November 14, 2016

We made it!! We reached Machu Picchu relatively on time, healthy and uninjured – so successes on all accounts!

The second day was the hardest (see previous post), the third was the longest (6:30 am to 6:30 pm) and the fourth was the earliest  (3:30 am). In addition to the small daily goals our guides gave us, each day became a small goal and ultimate accomplishment.

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Along the way to Machu Picchu during the past four days, I ticked off some other notable accomplishments.

– Hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
– Visited my first “7 Manmade Wonders of the World” site, unless you go by the list that includes the Colosseum in Rome
– Showered in frigid Andean glacier water
– Drank fresh Andean glacier water
– Ate guinea pig
– Tried Inca Cola
– Pooed in a squat toilet
– Nearly hiked a 14’er, reaching 13,800 feet
– Chewed coca leaves
– Was on time every morning and to every one of our meetings
– Went without makeup for days
– Didn’t run out of cell phone battery power for four days
– Christened my new trekking poles and sleeping bag in the Andes

November 12, 2016

Today was a hard day: physically, mentally and emotionally.

On Friday we started our trek to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. Despite being up late the night before, stressing about my heavy bag, I had energy and spirits were high among the group.

Today was a bit different, though; we were tired and cold at 5:00 in the morning, and we knew we had a big day ahead of us. Our guide Rumi had warned us it would be the first of two difficult days. We had to hike 11 kilometers and a cross a 4,200 meter pass, which is perfectly named Dead Woman’s Pass and is 1,800 meters higher than Machu Picchu itself.

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Rumi and his assistant guide Nick do a great job of motivating us and breaking up each day’s trek with smaller, more achievable goals. At the same time, they don’t sugarcoat anything to make us feel better, essentially giving us false hope. “It’s the Andes, there is no ‘flat’ here,” Rumi says with his ever-present giggle and big smile.

Rumi was right. With exception to the 45-minute decent from Dead Woman’s Pass, it was all uphill and all very steep. It was very slow going for everyone, with lots of breaks. As we got higher and higher, the air got thinner and thinner, making it very difficult to breathe.

Once again our guides did a great job of setting expectations and motivating us, helping me fight the mental challenge of whether or not I could actually get through this trek. We still have 2.5 more days, and I’m still dealing with a bum knee after falling on it in Lima and getting kicked by a horse in Cusco.

Needless to say, I made it to the top – second among a group of 13 travelers, nonetheless. I was weak and gasping for breathe as I took the last few steps to look over the other side. As soon as I did, I was overcome with emotion. Not only was the view incredible, but I was also so happy and proud to have accomplished the feat. I smiled a big smile as tears welled up in my eyes.

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As I sat wiping my nose and tears, finally catching my breathe, I saw an older man breaching the top. We had past him on the trail earlier, and I remembered hearing he was from Colorado. Turns out, he’s walking the Inca Trail with his daughter, who bounded up the stairs next to him. She had already reached the top, but she had gone back down to make sure he was doing ok and to hike the last part with him.

Seeing the father and daughter and their obvious strong relationship was both beautiful and heartbreaking, both inspiring to see and difficult to see. Just as I had pulled myself together, the floodgates opened. I thought about my dad and how I’d love to do something special like that with him, but would never be able to. I can’t even share this experience with him through stories and photos over coffee or a meal.

Seeing the spry young woman and her aging dad conquering the ferocious Inca Trail together was so beautiful and powerful, but all I could think about was how much I missed my dad.

I spent the next 20 minutes sobbing and reflecting, while watching the rest of my group reach the top and congratulate each other. I was so proud of all of us, but I needed to be alone – alone being only relative, considering there were about 40 other people up there.

Later I introduced myself to the man and told him what an inspiration he and his daughter were. His name is Ron, he’s 72 years old and he lives in Telluride, Colo. If he can complete the Inca Trail, then I can. He had his daughter by his side, watching over him and cheering him on. Even though my dad can’t be here with me, I’d like to think he’s watching over me and cheering me on, too.

