I am just one week away from departing on my next Andean adventure. As I write this, I am sitting on my bed surrounded by piles of boxes and clothes, endless to-do lists, and my Lonely Planet guidebook at close range. In short, it is absolute chaos in my room and in my mind as I prepare to leave for the next 10 months.
Even with only a week to go, there is still so much I don’t know about my upcoming adventure. I don’t know what to expect, much about where I am going, how I am going to do it all, or what my schedule will look like upon arrival. I will share what I do know, though, if even just to ease my racing mind.
Leave date: Sunday, October 4, 2015. I will be flying from Jackson to Salt Lake City to Atlanta to Quito, Ecuador. It is sure to be a long day, but I am sure will be worth it once I finally land in the mountains and 10,000 feet of elevation that is Quito!
Return date: August 4, 2016. That seems far away now, but I know this next year will absolutely fly.
I should note at this point that I just found out these dates last Tuesday…so 12 days in advance of departure. I was halfway expecting that based on how I have received information throughout this entire process, but there has still definitely been a shock factor connected to it.
Placement city: La Maná, in the Cotopaxi Province. If you Google this, you won’t find much besides a one-sentence Wikipedia page and a couple of photos that may or may not actually be from there. If it is anything like this photo, though, I know I will love it!
I will be working at a university extension in this small city. There are 7 of us English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in Ecuador, and while most of us are placed in our own city, I will be sharing La Maná with one other ETA. This particular university has never hosted an ETA before, so I think that will present us with both great challenge as well as great opportunity in the year ahead. ETA’s are usually placed in the Cotopaxi province capital, Latacunga, but the Cotopaxi volcano is currently erupting there, so the commission decided we would be safer elsewhere. Fair enough.
What I will be doing: As the title implies, I will be working as a Teaching Assistant at the university level, working with students who are studying to becoming ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers. It is expected that I will spend about 20 hours of my week with my English-teaching duties. It is also expected that I will spend another 20 hours completing some sort of community engagement project. I have several ideas in mind for that, but I know I will be able to more fully and accurately develop that once I actually arrive in my community.
And as for how I am doing this all… For those of you who don’t know, I was fortunate enough to be awarded with a Fulbright Fellowship. The U.S. Fulbright Program is sponsored by the State Department and was founded in 1947 in order to promote cross-cultural understanding. There are several forms of the program, including research and faculty fellowships in addition to the ETA program. I had heard about this opportunity early on in my Bowdoin career, and the decision to apply seemed easy based on my current and future personal and professional interests. There are many reasons I pursued a Fulbright and in Ecuador, but it boils down to my desire to perfect my Spanish, my plans to become a teacher in possibly a bilingual setting someday, my love for South America, and my desire to deeply immerse myself in a culture so different than my own.
This year is sure to be filled with innumerable challenges, emotions, and achievements. Despite the craziness of my departure, the ups and downs of being away for so long, and my uncertainty about everything ahead, I know this is exactly where I am supposed to be, and I am beyond excited. I look forward to sharing it with you all!
Hello friends and dedicated fans! I am taking a brief hiatus from recounting my Andean adventures to tell the tale of my most recent destination: Kenya!
This trip cannot be explained without a little background information. After finishing Bowdoin a few weeks ago and preparing to embark on my next South American adventure, it only seems logical that I would jet over to Africa for a bit, right? Right…
This trip stemmed from a conversation I had with my dear friend, Kate, last fall about our mutual friend, Chase. Before I can say anymore, I must describe these two key characters.
Kate: 29 going on 16 in all the best ways. Kate works in the Study Abroad and Fellowships office at Bowdoin so gets mega credit for helping me when I studied abroad in Argentina and again with the Fulbright application process this past fall. And by mega credit I mean I actually would never be on my way to Ecuador if Kate hadn’t whipped me into shape. She is an angel and I am forever indebted to her. At some point over the past few years, Kate and I decided to be friends. Despite the weird looks we got from her fellow office mates for our student-faculty relationship, a true love was blossomed.
You might recognize her name from my post in 2013 about my stuffed traveling companion, Esteban, as Kate was the one who gifted him to me. She is also the loving wife of a fantastic gentleman from the UK and the mother of the two most adorable girls this world has ever seen (ages 2 ½ and 1). Kate can spit out any pop culture reference ever, she loves crabs (real ones and crab décor), studied abroad for half of her college career, and has amazing hair circumference when it is humid outside.
Chase: Bowdoin Class of 2012. I had the pleasure of meeting Chase during my freshman spring when he was one of the leaders of an [in]famous winter camping course with the Outing Club. Like Kate, Chase and I decided to be friends and spent the rest of the semester crossing paths intermittently. A conversation on the quad during his senior week about his future plans to teach in Kenya and my lack of Facebook to keep in touch led to a 3-year pen pal relationship filled with me trying to decipher Chase’s illegible handwriting on graph paper, my extremely lengthy letters, and often a leap of faith in the mail system. Chase is originally from Tennessee, but spent several years of his childhood in the UK and now identifies with being from New Hampshire. He is an avid traveler and outdoorsman, is interested in international diplomacy, is a Star Wars aficionado, and doesn’t like mushrooms very much. He is also a ginger. Just another detail.
And then there’s me: recent college grad always up for adventure, a serial over-thinker, lover of chocolate, and ready to take on the world one country at a time. But if you are reading this, I imagine you know me fairly well.
So anyway. Kate and I were friends. Chase and I were friends. Kate and Chase were friends. Why weren’t all three of us friends? I was in Kate’s office one day when she told me that she was planning to visit Chase in Kenya since he is leaving at the end of this year to pursue a master’s degree in London. I [semi] jokingly told her I was jealous and wanted to go too, but I felt awkward since I wasn’t technically invited and also because I was a broke almost-college grad (cue the serial over-thinking part I mentioned above). Long story short, Kate lectured me about the fact that money is for spending, a few days later I received a formal invitation (calligraphy pen and all!) from Chase, and before I knew it I had booked flights to Kenya!
