Friday, July 12, 2013

To Home

Plaza Independencia, Mendoza, and the Andean precordillera from the rooftop café for our final IFSA lunch
Exactly six months to the day before the Wednesday I left Mendoza, my first flight from Albuquerque Sunport was cancelled because of a temperature hovering around 5° Fahrenheit and ice on the runway that New Mexicans cannot handle. I returned on Thursday to a “low” 90° Fahrenheit break in the alarmingly hottest summer on record, with literally the entire state’s open spaces being closed due to such a high-risk fire season. A whole lot changes in six months.

The lovely hour of 5am at airport one of six
I am starting to question my ability to actually have a perfectly smooth transit. First, there wasn't a single desk agent for LAN for the first hour I was in line until about 40 minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off. Next, I had some issues with security right off the bat for transporting a rock in my carry-on (…yup. Story for later). My very first flight from Mendoza was delayed yet again: three hours for absolutely no reason at all (typical), followed by 45 minutes sitting on the tarmac after arriving, and finally a delay on the baggage being unloaded. Leave it to Argentina to make my ten-hour layover with an airport change in Buenos Aires turn into a two-hour sprint across the gigantic city of 10 million people. I suppose disastrous travel stories come with the territory when my comparatively “short” return itinerary still involves five cities and six airports. Nevertheless, my belongings all remained intact and the Bermuda Triangle was successfully navigated, so I’d say all was pretty swell!

A very successful and gigantic team-effort brunch
When someone whipped out the harmonica

I was greeted in the United States by a surprisingly cheerful customs officer in Miami International Airport around 5AM on what I was pretty sure was Thursday, although things get mushy when you’re barely halfway home and you’ve already been in airports for over 24 hours. English was surprisingly baffling for quite awhile and my default for talking to strangers is still Spanish. He said, “Welcome back,” and I just blinked at him, said “Gracias” as I took my passport, and floated on. From there on out, it was a haze of bewilderment until none other than Momma Baldwin tackled me in the Albuquerque Sunport a few flights later! Somewhere between shamelessly almost crying at the sight of my beloved Sandia Mountains from the plane and arriving home with Mom to Claire Baglee plus the Baglee clan and a bunch of wonderful food including beautiful home-made green chile enchiladas, reality slapped me in the face: I am home.

The final week in Mendoza was a similar blur of denial. With the constant reminder that this is the last time in my life I will be in this place with these people, I dragged myself out every single night from Wednesday to the following Friday and somehow survived to tell the tale without even contracting the plague while doing so. I miss every single one of my fellow IFSA students so much and cannot even fathom that we are all more or less in our own respective corners of the globe. I am atrocious at goodbyes and pretty much just treat all of them as “see you later”. Luckily, that actually ends up being the case with my unpredictable travel tendencies and little likelihood of settling down in one place anytime soon. In fact, laying idle seems to deliberately evade me. I actually gave an honest effort to stay in one spot after study abroad, but alas, I’ve already got less than two weeks here in Albuquerque before I’m back on a plane or two for another month of running around.

My wonderful "Susanita" Castellano class, with our professor Gladys on the left; photo courtesy of Caitlin Hay
Katie, Erin, and me, making weird faces like we do best
My host mom, Celia; this was an accidental picture but I love it
My last few days were spent hunting down gifts, getting business sorted out pre-Wheaton, and spending as much time with my host mom as possible—warm and fuzzies were rampant. Between teaching her various computer odds-and-ends and how to work Skype, I had some pretty great heart-to-hearts with mi madre mendocina. Both of us are rather shocked at how well we have gotten to know one another and be so happily content in the two months I’ve been under her roof. I cannot even begin to explain how much my move improved my experience in Mendoza. Another poignant task was writing my reflection essay for using my Wheaton Balfour Scholar stipend towards my volunteering stint in Chile. Finally sitting down to read my journal from those days and truly think about what madness I got myself into, both during that time and these six months as a whole, was definitely worth it to me before returning to la vida de la estadounidense loca. I have missed Chile since before I even left, I adored my time in Mendoza, as unpredictable as it was, and I am happy to be back in the same country as so many other places I am fortunate enough to call home. Feeling as though a part of me is strewn all over the place is the norm, but now I’ve thrown another continent into the mix and I do not regret it at all. I cannot really believe what I’ve done during my time in South America, but I am thrilled at how challenging of an experience it has been for me. Life is an adventure and there is no certainty, and I have learned to love that more than I had believed possible.

South American greetings from yours truly and a horse named Panperro;
photo courtesy of Erin Padgett
I want to thank all of you wonderful folks who have taken the time to read about my escapades since January on this blog, and to have kept in touch with a person who is really bad at exactly that. Regardless, I’m guessing that not all of the whopping 3,000 views I’ve had on this over the months have been my own mother (love you, Mom!), and I really cannot express how much I appreciate your interest! I hope all has been well on your end and that you have enjoyed what I have had to share!

