New Blog: 9000 Hours in Saigon

29 02 2008

My friend TJ DiChristopher is leaving New York behind and moving off to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to teach English and to inspire and encourage the disadvantaged youth of Vietnam by volunteering with the nonprofit Armed With a Paintbrush. Go TJ go! The world needs more do-gooders like you.

Though we here in New York are sad to see TJ go, he is leaving us with a very exciting (and very fun to read) parting gift. Live vicariously through TJ by following his adventures on his new blog, 9000 Hours in Saigon. (And no, reading TJ’s blog about volunteering is not the same as doing good yourself.)

A Belated Thanks to Inclement Weather

28 02 2008

15000 Feet wasn’t looking pretty.
Is it me or do we look like those guys from Alive?

Last night in New York it was 24 degrees (feels like 11). I left a friend’s house and walked six blocks to the subway, my stinging lips cursing the cold the whole way. But then I realized: I wouldn’t be outside, leaving a Peru party, if it weren’t for the cold.

Flashback to one year ago…

At around this time last year, my amazing, will-do-anything-for-you (and from California) parents braved the frigid temperatures of a New York February, just to see me. At that time I had lived here about six months and, though I was happy, still hadn’t quite found my place. Despite having several close friends, I was far from home, battling miserable weather, and sometimes felt lonely. It may shock those who know her (note sarcasm here), but this worried my mother to no end.

Then the cold stepped in, with a little help from mom. While the parents were waiting for me to get out of my first day interning for EuroCheapo, the temps outside became unbearable, so they sought refuge in Aroma Cafe, just around the corner from my office. My mother couldn’t help but “overhear” the bubbly girl at the next table over, who happened to be talking about travel, and the more she overheard, the more she thought this girl would make a great friend for her daughter. And so my friendly mother struck up a conversation. (Neither remembers what she said.)

I met my parents after work and was surprised when my mother exclaimed, “I met the cutest girl for you!” I was slightly embarrassed that my mother was making friends for me, but decided to email Libby anyway. After months of email tag we finally met and were insta-friends. On our first “date” I told Libby of my plans to travel in South America and she immediately signed on to be my travel buddy. Before I knew it two of her friends, Rebecca and Tiffany, were talking about hiking boots and plane tickets with us.

After four “Peru planning” meetings—and having known each other a matter of months—we embarked on the most taxing journey any of us had ever before attempted. There were blisters, tears, freezing cold days… and that was just the beginning. There was also laughter, long chats, more tears (happy ones), and bonding. One thing there wasn’t: arguing. The stress of that trip, combined with the constant togetherness, seemed sure yield hurt feelings, if not out and out hatred. But we came off that mountain stronger as individuals and stronger as friends.

Now back in the comforts of New York, Peru is all we discuss. Last night, clean and warm, we held the first of what will be many Peru parties. On the menu was the fruit tea (with rum) that we drank on night two, toasted corn nuts, a Peruvian restaurant staple, and takeout Mexican (oops, how did that slip in there?). From the comfort of a couch in Brooklyn, we watched a hilarious, disgusting, and sometimes painful to watch, video about four girls who didn’t know each other all that well but became close friends at 15,000 feet. All because my parents needed to get out of the cold.

So one year after my parents’ visit, I am sending out a note of thanks to the cold, and one to my matchmaking mother who had to get out of it.

Llama Sweater

26 02 2008

Anyone want this sweater?
Complete with nieve in the hair: A regular Snow White.

Oh the llama sweater, a staple in the tourist arsenal. In Peru they are sold everywhere and everyone seems to have one. Made (ostensibly) of llama wool, they are soft and oh-so-warm and tourists love to buy them.

On our second day in Cusco I myself almost did just that. It wasn’t the manly type with pictures of llamas on it, but a fitted cream number with a simple geometric design around the collar. It had fringe on the bottom, however, and toggles on the hood. I was in one of those tourism frenzies, where, overcome buy the excitement of all things new, the tourist buys or seriously considers buying things she would never even pick up otherwise. Luckily, some new friends who joined at the market played the “will you really wear it?” card and I was spared an unneeded sweater.

Then came Northwest Argentina, where llama sweaters again abounded. And, in a moment of need rather than want, I had to buy one. I had left my belongings in a hostel in San Salvador de Jujuy, had traveled to Humahuaca for Carnaval with nothing but two changes of clothes (both dresses), some pajamas, and my fleece. Too bad I hadn’t done my research and realized that Humahuaca is cold in the evenings, even in summer. Very cold.

