There is no place like home

I’m home.

It has been nearly two months since I walked through LAX, alone, almost in tears as “I’ll be Home for Christmas” played in the background. At that moment, my emotions were almost as heavy as my backpack. Relief, loneliness, anxiousness, sadness, and excitement hit me all at once.

The five-hour plane ride home felt longer than the nine-hour flight to LAX, especially the last thirty minutes. I was trying to get excited to see my family, but I was incredibly anxious. What would it be like? Would everything be just as I had left it? Will I cry when I see my family in the middle of an airport with people everywhere? As the plane touched the ground my heart raced. The pilot came over the speakers and said, “Welcome to Charlotte, folks. Merry Christmas!” I started to cry. As soon as I got off of the plane, I found the closest bathroom and just stared at myself for a few minutes. “Get it together, Madeleine! You’re about to see your family. Be happy.”

On our trip we talked extensively about Reverse Culture Shock, and I had an intense fear that I would experience it. Fortunately, as I rode down the escalator and saw my family and best friend standing at the bottom, with signs and flowers, I knew I would be just fine. My anxiety was completely gone, and all I felt was pure joy.

Homecoming Chickfila

All of the amazing people who welcomed me home. No words can express how much I missed them.

After getting my bag, we headed to Chick-fil-a, where dozens of people were waiting. My stomach was bothering me, so the food did not taste as good as I would have liked it to, but the fellowship was amazing. I had missed all of those sweet faces. I have never been a hugger, but that I night I hugged everyone and loved every single second of it. After a while, I began to get a little overwhelmed and we decided to head on home. When we turned into our driveway there was a huge, electric construction sign that said, “Welcome home, Maddy Lou!” My friends are ridiculous, but I love them (thank you to the Youngblood family for that surprise).

As soon as I got home, my dog, Piper, attacked me (Ecuador and Peru taught me that I only like my dog). We then walked up the stairs, and the Christmas tree was lit (just as I had requested). I handed out all of the gifts I bought for my family, made Peruvian hot chocolate, and went through my Machu Picchu pictures. I also jumped on the trampoline (oh, how I missed it) and took my long awaited bath (thank you Jenna for the amazing bath fizzies). Lastly, I got to sleep in my own bed. I do not think I have ever slept that well, and probably never will again.

My homecoming was sweet, and it has only gotten better since. There were occasional moments that were overwhelming, and my stomach had issues for a few weeks, but overall I have been blessed with a smooth transition.

Looking over Machu Picchu from Huanay Picchu with my Inti family.

Looking over Machu Picchu from Huanay Picchu with my Inti family.

Every day, though, during even the most mundane activities, I am flooded with memories from my trip. Every time I buy a banana with a sticker that says “from Ecuador” I think of the amazing family that hosted us on the banana farm (and the shaky shack), and what it takes to get that banana to supermarket shelves. When I hear people speaking Spanish, I can’t help but listen in and remember the hilarious Spanish classes I had the pleasure of taking. When friends mention going on a hike, my feet automatically begin to ache like they did on our trek to Machu Picchu (I finally exchanged my old boots for a bigger size). All of these experiences, and more, will stay with me forever, and for that, I am most grateful.

As much as I miss my trip mates and the excitement of travel, I am so happy to be with my family and friends. There truly is no place like home.

What now?

Currently, I am nannying full-time and finishing up my college applications. I have decided that I would like to pursue a major in Dietetics, and I hope to transfer to a university in the fall. I am also struggling with the travel bug right now. I cannot stop looking at plane tickets.

On the blog front, I am hoping to begin blogging weekly again. My next blog will most likely be an updated packing list (practically everything I took on my trip was wrong). After that, I am not sure what I will write about, but it will most likely be nutrition related. I really have no idea. Stay tuned.

...and one more photo. This is a favorite of mine. Rolondo said, "Say, 'Never again!'" Trekking was hard, but worth it.

…and one more photo. This is a favorite of mine. Rolondo said, “Say, ‘Never again!'” Trekking was hard, but worth it.


Trek on.

No words can truly convey my experience on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. It was beautiful, miserable, breathtaking, horrible, amazing, painful, and one of the best experiences of my life.


Day One 

At 5:30AM it all began. We left the hostel, exhausted, anxious, and so excited. Hopping into the vans, we were on our way to begin the Salkantay Trek. About an hour into our drive we stopped at Quillarumio (Incan ruins). There, we ate breakfast. As I watched our three chefs prepare the table and food, I was thrilled to see that our camping experience for the next four days would be what I call, ¨glamping.¨They had a table cloth and runner for the plastic camp tables! After enjoying our hot meal we got back in the vans for two more hours. I was in the party van, which played all of the American music we have missed so much. I was honestly sad to have to get out of that warm van and start hiking.