And now for the actual trip! (If you are still reading by this point I promise it gets interesting.) Due to scheduling, Kate and her husband went a week before me. After a tear-filled and busy goodbye to Bowdoin (complete with a torrential downpour outside), I suddenly found myself on a plane to London’s Heathrow airport. I had a short layover there before catching my next flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flights went by in seemingly little time and without any issues—I think mostly because I was so tired from the previous few weeks with finals, graduation, moving out, etc. that I slept or cried most of the way. Once I arrived in Nairobi, I was to meet Kate at the departures gate since her husband was flying out around the time I was flying in. Well, it was also a torrential downpour in Nairobi. My flight was late, it was dark, and I couldn’t find the international departures area. I tried to solicit help from a friendly airport employee (who kindly drove me around in his bus), but he was all sorts of confused as to why I wanted to go to departures. A semester of living in Latin America meant that I was surprisingly calm and unphased by this adventure. Poor Kate on the other hand was worried sick and frantically calling everyone she could think of until I finally emerged from the rain, soaking wet and smelling quite rancid after 20 hours of travel but smiling with excitement at our adventure ahead.
Finally reunited and exhausted, we crashed in our airport hotel (complete with what we dubbed our “princess malaria canopies” aka mosquito nets) for the night before heading back to the airport in the morning to make the short flight to Mombasa, where Chase lives. Even in the small part of the city I saw, Nairobi is a large and busy city, and Kate and I were both feeling a little overwhelmed. That immediately dissipated as soon as we landed in Mombasa. Located on the coast of the Indian Ocean and the second largest city in Kenya, Mombasa has a relaxed and vibrant feeling that had Kate and I smiling to each other the entire taxi ride to Aga Khan Academy, where Chase has worked for the past 3 years.
Chase met us at the gate (complete in a pink shirt and socks ensemble that led to many shrimp jokes from Kate and I the rest of the trip) where he kindly showed us to his ocean-view apartment (not complete with toilet paper or food. #bachelorlife). There, we showered, napped, and also met up with another Bowdoin alum Emma, who is finishing up her first year at Aga Khan. The four of us crammed into a tuk tuk (essentially a small motorcar taxi) for a fantastic lunch downtown. I found myself quietly taking it all in with a content and elated smile. It was amazing how all the overwhelming and sad emotions from the days before as I departed my beloved home in Brunswick just seemed to disappear into the humid air of Mombasa. As my dear friend Maddie would say, I was the happiest kitty.
That night, we were joined by another Aga Khaner, Anna, for dinner at another fantastic outdoor Mombasa restaurant, where we devoured trays on trays of meat sticks. And by “we” devoured, I mostly just mean that Chase devoured said meat sticks. He ate a whopping 16 that night, but as of the writing of this blog post I have been informed by my sources on the ground that he set a new record of 26 sticks. Congratulations, Chase, on your meaty achievement.
We had the pleasure of having Emma as our Mombasa tour guide the next day, and she showed us the Old Town part of the city. The area used to be fairly bustling, but it has quieted down significantly now after the shootings of several tourists a few months ago. We leisurely enjoyed some Swahili tea, browsed the shops, had a lovely lunch, and then explored Fort Jesus, which is a Portuguese fort built in 1591 to guard the Old Port of Mombasa. Interestingly, it was built in the shape of a man (from an aerial view) and thus was given the name of Jesus. While we were unable to go inside too far without paying, it was still really neat to explore this 16th century relic. After some coconut water to revive our hot and sweaty selves, we headed back to Aga Khan and geared up for our next destination: Watamu!
Watamu is a small village about 2 hours up the coast from Mombasa. Chase’s taxi guy (we learned that Chase has an absurd amount of Kenyan connections), Collins, kindly drove us. It was so neat getting to see the open landscape of the country as we weaved through small towns. We had to stop at several police check points on our way (efforts to control terrorist group al-Shabab), but they were fairly uneventful. I kept thinking how similar everything seemed to Latin America: the small shops, people milling around in seeming indifference to the slow passing of time, and the insane driving that had me thinking we were going to get into a head-on collision at least every ten minutes. But, in the advice of Chase and Emma, “you have to not care much about your life in traffic here.” (Sorry mom and dad. I clearly made it out alive though!)
Tired from the hot drive, we finally arrived in paradise. Chase had set us up to stay at the Watamu Treehouse Hotel (check it out! http://www.treehouse.co.ke/). The treehouse is built within the jungle branches and the breeze flows gently through the building, as there are no windows. Homemade glass fixtures line the walls, and the soft crash of the ocean waves on the beach, wind in the trees, and the occasional monkey were the only sounds we could hear. Welcomed with fresh juice and a fantastic room for three (because at this point our strange trifecta of friends was the most normal), we were all the happiest kitties. We spent that first evening lounging and dining on a fantastic seafood dinner before falling asleep to a full moon.
Because the moon was full, the tide was strong, so the owner of the hotel, Paul, offered an excursion of floating down a mangrove with nothing to guide us but the pull of the tide. Always down for adventure, we agreed and the next morning found ourselves walking down a dirt road lined with an interesting juxtaposition of small, thatch-roof homes and also large, gated vacation homes. We soon found ourselves at the mangrove, which was essentially a 5-7 feet wide creek, where we hopped in with our snorkels and simply floated. The water gently guided us around the twists and turns of the mangrove as we dodged branches, rolled around in the warm water, and shared plenty of giddy smiles.