Donald Trump winning the presidential election.

Reducing a 40 pound pack to a 6 kilo duffel bag.

It was really interesting to see how many Peruvians and other foreigners were invested in the election and largely how it turned out. Obviously, none of them wanted Trump in power. Yes, obviously.

While I was out and about on the 8th, mildly kicking myself for forgetting to send in my absentee ballot before I left, hostels were hosting election watch parties and folks in bars were glued to their phones watching the results come in into the wee hours of the night.

20161109_141015As my new friend and I left bar #3 at nearly 2 am, a Cusquaño came running up the stairs and flashed his phone with the current polls in my face. “Of course he shows me that, because I’m American,” I said to my friend.

“He doesn’t know you’re American,” he responded quickly in his darn good English. “That’s not why he showed you. If Trump becomes president, it affects us too. All of South America.”

More than once over the past week I’ve heard that if Trump becomes PotUS, there will be a war. I know enough about what Trump stands for to know that he is not good for our country, but I didn’t even think about other countries. And to think war is one of the many negative things they see coming from him.

I started kicking myself a little bit harder after that. Because I didn’t vote, I have no right to complain about him over the next four years. But at the end of the day, Hillary won California, so my vote against Trump wouldn’t have made a difference.

Something that would have mattered (much smaller scale), is if the trekking company I booked for the four-day Inca Trail trek told me in advance that I’d have to reduce my 40-pound pack, plus carry-on backpack, down to 6 kilos.

Other guides (legally) allow 15 kilos for their porters, and I assumed G Adventures was the same. Nope. They informed us the night before we left, so I was up late unpacking and repacking my bag, making numerous trips down to the lobby to weigh it on the community scale. In the process I managed to lose a shirt (personal belonging #2 thus far) and laid awake all night stressing about not having the right things.

No, I don’t need a variety of outfits and shoes and i don’t need all my toiletries and cosmetics, but I am not going back with the group and am instead spending 7 more days up in the mountains after Machu Picchu. I need a bit more than one pair of leggings and 4 pairs of panties, and I really need my pack to carry what belongings I could bring as I continued further up into the Andes. I tried fitting my pack into the duffel, and was optimistic when it only weighed 3.5 kilos without clothes. Turns out, clothes weigh more than you think. It came in at a whopping 10 kilos with only a small selection of my clothes. No matter how much I tried, it was only creeping downward. The pack had to go. So now I’m continuing my Andes trek with a duffel bag, a few bright colored leggings, jackets for the variety of climates we’ll see and my daypack, which is stuffed to the brim.

Do you hear this pity party? You should feel bad for me because a Peruvian porter (who’s probably half my size in both directions) will only carry 6 kilos of my luxuries.

And feel sorry for the US because we have a mean, inappropriate, disgusting, ill-equipped man as our new president. No matter that other countries have experienced that before – and even worse.

My G Adventure guide also reminded me that other countries have their own struggles. No matter where you go, there is hate and oppression and negativity and poverty and crime and on and on. Although the US will likely see more of those in the next four years, we’re not the only ones being negatively affected by this majority decision (still baffles me) and we’re not the only ones dealing with hard times.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think the US is taking huge steps back as a progressive, united country. But the little that I’ve seen of South America so far has opened my eyes to how good we/I have it in the states and how much of what we have is not necessary at all. The communities here work so hard and live with simple, basic things that to them may be luxuries.

So, in 11 days I’ll be reunited with my other 10 kilos and will have to repack for the umpteenth time, and in 4 years we can get a new president. Just as I will manage over the next 11 days, we’ll get by as a country (I hope), and maybe it’ll even bring some of us closer. God bless America, even if the majority have proven to be insane.

November 8, 2016

Last night, after missing my flight and likely paying too much for a taxi fromthe airport, I arrived at Hotel Niños. For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, niños means children  😉  And for you jokesters out there, it’s not a hotel only for children. I may act like a child on the regular, but I don’t have to stay at a kids-only hotel.

