Thursday, June 30, 2011

Respiro la Niebla

I said I didn't want to float through my life. I came to South America, and now I'm running to keep up with it. It's a marathon that I have all the enthusiasm and motivation for, but I'm starting to lose my breath and the soles of my shoes are wearing thin. I can see the finish line and I'm called to it, and at the same time, I wish this last stretch would never end.

I had the very good fortune to fly home at the end of last month for my best friend's wedding. I had been looking forward to it as homesickness started hitting me a couple of weeks before. I was expecting a much needed water break, a few days of recuperation to finish strong. But it turned out to be a race in and of itself. It started with an interrogation at the airport in Lima. Laden down with the weight of a 45 liter backpack and equally large duffle bag plus my personal carry-on, I excitedly waddled up to the door of the airport. However, I was accosted by two apparently very bored airport employees who asked to see my passport. “Ok, but you’re kind of killing the mood…” I thought. I heard them whispering about the fact that my passport had been stamped for the maximum possible number of days, which to them is reason enough to suspect a ridiculously overpacked young gringa of some serious wrongdoing. But, after a good 15 minutes of questioning ranging from what I was studying and where I was going to school, to where, when, and by whom my bags were packed, I was allowed to continue on, though certainly less enthusiastic and confident than before.

Nonetheless, before I knew it I was back in Texas fighting the instinct to say “Gracias” and “Disculpa” in place of “Thanks” and “Excuse me.” What a relief it was to realize that asking a simple question no longer required that I plan out the question before hand. To drink water from the tap, flush my toilet paper instead of throwing it in a trashcan, prepare my own food exactly how I like it… what luxuries. And how luxurious, too, were those long nights passed with my family and friends reliving the past and looking excitedly toward the future. Four almost sleepless nights later, I found myself walking through those big glass double doors again. A mixture of physical and emotional exhaustion left me a weepy blob slumped in my seat by the window, trying to contain myself for the sake of the very uncomfortable California hippy with the misfortune of sharing an armrest with me. I had eleven hours to collect myself before we descended through dark clouds toward the expansive, dimly lit city below, slicing through its infamous layer of smog. Home.

Winter in Lima is the stuff of horror films. It becomes a city set in a cloud, except instead of bright and heavenly, this cloud blocks the sun so that it’s not seen for weeks at a time. It is perpetually wet and cold, misting all day long but without the satisfaction of actual rain. I spent the week doing nothing in particular except looking forward to the upcoming weekend where my study abroad group would take our final trip together.

Junín: A district to the east of Lima where the mountains and hills of the highlands slowly, almost stealthily, metamorphose into lush jungle. Twelve hours, 209 miles, 29 tunnels, and 58 bridges in the highest passenger train in the world would bring us to the industrial center of Junín--a city named Huancayo. My romantic ideals about traversing the countryside by train were quickly shaken out of me by the cars' violent rocking that did not cease until we reached our final destination. Instead of relaxing in my reclined leather seat, contentedly sipping my coffee and letting my mind float through the valleys below, I stumbled and swayed down the aisle like a drunken one-legged pirate, trying to make my way to the bathroom to clean the instant coffee off of my pants. However, a sanctuary awaited me in the very last car, where the open layout gave me an uninhibited view and a place to breathe in the fresh mountain air.

Naturally, after an entire day spent eating train food (use your imagination) and an assortment of our own sugary snacks, we were all craving a real meal when we arrived in Huancayo that night. Unfortunately or fortunately, Huancayo isn't exactly designed for tourists. But those of us who weren't willing to settle on fast food chicken or pizza managed to follow our noses to a lively spot with a big dance floor and live music and dance. Being the only gringos inside, we were easy targets for the invite-an-audience-member-to-dance portion of the show. But while reluctant at first, we continued to dance for several songs after the performers left the stage with our own fusion of traditional Peruvian, classic 80s and 90s, modern interpretive, and just plain ridiculous dance moves. Making America proud wherever we go.

We woke up early the next morning to get started on a full day of exploring. We walked through small, sunny plazas and white churches set into the rocky mountainside, marveled at the mariposaria swimming with butterflies, breathed in the sweet aroma of the coffee factory in the jungle, and were transfixed by the view out the bus window--the earth transforming from sprawling villages settled into the sunny, temperate valleys to rich, dense, deep rainforest. We stopped about midday and hiked a little into the jungle, right along the trickling river, to a roaring waterfall where we waded in its icy waters and awed at its strength. We left shivering and red, but exhilarated. So while we should have collapsed into our hotel beds that night, instead we sat out by the pool and relived the day over steaming mugs of mate de coca.

I woke up refreshed the next morning, took my breakfast, only cheating on my diet a little, and then set out to explore the little jungle town. That took a total of three minutes, as the only signs of life were the hotel guests, a few passing mototaxis, and a cheery old man desperately selling bottled drinks and desserts out of a wooden roadside shack. With nothing else to do, I sat under the shade of the man's tin roof, chatting and eating homemade snacks of questionable age and quality. Then after spending the next few hours remembering the feeling of the sun on my skin, I said goodbye and reluctantly headed back into the perpetual Lima city fog.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Apresúrate Despacio

Dear Blog: I know
that I have been neglecting you recently, but don't think that it's because you're not important to me. You are, really. I've just been a little preoccupied lately, that's all. You say, "But, Emily. All of your other friends have been faithfully attending to their journals each day, without fail." Well, if it makes you feel any better, Blog, I've been ignoring Journal, too.

