Saturday, August 23, 2008

Buenos Aires, baby!

As I mentioned before, my last few days in Chile were lovely, including a trip to the coast to say goodbye to my favorite artisans, including Gonzalo, a talented painter (Jacob actually bought one of his paintings while visiting):

I also spent the night with my former student Ivan and his fantastic mom, and we went out with Carolina and Eli (Mom stayed home):

And now, after much anticipation, I am finally in Buenos Aires. I arrived last Monday evening and headed for the hostel I had booked just for the night, since the temporary apartment I had rented wasn't available since it was a holiday (they would ultimately lose that reservation, book me another one for 8:30 the next night, and then close down shop with all my luggage locked inside). I unwittingly booked the hostel next to the one where Jacob and I stayed the first time; not as in next door to the building, but literally in the same building, on the same floor, one door over. The dude working (who incidentally owns the hostel) gave me my first taste of the distinctions between Chileans and Argentinians, as he was instantly warm and welcoming, and invited me out for that Thursday night, which was fun - we're going out again this weekend.

I should mention that in Argentina, just because you own a hostel - or any other business - doesn't mean you have any kind of money. Argentina has been suffering economic woes since the collapse in 2001, and it's altogether too common for people to work 12 hours a day and still be completely broke. They are still generous, however, and when I had to stay a second night in the hostel since I couldn't get into the apartment yet again, he gave me all new shower stuff, made my bed while I was washing off my frustrations, and didn't charge me for the night. (Ok, so you're asking, what's the catch with this guy? Well, I'll tell you: he sports the eternally fashionable Latino mullet and seemingly owns only one pair of pants.)

I did eventually make it into my third choice apartment, a sweet one bedroom in a fun neighborhood called Palermo. It's not in the center but it is close to the subway, and it's surrounded by restaurants and shops, parks and museums. Here's a shot of just a fraction of the sprawling green area near the apartment:

I love how old school things are here, especially my keys; I feel like I live in a 17th century English mansion. What I don't love is the thoroughly Latino tradition of doors that lock from the INSIDE. Not only is it terribly inconvenient, but a total fire hazard as well. So far no one has been able to give me a suitable answer about why this is. Some of the unsuitable responses have included "So you say goodbye at the door and not in your apartment" and "Because the buildings are old." Right...

I'm now looking at more permanent options (I'll only be in this apartment until September 2), including one just a few blocks from here and a few others in the center. I am also, for the first time in years, considering living with a roommate, both for the economy of it and the social horizons it could potentially open. All of the furnished options here seem to come included with cable TV, an addictive curse. E! entertainment channel will be the death of me yet. Unfortunately I have had a cold since arriving, so watching TV has been easy to justify.

On Saturday I went out with my friend Paula who I met in Valparaíso but who lives and works here in BA (she is Argentinian). She showed me how to party all night, something this city is famous for - often a night won't start until 3 a.m. and won't end until noon the next day. Not exactly my type of night (I prefer to start at 10 and finish no later than 2) but, when in Rome! I got home at 8 a.m., a respectable first-timer's arrival, but it only exacerbated the cold into what I am secretly terrified is mono... fun times. Luckily there is no treatment for mono so I don't have to feel guilty about not investigating the Argentine health care system.

When I can pull myself out of bed I have been doing a lot of walking. This city is nice and flat and walkable, despite it being absolutely HUGE - about 14 million people call BA home. There are endless nooks to discover and I keep reminding myself not to be overwhelmed by finding all of them since I have four months to do so. I am considering getting a bike. I've also been sampling the distinct cuisines here, especially empanadas, and although I was convinced no empanada could satisfy me like in Chile, I have not been disappointed by what I've found. The sheer variety gives Argentina an edge, and they are small enough that it's perfectly acceptable to order and eat several at once. So far the best one has been eggplant, but spicy chicken was also fantastic, and one with ground beef and raisins would have been up there if it had been fully heated (a sadly common issue in South America).

