s the best one (skip the one PeruHop recommends for this town)

Arequipa

  • Check out the main plaza. It’s especially beautiful at night
  • Go on the Colca Canyon tour! Don’t skip this!
  • Drink coca tea, eat coca-flavored candy, toffees, chocolate, you name it

Puno / Lake Titikaka — SKIP IF SHORT ON TIME

  • Boat tour to the floating islands where the natives live
  • Suffer from altitude sickness. Just kidding

Cusco

  • Bake in an extra day to adjust to the altitude, especially if you are coming from a lower-altitude city — you won’t be able to do anything if you get altitude-sick!
  • Sign up and go on the 4-day long Inca Trail hike, duh
  • Mercado San Pedro — easy to miss gem. Amazing market with fresh produce (try all the fruits you’ve never had before!), best prices on gifts / souvenirs, and AWESOME food stalls for the best and cheapest eats (get seco de res and chicken soup)
  • Eat lots of cake. For some reason, there are a lot of great cafes with delicious cakes. Do it. You’re on vacay
  • Climb random hills — you can climb up to where Jesus Blanco (oh, the puns) is to see a great view of the city
  • Don’t pay more than 4 soles to travel by cab within Cusco (7 max for off-hours)
  • If you really want to… you can try Alpaca or Cuy (guinea pig). Not all that great IMO

If you’re short on time, I’d recommend cutting out Puno / Lake Titikaka. While the lake is beautiful, and I can now say “I’ve been to the highest lake in the world,” I suffered from debilitating altitude sickness and the lake activities felt very touristy. You’ve been warned.

I wish I had more time to spend in Arequipa — I really didn’t have any time to explore the city because of my Colca Canyon tour. Other than Arequipa, I felt I had the right amount of time in each city.

About the 4-Day Long Inca Trail Hike

Inca Trail

I highly recommend the Inca Trails hike. I did the 4-day long classic Inca Trails with a tour company called Llama Path. I paid extra to climb Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, which is a mountain by Machu Picchu where you’ll get an amazing view — highly recommend. You are required to do the hike with a guide. When I was choosing the company, I paid particular attention to the companies’ stance on porter well being and social / environmental consciousness. You can find much cheaper tour companies, but you will quickly realize where they are cutting the cost from. Because you will spend so much time interacting and watching how the porters are treated, you will be reminded of your spending choice. I felt good knowing that I chose a company that compensated the porters fairly and treated them with respect — had I consciously made the decision to save cost and go with a less socially responsible tour company, I would’ve felt guilty and shitty the entire time. With a little bit of research, you can quickly find out which companies are ethical and which are not. The $$ simply won’t add up.

Most of the tour companies will provide options for you to hire a porter to carry extra weight so you can travel lighter — I highly recommend folks at least select the “half porter” option, which is what I did. For an out-of-shape gal like me, walking for 4 days in the mountains was a challenge enough, and not having to carry extra clothes, toiletries, sleeping bag, and mattress was worth every penny. Most tours also include all food — what they don’t make clear is that you will get a professional chef who will cook up a storm every single meal, providing you with a 3-4 course fine dining experience. I was shocked by the quality of the food — I honestly felt they were the best meals I had in Peru (one night, the chef flambeed bananas by the table side, inside the tent. WHAT!?). Every morning, I woke up to gentle knocks on the tent followed by a warm cup of coca tea, and was given a cute little snack pack every day. Other than the fact that I couldn’t shower for 4 days, I was quite comfortable at the camp site thanks to the Llama Path team.

A lot of people have also been asking me what I packed for my Inca Trail trip. Good question. Here is my full packing list!

Packing List for 4-Day Long Inca Trail Hikers

Clothes — I highly recommend you buy compressable plastic bags like this to save room
* In general, pack light weight dry-fit workout clothes. You will sweat. Layering is key for the changing weather condition. Pack light. You will be gross, but so will everyone else. You won’t have clean clothes every day, but I promise you you’ll regret bringing more than what you absolutely need.

