Alfajor Heaven

30 01 2009

In honor of my ongoing nostalgia for last year’s adventures, another flashback. This one I actually found in my drafts: it was started but (for reasons now unknown) never finished, back in Argentina, on (I am guessing) January 14, 2008. My guess is that it was never finished because I was spending a good part of my Luján internet time frantically trying to figure out a way to replace my camera, which had just been stolen in Buenos Aires. At any rate, it finally goes live a year later…

Today, this, the first day of my career as a travel guidebook writer, I am in Luján, quite possibly the closest one gets to a one horse town. It’s quiet and tiny and full of small town charm, including the most beautiful confiteria (sweet shop) I have ever seen.

Villa de Luján is a tiny wood building that looks more like it belongs in Switzerland than in “gaucholand.” We were first attracted to the cartoonish gnomes gracing the outside, but then I saw the menu: dulce de leche galore. My new friend Liz (Note: Liz is now a dear friend and the one with whom I am soon to embark on a very exciting, as yet undisclosed venture) and I  have become, over the past week,  self-declared dulce de leche experts, specializing in the alfajor, a heavenly cookie sandwich filled with the sweet of sweets.

Naturally, Liz and I figured we must give it a try, us being travel writers and this being a a very important spot in the tine town. Entering the tiny cabin was like entering grandmother’s house, complete with flowery tablecloths, and, even better, sweets. The staff consisted of a cheerful older woman and her mother, who both chatted amiably before sitting us at a doily covered table and serving us orange juice in sugar-rimmed glasses, followed by a slice of spongy lemon cake. But the highlight, of course, was the king of alfajorés—a triple-layer cookie filled with one layer vanilla crème and one dulce de leche and surrounded by rich chocolate. Don’t think, full as we were, we didn’t leave without a few for the road.

Villa de Lujan, B Mitre 179, Lujan, Argentina, (02323) 429949





Salkantay Flashback 5: The Main Event

26 01 2009

Day five inspired a few tears of its own, but this time they were tears of happiness rather than of fear or exhaustion. Freshly showered (and wearing the dirty clothes from the trip) we rose early and piled onto the shuttle. Excitement mounted with each steep turn until the bus began to slow and the main event was there, shrouded in a heavy mist, ahead of us.

Once inside we all laughed when Roberto proclaimed it would be a “10 minute walk” to our first vista. For once, however, 10 minutes was actually 10 minutes. And then we were there: before us, emerging from the ethereal mist, was the mysterious city of the Incas in all its glory. The stone structures, perfectly carved out of the mountain stretched out to the iconic Wayna Picchu, which stood watch in the distance. It was a sight that would have drawn a shudder and made the heart skip a beat regardless how we’d gotten there. Four days of sweat and mud and various challenges, physical, mental, and emotional, on top of the beauty of the picture itself, was enough to draw that final tear to each of our eyes, and I’m sure the gals will agree when I say it was utterly, perfectly healing.

mp-blog





Salkantay 3: I Am Inca

23 01 2009

Today marks the anniversary of our last day of hiking on the trek, and the day when we joined with a portion of the Inca trail. We left our packs with the porters and headed out uninhibited, first crossing a wide river that all but demanded submersion of feet that would mean soggy socks the rest of the day. This, however, was nothing new and well worth it. We started out surrounded by coffee plants, climbing wide, ancient stone steps that called to mind the unfathomable notion: the Incas once walked here. The trail was high but wide, and a million shades of green splashed with colorful flowers. For a while I found myself alone on the trail, pondering the rainbow of intense colors I didn’t know existed.

flowers-blog

Alone in the silence of the lush trail, with the spirits of brave Incas all around me, the magnitude of my trek overcame me. It had not only been sweat and dirt and tears, but the solidifying of young friendships and the strengthening of character.
But that sense of power didn’t last long. Shortly after I’d caught up to the group, we discovered we had nowhere to go. The torrential rain of days past had washed away a portion of our trail the length of a medium-sized car. We were midway through the trail and there was no one else around.

Uh...

Uh...

