Treat Yo'Self - A Pike's Place Philosophy

Tomorrow is my mom's birthday!  When my brothers and I were growing up, our birthdays gave us the right to make one kingly decree: We could request any special dinner for that night.  One time, I got a little drunk with this birthday power and requested a sit-down dinner at Fazoli's, the fast food pasta chain.  I had first eaten Fazoli's at school, when it was catered for a special hot lunch, and thought it was magical.  Don't worry...over time, I got wiser.  I realized that my mom was a seriously good cook and started requesting that she prepare my favorite dishes.  

So this morning, in the spirit of nostalgia and birthdays and Saturdays, I prepared homemade cinnamon rolls for my mom.  The recipe for these rolls caught my eye because--despite calling for healthier substitutes of the "normal" ingredients--the reviews said nothing about the end product tasting like chalk.    

The rolls were actually quite simple to make and I was really pleased with how they turned out. Plus, my mom seemed to really like them!  The recipe is from the Diva Dish, and I made it exactly as written [link to recipe].  

As we noshed on the rolls + some fresh fruit, we discussed birthday plans, settling on: (a) a pilgrimage to spend all of those amazing coupons you get in the mail on the month of your birthday (b) lunch at our local bookstore café, a joint straight out of "You've Got Mail" that serves the most fantastic apple roast pork sandwiches you've ever eaten in your life, (c) picking up dinner from the new craft pizza joint and enjoying it while in our comfies, figuring out what Downton Abbey is all about and (c) Dessert...duh.  

In typing this up, I'm realizing that 75% of these plans involve the pursuit of amazing food.  Whatever, there's a birthday involved...Treat. Yo. Self.

Planning a day of birthday binging deliciousness reminds me of the time my mom and I spent exploring our inner foodie at Pike's Place Market in Seattle. "Eat Something Delicious from Pikes Place Market" is an item from the original bucket list, which means that I've been eyeing this gastronomic mecca for a little over a decade. At this time last month, when my mom and I were frolicking in the greater Seattle area, I knew my time had come.

We spent our last afternoon in Seattle sampling our way through Pike's Place Market.  We had gotten some great ideas of places to go from a Flourishing Foodie article, but allowed ourselves to wander as well.   At each vendor that caught our eye, we would order a small item and split it, which was an excellent strategy that allowed us to treat ourselves without getting too full.  Below are our favorites!

Raspberry Ginger Greek Yogurt from Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt.  This was a decadent creamy treat, unlike any yogurt I've had before.  The kick of the ginger was mellowed out by the sweetness of the raspberry. If my appetite had allowed, I would have stopped here twice.

Pumpkin Pie Tea from Market Spice.  I am a coffee girl, through and through. I take it black, preferably through an IV.  Having said that, I was so intrigued by the sheer amount of tea flavors available.  Cherry Almond?  Gingerbread?  PUMPKIN PIE!?!  Here, take my money.

Cinnamon Cardamom Braid from Piroshky Piroshky.  This Russian bakery serves up some interesting meat pies, but since most of them were made with cheese, I had to steer toward something else in order to save my stomach.  The cinnamon cardamom braid was an excellent alternative, and just the way I like my baked goods--not too sweet, with an interesting texture.

Fresh Crab and a Jumbo Shrimp.  We walked up to one of the many seafood vendors, ordered a small hunk o' crab meat and two jumbo shrimps.  It wasn't a pre-arranged dish with any special ingredients or anything, but for fresh seafood, all you need is a fork. 

Peach Ginger Beer from Rachel's Ginger Beer.  Ginger in anything tastes good, but ginger beer is out of this world.  At the Rachel's Ginger Beer location in Pike's Place, you can order a number of interesting cocktails, anything from a Moscow Mule to some concoction called the "Suffering Bastard".  Or you can order one of their uniquely-flavored ginger beers straight up, which is what I did.  

A Huge Oyster Oh yeah, we also ordered a couple of these from a seafood vendor.  I'll just let these pictures speak for themselves...

All of this talking about food has really gotten me hungry again.  Time to start the birthday activities :)  #Treatyoself2015

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Secret Nerd Behaviors and That Time I Visited Endor

There's this one episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie talks about Secret Single Behaviors, or the things you do alone and in the privacy of your own home because you'd be too embarrassed if people found out just how weird you are.  Carrie's is something like spreading jelly on saltines and eating them while standing up in her kitchen.  I know...IS THAT SERIOUSLY ALL THAT SHE WILL ADMIT TO?  

I could tell you about my Secret Single Behavior...but I won't ;).  Instead I'm going to tell you about my Secret Nerd Behavior (SNB), a distant cousin to the Secret Single Behavior.  The SNB is a nerdy hobby that you keep secret because someone has already labeled you as a "cool kid" and you don't want to ruin your street cred.  I'm 99% certain that I have never been labeled a "cool kids", but I still have a SNB that I've kept to myself.  Until now.

When my brothers and I were young, my parents instituted a 3-night summer event that I'll call "Star Wars Trilogy Nights".  We did this every year, and attendance was not optional. I remember my mom calling the payphone at the neighborhood pool (yes, I'm ancient), to summon me for Star Wars Trilogy Nights, after which I would speed home on my bike to catch Han Solo.  Even my 12-year-old self knew he was a total babe.  Plus, you know, light saber battles.  

The Star Wars factoids I retained from all those years of Trilogy Nights have been locked away in my memory, only to be resurfaced 15 years later on a misty afternoon in Mount Rainier National Park.  Upon arriving at the park, my mom and I didn't have much time, so we decided on walking an easy 1-mile loop known as the Grove of the Patriarchs.  The hike takes you across a suspension bridge to an island sanctuary where ancient trees ~1000 years old continue to grow, protected from forest fires. 

If you only have an afternoon in Mount Rainier National Park, I highly recommend that you spend it hiking the Grove of the Patriarchs, just as my mom and I did.  For the small amount of effort required (this trail is perfect for small children or anyone elderly), it delivers a satisfying level of adventure.   Plus, there's the added bonus that it is basically Endor, a moon in the Star Wars universe covered by giant trees and inhabited by lovable Ewoks.  Any Star Wars enthusiast spending at least 2 seconds in the Grove of the Patriarchs will  be imagining scenes from the Battle of Endor, aka the battle where Princess Leia rocked camo and a bunch of glorified teddy bears took out a band of Vadar's storm troopers.

Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi Image Credit: http://tinyurl.com/q6pse42

Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi

Image Credit: http://tinyurl.com/q6pse42

Grove of the Patriarchs Photo Stream
Mother Daughter Trip III: Grove of the Patriarchs

Mother Daughter Trip III: Grove of the Patriarchs

Although the Star Wars Trilogy Nights are a thing of the past, they've been replaced by something exponentially better.  I'm dating someone who has introduced me to the Lord of the Rings films and insists that periodically, we watch the extended editions in chunks throughout the week. Thank God he has a Secret Nerd Behavior to rival my own.  Also, thank God he's way more handsome than Han Solo. ;)


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Vacationer and Vacationing - Bro Sis 2.0

Marc and Michael are music snobs.  I don't dish out the "snob" assessment lightly, but believe me...they earn it.  

"Ugh, the key changes!" cries Marc.

"'iiiiii will waiiiiiiiiiittttttttt...' Do you think Marcus Mumford will wait? I don't think he'll wait." whines Michael.

The bane of their existence is the iTunes top 10.  They pine after EPs that weren't followed up with solid albums.  They howl with laughter at the fact that people actually pay to see Taylor Swift.  So yeah, they're my lovable little music snobs.  

The nice thing about having Snobby McSnobbersons as brothers is that, they find (and share) the BEST music.  Over the past couple of years, my brothers have slowly introduced me to the Last Bison and Lord Huron, both of which I really liked listening to when working on the blog.  Michael has also been buying tickets to concerts and inviting me to go along.  We've seen the Last Bison, Lord Huron, and--as of Friday night--Vacationer.  The concert was as Bottom Lounge in Chicago and it was second only to seeing Lord Huron live (that concert BLEW MY MIND).  Vacationer's performance was chill, like they were jamming in the lead singer's basement and invited me over for a sound check.  Totally my scene.

The sounds of Lord Huron and Vacationer represent what we try to achieve in our annual siblings trips.  [For those of you just joining, the first sibs trip was last year in Rocky Mountain National Park.  You can read more about that here and here and...here.]  The instrumentals of Lord Huron's songs give you a lost-in-the-woods feel, while Vacationer's songs transport you to some beach-side honky-tonk while you listen to the locals jam your worries away.  Just one listen, and you'll get it.  Listening to this stuff makes you want to get out there and EXPLORE ALL THE THINGS!  

For Bro-Sis 2.0, we chose Zion National Park as our destination, a far cry from the alpine tundra we conquered in Bro-Sis 1.0.  The drastic change in scenery illustrated the equally extreme change of events.  Bro-Sis 1.0 went off without a hitch; Bro-Sis 2.0...well, let's just say that we had some hurdles (you can read more about our ill-fated hike of the Narrows here).