  • Hiking shoes (SUPER IMPORTANT, obviously. Break your shoes in before the trip)
  • Sports bras x2
  • Underwear x4
  • Hiking socks x6 (pack extra pairs for when your feet get wet from the rain, puddles, etc.)
  • Dry-fit sleeveless shirts for layering x2
  • Dry-fit long sleeve shirts for layering x2
  • Dry-fit long pants or leggings x 2 (I wore my workout leggings and was fine — shorts are recommended if you get hot easily and are going in the summer)
  • Packable waterproof pants to wear over your leggings — something like this
  • Packable puffy down jacket for night time / cold weather
  • Lightweight waterproof rain jacket with a hood
  • Baseball cap (I forgot this and I regretted it)
  • Pajamas (I wore a warmer pair leggings and a cotton shirt for sleeping)
  • Gloves
  • Optional: alpaca socks to sleep in at night 🙂
  • Optional: bathing suit, if you are planning on going to Aguas Calientes

Toiletries — bring only what you need in small containers to reduce weight.

  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Makeup remover cloths (life saver for when you want to quickly freshen up)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Light weight, small, quick-dry towel
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes for day-time use
  • Body / baby wipes (in lieu of showering) — I brought “Shower Pill” packs and was very happy with them
  • Deodorant
  • Lipbalm / chapstick — you’ll thank me later
  • Panty liners — ladies, you will also thank me for this
  • Optional: make up
  • Optional: dry shampoo
  • Optional: face wash / cleanser
  • Optional: emergen-C or other vitamins to keep you going and healthy!
  • Optional: tampons (I didn’t need them, but I was told high altitude can make you menstruate off-cycle. Better to be safe than sorry!)

Other Essentials — little details can make your experience so much better and easier. Pay attention!

  • Sleeping bag and mattress — I rented both of these form the tour company. If you are getting your own, make sure they are lightweight and sufficiently warm!
  • Daypack — I fit all my stuff in this bag but remember I also had a duffle that I filled and gave to a porter to carry. I only carried an extra jacket, rainproof pants, poncho, and other day-time essentials that I need access to throughout the hike
  • Water bottles x2 — I had two 1L plastic bottles I refilled each day
  • Headlamp — no, not a flashlight. You want a headlamp
  • Poncho — I really liked my $5 REI poncho. It was thicker than most plastic ones that rip after one use. Make sure you get one that is large enough to cover your backpack!! Common mistake I’ve seen people make
  • Earplugs
  • Portable cell phone charger / extra cell phone battery
  • Earbuds / Headphones — I didn’t really use them because I talked to people or just listened to the sound of the nature 😉
  • Basic first-aid kit / drugs (e.g., bandaids, ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal drugs, etc.)
  • Plastic bags / ziplock bags — they always come in handy
  • Passport pouch to carry your passport, money, etc.
  • Optional: notepad / pen for your night time reflections
  • Optional: water filtering tablets (you will get boiled water to fill your water bottles every day)
  • Optional: ankle or knee brace (I brought both just in case, because I’m ankle injury-prone)
  • Optional: Hiking poles (you can rent)

Alright, I think this is a pretty good planning guide for first-time Peru / Inca Trail travelers.

Generally speaking, Peruvians are warm, welcoming, and obsessed with food and Pisco. I don’t blame them. There is so much to see, eat, and learn — enjoy every moment with an open heart and learn a few Quechua phrases to show your respect and gratitude.

Feel free to message me directly if you have additional questions.

Happy traveling!

MK

Taste of South America in Two Weeks!

If you are not about to drop everything to travel — quit your job, pause your relationships, and rent out your apartment, etc. to pursue a nomad lifestyle — but you are lucky enough to take some time off to pursue your passion for exploring the world, this post is for you. Before I get into the details of each city and juicy stories, let me provide you with a high level overview of my trip. I will share my itinerary, tools I used to help plan my trip, things I packed in my backpack for you non-believers, and other helpful tips for people thinking about going on a similar trip.

 

The Itinerary

After my rather impulsive purchase of the nonrefundable roundtrip ticket to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was time to plan my route. I wanted to visit at least three cities. After researching online for common travel routes from Rio, talking to well traveled friends and coworkers, and looking at a lot of Google Image results for inspiration, here is the final itinerary I landed:

Day 1-5 (4.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Day 5-8 (3.5 Days): Iguazu Falls (Both Brazil and Argentina sides)
Day 8-13 (5 Days): Buenos Aires, Argentina + Day trip to Uruguay
Day 13-16 (2.5 Days): Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

I already came clean about being “type A” so I will share my detailed spreadsheet I developed in preparation for my trip. I saved this spreadsheet on my phone (thank you, Evernote Premium!) and also had a hard copy with me at all times — very handy, especially on travel days, when you need to take a quick glance at the flight number or the hostel address, etc. I also shared this spreadsheet with my friends, family, and coworkers so they could “keep track” of me, just in case of any emergencies.