I am outrageously excited for my ideas in the next couple of months and years: I am so ready to get to work on making them happen, for another change, and to come home, wherever that may be. On to the next.

So much love from the Land of Enchantment,

I adore this place
Taken from the Rio Grande bosque on the final day of 2011
PS- My Spanglish is absolutely out of control.
  • Beware when speaking to me, and feel free to slap me if I’m blabbering some weird Castellano thing that doesn’t translate. I fully intend to teach my close friends the basics of what in the world I’m saying, because I fear it is inevitable.
  • Also, if I say “chau” (yes, not “ciao” … because Argentina likes to be difficult) at anytime in place of “goodbye,” I’m seriously not meaning to sound obnoxiously pretentious: it’s the Argentine norm and is proving to be a really hard habit to break.
PPS- I made another goofy video of the adventures of Gormanka and Warmi in Perú. I recommend the HD option, so check it out and enjoy!

Giant IFSA plus staff group photo; courtesy of Timarie Chan

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Invierno en Argentina

It feels a lot like Christmas and every single day I wish it were Thanksgiving, but alas: ‘tis the season of zonda, paros, and snow shutting near everything down in the mountains.

My skiing fellows: Rachael's first fall and Manon rocking it
 The past two weeks solid have been filled with my ever-changing plans to live la vida de doble-hemisferio and go snowboarding in the Andes before I leave. Despite most ski areas being closed and the bus companies either being shut down for paros (protests), snow in the pass to Chile, or the superstitious,“El Niño”-type wind called la zonda, trial number six was finally successful. Manon, Rachael, and I gave up on our extensive plans and just opted for spontaneity, deciding late last night to go to Penitentes, a ski area about 3 hours by bus into the mountains from Mendoza. Waking up at 5:45am ended up being completely worth it: the Andes were unlike any other snowboarding experience I’ve had. The main thing is that there are zero trees. The Andes near Mendoza are essentially a New Mexican landscape with a red-rock Himalayan mountain range popping up out of the ground to lofty (and steep) heights. This made for an incredibly windy day on the slopes with gorgeous views and virtually no limitations as to where one could drop one’s self over the edge and down the mountain.

I probably wouldn’t return to this specific snow park, in all honesty, but I still definitely recommend the Andes for snow sports (all the more reason to come back and shred with Tom Baldwin, yes?). Still, since the entire park was not groomed, it got us out into the powder whether we knew what we were doing or not, and it turned out to be awesome (as long as you didn’t faceplant, which I did twice, with great finesse). Snowboarding in a foreign country was a strange experience in general, since I had no idea that things could be so different. Most notably, the place was absolutely empty. On a Saturday, and a day after they got tons of new snow. This was truly baffling. Furthermore, my bindings completely fell apart and
When the afternoon clouds rolled in and visibility of the powder was shot.
I managed to find the parts in the snow and throw the board back together by hand; and I never expected to get piropo’ed from a chairlift, but evidently that’s a thing. (Piropo is either getting hit on or receiving extensive cat calls, all of which is inescapable for women, particularly obvious gringas like redheads. One of the things I will least miss about Latin America). It was so great to be back to snowboarding only six months after my last time out, and we’re actually considering cutting out of Mendoza sometime between finals in the coming week to go again.

Snowboarding was my last goodbye to the Andes, but I did manage to find my way back to the mountains last weekend, as well—on a horse. A few friends and I decided to pull a major tourist card and go on a “gaucho day” to drive out to Potrerillos, a pueblo south of Mendoza in the Andes, share maté with a handful of porteños, a French guy, and a Swedish woman moving to Mexico, then ride some horses up into the snowy precordillera for lunch with milanesa and vino tinto. It was a wonderful day with great company and it turns out riding horses is way easier than hiking the Andes, who would have guessed? I took it as a reward after Katie and I were the only people on the Salkantay trail in Peru to hike the entire thing, 4,650-meter pass and all, without a guide and carrying all of our own gear.

Stop for lunch in the precordillera
My favorite part was absolutely near the end when the guide decided that if we were feeling gutsy, we could try trotting our horses. I haven’t been on a horse since I can remember, but I was definitely feeling gutsy, so my friend Erin and I decided to give things a shot. Erin actually does know how to ride a horse, so she whipped right past the trotting stage and went straight to canter. I was moving pretty quickly, but my horse decided that I was ready for more when he saw Erin’s horse disappear off on the pampas, and he took off. I wouldn’t have known before, but it turns out cantering is wicked fast and I clung to my horse for dear life but trusted that he knew what he was doing. It was splendid. And addictive, honestly, so Erin and I just ended up racing back to the estancia and had a super grand time of it.

