Packing for The Hemispheres — from Peru to the Midwest to India

As you all might have gathered from my last post, I’m about to head out of Peru and toward the Far East for a period of time. A college friend shall marry — HURRAH! — and both Kelli and I will be jetting to India to witness the Hindu nuptials. As an added bonus, we’re getting to India right on Kelli’s birthday, which will be awesome but also probably super jet-laggy for her. Don’t worry, Kelli, we’re going to celebrate with strange alcohols and/or curries as soon as possible. Even if you’re asleep as I spoon feed birthday things into your mouth.

The fact that I live in Peru provided some travel planning friction. I researched flights in all manner of ways: from Columbia to India, from Panama to India, even from various points in the Midwest. All were expensive enough to make me think maybe I should defer my student loans again, or get another job, or just toss the whole trip altogether.

But then there was Chicago. Our flights rang in at about $800 round trip, Chicago to New Delhi. HIGH FIVE!

There still remained the small task of moving my physical being from PERU to CHICAGO in order to catch that flight, of course, but I took care of that with some accumulated airline points, so that leg of the trip ended up being only a couple hundred bucks extra.

So, all told? Less than $1,100 to get from the mountains of Peru to Chicago, where I’ll spend five lovely days with friends, then on to India for five weeks, and back again to Cusco.

Not. Bad.

The travel logistics weren’t the biggest part of the travel puzzle. In fact, the biggest piece of this international pie, so to speak, is something that I only realized recently.

It’s summer in Cusco right now. While that doesn’t mean much (like, hello, I wear alpaca booties everyday and drape heavy blankets over my lap while I work), it DOES mean that I can mostly survive without a proper winter jacket.

But, wait. It’s January right now. And in a few days, I”ll be arriving to *gulp* the Midwest. In WINTER. TO CHICAGO, NO LESS. WHERE THE LAKES FREEZE AND HIGHWAYS EXPLODE FROM ICE AND TEMPERATURES ARE NEGATIVE 50!

Some of that might be exaggerated, but the point remains: IT’S GONNA BE COLD.

And…yeah, that’s right…I don’t have a winter jacket.

Oversight City! OOPS! I left my jacket in Ohio, thinking I would be able to get by without it in Peru (which I am), forgetting entirely about my brief visit to Chicago in HIGH WINTER.

Even if I had thought ahead, which I clearly didn’t, I’m not sure I would have brought it anyway. Winter jackets are BULKY and take up PRECIOUS space in a backpack. When you live on such limited space, you gotta pare things down to the UTMOST necessities. I’m afraid I would have left the jacket behind anyway.

At any rate, I will be moving myself from the equivalent of early spring weather in Cusco to DASTARDLY COLD temps in Chicago to moderate-to-HOT climes in India.

HOW DOES A GIRL PACK FOR THIS CRAP?!

Sigh.

I’ll tell you how.

My experience in traveling Ryan Air through Europe taught me an important lesson about overweight luggage fees, and layering clothing to avoid this. When your overstuffed backpack rings in mere kilo or two overweight, you begin putting on your clothes. This can sometimes lead to a very sweaty, uncomfortable experience depending on what part of Europe you’re traveling.

But for me, right now? This will be the only way to survive.

Leg 1: Cusco to Lima = Normal, but carry-on will be bursting with various sweaters and leggings, waiting for their moment to shine.

Leg 2: Lima to Miami = Normal, maybe even a little warm once we get to Florida. Carry-on still straining. Extra leggings waiting to be put on, as well as the leg warmers, and the two pairs of gloves, and two extra sweaters.

Leg 3: Miami to Chicago = bundled up like a stiff yeti with dreadlocks! Carry-on luggage suddenly, magically, light as a feather.

Luckily, the area of India where I’ll be spending most of my time won’t be blazing hot, so I will have a use for all the Peruvian sweaters I’m carrying around like a street vendor.

On my way back through Chicago in March, I’ll have to do the quintuple-layer dance once more, but hey. If it means I don’t have to clog up my backpack with a full-time winter jacket, I’ll sacrifice joint movement for a lighter load.

Just be aware that if you see me somewhere in Chicago in the next few months and wave at me, dont expect me to wave back. I probably won’t be able to lift my arm higher than my shoulder. It’s just the dense layers of alpaca clothes prohibiting my movements — I’m not blowing you off, I swear. 

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5 Things I Didn’t Know About High-Altitude Living

A little over two months into Cusco, I can say with certainty that life at 11,200 feet comes with its own set of peculiarities. This isn’t the highest up we’ve ever been – Jorge and I had the pleasure of visiting Potosi, Bolivia once, the highest inhabited city in the world at 13,400 feet. But that was just for a couple days, and we were happy to get out of there and to lower climes. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at 11,000 feet:

1.) Cooking is a different experience. Have you guys ever noticed the separate cooking instructions for high-altitude locations on every box of pasta in history? I used to, and never thought much of it. I remember inquiring about this – why would the instructions differ at a higher elevation? – and was provided with the accurate scientific response that I have long since forgotten. (Doesn’t it all just boil down to ATOMS?) I conveniently forgot about this as Jorge and I settled into Cusco. The first several occasions we cooked pasta or rice, we spent an inordinate amount of time checking and re-checking the food. Why was it still so HARD? Hasn’t it been 7-9 minutes? Really it’s been almost 15 minutes…How can it not be ready yet? Oh yeah. HIGH-ALTITUDE.

