Welcoming hearts of strangers in Brazil

Somehow having trouble getting motivated to write this blog. Been living the kind of slow life the last week or so, but loving it.

Back to Curitiba. Susy and Adriana warmly welcomed me into their home for a few days, and I was so grateful. There's something truly beautiful about offering a warm bed (or air mattress), home cooked meals (and Susy can COOK), and hot showers to a stranger you just met.

With Susy and Adriana

My first day in Curitiba, I met up with Joey, my friend from Singapore who I met at Iguazu Falls, and we decided to play tourists yet again and take the bus around the city. The nice thing about this bus, however, was it gave us the opportunity to get off at four destinations of our choice. Curitiba is known for its beautiful parks, and we enjoyed the green space, views, and even the public exercise equipment.

Yeah, it wasn't that heavy...

Whee!

We also stopped in Curitiba's version of Little Italy, known as Santa Felicidade, for some wine and chocolate tasting.

That evening, we met up with one of Joey's friends at a local food festival where I got to try some classic Brazilian favorites of pastel de queijo (a cheese stuffed pastry) and a picanha sandwich (supposedly the best cut of meat). Brazilian food is pretty amazing overall, and I would have to say my favorite delicassie so far is something called a cozinha- basically a breaded and fried piece of dough stuffed with chicken, and sometimes potatoes and cheese. Doesn't get much better than that! =)

Pastel and picanha

Wednesday evening, I was scheduled to give a presentation on nursing in the US at Adriana's school. I was originally supposed to have a translator, but it didn't exactly work out that way. I ended up putting my “portuñol” to the test, and was thrilled that somehow the students understood most of what I said. Nursing as a profession in Brazil is not treated with very much respect, and the low salaries for nurses in Brazil reflect this attitude- kind of sad. I found it inspiring, however, to be in the presence of students who obviously seemed to want to study nursing for the right reasons, not just for job security or money, and I expressed that appreciation to the best of my ability.

Adriana had to step in a few times to make sure I was being understood...

I caught a bus from Curitiba to São Paulo the next morning. Buses in Brazil are way nicer than buses in the States and very comfortable. Most buses also take breaks at rest stops and, unlike the bathroom breaks on the buses in Peru, these rest stops are equipped with clean bathrooms, hot food, and even shopping areas that rival the well-known Buc-ee's truck stops of Texas.

I arrived in São Paulo and navigated the subway system over to my friends Anna and Marcel's house in the neighborhood of Vila Mariana. As amazing as it has been getting to know new friends on this trip, it was also wonderful to be reunited with familiar faces for the first time since I left. We had dinner at a Thai/Mexican fusion restaurant nearby (yeah, I'm not sure how those two go together but I guess it works!), and I indulged in my first pad thai since leaving the states. Complete with sticky rice with mango. Yum.

Perhaps my favorite dessert of all time

The next evening, I reunited with my friend Elaine from Iguazu Falls (I'm telling you, the hostel in Foz was a magical place, bringing together like souls from all over!). Coincidentally, in a city of 11.3 million people, Elaine lives just three blocks from Marcel and Anna's house- what are the chances? We enjoyed a quick pasta meal at her house (sometimes it's nice to save money and eat in), and took a cab down to the theater where Anna and Marcel would be performing in a production of the musical Godspell that evening. The production was incredible, in a tiny intimate theater where the actors were almost in our laps. Even though I didn't catch most of the jokes in Portuguese, I could fully appreciate the engaging acting and beautiful singing. Anna herself wrote a musical last year that was nominated for several awards here in São Paulo. We watched the video of the musical at home the other day, and it was truly impressive. If any Brazilians are reading this blog, you should check out the show “Vengança” when it returns to São Paulo for its second run this February!

Elaine and me

After the show, Anna, Marcel, Elaine and I headed out for a few beers and snacks at a local bar. If you haven't figured it out by now, São Paulo is pretty westernized, and it has actually been a bit of both a culture and a wallet shock for me, coming straight from Cuzco. The cost of living here is pretty much the same as in the States, if not even more!

Another Brazilian treat- brigadeiros (essentially condensed milk and chocolate balls!)

Also love these little cups of coffee...

Saturday night while Anna and Marcel returned to the theater for another show, Elaine and I met up with my friend Camilo, his cousin Anna and Anna's boyfriend. We met in a cool neighborhood known as Vila Madalena, full of botecos (bars/restaurants with open seating out onto the sidewalk) and night clubs. We started the evening with some beer and snacks and then searched for a place to go dancing. The salsa club we had originally planned on going to was completely empty, which actually ended up being a good thing. We decided instead to check out a club across the street called Pau Brasil. Pau Brasil was a hole in the wall type of bar with a very cheap cover charge for a Saturday night (about $4) and a speakeasy sort of feel. A four piece band played in the middle of the floor while people crowded around, dancing, drinking, laughing. The place was packed and the music was fantastic. Elaine and Camilo informed me this sort of place was “very Brazilian” and we were lucky to have stumbled upon it. It was too dark to take pictures, so there is no documentation, but trust me that it was one of the most amazing night life places I've visited on this journey.

Good times at a boteco- the beer is always ice cold in Brazil!