Siesta chillin' in Plaza Independencia
Otherwise, my last few days have been filled with soaking up life here in Mendoza: it has been a beautiful, calm winter and my days are spent slowly with much maté and wine in parks and plazas with great friends. (Note to self: 10 peso (US$1.50) wine is not good, but still impressive that it exists). There is so incredibly much I am going to miss here in Mendoza, plus life in South America, but it all boils down to the little things. I will miss the gamble of a micro system and the fact that they regularly break down or take forever to show up. I will miss being able to switch freely between Castellano and English, mid-sentence without skipping a beat when talking to my fellow IFSA students. I do not want to leave the simple ways of making plans beforehand and sticking to them, as my Argentine cell phone was only live roughly between late March and early May, and I have not missed it one bit.
Strange hours of the morning/night chillin' in Parque Central
I will miss life being slower, in most respects. I will miss being completely unfazed by a horse-drawn produce cart trotting down Avenida Jorge A. Calle, the main street in my neighborhood of la Sexta sección, amongst all the speeding cars. I will miss the particularly absurd pronunciations of "Baldwin" I've gotten during my time here, as it usually ends up being a train wreck. I will miss crunching leaves on my long walks home from class along the forever-mismatched tile sidewalks of the acequia- and tree-lined streets. I will miss those moments mid-sentence when I realize that a bunch of words have been coming out of my mouth without my even thinking about them, with none of them being in English. Most of all, I will miss the people I have met: in Chile and Mendoza, my fantastic fellow IFSA students, and my loving madre mendocina. Mendoza was not what I expected in a lot of ways (my climbing shoes have regrettably laid dormant since bouldering in Patagonia in February), but it has been exactly what it was meant to be, thanks to the wonderful people I have shared this semester with. I consider a handful of places my home and Mendoza is not one of them so much as my tent was in Patagonia, but I will be very sad to leave what I have grown so happy with here. I truly have never felt so calm and confident in how my life is at present and is headed in future.

The Gaucho Day group: Nancy, yours truly, Rachael, Erin, and Manon

Manon on the Gaucho Day in the Andes
Nevertheless, there are many reminders that it is time to return home. You know you’ve been in Argentina too long when things like this actually make sense (and are hilarious). Another more unfortunate realization happened last night: one of my closest friends here, Emily Seitz, got robbed at gunpoint by a woman at the trole stop down from mine, at the same time that I was getting home by trole a few blocks away, foolishly thinking that midnight was early enough to be safe not taking a taxi. I both do not and do miss quite a bit from the United States, but dependably feeling safe in my own neighborhood is definitely something I am looking forward to having again, fortunately. There are a lot of things to be taken for granted in our lives, and just feeling at home and safe is absolutely one of them for me until I moved to a neighborhood in Mendoza that I love but simply is not secure. Otherwise, I am looking forward to being reunited with so much: my parents, my family and friends who I am so lucky to have actively in my life even when I am on a different continent, food I love to cook and eat, being able to feel safe and not obviously out of place while running again, musical instruments being back in my life, my beloved Outdoors Haus at Wheaton, math and science and musings, and my major department at Wheaton, among so many countless other things.

Erin and the precordillera of the Andes
This has been an amazing semester, and I have most of all realized my ability to be incandescently happy in so many places, regardless of the circumstances and it often being difficult. Many of my fellow IFSA students and I have been discussing our thoughts on the matter of returning to the United States over the last few weeks, and we each have fairly different views. I see going to a changed home as a changed person less as a strange and possibly fearful transition, but more as a simple continuation. I’ve spent this entire semester feeling, above all, a little out of place and as though these six months have just been a pause on normal life. That is completely wrong, as this present is normal life, even if different, which is exactly what makes life worth living. I both have no desire to return at the same time as all I want in life being to be home, wherever that is, but I certainly have not yet realized that I will so soon be gone from Mendoza and these people. Regardless, there is a plane at the crack of dawn a week from Wednesday, and I will be on it.

All sorts of love from the Southern hemisphere,

Panorama from just below the top of the highest chairlift at Penitentes

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gormanka and Warmi Do Salkantay

Peru was an endless adventure with my friend Katie Gorman and absolutely the most fun I have ever had on a trip or a trek to date. I’ve been pretty overwhelmed thinking of how to approach writing this post because there is just so much to be said, so now it is incredibly long and I still know I’ve left out quite a bit. Grab a cup of tea and settle in, here’s a go!