Despite our near-disaster, we still managed to cover 27 miles in two days, with a memorable last-day hike.  Since spraining both of my ankles the previous day, I knew I only had one hike in me; there's no way I could have doubled down to do our usual AM and PM hikes.   We had heard so many good things about Angel's Landing and really were looking forward to crushing that and its "sister" hike, Observation Point, in the same day.  I was the weak link that forced us to choose :(.  Since we like to avoid crowds, we ended up choosing the less popular Observation Point and boy, am I glad we did.  I taped up both ankles, rented hiking poles from a local outfitter, and took it easy.  We hiked nearly the entire trail in solitude.  We passed beautiful slot canyons, colorful sandstone cliffs, and breathtaking views of the park at nearly every switchback.  When we finally reached the top, we were rewarded with sweeping, panoramic views of Zion Valley.  We actually looked down upon Angel's Landing, about a half mile away and at a slightly lower elevation than where we were perched. 

As we stood at the summit of Observation Point, I thought about how fortunate I was to be spending another year exploring a National Park with my brothers.  Good times like these are rare and fragile--how lucky was I to have had one in my pocket at that very moment!

Another Sibs Trip in the books also meant another state down in my all-50 quest. I am at 24/50...almost halfway!  Marc, Michael, and I are already starting to look at next year and are open to your suggestions.  Where should we go next? 


On Wild and Being the Adultiest Adult

My mom recently started a bookclub, but not just any bookclub.  In this bookclub, we read books that have been made into movies.  We vote on a book, read it at our own pace, and then get together at the end of the month to watch the movie in our comfies.  Layer on top of that the fact that all women's book clubs have wine.  Yes.  Yes to all of it.  I'm free that night.

For the inaugural month of this bombshell idea, the ladies of the club voted on reading "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed.  I had actually already seen the movie in theaters (and liked it), so I was excited to read the book, which is almost always better than the movie.  As I started listening (oh yeah, I now listen to audiobooks while running.  All about that life), something about the memoir irritated me, something that wasn't present in the movie.  It wasn't the series of horrible decisions that the author made that that were both hurtful and destructive...we all f&*^ up at some point.  It was that--strangely--she seemed to take pride in these poor decisions as she relayed them to her audience.  Perhaps this impression came from the inflections/intonations of the reader of the audiobook, but even so, I had trouble seeing Cheryl as the protagonist of her own story.  She was both protagonist and antagonist: someone so deeply hurt, but the one inflicting the hurt and then kind of...boasting (?) about it.  Maybe that's what she was going for.  If so, it was strange.  Not my scene. 

Despite not being totally on board with the overall tone of her memoir, I really liked hearing about the times when, due to elements beyond her control, her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail didn't go as planned.  For me, these sections were relatable; "game changers" happen to all hikers at some point or another, and I found myself nodding with empathy as she told me about hers.

In particular, these parts of the book called to mind a fiasco from this summer, during our annual siblings trip, "BroSis 2.0".  My brothers & I were deep in Zion National Park, hiking the northernmost, permit-controlled stretch of the Virgin River known as "the Narrows" when our game changer slapped us in the face.

Starting Out!

Starting Out!

When considering our options for hiking the Narrows, we all agreed:  We wouldn't follow the crowd, who hiked "bottom-up" until a mandatory turn-around point.  We would obtain the necessary permits to hike the entirety of the Narrows from the top-down, a 16 mile, one-day affair.  Described as "a LONG day", "strenuous-but-doable", and "16 miles that feel like 26", we were giddy with excitement.  This was the kind of adventure we loved!

Since the park shuttle did not support transportation to trailhead for those hiking top-down, we hired a local shuttle company. At dawn, our hired shuttle dropped us off at the trailhead and left.  We had put in about three miles when Marc, a few paces ahead of me, rolled up his sleeve and muttered "ohhhhh no."  

I caught up with him, grabbed his arm to take a look, and my stomach sank.  My poor brother was having an allergic reaction.  He had been bitten by some sort of insect and the ~15 bites had swollen to the size of golf balls.  A rash of hives was beginning to spread away from the bites, over most of his upper body.  I rifled through my first aid, praying I had remembered to put an antihistamine in there.  I had only a Benadryl cream, which we applied to the bites. 

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You know that moment when your first instinct is to look around for an adult, and then you realize that YOU are the adult?  Yeah.  That moment sucks.  I quickly ran through the options: we could go back to the trailhead, but nothing and no one would be there.  The van had left.  Even if we did turn around and go back, we still had to hike over 16 miles to our car, which was parked and ready at the southern trailhead.  We had no choice.  The quickest way out was through......a grueling 13 miles through.  "Tell me if you begin to have trouble swallowing or if you feel dizzy," I told Marc.  Marc and I caught up with Michael, filled him in, and agreed to double time the rest of the hike.

Picking up the pace was easier said than done.  When  hiking the Narrows, you don't just hike along the Virgin River...you hike IN IT.  Footing is uneven and slippery as you make your way along the shallow riverbed.  As a result of our frenzied speed and a poor choice in footwear (What I thought would be appropriate wasn't, see bottom for "Lessons Learned"), I sprained both of my ankles over the course of the next 13 miles.  

Somehow, despite the panic, and the alien bites and the two swollen ankles, we did it, and in record time.  Once we arrived at our rental car (which we had left near the southern trailhead) it was getting late. There was a pharmacy and clinic in Springdale, the town at the entrance of Zion National Park, but it was a Sunday night so everything was closed.  The nearest 24-hour pharmacy and ER were an hour away.  We started toward the pharmacy and called Dr. Dad.  After listening to Marc's symptoms, which had gotten worse, he called in a prescription for him. 

By the time we got Marc his meds and the swelling went down, it was late and we were exhausted.  Having eaten nothing but jerky and trail mix that day, we were also famished.  All of the restaurants in the area were closed, except for the In-N-Out, whose neon sign shown like a beacon of hope and grease.  As I ordered, I mentioned that this was the first time we had been to In-N-Out, something that the staff did not take lightly.  When we pulled around to the window to pick up our food, they supplied us with extra fries, hats, and stickers.  It was as if they knew everything we had been through that day!

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What happened that day made for a good story, but in all reality, we were not adequately prepared to handle what happened to Marc.  Things turned out ok, but I've definitely noted a few "Lessons Learned":

  1. First Aid: I will forevermore have an oral antihistamine in my pack.  We're still trying to determine why Marc had such a severe reaction, but we will also carry any other preventative or arresting epi pen/medicine that the Doctor recommends.
  2. Footwear: If you're going to hike the full Narrows like we did, sturdy hiking sandals are NOT enough.  The 16 miles of uneven footing will not feel good, you need ankle support. Several outfitters have rental equipment in varying packages and at varying prices.  A lot of them sell water socks as well, in case you're going at a time when the water is colder.
  3. Hiking Poles:  My brothers didn't need them, but I would have liked to have had them.  This is the second time I've said this.  I need to just buck up and go buy myself the poles.
  4. In-N-Out is out-of-control good. #fanforlife

Uruguay

People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.
— Maya Angelou

I've always loved this quote by Maya Angelou because it so perfectly expresses the way I experience my memories.  When I recall moments of my life, the emotions I felt at the time resurface quickly and crisply, standing resolutely as the other details trickle lazily into my consciousness, taunting me with the knowledge that its only a matter of time before they don't show up at all.  

In retelling the stories of my travels, this pattern is especially true.  I forgot the ludicrous things that the "one-upper-hiker" said, the things I found so hilarious that I howled with laughter when he was out of earshot.  I forgot which arrondissement I stayed in during each visit to Paris.  I forgot what my girlfriends and I did on our trip to Belgium after we learned that our Couchsurfing host was a total creep. 

What I remember is the emotions that each place, with it's unique personality and pulse, stirred within me.  Like the people in the Maya Angelou quote, these places make you feel something, and that's the stuff that sticks with you, even when the other details fade away.  I can tell you with certainty that Paris made me feel grown up.  Rome made me feel sexy for the first time in my life.  In Munich, I felt utterly alone.

Having spent only one day in Uruguay, I didn't expect to make dent in exploring the country.  Even so, Uruguay left its mark on me.  Maite and I arrived in Colonia del Sacremento from Buenos Aires, just as the sleepy city was waking.  As we wandered the empty cobblestone streets of the historic quarter, cafe owners slowly set up their outdoor patio furniture.  We lunched in  riverside cafes, shopped  in quaint stores for items we didn't need (but were too cute to pass up), and enjoyed the afternoon sun as we strolled.  

I felt transported back to a simpler time.  I felt at peace.  And this is exactly how I shall remember it.


Food. Friends. Argentina.