I wasn't kidding about going to the Amazon in my last post. Do you want to hear about it?

Well, I'll tell you anyway.

It was super dulce. (
I'm trying to bring that to Perú. It hasn't caught on yet.) Our big group of gringos headed to the airport together around 5am?? and after a quick 1-1.5hr plane ride (nap), we found ourselves in Iquitos by... 9am?? (Blog and Journal are taunting me right now... I remember all of the important stuff, ok?!) Anyway, so it was another two hour bus ride and two hour boat ride to our lodge. I remember this specifically because while everyone else slept, I enjoyed one of my favorite things about traveling. The places in between places. As many shitty bus rides as I've experienced, still, for me, nothing can beat just staring out the window as the strange world flits by--catching glimpses of lives I'll never know.

We spent a lot of time on t
he river that weekend, spotting all sorts of different plants and animals like monkeys, sloths, parrots, bats, lizards, iguanas, pirhanas, poison dart frogs, gigantic termite nests, boa constrictors... etc., etc. And while all of that was absolutely fascinating, I think what I enjoyed more was visiting the villages along the riverside, talking to the people, listening to their stories and learning from them. And, of course, "supporting the local economy" (get excited for presents, fam). Oh, and I swam in the Amazon! So cool! We were advised to stay in a certain area because apparently the current was "really strong," or some nonsense like that. It couldn't be that bad, right? So me and a couple of the boys decided to quietly float downriver to the area where we had seen the dolphins just a little while before. And just about as soon as we left the bay area, we realized we weren't really swimming anymore, but being carried instead. The locals that we had just floated past enjoyed laughing at us as we frantically worked to get back into the safe zone before we were dumped somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. So after slowly and laboriously making our way back, we hopped up on a log to catch our breath for a moment and recover from the ordeal. We had been sitting for no more than a couple of minutes when I looked over and noticed a spider the size of my palm resting calmly on the back of one of the boys' legs. Of course, my natural response, instead of helping him or using words, was to yell nonsense and point. He then proceeded to flick the spider right into my horrified face. And that was when we decided that we had had enough swimming for one day.

Before catching our fligh
t back, I had the opportunity to wander around Iquitos for a while. Iquitos is a fascinating city. Whole neighborhoods of crooked houses on stilts teeter above the water just off the bank, surely about to slide right in at any moment. Between the stilts glide flat, narrow boats filled with people going to and from their homes, often jumping in to swim and escape the heat of the sun for a while. Just two blocks away from these floating neighborhoods where people drink from and swim in the same water that they throw their waste into, are huge, incredibly intricate and beautiful colonial buildings, gorgeous churches, and even a striking steel building built by Gustave Eiffel, the same man who built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. During the rubber boom in the 19th century, wealthy Europeans invested beaucoups of money (yeah, I had to look that one up... I've never had to spell beaucoups before) into the city and then once that was over, it fell into poverty once again. Kind of a sad story, but it makes for a really interesting place.

Exactly four days aft
er returning from the Amazon, we departed once again, this time for Cusco. Honestly, the first time I went to Cusco, I was underwhelmed. Even at Machu Picchu. Maybe my expectations were too high because of all the hype it gets, but either way, the whole thing felt staged. Being shuffled around in a wave of other tourists and guides yelling over one another through Incan ruins that have always seemed so tranquil in the photos was not exactly what I had expected. But even going in with such a negative outlook, I wound up having an extremely profound experience at Machu Picchu and making some great memories with my friends in Cusco. At the ruins, instead of climbing Wayna Picchu like I had done last time, we wound up climbing the larger Machu Picchu mountain. For some reason, Wayna Picchu is the much more popular and desired route, maybe because its access is limited to 400 people a day. But if you ever make it to Machu Picchu, I definitely suggest the other alternative instead. Machu Picchu is a longer trek to the top, but the trail is surrounded by green forest and butterflies flit between the dozens of different varieties of orchids that line the path. Every turn reveals a different but equally breathtaking view of the ruins or the river valley or the surrounding mountains. We climbed early in the morning while the fog was still heavy and we had the whole mountain to ourselves. At the summit, I found a small ledge off the side of the mountain overlooking the river that I could just see between the slowly dissipating clouds. I took the opportunity to hang back a while and let the group go on ahead of me. I soaked up the complete silence that is almost impossible to find in the bustling metropolis of Lima. My peaceful isolation took on a new light as I was climbing back to the path and took a peek over my shoulder at the edge of the mountain at my heels... Another wise decision made. But I was fine, no need to worry, Dad!

My time in Cusco was spent
visiting approximately a thousand churches, a dozen plazas of varying sizes, a chocolate museum!, and the colorful artesenia markets. Given that it was Semana Santa (Easter weekend), some sort of festivity or procession seemed to be happening at all times. When all seemed to be still, I would turn the corner and find a new plaza with a crowd of people dancing around waving white handkerchiefs, or a simple group of parishioners at dusk following a crucifix with candles in hand, singing a familiar hymn. I went to mass in the morning on Sunday and could hardly make it past the doors of the largest cathedral in South America. I managed to find a place where I could see the altar and was even able to receive Communion, but then found that the only way out after mass was to let myself be pulled along with a hundred other people squeezing their way out of the crowd of people that had already arrived for the next mass. To say the least, I left Cusco for the second time with a totally different perspective on it than the first time.

