Going Home

My last month of travel passed like a race to the finish line. In northern Argentina I saw some incredible rocks, more Incan ruins, vineyards, cacti, and the lunar eclipse. I shared days and kilometers with generous people, I danced tango in Tucumán, and I spent 17 hours on a train drinking mate and trading stories between Córdoba and Buenos Aires. I unpacked, repacked, and rearranged my backpack over and over again. I finally bought a mate gourd of my very own, and searched every market to find the right bombilla, or metal straw. 

Then finally I arrived on the doorstep of my much-missed tango school, dropped my backpack, and tumbled into the waiting arms of my friends. 

Sometimes, studying tango, I feel a bit like a Chemex coffee pot, where the bottom glass bulb is my body trying to dance, and the top funnel part is my brain full of aromatic tango technique coffee granules, and then up above are my teachers pouring hot water and more ground coffee into my filter. Somewhere in the middle, hidden behind that tasteful wooden collar, the hot water is making its oh-so-slowly way through all the coffee bits and the narrow glass neck of the pot and dripping transformed into my body, pooling up until there’s enough to drink. When I left Buenos Aires in July, there were a few teaspoons of coffee ready and a lot of ground coffee and hot water swimming around in my brain. When I came back in October, there was a whole pot of nice warm coffee to drink and plenty of space up top to brew a fresh batch. When I started studying in May, I had more body parts than I could even try to think about all at once, not to mention coordinate in all their separate specific actions. When I took my last class before flying home last week, I realized that I only really had four left to focus on, (for now) and that I shouldn’t even try to think about them – thinking would be counterproductive. I just needed to remember to feel them and let them do their jobs while I danced.

As I tried to say goodbye, my teachers just laughed at me. “We know your type,” they said. “You’ll be back by next May, you’ll see. June at the latest.” And maybe I will. We’ll see. For now, I’m breathing in fall, slowly unpacking, and trying to find anyone who will drink mate with me in Massachusetts. 

Thank you all for your love and support throughout my travels, and thank you for reading along. This will be the last chapter for now, but we all know I’ll be back on the road again before too long! If you want to hear more stories, audition for a part in the off-Broadway production of Norma Crosses the Line: A Play, travel with me, offer me a job, or just catch up, you can always comment, email, call, send a pigeon, etc. Hasta la pasta!

   Ruins at Quilmes

 Church in Córdoba
   Train ride to Buenos Aires

 Home, sweet home!

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Pictures of salt

Salt salt salt

Flamingos forever

Laguna colorada

Boiling volcanic mud

Cool rocks


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Norma Crosses the Line: A Play

Translated from its original Spanish by its original author.

Disclaimer: This, as will become obvious, is a work of ART, and not a true story. It even takes place in an alternate universe. Any resemblance to true, historical, hypothetical, hysterical, or future events is purely coincidental and does not reflect the views of the author, whoever she even is. 

Note: Some names of places and the protagonist have been modified. They have been reformatted from their original size to fit your screen.


Scene 1. Terminal Terrestre de Puno, Peru. It is 1:34 pm.

Norma: Good afternoons! I would like to buy a passage on the 2:00 bus to Copacabana, Oblivia, please. 

Nice Bus Ticket Lady: That bus just left! Two minutes ago!

Norma: But it’s only 1:34!

NBTL: Yes. They changed the schedule for no apparent reason and didn’t tell anyone. You can go tomorrow.

Norma: Oh no! I have to go today. My kingdom for a horse!

NBTL: In that case, no problem. Just take a funny little three-legged taxi to the other terminal and hop on a combi to the Oblivian border. From there you can take another combi to Copacabana. Or find a horse, if you want. 

Scene 2. Norma does just that, and arrives at the Oblivian border for half the price of that silly old bus. Better yet, the Oblivian border is hosting a party, right in the middle of the road! With bulls!

Norma: Good afternoons. Where is the border, please?

Extra #3: Right here, underneath this party.

Norma: And can I cross?

Extra #3: Obviously not. Did you notice this party?

Norma: I insist on arriving to Oblivia.

Extra #3: In that case, no problem. Just walk around that pile of trash and rocks. 

Scene 3. The Oblivian border.

Norma walks around that pile of trash and rocks and arrives in Oblivia.

Taxista: Taxi, taxi

Norma: Good afternoons.

Taxista: Taxi, taxi!

Norma: Shouldn’t I go through customs first?

Taxista: Whatever you want.

Norma: What country am I even in?

Scene 4. Oblivian customs

Norma: Good afternoons. Where is the place for the Peruvian exit stamp?

Customs Official 1: That stamp is on the other side of the party. How did you arrive to Oblivia?

Norma: With my feet, sir.

Customs Official 1: How strange. 

Scene 5: Norma walks back around that pile of trash and rocks and through the party once more, to the Peruvian customs office.

Peruvian Customs Official: Good afternoons! Advance to the window.

Norma: Good afternoons. Here is my passport. I must arrive to Oblivia. 
Peruvian Customs Official: (stamps passport) Safe travels!
Scene 6: Norma is an expert at walking around that pile of trash and rocks by now. She practically skips back to Oblivia.

Customs Official 1: Do you have all your documents?

Norma: Of course I do.

CO1: Photocopy of your passport, please. And your hotel reservation in Oblivia.

Norma: I do not have those things. 

CO1: Next door is the Internet. The Internet has all the things.

Norma uses the powers of the Internet and the printers to print her reservation, which she made for free that morning with no intention to actually stay at such an expensive hotel, and to copy her passport.