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Aside from the cost of flights, I had two factors in mind when scheduling the inter-city trips: I wanted to spend the first weekend in Rio, and the second weekend in Buenos Aires. So I made sure my trip to Iguazu landed during the week (not much night life there!). I also wanted to make sure I can go to the Sunday market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and also took into consideration La Bomba de Tiempo, which only happens on Monday nights in Buenos Aires.

I didn’t feel rushed at any particular point during the trip. If I could do it over, I would probably spend one less day in Buenos Aires. It was too cold for my vacation mode (winter in Brazil is very different than winter in Argentina) and it’s a big city where you either have a few days to hit the “touristy” spots or you have an extended stay to really get to know the city. 5 Days felt too long to be doing just touristy stuff, and too short to really fall in love with the city. Kind of like San Francisco. I’m glad I was able to take a day trip to Uruguay on my 4th day — more to come on that. As you can see, all of my travels were via the air. This was a conscious decision to save time — – people who are more budget conscious have ground transportation options. There are bus options for all of the routes and they are quite cheap. I hear it is most definitely worth spending a few extra bucks to upgrade to the first class bus seats, especially on overnight rides. The first class seats recline all the way and a fellow backpacker said they are “more comfortable than hostel beds!”

Some other cities I wish I had time to visit on this trip are Salvador, Buzios, Florionapolis, Mendoza, and Salta. If you have more time, I would strongly suggest incorporating Peru and Bolivia into the itinerary as I’ve heard amazing things about both places from seasoned travelers.

 

Time of Visit

When I visited South America, it was “winter,” its lowest tourist season. In general, I prefer to travel during low seasons, because I find it’s easier to have a more authentic experience without the hype of tourism. Here are some of the benefits of traveling during off-peak times:

  1. Cheaper prices — flights, hostels, and even food prices will be lower during low seasons
  2. Less crowded — easily hit up multiple “tourist attractions” in one day by avoiding long waits
  3. Cooler people — ok, this one is debatable, but high season crowds tend to attract young college students (who are cool, just not “life-time-explorer-cool”) who are restricted by the schools’ vacation timeline or those who are laser focused on big parties (think Oktoberfest, Carnaval, etc.) and getting absolutely wasted

There are definitely some drawbacks to traveling during low seasons, such as the weather. Rio and Iguazu Falls were both perfectly fine in May — warm and breezy, it was the perfect beach weather. Buenos Aires, not so much (cold and rainy). Do your research beforehand (I definitely did not!) and weigh your options!

 

Visas

Brazil requires a visa. Because it was a month before the World Cup and the earliest appointment at the consulate was after my trip, I had to go through a travel agency specializing in expedited visa orders. I ordered my visa through Travel Visa Pro and was very happy with the service I received. The website provides you with a list of things you need for the application as well. It took about 3 weeks for me to receive the visa after I submitted my application. Unfortunately, you do need to mail in your passport. I paid around $250 for a 10-year tourist visa (including agency service fees) and I am looking forward to returning to Brazil before my visa expires!

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For Argentina, U.S. citizens must pay a “reciprocity fee” (the U.S. government charges Argentinian tourists, so this seems fair) prior to entering Argentina and show the printed receipt at immigration. This is a relatively new requirement some people are not aware of, so be sure to do this if you don’t want to be held up at the border. It takes less than 10 minutes to complete online, and it cost $160. This “visa” is also good for 10 years. Here is the website for paying your fee: https://virtual.provinciapagos.com.ar/ArgentineTaxes/ and the end product looks like this (I grayed out personal information):

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Packing

I had a small backpack. I wanted to travel light and be nimble. I brought only the essentials with me and I felt I was very well prepared. I didn’t have time to pack in advance, so I spent all night packing the night before my departure. It really helped to have a solid “packing list,” which I will share here. The list is skewed towards travelers who identify as women (or maybe not).