After a while, Paul informed us that we were nearing the opening. We readied our snorkels and rounded the corner into a harbor-like area. We swiftly floated past fishing boats and docks as the tide pulled even stronger. We followed the shoreline for quite a while longer when Paul instructed us to get ready to swim quickly to the shore. At that spot, the tide was suddenly stronger than it had been the entire time, and we had to traverse the current in order to make it to the rocky shore. Before we knew it, we were dripping wet, smiling big, and walking on the beach.
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we noticed one of the hotel employees, Josephat, standing on the shore along with a table full of food. He had also brought along a floating board, so we used it as a table and sat cross-legged in the shallow water and enjoyed a fantastic snack of a Kenyan sweet bread, coconut-covered bean-type things, mango juice, and more. It was unbelievably delicious and much appreciated after a long float. We had originally planned to get a ride back to the hotel from Josephat, but the tide was going out fast enough that we decided to walk along the newly-exposed shoreline instead. We leisurely made our way back, soaking up the sun, checking out eels and crabs, and conversing back and forth as we left soft footprints in the sand.
We arrived back at the hotel to a fantastic breakfast (as if we hadn’t had enough food already!), which we devoured willingly. We had then planned to explore some nearby ruins, but instead the afternoon was spent showering, reading, and napping until we got massages. If I had been relaxed and in a fantastic mood before this day, I was surely floating above the clouds with elation and joy at the end. Just pure bliss. This post-college life is pretty great so far I must say.
The next morning, we sadly had to prepare for our journey back to Mombasa. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed, and said goodbye to our dear new treehouse friends and promised to come back if we can. Collins then picked us up again and we made the drive back to the city. It was hot outside and we kept inhaling exhaust from trucks driving in front of us, so Kate and I were kind of miserable by the time we got back to Mombasa. Luckily some food and a nap cured us, so we were feeling much better by the time we joined some of Chase’s friends for dinner.
These friends are also teachers at Aga Khan. They are probably in their 40s and have a son who attends the lower school. They are originally from India and were some of the kindest people I have ever met. Emma and Anna also joined us for dinner, so it was a table full of friends—some we had known longer than others but it all felt the same with the loving and welcoming atmosphere. And the food was absolutely mouth-wateringly delicious.
That night was spent somberly and quietly packing up, as Chase had to depart early the next morning for a school trip to Mt. Kenya and Kate and I had an adventure of our own lined up. We exchanged goodbyes to our fantastic host and friend, Chase, and before we knew it morning had arrived and we were off again.
And where were we going, might you ask? Well, when in Kenya, one must engage with the local wildlife. So we were off on a safari!
Another connection of Chase’s and safari guide extraordinaire, Salim, met us at the gates of Aga Khan as we lugged our backpacks and several bags for Chase out (these bags are important details you will read about later). We hopped in his safari van and we were off to Tsavo East National Park. The drive took about 4 hours, including a stop to help fix a fellow safari van. Salim is an endless encyclopedia of knowledge, so he spent much of the drive explaining the history and current situation of Kenya. I will spare you the details of all that I learned, but it was truly fascinating to learn more about this beautiful yet strange country we were in.
Not two minutes after we entered the park, Salim pointed to the right at about 30 elephants sauntering about the bushes. I was reminded of being in Yellowstone with the ability to see wildlife so close and so easily. We had lifted the roof of the safari van so we could stand and get a full 360 view of the landscape and wildlife. Over the next few minutes, we saw zebras, gazelles, birds, and much more. We were headed to our lodge for lunch, but Salim asked if we were very hungry. Having just consumed some Pringles, we told him we were doing okay, to which he responded, “okay, so do you want to go eat lunch or see some lions first?” Uhh…DUH we wanted to see lions! A fellow safari guide had radioed into Salim to inform him about the “simba” that he spotted. (Simba is the Swahili word for lion. I told you this was the real life Lion King.) We followed two track roads that Salim clearly knew by heart although they looked confusing to us, and suddenly to our left we saw three female lions lazily lounging beneath the shade of a tree. (In addition to the radio, Salim has an unbelievable ability to spot animals without seemingly even trying to look for them.) Salim turned the van off and we simply watched these majestic creatures for a while before leaving them to their nap and going to our lodge for another fantastic Kenyan meal.
Our accommodations included a canvas tent/cabin hybrid and an outdoor seating area with elephants grazing just yards away. Casual. We napped and got out of the sun for a few hours before going on a sunset “game drive” (as it is called) to see some more animals. We saw elephants, zebras, more lions, baboons, and so much more. I will let the photos do the speaking here.
After dinner and stargazing in a night sky that could compete with Wyoming’s (not many places can do that), we crashed for some much-needed sleep before waking up early for a sunrise game drive. The highlight of this one included watching a hippo give birth. Hippos have been doing the water birth thing forever. So hipster.
Before long, it was time to make the long drive back to Mombasa. The drive was mostly spent staring out the window and watching the landscape pass by, exhausted but very content. (Salim told Kate that I am her “friend that doesn’t speak” since I was so content just watching everything.) We made a brief stop at a wood-working “factory,” where we watched dozens of people carve intricate wood carvings of all sizes beneath the low-lying shelters of tin roofs placed on crooked logs placed in the uneven dirt. I could have spent all day there admiring the incredible craftsmanship. Salim then took us to the train station, where we planned to take the overnight train to Nairobi.
Unfortunately, our impeccable good luck so far on the trip started to take a turn at this point. I know this post is getting lengthy at this point, so I will try to condense the story. First, the station looked abandoned and several decades old. We boarded anyway and found our first-class cabin, whose amenities only partially worked at that involved going through a very narrow corridor to get to. (Very difficult with all our bags.) The “toilets” were nothing more than holes in the floor that led directly to the tracks below us. Somewhat apprehensive as it started to get dark and we began to question our decision to take the train, Kate and I tried to maintain our morale through laughter and not letting our sense of adventure slip away. And what is traveling without a few mishaps anyway, right?