August is apparently Tango month here, and there is the World Cup of Tango this week, which sold out ages ago so if I want to see it I'll have to watch on TV like the rest of the plebes. (Not that I could have afforded a ticket; after a month's vacation I am flat broke.) Argentina's fashion week was also going on a few blocks from here, which I didn't check out after one person told me it "hardly had any clothes." Not sure what kind of a fashion week that is, but as professionals I'm sure they knew what they were doing (?).

They say the "season" starts in September, referring to when the nice weather starts to kick in. Average monthly temperatures in September are 66 degrees, but apparently there are some outlier days that everyone looks forward to. I certainly am one of those people and can't wait to bust out my summer dresses (and shoes!). Speaking of, a few people have asked to see pictures of my newly svelte self, so here I am in a ridiculous and awesome dress I bought from a former student's sister's shop (she makes all the clothes):

It's still too cold to wear, and it may never be appropriate to sport in Seattle, but here in a quasi-fashion capital of the world it will definitely be donned once the sun comes out (provided I keep the kilos off... so far mono is helping).

I want to go back to Chile for just a moment if I may. We all know the rage that has been The Office, spreading from the UK to the US with equal popularity in both countries. Well, the show is now bilingual, as Chile has adopted it in all its same-plotline glory. They are calling it, I kid you not, La Ofis. I have been watching it on its blog and I think it's the perfect way to stay in touch with Chile, the country I lived in and disliked for nearly five months but feel a strange attachment to nevertheless. The rift between Chile and Argentina (well, Chile and all other South American countries, really) is quite obvious, and people are constantly telling me I 'talk like a Chilean' (and not in a good way). Here, instead of calling us gringos, they call us Yankees, only their unique accent makes it sound like 'junkies' which always makes me laugh. Yep, all us junkies are just crazy about Argentina! I have my first Expat Community event tomorrow to watch the Democratic National Convention speeches, and presumably drink. Hopefully it is a cool group of people, but I'm going to try to befriend as many Argentinians as I can. I need to kick this nasty Chilean accent, after all.

On a final note, this was linked from one of my new favorite Web sites,, and it just cracks me up:

I hope it made you laugh too! If this or anything else in the blog amused you, leave a girl a comment. Sarah P and I were discussing how comments really motivate us to keep the blog going, hint hint.

p.s. I know I've routinely failed to post new pictures to Flickr, and I will only continue to disappoint in that department today. Soon, I swear.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Arequipa, Peru to Santiago, Chile

My last days in Peru were uneventful. I spent them in the country’s second largest city, Arequipa, which still felt relatively small. They call it the white city since many of the buildings are made out of a white volcanic stone. Overall a very lovely place. Why is it that, though, every city in every Spanish-speaking country has a Plaza de Armas?

I neglected to arrange accommodations in advance and when my very long (and cold – there was no heat and at one point in the mountains the windows had literally frozen over) bus from Cusco finally arrived at 1 am, a kind taxi driver took me to no fewer than 9 places before we found an available room. I’m not sure how I managed to miscalculate my time so badly, but I realized the next day that I actually would spend 4 nights in Arequipa, not 2. Money still being an issue, I quickly searched for an answer, which I found in the form of a casino. I charged chips to my credit card, played on a very strange automated roulette table with frantic gamblers (one of whom would place his bet, then race to drop coins into the three closest slot machines), and then cashed the chips that I hadn’t lost in. I ended up with a few extra coins that I dropped in slots on my way out and ended up winning about $10 more. I neglected to mention in an earlier post that Matt also made the seemingly difficult yet surprisingly easy mistake of leaving his bankcard in an ATM in Cusco the day before we left for the Inka trail. The lucky beneficiary went straight to a casino, irony not lost on me.

Other than gambling, I watched a lot of TV in Arequipa. I think I was somewhat depressed after having travel companions for 2 weeks and then suddenly being on my own again. Also, I like to have a home base and travel for short periods of time, so being gone for a month (with the same three outfits) was starting to wear on me. I was and still am frustrated that the Olympics are not widely shown here, I assume because there just aren't that many South American athletes competing. Normally I love the Olympics and I was desperate to see trampoline as an Olympic sport! I did catch some synchronized diving which was fun.