At 11:00AM our feet hit the trail. It was not very steep at first, but the high elevation made small hills seem like mountains. Fortunately, we had the beautiful, snow-covered Salkantay to look at while we could not breathe. My feet started to hurt about half way in. By the time we got to camp, around 1:00PM, I knew there was something very, very wrong with my hiking boots. They were far too small and I was already forming blisters. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not wear them for the rest of the trip, and I would have to hike in my Tevas… for 4 days. I rested my swollen feet during lunch, but then we started hiking to a glacial lake about 2 hours up from camp- Umantaycocha. It was a grueling hike, but the view was oh so worth it. It took my breath away (not just because of the altititude). A few people even swam in the lake! I was content with just taking pictures of the icy water.

As the sun went down we headed back to camp, noticing the dramatic drop in temperature. Once we finished the hike, the chefs had tea time prepared in the dining tent and we managed to stay mostly warm while it rained and hailed outside. After dinner we all headed to our tents. I was absolutely freezing, but also exhausted, praying for good sleep.

Day Two

I have never been so cold, but I was so tired that I managed to get a little sleep. Our guides, Rolo and Gerson, woke us up by coming tent side, banging on the outside, offereing hot tea. Sarah and I were too disoriented to comprehend what was happening. We were not very nice either (sorry Gerson!). We eventually packed up our things and enjoyed a yummy breakfast. Afterwards we began what our guides referred to as ¨challenge day.¨The day would consist of 4 hours up to the Salkantay Pass, 2 hours down to lunch, followed by 3 hours to camp.

The first four hours were tough, but my mind stayed positive. The fog began to cover us about 1/2 way through and it started raining. My Tevas and socks were not keeping my feet warm. I was so desperate that I actually put on a poncho. Though my feet were wet during the hike up, they did not start to hurt until we headed down. The rain continued through lunch. I was so un-motivated to start hiking again, but we trekked on. For a while it seemed like the final three hours were going to be worse than the first six. The fog was still all encompassing and the rain would not let up. I was having to try REALLY hard to stay positive. Finally, about an hour in, I began warming up and the fog started to separate. As we entered the subtropics the sun began to peek out. Ryan also taught us how to look for wild strawberries on the trail edge. By the end of the hike he called me the ¨strawberry monster¨because I ate so many. We entered camp at 5:30PM, tired and sore, but feeling accomplished. The air was much warmer than the night before, and it was not raining. I was so excited to get in my sleeping bag and sleep.

Day Three

My body hurt so bad. The 10+ miles from the day before took its toll- especially on my feet. I was wishing for well-fitting hiking boots. The Tevas had rubbed my feet raw. Fortuneately, Day 3 was our easy day – only 5 hours of hiking. It was mostly downhill, which was easy on the lungs, but rough on my lower body. Throughout the hike we all had the hot springs we would be visiting that night on our minds. Once we arrived at camp we had a traditional lunch called Pachamanca. We also toured the farm we were staying at – picking avocados, bananas, and coffee berries. I kept about half of the berries I picked for a snack… I am obsessed with coffee berries. After lunch we headed to the hot springs. Ahhhhhh!!! It felt so good to soak our muscles, but the bugs were horrific. I managed to not get bug bites at the Banana Farm or in the Amazon, but my legs are now covered from our time in Lucmabamba! My legs look diseased.

Following the hot springs we did a debriefing meeting with the group, discussing ¨reverse culture shock.¨I am afraid it may hit me hard when I get home, but I hope not. It was so weird talking about going home… I cannot believe it is so soon.

That night it rained. I had water dripping on my face all night. Not cool.

Day Four

When they said that the second day was ¨challenge day,¨they failed to mention that the last day was way harder. Maybe it was the fact that we all slept porely, or because we got up at 5:00AM, or because we were sore from hiking 3 days in a row… Whatever it was, I have never been in so much pain. My feet were complete disasters. Every singly step I took sent shooting pains up my body.

Fortunately, even in the midst of misery, we tried to make the best of it. For the first half of the hike, Caleigh and I were in the back with Ryan and our guide Rolo. I have not laughed so much in a long time. Poor Rolo had to put up with our shenanigans. We arrived at the top 45 minutes later than everyone else because we stopped for so many laughing breaks.

The second half of the hike was completely downhill. That is when the pain really settled in. My knees, calves, and feet were dying. Thankfully, we pushed ourselves and got done in two hours. After lunch in Hidro Electrica we had a flat walk by the railroad tracks that would take us to our final destination for the night – a cozy hostal in Aguas Calientes (the town of Machu Picchu). We all thought that the last part would be a piece of cake. WRONG. Our minds and bodies began collapsing under the weight of four days of hiking. At one point, about two hours in, I could not do it anymore. I just fell on the ground like a 2 year old. First, I was laughing, then I was crying. I had a meltdown. Eventually, Caleigh and Keely pulled me up. We only had 45 minutes left. It was the most miserable 45 minutes of my life, but we made it!

When we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes I could only think about the hot shower I was going to take. Unfortunately, everyone else was also eager to shower, which resulted in no hot water. I decided to wait until after dinner to turn on the shower. At that point, we had finished the actual trek, but I did not feel at all accomplished. I felt disgusting, in pain, and exhausted. The worst part? I was not even excited for Machu Picchu.