The train was scheduled to leave at 7. But then they informed us it would be 7:30 or 8. Classic Kenya. No worries. We made our way to the food car to eat a surprisingly tasty dinner with the other 3 train passengers. It was dark by this point, but we tried not to worry and kept texting Salim updates, as he had become our very worried and caring adopted father at this point. It was such a relief to have a contact in the country since both Chase and Emma were out of range by this point. The departure time kept getting pushed back farther and farther because we were waiting for the engine that was mysteriously eternally “very close”, so finally we decided to just go to sleep in our very comfortable– yet very claustrophobic in the hot train car– beds.
Sometime later, I heard a loud screeching noise and felt the train jolt to a start. I glanced at my watch and read the time: 11:45 pm. Classic. Feeling relieved to be on our way and much cooler with the night air coming in through the window, I was able to sleep more soundly. Around 7:30 am, however, I awoke to the train stopped in seemingly the middle of nowhere. We made our way to breakfast where we were informed we were in Voi. We texted Salim an update of our location, and he informed us we had made it about a third of the 480 km trip. Even better? Voi is where the park entrance is that we were at the day before. Perfect :)
About halfway through breakfast, the train manager approached us to inform us that the engine was broken and that we should probably take a bus the rest of the way, as they didn’t know when it would be fixed. In a mix of laughter and low-key stress, we packed our things and lugged them all (did I mention Chase sent his heavy books home with us?) to a truck which drove us about half a mile to the bus station, where we bought a $12 ticket and waiting for the bus to arrive an hour later from the dusty bench of the small town.
Kate and I planted ourselves in the front seat and many, many hours later (approximately 6), many horrible bus movies, and insane traffic later, we finally arrived in Nairobi at 7 pm—24 hours after we had set out.
We had clearly missed all our planned Nairobi activities that day, but we were so exhausted we didn’t even care at that point. We snagged a taxi at the bus station which took us to Paul, the hotel owner’s, house. He had kindly offered us his house while we were in Watamu and found out we didn’t have a place to stay. Nairobi traffic is like nothing I have ever seen before, so it took us over an hour to make it the few km to his house, but once we got there, we were welcomed by Paul’s amazing housekeepers, a warm meal, and lovely beds to sleep on. His two housekeepers were so motherly that all the stress and exhaustion from the day seemed to disappear as we fell into the loving arms of these strangers.
Feeling (and looking) significantly better the next morning, we took on our final day in Kenya in stride. Since Kate works for the study abroad office at Bowdoin, she decided to pay a visit to St. Lawrence in Kenya—a study abroad program that Bowdoin students often attend right there in Nairobi. While looking at the map to find the place a few months ago, Kate had discovered that there was a Waldorf school right next to St. Lawrence in Kenya. Kate’s mother is a Waldorf teacher and she hopes to send her children to Waldorf School, and I am incredibly interested in this type of education, so we decided to pay them a visit. For those who don’t know, Waldorf education is a mindful approach to learning that focuses on creativity and developing the whole child—body, mind, and spirit. That is an abbreviated version, so I recommend checking out their video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upmMD4JnCusThanks to connections from Paul, we spent the morning at the school—observing classes, talking with teachers, and learning as much as we could.
On a high from that, we spent several more hours next door at St. Lawrence in Kenya learning about their study abroad program. We then headed back to Paul’s house for lunch and before we knew it, we were off to the airport. The airport is only about 12 kilometers away and our flight wasn’t until 11:30 that night, but our taxi driver recommended we leave at 5. We were confused as to why we needed to leave so early, but we were incredibly grateful to his wise advice once we got into that crazy Nairobi traffic I mentioned. It took us nearly 4 hours to travel that short distance. If we moved, it was very slowly, but we spent the majority of that time simply stopped and waiting for an endless line of cars to budge. It was exhausting.
Luckily, I was able to sleep on the plane as a result and before we knew it we had bid the lovely country of Kenya goodbye and we found ourselves blinking ourselves awake in the morning light of London, England. Our next flight didn’t leave until that evening, so Kate and I hopped on the train and spent the day exploring the sights and bites of London. Kate lived there for several months the first time she studied abroad, so she shuttled us around like a pro. The contrast from the largely impoverished, laid-back, chaotic, and tropical Kenya to the very clean, expensive, organized, and cloudy United Kingdom was certainly startling. Reverse culture shock is a real thing. It was awesome to explore a city I have never seen for a bit, but my wallet was glad to get back to the airport at the end of the day.
A quick flight across the Atlantic and Kate and I were back in the United States of America. Oof. Thinking about it now brings the emotions flooding back for me. Coming back to a place after a trip is always so strange—mostly because that place is so familiar that it feels like you never left, yet you are not the same at all. I often struggle to reconcile that. We got back to Maine near midnight, where Kate and I said a tired and sad goodbye. The next day, I hopped on yet another plane and headed back to Wyoming at last. (Insert deep sigh here.)
There is no good way to conclude this incredible saga (both the trip and this super lengthy blog post…sorry about that). In short, my trip to Kenya was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. It was the absolute best way to end my college career, as it involved a continued adventure, a healthy escape from the overwhelming emotions I experienced at the end of my time at Bowdoin, and I got to spend it with two people who have been incredibly meaningful and important to me during the past few years. I am now happily home in Wyoming and very content here working, spending time catching up with family and friends, hiking in my beloved Wind River mountains, and gearing up for my next great adventure: Ecuador. I want to thank all the people who made this possible, but especially to Kate for her unending wisdom, love, and light; to Chase for his superb hosting and planning skills, patience, and friendship, and to my family for their support of my travel choices, even when they aren’t always too excited about the destinations I choose. :)
Well, folks, if you have made it to the end I hope you know I appreciate it greatly and commend you for sticking it out. I will leave you here until I take of the Andes again in just a few short months. In the meantime, I plan to “haraka haraka iena Baraka” (unsure about the spelling on that one) as the Kenyans do. In other words, there is no sense in rushing, and I plan to do just that.