I did end up taking a city tour which I really enjoyed. I met a nice Canadian fellow who was leaving that very night. During the day we had discussed eating cuy, or guinea pig, a local specialty. We both confessed that we wanted to try it but were afraid to do it alone. We ended up going straight from the tour to a restaurant and split one. I mostly wanted to try it for Matt’s sake since he was too sick to try it for himself. Even though there was almost no meat on the poor creature, I’m glad we split one: they serve it deep fried and WHOLE, and all I could think about was its tiny eyelashes and claws. Ripping off one of its legs to gnaw on it was a, ahem, gnarly experience, one I feel no need to repeat.

Otherwise, I ate a lot of good food. The most popular local dish is rocotos rellenos, or stuffed bell peppers. There is a huge indoor market where I ate lunch and drank smoothies every day. I also tried the Peruvian version of Bolivia's salteñas, which were nowhere near as juicy but still pretty satisfying. (On a side note, I guess I didn't eat as much as I thought I did, because when I came back everyone commented on how much weight I had lost. I have always had very even bodily distribution of weight gain and loss so I don't notice a lot of the time, but I found a scale at a friend's house and weighed myself for the first time since February. I have somehow lost 25 pounds since then. I think a w00t is in order.) Here is the market:

I ultimately decided to fly from Arequipa to Arica, where I then flew to Santiago. I was able to get a really cheap ticket and figured it was worth not spending another 10 hours on the bus. Once I got to Arica I thought I had 3 hours before my next flight left so I settled in to wait (I was glad the Olympics were on and watched a weight lifter drop 300+ pounds on himself) but all of a sudden I heard an announcement for my flight. I had totally forgotten that Peru is an hour behind Chile! I was happy to board the plane earlier than expected and the second half of the trip went just as smoothly as the first.

Ironically, once I got back to Chile my internet access spiraled downward. My friend Carol was nice enough, yet again, to let me stay with her, this time in the middle of one of her roommates moving out, which ended up being an ordeal since it seems all of the furniture in the apartment was his, including all the furniture in Carol’s room… With him also went the internet account, and when you are staying in city suburbia there aren’t many open wireless connections or internet cafes. It ultimately didn't matter much, proving yet again that technology is not as necessary as we like to think, and I had a lot of fun in my four days back, including a trip to the coast to hang out with some of my ex-students, two of whom are planning a trip to visit me in Argentina. It poured rain for 36 hours but the sun came out to let me say goodbye to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. I thought I might get nostalgic… but no. I am mostly sad to leave my friends here in Chile, but not the country itself. Last night Carol, Renée, Megan and I caught a semi-abstract play based on short stories by a famous (now dead) Chilean author named (Roberto?) Bolaños, Renée's favorite. It was random but fun, and an appropriate way to bid adieu to the country.

I am currently sitting in the Santiago airport waiting for my flight on Brazil’s discount airline, GOL, to take off in an hour. Even though I had more than twice the allowed weight, it only cost me $25. In order to gain access to the internet I had to pull up a chair at, of all places, Ruby Tuesday’s. I don’t think I have ever been in one in the U.S., and Carol cooked an amazing Persian meal for lunch from which I still feel stuffed, but I ordered tea and a piece of apple pie… the things we do for internet access.

I am still planning on updating my past posts with more details and pictures, so stay tuned! Of course, I will also fill you in on my hopefully exciting new life in Buenos Aires.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Inka Trail and Leaving Cusco

I am sitting at the free computer in our four star hotel in Cusco, Peru. When we got back from the Inka trail, which I will describe presently, we decided there was no way in hell we were returning to our original (loud, hot-water-free, run-down) hostal and sprung for a luxury suite that I bargained down to $100 a night. We just handed in the key and are sad to say goodbye to our home for the past three days, where we have veritably lazed around watching cable TV and, as of yesterday and this morning, the Olympics. Perks include a delicious breakfast, a free book exchange, complimentary hot beverages 24 hours a day, and free airport and bus terminal transfers. Robyn and I will be taking advantage of both the former and the latter today, as she prepares to head back to the states and I gear up for an 11 hour bus ride to Arequipa to round out my vacation before another 10 hour bus ride (2 hours at the border) to Arica, Chile, where I will fly back to Santiago. Matt also took advantage of this service yesterday morning, but unfortunately this has been the trip of "Matt can't catch a break" and his flight to Lima was delayed due to fog, causing him to miss his flight to Sao Paulo, potentially causing him to miss the wedding he was going to today. We have yet to hear the final results of his disastrous travel day...