Sunday morning I dragged myself out of bed early (not an easy feat after going to bed at 3am) to take a bus out of São Paulo to Campinas, the town about an hour and a half away where my parents lived for 4 months back in 2008. I was picked up at the bus station by more friends, Kathy, Mauricy and Phyllis. We went straight to church at 11:30. The service was actually in English- it was a church attended by a few of the many American ex-pats who live in Campinas. After a much needed nap that afternoon, we had tea at Phyllis's house, then headed out to a restaurant/bar that had a live forró band and my favorite activity, dancing! Forró dancing is more or less similar to the cumbia steps I've learned salsa dancing, so I picked it up pretty quickly, and had so much fun! =)

The picture's a little dark but you get the idea...

Kathy and I went to her gym this morning where I enjoyed a free yoga class then a trampoline class. Felt good to work out a little. It rained all day today, so I've been chilling on the couch with this little one pound creature (they say it's a dog but it's the tiniest dog I've ever seen so I call it “creature”), and trying to get motivated to finish this blog. Heading out now to hear some chorinho music- seems like most of the fun activities in Brazil are at night, and I'm really enjoying it! =) Hard to believe I'll be home in just a few weeks. More soon…

Yes this dog is about the size of my iPad...

 

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Storms and waterfalls

There are definitely highs and lows to this traveling business. The night I arrived in Iguazu Falls, Brazil, was arguably the low of my trip so far. It resulted from a combination of factors, really, starting with my lost debit card. I had last spoken with my bank while in the Cuzco airport and had been reassured that I could use my credit card at any ATM to get out cash via a cash advance (not ideal due to the fees, but an acceptable solution to my current dilemma.) I planned on doing this immediately upon arriving to Brazil in order to have at least some cash in the Brazilian currency of reais (I needed this to get from the airport to my hostel). When I arrived in the Iguacu Falls airport, I headed straight to the ATMs, where my card was promptly rejected by three different machines. My back up plan was to exchange the few remaining Peruvian soles and dollars I had left into reais but there was no money exchange at this tiny airport. I begged the young guy at the information desk to give me the wifi password for the airport and he graciously agreed. Using wifi on my iPhone, I called the bank again and they reassured me that they had lifted the fraud alert and I should be able to get money out of the machine now. The wifi network didn't extend to where the ATMs were so I had to hang up while I tried my card again. Still no luck. I called the bank back and they told me if it still wasn't working, my card may have been blocked due to too many attempts at the machine.

At this point, the storm started, literally. The wind picked up outside, blowing debris in from the street and down from the ceiling of the airport, the lights in the airport started flickering and then went out altogether, and the rain started pouring down. I was in the company of an Argentinean friend I had met in the Cuzco airport, and was helping him find a hostel to stay in that night- he hadn't anticipated the holiday weekend that made almost all the hotels in the town full of vacationing Brazilians. Nor had he anticipated the food poisoning that struck him soon after we landed in Brazil. Both of us were in sorry shape.

Finally things started working out. The storm calmed down a little, we were able to reserve my friend a bed in a hostel downtown, and, on my third attempt with the ATM, by a miracle I was able to take money out. We waited outside in the rain at the bus stop for about 40 minutes for a bus to take us downtown. The bus dropped my friend off a few blocks from his hostel, but my hostel was located a little farther out of town. The bus driver informed me that it would be best for me to ride the bus all the way to the bus terminal then take a taxi from there to the hostel. What he didn't anticipate was that, due to the holiday weekend, there were very few taxis available, and there were none waiting at the terminal. He conferred with the bus coordinator at the terminal, I gave them the address of my hostel, and they instructed me to take a bus which would drop me off near the hostel. I got on the bus and told the driver where I needed to go. He seemed confused and proceeded to take me on his entire 45 minute route before returning back to the terminal where we had started. In my broken Portuguese, I spoke with the bus coordinator again, and he informed me he didn't know of any buses that could take me to my hostel, it would be best for me to take a taxi. Again, no taxis at the bus terminal, so they instructed me to get on another bus which would take me to a place where taxis congregated. Sure enough, 20 minutes later I was in front of some hotel downtown, trying to explain to a taxi driver where my hostel was. He reassured me he would take me there, but it turned out, he had never heard of my hostel either. We drove around for an hour before he finally called the hostel itself and got more specific directions.

My flight had landed in Brazil around 7:30pm. I didn't get to the hostel until 12:30am. Joe the hostel owner was up waiting for me and lead me to my bed, the top bunk in a room with some others who were sleeping soundly. I climbed into the bed, fully clothed, dehydrated, starving and mentally and physically exhausted, and cried myself to sleep. Only to be awakened at 3am when the rest of the guests in the room came in from the casino, turned on all the lights, and made lots of noise getting ready for bed.

Whew. That was the storm, and I have no pictures documenting that evening, just the description.

The next morning Joe knocked on my door around 8:30 asking me if I wanted to join a group of hostel guests in a trip to the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls that day. They were leaving at 9:30, and the cost was $15 for the transport there and back plus the cost of the entrance to the park. He also advised me that a new reciprocity law was in place requiring US, Canadian, and Australian citizens to pay a one time entrance fee of $160 to go to Argentina, a pass that was good up to 10 years. Decisions, decisions. I thought for a few minutes, took a shower, then decided to go ahead and join the group. This ended up being a fantastic decision, pulling me out of my slump from the night before, introducing me to the small group that would become my friends for the next couple days, and allowing me to see one of the natural wonders of the world from the Argentine side.

