Part 14: Lima – The Worst Capital City Ever?

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside
Part 13: Regards from 12,000 Feet

Everything I read about Lima before I saw it set my expectations extremely low. So low that I thought I couldn’t be disappointed. I was wrong. Apparently, I didn’t set the bar low enough.

Now, in all fairness, we only had about four hours to see Lima – a sprawling city with many, diverse neighborhoods – until our flight back to the U.S. Our original plan was to head to Miraflores, Lima’s wealthy, coastal neighborhood, known for its hip shops and scenic views. But our cab driver managed to convince us that we’d be better off seeing Lima’s colonial center.

As we drove to our destination, we encountered some of the worst traffic and driving we have ever seen (and we have both driven in New York City!) and a slew of poor, dilapidated neighborhoods. The cab driver even warned us to keep our bags on the floor, lest someone break the window and grab our bags from the car as we muddled our way through Lima’s traffic jams. That’s just crazy!

Lima’s colonial center encompasses a few blocks filled with colonial churches and buildings. But the surrounding neighborhood is decidedly seedy, to put it bluntly. It didn’t help that it was cold and drizzly, casting a seemingly permanent grayness over the depressing city.

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I love this picture. It is so random.

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This is Lima’s famous Monastery of San Francisco, which is covered in birds. This was probably the most exciting thing we saw in Lima…after the Starbucks, but more about that later.

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After walking around for an hour or so, we were cold and slightly damp and had seen all we needed to see. But we still had another 40 minutes until our taxi driver would pick us up. So we stumbled around numbly until we saw a familiar logo.

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I don’t even drink coffee, but it was warm; there were comfortable chairs to sit on; and there was free wifi. How sad is it that Starbucks was our favorite part of Lima?

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Holy Chicken Coop Batman, I’m Going to Beijing and Shanghai!

Yes, I just got back from Peru a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I’m a crazy person who can’t stop buying travel books (I now own more than 70). And yes, I love planning trips almost as much as I love taking them. So pretty much as soon as I got back to the U.S., I began searching for my next travel partner and destination.

The advantage of working in politics is that the dead time is entirely predictable. Nothing happens in December of an election year. Nothing. So I knew I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted, so long as I could find someone to travel with and I could make the miles and points work.

When my sister agreed to accompany me for a week and a half, that’s when I really went into crazy mode. We considered Argentina, Hawaii, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, and Chile. We seriously considered Hawaii because of the warm weather and the ease of staying in the U.S. But we were both somewhat daunted by the high prices and the annoyance of hopping from island to island. We considered a tour of Budapest, Prague and Berlin because of my weird obsession with Communist era history and my desire to stay in this freaking awesome hotel.

But then, in one of our many gchats, I typed: “Hey, you know, you could fly to Beijing for only 35,000 United miles in economy.”

And my sister typed, “Oh, I really want to see the Great Wall.”

And suddenly, it just became clear: We were going to China.

Sure, it’s going to be cold. Maybe even freezing. But there are so many great sights between Beijing and Shanghai that excited both of us, it became a slam dunk. And to top it off, this trip will be personal for us.

Our maternal grandparents escaped German-occupied Poland during World War II via Japan and then Shanghai. They were lucky enough to secure Japanese visas at the last minute and made their way to Kobe, Japan. When the Japanese realized they didn’t want a bunch of European Jews on their hands, they dumped them in Shanghai, where my grandparents lived for five years. Today, much of the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai no longer exists, but there is a museum dedicated to the community, and I’ve heard good things about the experience.

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Finally, being the points-obsessed person that I am, I love how many great hotel options we have to choose from. It’s a cliche, but I really do feel like a kid in a candy store. So many gorgeous hotels for so few points — how will we ever choose?

Somehow, I think we will manage.

Here is the challenge: My sister doesn’t want to take too many days off of work, so she will be abandoning me after a week and two days. The question is, what do I do then? Do I stick around Shanghai and just explore the city’s many neighborhoods? Do I hop a plane to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors? Do I hop a plane to Guilin to see the pretty karst mountains and these amazing rice terraces?

