27 Weeks of Travel

Right back where I started from. Sitting in a hostel room as rain drizzles down on Bogota, relfecting on these last 27 weeks and what has happened between the day I left San Francisco and now. Not only have I had the opportunity to learn about 6 different South American countries, to varying degrees, but I`ve learned a lot about myself and my place in the world as well.

After 27 weeks of traveling… Of long bus rides and countless hostels. Of fried street food with aji salsa and wandering around open air markets. Of delicious strange new fruit and gagging at whole hanging animal heads. Of having adventures and taking risks. Of meeting new friends and missing old ones. Of working with communities and getting to know how we are different, of how we are similar. Of seeing beauty and seeing pain. Of sunny days on the Caribbean and raining days at high altitudes in the Andes. Or learning new languages and struggling to understand, of struggling to be understood. Of taking river boats down the Amazon and sleeping in hammocks surrounded by strangers. Of walking through jungles and seeing spiders bigger than my hand. Of hearing samba music in pubs and kayaking around jungle lakes. Of watching carnival parades and learning about Bolivian wine-country culture. Of working with the land and climbing over ruins. Of locals giving dance lessons and all the `te invito`s. Of driving mountain back roads and sleeping under skies full of stars in the back of a Chilean station wagon we owned. Of tasting new flavors and craving familiar ones. Of making countless new dog friends and missing mine every day. Of spotty skype and viber conversations with my loved ones. Of spending money and making none. Of Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador. Of learning, laughing, living and breathing in new air.

After these 27 weeks of experiences that have changed me in some ways that are obvious now and in others that are yet to be seen, I`m filled to the brim with appreciation for every day that I`ve had on this continent. 

I`m ready to come home, mostly because I don´t feel whole without my dog, but also because I miss my family, my friends, my food and my country. I`ll bring these experiences home with me and vow to keep traveling, keep learning, keep pushing myself outside my comfort zone- because this is how we learn, not only about the world and others, but about ourselves as well. 

This is about as bittersweet as things come. Ciao, South America, nos vemos. 

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**Thanks to y`all who have wanted to keep up with my travels, hopefully this blog has or will served in some way! If you are traveling or plan on traveling to anywhere I`ve been, I`d be more than happy to give info or recommendations!

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Otavalo: City of Markets

Given that my single most favorite thing about South America is the amazing open air markets, I was overjoyed to spend a weekend in Otavalo, wandering aimlessly around the blocks and blocks and blocks and MORE blocks of various markets that spring up each Saturday. We started the day with the prepared food market, sampling fresh juices, plates of noodles, rice, veggies and fried eggs with salsa and a delicious salad made from several different types of corn, lentils and other veggies (also topped with salsa, as always). Even though we ate next to whole fried pigs, apples in mouth, we avoided the meat and skipped the entirely autonomous live animal market nearby. Sure, it`s great to buy all your food locally and kill/harvest the meat yourself, but it was still a little too sad for me to visit.

I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down crowded streets, bargining with vendors and buying things I`ve been wanting to buy for months. Colorful patterns, wooden musical instruments, woven rugs and hammocks, traditional dresses, painted wooden bowls and Andean paintings lined the sidewalks, blocking off roads in every direction around the center of town. Food vendors pushed carts, selling fried platain stuffed donuts, papas and meat sticks, empanads and a variety of beans and baked corn. In the main plaza, huge sacks of spices and herbs lined one sidewalk, in every shade of orange, red, yellow, green and black. Smoke billowed up from barbecuing meat inside food stalls; steam rose from huge pots ladies stirred. The town radiated life, movement, color, laughter, discussions and community- markets create an open space for people to come together, one reason I love them so much. 

After the artisan and textile markets, we wandered over to yet another fruit and veggie market to browse. Dogs meandered through, grabbing any scraps of meat or discarded food, as the market winded down for the day. We escaped the afternoon rain storm and took shelter in our hostel for the night. The next day, we set off for Bogota, my (first and) last South American destination.