Our group

I spent the day with Adam, an architect from Brooklyn, NY on vacation, Elaine, a buyer from São Paulo enjoying her holiday weekend, and Joey, a fellow backpacker from Singapore- fantastic company. We decided to take the boat tour of the falls which guaranteed to get us wet but was totally worth it. We then took the train up to the biggest waterfall of the park known as La Garganta del Diablo (the “Devil's Throat”). The views were absolutely amazing, and there was no way to capture the experience with a camera, but here are a few shots from the day.

Preparing to brave the waterfall

The boatride

After changing into dry clothes!

The Devil's Throat- taste the rainbow!

That evening we hung out at the hostel and enjoyed some mediocre carryout Italian food for dinner.

The next morning, Elaine and I decided to check out the renowned Parque das Aves (bird park) in the town. We spent the morning sauntering down the jungle-like path of the park, attempting to take pictures of beautiful tropical birds. It was actually cooler than I thought, though bird-watching isn't really my thing.

Taking bird watching to a new level

Love the 'do

The butterflies were also incredible

Found this butterfly on the path

Elaine had to head back to São Paulo that afternoon so I ended up meeting up with Adam for lunch at a local churrascaria. Churrascarias are Brazilian barbecue restaurants, and this particular one was set off the main road right next to a campground in the woods. The meal started with a buffet of tons of incredible dishes, from vegetables to potatoes to fruits to rice and beans to pasta. And then it was on to the savory cuts of meat roasting over the open flame. It was one of the most delicious meals I've had on my trip so far.

In the afternoon, Adam and I visited the waterfalls again, this time from the Brazilian side. The views from Brazil were even more incredible than the Argentine side, panoramas that were absolutely impossible to capture on film. We had the opportunity to stand right next to the falls themselves and the power of the water was breathtaking, almost brought tears to my eyes.

Had to post at least one pic of the coatimundis that were all over the park

Last night back at the hostel, Adam left for New York and I spent the evening speaking to two ladies, Adriana and Suzi, who were on vacation in Iguazu for the weekend as well. The ladies live in Curitiba, Brazil, and one of them is a nurse who works at a school in Curitiba. After swapping stories for a while, the ladies invited me to come stay at their home in Curitiba which was going to be the next stop on my trip anyway- so incredibly generous of them. I'm even going to give a presentation at the nursing school here on Wednesday night about nursing in the US- if they can find me a translator. My Portuguese isn't that good!

That's all for now- I'm in Curitiba, hanging out at the school and waiting to head back home with Adriana and Suzi. Will post this later after I add in the pictures. So grateful that things seem to be on the upswing again.

 

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Beaches, lakes, and family

I just realized it has been nine days since my last post- the time has flown by so quickly that it hadn't even occurred to me to write until now. I'm writing this entry as I fly over Peru and Bolivia on my way to Iguazu Falls, Brazil.

I spent the last couple weeks in Arequipa, Peru, which has quickly become perhaps my favorite destination of my trip so far, not so much because of the location itself (which is beautiful, don't get me wrong) but more so because of the incredible people who continued to embrace me into their loving family. Leaving Arequipa the day before yesterday definitely constituted the most difficult goodbye I've experienced, complete with hugs, gifts and tears. I'm still feeling a bit of withdrawal, though I know Brazil will offer a whole new group of loving friends.

Rummymates

After returning to the city of Arequipa from the farm, I found myself falling sick, yet again. Might have been the cuy (my pet Wanda's revenge!), might have been the water, might have just been a virus, but I was once again knocked down for a couple days. It's disappointing to be sick when traveling, because I feel like I'm wasting precious time. To be fair, however, I couldn't have picked a better place to be sick- the aunts continued to dote over me and the cousins were great company, keeping me entertained with their new favorite card game, Rummy.

Once I was feeling better, I was ready to visit one of the main attractions of Arequipa, the monastery of Santa Catalina. Kenny and Aledia accompanied me as we explored the 16th century walled city within the city, complete with its own streets and brightly colored buildings. It was both fascinating and beautiful.

Santa Catalina

Aledia, Kenny and Me

Over the weekend, Lizzy, Kenny and I made the spontaneous decision to take a minivan through the winding (and I mean SUPER winding) hills of Arequipa out to Mollendo, their home town on the beach. I had visited Mollendo with my mother briefly (near where we got those fish on the beach), but this time, the weather was just warm enough to sunbathe and swim. We arrived after dark on Saturday evening, and explored the beach first at night. The waves were impressive, crashing up against the rocks and reminding me again of how drawn I feel toward the water. We ate dinner at a local restaurant where I tried “anticucho” for the first time- I admit, it was quite flavorful, but I just couldn't get over the fact that I was eating heart meat. (Also, you'd think I'd learn by this point not to be so adventurous with the foods I eat- this might be contributing to my frequent gastrointestinal distress- but I just can't seem to turn down a chance to try something new!)

The moon-like dunes of the Arequipan coast

The next day, we got up early and were thrilled to see the sun was shining bright. We drove with Kenny and Lizzy's father out to Catarindo beach, parked the car, and proceeded to walk over three sand dunes to another private cove. The sand dunes of Arequipa made me feel as though I was walking on the moon- the landscape is arid, and the sand so white and fine that it almost feels and looks like chalk. The private beach cove was not sandy but rather speckled with brightly colored rocks and pebbles. Lizzy and I spent a good hour collecting rocks, admiring the smooth textures and often fluorescent colors, while Kenny entertained himself skipping the stones across the water. After a while, we headed back to Catarindo for an afternoon of beaching, strolling, card-playing, swimming and napping. The water was cold but refreshing, and it was nice to have a little taste of paradise, made complete by a lunch of local ceviche and a creamy fish based dish, a Mollendo specialty. Mildly burned (I was much more diligent with the sunscreen this time!) and quite exhausted, we returned to Arequipa later that evening.