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Last I wrote we were off for the Inka trail, a four-day trek ending at Machu Picchu, one of the seven NEW wonders of the world (hence its increased popularity of late). The night before we left we had a group meeting with all 17 of us in the group as well as our three tour guides, Hilbert, Oscar, and Mauro. There were two other 30-something couples who we noticed right away because one of the husbands was wearing UW gear - they are all from Washington state. We would find out during the course of the trip that all he OWNS seems to be UW gear. Others in the group were a south African couple, the dude being cool and the girl, for some reason, having a personal vendetta against American Me; two loud but funny Irish blokes; two American girls in graduate school (the youngest in the group at 24); a cockney-speaking British girl with her mysteriously smelly South African boyfriend; and a woman from Tennessee (the oldest in the group at about 50) with her never-stopped-complaining-or-sucking-in-his-gut-for-pictures Puerto Rican boyfriend, both of whom were nurses. We also had a doctor in the group, the non-UW wearing husband of the two Washington couples (the wives were sisters). All in all we felt very medically prepared, which ended up coming in handy later on.

Our lead guide, Hilbert, seemed a bit abrasive during the meeting, but our secondary guide, Oscar, hardly said a word. This ended up being because he wasn't very comfortable speaking English, and other than Puerto Rico I was the only Spanish-speaker in the group. The few words Oscar did say, however, are forever ingrained in our minds: every morning, when they woke us up anywhere between 3:30 and 5:00 a.m., Oscar would make the rounds saying in his deep voice (he was really tall and looked not unlike Benicio del Toro), "Goood mooooorning, hellooooo, goood moooorning, cohhhca teeeea." Yes, they served us tea in our tents at the ungodly hours they woke us up, and then proceeded to stuff us full of an amazing breakfast of quinoa oatmeal, pancakes, toast and hot drinks. In fact, ALL the food was amazing. You would not believe the quality OR the quantity of what we were served, three times a day. My favorite was our first lunch, which consisted of fried potatoes, stuffed avocadoes, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers plus an antipasto plate with cheese and olives, stir-fried beef, stir-fried vegetables, and rice. The most ridiculous part of all was that they GARNISHED these dishes! We had 20 porters carrying all of our camp gear from one stop to the next, who would set up our personal tents and our food tent, wait on us during meals, clean up after us and do the dishes, then break it all down and carry it on to the next stop, and here they were worrying about garnishes?? We were blown away. All of us except, of course, poor Matt, who became sick on the first day and hardly ate a thing. He quickly deteriorated until our trusty group doctor, on the end of day three (that is, the night before they woke us up at 3:30 to hike the rest 0f the way to Machu Picchu itself) gave him a round of antibiotics to clear it up. Luckily he was feeling well enough the next day to enjoy himself and take plenty of pictures of the site, and even at his worst moments he never once complained. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Robyn and I opted for a personal porter to carry our stuff, which ended up being the best $100 we ever spent. By the end of day one, with the sun beating down on us (but otherwise a fairly easy day in comparison) people were groaning that they had not made the same wise decision. Day two, of course, was by far the worst of it. We hiked for 10 solid hours and crossed two mountain passes, although the guides were really good about stopping and resting and letting the rest of the group catch up. Matt and Robyn tended to be in the front, but I took my sweet time and held back for a lot of it. It's not that I couldn't have gone faster, but I found it a lot more enjoyable to walk slowly and it had the added advantage of letting me be alone for a lot of the time on the sublime trail; this surprised me, pleasantly, as I had heard it would be overrun with hikers, but we were for the most part on our own during the day. Plus, I was never the very last person as the doctor was a big guy who didn't seem to have prepared himself very well, mentally or physically, for the trip. i have to give him credit, he never complained. (Incidentally, they took the trip after reading about someone else's adventures in Peru in the Seattle Times travel section.)