Thanks again for all your support, and I will see you again from South America! :)
As I write this, it is currently four in the morning and I am looking outside the plane window and I can see the lights of Cuba below me. I am less than three hours from touching down in the United States of America.
Exactly five months ago, the scene was similar to this. I was sitting on a plane, looking at the flight tracker on the small screen in front of me, and I was looking down on the world as the sun began to rise. The first blog post I wrote was about how I had only 432 miles to go until I touched down on the country of Argentina. I was freezing, terrified, excited, nervous, and everything else in between as I went into the unknown. Today, I am nostalgic, excited, and, I will admit, a little nervous. Overall, though, I am totally calm and content.
Five months ago, I got off the plane and was completely overwhelmed by everything, but it was the language that was the hardest. I asked the sleepy guy at customs “como?” (what?) at least five times as he instructed me on what do to before I finally gave up and followed visual clues while wide-eyed and confused in order to get by. Tonight in the Lima airport, I was struck each time with awe when I answered “si” when asked “hablas español?” rather than my original “um…un poco.” When asked which language I speak tonight (ingles o español?), I responded “los dos” (both) and had no worries or fears about the fact that I would then be spoken to in Spanish. Even if I missed a word or two here and there, I still knew what was being said to me and I was able to answer with confidence and ease. I no longer get the feeling of complete fear and shock when spoken to. That used to paralyze me and stress me out, and I would stumble out incoherent words and be left feeling like a fool. Now, I still make plenty of mistakes, but rather than feeling incompetent, I make a mental note of my error and fix it the next time. Spanish also comes so naturally to me know. I will definitely miss hearing and speaking Spanish so much. Let’s be real, though, I will probably keep spitting out Spanish instead of English forever. (Bets on how many times I will forget English in the airport in a few hours and try to speak Spanish?) I have come such a long way, but I know that I have so much farther to go. This entire semester, I would constantly go through waves of both loving the language and wanting so badly to learn it to hating it with a deep burning passion of frustration and wondering why I even try and wanting so badly to just give up and not care. The truth is, though, is that I do care, and I look forward to doing all that I can to continue learning.
In addition to Spanish, so much has changed in these past five months. I get overwhelmed just thinking about it. How do I conceptualize and summarize my experience here in South America? I could put it into numbers. Five months. Four countries. Three cameras. 180 pages filled front-to-back in my journal. Hundreds of hours and thousands of miles.
There is so much more to my experience here than numbers, however. I don’t know how to put everything into words or photos or even thoughts, but I will try. I just looked outside the window again in time to see the floating lights of the Bahamas down below. On our right, we are well into Florida and inching closer every second to our destination. Whew, the thoughts are flying now! (Literally and figuratively.)
I will miss so much about Mendoza, Argentina, and South America in general. I already do! I will miss doing, seeing, and learning new things every single day. I will miss the food. The people. The besos (right-cheek greeting kisses) and the loving nature of the people. I will miss kioskos, the cheap food and wine, and the people selling all sorts of miscellaneous goods on the streets. I will miss the insane public transportation systems, the fancy busses, and walking and exploring new streets and places. It will be strange, yet comforting, to no longer be the foreigner or odd-one-out. I will miss the satisfaction of having a conversation and laughing with a local. I will even miss the siestas (nap time), lack of most organization, and the “productive laziness.” I will miss seeing things that amaze and energize me and others that sadden and humble me. I will miss the beautiful landscape and rich culture. Maté. Dulce de leche. The fact that you can usually only buy things in bulk to share. The fun and easy access to bars and boliches (clubs). The never-ending battle to understand why on Earth things function (or don’t) the way they do. I will miss the familiar faces and places and the life and routine that I created for myself. The list goes on and on.
There are also a handful of things that I won’t miss. I won’t miss the piropos, the disgusting culture of machismo and the feeling of being objectified as a woman. I won’t miss the lack of respect of the ridiculous lack of sense and efficiency. At the end of the day, though, even these things can’t tarnish my experience as a whole.
As time goes on, things will begin to slip away from my memory. It is the little things in particular which will go first: the uneven sidewalks, the simple beauty of the roses blossoming in Parque San Martin, and the Aguila chocolate I love so much. My tan from the beautiful South American sunshine. I am afraid and saddened by that fact, but I will know that I will retain so much.
I am also scared and unsure about the thought of the challenge I will face in trying to describe my experiences to others. How do I even begin to relay all that I did, saw, and learned? Sure, I have words and photos, but those can only go so far. How do I condense five months of experiences? How do I describe all the ups and downs? How do I answer “How was Argentina?” When I get back to Bowdoin and I see all my other friends who were abroad, do I just answer with “Good, how was ____?” until the excitement of being back wears off and we get back into our regular routines? How do I hold on to my South American life and all that I gained when I am back in my old, familiar environment of home and Bowdoin? How do I combine the two? How do I not get sucked back into the craziness of life and lose the relaxed and low-stress self I have finally found? How do I hold on to everything so that it doesn’t become a far-away dream land now that I am away from it all? How will people see that I have changed (if at all)? How will I express that? How will I be the same? How will this experience make itself evident in future situations? What will I take away as the most important parts?
The answer to all of these questions is quite simple: I have no idea.
Nope, not a clue. If anything, my challenges and experiences are far from over.