As most of my lodging for my trip, I found this place recommended on Tripadvisor. But after digging a bit deeper, I also learned the hotel supports a nonprofit for homeless and disadvantaged kids of Cusco, Peru. If you can put aside the fact that it’s owned by a Dutch woman, it’s really a great hotel and a great cause. Her idea was extremely successful, so she’s since opened various restaurants and two more hotels supporting the Niños Unidos Peruanos Foundacion.

Money going into the foundation, some from the hotels and restaurants and other from donations, gives kids places to live, food, education, medical and dental care, sports programs and more. It’s really very neat. Here’s the story behind the hotel and foundation.

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Anyway, that aside, the hotel is great (if you don’t mind a shared bathroom and thin walls). It’s cozy, safe and beautiful inside. Below is a picture of the courtyard in the center of all the rooms and the restaurant. My room is straight back on the second floor (called first floor here), and instead of a number it’s named Panay after one of the orphan children brought in by the founder. All the rooms are named after the children.

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November 5, 2016

And so it begins….

Today is the day I embark on the journey of a lifetime: Two months off work and an itinerary packed with amazing cities and adventures in South America.

Just as when I left work yesterday, for the last time in 2016, I have mixed emotions. I’m incredibly excited for what’s ahead… I’m feeling equally grateful and blessed. I’m scared and nervous about being alone, the language barriers, the unknown and unfamiliar. But I’m also feeling determined and proud. I’m eager to spend some quality time with myself, do something thinking and learning and growing (hopefully). That said, I’m already quite lonely.

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It was weird getting ready this morning by myself in a quiet house, knowing I wouldn’t be waking to an alarm in my bed for quite sometime. At the same time, it felt as though I was simply getting ready for another weekend trip. No big deal… Until I thrust my enormous pack on my back, and pulled my smaller one on in front. This was not the luggage for a quick weekend trip. I nearly fell over putting it on, and my back already hurt just from packing it.

Perfectly, my Lyft driver was Latin American with family in Peru. Great start to the trip already. But then I got flustered trying to speak Spanish with her, so she quickly switched to English, sensing my struggles. Ok, not such a great start…

I was reminded how much I like international flights when the free movie menu appeared on the screen in front of me and free meal and (alcoholic) beverage service followed shortly after.

After an hour in line at customs in Mexico City and two more in a layover, I was pretty exhausted by my second flight. Sleep just wasn’t happening, so I studied my Spanish notebook from the class I took in the spring and then I watched an Argentinian film in Spanish. I’m going to speak Spanish in South America gosh darn it!

Now I sit, writing, thinking about what stories I’ll be sharing during the next 60 days, thinking about what adventures will inspire them. Even though I’ll have the stories saved here to refer to later, I hope they’re ones I’ll remember forever.

All my photos are viewable here: https://goo.gl/photos/Q9CEN7Vmi4UcFFoU8

October 28, 2016

It’s nearly a week till my trip and, naturally, I’m stressing. Also naturally, I’ve been he uber planner, ironing out many portions of the trip down to the last detail. But those stars that were previously aligning so perfectly started to stray.

Aside from long wanting to visit various countries in South America, it was the volunteerism award from Travelocity that was the catalyst for this trip. As mentioned in my previous post, a while passed after winning before I was able to commit time to fulfilling the trip.

But once I picked a date for my two-month trip and my application to volunteer was accepted, the next big step was behind me… Or so I thought…

Instead, coordinating the volunteer opportunity, or not being able to rather, has been a series of unfortunate events. Shortly after being accepted, the nonprofit’s volunteer terms changed: They now required a minimum of four weeks commitment compared to three. Additionally, they wouldn’t budge with the their commitment requirement of six days per week.

Sure, I had gotten two months of leave approved, but the more time dedicated to volunteering, the less times I would have to tour four counties (!).

After much deliberation, I came up with dates of nearly four weeks and sent them over to the organization. Crickets. Days, weeks went by with no response. Did I piss them off? Were they that dead set on four weeks? Did they renege my application? Or were my e-mails getting lost in the Peruvian Amazon?

