A Reunion in Haiti – vol. 2

Standard

During the week, it was Alexa’s birthday.  She runs the childrens’ home and we all ran to a beautiful farm to celebrate the day.  The farm was organic and used ingenious methods to grow crops and other plants cheaply and efficiently.  It was so much cooler on the top of the mountain where the grasses grew green and winds whispered among the shouldering peaks.  The city of Port-au-Prince below was hot and dusty, a solid layer of beige hovering over it.  Flowers of varying colors scattered the farm as we toured the land.

It was a beautiful day that ended with a humble rooftop party filled with tasty homemade treats and dinner and lots of great people.  White lines of light swung on string around us in the wind as the sun set.  Through laughs and smiles we all enjoyed another successful day in Haiti.

We spent Thursday back at the childrens’ home doing some crafts with the kids and finishing the second coat of paint.  The room looked refreshed and we all spent time with the kids to round out the afternoon.  The following day was spent overseeing a classroom with some young kids taught by one of the people who had worked in the childrens’ home.  It was nice to see that lesson, but it was also an insight into the difficulties some of these kids, even the lucky ones who can go to school, must endure.

It was now Saturday.  The last full day in Haiti and also the last full day of my trip.  I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the people that I was just a number of hours away from seeing.  This day was spent on a trip to the beach with the entire group of kids.  It’s infrequent for the kids to get out of the house for safety reasons and so days like this are precious.  They ran straight for the water and had smiles as big as watermelons striped across their faces.

Jumping into the water myself, I found 2, 3, and sometimes even 5 kids all hanging on my arms and shoulders as I waded around in circles through the clear water.  For several hours, we just played in the water and stopped for lunch and played some more.  It was a beautiful sunny day and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day to spend with those incredible kids and for my last day of a miraculous trip.

Emotions swirled around me.  Incredible memories filled my mind as I asked my dearest Sarah some more questions and spent as much time at the beach as possible.  It was a difficult goodbye but of course an inevitable one.  Sarah and the rest of the kids waved as their bus road off into the dust.  We all returned to our rooms and packed our bags, happy, exhausted, ready for home.

After a week spent with beautiful people in a uniquely beautiful place, we shipped ourselves to the airport.  Minutes were splashing past me and I was doing my best just to enjoy the final hours.  Finally, we boarded and rose up into the clouds.  I was on my way home.

A Final Ride in Patagonia 

Standard

We woke up in our last night of Torres del Paine national park feeling refreshed and a bit excited to be back in puerto natales that night. But there was plenty left to do before that!  We got up and had breakfast quickly before Ann and I walked down to the kayaking area. We walked in on the wrong house first but then found the right one with our doctor friends surprisingly sitting inside!

Apparently, for the second straight day the ice trekking excursion wasn’t possible because of icebergs built up near the area of embarking. So they decided to do he kayaking too!  We waited for a few others before getting ready.  Kayaking was amazing, we got within 50 meters of the enormous glacier that dominated our view.  

We skated across the icy waters with double kayaks and the best company. We were much more free to drift around during this kayaking trip than the last one in Argentina. It was a unique trip from the first and worthwhile to pay for it again for that exact reason. 

We paced back to the camp area, stuffed down some tuna sandwiches laced with balsamic (actually quite tasty), and swung our packs on our backs to make the final hike. It was a perfect day. I swung up and down our line of the group talking with different friends from the past few days.  I ended up catching up with the doctors who sped ahead and lasted the rest of the hike with them. We navigated some pretty wet conditions but were able to stay dry as we hopped around the trail. 

5 hours later, we made it. After 70+ miles over 8 days, we had finally reached the end of the line. It was an incredible experience with amazing people. We were all so relieved after being wet and cold and hungry for many long hours during the hikes. But that’s the best part, being rewarded at the end. In this case, I shared a cold beer with my weeklong adoptive parents as well as the world traveling group we befriended. I couldn’t have imagined the hike ending any better. But it did get better. 

After saying a bittersweet goodbye to those world travelers, we sat in line for the boat back to the bus stop that would take us back to town. It was here that, after 2 months of being in or near Argentina, I finally had my first sip of mate, a bitter herbal tea. For those unaware, it is a signature experience to drink mate and a significant piece of the social fabric. To be included in a round of mate is honorable and a sign of inclusion in a group. Or so I’ve been told. I received this gourd of mate from our porter who’d been carrying our tents and food all week. The smile I wore when he held it out for me to drink must’ve made the joker look sad.

And it didn’t go away, I must’ve been smiling the entire 2-3 hour ride home. When we got back to puerto natales, our group of the couple from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and the doctors all decided to meet for a late dinner. We met at a delicious seafood restaurant where we savored the seafood meals and recollected the memorable moments from our hikes. With lots of smiles and laughs, we said goodbye with hopes that we’d see each other again another day. And with those same thoughts I slept like a newborn fed with great memories. 