After dinner I got my hot shower and began feeling a little better and excited for the next day. I just needed to rest.

Day Five

At 7:00AM we walked through the gates of Machu Picchu. The fog was dense and it was raining. We hiked up to the first viewing spot and saw…. nothing. The fog was so thick that it completely covered Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. Everything was white. Ryan claimed that it was normal, and would eventually clear up. I had my doubts, but as we sat up on one of the terraces listening to our guide give a brief history, the fog began to lift and so did our spirits. First, we could see Huanay Picchu, and then finally, we saw what we had all been waiting for – Machu Picchu.

It was breathtaking.

We took so many pictures and learned about the ruins, taking in one of the seven wonders of the world.

All the while, we were looking up at Huanay Picchu, one of the most intimidating sites I have ever seen. Our final challenge of the trip would be to climb that monstrosity. After about two hours of exploring the ruins, we got in line to begin our last hike. I wanted to turn back. I was still so sore, but as we had done for the past 4 days, we trekked on. One step at a time, we made it to the top in under an hour. It was so difficult, but an incredible feeling overwhelmed me as I looked over Machu Picchu. I did it. I actually did it! I hiked for five days and survived.

We took more pictures and eventually made our way down the mountain and out of Machu Picchu. I got my passport stamped, and sighed with relief. We were done, and it felt so good.

Once we retrieved our bags from the hostel, we took a train to Ollantaytambo and then a bus back to Cusco. It was so nice to come back to a place that we know so well. To reward ourselves, we went to our favorite restaurant and got chicken sandwiches and mint lemonade. It was perfect.


Now that we are back in Cusco, we only have 3 more nights left. This will be my last blog in South America. I will eventually post all of my photos from Machu Picchu and a reflection blog.

Please excuse any grammatical errors. This was written very quickly. I have to make it back by curfew!

The beginning of the end

Our time in South America is dwindling quickly. The end is about to begin.

The last two days of Student Directed Travel were spent in Puno, a city around Lake Titicaca, the highest, navigable lake in the world, and the largest in South America. We got off the night bus at 4:30AM, and I was feeling rough. After resting a while at our cozy hostel, I still felt bad, so Ryan made me get tested for a stomach parasite. Do not ask the details of that test. Not my proudest moment. Thankfully, it came back negative and we just decided my issues were from elevation and lack of sleep. I was able to get relief with medicine and managed to make it to some incredible ruins – Sillustani. There, we saw the most beautiful sunset of my life. That in itself made me feel better.

Very early the next morning we began our boat tour of Lake Titicaca, specifically the islands of Uros and Taquile. The floating islands of Uros are man made. We learned about the process, the families, and had the chance to buy gifts. I was a bit disappointed with the island simply because it felt like the people there, who once had such and incredible life, now just spend their lives entertaining tourists. It made me sad. Taquile, fortunately, was a different story. The people of Taquile still speak Kichwa and adhere to most of the cultural traditions. While on the island we had the chance to eat the traditional foods – quinoa soup and fresh trout. Yum! The island´s people also focus much on sustainable tourism, which benefits everyone. Our few hours on Taquile were wonderful.

After Puno we took a night bus to the Sacred Valley for our yoga retreat. At the time I was so excited to get there so that I could stretch and relax. I certainly needed both. Unfortunately, my expectations did not meet reality. This is what our daily schedule looked like:

7:00AM – Meditation

8:00AM – Yoga Class

9:30AM – Breakfast

10:15AM – Service Time

11:00AM – Informational Class

1:00PM – Lunch

2:00PM – Rest

2:30PM – Informational Class 2

4:30PM – Yoga Class 2

7:00PM – Dinner

I never expected a yoga retreat to be so busy. By the time we finished dinner we were all so exhausted, which is good, because there was no electricity and everything after sunset was done with candlelight (I did really enjoy our dinners by candlelight). While having no electricity was annoying at times, not having hot water was worse. For the first time ever, I went 5 days without taking a shower. By Saturday, I could not take it anymore and just embraced the frigid water.

I learned this past week that while yoga can be relaxing and wonderful, it can also be incredibly challenging for the mind and body, especially when I have stretched so little for 3 months. Everyone´s bodies are still in so much pain. With all of that said though, it was not all that bad. In fact, the food was the best we have had all trip. Everything was vegetarian, but even the group´s biggest meat eaters loved it. The cooks, Natividad and Damodhar, knew what they were doing. I wrote down almost all of the recipes. Another great part was being disconnected for the week. I have noticed that being away from Internet makes me engage so much more.

Overall, I am grateful for the experience, but I am also very happy to be back in Cusco, sitting in chairs, rather than on the floor.

Next up on the itinerary is what we have all been waiting for – the trek to Macchu Picchu! For the past 3 months we have been thinking about this trek and I cannot believe that it begins so soon. We have two nights here in Cusco, but very early Tuesday morning we start. It will consist of 4 days of hiking, 3 nights of camping, 1 night in the town outside of the ruins, and then on the 5th day we will finally arrive. Once we do, we will enjoy the view and then hike up Huayna Picchu for the classic, picturesque view of Macchu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world. While I cannot wait, I am a little worried about the actual trek. All of our bodies still hurt and there has been a lot of sickness in the group. Please pray for health and safety.

