Cambodian Crossings

So there we were: it’s 5 am and Elizabeth, Lauren, and I are aboard a train that cost us a mere 48 Thai Baht (that’s $1.36) from Bangkok to the border of Thailand/Cambodia. Two weeks into SE Asia prices, and we still couldn’t get over how cheap that is. It’s a 6 hour train ride! It’s a rickity, decrepit, dirty, open air train that wouldn’t be up to any US standard, so it was AWESOME. We were lucky we got on when we did because a few stops later the train was jam packed with the cutest of cute Thai people, and it was standing room only! Cute, elderly Thai ladies pass us every few minutes with baskets of snacks they’re selling. The homemade, fly-ridden meat sticks (stored at room temp) is the only food we can actually decipher in the basket, so we politely decline. After a few hours of watching the beautiful Thai countryside go by, we arrive at the border.
We had done our research before we got here to know what to expect at the border (overland border crossings tend to have a few more obstacles). We got stamped out of Thailand perfectly smoothly, and headed on toward Cambodia’s “Visa On Arrival.” We were ready to fight the scammers we were told would try to sell us overpriced visas, but we didn’t have to! We paid the $30 that was legitimately owed and only a $3 bribe on top of that (we’ve heard some travelers have had to pay way more), and we were stamped into Cambodia! Here’s where things got a bit questionable. 
We were directed by a few people to wait for the “free shuttle bus” that would bring us to the bus station from the border. We had read about it online, and a reputable source said it was a legitimate free shuttle bus. There was even an official sign….. so, we took it, along with a handful of other travelers. When we pulled into said “bus station” we soon realized it was just an abandoned building they had turned into a pseudo-bus station where they could get us far away from any other company’s competition. We had been fooled! Now that we had no other choice, we booked a mini bus that they told us would leave immediately (we paid extra since they said a large tour bus wouldn’t leave for 2 hours… another scam…) FINALLY, an hour and a half later, we squeezed our way on to a bus. Scammed again. Accompanying us three gals on our way to the town of Siem Reap was another American gal (who Elizabeth and I deduced and confirmed is a spy working for the CIA….it’s too long of a story to tell now, you’ll have to wait for the Extended and Uncut Version of the blog), an Indian guy who lives in Sweden, an older couple from Oregon who had moved to Cambodia to start a farm and introduce a new nut to the region, and last but definitely not least, 20 adorable Buddhist monks. Hours behind schedule and tired from the scams, we were happy to finally be on the road. The monks must have been as well– they all pulled out their selfie sticks simultaneously (at one point we counted 5 selfie sticks and 2 iPads in the air at one time), and they wanted us in all the pictures! Hilarious. We happily obliged (but the spy ducked for every one!) The bus company had assured us that the mini bus would take us to the city center, where big buses couldn’t go…. but, sure enough, we pull into what they called their “bus station” yet again on the far outskirts of the city. They demanded us 7 foreigners to get off the bus, that the bus wasn’t allowed to go any further. We knew this was a total lie, so even as they literally threw our bags off the bus, we remained seated. We politely demanded they take us to the center as they told us they would or at least to the hotel that they were taking the monks to. They not-so-politely yelled at us again to get off the bus. They even accused us of disrespecting the monks and Buddhism as a whole, which our Indian friend (who is Buddhist), heatedly but politely told the bus drivers how this is not how Buddhist people treat others. We proceeded to get off the bus since we realized we were not going to win this one, and all the adorable monks waved at us and said “sorry, sorry! Have nice trip!” 
Fortunately, the scams we had endured over the day were never too big of a deal, but it was just the principle of the whole thing that got us frustrated. We were able to take a tuk-tuk (basically a motorcycle-drawn chariot) into Siem Reap for a couple dollars and everything was fine. 
Why go to Siem Reap, Cambodia you ask? Well, there are ruins of an empire city built in the 9th-15th centuries by the Khmer Empire here. The place is known as Angkor Wat. Truth be told, I had no idea what the place was before planning our trip in Asia. After getting to spend two glorious days there, I cannot believe it’s not officially on the list of the 7 Wonders of the World (it’s commonly known as the 8th). It’s absolutely astounding. I’m talkin’ Machu Picchu astounding. 
Our first day to spend in Angkor Wat fell on a Sunday, so before we entered the park, we hoped to find a Catholic Church for Sunday mass. And by a true miracle, Elizabeth found the ONE Catholic church in the town and we were able to make it to their one mass that morning. It was such a neat experience to celebrate the mass in a primarily Buddhist culture. There were no pews, just mats on the floor, and the music was just beautiful. The priest (who was Jesuit… #gozags) even gave a tiny part of his homily in English for us! We spotted the Missionaries of Charity as we left the church (the order of nuns that Mother Teresa founded) and we shyly and nervously went up to them to introduce ourselves. These nuns are all bad ass, so we got some stage fright 🙂 Like it was no thing, they invited us back to their home, where they run a short-term children’s shelter where kids from very poor families can get the food, medicine, and care that they need. We walked the few blocks from church with them and soon found ourselves in a Cambodian children heaven. Kids were running all around us, grabbing onto our legs and arms, the nuns were handing us the babies who needed to be held, we were passing out gummy candies, and so on. It was a glorious mayhem, and the Sisters were just so spot on with their loving care, assertiveness, and welcoming spirits. It was such a fun surprise for us, with ringing similarities to the Bolivian orphanage experience Elizabeth and I had over a year ago! 
We reluctantly left the kids and the Sisters and set out towards Angkor Wat. 
Highlights from day one at Angkor Wat were as follows: 

1. We rent $1.50 horrendous bicycles to see the temples and ruins. 

2. Lauren gets turned away from one of the main temples for wearing athletic shorts and a see-through cover-up… we never saw that one coming! Don’t worry, she bought pants an hour later so she would be allowed into the rest of them…Classic Laur, always dressing too scandalously…. 

3. Sunset on top of one of the temples on a mountain overlooking Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. 

4. Biking back on the Cambodian roads with insane drivers after dark…. a great memory that we wouldn’t recommend anyone else having.  
Day two highlights: 

1. We hired a tuk tuk driver, Huan, for the entire day, who brought us anywhere around Angkor Wat that we wanted to go. 

2. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. Albeit a little cloudy, it was still astounding as the sun illuminated the beautiful temples early in the morning. 

3. Exploring around all of Angkor Thom (which is comprised of the majority of the ruins from the Empire). It’s basically anything goes as to where you can explore the ruins, which is incredible. So we Indiana Jones-ed the heck out of the day, climbing up and down the huge ruins. 

4. Speaking of Indiana Jones, Ta Prohm temple was by far our favorite of all. It’s where Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider got their inspiration. It had a beauty and spirituality to it that we truly can’t describe. 

 

After two incredible days at Angkor Wat, it was nearly time to say goodbye to our Lauren. One of the three of us just has to be employed, and unfortunately that person is Lauren. We should have spent her last night at a fancy restaurant, but instead we found ourselves still haggling and getting our $1 dinner that we so love, and hunting through the night market for souvenirs. We found that Cambodia is the most fun place to haggle prices. There’s a constant echo from each market stall of “Ladyyyyy, special discount for yooou!!” 
After saying a sad, sad goodbye to Lauren, (she truly was the the best-of-the-best of travel buddies), Elizabeth and I were off on another bus heading to the capital of Cambodia- Phnom Penh. We were immediately taken aback with how insane the drivers were in this city; it was the craziest driving we had seen yet. There were no stop lights or cross walks (or at least, no one abides by them), pedestrians actually never have the right of way, they average five people on ONE motorbike, one way streets are merely a suggestion, and somehow, the mayhem all works. It’s a beautiful chaos and we loved it. (And we didn’t realize this driving was pretty tame compared to our future Vietnam ventures.) 
We came to Phnom Penh mainly to tour the “Killing Fields.” We only vaguely remember learning anything about the Cambodian genocide in school or while growing up, but we knew it had affected the country and millions of people greatly. We spent the entire next day touring one of the over 130 killing fields that the Khmer Rouge used as a place to kill any and all people who would not fit into their plans of forming an agrarian culture. Anyone who was educated, spoke a foreign language, or even simply had glasses or soft hands, was brutally murdered. It was haunting, horrible, and unbelievable to tour such a seemingly peaceful place. In the afternoon, we toured S21, which had been a school in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge transformed it into a prison and torture center during the genocide. It was truly the most haunting experience of our lives, something that I will have nightmares over. It was so hard to see how cruel humans can be to each other; we heard testimonies from the few survivors of the torture center and saw the still-intact prison cells that were in what had been the classrooms. Both tours left us asking ourselves, “How? How could humans ever do this to one another?” The self-guided audio tours were extremely well done and left us feeling heartbroken, angry, horrified, and determined to continue the fight for this to never happen again. 
Our final day in Cambodia was spent with a surprise lunch date with one of our Aussie friends we had met on a trek through the mountains in Colombia last February– she saw that we were in Cambodia and messaged us. Such a small world!! She is doing a year with Engineers Without Borders in Phnom Penh, and is doing great things. She was quite the inspiration for potential future endeavors of Buns and Bert…….. 
We finished the day at a coffee shop doing a bit of Vietnam planning and having a potential Dengue Fever and/or malaria scare, and then we were off to Vietnam! (Turns out, sometimes our street food/market food choices aren’t the best…. the hemorrhagic fever that I thought I was getting and would need to be airlifted to Bangkok for, turned out to be food poisoning). With a few doses of oral antibiotics and two days on a starvation diet, I was ship-shape!! 
We left Cambodia feeling way more positive about the country than upon our arrival. We only wished we had more time to enjoy all the country has to offer, and wishing we had more time with the wonderful and most smiley people in the world. We will be back, Cambodia! 
Next up: we bus our way into South Vietnam and start in the wild metropolis of Saigon! 

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Same same, but different 

Welcome back to the travel adventures of Buns and Bert. We are surprised, thankful, and honored that you decided to open this blog yet again. We’ll do our best to keep you entertained and informed! 
“You two are traveling…. again?!” 