  • Clothes (I brought: 1 jeans, 1 pants, 1 shorts, 2 leggings, 3-4 tank tops, 2 t-shirts, 1 dress, 1 sweater, 1 packable down jacket, 1 warm jacket, bras, plenty of socks and underwear) *I packed my clothes in airtight ziplock bags to reduce volume
  • Bathing suits
  • Wrist watch (get a cheap one — make sure it’s cheap-looking, too)
  • Sun screen
  • Bug repellent 
  • Shoes (Walking shoes, flip flops / sandals)
  • Quick dry towel (I got one from REI)
  • Ear plugs (SOOOO essential!)
  • Locks (bring 2 — one for a locker and one for your backpack)
  • Toiletries
  • Ibuprofen & other medicines
  • Plastic bags / ziplock bags (never know when you’ll need them!)
  • Headlamp (useful when you need to unpack / pack late in a hostel dorm room)
  • Make up
  • Camera
  • Electrical Converter / Adapter
  • Phone & Charger
  • Pen
  • Notebook / journal
  • Travel guides (I used Lonely Planet – Brazil)

 

Useful Tools

  • Hipmunk for booking flights
  • Hostelworld for booking hostels
  • Evernote Premium (for use on mobile device) for offline access to important documents (I stored copies of my itinerary, hostel confirmation, passport, IDs, visa receipts, etc.)
  • WhatsApp for communicating with people back home or with other travelers

 

Other Tips

  • Money: I used my Chase Sapphire credit card and Charles Schwab checking account to access cash out of ATMs. Chase Sapphire credit card does not charge any foreign transaction fees — in general, credit cards offer the best exchange rates. The annual fee for the credit card is $90. Charles Schwab reimburses all ATM fees and does not charge foreign transaction fees. Many banks do not reimburse ATM fees, especially when traveling abroad, so if you are a frequent international traveler Charles Schwab checking account is definitely worth looking into. There is no annual fee or minimum amount to open an account. I just got back $40 worth of ATM fees reimbursed to me from the trip! In Brazil, I used my ATM card to access Reais (Brazilian currency) and made big purchases using my credit card. In Argentina, using the “blue market” to exchange dollars to pesos is a common practice and highly recommended for its exchange rate (on average 20-30% better return). Be cautious since there are a lot of scams and potential fake exchanges (fake money!) — I had local intel and connections that brought me to a “legit” blue market exchange shop disguised as a newspaper stand. It was quite the experience on its own.
  • Cabs: I encourage solo travelers, especially women, to take cabs from and to the airport, especially in Brazil. Any hostel will call an official radio cab for you. I paid premium on official airport cabs (you pay in advance inside the airport) for added security. Remember, you are carrying ALL of your valuables on your travel day! When you are not yet familiar with the city, it’s nice to see take a “mini-tour” during the drive from the airport to your accommodation. When choosing a cab during your stay, look for ones with a company logo printed on the outside of the car. I always tried to take cabs with two logos (a tip given to me by a hostel manager) rather than one. Always make sure the meter is running!
  • Hostel picking: I had two main criteria for picking hostels — location and cleanliness. I compared scores, read reviews, looked at photos, and nearby public transportation options. I was happy with all of my hostel choices (more detailed reviews of each hostel will be included in future city posts).

 

Young, bold, and dumb

2014 started out rough.

Work was all-consuming in a very stressful, emotional way, with tons of changes and uncertainties. My life changed in a big way when my mom immigrated to the U.S. permanently. Sure, I had been planning for the moment to come for the past 10 years and I had pictured how this was going to go down hundreds and thousands of times in my head… but this was huge. Being responsible for someone starting a new life in a completely foreign country is a big task. When we ran into unforeseen challenges — her wallet getting stolen on her second day with all of her identifications and money, needing urgent medical help when she’s without health insurance — SHIT GOT REAL. The combined weight of personal and professional responsibilities, insurmountable amount of stress, and feeling guilty for being stressed all led me to excuse myself for having no patience or compassion. Basically, I’m sorry if you had to interact with me during those times.

I wasn’t a good teammate. I wasn’t a good daughter. I wasn’t a good friend. I wasn’t a good roommate. I wasn’t a good person. I didn’t feel that way anyway and I felt frustrated feeling helpless and tired all. the. time. I desperately wanted to escape the reality and remove myself from it all. It’s unfair, I know, it’s cowardice, I know. But I wanted to do something for me — not my clients, coworkers, family, or friends. I wanted to be unknown, unfound, uninterrupted. I recognize the ability to flee is a tremendous luxury and I am very privileged to be able to do so without immediate or extreme financial hardship.