I cannot believe the end of our trip has begun. Here´s to a wonderful last week!

Check out my new photos on Facebook.

Incan Ruins Galore

After an eleven hour, night bus ride from Puerto Maldanado, we arrived in Cusco at 6:30AM. The rest of the group hopped onto another bus and headed to Ollantaytambo, where we have spent the last 3 nights. Laura and I, though, are in charge of our early Thanksgiving Day feast that will take place tonight, so we stayed in Cusco for a few hours in order to buy ingredients at a super market (super markets are only found in large cities). Unfortunately, what we did not consider, was that Cusco does not wake up at 6:30AM. We found Starbucks that was open and hung out there until 8:00AM, thinking markets would certainly be open by then. Nope! They do not open until after 9:00AM. So, we wondered around trying to find an Internet cafe that was open. Eventually we found a lady who owned one and she happily opened up early for us. After browsing online for a bit, we took a cab to the closest mall and bought everything we needed. We then hopped on a bus and headed to meet the group at the hostel in Ollantaytambo. When we finally arrived everyone was lounged on the couch watching a movie. I was a little bit jealous.

The first day in Ollantaytambo, I was too exhausted to do much. I attempted a short hike, but bailed pretty quickly and opted to just go back to the hostel and rest. That night our hostel owners prepared a hot meal for us. Considering we were all so cold, not yet readjusted to being in a cold, desert environment, it hit the spot. We then had a group meeting to go over our plans for the rest of our time in Ollantaytambo.

On Thursday we decided to hike the ruins of Pisac. For me, the beginning of the hike was miserable. Though the hike was difficult, the mental battle that was waging in my brain was my main source of discomfort. I spent the first hour of the hike being frustrated and extremely homesick. After many desperate prayers, I began to feel a little better and joined up with the group before reaching the peak of the hike. We found a shady spot and ate our packed lunches before exploring all of the beautiful ruins. As I sat on the mountain trying to think about my troubles, I couldn´t help but forget them as I examined the breathtaking views surrounding me. Though I still felt homesick, I could feel God´s power and love surrounding me on all sides. I am still very much ready to go home, but I am excited to spend the next two weeks with the group at Lake Titicaca, a yoga retreat, and of course, Macchu Picchu.

Friday, for me, was much better than Thursday. Most of the group went mountain biking in the morning, but I opted to stay in town so that I could Skype, research for my coffee presentation, and buy more ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast. It was so good to talk with family and friends and to just have a peaceful morning. After the group got back a few of us hiked up to the Ollantaytambo ruins where we enjoyed the view and some Italian cookies Cheridyn was willing to share. Once the temperature began to drop, I headed to the market to buy ingredients for a spaghetti dinner. With chopped tomatoes, onions, peas, red pepper, garlic, and pasta the dish for some reason tasted more Mexican than Italian, but it was fresh, delicious, and cost less than two US dollars, not too shabby, plus, I have leftovers for lunch today. We ended the night beginning to prepare food for Thanksgiving- apple cobbler, deviled eggs, and glazed carrots. We also drank hot chocolate, had a Carpe Diem Lesson on personality tests, and watched Blood Diamond. It was all good.

Today, Saturday, as far as we are concerned, is Thanksgiving Day. Since we will be on a yoga retreat on the actual holiday, we decided to improvise. Tonight we will have a Peruvian Thanksgiving with the following:

  • Roasted Chicken (we would have had to hunt the turkey ourselves)
  • Stuffing/Dressing
  • Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Yuka
  • Green beans, broccoli, glazed carrots
  • Salad
  • Deviled eggs
  • Bean dish (for the vegetarians)
  • Sweet tea
  • Apple cobbler, brownies

It is going to be delicious (hopefully)!

This morning I finally did my college course presentation on coffee production. I explained to the group the differences between organic and non-organic coffee production. After explaining all of the differences, I then tested them to see if their tasted buds could figure out which was which. Most everyone was successful. The losers know who they are. 😉 I think overall it went pretty well, and I am so glad to have it behind me.

Tonight is our last night in Ollantaytambo. Tomorrow evening we will head to Cusco and catch a bus to Lake Titicaca, the highest, navigable body of water in the world. Considering I learned about Lake Titicaca in geography class, I am excited to visit! I am sure it will be beautiful. We will only spend one night there, and then we will head to a yoga retreat in the Sacred Valley. At that point, we will have only two weeks left of this South American adventure, which is a little unbelievable. I can do this!

I am hoping and praying that these next weeks will be joyous and satisfying, but also that they will go quickly.

Hasta luego!

PS: Please pray for our group´s health. There has been a little stomach bug going around. Also pray for my sweet Mamaw as she recovers from her heart surgery.