I have learned and experienced more this semester than I could ever conceptualize to myself– more or less to another person. I learned a new language, culture, and history. I learned which micro (bus) got me to my university the fastest from the corner of Belgrano and Juan B. Justo. (Group 8, number 103). I learned which alfajor is the tastiest (Guaymallen). I learned how to “ojo” (watch out) when crossing the crazy streets or walking in an unfamiliar area. I learned how to properly drink and share mate and the deeper, cultural meaning of it. I learned that “fresas” and “frutillas,” “tú” is “vos,” and “aquí” is “aca” in Argentine Spanish.
But there is also so much more than the factual knowledge. I learned that things will not always (or usually) go as planned, but that’s okay. I learned to let go of the little things and to not stress over petty things that can’t be controlled. To focus on the larger and more important things. I learned to have confidence, to just go for things sometimes, and to trust my gut. I learned that I have the capability to do things I didn’t think I can. I learned the importance of patience, of family and friends, and of enjoying all of life’s moments—especially the present. I feel more confident, grown, and centered than I have in my entire life. I learned to love my free time and I enjoyed not having such a crazy, jam-packed schedule all the time. I also realized that I enjoy a busy lifestyle as well, and I look forward to finding a balance between the two in the future. I learned to be flexible and that it is okay (and recommended) to ask for help when needed. I was constantly reminded of the kindness and goodness of strangers. And so much more.
This semester was absolutely chalked-full of ups and downs. There were high highs and low lows. I have cried my eyes out and given myself a stomachache from laughing so hard. I have been amazed and excited and disgusted and scared. I have wanted to do nothing but curl up in bed at home and not have to deal with things, and I have wanted to never leave and to soak up every single thing that I possibly can. I have felt confident and I have felt scared and hopeless. I have felt angry, sad, overwhelmed, enthralled, ecstatic, happy, content, indifferent, and everything in between. It has been a semester of extremes.
And in more ways than one it has been that way. I have skied in the fresh powder of the Andes, sweated my brains out in the desert sun, dipped my fingers in two oceans from four different countries, and trekked through the rainforest. I am eternally grateful for all the opportunities I have had to travel. I covered a TON of ground in Argentina, but I was also so lucky as to have been able to visit Uruguay, Chile and Peru. I saw and did so many amazing things, and I gained a little something different from each and every experience. On another level, I was also able to get to know a single place, Mendoza, closely and well. Besides Bowdoin, I had never lived in a different place for so long. I didn’t just travel this time. I lived. I did what I could to assimilate to the “local” lifestyle and to develop my own routine within that.
As we get closer and closer to our destination of Newark-Liberty International Airport, I find myself unable to sit still in my seat as I am filled with anxiety about what comes next. Despite all of the emotions, I am overall excited for all that lies ahead. I have so many things to look forward to. I am excited to bring back all that I have gained and to assimilate it into my “other” life. I can’t wait to share my experiences and stories with others as well as hear theirs. I am excited to see where the experiences I have gained will take me. I am also excited to stay put and just enjoy my time in the U.S. for a while.
I have completed everything I set out to do. I have zero miles to go on my South American adventure. I went to South America, I lived and learned, and now I am done. There are a million ways I could end this post, but I am not sure if anything will really suffice. First, though, I would like to thank you all for reading and following along on my adventures as I took on the Andes. It means a lot to me to be able to share my experiences and for you to read (and hopefully enjoy!) them.
I think the best I can say is that this has been an etapa (stage/phase) in my life, and now it is over and a new one will begin. I left South America in the setting sun last night, and I am now flying into the incredible pink, orange, and blue sunrise sky of the United States of America. The sun hasn’t set on South America, though. Rather, I will continue to carry its light with me until it hopefully leads me back again someday. In the meantime, the sun has risen here and now, and it is time to begin my next etapa.
Well, for me anyway. For all of you up there in the Northern Hemisphere, Happy First Day of Winter!
As I write this, I am exactly 12 hours away from sitting on the plane as it prepares for take-off. Destination: The United States of America. I would be lying if I told you that I am not a complete roller coaster of emotions right now. My stomach is in complete knots with pre-departure travel jitters, but it is also so much more than that. I have known since I booked my tickets to South America last spring that today, December 21, 2013, would be the day that I leave South America. Even as I sit here with my bags packed, my passport ready, and all my South American goals checked off my list, I cannot comprehend that I am actually about to leave. These past five months have been absolutely incredible. I cannot believe that my countdown has gone from months to weeks to days to now just hours.
I am also having trouble conceptualizing the fact that I will be back in the U.S. tomorrow morning. I feel (and am) so very far away right now, but the reality is that I will be back in a short, 8-hour overnight flight. That will certainly be a shock to the system. Along with the fact that it will be winter. Hopefully the tan that I perfected on the Pacific beaches of Lima and in the Andean jungle near Cusco these past few weeks will hold me over for a while!
Even though an 8-hour flight seems short to me (especially after all the 20-30+ hour busses I have been taking across this continent these past few months), it will certainly give me a sufficient amount of time to think about my time here and to reflect on it all. Don’t worry, then, as this won’t be my final blog post. Andi isn’t done taking on the Andes just yet. I have just a few hours left in Latin America, so I am off to walk around and enjoy all that I can on this beautiful summer day!
(P.S. Sorry not sorry for the barrage of blog posts all of a sudden. I just have to even out my two-week hiatus!)
To start off, I’m Megan, one of Andi’s new friends from Argentina. I go to Colby College in Maine, the rival of Bowdoin. Our friendship first bloomed when we formed a truce and decided to no longer be enemies. We have just spent 2 weeks together in the magical country of Peru. All of my life I have had a deep profound love for llamas. When we first laid our eyes on a llama in Cusco, I actually cried out of joy, I am not kidding. Here is a poem I have written to express my love for these majestic creatures.
When I was 12 years old, I made a bucket list of all the things I would like to do in my lifetime. The very first item on the old piece of notepad paper is “Go to Machu Picchu.” I can hardly believe it still, but I can now officially cross that item off the list.
