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February 2nd, 2018 marked the third time I celebrated my birthday in Peru. The day has become an interesting and unexpected benchmark to my life in South America, a chance to see where I’m at, how I’ve grown, and what … Continue reading

And so it begins

Passport in my shaking hand, I wave goodbye to my dad and sister as they disappear down the terminal. “See you next year. I love you.” The weight of the words strikes hard. My eyes well up with tears. I can’t cry now, not when the security officer’s about to check my ticket and passport. I’ll wait. Yeah, I’ll just bottle up these tears until I can safely collapse in my Lima hotel room later tonight. Yeah, that’ll work.

Through security now and petrified at my gate. What am I doing? “The nerves have officially hit,” I text to my Mom. She reminds me that I’m living my dream, living my life and not just going through it. This is going to be an adventure! She’s proud. Her words help but I’m still trembling, wide-eyed and waiting on the edge of my seat for my boarding group to be called.

The week leading up to this moment was a strange one. Time felt warped like I was mentally, with all of my might, trying to slow everything down, digging my heels into the soil of each passing second. But I can’t, of course, slow down time. So, it was an ethereal week of floating towards January 31st when I board the plane to Lima, Peru. The emotion of it all buried somewhere deep inside of me, occasionally poking its weighty head out to have me feel for a brief, honest second.

Being on a plane headed for Fort Lauderdale, the first leg of my two-part trip to Lima, helped to calm the nerves a bit. A little more America is quite alright with me. As the plane lifts off, the man next to me leans over to peer out the window at the blanket of snow, now far below us. “Not sorry to leave that behind,” he says, “Bring on the Florida beaches and sunshine.” For a second, I pretend I too am just going to Florida.

Landing in Fort Lauderdale, things really began to get real. I know where my gate is before I even have a chance to read the monitor. Weaving my way through the rows of seats, I hear the familiar sounds of Spanish and feel the familiar feeling of being in a world not my own. I’m in Fort Lauderdale but it sure feels like a Little Peru in this tiny corner of the airport.

The time has come. I board the plane after a final phone call with my Mom, always the voice I most want to hear in situations like this…even at 25 years old. I walk her through my itinerary once I land in Lima, my voice shaking almost as much as my hands are. Land at 10:30. Look for a sign with my name on it by the taxi stand. Arrive at my Airbnb close to the airport. Wake up the next morning for my flight to Cusco. “Talk to you next from Cusco.” Oh god.

Nerves have a funny way of coming out regardless of how good you think you are at burying them. While I want to chat with the friendly American who’s just sat down in my row, my head and my stomach have other plans. For the next 6 hours, I fight nausea and a pounding headache between waves of sleep and The Martian on endless repeat coming through my headphones en espanol.

Lima. Nice to see you again. The maze of hallways is so fresh in my memory. It feels like I was here yesterday, not last May. I feel calm. I feel ready. And so it begins. 🙂

Hasta luego,

Amber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day in Ollantaytambo

Waking up on a memory foam-topped mattress, swaddled in plush blankets and pillows, following days of trekking up and down mountains, you can only imagine how many times I clicked the snooze button. But, my time had expired in beautiful Aguas Calientes. I had an 8am train to catch to Ollantaytambo. I was definitely going to miss this city tucked away in the shadows of Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the city’s simple and quiet flow of life and the ever-present feeling of being wrapped up in safety and a warm hug by the looming mountains that surround. The city was still at such an early hour and the walk to the train station was unimpeded by the hustle of tourists and paraders that filled them just the day before. It was nice to have my quiet goodbye.

Most of the passengers on my train car were students from the University of Illinois on a post-graduation trip with their honors college. It hit me that my interactions with Americans had been few and far between so far and I found it unexpectedly comforting to hear snippets of conversation about familiar cities, jobs, and college courses floating in the air. Just three years ago, I was them. Oh what a life that has unfolded since then!

When the train pulled into the station in Ollantaytambo, the rough plan for the day had been decided. Retrieve my backpack from my hostel. Find a tourist office to see what nearby hikes were available. Eat some good food. Wander the markets. Board the colectivo van back to Cusco by mid-afternoon.

As it turned out there were some Incan granaries about an hour’s hike from the city center. The walk to the trailhead brought me down a maze of cobble-stoned streets, wide enough for foot traffic only and eerily quiet except for the rare stray dog here and there. There was a woman setting up her chicha “flag” to announce that a fresh batch of beer was ready for passerby.

