Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving in Cusco

It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving all day. There was no hype or even any preparation leading up to the holiday in the form of ads or turkeys or pumpkin pies around the markets. I didn’t miss the advertising but the lack of excitment kicking off the holiday season bummed me out a bit. It was suddenly here but Peruvians do not celebrate it, as it is an American holiday. I wasn’t even inclined to try to make something. It all felt very strange. It was my first pang of homesickness since leaving the US 3 weeks ago. I worked my usual shift from 2-6pm at the hostel (see sign below) and headed over to the volunteer house for Friendsgiving with a bottle of wine. Mushed potatoes, anyone?

To my surprise, the dining area had a few festive decorations, including little turkeys made from noodles and construction paper thanks to Whitney.

Photo credit: Whitney Connor

My day became exponentionally better once in the presence of friends and helping prepare for a big, tasty meal with comfort foods of home.

Myself, Cara, Shelby and Whitney in the living/dining room of the volunteer house.

Nearly everyone in the house had helped make a dish or drink, everything being from scratch.

Photo credit: Whitney Connor

Photo credit: Whitney Connor
We had chicken (turkeys are hard to come by), green bean casserole, fresh salad, deviled eggs, the best stuffing in the entire world and more. Cara made her famous stuffing with the ingredients she could find and it was so delicious, I could have eaten the entire dish, nothing else and been completely happy in a food coma afterwards.

We ate and drank and relaxed, which is exactly what you are supposed to do on Thanksgiving, right? It turned out to be a surprisingly wonderful Thanksgiving, filled with good food and friends. I even got to Skype with my family which I was very thankful for, despite not having a strong enough connection to see them, hearing their voices was wonderful.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dear Addison (4 years, 5 months)

Dear Addison,

Last week was so bittersweet. I spent my last Friday in the United States for the next 9 months with you, momma, Auntie Sarah and Nonni watching Disney On Ice: Dare to Dream in the Rose Garden. You wore a Cinderella costume from the dress-up box at Papa's and were so excited to see the princesses.

I was excited to see the Disney on Ice show because I have very fond memories of Jasmine and Aladdin on the magic carpet when I was little, but watching you react to the show was even better.

Of course, you had to have some cotton candy.  A Disney On Ice experience wouldn't be complete without ingesting some sticky sugar.

The cotton candy conveniently came with a princess crown. Gosh, you are the cutest kid on the entire planet, in my opinion.

Oh Addison, I already miss you. Out of everyone I gave a see-you-in-nine-months hug to, you were easily the most difficult because I know you aren't quite old enough to understand why I am not going to be around for 9 months. By the time you read this, I am certain we will have had all sorts of conversations about the world, where I have traveled and why. I hope you cherish the postcards I send you and look up every place on the map. I already can't wait to hear your beautiful, sweet voice on the phone or see you giggle on Skype. You promised me you would be good for momma, eat lots of healthy food to grow strong like Raleigh and learn a lot in school. Don't forget it kiddo.

Love you always, forever and without a doubt,

Auntie Mal

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Arrival in Inca Capital, Cusco

After an incredible week exploring northern and southern California, I flew out of Los Angeles en route to Lima, Peru. Bright and early, Jo kindly drove Cara and I to the airport. Here I am, pretty tired due to 3 hours of sleep but all packed and ready to go for the next 9 months!

Turns out, arriving about 3 hours before my 7:35 flight Friday morning was plenty early. In fact, I learned that gates for Avianca do not even open until 5:00am. (I will be checking this next time I have an early flight.) However, besides waiting a half hour for employees to show up and check my bag, Cara and I cruised through security, basically without stopping and ended up waiting in our respective terminals, passing the next 2 hours with a combination of people watching and reading. I have flown in and out of LAX a handful of times but there are always heaps of people and nearly a guaranteed line at security. Nonetheless, I was very thankful for how easy getting to my gate was. It was a great way to start our journey to South America.

The best part of people watching in LAX was the 13 abuelitas (little grandmas) in wheel chairs lined up to board the plane first. I discreetly tried to take a picture but couldn't quite get them all in the shot. They were so adorable.

Before I knew it, we lifted off and were en route headed south to Lima making a stop in San Salvador, El Salvador for my 6 hour layover.

