Thursday, October 9, 2008

In Today's News...

Really, in USA Today...all of my obnoxious excessive photo-taking seems to have paid off :) I submitted some photos to the USA Today Readers Summer Vacation Photos contest, and they chose mine! See Photo #3 in the slide show. It's a picture of my friend, Anita from Seattle (by way of England), who I met during my Pachamama tour in Chile, looking out over the San Pedro de Atacama Desert.

Now, just to get a new camera...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

I firmly believe that Starbucks coffee is laced with crack... and that a lifetime of making Excel spreadsheets could (and perhaps has) lead to early death--definitely impaired eyesight anyway.

Oh, to be back in an office... seeking thrills in the "not-so-Great Escapes"--satisfying that reckless urge on a Friday afternoon with a taste of the fall season-- Pumpkin Spice coffee from the corner Starbucks (an excuse to get away from the computer screen), to get the pulse going, the hands jittering, and work up a little sweat while anxiously awaiting the end of the day.

Did I ever leave? Was the past year just a dream from which I've woken up with longer hair and less money?

So being back has its perks (not Pumpkin Spice flavored). As I continue to test my options, there's so much going on around here and as it turns out, so much to say about American culture...which I'm going to start doing. Maybe not Great Escapes, but hopefully entertaining enough to keep my small readership stopping by occasionally :)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Worth It?

I’m back where it all began. The nation's capital... the pulse and vibe of the city, it's sprawling lawns and majestic monuments, the daily rhythm of business suits and laptops, Starbucks coffee and uniquely flavored martinis after work, amongst snippets of political banter every which direction, just as I remember it. I am back! front of a computer screen.

The year I’ve left behind —the experiences, at times thrilling, then disheartening, on occasion breathtaking, and sometimes lonely— slowly recedes into memory as my days settle into a once-familiar pattern of predictability.

A year has passed since I set off in search of adventure, meaning, a break in the traditional cycle of an average life. And while I've been gone, DC has remained mostly unchanged in my absence (though we'll see what the next election brings *"Politically Polarized Partying" Article*).

As I transition into a more settled state, I am given the opportunity to reflect on what I've gained in the past year. and, well...between a stolen passport, a lost camera and a diminished savings account, my only solid, clear-cut gain has been.... weight.

Worth it? I think so...For the life of me, I wouldn't give up the past year of Chilean Empanadas from a local bakery in Barrio Brazil while hung over from too many Piscolitas, Centolla (Patagonian king crab) on my 25th birthday caught fresh from the Strait of Magellan, lips stained maroon drinking glasses of Argentine Malbec at a Tango show in San Telmo, Peruvian fresh tropical fruit smoothies slurped down at a dizzying altitude of 4200 meters, Artesanal Spanish cheeses in the central plaza of Madrid, Moroccan Tagines served in the sweltering heat of a maze-like city and so much more.

Yes, it's been worth every pound, every penny, every overnight bus ride and uncomfortable red-eye flight... even my beloved passport and camera.

And while I don't have all the answers (and probably never will), I'm back to the "same old shit" with a new perspective.

Life is what you make of it.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Summer Days, Driftin´ Away

And I don´t mind spending the last of them in Barcelona!

Wow, I think this is the first time I´ve had a solid hour to sit down and write anything in the past month and a half. I´ve been busy and tired to the bone, and it´s been fabulous.

I guess I´ll start where it all started...I flew into Madrid on June 10th to spend a week at Pueblo Ingles... a program that brings 20 English speakers and 20 Spanish speakers together so that the Spanish can improve their English... all the English speakers have to do is talk about ourselves and drink all the Spanish wine our hearts could desire, all on Pueblo Ingles´ dime...not bad. We stayed in a beautiful small town in the Spanish countryside called La Alberca, which is famous for it´s iberian ham. It´s in the Spanish province of Salamanca, the city where I studied abroad way back when. It was great to be back.

After Pueblo Ingles, I hung out in Madrid for a few days with my new Spanish and English friends before heading down to El Puerto de Santa Maria, a beach town near Cadiz, in the south of Spain, where I did training week for the English Summer Camp I´d be working at. Training week kept me busy from early morning until late at night... and that was only a taste of what was to come. When we actually started working at a beautiful whitewashed monastery in a smaller town called Santi Pietri, I realized they expected us to work 24 hours a day. Between the teaching 4 hours per day of lessons, 2 hours of arts and crafts and having meals, evening activities and putting to bed the kids, and of course some time in there for sleep, they also expected us to find some time to plan 20+ hours per week of lessons...

But despite the lack of sleep, I liked being that busy. It´s nice to feel like you´ve really earned the cold beers you´re drinking on a hot day in the South of Spain, during your one day off per week, and its nice to go for a swim in the Mediterranean during your 2 hour break and just forget it all, letting it drift away with the waves.

The thing I´ll take away from the summer is the amazing people I´ve met from all over the place... Ireland, England, Zimbabwe, Australia... and of course the US. It was hard saying goodbye as I set off for Morocco to meet up with my college roommate Johanna.

Meeting up with Johanna, however, was great. As I said in an earlier post, I was so impressed by her ability to speak not one, but two Moroccan languages, which if I have it correctly are Darisia (spelling?) and one of the 3 Berber dialects, Taselhit (spelling?), which they speak in Johanna´s town in the south of Morocco near the Sahara desert.