My housemate's dad is visiti
ng her this week so yesterday we went with him and our Peruvian parents to Caral, the ruins of the oldest civilization in the Americas. Just a quick day trip, or so we thought. We left the house at 9:30am, took a taxi to the center of Lima, got on a bus, discovered that it was the wrong bus, argued with the employees at the bus station, got on the right bus, rode three hours to the small town of Barranca, ate lunch, took a taxi to Supe which took about an hour and a half, then another taxi from there to the ruins, another hour and a half. By then, it was too late to walk through the ruins and we were only allowed to walk up to the mirador to get a birds-eye view of the whole ancient city. Then after about an hour, we did the whole thing in reverse. We got back around 10:30pm covered in sand from the wind. I quickly showered and got to studying for my exam the next morning at 8am. Super hectic day but one spent laughing and talking with my family, learning from them, and seeing the gorgeous agricultural areas of coastal Perú.

A lot of my time has been occupied with traveling around Perú but I have a life here in Lima too! But I can't say that it's at all stable. I don't really have a daily routine or even a concrete group of friends. Every day is different. Different people, different places, different experiences. Some days I'll come home expecting a relaxing evening after a long day of classes and find fifty p
eople in the house for a surprise birthday party or a baby shower complete with clowns and keyboard players. Or I will have some Friday or Saturday free and decide to go to Miraflores to see some art exhibits and end up in San Isidro instead. Or I will go to the Center of Lima for a book fair at the Palacio de Gobierno and end up being shown around the black market of books instead. Nothing ever happens the way that I expect. The only constant seems to be getting lost on the way home. But I've learned to expect it and just enjoy the hour long walk home from wherever I unintentionally end up. While it's always an adventure, the exhaustion has managed to catch up to me. Not sleeping, not understanding what's going on in class, getting lost on the way to or from somewhere, combined with the pressure to "take advantage" of my time here leaves me totally physically and emotionally drained at times. But it's nothing that a good cry, a talk with your mom, and a 13-hour night's sleep can't fix.

My time here is winding
down so fast. I have only two months left here, which seems like nothing since the first three passed like lightening. When I'm back in the States for good (or at least for another year or so) I know that all I'll have left of this are photos, a few striking memories, and the rest will disappear or distort with time. I have this overwhelming desire to take each moment, each sound, each smell, each taste, every detail and know it by heart so I'll never lose it. I suppose that's impossible but after it's over, I hope I can appreciate this time as one of those images that fly by my bus window--beautiful in its impermanence.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Remember that time when I promised that I would post on my blog every week? HA.

I'm here in Perú during an extremely exciting, but also very emotional, time. Perú is in the process of electing it's next president. Since I've arrived I've heard endless discussion about who is the best candidate and why and who is most likely to win. Every person in Perú is required to vote by law so people are very involved and knowledgeable about politics. There are two rounds of elections: one to narrow the candidates down from eleven to two, and then another to select the next president out of those two. The first round of votes took place last Sunday and I actually got to go with my host mom and siblings to vote. Pretty uneventful, but interesting nonetheless. Then we had a big barbecue at our house with my host mom's sister and her family. The meal basically consisted of an array of meat and I think there was some bread, too. Oh, and octopus, which again, we (yes, we) ate with a mayonnaise/olive sauce. Yum?

Anyway, so we played an interesting game of charades that evening and then gathered around the fuzzy TV to watch the results of the election. As they were announced, I could feel the heavy weight of disappointment descend slowly upon millions of Peruvians. These are the candidates that they have to choose from in June:

Ollanta Humala: A leftist military man who many compare to Hugo Chávez. In fact, Hugo Chávez endorsed Humala's campaign. Many expect that if he wins the election and gains power, he will try to turn Perú into a socialist nation and become a dictator who will refuse to leave office at the end of his term.

Keiko Fujimori: You might recognize this name. Keiko's father was the president just two terms ago during the financial crisis and the age of terrorism brought about from Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path). By the end of his term, he fled back to Japan at which time it was revealed that his Peruvian birth certificate was forged. Alan Garcia, the current president, headed a campaign to extradite Fujimori from Japan, which they were unable to do. Finally in 2009, Fujimori was convicted for charges including embezzlement, human rights violations, murder, and kidnapping, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison... And now Perú is about to elect his daughter for president because she's actually the BETTER candidate for president.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Other than that, I've been doing a bit of traveling. I went with my program to Ica and Paracas the weekend before last. Ica is an oasis in the middle of the desert where I enjoyed talking to all of the hippies making their way through Perú to other places in South America. We stayed at a pretty sweet resort where we hung out by the pool and went sand boarding and sand... duning? in the desert. That night was Justin's birthday so of course, we had to go out and celebrate. Our 20-something year-old senses allowed us to quickly sniff out the nearest discoteca and dance the night away in an all but abandoned nightclub in the middle of the desert. All of us then enjoyed dragging ourselves out of bed at 6 in the morning for an early breakfast before we headed on to Paracas. Paracas is the area around Pisco--a port city on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Just a short boat ride from Pisco are the Islas Ballestas which are home to thousands of sea lions, pelicans, penguins, and even a few dolphins. I marveled at the impossibly huge and noisy groups of sea lions basking on the rocky islands despite the nausea partly brought on by the rough sea and partly brought on by the numerous beers consumed the night before. Apparently, I wasn't alone (see photo).