Yummy beach food

Paradise

Monday morning, the travels continued. Kenny was kind enough to accompany on the six hour busride up to Puno, the town bordering the highest and largest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. We opted to save money on this trip, and ended up taking the not-so-luxury bus for 20 soles (about $7). Really, as it was during daylight hours, the trip wasn't too bad. I had to laugh at our “bathroom stop” though- we simply pulled over to the side of the highway in the middle of the desert highlands and everyone, men, women and children alike, got off the bus and proceed to squat or stand to do their business in plain view of the rest of the travelers. I cracked up.

Puno itself is quite high at 3800 meters (12,467 feet), so it was back to the coca tea. However, at this point, the altitude barely seems to affect me. By the time we got to the hotel though, it was Kenny's turn to feel sick, and we called it an early evening. In the morning, he felt recovered, and we took a 3 hour boat tour out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the floating islands of Los Uros, an indigenous population who literally makes their home on top of buoyant mounds of straw and mud. We received an orientation on the construction of both the islands and the local homes, and the people invited us to see their dwellings and understand a little more of their lifestyle. They then invited us to purchase some of their handicrafts- I couldn't resist buying a pillow case from a lady named Maria who carried her baby named Nicole on her back. The hand-sewn design on the pillowcase told the story of her life.

Maria, her son, and baby Nicole on back

Maria's beautiful handicraft

Trying the local fruit

The kids were so cute!

The ladies of Los Uros sang us a goodbye song in the local dialects of Aymara and Quechua as well as Spanish, and we rode on a typical boat across the lake to another island, this one slightly more touristy with more artesania and stores. From their, we rode our original boat back to shore and caught a bus back to Arequipa. A very brief visit to Lake Titicaca, but definitely worth the trip for me.

Goodbye song

On my last day in Arequipa, I did some shopping for some final gifts downtown, had lunch at Vera Lucia's (one of the cousin's) barbecue restaurants (no more heart, just some good ole' ribs this time), printed some pictures and bought some flowers for Aledia, Lizzy and Kenny. Like I said, goodbyes were difficult, but it was time to catch the night bus for Cuzco again.

I spent just one night in Cuzco, last night, at the largest hostel I've stayed at this entire trip. It was a bit of a party hostel, with some 150 guests, a full restaurant/bar, Internet cafe, and a night of drinking games which I politely declined given my early morning flight this morning. I shared a room with two Brazilian guys and some other guy who woke us all up with his arrival at 5am this morning. A night of little sleep made worse the discovery that my debit card had gone missing, I think when I last took money out of the ATM in Arequipa. I spent an hour this morning on the phone with the bank and my parents, hopefully sorting out the situation- we'll see when I get to Brazil. A hard learned lesson, but one of the trials of traveling I suppose.

I hope to post this blog entry tonight or tomorrow morning from the hostel near Iguazu. More stories to come!

 

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Countryside Paradise

It's so lovely to be back in Arequipa. My godson's family welcomed me again with open arms and hearts, and I'm starting to feel more a part of their beautiful family. I arrived in the afternoon, just in time to enjoy a delicious lunch of ceviche at a local cevicheria with Lizzy, Kenny, Jimmy and Aledia. The lime marinated fish was even tastier than the dish I had enjoyed in Lima earlier in the trip. We then headed directly to a local cemetery.

In Peru, November 1st is “El día de los santos” (All Saints Day) while November 2nd is “El día de los muertos” (The Day of the Dead). On this beautiful afternoon, the cemetery was packed with families, sitting around the graves of their loved ones, planting flowers, and even bringing some of the favorite food, drink and music of the deceased. The atmosphere was both peaceful and joyful, no tears were shed but rather laughter was shared as people celebrated the lives of those they had lost. On a personal note, this is one of my absolute favorite practices in Latin America; how beautiful it is to celebrate life instead of just mourning death. We met up in the cemetery with Mary, Isa, Cely and their father- all had come to visit their deceased mother, sister, and Isa's late husband and in-laws.

After the cemetery, Mary, Kenny, Lizzy, Aledia and I did some shopping then swung by a local food festival where we took a shot of pisco, the well-known Peruvian liquor. While I had previously tried the mixed drink, a pisco sour, this was my first time tasting the straight alcohol- I admit it was a bit strong for my taste =).

Pisco!

Later on, Kenny, Jimmy, Lizzy and I headed out for a drink and dancing at the same club Lizzy and I had been to the previous weekend. As there was a group of us this time, it was even more fun!

I spent the night with Lizzy and we got up fairly early (despite the late night before) to buy some ground beef so I could prepare Cincinnati chili for the family for lunch. Perhaps the family was just being polite, but the polished plates indicated it was just as much of a hit in Arequipa as it had been in Bogotá!

We took naps in the afternoon then Kenny, Lizzy and I went back to the local food festival to enjoy some more live music, a dessert of yummy honey-soaked “picarones” (similar to funnel cakes, I decided), and another beautiful sunset.

Cheers!