Johanna was great for filling me in on all the cultural aspects of Morocco and making new Moroccan friends. More than once we were invited to have tea or lunch at random Moroccan´s houses whom we had met on the train, or in shops around town. I was excited about the prospect, but with only 6 days in Morocco, we had to politely decline as Johanna explained they "trick" you into thinking it will only take an hour or so, and then Kazam, after a 2 hour lunch they insist you stay for a two hour nap, and before you know it the day is gone. But it was nice to at least see the hospitality offered that Moroccan´s are famous for.

We started in Tangier, an international city if Ive ever seen one. When being hustled by cab drivers and street vendors, if I didn´t respond in French, they´d try me in English, then Spanish and maybe even German. The Moroccan men that lusted after us, and on one occastion followed us, because we weren´t covered the way a Moroccan girl would be, tried the same tactics of harassing us in every language imaginable.

But aside from that I loved everything about the trip. We went to some beautiful beaches outside of Tangier, and after a few days, made our way down to Fez, which is a much more typical Moroccan city. On the hottest train ride of my entire life, from Tangier to Fez, Johanna of course met some Moroccan´s who recommended us a tour guide in Fez, which is apparently necessary since the city is such a ridiculous maze of teeny tiny pedestrian streets, some of which are so skinny you have to walk single file just to fit through.

We set up an appointment and at 9 a.m. the morning after we arrived in Fez, Khalid, our tour guide met us and showed us the ins and outs of "The Medina" or the center city of Fez. Our group consisted of me, Johanna and an Iranian girl who was on vacation in Fez, who said that Morocco was a very liberal Arabic country compared to Iran. Johanna and I had much the opposite opinion about Morocco v.s the US, and Johanna decided to voice that opinion about every half hour to Khalid, who was very kind and patient with his explanations. We stayed with Khalid until 10 p.m., visiting the leather tannery, the tapestry production areas, a few madrassas (islamic schools), the silver teapot stores, and of course the carpet bazaar, where I spontaneously bought a persian rug and now have to lug the damn thing home. But it´s beautiful so I am happy.

Khalid´s tour was one of the highlights of my trip and stands out as a prime example of Moroccan hospitality, willing to do anything to show us the experience we were hoping to have and always availble for help beyond the tour for as long as we were in Fez.

The day after, Johanna and I went outside of Fez to some Ancient ruins built in the 3rd centry BD called Volubilis and then spent the rest of the afternoon in Meknes, which is, without having seen Marrakesh or Casablanca, so far my favorite Moroccan city.

Johanna left on Saturday morning and I took a plane to Barcelona that same afternoon. Unfortunately after a week of miraculously feeling fine, the "stomach bug" decided to hit me the night before my flight. I guess Í deserve it for eating things more unsanitary than a piece of chewing gum stuck to the floor of a public bathroom, but I still say it was worth it. The Tagines (Moroccan meat and vegetable crock-pot style dish), Pastilla (meat pie), honey pastries, nougat, "Jellyfish pancakes" (as Johanna and I deemed a think pancake-like breakfast food) and sweetened mint tea, were all delicious.

After throwing up in the small plane bathroom, I took it easy last night in Barcelona, my favorite city in the world, and had a glorious night´s sleep of almost 12 hours... the first time in 2 months. Today I took a walk down memory lane hitting up some of my favorite old sites of Barcelona and walking by the apartment where I lived 3 summers ago.

Time flies, and soon I will be home...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Tangier

View over Tangier Bay

After an extremely laborious, but enjoyable summer teaching Spanish kids in the south of Spain, which I will write more on later, Ive defiitely earned my two weeks vacation. I met up in Tangier on Sunday with my friend Johanna, my sophomore year college roommate, who is doing Peace Corps in Southern Morocco. I came over by ferry from Tarifa, Spain. Im now having fun experiencing the sights and sounds of Morocco and watching Johanna get around in 2 different Moroccan Languages. Im glad to have her as my tour guide and travel buddy. Tomorrow we are headed either to Fez or Casablanca and afterwards Im off to Barcelona. Cant wait.

Me and Johanna in Tangier

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Going to Morocco Today!

Tagines in the Main Square of Meknes
From a 1986 NY Times Article:
"It is only across a narrow strait from Spain, but it feels as
remote as a place in the ''Thousand and One Nights.'' Its medieval cities
survive, intact, unchanged and quite as lively as ever, but in the course of a
50-year French protectorate its people learned a second language so that someone
unfamiliar with Arabic can still manage. It is one of the oldest kingdoms in the
world and remains, despite its constitution, a well-nigh absolute monarchy. But
even those ancient customs seem young compared to the span of the country's
history: Morocco, today, offers a fascinating blend of cultures placed in a
variety of beautiful landscapes."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Still Alive

So working at a Euro Summer camp is the most relevant example of overworked and underpaid since slavery, but I´m loving it nonetheless... especially after a few months of pure vacation. The site at Santi Pietri is beautiful, and in the few moments you´re not listening to screaming children and color war chants, it actually feels like a very nice vacation. That said, I´m averaging about 4 hours of sleep per night between lesson planning and all other crap, but the perks are amazing new friends and most recently, a whale watching trip on the Strait of Gibraltar, where you could see the coast of Africa. Most of the kids got seasick and slept below deck for the majority of the boat ride, which left us a few unexpected hours of peace and quiet to just enjoy.

We just sent our first round of campers home, and tomorrow come the second round. Today we had a few hours free time and went to a beautiful beach town called Conil on the Mediterranean. We had some much needed cocktails, which feel that much better when you´ve really earned them.