The next weekend, when my housemate and a few friends went to Ayacucho, I opted to stay behind and enjoy some much needed alone time. I headed out that weekend to see the museums and parks I'd been dying to visit since I'd arrived to Lima. I wandered around Barrio Chino (China Town), explored the huge markets displaying colorful, exotic fruits on one side and large varieties of meats hanging in the open air from hundreds of metal hooks on the other. I stumbled upon an organic foods festival and tried a thousand varieties of quinua, grains, fruits, honeys, and piscos from all over Perú. I went to the Palacio de Gobierno where Yale University has GRACIOUSLY (note the sarcasm) allowed Perú to display the priceless artifacts from Machu Picchu for one week that they have refused to give back for almost 100 years. I sat at the beach in Barranco and hung out with a group of hippies while they practiced their juggling tricks. I bought an earring with feathers in it from one of them. He told me that the feathers came from the Amazon, though they sure looked like pigeon feathers to me...

That was Saturday night, and by 5:30 it was starting to get dark. Since I started my day in Miraflores at 7am to catch Ciclodia (every Sunday, the city closes down one of the major streets in Lima and only allows pedestrians on foot, bike, or skates), I decided to go ahead and call it a night. The only problem was that I didn't exactly know how to get back home. But I wasn't worried and I wasn't in a hurry. I simply sat in the park and watched the buses go by until I found one that I thought might get me to my neighborhood. I figured that even if I got on the wrong bus, worst case scenario, I would just hop off somewhere and grab a taxi or try another bus. So I saw one that read "Javier Prado" and "Guardia Civíl." Perfecto! I hopped on, confident that I had found a workable bus to get me at least to walking distance of my house. As I sat uncomfortably, but confidently and contentedly, I let my mind wander and take in the sights of Lima as we passed it by. But whilst appreciating, I started noticing a lot of things that I had never noticed before. And then a neighborhood that I had never seen before. Turns out, Guardia Civil is a very long street that, when taken in the opposite direction from my neighborhood, actually leads up to one of the poorest shanty towns in Lima. Yep. One of those clusters of monotone earth-colored shacks settled into the hillside with tin roofs and dirt roads.

"Well, maybe they're just going to drop people off and then circle around back to my neighborhood," I conjectured. "Nope. Still climbing. Ok. I am obviously on the wrong bus, but still, nothing to fear. I will simply pay for an extra trip and ride the bus back down to Barranco where I got on." Meanwhile, darkness descends swiftly upon the city (haha). And as we climb, more and more people are getting off the bus, and no one is getting back on. Finally, I am the last person on board and the bus pulls into a kind of "station," which was actually just a small hut with a bunch of other buses parked around it. The driver puts the bus in park, turns it off, and then notices me in the back. "Where are you supposed to be going?" "Um... San Borja?" Puzzled, yet humored, "San Borja?" Then I commenced trying to explain myself in Spanish and ask them what I should do. Apparently, no more buses would be heading back to Lima that night and the taxis aren't safe. Great. So he instructed me to stay put, and while he and the other drivers discussed and pointed and laughed at the poor gringa, she quietly grabbed a few Soles and stuffed them in her bra, just in case. Turns out, it was completely unnecessary because once again, I was shown why Perú is known for the friendliness of its people. My driver and his cobrador boarded the bus and set off for San Borja. Although their jobs were finished for the night, they made another route just for me, made sure I knew where I was going when I got to my stop, and didn't even make me pay for my ticket. Plus, I got some unforgettable views of the city from that hill and got to sit in the very front seat next to the driver, which I'd always wanted to do!

Before I came to Lima the first time, I was really nervous about seeing it and hating it and then having to spend the next five months in a city that I despised. Luckily, all of the unflattering things I had heard about Lima I hardly noticed. I've been too much in awe of the kindness of the people, the gorgeous architecture, the art, music, and dance, the perfectly green parks which seem to pop up around every corner, the world-famous food... Gosh, there's so much more to tell. However, I do have to get up very early tomorrow to head to the AMAZON! Woohoo! But really, I have to leave at 4am. Another update soon to follow, I promise.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sí, claro, claro... Oh, you were asking me a question?

Sorry for the long delay, folks. My schedule here is much fuller than I ever expected it to be. But I want to take the time while I have it this morning to tell you all about the life that I've more or less settled into here in Lima.

But first, I added up all the time that I've spent traveling just that first month from Dallas, TX to Lima, and I think you'll be as astounded as I was:

161.5 hours.

That's almost an entire week of my five weeks in South America sitting in some sort of transportation vehicle. 112.5 of those hours were spent on a bus. The rest were in plane, train, boat, or car. Disgusting, no? Traveling cheap has its drawbacks.

Mi familia:

Pepe- Mi padre Peruana, a short, stout man with a toothy grin and bright white hair. He speaks with energy, loads of expression, and the best sound effects I've ever heard. It makes him very entertaining to listen to even when I can't understand what he's saying. He is a lover of modern art, theater, and the cinema. Many evenings have been spent with him out at independent film festivals, art galleries, theater productions, and last week, an international guitar festival. He loves to tell me and my housemate, Vanessa, all about the history of the city; he sits us down in front of a map and tells us which neighborhoods are dangerous, which ones have the best museums, the best parks, the best restaurants, the best beaches, how much a cab should cost to each place or which buses to take to each neighborhood, etc. Last week he gave me a section of the Peruvian newspaper here with instructions to pick an article to read and then discuss with him later to work on my Spanish.