Yes folks, that’s the beauty of being a travel nurse. We’re both in between assignments, so we got to spend time at home for Christmas, then proceeded to take a little more time off to travel! We found tickets for $490 round trip from Chicago to Bangkok, (we took that as a sign that God was encouraging it!) and plans were set! When you have a travel buddy as great as Alli begging you to travel with her for just a quick 6 weeks, you just can’t say no. 

So, why Asia? 

We both feel we know very little about Southeast Asian culture, but have heard wonderful things about traveling in Southeast Asia. We are here to expand our knowledge of other cultures, of the US history in these countries, and to sample first hand some of the best food in the world! 

So…. 

After only 2 weeks in Thailand, some may ask how we compare this trip to our time spent in South America. Alli and I both agree that we could summarize it by saying; “same same, but different”. (Everyone in SE Asia uses this phrase in English, as if it were a normal phrase used by native speakers. They say it so often that we’ve found ourselves constantly describing things in this way, and somehow the phrase now has meaning that it did not have when we first arrived!!!)

But… let’s back up a bit. Our trip started out with a 13-hr layover in Shanghai, China. Despite our exhaustion after a direct 15 hour flight from Chicago, we had to “go to China”, right? When we arrived, quite literally everything that could have gone wrong did. We couldn’t pull money out of the ATMs because: China. We couldn’t log into Facebook to communicate with our friend we were supposed to meet there due to the great “firewall” of China. Because we couldn’t get a hold of him- we were on our own in this very foreign land! We couldn’t even get our US$ changed because all 8 money exchange stations that we visited all over this major airport had one person sitting in the booth that insisted they were “closed”. (Why are you sitting inside then?!) Also, only 1 person in Shanghai seemed to speak English, so maneuvering was next to impossible, retracing our steps time and time again. (Remember to stick to the 3 person rule before proceeding to follow a strangers advice…)

After 3 hours, we FINALLY managed to store our bags, get a small amount of Chinese cash, and get out to the city for a much desired hot meal of seshuan noodles. We took the 400 km/hr bullet train from the airport into town in search of food. As we were unsuccessful in that area of town, we took a taxi to God-knows-where after zero communication with our driver, but were dropped off in a place that seemed to have a few restaurants. I told Alli confidently that “seshuan” was a Chinese word that everyone would understand, but when we continued to ask for seshuan and received blank stares, we guessed perhaps it’s not a word after all… oops!

From that point on, everything we did is probably in some Chinese comedy making fun of foreigners. We proceeded to walk into 5 different restaurants to find seshuan noodles. Each time we walked into a restaurant, the record skipped, everyone stopped talking/eating and stared at us. We stammer “Nihau… seshuan??” Mostly people shook their head at us, but at one restaurant the workers took the approach of simply ignoring our presence! Finally a kind Chinese man who had studied in Boston saw our struggle, and attempted to help point us in the right direction. A simple point doesn’t always succeed, especially when everything is written in characters we cannot read. We ended up walking into a restaurant in which we saw a couple eating something that looked questionable but appetizing. We pointed at it and showed how little money we had to spend. In the end, it worked out, we ate a pretty good meal, and made our way back to the airport. Turns out New Year’s Eve in China is pretty dead (but so were we!) because they only celebrate the Chinese New Year (which is in January). Thus, we brought in 2017 by brushing our teeth in the airport bathroom, then sleeping 6 hours on an airport bench before our flight to Thailand. 

Although China was very rough for us, we know we were the most unprepared we have ever been to visit a country, as we had expected our friend living there to help us with everything. If we go back, I’m sure we would enjoy it with a little more preparation! Just our first lesson that being unable to speak the language of a country makes for tough traveling! 

Thailand may be one of our favorite countries we’ve visited thus far. We’re shocked at how starkly different it is from South America as a whole. (But Elizabeth’s soft spot for South America can really never be trumped!) 

Thai people are so kind, trustworthy, full of ample smiles, and giggles. They are also (in my humble opinion) the best country of cooks in the world. We were able to get a diverse view of the entire country in our two weeks, which included; a taste of big city life (Bangkok), more rural/mountain towns in the north in Chiang Mai, as well as the gorgeous beaches and islands in the south of Thailand. 

We finally arrived safely in Bangkok and met up with Alli’s fellow classmate Dave (from Gonzaga), who has been living in Japan for 2 years. Dave quickly adapted to being with Alli and I, put up with our many quirks, and even adopted many of our stupid phrases. Our first night we immediately took to the streets and looked for street food and fruit smoothies. (We would soon average at least 2 fresh fruit smoothies/day.) Only $1 and sooo goood!! 

The three of us explored Bangkok over the next couple days, visiting the king’s Grand Palace, the reclining Buddha, and definitely getting our fill of the temples.

In Bangkok, we also met up with our dear friend Gonza, from Argentina. We were sooo excited to see him again, as we had last seen him in Argentina when we visited him about a year ago. Gonza was one of the first friends we made in the beginning of our trip in South America. We met him in Peru, traveled with him in Bolivia, and stayed with him and our good friend Bruno in Argentina. Gonza is now traveling with 4 friends, and prior to arriving we all made sure our schedules would coincide. It was a joyful reunion to be sure! 

We then hopped on a flight to Chiang Mai where we spent 4 days. (Gonza would meet us there as well!) This was our first place Alli and I rented motorbikes! Don’t worry everyone, both Alli and I are VERY good drivers. We enjoyed zipping around the city and escaping into the mountains, where we visited both the Kings royal gardens, and an awe-inspiring golden Buddhist temple on a mountaintop overlooking Chiang Mai. We enjoyed this adventure along with our Argentinian friend, Gonza, and his 4 Argentinian friends. This was our first experience in a motorbike gang. 🙂 

Alli’s friend, Lauren (fellow nurse also from Gonzaga– go zags!), joined us in Chiang Mai the next day. Though I was hesitant to bring along yet another traveler, Lauren and I ended up becoming fast friends! (Right Lauren?!) Lauren was such a fantastic addition to Alli and I’s (often ludicrous) travel ways. Thanks for being so patient with us stubborn penny-pinchers! 

The 4 in our group (Alli, Dave, Lauren, and myself) plus 3 of our Argentinian friends then enjoyed a 2-day trek through the jungle of northern Thailand. The trek started with a quick dip into 120 degree hot springs- it took quite a while to get fully submerged! At the source, these geysers were a boiling 220F! We even saw a family boiling eggs in this sulfur water! After a long and beautiful hike through a few Karyn villages and over mountains, we arrived at our camp. We ate some of the best food we ate in all of Thailand at this remote camp! In the morning, we worked hard searching for elephants in the jungle (successful after 3 tiring hours of silently scrambling up and down muddy banks.) Then, we floated down the river on bamboo rafts. These bamboo rafts were about 25 feet long and 4 feet wide, tied together with bamboo leaves, and supported 5 of us standing on the rafts. We were floating down mostly calm streams, but occasionally we went thru at least class 2 rapids (standing on bamboo!). Due to the difficulty of maneuvering such a long raft, we rammed into the rocks and everyone nearly got tipped into the water more than once. We finished with a dank meal of pad Thai and returned to the city… overall an eventful trek!

After the trek Alli, Dave, Lauren, and I enjoyed our last meal and drinks together. Dave split off at this point to return to working in Japan. Props again to Dave for being so easy-going, kind, a great conversationalist and a great travel buddy! (Probably the only living human to have read our entire blog… he wanted to see what he was getting into with us!) With Dave free of us, Alli, Lauren and I flew to south Thailand for some much desired beach time! 

However, we did not get the sunshine we hoped for, but dark clouds and pouring rain! Unbeknownst to us at the time, Thailand was suffering from severe flooding in the south, so bad that at least 14 people died in the landslides that ensued. As bummed as we were to have a couple days of rain, the poor Thai people suffered much more, with permanent damage to their homes and businesses, as well as a decrease in much needed tourism.

At this point, we had to sit back and endure a bit of chaos and change of plans. Due to the weather, all boats to and from the island of Koh Tao had been cancelled for days, preventing many travelers from even leaving the island! We found refuge from the pouring rain in a nice family run hostel and waited it out. Let’s just say the infrastructure in Thailand leaves something to be desired… so I woke up in the middle of the night hearing rain pounding on the tin roof and was terrified we may also be washed away. However, we survived, and the next day made it onto the first ferry available. As we braved the tumultuous ocean water I was a bit terrified. It may have actually the most scared I’ve ever been traveling in my life. The waves were so big and our boat rocking so much that I feared we would capsize! After many prayers and guardian angels supporting our boat, we made it safely to Koh Tao and the weather began to improve. It was heartbreaking to see the damage, people up to their waist in storm water, attempting to clean up and to create a drainage source. 

We were lucky to catch the tail end of the 9 day storm, but the entire island was forced to wade in calf deep water for the next few days. The weather improved and we even got an entire day of sun! We snorkeled, hiked, and scooted around on motorbikes. Our last day on the islands, we even ventured to the infamous “full moon party” after MUCH deliberation. 

The full moon party happens once a month each full moon (shocker). Thousands of travelers converge on the island of Koh Phangan for a night of sipping on buckets (drinks), fire jump-roping, neon-glowing paint, and music on the beach. It’s an international beach party, and the three of us had a great time. Our dear Gonza also made an appearance! We had quite a fun time meeting people from ALL over the world. The three of us were proud to say we lasted until nearly 5am- much later than our usual 9-10pm bedtime. 🙂 (We have been accused before of being Grandmas….) Definitely a fun experience, and probably will not repeat! 

After Thailands islands and beaches, the 3 of us headed off to explore the 8th wonder of the world in Cambodia!! Stay tuned for a post about our experience! 

Crohn’s Blog Post #3: When the Sh** Got Real

A short reflection on four months of international travel with Crohn’s disease

WARNING: This post contains some graphic descriptions of intestinal issues… If you have never experienced abdominal/intestinal distress, you should consider halting the reading of this post right now (but let’s be honest, we’ve all experienced bowel issues, am I right?)

It has been too long (a couple of months) since I last gave updates on my international travels with Crohn’s Disease, so I wanted to write this last post to fully update everyone! Since my last post, we have traveled through Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia. Overall, the day-to-day travels with my meds (Cimzia) became second nature and very easy for us. It truly just became part of our everyday travel experience, and I am so grateful for that.