I often day dream about traveling the world but being the Type A planner that I am, international trips usually don’t happen “spontaneously.” I would require at least 3 months of planning, calculating, researching… But something came over me one day, when I randomly searched for a roundtrip ticket to Rio De Janeiro and found one for $950. Without much thought or hesitation, I bought the ticket. A nonrefundable ticket. Luckily, I have a flexible job and a cool manager (who received a desperate weekend text “Can I take two weeks off please I already booked my flight” and responded “sounds good.”) which allowed me the spontaneous escape. For you Aussies and Europeans who travel frequently for long periods of time, this may seem a bit dramatic for only a two week vacation, but for an average American with a job to keep, two weeks is not a trivial length to be away from work (back me up, fellow hard working Americans!). Also, given this was my first time traveling alone, this seemed like a much bigger deal to me than it probably would to other seasoned travelers…

I had never been to South America and Brazil seemed like a cool enough place. I hadn’t done any research. Soon I found out… 1) I need a visa to go to Brazil 2) World Cup is happening in Brazil in June, therefore all consulate appointments are full 3) It’s “winter” in Brazil 4) Rio is not recommended for solo female travelers due to the high level of violence and crime rate. OH…. great.

But where there is a will, there is a way. Actually, scratch that. Throw money at your problems and they will go away. Problems 1 & 2 were resolved by doing just that — I used a local travel visa agency to expedite my visa. Not cheap. #3? Occasional rain and upwards of 70 degree weather… survivable. #4 was the ultimate risk. To ensure I travel solo, I purposely did not announce my trip to friends or family until closer to the departure date. And when I did, most of the reactions involved worry, horror, warnings, head shakes, and face palming. They sent me terrifying articles about crimes in Rio, blog posts and travel site comments about the violence, and encouraged me to rethink my trip destination — some suggested I delay the trip until I find a travel companion. I did a fair share of research myself, and yes, it was scary. “But how bad can it really be?” I thought. “People live there.” Let’s be clear, I was fully aware of the need to be extra cautious as a woman traveling alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, where I can’t “pass” as being a local. But anywhere, San Francisco included, can be dangerous if you refuse to use common sense and caution. Ultimately, my desire to venture out outweighed the risks. I decided to play ignorant and be brave. “I’M YOUNG AND BOLD” I told myself, half the time believing in it and the other half… cursing myself and banging my head against a wall. With lots of justification and self-assurance, I prepared myself for the adventure.

Every major decision in my life that was beneficial to me in retrospect all came with a degree of uncertainty, risk, and that butterfly-in-your-stomach kind of feeling. This felt like one of those moments. So I packed my backpack and took off.

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Why not a suitcase, you ask? I wanted to be lightweight and nimble. I wanted to not need a lot of “things.” The backpack met most of the travel modes’ baggage requirements for carry-on. Plus, it’s much more romantic this way. People don’t say “I suitcased around South America,” right?

I will be posting a series of blog posts journaling my experience in South America. Not sure how long this will take, but I’m hoping my writing will provide useful information, inspire others to travel, and most importantly, help make my experience longer lasting.

Get Off Your Shuttles!

I haven’t posted anything in over a year, but since I haven’t seen a decent coverage/op-ed piece on the Google bus protest, I just decided to rant a little!

For Context: 
http://www.businessinsider.com/protestors-jumped-in-front-of-a-google-bus-and-stopped-it-from-moving-2013-12
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-google-protest-20131209,0,4154118.story

No one likes to be called out as being privileged. But sometimes, you need a little wake up call, like the one some Googlers got this morning on their shuttle in the Mission.

It’s annoying how people who work in tech are getting defensive. COME ON. We all know the tech industry has fundamentally changed the fabric of SF and has been at the core of the major and rapid gentrification happening (or already completed) in many neighborhoods. Rents are increasing (yay SF is number 1! being at the top of anything is a good thing, right?), nonprofits are being forced to move across the bay due to increasing rents, and lawyers are giving landlords free workshops on how to evict their tenants. People are not upset because the shuttles are taking over the muni stops.  People are upset the tech industry (and the people in it) is not giving back — and definitely not nearly enough to justify or compensate for the perceived and real inequities and income gaps. Hell, talk about being “disruptive!”

IF YOU FEEL UNDER ATTACK, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Wear your company’s shirt and volunteer at nonprofits, help fundraise to support a cause, convince your company to donate to a local org, spend some time learning about all the displacements and evictions happening in the city, pass out donuts in the morning at your shuttle stop (jk, maybe), find out what types of policy recommendations we can get behind, start a petition, build an app that helps solve a problem (no, not your late night food ordering problem), donate your time and talent to mentor underprivileged youth. We must work – I mean WORK – until the community starts acknowledging us as community members, neighbors, not intruders.