Carmela- Mi madre Peruana, an extremely warm and generous woman with a bright white smile and a kind spirit. She loves to surprise me with a vase of fresh flowers in my room every now and then. It seems like every day there is a new, exotic Peruvian fruit in the fruit bowl because she knows how much I love the fruit here. Every friend I've introduced her to she's invited to come over whenever they want and to help themselves to any of the food in the kitchen. This weekend, she threw a party for Vanessa and I and all of our friends with a huge feast of Peruvian food, deserts, and drinks--her and Sara (who I'll introduce next) cooked for twenty people. She loves to hear all about my life, my friends, my classes, so Vanessa and I have a lot of fun trying to come up with words in our limited vocabulary to describe them.

Sara- Domestic servant, a small woman (couldn't be more than 5' tall), quiet as a mouse, but upbeat and kind. Apparently, domestic servants are very common here, but it definitely is taking me some getting used to. It's a strange feeling to have someone clean my room, do my laundry, and cook all my meals, but not eat with the family or go to the theater with us. But she is well-loved here and was affectionately introduced to me the first day as "Sarita."

Sandra- Carmela and Pepe's daughter, 28 years old, always at work or shopping or at the discotecas (clubs). I rarely see her except maybe in the morning at breakfast, though she is very sweet and has given Vanessa and I lot of advice about which discotecas to go to and where we can find the cheapest clothes. It's typical here to live with your family until you are married or even after you marry (see below). For this reason, the families are very close but each member usually has their own schedule so meals are left out on the stove to be eaten whenever is convenient.

Lorenzo (or just Renzo?)- Carmela and Pepe's son, 30-ish years old, married to Carola. Vanessa and I had been calling him Lorenzo for the past three weeks until we started noticing that no one else calls him Lorenzo, just Renzo. Everyone has a nickname here so we're not really sure if this is his nickname or his actual name, and which one we're supposed to be calling him. In fact, I just found out yesterday that Pepe's real name is Jose. Anyway, Lorenzo is one of my favorite people I've met here. He's got a thunderous laugh and a permanent smile and a fantastic sense of humor. Even when I don't get the joke, I can't help but laugh. He loves to tease me about one night when I accidentally pointed to the wrong state when I was trying to show him where Nevada was. He also tries to convince me that I'm eating dog or rat a lot. Oh, and he's got fantastic taste in music, which makes long, cramped car rides to the beach a ton of fun with him.

Carola- Lorenzo's wife, 28-ish, petite and fit, extremely intelligent, patient, and kind. Some of her family lives in Miami so she speaks a little bit of English, though she won't unless I really don't know one of the words or don't understand what someone is trying to say. Her and Lorenzo are a lovely couple and they both live in the house with us, as well. They tend to spend more time with the family so I am closer to them than Sandra and her boyfriend.

Pepo- The most loved dog in the world. A giant, calm golden retriever of ambiguous age (every time I ask I get a different answer). He is a vital member of the family and the life of every party. I always know when one of my family members comes home because the sound of their greeting to Pepo rings through the house: "Pepooooo! Hola, Pepo! Hola! Como estas?! Ohhhhhh, Pepito, perritooooo, ohhh, buenisimo perrito bonito!" Or some variation of this.

A few things I've learned about the Peruvian culture, the people, and Lima itself:

Every surface of the city of Lima seems to be covered in propaganda for one of the eleven candidates for the presidential election that will take place here in April. There is no main political party here, but the favor seems to be divided more or less evenly between seven of the candidates. Everyone in Peru is required to vote starting at age 18. When you vote, a stamp is put on the back of your identification card and if you don't have this stamp, many businesses such as banks are required to refuse you service. You must also pay a fine should you choose not to vote. In addition, two days preceding voting day, consumption or sale of alcohol is prohibited throughout Lima, though apparently there is a fair amount of bootlegging or sneaking in the back door of bars or clubs.

Speaking of discotecas, they're so much more fun here than they are in the States. For one, Peruvians love 80's and 90's American music. It's been really fun to sing along to songs from my childhood with Peruvians and then attempt to try to translate them. There are also electronic/techno discotecas and salsa discotecas. And all of the men here love to dance and are great at it. My friends explained that if you don't know how to dance, you're not a man.

In addition to 80's and 90's American music, I have found that interestingly enough that Three and a Half Men is the most popular TV show here. I don't think I know anyone in the States that watches that show. Oh, and they also love Charlie Chaplin. Awesome, but pretty random. I see posters and paintings and cookies with his face on them everywhere I go.

Mayonnaise is the condiment of choice here and can be eaten with anything. Sandwiches, pasta, seafood, chips, any type of meat. Yesterday at the beach I had octopus in a sauce of mayonnaise, olives, and olive oil on saltine crackers. It took about an hour for them to bring it out and when we asked what was taking so long, they said they were killing the octopus. Not a joke. Literally. Fresh octopus straight from the ocean.