So there I was in my thin pants and not quite warm enough fleece, with flip flops on my feet. The wind was picking up and it was promising to be a long night. What was a girl to do except to splurge on a $10 llama sweater, an oh-so-attractive thick and too big sweater, complete with llamas prancing across my chest. Wasn’t I the fairest of them all? But I was warm.

So now I’m back in New York with my llama sweater, which, in the land of Fifth Ave. and Soho boutiques might just be cause for beheading if I were to wear it outside (or at least cause for pointing and staring). So, if anyone out there would like a llama sweater, women’s medium, I have one here and it’s up for grabs.

Lesson learned: Check the weather ahead of time. And pack accordingly.

Sweet of…Sweets

25 02 2008

Dulce de leche. The literal translation is “sweet of milk.” It is exactly that in Guys and Dolls, when gambler Sky (Marlon Brando) convinces the cold “missionary doll” to join him for dinner in Havana, Cuba and tricks her into a drinking a cocktail  (or several) by that name by saying it’s a milkshake with a little rum. (Okay, so I have a small addiction to old musicals.) It is also, I learned today, a somewhat bizarre Florida-based men’s clothing line.

But, more importantly, in Argentina, it is a caramel concoction so delicious it has its own legend. Today dulce de leche is an Argentine staple, used in everything from pastries to ice cream (and we’re not talking the Häagen-Dazs version folks). It is even a breakfast food, to be spread on bread as the Italians do with Nutella.

What makes this caramel so special? The answer is unclear, save that there is something about the golden, sweet stuff that makes it nothing short of addictive. Something about its chemical balance is such that it required this particular writer to eat her weight in it while traveling, enough to make her give up sweets for Lent (Lent conveniently starting exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, when she was safe at home, out of DDL territory). It is, in short, a little bit of heaven on earth.

Lessons learned:
1) While traveling in Argentina, scope out the corner pastry shop and visit it (and any others you happen to see) often. This is especially key when entering a new unexplored province where the regional DDL treats will be change.

2) If having DDL withdrawals at home (and if it isn’t Lent, or you haven’t given up sweets), try making it yourself.

3) If you can’t cook, or you’re too lazy to cook, put down the Häagen-Dazs and stock up on the real thing online.

Where am I?

20 02 2008

Today marks the one-week anniversary of my homecoming. Dramatic, I know, but it is a strange thing to be home. Really strange. For seven nights I have slept in my own bed, for six days I have enjoyed (and overused) the pleasures of a guaranteed hot shower, and for six days (ok, five) I have felt like a normal, non-traveling New Yorker again.

And yet, though it seems I have been home much longer than a week, all is still extremely different. I still enter shops and cafes expecting to hear and speak Spanish, I still crave my daily alfajor (even though I gave up sweets for Lent, but, admittedly, started Lent a week late: last Wednesday, when I arrived home). Although it’s a relief not roaming the streets with the heavy squirrel on my back, I’m having separation anxiety, andm save for an unseemly (and joyously) warm Monday, my usual whining about the bone-chilling New York winter is only exacerbated every time I see my summer-lovin’ tan in the mirror.

Needless to say, I am still wallowing in my “I just went on a great trip and now have to return to the real world” self-pity. But all is not terrible. Being home means many good things too: a blissfully overwhelming choice of clean clothing at my fingertips every day, grocery shopping and subsequent cooking, catching up with family and friends.

I have learned that there is a touch of celebrity associated with long travels. While gone, I was touched and thrilled at the amount of emails and blog comments that came in from both those with whom I am in constant contact and those I talk to only a few times a year. Now home, my back-in-service phone has been making up for lost time, in frequent use as I catch up with all those I haven’t spoken to for weeks and months. My weekend was full of drinks and brunches, and I am no where near done seeing and talking to everyone.

The best part about it (besides the overwhelming sense of how many amazing people I am fortunate enough to have in my life) is that every time I talk to someone new I get to relive the trip. Every time I have some new realization as to what it all meant to me: what I learned from traveling alone, the strength I derived from climbing a mountain, my aspirations to become New York’s favorite tango dancer…

And so, though all signs (and cold, cold winds) point to my being home in New York, I am also, at least in part, still in South America. And maybe always will be.