If you have a social media account, you're no stranger to the perfectly-staged foodie photo.  I know I'm guilty!  I mean look at me..I'm pathetic -->

In between taking pictures of my salads and then of my cupcakes (#moderation), I'll be the first to admit that the food photos, no matter how colorful and eye-catching, can't possibly convey the social goodness behind the lens.  Taking stock of my most recent Instagram foodie photos, I find a few examples:

Those pretty s'mores cupcakes prove looks can be deceiving.  These tasted like sand, but the guests at the party spared my feelings by each taking one and nodding in God-Bless-Them approval.  We ended the night by having a marshmallow fight around the bonfire. 

My mom made that salad for a girls' night this past Spring.  We got tipsy over couple of bottles of crisp white wine and howled with laughter while re-hashing funny stories.  

So you see, in my "real" life and in my travels, food has proven to be so much more than the perfectly-Pinterest-worthy photos.  It's part of the story of fellowship, conversation, and sharing.  

My photos from Argentina were mostly of food (we ate A LOT!), but none of them made it to Instagram.  At the time, there weren't enough hashtags in the world to describe the great times I had while sharing meals with colleagues-turned-friends.  I hope that in sharing them with you now, accompanied by the stories they deserve, I can convey the exquisite hospitality and irresistible flavors of Argentina.

People who love to eat are always the best people.
— Julia Child

I first arrived in Argentina, a trifecta of unpleasantness: sweaty, stinky, and sleepy.  Maite, my friend (and colleague), had arranged for someone to collect me from the airport and bring me back to her place in Buenos Aires.  As I scanned the hazy airport, I didn't see anyone holding a sign with my name on it and I felt a tiny prickle of panic on the back of my neck.  Then, right as I was shifting into my problem solving mode, I saw Maite herself, waving her arms and rushing toward me in the airport.  

After greeting me with a big hug and customary kiss on the cheek, she explained that when her afternoon meeting had a last-minute cancellation, she rushed to the airport to pick me up herself.  She brought me back to her lovely condo in one of the neighborhoods of B.A. and--taking stock of my obvious fatigue--encouraged me to take a shower and nap while she finished working.  

After a  much-needed rest, we officially kicked off my stay in Argentina with a wine toast and grand plans for dinner at Cafe de Maite (I say this only mildly in jest.  She is a seriously talented chef).  I love sampling wines when I travel and the Malbec that Mai had selected was no different.  Fruity and full, it perfectly complemented the traditional sausage appetizer she prepared.  

Filling our glasses as we went, we chatted excitedly about plans for our long weekend ahead, and prepared the next round of our Argentine feast.  Which, by the way, was A STEAK THE SIZE OF MY HEAD (!!!) accompanied by a light salad.  With each bite of my steak, I came to a more complete understanding of why Argentina is so famous for its beef.  This beef was like *woah*.

After demolishing both the steak and the bottle of wine, Maite gave me a birthday gift of 1 Kilo of dulce de leche aka the nectar of the gods.  Like a kid in a candy shop, I broke into the package and had my first spoonful, cracking up at the thought of carting this kilo of goodness back to the US in my suitcase. (Editor's note: The best strategy is to eat it all in Argentina and simply request a seatbelt extension for your flight home).

I will just whip up a corn soufflé.
— Maite, Gormande Extraordinaire

Maite's niece, Cele, was also staying with her on the weekend that I was visiting.  On the nights that we cooked and dined in, Cele would join us for dinner.  With Mai as an unofficial translator and Cele's willingness to step outside of her comfort zone and speak English, we had wonderful conversations. We talked about Cele's passion for animals and bonded over our shared love of food and Maite's cat, Simon. With food as the universal language that we all spoke, those nights the three of us spent together are some of my fondest memories of Argentina.  We noshed on Mai's homemade corn souffles, potato cakes, vegetables roasted to the point of perfection, salad caprese canapes, meringues with homemade lemon curd...What can I say?  We feasted!

A party without cake is just a meeting
— also Julia Child

Before coming to South America, I was prepared to eat a lot of meat and empanadas in Argentina.  What I wasn't prepared for was how much Argentinians love their desserts.  The surprise was a pleasant one. In the name of cultural immersion, Maite made it her mission to have me sample all of the local favorites.  We ate dessert in little neighborhood cafes, dessert at home, dessert after meals out at a restaurant.  After *ahem* extensive research, below are some of the sweet treats I tried, ranked in order of deliciousness.  Now there is no secret to why I gained back every kilo I lost on the Inca trail.

1. Helado - ice cream

I've had a lot of different kinds of ice cream, but believe me when I say that it's just better here.   Better-than-Italian-gelato-better.  There is no contest, this wins every. single. time.

2. Alfajores - the Argentina Oreo

In my mind there are two basic kinds of alfajores, although my friends from Buenos Aires would assuredly argue that there are far more varieties.  I prefer the kind of alfajore with two crisp, savory cornstarch cookies with thick layers of dulce de leche sandwiched between them.  I'm not as keen on the softer kind of alfajore, which has more delicate book-ending cookies and is covered in a thin layer of chocolate. 

3. Panqueques de dulce de leche - crêpe with dulce de leche

On my last night in Argentina, Cele made these homemade for us.  We ate them with dulce and helado and all was right with the world.  Maybe it's my French roots, but anything with a crêpe is bound to be good (probably because bad cooks do not attempt the crêpe).

4.  Queso y dulce - block of cheese + sweet potato paste

This is a strange dessert, but I can't help but like it.  Maite ordered it as a sweet treat after a meal of empanadas and tamales.  It's not too sweet and the creamy cheese is complimented perfectly by the thick layer of sweet potato jam on top.  If you can get over the texture and don't want a sugar rush, this is the dessert is for you.

5. Rogel - sweet layer cake

This is a traditional dish that is the most un-cake-like cake you'll ever eat.  It's actually crispy!  And the frosting is hard!  But the thin wafer layers are made a little chewy by the equally thin layers of dulce de leche that separate them, so it has a very interesting texture.  Careful, though.  It's super sweet and even a dessert connoisseur like me was on the struggle bus to finish it. 

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.
— Cesar Chavez

At the time of my trip, I worked in an international team with six members: myself, a woman from Canada, a woman from New Jersey, and three people from Buenos Aires.  We communicated primarily via IM, and conference/video calls.  Though these forms of communication don't seem very substantial, I slowly got to know my colleagues.  In between "business as usual", we got a video tour of Rodo's kitchen remodel project, encouraged Kari to finish her thesis, and had a virtual baby showers for the three women on the team.  We dressed up in home-made costumes for our team call on Halloween.   We came to know that the cat meowing in the background was Lucky and the details of the painting that always hung in Jeannine's dining room when she worked from home.  A slow connectedess formed over the years, so when I came to Buenos Aires on vacation, I HAD to officially meet the people I worked with every day. 

One of my colleagues, Ana, and her husband graciously opened her home to us for the occasion.  We all gathered for an asado.  A loose equivalent of an asado in the US is the BBQ, but that comparison seems unfair.  Whereas an American BBQ means grilling up a few burgers and dogs, an Argentine asado is a full-afternoon affair.  It begins many hours before you sit down to eat, where the man of the household (in this case, Ana's husband) start tending to the meat.  He grilled the meat in a kind of outdoor hearth while Ana poured us some wine and her boys played futbol in the backyard.

It was excellent to meet my colleagues face-to-face after three years of working virtually.  Although I originally thought I had known them pretty well, I gained a fuller sense of who they were that afternoon.  We chatted about my impressions of Argentina so far, of the Argentina way, of their holiday plans, and what was going on outside of work.

Before we knew it, part one of our meal was ready:  grilled chorizo, blood sausage, grilled provolone cheese, and crusty bread.  I was a little anxious to try the blood sausage, and my colleagues laughed at me as I took my first bit and the anxiety in my face turned to delight.  More wine was served, and Ana's husband proudly produced the asado that he had so expertly grilled.  It was served on a platter that had coals in the bottom...to keep the meet constantly hot and delicious.  This asado, was so impressive!  What flavor!  I remembered all of the Monday team calls where my Argentine colleagues mentioned attending an asado over the weekend and how I made the (incorrect) association that this meant they had grilled up a few steaks on their patio.  This was so wildly different, richer really, than anything I had imagined previously.  The meal finished with--of course--helado (ice cream) and more relaxing time as friends around the table.

From the moment I arrived to our emotional goodbyes, I was treated as one of their own, unofficially family, an honorary Argentine.  How humbling, how incredibly special to me, to be treated with such hospitality and given the very best!  I smile even now at the wonderful memory.  

Upon being back in the US for nearly six months, these memories are still fresh and were intensified by the accompaniment of food and friendship.  My time in Argentina was a good reminder to slow down at meal times, to always welcome friends warmly into my home, and that photos of food almost always have a great story behind it.

Success is Not Steady State

This past weekend, I ran the Green Bay Half Marathon.  Maybe saying I "ran" it is a bit generous; much to my dismay, I walked all of Mile 10.  Yes, my stomach revolted and yes it was 95% humidity, but neither completely excuses away my poor performance.  The reality of it is that I didn't adequately train.  