Breakfast is eaten whenever you happen to wake up and usually consists of coffee, bread, jam and butter, and fruit. Lunch is then eaten around 1 or 2pm and is the largest meal of the day. Then there's "lonchera" which is a small snack of bread and cafe around 5 or 6pm. Dinner in my house is leftovers from lunch and is eaten after whatever your activities were that evening, which usually means I'm starving and about to pass out when we finally eat around 10 or 11 at night. But people here typically stay up later than we do in the States. My padres take their walks in the evening after dinner, so between 11pm and midnight. Young people leave for the discotecas around midnight and come back between 4 and 5 in the morning. I haven't quite adjusted to this schedule yet so Vanessa and I usually leave early (3 am or so), to everyone's confusion.

The people here are incredibly friendly. One of my biggest worries when I left was that I was going to have trouble making friends, but whoever I happen to be sitting around in class has been so quick to strike up a conversation with me and it's typical to invite someone you've just met to the discoteca with your friends that weekend or over to your house for dinner with your family.

Classes are an interesting experience, as well. Somehow I wound up taking 22 hours this semester: four classes in English and two in Spanish. Most of my English classes are painfully easy, though I think a couple of the professors have such strong accents that it would be easier to understand them in Spanish than English. My Spanish language class is great and I'm excited to be learning some grammar to add to my mostly useless vocabulary that I just picked up in my month of traveling beforehand. (Things like "sparkles" or "oatmeal" or the Chilean slang word for "gangster.") However, I am the only gringa in my Organizational Behavior class (in Spanish, Comportamiento Organizacional) and I'm hoping I catch on to all the business lingo so that I can catch a little more of what we're talking about in class. There is very little homework during the semester in my classes, but instead you are usually put in a group at the beginning of the semester and will complete a semester long project to be presented at the end for your final grade. Also, the class environment is much different here than in the States. Professors don't care if students come to class or talk in class, so I've had to get used to tuning out the conversations going on around me as the professor lectures. As far as books go, people here just don't have the money to spend $200-500 on books every semester. But luckily, copyright laws don't exist here so students go to the Fotocopía (Photocopy Station) to purchase photocopies of whatever chapter of the book they need for the next class for S/.1 or 2 (about 50 cents).

I take the "public" buses to school every day which has been an experience in itself. The public transportation here isn't actually public as there's not one bus system owned and operated by the city. All the buses, taxis, and combis are privately owned. This also means that there's not an actual bus schedule. So to get to school, I walk about 10 minutes to one of the major intersections in my neighborhood, listen for someone yelling out "Todo Javier Prado!!!!" ask if they stop at near my school ("Baja La Molina?"), and then hop on and hope that there's a seat. It's about a ten minute bus ride depending on the time of day, and then at my stop it's another ten minute walk to campus. The violent starting and stopping of the bus combined with the smell of pollution and the suffocating heat makes for a nauseating start to the day, but I'm adjusting. Then I repeat the process in reverse on the way home. Taxis are only taken when absolutely necessary because they're more expensive than the buses, but I've learned all the tricks. I know exactly how much it should cost to each neighborhood so I know whether or not I'm getting ripped off and I know which types of cabs to look for (basically, just avoid the Ticos- extremely small Korean made taxis which are common here because they're very cheap but are also quite dangerous). Traffic here can also be quite frightening at first. Cars drive impossibly close to one another (within centimeters, it seems) and lanes mean nothing. If there's three feet of space, simply hold down the horn and squeeze your way in there. Also, pedestrians do not have the right of way. Cars will not stop for you, so don't try it.

Learning another language has been... amusing. Frustrating and exhausting at times, but mostly all the mistakes just make for good stories in the end. For instance, I sent out a mass email in Spanish to all of my new Peruvian friends that I met in my classes to invite them to the dinner party that we had on Saturday. One of them, Andres, informed me (between bouts of hysteric laughter, of course) that I had used one of the slang words wrong. You see, "pata" is a Peruvian slang word for "friend." So in my email to everyone, I greeted them with an enthusiastic "Holala patos!!!" I changed the word to pato because I thought that it was like most other words in Spanish and the ending changes depending on if it's masculine or feminine. Nope. Because "pato" means "duck" or is also slang name for a homosexual person. So when I thought that I was giving out a cool, friendly greeting to all of my new friends, I was actually saying "Hello ducks!" or "Hello gays!" I guess I won't make that mistake again.

This weekend I head to Ica/Paracas with my study abroad program. I'll try to post again when we return to tell you all about it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Last Filthy Leg of the Journey

Sucre is the most beautiful city I think I've seen yet. Grand white-washed buildings dating back to the colonial era line the wide, rolling streets and plazas, granting small glimpses of colorful gardens sheltered within. It is an antique city filled with history, reputable centers of learning, breathtaking churches, and perfect weather. The locals are friendly and optimistic, and who wouldn't be in a place like Sucre? Our time there was spent tranquilly browsing through the mercados filled with stacks of colorful, exotic fruits and vegetables and the artesenias displaying intricately woven alpaca crafts and gorgeous turquoise jewelry. We visited a couple of museums and cathedrals but other than that simply filled our days wandering the streets, eating, drinking coffee, and enjoying the weather.