Headed out for the night but hopefully back to write soon (sometime during my 0 hours per day free time)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sunny in the South of Spain

So I made it to the South of Spain, and.... DAMN it´s hot. Or maybe I´m just not used to doing everything without Air conditioning. Yes, that´s probably it. Washington D.C. I´m sure is much hotter than this.

I have been in training week before my summer camp which starts on Sunday, and have been busy from 9 a.m. - 10:30 p.m. learning the ropes and preparing my teaching materials, after which we all go out for drinks all night in El Puerto de Santa Maria, a little town near the Strait of Gibraltar. I will be teaching the same 10-15 Spanish students every day for 2 weeks and my age group is the 12-13 yr olds.

Our camp site (40 mins away) in Santi Pietri is in an old Monastery made of sun-washed white stucco with yellow and blue tiles, with beautiful courtyards on the inside filled with flowers and palm trees. There is a huge swimming pool and a beach within 30 mins walking distance.

The one problem is, there´s no internet... and days are long, and we are not near a city. So if I go MIA for a while, that´s why. Just know I´ll be spending my action-packed days in the hot sun of the South of Spain having fun :)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Something tells me...

I´m not in South America anymore...

That something is: the Euro

My wallet hurts. But after a free week of red wine, good Spanish food, Jamon Iberico, and good times with new people, I can´t complain.

I´ve only been in the Madrid for the weekend and leave tomorrow to head south to where I will be working for the rest of the summer. One of the Spaniards on my Pueblo Ingles program told me told me that El Puerto de Santa Maria is a very posh area in the summer so we´ll see!

I´m off to enjoy my last night in Madrid (hopefully on the cheap)!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

At it Again

I didn´t really tell anyone I was leaving. I guess I hadn´t made it very public that I was back at home for a time there, either. My year wasn´t complete yet. I still had Spain.

And now I´m here!

After one of the more uncomfortable plane rides in my repertoire, complete with seats that would not recline, 4 full hours of 2 crying babies, a delayed connection out of London, and the ensuing delayed arrival of my brand new Mountainsmith Scarlet backpack, made completely out of recycled materials (very green of me!)... I´m in Madrid.

And just when I had broken down and bought a new shirt because I could no longer stand the building-up grime on my clothing, my backpack arrived to the hostel.

So we´re off to a good start.

It´s nice to be back in Europe. Last night I had tapas and Sangria for dinner with 5 other people who are doing my first program with me, Pueblo Ingles at La Alberca. The week-long program is an English immersion for 20 Spaniards and a "free" week of accomodations, meals and fun experiences for 20 English-speakers, just for speaking all day in English.

I´m off to a flamenco performance now, hosted by the program, wearing my kind of geeky, but very practical Sprigs Banjees wrist wallet from REI and money belt. Europe is no South America in terms of danger... but I swear I am not going to get robbed again!

Now I´ve cursed myself :)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away…

This weekend's unrelenting April showers that have overstayed their welcome into May, take me back to some fond...and some not-so-fond memories of Patagonia, which—as my host Mom described it best—has such unpredictable weather that the "Meteorologists can go ahead and wipe their asses with their weather maps because they'll be more useful that way."

So I don't miss the guarantee of at least a few hours of precipitation per day, more days than not, out of a week, but I did always love the hollow sound of the rain hitting hard against the tin roof of the corrugated peach-colored home where I lived, as I listened from my dimly lit bedroom, planning lessons for the next day.

During those times, I could imagine the Antarctic, Pacific and Atlantic winds all clashing at the southern tip of the continent, fighting to bring the next erratic burst of weather tearing through Punta Arenas-- a downpour, snowstorm, howling winds or cool fresh air and sunshine with clouds moving quickly in the sky. During those times, I could, in a very real way, feel my physical location on the Earth—or at the "ends" of it, to be exact.

Yes, the rugged Patagonia climate has left its indelible imprint on me। It is true that when it rains, it pours—but in Patagonia, chances of seeing a rainbow afterwards, or a few rainbows at the same time, even, are common. And of course, the one that came to mind today, chances of Sopaipillas on a rainy day are just as high.

A traditional Chilean rainy day comfort food, I remember Sopaipillas as if they were a childhood memory: only I was a teacher, not a student, coming home from school to find a heaping bowl of warm, fried doughy delights sprinkled with powdered sugar, made from scratch by the weathered old hands of the family nanny.

Not that sugary fried dough was good for my diet- or lack thereof- as I accepted without question the pure red meat and white carb diet that my host family was kind to offer me. But now that I've been home, I've forged a solid, if ineffective, friendship with the gym.

So when it started raining in Baltimore, I faced a choice. Wishing away the rain as well as the pounds I'd set out to drop, the Sopaipillas won. And everyone loved them.

Here is a quick and easy recipe:

Sopaipillas with Honey and Cinnamon Sugar

2 cups flour
1 tsp. Baking powder
1 tsp. Salt
1tsp. Sugar
2 tbsp. Vegetable oil
2 tbsp. Heavy cream
1/2 cup warm water
Cinnamon and Sugar


In a large mixing bowl add flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir to blend. Add oil, cream and water. Knead to make a dough. Turn out dough mixture on a floured surface and knead. Let dough mixture sit for 30 mins.

Heat 3 in of oil in a saucepan or deep fryer at 375 degrees. Roll dough into an approx. 12x9 rectangle at 1/8 in thick. Cut into 3 in squares. Add squares to hot oil 2-3 at a time. Allow them to puff, then fry to a golden brown. Drain well and serve sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and drizzled with honey.