Machu Picchu was basically a three-day excursion for Megan and I. There are only a few ways to get to Machu Picchu. The most common are to either take the train or pay to do a several day guided trek on the Incan trail. Due to costs and a desire for adventure, Megan and I opted to do neither of those. Instead, we took a slightly alternative route.
It began at 6 am on Sunday morning when we left our hostel/juice bar in Cusco. Along with 2 girls we met from Switzerland, we located a combi (the bus/mini-van thing I mentioned in the previous post) to the town of Ollataytambo, which is about an hour and a half away. It was quite the excitement that early in the morning to approach a van with about 6 people standing outside of it yelling where it was going and yelling at us to get in. It was much less sketchy than it sounds, I promise. Once in Ollataytambo, we located another combi to take us 40 minutes on a dirt road to Piscocucho. The combis are funny in that they don’t have a schedule or anything. They are privately-owned vans and they leave once it is full. Once we arrived in Piscocucho, we took a short break to eat some food and wake up from our morning of alternative traveling, and then we walked.
And we walked. And we walked. For 8 hours and 28 kilometers (a little over 17 miles). The best part? We walked along the train tracks. Yep, we beat the system of taking either the train or the Inca trail by making our own trail and following the train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes/ Machu Picchu Pueblo. It was definitely a long and treacherous day walking on uneven ground, over sharp stones, and through tunnels and over train trestles, but it was totally worth it. The views were spectacular, and we stopped and explored ruins all along the way.
Once we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes that evening as the sun began to set, we located the friend of our the owner of our hostel in Cusco who set us up in an underground hostel of sorts for the night. It wasn’t the best since we didn’t have pillows and our sheets were eternally wet from the lack of window pane to protect us from the raging river just outside, but it sufficed.
The next day, we planned to wake up at 4:30 am in order to be among the first to arrive at the top of Machu Picchu when the gates opened at 6 am in order to see the sunrise. Unfortunately, my alarm was on silent so we slept until 5. Undeterred, we set off into the morning fog. In my rush and excitement, I didn’t pay well enough attention to where the trail was, so we ended up climbing a different mountain and wasting an hour and lots of precious energy before we were finally back on track. Oops.
At this point, we realized we had obviously missed the sunrise and wouldn’t be up there before 7 am, but we knew we would get there no matter what and that we had all day. We couldn’t see the sun anyway through the incredibly thick fog. The hike up to Machu Picchu was a strenuous one. We essentially climbed uneven stone stairs for an hour straight. I was dying, but poor Megan was a little sick. A stuffy nose mixed with low oxygen made breathing pretty darn tough. Eventually, though, we made it to the top! We spent a few minutes resting, eating some much-needed bananas and peanut butter that Megan’s parents sent her from the States (if you haven’t noticed, peanut butter seems to be a very important aspect of my survival here), and we jumped in the crowd of people entering the park.
My first glimpse at Machu Picchu was an eerie one. The fog was thick as it slowly blew across the mountains that you could hardly see the towering mountains that I knew surrounded us. You could also barely see many of the ruins, and there was a strange silence as people moved like ghosts through it all. I felt like we were suspended over an abyss as I looked over the edge and could see only fog. Megan and I spent about an hour slowly and quietly exploring the ancient ruins of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. We were both silently worried that the fog wouldn’t clear all day and that we would never get to see all of Machu Picchu. We started to see some blue sky, however, so we staked out a spot on a hill and waited. Patience prevailed and we watched the most spectacular scene of the fog clearing to finally reveal the incredible sight/site (ha, play on words) before us. I was awe-struck. Words cannot do justice to the feeling I felt as I looked down on what I have dreamed about for years. It was truly amazing.
We spent some time taking photos and taking it all in before we spent several more hours exploring the area. After getting sufficiently sunburned while lying out in the sun and talking to some people we met, we began our long descent down. We finally came back to the city completely exhausted but very satisfied and accomplished.
Our exhaustion, body pain and lack of sufficient nutrition mixed with Megan’s impending sickness made the thought of walking such a long way back tomorrow daunting and terrifying. We ended up caving and buying train tickets to take us back to Ollataytambo, which I am glad we did. We were both zombies and still had to get all the way back to Cusco that night. We spent some time exploring Ollataytambo and its surrounding ruins. The ruins there were cut into perfect blocks. It completely blows my mind how the Incans were able to not only cut those pieces, but also haul them up giant hills and build amazing constructions. My theory is that it was actually aliens, but that’s just me.
To get back, we took a short combi to the town of Urubama and then another one to Cusco. We had an early dinner and willed ourselves to stay up until at least 8:30 pm so that we could sleep the entire night. In addition to being exhausted, we were both starry-eyed with complete wonder and awe at what had transpired the past few days. We had used busses, trains and our bodies as transportation and saw something that most people can only dream about seeing. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am eternally grateful to have had and that I know I won’t forget any time soon.
In addition to being a large life goal achieved, Machu Picchu also represented something more for us. We had been talking about Peru and Machu Picchu the entire semester, and we knew it was the kind of ending, capstone event to our time in South America. As we literally and figuratively came down from Machu Picchu, we were plagued with all sorts of thoughts about our time here and how it is now over. We have done everything we set out to do, and now it is time to move on. There are certainly worse ways to end a trip, and I am so glad to have been granted this amazing opportunity. I am also so grateful to have had one of the best traveling companions I could have ever asked for. Thanks for being the absolute BEST, Megan! :)
When I was deciding to study abroad, I was torn for months over whether I wanted to go to Argentina or Peru. In the end, Argentina obviously prevailed. I figured, however, that maybe I could have both. So I planned a two-week excursion to Peru on my way home. In early September, my friend, Megan, jumped on board with me. Peru has been the culminating even for our study abroad experience for so long that I can hardly believe that it is now over. I can honestly say that these past two weeks in Peru have been some of the most amazing of my entire time in South America. I have fallen in love with this country and its beautiful landscape, rich culture, delicious (and cheap!) food, and amazing people. I am already getting overwhelmed thinking about all that we did and saw during our time here as I try to relay it all to you. I will do my best to capture everything I can!