But why not?  I didn't roll out of bed on an arbitrary Sunday and have some militant runner czar say "you! woman! Run as fast as you can for 13 miles."  I signed up for the race months ago and had plenty of time to train.  Why didn't I?

The problem, my friends, is success and the complacency that follows.

Sept 2013 - Averaged 8:57 min/mile 

June 2014 - Averaged an 8:58 min/mile

I had trained many hours for the 1:57 half marathon time in Sept '13, and worked equally as hard for the 8:58 min/mile in the Ragnar relay last June 2014.  Once I achieved my long-coveted sub-9 min/mile, I subconsciously checked out.  I stopped religiously cross training with Nike Training Club 3x per week.  My quality mid-distance speed work with hills became more and more sparse.  I was still working out, but I shifted into auto-pilot.  Big time.

And it showed.  I don't know what I expected, but this half marathon was tough both mentally and physically.  My shins groaned at Mile 1.  I entertained walking the entire thing at Mile 4.  I puked right before Mile 10.  I crossed the finish line with a an average 9:28 min/mile and negative personal pride.  I was better than this.  I am better than this.

May 2015 - Averaged 9:28 min/mile

I'm noticing a similar situation as I start the next phase of my career.  For the past 3 years, I've worked on a team that helped the finance department understand our company's accounting software, solving ad hoc problems along the way.  While on this team, I conditioned myself to become proficient. With time, experience, and some late nights, I became--allegedly--an expert.  In other words, I had achieved my professional equivalent of a sub-9-min/mile.  

With that expertise came a certain level of comfort.  The comfort wasn't detrimental to the role I was in, but it was detrimental in preparing my mental faculties for this new role.  In the new role, I'm running a new race, and I'm realizing that parts of my mental muscle aren't in shape.  I'm not fast enough. 

Yet.  

To get my mojo back, both professionally and on the race course, I'm going to need to put in some serious sweat.  Lace up, we're in for the long haul.

Two If By Sea - Naval Highlights Along the Freedom Trail [Boston]

In 7th grade, maybe 8th, I was assigned a report on Benjamin Franklin.  I don't remember much about the report itself, only that I went wild in my research.  It started out with a collection of small books from the library (yes, we actually used books as references, I'm ancient).  These books were more than enough to fulfill the assignment, and I tore through them rapidly.  Wanting to find out more, I checked out the fattest Benjamin Franklin book I could find and read that too--cover to cover.  He was a fascinating dude and I was genuinely interested in learning as much as I could.

Marking the way of the Freedom Trail, a pedestrian walkway through Boston historical sites

As I've grown older, I don't dive that wholly into new subjects or ideas as often as I'd like.  Part of it is an issue of time.  After sharpening skills required for my profession, nurturing my relationships, investing in my health, and doing etc...there's not much time left in the day for exploring new topics that pique my interest.

I'm always excited when I can explore a new topic while on vacation, as that's when all the other demands for my time lighten up.  Plus, sometimes your vacation destination itself invites immersing yourself in a new subject or idea.  Last year, on a trip to Washington DC, for example, Chase and I went to both Smithsonian Air and Space museums (the one downtown and the one out in Chantilly), he gave me a crash course in aerodynamics.  

On a weekend trip to Boston last fall, we did much the same thing.  Of course, our primary motivation for the trip was to see our friends that live there, but they were excited to take us out and showcase their new city.  One day, we walked the Freedom Trail and learned a little bit more about the leaders that shaped our nation. 

One of the highlights from the Freedom Trail was seeing good ol' Iron Sides.  You remember ol'Iron Sides, right?  From your history books?  First launched in 1797, it is one of the original 6 frigates of the US Navy.  The nickname didn't come until the War of 1812, during a battle with a British warship, Guerriere.  During that battle, the Guerriere shot 18 lb iron cannons into the USS Constitution, but they just seemed to bounce off of the oak and copper hull of the USS Constitution.  One British soldier allegedly called out: "Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!" which gave birth to the nickname.  

Our timing could have not been more perfect--from 2015 - 2017, the USS Constitution is being dry docked for another large-scale restoration.  We got to see right before that happened!  With the ship in the water and a crisp fall day as a backdrop, I felt like we were back in 1797, seeing the ship launched in all of its glory.  

Although it is not officially part of the Freedom Trail, another highlight for us was seeing the USS Cassin Young, which is an example of the destroyers that were built at the Charleston Navy Yard in the early 1940s.  

These ships are clearly machines of war.  On board are torpedoes and several types of artillery that I couldn't identify but I'm sure have menacing names.  The USS Cassin Young fought in the Pacific campaign of World War II, rescuing men from sinking aircraft carriers in the Philippines and shooting down kamikaze planes off Okinawa.  The heroic track record of the destroyer mirrors the heroism of its namesake, Cassin Young.  Cassin Young received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery earlier in the war, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in fact.  Serving on one of these ships in World War II must have been high on fear and low on personal space; it makes me admire the bravery and respect the sacrifice of our Navy.

 

As for the rest of the trail, we felt a part of history walking by Paul Revere's house, the Old Church ("one if by land, two if by sea"), and the Bunker Hill Monument, to name a few. 

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring US history with our friends while crossing off another state in the mission to visit all 50.  I have no doubt that we will be back to Boston.  After all of my junior high research on Benjamin Franklin, we didn't have much time to dedicate to "his" sites.  For shame.  Next time!

On Foggy Times and Turning 27 in Cloud City

On my 27th birthday, I woke at 3:30 am and hiked the last leg of the Inca Trail.  It was a couple of easy miles to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu known for it's spectacular early morning views, as the first rays of sun bathe the ruins in golden light.  Alas, Mother Nature was in a foul mood that day; it was bucketing rain and you couldn't see further than a few feet ahead.  My "spectacular early-morning view" from the Sun Gate looked a bit like this.  

I was soaked, tired, and these clouds decided to crash my birthday party.  I'll cry if I want to.  

You have got to be kidding me.

The group deflated as we realized that we might not get a good view of the ruins at all that day and we dejectedly walked toward the MP entrance, where we paid to stow our big backpacks.  Our guides gave a foggy tour and then left us to our own devices for a few hours before our farewell lunch down in Aguas Calientes, the base town of Machu Picchu.  Some gave up hope of a clear day and headed down the mountain early, but not me.  Machu Picchu was the only part of this trip that was actually on my bucket list, and I was not giving up!  So I waited.  And waited.  Ever so patiently, I waited.

Patience, the clouds will lift

I thought it fitting to wait for the clouds to clear; after all, the past year had been a lesson in patience.  

I thought back to last October, when I sold my condo and put nearly everything I own in storage.  Since then, I've been living out of a suitcase, a gypsy that bounces between my parent's house in Chicago and Chase's house in Dayton.  I haven't bought a new place yet because there is something better on the horizon.  For a action-oriented person like me, it was tough to admit that the best course of action was to pause and wait for my something better to arrive. 

I also thought about the career changes that had consumed my energy the past 8 months.  I was particular about what direction I wanted to go, which led to a resume overhaul and lengthy job search.  I was so frustrated at times, as nothing was turning up despite my best efforts.  Upon my return from South America, an opportunity--one that I had previously considered a long shot--actually came to fruition.  I have an exciting, yet unclear road ahead and I have to be ever patient as I navigate it...but more about that in another post. :)

Maybe "hiking through the fog and rain" is necessary off, as well as on, the Inca Trail in order to have a chance at the experiencing something great.  Maybe having a foggy view of what lies ahead intensifies our reaction to what's there when the clouds lift.  I certainly felt that intensity at Machu Picchu, when things finally cleared up.  

The vastness of the city and the precision with which it was built completely overwhelmed me.  It's incredible that the Incas transformed blocks of white granite stone into bricks fitting so tightly together that--500 years later--you can't wedge a blade in between them.   Not only that, but they didn't have steel or iron at their disposal to hammer the granite into the desired shape.  They used rocks to carve rocks.  They were so ahead of their time from an engineering and astrology perspective too.  They build hundreds of terraces to keep the city from sliding down the mountain side and used their knowledge of the cosmos to determine the exact placement of important buildings.

If something as incredible as Machu Picchu was under all of that fog, I think my patience will pay off when the veil lifts on some of the unknowns in my life.  

Later that night, as complete strangers sung me "happy cumpleaños" in some remote corner of the world, I made a decision about this year's bucket list additions.  I want to steer the bucket list "closer to home".  

Yes, the bucket list items involving exotic destinations are glamorous, not to mention a complete blast.  But lately, I've started to wonder: what's the point of rushing to check off an item if it means that you go at it alone?   I want to bring companionship into all that I achieve off the list.  I also want to write about the quieter items on the list:  things that inspire me and the accomplishment of items that don't always have a colorful photo to accompany it.                

With that in mind, I bring you 2015's additions to the bucket list.  Drum roll please......

Attend a religious service once a week, every week, for a year

Learn to become more thankful, less resentful

Learn how to use my DSLR (this is me admitting that I don't actually know how to use it.  I just point and shoot and how embarrassing!)