A New World: Argentina

Standard

Colombia was a wonderous place but I was now on my way to Argentina.  Flying from Cartagena through Bogota to Buenos Aires, I felt a bit uneasy.  I had become so comfortable in Colombia and with Vanessa that even though it would only be 1 night on my own I immediately became fearful.  I wasn’t sure that I’d have the courage to meet people, being that I’m a shy person.  A lot of self-doubt crept in during the first few days.  I went to my hostel and walked through an eerily quiet city.  Because it was a Sunday, nearly all stores were closed and the streets were lonely.  Being from the greater NYC area, a city that really never sleeps this was a strange experience.  I walked down several blocks and didn’t cross a single person’s path.  While the city ended up being a bit more interesting than this first impression, it didn’t seem very unique.  The one unique aspect that did arise was that it seemed far more European than any other city I’d been to in South America.  It was an interesting mixture of South American city flavor and European city charms.

The next day my mom arrived and we saw each other for the first time in over 2 months!  It was a wonderful reunion and I was definitely happy to see a familiar face with my lonely first day in the country.  We spent the next few days exploring some of the typical sights of this huge city.  We saw an interesting cemetery that was filled with rows and rows of incredibly ornamented tombs that looked nearly like a miniature walled city.  With no chance at being able to see every tomb, we skipped through the blocks to observe at some of the highlights.

After spending the rest of the time exploring parks and scenic areas of Buenos Aires, we woke up our last morning before we’d head to Bariloche and the surrounding lakes district further south.  But, we had a bit of a hiccup.  My mom woke up sick and we scrambled to get her feeling better before the afternoon bus.  Being the tough mom that she is, we made the bus with only a confused taxi driver slowing us down.  Oh, and the bus being delayed by about 4 hours too.  We sat in the terminal for quite a long time but thankfully the bus finally rolled in and we boarded.

It was a 22 hour bus running from about 7pm that night until 5pm the next day.  While that sounds incredibly uncomfortable, I actually slept like a baby overnight.  From midnight til 8am, I never woke and barely stirred lying on a synthetic cloud.  My mom didn’t sleep quite as well but managed through it.  I give her plenty props for getting through that ride not feeling well, I know it wasn’t easy!  But we had finally made it.  And it was gorgeous.  Slowly as we left the pampas and approached the beginning of the Andean mountain range, hills rose while lakes fell below them with pine green and hues of blue filling the views.   We weaved alongside the lakesides sweeping up and down the sides of those rising hills until we finally emerged into a huge open lake area with wide views of rock topped mountains, the entrance to Nahuel Huapi national park.

As we pulled into the station and stepped outside, the crisp air and light breeze complemented the strong sun amazingly.  I had been waiting for this weather for a while. Being from a temperate climate, I look forward to each season (yes even snow!) and had been anxious to feel some cooler weather that I missed on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and in Buenos Aires where the temperature was easily 85 degrees and higher.  Taking a taxi, we labored up the rocky steps to a place I would end up calling home for 6 nights over 3 occasions.  It was a great home that brought us friends and a comfortable shelter.  Being that we were only in each city for 1-2 nights before bussing to the next stop on the itinerary, we made the most of all the first days in each place.  In this one, San Carlos de Bariloche, we explored the city walking up and down the main street and gazing through the windows of succulent chocolate shops, quirky gift stores, and sugary ice cream parlors.  We enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal at the hostel and readied ourselves for the hike the next day.  We would take a bus crammed with tourists and locals alike to go to Llao Llao hotel where the trail started to Hidden Lake.  It was another beautiful day.  We shuffled along the lightly trodden trail, a refreshing experience compared to the hiking in NJ where it can frequently be difficult to pass gas without a crowd turning a corner the same moment.  Here we could explore the place mostly uninterrupted and gaze at the crystal clear blue lakes served up along the forested mountains.

I am not afraid to admit it, along the course of the following 10 days, my mom outpaced me in our hikes.  She is in greater shape than I and was easily pushing through the trail as I nursed joints and muscles weary from anything other than solitary states.  But this didn’t prevent us from enjoying all that these places had to offer!  We toured through Villa la Angostura, San Martin de los Andes, and El Bolson, each place offering something unique and different.  Though all of them were incredibly beautiful by any standards.  

Bariloche was like the parent to all of them, larger and more citylike while still holding great views. Angostura was the richer town, much more local and filled with expensive shops and restaurants. Bolsón was a hippy town with lots of flavor and interesting people. Its extravagant crafts market of only handmade products and food was a great place to meander through on a sunny day, stuffing crispy fries down my throat. But San Martín was my favorite. Nestled between two mountains at the end of a windy lake, it was also one of the scenes depicted in Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. A wonderful read or movie to watch for anyone interested in South American history, vivid travel writing, and profound mind being curated by his changing environments. 

We also lived quite modestly, cooking meals that honestly were just as good if not better than some of the meals in those expensive restaurants.  I missed vegetables and fruits more than I realized until we made our own meals.  It’s something I took with me after my mom left as well, cooking for myself and I was much better off both health wise and money wise.