I was sorry to leave Sucre, especially upon arriving in Potosí--a city which at one time was the richest and largest in the Americas but now suffers from decline and poverty. However, I quickly adjusted to the stark contrast in atmosphere between the two cities and Potosí became another one of my favorite cities before long. It's disorganized, maze-like, narrow streets and cock-eyed tiendas lend a quirky air to the place. And the eerie city mascot helps too--a gigantic face with wide eyes, a permanent ear-to-ear grin, and dark permed hair with a crown of ivy and grapes. Now, anyone who reads this or looks at either the huge original in the Casa Nacional de Moneda or the many small replicas sold in artesenias around the city will say that it's Bacchus, of course. Well, that's one theory. The other (and the favorite among the locals) is that it is Diego Huallpa, a local who first discovered silver in Potosí which led to the city's years of prosperity and fame. One night, so the legend goes, he caught a man trying to steal silver from the mines and immediately notified the authorities. Turns out, the perpetrator was his boss who then had Diego executed. That same night as the boss was alone in his house, the door was thrown open and in floated the famous eerie, grinning face of Diego Huallpa. Then he killed himself, I think. Take what you will from that story, but I think either theory gives you a little taste of the flavor of Potosí.

There are actually still working silver mines in Potosí that many tourist agencies offer tours through. However, there's a very voyeuristic feeling about that whole concept. The conditions in these mines are apparently just unbelievable and can leave you physically sick from the sight. The Lonely Planet guidebook has an excellent description so I'll include a couple exerpts here to give you an idea:

"In the cooperative mines in Cerro Rico, all work is done with mostly primitive tools , and underground temperatures vary from below freezing - the altitude is over 4200m - to a stifling 115 degrees F on the 4th and 5th levels. Miners, exposed to all sorts of noxious chemicals and gases, normally die of silicosis pneumonia within 10 to 15 years of entering the mines."

"Deeper in the mine, visitors will undoubtedly see a devilish figure occupying a small niche somewhere along the passageways. [...] Since hell (according to the traditional description of the place) must not be far from the environment in which they work, they reason that the devil himself must own the minerals they are dynamiting and digging out of the earth. [...] On Friday nights a cha'lla (offering) is made to invoke his goodwill and protecion. A little alcohol is poured on the ground before the statue, lighted cigarettes are placed in his mouth and coca leaves are laid out within easy reach. Then, as in most Bolivia celebrations, the miners smoke, chew coca and proceed to drink themselves unconscious. While this is all taken very seriously, it also provides a bit of diversion from an extremely harsh existence."

So obviously, our group opted not to participate. None of us really felt right about paying to observe the suffering of others, though I think it's really important that people are aware of the existence of these mines and the conditions within.

So after having our fill of mercados, museums, and nights spent doing nothing except catching up on sleep, we boarded a bus to Uyuni. With feet tapping anxiously on the floor of the bus, we arrived in the small, sleepy town of Uyuni in a short six hours. We were greeted by a woman at the bus station who offered to take us to a hostal in return for a chance to pitch us a tour to the salt flats with her company. Done. The hostal was cheap and clean and the tour package met all of our standards so everything was taken care of in about an hour. So we laid down around 2am and decided to wake up at 7:30am so we could be the first ones in line for the shower (the situation was getting desperate).

Well, we woke up at 9. Miraculously, showers were available so I took the fastest shower of my life, got dressed, ran out to find a tienda to buy snacks for the trip and an atm. It was about 10:15am when we finished all of our frantic errands, but in true South American fashion, our tour was running late and we actually had about half an hour to eat dry cereal in our room before we headed out. Then there was another small hiccup when we found out that the frame on top of the jeep was broken so we wouldn't be able to bring our backpacks with us. So we drove about twenty minutes to the other side of town, picked up a new jeep and driver, and then drove back into Uyuni for our things. It was then 2 o'clock in the afternoon by the time we were legitimately on our way to the salt flats. But boy, was it worth it!

MILES of perfectly flat, white land covered in salt and maybe an inch of water--just enough so that the surrounding snow-topped mountains are perfectly reflected across the expansive stretch of blank space. It's like God forgot to create something there so we're just a bunch of curious tiny humans wandering around this glitch in the creation of the world. Anyway, so it was awesome and Jefe (we could never quite figure out his name so "boss" had to do), who was something like Donkey Kong personified, gave us about half an hour to take pictures and eat lunch because we were running late. Time was a little short, but we convinced him to let us all sit on top of the jeep on the ride back across the flats which was absolutely exhilarating and a feeling I hope I'll never forget. Hopefully I can steal some pictures from someone soon to show you guys. Unbelievable.

So in a small pueblo in the middle of nothing, we found a hostel crammed full of other backpackers mostly making their way to or from Chile. The dining room that night was filled with young people enjoying their meals of soup, grilled chicken, papas fritas (french fries), and usually a few beers and a bottle of wine, all loudly chattering away and learning about the plethora of different nations and cultures represented in the smiling, sunkissed faces. Afterwards, we wandered the wide, deserted dirt roads a while by the light of the stars.

We set out around 8am the next morning to hit the next highlight on our tour--gigantic rocks, perfect for climbing and taking in a spectacular view of the mountains. I found a nice, quiet place all to myself to take a much needed moment of stillness. And about as soon as the peace washed over me, panic replaced it. The night before I had decided to be extra cautious and sleep with my money belt under my pillow since our doors didn't lock correctly. Well, of course the next morning I woke up and packed all of my things up... except for the one thing an experienced traveler should never part with and which, if one is going to double check for one thing, it should be this one: MY PASSPORT. So I dangerously sprinted over to the rest of my group, grabbed my handy translator, Jessie, and ran to alert Jefe of the emergency. He calmly informed us that going back to the hostal to get our things was impossible because then he wouldn't have enough gas for the rest of the journey. But it's my life--mi vida!--I explained, close to tears. Finally, after much convincing, Jefe said that he would take us back if I would be willing to pay S/. 50 for gas. Um, yes, I think I will pay less than $20 for my identity, thank you. Jessie accompanied me out of the kindness of her heart but actually discovered along the way that she also had left her passport at the hostal. For two people who had been backpacking through South America for a month without getting robbed or seriously scammed, we had managed to make the biggest rookie mistake possible. But our things were right where we left them and we were able to join back up with the group less than an hour later. I've never loved my ugly, annoying, touristy money belt so much.