I should mention here that, at some point during day one, Oscar and subsequently Mauro became oddly infatuated with me. At first it was humorous but it quickly became obnoxious, since I didn't pay so much money to have my guides hitting on me nonstop, and it was also awkward because they weren't very good at hiding it and the rest of the group quickly took notice. Each one of them started the day asking me, about five times, how I had slept. They commented on my mostly black wardrobe (highly convenient for travelling, I pointed out) and told me that such a pretty girl should wear colors. One day I took off my black fleece to reveal a pink t-shirt and Mauro exclaimed, "You are so beautiful, like an orchid!" (Orchids grow on the jungle section of the trail.) Robyn insisted on calling me the orchid for the rest of the trip. They were also occupied with how on earth I did not have a boyfriend, and didn't I want one? By day three, Hilbert had caught on and started playing along and teasing me, I think because it amused him. (Everything amused Hilbert, especially Hilbert; I have never seen a man laugh at his own jokes so much.) They would ask me to walk with them, joke about sacrificing me on an Inka temple, and on night three when there was a bar and Mauro got a bit lit, Robyn and Matt swear they heard him yell, slurred, "Eliiiizaaaabeeeeth!" outside the tents. When the trek was over and we made plans to go out as a group (which we ultimately missed because I wasn't feeling well, though that was more a convenient excuse than anything), Hilbert told me, "You are a very pretty girl, but tomorrow, make yourself more pretty. And take a shower."

Day three was pretty easy, we hiked until 1 and then had the afternoon to enjoy ourselves. When the wake-up call came at 3:30 a.m., after Matt had been awake all night, shivering and sweating and other pleasant things, he was surprisingly pleasant about waking up. We ate a zombie-like breakfast and then hiked a short distance to wait in line to get access to the end of the trail. It was so dark we could still see the stars, and there were quite a few shooting stars while we waited. Of course, once the gate opened, people's true colors came out. There was a frenzy to be the FIRST one there, even though it was an hour away, in the dark and early morning light, over slippery and uneven rocks. One boyfriend was literally dragging his girlfriend behind him and Robyn heard her say "I can't go this fast!" When she passed me, though, and I said, "What's your hurry?" in a pleasant tone, she shot back "I want to BEAT YOU." We were blown away. I mean, thousands of people see Machu Picchu every morning. The sun had already risen so there was no chance of catching the sunrise. What did it really matter being first, that one insignificant day? When I arrived, about 30th, I still felt a great sense of accomplishment having hiked there rather than taking a bus or a train. I had been concerned that after all the build up it would be a let down, but it was such a relief to get there and it was such a priviledge to actually see it that I was thrilled. During the tour itself, however, we were all so exhausted that it was hard to appreciate it to its fullest. We were just... spent. Walking up three stairs made me want to sit down and nap.

When we finally got on the first-class train to take us back to Cusco, however, our serving staff had ideas in mind other than us napping. We were first regaled with a native dance, and then there was an actual, alpaca FASHION show. On the train. It was probably the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen on a train.

We got back, checked ourselves into this fancy hotel, and pretty much did nothing else but sleep and eat and watch TV. I think Robyn has read 5 books. Today we have to part ways and I will be sad to be on my own again. I am already looking forward to seeing my friends again in Santiago.

I realize this post is scattered and I have probably left a lot out that I would like to say, but we have limited time left and we are hungry, so I will come back and edit it again later (and add pictures!)

I hope you are all well. And, please, leave comments so I know what you think!!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Puno to Cusco

Robyn, Matt and I have so far spent a very fun time together. We seem to have similar travel styles and have easily agreed on everything: how to spend a day, where to eat, what type of transportation to take. It's nice to be with familiar people and I am now among one of the card-playing groups I eyed enviously as a solo traveler. We have been playing lots of Rummy and right now Matt is up one game which we are none too pleased about. But, on to vacation specifics.

