Sexy Woman Meets Guinea Pig: Cusco, Peru

En route to Machu Picchu we spent two nights in the Incan capital of Cusco, Peru.  After checking in at the Novotel Cusco Hotel http://www.novotel.com/es/hotel-3254-novotel-cusco/index.shtml, we sipped a little coca tea in the lobby and hit the cobblestone running.  102_0559We had an advantage—we had already acclimated to the elevation, having been in Bolivia for several days.  Many arriving to Cusco seek hotels with piped-in oxygen or they simply underestimate the effect of 11,000 feet about sea level on their bodies and then go down in flames.

Not us, we were off to explore this historical gem of the Andes.  We wandered in and out of museums, ruins and churches, taking in some awe-inspiring Incan (Quechua) artifacts and even more impressive architecture—the famous Incan walls. 102_0545 These ancient stone walls have withstood earthquakes for centuries.  When the Spanish arrived here they laughed at these walls, either tearing them down or building their own walls on top of them.  But the joke was on them when the earthquakes and tremors came and the only things left standing were these famous, mortar-free walls.  Needless to say, the Spanish stopped tearing them down.102_0707

Speaking of walls—even more impressive walls can be seen on the edge of town.  Down some more coca tea (the best deterrent of altitude sickness) before heading up the grueling climb to the site of Sacsayhuaman, more or less pronounced “sexy woman”.  This unbelievable place high on a hill overlooking Cusco features more un-mortared walls, but with huge boulders weighing between 100 and 200 tons each stacked upon each other.  102_0709

The questions evoked from this place are endless.  How was it even possible hundreds of years ago to move these boulders not just up this hill, but on top of each other?  I imagine there are alien theories galore, but after seeing all the things the Incas made that are still standing, it seems anything was possible for them.  I couldn’t resist a photo op in front of “Sexy Woman”, just for the puns alone.102_0711

Back down in the city center, my husband Russell and I went out to El Tupay Restaurant in the Hotel Monasterio http://www.belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco/ for a romantic candlelit dinner under the cloisters.  Sipping our pisco sours, we perused the menu and decided to try something we definitely could not get at home:  guinea pig, or cuy in Spanish.  While some might be horrified, this delicacy of the Andes has been enjoyed for centuries and it shares its taste with roast pork.  The ambiance of the restaurant, the courtyard, and the hotel itself combined with the Andean fare of guinea pig, quinoa, and alpaca steak made for an unforgettable dining experience. 102_0572

On our final day in Cusco we were lucky enough to be there for a small festival and a parade mixing military, Inca/Quechua, and Catholic elements.  102_0723

After the festivities, we took one last stroll through the cathedral, appreciating the unique altar.  Whereas most Catholic altars are guarded over by the standard Christ crucified, this altar was backed with a prominent statue of Virgin Mary that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Incan goddess of Earth, Pachamama.  Hmmm…. I guess that’s one way to convert the Quechua people to Christianity.  In a way this statue is the symbol of Cusco, my favorite South American city:  a perfect blend of Spanish and Incan.

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Madrid: Rob Me Twice, Shame on Me

Traveling with my dad is never boring, or normal.  From the time he had our whole family wear matching Canada t-shirts to Six Flags, (no, we’re not even Canadian) to the time he took us to Tijuana and barely escaped an intense market bartering exchange, there’s always a story.

So I shouldn’t have expected anything less when he, my mom, and my husband Russell flew into Madrid to visit me while I was in Salamanca working on my Masters.  I picked them up early from the airport and later that morning while walking from our hotel, the Hotel Opera http://www.hotelopera.com to the Plaza Mayor, we took a short cut down a side street.  An important note here—my dad is huge and has intimidated people with his size throughout his life, so most people think he would not be the target of a crime.  However, in Spain the fact that he was so much bigger than everyone else, combined with his loud voice, P1040528his ever-present video camera, and his white tennis shoes, put a huge bulls eye on his back.  And front.