Flying over the Andes alpenglow, Mendoza to Santiago
The adventure started before we’d even left Mendoza, thanks to customs and the Argentina visa system not having it’s act together. My study abroad program had us start our student visa process in February, but we haven’t heard about it since. As Katie and I were getting our passports checked out, we learned that our 90 days of tourist time was expired—we’d been in the country for 92 days. We got rerouted into the customs office and had a rough conversation with a rather mean officer that ended in us being labeled illegal immigrants and having to pay 300 pesos (about US$60) to leave the country. We had really no choice in the matter even if it was a 2 day difference, and paid the fee to leave. Upon returning I have learned that this was not the
Sleeping in the Lima airport, take one
same fee for my student visa, so I have to pay another 300 pesos for that, and that the fee we paid in the airport is rarely, if ever, enforced. Plus, I finally got my notification to pick up my student visa now, upon returning to Argentina. Talk about awful (and expensive) luck.

Afternoon light on the hills of Cusco, from the Plaza de Armas

I was quite surprised by how much we liked Cusco. The city is most definitely a city, but I felt far safer than I have felt in my time in Mendoza. This is most likely because the centro is absolutely crawling with tourists, even in the pre-high season window we visited in. We spent hours just wandering along the steep hills of the city along the cobblestone streets, looking at the whitewashed walls and deep indigo entryways that seem to not just be a trend but a requirement. The architecture was not nearly as European as Argentina and quite clearly a confluence between Incan style and Spanish colonialism. This was much more apparent in the last town we spent time in, Ollantaytambo, but Cusco still had beautiful Spanish cathedrals to boast. Katie and I spent an entire afternoon perched in a café balcony drawing the Plaza de Armas followed by sitting on the sunny cathedral steps, where we ended up meeting quite a few Cusqueños.

Cusco day one after a 6am arrival
Peru is debatably the friendliest South American country I have visited thus far, and we had a great time talking to just about anyone, thanks to both of us speaking Castellano. We spoke with almost every Peruvian guide who passed us on the trail and made a point of talking to as many folks as we could. We were very proud of our continued “cool gringa” status throughout the trip and met some truly interesting folks, from the very first taxi driver teaching us basic Quechua (warmi means woman) to the woman in La Playa who survived and continued to live in the valley after a 1970s landslide wiped out the entire city to the bunch of Brazilian ragamuffins in Ollantaytambo who have lived across the globe in pursuit of mountain biking. Every single person we met was nice and helpful beyond compare. My personal favorite was on our fourth day of hiking, when Katie and I collapsed in a grove of banana trees on the side of the road to plan our next move. A super adorable old woman had been sitting outside her small adobe house across the street and disappeared for a moment inside while we were talking, before reappearing outside to observe the comings and goings. When we got up to continue walking, she came to the front of her small garden and handed us a partially green mandarin orange without a word, and then returned to her perch. We were shocked and so thankful, and we ate it right there. I could not stop thinking about her kindness for the rest of the day.

Hitchhiking ride #1 approaching Nevado Salkantay
I was fairly nervous to leave Cusco since information on finding a ride to Mollepata is spotty at best, but we got some help from two Cusqueñas on the street, who tracked down the van stop with us the day before. We were in a taxi to drive us right to where the minivan rides leave Cusco at the end of Avenida Arcopata by 4:30 in the morning (it was around the corner from our hostel, but early morning robberies of walking backpackers are common), miraculously found two spots in a van, and were out of the city by 4:45. We started hiking from Mollepata after the two hour van ride for our first day that was bound to be very long to Soraypampa.
Campsite night one, Salkantaypampa at 4,100m
After quite a few kilometers, we decided to opt for hitchhiking and ended up in the back of a truck with a guided group of gringos and their mountains of stuff, which got us to Soraypampa well before noon. Good thing, because the road from Mollepata to Soraypampa appeared to be quite a bit longer than we planned, although beautiful nonetheless. Considering we’d been feeling great at altitude, we decided to ascend 100 meters more than planned that afternoon and ended up being the lone tent on the beautiful pampa of Salkantaypampa at 4,100m, just below one of the most magnificent mountains I have ever seen in my entire life. It was so cold when the sun dipped below the peaks at that altitude that we ate dinner by 3:30 in the afternoon and were in the tent no later than 5, reading Game of Thrones aloud in absurd British accents and trying to keep our toes warm.

The best lunch spot around, just below the pass
This was when health status began to deteriorate, although not for altitude reasons. Actually, altitude-sickness-wise, both Katie and I were completely dandy for the entire trip by taking ibuprofen regularly, drinking plenty of coca tea, and being responsible about not ascending more than 500 meters per day between campsites. Nonetheless, I got violently sick in the middle of the night and didn’t sleep at all, right before our second and most difficult day. The next morning I still felt it best for us to go for it, and we took our sweet time ascending the 4,600m pass. This was definitely a difficult hike, but the views made the pain and low oxygen worth it. I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful this entire landscape was in words, but we decided it was a confluence of what we imagined Ireland and the Himalayas would look like together. With speckled lichen covering the rocky pampas below the intricate masterpiece of Nevado Salkantay (Savage Mountain, 6,271m) and glaciers perched precariously on its snow-dusted slopes, it was almost as difficult to hike the pass as it was to tear your eyes away from the view and back to your footing as we ascended. We stopped for lunch just below the pass after reaching it in order to enjoy the landscape and listen to the rumble of distant avalanches as the clouds began to flood in. By midday, we were the last group of trekkers to reach the pass, but this was understandable—during our entire five days on the trail, Katie and I were the only trekkers we encountered carrying all our own gear. Literally every other non-guide on the trail was part of a paid tour group and had pack mules carrying everything other than their extra layers and during-hike water. I was pretty surprised by the lack of other solo hikers, but we still got mad respect from every guide group we encountered. Mountain woman points to the max, indeed.