I started this trip with one of my best friends, Angela, who had fallen in love with Colombia and had been there ever since we began. We crossed paths just as I was crossing the border back to Colombia and she was leaving, coming into Ecuador. We got to spend a couple wonderful but short hours catching up before Chris and I caught another bus onward. I felt as if I was coming full circle, having started the trip with her in Colombia. 

The bus from the Colombian border town of Ipiales took 24 hours to arrive in Bogota. While the bus was fairly comfortable, had a bathroom and made sufficient stops, I was still happy to know it was my last long distance bus journey…. until the next time I travel, of course. 

ImageFresh fruit juices (Photo: Chris)

ImageHuge pan serving up goodies at a food stall

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Corn salad stallImageEating corn salad with crispy papas 

ImagePigs in the market

ImageOne of hundreds- veggie stall (Photo: Chris)

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One street (Photo: Chris)

ImageFood market (Photo: Chris)

ImageTextiles (Photo: Chris)

ImageFactory where traditional clothes that locals wear are made (Photo: Chris)

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Tiny part of the artisan market

 

 

 

 

 

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Quito, Ecuador in Pictures

ImageLa Virgen de Quito looking over the city. Most cities in South America have a statue of Christ overlooking their cities; I like Quito`s originality. 

ImageOld Town Quito is full of nice churches 

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ImageBeing tourists :)

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ImageTunnel and colorful houses in the hills 

ImageColorful Quito

ImageAnother shot of the Virgen de Quito

ImageKids watching a skit in a plaza 

ImageGrand cathedral 

ImageInside the cathedral

ImageSitting in another plaza 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beach, Peace in the Jungle and Weird Animal Parts

After leaving the farm, we needed a few days to rest on the beach so we headed for Montañita, a tourist-filled town famed for its surf and Spanish schools. We spent one night camping on the beach, which was beautiful, but were turned off by the obnoxious dance music that blared through town until the wee hours. So we headed north to find a relaxed, slow-paced fishing village called Puerto Lopez, which reminded me of Taganga in Colombia- meaning dirt roads, pretty but littered beach, surrounding jungle, and hammock filled days. Machalilla National Park is a short 10 minute bus ride up the road, so we spent one day walking through the “dry forest” trails, swimming  in the sea, snorkeling and laying on the beach. It was the last tropical beach I’ll be seeing for a while, so I savored it.

After yet another painfully long bus trip, we arrived in Tena, deep Ecuadorian jungle southeast of Quito. We’d learned about a Shaman living close by from a friend and followed her directions (up the hill at the pandería, left at the bus stop, down the gravel path…) to find his property, an incredible piece of land where his family has lived for 8 generations.  We stayed one night to bathe in the river (and get nibbled by little fish), learn about native medicinal plants and participate in an ancient ceremony they’ve been practicing forever. It was a special experience, one I could only have had in that exact space. I left once again feeling appreciative for the jungle and all the life it sustains- even for the spiders the size of my hand. 

After Tena, we spent one short day in Quito, enjoying locally brewed beer and wandering around it’s historic Old Town. Something I noticed while I was there, trying to eat in the market, was that Ecuadorian’s utilize every single part of the animals they eat. I ordered a potato soup “sin carne” (without meat) at a food stall, took one bite and realized the chewy piece of flesh in my mouth was definitely some kind of “carne”. The woman working explained that it wasn’t “carne”, but another delicious part of the cow and I should eat it. My bad for not knowing the difference, I guess. When I apologetically explained I couldn’t (my stomach was turning), she offered me a salad instead. Lettuce, onions and tomato were served atop a crushed reddish substance. Hmm, beets? No, Sangre. Sangre means blood. I apologized again, paid a little and left, vowing to make a full return to pescaterianism. Cream of tomato soup and a corviche (delicious fried plantain dough stuffed with fish) hit the spot.