Significant updates

With about a month or so left of our travels, I began to have worsening GI symptoms that to me, seemed like the signs of a flare-up. I was experiencing more frequent stools, urgency (a couple times almost didn’t make it to the bathroom in time), and abdominal pain. Nothing that I haven’t dealt with before though, and for a while, it was totally manageable. I did start to monitor it more closely and jot down when and how frequently I had stools, what they looked like, what I was eating, etc. For whatever reason, I REALLY did not want to take action about it until I returned home. “I was fine,” “I was fine.” I think that whenever I continually feel the need to say that I am fine, that should be the first sign that I am not fine.

I finally reached out to my wonderful team of doctors at Northwestern (who have been involved and aware of my travels) to see if I should just take a dose of Uceris (the steroid). They agreed. 

Two days after taking it I had my first solid poop I had had in a month! Woo! But the excitement and improvement didn’t last long. I then went on a four-day trek through the Colombian Sierra Nevadas where our entire group came down with what we guessed was food poisoning. So I was back to feeling miserable and “pooping my brains out” for a couple days, but I took an antibiotic, continued to take Uceris, and began to feel better again.

This was actually when I had been scheduled to return home to the US. I had to plan my return home at the time I would run out of my four months of Cimzia that I had brought with me. (This was a very frustrating reason to come home for me, but it was the reality). I scheduled an appointment with my GI docs right away and found out some very interesting things!

They ran their standard stool sample tests on me (which I always have to do, hate doing it…it’s gross, and they always come back negative, so it’s a waste of my time). However, this time, they didn’t ALL come back negative. I actually was positive for Giardia AND Salmonella! And had no idea! Gross! The antibiotic I took in Colombia doesn’t cover either of those, so I still had these parasites/bacterium and didn’t even know it…. I started two different antibiotics right away and have been feeling better since.

I wanted to share this because my doctors and I realized that my worsening symptoms could be from a Crohn’s flare-up and potentially from a decreased efficacy of Cimzia (which I was convinced that I needed to switch treatment for a while due to my symptoms and need to take a steroid again), but also I could have had these symptoms from the parasite or bacterial infection. YIKES! But such a good thing to consider and not to overlook while traveling. I was constantly eating street food and exposed to things that could easily get me sick.

So, here are my retrospective tips for long term/international travel with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (and for people who are on a biologic):

Carry your meds with you. (Insurance companies refuse to ship out of the US unless to an Embassy- and Embassies refuse to accept packages for citizens….a big bummer).

Have a proper and good quality cooler for your medication, whether you are on Humira, Cimzia, etc.     With my Cimzia cooler that I have used since the end of November, long-term bus rides and other times of travel without a refrigerator became way easier and less stressful. Honestly, it all became second nature to me. (Call your specialty pharmacy and/or Humira or Cimzia themselves, and they should help with this!)

Come prepared with a “Plan B” if your symptoms worsen and you flare while abroad. I brought a couple doses of Uceris, a steroid that has worked well for me in the past. (Although I hate the need or possibility of taking any steroid unnecessarily, you just have to be prepared for anything.)

DO NOT overlook the possibility of another GI bug and/or parasite being the cause of worsening symptoms. Exhibit A: me. 

Be in contact with your Gastroenterologist before, during, and after your trip. My doctors made my travel plans possible and sent me to South America with everything they could prescribe/recommend/warn me about. They also made themselves available to me through email while I was traveling, and got back to me extremely promptly when I most needed it. And my immediate follow-up appointment when I returned was a Godsend…. who knows how long I would have unknowingly dealt with that intestinal parasite.  


Last but not least, I want to highlight how possible international and/or long term travel can be while managing a chronic illness! There were more hurdles to jump over and things to plan for, etc, but I cannot stress enough how possible this is for anyone who has the desire to travel. It can be stressful and scary at times, but it all just adds to the adventure of life. I am a firm believer that life is too short to not take risks to pursue your passions. Travel became a passion of mine, and I was determined to make it work. Please, if you or anyone you know has Crohn’s, another Inflammatory Bowel Disease or another (chronic)
illness and desires to travel and would like to talk with someone who has done it, please get them in touch with me at any time!
And thank you all who read this for enduring all the poop talk!

  

God bless,
Alli 

Colombia: Qué chevere! 

After a full 24 hours of travel and 3 different layovers, we FINALLY arrived from Buenos Aires to Bogotá! (It was the cheapest flight by hundreds of dollars but made NO sense if you are geography savvy… We went from: Buenos Aires, Argentina-> Panama City, Panama -> Quito, Ecuador (overnight layover) -> Bogota, Colombia 
We arrived safely to our 6th country together!!!
Our friend Nicolás is the best, and told us he would pick us up at the airport and drive us to his home. We met Nicolás back in the first two weeks of our trip. Our Aussie friend, Michael introduced us and the 4 of us traveled a bit together and got along great! 

Nicolas continued (as all South Americans have so far!) to treat Alli and I like queens. He invited us to his home and gave us everything we could have asked for. We were pretty exhausted, so the first day he let us properly rest, but took us to an incredible lunch at AndrĂ©s Carne de Res. (A popular spot outside of Bogota). It was good to have the chance to catch up after 4 months of being apart! 

Nicolás and his sister, Andrea, were wonderful hosts. They took us to the “centro” of Bogotá one day, and led us to amazing food spots, markets, empanadas, and ice cream! (We took a break from lent for certain “cultural experiences”). It was fascinating to be able to ask them questions about Colombian history, the military, police power, the problem of poverty, of machismo and young girls getting pregnant in their teens, and new political changes that are hot topics in Colombia. Nicolás was a wealth of information for us! We learned SO much that would later be useful for our time in Colombia. 

After seeing the centro, Alli, Nicolás and I made our way up to Montserrat, a church on a hill overlooking the entire city of Bogota. 

We got onto the telefĂ©rico, when suddenly Alli screams (terrifyingly), points over my shoulder, covers her mouth, and I assume the worst… Someone is being murdered right behind me!!!!

I turned around, but didn’t see anyone being murdered, thank God! (Nicolas only took us to very safest areas in Bogotá, but my mind just likes to overreact.) What are the chances that we had run into Nolan Grady in Colombia! Nolan is one of Alli’s good friends from college, and we had no idea he was even traveling in Colombia! We also previously camped with him in Antofagasta, in northern Chile. It was truly divine providence for us to run into eachother!!

We had a happy reunion and the four of us went up Montserrat and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over Bogotá together. We ended up hanging out with Nolan all that night and all the next day! 

The next day Nicolás led us to the Salt Cathedral outside of town. Alli and I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to exceed our expectations! It is a salt mine in the side of a mountain, in which the miners built a cathedral and the 14 stations of the cross. The four of us enjoyed the tour together, then made our way back to Bogota for “Gringo Tuesday” in one of the discotecas. Going out in Bogota was an amazing experience, complete with shots of Colombia’s typical alcohol “aguardiente”. 

Alli and I booked a flight to Medellin that left early the next morning. We were off again on our own! We enjoyed seeing a different city in Colombia, ate our fill of cheap street food, bought some cheap clothes off the street, and rode in the cable cars that take you above the city. 

Another day we spent doing a day trip to an outside pueblo, GuatapĂ©, and had one of the best days ever, start to finish! Our tour made its first stop in Maranilla, a small pueblo. While Alli and I were walking around for our 20 minutes free time, two older gentlemen invited us to have tea with them. We accepted, and the four of us were soon chatting in Spanish about the history of Colombia, of Pablo Escobar and his nearby houses and farm, and how tourism is increasing, despite the many problems that Colombia has. They were delighted to hear that we love Colombia in the short time that we’ve been here, and that EVERY Colombian we’ve met has been nothing but friendly and inviting. Although it was a short meeting, those two cuties made a lasting impression on Alli and I! 

We enjoyed our multicultural tour to GuatapĂ©, complete with climbing the massive rock (peñol de GuatapĂ©), a boat ride, and a walk through my absolute favorite pueblo I’ve ever seen in my life!  If you want to live in GuatapĂ©, you are obliged to have your house/business painted bright colors and/or paintings at the bottom edges of the building. It is the most colorful and quaint pueblo I’ve had the pleasure of seeing! We both agreed that our mothers would have also loved it! 

We were dropped off in Medellin on Friday night to Poblado park, full of young people chillin and drinking together. Alli and I decided to hang out in the fun atmosphere and chat together. As we suspected may happen, we were soon approached by Juan Pablo and Santiago, two Colombian chicos. We learned so much from chatting with them about the history of Colombia, drugs, cocaine, poverty in Colombia, not wanting to be a lawyer/have a “real” job yet, traveling, and their common passion for downhill skateboarding. The both of them were so kind and open, Alli and I had so much fun being able to share that time with them. We felt (as often happens traveling) that we knew them for a much longer time than just a few hours! 

We also were blessed to run into ANOTHER friend we hadn’t seen in 4 months, Derek!! (A friend of both Aussie Michael and our friend Nicolás). We had just an hour to catch up with him and meet his girlfriend (who had also come down from NY, USA). It was a sweet reunion, and he had tons of advice on what to see and do thru Colombia! 

We were off again early the next morning to head to Santa Marta. Our first stop was to go to a small pueblo in the mountains, Minca, and spend the night. We had a beautiful night overlooking the valley from a hammock, and even woke up to see the sunrise the next morning. We had to hike down from our hostel back into Minca the next day. On our way, Alli and I ran into two unexpected surprises that turned into quite the adventure…

We found two small puppies, so malnourished that they were just skin and bones. They could barely even walk! We attempted to give them water and crackers… But as we know from our experience of force-feeding babies in Bolivia… When you’re at a certain point of malnutrition, you don’t even want to eat anymore. The puppies were pathetically thin and all alone (we searched for a mother/more puppies with no result). We felt we had no choice… So we each carried one of the pups down the mountain back into Minca (we hoped to leave them a better chance for survival where there were more people around). 