After much deliberation, Roberto decided the only thing to do was go around. He went first, climbing up into the jungle on the side of the mountain. Tiffany followed, then Jennifer (also afraid of heights), then me. Each step was a trial, of mushing the dirt and hoping it would hold me, of grabbing a branch and hoping it wouldn’t bend. I gingerly weaved my way under and over vines, my heart pounding and my head spinning. Still, there was something almost exciting about it, and even I laughed when, well into the thick of the trees, Roberto asked if any of us had a knife.

When I was not far from the end, I found myself stalled, waiting for the others to make their next moves. Trying not to look at the almost vertical slope of the mountain and the gaping hole below me, I looked out and saw the dense vegetation of the Andean jungle and the valley beyond. There I was: perched in the jungle, forging a trail… playing Inca. And not at all scared.

That white leg is me. The tiny dot further up is Jen, where I was headed.

That white leg is me. The tiny dot further up is Jen, where I was headed.





Salkantay 3: New, uh, Heights

22 01 2009

I mentioned before that day two was the hardest, for all but me. On the morning of day three, though sore and blistered, all were rejoicing at having made it through the hardest part. I, on the other hand, was dreading what I knew was to come. The night before, Roberto had led us on a “10 minute” (read: 45) hike down to the hot springs below our camp. While the hot springs provided much needed relaxation of tired muscles (and will one day be visited in more detail for the experience they themselves were), the hike to and from them left little to be desired, especially for me. That night, as I picked my way up the narrow, tenuous trail, trying to stay close to the glow of the flashlight, my mild fear of heights became pretty major, so I was not too happy when I learned I had to head down the same trail, this time laden with my heavy pack.

What made matters worse was that by the light of day I could see how treacherous the trail really was. The wet, muddy ground was soft and crumbling in parts, and we had to clamber over tree stumps and cling to the inside of the narrow trail, Roberto’s instructions to “stay close to the side” being passed down the train where I carefully plotted each step in the back.

My feeling of relief upon passing the hot springs was short-lived; an hour later I found myself at a railroad track bridge, suspended precariously over the raging river and missing one of its boards. I said nothing of my fear of heights as I picked my way across, but when the bridge led to a narrow, gravelly trail high above the river, there was no need for words. There, hugging the mountain, my feet slipping with each hesitant step, I froze. On the narrowest portion of the trail, which just 15 steps to solid land ahead of me, I unsuccessfully fought back tears and was still shaky and bleary-eyed (and a little embarrassed) after Roberto nimbly guided me down.

That afternoon we crossed six progressively more terrifying bridges (the last of which consisted of two uneven logs set on rocks on either end of the waterfall) and I lost more resolve with each one. But with Roberto’s hand and my friends’ encouragement, I made it to camp where we all (even me, despite all the day’s waterworks) felt a sense of machismo when Roberto pointed out the massive mountain that we’d climbed. That night was our last camping. There was a makeshift shower at the farm—a spicket in the same stall as the hole-in-the-ground toilet—but no one showered. The mountain, after all, didn’t care that our legs were caked with mud. It didn’t even care that I’d cried.

You call that a bridge?

You call that a bridge?





Salkantay Flashback 2: Did You Say Hardcore?

21 01 2009

I continue to write as I could not last year, while actually trekking with no access to technology (or, for that matter, showers)…

Salkantay Day 2 was otherwise known as the “hard day” from pretty much everyone involved, with the exception of me, that is. Though I faced other trials later in the game, however, day 2 was nonetheless physically and mentally taxing. The cold, cold morning began with a quick breakfast and several hours of hiking up a virtually vertical trail (while it was, in all reality, definitely not vertical, it certainly felt that way). Our bodies weakened by the altitude we huffed and puffed all the more as we trudged up the seemingly endless trail in a dense mist.

Eventually, we reached the summit, 4,600 meters (uh, that’s about 15,000 feet, folks), sweaty and freezing, exhausted and ecstatic, only to then head back down the other side.

Suzanne, or Neil Armstrong? The mountain doesn't care...

Suzanne, or Neil Armstrong? The mountain doesn't care...

