Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Peru: Cusco

We took a shoddy little airline and got seated apart from each other in a cramped row. However, I overheard a German couple explaining they couldn't sit in the exit row since they didn't know Spanish or English. I jumped on it and told the flight attendant we would happily switch. Much roomier aisle seats! It didn't matter to me, but Puhg literally didn't fit in his previous chair. He did all the heavy lifting for this trip so when I contributed any minute thing, I felt very proud, puffed up my chest, and sometimes even bellowed, "That's what the money's for!"

Our hotel was so lovely! There was a waterfall outside our room, big wooden furniture, fire pits in the lobby, and coca tea available 24/7. We arrived and relaxed briefly (okay I checked my email and had to respond to a bunch of stuff) before hitting the town for dinner. I was in love with the city right away. Narrow itty bitty streets full of art and stone, woven goods, fountains, big beautiful churches. Puhg felt slightly light-headed after landing, but I only noticed walking up hill left me out of breath. We were exhausted and went to bed at like 10 PM. At 2:30 I woke up.

It was maybe the worst I have ever felt in my life. It rivaled food poisoning for sure. The room was spinning out of control, an elephant had sat on my head, and I was beyond nauseous. I threw up violently over and over. Puhg had a headache, so we were both awake, miserable. I was in so much pain I couldn't even look at my phone or listen to a podcast. Altitude sickness--apparently very real. Eventually at about 6 AM I got a couple more hours of sleep. The complimentary breakfast was served until 10, so Puhg guided me slowly out of our room where I, shivering and avoiding eye contact with the servers, ate two small wheat buns. Back in the room, Puhg fell asleep and I read. As suddenly as it came, it was lifted. I felt 95% recovered. Originally we had planned to go on a tour of some ruins, but I had pushed against booking anything our first day. We were both relieved all we had to do for the rest of the day was explore the city. (Another tally in my box for "What Alice helped with on this trip.")
We walked around the square looking for trinkets and enjoying all the stray dogs (so so many). We visited a chocolate museum and had spicy cocoa overlooking the main square, I got roped into a $6 hour massage (I mean, how do you pass that up?), and marveled at the huge market. The best part of Cusco was the snacks. I got a little poptart pastry at the market, some fresh juice, a marshmallow on a stick from a street vendor, pink sweet popcorn from another. All for around $2 American. I love snacks! We went to a big deal chef's restaurant for dinner and I ate the best veggie burger I've ever had in my life--it was sprouts and beets and incredible.
The next morning was my birthday! We were healthy enough to fully enjoy the hotel breakfast spread! It was, like most eating in Peru, above and beyond wonderful! Fresh yogurts and fruits and buns. Plus a breakfast burrito with Cusco avocados and more of that coca tea. At the end of the meal the staff came out with an incredible mousse and sang Happy Birthday! We hadn't even mentioned it! They just noticed the detail on my passport at check-in! It was so sweet and surprising.
We decided to spend the day in Pisac--an Incan ruin high off a cliff. We took a forty-minute cab up winding roads and ended in a teeny town. I held a baby alpaca and bought myself a llama sweater from a vendor. We also came across a guinea pig village in the back of a restaurant. Adorable even if they were only there to be cooked. PISAC BLEW MY MIND. I don't even want to try to describe it, but I kept accidentally saying, "Wow." The mountains, the detail of the steps, the intricate rock houses. I sat on a rock overlooking all of it and opened the birthday cards from my parents I had packed. We hiked down the mountain, chatting and contemplating life for these peoples. My favorite part was seeing the extremely uncanny catacombs in the cliffsides. So creepy! The hike took about an hour, and at the end I was very thirsty. Wouldn't you know a little old woman had a fresh orange juice stand at the end of the trail? For 1 sol she pumped two oranges into a plastic cup, and we gratefully gulped it down.
Before heading back to the city I wanted to try some of the big corn I saw as street food. I really just wanted the novelty of eating giant corn kernals, but it was honestly so delicious. A woman took a huge corn sitting in boiling water out and layered some soft cheese into the ear. I ate it the whole cab back, soaking in the scenery from a backseat in Peru. Our driver had lied about how much we had to pay--the literal only time someone wasn't exceedingly nice to us in Peru (what a people!)--so I left the cob in his car. Boop!

For dinner we tried a stereotypical fancy place, and it was one of our least favorite meals of the trip. The norm in Peru is so excellent--no need for it to front. I had a stressful night of packing for an early Machu Piccu go time (more on this later), but it was interrupted by housekeeping at the door at 9 PM. The hotel staff was all there with ANOTHER mouse cake and sang again! The hospitality! I was luckily in bed by 10, read Puhg's card to me, and passed out.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Peru: Amazon River

When I was ten my favorite computer game was Amazon Trail. I paddled down the river fishing for piranhas and snapped photos of capybaras, all the while learning about rubber barons and rosewood oil. In the mid-90s it was my dream to one day travel the Amazon River, but I never thought it would actually happen.

I credit Puhg with everything. While planning Peru, we thought, what the heck, let's go for it. He booked a river tour on a smokin' deal (2 for 1) and THEN we were upgraded to a better boat a day before we left! After bopping around Iquitos, we were connected with our cruise group (of about 35) and taken to our small, luxurious ship. Holy moly. We had a big, beautiful room with a balcony and were served an incredible fresh fish and yucca root lunch. I signed up for a $30 massage to kick off my vacation, and we were given unlimited free drinks! I drank a bunch of snowed fruit juices while Puhg slurped Pisco Sours every day. This was truly one of those once in a lifetime good luck was in our favor experiences.
We spent the next three days taking skiffs through riverbends (sometimes through such thick vegetation our naturalists would have to literally machete through it), into the mouth of where volcanic ash meets water, and to native people's communities. I saw so many new and incredible things--words and photos can't do it justice. (I have said that phrase a lot when recapping this vacation to others.) In between excursions we would return to the boat, take much needed showers, and be stuffed with plantains, fresh avocado, and flans.