The only notable event that happened on the first leg of my flight occurred after the initial internal debacle of having the window seat and needing to wake up the sleeping latina women in the middle and isle seats next to me. Once my physiological needs conquered my social passiveness, I was standing in a long line at the back of the plane for the restroom. There were more of us waiting in line than you could count on one hand. A fairly large latina women was a few people behind me and started raising her voice toward the flight attendants regarding the long line for the restroom and was very upset about why both the front and back restrooms could not be used. Obviously, this was not the fault of the flight attendants, who told her that since 9/11, standing lines are no longer allowed at the front of the planes. This was partially the cause for the jam in the back of the plane for the loo, not to mention we were closing in on the last hour of the flight after 2 beverage services. Soon after watching those big red lips spew Spanish with such determination, I was at the front of the line. A little patience and understanding would have done her wonders, but I can appreciate her passion. 

As the 4 hour flight came to an end, I got my first glimpse ever of El Salvador. It's the smallest Central American country in square miles. One day I will see more than the coastline and inside of the airport.

A quarter of a day had finally passed, which meant, next stop, Lima!  Just over 4 hours later, we arrived in Peru's capital at 1:00 in the morning. Since my flight and Cara's flight landed only minutes apart, we arranged a taxi together through Backpackers Family House, where we stayed at in Miraflores for the night.  

After catching some zzz's into mid morning, we made a quick run to the bank to get some Peruvian Nuevo Soles (local currency) and then the grocery store for some snacks before catching an afternoon bus from Lima to Cusco. We chose the very reputable and consequently more expensive, Cruz del Sur busline because it is a 21 hour ride, and well frankly we wanted to be comfortable and safe. (Dad-approved.)

Easily the longest bus ride I have ever taken, I was not a fan. The first 15 hours or so weren't bad but that last third of the ride seemed to drag on forever. We had the front pair of seats which meant we had ample leg room and our seats reclined nearly 180 degrees, but 21 hours is just a very long time.  I may try to stick to 15 hour max bus options around South America from here on out.

Finally, we arrived in the historical Inca capital - Cusco! We met up with friends from college at Pariwana Hostel, just off San Francisco Plaza and a few blocks from the main square, Plaza de Armas. It felt so awesome to be off the bus, breathing fresh air and ultimately back in a city I love, Cusco. To celebrate, Joe and I ate at Jak's Cafe and after over 24 hours without a proper meal, a grilled chicken and tomato sandwich never tasted so good.

At this point, I would like to solicit any advice for surviving long bus rides as I will have plenty next year and would appreciate any tips!

Friday, November 2, 2012

The City of Angels & Santa Monica

I'll be honest. I have never really liked California. Don' t hate me. Hear me out. This was mostly based off my experiences in the southern part of the state. As may NorCal folks have been quick to tell me, this may have been part of my problem. Granted, the majority of my time spent in California involved Disneyland, with the exceptions of driving through to Vegas one spring break, a few days in Santa Cruz, visiting colleges (Pepperdine & UCLA) with dad and a senior trip to San Diego with girlfriends. Don't get me wrong, I freaking love Disneyland, the 101 is way better than Interstate 5 if you have the time, Malibu is gorgeous and San Diego is definitely fun. The thing is, I just never felt connected with it. It's a wonderful, beautiful place to visit, but I am not really a big city girl and California has so many people. So many, in fact, the population of the entire state of Oregon is equal to the number of people smushed into the city of Los Angeles. Portland is big enough for me. I can only take so much concrete, buildings, smog and traffic. People are important to me and I always felt like everyone in SoCal was in a such a hurry, in-genuine and more materialistic than I am used to in the Pacific NW. I even lumped NorCal into this idea, until my recent time spent in San Francisco and Monterey. These were just my observations from my small, limited sample size...again, prior to this trip.

My incredible friend, Jo, grew up in LA. (This is the same Jo who met us in San Francisco the prior weekend.) She was kind enough to host Cara and I the day before our flight to Lima. I don't think I know that I do not understand how long it takes to get around LA. I just cannot grasp how it can take so long to get from point A to point B when they are only miles apart. It's madness. I can remember looking out the window of a car when I was younger and seeing the interstates weaving on top of one another, 5, 6 and 7 lanes wide in one direction. I am fairly certain there is no interstate in Oregon wider than 3 lanes going one way right now. Los Angeles just overwhelms me.