Sunset at the festival

Back at the house later, I taught Kenny and Lizzy how to play Rummy before heading to bed. The next morning, I accompanied Mary, Cely and their father to their home in La Joya, a farm in the country about an hour and a half outside of the city of Arequipa. I'm writing this blog entry from the hammock behind the house.

I've determined this farm is the closest thing to paradise I've found on my trip so far. As I sit here writing, all my senses are completely satisfied. The sky is so blue and the sun is shining bright, the roosters are crowing and the birds chirping, a cool breeze rustles the leaves of the trees around me, a hummingbird is buzzing around the bright array of colorful flowers in the garden, and the smells of something delicious cooking over the grill are wafting my way. Over the past few days here on “La chacra” (the farm), I've witnessed the hatching of baby chicks and the birth of baby rabbits, climbed a tree to pick fresh oranges to squeeze into juice, and ridden a bike several times a half a mile down the road to the local store and to use the (albeit quite slow) Internet (biking or walking is the only way to get around in this area). I met the family's cows who each have the name of one of their friends or family- they even named one Nicole for me!

Quinoa- I'd never seen it on the plant

Nicole the cow

Walking a bag of alfalfa back to the animals

Not sure this bunny wanted to be held!

... Or this baby chick

Biking to the store

Climbing the orange tree (I was pretty high but the ground is missing for perspective in the pic)

Mary's more effective way of getting oranges out of the tree

In front of his farm

So beautiful

I may have a small addiction to sunsets...

The cows' milk provides the family's source of income for the farm, and they grow fields of alfalfa to feed the cows, chickens, ducks and rabbits. The food we eat here is all fresh- fruit from the trees, vegetables from the garden and meat from the family's or other local farms. The first afternoon we enjoyed fresh fish brought in from La Curva last week, yesterday we had orange marinated duck (apparently this particular duck brought on his own demise as he was antagonizing the other ducks in the coop), and today I tried “cuy,” the most famous Peruvian delicassie, otherwise known as guinea pig. Despite having had a pet guinea pig myself in my childhood, and even after visiting the neighbor's guinea pig farm yesterday, I agreed to try cuy for myself, provided I didn't have to see the head, legs or tails on the plate! It was so delicious, I actually had two portions!

Such fresh food

Cuy roasting on an open fire

The final product looked very little like the animal- thank goodness!

To most of you, this whole farm thing may seem like something I could have experienced in the country in the US. However, the best part of the farm has actually been the time shared Mary, Cely and their father, some of the kindest and most generous souls I've met on my journey. Later this afternoon, Mary and I will be heading back into Arequipa where, depending on a medical opportunity I might have, I may end up staying for the weekend or just heading back to the farm again in the morning. Not sure I'm ready to leave this paradise…

Naming the guagua or baby bread, a tradition in November. This one was Mira Mirona, named for my little cousin. =)

It was impossible not to fall in love with this toothless smile!

 

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Magical Cuzco

Getting cozy!

To continue my mother's and my story… The bus we took overnight from Arequipa to Cuzco was by far the most comfortable bus either my mom or I had ever been on. The leather seats reclined to 160 degrees with leg rests, we had individual TVs with a wide selection of movies, TV shows and games, a full dinner was served, and pillows, blankets and headphones were distributed. With the curtains shut over the windows all night, it almost felt like we were in first class on an airplane, minus the excessive “turbulence” of the mountain roads and regular speed bumps.

We arrived to the Cuzco bus station around 6:30am and promptly took a taxi to our B&B. I had found Monica, our host, through a website called Air B&B, and we were lucky to have a wonderful experience. Monica welcomed us into her home with a cup of coca tea. Cuzco is approximately 3400 meters (11,200 ft) above sea level, enough to cause altitude sickness in many people, but neither my mom nor I felt too terrible after having survived the altitudes at the Colca Canyon. We spent our first morning in Cuzco napping, then headed out to explore the town.

One of the quiet alleyways of Cuzco

Cuzco, known in Inca times as “Qosqo” was the capital of the Inca empire before the Spanish invaded in the 1530s. The Spanish conquistadors and catholic priests constructed their towns and temples over the Incan towns, not only in Cuzco but all over the empire which extended as far as Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and even Argentina. As a result, walking around Cuzco, we could see foundations of Inca remains with colonial structures above them. We explored some of the main plazas and streets in town, walked around the famous San Pedro market which was very similar to the market in Arequipa, and did some more shopping in the artisan shops. Peruvian artesania (handicraft) is some of the most beautiful I have seen on my trip so far, and I'm sure we made a little boost in the local economy with all of the things we bought. We ate a late lunch at a local Cuzqueño restaurant where the food was okay but the portions were gigantic! No way to finish our plates in this country! Later on, we met Juve, the man who would be our tour guide in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. While we were skeptical of paying cash up front in a tiny office with no street signs, Juve's small company ended up being wonderful- more later in this entry.

Inside the Qorikancha

On day two in Cuzco, we started our day checking out Qorikancha, an Incan temple which the Spanish had of course built a catholic cathedral/monastery over during the conquest. Both the architecture and the grounds of the monastery were quite beautiful, and it was fascinating to see very tangibly how the two cultures united architecturally.