CO1: Here is this visa application.
Norma fills out the visa application.

CO1: And where is your proof of yellow fever vaccination?

Norma had read that morning on the Internets that the yellow fever vaccination is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia. However, the Internets also said that there was no yellow fever in the mountains, plus the vaccine was expensive and might hurt.

Norma: That vaccination was not recommended to me. I am not going to the jungle.

CO1: That does not matter. The vaccine is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia.

Norma: That vaccination was not recommended to me. I am not going to the jungle. 

CO1: In that case, no problem. As a border official, federal requirements for entering my country are not important to me. Do you have a copy of your flight reservation for your return to the United States?

Norma: I will be leaving your country by bus, not by airplane.

CO1: That does not matter. The flight reservation is a federal requirement for entering Oblivia.

Norma does not seem to hear this statement. Perhaps the wax in her ears momentarily thickened. This is a common phenomenon at the Oblivian border, according to Internet Travel Blogs. Unlike for yellow fever, there is not yet a vaccine to prevent this condition.

CO1: Proceed to the next window to pay your visa fee.

CO2: $160 US dollars, please.
Norma hands over $160.

CO2: And also 50 oblivianos.

Norma senses something rotten in the state of Denmark, but hands over 50 oblivianos. After all, while there is no vaccine to prevent the non-hearing of federal requirements for entering Oblivia, the condition can occasionally be treated by the immediate application of 50 oblivianos for a full recovery.

CO2 sticks the Oblivian visa onto a full page of Norma’s passport.

CO3: I would like to put the Oblivian entrance stamp next to the Peruvian exit stamp. Where is the exit stamp?

Norma: Customs Official 2 just stuck a visa on top of it.

CO3: Darn.

CO3 spends five minutes unsticking and resticking the visa. In the end, it is not legible, but still apparently valid for ten years. 

Customs Officials 1, 2, and 3 (in chorus): Welcome to Oblivia.

Norma: Thanks, I guess.


Scene 1. Oblivia. The sun is shining and the pit orchestra is playing “Copacabana” and drinking fruity cocktails. 

Taxista: Taxi, taxi!

Some French people appear.

Norma: Hey French people, good afternoons. Would you like to share a taxi with me?

French People: Yes.

Norma and the French People split a taxi to Copacabana. They find cheap lodging and all live happily ever after.

Scene 2: Copacabana, still.

Norma has just spent all day gliding about Lake Titcaca and listening to French People and also some German People. Walking back from the shore to her cheap lodging, she meets an Argentinian Person.

Argentinian Person: Good afternoons! I have an Argentinian accent! Also please come to my free concert at this bar later.

Norma: Sure thing!

Scene 3: Norma drags the French People to the free concert, and then after the concert they go to another free concert at another bar, full of other Argentinian People. 

Argentinian People: Good evenings! Listen to our accents! Here is some birthday cake because it is our birthday. 

Norma: Thanks, I guess. Nice accents. 

Scene 4: Cochabamba, Oblivia. Norma visits a Friend from College.

Norma: Hello, College Friend! How do you like Cochabamba?

College Friend: The people driving their cars like to try to hit me, and there is a lot of smoke in the air. Also, I am not allowed to eat any of the delicious fruit in the market because my Study Abroad director says it might make me sick. But at least there are lots of parades! 

Norma: I will eat double fruit for you. 

She does. It is double delicious. They watch some parades and eat ice cream and go to a free contemporary dance performance and a concert.

Norma: Goodbye, College Friend. 

Scene 5: Potosí, Oblivia.

Norma: Hello again, College Friend. You are also in Potosí.

College Friend: Yes. Field trip. Want to go to a museum?

Norma crashes the field trip and goes to the museum. She learns about silver mining and coin minting. 

College Friend: I know you were planning on staying another day here in Potosí, but there’s a strike starting tomorrow and lasting an indeterminate length of time, so you should probably get out of here immediately. Bye.

Norma: Bye.

At the terminal, Norma runs into a German Person she saw earlier at the museum. He is also going to Uyuni on a different bus and recommends the Piedra Blanca hostel. 

Scene 6: Uyuni, Oblivia.

Norma arrives at midnight and asks the bus driver where the Piedra Blanca hostel is. She goes the the hostel, sleeps, and in the morning goes searching the town for a tour of the salt flats.

German Person: Hello! I could not find the Piedra Blanca hostel. Alas. Let’s go to the salt flats.

Norma: Yes, let’s.

Scene 7: The Salt Flats.

The tour consists of the German Person, four Belgian People, Emilio the driver, and Norma. 

German Person: What amazing salt! It is very flat!

Norma: What amazing flamingos! 

Belgian People: Let’s play cards.

Emilio: Here is a volcano. And Chile. 

German Person: What amazing llamas! 

Norma: What amazing geysers! And check out those pits of boiling mud.

Belgian People: Let’s play cards.

Emilio: Here is a hot spring. 


Scene 1: Norma takes a bus to the Argentinian border. It is 10 pm.

Oblivian Customs Official: Good nights. Tomorrow the border is closed for Oblivian elections. Leave now, probably.

Norma: Sure thing. 

Argentinian Customs Official: Good nights. Welcome to Argentina. 

Scene 2: Norma is excited to be back in Argentina. She meets a group of four travelers – Brazilian, Colombian, and two from Japan, both named Yu – and they all walk to the bus terminal. 

Norma: I don’t feel like taking any more buses.

Colombian Person: I’m broke. Let’s hitch hike. 

Yu: Well, we’re taking a bus. See you later.