Makes about 2 dozen Sopaipillas.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Momentum... a....HALT! Once an erratic blip on the radar, beaming red, traversing miles, intersecting frequently with other beeping, buzzing noisy blips on their own trajectories, I have arrived to a central location, dissolving from the screen, an explorer finally forced to explore a place far more overwhelming and menacing than the beautifully chaotic and uncertain great-big-world.


People often wonder how I have no fear when it comes to hopping on a plane and heading off to some faraway place where I don't know a soul, my fate reliant on the kindness of strangers.

Truth is, that kind of not knowing is exciting, fun, character-building - preferable to the kind that breaks me down: the very real, looming fact of not knowing what to do with myself.

So what AM I doing with myself? I'll bite off anyone's head who asks me.

But really, my news is that in the immediate future I am going to work at a summer camp in Spain in June; my last Hurrah in my complete "year of travel". I will have temporarily satisfied my desire to see the world (although let's never forget there's much, much more of it for me to see), but I won't have accomplished my other quest to find answers. With all the traveling I've done, you think I'd learn something about direction.

Well I haven't, so come September, I'll likely go crawling back to DC and continue to search for answers from within the walls of a small cubicle, which, I've determined, is actually slightly better than doing a whole-lotta-nothing here in Baltimore. Maybe that's the answer for right now...the slap in the face I've needed all along - that doing something, even if it's not exactly what you want to be doing, is better than doing nothing at all!

Either way, don't lose hope on me just yet. There's one more trip in the works, one more burst of momentum, excitement... and then maybe... just maybe, I'll be ready to settle.

And then there's always old photos and videos:

Enjoy. I know its kinda cheesy, but this is what you get when living in a sparsely decorated, single-lightbulb bedroom at the ends of the earth with no TV, phone or internet and basic Mac programs for entertainment. Man, do I miss it!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Killing Time

I am drunk. I am in Lima, Peru. I got here at 9 a.m. this morning after a 4 a.m. wake-up to get to the airport in Cusco in time. I am tired.

I have a 16 hour time-span between my flight into Lima and my flight back to the U.S. The first 10 hours I spent in downtown Lima. The next six hours, I will spend drinking at the airport in hopes of facilitating a few hours of sleep on my red-eye flight.

Driving into Lima from the Airport (about a 40 minute taxi ride costing about $5 USD), I found the outer parts of the city to be just as ugly and unimpressive as everyone told me they would be. But when I got to the center, I was pleasantly surprised by a lively Plaza de Armas surrounded by colorful colonial-style buildings and churches, and more surprised to stumble upon the remains of Francisco Pizarro upon entering one of the Catholic churches off of the plaza.
After making my rounds about the center of town, I sat down on a bench at noon to watch the daily "changing of the guards" in front of Lima´s presidential palace. It was a long ceremony with a marching band and a hundred-or-so men in uniform... seemed like a lot of work for a daily ceremony, but entertaining for the hundreds of tourists who had come in hoards from their tour buses.

Afterwards I took a taxi to Miraflores, the "posh" part of town. And I´ve come to learn in South America that "posh" stands for "gringo-fied," which is to say there is Tony Roma´s restaurant and a shopping mall looking over the ocean front in Miraflores.

In the mall, I asked a saleslady where I could get some reasonably priced and good Ceviche, and she sent me walking 30 minutes in the hot humid sun in jeans to find this elusive place. I was getting sweaty and irritable, ready to curse the saleslady, until I actually got to the restaurant, a dark little hole in the wall, typical of Peru, and was served my Ceviche, which, I would say, has to go down as one of the top 10 meals of my life.

After my excellent late-afternoon lunch, I walked back to one of the "gringo-style" oceanfront bars and had a "Machu Picchu" cocktail (it doesn´t get any more cheesy and touristy than that)...made of orange juice, pisco and mint liqueur. Don´t ask me what part of that combination sounds appealing, but somehow it comes together in a bearable way.

Sitting at the bar alone, I was quickly roped into conversation with two 40-something men, one from Brazil, one from Peru, both airline pilots. It was nice to have someone to talk to at least (and buy me free drinks), but I politely declined when they invited me to dinner at the nearby Hooters. Not exactly what I had in mind when coming to see Peru.

I then caught a taxi back to the airport (after bargaining ruthlessly and still getting the ripoff Gringa price), and have 4 more hours to kill before I am on my way home. Airport bar, here I come.

And I almost forgot to mention... last night I finally ate Cuy (Guinea Pig) and that one will have to go down as one of the top 10 WORST meals of my life. Seriously, a horiffic experience, after which, I sat in silence with my dining companions, all of us pondering the full extent of what we had just done, what we had just eaten, and by the end of the meal, practically RAN out of the restaurant and vowed not to discuss the experience until the following day when the "peruvian rat" had passed through our system. hahahahaah

But all is good and fun in the name of new experiences :)

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Main Event?

Last night I boarded the train to Cusco in Aguas Calientes at 5 p.m. My day was complete. My trip was complete. I had finally made it to Machu Picchu.

Nothing could take away from this day. I had woken up at 5 a.m. to the voice of my hotel concierge knocking at my door, "Señorita, Señorita!" Not that it didn´t piss me off because I hate being woken up when its still dark outside... in this case, from the first deep sleep I´ve had all trip. It was the first time in a month that I´d had my very own private hotel room to sleep in, rather than a mixed hostel dorm with drunk people running in and out and loud music blaring outside.