We then walked up to the main “Plaza de armas” (it seems like every city in Peru has one of these), and opted to take another “mirabus” tour around the city, just to get a feel for Cuzco. We passed by several churches, famous buildings and plazas before heading up out of town to another Inca ruin site known as Sacsayhuaman (sounds like “sexy woman” when you say it aloud). We also stopped at the “Cristo Blanco” (White Christ) to take pictures of the beautiful city of Cuzco from above. Finally, we finished our tour and had a delicious lunch at an Australian-owned restaurant called Jack's Cafe. We walked off our lunch around the quaint neighborhood of San Blas, full of local artist galleries, cute shops, and mostly European owned hostels and new-age businesses. Then it was back to the B&B to rest up for our Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu tour.

Staying dry on the bus

El Cristo Blanco

Beautiful Cuzco

Pisaq ruins

Tuesday morning, at 8am sharp, Juve knocked on our door, ready to begin our tour of the Sacred Valley. We met our driver, Luchito and made our way to our first destination, Pisaq. In Pisaq we had the opportunity for the first time to actually walk around the expansive site of Inca ruins. As was the case of all of the ruins, with the exception of Machu Picchu, the Spanish had destroyed much of the buildings, using the stones of the walls to construct their own buildings and cathedrals. The Incas were masterful architects, cutting stones into perfect trapezoidal shapes to fit together into completely aseismic (earthquake proof) structures, directing the flow of water of the natural aquifers into extensive systems of aqueducts to deliver water to their cities and irrigate their fields, and designing miles and miles of terraces to facilitate agriculture on the steep mountainsides. We also learned that the Incas typically built over the Pre-Inca structures and that they had peacefully united Pre-Inca tribes into the Inca empire, respecting both the buildings and the cultures of Pre-Inca civilization. This was a far cry from the Spanish style of conquest which involved violence, disease, looting, destruction of Inca temples, and colonizing physically, religiously, and culturally directly on top of Inca civilization.

Stopped to buy a bracelet from this woman who came down from the mountain to sell her crafts

Ollantaytambo ruins

After Pisaq, we moved on to Ollantaytambo to visit some more amazing ruins and have lunch. The trout was delicious though portions were again too huge for an individual to finish. Coincidentally, in Ollantaytambo, we got to experience yet another anniversary celebration. The town square was packed with both townspeople from Ollantaytambo and with locals from the mountains in their traditional dress; Juve told us they only come down to town once or twice a year for festivals. The live music was loud and festive, the dancing lively, and the beer abundant. My mom and I found a cafe with a balcony overlooking the square and thoroughly enjoyed our tea and people watching.

Love this picture- beer in hand =)

At 7pm that evening, we boarded the train in Ollantaytambo that would take us to the town of Aguascalientes at the base of Machu Picchu. Aguascalientes is a town created in the 1980s strictly for the purpose of tourism for Machu Picchu. It is only accessible by train and as you might imagine, the prices of food and lodging reflect its touristy nature. We were really only there to sleep however, and the hotel was perfect for just that.

Breakfast in the morning was at 5am- we wanted to catch one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu to try and see the sunrise. By 5:20 we were in line with the other tourists, by 5:50 we had arrived to the entrance to Machu Picchu and at 6am, they opened the gates. Unfortunately, the beautiful weather that had accompanied us in both the Colca Canyon and the Sacred Valley wasn't so cooperative at Machu Picchu. Our first view of Machu Picchu was obscured by a dense fog that made it difficult to see the ruins themselves, let alone a sunrise in the sky. Not to be discouraged, we began our tour walking around the ruins while waiting for the clouds to lift. Machu Picchu was the only major city of the Incas (as yet discovered) that the Spanish did not reach. According to Juve, when the Incas got word of the Spanish destruction of Cuzco and other Inca towns, they fled Machu Picchu, covering their tracks, and used other routes out of Cuzco and the surrounding towns- routes that did not go through Machu Picchu. They therefore deterred the Spanish from finding what was likely the second capital of the Incas. When Hiran Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in the early 1900s (I say rediscovered because there is evidence that a German guy found the city first, and locals were also living there), the city was still very much in tact, just overgrown with local vegetation.

And it was as incredible as people say it is. After walking through the ruins, we walked up dozens of steps to see the city from above. The clouds lifted just enough to get a panoramic view of the majestic Machu Picchu, while still giving it a sort Middle Earth feel. We were scheduled to climb Machu Picchu mountain to get an even higher view of the city, but unfortunately the clouds that lifted over Machu Picchu itself settled directly over the mountain and we would have seen nothing if we had ascended. We opted instead to hike to an old Incan bridge and to spend more time taking in the sites and inexplicable peaceful aura of one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was also in this moment that Juve, my mom and I began conversing more about the Incan descendants that still inhabit the highlands of Peru. Juve himself is one of these descendants. He grew up in a mountain town where he only spoke the Quechua language up until high school when he began to learn Spanish. One of the tours to Machu Picchu that Juve gives is through some of the local communities where tourists have an opportunity to meet locals and learn of their traditions and lifestyles. I shared with Juve about some of the medical work I have been doing on my trip and that I would be interested in volunteering to meet the medical needs in some of the communities he knows. While it was a little too late to coordinate this sort of project for my remaining couple of weeks in Peru, my mom, Juve and I came up with the idea to coordinate a sort of medical trek to these communities, a trek which would end up at Machu Picchu but serve some of the locals along the way. Juve was very excited- he has the unique advantage of knowing the local communities and speaking the Quechua language. We brainstormed some ideas and my mom and I hope to get a small group of interested medical professionals together for a trek in April 2015. Coordinating something like this will require a lot of research and planning, but we are up for the challenge!

