Sunday, April 4, 2010

"TTFN: Ta-ta For Now," as Tigger Would Say

After such an incredible journey through Peru, I'm getting re-settled into real life. For now, the Wandering Ashley blog will be on hiatus ... but rest assured that I'll be using it again on my next adventure. Thanks for all of your comments during the trip and your warm welcome home!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

As most of you know by now, I arrived home safely on Monday afternoon. It's nice to be home, but it's also a bit disorienting -- as if someone had yanked me out of my life with a claw machine and plopped me down into a different life.

Of course, I'm delighted by some of the things waiting for me at home: blueberries, salad, a good shower, a comfortable (and flea-free) bed. I devoured Brooke's homemade refried beans, cuddled with my two sweet cats, and took a million pictures of Will and Cara in their cute Peruvian hats. I even went to the movies -- popcorn, yum.

On the other hand, I also feel a bit misplaced. My first trip to Target was overwhelming: so much unnecessary stuff at such outrageous prices, with so much electricity being wasted on all the bright lighting! Even the Atlanta airport, with its Starbucks cafes and L'Occitane shops, seemed to be a ridiculous indulgence.

Over the next few weeks, I'm sure I'll once again get used to cheap luxuries and American excess. I'll get used to being separated from my Peruvian friends and routines. I'm home, yes, but it doesn't yet feel quite like home.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Homeward Bound

Tomorrow, I´m boarding a plane to Lima, then another plane to Atlanta, and finally, on Monday morning, another plane to Indianapolis. I have had such an incredible experience here, and I´m reluctant to leave -- but it´s time to get back to "real" life.

To get myself ready to come home, I´ve been making a list of the things I miss:
  • Blueberries (and fresh fruit in general).
  • Leafy, green salad.
  • Being able to come and go as I please, without worrying whether I´m disturbing my host family.
  • My giant, comfortable bed with the feather duvet and puffy pillows.
  • A normal, non-bucket-in-the-ceiling shower.
  • Driving.
  • Going to the movies.

Of course, I can´t wait to see everyone again, and I´m sure I´ll be doing a "tour" of get-togethers to catch up with everyone.

On the other hand, I don´t want to fall into my old routine. "Peru Ashley" is quite a fabulous person, and I hope to retain as much of her as possible.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle

This weekend, while everyone else went to Bolivia to renew their visas, I went on a whirlwind trip to the jungle. I boarded a plane in Cuzco on Friday morning, and an hour later I was in Puerto Maldonado, a boom-and-bust town in the Amazon basin.

After another hour in a bus and about three hours in a boat, I arrived at the Explorer´s Inn, the only hotel in the Tambopata preserve. It was pretty rustic -- there was no electricity in my room, but I did have a mosquito net and a cold-water-only shower.

Despite those hardships (which don´t bother me much now, anyway), I had a fabulous time. On Friday evening, we hopped in the boat to search for caimans, a South American alligator. We saw many, including an entire family of caiman babies, nestled among the plants on the riverbank. I also saw a beautiful sunset that evening, and I discovered that the lodge is literally crawling with tarantulas as big as my head. Fortunately, they move slowly, and they don´t go into the guests´rooms. Much.

On Saturday, I got up insanely early for an 11-kilometer hike through the rainforest. We saw lots of insects and plants, including different kinds of palm trees, but not many animals. (I did see a few monkeys from a distance.) The hike was interesting for about five hours, but by the sixth hour I was pretty tired of slogging through ankle-deep mud. (Oh, that´s why you don´t go to the rainforest during rainy season.)
On Saturday afternoon, it was too hot to do anything except lie in bed and moan (even for our favorite Namibian hippo). There were only six guests at the lodge, so we reconvened at dinner, eating our meal at a communal table and sharing stories about our travels in Peru. It was quite cozy.

The next day, I hopped back on the boat and headed for the airport. It was a relief to be back home in Pisac, but it was lonely, too; the rest of the group didn´t arrive until early Monday morning from Bolivia.

Except for the week when Michael came to visit, it was the first time that Henry, Christine, Sara and I had spent 24 hours apart since early January. It was like losing a limb -- so of course I´m dreading our longer-term separation when I return home this Sunday.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You Know How I Hate Children ...

After two lovely weeks of vacation, I've started a new project: teaching English in a secondary school in Qoya, about ten minutes from Pisac. The school's "English teacher" only speaks about ten words of English, so I'm running the show (which, of course, is how I like it). The facility is very basic -- no computers or science labs here -- but it's functional and clean.

The real challenge is that I have to teach in Spanish. I make lots of mistakes, such as telling the students to work with birds (pajaros) instead of partners (parejas). Mostly, however, we do manage to communicate.

Working in a Peruvian school has really helped me to understand this country. Even in a good, relatively urban school like mine, the level of education is far below what we'd expect in the United States. Everything is piecemeal and disorganized -- classes begin and end whenever the director remembers to ring the bell, and the teachers don't know which classes they're teaching until that morning. The students have uniforms, but many don't bother to wear them; overall, the level of discipline seems pretty low. Yesterday, I had to break up a headlock contest at the back of the room, but the "real" teacher didn't even seem to notice.

