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.

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Pennies from Manhattan

13 10 2008

When I was a freshman in high school (a long time ago), we were given a chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to read in my English class. The chapter, entitled “Seeing” is a meditation on what we see and how we see it. In it, the child Dillard enjoyed hiding pennies, and thrilled at the thought of a lucky passerby finding “a free gift from the universe.” The adult Dillard wonders who really gets excited by a penny, given that any small enjoyment or happy experience counts as a penny.

We only read the first few paragraphs for class, and I have yet to read the rest of it. And yet (being the nerd that I am) I perused those first two paragraphs so thoroughly and so often that to this day I can recite them from memory, almost verbatim. Yesterday I slowed down my fast-paced New York life for a bit, and Dillard’s words returned to me: “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.” Simple. Lovely. True.

And so, because in my actual struggling author poverty I too often forget to cultivate my figurative poverty, some pennies:

1) Fall days. I know I pull the California girl and have a tendency to be whiny and annoying when winter rolls around. But despite the fact that it’s the season before winter, fall is fabulous. Yesterday was one of those perfect days that sets all the city into a buzz of activity: warm but not sticky, with a light fresh breeze and that great crisp scent that can only really be had in a place with seasons (sorry California).

2) Bethesda Terrace. Dominated by Bethesda Fountain, this area overlooks the lake, where city slickers can (gasp!) row boats, and can be entered or exited through the stunning, tiled arcade that’s more reminiscent of ancient Rome than modern New York (at least to this New Yorker).

Can you say picturesque?

Can you say picturesque?

3) Eccentricities. While lost in the park I came upon many of these, but two were particularly notable. The first was an elderly man with a bushy beard dyed green and orange, dressed in a frilly lace dress and a gold hat with a bird on it, and dancing to rhythmic drums to the delight of a crowd of onlookers. The second was a tiny (and by tiny I mean about eight years old) street performer who silently and adeptly performed a series of circus tricks, adroitly juggling rings, then balls before moving on to a unicycle. Amazingly enough, less people stopped to watch him.

And I end, these being just a sampling of the pennies I picked up in the course of my Sunday. Perhaps one day does a millionaire make.





How I Almost Became My Mother

28 03 2008

My mother is a worrier. She worries about everything, especially everything having to do with her children. And with five children she’s basically spent most of the last 42 years worrying. Being the youngest, and probably the most adventurous, I seem to give my mother the most to worry about these days. She nearly drove herself to insanity with worry when I chose to drive across the country with friends at age 20, and when I moved to New York by myself she almost took my siblings with her.

Funny side note: On a rainy day when we were in Venice together I left breakfast to use the restroom and decided to retrieve my rain jacket from its holding place with the rest of my backpacking gear under the bus. When I stayed on the bus while it drove around to pick up the rest of our tour group, my mother (of course) noted my absence and jumped to the logical conclusion that her healthy 22-year-old daughter had fallen in the bathroom and couldn’t get up to call anyone.

Needless to say, Mom’s worrying has given her children a lot to laugh at over the years. And by the time I was heading Argentina on my own I was used to it. I, it seems, am not a worrier. Not usually at least…

I am typically of the “no plan is a good plan” travel mentality, and have accordingly experienced much hilarity from simply going with the flow. But every once in a while the planner in me comes out, and it did just that in Northwest Argentina. In San Salvador de Jujuy I met another girl, Da, and we decided to head up to Humahuaca for Carnaval together. Given the festival weekend, there was a lot of talk about the inevitable scarcity of beds there. This hasn’t stopped me in the past, but for some reason it made me nervous. Da, however, was ready to go.

I determined that I couldn’t miss out on experiencing Carnaval and next thing I knew I was on a bus to Uquía, which we thought would be a better bet since it is outside town. We arrived around 7 p.m. and knocked on the door of their ONE hostel. The man didn’t even open the door all the way before telling us they were too full. Much to my chagrin I soon found myself following Da around while she asked people if we might sleep on their couches. Then we clambered across the river, where we’d heard a woman had cabins. After wandering a while in no man’s land we came upon two houses, and a man outside the first pointed us even further up the road to the woman.

When we reached her house a young girl came out and asked us to wait, which seemed a good sign. But the proprietor’s face said all. We tried to make ourselves as pathetic as possible, and pointed at the vast empty room behind her, begging for even a tiny space on the floor there just so long as it was sheltered, but to no avail. The thought of two young women without a place to sleep didn’t bother this woman one bit. Clearly she is not my mother, who not only worries about her own children but everyone else’s too. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming increasingly more like my mother as the situation became more dire. I started hearing her worry voice in my head, and kicking myself for not following my initial instincts. My “fearless female traveler” self was waning, and fast.

I kept repeating to myself my former travel adventures: arriving in Bacharach, Germany and hiking half an hour uphill in my heavy pack to the castle hostel that had told me over the phone he had no rooms and then convincing him to lay out mattresses in his conference room (and we got a discount), driving around Bordeaux, France unable to find accommodations and ultimately sleeping in our rental cars (only to find out the next morning that our “safe” hospital parking lot” was right under the helicopter landing pad)… But my previous adventures did nothing to ease the gnawing feeling in my gut that something was going terribly wrong.