As we went up the street, out of nowhere appeared two young Gypsy women with a city map.  They zeroed in on my dad with the open map, pushing into him, acting like they were asking him directions.  Finally my mom pushed one of them and I called out the magic word “policia” and they vanished.  In all the commotion one of them was going through my dad’s pockets, relieving him of 40 Euros.

This is not the way to begin a two week trip to Spain.  Once my dad realized he was robbed he was irritated the rest of the day and wouldn’t stop talking about it, so one would think that he would be hyper-vigilant.  One would think.  The very next day we had planned to take one of those double-decker tourist busses to sightsee.  Every Spanish guide book that exists warns of the pickpockets in the Puerta del Sol area of Madrid.  As we walked toward the busses, I kept telling my dad to pay attention and be watchful.  “I am paying attention all the time”, he grumbled as he walked down the crowed sidewalk, videotaping while he walked.  The largest man in Madrid, walking through the Puerta del Sol with a video camera covering one eye, narrating in English, and wearing size 15 white tennies.  Yeah, no red flags there for pickpockets.

As he got on the red tourist bus, he continued to film, capturing the special moment of bus loading for future generations, so each moment of his next robbery was captured on the camera.  An elderly gentleman came up behind him and as my dad was stepping onto the bus, this man went into my dad’s front pocket, grabbing what he thought was a wallet but was only a sunglasses case.  My dad realized this was happening and the thief realized it was not a wallet, dropped it, and took off.  Pure chaos on film.

Following that incident we stayed on the bus tour about two hours and during that time I watched my dad get chewed out by my mom and then—she relieved him of all of his money and proclaimed that he would be given a small daily allowance that he had to keep in a tiny belt pouch that he decided to lock with a luggage padlock.

In Spain, the popular image of the mighty bull, his testicles hanging for all to see, was a complete contrast to the image of my dad with his empty pockets and tiny, padlocked belt purse.  A Castilian castration?  Poor dad…………………….

Shocking Sights in Antigua, Guatemala

As part of The Ohio State University’s SSAST program, I spent three weeks in Antigua, Guatemala, possibly the most beautiful colonial city in Central America.

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Prior to my departure I made the mistake of clicking on a website documenting reported crimes against foreigners in Antigua and besides completely freaking out my husband Russell, it put me on heightened alert while there.  Luckily I never felt any fear of crime while there, leading me to the conclusion that a little vigilance is all you need to stay safe in Antigua.

I settled into my homestay with Ana, Luis, and their family 100_0520

above their pastry shop—La Casa de Los Pasteles.  Whereas the view of the front left a lot to be desired,100_0389

the view from the catwalk outside my bedroom door made up for it.  100_0319

This family, like most in Antigua, made extra money by renting out bedrooms to foreign students so while I was there the whole family was staying in one bedroom while the other rooms were rented out to two American students, a Canadian volunteer worker, and a Korean student.  Meal times were very international.

On the first morning, imagine my shock (pun intended) when I opened the shower curtain to find this showerhead.  100_0522That’s ONE way to heat the water, I suppose, but the 6th grade science student in me knew that water and electric current were not a good combination.  That paired with the fact that my 5’10” frame made me the tallest person in the house made me more than a bit nervous about turning on the water.  During the majority of my stay I exercised caution by crouching down in the shower until the final week when in a moment of indiscretion, my hand went a bit high when rinsing my hair and I hit the showerhead.  The shock that went down to my elbow was an excellent lesson on the conductivity of water.

During my time in Antigua, we made weekend excursions to the Mayan ruins of Tikal and to Lake Atitlán.  On weekdays I would spend my mornings in my grad class and my afternoons working on my final project or going on local excursions.  On one of our free afternoons some classmates and I signed up for a class at the Antigua Cooking School.  Our instructor Melitza was awesome!  100_0344

She demonstrated how to make subaník, a Mayan stew, and escabeche, a vegetable dish, while we made tortillas, tamales, and a plantain cake filled with Guatemalan chocolate at our work stations.  The feast of all of our creations that ended the class was simply amazing.