Surviving one week in the Amazon

To say that I was not looking forward to spending the week of my birthday in the Peruvian Amazon would be a vast understatement. In fact, I was just plain miserable every time I thought about it. Convinced that it would be a horrible week, I spent our one night in Puerto Maldonado wallowing in self-pity, sweat, and deet. The next morning, on our five hour boat ride from Puerto Maldonado to our home for the next week, I fervently prayed that our week in the Amazon would be surprisingly wonderful. After seeing our hostel, El Gato, and working the first day at Camino Verde, I knew that our week would indeed be great. I was pleasantly surprised and so thankful for it.

Camino Verde

Our week in the Peruvian Amazon was spent working with an organization called Camino Verde. To quote from their website, “Camino Verde is a United States-based 501-c-3 tax-exempt charitable organization dedicated to:

  • Protecting and understanding biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Protecting indigenous rights, autonomy, and wisdom.
  • Spreading sustainable ways of life and encouraging fair, sustainable development. “

Our mission for the week was to complete a fish pond project that a former Carpe Diem group started. When they were here, they cleared and dug out a large area to create a fish pond. Robin Van Loon`s, the founder of Camino Verde, goal is to be completely sustainable. Up until now he and the staff of Camino Verde have lived on a mostly vegan diet, fishing in Rio Tambopata on occasion. They hoped to begin producing their own protein to eat from this fish pond. Unfortunately, after the pond had been dug, they quickly realized that without some form of barrier the pond would not stay filled with water. After much research, Robin decided that creating a “glay“ within the pond would solve this problem. That is where we came in. For the week, our job was to make this glay using banana tree trunks, palm leaves, sand, and clay. All of these supplies were carried up hills, long distances, on our backs, or in wheel barrels. This work would have been difficult for any one and the fact that we were in one of the hottest, most humid places made it seem quite impossible at times. Regardless, we pushed through and finished the project on the last day. Robin even commended all of us for being the hardest working Carpe Diem group he has ever had (out of 8 groups).

Half way through the week, it rained all day. This rain provided us with a much needed break. Instead of doing back-breaking work, we had an Amazonian Home Ec class. We learned to make Robin`s precious sauerkraut. We also toasted peanuts and made cacao into chocolate. It was my kind of “work“ day.

The Food

Other than the fact that the people were amazing, the food made the work totally worth it. Each morning we would work for  about five hours and then we sat down at the farm table and enjoyed some form of rice and beans accompanied with a salad, fresh picked from the garden, sauerkraut (I got the recipe), and really spicy, pickled peppers. I cannot believe I did not know that rice and beans could taste so good. For the week I continued being a vegetarian, until the hostel owners caught three 30lb cat fish. I indulged and it was worth it.

My Birthday

The reason I was dreading the Amazon so much ended up being my favorite day there – my 19th birthday. The day began with my roommates, Sarah and Keely, bringing my breakfast in bed. The group also sent a card full of sweet, birthday notes. While eating my breakfast I was able to reread all of the cards my family sent me. Even though it was before 6:00AM, it was a great way to start my day. Once we boated over to Camino Verde we began carrying more banana trunks on our backs. Fortunately, Robin pulled three girls aside and asked us to work with Ursula in the garden. There was nothing I would have rather done! We cut, pruned, weeded, and harvested all of the vegetables for our lunch. It was not easy work, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also got to pick Ursula´s brain for gardening tips. I cannot wait to start one when I get home!  After a full day of work we enjoyed some hot chocolate from the batch of cacao we processed the day before, and the group sang “Happy Birthday“ to me in both English and Spanish. We then headed back to the hostel for the night. After dinner we found out that our amazing hostel owners had attempted to make me a birthday cake, but it burned. The thought counted more than anything! Truly, my birthday in the Amazon was wonderful and unforgettable.

While I was not looking forward to it from the beginning, the Amazon ended up being one of my most favorite places thus far on this trip. I hope one day I can go back and enjoy some of the fish that will be living in the pond we completed! Many thanks to Camino Verde for their hospitality all week, y`all rock! `

Student Directed Travel began when we headed back to Puerto Maldonado. We are currently staying at the Anaconda Lodge, a jungle paradise with cuddly monkeys, Thai food, and a swimming pool. We will be here for one more night and then we will head to the Sacred Valley for four, followed by one night at Lake Titicaca. The next week and a half should be lots of fun! Time is dwindling, and I want to enjoy every moment I have left in South America to the fullest.

Check out my pictures from our week in the Amazon on my Facebook page.

Cusco, the belly button of the world

Because it is my week to blog for the group, this post is, or will be, also posted on our Carpe Diem blog.

I now know why Cusco, Peru is such a tourist attraction. This place, also known as ¨the belly button of the world,¨ is truly wonderful. We arrived here on Sunday, after a 9 hour bus ride, exhausted, yet really excited to explore.