Either way, I had a reason to get out of bed, and by 6 a.m. I was headed up to Machu Picchu. At 7 in the morning, after a winding bus ride 1000 meters up a mountainside, I made my way into the site with the other busloads of tourists I don´t like to associate myself with, only to find the entire site was shrouded in a deep fog. The Inca Trail hiker groups, (who I respect more than the bus and train group) seemed dejected, after 4 full painstaking days scrambling up rocks at a high altitude to reach Machu Picchu, only to arrive to what one hiker sarcastically proclaimed as "Braveheart...enough said."

But by 8 a.m. the fog started to fade, revealing the rocky outlines of the ancient ruins and the tall jagged mountains surrounding them on all sides. When the fog had cleared by 9:30 a.m., it was a sight to behold...this ancient city perched high upon a mountain-top. I began to wonder how the Inca´s did it.

By 10 a.m. I found myself in conversation with a Peruvian trail guide who had led an Inka Trail hike to Machu Picchu, but was not allowed to give tours in Machu Picchu itself. He suggested we climb Wayna Pichu, the tall mountain directly behind Machu Picchu that served as a lookout point over the city, and he would give me a bit of "off the records" info. "Great," I thought, not knowing what I was getting myself into.

At 2,720 Meters high, Wayna Picchu was no walk in the park. The most suitable comparison for climbing this behemoth would be climbing up a 6000 Ft ladder. The trails, cut directly into the rock face were one heck of a workout on the thighs, but even worse was the humidity and altitude, which left me gasping for air and water after every 5 or 10 steps, while my Peruvian guide literally went running up the face of the mountain ahead of me, stopping only to ask if I was ok. That, of course, pissed me off.

The view, however, was worth it. From the top of Wayna Pichu, you can look down on Machu Picchu to see that the city was built in the shape of a Condor (one of three religious symbols of Inca Culture--the other two are Snake and Puma). You are also at eye level with the tops of all the other surrounding mountains which from ground level, seem impossibly high. The feeling is incredible...but the descent, while less physically exhausting, is more life threatening (imagine climbing 6000 feet back down that same ladder with nothing but air and gravity on all sides)

In addition, our Machu Picchu guide had told a story about a Japanese tourist who had thrown a coin into the sacred temple some years back and then fallen while climbing Wayna Picchu. He had survived, but I suppose its a lesson in not upsetting the aura of this place.

Well, someone that day must have messed up in a similar fashion, because, when I thought the day couldn´t possibly get any more eventful than a trip to Machu Picchu, our train back to Cusco stopped in its tracks.

First it was the engine that had given out. Surrounded on 3 sides by mid-20´s male Japanese tourists who were all speaking in Japanese to one another, I had nothing to do except stare idly around the train as we waited 45 minutes before the engine started up again. The whole train cheered when we started moving, but our cheers came too soon. No more than 20 minutes later, we stopped again.

Of course in Peru, no one makes announcements as to why things are happening or what measures are being taken to deal with a situation, so after 5 more minutes of painstaking silence amongst my Japanese seatmates, I got up to talk to a train employee.

"Que esta pasando, Señor?" I asked.

"Hay un derrumbe," he answered.

What is a "derrumbe"? My spanish was failing me and I was tired from my day of hiking. Then it clicked. A landslide. Yes, a landslide of boulders has fallen down from the mountains and covered up the train tracks. We were stranded in the dark in the middle of the Peruvian jungle alongside a river somewhere between Cusco and Machu Picchu until the "machines" came to clean up the boulders. That could take hours.

And it did. Two and a half hours to be exact, by which point people were angry, hungry, restless... At some point, out of boredom, I struck up a conversation with the biggest gringo on the train, a boistrous, loud, overweight american man wearing a Brett Favre jersey and drinking beers. Oh, what was happening, and would this ever end?

An angry Taiwanese man spent at least 45 minutes of that time yelling at the Peruvian employees in broken English, while two angry Columbian girls played the role of "angry in agreement," arms crossed, nodding their heads, eyes fixated with the look of death as the Taiwanese man continued his tirade.

As for me, I accepted the "South American-ness" of the situation, and hung out with some English folk at the "bar," listening to stories of small critters in the Amazonian jungle that can swim up your urine stream and get inside your body, are extremely painful, and can only be removed by surgery.

And on the topic of piss, I wondered, who on this train had pissed off the spirits at Machu Picchu and sent the landslide down the mountain. My vote was for the "Angry Taiwanese man", as a group of English boys deemed him.

We arrived to Cusco at midnight, 3 hours later than schedule, and of course there was no one waiting for me at the station, as my tour company said there would be. So I took a taxi back to my hostel and passed out.

Today is my last day in Cusco. I am getting a massage for 25 Soles--about $8 USD...not only because its cheap, but because with yesterday´s events, I´ve earned it.

Machu Picchu and a landslide in one day? You can´t make this stuff up!

Also, just a picture preview from my trip to San Pedro de Atacama. More to come when I get home:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Aguas Calientes

Today I arrived to the town of Aguas Calientes (which if you couldn't figure it out, means hot waters). And yes, there are hot springs here, which I swam in. They're supposed to have healing powers, but the copious amounts of gringos with unfortunate looking shirt tans (this includes me) drinking Cusqueno--the local beer--from the can, took away from the "medicinal powers" vibe.

Either way, the hot springs seem to have healed up many of my cuts and bruises from various travel mishaps (the most recent happened this morning when I tripped over my luggage storage trunk at 5 a.m. in the dark on zero hours of sleep and cut my shin, while attempting to gather my things for the 6:00 a.m. train departure towards Machu Picchu).

