Today is Thanksgiving, which generally means a few things for the average American: Be thankful, spend time with friends and family, and overindulge on food.

For me, that’s about how it goes, with exception to being with my family. I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in more than a decade. Instead, I normally spend it with friends and their families.

Last year was the first year that I didn’t go anywhere for a feast with friends. I didn’t have a car, so my roommate and I tried to volunteer with the local veteran’s center – tried being the operative word. By the time we arrived for the afternoon shift, the nonprofit had run out of the main food and none of us arriving volunteers knew what to do.

I ended up feeling pretty depressed that day, so I vowed never to skip Thanksgiving with friends and food again. Now, a year later, I’m thousands of miles away from those friends – from anyone I know, actually. I’m even more “alone” this Thanksgiving than last year.

The holiday landed during the four-day jungle excursion I booked; today is the first day. I’ve been in Iquitos (“Gateway to the Amazon”) for the past couple days with no signs of the upcoming holiday to remind me that I wouldn’t be celebrating it this year. Correction: that I wouldn’t be with friends and family and gorging on the day’s staples. I’m still very thankful, though. In fact, this entire trip is one that has me especially thankful. Every morning I wake up remembering that I’m in a different country on the trip of a lifetime. I’m so thankful for all the many powers that helped make it happen!

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My awesome guide with Otorongo Expeditions, Roberto, picked me up at my hotel at 10 am and we set off by tuk-tuk and then speed boat to the lodge tucked into the jungle along the Amazon river. We arrived just in time for lunch and I was pleased to see that there are two other groups here. They’ve been here for several days already and seen and done a lot.

20161124_202520Just in the first day, Roberto took me to a sugarcane rum distillery along the river where I got to press my own sugarcane to extract the juice. After lunch, we saw two breeds of dart frogs, a leaf toad, macaws, a toucan, various other birds and butterflies, and three families of pigmy marmosets (leoncita).

During our night jungle walk, we saw two other breeds of frogs, wild Guinea pig, dragon fish, an owl, a long-legged scorpion, and more spiders and tarantulas than I’d care to think or know about. No matter how many times I jumped at insects and shadows and how hard my guide laughed at me, it was very cool to be so vulnerable deep in the jungle. It’s amazing to know this kind of nature and be so far from what is comfortable, familiar, civilized… Even though I’m missing out on Thanksgiving festivities again, it’s refreshing in a way to be so far from it all.

The two groups are from the states, so it’s nice to have a little bit of “home” and not have to “feast” by myself. Everyone seemed too exhausted to remember or even care about what day it is, but their faces briefly lit up when I shared “Happy Thanksgiving.” Our ground beef and rice casserole was tasty, but I sure could have gone for grams’ butternut squash topped with marshmallow and a can of gelatinous cranberry sauce.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting and joining this journey with me.

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November 18, 2016

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I knew the four nights with the rural Peruvian host family would push me outside my comfort zone, but I didn’t realize how much until I got here.

I arrived with a friend of the family who can speak English and an intern at his company who also speaks English (and Spanish and French and German).

The family was hosting a gathering for the village’s local coffee association, Flor de Cafe. Turns out, the matriarch of the family, Victoria, started the association years back to help herself and other village women better position themselves for selling their coffee on the local market.

As the meeting continued into the night, my compañeros and I sat outside listening from afar under an overhang that was protecting us from the rain.

While some of what they discussed was relevant to my research for the Global Coffee Report, I could only pick up phrases here and there. The intern, Laura, would be staying the first night to translate for me, as well as learn about coffee herself and take photos. Deep down inside, I wanted her to stay the entire time. Not only was her Spanish very good, but Laura was also a whitey like me. She was the only bit left I had of any sort of security blanket.

After the meeting, Laura and I joined the family of 4.5 in the comedor for dinner. Surprisingly, Laura didn’t say much during our time with the family even though she speaks their language. I found that even though she was more capable of striking a conversation, her slightly reserved nature kept her from doing so.

Even if my Spanish had been better, I wasn’t really in the mood for small talk or “interviewing” for my research. We had a long day and I sensed my body coming down with a cold. All I wanted to do was sleep: to get some much-needed rest and to escape the uncomfortable position I had put myself in by arranging this four-night home stay. Fortunately, the family was far from uncomfortable. They were incredibly friendly and made me feel at home while still going about their lives.

Today I’m still feeling uneasy. Laura and I were up bright and early at at 6:30 to join the family for breakfast of bread, crackers, rolls and yucca (choose your own carb adventure) and coffee, of course. After the men left for work and the 3 year old to school, it started to rain pretty hard. Our only plans for the day of touring Victoria’s coffee plantation (or “chakra”) were now on hold and the two of us at in silence as she started preparing the day’s next meal. With Laura still at my disposal, I took advantage of the free time to interview Victoria about her life as a coffee producer.

Through the association, the women were able to buy a commercial-sized peeler and roaster. This allows them to sell their coffee as both a raw input and a ground coffee ready for brewing, packaged under their brand “Flor Cafe.”

With Victoria’s plethora of insight, and thus lengthy answers, the interview took up a lot of the morning. Then after studying my Spanish a bit, I went back to bed hoping to nap off the rain and rest my congested head and lungs. I could have slept (escaped) the day away, but the rain finally stopped and the opportunity arrived to tour the chakra.

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It was nice to get outside in the freshly watered brush of Peru’s high jungle as Victoria pointed it all the naturally growing flora around us: coffee, mango, bananas, oranges, tree tomatoes and yucca. Having been writing in the coffee industry for 7 months now, I was able to recognize the coffee berries right away. It’s the last harvest of the season, so many of the plants were bare. There are three rounds of harvesting each year, and the last one is generally for the village’s consumption rather than for sale. It’s also the harvest where they clean all other berries off the plants to prepare them for next season.

Later we would get to observe the next steps in the process: cleaning, pitting, fermenting, peeling and roasting. After lunch, Victoria had to go to town, though, so Laura and I ended up sitting around in silence again. As much as I wanted to escape to our room to take a nap, I tried to occupy myself with writing, playing with little Adriano and walking around.

The latter two ceased when his nap time came and it started to rain again. And then before I knew it, Laura was saying goodbye and hopping in a colectivo for a lengthy ride back to her comfort zone.

Needless to say, I was feeling awkward again and also questioning whether this volunteer opportunity was going to work out. I realize it’s only the first full day, but I have yet to do any volunteering and my offers to help around the house keep getting turned down. In terms of coffee research, I’d asked everything I wanted to while trapped inside and I couldn’t volunteer in the chakra while it was raining. And that was if the family put me to work. At least if I was working, my mind would be occupied and I wouldn’t feel as awkward, helpless and uncomfortable as I do now.

Huh, I sound just like Eeyore, a sad little burro with a rain cloud over his head…

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