The Hostel 

This week we stayed at a hostel named ¨Mama Cusco.¨ The name is self-explanatory. Papa and Mama Cusco run this cute, little hostel and treat all of their guests as though they are their children. Every time we saw Mama Cusco she greeted us in full on baby talk saying, ¨Ohhhh! Mi amor!!! ¿Como estas?¨ Although it was a little irritating having a hostel owner tell me that I need to make my bed every day, it was nice having a family atmosphere.

The hostel had many other wonderful assets as well. Within it, there was a small restaurant with a wide variety of food. We all took advantage of it. Some students even tried alpaca and cuy (guinea pig)! I also really enjoyed the view from the rooftop. It was the perfect place to spend my mornings. Although, my most favorite part of staying at Mama Cusco´s was the location. We were a five minute walk from the stunning Plaza de Armas. The plaza in Cusco is beautiful, and at night, accompanied by the full moon, it was simply breathtaking.

The Classes

The main focus of our week in Cusco was Spanish classes. We had the awesome opportunity to take classes at one of the best, and most unique, Spanish schools in Peru. It is called FairServices. Not only does the school deliver top-notch Spanish classes, but they are also a non-profit. Read more about it here.

Every morning at 10:00AM we walked to the school to have two hours of grammar classes. All of these classes had two students from our group and one teacher. At noon, we had a break for 3 hours, followed by practice classes. For our practice classes we had four students from our group and two teachers. From 3:00-7:00PM we explored different cultural sites in and around Cusco. Each group alternated between days at Saqsaywaman (otherwise known as Sexy Woman), a zoo (if you can really call it that), the San Pedro Market, and the cemetery. Our group also went to the Chocolate Museum, in which I had the best hot chocolate ever.

On Thursday, instead of exploring the city, we made sweet and savory tamales together. They were not my favorite, but it was a fun experience. We also had a hilarious salsa class on Friday, followed by a late night at a discoteca with our teachers. Looking back on our week at FairServices, it was incredible, and I know for sure that my Spanish improved substantially.

The Food

For my Portland State University Course, the Geography and Globalization of Food, I read the book Food Rules.  This book consists of 64 guidelines to having a healthy, balanced diet. After reading this book, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to follow the rules for one week. On top of that, I also began reading The China Study,  which made me want to try veganism for the week, along with the rules. I was not 100% successful, but I was vegetarian for the whole week and vegan 90% of the time. At the Spanish school we had access to a kitchen for lunch, which made following the rules much easier. Eating out, while trying to be a vegan, is not an easy task, much respect for those who do.

While I do not plan to become a vegan or vegetarian in my everyday life, this week, and both books, has made me want to consume less animal protein. There are so many delicious fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in this world that it is not necessary to consume meat and dairy at every meal, or every day. I hope that when I go home I will remember this. I am excited to try some vegan recipes in my own kitchen. Look out Mom and Dad!


I think I can confirm that thus far Cusco is my favorite place that we have visited. Our hostel, Spanish school, and the delicious food are only a few of the wonderful highlights of this city. I am so glad that for the rest of the trip we will be in and out of Cusco. There are so many things to do, eat, and buy here. I am really looking forward to purchasing gifts for my family and friends!

This coming week we will be heading to the Amazon. I am still not sure how I feel about celebrating my birthday in the middle of nowhere, without my family, but I sincerely hope it is a good week full of new, hopefully positive, experiences. If it isn´t the best, I will just have to remember that we get to come back to the belly button of the world soon!



PS: Happy almost birthday to my sweet momma! I cannot believe that this will be the first time in my 19 years of life that we will not be able to celebrate our (shared) birthday together. I love you and cannot wait to see you in just a few more weeks!

Arequipa, week 2

I can´t believe we have already entered November! Day to day, time has gone by slowly, but overall, time is flying.

Just like last week, we had another full week in Arequipa, Peru. This week my group took Spanish classes, while the others volunteered at the orphange. Spanish classes were one on one, which was great because I learned so much, but terrible in that after 4 hours of class in the morning, I was exhasted. The first two hours of class were spent learning grammar. The following two hours focused on conversation. I definitely prefered the conversation portion.