Regularly volunteer my time at a charity of my choice

Bring it on 27, I've got a lot to do and getting older isn't saving me any time! 

Inca Trail - Lessons Learned

"The first part of today is nice and easy," our guide told us on Day 3.  "The trail will be mostly flat."

LIES! 

A flat section of the Inca Trail is like a filling Lean Cuisine.  It doesn't exist. 

As I walked on Day 3, discovering the true meaning of Peruvian "flat", I thought about other lessons learned along the trail.  From me to you, in no particular order:

THINGS I WAS GLAD TO HAVE WITH ME

  • 3 Liter Camelbak 
  • My "good" camera - A DSLR is definitely bulky, but it was worth lugging along.
  • Quality hiking shoes, wool socks, & moleskin - Because blisters are miserable.  
  • A pair of flip flops - for tired feet at the end of the day...ahhh glorious.
  • Baseball hat - Hides 4 days of not showering and keeps the hood of your raincoat out of your eyes. 
  • Sunglasses
  • Headlamp - for early morning starts & walking to the bathroom in the dark.
  • Pepto Bismol & CiPro - My stomach never fails to revolt.  This helps.
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toilet Paper - The Inca Trail is BYOTP
  • Chewing gum
  • Large plastic bags - to separate what smells in your bag from what doesn't (yet).
  • Soles - small denominations for tips, storing your bag at MP, and some grub after the trek.

Packing up my gear before heading out for Day 2!

THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT

  • Regular sized mosquito spray & sunscreen - I made the mistake of bringing the repellant & sunscreen I needed for my entire 3 weeks abroad with me on the trail.  I should have just brought a small little travel size and replenished locally if needed.
  • Four "sets" of clothes - I did wear all 4 sets and I definitely needed a fleece + a raincoat.  But I could have gotten by with:
    • 4 underwear/sportsbras/wool socks
    • 4 quick shirts
    • 2 pairs of pants (instead of 4)
    • 2 long sleeved layering pieces (instead of 4)
    • 1 fleece
    • 1 raincoat

Our guide was so generous and shared one of his hiking poles with me.  What a Godsend!

HIKING POLES ARE NOT OPTIONAL

I had a list of reasons why I didn't bring hiking poles (added expense...another thing to carry...I'm strong enough to do without...) but in the clarity that hindsight brings, I assure you that they are necessary.  As I carried my gear down 3,000 steep stairs steps, I desperately wanted the hiking poles.  The poles are like a free-standing railing that give you stability on tricky terrain and relieve the strain on your knees.  Upon Tom's recommendation (We met Tom in RMNP.  He helped us summit Hallett Peak.  You can read about it here, it's a neat story), I am going to purchase these Black Diamond poles, which collapse for easy storing in your bag.  I have many-a-rugged hike ahead of me  and now I know how much will need them!  

ENJOY EVERY MINUTE

The trail can take a lot of your concentration and energy at times, so don't forget to look up and take in your surroundings!  It's such an incredible view and you never know when the clouds will come and take it away!  Take heaps of pictures too because when you get home, you will find that you don't have nearly enough! :)

Inca Trail - Unforgettable Moments

A solitary, Thoreau-esque trek is not the experience you'll have on the Inca Trail.  Several years ago, the Peruvian government prohibited trekking without a qualified guide, so it's no longer an option to hike the Inca Trail independently.  Small groups can organize their own trek, provided they pay a pretty penny to have a licensed guide accompany them.  The requirement to hike with a sanctioned guide PLUS the cap on the # of trekkers allowed on the trail per day creates the perfect environment for tour operators.  They swoop in, batch you up into small groups, orchestrate the permit purchase, and serve as your licensed guide. 

If you're more of a purist, keep in mind that there are several alternate routes to Machu Picchu.  You might consider Salkantay, or any routes listed in the link at the bottom of this post.  The reason I'm pointing out other routes is this: If you do the Inca Trail, be prepared for some serious glamping (glamor camping--aka not really roughing it).  Now, don't get me wrong:  trekking the Inca Trail was an unforgettable and beautiful experience, but if glamping = cramping your style, then you'd probably be better suited for another trek.

When planning my trip, I totally ignored Robert Frost's advice and took the path MORE travelled.  After shopping around quite a bit, I selected Peru Treks, a company known for its ethical treatment of porters and great reviews.  I had an excellent experience with them and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in doing the classic 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

As a standard, most of the Inca Trail tour operators will carry your tent, a group dining tent, all the cooking supplies, and all of the food.  Peru Treks gave me a choice when it came to my personal gear:  (a) for $75 extra, I could hire a porter to carry 13 lbs of my stuff for all 4 days, or (b) I could carry everything.

I chose (b), but was one of the only people in my group that did.  As someone who is in shape and who trained for the trek, I found it challenging, yet totally doable.   

Anyways, that's enough about that!  Now onto the fun stuff...the pictures!!!  I have buckets of them, so I selected those that captured the most unforgettable moments.  Follow me as we start at km 82, the beginning of the Inca Trail.

Day 1 - Start of the Trail @ km 82

Day 1 - Gaining altitude, some incredible vistas

Day 1 - Enjoying a water break among the ruins

Day 1 - Pick-up game of soccer after we covered our mileage for the day

Day 1 - View from campsite

Day 2 - The morning view from my tent

Description of Day 2:  This is going to be a bit hard...

Source: http://photos.travellerspoint.com

Day 2 - This is the day of 10 bajillion stairs

Day 2 - It's starting to look like a rainforest around here...

Day 2 - Conquered Dead Woman's Pass (made 13,780 ft my b&*%$)

Day 2 - Stairs on Stairs on Stairs

Day 2 - At the end of Day 2, I am dead

Day 2 - Our campsite.  Note the waterfall behind us!

Day 3 -  The morning view from my tent

Day 3 - Seeing some incredible Incan Ruins dotted along the trail, they peak out from behind clouds!  

Day 3:  Channeling Indiana Jones

Day 3: Contemplative moments, walking amongst the ruins

Day 3: The ruins still have signs of life

DAy 3:  The rain comes just as the trail narrows...

DAy 3:  More Rain

Day 3: More jungle trails

Day 3: the novelty of llama selfies

DAy 3: Last Group picture before camp - at the terraces

Day 4:  Up at 3:30 am, rain is bucketing down outside, but keeping up a good attitude because...WE SEE MACHU PICCHU TODAY!

A post on Lessons learned on the Inca Trail, coming soon! 

Of Possible Interest:

Top Six Alternate Routes to Machu Picchu

Pisac and Piscos and Pig...Guinea Pig

The day after adventuring in Maras, I returned to the Sacred Valley.  

I was determined to tackle two things on my own:  asking for directions and the colectivo.  Prior to coming to Peru, I had never heard of a colectivo.  The concept doesn't really exist in the US, but I can make a loose comparison to car pooling.  You may laugh at my admiration, but if punctuality is not a concern (ha, this is the reason why it doesn't exist in the US), the colectivo is a pretty neat way to get around.  For me, it worked a little like this:

  1. Decide to go to a relatively popular destination in the Sacred Valley.
  2. Ask awesome Airbnb host to point out the departure spot of that colectivo on a map.
  3. Armed with a map and new Spanish words (dónde está...calle Puputi...derecha...izquierda), start walking.
  4. Get lost.
  5. Forget Spanish words.
  6. Panic.  *think, Aimee, think!*
  7. Remember Spanish words.
  8. Ask a kind-eyed man for directions.
  9. Find the man screaming Pisac!
  10. Pay the man 4 soles (~$1.30)
  11. Sit in the van.
  12. Wait for an hour while the van slowly fills up with people who also want to go to Pisac.
  13. Once the van is full, the driver drives the group to Pisac.  Trip takes about an hour.
  14. Arrive in Pisac and go on your merry way. 

Once I arrived in Pisac, I still had to get up to the ruins. The ruins are nestled in the mountains so unless you're flat broke or looking for misery, I don't recommend hiking up there (it would take ~3 hours).  I took a taxi up the mountain to the hut selling the boleto touristico.  The boleto touristico, or tourist ticket, is a fixed-price ticket to many of the archaeological sites in and around Cusco (but not Machu Picchu).  Although I'm not an expert on the topic, I can tell you that there are two options:

  • A pass valid for 10 days // 130 soles or ~42 USD // covers all of the sites
  • A pass valid for 1-2 day (depending on the site) // 70 soles or ~23 USD // covers just one circuit of sites.

I opted for the 1 day pass since I was leaving on the Incan Trail the next morning, but I do think that the 10 day pass is a great value if your goal is to hit up more than one site in the Sacred Valley.

Boleto in hand, I walked toward the entrance of the Pisac ruins.  I was approached by a guide offering a full tour.  Normally, I'm not too keen on paying for a guide; I prefer exploring on my own.  This time, however, I welcomed the thought of walking through the ruins with someone knowledgeable.  We negotiated a bit, agreed on a lower price, and started on our way.