I am in tech. I am privileged. I am the shuttle. But I refuse to be the one sitting in the backseat looking out the window and tweeting on my phone. Get off the shuttle and use your privilege to bridge the gap.

I truly believe people in tech can make great, lasting impacts in our community. I work with some of the brightest and most creative people I’ve ever met, and I constantly wonder what type of change we can make collectively if the tech community really thought long and hard about how to solve difficult social issues.

To help you give back, check out some of my favorite local nonprofits:

Please share your favorite local organizations in the comments!

Why I wrote to the racist teen’s school principal… and posted it on Facebook

Email to School Faculty

Over the long weekend, I’ve had quite a bit of free time and I, like many social media fanatics (a.k.a lazy losers), spent much of that time reconnecting with friends on Facebook and reading about people’s recent adventures, job changes, and political activities (to me this is like reading People). A friend of mine shared a tumblr post about people’s racist reaction to the movie Red Dawn, a movie about the North Korean invasion of the U.S. and the heroic revolution led by a courageous, patriotic white family that saved the country from the evil forces. Honestly, I thought Red Dawn was a Twilight movie, a sequel to Breaking Dawn (I’ve never watched any of the Twilight movies and I’m damn proud of it so shut it teenagers).

The collage of people’s racist tweets on tumblr was really, really, sad. One tweet in particular stood out to me, which said, “Kinda wanna kill some Asians right now and defend the homeland, thank you Red Dawn for sparking some patriotism in me.” I couldn’t resist but find the actual person who tweeted this and confront him. Well, here’s the part I’m not so proud of… I called him an ignorant piece of shit. Ouch, oops. I shouldn’t have reacted that way, because it wasn’t constructive and I didn’t get anything out of it besides letting my frustration and anger out on him, even though he was not the root of my anger. He replied, “it was just a joke” to my tweet, which validated my action wasn’t productive nor educational. He’s only a sophomore in high school after all, and while I respect so many of today’s youth and their intelligence, maturity, and political acumen, there is still a lot of room for more growth and learning, and a dire need for good educators who teach beyond just the scope of the textbook. I used to say ignorant things all the time (no, I’m not going to tell you what I used to say) and it was through education, compassion, community, and forgiveness that I was able to learn to be more thoughtful and aware.

The true cause of my anger wasn’t him. It was, and is, our racist media, our racist society, our racist culture, and our racist institutions that fail to acknowledge any non-white person and culture as “American” and otherize people like me and lead people like Kiel to want to kill people like me. From his other tweets, I also found him using words like “faggot,” “rape,” which again, is the product of our racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. society and culture. And then I thought… what if? What if this white football player dude is bullying or harassing Asian, and/or women, and/or queer students at his school? What if no one is calling him out? What if he convinces others to do the same? Then what?

So I decided to do something about it.

Inspired by Jezebel’s recent post that held teens accountable for their racist tweets about President Obama, I decided to hold Kiel and adults around him accountable. Really, it’s not Kiel’s fault that he’s using hateful language — it’s people, adults, around him who failed to educate him that is to blame. A quick Google search and three easy clicks led me to the teen’s high school football team profile, his school’s website, and directory of faculty and staff’s email addresses. It required hardly any research at all. I wrote to the school’s principal, athletics director, football coach, and guidance counselor. I figured one of these people would care about the student’s behavior and growth. So I wrote the email and sent it (you can read it in the image above)… and took a screenshot and posted it on Facebook. Here’s why:

  1. I wanted my friends to know they, too, can do this — some people may think I’m crazy, but hey, if SOMEONE doesn’t speak up about stuff like this, no one will. And I’m certainly not going to wait and bet on the possibility of someone else who’s in closer proximity to the teen will one day teach him. If he didn’t want the whole world involved, he shouldn’t have posted a public tweet. To me, it was almost like a “cry for help” (please excuse my savior complex).
  2. I wanted to share my approach — I’ve had friends in the past who told me they just don’t know how to approach situations like this. What am I supposed to do when someone says something offensive? How do I call them out without causing a bigger scene? I’m hoping some of my wordings in the email can help figure out the approach for different people. This will always be a tricky thing to do, and everyone has different communication styles that work best for them.
  3. I wanted to point to the actual cause — I wanted folks to realize my anger wasn’t directed at the teen (sure, I may be a wee bit vindictive, but that’s beside the point) and that it was really the teen’s educators’ job to fix this. Sure, I could’ve continued the back-and-forth tweet war with the teen, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve either shut me down by saying “it was a joke, get a life” sort of a response, or simply block me. It also gave the school a clear opportunity to educate its students. I wanted my friends to know that this type of approach will (hopefully) bring more constructive and productive results.
  4. I wanted to brag — come on, now.