See that arrow? It means something. 

2.) Hangovers reach a new level of raunchy. There must be some scientific explanation for this – dehydration occurs faster where there’s less oxygen because red blood cells need 1.5% of something and up here there’s only 0.1% and then oh yeah, MAGIC. Whatever the reason, I’m ashamed to admit that I once had a hangover once until 4PM after 3 (THREE) glasses of wine throughout the course of a very laid back—and LENGTHY–evening with friends. And it’s not because I’m almost thirty (even if it was strictly due to my age, it would still be an EMBARASSMENT). Be careful folks. Alcohol up here takes a different toll on the body. And you know why? It’s because of HIGH ALTITUDE.

3.) Moving around is more difficult. If your body is one of those randomly selected organisms that will be sensitive to high-altitude issues, surprise! Most things will suck. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with physical fitness, it’s just pure luck (or unluckiness). Visiting Potosi was by far the WORST – I got out of breath just brushing my teeth. In Cusco it’s not nearly as bad, especially since we’ve had ample time to acclimate, but a few aspects still stick out. If you’ll all remember, I used to live in Valparaiso which had comically steep streets that seemed, oftentimes, like a joke. Who would actually build a city so vertical, a city where most neighborhoods relied on ascensores just to get their groceries home? Well, Cusco has its fair share of inclines and hills, but it’s got nothing on Valpo. Which makes me feel particularly bad when I find myself out of breath here in Cusco after traversing a very minimal incline. And yes, that incline would be the equivalent of walking downhill in Valpo, but here? Steals your breath a little. Makes you feel pretty ridiculous until you remember OH YEAH…HIGH ALTITUDE.

4.) Thunderstorms aren’t just thunderstorms anymore. They are a full-body experience that gets you right into the middle of the storm cell, WITH NO FORGIVENESS. Plus, being this high up, you get the added benefit of strange snow-hail storms. In the middle of summer. Because it’s HIGH ALTITUDE!

5.) It’s pretty much always cold. I’ll go more into my geographic/weather pattern duncery in another post, but this high up, the extremes are more extreme. If the sun does come out in the middle of the day (which doesn’t always happen, not even in ‘summer’), it will be very hot, and you WILL get burnt. But then at night, you will need five blankets and a pair of alpaca booties and MAYBE THEN the only frozen item on your body will be your nose. For god’s sake, the alpacas here wear goggles and sometimes actual CLOTHING. That’s gotta tell you something…something like HIGH ALTITUDE!

Hey, Mr. Alpaca…can we borrow some of that fluff? Maybe for some traditional hats and sweaters?

There have been some other strange things going on around here too, though I can’t be sure if they’re related to the elevation or not. Either way, it seems safe to blame it on the altitude.

Is your boyfriend shedding chest hair at an unprecedented rate? Probably the altitude.  Does your tap water come out feeling like the literal refuse of a glacier? Might be the high altitude. Are people eating oven-roasted hamsters as a delicacy? Could also be the altitude. Are you suffering from painfully glorious mountain views nearly every moment of the day? The altitude may very well be the culprit. Have you recently scaled a mountain to reach a city that ancient people thought was a great idea to stick all the way up there? Now that one is DEFINITELY the altitude!

(Editor’s Note: I began writing this post when the sun was out in full force and I thought I might be able to take a trip to the market in my tank top, to get a little tanning in. It is now snow-hailing, and some of it is coming through our skylights, where it sits melting on our floor. A little message from the gods. High Altitude!)

A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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Ancient Cures, Modern Teas: Cinchona Bark

First of all, Merry Christmas to you all! I hope everyone is having a warm, snuggly day with family and/or friends and/or laying in a food coma on the couch and/or flinging around all sorts of exciting gifts!! At the time of this posting, Jorge and I are CLIMBING MACCHU PICCHU — but more to come on that in the coming days, of course. This is surely one of the most alternative Christmases I’ve had so far!

I’m writing more about the interesting native plants of the Peruvian Amazon Rain Forest area this week. Like I mentioned in my last post, there is a huge variety of interesting and USEFUL native herbs here, and they’re used for everything from ovarian cysts to digestive disorders to cancer.

Last week, Jorge brought home something strange from the market. It looked like this:

Cinchona.

If you’re thinking “wow, this looks a lot like mossy tree bark”, you’re totally right. This is Cinchona, also known as Peruvian tree bark. It was sold exactly as this — a harvested fragment of tree bark about a foot long, sticky to the touch and fragrant like the rain forest. 
Jorge had been instructed at the market to “take a small piece” and make a tea with it. It helps with infections and digestion, he was told. Decent enough properties to warrant a splurge purchase, in my book.
So he came back from the market with bags of vegetables, handfuls of herbs and a hunk of bark. Imagine my surprise as he slowly unloaded his backpack. Only in Peru, I suppose!
The tree bark sat around for about a week, forgotten. And then, this morning, I woke up wanting something warm. Rainy season has begun in Cusco, and I’ve been feeling especially cold recently. Since I’m still on a no-coffee whirl, I thought I’d make a cup of tea to warm my hands for the morning. 
And then I remembered the tree bark.
I brought it out carefully, sniffing it, poking it, wondering what exactly constituted “a small piece”. I know herbal remedies often carry a hefty “warning” label, so I wanted to investigate before I gambled on ‘a small piece’ only to find myself later in a near overdose state.
Off to google, then! 
Lots of interesting benefits and properties came up about cinchona. Here’s just a little rundown:
  • promotes digestion (gosh, what herb DOESN’T?)
  • eases muscle cramps
  • kills bacteria and fungi
  • relieves pain
  • helps with hemorrhoids and varicose veins 
  • regulates heartbeat
  • and…perhaps the most important benefit of cinchona…IT CURES MALARIA!
That’s right. Cinchona contains quinine, which is the active ingredient of malaria medication. One of the most important discoveries in the rain forest, it’s been used since TIME ETERNAL to cure malaria. When the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s, they found out about this usage and began to export this ‘wonder cure’ back to their homeland. 
As you can see above, the uses for this bark extend way beyond curing malaria, and that’s not even half of the ways it’s been utilized throughout the centuries. 
Read more about Peruvian Tree Bark here and here