The hike was short but strenuous on my already beyond sore legs but worth it. The views from the top were incredible, overlooking the clay roofs and ruins across town. I shared the trail with three, maybe four other hikers. The sun was shining and the temperature was hot but manageable. I think I bumped into bliss again.

On the way back down, I ran into a local offering tours of the ruins I had just seen. Although I obviously didn’t need a tour, I did need lunch. He recommended I try alpaca and directed me to the restaurant to do so. It was a good recommendation. My alpaca came drowning in a sweet mustard sauce and lay on a bed of caramelized onions. The meat was lean, tender, and almost sweet even without the mustard. With a little spanglish, I managed to successfully substitute the spinach side for a nice order of french fries – “No espinaca. Papas fritas, instead [thumbs up + head nod].” Then they had to roll me out of the restaurant. So filling!

After wandering the markets for a bit, I decided it was time to head back to Cusco. The colectivo vans line up over by the train station, hoping to fill their vans with the off-loading train passengers. The van I ended up in wasn’t so successful but it meant my giant backpack didn’t have to sit on my lap for the next hour.

This being my second time in a colectivo, I noticed how much more relaxed I was with it all and was able to sit back and just enjoy the breathtaking scenery passing by. The stretch of road that U-turns around Urubamba is hands-down one of the most beautiful sights I have ever laid eyes on. Sitting in this van full of friendly strangers I couldn’t communicate with and the beautiful patch of earth passing by outside my window, I once again felt completely at home and at peace in the world. This is what I want my life to be about – simple pleasures in beautiful places, surrounded by culture and an endless flow of new experiences. The feeling needs to be bottled.

Returning to Cusco felt good. I was glad that I had spent that unexpected day here just a few days before. It cut down on the stress of finding my hostel and way around. I felt like a local or like I’d spent at least more than 6 hours there, strangely enough. It felt like home. My hostel, Hostal El Grial, was much nicer than I had expected and right next door to La Boheme, the hostel where I had been storing my bag last time I was in town. I had a room tucked away on the first floor. They brought coca tea to me as I was settling in and set me up with a map and some recommendations for things to do and where to eat. I was impressed in all of 5 minutes. Glad I had two nights here!

By the time I wandered outside again, it had already grown dark. The streets were full of light and people and I couldn’t have been more excited to be there. Still stuffed from my lunch, I opted for a hot chocolate and pastry for dinner and found this really cute cafe just off the Plaza de Armas. I met a family from Seattle while there. Their daughter had actually lived in Cusco for the past year going to university and was now headed to the jungle for 6 months to live with a tribe and do research. The conversation was interesting and insightful. It was nice getting back to the random conversations with whoever was nearby. Ollantaytambo was nice but so, so vacant. I was ready for the hustle and bustle of a city again. And that is exactly what I received over the next two days.

Hasta luego,

Amber

Machu Picchu, is that really you?!

You know that feeling you get when you see a celebrity in real life? It kind of just doesn’t seem real. They look everything like you knew they would but for some reason the real-life version of them just exudes perfection and it feels like, if you were to reach out and touch them, they’d disappear or your hand would fall through them like a ghost. That is how it felt when I stood above Machu Picchu looking down on the ruins. There it was, laid out in front of me. So perfect. I’d take a picture and the picture was perfect. It was really hard to catch my brain up to the moment I was in. This was indeed real life and here I was standing on and in and surrounded by an ancient world wonder. I’m pretty sure I teared up. I can say this now that I am back home and done with my trip – this was the moment that it all sank in that I had followed my dream to go to Peru. I had made it happen. I was really here and I could not have been happier, prouder, or more alive than I was in this moment.

Once I had accepted the reality that I was in fact standing amidst the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu, I started to explore. I decided to save the actual ruins for the end and instead opted for any and all of the hikes I could access without an additional ticket (Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain would have to wait until my next visit). So, I explored the Inca Bridge and the Sun Temple. I opted to go without a guide and so much of my exploring was completely blind, having no idea what trail led where. The Sun Temple hike was fairly interesting. I climbed for over an hour up a very steep hill having no idea when or if I’d ever arrive anywhere. At one point, I thought I might be hiking the Inca Trail backwards and would wind up in Cusco in about four days time. It wasn’t until I reached the top that I actually knew I had arrived at the Sun Temple or that there even was such a thing as a Sun Temple.