After an overpriced but delicious pizza lunch in Aguacalientes, we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo where Luchito was waiting to take us back to Cuzco. As we rode back, the sunset reflecting off the mountainsides delivered a beautiful end to our tour.

We returned to Monica's house for one final night in Cuzco, and Luchito drove us to the airport in the morning for our flight back to Lima. The flight was uneventful. Giovanni picked us up and took us back to the mansion we stayed at before to get our things together. October 31st is not only Halloween but also my mom's birthday. I treated her to her first manicure ever (taking advantage of the cheap price of manicures in Latin America), and we walked around the neighborhood admiring the troops of trick-or-treaters in costumes. I had planned on taking her to dinner as well prior to her flight home that evening, but we hadn't counted on the insane traffic in Lima that made our trek to the airport longer than we had anticipated. Instead, Laura, her boyfriend Alfredo, my mom and I had a late dinner in the Lima airport before my mom's flight.

I was sad to see her go and felt pretty homesick yesterday, more than I've felt so far on this trip. I have been traveling now for 8 weeks, and have 6 more weeks to go before I come home at Christmas. As Laura, Grecia and the rest of the family were going to be on vacation in Bolivia all weekend, I made the decision to take an overnight bus back to Arequipa, and it is from this bus that I am writing this entry which I intend to post as soon as I have Internet access again. I am almost in Arequipa- the 16 hours on the bus haven't been bad at all. I slept well and awoke to some incredible views of the rocky Pacific coast of Peru and the white deserts of Arequipa. And the trip continues…

 

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Abrazos in Arequipa (Part 2)

The following morning, we got up early and headed downtown to depart for our tour to the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. We were the first on our little bus and proceeded to go to various hotels picking up four French people, two Colombians, two Peruvians, four Spaniards, and one Japanese girl (traveling alone, spoke very little Spanish or English). After making the rounds, we proceeded on the 3 hour trip through the Colca valley and up to Chivay, the town where we would be spending the night. We stopped at various viewpoints along the way, learning about the flora, fauna and people of the highlands of Peru. And when I say highlands, I mean HIGHlands. At one point, we stopped to take pictures at an altitude of 4900 meters, over 16,000 feet above sea level and well above the tree line. While my mom and I both felt a little dizzy and short of breath, chewing coca leaves in the corner of our mouths per our guides recommendation, and drinking coca tea at a stop on the way up definitely made the altitude quite tolerable. Coca leaves are the base ingredient for cocaine and helps oxygen flow to the brain, but one would have to consume several kilograms of coca leaves to achieve an actual cocaine high.

Mom didn't much care for the bitter coca leaves

Triple mate tea- coca leaves plus 2 other herbs I can't remember

Breathless and dizzy but still smiling at 4900 meters (16,000 feet)!

On the way to Chivay, we saw several vicuñas, alpacas and llamas, and learned how to distinguish between the three “camelites.” Vicuñas are the only wild, not domesticated, animals and thus the textiles made from vicuña wool are by far the most expensive, maybe several hundred dollars. Llamas are bigger than alpacas and their tails point down, while alpaca tails point up.

Llama

Alpaca

In Chivay that evening, we had dinner at a local restaurant and were entertained by traditional Peruvian highland music and dance. The performers must have known I loved to dance because they quickly pulled me onto the dance floor with them. I also tried eating alpaca for the first time- a very lean meat, but a little gamey for my taste.

The breathtaking view of the canyon

The next day we got up at 5am for breakfast in our hotel and were picked up at 6 to head to the Colca Canyon. The word “colca” means refrigerator or storage place, named for the the little holes along the sides of the canyon used in Inca times to store grains or vegetables. Our guide kept reminding us to stay positive- our goal was to see Andean condors from the lookout point over the canyon but apparently at this time of year it is fairly rare to see more than 1 or 2 condors. Some of our guide's tour groups had seen none at all on their tours. However, our positivity paid off. We had a beautiful sunny morning and saw no less than seven condors circling around our heads, their white undersides and 6-8 foot wing span clearly visible. Between the majestic birds and the breathtaking views of the canyon itself, the experience was incredible. It was also fascinating to watch the local people, wearing traditional dress, living in primitive conditions often with no electricity or water, goading their donkeys and llamas down the dirt roads, and tending to the terraced fields by hand in the same way their Incan ancestors did. As my mother says, the Colca valley felt almost biblical, watching the shepherds and farmers care for their livestock and land.

The majestic Andean condor

These ladies were everywhere charging 1 sol (30 cents) for a picture. I couldn't resist this one.

colcas in the side of the canyon

We took a little hike and ran into these burros on the way to the water hole!

Turns out llamas have a thing for banana peels

Couldn't get enough views of the beautiful Colca Valley!

That evening, we headed back to Arequipa. My mom went to bed relatively early while I went out dancing with Lizzy at a local club. Lizzy and I agreed that the music in the club was marginal and the drinks overpriced, but it was still fun to experience the Peruvian night life.

Fruta!