After multiple follow-up e-mails, I decided to move on and find a new nonprofit to volunteer for. Much to my excitement, it didn’t take long before I found one in Patagonia, a place I had longed to go but had nixed in my plans when committing four weeks to the original nonprofit. What’s more, they only required two weeks and they provided accommodations and gourmet meals.

I swiftly applied, going to great lengths in a matter of 48 hours to submit the numerous official documents they needed. Almost as swiftly, AMA Torres deal Paine accepted my application – or at least that’s what I interpreted the PayPal invoice sent from the organization’s director to mean. I paid, and then sunk back into my chair, happy and relieved that my volunteer opportunity was finally booked (and that I was getting to see Patagonia after all).

Again, fast forward to today, and I have yet to hear from the director – or anyone – at the organization. Once again, weeks have gone by since initial contact and acceptance. I leave for South America in eight days and my confirmed volunteer opportunity is supposed to start in 34. As you can imagine, I’ve attempted to contact them several times, through various mediums. I even sent a Facebook message, which I can see that they viewed hours later (!). Not a single response.

What is the deal?! Why is it so difficult to volunteer?! I’m trying to give you free use of my time and womanpower people!

Coincidentally, in the time that AMA wasn’t responding, a representatives form Pilpintuwasi finally responded. A new volunteer coordinator had stepped in and was trying to play catchup. She said my dates were available if I was still interested. At that point I was still optimistic that I had a new gig booked. Plus, I had already paid AMA’s volunteer fee and booked flights accordingly.

So, I’m back to square one for the second time, but now I have even less time to sort it out than before. And if you know me, it’s majorly stressing the planner in me out.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

In T-minus two weeks, I’ll be hopping on a plane to Peru, via Mexico City. November 5 marks the start of my two-month “sabbatical” to South America.

I officially requested  the unpaid leave in June and booked the first of many flights, but this trip has been in the works for quite some time. Last year, when I was feeling stagnant in my job, I dreamed of touring South America. But then I got a great new job opportunity with my employer and my family and I took a trip to the UK. Needless to say, the trip got sidelined.

But then, I won a contest from Travelocity’s nonprofit arm, Travel for Good, that awarded me with a small stipend toward a “voluntourism” trip of my choosing. I picked an animal orphanage in the Peruvian Amazon, and so the trip was back on, at least part of it.

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I had just taken a lengthy trip and was in a new, highly demanding job. I told my boss about it the contest but knew it would be awhile before I could fulfill it.

By springtime of this year, I started feeling stagnant again, but not in my job. This time it was an uneasiness, or stir-crazy if you will, in greater SoCal. I’ve lived out here nearly 11 years and in the same apartment for the past five. That’s a long time.

The urge to take a lengthy sabbatical came back, so I started planning. Chile, Argentina and Brazil stood out as other places I wanted to go: Chile for Santiago and Patagonia, Argentina for its wine country and Buenos Aires and Brazil for its famous beaches and Rio.

Peru and Brazil are known for their coffee, as huge producers of their beans, so I shared my trip plans with my editor at the international coffee magazine I was writing for. He suggested I produce a couple articles out of the trip, indicating that the magazine would help pay for some of the field research expenses.

The stars were aligning and they were pointing to this trip being a reality!

The time finally came to ask my boss. I had been dragging my feet but I needed to get the time off, which was looking at nine weeks when all was said and done. Let’s just say the phone call was pretty awkward; she was definitely shocked, thus speechless, when I told her. So, I made sure to fill the silence with rambling as I am known to do when I get nervous.

She also dragged her getting back to me – understandably, considering the big request- but a month later she finally approved my leave request minus a week shaved off the front end. The dream trip I had been mentally planning for more than a year was approved!

Fast forward to today and I’m only two weeks out. I’ve made a lot of progress during the past several months, but I get a little anxious seeing the remaining holes in my spreadsheet. I have a lot of loose ends to tie up still. That said, I better get to it. TTFN