So on we went to see and climb more awesome rocks with a backdrop too incredible to be real and a few beautiful lakes. By mid-afternoon we were already at our hostal for that night right on the coast of Laguna Colorada, a lake which turns from orange to red to purple according to the season and is inhabited by huge flocks of pink flamingos. Vicuñas (in the llama family) also graze along the coast of the lake. A short climb--though incredibly cold and windy--up the nearby ridge provides an astounding view of the water and wildlife. We ate a filling meal of soup and spaghetti and a bottle of wine (kindly provided by Jefe, himself) and went to bed early because we had to wake up at 4am the next morning to watch the sunrise over the geysers... Probrecitos, no?

So up we rose dark and early and by 5 am we were headed to the geysers (money belts on and tightly fastened). About half an hour later as we pulled up in our four wheel drive jeep it was still too dark to see anything safe what looked like fog hovering in patches just above the ground. But I could hear the sound. And as we climbed out and watched as the sky slowly brightened, the fog turned into a group of five or six powerful geysers letting out the steam of the earth. The next group of geysers we headed to was still more incredible. Countless numbers of them in varying sizes interspersed with lakes or puddles of molten, bubbling earth. The ground was soft and spongy beneath our feet. I felt like if I stepped in just the right place, I would fall through and slide right into the middle of the earth.

We stopped at another lake (this one green, I think) for lunch. Miles of flat land surrounded the lake and one faint dirt road led to and away. Beautiful, but very difficult for a girl desperately in need of a bit of privacy... I was late for lunch because I walked about half an hour to a small structure I spotted in the distance which may or may not have been an Incan ruin. Either way, I think Pachamama understood. Lunch and the rest of our journey to the Chilean border was a bittersweet and anxiety filled time. Once we hit the border, my two best friends, traveling companions, and security blankets would be leaving me and I would travel back to Uyuni, La Paz, and then to Lima alone.

And so after long goodbyes, lots of hugs and kisses and of course pictures, we arrived in Uyuni about 5pm. I quickly ran from bus company to bus company hoping and praying that there would be room aboard a bus to La Paz for that night. If I couldn't find one, I would have to stay another night in Uyuni, leave the following night, and pray that I made it to the La Paz airport in time for my flight. But my game plan actually went pretty swimmingly. I bought a bus ticket that left at 8pm that night and would arrive in La Paz at 8 the next morning. I ran a few errands in Uyuni and then sat down at a restaurant to eat when I saw one of my friends from the Uyuni tour. We sat together and attempted to converse, but Spanish is his second language, Portuguese his first, and he only knows a few words of English. I spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out what word he was trying to say to me, including having him write it down and looking it up in my dictionary (it doesn't exist). So after struggling a while longer I left and hit up an internet cafe to kill some time before my bus. At 8pm I climbed on with several other tourists fresh off their tours, all relieved not to be one of the frantic ones running around asking where they could find a last minute ticket to their respective destinations.

I slept hard enough to dream on the bus, which is always cause for celebration. Then arrived disgusting and exhausted in La Paz. I grabbed a taxi and headed to a hotel I had heard of that I picked especially because it promised free breakfast and hot showers. Turns out, breakfast isn't free and by "hot" they mean that they have good intentions to provide hot showers, but unfortunately their electric showers are not functioning properly. So after a breakfast of jam and bread and coffee for which I paid B.12 (roughly $1.75) I wandered around the insanely crowded markets selling everything from children's toys to watches to fruit. So after dropping off those essentials at my hotel room and washing a few clothes I headed out again into the rain to find a camera to replace the one that had been gifted to Pachamama in Huaraz. Well, the cameras are cheap but it's Bolivia and no one has a credit card machine so in order to purchase one, you have to carry around over a thousand Bolivianos to the electronics store. Being a gringa traveling alone in La Paz, I opted to wait for a safer opportunity to begin capturing memories. Once back at the hotel, I hung up my rain-drenched clothes and crawled into bed at 5pm because it was the warmest, driest place in the room. I watched part of Cinderella Man on the small, fuzzy TV screen in my room, ate the bread and bananas I had bought of the street earlier (saving some for breakfast, of course), and fell asleep after quadruple-checking my alarm.

At 5am I woke up, but on clothes that had not dried from the day before, packed my things, and jumped in a taxi for the airport. After navigating my way through the airport and waiting at a gate that I was never quite sure was the right one, I breathed the greatest sigh of relief once I sunk into my airplane seat by the window. I was on my way to Lima. While I can imagine that other students in my program were filled with a mixture of excitement and terror as they boarded their planes from the states, all I felt was relief and calm because the hardest part was over. Waiting for me in Lima was a loving family, a home-cooked meal, a warm bed, and a room to myself.