And if this stuff isn’t already in your local health food store, ask for it! Though they might want to ask for the more easily-transportable powder form. I’m not too sure they’ll be able to receive the literal hunk of bark I showed above!

The bounty of the rain forest is simply ASTOUNDING to me. The sheer variety of medicinal plants is both awe-inspiring and a huge relief. Mother Nature provides for us in so many ways, and I’m sure there are even more discoveries to be made about what else is out there to help heal us.


If you’re interested, you can find cinchona here in powder form (and not the sticky, mossy, piece of literal jungle bark in your kitchen, like SOME of us have!).

Ex-Pat Re-Cap

Happy Thanksgiving, America! In preparation for my own ex-pat Thanksgiving here in Cusco, I began thinking about holidays spent on the road, and then I began to think about all the different quirky lessons I’ve learned along the way too. Here’s a rundown of some lessons I’ve learned throughout the years abroad.
Your Neighbors Will Always Be There. ‘Getting to know the neighbors’ – whether by name or simply by listening to their habits through your walls – is always part and parcel of living in a new place. And in my travels, I’ve experienced a lot of neighbors: docile, grandmother Luz in Puerto Varas, whose days were a well-oiled machine (and don’t you dare try to sit in her spot at lunch); fun ex-pat Paul in Valparaiso who lived above our house and never complained about the heinous amounts of noise we made during asados, wine clubs, parties and more; the innocuous roommates in Lima who I almost never saw but could always hear them urinating; the boy who lives somewhere in the downstairs vicinity of my current apartment complex and shouts, constantly and repetitiously; and our landlord who lives next to us, and every time she comes home and opens her door, it sounds like she’s breaking into our apartment, because the sound buffer is thatnon-existent. Daily, chest-tightening panic for a second until we realize Oh, it’s just Ada coming home, not a strange person trying to insert a key into our front door.
 
Looking down the line at the various apartments in our complex. 
Classic American recipes, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas times, can mostly be reproduced abroad. Sometimes tweaks are needed, other times not. And sometimes you just have to be hyper-vigilant around an oven with no indicator of whether it’s scorching or lightly caressing your baked good. But it always comes out delicious. And the journey to attempting to recreate it is an adventure all its own, from hunting down specific ingredients that might not necessarily be local, to acquiring the proper cookware, to obtaining a stove if you don’t currently have one (cough cough, CUSCO). There’s pretty much always a way, if one is determined enough and uses enough holiday whiles.
Holidays without family aren’t bad, just different. Prior to moving abroad, one of the aspects that made me recoil was the idea of missing holidays — and potentially a lot of them. I’ll admit, the first Christmas away from home was very strange and a little sad, though tempered by the fact that I had Leslie and Amanda with me, and we spent it in an American-style guest house. My second Christmas abroad was totally unique to the first one abroad, and to every Christmas spent prior. What I’ve realized is that it’s about creating that energy of the holiday, no matter where you are. And it CAN be done, and usually very successfully. Especially if you involve Christmas cut-out cookies with various incarnations of inappropriate shapes. Though, as I’m nearing my third year without family on all major holidays except for July 4th, I’m VERY ready to get home next year and spend some holiday time with my BLOOD. There’s something inexplicably fulfilling about spending Thanksgiving in the crisp November fall time, and the Christmas bustle amidst the snow-covered Ohio backdrop.
Peru wins in the Pisco battle. Sorry, Chile.
Though I am living in tourist destinations, I cannot be like the tourists. Even though I desperately want to schedule all manner of buses and flights to surrounding environs to hit the spots along the tourist trail, I cannot. I am a slow traveler, and this means that I must squelch the urges to dine out frequently, visit tons of bars with the gringo gang, or hit up that last-minute tour to wherever. My budget is not a backpacking one, or rather, one who has saved for a long time to be able to splurge for a short time. I have a regular person’s budget, as I am a regular person who just happens to live abroad. And other people I meet on the road sometimes forget this. Simply being in the same country as tourism seems to imply to some that I am living an action-packed, dollar-fueled adventure. I am not. In fact, I have several jobs and am working most of the time. Most of my friends and family couldn’t just up and take a trip across the USA tomorrow, and neither could I. I have to plan my trips and movement just like everybody else.
Living in a colonial city is really inspiring, pretty much all the time. Sometimes to where I can’t stand it.
San Blas neighborhood (Cusco) at night.
Technology makes the distance WAY more bearable. As in, I sometimes don’t even notice the sheer thousands of miles between me and my loved ones, because we manage to stay in such frequent contact. It’s similar to living in a different city in the same state. Minus the random Sunday meet-ups (because THAT would still involve a day’s worth of travel across hemispheres and international frontiers).
Creative workarounds make the difference. It helps that my boyfriend is a master of coaxing use out of random, disparate household objects. It means we don’t have to fret if we don’t have something, and has allowed me to expand my problem-solving skills in general. Notable examples: constructing a dustpan out of a wine bottle and cardboard. Figuring out how to re-heat food without a microwave, or warm tortillas without…whatever you might normally use to warm tortillas. Unplugging a hopelessly stopped sink with an incense stick (didn’t have to call the plumber on that one!). Using a sewing needle to make a hook to attach to thread to rescue a pair of boxers that had fallen to the patio a story below our window. In lieu of a potato masher, using the rough bottom of a drinking glass. And the more recent controversial coffee-making method utilizing leggings. And on, and on.
I speak like an Argentinian now. During my most recent visit to the USA (September-October), I remember recording a message to send to Jorge via Whatsapp. For some reason, I listened to it after I had sent it, something I don’t normally do, and was horrified by the blatant and excessive Argentinian accent. Yet, when I had recorded the message, I certainly hadn’t remembered talking like that. Could it be that almost two years with an Argentinian has finally, and irreversibly, tainted my Spanish? It must be — because the other day, I used the word vos with Jorge, something I swore to never do. OOPS!