Campsite night two
The second night campground was hands-down the best tentsite I have ever had and probably ever will. By mid-afternoon of our pass day, we settled on an unnamed pampas probably slightly below our first campsite altitude and both collapsed on our sleeping pads right in the open amongst the grazing horses for the last hour or so of sunlight. It was a warmer night and we were actually able to sit outside our tent in our layers as the peaks above us lit up in alpenglow and the stars began to peek out of the dark sky. It was truly the most beautiful place to just sit with our coca tea and dehydrated potatoes and stare in awe at the landscape, hoping to catch sight of the avalanches we heard. Our next morning, we passed through a pampas below our campsite that I now regard as the most beautiful place I have ever been. Between the pass and that pampas, I cannot fathom spending time in a more beautiful place and I am so happy to have been able to enjoy it for our first few days on the trail.

Nevado Huamantay, from campsite night two
Now the hiking was much easier, with the altitude descending and the temperature rising as we passed into the Peruvian jungle. This was a complete shock to me—jungle? I had been so focused on the highest altitude I have ever hiked that I completely didn’t think that the lower altitudes are indeed a banana and avocado tree forested land of bright flowers and lush jungle. We now started encountering small and isolated towns, plus guided groups and even a trio of mountain bikers who whipped past us at one point. Our plan to hike from Andenes to La Playa was already a long haul and we learned that we had camped about two hours before Andenes. The problem was, a campsite before La Playa would have to be a backyard along the road we were now hiking from the town of Collpapampa. Two motorcyclists offered we could pitch our tent at a friend’s house up the road—good, now we had an option. 

One of our fellow passengers
Soon after, however, we managed to catch a hitchhike that will forever put my few other hitchhiking experiences to shame. Instead of a guide group in the back of the truck, this time Katie and I smooshed ourselves standing in the back with four bull cows, the closest of which tied up on its side and allegedly sick for a reason we never really figured out. Despite driving slowly, the ride was still an hour-long fear of having our legs crushed or impaled by the bulls getting jostled around in the truckbed or the sick bull occasionally thrashing violently. We used our backpacks as protection between us and the horns and clung to the overhead bars for dear life. A few minutes in, we passed the friend’s house previously mentioned: turns out the “friends” were no less than 20 Peruvian construction workers. After seeing that, we both whole-heartedly took the ride with the bulls over the night staying with twenty construction worker men. I am still thankful beyond belief for catching (and surviving) this hitchhike.

Fernandito the camp cooking kitten
We ended up in La Playa after the ride with the cows, which made our final two days on the trail much more possible. This campsite was at the end of the town and owned by a very nice woman who sat and talked with us during dinner. My favorite part of this camp was the kitten that came with it, who is officially the best camp cooking cat around. Fernando was a loving terror who attached himself to Katie and me. In the middle of the night, we both woke up to a kitten silhouette on the side of the tent as Fernando attacked the side of our tent wherever we moved. He even jumped up on top of the tent (luckily not collapsing it or getting his claws stuck) and eventually let us be after much whacking on the sides of the tent and calls of “Fernando! Get off the tent!” by us. I can officially say now that I did indeed get attacked by a puma in my tent while in South America, although that puma was a feral yellow tabby kitten.

Banana trees all over the place
Our fourth day of hiking was a calm, hot, and slow plow along a road through the jungle that we filled with plenty of singing and fairly ridiculous lengths of speaking in absurd accents just because we were kind of out of it by this point. All was well until we reached Santa Teresa, the low-altitude alternative to our itinerary, when we ended up out on this hot and shadeless wasteland of a roadway in search of fabled hot springs. This was probably the closest to genuine collapse we came, but alas, the hot springs appeared in the shade of a distant cliff!
Santa Teresa aguas termales
And man, they were gorgeous pools of the clearest water and absolutely perfect for nearing the end of our trek. We bartered a ride back to town to avoid the wasteland return and ended up in another organized campsite with a bunch of gringo trains. Katie and I both wanted to meet other travelers and actually avoid our grandma tendency of being asleep no later than 7pm, but now it was Katie’s turn to get violently sick. By night four, we had officially swapped places: now I was the motivating friend who felt great and she was the sick and dying friend trying her absolute best.