Yu: Good luck!

Brazilian Person: Hasta la pasta.

Scene 3: Norma and her new companion triumphantly sleep on their backpacks in the bus terminal until morning, or at least for two hours. They wake up surrounded by people and dogs, all watching them. 

People: Good days. Where are you going?

Norma and Colombian Person: Jujuy.

People: On which bus?

Colombian Person: Buses are lame!

Norma: Bye.

Dogs: Bye.

Scene 4: Jujuy, Argentina.

Norma and her new friend have arrived in the back of a pickup truck. The scenery was exquisite and now they are exhausted and wondering how to possibly find Yu, Yu, and the Brazilian. 

Yu: Good afternoons!

Yu: Good afternoons!

Brazilian: How fortuitous that we are all wandering around the same street. We already found cheap lodging. Let’s go make dinner.

Yu: I will cook for everyone.

Norma joins the group, takes a hot shower, eats the hot dinner, and immediately falls asleep for 11 hours. 


P.S. Jujuy was okay, Yu cooked great food even if it was spicy, Yu did circus tricks with fire, and then Norma hitched a ride to Salta with another French couple. Now she is there, basking in the Internets and sniffing around for some tango dancing.

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Pieces of Peru

Some last notes on Peru, in no particular order:
If you don’t like the price of something, you can always change it. There is a general feeling that nothing should ever cost more than five dollars – not a meal, not a hotel room, not an alpaca scarf, nothing. Everything is cheap.

Yes, there are lots of short women in skirts, leggings, aprons, long braids, and felt hats carrying babies or other burdens wrapped in bright scarves on their backs. A lot of people, including these women, speak Quechua as their first language, not Spanish.

Adults in informal conversation call each other (and sometimes their children) “mami” and “papi.” 

Here is a newspaper article on Yuber’s trek to Choquequirao, if anyone feels like practicing reading in Spanish.  

Water in Peru is generally not potable. It was a new experience for me to think about how much water I used, in liters, per day, as I would boil it the night before to fill my bottles. What a privilege, to have potable tap water.

I feel like I only saw a tiny portion of the country, and it was spectacularly beautiful at every turn. Visit Peru, everyone.

Nerd moment: People in Peru, especially older people, pronounce the “ll” like “ly,” with just a hint of the “l” before the “y” sound. So, the verb “llegar,” “to arrive,” in Peruvian Spanish sounds like “lyegar” (though a young person might pronounce the “l” so minimally that I don’t even notice it), whereas a Chilean would pronounce it “yegar,” a Spaniard would pronounce it “jhegar” with a very soft “j,” almost as soft as the second “g” in “garage,” and an Argentinian would pronounce it “shegar.” The “ly” pronunciation comes from Spain Spanish from the era of the conquista. Spanish in Spain has since evolved away from that pronunciation, and has evolved differently in different parts of the former Spanish empire. Cool, right?

Cusco and Puno were overwhelmingly touristic after the trek from Choquequirao. However, it was lovely to spend a few days in Cusco in a real house with real adults and running water and a bed. Octavio biked over from Abancay and we found some really cool free ruins to visit instead of the more popular, expensive ones. 


Also, in Cusco I ran into the Germans from Huancavelica, Sonja and Frank (still in his black corduroy bell bottoms), and a couple of other people I had seen in other tourist spots. 

Cusco main plaza

In Puno I took a boat out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the Islas de los Uros, which are islands made of blocks of rooty earth and reeds. I learned that “titi” means “puma” and “caca” means “gray like stone,” and that if you look at a map of the lake upside down (the map can be upside down, or you can be, either way), part of it apparently looks like the shape of a puma. Maybe this works better if you are upside down rather than the map.

From Puno I crossed the border to Copacabana, Bolivia. I think the story of the crossing is best related as a short dramatic piece, which I am currently drafting. 

Here I am with the Argentinians at our campsite below Machu Picchu.

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Choquequirao to Machu Picchu

Note: This is just an update for my friends and family. If you are a backpacker actually trying to plan your independent trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu, please leave a comment and I’d love to pass along my notes or answer any questions.

Friday, August 28. Day 0. Abancay, Peru.

Yuber arrives. He has ridden his bicycle five hours from Andahuaylas. Yuber has only one leg. His bicycle has only one pedal. Yuber and Octavio and I go to market and buy rice and lentils and onions and chancaca, which is a little cone of unprocessed cane sugar. We pack our bags. 

Saturday, August 29. Day 1. 

We get up at 3:30. Our combi drops us off in the town of Cachora at 6:30. We almost rent a horse. We buy a lot of bread. The boys check their bicycle tires. We set off. Since it’s a downhill start, I sit on Yuber’s bike frame and we speed along, backpacks perched on handlebars. After about ten minutes, the ascent begins, and we walk. Yuber pedals some, pushes off from the ground some. The French couple we passed catches up, passes us. We walk for hours. We apply sunscreen. The trail reaches the rim of the Apurimac River gorge and plunges abruptly downhill. Yuber, exuberant, speeds away on his wheels. Octavio leaves his bike and the two of us walk in full sun for five or six more hours. We camp by the river and after dinner, we boil water to drink the next day. The moon is full.

Sunday, August 30. Day 2.

We wake up at 3:30. The moon is already hidden behind mountains. The boys work on Yuber’s bike. We start hiking at 5. Octa pushes the bike. Yuber is on crutches. We cross the river and walk uphill for seven hours, passing another camp site and stopping in Marampata village for lunch: bread and cheese and toasted corn kernels. A woman offers us tea. I notice that my arms have been devoured by mosquitos.