The next morning, Mary took us on a little tour of Arequipa, known as the “white city” due to its buildings of a durable white volcanic rock known as “sillar.” We did way too much shopping and had a late lunch at a delicious typical Arequipan restaurant. We also explored the local market, which seemed to attack all of our senses at once. Colorful displays of exotic fruits, dried llama and alpaca fetuses used for sacrifices, aisles of artisan displays, strong odors of all cuts of meat, full pig heads, and plentiful bargaining and negotiating were just some of the sensory input. Before our bus left that evening, the whole family gathered in Isa's apartment to see my mom and I off. The sisters even surprised my mom by sneaking out and buying her a birthday cake- all of us sang her happy birthday in English and Spanish. Her present was a beautiful silver bracelet. The hospitality of this family was absolutely amazing. They fought over who got to take us to the bus station. Eventually Mary, Lizzy my mom and I headed to the station but Isa and Aledia were right behind us in a cab- they didn't want to miss out! Dozens of hugs, kisses, and goodbyes later, my mom and I were on the luxury bus for our 10 hour overnight trip to Cuzco.

Llama fetus anyone?

Feliz cumpleaños mamá!

Family pic!

Sunset over Arequipa

To be continued…

 

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Abrazos in Arequipa (Part 1)

(I'm beginning to doubt this app that I am using as it just deleted my entire blog post, despite my frequent saving. Thank goodness I keep back up but I am going to break this up into two posts to see if it will avoid crashing the app again… ahh technology)

Trying hard to keep up with this blog but so much has happened in the past week that it is difficult! In fact, I am cheating a little with this entry- I had my mother make an outline for me of the week's events so that I can put them into writing.

We decided to skip the 16 hour overnight bus ride from Lima to Arequipa and opted instead for a relatively cheap hour and a half plane ride. We were greeted in the tiny Arequipa airport by my godson's father's (Steven's) aunt Mary (I told you this trip was all about the connections!) Mary embraced both of us with a hug and a big smile, and then we were on our way to the apartment she shares with her sister Isa in downtown Arequipa. I learned soon after arriving that the plans were to not actually stay in the city of Arequipa that night, but rather to drive another 2-3 hours through the mountains with the family to a small coastal town known as La Curva. La Curva is the hometown of Mary and her sisters Isa, Cely and Aledia, and the homecoming occasion was the 61st anniversary of the district where La Curva is located. What made this anniversary special, however, was that the sisters' father was going to be honored at a special ceremony. Not only was their father the last remaining of the original founders of the La Curva district, he was also about to celebrate his 100th birthday. The whole family was very excited to share in this occasion with their father/grandfather, and my mom and I were honored to be a part of it as well.

La Curva is a beautiful quiet town near the southern coast of Peru. Quiet, I say, only by Mary's report, because when we arrived the town was bustling with excitement for the anniversary festival. We arrived just in time for the evening festivities which included food vendors, a tiny carnival for the kids, ribbons and lights, fireworks, and a quite cheesy musical show of local singers performing well-known songs to back-up tracks. The highlight of the performances was “Juan Gabriel,” an imitator of the well-known Mexican ballad crooner. Finally at midnight there were some fireworks, and by 1am, the cumbia band started playing. We danced a few songs before calling it a night.

Catarindo beach = Paradise

In the morning, Aledia and her children, Lizzy and Kenny, took my mom and me to several beaches and towns along the coast. October in Peru is just the beginning of springtime, so the beaches were fairly quiet and it was too cold to swim. The views were fantastic however, and it was easy to imagine this would be a fantastic summer vacation spot. As we walked along one of the beaches, we noticed two teenage boys with a fishing net. We watched in awe as they stripped down to their shorts and waded into the icy cold water up to their chests, dragging the net between them. As they pulled the net back out of the water, we were so surprised to see dozens of small fish dragged up onto the sand. Per Aledia's suggestion, we promptly negotiated with the fishermen and bought two kilos of “kingfish” for 24 soles (approximately 8 US dollars). We brought the fish home where Mary descaled and washed the fish. Cely fried the fish for lunch and it was some of the freshest most delicious fish I've ever eaten. Here is the full process in pictures:

Step 1: Strip down to shorts and wade into icy water with net

Step 2: Walk backwards out of water pulling net

Step 3: Dump fish onto sand and watch them writhe to a slow breathless death

Step 4: Proudly display catch and negotiate a price

Step 5: Wash, descale, gut and behead fish (this is by far the longest and most tedious of all the steps!)

Step 6: Fry up them fishies and enjoy!

Receiving his award

The anniversary ceremony itself was lovely. The whole town was dressed to the nines (my mom and I did our best to dress up with our limited travel wardrobes), and the daughters dressed their father up in a dashing suit and tie- he looked quite distinguished at his 99 years of age. The town hall was full of locals as well as the mayor, military officials, and the “queen,” the 2013 winner of La Curva's beauty pageant. The guest of honor was given his award in a formal presentation and, despite suffering from some dementia in his old age, he managed to give an eloquent and perfectly coherent acceptance speech. His daughters were glowing with pride. Wine was then passed out to the entire room for a toast, and then dinner and pictures. As the family gathered together around their father/grandfather, it was hard for my mom and I not to be reminded of our own family, and how wonderful it is to be together, especially for special occasions.

Mary, Isa, Aledia and Cely were so proud of their daddy

Lizzy and I escorted her grandpa home from the ceremony- he was pretty quick for 99 years of age!

That evening, Isa, Lizzy, my mom and I hired a driver to take us through the mountains back to Arequipa. The stars on the drive back were incredible- we could even see the Milky Way!

(Next entry to be continued…)

 

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