My host family continued to be amazing this week. The first part of the week was pretty rough for me, for a number of reasons, and they were just wonderful. When I was sick, they catered to my every need, and when I was homesick, my sweet Mama Maria gave me hugs like only a mom can do. Also, the food was on point. I have a number of recipes I wrote down so that I can make them when I get home.
One of the coolest parts of this week was seeing Aerquipa´s Halloween traditions. Apparently in most rural communities, Halloween is not celebrated, but in this big city, they go all out. The costumes were insane and the decorations were… interesting.
Because the orphange we have been working with does not celebrate Halloween, our group threw a ¨Dress Up Fall Festival¨ for them. There were games, lots of candy, junk food, and dancing. I dressed up as a Peruvian Tinkerbell, thanks to my host sisters and their countless bags of costumes. After the party I was exhasted, but my host family was not ready to settle in for the night. Instead, we headed to the mall to see the costume competition, followed by walking to a local food festival. We picked up some French fries (papas frito) to take home for dinner, and got to watch Creole-Peruvian dancing and musicians. I believe the group was called Blanco y Negro. They were phenomenal. Afterwards we headed home for our last dinner in Arequipa. We had chicken, fries, Sprite, and cookies. That´s my kind of night.
Today we experienced the traditional ¨Halloween¨ here in Arequipa, known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. We went to a local cemetery, along with everyone in the city and their brother. There, we saw all kinds of people remembering their loved ones. Some people even paid bands to sing their deceased family member´s favorite song. It was an interesting experience. Afterwards, the group split up. I went with a few of the girls to pick up food for next week in Cusco, and then we went and got one last Starbucks treat.
For my Geography and Globalization of Food course I had to read Food Rules by Michael Pollan. Within the book there are 64 practical rules to help people eat good, healthy food. This week in Cusco, since we will have access to a kitchen, I am challenging myself to follow the rules for one week and see how I feel. This past week I ate way to many treats, so my body is in need of a detox.
Anyways, I just finished packing and will soon be getting on an 8 hour bus ride to Cusco. I will miss Arequipa very much, especially my amazing host family, but I am excited to explore a new place. I also get to go to church tomorrow, which is always a plus!
Check out my Facebook tomorrow for pictures from this past week. I do not have time to post them now. Ciao!

Our first week in Arequipa

I don´t even know where to begin. Our first week in Peru has been amazing. At 3:00Am last Sunday we left Ecuador and hopped on our flight to Arequipa, Peru. This city is wonderful and is a welcomed change from the rural environment we were in two weeks ago.

I have been so blessed with an amazing family, and I am so excited I get to spend a second week with them. My ¨mom¨ is a single mother and owner of the Spanish school I will be attending this week. Her two daughters, 11 and 13, are your typical sassy pre-teens that keep me laughing. They all are very engaging and my Spanish has improved substantially after just one week.

This past week 5 other of my group mates and I volunteered at a home for girls. We did a lot of construction and I enjoyed cooking lunch with Juana and Rosa. It was a long few days, but I am glad I got to know some of the girls.

One great thing  about being in this big city is the American food options. We eat almost all of our meals at our homes, but occassionally we indulge. It is crazy what you crave when you are eating mainly rice. I may or may not have willingly ate McDonald´s yesterday. We have also enjoyed a several new Peruvian dishes, which I am really looking forward to making at home. Queso Helado and Ceviche have been my favorite.

While I have been here in Arequipa I have endured a few ¨major¨ changes. I have totally turned into a morning person. I automatically wake up at 7:00AM, go out onto my bedroom´s terrace (which has a beautiful view of the mountains), and I do my Bible study, listen to music and exercise. I really hope I continue this routine even when I get home. Another big change is that I now drink black coffee. Before I left the US, I drank sugar with a little bit of coffee. It is truly a miraculous thing.

My most favorite part about being here is that today I finally got the chance to go to church. At home I totally took for granted going to my church every week, and I have truly missed it here. I was a little afraid that I wouldn´t be able to understand the message, but surpsingly, I was able to follow along. I even knew two of the songs we sang in English. As my Dad said, the Gospel is beautiful in every language. I felt so at home being surrounded by fellow believers. I hope to able to attend another service in Cusco next week. Let me know if any of you know of a church.

Here´s to hoping this upcoming week will be as great, or even better, than the last.

Note: Like in past weeks, all of my photos can be found on my Facebook.


Life in Pucara

What a week! Pucara is a strangely, awesome place. It is a small, farming town that can only be accessed by dirt roads, but that also has insanely good infastructure thanks to the ideas and leadership of an American named Peter who has lived in Ecuador for 20+ years.

When we first arrived in Pucara we were greeted by the whole community and had opening ceremony games, which then introduced each of the pairs to our homestay families. Caleigh and I were blessed with an incredible family. Sweet Carmin, our mama, was a great cook. We often had hot dogs and french fries for breakfast, but hey, I am not complaining. Just don´t judge me if I get fat… One of Carmin´s eleven children still lives at home, Norma is her name. She is 30 years old and has some special needs. Her precious smile and laugh always brightened my day. Though we didn´t have a lot of conversation with our host family, we shared countless hugs and smiles. I looked forward to going ¨home¨every night to see them. Though the home was made of cement, the floors were dirt, and you had to go outside to use the bathroom (and get in the shower to look in the mirror), the family was content. There is so much we can all learn from there way of life.

Being that Pucara is a farming town, everything happens a lot earlier. For example, Caleigh and I never actually talked to our host dad because when we came home for dinner he was already sleeping, and when we woke up he had already left for work. It was always funny to sit outside as it started to get dark at 6:30PM because the entire town just completely shut down, except for a few town drunks. Eery and creepy are the only words I can think of when describing Pucara after dark.

Our third day in Pucara is when the work began. Due to unsustainable farming techniques there are many abandoned pastures in the area. We planted 750 trees in one of these pastures. Planting trees doesn´t seem too difficult, but when it is done on a steep mountainside, at a high elevation, it´s strenuous to say the least. Nonetheless, after two days of tough work it was nice to see our accomplishments.