I have to admit, I'm counting down my remaining days of teaching. I would happily stay in Peru forever, but you couldn't pay me to continue doing this job.

As usual, though, even when things are miserable, I'm still having a wonderful time. I've introduced Henry, Christine and Sara to the wonders of canasta, and they're all hooked. I now have to carry my double deck of cards with me wherever I go (which is mostly to Ulrike's anyway).

This coming weekend is my last full weekend in Peru, and I'm spending it in the jungle -- a side trip to Puerto Maldonado and the Tambopata preserve. Hopefully I'll soon be posting pictures of monkeys and parrots. Today I started taking anti-malaria pills, the major side effect of which is strange, vivid dreams. I'm looking forward to seeing what my brain invents.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Holiday Week

As soon as Michael left last week, I was off on my next adventure, traveling around southern Peru with Henry, Christine and Sara. The week went so quickly -- a blur of overnight buses, sand and sun.

Our first stop: Nazca. We did the usual tourist thing, boarding a tiny plane for a short flight over the Nazca Lines. The real thrill, however, was sandboarding in the Peruvian desert. We rode a dune buggy to the peaks, where our guide, Eduardo, taught us the basics of sandboarding. Standing up required more coordination than I possess, but I rocked at sliding down on my belly! I can´t even describe the thrill of shooting headfirst down a mountain of sand.

Next on the agenda: a few days at the beach. We chose Camana, a small beach town on the road between Nazca and Arequipa, and crossed our fingers that the tsunami warnings would come to nothing. We spent two lazy days on the beach -- delighted to be the only gringos in sight -- before catching a bus to our final stop, Arequipa.

Arequipa is one of the largest and wealthiest towns in Peru. Constructed of white volcanic stone, it also has some of the nation´s prettiest architecture. (That´s the Plaza de Armas at left.) It was a great place to wander.

We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, a museum focused on the Incas´ritual sacrifices in the nearby mountains. In addition to numerous burial artifacts, the museum has the bodies of several sacrificed children, whose deaths were meant to ensure good harvests, fertility and other blessings.

Our final stop in Arequipa was the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, formerly a cloistered convent for well-to-do nuns. Rather than living in simple, dormitory-style rooms, the nuns here lived in their own little houses, complete with servants and kitchens. The convent, which takes up a full city block and has its own streets and courtyards, feels more like a Spanish village than a religious community. The colors, such as cobalt blue and brick red, were especially striking. We spent several hours just wandering here, choosing the set of rooms we each liked best.

In all, it was an incredible week. We had some delicious meals (and a few really bad ones), we saw more than a few breath-taking landscapes, and at one point I even drank a screwdriver while wearing a sombrero ... in public. Yep, it was that kind of week.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Meets Peru, Part III

After last night's guinea-pig detour, I owe you an update on the second half of Michael's visit. It's been a busy week!

On Wednesday, we took full advantage of our boleto turistico, a mega-ticket that allows access to most of the sites around Cusco. (Bonus: During February, it's half price.) We started at Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fortress/temple with impressive zig-zag walls and a great view of the city. Then, after lunch, we took a taxi out to Tambomachay (pictured), the ruins of ceremonial Inca baths. This was a small site, but it was peaceful, and I liked listening to the flow of water through streams and still-working Inca aqueducts.

When we left Tambomachay, we hit a small snag -- not a taxi, bus or combi in sight, and no way to get back to Cusco. So, Michael got to experience Peruvian hitch-hiking: Just wait for the next bus or combi to drive by, and flag it down. We easily caught a bus to our next destination, Q'enko, a cave containing a ceremonial Inca altar.

After a full day of "ruining," it was time for my regular Wednesday evening activity, the Projects Abroad pub quiz in Urubamba. Oh, how I love the pub quiz! My team won last week, so this week Henry and I were in charge of writing the questions. Michael jumped right in and helped lead his team to victory, answering questions about movies, sports and even Shakespeare. He also tried Inca Kola, a popular local soda, and said it tastes like cream soda. (Maybe, but I can't stand it.)

On Thursday, we went a bit farther afield to Moray, a unique Inca site featuring concentric circular terraces. Each terrace has a unique atmosphere, so historians theorize that Moray served as a sort of agriculture research lab for the Incas. It's also reported to have a unique "energy," but we hiked most of the way down, and I can't report any unusual vibes.

We also visited Salinas, a collection of open-air salt mines that cascade down the valley like a giant wedding cake. The mines have been in use since Inca times, and each plot is passed down from generation to generation. We didn't see anyone working, but the mines themselves are an awesome sight. We bought some salt, too, so we'll have to see whether it tastes any different.

Last night, as you know, we celebrated Michael's last Cusco dinner with traditional guinea pig. (I had paella instead.) Today, however, we only had time for breakfast, packing and a quick lunch before sending Michael on his way home.

On one hand, it was hard to see Michael go, and it will be difficult to adjust back to my normal Peruvian life. On the other hand, I'm now beginning the final leg of my journey -- one week of traveling with other volunteers and three weeks of teaching in local schools. The first two-thirds of the trip have gone so quickly, and in the blink of an eye I'll be packing my bags for home.