Anyway, we had less than 24 hours after we landed in LAX from Oakland before we had to get back to the airport to fly to Lima. We crammed a lot in and it was a perfect last day in the United States for 9 months. Being that admission was dirt cheap and none of us had ever seen a space shuttle before, we concluded that heading downtown to the California Science Center to see the space shuttle Endeavor was our best option.

We explored the California Science Center for a little while beforehand since we had some time to kill before our designated slot to view the space shuttle. It is free admission to explore the interactive exhibits of the California Science Center, which I think is awesome. Although, you can tell it is older (late 80s) in comparison to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), I think most of the exhibits are still very relevant, some of the video is just dated.

Before actually getting to the viewing area where the shuttle is, you walk through a large u-shaped exhibit called The California Story, displaying the history of the Endeavor in many forms. There are videos to watch, posters to read, the actual tires to touch, astronaut belongings and photos of the Endeavor's physical transport across Los Angeles. I really enjoyed looking at all of this prior to viewing the Endeavor. Touching the tires may be as close I as ever get to space germs.

Finally, it was our time to line up to enter the Samuel Oschin Pavilon exhibit. This is the temporary home for the shuttle for the next 5 years, until enough funds are raised to build a museum for it, where it will be on display in its vertical position. When we walked into the hanger, I was surprised at how big the space shuttle was, although I'm not sure how large I thought it would be, it was enormous. Again, there was an abundance of information to read posted around the edge of the building, as well as near the shuttle itself. In case you were curious, it flew 25 missions in 10 years, from 1992 to 2012.

The Endeavor's good side, a view of the 3 space shuttle main engines (SSMEs).

Here we have an actual rocket booster. Working with the 3 (SSMEs) in the picture above, they are powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which propel the shuttle from the launch pad into orbit with over 1.5 million pounds of thrust in just over 8 minutes.

Anyone else find this odd? A cut, that's all it takes for an emergency rescue? Seems way too easy!

Over 23,000 ceramic tiles that make up the Thermal Protective System cover the entire surface of the Endeavor. These tiles protect the space shuttle from the extreme heat (3000 degrees Fahrenheit) upon reentry into the earth's atmosphere as well as the extreme hot and cold temperatures in outer space. They vary in size and I read cost up to thousands of dollars a piece. Without these tiles, the shuttle would be destroyed.

If you have a chance now, make it a point to go check out the Endeavor. This was easily the best $2 I have spent in a very long time. I know it won't stay this cheap forever, especially once it has its own home, but even then, it is definitely worth going to see and learn about.

After our space high, we were hungry and upon Jo's recommendation, we headed to Phillipe's, home of the original French Dip. I love French Dips and was even more excited to check out this iconic restaurant with a sweet sign.

When my mom makes French Dip sandwiches, we (shockingly, I know) dip our roast beef sandwiches in the au jus sauce. After ordering from one of the dozens of lines, I watched the lady dunk the entire top piece of bread in the au jus sauce before assembling the sandwich. This is either how it was originally done or their way of minimizing waste of the tasty sauce. Regardless, the sandwich was scrumptious, perfectly complimented by macaroni salad and lemonade.

Next, we headed out to Santa Monica to relax on the beach, which didn't look like it was going to be very hard to accomplish.

It was my first time in Santa Monica and I just loved it. We drove out on the pier and parked. It was a beautiful, quiet afternoon and we walked out to the end of the pier to enjoy the ocean view.

Then, we grabbed a funnel cake, walked through the boardwalk rides and down onto the beach to enjoy the treat while the sun set.

This guy was very interested in our sugary plate. I was not a fan of him, which didn't seem to be a deterrent.

Of course, it wouldn't be a trip to the beach without getting my toes wet.

I get it. I finally get where the redemption is from the chaos and turmoil of the city. This is where you come to escape.

I still don't think I could live in, or even near LA, but I am starting to see how people do.