My partner still thinks I’m a nut job for doing what I did, especially since he thinks I make an easy target for retaliation despite my recent completion of a self-defense course. But I’m glad I did what I did, because I tried (a little too hard, my partner would say). I can also say this with a bit of reassurance because this morning, I received an email from the teen’s school principal:

Email reply from the school principal

My only hope is the school’s “consequences” will entail proper education rather than just punishment. If only the school, and other schools and organizations, can take opportunities like this to start changing the culture of the institution and instill values that embrace diversity, our world – online or offline – would be so much less violent and isolating.

Happy conscious tweeting,

Michelle

#Walmartstrikers

We all know Walmart isn’t the most socially conscious company and we also know it has always been one of the biggest offenders of fair and equitable treatment of its workers who are often their target consumers. My friend once asked me why I only talk about race and gender issues (well, this isn’t true) and not class issues. Well, these issues are all very closely related and it’s difficult to just talk about one issue without the other. I should probably do a better job of acknowledging those intersections when I talk about race, gender, and class issues…which are all. human. issues. Walmart serves as an intersection of all these issues, quite literally, affecting all three aforementioned aspects of its consumers and employees.

It will be interesting to find out if the strike today will have any negative effect on the company’s bottom line. I haven’t shopped at Walmart in years and I plan to continue this trend as long as this retail giant keeps abusing and exploiting its workers and its customers. Let me mention that, fortunately, I can afford to go elsewhere — and many of you can, too. Sure, that waffle maker that’s $5 less and that pair of sweatpants $3 less than what you would spend elsewhere may tempt you, but let’s not forget who’s really absorbing the cost saving. Remember who the discounts are hurting and the types of choices some folks are forced to make.

Walmart says “Save Money. Live Better.”
What it’s really saying is “Cheap Labor. More Revenue.” “Fire One. Hire Another.” “Don’t Speak. We Retaliate.”

Follow the strike via #walmartstrikers, #changewalmart and #makingchange

Turkey, pumpkin pie, and a whole lot of reflecting

Thanksgiving had always been a very “American” (as in, “white”) holiday to my family and didn’t have much relevance until fairly recently. As a first generation immigrant family, we never really celebrated the day beyond going out to eat at a nearby Chinese restaurant (because it was the only thing open) and looking for cheap deals the next day. When I went off to college, I watched my friends go back home while I stayed behind on campus and pretended to be unaffected by the obvious “otherness” that was my family. In fact, my Freshman year, I had my little sister visit me and we spent most of the time together in my empty dorm building eating microwaveable rice and ramen.

Truth be told, I didn’t have the best relationship with my dad back then and it was always awkward to spend “family time” during these cheesy holidays. I figured, well, Koreans don’t eat turkey anyway so what the hell’s the point?

Luckily, things have changed for the better since and Thanksgiving is now one of my favorite holidays. Aside from the problematic political and historial issues surrounding this holiday and my distaste for all things “patriotic” and “[white] American,” having a dedicated day to reflect and show appreciation while having obnoxious amounts of food (we’re all going to hell for gluttony, just so you know) is one of those things I can get used to (yes, I am often hypocritical). One, two, three years of cooking (aka ordering pre-made meals and heating them up), awkwardly talking about what we’re grateful for, and multiple years of suppressed desire for familial love and unity all somehow contributed to slowly healing our wounds and bringing us back together.

It makes me laugh to think about how much we’ve adapted to the “American” ways, how we eat turkey on Thanksgiving but still put kimchi on the table, and how much we’ve grown as a family and then some. It certainly isn’t very “Korean” to share our deepest emotions and thoughts within the family (my dad and I still get so awkward talking about feelings. which is why we never do), but I feel the need to have it documented somewhere: I am so, so, so very thankful for my family and am proud of how far we’ve come given our not-so-charming family history. I am so damn lucky to have such incredible parents and sister who are so strong and have endured tremendous hardships to get to where they are today, and who continue to support and trust me rock solid. I love you fambam.

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Thanks Boston Market for making our Turkey Day celebration feast a success every year!!!