We walk another hour and arrive at the Choquequirao campground. The boys run off to see the ruins, since they’ll be leaving the next morning. I set up my tent and meet Nacho, who is from Buenos Aires. I heat water and we drink mate and talk until his three friends emerge from the woods. The five of us drink more mate and keep talking while we make dinner over the camp fire. Octa and Yuber turn up and I translate Argentinianisms into Peruvianisms for them. We eat rice and lentils and onions until the moon rises, and then it is time for bed.

Monday, August 31. Day 3. 

Yuber and Octavio reverse direction and head back to civilization, where their classes are about to start for the semester. The band of Argentinians takes off in a cloud of turtle dust and yerba mate towards Maizal, which they plan on reaching in two days. I have the ruins to myself for hours. 

Choquequirao main plaza.

 The llama terraces. The llamas del sol are made of white stones in the terrace walls.
That evening the campground caretaker checks on me and brings me some dinner leftovers, since he knows my friends are gone. He finds me practicing my French with some new arrivals and cooking lentils and rice and onions. He stays to tell us ghost stories until I am too tired to be social anymore.

Tuesday, September 1. Day 4.

I get up at 4 and break camp in the rain. The French couple is cooking breakfast as I leave. I hike uphill for an hour, pass over the mountaintop (3200 meters), and walk downhill for about three hours in the mist and rain. I stop for more ruins, and to talk to a man walking toward me with his horse. I ask him where my camp site is. He directs me to the nearest cloud.

Pinchauynoc ruins, 2419 meters above sea level.

At the river I eat lunch and the mosquitos do too. I walk up the next mountain to Maizal, arriving around 3. The Argentinians – Nacho, Gisella, Nico, and Mono – are cooking. We drink mate and prepare lentils and rice and the last onion. Hot chocolate for dessert. The French couple lets us read their itinerary, and we share our maps.   

The trail to Maizal.

 View from Maizal.
Wednesday, September 2. Day 5.

The French couple leaves us well behind, and it is nearly 8 before we’re walking. Up and up, stopping often. We pull out our headlamps to explore old mine shafts. We sweat. We stop for lunch at the high pass, 4200 meters. Bread and cheese and peanuts. It rains. We walk anyway. It sleets. We take cover in another mine tunnel. The sun comes out. We walk down to the next valley, to the village of Yanama. We set up our tents. We set our cameras to charge in the tiny general store. We find out that Yanama has been on the grid for only eight months. We ask how long they’ve had their road. A long time. How long? Two years. They still mostly use mules to transport goods in and out. A local family cooks us dinner for six soles each, less than two dollars. The soup has chicken broth. I eat it anyway, and watch the ducklings and the kitten and the newborn lamb chase the guinea pigs around the kitchen floor.


 The camp bathroom.
Thursday, September 3. Day 6.

The French couple probably thinks we’re crazy. We leave camp at 8, drinking mate and eating animal crackers from the general store as we walk. We walk along the road until noon. We admire the snow on the peaks above us. It starts to rain. We cook eggs anyway and eat egg sandwiches for lunch. I pack up my stove and we see a pickup truck in the distance, coming from Yanama. It picks us up and we ride in the back for an hour, over a pass of 4600 meters, to the village of Totora. We wave to the French couple as we drive by. We ask for hot water and make hot chocolate to wait out the next bout of rain. The sky clears and another pickup truck approaches. It only has room for two of us, as the French couple has already climbed aboard. Mono and I have our packs together, so we jump in. The driver promises that a third truck is on its way. We ride down the mountain and into what feels like a jungle. There are banana trees everywhere. In Santa Teresa, Mono and I buy oatmeal and the shopkeeper gives us bananas. We ask her to direct the next batch of Argentinians to the nearby hot springs, where we make camp and spend hours soaking.

Nacho seems to be tired, and it’s not even noon.

Friday, September 4. Day 7.

Still no Argentines. I eat a banana for breakfast. This is the first banana I have eaten since I was a baby with a mushy banana baby food. Better late than never. Mono and I walk back to town, eat avacado sandwiches for lunch, and take a bus to the hydroelectric plant/ train station. We walk along the tracks for three hours, including the hour spent drinking mate and collecting bug bites.

At the campsite below Machu Picchu, I am greeted by Eneko, whom I met in March, backpacking in southern Chile. We are not surprised to see each other, somehow. I buy my ticket to Machu Picchu. 

Saturday, September 5. Day 8.

I wake up at 4:15 and start hiking at 5. There are 200 other people doing the same. They are not used to hiking, or to the elevation. I pass most of them and wander around Machu mostly alone. I pretend to take a million pictures so I can stand near guided groups and listen. 

I hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. I wave to the French couple. I realize how tired I am. At noon I trip back down to camp, just in time to greet the Argentines as they arrive. That night we drink mate and cook lentils and rice. I boil water over the flames, and it tastes like smoke and toasted rice. 

Sunday, September 6. Day 9.

I pack up and walk out alone along the rails. I take combis for six hours to Cusco. I call a woman I met at the German mayor’s ceremony in Abancay. She and her husband pick me up and bring me to their home. I take a hot shower with soap, put my clothes in the laundry, rub thyme cream on my speckled arms and legs, and drink a mug of hot cocoa. I call my parents. I sleep for eleven hours.

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Germans, juice, and more raw fish

Okay guys, I wrote this post over a week ago, thinking I would have some internets, and then I had no internets. So, modify day references as appropriate, and get ready for the tale of last week’s adventure, as soon as I recover from it enough to write about it!