ImageMachalilla National Park

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Machalilla National Park

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Taking shelter from the sun

ImageSnorkeling with these pretty yellow and black fish

ImageCactus in Machalilla National Park

ImageSunset in Puerto Lopez

ImageLive Sand Dollar

ImageOne of the cabins where we stayed near Tena

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Desert to Jungle

The journey from Calama, Chile to Tres Cerritos, Ecuador was the longest and most tiring yet. We traveled the 2,100 miles by bus in 4 days, spending 1 day and night in Lima, Peru to break up the trip. We were nearly robbed, royally screwed over by one bus company crossing the Chile/Peru border, watched a family of Peruvians get arrested on our bus, saw numerous bad action films dubbed in Spanish, dealt with “party hostel” BS in Lima, got hardly any sleep the whole time and were mostly delirious, cranky and at times angry. But after all, our last bus dropped us off in Tres Cerritos, Ecuador after a very easy border crossing. We were on our way to work on an organic farm for a few days, something I’d arranged through WWOOF.org. Even though the bus was hours late, we had a motorcycle taxi waiting to take us the extra 20 kilometers to Finca Monoloco. The driver threw Chris’ huge backpack up front so it was resting on the handle bars, had him hop in the middle and me jump on back, keeping my backpack on. The first few kilometers were beautiful- the air was hot and thick, a symphony of insects chirped around us and fireflies lit up the rice fields as we chugged past. But as we bumped along the dirt road, through mud puddles and over humps, it began to hurt like hell. I was happy when we finally arrived, 45 minutes, wet feet and a bruised butt later. 

We spent the next 4 days working with our hands- digging beds for a native tree garden, weeding and spreading compost on baby coffee plants, tearing apart the cabaña walls to expose bats (and heaps of guano), making a bat house for the bats to live (in hopes that they’d leave the cabañas for good), and trimming a whole field using machetes. The work was difficult but it felt good to sweat and be productive. It also taught me to appreciate the gas powered tools we have access to in the US- one should never complain about using a lawn mower or weed whacker until they’ve tried doing the same work with a machete- it’s not as easy as those with years of experience make it seem.

The Ecuadorian caregivers that lived and worked at Monoloco were kind, even if we struggled to communicate. Sandra cooked up 3 delicious meals a day (always with white rice and freshly squeezed limeade), took care of their 3 kids and also worked around the farm. She’s only 21 but has the experience of someone much older- she began to grow up earlier than me or anyone I personally know. Now her daughter, at 8, is taking care of the 5 month old girl, helping her mom cook and work around the farm. Seeing this, it’s easier to understand how a girl may be (more) ready to get married and have kids at 13, which is normal in a lot of Ecuador.  What were we doing at 8? Most likely watching cartoons and riding bikes. At 13? Going to school dances and hanging out with friends, not raising children and building a home. Culturally, we live worlds apart, but still were able to connect in a basic, human way. 

The farm itself was surrounded by jungle, we heard howler monkeys screaming all day/night, watched the toads come out by the dozens to munch bugs at night, and were personally munched on by the most aggressive mosquitos I’ve ever seen- I’ve never had so many bites in my life (from the mosquitos and from the fire ants that attacked and stung like bees). 

What amazed me most was the amount of life that surrounded us. With every shovel full of dirt came a new strange insect, a pile of ants or wiggling worms- the entire mound of earth I was digging was moving, crawling with life. Dragonflies, butterflies, giant bees and colorful birds flew all around, swarming and chirping melodies. Besides for the pesty, biting life, it was beautiful. It grounded me and restored my faith in and love for the world after nearly giving it all up in the previous hellish days.

These are the ups and downs of traveling, of life in general I suppose. I left the farm feeling much more balanced than I had in a while, ready for lazy days on the coast.

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Delicious Ceviche in Lima

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Newly planted native tree garden in the bed we dug

ImageThe bat house! Made with limited supplies 

ImageBaby cacoa field

ImageBaby ducks

ImageBeautiful but mean geese

ImageHammock area next to the pool

ImageHappy at Finca Monoloco

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coping with Always Half Understanding: Frustration and Growth Abroad