Ladies and gentleman, Alli Slamkowski, who dislikes seeing or touching all animals, carried a puppy down the mountain! She sacrificed her own disgust for the poor cute puppy. South America has taught her a lot folks!!! We got some stares from Colombians as we carried puppies just the size of our hands (couldn’t have been more than 4-6 weeks), to look for a better life for them. Despite asking the animal shelter for help, the woman working there was cold hearted and insisted they could do nothing to help the helpless pups. She basically said “good luck” and sent us away with the sad pups in hand. We asked probably every Colombian in town, and nobody seemed to want to add two pups to their already full house of 2-3 dogs. Thus… a hostel close to the center of town has accepted (albeit unknowingly) these two adorable puppies as their new pets! Alli and I grew rather attached to these cuties in our 1.5 hour walk down the mountain with them… We believed them to be symbolic of our own journey together… Dying. (Alli was leaving South America in just 6 days when we found them). We decided to be a bit narcissistic and name them Buns and Bert. (Each puppy’s personality resembled us in a way). We hope that they are able to survive longer than our trip…

Please pray that Buns and Bert found a new home! 

Our next stop was a last minute major change of plans to do a trek to the “Lost City”. Instead of spending her last days camping on a beach, my Colorado gal wanted to finish with a bang and a huge 4-day hike thru the jungle! 

We had a blast, and both of us agree that it was the best possible way to spend our last 4 days together in South America. 

We had an amazing group of people from all over including Australia, England, Wales, Italy, France, Spain, and USA! Alli and I met some of our favorite French men ever on this trek! 

We were guided by an indigenous guide named AbĂ©l, of the Wiwa tribe. As Spanish was his second language (and he only started learning 2 years ago), he was next to impossible to understand. As many of the group didn’t speak Spanish, I attempted to help with translation… But even asking him questions for clarification turned out to be more confusing for all of us. Abèl was as sweet and patient as can be… But he didn’t say a whole lot that made sense… Or a whole lot period. Nevertheless we had a blast. 

It was one of the most interesting treks Alli and I have done, as at nearly every break there was crystal clear river water to jump into! The hike was dusty, wet, and very humid, so we took advantage of jumping into every body of water that we could! The water was amazingly clear and perfectly refreshing, complete with multiple spots to jump from rocks into the water below. We also loved that they offered us fresh fruit at every break- keeping us hydrated and replenished! 

One of the worst things about this trek was that nearly our entire group got food poisoning (NOT okay when you’re charging as much as they did…) Our ascent on day 3 to the Lost City was interrupted by one of our group members suddenly blowing chunks of his breakfast all over the trail. The rest of the group looks at each other nervously, wondering who will be the next victim. (Some already were up early with the “runs”.) Like a trooper, the poor chap continued up 1200 steps and we all made it to the top! 

At the top, I attempt to understand AbĂ©l’s senseless explanations of the Lost City and translate them to the rest of the group. We take pictures, and eventually head back down to our next lunch spot. 

There also seem to be lax protection of child labor in Colombia, as our server for the entire trip was an 8-year old adorable child…. We played and had a good time with him though! 

The last day, more of the group fell ill to diarrhea… I had the luck of feeling completely fine, so I finished at least 4 different people’s breakfast… Some were astounded at how much I eat and were calling me a “black hole”. Of 16 people, I think only about 4 of us remained symptom free. 

We all finally make it down the steep mountain to where we started the trek. We eat there, reminisce on some memories together, and say our goodbyes. Alli and I drive back with all our favorite people from the trek and were dropped off first at Costeño Beach. Our group is all jealous because it’s a picture perfect Caribbean paradise! 

Alli and I hike past a hostel… Crossing our fingers that our dream to camp on the beach our last night together will come true. We hike a safe distance away from the hostel, and relax and go for a swim in the Caribbean ocean! This beach is perfectly beautiful and absolutely secluded from the rest of civilization. We swim, lay in the sun (a well deserved rest after walking up and downhill over 26 miles of jungle).

We hide our bags behind a palm tree (there is literally nobody else on this beach except for the hostel down the way) and we walk down to the hostel to eat dinner. We’re both a bit nervous that our plan to camp will be discovered, so we don’t set up camp until after dark. But all went according to plan and we weren’t bothered! 

We we’re blessed with a clear night of astoundingly gorgeous stars! We also went for a quick dip after dinner in the ocean. We even saw beautiful luminescent plankton in the waves! It was the perfect last night in South America together. We woke up to the sun shining on our faces and waves crashing and breaking in the distance. 

In the morning we left for Cartagena, where Alli would take a flight back to Bogota, and then later she had another flight back to the US. I can hardly believe these words as I write them. She is now home! 

I couldn’t not have asked for a better travel buddy if I had written out the exact qualities I wanted. We have been perfect together… And now I’m riding sola. But more on that later… 

To show you all what a “team” Alli and I were and how much fun we had together…

On the Lost City trek, we had three different people at three distinct times tell Alli and I that we needed to stop traveling, go to NYC, and try out for SNL (Saturday Night Live- comedy show in the US). We didn’t always realize when others were listening in on our banter… (And we can get quite silly!) But the entire group insisted that the two of us have a chemistry and an “act” that can’t be beat! Alli and I were a bit surprised, but realized that after 4 months of traveling together… Were able to finish one another sentences, we have the stupidest jokes together, and look at each other and know what the other is thinking. I’ve never had anything quite like that with anyone. Quite literally we were able to read one another’s thoughts! We didn’t realize how noticeable it was to other people! I’m sad to lose my partner in crime, and have felt her absence distinctly… However, were both hopeful for this next period of life and anticipating our next reunion together. (Perhaps in NYC at the next SNL tryouts!) 
Next up: Alli and I will each share our post trip thoughts! 

Fab 7

Elizabeth here! To pick up where Alli left off…
We took the boat back from Uruguay and arrived back to Buenos Aires on Ash Wednesday. The plan was to find mass before our flight to IguazĂş that evening. Alli and I were blessed (thank you Lord!) to stumble upon a gorgeous church that had Ash Wednesday mass that began just 20 minutes after we arrived! We were able to pray and experience Ash Wednesday in a new culture! Instead of marking with the cross on the forehead, interestingly, they just grab a handful of ashes and throw it on top of your head! We both enjoyed being able to experience that. Our first day of giving up sweets and desserts (which is usually our main food source while traveling) was a success. It was a good beginning of Lent! 

We made our way to Iguazu with no real flaws… Until we arrived at the airport. When we got in touch with Claire and Kyle (who had arrived in Iguazu just a few hours before us), they informed us that every hostel in Iguazu was full for that night… 

NOT AGAIN!!! After miserably sleeping in the bus station in Montevideo, we were determined to never have that happen again. Claire and Kyle were able to book the last available room at a hostel for themselves. They informed us that it was a private room for 3 and we would probably be able to sneak in if we were careful. 

Alli and I had no other safe choice than to sneak into the room with Claire and Kyle and share the last twin bed available. (Hostels never allow more than the number of alloted people per bed into a room.) As Claire and Kyle waited for us on the porch, they created their master plan. As they saw us approaching, Kyle gives us a severe look to stay put. Claire acts as the distraction and masterfully asks the receptionist at the hostel to show her how to turn on the stove (despite having cooked just an hour prior). As the receptionist turns her back, Kyle motions for us fervently– it was go time!! Alli and I shuffle past the desk into the private room with no issues! We simply whispered all night, showered one by one, and had to hide every time the door was opened. In the morning we created another distraction and we successfully walked out! First night in IguazĂş was a success! Being stowaways was actually slightly thrilling!

We arrived in Iguazu park early the next morning. Iguazu is a very interesting destination because you find a mixture of backpackers as well as wealthy travelers who are spending hundreds of dollars a day on food and lodging. However, everyone comes because it’s an incredible experience. Walking up to the falls you can just barely hear the roar of the water crashing into the rocks below, but once we turned that corner and were given full on views of the entire falls, the marvel settles in.

Iguazu is truly a wonder. If I could chose any place in the world to ponder and pray, I’d chose Iguazu as my #1 spot. There are curtains upon curtains of water, stretching as far as the eye can see (from our first vantage point), endless water gracefully tumbling into the depths below.

I was struck with how utterly amazing it is to experience it. One stands there truly amazed at the beauty of it all! 

We started off walking on the lower circuit, where we were able experience the falls crashing down in front of us. After, we did the boat tour, where you’re taken into and under the falls and we got “doused”! It was 90 degrees and 90% humidity all day so getting soaking wet was a welcome relief from the unbearable heat! We ended the day with a panoramic view of the falls from the superior circuit. 

We head back to the town, soaking wet with sweat and water, but very happy! Claire and Kyle find their way to a cheaper hostel, while Alli and I set out to find a place to camp. We were both determined to use our tent and camping gear, despite the 90 degree weather and unbearable humidity.

We are both stupidly stubborn at times, and despite knowing we would be miserable and sleep horribly… We both still wanted to camp. (I’m telling ya, I couldn’t have found a better travel buddy for myself!) We find a small place just outside the city, that turns out to be a jungle in some old guy’s backyard. 

We walk up to the gate plastered with “Beware of dog” signs everywhere. (Turns out there is a pitbull guarding the place.) We find the owner, a hilarious Argentinian man, shirtless 100% of the time, cigarette in one hand and beer in the other. He shows us around his backyard “jungle”, takes 15 minutes to explain the common-sense rules of the place, and says “good luck” finding a spot. There was no open space or patches of grass as I had expected, but just small clearings between the jungle trees. Alli and I find a place to call our home, and agree that if we’re too miserable in the heat we’ll find a hostel for the next night. 

We set up camp, then set off to find dinner. We go to an air conditioned restaurant, realizing it was our only chance of respite all night. Afterward, we return to camp to attempt to sleep. 

In the morning, we agreed it was one of the most miserably hot nights of our lives…. Yet somehow it was “not that bad”. We decided to stay just one more night. 

Our second day, we met up with Claire and Kyle again and went back to Iguazu national park for round two, as your second day is half-price! We were able to see the center of the falls, where the majority of the waterfalls come together to form a massive, terrifying loud and strong waterfall at what is called “Devils throat”. It’s truly an awe-provoking and wonder-filled experience to stand at the mouth of such a large confluence of water, crashing together. The water crashing down stirs up a mist all the way to the look out deck (at least 150 feet above). From here we can see the Brazilian side of the falls. 

We then did the Macuco hike to a small and private waterfall where we were able to swim and be pelted by the waterfall crashing down from above. Alli, Claire, Kyle and I enjoyed our picnic lunch and the usual round of laughs here.