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Another afternoon we ventured to the neighboring village of San Andrés Itzapa to see the famous shrine of Maximón, also known as San Simón.  This controversial character of legend, not condoned by the Catholic Church, has become a locally-canonized figure that Mayans pray to for a variety of intentions.  The shrine is a room filled with tables of burning, colorful candles, walls filled with plaques thanking Maximón for answering prayers, and most importantly—a statue of Maximón on an altar of sorts with an offering area filled with his favorite things: booze, cigarettes and cigars, cash, and even Playboys.

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I wondered if these things magically vanished every night……….another miracle of Maximón!  Or perhaps with some help from the patrons of the adjoining cantina.

Several shops near the shrine sold goods like small bottles of alcohol that looked like Scope, incense, and candles of many different colors—the colors depending on the intention of the prayers.  There were even black candles for black magic and intentions toward one’s enemies.  Of course I had to get one of these along with the other ten candles I bought and lit in the shrine.  Gracias, Maximón.  My plaque is on its way.

On our last night in Antigua, we enjoyed a fantastic farewell dinner at the restaurant of the beautiful Casa Santo Domingo hotel www.casasantodomingo.com .  I had the chef’s incredible tasting menu that included a tray of desserts delivered by the chef. 100_0578This is the place to stay and dine  if you visit Antigua.

Later that night  I was awakened by an earthquake tremor around 2 a.m.  At first I thought one of the many “chicken busses”100_0361

that normally passed by had hit our house, but found out from Luis in the morning that it was just one of the regular tremors that shakes the place up.  I guess that is to be expected in a city surrounded by three volcanoes.  As they say, “Location, location, location”.    Antigua is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Mayan culture, colonial architecture, or super-cheap language schools.  And then there’s the views……….

The OTHER Side of Costa Rica

Most visitors to Costa Rica flock to the Pacific beaches, maybe taking a side trip to the volcanoes and rainforests of the center of the country, but we headed east after landing in San José.  Destination?  The small town of Guácimo in the province of Limón.  We came to visit our friend Ashanti, an English teacher who had brought students to my school as part of a three week student exchange.  Having never been to Costa Rica before, we were not sure what to expect as all of the tourism ads focus on the center and Pacific side.  We were greeted by warmth that never stopped until we returned to San José.  And I am not only referring to the never ending heat and humidity, but also the warmth of the people who surrounded us the week we were there.

Our arrival into Guácimo was not as expected.  We missed the bus in San José and ended up just paying the airport taxi driver to take us all the way.  The problem was that Ashanti’s dad was picking us up at the bus station in Guácimo and taking us to Ashanti’s school in the next town.  We were very worried that when we didn’t arrive on the bus, he might leave and there we would be with no cell phone and no way to contact Ashanti.  Luckily her dad, Patricio, had our photo and when we finally arrived he flagged us down.  We did not know this guy from Adam, but we got into his truck and drove off into the Costa Rican countryside.  A few words about Patricio:  101_0273an ex-pat from California, Patricio got with Ashanti’s mom Patricia when Ashanti and her brother Jason were little– they later split up.  He is known throughout the area as “Choricero” which must equate to Jack-of-all-trades.  Most importantly, he is the creator of the Costa Rican motto “Pura Vida”.

We eventually made it to Ashanti’s school where a surprise school assembly was called to welcome my husband Russell and me.  We reconnected with the exchange students that had been at our school and then were off to our home base for the week: Patricia’s house.  A beautiful yellow home meticulously kept on a side street of Guácimo with a huge water apple tree in the yard.  The hospitality from Patricia, Ashanti, and Jason who lived together here was exceptional.  We were spoiled daily by delicious food including Patricia’s famous rice and beans and other Afro-Caribbean dishes popular in the Limón region.  The ambiance at meals with the wonderful smells combined with reggae music put us in a tropical mood, especially when we were joined in the dining room by my favorite work of art—a black version of the Last Supper that looks like Bob Marley’s Last Supper. (No Jesus, No Cry?)