My guide (my God, I'm mortified...I've waited too long to write this post, and I've already forgotten his name!  For shame.) shared some interesting facts with me, as we wandered throughout the ruins.  

One of the first things I noticed about Pisac were the curved terraces.  This is Incan farmland.  Knowing that mountains are exposed to more direct sunlight than the valley and that the terraces actually increased the amount of available farmland, the Incas grew potatoes and other crops on the mountainsides.  The Incas are also credited with doing some experimental farming on terraces such as these (most notably in Moray), since the climate varies ever so slightly with each shelf on the mountain side. 

Hurray, made it to Pisac!

The Incas spiritual beliefs were heavily rooted in nature, with particular significance placed on prominent mountain peaks (each had their own apu, or mountain god) and animals, particularly the puma, snake, or the condor.  My guide told me that the mountain in the photo below was the side view of a frog sitting on its hind legs, face tilted toward the sun.  Can you see it?

Can you see the frog in the mountain face?

We stopped for a some muña along the way, which is an aromatic herb known as "Andean mint".  It helps with digestion, and respiratory problems  On the Incan Trail, we drank many-a-muña teas.  My guide crushed it in his hands and then cupped his hands around his nose and mouth to breath in the aroma.  "You try it", he said.  "It helps with the altitude."  

muña - the Andean Mint

One of the most interesting things I learned from my guide was the Inca's  belief in reincarnation.  In the picture below, you'll see little holes in the mountain side.  These are tombs, in which the Incas buried their dead in the fetal position, facing the sunlight that streamed in from the outside.  The cave tombs dotted the mountain side that received the most amount of direct sunlight.  Since the Incas believed in the sun god (Inti, male) and pachamama (mother earth, female), the combination of the two gave rise to new life.  The wind was strong that day and howled through this part of the ruins.  Pretty eerie!

Incan tombs

My guide!   *sniff* I'm so upset that I'm blanking on his name.  He was quite the character, as you can see from the pictures below.  As he prepared to play some traditional instruments in the temple and asked me to just "sit and listen".  I snapped a sneaky picture and then obeyed.

Holla

Private Concert

Before we parted ways, the guide pointed out the following vista.  "Look", he said.  "If you stand right here, you can see evidence of three civilizations.  To the left are the broken buildings of the pre-Inca time.  Straight ahead are Incan buildings.  to the right is the current town of Pisac."  

Evidence of the three civilizations

After more than 2 hours of wandering through the Pisac ruins, it was time to say goodbye.  When I'm abroad, I enjoy a good round of bargaining (as he and I had done before departing on the tour), but after the tour I placed a higher value on the time he had spent with me.  To his disbelief, I paid him what he originally asked for.  He was good people, and the money was better spent on him than on an overpriced item at a tourist market.

As I made my way down the mountain, I ran into two Italians who had also just come from the ruins, Federico and Giulia.  We got to chatting about our travels and enjoyed the conversation so much, that we stopped for a round of pisco sours when we reached the town of Pisac.  A pisco sour is a common drink in Peru made with egg whites, lemon juice, and pisco, a style of brandy that is basically tequila in drag.  It's chilled, tangy, and only slightly sweet.  One of the things I absolutely love about travelling alone is that it allows for moments like this. It's as if those travelling in pairs or groups recognize that solo traveling can get a bit lonely and invite you into their lives, even if just for an afternoon.  I'll never forget that afternoon on the balcony of a bar in Pisac, looking over the town's tourist markets, sipping on an ice cold pisco, and laughing at each others wild stories.  When the picso ran out, Federico, Giulia, and I found the colectivo back to Cusco and parted ways.  Maybe someday they'll make their way to Chicago.

Later that night, I treated myself to a nice dinner at Pachapapa, a restaurant in the picturesque Plaza San Blas.  I was going to dine alone, but a dynamic mother/son duo from Atlanta, Georgia invited me to join their table when they heard my stuttering Spanish.  The three of us had had a wonderful evening swapping travel stories and sampling cuy (guinea pig).  Yes, it's a bit unsettling to see a common household pet in America barbecued on a spit and served whole, but I knew I couldn't leave the country without trying the Peruvian staple.  

How did it taste?  Like extremely bony pheasant. 

I needn't try it again.  

Cuy, aka guinea pig

After saying goodnight to my new friends, I walked back to Bill and Nic's to pack for..duh duh duhhhhhh...the Incan Trail.  

Of Possible Interest:

Tip: visit the Pisac ruins in the afternoon.  Most of the AM crowds had cleared out by the time I had arrived.  I had the ruins largely to myself.

Official site on the Boleto Turistico

General overview of the Boleto Turistico (in English)

How to make a Pisco Sour

National Geographic top 10 things to eat in Peru

Zip Lining and Four Wheeling in the Sacred Valley

In an effort to escape the desolation that is winter in Chicago, I focused my efforts on trip planning for South America.  One night, I poured myself a glass of wine and settled in for a date night with Airbnb.

Pause.

Let's talk about Airbnb for a minute.  As a former couch surfer, I am drawn toward cheaper accommodations that give a more local flavor to traveling.  As I've grown older (wiser?), however, the idea of asking a stranger via email if you can crash on their futon for free...well let's just say that that idea has grown less appealing.  I wanted to trade up, but only marginally.  To me, Airbnb has been that next step up in localized lodging.  The concept is simple:  from the site you can rent a unique place to stay from local hosts.  Rental listings vary in size (rent a room or the entire condo) and in price, but most listings are wildly inexpensive.

Play.

So back to my hot date with Airbnb.  Peru Treks  (the Incan Trail trekking company I chose) required arrival in Cusco at least 2 days prior to the trek departure, so I focused my search on Cusco listings.  After scouring the listings, one clearly stood out above the rest: Bill and Nic's house.

We live in an old colonial style house in the center of Cuzco. Many Airbnb listings in Cusco are hotels and we are proud that we offer you a real house, the way Airbnb was meant to be...We have kids and we are very active. We are often hiking or biking or on some kind of adventure. When we are not out on an adventure we may be having a Bar-B-Q in the Sacred Valley that you can come to or just hanging out having a world famous Cuzquena beer or Pisco in the yard. Our kids are normal healthy kids, you may find them making a volcano in the yard, chasing our two chickens out of the house, jumping on your bed....no no no, I mean jumping on the couch, laughing, squealing from being tossed in the air or yes beating each other up and them crying about it. That’s the fun of a family. We love it and invite you in to be a part of our family for your stay and that’s exactly how you will be treated, like family or friends we have known for years.
— Bill & Nic's Airbnb Listing

Bill and Nic's house is not for those that are easily disturbed by the hustle and bustle of the daily activities of a family of six.  Nicole is very forthcoming about that in her listing.  However, if you are an even-keeled, sociable person looking for an authentic experience fueled with adventure, book your room now and don't look back.  

Over the course of the next few weeks, Nicole and I wrote back and forth to iron out some logistics.  For a nominal fee, she arranged for a taxi to collect me from the airport and purchased my Huayna Picchu tickets.  For 100 USD, she also helped me to coordinate one of the most memorable experiences of my time in Peru: zip lining and four wheeling in the Sacred Valley.  

Zip lining and four wheeling, you read that right!  On the flight down to South America, this was all I could think about (well, this and Machu Picchu ;) )...I was jittery with excitement.

On my first full day in Cusco, Caleb and I set out for Maras in the Sacred Valley.  Caleb is an American who had been working at Bill & Nic's house for a few months prior to my arrival.  His goal was to learn some Spanish along the way.  When Nicole learned that I was a solo traveler, she sent Caleb along with me.  She said it was so that he could learn more about the B&B's offerings, but I suspect it was so that I didn't get my sorry ass kidnapped (ha!)

Venturing from Cusco to Maras might seem easy on a map, but Caleb and I had a bit of trouble and a few laughs on our journey.  We took a collectivo (more on this later) with explicit directions from Bill to get out at the stop labeled Maras, where the guide would be waiting for us.  Well...on account of our chatting or possibly the fact that the Maras stop is basically a nondescript intersection in the middle of nowhere...we totally missed our stop.  We ended up in [insert name of Spanish town here] and were immediately swarmed by taxi drivers offering to take us back to Maras for 40 soles.  40 SOLES!?  It cost us 6 soles to come ~1.5 hours from Cusco, I wasn't about to pay 40 soles to take us 5 minutes back up the road.  I was indignant and frankly, pretty afraid.  Thanks to Caleb's quick thinking and clutch Spanish phrases, we found a bus that would take us back up to Maras for only 2 soles apiece.  We were back in business.

We successfully got off at the Maras stop, but after talking (gesturing?) with some men there, our guide, Pepe, had just taken off looking for us.  They were gracious enough to call him and tell him that his two wide-eyed Americans had finally arrived.  Pepe looked relieved to see us and luckily didn't make us feel too stupid for our mistake. :)  

All of this trouble was worth it.  The 2 kilometer zip-line is the longest in the world and wildly exhilarating.  After a quick tutorial, I was zooming toward the floor of the valley, surrounded by blurring mountains and the yellow/green patchwork of the fields below.  I was laughing and crying (jury's out on whether the tears were from the wind or the terror) at the same time.