But we continued on! After half a day of walking along a railroad through the jungle below Machu Picchu, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town born entirely for tourists. There is a phrase, buena onda, in Spanish that is used rather often that basically means “good vibes”—Katie and I could not get past the really unsettling onda that reeked in Aguas Calientes. It was unnervingly fake and uncomfortable to realize that hundreds of tourists pour in on the Asian-corporation-owned train, stay for one night, and then cart up to Machu Picchu for a few hours before fleeing. We unfortunately spent two nights in Aguas Calientes, the first in the absolute sketchiest hostel you can even imagine. Take note that there is a 30% tax at least on all food in the entire town, in case you ever travel here and want to avoid the unwelcome surprise we got.

Daybreak view from Machu Picchu
Getting tickets into Machu Picchu proved to be an all-day ordeal of desperately attempting to prove ourselves as students in order to get a 50% discount from the incredibly expensive entrance fee. Thanks to Alfredo, one of the ticket representatives, we eventually were granted the discount: we were up and outside in an absolute torrential downpour at 5am the next morning to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu. The way the mountains in this region are formed as huge, rounded, and jungle-covered spires, the climb to Machu Picchu is outrageously steep but meant that all the clouds of the heavy rain were settled in the valley, making for a very cool mist covering of the ruins for our first few hours. It was eerie and beautiful to float among the rooms of this ancient city without being able to see past the sheer cliff face on all sides. To add to the beauty we had seen on the trek, we found a perch to watch the dawn sunlight waft its way through the clouds and illuminate the landscape very slowly. It was quite simply unreal. Just absolutely beyond my imagination, of the clouds among these incredibly strange mountains seen from ancient walls.
Panorama of my painting subject after the clouds lifted

The central plaza of Machu Picchu
Katie and I spent a few hours in the midst of the day to just wander around on our own and draw in our sketchbooks, one of the many reasons why we are such compatible travelers. While I was painting the same mountain view we had watched at dawn, I unintentionally got a few visitors asking about what I was doing, including a pair of Chilenos who asked to take a photo with me and ending up as a Japanese tourist spectacle.
Near the cliff face into nothing
Something to check off the bucket list, I suppose, but it was very nice to just take my time to enjoy the place we had worked so hard to get to and truly commit the views to memory. Machu Picchu is a beautiful city and clearly built by a brilliant culture with skill in precise cutting of the soft stone found in the area, innovative irrigation methods still used in cities such as Mendoza, and a very intriguing sacred region of the city also used for celestial observation. After a solid eight hours exploring and petting llamas, Katie and I headed back to Aguas Calientes.
These guys are crazy

Our final day was spent taking the train to the ancient town of Ollantaytambo, where the streets and many of the buildings themselves are original Incan ruins that are still occupied.  We hiked up along a bluff to some ruins to just explore and get a beautiful view of the valley, and had lunch in a local haunt recommendation from our hostel owner that clearly never gets gringo customers, based on the looks we got from the chefs. That evening we were surprised to find that Ollantaytambo was the base camp for a week-long international mountain biking competition called Inca Avalanche. We were right on time for the results ceremony, followed by a couple of professional mountain bikers doing insane jump tricks for a few hours. I now understand why things like the X-Games are so intense—those guys are crazy, but impressive.

View overlooking Ollantaytambo from some of the ruins
O hai.
Leaving from Cusco the next day for another return itinerary of sleeping in the Lima airport and a really great movie selection (not dubbed in Spanish!) on one of our LAN flights, we were sad to leave Peru but content. We survived, thrived, and I even did it all on trail running shoes I’d bought two days before leaving, thanks to stupidly forgetting my perfectly broken-in boots in Patagonia. My friend Mauricio graciously mailed them to me a few months ago, but it appears the Argentine mail system has gobbled them up. It was truly an amazing trip with wonderful company and returning to Mendoza spurred some interesting thoughts on the concept of home. It is great to be back here with my wonderful host mom and the familiar, tree-lined streets of what is now very late fall. The beauty continues.

Much love from the Peruvian llamas, Emilia

PS- Alternate blog title that Katie and I came up with:
Gormanka and Warmi Eat Savage Mountain For Breakfast [and Then Barf It Back Up]. We thought it was hilarious. And sadly accurate. Oh well.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

To Peru

I like maps. And taking breaks from planning, but mostly maps.
After loads of planning, researching through blogs, paying for plane tickets in cash, and frazzled excitement over the past two months, Katie and I are finally embarking on our major trekking trip—we’re going to PERU!