The barriers we face while traveling in foreign countries are humbling. They challenge us, frustrate us and confuse us, but ultimately they force us to grow. Of all the things I´ll appreciate when I get home, understanding what´s going on around me will be the most refreshing. People will be speaking my first language, I´ll know what to expect when I walk into a business (or if it will be open in the first place on a Monday at 2pm), I´ll know the customs of driving down the street or exactly what to look for when I enter the grocery store. I won´t have to sit and think for minutes before asking a complicated question, I won´t need to pull out my dictionary and conjugate verbs in multiple tenses in my head before opening my mouth. I will (mostly) understand when people speak and I will be (mostly) understood when I speak. I´ll not only understand the culture and its implications, but I will be a part of it, inherently. When I´m dealing with official business, I´ll know exactly where to go (the DMV on Fulton Street, the Post Office on Geary Blvd, etc.), I won´t have to ask multiple people where to go for what I´m trying to do, half understand their vague directions then ask someone else at every block, only to arrive at the destination to find out I need to go somewhere else for what I´m trying to do.  

All of these little frustrations I´ve felt in the last months while traveling, and especially in the last 6 weeks while we had our car and even more so in this last week trying to sell the car- they´ve been stressful, funny, ridiculous, and downright maddening. But they´ve been positive, too. I have a significantly higher sense of empathy for immigrants, something that will help me in my Social Work practice in the future. It´s difficult to imagine the stress caused by being in a new country and trying to navigate the systems in a second language, all the while separated from your community, without having experienced it for yourself. On top of that, I´ve learned a lot about the Chilean business culture, widened my Spanish vocabulary, learned how crazy it is to drive in Peru, learned to appreciate pedestrian rights in Chile (Chilean drivers are very respectful), and have remembered to practice patience. I´m incredibly blessed to be traveling and learning, having these experiences. It´s been a productive, if at times stressful, adventure. 

Now that we´ve sold our car to a lovely Chilean family, our wallets are full(ish) again and we´re ready to take the first bus out of Chile, through Peru and up to Ecuador. I have three weeks left on this incredible journey and I plan to spend it near a jungle, on a beach, hopefully volunteering my time to a local organization, avoiding government agencies and complicated situations as much as possible. 

*Regardless of these little frustrations, I´m infinately grateful for the health, safety and opportunity that myself and many of my friends and family have. My heart goes out to all those affected by the recent events in Boston, as well as the people coping with hunger, poverty, oppression and violence around the world every day. This blurb is just meant to share a bit of my experiences.

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A Whirlwind Adventure: Cusco, The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

The adventure started when we arrived at Cusco´s aiport at 7:30AM to pick up Chelsea and Le. Rush hour in the craziest city we´ve ever driven in. Given, Cusco was built over 500 years ago, long before cars, and has since adopted many one way streets and confusing intersections. We stalled on one of the hills, had to back up, got lost more than once, and somehow eventually found our hostel and a parking garage. Adventure for the day. I was ecstatic to see my sister after nearly 5 months, it was like I was coming home to something familiar after so much constant unknown. Spending the week with her cured the homesickness that had been afflicting me.

We spent two nights in Cusco, excitedly trying street food, exploring the market, splurging on Peru´s finest gourmet dishes (so many thanks to Chelsea and Le for treating us!), dancing a night away Peruvian style, and planning for the journey ahead. Having the girls here was such a treat, we´d forgotten that we should be appreciating and taking pictures of all the different and interesting aspects of South American life- markets, street vendors, churches, all of it. It was great sharing a fresh perspective with them.

Since we had the car, we´d planned a unique trip to Machu Picchu, rather than signing up for the usual Inca Trail or Jungle Trek that many people do. We stocked up on dried goods, fruits, veggies, bread, water and wine and hit the road, headed for the infamous and magical Sacred Valley. We stopped along miradors and descended into the valley, marveling at the grandeur of the Andes and the fertile valley that they cradle. We passed fields of quinoa, papas, flowers and other crops, divided by rock walls. We passed Inca ruins, sitting unassumingly up in the hills, preserved there for hundreds of years.