The combination of my two-days hike in the Colca Canyon and the hilly streets of Cusco had left my leg muscles screaming as I pushed them up and down ever-steeper hills all over Machu Picchu all day long. When I did make it down to the heart of the ruins, I rounded every corner and followed every guiding arrow I came across, having absolutely no idea the significance of each room and courtyard I passed through. One thing I did know was that it was beautiful and the fact that these blocks of perfectly placed and packed stone had withstood the test of time and invasion was all I really needed to know anyway. I’m pretty sure I ended up in areas that I wasn’t supposed to be climbing. Oops. I blame the maze of twists and turns that are the ruins. It was amazing finding myself in pockets where I truly had the space to myself. Not another person in sight. Not a man-made sound to be heard. These moments I will never forget.

The weather was perfect. The train ride into Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo had been rainy but only a slight drizzle remained upon arrival at the ruins and sun prevailed later. The lighting was actually great for photos. The overcast conditions left no shadows. And the wispy clouds that hung over the surrounding mountains only added to the already epic scene. Now, let me at least spend a sentence on the mosquitoes because they were most certainly an ever-present companion throughout my exploration. My ankles were eaten alive. Moral of the story: bring bug spray to Machu Picchu.

When I’d seen enough and my stomach started grumbling for lunch, I decided it was time to take the bus back down to Aguas Calientes where I’d be spending the night. I had a hostel booked so step one was finding it and dropping my bag off. This is where the story gets interesting.

Unlike my hostel in Ollantaytambo, my hostel in Aguas Calientes actually had an address that was on a map so I found it fairly easily. Only problem was, the door was locked and covered in signs that I’m pretty sure I was translating correctly to mean, this hostel is closed. I hadn’t checked my email in a few days. Maybe they had warned me they were shutting down? Regardless, this was an unexpected turn of events and here I was tired, hungry, weighed down by my overstuffed day pack, and without a clue as to whether I’d have a place to lay my head this evening. So, I started walking away. A parade of costumed and masked dancers blocked the road ahead so I decided to wait it out and consult my guidebook for some hostel alternatives while they passed.

While I was searching for the Aguas Calientes section of my book, a woman I’d never seen before was coming my way calling my name. Cue confusion until I glanced at her shirt to see the the name of my would-be hostel like a long lost friend patched onto her shirt pocket.  She explained to me that she was indeed from EcoPackers Hostel and that she had seen me knock on the door. She said the government had recently shut them down for reasons I couldn’t quite make out through her accent. But the most important part was that they had a room for me in a hotel on the other side of town and that I would only have to pay what I would have at EcoPackers. She walked me to it as soon as we walked through the hotel’s doors, I realized that I had gotten very lucky indeed. The hotel was top-notch and my room was gorgeous! There were three beds and I was told others may straggle in throughout the day. They didn’t. So, I ended up having an incredibly, luxurious room for the price of a dorm room at a hostel all to myself. Can we call this “luck of the Incas”?

Now that I had a home for the evening, I could relax and explore the quaint, little town of Aguas Calientes, nestled between mountains, cut by a rushing river, and in the shadow of glorious Machu Picchu. I ate lunch at a pizza place, Chez Maggi, recommended by my guidebook and was quickly joined by the most adorable cat. It was a stray from the streets but it was just too cute to shoo away, as I know my doctor would have preferred. It curled up on the bench next to me, practically in my lap. While I ate, it slept. I swear, I don’t think loneliness exists in Peru. Every time I seemed to have found it, someone or, in this case, some creature would walk into the scene to chase it away. This little kitty was just the companion I needed for this moment. The duration of one meal was all the time I needed to grow attached and contemplate taking her home with me. She’d fit in my backpack, I think 😉

After lunch, I explored the local market, bartered for the mug that would forever represent my Peruvian adventure (I collect mugs), and before I knew it darkness had fallen over the town and a shower was in order. Then more food, why not?!

I wandered into a a restaurant I had spied earlier in the day for dinner. The promise of local artisanal beers is what truly drew me in but the roaring fire in the center was a nice touch as well. I may have showed up alone but by the end of my meal I was deep in conversation with the table of Canadians next to me. They were on a family vacation, off to Brazil next. Like I said before, never alone…

As I exited the restaurant, yet another crazy, costumed celebration was parading down the street. Next thing I know, I’m being pulled into the mass of paraders and am flanked on both sides by white-masked men dancing some jig that I awkwardly tried to replicate (because what other choice did I have? They weren’t letting me go back to the sidelines). What a crazy, unexpected and unforgettable experience. A perfect capture of the trip as a whole. Nothing was what I could ever have imagined. It was better.

I went to bed smiling this night. It was a good day.

Hasta luego,

Amber