After zip lining, Pepe gave us a tour of the Sacred Valley, on four wheelers!  We rode around Maras, to the Salt Mines, and then through the various fields of the valley.  As a highlight, we ended at an old colonial church, standing prominently against a breathtaking mountain backdrop.

This day was an incredible experience and not one I will soon forget.  Thanks Bill & Nicole!

Of Possible Interest:

Haku Expeditions: Bill and Nic's new expedition company.  These guys will arrange anything for you, from trekking to mountain biking to cultural experiences.  

Caleb's blog:  Great writing and some fun anecdotes of his time in Peru

chart generated from www.amcharts.com/visted_countries

The Logistics of It All [Peru, Argentina, Uruguay]

I wrote my bucket list when I was seventeen.  It has grown since then, but the whole point of this project is to hold myself to that original list, even if some of my teenaged aspirations don't seem quite as appealing as they used to.  For example:  Although I was a diver in high school, I've developed a slight fear of heights as I've gotten older.  As you might guess, "go sky diving" is still sitting ominously undone on my bucket list. 

Last year, "Hike to Machu Picchu" was also an unaccomplished item on the list.  The thought of South America was still exciting, but it struck me: what if I woke up tomorrow and "hike to Machu Picchu" sounded like it was on par with "go skydiving"?  Fear couldn't get in the way of this dream, so I resolved: I would hike to Machu Picchu in the next year.

And I did.  Machu Picchu happened.  Along with other South American adventures :)  Before I share the memories and highlights from the trip, I thought I'd write about the unglamorous part of vacationing: the planning.  Read on for how this all came together.

Length of  Trip: 18 days (March 9 - 26)

Cities & Countries Visited: Peru (Cusco, Pisac, Maras, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes), Argentina (Buenos Aires), Uruguay (Colonia)

Itinerary:  There are a thousand different ways to do this trip--below is the way I chose.  If you click on the image, it will enlarge and become clear/readable.  Anything yellow represents how I traveled.  The purple and blue boxes at the bottom of each day show what city I was in and where I stayed.  A summary of my daily activities is in the white space of each day. 

Why March?  As anyone from Chicago can attest, by the time February ends, we would do just about anything to escape the snow.  Even though March is still the end of the rainy season in Peru, I found an Incan Trail Trek that would put me atop Machu Picchu on my birthday.  The prospect of rain didn't seem too bad after that.  

How I Chose My Route  The catalyst of the trip was the need to check off "hike to Machu Picchu".  Although there are is more than one way to hike to Machu Picchu, the idea of going with a tour operator on the popular 4-day Incan Trail trek was appealing to me as a solo traveler.  The tour operator that I chose required payment of the trek balance in person in Cusco, at least 2 days prior to trek departure (to ensure acclimation to the altitude).   Given this requirement, I already knew what my first week looked like: 2-3 days in Cusco, 4 days of Inca Trail.  As I started researching, I flushed out the trip a little to include day trips from Cusco, an extra night at the base town of Machu Picchu, and week in Buenos Aires to visit my friends and colleagues that live there.

Why I Didn't Go to Lake Titicaca (Peru) or Iguazu Falls (Argentina)  Technically, it was possible to fit these into the timeframe, but doing so would stretch me too thin.  I would not have time to truly enjoy Cusco and Buenos Aires.  Iguazu Falls was especially hard to pass up (it too is on my bucket list), but I chose the slower approach to travel.  Iguazu is for another time.  

Pre-trip preparation: I've got a gypsy bone or two, but I'm not one of those people who can leave the country tomorrow with a backpack and a pipe dream.  An international plane fare is expensive and my vacation days are just as--if not more--valuable.  As such, I do as much planning beforehand to prevent wasting precious time abroad.  The preparation for this trip was a little easier than the SE Asia trip because of the following: 

  • Visas: I didn't have to worry about visas, which was SO nice. :)  US citizens simply present a valid passport to enter Peru and Uruguay as a tourist.  Entering Argentina, was only slightly more difficult.  I paid a $160 "reciprocity fee" online (valid 10 yrs for multiple entries) and presented the certificate at immigration.  Check the most up-to-date entry/exit requirements for your citizenship before booking your trip.
  • Vaccines: Before going to SE Asia, I got 7 vaccinations.  I needed boosters to extend my protection against the big ones like Tetanus, Typhoid, Meningitis, etc. and I also got pre-exposure Rabies for the time we spent in caves.  Having had a good base already, I only needed one more for South America: Yellow Fever.  
  • Currency Exchange:  In the past, I've ordered a small amount of the foreign currency from my bank in advance of my trip.  I've found that it makes for an easy transition into the new country...right off the bat, you have legal tender for a cab or bus fare and you don't have to wait in line to exchange for a shit rate at the airport.  However, this time, I tried something different.  My B&B in Cusco (Bill & Nic's House, more about them in a later post!) had an awesome blog post about what to expect when coming to Peru.  One of the things they caution is that Peruvian banks will not accept US dollars that are wrinkled/torn/old.  For this reason, any vendor or exchange place will not accept your worn USD.  Based on their advice, I brought crisp/new bills in $1 and $5 denominations for easy exchanging.  Boy, am I glad I did.  They truly are sticklers...USD with a barely-perceptible tear might as well be Monopoly money in Peru!  In Argentina, my colleague/friend/hostess, Maite, had promised to cover me until I had a chance to exchange at a place with a good rate.  It worked out really well and I didn't have to stress about it beforehand.
  • Meds/First Aid:  I had my doctor prescribe me a few things that I could take on the trip as a precaution.  I have a very weak stomach, so the first prescription was CiPro in case I ate something that caused an issue.  The second prescription was Diamox, which I took in the days leading up to my highest elevation.  It really helped to prevent altitude sickness--I experienced NONE.   I also carried some standard things like Pepto Bismol, advil, StingEz for mosquito bites, and moleskin.

On Traveling Alone  I've never seen the movie Taken so objective 1.a. (don't get kidnapped) is not the result of a cinematic imagination.  The reality of it is that traveling alone means that you have to be alert.  Unfortunately, this is especially true as a solo female traveler.  Pile on the fact that I don't speak a lick of Spanish, and...yeah, it was difficult.  I was "on" 100% of the time, and it was pretty exhausting.  At the end of the day, though, it was just a matter of adjusting expectations; it will be a different kind of trip, not a worse trip.  I didn't stay out late, I didn't get drunk, I studied a map of where I was going before I left the hotel, and I kept my wits about me.  In light of all of those precautions, I still experienced and saw some amazing things.

Communications  To communicate with people from home, I put my iPhone on airplane mode and downloaded Whatsapp.  When I had a strong Wifi signal hatsapp allowed me to text family and friends for free.  To communicate with people within Peru/Argentina, I have to admit that I relied heavily on Bill & Nic (the owners of the B&B in Cusco) and my friend, Maite.  They were my crutch.

Travel Essentials  More on this to come :)

Regrets  That I ate pizza in Aguas Calientes (I'm 99.99% sure this is why I had to resort to the CiPro) and that I didn't eat MORE empanadas in Buenos Aires.  Also, that I didn't learn any Spanish before frolicking in South America.  Whoops.

Of Possible Interest

B&B in Cusco:  Bill & Nic's House

Bill & Nic's Blog Post about Money in Peru - a MUST READ  Bill and Nic are Americans who have been living in Peru for the past 7+ years.  They became fluent, volunteered, and started a B&B...so yeah, they have a lot of first-hand knowledge to share and I found it immensely valuable.

Bill & Nic's Blog Post about Machu Picchu

Hotel in Aguas Calientes: El Ma Pi

La Bomba de Tiempo - Drum show in Buenos Aires

Floreria Atlantico - the "secret" bar beneath a flower shop

image from www.amcharts.com/visted_countries

Sweet and Spicy Peanut Soup

Hidey Ho, my friends!  As of late, things have picked up around these parts.  I have lots of updates, but that's for another time. 

Today, we talk about soup.  Sweet and Spicy Peanut Soup., to be exact.  

When I first glanced at the recipe, I balked.  This wasn't soup at all; it had peanut butter in it.

After a hot second, I revised my opinion because...guys...IT HAD PEANUT BUTTER IN IT. Also, I have recently come into possession of an immersion blender.  And I was dying to take it for a little spin. ;)

The recipe that I used was from my favorite cookbook, Ellie Krieger's The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life.  The Food Network showcases the recipe online, where it's called Nutty Sweet Potato Soup, but no matter what you call it, it's delicious.

I love that Ellie's recipes have produce as the focal point and then she judiciously places small amounts of a more decadent ingredient for maximum flavor with minimal calories added.  I do, however, often find myself doubling the amount of spices, to accommodate my tastes.