We arrived in Ollataytambo, where we attempted to visit the most famous fortress ruins, but were denied at the gate for not having an extremely overpriced ¨tourist ticket¨that we could not justify the cost of. (Side note: Prices vary greatly in Peru depending on your nationality tourists pay 2-10 times the price of locals for nearly everything… it´s quite frustrating) Instead, Chris, Chelsea and Le hiked up to some just as fascinating ruins opposite the tourist trap and enjoyed some fantastic views (I was still feeling raspy and decided to rest in preparation for Machu Picchu). However, once on top, they were literally attacked by angry goats, standing on the edge of a cliff. The girls came down screaming with Chris following behind after having had held off the mad goat. Adventure for the day.

We continued driving down river, turned off onto a dirt road and crossed a wooden bridge to find a lovely camping spot near a small village. We cooked a delicious pasta dinner, watched as stars and then a nearly full moon filled the sky, and warmed ourselves by a campfire as the PeruRail train chugged by across the river. The next morning, we drove past farmers working their fields and found the paved road again. We continued to climb out of one valley until we reached a 4,300 meter pass, then began to descend into the Amazon Basin. Quickly, the landscape turned to jungle, the air became humid and we were able to breathe again. Around lunchtime, we were stopped at a rock slide. Apparently the mountain was falling and we needed to wait for tractors to move it, which surprisingly came fairly quickly. We fixed lunch and enjoyed the break. After an hour, we were waved through, but were disheartened by the boulders still rolling off the cliff. We drove as fast as possible past the slide and continued down the road. Adventure for the day.

The next section of road was awful. It turned to a one lane dirt mountain road that pretended to be a two lane semi-major roadway that lead to the town where many people start their Machu Picchu climb. Driving it, we climbed up switchbacks, balanced on the edge of cliffs plunging to the valley below. We crossed rivers (more than creeks- which we´d become accustomed to crossing, yes, with our station wagon), we passed over rickety wooden bridges, we were passed by mad speeding taxi drivers and we felt as if the road would never end. Too much adventure for one day! Chelsea and I resorted to popping a box of wine in the back seat while Chris and Le bravely got us to the amazing hot springs that awaited us at the end of the insane road. We arrived at the thermal baths outside of Santa Teresa and relaxed in the fresh hot water, drank some well deserved beers, made another delicious dinner and camped in the parking lot.

The following day, we began our journey to Machu Picchu. We drove another bad stretch of road along the most vicious river we´d ever seen and parked the car at a hydroelectric plant before beginning a 2-hour walk along railraod tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes, which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. It was already past 1pm when we arrived, and our legs were sore from the fast pace we kept during the walk. So while Le (a fire cracker!) had it in her to hike the 1000 meters up to Machu Picchu, Chelsea, Chris and I took the easy way out and rode the bus, opting to enjoy more time at the top. Hiking around Machu Picchu: adventure for the day!

The ruins of Machu Picchu are spectacular. Imagining how the Incas built such an extensive, developed town on the side of a mountain is mind boggling. The stone carvings are beyond impressive, given their lack of metal tools to create them. We spent the afternoon wandering around the ruins, soaking in the beauty of them and the surrounding mountains. The next day, we drove a long 10 hours back over the crazy dirt road up, around and down the mountain, back to the paved road, up, over and around another mountain (passing the rock slide area and being forced to stop again), and finally back to Cusco. Chelsea bravely drove for a couple hours and quickly adopted the Peruvian style, swerving for wildlife and using the horn freely. Once we got into the city, our car decided to stall every time we stopped for a light or stop sign, making for a frustrating (but in hindsight, funny) end to an otherwise pleasant day. Still, adventure for the day :)

Cheslea and Le left the next morning, sadly ending an incredible adventure and returning Chris and I to our slow paced, who knows what we´ll do tomorrow, life. We loved spending the time with them and getting to experience the Sacred Valley together, the Andes mountains create some of the most spectacular landscapes I´ve ever experienced. Now, we´ll make our way back to Chile to sell the car that´s allowed for these unique, lovely, sometimes stressful but always worthwhile adventures. Another chapter ends and another begins, again.

ImageAngry goat!!

ImageThe Sacred Valley

ImageCar camping on the river

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Swimming in the thermal baths

ImageWalking along the train tracks

ImageIncredible ruins of Machu Picchu

ImageSisters!! So much love <3

ImageAmazing terracing at Machu Picchu

 

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