Five hours later, I was in Aguas Calientes, which is a stopping point on the way to the ruins. It is a little town beside a river, surrounded on all sides by majestic green looming mountains, and jungle-like flora and fauna. While the town seems to have been built with the sole purpose of accomodating the mass amounts of tourists that pass through here each day, I am still impressed by the natural beauty of its surroundings--waterfalls, mist-covered green mountain-tops, colorful tropical flowers, and then of course a wealth of dining and nightlife options.

Tomorrow is another early wake-up, as we head at dawn to the ruins, spend the afternoon there, and then return to Cusco by train in the evening.

And just for your amusement, this is the email conversation that ensued with my mom after she read the previous post about the Shaman experience:

Mom: Mer even if the shaman is in don't try any peruvian hallucinogenics...Mom

Me: Lil, they're supposed to "show me the way"... don't you think it would be good for me to figure out my life already? hahahaha. Actually, I more imagine this Shaman trip to be some kind of scary disaster where they take a group of gringos to the mountains, give them sleeping pills disguised in some herbal foul-tasting liquid, steal their money and clothes and leave them naked and stranded in the middle of nowhere, Peru. So unless I talk to someone who's already done it and can vouch for it, I won't be participating. haha.

After some of the stories I've heard... believe me, it could happen!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Final Days in Cusco

Just a quick update as I near my final days in Cusco. Tomorrow I'm headed to Machu Picchu. I am taking the train at 6:20 tomorrow morning to the stop-over in a place called Aguas Calientes. I'll spend Saturday night there and then at dawn the next morning we head up to Machu Picchu. I can't wait. I would have liked to do the 4 day trek, but lacked both the time and the advance reservations (they only issue a certain number of permits to trek Machu Picchu per month for conservation reasons)... so I am doing it two days by train.

Anyways, in the past few days in Cusco, I have walked around town, bought loads of artesanal crap at the local markets, drank and ate things I probably shouldn't have, but am feeling fine. I walked into a large open-air market the other day where there were tons of fresh juice stands and I couldn't resist buying a passion-fruit pineapple combination, despite how shady and unsanitary looking the market may have been :) I have also eaten excellent ceviche, quinoa soup (a local grain), and next on the list is Cuye.

Yesterday I did a day trip into the Sacred Valley, where there are tons and tons of Inca ruins, and today I rode a horse around some more ruins. It was just me and my 18-year old Peruvian trail guide riding today, and he told me all about this excursion people do where they go to the mountains with a Shaman and drink some sort of hallucinogenic plant from the Peruvian jungle, and its supposed to purify you and bring your life into perspective. He took me to the Shaman's house to see if I wanted to do it, but the Shaman wasn't there.

I also learned about medicinal uses from a bunch of types of plants, and crawled through dark scary caves, and am now completely exhausted. The altitude here makes a 5 minute walk feel like 5 miles.

Anyways, in my down time, I have been drinking with Scots from my hostel, dining with French, Irish and Lithuanian folk, and sleeping in my freezing cold hostel with my big new Alpaca wool sweater, which, at the rip-off, Gringa-tax price, still only cost me about $12 USD.

Can't wait to update with stories from Machu Picchu!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Coca Tea, Cuye and Cheap Cameras

All the coca tea I drank yesterday in Arequipa may have prevented altitude sickness during the cliffhanging, high-velocity, barreling-around-thin-mountainside-curves in the rain, overnight bus ride from Arequipa to Cusco, last night, but it did not live up to its other indication of preventing stomach "illness"- if you will.

So welcome to Cusco. I am sick. I am also using an x-brand disposable camera I bought in Arequipa for $10 soles--which comes to about $3 USD. The Peruvian salespeople in an Alpaca wool shop were laughing at me yesterday when I pulled it out.

"Where did you get that, Senora? The Gringos always have very fancy cameras."

Well, between ramshackle bus rides, camping on the beach, using a cheap brand of shampoo as hair-wash, face-wash and body-wash after my toiletries were stolen, my trip has been far from fancy, so I guess the camera suits my style. Not that it doesn't suck or anything, but I have to make light of the situation.

And its my fault. Rolling around in the dust and sand of the San Pedro de Atacama desert while wasted was probably not the best idea, for me or for my camera.

Anyways, here in Peru, I'm on a high. I'm going to see Machu Picchu tomorrow or the next day. And camera or no camera, I'm sure it's going to be an incredible experience.

Arequipa was a very nice surprise as well. I thought I'd just be passing through a small mountainside town on my way to Cusco, only to discover that Arequipa has more than a million inhabitants. Far different from Chile, everything has its own Peruvian feel to it. The Spanish is easier to understand, the people more reserved, the food is excellent (still considering whether I will eat Cuye--Guinea Pig--a Peruvian delicacy) and the shopping even better--particularly because things that would sell for about $30-50 in the U.S. are about $7-15 in Peru. Yes, I went a little crazy yesterday.

I met up with a German girl, Nora, who I'd met on the bus the day before and who was living in Arequipa for the year, to explore the town for the day. Now I wish I'd given myself much more time in Peru.

Oh well, I guess I'll just have to come back someday :)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Still Standing...Somehow

I woke up in Arica with a cookie in my hand. It was 6:20 a.m. and my 11-hour bus ride from Calama had arrived an hour ahead of schedule. The bus attendant was ripping my blanket and pillow away from me before I had even opened my eyes.