Earlier this afternoon, I chopped up all the ingredients, which I've laid out below.  See what I mean about produce being the focal point?  There are so many veggies in this bad boy--sweet potatoes, red peppers, carrots, onion, tomatoes, ginger!  

This soup came together very quickly, once all ingredients were chopped (isn't that always the pain point?!)  

The recipe calls for you to sauté all of the chopped veggies in a tiny bit of oil, add the spices, and then the tomatoes & chicken broth.  After simmering that all down until the potatoes are soft, you blend it up with the immersion blender, which--by the way--is my new favorite kitchen tool. 

Once everything is blended, you finish it off by stirring in the peanut butter & honey.  

Like I said, I know that it sounds super weird. But please, just trust me on this one.  Step outside your comfort zone :)  The end result is amazing.

Also, once this was all cooked up and ready to go, I realized that all my bowls were currently dirty.  I was famished and didn't want to take the time to wash one, so I just ate my soup out of a glass.  Staying classy.

Hope your fall season is off to a great start!

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How Hallett Happened

[In case you're catching up, this post continues on from here and here].

If you vacation with me, we don't sleep in.  I've got limited time off, so I've got things to do. Places to be.  Things to see.  Get your lazy butt out of bed.  

Luckily, I didn't have to do much persuading with Marc and Michael...they were just as eager to get on the trail!  By 6 am, we had parked at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and had started on our way.  On the itinerary for the day: Bear Lake, Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, the Loch, Timberline Falls, and Sky Pond.

None of that happened.  

What did happen was incredible.

From the trail head, we hiked about a half mile in to Bear Lake.  As I was taking the picture below, Michael looked at a little plaque, standing right at the shoreline.  

"Hey, listen to this," he said. "Tyndall glacier is one of the 5 remaining active glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park and it's right...." he pointed straight ahead, up into the mountains, "...there.  Come on Aimee, Can we hike up to see it?"

I looked at the plaque to see that the glacier was at approximately 12,000 feet, nestled in between Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak.  I eye-balled our water situation.  We only had enough for a half-day of relatively easy-paced hiking.  Hiking to Tyndall Glacier would take a lot of time, we would gain a lot of elevation, and it would be more strenuous than the hikes we had planned.  At the same time, it was hard saying no to the excitement in Michael's voice.

"We go as far as we can on half our water supply," I said.  "When we're half spent, we turn back.  No exceptions.  Agreed?"

Pleased with this plan, Michael nodded and led the way, blazing the trail up to Flattop Mountain, which would get us closest to the glacier.  The hike was beautiful, winding lazily up the mountain.  I breathed in the fresh air...ah...pine.  Due to the extremely snowy winter, the higher we climbed, the snowier the trail became.  So snowy, in fact, that after a while, we lost the trail.  We searched for tracks in the snow, to see if there was a clear traffic pattern, but it seemed as though other hikers ran into the same predicament.  Tracks were everywhere, evidence of others who had paced back and forth trying to pick up the trail.

Well Sh*#.

Suddenly, we heard voices coming from behind some nearby trees.  We walked toward the sound to find two hikers, obviously faced with the same predicament.  Where the heck was this trail?  The collective experience between the four of us was relatively low, and we were hesitant to venture too far from our current spot for fear of losing the safest route back down.

Just as we were debating whether or not to give up and turn back, we heard more voices.  Soon, 6 hikers appeared.  They looked equipped, experienced, and like they might have better luck at picking up the elusive trail.  They stopped for a break, looking around for the trail as well.  We approached them, introduced ourselves and explained that we were lost.

They invited us to join them in a quick break before launching a collective effort to find the trail.  Feeling the safety of our numbers (counting the 2 hikers we had encountered earlier, our group had expanded to 11), we agreed and started shooting the breeze.  The group of 6 hikers all worked for the same company and had formed a hiking club that went out on Saturdays to hike various alpine trails.  They genuinely seemed to love these Saturday hikes and had a lot of experience with the alpine tundra.

Tom, the leader of the group, explained the snow pack this year forced flexibility with their 2014 hiking line up.  In fact, this hike--to Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak--was their back up plan.  The trail they had intended to do for that day was still inaccessible, since there was a 12 foot snowdrift still blocking the last three miles to the trailhead.  

With the help of Tom & co, we found the trail, and hiked with them a while.  We had some great conversations and enjoyed getting to know each other along the way.  We stopped at this vantage point for break just before reaching Flattop Mountain.  

Out came the water and snacks.  

...water...

Shoot!

I eyeballed my supply and realization sunk in.  I was running low, and my brothers were probably in the same place . There was no way we were going to make it up to the Tyndall Glacier and back down with what we had left. *sigh*  I really did not want to turn back, especially since we were having such a great time with our new friends.

I explained our water predicament to the others and apologized for having to turn back.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  "You've come this far," one of them said, "You gotta summit."  They all agreed and kindly offered to share their water with us so that we could all continue on together.  Unlike us, they had expected to do a strenuous hike that day and had plenty of water to spare.  Elated, we accepted their gracious offer. 

And with that, we continued on our way.  Michael would see his glacier after all!  

The last stretch of our hike to Flattop Mountain was a bit difficult for me.  We had only flown to Colorado the day before and I had a dull headache, which I recognized as one of the symptoms of altitude sickness. I slowed, careful not to over-exert and drank plenty of water.  At last we reached Flattop and the Tyndall Glacier.  That was a miiiiighty fine glacier.  Michael was more excited than he appears in this picture. ;)

In order to summit Hallett Peak from Flattop Mountain, we just sort of scrambled up this rocky ridge.  It was a bit scary, but but I think that was just my overactive imagination.

I was thrilled when I reached the top - 12,713 feet of elevation!  Not bad for a sea-level girl with very little experience! We stayed and lunched (snacked?) on Hallett Peak and took many-a-photo.

Thank God for sending strangers to us on the mountain that day.  By sharing their water, they gave us an even bigger gift: an afternoon of fast friendship, unforgettable views, and the incredible experience of being on the Continental Divide.  A special thanks to Tom, Heidi, Brett, and John for letting us tag along for an experience we will not soon forget!

BroSis 1.0

The beginnings of great adventures come in all forms.

For my recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, that beginning was extremely unexpected.

It all started last December, when I emailed my brother, Marc, to start brainstorming ideas of what to get our younger brother, Michael, for Christmas.  After we both had ideas for Michael, I directed the same question toward him.  "What do YOU want for Christmas?" I asked.

I couldn't believe what he wrote back.
 

If I had to ask for anything, it would be to go on an adventure like you do. I honestly get a little jealous seeing all the awesome backpacking and camping stuff you go on and all the cool stuff you have seen, I'm just awful at initiative so I've never arranged anything for myself (which I technically could since I still have that free round trip plane ride from Mom and Dad).

After reading this, I sat in thought for a while.  I do travel a lot, with all different groups of people--girlfriends, co-workers, like-minded travel folk, etc.  WHY hadn't I ever taken the initiative to coordinate something with my own brothers?  WHY had it taken Marc's email for me to even entertain the idea?  Truth be told, I was a little embarrassed that it had.  But that embarrassment quickly turned to excitement. This was going to happen.  I just had to figure out how.

I replied: Say no more.  Don't use that free roundtrip.

Over the next few weeks, Marc and I discussed the parameters of the trip.  Marc would choose the destination, but it had to be affordable.  If I planned it, I was coming, and so was Michael, since we couldn't leave him out.  It would have to fit into a long weekend over the summer.  I would foot the bill on any rental car we needed and hotel room.  We would split incidentals.  Our gear was limited, as was our budget and collective experience, so we would have to be smart about not getting in over our heads with any technical hikes or back country camping.

Things fell into place surprisingly quickly.  After briefly considering a trip to a Utah national park, we decided against it.  Flights to/from Utah (or even nearby Vegas) were costly and we would have lost precious time just getting to them since they aren't as accessible as other national parks.  We quickly replaced the Utah idea with another great one: Rocky Mountain National Park.  Flights to Denver were dirt cheap and the park was only 2 hrs from the airport.  Estes Park neighbors RMNP, so we would be able to stay quite close to the action and day hike to our hearts' content.

I looped my parents in on our plan, and my mom was so pleased ("I'm just sooooo happy you guys all still like each other!") that she offered to pay for Michael's airfare as her Christmas gift to him.  I booked an el cheap-o hotel room, reserved a basic rental car.  Done.

Christmas rolled around and I didn't give my brothers anything.  They didn't care.  They knew my gift to them was arranging the trip and shouldering the cost of the bigger ticket items.  Christmas was coming in June, I told them.  June 20-23, to be exact.

Over the next week of so. I'll be sharing some incredible stories from the trip, which we dubbed BroSis 1.0.  

The first release of the sibling trip.

But certainly not the last.

Of Possible Interest: Being the nerds that we are, Marc, Michael, and I had a live twitter feed going during our trip, which we've decided to keep even after getting home. Follow me @tothefulllist and/or #GoldenChild to get in on the sibling banter.