Casa nueva!
When Katie and Taylor came over to make chocolate chip banana pancakes
and watch Game of Thrones.
I had zero plans of going to Machu Picchu during my time on the South American continent and honestly had no clue whatsoever of what I wanted to do after leaving Chilean Patagonia. When you accomplish your number one life goal with flying colors by your twenty-first birthday, other plans just don’t come to mind. I lived in Torres del Paine, I can die happy now, right? Well, turns out, this has opened up my horizons for what I could possibly want to tackle next with complete freedom of mind and newfound confidence in my ability to go for almost anything, really, as long as I give it my best.

Buying plane tickets in cash a few months ago...
My good friends Sarah and Kate in Patagonia raved about the Salkantay trek they had done in December, so months later I decided to look into it as a possibility for the intercambio student break in May. If two weathered trekkers can say a trail was the best they had ever hiked after just completing the Paine circuit, you know it must be pretty spectacular. The trail is a permit-free alternative to the Inca Trail at higher altitude and lesser crowds in our small post-wet and pre-tourist season window of late May. Problem? Flights to Peru were well over a thousand US dollars and completely not an option. After a few weeks of tossing ideas around with Katie, we realized that we could get a cheaper option in the LAN office in Mendoza, use the blue market US dollar to Argentine peso exchange rate (~8.3:1USD rather than 5:1USD. Best thing ever.), and manage to barter the round-trip ticket down to US$370 including tax. We bought the tickets in cash at the office within eight hours of finding that price. Boom. We were officially going to Peru!

So now we are set to be in the country for ten days: time spent acclimating in Cusco, five days on the Salkantay trail, roll our way out of the backcountry at the base of Machu Picchu in Aguas Calientes, take a train to Ollantaytambo for more Incan ruins, then back onto an overnight plane for our South American home. We both are so excited but I still haven’t quite realized that this is happening: I think I’ll realize it once the high altitude headache sets in, and hopefully will not end up with a severe case of AMS. Nevertheless, you never know until you try, so here goes!

Fairly to-scale map found on the internet. Looking forward to finding a proper topo in Cusco.

The Salkantay trek, although boasted as one of National Geographic’s 25 Best Treks in the World, is not a very well-documented undertaking at all. Thanks to a head start of information that Sarah and Kate emailed to me, Katie and I have pulled together a pretty solid itinerary that is 70% for our own information and 30% to inform our parents of our whereabouts while being completely out of cell phone or phone card range and only having internet in rare hostels. It may appear as though their daughter is simply running amok in the mountains of the world, but I can assure you that grabbing my pack and heading out the door is not the case. It is not easy for anyone involved, but my parents happen to be remarkably wonderful for trusting each of their kids to try our limits in each of our own ways. It is things like this sort of planning that make it possible. Granted, they are more proponents for week-long, incommunicado high-altitude treks than the jumping-out-of-airplanes sort of personal trials I am guilty of, but nevertheless are the most supportive parents I can imagine.

May our itinerary help as a head start to whoever may have interest in hiking the Salkantay Trek in future, and serve as an explanation for my next few days. This is unedited from Katie and my Google Doc of joint planning, just minus the rather interesting South American grocery list and commentary: thoughts on that for another time. Enjoy and I will report back, free from altitude and infamous Peruvian bacterial sickness, by early June!
Game faces.

Much mochilera love,

P.S.- In other news, I am wishing from afar for the happiest of birthdays to the best Dad around! Pops has a rather significant birthday here on the 26th that he and Mom will be spending in the glorious land of Minnesota to celebrate my cousin’s graduation from St. Olaf College—so may congratulations also be had to Andy on finishing undergrad!

P.P.S.- Katie and I happen to be in the same place in the Game of Thrones series, so we’ll be spending our evenings on the trail reading aloud from the third book, but otherwise: if you have recommendations for card games that can be explained over email or Skype, let me know!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Making Moves

Biking between bodegas in Maipú
I MOVED. Hallelujah. This is probably going to only be a big deal to my Baldwin family and fellow IFSA estudiantes de intercambio, but it is indeed a really big deal. It’s pretty rare for a study abroad student to actually speak up about not being comfortable in a host family situation, even if it is encouraged. After months of thinking that things would get better if I powered through or that I should just deal with not being fed regularly, I finally decided I needed a change. Therefore, my last few weeks have been a terribly slow, in classic Argentine fashion, process of changing families. I am now on the other side of the city in the sixth district (“La Sexta”) where most IFSA students live and have regrettably left what was easily the most convenient host family location of anyone. I do miss living next to Plaza Italia and easy, safe walking distance from anywhere. Nevertheless, I have been in my new house for a whopping fifteen hours at this point and by two hours in I was THRILLED. Seriously, I have not been quite so bubbly-excited about something since I can remember. I got a good-night hug, for goodness’ sake! Hugs are the best.
Floor above the cellar at Bodega Trapiche

