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