For dinner, we headed up to the 3rd Street Promenade and ate at The Misfit Bar, a stunning bar with fixtures circa somewhere near the 1920s, complete with an original floor to ceiling apothecary cabinet. Although we each ordered our own plate, we ended up basically sharing the bistro steak salad, baked mac & cheese and the ahi tuna burger without disappointment. Our waitress was fantastic. Oh, and I experienced my first celebrity siting in public: Cuba Gooding Jr. Our table faced the bar and he was right behind us for most of dinner. No big deal. Remember how I just mentioned how fantastic our waitress was? She even brought us dessert, on the house: gelato and sea salt chocolate chip cookies. To. Die. For.

After dinner our last stop was Diddy Riese, the one and only famous ice cream cookie sandwich shop on UCLA's campus. I was so full from dinner and (free!) dessert already but just had to try one of the ice cream sandwiches Jo has raved about since our college days...and now I know why.

Just like that, 20 hours later, our time in LA was up. Obviously, there is loads more to do in LA. Today wasn't about how much we saw or didn't see, but a wonderful mix of food, relaxation and time with a dear friend. Thanks for showing me your good side LA, however, I still couldn't stand seeing the Lakers billboards every day.

What are your favorite spots in Los Angeles? I'll be coming back through on my way home in July and would love to add a few more places to check out next time around.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Day Trip to Monterey Bay

After 3 days exploring San Francisco, Michelle, Cara and I took a day trip to Monterey Bay for our last day together. It was a beautiful drive and the perfect mini road trip with the girls. We sure missed you, Kaycie!

Upon arrival in Monterey, we stopped at the bay and took some pictures before heading to the boardwalk.

The boardwalk had a bit of an old time feeling to it. There are lots of chowder restaurants, all offering sample tastes to entice you to eat there. If we had taken every taste offer, we probably would have consumed a whole cup of chowder. We even saw a couple pelicans hanging out. I can't recall ever seeing a pelican in the wild. They were so much bigger than I thought.

There were a couple of cute candy shops with taffy, truffles and elaborate caramel apples, among other sweets.

We caved and bought a bag of salted caramel taffy to share, although I feel like this was actually an act of discipline as I wanted one of everything, especially a caramel apple.

Here, we have the turning point of the trip for Michelle. We decided against chowder and thought we should go back to the crepe shop we saw when we first walked onto the boardwalk, Crepes of Brittany. We decided to split one, the caramelba. In hindsight, splitting it was the worst idea we had all trip, as I'm sure Michelle would agree. It was easily the best crepe I've ever had - one of those times where you savor every bite, saddened by the fact that each bite brings you closer to the end of the goodness. The man who made it (and I'm guessing concocted the flavor combo) is from France. After you taste one of his crepes you will agree, he is a genius.

We nearly ordered another one and for whatever reason that seems absurd now, we decided not to (second worst decision of the trip) and headed to the aquarium.

Located right on Cannery Row (Steinbeck anyone?), the Monterey Bay Aquarium is absolutely beautiful.

From what I understand, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been recently remodeled and I definitely applaud the design. The exhibits were well organized and very informative. I really enjoyed The Jellies Experience. Did you know jellyfish don't have bones, brains, blood, teeth or fins? The seahorse exhibit was also pretty rad. Oh, and it was my first time touching a Bat Ray. See him on the bottom left corner of the collage? I'd describe the skin on his back as velvet-y with a hint of slime.

As beautiful as it was, admission was expensive at $35, which I suppose is the going rate for adult admission to aquariums these days. I've been to Sea World and to the Oregon Coast Aquarium numerous times, including when Keiko (Free Willy) was there. The exhibits at aquariums tend to be fairly similar and so I feel like I probably won't return to one any time soon, unless it's free. If you have the money and have not been to an aquarium ever or for a while, the Monterey Bay one is a wonderful one to go to, otherwise, you aren't missing too much if you know what they are about.

Against Michelle's will, we drove past Crepes of Brittany without stopping. I'm guessing if she was driving, we would have stopped. Alas, we headed back toward San Francisco, stopping at In-N-Out Burger for early dinner since Michelle was an In-N-Out virgin. The three of us split a chocolate shake, animal style fries and each ate our own burger.

Photo credit: Michelle Waters

You can't do California without a little greasy food from the iconic burger joint, right?

Have you been to Monterey? What did I miss? What do you think of the aquarium? What about In-N-Out, are you a purist, or do you order off the "secret" menu?

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