Our second night in Iguazu… Alli and I both agreed it was the absolute worst night of sleep ever due to the humidity and a few other unforeseen complications… but we survived! And we were off to Buenos Aires! 

We arrived early to Buenos Aires and were so blessed to be meeting our friend Bruno at his home. We had met Bruno the very first week of our trip in a hostel in Cuzco. It’s funny, because we chatted and laughed together, but never ended up exchanging names/numbers at this time. Alli and I were forced to switch hostels in Cuzco, but nevertheless we ran into these 3 guys THREE different times in Peru! Finally, we ran into them hiking the same remote small island 3 hours away from any civilization in Bolivia… We were so amazed that we were seeing them yet again, that we finally exchanged numbers, then we hung out for a few days on our next destination! That being said- it was clear that God wanted us to be friends with Bruno and Gonza, and to see them again in Buenos Aires. 

Bruno was also incredibly kind and asked his friend, Sara, if my sister Claire, and her husband Kyle could stay at her house during their time in Buenos Aires. She graciously accepted! (Such a DARLING!)

On Sunday, Alli and I arrived to Bruno’s house and got settled in. The three of us met Claire, Kyle, and the most gracious and kind and lovely host Sara, at a popular Sunday market. Gonza, another friend, got together with us later that evening. The 7 of us quickly realized how well we got along together, and how much we all laughed together! 

To summarize our week in Buenos Aires, it was one of the best weeks of our 4 months of travel. Bruno and his friend Gonza (who we met at a later time in Bolivia) were the most spectacular hosts anyone could ask for. It was nonstop laughs and incredible cultural experiences every second of our time together. Bruno gave up his bed and air conditioning (it was HOT and HUMID in BA), handed us keys, and gave us great tourist advice. Bruno even bent over backwards to get Alli and I tickets to a River Plate soccer game! WHAT AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE!! Here’s a rundown of our week in BA:

Sunday: San Telmo market, La Boca, typical choripan for lunch at a tiny hole in the wall, ice cream (Lenten break for Sunday!), tango dance lessons with the 7 of us 🙂

Monday: Bomba del Tiempo (percussion concert). After, we stupidly were demanding Mexican food, so our kind hosts brought us to an amazing Mexican restaurant at 12:30am, despite having to work the next morning. 

Tuesday: accidentally run into Claire and Kyle just before we were supposed to meet up, at La Rey (our favorite cheap eats in Buenos Aires!) 

– walking tour of Buenos Aires

– made dinner for our hosts 

– experience Argentinian fernet and Coke (yum!) 

– Gonza teaches the rest of us how to dance salsa 

– 1am ice cream run (again, despite the boys having to work at 7am)

Wednesday: 

– meet Claire and Kyle at La Recoletta cementary (Kyle manages to scare Alli GOOD!) 

– las cañitas and amazing steak lunch!

– Palermo lakes, Japanese garden

– official salsa lessons with Bruno and Gonza! 

– craft beer afterward at Antares bar

– bed at 1:30am (again, despite the boys having to work at 7am)

Thursday: 

– Alli and I do Pope Francis tour through his old neighborhood and visiting his childhood church and home! 

– River Plate soccer game with Bruno!

Friday:

– Alli and I go shooooooooopping! Epic fail. We both forgot for a bit that we both despise shopping. 

– go to Gonzas house after work 

– Gonza takes us out to the “locals only” bar Emily Daniels until 5am! Celebrating our last night in BA!!

Saturday: 

– wake up after 2 hours sleep, Gonza drives Alli and I to airport, parks, and waits with us while we check in! What a sweetheart! 

When Bruno went out of town our last day, Gonza invited us to his house. Gonza continued the kindness and gave us his bed (despite us fighting that we could sleep on the floor!), took us out until 5am, then he woke up with us 2 hours later to drive us to the airport (which is absurdly a 1 hour drive from the city!) 

Bruno and Gonza were incredible examples of kindness, selflessness, and amazing hosts. Alli and I are still touched by their kindness, and the four of us had soooo much fun together! We hope we can be as good of hosts to others when they visit us in the US. We have learned so much about how to be good hostesses while down here in South America!!

Up next: The Breaking of the Fellowship… 

The Fab Four

After ten days together, it was time for the Patagonia dream team to part ways. My sister, Beth, headed straight to the Argentina side of Patagonia, while Claire and Kyle headed back up north to Santiago and over to the west coast. That left Elizabeth, Evan and I to head to Valdivia, Chile where Evan’s cousins live. This was the picture perfect place to recover from our long trek. It is literally paradise. Keith and Magda live on a farm and have two kids, an eight-year old girl and a five year-old boy. Their property is set right along the River Calle Calle, which made for a great spot to jump off the dock and swim in the heat of the day. They also have every type of fresh fruit we could have dreamed of growing right outside their house. Every day, we picked fresh blueberries, plums, pears, cherries, figs, and strawberries as we pleased. It was so neat. However, I don’t think my colon has ever dealt with so much fiber…. But that’s another story. It was an incredible experience to live the every day, relaxed routine of a true Chilean family- it’s amazing how many similarities as well as differences there are in the family unit around the world. I only pray I can instill in my family what Keith, Magda, Eva and Oliver have together. 

Elizabeth spent the second half of the week in Chiloe, an island in southern Chile rich with culture and indigenous people while I finished the week with Evan and his family. The four days apart were almost too much for us to handle, so thank God we were set on meeting in Bariloche, Argentina next. And, fortunately, Claire and Kyle (Elizabeth’s sister and brother-in-law) were meeting us there too! 

Thus started nearly three weeks of travels, mischief, adventures, laughter, wine, beer, love, and some more laughter with FOUR of us.

After traveling together almost completely one-on-one for three months, Elizabeth and I have realized how rare it is to find people that travel the same as we do, and “fit” into our travel quirks/norms/desires. It didn’t take long to realize that us four knuckleheads would travel together like four peas in a pod. 

Destination #1 with the Fab Four: Bariloche, Argentina 

Bariloche is in southern Argentina, part of Argentina’s Patagonia. So after a week of rest and tranquility, it was back to crushing some outdoors activities. Bariloche is literally an outdoors playground. (It quickly became one of my favorite places we’ve visited…. I could have stayed there for good…) 

A quick note about our living quarters in Bariloche: Shelter on the Lake. A married couple from the States decided a few years ago to move their young family to Bariloche (after discovering it as backpackers themselves) and start a guesthouse for backpackers– and they made it so that the stay would be FREE. We heard about this place and were slightly skeptical about the reality that a place like this existed (and/or what the catch was), but the rumors turned out to be BETTER than true. “The Shelter” became a home to us for three days. And to feel at home while living the nomadic life of a backpacker literally means the world. They stocked it with food, super comfortable beds, wonderful people, blessed conversations and an INSANE lake and mountain view out the common room window. 

Main Bariloche highlights: 

– Rock climbing! Real life, real rocks, real outdoors rock climbing folks. The Shelter took us basically for free to learn and lead climbs. We were all so out of our element (#citykids) that with each climb and small victory along the way, we were constantly encouraging and applauding each other. A couple hours in, the two main guides remarked, “We think you four are the most positive group we have ever taken climbing….” In all honesty, I thought Elizabeth and I were an encouraging and positive pair, but when we added Claire and Kyle to the mix, the positivity scale escalated to dangerous levels… This remained true for the rest of our travels together 🙂 

– Circuito Chico: This was a 20-some-mile bike ride through the mountains, lakes, and pueblos in the Bariloche area. It was definitely not a ride for ninnies. It was super hilly and unbelievably beautiful. It was all on paved road, and I swear we got up to 40 miles per hour on some of the downhills… . And the views and landscape on this ride were just INSANE. 

-Steak, wine, and chocolate dinner: Argentina is known for “asado” (grill out/ barbecue) and all things meat. Thus, we found ourselves a nice steak dinner one night. It did not disappoint– it made for one of the best and cheapest steak dinners I’ve ever had (aside from my dad’s grilled steak of course). The wine in Argentina is also the cheapest and best wine we’ve ever tasted– you can get a nice bottle for $3! Well, at least we considered it nice. And we left the surrounding/neighboring tables with a few cheap laughs- they served the wine in a ceramic pitcher shaped like a penguin and the wine flowed out of its mouth, so every time Kyle refilled our cups he made the most outrageous barfing sound I’ve ever heard…. It was objectively hilarious, and I’m still laughing as I think about it while writing this.   

-Hike to El Frey: On our final day in Bariloche, Elizabeth and I hiked to one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. It had a backdrop of the highest, most jagged, and beautiful rocks. Along the way, we met Hai, a Vietnamese Australian who bought us coffee at the Refugio at the top (nicest man ever) and shared with us his stories of escaping Vietnam with his family during the Vietnam War. His stories were truly incredible and his outlook on life was inspirational. He has encouraged me to learn more about and reach out to the many Vietnamese in the US- they are a beautiful people! 

On Friday after a “Shabot” dinner with our new family at Shelter on the Lake, our time in Bariloche had to come to an end. All four of us found flights to Buenos Aires for cheaper than a bus ticket, so we hopped on that bandwagon real quick and made it to the capital city of Argentina in two hours instead of 24. 


Destination #2 with the Fab Four: Uruguay 

After a few-hour pitstop in Buenos Aires (where we discovered the answer to our cheap Argentinian food prayers, a restaurant called La Rey), we boarded what we thought was a five hour ferry across “Rio de la Plata” to spend five days in the country of Uruguay. There was a little confusion amongst the four of us when the ferry arrived at the port in Colonia, Uruguay. In typical South American fashion, it was not clear that we would all be getting off the ferry and on to a bus to get to Montevideo (we thought we were taking the ferry all the way to Montevideo). So, as more and more people got off the boat at Colonia, we were second guessing our plans of arriving in the capital city of a country none of us were familiar with at midnight on a Friday night. After what turned out to be a hilarious ten minutes of discussion and dispute amongst our group of four (we thought all the other passengers had changed their minds and knew better than to reach the capital city so late), we finally realized what the deal was… But not until we became the final passengers aboard the ferry and the cleaning crews came aboard…. You’d think one of the four of us, who can all speak adequate Spanish, would have asked someone what was going on. You probably had to be there for this one, but it was funny. 
We made it on to a bus to Montevideo (along with everyone else from the ferry) and arrived around midnight, still with no place to stay. After hours of searching for a hostel (and even calling actual hotels) we admitted defeat. It was a Carnaval weekend in Montevideo, and there was literally NO room in any inn…. What to do when you’re legitimately homeless in Uruguay? What else is there to do other than hit the town with the locals until 530 am, and then sleep it off in the bus station. Although we were able to make lemonade out of lemons, this experience (and many similar experiences we’ve had while traveling) gives us such a deeper gratitude for simply having a place to stay and a FLAT surface to sleep on. Sidenote- We were “vertical” for so many hours in a row that my and Elizabeth’s ankles and feet swelled like balloons! (Nurses: Talk about +3 pitting edema!)