The first day in Puno was supposed to be spent as a relaxing one for Robyn and Matt to acclimatize. To Matt this meant trudging up about 1,000 stairs and 2,000 feet to get to this giant "condor" statue at the top of a hill, which when we arrived at the top looked more like a turkey vulture. There was also a hill with a giant Puma statue on it, but we only drove past that on the way out of Puno. They love their statutes in Puno and also had a giant Jesus.

That night we ate dinner at a hilarious local hole in the wall. My meal cost 50 cents; they splurged on about 75 cents each. It was as authentic as it gets and we were definitely out of place. The next day we did a 180 and joined an overnight tour of Lake Titicaca with lots of aging Germans, a family of Canadians, and a tour guide named Giovanni who spoke excellent if not mispronounced (and often repeated) English. There were also two Irish people about our age who we did end up befriending, and who I will be meeting up with in Buenos Aires. Anyway, the first stop were these famous reed islands called Uros Islands, which native Aymara people literally hand crafted to escape Spanish colonialism. They were definitely awesome but are now so touristy they are referred to as "floating souvineer stands." Walking around on them was surreal, very spongy and with the threat of falling through at any moment. We were surprised at how fat some of the women were, but I guess there aren't a lot of exercise opportunities on tiny manmade islands. We had the opportunity to take a reed boat ride for a hefty 10 soles; bear in mind the cost of our entire trip, with transportation, food, and lodging, was 60 soles. We passed and instead lounged on the cushy reeds until the motor boat was ready to take us to the same place our cohorts on the reed island went, for free.

The next stop on our painfully slow, fume-filled tour was lunch on a beach, pickled vegetables that Robyn swears were canned, chicken, bread, and a banana. Yummers. After that it was back on the crawling boat and we finally made it to our final stop that day, Amantani island. When we arrived our host daughter, Gloria, was there to collect all three of us and each group was led to their own house to meet the family and get acquainted with our digs. Ours was possibly the only house without some form of electricity, but what they lacked in light they made up for with... straw mattresses. Matt and Robyn had fairly normal pillows, but mine was literally a parka shoved into a throw pillowcase. At least there were plenty of blankets. The stark room had three single beds, a table with only TWO chairs, and a decoration of a smashed bug with a shoe outline surrounding it. Hilarious. We had to walk up a steep, slanted staircase to get to it, which was impressively done by Gloria and her sister Maxima holding trays of our food. Dinner was potato soup and then potatoes and rice. They love to combine starches. Dessert was a rather delicious tea called muña which was literally just a sprig of the plant brewed in hot water. Apparently it grows on the island.

Before dinner, however, we had the chance to climb to the Sun Temple, stopping on the way to watch locals play tourists in a concrete soccer "stadium." The climb was rough and we were fighting against the sunset, but once we got to the top we were rewarded with beautiful views, made all the more incredible by the many rain clouds and falls in the distance. Of course, after the sun went down they weren't so distant and our walk back was filled with tiny balls of hail. Robyn wrapped herself in my beautiful new hand embroidered shawl, bought on the way down from the temple, a steal at $15. I just got wet.

We played cards by candlelight before finally convincing Gloria to take us to the big "party" they had organized for us. Technically she was supposed to dress us up in native clothing but sufficed with giving Matt a poncho and Robyn a shawl like the one I had bought. We envied Matt's poncho as it was freaking COLD on that island. The stars were beautiful, but the party was lame. We stayed only long enough to giggle at the other tourists dressed in full native garb and to tip the bad young boy pipe band a U.S. dollar. Then we played more cards and went to bed by 11, which was ironically the latest we had stayed up thus far. In the morning we had more muña tea and delicious fried bread before it was off to the boat to make our final stop on the tour: Taquille island.

There was a lot of talk about Twix bars these two days so we bought one at the bottom of our next hike, figuring 9 a.m. was not too early for a candy bar. It was, however, too early for the climb, at least for Robyn and me as we were passed by tourists twice our age without breaking a sweat. We justified it by telling ourselves they had already done Machu Picchu and were therefore used to it, and really, Robyn did have the excuse of not being fully acclimatized. My excuse? I'm going with the Twix.