The Jury Is Out…

I love Cusco.

It is such a joy to be here. Both Jorge and I agree, this place is inspiring in a way that Lima didn’t accomplish, not even in the cool boho neighborhood. Maybe it’s the colonial-fortress feel of the historic center; maybe it’s the adrenaline from the tourism industry; maybe it’s the ancient whispers that waft through the Sacred Valley.

At any rate, it feels really, really good to be here. We love it. And the next 5 or so months will be spent very happily here in Cusco.

One of my favorite parts about where we live — the San Blas neighborhood — is that everything is literally a sneeze away. As I mentioned before, within a three block radius I can find a vegan restaurant, my laundromat, an Ashtanga-Anusara blend studio, a Catholic diocese (actually that’s our neighbor, haaay!), and the local market.

I’ve had a great time breaking up my work day (which consists of lots of sitting and computer time) with short trips to the market or nearby locales. If I’m feeling really inspired, I can walk the four block or so to Starbucks. I might save that for days when I feel like I’m missing the USA. Any Starbucks on the face of the planet is the same, I’m convinced, and damn, what a trip to middle America! Sometimes, it’s grating. Other times, it’s an odd refresher that I need. I just try not to get swept away with the consumer urges to purchase every stylistic coffee cup available.

We went to the central market on Sunday, a pretty lovely tradition for parts such as these, and I found a woman sitting with her wares on display. It looked like she was selling every manner of witchcraft and potion supplies. What do you guys think? Perfect stuff to throw into my cauldron sometime! Or, you know, make a great tea.

Quirks of Cusco

I haven’t been in Cusco long, but already some interesting quirks are making themselves known. Life in a new place always comes with associated learning curves and surprises (like in this post from November 2012 about settling into Puerto Varas, Chile; and this one about the inverted seasons; and this one and this one about acclimating to Valparaiso), so it should come as no surprise that Cusco has it’s own learning curve.

The first thing that stood out about Cusco really jolted me. No really, it did. Because I electrocuted myself. IN THE SHOWER.

How is this possible, one might ask? I certainly didn’t get into the bathtub with a lightning bolt, nor do I consider myself a risk taker with electrical currents. It happened during my celebratory first shower on our first day (first HOUR) in Cusco. After that 22 hour bus ride, I was more than ready for a hopefully hot shower.

Once inside the thankfully warm shower stream, I looked up at the shower head and noticed there was a sort of lever that looked like it could control the water stream. It was coming out pretty weak, so I thought, hey, we need industrial grade water stream if possible, folks.

I tried moving the lever but it was sort of loose. So I grabbed the shower head, to steady it against my water-stream-adjustment.

ZAP. Electrocuted.

Turns out, Cusco (at least the shower heads I’ve seen so far — certainly every apartment we visited during the house hunt had them) uses electric shower heads. Instead of an external water heater system (in Lima and Valparaiso, it was gas), the shower head itself heats the water as it comes out.

This is our actual shower head! Does anybody know
what the dangling hose is for? I sure don’t!

Awesome. Does anybody else feel like this is an extremely bad idea? I mean, I know the gas system has its own risks and dangers. Probably water heaters too. But for F’s sake — this seems like we’re tempting fate just a little too much here.

But hey. If all of Cusco does it, it must be fine, right? Probably nobody has died. Probably.

There’s just one simple rule in bathing in Cusco, from here on out.

DON’T FREAKING TOUCH THE SHOWER HEAD WHEN ITS ON. FOR GOD’S SAKE.

The next quirk became readily apparent the very first night we moved into our apartment. Late that night, we noticed that a very unsavory smell wafting from the bathroom. We figured it was perhaps a problem with the toilet, and resolved to inform our landlord about it.

Then we noticed that when you turned the faucets on, nothing happened.

And then we noticed this again the next morning. And then the next afternoon. And again during the next night.

In fact, all of Saturday, we had water for about 4 hours of our waking day. (We did hear the water pipes shudder to life soon after we went to bed, around 2 AM. “WATER’S BACK. Just in time to not use it!”)