On the other side of the mountain the rocky terrain gave way to a lush, sloping valley, bistected by circuitous stone walls and shroded in mist. The whole scen was a bit reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. But when the “one hour to lunch” as promised by Roberto dripped into two, then three hours, limbs got heavy, morale began to wane, and ecstasy slowly but surely became exhaustion and weariness. Still, when I found myself on the trail by myself, technicolor green mountain to one side, raging river down below, I felt (despite a sinking fear that I’d somehow missed camp and was lost in the Andes by myself) a feeling of peace like no other I’d ever felt. It was the first, and perhaps only, time I’ve ever been utterly alone in that manner; my thoughts were clear and comforting, and it was as though I could hear nature, feel the spirit of the Incas. (As I write this, it sounds cheesy, but it’s so true.)

Finally I came upon Libby, and together we trudged along until finding lunch—only three hours after Roberto said we would. Another two hours of hiking followed lunch, but after sustenance it was far easier. Besides, we all had the satisfaction of having climbed a mountain and come down the other side.





Flashback: Salkantay

20 01 2009

I’ve spent most of today glued to coverage of the inauguration like everyone else in America, or, for that matter, the world. But euphoric as I was feeling all day long, I couldn’t help feeling slightly nostalgic. Today marks the one year anniversary of my departure on what was to be the hardest and most phenomenal journey I’ve yet to take in my life.

On January 20, 2008, I rose early with three friends I’d known just under six months, and joined four strangers and a guide on a van that would take us to the start of our five day trek. After breakfasting in the backyard of what appeared to be part general store and part someone’s home where one hut served for guinea pig roasting), we piled into the back of a rickety truck and careened up a narrow road in the verdant, craggy, dodging bushes, and holding on—to the side and to each other—as we toppled this way and that on flimsy plastic stools. Like so:

That evening we huddled together for warmth, drinking sweetened coca tea in hopes of fending off altitude sickness, in a food tent below the Salkantay glacier. After dinner we shivered outside in the black night and the mountain revealed its secrets: the mist cleared just enough to reveal the jagged peak of the glacier, icey, majestic, and unfathomable in the moonlight.

Nothing short of magic.

Nothing short of magic.





Where Will You Be?

15 01 2009

The day we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived.

Bush gives his farewell address tonight! And a quick thumbs up to Gail Collins for her piece in the Times is titled He’s Leaving. Really. Perhaps the best Op-Ed title. Ever.

But, much awaited and welcome as this evening is, it is not (if for no other reason that it’s yet another George W. speech) the highly anticipated, wracked with joy event of which I speak. America has been a buzz of excitement these past few weeks, looking forward to Tuesday with all out fervor. For two months I’ve passed a familiar face in shop windows all over the city, vendors selling every type of  “Yes We Did” paraphernalia imaginable, and next week it will finally be official.

The festivities begin with an inaugural celebration on Sunday at Lincoln Memorial and will last through the Wednesday prayer service, and four million lambs are expected to flock to D.C. this weekend to be part of the historic and joyful inauguration of lucky number 44.

I, alas, will remain in New York. Though I am close to D.C., it does happen to be a work day (and we are having our own Harlem Children’s Zone inauguration celebration) and I happen to not like crowds all that much. However, for those who are braver than I, there is good news: if you’d like to go to D.C. but aren’t willing to promise your first born child for a much coveted hotel room, try staying with a local. Courtesy of Air Bed & Breakfast, local D.C. ers are offering rooms for rent, costing anywhere from $40-$100 a night. Easy to afford now that there’s a possibility of a tax credit. For more information on parties, getting to D.C., and even a Crash Kit, check out
www.crashtheinauguration.com
.

If you’re like me and can’t travel (or just fear being trampled) look local. Here in New York, where the streets danced on November 4, 2008, there will be no shortage of Obama celebrations, but local organizations around the country promise similar festivities. In California, Keith Carson, Alameda County Supervisor, has put together several days of interfaith/community service related events in honor of the new president and no doubt to get a head start on Obama’s Call to Service. Or if all else fails, plan your own party. Whatever you’re doing on January 20, though, it’s guaranteed to be one of those “I remember when…” moments.