When we arrived at the main plaza at the top of the climb (really not too bad, the first five minutes are by far the worst) there were tons of locals decked out in neon clothing, playing pipes and dancing to celebrate the festival of San Santiago. They only knew one tune (and one dance) and after 45 minutes of it we were ready to get out of there. Next stop was lunch with a view of the lake. We had quinoa soup, very common here, and fried trout, even more common. We wowed the others with tales of eating street food, clearly something other tourists take seriously when the guide book says Off Limits. I'm not kidding, some of their mouths were hanging open about this daring habit of ours. After lunch we had to walk "540" steps to the bottom to get to the boat, though the Canadian mother insisted she only counted 500... compulsive, much?

The boat ride back to Puno was 3 hours, though it passed faster than we expected. We spent the first hour up top where Robyn regaled us with hilarious stories of her three months at sea, before the captain's wife frantically beckoned us below. The reason? The Peruvian coast guard. Our guide was worriedly counting life jackets, but we escaped without so much as getting pulled over.

Once in Puno we hung out with our new Irish friends and went to possibly the most delicious chicken joint you have ever imagined, called El Rancho. We all ordered a quarter chicken except for Matt who opted for the full half. Good, good times. Sarah and Derry were amazed that such good food existed outside of the tourist places they confessed to frequenting. I think we opened some new horizons that night.

Yesterday morning we left Puno for Cusco. Finding the exact right bus company was a challenge, but we finally settled on Power Express, departing at 10 a.m. with a double decker bus. We secured three of the four frontmost seats on the top level and settled in for what should have been a luxurious 6 hour trip north. Not so. Our first stop was in Juliaca, one hour after leaving. The other half of the bus filled up at this stop, and not with the reasonable smelling tourists that filled the first half. No, the bus quickly smelled like farm, mostly due to the family of four that occupied the two seats directly behind Matt and Robyn (suckers). While in Juliaca we witnessed a culturally disturbing scene: a toddler, perhaps three years old, doing both #1 AND #2 on the street while her mother looked on, bored, holding toilet paper. Once the young girl had finished her shockingly large job, her mother covered it with gravel, walked two steps to an outdoor eatery, and continued to eat her lunch. We were dying. This would only be trumped later in the bus ride when the young boy in the family of four stood in the aisle and PEED INTO A BOTTLE HIS MOTHER WAS HOLDING. I noticed first and quickly advised Robyn not to turn around. She thought they were simply emptying the on-board bathroom. That's right, there was an actual bathroom available for the boy's use, free of charge, and yet... they opted for the bottle.

Otherwise the ride was fairly uneventful, unless you count Matt and I almost getting left behind in some random town because we went inside to use the bathroom. Luckily we had left Robyn behind to stand guard and she forcefully stopped the bus from departing no fewer than three times. Good work, Woodman.

We arrived in Cusco at about 5 p.m. and checked into our hostel who had of course screwed up our reservation (we are in a five bed suite rather than a single and a double, but luckily the other two beds are not occupied. Bear in mind that by "suite" I mean the beds are separated by doors, and not of course that we have hot water). We ate a fancy dinner with our first bottle of wine and the whole shebang cost $62 U.S. This morning I had my first American breakfast in five months; it was literally called "the fatty" and man was it delicious. Then we spent the day running errands, buying stuff for the trek at hand and paying our Inka trail balance which was a whopping $140 each CHEAPER than we had anticipated (score!). We checked out a pretty rad Inka museum that of course the Spanish conquistadores built a cathedral on top of and learned that it took them three months to melt all the gold they pillaged from the site. And they say Americans are bad! We're just the newest offenders in an age of otherwise global responsibility and awareness... too bad we didn't get in on the hayday of screwing other cultures.

That brings us to now, in an internet cafe waiting for Matt to finish downloading his bazillion pictures onto CDs. I have basically stopped taking pictures because there is just no need with him around. Once he finishes we're off to eat, then sleep, then spend tomorrow checking out local ruins. The day after that is the start of our long-anticipated four-day Inka trail hike, and we are pumped. No blog until at least the 8th, but keep us (and our knees) in mind until then as we scale and then descend numerous Inka steps. Machu Picchu, here we come!