This was disconcerting. We asked the landlady why this was — she said it was normal, that the water was cut most every day, but only for a few hours at a time and then it came back. It was for water saving practices, since there’s either a shortage or global warming or all the tourists. We didn’t get a clear answer.

Every visitor to Cusco has their own water story, I imagine.
Note: This is actually a BAND named Cusco, and the image is from their 
album of instrumental music. But it was too perfect not to use.

Indeed, the water does disappear everyday. It tends to be available in the morning, goes away around noon, and then comes back again (maybe) in the late afternoon, and then sometimes at night. We’re still gathering data to form a chart about WHEN we can expect the water to be there. This can become a problem when one has to, you know, bathe for work. Or wash the dishes in order to eat something.

Upon move-in, we noticed lots of containers of water laying around. Not the drinkable water you buy at the stores, but just plastic jugs full of tap water. It confounded us, to say the least, but now we get it — helpful tactics for when the water disappears and you need to flush a  toilet or wash a dish.

And this explains the unsavory smell as well. We’ve noticed it again, and it happens when the water’s been turned off for several hours. Without the running water, shit starts to get funky.

Acclimating to the rhythm of Cusco is an ongoing adventure. More time will tell what further surprises await us! And don’t worry, I’ll blog all about it.

Editor’s Note: I found an excellent blog recently written by a woman living a lifestyle similar to mine. She just moved away from Cusco after being here 5 months, and she blogged about surprises in Cusco  as well, which had me nodding in agreement after less than a week here.

House Hunting in Cusco

On Wednesday, we arrived to Cusco with over 100 lbs of STUFF on our collective backs. Jorge’s new employer set us up with a little hotel room while we hunted houses, and we set to scouring the hills of Cusco. Slowly and carefully, of course, because the altitude does a number on us.

Our experience in Potosi, Bolivia showed us quite painfully that we are two people that are sensitive to altitude sickness, and over-doing it in any manner makes you feel like you have either the flu or a raunchy hangover. Or both.

It’s anyone’s guess who will suffer from altitude sickness. Physical fitness doesn’t have much to do with it — it either hits you or it doesn’t. Luckily, it goes away in a couple days. Or, it doesn’t, and then you have to descend the mountain immediately. That’s probably only like, when you’re on the tippy top of Mount Everest, though.

By Saturday, we had scored a new apartment in the heart of historic Cusco. We have apartment-hunting and house-acquiring down to a science by now. All told, we saw 5 different places. I took some pictures to share with you, so you could get an idea of what the regular accommodations are like for ex-pats and wanderers in general.

After two full days of visits and phone calls and trekking around Cusco, it felt like an episode of House Hunters International. Without the one million dollar budget, that is. Or the camera crew or the pending mortgage.

OPTION ONE: This was higher up into the hills than we liked, right on the fringe of what I would consider the ‘safe’ part. The outer part was messy and in the throes of construction, but once inside the apartment, it was completely restored and lovely.

Extremely narrow kitchen. I can feel the 
dinnertime cooking frustration already.

However, the only windows overlooked a shared central patio, which was full of old Peruvian women hanging laundry, and every manner of junk thrown around.

Lovely decoration, but the location and vicinity didn’t convince us.

Option Two was an actual house in the historic center of Cusco. However, it was woefully dreary and closed in. An advertised “shared patio” (which led to salacious fantasies of having an asado on Sunday) turned out to be an enclosed arboretum of sorts, lit by a very strange green glass roof, which lent a very odd ethereal tinge to everything. We passed.
Option Three was on the upper fringe of Cusco again but closer to the safer part. The walk to get there, though, reminded me of Valparaiso in the bad way. Add in altitude sickness and Jorge and I had a heart-pounding, chest-wheezing helluva time getting there.
Smallish bedroom.

The kitchen.

The landlord was lovely and the apartment came with the use of the rooftop terrace. That had us racing to see what was up there, and the view was honestly spectacular. 
The rooftop terrace view!

However, the entire place smelled like gerbils, and the place itself just didn’t convince us. I couldn’t imagine living in gerbil smell for six months, not even with that view as a bonus.
Our fourth option was an extremely overpriced hotel room. It wasn’t advertised as such, but it was literally just a hotel suite that I suppose somebody had bought and was operating as an independent condominium of sorts. It had the dreaded interior windows I’ve come to loathe, two very tiny bedrooms, and a cramped living room/kitchen area. It didn’t even have the room to lay down my yoga mat. So we moved on.

Option Five ended up being the winner. And what a winner it is! It was actually the second place we visited of the five, early on Friday morning, and by 5pm that night we made our decision and trucked our bags over the same day.

The lovely kitchen!

Though not seen here, the place has three skylights: one in the living room
here, one in our bedroom, and one in the bathroom. It’s always sunny and bright! 
Except for at night, of course.

The location is perfect — just steps away from my yoga studio, all manner of restaurants and shops surround the place, a laundromat is across the street, and I just noticed today that a vegan restaurant sits conveniently right next door. Awesome. 
The door to our new place! Inside, there’s a terrace and multiple little apartments. 

And we even have a view from outside our front door! 
Can’t complain.

Our Peruvian House Hunters: Cusco edition went as smoothly as one could hope for, and we are having a lovely time settling into the new digs. My first task: buy a desk. And a blender. And then life will be quite grand.