I cherished the conversations me and my mom had throughout this trip.  It has been over 4 years since we both lived in the same place and 8 since we lived together for more than a few weeks at a time or a summer between semesters.  During that time, a lot has happened and many stories have been told, but most of the time they have been told over a semi weekly dinner with little opportunity to get into details.  This was the perfect chance and we wasted no time in sharing those detailed stories.  On one occasion, we almost lost track of time on a long hike in El Bolson as we shared an ice cream on a dusty summer day.  I’m very thankful to have had these conversations, beyond all the wonderful views and people we met.  It was also a nice luxury to have another person traveling with me who knew Spanish.  Buying bus tickets is much much easier!

As we made our way through each of the cities finally returning back to Bariloche for her final night, it began to dawn on me that I’d be partnerless for the remainder of the trip.  A remainder that would last for over 2 months.  Pushing those fears to the side, we spent the last morning rising early for a view of sunrise down on the waterfront.  It was a nice moment just reflecting on the trip and wishing that it wouldn’t end.  But all good things must come to an end and that was the fate of this trip as well.  I’ll leave this post with a thank you to my mom for accompanying me on 2 fun weeks through Argentina!  It wouldn’t have been the same without you. Up next, the first chapter on solo traveling through the wilderness of Patagonia…

Peru

Standard

It’s been an incredibly fast 2 weeks here in Peru. Starting things off, I spent a few days to acclimatize to the elevation in Cusco (roughly 11,700 feet). Me and a good buddy explored many of the great things that this fascinating city has to offer. 
It is the oldest continually inhabited city in the americas and certainly has its charms. From the cobblestone streets to the beautiful churches to the insistent street vendors, there’s something beautiful about this place. Just don’t climb any stairs too quickly or you’ll find yourself gasping for air.
But of course the biggest reason for this city being so popular today is because of the tourist attractions including Machu Picchu. We decided to take the more difficult route of the Inca Trail for 4 days to see this world wonder, and I’d strongly suggest this route as opposed to the cheaper but less rewarding train option. Being able to learn about Incan methods and ways of life as we best know them was an amazing experience as much as climbing massive Andean mountain passes and trekking through heavy rain in the cloud forest. 
The best part about the hiking was the challenge. There is no feeling quite like pushing yourself and both figuratively as well as literally climbing the mountain. If you’ve ever seen the move the shawshank redemption (and if you haven’t I’d strongly recommend it), the moment when Tim Robbins reaches his arms up in exclamation in the rain, summiting a mountain is much like that, with perhaps a less favorable camera angle and lighting. We can’t all be Hollywood famous actors/actresses. 
Of course, when you do these sorts of things, bonding with the people you go through these experiences with is quite inevitable. But that is my favorite part! Being able to share experiences, even with people you’ve never known who live half a world away (quite literally!) is something you can’t really buy and it’s why I love traveling. Whether it’s a simple experience like sharing some beers or climbing a mountain, nothing can replace the feeling of sharing it with others. 
The next stop in Peru included only more of this as I took a bus to Arequipa. The backdrop of this amazing city is a set of 3 volcanos surrounding the city to the north. I took a walking tour to get to know this fascinating city a bit better and then booked a 3 day tour through the colca canyon. This canyon is apparently the 2nd deepest in the world and is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon! I would need to be convinced that the view was as gorgeous as the Grand Canyon was, but the view was awe inspiring nonetheless. 
In descending the canyon, we learned that local people would hike up to the top for over 3000 feet of climbing and then trek the many miles to Cuzco through mountains and passes. And this was all for the sake of trading and selling goods. This was some time ago in history but showed me just how hard people had to work in a day and age that is not too far from our own today. 
When we finally reached the bottom several hours later, it was a great feeling. Although climbing down doesn’t have the same metaphorical meaning as climbing up, it is still challenging and rewarding. Particularly when there is a beautiful oasis waiting for you. I must say, swinging in a hammock as the sun sets over canyon walls bending back and forth with a pool ebbing back and forth just beside you is a wonderful sight to see. I’m quite thankful for this because the next day was an even greater challenge to climb over 3,500 feet with a 20+ pound backpack to carry.
We woke up at 5:00am to be able to make this hike up with no sun beating down on us. Starting out I was feeling great and taking each step vigorously. But towards the last third of the hike, my legs became tired and I was moving very slowly. Thankfully, I bumped into a new friend who was having a tough time as well and our conversation carried us the last stretch up to the top of the canyon where our groups were waiting for us. It was once again a great feeling to make it to the top and we took some nice pictures to celebrate. The rest of the trip would be much more relaxed as we took a bus from breakfast to some lookout points of the canyon and then to a hot spring where we recovered from the heavy morning hike. After that, it was one last viewpoint at over 15,000 feet above sea level looking at volcanos in every direction before our final descent back to the city of Arequipa. 

It was an amazing time in Peru having seen the beautiful cities of Cusco and Arequipa as well as countless Incan ruins and other picturesque views. There were challenging days and easier days all making for a well rounded experience of seeing a small sliver of what Peru has to offer. I’m glad that I was able to see these things but wish I could have seen even more. I’ve made a list of tips for traveling to Peru which can be found here. It’s a beautiful country and one that I’d urge any of you to choose to visit someday!