Last Wednesday, I took the Macho Train (“leaves when it wants to, arrives when it can”) from Huancayo to Huancavelica, and was entertained in equal measure by the scenery outside the train and the human beings inside. Steep cliffs falling away below the tracks, bright bags balanced precariously in the overhead racks. A distant gray river in the valley, a constant stream of vendors in colorful skirts peddling bottles of Inca Kola and chicha (essentially corn juice) to thirsty passengers. Infinite mountain slopes in every direction, narrow seats crammed full of husbands, wives, and children. 

As we tumbled off the train in tiny Huancavelica, I approached the only other backpackers, Sonja and Frank from Germany, and we three set off to find lodging. After a full walking tour of the town and some masterful haggling on my part, we had our rooms and were feeling pretty good. We walked around some more without our packs, attracting funny looks from all passersby – I was dressed conspicuously in hiking clothes, Sonja had outstandingly blond hair, and Frank took the cake with black corduroy bell bottom pants and a matching vest, topped by a shabby felt bowler hat.

Anyway, we all got along swimmingly, and the next day decided to hike up to the local abandoned mercury mine before taking our bus to Ayacucho. We set off toward what the Tourist Information man assured us was the only trail out of town, and eventually ended up quite high over town, at the end of the trail, at a little chapel. Undaunted by the lack of toxic and potentially structurally unsound pits in the earth, we forged ahead, tromping over the next ridge, through tall sharp grass, and tripped down the steep slope, past some sheep, and into the valley below, where we encountered the real trail and a lovely older gentleman who offered to take us to his village, Sacsamarca. Naturally, we accepted, and got a tour of his church, plaza, and favorite bridge, all from the era of the Spanish conquest. 

View from Sacsamarca 

After our guide had marched us past a bunch of alpacas and up the next big hill, he pointed us toward the mine and disappeared. By this time it was getting late enough that we decided to forgo the remaining kilometers to the mine, and started improvising a way back to town. More ridges, more spiky grass, and even another chapel, and we made it back just before sunset, emerging from the wilderness and into someone’s back yard. The woman belonging to the yard gestured frantically that we should leave, and so frantically, we did. 

View from almost-the-mine

At midnight, we got on the bus to Ayacucho. Never have I felt so completely and repeatedly convinced of my own imminent destruction as from the front window seat of the second floor of that bus, winding up and down cliffs, alternately about to smash into jagged rock faces or to tumble down them into the darkness below. As it happened, though, we made it without incident to Ayacucho, just as the sun was rising.

In Ayacucho, I was collected by Ignacio, my Couchsurfing host of the day. After I took a nice 6:30am nap, we ventured out to the market for breakfast. A woman at the juice stand blended us up some lucma (very sweet orange fruit) with milk and honey, and this thick, pale orange drink filled me up for hours. We spent the day exploring the Wari archeological site, dodging cacti and getting sunburned (okay, that was just me). We chewed on sweet pink peppercorns from a pepper tree, and drank níspero juice after our lunch of wheat porridge. 

That afternoon I took another nap and made soup with Ignacio’s friends while Ignacio went out to pick up a bunch of trout for his trout barbecue the next day. He got home around 11 pm, and the two of us stayed up until 2:30 am cleaning almost 200 slippery little trouts. They were already sliced open along their bellies, and we just had to run our thumbnails along the inside of their spines to scrape out the blood from their spinal columns, dropping the slimy clumps of fish blood into the sink, and the shiny clean fish into an enormous pot. Since the sink was outside in the courtyard, we worked by the light of my headlamp. I guess it was a strange day, starting with a midnight bus ride of terror with my adopted Germans, and ending in the wee hours of the next morning with a pot full of raw slimy trout in the house of a hospitable Peruvian I met on the internet, but at this point in my journey, the weird, impossible intersections of people, places, events, and time have ceased to surprise me. 

 The next morning, I woke up to find Ignacio still working on the trout. He paused to make blend me up some strawberries for breakfast, and off I went to the bus terminal once again, this time to Andahuaylas, to meet my next host, Octavio.

The bus ride from Ayacucho to Andahuaylas was much less stressful and much more scenic than the last ride, and we even stopped for lunch in a tiny town in the middle of somewhere. I got a fried vegetable omelet with rice, which seems to be the standard vegetarian option around here. 

 View from the bus

My next host, Octavio, actually lives in Abancay, where I went next, but was in Andahuaylas with a group of his friends for a regional youth activist conference. I met up with them just in time to miss the political talks but to participate in the cultural activities instead. I had just met these spirited youths, and the next thing I know, they were draping me in colorful coils of paper ribbon and teaching me their regional songs and dances so I could be part of their performance.

I sang and danced with them, and watched other groups dancing in full skirts and ponchos and felt hats, and still others rapping in Quechua, the native language of this zone from before the Spanish invasion. Then, finally, after so many early mornings, late nights, and nocturnal bus rides, I skipped the disco and slept for a whole night, in an extra bed in one of the hostel rooms that the youth conference had rented. 

The next day, I tagged along with the Abancay delegation, stashing my pack on their bus. We drove up yet another mountain, survived a cliffside three-point turn in the bus, and arrived in one piece at Sondor, an archeological site from the Chanka nation, and more recently from the Incas, who conquered the Chankas. The view was spectacular, and we all ascended the old stone stairs to the hilltop to give payment to the earth, or in Quechua, the Pachamama, earth mother. The payment consisted of coca leaves, chicha and caña liquor, as well as some words in Quechua. 