A Treatise on Temporary Spaces

My partner and I have a pretty non-traditional lifestyle at the moment, as most of you are aware. In our passive vagabonding, the plan is to be transients in each new locale. Conceptually speaking, we aren’t planting roots anywhere.

What this literally means is I can’t plant flowers, or vegetables, or buy appliances, or get a rug for this hideous floor.

And this adaptation to the actual temporary nature of each place is a bit hard.

Jorge and me, we’re nesters. Maybe me more than him. Though we’re travelers, we like to make each little space our own. And we like to be comfortable.

Most Latin American countries are really well-equipped for people like us. There has always been a very large population of travelers, long stay-ers, students, and visiting artists. So there is no shortage of completely outfitted apartments for rent on a short-term basis, or even just bedrooms available in a shared house.

We saw many of these in Lima, prior to selecting our shoe box. In Valparaiso and even Puerto Varas, it was the same. A wide variety of furnished and unfurnished complete apartments and single rooms. Some owners are lenient about who they let live there. Others demand proper visas and a long-term commitment. But there’s always someone out there who will work with you, depending on what you’re doing.

This is how it normally goes…signs posted informally in the street.
“I rent rooms.” This was taken in Valpo during my first apartment hunt.

Jorge and I lucked out here in Lima. Our apartment is sort of like, the after-thought attic of this family’s apartment. They have a sprawling place, really — as big as a regular one-story house — with an upstairs patio and bathroom. They added on to this with three individual mini-apartments I.E. shoe boxes.

Ours is one of these. On a quiet night, you can hear the neighbor peeing.

But the owners are awesome — they agreed to a 3-month lease, no problem, can extend for longer if we want, moderate price, super safe neighborhood, and two blocks from the ocean. Fine.

They have two youngish daughters, and the whole family is really laidback and approachable. Their 12 year old daughter is fascinated by me, and always volunteers to be the message bearer when the owners want to call our attention. All huge pluses for landlordship.

But our mini?

Our mini is a brand new venture on their part. And as more time wears on, it feels more and more like Tom Hanks in The Money Pit.

Though nobody has fallen through any holes in the floor, we find new and baffling issues on a regular basis. I think it started with the lack of a kitchen and just snowballed from there.

Since that time, we’ve found and dealt with a leaking sink, which in turn saturated 24 rolls of toilet paper that were in the cabinet beneath the sink. (“Dealing with it”, in this case, is no longer using the cabinet, which comprises like, 40% of the storage space in our kitchen.)

A nice view for the drying toilet paper…before it sees our butts, anyway.

Then we had the Great Shower Debacle, which was that every time you took a shower, the bathroom turned into a tiny pool, due to the location of the shower head. They fixed that after about 3 weeks. Thank god, because every shower required a 15-minute clean-up session immediately afterward.

The sink in the kitchen, for some reason, still refuses to function without splashing everything in a five foot vicinity, even though the landlord put on this sexy hose meant to curb exactly that.

It’s like an elephant snout that constantly sneezes.
Please note the perpetually moist wall beyond. 

My desk, which is a plank of wood somehow attached to the wall, is now falling out of the wall, which makes me afraid to leave my laptop on it or, you know, touch it.

The landlords, at the beginning of our stay, exchanged the double bed for a queen size bed, and in doing so provided us with a new bed frame. It was brand new, recently stained wood. We were really grateful, but it to this day still smells like a combination of farm and wet dog.

The water in Lima is…strange. We don’t drink it — there’s plenty of bottled water, so no worries about the intestinal infections, family — but it smells. Some days worse than others. I know on the grand scale it’s better than some areas, and I shouldn’t complain. But it was another blip on the radar as we adjusted to life in Lima.

And just a personal note: White tiled floors anywhere (be it bathroom, like here in Lima, or in my old kitchen in Valparaiso) is always a bad idea. Add a very hairy Argentinian partner to the mix and it’s just a never-ending sweeping struggle.

That said, we love our little shoebox, and love that we have a temporary home that is safe and serves all of our needs (those that don’t include baking, that is).

And it will do just fine until we hop to the next temporary space, which I’m sure will bring it’s own set of fascinating and baffling intricacies…which I will then immortalize forever in my blog.

Bolivian Border Bronca: Part Two (Or, My 20 Hours as an Illegal Alien)

Warning: This post contains graphic content involving border crossing failures. If reading about illegal aliens makes you squeamish, please read no further.

Jorge and I rolled into the Aguas Blancas border crossing right on time, around 3AM. I’d just managed to snag about two hours of sleep, and like all nighttime border crossings, the unexpected call to activity was unwelcome. However, I rallied quickly, knowing I had some negotiating to do.

We breezed through the Argentinian side of border control. I got my exit stamp. We re-boarded the bus and moved toward the Bolivian side of the border.

By this point, I had fully convinced myself that I would be able to waltz through the border control. Obtaining a tourist visa prior to visiting Bolivia is NOT required for US Citizens (though it is in Brazil), so I figured I’d show up, flash some money, and be back on the bus and sleeping comfortably within a half hour.

Wrong.

I was one of the first through the border control on the Bolivian side (Bermejo). I showed my passport, my immigration paperwork, and smiled hopefully.

“Your payment?” the border control agent asked.

“I have it here, in pesos.” I showed him a fat wad of argentinian pesos.