The rest of our short visit to Uruguay was wonderful. It proved to be the most “tranquilo” and calm country we have visited, and the people were genuinely so kind. We had a great ‘Uruguallo’ guide through Montevideo, Joaquin, who showed us a great time. We ate Uruguallo asado, went to a traditional Carnaval show, ate delicious Chivitos (the country’s famous sandwich), walked by every single person drinking and carrying their own ‘mate’ tea, went to a couple beaches that were half salt water and half freshwater (the ol’ where the river meets the ocean routine), drank beers in the street because it’s legal (marijuana is also now legal throughout the country, but we didn’t partake in that one), and even woke up with bedbugs one morning (we earned our long term traveler’s wings with this one). Then we boarded the ferry back to Argentina. 

Overall, Uruguay was a wonderful stop for us– next up, Iguazu Falls, Argentina! 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Well, we survived. We’re
all a bit surprised to say it. We’ve met other people who said that hiking the Patagonia was one of the hardest things they’ve ever done in their lives. Before we did it, we thought “yeah, right…” but after finishing a 9-day hike of the entire national park, we have to say the same thing.
Being the over-achievers that we are, we didn’t even need to talk about how long we’d go. We both immediately decided that we wanted to do the entire circuit through Torres del Paine, including the Q. This meant 9 days of hiking and carrying everything we would need to survive in the wilderness. Luckily, we found 4 other chumps who also wanted to accomplish this feat. Together, the 6 of us were an unstoppable team! 

The lineup included two sets of sisters, one married couple, and a boyfriend = 6 new close friends!

Alli: aka Crohnsie

Elizabeth: aka Snaggle-tooth, aka Cancer

Evan: Scabby, Forkless, Sap

Liz/Beth S (Alli’s sissy): Scout, Ranger

Claire (Elizabeth’s sissy): Sunhat

Kyle (Claire’s husband): Cyclops, Dankles

Our food and rations for 9 days included the following:

Breakfasts:

-Oatmeal for 6 people for 8 days 

-Tea/instant coffee (84 packets, enough for 2 cups each a day…we’re in South America folks, tea is always a necessity!) 

– Granola

-Powdered milk 

-6 bananas (fruit for first day) 

-18 Apples (one a day for 3 days)

-Dried fruit (mango and/ or raisins)

-Cinnamon

-Brown sugar 

Lunches:

– Salami sticks (2/person)

– Cheese (for first couple days)

– Peanut butter

– 70 tortillas 

Snacks :

– 100 Granola bars

– Candy (snickers, Reese’s, butterfinger)

– 1 pack Beef jerky each

– Trail mix 

Dinners:

– glacier Dogs (boiled hot dogs, but in glacier water!)

– White rice and powdered soup to pour over (2 nights of this)

– Unexpected onion gifted by a group of Israelis

– Pasta with powdered cream of mushroom soup 

– pasta with tomato sauce

– pasta with pesto sauce

– ready made paella packs

Condiments:

– Salt

– Brown sugar (for oatmeal and tea) 

– Cinnamon

Water:

-NO PLANNING/PURIFYING NECESSARY!

– Able to be drank from any stream, river, or lake that you find… Wherever you find it (which is everywhere) you can drink it! 

All of this, plus a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, 3 tents (2 people/tent), a cooking stove, pot, bowls/utensils, one change of clothes, and a few layers (in anticipation for the ever-changing Patagonian elements), we’re stuffed into our packs. Our first day we each carried 45lb packs. 

We walked an average of 10 miles per day with said packs, straight up and straight down the sides of mountains, scrambling up and down massive rocks, over rivers and streams, and through fields. One thing we learned about the terrain in Patagonia, is that it constantly changes; and if you’re almost bored with one incredibly beautiful view, in the next 5 minutes you’ll reach an entirely different and spectacular view. Each night we arrived at our campsite absolutely starving from all the hard work. However, each night we had to heat up glacier cold water to cook with, which took a good while. By the time the food was ready, we were ready to eat a horse. Each night, our food was gone within 3 minutes of it being served, and somehow each of us was still STARVING after eating all the food we had. We had a determined group, and in the end we were able to successfully ration for 9 days! 

It was actually an incredible experience to share such a deep and, at moments, maddening hunger. It made us realize what a blessing it is to eat. None of us will ever have to live with hunger, but so many in the world do. Evan calculated at one point we were probably burning around 7,000 calories daily, and each of us only eating around 2,500 calories. 

Here’s a few of the day-to-day highlights, lowlights, and hilarious happenings: 
Day One

– We bus into the park, anticipation of what was to come for the next nine days in the wilderness keeping us at the edge our seats. 

-We hike the “Q,” which brings us to our first campsite. Claire, the expert “mapologist” and studier of the trail map since the beginning, alerted us all that by her calculations, this would be our longest hiking day of the nine days…. We mistakenly believed her…

-We befriend Nicolas and Tomas, Argentinean brothers, on the trail. They’re equipped with two large backpacks each (and a ukulele) but somehow forgot water bottles. 

-Elizabeth nearly ends our trek nine days early at our first snack break and nearly loses yet another finger…

– First dinner: boiled hotdogs in glacier water= GLACIER DAWGS. We wrapped them in tortillas and brought no condiments, but 3.5 hotdogs each later, we realized how delicious anything can be when you’re hungry. 

Overall group hunger feelings: Hungry. 

Day Two 

-Morning hike to our next campsite, lunch, set up camp, and continued with an afternoon hike up a valley with a beautiful glacier and mountains surrounding us. 

-Beth/Liz Slam “scouts” out the campsite, aka makes it there in half the time it takes the rest of the group in order to find us a free spot! 

– This was one of our favorite campsites! Our three cute tents in a row RIGHT next to a glacial river. Incredible! 

-Kyle gets a riverside haircut by beautician Claire, because why not get a haircut in Patagonia?  

– Elizabeth’s hiking boots begin to turn against her…. Her switch to Chaco’s sandals fails her when the afternoon hike turns into scrambling over rocks and near pinky toe amputation.  

-Alli realizes while chatting with an Austrian couple how well informed the rest of the world is about world (and primarily US) news and events.  

-Dinner is spent with our British, Australian and Argentinean friends. 

-Overall group hunger feelings: Starving. 

Day Three

-Claire recalculates and realizes THIS is our longest hiking day. I don’t want to say we had our doubts about if we’d make this day alive, but we had our doubts… 

-Elizabeth fails to appropriately ration her salami, and realizes her first of two sticks is almost completely gone….. Will she learn in time?  

-Claire alerts us that the afternoon hike appears to be easy and flat for the entire way. After three hours of all uphill climb, we continued to anticipate a really nice and easy downhill at each turn…. Although unfortunately, it never came…. 

– This day would soon be known as Doom’s Day, Death Day, etc….

– We call upon our Israeli allies (and new friends) to help us in desperate times. We actually did not have a reservation for an already full campsite that night. In fear of the guards turning us away and forcing us back down the mountain to another campsite, we all worked together to (successfully) devise and execute a plan. 

-Overall group hunger feelings: Too tired to realize how RAVENOUS we truly are. 

Day Four

– We wake up at 330 am for the sunrise hike to “Las Torres.” Definitely a highlight of the trip. 

-Evan surprises the group with Snickers bars for each of us. Literally the best gift any of us have ever received. 

– After our salami and tortilla lunch, Evan creates “Peanut Butter Water.” It’s made by swishing water in an empty peanut butter jar to extract every single particle and calorie that the peanut butter could give. We pass it around for all to share.

-Beth challenges the group to a rock throwing contest during one of our breaks. It turns into a half hour target challenge and ends with Kyle as the victor. 

-Our FIRST showers of the trek! 

Day Five

 – Beth and Alli introduce the group to an old family car game, Stink Pink. Hours later, it becomes our official trail game of the trek. 

-We experience the first true Patagonian winds (that we’d heard so much about).

– We believe that we are being assessed by park rangers as to our ability to complete the rest of the circuit (rumor had it that they had turned a few people back). We all put our game faces on, added a little more pep in our step, and completed our morning hike in record time to prove our worthiness. (Turns out, this was completely unnecessary). 

-In the afternoon, we catch ourselves talking about the Donner party for an extensive amount of time…. 

– We reach our FAVORITE campsite, complete with 360 degree views of the mountains and water surrounding us.  

-Glacial lake jump/bath. SO COLD!

-Trail surgery is performed. (Claire removes Elizabeth’s mouth stitches from a tooth implant placed 7 days prior…. Expertly done, Claire!)

– Kyle and Evan notice a soapy taste to our rice and onion soup dinner….”It’s almost as if the rice was next to an open bottle of shampoo or something….”

– Someone then finds Elizabeth’s tooth stitches in the rice soup… 

-Overall group feelings: Satiated, yet slightly revolted by the mysteriously soapy, hard, stitchy rice soup.

Day Six

-This day’s hike took us through the beautiful Patagonian forest! 

– We set up camp early enough to take a siesta! (Something we needed to do since the next day we were to summit THE JOHN GARDNER PASS!) We had heard so many stories of this beast. 

-We had our best meal yet accompanied by our new American friends and a Venezuelan man on speed.

-Overall group hunger feelings: Improved by GATO boxed wine 

Day Seven

-The SUMMIT of the pass! We all made it alive! This was definitely another highlight of the trip. We had all come such a long way together and completed the toughest parts of the trail. The view from the summit gave us a bird’s eye view of Glacier Grey, the most massive glacier we have ever seen.