Almost Famous

19 02 2008

Now that I have a working shower and am slowly becoming reacquainted with the real world, it’s time to get some work done. This evening I headed to the Viva! Guides website, to start posting my reviews of Northwest Argentina, but before I could get started I saw a familiar face: my own. Right there on the front page, in a box titled “Writers On The Road,” was me, with a note that I am in Lujan, Argentina.

Sure, this is routine. Sure, it is nothing more than promotional. But to a struggling writer going through Argentina withdrawals, both the fact of my writing on display and the thought of another me still in Lujan made me a happy, happy girl. So now I must do my bit, a small blog for shameless self-promotion, to send all my readers right over to Viva! to see my ten minutes of fame. If anyone who actually cares happens to miss it, you can also find my (pathetic, thrown together to apply to class) profile, complete with all the guidebook writing I have done thus far, here.

Stay Tuned

18 02 2008

A quick message to all those who have been loyal readers over the past six weeks (aka those who love me enough to follow my random musings)…

First, thank you for reading, and thanks also for all the comments and notes. It was lovely to be so far away and still get little bits of home.

Second, please note that although my travels have reached their end (for now) the blog will go on. I have far from exhausted my store of adventures and mishaps, and now that I’m an Argentina/Peru veteran I have loads of advice to pass along to anyone planning trips.

Now that I have more time on my hands I may even play with adding photos…

If You Give a Man Some Coffee

14 02 2008

Now finally at home I have so many more South America stories to tell, but this one needs to be told first…

On day two of no hot water, with my hamper of dirty travel clothes eagerly awaiting a bath and my closet of clean clothes mocking me, I don’t really know what to do with myself. Since yesterday afternoon I have done little besides sponge bathes with a pot of boiled water, unpack (which meant throwing all my clothes into a hamper and piling up a few souvenirs to be dealt with later), and watch half of The Gilmore Girls season 3. A mini-post-trip depression? Perhaps. Also an inability to think about anything but how much I’d love to shower.

After an email from my roommate stating the the landlord reported no hot water until 3 p.m., I decided it was finally time to take my unwashed hair out for a walk, mainly because I needed to at least purchase some cereal to keep me company in my “I’m still not clean and I’m mourning summer” hibernation (in an apartment that, because the heat is water-based and there is no hot water, also has no heat). I threw my hair into a ponytail, pulled on my biggest jacket, and headed into the great outdoors, feeling a little disgusted and not a little self pity.

Then I heard a cheery voice shout, “These will go well with you” and looked down to see the happy homeless man who often sits on the stoop two buildings from mine holding out a couple of white carnations (and a little bit of humble pie). Flowers in hand, the rest of my walk to the grocery store was spent mulling over how fantastic nice people are and how silly I’ve been for whining over my hot water when the sweet man outside is handing out some Valentine’s Day cheer. That and trying to decide if bringing him back a Cliff Bar would be nice or offensive.

I have often wanted to give the friendly, and always cheerful, man on the stoop something to eat. We’ve never had an actual conversation, but every time I pass him he always has a smile an a friendly word or two, and always makes my day a little more cheerful. One day this year I actually carried around a bag of cookies that were left over from a “I just want a cookie but insist on it being homemade” study freak out, for a whole day because I wanted him to have the leftovers but was unable to find him. But buying cookies at the store just seemed a little lame in comparison, and like a halfhearted attempt to give back to the man who made a dirty (feeling for herself because she had to return from an amazing trip) girl feel human again, so I left the store with only my cereal, some apples, and every (ridiculous) intention of walking home the other way to avoid walking back past him empty-handed.

Then, my gloveless hand freezing, I realized I had turned one block too soon for the avoidance plan and was about to backtrack when I found myself right in front of the coffee shop. Light bulb. A cup of coffee was just the thing for a cheerful man sitting outside with a stack of flowers and cold hands. And I could use a cup myself.

So a few minutes later, and one block less, I handed off the cup of coffee. And in exchange, despite my protests, he gave me more flowers, pink ones this time. I’m now back in my cold apartment and still haven’t showered, but at least I found my welcoming committee after all.