My new host mom is Celia, easily one of the friendliest Argentines I have met. She is essentially my middle school English teacher, Mrs. Velarde, who was probably one of my favorite English teachers I’ve ever had. Upon first meeting her last week, she told me her theory on host students is to treat them how she would want her two now-grown sons to be treated if they ran off to some foreign land to live with a stranger—at that point I knew she was in this for the right reasons. She happens to love cooking and immediately showed me how to work the stove to gave me free reign if I wanted to cook, plus she avidly paints and makes mosaics, my favorite art venture, in her free time. The only drawback is that now I am in a much less safe neighborhood than before: my neighboring IFSA student, Matt, was robbed at gunpoint a block away from our houses early on. Nevertheless, I feel being aware at night with the added price of using only taxis after dark is worth actually feeling happy and at home.
Bodega Carinae

Bodega Carinae
Celia announced quite quickly how much she loves talking, which is great. I’m a super talkative person in English as anyone knows, but Spanish buries my personality somewhere deep under fear of failure and lack of vocabulary. Just being around Celia gets me to talk—I’m not afraid of asking her questions or completely destroying a verb conjugation attempt or even just actively participating in conversation, all things that I was afraid of with my previous host mom. There is this reckless level of Spanish-speaking where I simultaneously don’t care if I butcher the language and actually end up being really good at the language without meaning to be that I have reached once before. In my last two weeks in Torres del Paine, I so strongly wanted to be friends with the people I spent all my time with that I just busted through whatever doubts I had and spoke. Lo and behold, my personality resurfaced and I was no longer that awkward quiet gringa!

Super chill Beer Garden in Maipú
So that is happening again and I’m super pumped. I might emerge from study abroad and actually be decently proud of my language abilities, since I’ve been pretty disappointed in my lack of fluency in the last few weeks. Nevertheless, these weeks have been great and I apologize for completely neglecting le blog, oh wonderful friends and family who graciously continue to read my blathering. I’ve been caught up in all sorts of odd events such as school or bumbling about with friends and even working on post-graduate applications and various Wheaton endeavors that I am so outrageously excited about.

Malbec the alpaca, resident of Bodega Trapiche
About two weeks ago, I successfully got around to doing one of my top Mendoza bucket-list items: a day biking between bodegas in Maipú, the rich wine region directly southeast of Mendoza. A handful of us rounded up to take a micro (city bus) out to the bodegas at the bright and early hour of 9 am (the earliest I’ve woken up for anything in weeks. That’s embarrassing). We rented some pretty hilariously iffy cruisers, tested out and rightly decided against the tandem bike option, and set out along the roads to stop in whichever bodegas our hearts desired. We first visited Trapiche, a bodega you may be able to find in the United States. It is a gigantic importer with an equally gigantic facility, and the grand volume of production they support is quite impressive. From there we moved on to try something less-Mendoza-style and stopped at a beer garden for lunch. The entire menu was one type of pizza, empanadas, and three home brews, and all of the above were surprisingly fantastic. It reminded me so much of a combination between Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile, and this campsite that my family stayed at in Naivasha, Kenya: I could have lived in this place, it was so comfortable. But alas, we dragged ourselves away from the comfy outdoor couches and back onto the bikes to head to Carinae, a tiny French-owned boutique bodega
Beer Garden lunch of pizza mendocina
far on the outskirts of the Maipu region. My parents and I briefly stopped here at the end of their visit, but unfortunately missed their open hours. They had been so friendly to us that I made a point to return and it was so worth it. We had the entire place to ourselves and were able to take our time during the tour and the tasting: we are all new to this, and our host graciously taught us all about Malbecs and general wine tasting techniques in both English and Castellano. It was so welcoming and comfortable, and a wonderful contrast to the high-production Bodega Trapiche. Overall, biking among the vineyards with the snow-capped Andes lining the horizon on a sunny autumn day was purely divine and I am so happy I woke up for it.

We had sushi!! And hummus on a separate occasion
The rest of my days have been a strange but tranquila mezcla of Mendocino living: finding ourselves spectators at a super high-class polo tournament (yes, polo), testing as many heladarías artesanales as I can possibly find, officially accepting my fate as a liberal arts student by learning how and becoming addicted to knitting (albeit whilst abroad), and prepping for my upcoming backpacking trek in T-minus eight days with banana chocolate chip cookies out the wazoo. I was supposed to have my first exam since December three weeks ago, but learned on exam day that the date had changed with only the two gringas of the class completely missing the memo. The following week, I arrived, again ready to take the test, to find the building completely barred off due to no running water. Evidently this week I will finally take the test, but at this point my studying attempts are half-hearted.

As for my upcoming trip, I absolutely cannot begin to explain how excited I am for that and I will be writing about it next week before I leave on Friday. In other news, many congratulations to all the wonderful graduates enjoying festivities this or next week—it has been a pleasure to know each of you and you will all do great things!

Much love from la tierra del sol y buen vino,
More pumped to be on a bike again than for the bodegas