The next day, I rode with the group back to Abancay, and followed Octavio to his home, which is basically a tree fort and everyone’s childhood dream come true, down to the fireman’s pole exit. The fort is built on a platform between three trees, has three private bed nooks, a sink, clotheslines, a hammock, a toaster, bookshelves, hanging plants, and a wireless router. The bathroom, gas stovetop, table, swing, and bike shop are all on the ground level. There is a mostly roof of green tarps, and several of the sides are open to the air. There are avocado and chirimoya trees in the yard, and potted plants everywhere. 

I spent a few days in Abancay, went hiking, rode a mountain bike into a canyon to some hot springs, gnawed on fresh sugar cane, and met the new mayor at his swearing-in ceremony. The new mayor, incidentally, is German.

Okay, at this point my iPod is acting funny and so I will save the rest for the next post and hopefully this one won’t crash and/or ruin the google. Stay tuned for tree house pictures and a really long hike.

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Mormons, raw fish, and my birthday

There are two interesting things I forgot to tell you about my time in Lima. The first is that on the plane I met a Mormon missionary coming home from his two-year mission in Argentina, and he asked me if I would consider reading the Book of Mormon. The comparative literature student within me couldn’t resist the chance to analyze some religious texts, and so I agreed. And it came to pass that later in the week he came by my hostel to give me a copy of the Book. We were talking about my backpacking plans, and I mentioned that I was going to try to lighten my pack by leaving behind a pair of pants (the same one I inherited from Patrizzio back in Ushuaia). He asked me if he could have them, and so it happened that I traded my pants for the Book of Mormon, which I am now reading. 

The other interesting thing was that I ate a bunch of raw fish. I met an aspiring chef at my hostel, and he was really excited about this one cevichería and somehow managed to convince me to go with him to eat a plate of ceviche, which was fish “cooked” in the acids of lemon juice and vinegar, served up with bits of red onion and sweet potato and hot peppers and toasted corn kernels. And it was really good! As usual, I forgot to take a picture.

And that leaves my birthday. On Saturday night, I took an overnight bus from Lima to Huancayo. I spent Sunday mostly feeling terrible – Lima is at sea level, and Huancayo is at 3300 meters of elevation – but also walking around the market and seeing the sights.

On Monday, I felt much better and joined a guided hike up to the Huaytapallana glacier. I realized afterward that I should have spent another couple of days acclimating, but… The group was mostly people from Lima, who should also have waited on the hike, and a couple of locals.

We started by making an offering to the mountain gods, in which our guide, Kevin, distributed coca leaves to each of us, and we selected the shapeliest ones to drop into the ring of stones for the offering. We chewed the rest, as a communion of sorts. Next, Kevin poured us small shots of cane liquor, which we drank as he poured the rest into the stone circle. It was nasty. Lastly, we offered the gods some cigarettes, which we did not share, thankfully. 

We then hiked up past three turquoise lakes to a glacier, which was around 4300 meters. We moved slowly, stopping often to let our hearts catch up to our lungs. I have never done a more difficult hike, and it was because I thought my heart might explode out of my throat at any moment. Chewing coca leaves and resting helped enormously, and we all eventually got to walk around on the glacier before descending with relief into the valley. 


The second lake, and a bit of the first.

 Anyway, I was not looking forward to spending my birthday all alone the next day, and so I invited my fellow hikers to celebrate with me. I was surprised that two of them, locals, actually seemed interested! They picked me up at my hostel yesterday evening, took me out for dinner, and then to see a live band at a nearby bar. There Kevin met us and we had cake (and fortunately no cane liquor), and they all got the band to sing me happy birthday. I couldn’t believe how much care these near strangers took to make sure I had a happy birthday, even far away from my friends and family.

This morning I hopped on a train to Huancavelica. More on that later. 

It’s hard to believe that I have just under two months left before I fly back to the US. Two months seems like nothing at all, and there’s still so much to see!

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Uruguay and Lima

First off, a bit of fantastic news. Remember that time I said my iPod had stopped working and I couldn’t take any more pictures or email anyone, etc? Pshh. It turns out – and come on, no one knew this, right? – that you have to close the apps after you use them! Crazy! So here I was, five months of not ever closing an app, ever, and I get to Lima, Peru and happen across an Apple store, where the guy just spends a minute swooshing his finger across the screen and ta-da! Brand new iPod! Suddenly everything works fine again! You can all  go ahead and laugh at me now. It’s fine. I’m just excited to have a camera back before I get to Machu Picchu. 

I spent eleven days in Uruguay. I believe I last checked in from Rocha, where I was doing a WorkAway project in the beautiful countryside. Next, I hopped on a bus and jetted over to Maldonado, which is right on the beach, to spend a few days with the mom of one of my favorite tango teachers. The beach was too windy to enjoy, really, or even to stand up and walk, but the mom was absolutely lovely. She took me around to see all the local sights, and to hang out with her sister and family, and to her yoga class, and we had a great time just hanging out and chatting. On Tuesday, she brought me to the bus terminal again, and I went to the airport with all my belongings on my back, and eventually ended up in Lima, Peru. 

Highlights: I met the whole Peruvian tango scene, all twelve of them (okay, maybe it was fifteen), at a milonga on Wednesday, and I’ll see them again tonight at another one. They didn’t seem to mind that I had to dance in my socks. Getting to the milonga was an adventure – I left the hostel and walked to the main drag, where I had been assured that literally any bus I stopped would take me to where I needed to go. So I stopped one and smushed myself in like a little sardine, except I was a lot taller than all the other sardines, and I got pushed up to the front where the floor was elevated, and the only way I could fit was to kneel on the floor, which some of the other passenger sardines thought was funny, but whatever. I got to dance. 