“It must be in dollars.”

My face fell. “I don’t have dollars, only pesos.”

“And your papers?” He referenced a list behind him. It was the full list of visa requirements for USA citizens. The yellow fever vaccination item sneered back at me. “Do you have all these items here?”

I pretended to examine it, knowing that I had exactly none of the required items, minus the credit cards and passport. We didn’t even have a hostel reservation yet, because we didn’t know where we’d be going that night.

“I have most of these things,” I said, mind racing to figure out how to procure all these things out of thin air. “I have the passport photos, for sure.” Because I did, I always travel with them. Except for that one time in Jujuy when the lady asked for them and they were with my things in a different city.

“They need to have a red background,” he said.

Record screeching. “A red background?!” This was new. And ridiculous. Who has red backgrounds on passport photos? Was he just making this up on the spot to spite me? Red doesn’t even look good with my skin tone, hi.

“Yes, and I need two copies of each of the items.”

Fist in the stomach. “I, uh…I don’t have those. I’d have to make copies. But I DO have these things!” Adding in my head, except the vaccination.

“You can’t pass without these items. Return when you have them.”

I watched him for a moment or two, hoping that I’d misunderstood his very clear and very firm Spanish. I was moved to the side as he continued attending the other patrons on the bus. Jorge and I went outside into the humid night air, plotting. We’d been prepared for this, to an extent. I just had hoped it wouldn’t happen. The bus attendent came to our side and we told him what was up. In a quiet voice, he told us what to do next.

“Tell them you’ll stay here in Bermejo to take care of the visa issue. And then take this taxi,” he gestured toward an idling car in the distance, lights dimmed, “and go to the bus terminal. Take another bus to Tarija, where hopefully you’ll arrive not too long after us. Then you can get your bags and take care of the visa stuff there at the Immigrations office on Monday.”

It all sounded good, except one thing. “So we can’t get our bags now?”

He shook his head. “I can’t unload anything from the bus. You’ll have to pick it up in Tarija at the bus terminal. We’ll keep it safe for you.”

It’s one thing to be kicked off a bus in the middle of the night, but it’s another thing to be stranded without the majority of your worldy possessions. We’d never been to Bolivia before, what did “safe” mean in the middle of a busy terminal? Jorge and I hurried to rescue our carry-on backpacks from where we’d been sitting, but all of our essentials — clothes, soap, etc — was leaving with the bus.

Once the border agent had reviewed the passports of all the passengers, we returned to speak with him. I informed him I’d be staying in Bermejo since I had no way to provide the information he required, being that it was 3am. He allowed this.

And then Jorge and I snuck into a taxi, went to the bus terminal, and hightailed it to Tarija.

Not technically legal, but the only way to really deal with anything given the situation.

We arrived to Tarija around 6am. Our luggage was safe and sound, as promised; we took a taxi to the center to scope a hostel, which we found easily. My first order of business was to procure all the items on the list, all the way down to the freaking ugly passport photos with a red background. I knew the vaccination was a no-go — it was Saturday, nobody would be administering shots — so the plan was to get everything on the list and then go back, begging and pleading to let me through.

A solid plan, I figured. Because Tarija, we soon found out, was not some place we wanted to stay for three full days, awaiting Monday’s chance to get a vaccination and go to an Immigrations office. We had a limited timeline, and Tarija was…well…a bit lackluster.

I got all the paperwork in order, we napped, we ate, we changed money to dollars, and then we took a bus BACK to Bermejo (a three hour ride). I was prepared, confident, and ready to get my visa.

We arrive to Bermejo around 10pm that night. I waltzed into the border control office, laid down my passport, fanned out my dollar bills, and provided two neat sets of paperwork.

“I was here early this morning but didnt have these papers ready, so I’m here now to get the stamp because I have all the paperwork now.”

A different border control agent eyed me warily and proceded to review the paperwork. I waited in thick silence as he reviewed the material for a few minutes.

“The only thing missing is your letter of invitation,” he said, finally.

Bronca level: 4.

“Letter of invitation?” I was truly puzzled.

“Yes, from someone inviting you to come to the country,” he explained. I was shocked. Who was going to invite me to Boliva? The thousands of Bolivian best friends I didn’t have? One of the millions of Bolivian families I didn’t know? The freaking President of Bolivia, perhaps??

“I’m just here for tourism,” I said. “We’re going to be traveling here one week. I don’t know anyone in Bolivia. I don’t know how to get a letter of invitation.”

He resumed quietly reviewing the material. “And where did you guys come from just now?”

My stomach sank. “From Tarija.”

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed. “And why did you leave Bermejo?”

“Because our bus left us here last night and took our things to Tarija. We went there to pick them up, and then came back here to finish the paperwork.”

A policeman appeared from nowhere; a hulking man, armed with a bullet-proof vest and plenty of guns. “You went to Tarija?” He sounded incredulous.

I told him why we had done that. He shook his head angrily. “If you didn’t receive the stamp this morning, you should never have been allowed to come into Bolivia.”

“But we were left here to finish the paperwork…”

“And the fact that you left the territory of Bermejo to go to Tarija is unacceptable,” the policeman continued. “That is absolutely not allowed and you cannot return to Bolivia until you have the visa.”

“But that’s what we’re here to do,” I said, panic rising within me. Both of these men were incredibly stern and incredibly unhappy with me. I felt trapped. “They told us we could stay here last night to finish the paperwork because when we crossed it was 3am–“

“No. You should never have been allowed to come into Bolivia. They should have sent you back to where you came from.”