An Icey Welcome Home

13 02 2008

Nothing like a (freezing) cold shower to knock the dreams of tango dancing, sunny days, and wrought-iron balconies from one’s system…

I spent my last day in Buenos Aires doing a little shopping (shocking, I know), checking out the seal show at the zoo, and writing a few final postcards (which I happened, in my end of travel stupor, to have misplaced somewhere between the closed post office and the airport). When I checked in for my flight that evening, it was still about 70 degrees outside.

A mere 11 hours later I stepped off the plane in rainy 40 degree (but feels like 28) New York. At least I missed the blizzard of the day before. Upon waiting for my shuttle home I found myself writing my final travel journal entry, and at a bit of a loss for what to feel. It was a relief to be home, but at the same time felt rather strange. On the one hand I was coming home to a city I love, friends I’ve missed, and a life that doesn’t involve trying to pick out the least dirty thing to wear every day; on the other I had to leave a beautiful (warm) place—and so much there I’ve yet to see—and returning to the daunting task of job hunting. I was excited to return to my apartment, but unsure of what I’d do once there: finally at home, all seemed foreign.

The confused journal entry ended with a list of things that excited me about being home, including, but not limited to following (thrilling) items: the pile of mail that would inevitably be waiting for me, my full closet of (clean!) clothes, and most importantly, a hot shower.

After a somewhat confused shuttle ride, which involved my driver skipping one drop-off and then offering to drop me off at Second Ave. and 34th St., when I live at First Ave. and 10th St. (all for the low, low price of $21.95), I finally stepped into my apartment. I first said hello to some of my belongings, thumbed through the large stack of (mostly junk) mail on my desk, and put in a call to my waiting anxiously for the “I’m-home-call” mother, then headed happily to my bathroom and turned on the shower. Which never got hot.

A call to the super yielded the hasty answer that I would have hot water in an hour. I spent two hours sitting at the kitchen table, because I felt too dirty to sit anywhere else, and watching “Grey’s Anatomy” reruns on Then I tried the water again. Another call to the super ended in his annoyed statement that I was not the only one waiting on the hot water. A very comforting thought.

It is now 2:00 p.m. and the number one item on my “things I’m looking forward to about getting home list” has turned out to be a sponge bath with boiled water. So much for my closet full of clean clothes. I think I need to go back to Argentina; I left some unsent postcards there…

They Ring Bells In Argentina Too

7 02 2008

As a little girl, I would go home from Church and ring the bell on my mother’s lamp because the priest said to. For those uninitiated with the Catholic Mass, when consecrating the bread and wine, the priest, in Christ’s words, says to eat the bread and drink the wine that are Christ’s body and blood. After the priest, as Christ says, “Do this in memory of me,” an altar boy rings a bell, a tradition dating back to when the congregation couldn’t see what the priest was doing. As the good little girl that I was, I made sure every Sunday to ring my bell, since I thought the priest had asked me to.

As a grown, Carnaval-celebrating woman, I arrived in Salta yesterday afternoon, exhausted, fighting a terrible cold, tired of nieve being sprayed in my ears, and happy to be away from Carnaval. I had completely lost track of my days and and it never ocurred to me that the day after Carnaval ends is Ash Wednesday, and that in so fervently Catholica a country as Argetnina, there would be masses.

Nevertheless, there is a very pretty (pink) church in the main plaza of the city, and after a trip to the museum I decided to pop in. When I neared the doors the sound emanating gave me goosebumps. A crystal clear woman’s voice was singing a lovely Spanish tune that resounded against the ornate walls of the church.

I entered solemnly, excited that I had stumbled upon an actual ceremony, and it was only when I saw the hundreds (literally) of people that filled the giant cathedral that it ocurred to me it was Ash Wednesday. I was exhausted and carrying a heavy grocery bag filled with water, toilet paper for my runny nose (and hotel that doesn’t supply it), and snacks for my next day’s tour, but I felt I had to stay.

It took about twenty minutes for them to get ahses to everyone. In that time the choir sang about 15 songs. I recognized the tunes to five of those, and found myself trying to recall what the words would have been in English. This is harder than it seems. For some reason, with the Spanish over it, even the words to the Our Father failed me; all the responses that have been second nature since childhood faltered as I tried to make out the Spanish.

But one thing crystal clear: I heard bells. It was a touching and humbling experience to thing that in another language, on the other side of the equator, they do the exact same things. And though I haven’t been the most devoted Catholic in recent years, it was incredible to experience Ash Wednesday with hundreds of strangers, speaking in a foreign tongue, in a stunning and massive cathedral.