A somewhat rude awakening (minus the cookie part) if you ask me, but I didn´t mind, seeing as ir was a bona-fide wake-up call rather than the usual polite interruption to my typical routine of tossing and turning restlessly on any form of public transportation. For once, I had slept through the whole ride, and for me that was a miracle.

Two days and nights in the San Pedro de Atacama Desert had done the trick I sometimes surprise myself with just how much abuse my body can withstand.
As our tour (which turned out to be excellent) departed from the Chilean port city of Antofagasta on Wednesday morning, our guide suggested we drink a lot of water--in addition to his warnings the night before not to eat a heave meal and to skip the drinking and carousing until 6 a.m. which had become protocol on the tour. We were going to go from sea level up to 3600 Meters in a single day, and all the suggested self-control was to avoid altitude sickness.
As it turned out, my good behavior paid off and I made it into the dusty, charming, swarming with tourists desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, feeling at the top of my game. After visiting the Flamingo reserve and watching the sunset over the lagoons there, we made it to our hostel and then went for dinner.
Over dinner, I talked a fellow American and an Irish couple from our tour, into doing a sandboarding trip with me early the following morning. Many beers later, plus one late-night. Chilean house party, followed by drinking around a campfire until the sun came up, I, the Sandboarding expedition instigator, slept through my big plans for the day. Oops.
The day was not lost though. So I let down the Irish couple, who ended up doing the trip alone, but after a much-needed post-noon brunch, I dragged my dehydrated, hungover self on a mountain-bike ride with two English girls and a South African guy from my tour. I rode for an eternity in the hot desert sun to see a breathtaking gorge and some ancient ruins.
Later that day, on 3 hours of sleep, I felt miraculously ok, and proceeded to do some adrenaline pumping rock climbing, followed by a short caving adventure through tiny dark spaces, and then finally to climb up some massive sand dunes to watch the sun go down in Valle de La Luna--where Pink Floyd once filmed a concert.

An Incredible day indeed followed by an equally incredible night--starting with dinner and a live native music band, typical from the Atacama region--which resulted in the group cheering me on to oblige the invite from the waiter to dance with him in front of everyone. I danced until my knees were shaking (which didn´t take long after my exhausting day) and thought about calling it an early night, but once again stayed up drinking Piscola (Pisco and Coke) from a communal bottle until 6 a.m. when the final embers of the campfire went out and the sun started to come up.

The next morning I left the tour, which was heading back down south towards Santiago, and once again I was traveling Chilean style. A friend of mine from Santiago, Juan Andres, met up with me in San Pedro and took me to his family´s house in what is arguably the worst city in all of Chile-- Calama-- which is famous for the three "P´s"

Polvo, Perros y Prostitutas

(Dust, Dogs and Prostitutes)

After "tomando once" (Chilean light dinner) in Calama, I caught an overnight bus to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, and also a beach town, where I met up with a Juan Andres´s friend, Pablo.

Pablo and his friends and family showed me around town and made me feel completely at home--and of course I spent another late night, this time as an awkward Gringa trying to dance to latino music at the biggest club in Arica, where we went to celebrate Pablo´s friend´s birthday. Yet again I went to bed as the sun was coming up, and after 3 hours of sleep, I had lunch with Pablo and his family, and was then on my way to Peru, on what, I didn´t realize was going to be one of the most extremely uncomfortable bus rides I´ve had in a long time.

The early departure to the Peruvian city of Arequipa was already full, so I agreed to travel on the economy bus, which took two hours longer, made frequent stops, smelled of burning rubber, and was perhaps just one step above riding with chicken crates. So I exaggerate, but I was cramped as sin, since I had chosen to put my large backback in the seat row with me, forcing me to sit with my knees drawn up against my chest for the first hour of the ride until I found a way to extend my legs to the floor without bothering the guy next to me. Worth it? Most likely. I had heard a horror story from an Australian traveler I´d met in Santiago, that his entire pack had been stolen from the luggage storage beneath a bus in Bolivia, and he was traveling for the next 6 months with the clothes on his back.

Anyways, 7 hours later, smelly, sore and tired as hell, here I am in Arequipa, Peru-- and am hoping I don´t get sick to my stomach with the water here, especially since, along with my passport, all of my medicine was stolen too.

Tomorrow night I head to my final destination, Cusco, to see Machu Picchu.

Unfortunately my camera didnt survive the San Pedro de Atacama desert quite as successfully as I did, so hopefully I can get my hands on a disposable one!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Destined for the Desert!

Tomorrow ends my week of suffering in the stifling heat of Santiago. Ok, so it hasn't been all bad. I got to spend time with friends, see a bit more of the city and relax. Unfortunately I also had a lot of down time to freak out about my passport getting robbed.

But I got my new passport today. No, it was not an easy process at all. After my 3 day wait, I got my passport and then had to go to the International Police on the ghetto side of Santiago in order to get a new tourist stamp, thereby allowing me to leave the country. The 50 yr old police chief attending, was eager to set things right. I was pleased with the attentive service until he started asking me where I went out at night and finally asked me on a date. Good thing I had the excuse that I was leaving Santiago tomorrow...

Tomorrow morning I'm heading north to the San Pedro de Atacama desert (apparently the driest desert in the world--too bad my chapstick and moisturizer were stolen...) on a tour that stops in a few interesting Chilean cities along the way. Ok, so normally I don't dig the tour thing... but for safety's sake I think its time I ditch the anti- "stereotypical tourist" sentiments and see how this goes.

I'm excited, now that everything's in place. Northern Chile, here I come!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The W Part Deux: Las Condes

Dear Passport: how I miss you!