The border agent was even less helpful. “I can’t give you the visa without the letter of invitation.”

Stonewalled. “So what do I do?” At this point I was nearing hysterics. I needed a solution, and they weren’t willing to give me one.

“You have to leave Bolivia,” the policeman said.

Bronca level: Infinity.

Shock rushed through me in a hot and fast wave. I couldn’t believe my freaking ears. “But all our things are in Tarija,” I explained. “I’d have to go get-“

“Not my problem,” the policeman said. “You have to leave. Without the stamp, you have to leave. You cannot reenter Bolivia.”

Record screech, scene change, anvil dropping, cold rush of blood. I was being ejected from Bolivia with exactly none of my belongings. Work computer, all my clothing, books, every worldy posession was in Tarija, 3 hours away. How would we inform the hostel? How could I get my stuff? The guard wasn’t even willing to let Jorge back through, because he’d left his passport at the hostel (not thinking he’d need to present it, as a legal tourist accompanying me on my trip). So we’d just…leave? Me with my wallet and passport and the jacket on my back?? Jorge with only his wallet?? And then what? Go to Argentina, spend days scouring the countryside for the paperwork to come BACK to Bolivia, to find that the hostel had re-possessed our belongings and everything had disappeared by the time we made it back??

I felt all sorts of things swirling inside me — panic, fear, doubt, confusion. And another very specific feeling….a nervous poop.

I had to go to the bathroom, and now.

“Is there a bathroom I can use?” I was pacing the room, head in my hands, unable to really focus on what my next step should be other than running to the ladies room.

“They’re closed,” the agent said. “They’re only open during the day.”

“Is there anywhere else I can go?” More panic now.

“No.” The policeman gestured toward the back of the building. “But you can go back there if you like.”

I ran out of the office and behind the building. It occurred to me that crapping in the back yard of the border control office might be a perfect resolution to the visa debacle. You won’t let me in, I poop in your yard!!

But no, fate was not to let me shit in their lawn. The few moments of fresh air and separation from the situation calmed me; I felt ready to return to the horror show, and rejoined Jorge and the two angry Bolivian men in the office.

Something happened while I was away. I don’t know what. But the border agent was on the telephone with the agent I’d spoken with that morning when we crossed, apparently trying to verify the information we were giving them. We were told to wait outside.

So we did.

We waited horribly, nervously, gut-achingly, sickeningly, silently. Jorge and I had Plan B ready — I wait at the border control while he took the 3 hour bus back to Tarija, collected our things, and came back to get me. I’d while the night alone there, probably sitting by myself on the cement sidewalk, maybe dying of cold in my calf-length leggings.

Then we’d walk back to Argentina if we had to. And go to Chile, or fly to Peru, or anything to avoid going through Bolivia.

We waited almost an hour there. Finally, the agent called me in to talk.

“Can I see the copies of your papers?” I gave them. “And your passport.” I handed it over.

“You’ll need to fill out this paperwork here.” He handed me a sheet that said APPLICATION FOR VISA FOR U.S. CITIZENS. I almost cried. I ran outside to begin filling it out, still unsure if this meant I’d be turned away or not. I was too scared to ask. I filled it out quickly, handing it over like a proud kindergarten student.

I was ushered toward another border agent, a lady, off to the side. She took my application, looked things over, and then asked for $135. I opened my wallet, trying not to breathe too hard, in case it would cause either of them to review the list of requisite and notice that I didn’t have the yellow fever vaccination.

I handed her the money. In my head, I’m urging her along, the whole process along, so that I might get the stamp and run away before anyone figures out that I’m vaccination-less. She examined each bill carefully, holding it up to the light, spending an inordinate amount of time looking at each one.

Finally, she slid a $50 bill to me. She pointed to a tiny number in the upper left hand corner.

“This is Series B2,” she said. “I can’t accept it. Do you have another $50 bill?”

I stared at her, slack-jawed. I’m traveling South America, I do not maintain American currency, and you want me to produce an EXTRA $50? “No. It’s my only one. I have some other money here…” I showed her a handfull of 5’s, a 20. “This is all I have.”

She explained that the series B2 in Bolivia tends to be counterfeit. The non-acceptance of $50 bills only applies in Bolivia. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this. She looked at my other money and exchanged some bills. I still wasn’t sure I was in the clear — maybe my potentially-counterfeit money would be the final blocade to me entering the country. I felt like the Bolivia trip was doomed.

Finally, she made a phone call to someone. They discussed the situation quietly. Then she informed me she could take the rest of the money in bolivian pesos.

I handed it over eagerly. She slipped the money between the pages of a novel she was reading — quite formal, to be sure — and then delicately applied a tiny visa sticker into the pages of my passport.

She handed it back to the first official, and I nearly crumbled to the ground with relief when I heard the loud smack of the stamp in my passport.

“That’s all,” the border agent said, handing me my passport. I watched him a moment, unsure if this was really happening. Beyond the door, I saw the policeman gazing off into the distance, smoking a cigarette. The storm had calmed.

I said thank you, hoping the full force of this word penetrated his expressionless demeanor, and ran outside.

Jorge and I were on our way back to Tarija in record time, breathless with disbelief, residual anger and, above all, immense relief.

Legal, at last.