Another wonderful part of Pucara is all of the wonderful products they produce. We got to see the entire production of making coffee. From planting, harvesting, drying, classifying, and  roasting, a ridiculous amount of work goes into making each and every cup of coffee. We also particpated in the making of sugar by hand. Something so sweet never tasted so good. Several town women also make purses, bags, and hats using a natural fiber called Kabua. We had the pleasure of watching them create their magic.

About halfway through the week we left Pucara for the day/night to go ziplining and stay in some beautiful cabins. The zipline was insane. I have never had more of an adrenaline rush. Peter said we most likely were going about 70MPH. I screamed as long as my diaphram would let me. After the adrenaline rush we hiked down to our home for the night – beautiful cabins set by the river and some volcanic hot pools. We very much enjoyed the break from farm life.

On our last day in Pucara we hiked to one of Peter´s friends homes. His name is Carlos. Carlos is an intriguing individual who has played a huge role in the anti-mining movement in the Intag region of Ecuador. He focuses most of his time protecting the civil liberties of locals who do not have the means to stand up to the government and their corrupt tactics. The political corruption in Ecuador is mind-boggling and incredibly sad.  The President here has taken over the entire government and is now pushing to remove presidential term limits from the constitution. People are being arrested and fired from their jobs just for not supporting the government. It´s insane. People like Carlos and Peter are fighting hard, but there is much work to do and not much money to do it with. Depsite the odds, they still have hope which is really inspiring to hear about. Following our hiking adventure  to Carlos´home (5+ hours of hiking) we headed back to town for our goodbye party. It was bittersweet. We played many games, watched traditional dancing, and then our group performed a dance of our own. It was a hit. We got on the bus the next morning at 6:30AM.

Now we are settled into our cozy hostel in the city of Otavalo. It is crazy to see how different life can be only two hours away. While in Pucara the only noise we heard at night was the rooster choir (at 4:00AM sharp), but here in Otavalo we hear the rush of traffic. In our hostel there is a fully stocked kitchen that we are allowed to use. I have most definitely taken advantage of it. I have missed cooking at home. This morning I made omelets for all 14 people (for a total of $16). Tonight we are planning to make a pasta bar. We just got back from a day at Laguna de Mojanda. It was absolutely stunning, but it was also frigid. I guess being at 12,000FT will do that. By the end of our few hours I was jumping up and down trying to create some heat while waiting on the bus. Tomorrow we are going to Cuicocha, which I have heard is wonderful and warmer.

I cannot believe we are living our last few days in Ecuador. We leave for the airport on Sunday at 3:30AM to fly to Peru. I am sad to leave the beautiful country of Ecuador, but am so excited to explore a new place… and possibly eat cuy, a.k.a guinea pig.


Enjoying the views

Last week we had the amazing opportunity to study Spanish and volunteer at a local special needs school in Baños, Ecuador. Banos is a precious, small city surrounded by the most beautiful mountains and waterfalls. In between classes and volunteering we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city, hanging out with our host families, eating ice cream (more than I should have), and just getting to know each other better. It was a truly great week.

Staying with my first host family was a very interesting experience. Thankfully, I had Sarah with me, who knows a lot more Spanish than me. Meals were a bit awkward, but overall it was a postitive experience. Near the end of the week we made homemade pizza with the whole family, which was really awesome and delicious. I can´t wait to make the recipe for my family when I get home!

Speaking of pizza, I also tried Pizza Cones for the first time. Wow. The US needs to get on board with that. It is literally pizza toppings inside of a crust cone. Yum!

After our Spanish classes we split into two groups. Our group went to a special needs school and the other taught English to local kids. The special needs school was a good experience. The first day was very overwhelming, but by the end of the week we knew the kids and their specific needs. They were all sad to see us go, and we were sad to leave.

Near the end of the week I came down with allergies, which was no fun. Fortunately, they are already better. Unfortunately, yesterday on our bus ride (from 3AM-10AM), I started to have really terrible stomach pain. I wasn´t able to eat anything all day and nothing made it better. To top it off, when I video chatted with my parents I found out that a member of my extended family had passed away. Knowing that my whole family was together, while I was sick in a foriegn country with 13 people I only met 2 weeks ago, was rough.

I went to bed really early and really upset. Thankfully I woke up feeling substantially better and enjoyed chocolate pancakes from our hostel. We also explored the market today here in Otavalo, which is world reknowned. I bought an alpaca sweater!! I wanted to buy everything they are selling, but will have to wait until Cusco because none of it will fit in my backpack.

Tomorrow we leave for Pucara, which is a very small village in Ecuador. There, we will be working with a local contact planting trees and exploring a few different types of farms. I´m looking forward to a break from formal Spanish class. I learned a lot last week, but I need a few days to process all of the information.

Due to slow Internet, I am posting all of my pictures on Facebook. Feel free to add me there and check them out! I don´t have time to write about all of my experiences in Baños, so the pictures give a better story.

Hasta luego!