All this worry snowballed into yet another strain of worry: worry about my worry. Unlike my mother, I’m not usually a worrier. Or at least not in the same way. I often make myself crazy with thought, but that (I always tell myself) is not the same as worry. And especially in travel adventures I’m not the one to worry, so what was wrong? Am I getting old? Am I turning into my mother? Am I losing my sense of adventure?

Luckily, I never found out, because my planless plan (however worrisome) turned out to be one of the most rewarding adventures of my trip. Da and I went back to the “cabins” on the lady’s property to ask the man who had last directed us to her house if we might stay with him. He gestured to the five children playing in his yard and suggested the cabin next door. Again we were pathetic and pleaded with the man who answered the door for a sliver of his floor. He hesitated but was definitely considering.

Finally he left to ask his wife, and after ten agonizing minutes returned and invited us inside. The cabin (which they were renting from the lady who is definitely not like my mom) afforded barely enough space for the family of four, but Patricio and his family welcomed us in, offering us mate and chatting with us about our respective countries (Da is from China). When the time came they drove us into Humahuaca for the evening’s Carnaval celebrations. The whole way their eight-year-old twins, Octavio and Julia chattered away about their vacation and asked us question after question about America and China.

Upon arrival in Humahuaca we split up (it was at this time that I split my toe), and as we left them for a delicious meal and revelry I laughed at myself for ever having worried. In the course of our wanderings that night Da and I found a woman with two beds for let in her house, and promptly paid her for them, not out of want to escape our family but in hope of making their last night of vacation a little easier.

When we found the family again Octavio instantly took my hand and began chattering away about his night, firing questions about mine in rapid Spanish. (I was smitten.) After Da and I had retrieved our things there were hugs all around and Eugenia, the mother, made us each promise to call her when we were back in Buenos Aires. She would cook for us. And so I reluctantly left my new family with the realization that the very adventure that made me “become my mother” for those few short moments actually allowed me to find her (in Argentina).

And even better than that? We discovered that my new littler brother and I had the same sweater:

“Siblings” in their Sweaters





The Other St. Patrick’s

25 03 2008

Last week was all about St. Patrick’s Day debauchery (and a very winsome horse). This week I have a different St. Patrick’s in mind, the one I visited over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I’d just dropped off my last “waitressing resume” of the day at a cute Nolita cafe, where the somewhat frazzled and very grumpy manager gave it a cursory once-over, and then asked my availability before brusquely informing me that he’d be calling people on Monday for interviews (translation: “I’m not interested in hiring you so get out of my sight.”) After much the same success all day, and with aching feet and whirling head, I self-pityingly plodded my way along Mott street on the way home.

But my dreams of a nice glass of wine and some self-indulgent chocolate came to an abrupt halt when I saw a lovely church in the middle of Mott Street. Still not having decided where I would go for Easter Mass, I decided to get closer and see if it was Catholic. Not only was it Catholic, it was Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a landmark about which I’ve been curious for a while. The facade is nothing much as far as cathedrals go (St. Patrick’s having burned down in a fire in 1866, was hastily rebuilt in two years and thus gave up its grand facade), but the inside is lovely. It’s similar in style, though not in scale, to the larger and more famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there is something so warm and welcoming about it that I decided I would attend Easter mass there.

On Sunday I journeyed out of my way to attend mass at the new special church, and was not disappointed. Not only did the priest give a beautiful (and well-appointed given my weekend bout of self-pity) sermon, but the music was lovely (some unseen and very rich male voice) and the church itself a friendly place. It was a stark contrast from my experience when my mother visited last year and requested that we attend mass at the lovely, sacred St. Patrick’s. The awe-inspiring interior and spectacular sense of place waned a good deal with the lector gave a speech before offertory about how much one should pay when the basket came around. Not only was the “price” of mass exorbitant, I found it slightly distasteful to have said anything at all: yes, there were many tourists in the church who may not understand mass, but it almost felt like this mass was yet another overpriced trip to the top of the Empire State Building.

Not so at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where the vaulted ceilings and ornate altar are augmented by a larger sense of community and history. At the final blessing, the priest welcomed all those Easter-only attendees and told a little about the church, mainly that its cemetery and crypt house the ancestors of those in the area, and probably many of those among us in the congregation. This was particularly apropos given that entering the church that very morning I had noticed a plaque on the door memorializing someone named Louis Russo, possibly of no relation but I like to ponder some distant bloodline.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was the second Catholic Church in the U.S. and has a long and tumultuous history, which includes persecution of its people (who fought to protect it), a fire in 1866, and a cameo in one of America’s favorite movies, The Godfather. In its cemetery are buried many of the heroic men from its early Irish parish, who fought in the 69th regiment of the Civil War Battle of Bull Run (the only regiment that didn’t flee). Over time Italian immigrants populated the area and the parish became less Irish, but today it is a mix of all, mostly Italians, Dominicans, and a large enough Chinese following to warrant a Chinese-language mass.

Whatever its parish, it is a lovely landmark with a rich history, and perhaps one of the most overlooked attractions in the city. For more on the church’s fascinating history, check out this very thorough (and entertaining) podcast by my friend and former employer Tom and his partner Greg, otherwise known as New York’s history podcasters extraordinaire, The Bowery Boys.

Lesson learned: The St. Patrick’s on 50th is breathtaking, and definitely a sight to see, but next time the parents visit I’m taking them to the original. (For those also wanting to visit, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is located on the corner of Mott St. and Prince.)