After bidding goodbye to our dear Argentina, Megan and I arrived in Peru late on the night of the 8th. We ditched our large bags and suitcases at our hostel near the airport and headed off into the city of Lima, geared with only small (especially small in my case) backpacks for the next two weeks of traveling. We spent a few days exploring the city of Lima. We walked through the busy city streets, spent hours laying on the rocky beach listening to the waves crash against the shore, and ate as much delicious food as we could on a strict budget. (On a side note to this story, Megan and I both came into this trip on the very tail end of our bank accounts after 4 and a half months of being abroad. That made for some interesting adventures as we mastered the budgeting and cheap-living lifestyle, as you will see.) A true highlight of Lima, though, was getting the chance to see my dear Bowdoin friend, Michelle, who spent her semester abroad in Lima.
On Wednesday afternoon, we boarded a bus for our final long, South American bus ride. Destination: Cusco. Our theme song for our time in Peru was “22” by Taylor Swift. At just about any given moment, you could find Megan singing it, only she had replaced some of the lyrics to things such as, “I don’t know about you, but I think we’re in Peru,” which definitely kept things entertaining. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this lovely piece of musical art by the one and only T-Swift, there is a lyric that goes: “it’s miserable and magical at the same time.” That lyric became our theme of the 21-hour bus ride through Peru.
You see, I unfortunately woke up at about midnight on the bus feeling a little woozy. The first few hours of the bus were pretty simple as we drove along the coast for a while and then into the desert. After a while, though, we began to enter the jungle-like Andes. It was incredibly beautiful and magical. It was also full of twists and turns and hills. Imagine driving through Hoback Canyon between Pinedale and Jackson Hole for 16 hours or so. The miserable part, unfortunately, was that I found myself feeling sick basically the entire ride until I finally emptied my stomach contents at about 11 am the next day. The windy, mountainous road and questionable bus food didn’t mix too well. Is an image of my puking too much information? Perhaps.
Anyway, we finally got into Cusco in the early afternoon on Thursday. We found ourselves a hostel and spent the next few days exploring the city that was once the seat of the mighty Incan empire. We ended up staying in a “hostel” located in the basement of a juice bar. It was more like a handful of bunk beds in the basement with shared outdoor space and bathrooms with other, local families, but it was great. It was recommended to me by a friend I met while CouchSurfing in Patagonia. The best part is that it only cost 10 soles (about $3.50), so we had no complaints! The city and the surrounding area are full of really neat sights, sounds and smells. There are all sorts of Incan ruins alongside Spanish-conquest cathedrals and cobblestone streets. There is a very obvious indigenous culture still alive and thriving in Peru, which is quite different from Europeanized-Argentina. It was so neat to see things such as women in traditional dress carrying babies on their backs with colorful, shawl-like cloths or children walking alongside the road with their chickens or goats in the midst of people walking on their cell phones or driving by in their cars.
We took a brief hiatus in our time in Cusco to finally go to the famous Machu Picchu. (It is getting its own post.) We spent a few more days exploring Cusco when we got back before flying back to Lima on Thursday. (Amen for no more busses!) Since Megan and I were now both literally broke by this point (on a side note, I think my spare cash was stolen from my suitcase during one of my past two flights which SUCKS), we planned to spend our final time just hanging out in our remote hostel near the airport. Luck was on our side, though, as yesterday we met a friendly fellow American, Derek, who offered to buy us lunch in the city if we could show him places and translate for him since he doesn’t speak Spanish. We jumped on the opportunity and ended up having a lovely final adventure in the city. (And lunch for the three of us only cost 6 soles!) My favorite part was taking the combis to get to and from the city. These combis are essentially a cross between a bus and mini-van. One person will hang out the door and call out the direction or location the bus is going, and if that is the one you need you holler and jump right in. And it only cost us about 3 soles round-trip, whereas a taxi would have been about 100! I loved getting to see some more of Peru through the window and to navigate a large, South American city like a local. The really neat thing for me, though, was reflecting on the fact that there was no way I could have done that when I arrived in South America 5 months ago. My Spanish skills and confidence continue to amaze me every day as I accomplish tasks that would have previously been terrifying and nearly-impossible to me.
It is now Saturday afternoon, and it is pretty quiet in the hostel. Megan left last night due to some scheduling differences, so I am flying solo once again. I have less than a day now before I literally fly solo back to the U.S. I am spending my day doing some re-situating of my suitcases and catching up on minor things. I will probably eat the banana I stole from breakfast in a little while and then my leftover pasta for dinner. Megan and I have spent the past 2 weeks operating on a 15-sole per day food budget (about $5). The water isn’t safe to drink here, so we have been using some of my camping water filtration tablets the past few days since bottled water was beginning to exceed our budget. As much as I love eating bread and drinking iodine, I am definitely ready to be back to real ranch food and real, drinkable mountain water.
Despite the small struggles of this trip, it has been beyond amazing. Our “struggles” (mostly financial) were still relative in the larger image of things, and Megan and I laughed and joked about it every day. It may have limited some of our options to do things during all of our time here, but I am almost glad that it did. As a result, we got to know places extremely well and became quite crafty in finding the most economical ways in which to do things. It definitely made this experience a unique and fun one. I would spend my life savings on experiences like the ones I have had here any day. Besides, it will certainly make all that upcoming Christmas food even better! :)