Yesterday, I went with some other kids from my hostel to run around the center a little, and ended up taking a free tour of some beautiful building which turned out to have been the trial court, and the torture headquarters, for heretics during the inquisition. Delightful! On the bus ride home, we got stuck in an intersection because two cars had bended fenders, and one of the drivers had gotten out and was punching the other driver through his window. As we watched, the guy getting punched managed to open his door and get out. He broke the antenna off his hood and started chasing the other guy around, yelling at him. Those two ran around their cars as hundreds of other cars (picture a four-way intersection with four lanes of traffic in each direction, with no one obeying any traffic signals, and a fairly major road block right in the middle) honking and yelling and swerving about. It was like a piece of theater, and no one seemed even a little bit surprised.

Today, after fixing my iPod, I hung out on the rocky beach, watching the Pacific Ocean do its ocean thing as scores of para sailers soared overhead on the breeze. Threw some rocks at the waves, came back to the hostel to make an omelet and do a little bit of research for my next trek. I met a mountain guide the other day who basically planned my next couple of weeks for me. On Saturday night I’ll take an overnight bus to Huancayo, which is a smallish town in the Andes. From there, I’ll be jumping from town to town, hiking, seeing ruins, celebrating my birthday, and living life as usual. I will end up at Machu Picchu and see what day it is before making my next plans. 

So, no photos this time because I was being silly about my apps, but next time, promise. 



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Don’t Cry for Argentina, Me

I left Argentina on Friday with a heavy backpack and a heavier heart. My infinitely lovely friends from tango school had fared me well the night before with pizza, an incredible bright green meteor (which I’m sure they planned, yes), and a few final tandas at La Viruta. Walking to the port through a thunderstorm seemed like a poor way to start, but the boat to Uruguay waits for no woman, and so I arrived on foreign soil Friday afternoon soaked to the skin and with roughly no plan at all. The information desk in Colonia directed me to the most economical hostel, where I had a room to my self due to no one else wanting to hang out in Colonia, apparently. I walked around old brick walls and looked at overpriced slices of cake in cafe windows, consumed one such slice, and began to feel that my next step needed to involve just getting on with the adventure: I surprised myself by buying a flight to Lima right then and there, departing next Tuesday.

And so it happened that I found myself with a week to spare in the Most Excellent Uruguay. On Saturday I thumbed a ride to Montevideo, where I boarded a city bus toward the historic center. The woman collecting fares was kind enough to find me a hostel using her smart phone, and told me where to get off and how to find the hostel from the bus stop. Talk about service! An Italian woman working at the hostel took me under her wing for a couple of days, and we walked around the city and went to markets and cooked food and found me a WorkAway project in the countryside, where I am now. But before I get ahead of myself, Montevideo. It’s the capital of Uruguay, a former military stronghold due to its advantageous overlook of the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, which separates the country from Argentina. Uruguay, in turn, is a tiny country full of cows and mate thermoses and the people who eat and drink of them.

On my first night in the hostel, I met Matthias, German, 26, headed home after a full year of traveling solo in South America. He shared his Alternative Inca Trail itinerary with me – basically, a way to trek into Machu Picchu without getting caught up in the guided tour melee that is the official Inca Trail – complete with advice for where to try to hike versus where it makes more sense to take a bus versus where it would be easy to hitch hike between trail segments.  While he wrote out the details, I could see him watching my world view expand, my plans unfold, and maybe he could tell I could see him watching me; we had an unspoken moment, or at least I did, of awe for the connections a person can make and the ways in which little encounters can change the course of a whole adventure.

On my second night in Montevideo, I went out dancing. I had searched the internet for tango opportunities, as I had gone three days without tango already. Unthinkable. I walked over to JovenTango, which translates to YoungTango, and found the dance floor full of… not young people. I don’t want to call anyone old, but no one was younger than 65, I don’t think. And they moved only in slow, straight lines. I danced all night with the old fogies and it was a great chance to practice my walking, and I can always stand to practice that. Seriously.

So. As I said. Now I am hanging out in Lagos de Guzman, in the interior of Uruguay, sort of working on a property for a Californian named Curtiss. By “sort of working,” I mean that today I learned how to drive an ATV, went hiking around for hours by myself and did yoga and read out in the zen garden, played on the 15-foot swingset, and also stained a third of the deck before building a camp fire and making pizza. I guess the next third gets stained tomorrow. There are green-gray fields, and distant hills, and elegant stands of trees about, and ostrich-type birds wandering among the cows. No deer ticks.


Next Tuesday, I will fly to Lima, Peru, and from there start slowly off toward my trek. Stay tuned!

Also, my iDevice is on the fritz. This means that if I try to use the camera, it turns off. If I try to open Messenger, it might turn off or it might let me read half your message and then turn off. As for Skype, olvidate. I will depending on other people and their technology to record and communicate my travels. I’ll try to be good about getting people to take pictures and then tag me in them on Facebook. Sorry if you wrote to me and I didn’t answer. I am trying, and also trying to not be that tourist always asking if there’s wifi.