– We enjoy a “glacier-side” lunch and Kindle reading party. This might be the best backdrop we’ll ever have while lounging and reading a book. 

– We round a corner and run into the Argentinean brothers! We are THRILLED to see that they are still alive, still carrying their ukulele, AND found water bottles! 

Day Eight 

– We BOOK it to our final campsite because we heard rumors of HOT showers (the other campsites, if they had showers at all, were literally glacier cold). The rumors turned out to be just that– rumors. 

– We celebrate our final night of camping with a little more ‘GATOOOO’ wine (five boxes worth) and a five hour post-up session in the warm Refugio until multiple people ask us to leave (we felt a little entitled to our table since it was our 8th and last night in the park). 

-Beth fesses up to the group: she was the SOAPY RICE CULPRIT. We are all appreciative of her honesty, but still hold it against her.

– We experience TRUE Patagonian weather the entire night….. CRAZY winds and rain are almost too much for Evan and Alli’s tent and they are forced to separate from the group to find dry lands. 

Day Nine

-We leave the campsite watching this poor guy trying to dry out his tent…it literally looked like he had dunked it into a swimming pool for a few hours.

– Our final day in the park and arguably the most epic. Severe winds, torrential rains, and bitter cold. After seven days of perfect weather, we welcomed the opportunity to experience some of the worst that Patagonia can throw at you.

– Cold, wet and exhausted, we FINISH the entire circuit and Q! 

-As we await the catamaran to take us back to civilization, we all agreed that this was the most brutal cold we have ever felt. 

– Three hours later, we arrive back to Puerto Natales. After a hot shower, we inhale the best burger and beer we could have ever asked for. 

After nine days of experiencing some of the hardest yet most gratifying times together, our group of six formed a bond that will never be broken. Both of us feel so blessed to have been able to share this part of our trip with a sister (not to mention two hilarious guys to keep us laughing). All that there is left to say is- until next time, Patagonia! 

Shat on in MaipĂş

Alli and I recently took a small trip to Mendoza, Argentina to do some winery tours and check out another beautiful city. Although it rained for a few days (in the city that they say gets 8 inches/year… We got at least 60 inches in the time we were there), we made the most of it. I had just returned to Chile from spending 10 wonderful and relaxing days at home with my family for Christmas. (Alli also had a wonderful and relaxing Christmas with her sister Lizzy in Santiago, and many more adventures that I’ll force her to blog about later!) 
According to Wikipedia (totes reliable), Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, and Mendoza produces 60% of the wine that comes from Argentina!! Clearly plenty of wine for us to sample and buy! 

Alli and I did a few different self-guided bike tours of the wineries around Mendoza. Our first day we accidentally biked 20 miles total because we rented bikes from the city center (not realizing most tourists take a bus…) oops. Although she dislikes red wine (I’m working on her folks!) Alli was the best sport I’ve ever seen throughout Mendoza. She tasted many different wines and humored me as I tried to describe the finer tastes of the wine (hints of oak, chocolate, slight strawberry hint, smokey, etc.) She even chose to order a bottle of red wine with our Argentinian steak dinner! We had a grand old time, but eventually had to get back to Chile to prepare for our Patagonia trip. Here’s where things get interesting… 

There we were, innocent gringas walking down a busy street in Mendoza. We were headed back to Chile on a night bus, so we were fully loaded with our massive backpacks (with everything we own) on our back and a small pack on front. Our front packs go on the bus with us, and they carry our most valuable possessions like our cash, cameras, phones, credit cards, our kindles, journals, and things to do on the bus. 

Most people could probably NOT tell we were American tourists, as we had totally natural looking tennis shoes, “yoga” pants, and two large backpacks. We can hardly believe they knew to target us…. Ha!

Alli and I are chatting as we walk to the bus, when all of a sudden, I feel a wetness hit my head, and I immediately smell poop. This was no normal poop smell- it’s pungent and revolting, like a port-a-potty that hasn’t been cleaned for a year type smell. It was also very watery, which ensured that it got smeared everywhere. 

Immediately, a man appears with two tissues, one for each of us to clean the shit off of ourselves. What a real coincidence! Two tissues! How kind of him! My faithful travel companion, Alli, begins to diligently help me to clean the crap off my backpack with the small tissue. The man then offers to dump some water from his water bottle on our heads to get the slimy poop out of our hair… He tells me that I’ll need to take my front backpack off so I don’t get it wet while he kindly helps me to clean myself. This seemingly kind stranger gestures to place my backpack against the wall on the side of the street. He even puts his own there as an example of how trusting we should be. 

After I refuse to take off my backpack, he then insists that Alli also has poop in her hair. He then tells Alli to remove her bag so he could help clean up as well. She also refuses to remove her bag, despite the man insisting she do so.

The man then chats us up, trying to quickly identify with us, saying he is also a travelor, here from Ecuador for a few weeks. He assures us that the fact that we got pooped on is good luck. He tells us it came from a bird in the tree… 

We’re already running late for our bus, so we insist we go… He kisses us goodbye (as is normal custom in South America) and tells us to have a good trip. All of this chaos and surprise happens in the matter of about 60 seconds. Luckily, (rather, unlucky..) Alli and I have heard many many stories about petty theft so we are always on guard. 

We walk away and a kind Argentinian lady gives us a look with wide eyes and universal signal to “watch out”. We realized then, we surely just avoided an attempted robbery. The man had claimed the poop fell from the tree above us, although another passerby had pointed to the roof. The poop was watery and dark brown, very unlike bird poop. We got scared and walked much quicker the final block to the station. 

We got on the bus smelling quite literally like shit, “ready” for our 7 hour ride back to Chile. Then, once safe on our bus, we got a bit angry and disgusted at the situation.

What kind of person throws POOP of all things… onto another human in order to relieve them of their money and expensive goods??? What’s more, to throw sheiza on someone who is clearly going to spend the night on a bus.  

We had a 7-hour nauseatingly horrible smelling bus ride… No soap or water available… Not to mention the bus ride itself with speeding twists and turns thru the Andes mountains. However, we arrive safely (and unrobbed) in Chile! We spent a few days in Viña/Valpo, (my happy places) to rest and charge up before our journey to the Patagonia! 

Today, Friday, January 15, were ready to head out on our 9-day long trek doing the “full circuit” of the Patagonia, Chile. The entire team includes: myself, Alli, Allis’s sister Lizzy, Alli’s boyfriend Evan, and my sister Claire and her husband, Kyle. We’ll be in touch after the trek. In the meantime- keep us in your prayers!! 

Chile: The Promised Land

The crossing into Chile FROM Bolivia was a much calmer and easier crossing than entering INTO Bolivia. Alli and I were able to transfer directly from our salt flat tour in Uyuni, Bolivia, to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. However, we couldn’t escape the madness that is Bolivia quite yet…

Before being freed, we had to get our Bolivia exit stamps, and then drive about 20 minutes to the Chilean border crossing. Our driver decided to pile the 50 backpacks of each passenger into a pickup truck instead of on the bus. Okay. (This is South America… We try to just go with the flow…) Despite numerous protests, they piled the bags literally 10 feet higher than the back of the pickup truck and secured them with an old, leftover string.

Most people could see that the small string wouldn’t be enough to hold 50 heavy backpacks, especially when you’re flying down the highway at 100 mph. The drivers of the bus and the pickup truck seemed to think the bags would be fine, and they proceeded to RACE down the highway, playing leap frog and passing one another to arrive first in line at the Chilean border.

As we barreled down the highway, suddenly one of the other passengers shouted that they saw a backpack fall from the pickup truck to the side of the highway. The buses screeched to a halt to investigate. Everyone immediately assumed it was their bag, and our massive bus begins to back up on the highway to recover it. (Of course, didn’t we all learn in drivers ed. that backing up on a highway is a really safe move? )

We end up recovering the backpack and all of its contents strewn about the highway. We awaited with bated breath to see whose backpack had been completely destroyed by the negligence of the Bolivian drivers. To the dismay of an Israeli girl… It was none but hers. It was ripped pretty bad, as well as it seemed some of her electronics had been thrown about the highway. Alli and I were actually a bit disappointed that it wasn’t our backpack… It would have been a funny story, and after everything that happened in Bolivia I don’t think we would have even been mad.

After about a 20 minute shouting match between some very angry backpackers and the driver, we backed up on the highway (yet again) to look for more backpacks. The driver was impatient and drove only about 100 meters more, and ignored the cries to keep searching for more lost backpacks.

We arrived at the border and saw that our bags were safe under 20 other bags. Another backpack was actually knocked off at some point, torn up, lost a few items, but was picked up by a kind stranger. (Remember, our backpacks literally have everything we own inside them). The Bolivian drivers were quite unconcerned…

The guards at the border of Chile were overly kind and welcoming, happy to have us in their country. One of the guards even gave us each a Chilean keychain to welcome us! And just like that, WE MADE IT to Chile!!! Despite that fact that I paid the $160 reciprocity fee just 3 years earlier, Chile and the US are now on much better terms and we were accepted (fo’ free) with open arms.

Alli and I found our way to the absolute cheapest hostel in town, which turned out to be just what we needed. We decided to do an astronomy tour our first night, we ended up chatting under the gorgeous stars and galaxies until about 2:30am… (due to Chileans being suuuper chill and loving to chat.) We were awake for 23 hours straight. We’re both used to these long hours as former night-shift nurses, but we arrived back at our hostel absolutamente MUERTAS (dead).

The next day we made our typical delicious breakfast of eggs, onion, tomato and bread, then went on a tour of the Valle de la Luna. Our tour was complete with a handsome Argentinian tour guide and we watched the sunset over the valley with Pisco sours in hand (the typical Chilean alcoholic drink). We lucked out that our tour was cheaper than anyone else’s AND we were the only group to get snacks and free booze at the end. Boomshakalakah. (Alli and I hate to brag… But we LOVE to brag about the deals we get).

We went out with some of the friends we met in this tour (one girl happened to be an Irish lass we had met weeks earlier on our same Death Road tour!). Alli and I ended up having two different conversations (one in English, one in Spanish) with two middle-aged Chilean men, trying to convince them of the existence of God. (You know, light stuff). It was an enlightening conversation for all… This was not the first or last time that would happen…

We ended our night singing karaoke (Nicky Jam, “Travesuras”) to a bar full of beautiful people we did not know. They were extremely supportive of our bad Spanish rapping!!