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We were also spoiled by Patricio each morning when he would stop by and drop off different fruits for us to try.  Most of them I had never seen before and did not know the names in English or Spanish.

On the second day of our trip we were the special guests at a picnic by a local river.  Those present were the exchange students and their family and friends.  We spent a great day swimming in the river and eating at an over-the-top potluck lunch.  While I was visiting with everyone that afternoon in Spanish, Russell spent most of his time with the dads of the group and between his Spanish vocabulary of 15 words and hand gestures formed a new international bromance.101_0149

As we packed up from swimming Ashanti mentioned to me that downstream there were alligators and snakes, but that “they stayed away from us because of all the noise”.  This is the type of information I am better off not knowing.  Upon leaving the river, we all climbed into the back of a pickup and headed toward a rural area.101_0174  Driving around Central America in the bed of a truck with some people I just met, some with machetes, seemed like an “interesting” way to spend time!  We made a variety of stops (a show and tell of the Americans, perhaps) at a family farm, a pineapple field, inside a stranger’s barn during a pop-up rainstorm, a flower farm, and a banana plantation.  A real whirlwind tour of Costa Rica.  Everyone was so welcoming to us and I was both wide eyed and exhausted when we got home.  While I loved the whole day, part of it really haunted me and still does to this day:  the banana plantation. 101_0175 It was truly horrific watching the work that these people do to earn the meager wages they get.  Many of the employees were former students of Ashanti’s.  Former because they had to drop out of school to go to work to help contribute financially to their families.  These boys would work 10+ hours a day picking banana bunches (80 lbs. plus), heaving them up on hooks, and then pulling the cables that surround the enormous plantation to send the bunches down the line.   Hours and hours of this awful work and then as a kicker, the airplanes spraying pesticide come right over while they are working.  All so we can have bananas for 40 cents a pound.   Moving on…………grrrrr.

The heat was sure something else while we were there, especially for Russell who is very heat intolerant.  Ashanti tried to get him some relief by bringing us to church with her.  We are Catholic and Ashanti is a Mormon and guess what?  The Mormon church is the only air-conditioned building in Guácimo!  So off we went.  Once again Russell was sent off without me during the final hour of the service where the men and women separate.  He mumbled something about “owing him” after he emerged from a tiny room with a group of strangers he had spent 60 minutes not understanding.  Ah, building bridges!  After church we hopped on the railroad tracks and walked to Africa.  101_0143That’s right, Africa.  This village down the tracks from Guácimo is where several of Ashanti’s relatives lived so we stopped down for a visit.

After more days of visiting with family and friends of Ashanti, going on a rain forest canopy tour, celebrating Patricia’s birthday,101_0190 and hanging out at Ashanti’s brother Jason’s barber shop, Makala Style, it was time to head back to San José.  We said good bye to our loving Costa Rican family and the closer we got to the capital, the cooler it got and the happier Russell got, enjoying the drying out of his clothes that had been sweat-soaked for the past week.  We pulled up to our hotel in Alajuela near the airport and I smiled as I passed the Pura Vida Hotel sign www.puravidahotel.com, thinking of Patricio.  We spent the afternoon lounging on the property overlooking a volcano, enjoying the moderate temps and just relaxing before the next morning’s flight.  This hotel is truly a haven with quaint cabanas set around tranquil gardens.  The small restaurant was also a highlight as we sat at a candlelit table toasting the end of our Costa Rican adventure while enjoying a three course gourmet dinner. 101_0304

Patricio sure knew what he was talking about—Pura Vida, indeed.  Life in Costa Rica IS good!