You had me running around like a maniac yesterday, and I think I walked, at least 5 hours in the hot sun--at least.

I woke up around 9:30 a.m. and called the U.S. embassy, who said that they were only open until 11:30 a.m. and that I needed to bring 2 passport sized photos with me to get a new one.

Crap! I raced out of my friend´s house without even brushing my teeth. Time was ticking. It takes about an hour to get anywhere from Nunoa, the neighborhood where my friend lives in Santiago... jumping from bus to metro to metro. I HAD to get this passport application in today. I would eventually need to get out of this country.

10:00 a.m. Ran to a local photo shop.

10:20 a.m. Passport photos: Check!

10:20-10:55 a.m. Waited for a bus FOREVER,

11:10 a.m. Finally got to the metro and made it to my stop

I had 15 minutes to find the U.S. Embassy in Las Condes. But of course the U.S. isn´t going to make it easy for anyone to do anything, right?

11:10-11:15 a.m. desperately ask street vendors and passersby if they know where the Embassy is. NO DICE.

11:15-11:25 a.m. Walk 10 minutes in the wrong direction.

11:25-11:40 a.m. Practically run to the embassy and almost cry to the security guards because I´m 10 minutes late. They take pity on me and let me go in. SWEET!

11:40-12:40 p.m. Wait for my number to be called

12:40 p.m. They lady at the desk tells me my photos are too small and I'll have to come back tomorrow with new, larger photos, which are only used by the U.S. and Canada.

This cannot really be happening right? I almost cry again and the lady takes pity on me. She tells me to go get new photos now and come back at 3 p.m.

1:00 p.m. I walk to the photo place the embassy recommends and IT´S CLOSED. You´ve got to be kidding me.

1:05-2:00 p.m. Walk and walk and walk and walk and walk looking for a place that takes passport photos.

2:00 p.m. FINALLY find one. Get pics taken. Am starving and eat street food.

3:00 p.m. Get back to embassy and get papers and photos in.


On the way home, the metro brakes suddenly and the lights go out. The speaker says in Spanish: "For security reasons, we have had to shut down the metro"

"Security reasons??" Is there a bomb threat? Mini-panic ensues. It´s all over. Would the powers that be really allow this day to have been my final day? Are they sitting up there laughing? My heart is racing.

2 minutes go by. What kind of sick joke.... and then the lights go back on. I am fine.

I am fine. And I am going to keep traveling because things can only get better from here....

Monday, February 18, 2008

Civilization Sucks

I know Chile. I know its people. I know it´s language and it´s customs. I know what the evening breeze off the Andes mountains feels like. I know what a pisco sour tastes like. In the last week, I´ve eaten more empanadas than I can count. I´ve lived here, dividing my time between Chile´s most educated and Chile´s most in-need.

But I don´t fit in. I´ve gotten used to being stared at on the Metro. I hardly feel it anymore. I surprise cashiers when I speak to them clearly in Spanish. I guess I fail to realize that all they see is a Gringa. They don´t suspect I´ve lived here or know much of anything at all about what´s going on around me. I proved them right last night at the bus station.

After boarding my 11:30 overnight bus last night to La Serena, a beach town 7 hours north of Santiago, I finally relaxed. Bus terminals are like mine-fields for tourists getting robbed. But I was careful. I kept my bags well guarded.

Did I expect that the bus company would allow people on the bus without a ticket? No.... And I certainly didn´t expect someone to follow me onto the bus without a ticket, wait until my guard was down, and run off with my carry-on.

But that´s what happened... and I´ve lost my passport--my passport with 10 years worth of stamps in it. 2 visas. A special stamp from Ushuaia that says Fin del Mundo. All gone, along with all of my jewelry, toiletries, medicine, and 2 pairs of shoes.

Is that what I get for being crazy enough to travel alone? Let´s hope not.

I got off the bus before it left last night, one bag less, and proceeded to fight with the bus company who refused to take responsiblity for the stolen backpack and who also refused to pay me back for the price of the ticket.

I´m now in Santiago, waiting.... I need a new passport before I can get out of here but the embassy was closed today. I hope I can lift my spirits again in order to enjoy the rest of this trip.

Oh, and since my camera cord has been stolen (thank god not the camera itself), I won´t be able to post any pics til I get home :(

But keep reading. Things can only get better from here, right?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Back to Civilization

Just a quick update since I have been completely cut off from civilization for the last few days. I was headed towards a beach town called Pichilemu with a Chilean friend of mine, and we stopped for a night in a one-horse, no internet, no cell-phone-service town called Estrella to visit a friend, and ended up spending much longer than anticipated there.

In that time, I have eaten every single meal completely fresh... watermelon straight from the gardern, freshly picked organic tomatoes, onions, chili peppers... right down to the freshly killed animals I would have been rude to turn down while staying in the home of some very friendly Chileans... a lamb, a chicken, and my first time eating rabbit that had, yikes!, been hunted the night before by my friends. Well, an experience nonetheless... living the rustic life and learning to value exactly where our food comes from.

Anyways, I am at the beach now... Pichilemu is a ramshackle beach town on the pacific, famous for its excellent surfing, with dark sand and craggy cliffs. I may just give surfing a go while I´m here. Also, on the topic of food, I just ate $1 ceviche from a beach-front stand (for those of you who dont know, ceviche is raw seafood)...and only time will tell if I react to it with violent illness... but it was oh so good and so fresh with its lemon and cilantro.

haha ok won´t waste any more time in front of the computer. Off to the beach I go!