The next day we rented bikes and rode out 12 miles on pure dirt and rocky roads to Laguna Cejar, the saltiest body of water on the earth behind the Dead Sea. We basked in the burning desert sun, swam in the salt water, and marveled at the experience of being completely supported by the density of the water. Even if you couldn’t swim, I’d feel comfortable pushing you in.

We rode our bikes back to town (which was difficult because the seats + rocky dirt roads were meant to murder your rear end). We found a place to post up our hammocks on the side of the road, and based off the looks, laughs, and double/quadruple takes we were given, you’d think we were doing something no human has ever done before…

After our adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, we continued our journey to visit Alli’s college friend, Nolan, in Antofagasta. Immediately upon arrival, Nolan picked us up and took care of us. He showed us one of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in town, where he helps the community by organizing high school kids to come tutor the immigrant kids. We got to attend their final end of the year Christmas party, and play with the adorable kids. After that, we made our way out to the beach north of Antofogasta for the next 2 nights.

Camping on the beach in Chile requires very little. We showed up at the beach, along with Nolan, Gabby, Daniel, and Pablo, (a Jesuit priest). First time I’ve ever been camping with a priest…! We set up camp, then heated up the pre-prepared paella made by a true Spaniard. Alli and I must have been exhausted, because the next day we slept until 11am… Despite our blazing hot tent. Sleeping on the beach with real waves crashing in the distance makes for some great white noise!

We explored and hung out on the beach for 2 days… Made janky shade/sun-blockers out of our extra tents, swam in the powerful waves, played rugby, read, ate, sang songs around the campfire, made food together, and made absolutely “no planes” the entire time we were there. We were blessed to have another priest and another Spaniard friend join us for the last day we were there. We even had mass on the beach just before we left. Again, those two days were JUST what Alli and I needed! Thanks Nolan for such a great and relaxing time!

In order to break up the 22 hour drive to Santiago, Alli and I decided to jump on a 12 hour night bus (despite the fact that we hadn’t showered in 3 days) to La Serena. Trust me, once you’ve gone that long without showering, another day or two makes no difference.

We chilled in La Serena and the surrounding towns for a few days before making our way down to Santiago.

We had to arrive in Santiago in time to meet up with Alli’s sister Liz, as well as Aunt Sue and Uncle Stu, who were to visit Liz all the way from Indiana, USA!

Alli and Liz spent some solid sister time together for a few days, then Aunt Sue and Uncle Stu arrived. In order to provide some proper family time, I made my way out to Limache, about 2 hours outside of Santiago, where I stayed with one of my good friends, Rodolfo. His family is extremely kind and generous, and loved and fed me well. It’s incredible how wonderful it is to spend time in a real HOME after wandering from hostel to hostel for 7 weeks! They refreshed my weary body with a comfy bed, the BEST food, and no shortage of GOOOD Chilean wine.

Alli and I didn’t know what to do with being apart after being CONSTANTLY together for 7 weeks. The longest we had been apart was when I went to get a quick haircut in Bolivia (I was gone max 1 hour). Of course we immediately missed one another, but we met up a few times  throughout the week with her aunt and uncle. (Who, let me say… Are a RIOT and a great time!) It was a packed but also relaxing week of time with family and friends.

So- what are we doing for Christmas??

I actually just landed in Chicago (found time to write this on the plane) to go home for Christmas. No, this is not yet the breaking of the fellowship between Alli and I, but a quick pause. I decided I wanted to fly home to be with my family for Christmas, then I fly back down to Santiago in just a few weeks! Our adventures resume come January. In the meantime Alli and her sister, Lizzy get to spend some solid sister time together and are spending Christmas with Liz’s Chilean host family.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!!! Until next blog!

Guest Post: Mac-Daddy

Have Hope, Will Travel
I had the privilege to be the first visitor from home for Alli and Elizabeth, and they so graciously asked me to write a guest post highlighting the week and my thoughts on it. Being one to extract every ounce of meaning from my experiences, I have happily obliged, and the product is before you:
To start my Bolivian adventure, we must first go back to the weekend before the girls left. I have been assigned to a work project about 60 miles west of NYC, and I made the trip into NYC to see Elizabeth on my first weekend to wish her well on her trip. During the visit, she, almost off-handed, suggested that I come out and see them during their trip. Due to the long term work assignment away from home, I get a few extra days off every 6 weeks. Realizing that this time off would come right on the heels of Thanksgiving, I excitedly called Alli and dropped the bombshell that was my intention to come visit them. I had originally planned on visiting them and then going to see Maccu Picchu, but they (thankfully so), convinced me to just spend as much time with them as I could. I gave them the dates I would be available, and I waited as they were forced to plan a month in advance. The longer I stayed down there, the more I realized how difficult a task it is to plan a trip when your schedule is already full, and you have limited access to the internet. Much appreciated ladies.

I landed on a Friday night, after a long trip down. The girls had prepped me for my customs experience in Bolivia, and it went relatively smooth, even though I didn’t feel like admitting it at the time. I grabbed a cab and met them at their hostel in Santa Cruz, and, after a few excited hugs, joined them in the pool. This still is one of the highlights of the trip because I had been carrying so much stress over the past several months at work, but it all dissolved as soon as I hit the water.

It was an amazing week, but to keep this blog post shorter than a novel, I will touch on the highlights:

– We spent about a day and a half in Sucre, the old capital of the country. It was a beautiful city in the mountains with old, beautiful architecture. It was here that I was first introduced to the Bolivian culture as we walked around the town and the girls explained everything I was seeing. We made dinner at our hippie hostel, watched the sunset from a hotel terrace we snuck into, talked about life, grabbed beers at a local bar, and tore up the club. It was on the forbidden hotel terrace where we started the list of “things Mac breaks” when I tried to impress the girls by opening a beer bottle on a ledge. The entire bottle ended up getting shattered into 1,000 pieces… They weren’t impressed.

– We crouched, climbed, ducked, and walked carefully through a silver and zinc mine in Potosi. Our guide was a former miner, and you could see his appreciation for those who work in the mines. He teared up when he talked of the struggles the miners endure to provide for their families, including putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations daily. Personally, I have worked in tunnels before, so I found it really interesting to see the difference in working conditions between Bolivia and the US. After that tour, we all walked away a little more grateful for the life we’ve been given.

– Uyuni was the next stop, and the highlight of my trip. We spent 3 days touring the salt flats in southern Bolivia. We were joined by Guatemalan Susie, her son Lionel, and Seb, a 29-year old Frenchman. Our driver and leader through the salt flats was our less-than-joyful guide Samuel. It became our goal to “kill him with kindness”, as he just didn’t seem thrilled to spend time with us and did not offer explanation for any of the beauty we were seeing. We softened him up a bit by the end of our three days, however. The landscape changed from expansive salt flats, to highland plateaus, to towering volcanos, to mountain lagoons filled with flamingos, to other-worldly boiling mud and steaming geysers.

– Traveling to new cities became either the low points or the high points of the trip. Traveling in big open buses in the afternoon, watching the sunset over the mountains and just relaxing was awesome. The night buses not so much.

– The last evening on the salt flats was easily the highlight of my trip, which was appropriate as it was the last night I had with the girls. We spent the evening in a building surrounded by absolutely nothing for miles and miles, powered (for a meager 2 hours) by generators. We had met kindred-spirit Aussie friends at our hostel the night before, and were SO disappointed they ended up in a different hostel than us. However, we ended up making the most of our last night together. After a few drinks and laughs at dinner, two guys, one from Russia and one from Israel, pulled out their guitars and we started requesting songs. Despite having a 3:30AM wake-up call to get on the road early, we sang and played until 11:00 in the night. At one point, the power went out and we only had the light from a headlamp to continue singing. Before going to bed, Elizabeth and I went out to check out the stars and just about fell over upon leaving the doorway, partly because of the cold, but mostly because of the sheer brightness of the stars above us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the intensity of the stars almost knocked us over. It was incredible.

The next morning came quickly, but it led us to a set of geysers early enough and cold enough to see the steam in full effect. This was yet another hidden gem in such a remote area. Save for a few quick pit stops, our last big stop was the hot springs where we were able to bathe for the first time in 3 days. A fitting way to end our time together! (Hundreds of dirty bodies bathing for the first time in the same small hot pool meant we got SUPER clean…)

On our ride to drop the girls off at the border to Chile, I allowed myself to reflect on the week. My mind was racing with thoughts, but I kept coming back to hope. I had been struggling to find peace before coming on this trip and had fallen into despair as things have not been working out as I had imagined. I had let the difficulties I was encountering darken my spirit.

It’s nothing new to state that everyone encounters difficulties in life. As a young adult, I’m faced with the vast unknown that is supposed to be the rest of my life. Alli, Elizabeth and I, along with probably many others that we encountered during my week down there, are trying to figure life out. Sometimes, when my dad asks me how I’m doing, I respond with “good, just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life,” to which he responds, “me too.” I think that’s part of the human condition, to be traveling along the road of life, not fully knowing where it leads or when you’ll get there. If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, right?

Being human means living with the tension of the unknown, but that doesn’t require us to be consumed by it. The light will always push out the darkness, we just have to let it. Engage the tension and embrace it, but embrace it with hope. Become familiar and comfortable with the unknown. Hope gives us the ability to wade through the difficult moments, knowing that on the other side is something greater that can only be reached by embracing and rejoicing in the difficulties.

On my day layover in Panama City en route to the US, I met a nice couple from California that owned a place nearby. When I left, I said something to the effect of “take care,” under the assumption that I would never see them again. They responded with something to the effect of “looking forward to seeing you soon.” I found this statement childish, because there was almost no chance I would see them again. But I see why they said it – they held onto hope.

In the matter of a month, I planned and went on this amazing trip with two wonderful girls. Looking forward to what this month will bring me.

Hope you enjoyed the guest post!

UP NEXT: Crossing into Chile from Bolivia… (Nowhere near as dramatic as the crossing from Peru into Bolivia)