My favorite part of the whole trip was the day we ate a small breakfast (wrapped in big palm leaves) on the skiffs and then swam with pink dolphins. The current was strong so only Puhg and I swam out far enough to be near the pinkies. One jumped about ten feet from us. The water was so refreshing and the sun was so warm. My life! Other highlights: a flock of macaws showed their bright bellies to us flying overhead, a bunch of sloths in trees, baby monkeys jumping, a tarantula, mushrooms, anaconda. Simple things amazed me--hundreds of leaf cutter ants across the trail on a hike, our guide teaching us how to heal a tree after cutting it, gigantic lily pads, a cicada as big as a my fist we found in our closet. A giant vibrant sunset our first night, going out into the middle of the jungle and sitting in the frog sounds and snake hisses.
Learning about the Amazon people was so eye-opening. I mean, duh, but I live in a Chicago bubble, and to actually SEE how these simple, happy, tough people live reminded me, for the first and not last time of this trip, how unimportant most of the stuff I worry about is. Our naturalist told us so many stories of how he has seen firsthand the power of nature. Our other guide told us, "There is no stress in the Amazon. No heart attacks. No cancer." I get it.
We went on a canopy walk through a defunct biology base, an empty pool full of bugs. It started to rain. We visited the local healer who blew smoke on us, and although I was a feat for mosquitoes (33 bites in fifteen minutes), I felt something sincere from her ritual.

On our last night's dinner the lights turned off and the kitchen crew started singing. A big chocolate cake made its way to me. I was so shocked, like a birthday girl on television. In the morning, I had my final bowl of quinoa pop and yogurt, we visited a manatee sanctuary, and we were off to Cuzco.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Beep Beep

Yesterday was the last day of Spring term. I am writing this from a cab on my way to the airport.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Failing, Flailing

There is a bad day that happens once a semester in English 101. I have to give students the results of their Exit Exams. A third of them fail. Maybe one or two bombed, but the rest have been failing pretty consistently all term. They didn't show up, they didn't do the revisions, they didn't pay attention during grammar review. They're in high school brain. It is a shock to many that just because I like them and they like me, they can still get Fs. I tell them about the grades on Blackboard, but they don't look.

It doesn't feel good to tell anyone they can't progress to 102--even when I know it will be a total disaster for them to go to 102. I worry that they'll give up and stop school altogether. I worry they will stop speaking English. I worry they will feel like dumb dumbs.

Last week I was rushing to work. At the el, I stood in a big line of people waiting to pass through the turnstyle. When I was next in line a woman shoved herself in front of me and tapped her pass. She was very professional looking and did not make eye contact. She wore ear buds so any fussy comments I might sigh would not be heard. HMPH. I tapped in right after her. Then she had the nerve to walk slowly up the middle of the stairs. I grumbled behind her watching my train disappear right as I reached the landing. I would have made it if I had had 30 more seconds. I stewed watching the stuffed cars fly by. And then, one minute later, another train showed up. It was almost empty because everyone was crowding into the previous one. I got a seat, which is a rarity on morning commutes. I could read in peace, and got to school but one minute later than expected.

Friday, May 5, 2017


I was never temped by the food in the freshman cafeteria. All the freshman at my high school ate in their own secluded mini-caf to...I don't know, bond as a class? Not be intimidated by the upper classmen? The food choices were chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, some dumb snacks, pizza, fries. My first semester I packed my lunch. I think I ate a lot of pb & j and bags of potato chips. Off-brand Oreos. My second semester I had an early lunch right after swimming. I remember swallowing a lot of chlorinated water and always feeling winded from having to get ready in five minutes after laps. My look that spring: wet slimy hair, a bloated tummy, and hastily applied lip gloss. The only thing I could even imagine eating for some unknown reason were pretzels and Kit Kats. So that's what I ate. For five months. Very occasionally (like, three times) I bought a donut from the lunch line, and I would be given a free fruit cup. Everyone always got a free fruit cup. It had something to do with the school being able to get government funding for balanced meals. I spent around 100 hours total in that dumb room, and I remember very little.

A rando from the town everyone made fun of shared my lunch seat with me for two weeks. He asked me to write him notes but only drew pictures in response. A boy in my history class asked to see my homework "just to check his answers" and I let him have it. I watched it circle his entire table, everyone copying. I tried to drink Brisk Iced Tea like a club of two new friends did, but I thought it was very gross. My friend Smidge and I would quietly sing Les Mis to each other when we were bored. One girl gave up junk food for lent and ate it every day, making tally marks in a notebook. She said, "I'll make it up later."

My iced coffee got warm yesterday. I was at the Writing Center, so I asked around if there was a soda fountain somewhere in the building. There was one in the cafeteria, I learned, so I walked in for the first time and was immediately struck with a flood of nostalgia. It smelled EXACTLY like that freshman lunch room, and as far as I can tell, nothing in my life has ever smelled the same. I wanted to eat all the food even though I hadn't eaten it when I was fourteen. If I ingested that tray of fries, would I be fourteen again? As if being fourteen is so great in the first place.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Other Alice

Last night I met with a gloomball for dinner. I was late because of the rain, and I felt bad. I apologized a lot and then had to choose my order quickly.
"Okay, come on, Alice. Get it together and pick what you want."
I was between the s'more brownie and an order of guac.
"Hey, it's okay, Alice," my friend said. I looked up quizzically, "Oh, not you. I'm talking to the other Alice you're putting a lot of pressure on."
She had a point. I got the brownie.