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Buenos Aires, sort of

My mother requested that in my next blog post I describe the city of Buenos Aires. Now, that is not so easy for me, since I do not like cities and almost all I know of this one is what I see and hear and smell on my daily walk to and from tango school. Exhaust from rickety delivery trucks, honking buses, wobbly broken sidewalk pavers, tiny mountains of dog poop, narrow torrents of gray water seeking a drain, electrical wires hanging from tall buildings, and rubble from never-ending construction projects. Drapy old trees exploding in slow motion out of their broken brick pens, delivery bicycles laden with loaves of bread, random cobblestone streets amidst the asphalt grid, stately renaissance-style apartment buildings now painted garish orange and mustard colors. Fruit and vegetable stands on every block. Bolts of fabric for sale in bulk. A laundromat with a dog curled up between blouses and blue jeans. Cafes advertising breakfast specials: café con leche y tres medialunas, 35 pesos.

Of course, I have glimpsed other bits of the city on my way to milongas or to run errands. There are important rows of cream-colored houses in the daytime, and brightly-lit bilboards at night. There are broad boulevards and weird winding alleys. There are bookstores and bakeries, kioskos full of chocolates and cigarettes, fancier cafes (café con leche y tres medialunas, 45 pesos), restaurants full of grilled beef and unfathomably cheesy pizzas, and public buses that will take you to all these destinations and more, provided you can find the bus stop.

My favorite place to hang out here is on the roof of my apartment building. A staircase winds up from my landing to the terrace, and from the terrace a ladder climbs up a mysterious cement block, potentially home to electrical equipment, or small dragons. Atop this second roof, there is a view down Avenida Córdoba, across to the Hospital de Clínicas (unquestionably haunted), and even to top of the lighthouse that decorates one of the stranger buildings downtown. All around are neighbors’ clotheslines and terraces, petrified flowers sprouting from corners of rooftops, and squiggly wires casting squiggly shadows between the rectangles of windows and verandas and radiator units on next-door buildings. Through windows are glimpses of living rooms, kitchen sinks, couches and tables, and moving bodies. Best is to watch people watching soccer games from across the block: eight different tableaus of families, couples, and friends fixed on the game, silhouettes pacing in anticipation, sinking into sofas in disappointment, jumping up into a hug or to yell out the window with the whole city, “GOOOOOOOOOL!” At dusk, the white buildings around my apartment all turn pink and lavender and deepest blue, and when the moon comes up you can see that it grows from left to right.

The last month here has flown by. Of course, there has been dancing every day. My friends and I go to school in the afternoons and evenings, go home to eat dinner around 10 pm, and often dress up and go out to a milonga afterward, as La Viruta stops charging admission at 1 am. I finally know which buses take me to which dances, and where the bus stops are to get home at 4 in the morning. It seems strange to have my alarm clock set for noon, but my body has adapted just fine. In between classes and dances, I write down everything I can of what I have learned that day, I roast vegetables and bake bread and fry eggs, and I trade stories with the other tango students.

The school did close for a week at the end of June for winter break, and I had dreams of exploring the city, or popping over to Uruguay, or any number of fun things. Alas, that Monday my landlord decided that the plumbers should come spend a day fixing the shower, which was apparently leaking a little through the wall. The plumbers got straight to work, and spent all of Monday apparently breaking everything they could in the bathroom, judging by the sounds and the mounds of broken tiles. Every once in a while they would come out with another appliance and place it artistically in the living room: the sink ended up under the bar, and the bidet over by the corner lamp. The toilet moved into the bathtub, where it made itself quite at home. My friend Caroline was staying with me at this point, and the landlord had asked that I stick around while the plumbers were working in case they needed anything, so we contented ourselves with baking cookies and wondering when the smashing noises would stop. Eventually we realized that we were going to need to use the bathroom, so we walked four blocks to the grocery store and used the facilities there. Toward the end of the work day, the smashing noises were still going, and I went out to teach an English lesson to Carlos. At 8, I got home and the plumbers explained that they were leaving, and that we could quite easily pee in a tupperware container and pour it down a little pipe if we needed to, and that they’d be back in the morning, chau. Our dinner guests arrived at 9, having been warned to empty their bladders ahead of time, and laughed at our plight. The plumbers charmed us with their presence all week long, excavating merrily and smashing more things and coming out to ask if we had a mop, or a match, or if we’d seen the bidet lately. We got to know the grocery store bathroom well indeed, though we convinced the plumbers to reinstall the toilet for us when they left on the subsequent evenings. And our friends lent us their showers, still laughing. Meanwhile we had a lovely vacation full of restful crashing and dehydration, which is everyone’s dream anyway. The plumbers finished on Friday afternoon, and on Friday night the shower head broke, and we glued it back on and did not mention it to a soul in case the plumbers should come back and take out all the walls.

Last week our water cut out unexpectedly in the middle of a lazy, bread-baking Sunday, and since we had to have wet hands to work with the bread dough, we resorted to dipping our hands in the juice of a beet we had boiled the night before and put in the fridge. This was an excellent choice, as the bread turned hot pink, but then we had gluey, doughy hands and had to also wash our hands in beet juice, pouring it into a little bowl to dip them and rub them clean. By the time the water came back on a few hours later, we had dirtied every single dish in the kitchen and splattered beet juice on most surfaces. Our hands were stained red, the kitchen knives were out from cooking lunch, and the kitchen looked like the scene of a gory murder. Caroline and I were unfazed, and munched contentedly on pinkish, freshly baked hot buttered toast before washing the dishes.

I leave Buenos Aires in one week, starting the next leg of my travels in Uruguay. I won’t miss the city, particularly, but I am already looking forward to seeing my friends here again as I catch my flight home in October.

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