Rice Terraces

I’m a little wary of exploring China’s countryside by my lonesome. Big cities I can handle solo, but I literally do not speak a word of Chinese and I’ve heard it’s not the easiest country to navigate by yourself. Another option is to hop a plane to another country on the way home. I’m considering Kyoto, Japan because it’s actually warmer than China. I considered stopping off in Europe but the inefficiency of the trip gave me pause. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to the U.S. is about 13 hours. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to Germany is 12 hours! That is nuts. If I hadn’t already been to Hong Kong, that would be an obvious choice, but I was just there in November 2013.

So faithful readers, where should I go in early December?

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Updated Maps

What’s a girl to do when she’s sick and feeling sorry for herself? Update her “Where I’ve Been” maps, of course.

This is both awesome and depressing. I have 12 states left to visit in the United States, mostly thanks to work. I’ve actually gotten some color in Asia and South America. But then, there is a shit ton of white space. There are so many places to see! The good news is that I am in the process of planning a trip to China (which apparently counts separately from Hong Kong) so that will give me a big swath of turquoise in Asia.

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Part 13: Regards From 12,000 Feet

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside

It was finally time for the last major destination of of our journey. We had saved the remote, 12,000-foot Puno for last. To my knowledge, there are three ways to get to Puno: A bus, a train, or a plane. Since we didn’t have 8-10 hours to spend on the road we opted for the latter. It was a quick one and a half hour flight from Cusco’s tiny airport to Juliaca’s even tinier airport.

Note: If you are flying to Puno, you will land in the seedy and mildly terrifying down of Juliaca, about an hour’s drive from Puno. All the blogs I read beforehand were unambiguous in their advice to get the hell out of Dodge (Dodge being Juliaca), and from the little that we saw as we drove through it, I’d have to agree.

We chose a hotel on the water, and it was pretty nice to wake up to the views of Lake Titicaca – the worlds highest navigable lake. For those who are curious, we asked our taxi driver what in the world that means — what the heck is a navigable lake? He informed us that Lake Titicaca never freezes, despite its high altitude, and thus, it is navigable all year round. To which I replied: “So really, we should call it ‘the world’s highest perpetually navigable lake?'” and he laughed.

Sometimes, I crack myself up.

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The beautiful view from our hotel.

We went to bed early to wake up at 6 a.m. for our 6:45 pick up. I wish I could tell you that we did a lot of research and picked the best tourist company for the obligatory Lake Titicaca tour, but they all looked more or less the same and we blindly chose one. But I can tell you without any doubt that at 6:45 a.m., it was cold. Not a little chilly, but really, honestly cold. That’s why I’m dressed like this.

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Of course, by noon, the sun was bright and strong, and even though I started shedding layers, I was a sweaty, sweltering mess. So much for planning.

The boat ride to our first stop, the famous Uros Islands, took about an hour in the fast boat. The Uros Islands are inhabited by natives who have their own language and traditions and dress in traditional Peruvian garb. The islands are famous for being made entirely our of the reeds that grow in the water.

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Once we arrived at the first island, we sat on reed benches while our guide and a local Uros resident explained a little bit about their culture and their way of life. Apparently, you can eat the reeds – but only eat the bottom part or you may end up spending a lot of unwanted time in the bathroom (according to our guide – I am not speaking from experience!).

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Lisa was braver than I. Here she is tasting the reeds.

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After the introduction, we had some time to wander around the small island. This is what the inside of a hut looks like:

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After about 10 minutes of wandering around, we boarded a reed boat and zipped off to another floating island, where we had our passports stamped. Note: Entrance to the islands and the boat ride coast 10 soles and stamping your passport costs an additional sole.

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If you’re inclined, there is plenty of opportunity to purchase souvenirs and multicolored trinkets. Lisa purchased one of these lovely hanging thingies.

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Our boat picked us up from the second island and we zipped off to Taquile Island, which is inhabited by Taquileños, who like the Uros natives, have their own tradition, culture and practices. I fell asleep on the ride to Taquile so I can’t actually tell you anything about the journey, but when I groggily stepped off our boat, I had one of those “oh wow…” moments.

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The sky was so blue and the water even bluer. And as we hiked up to the top of the island, the views got bluer and more beautiful.

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I was consistently impressed with the parade of natives carrying plywood up the mountain on their backs. I wasn’t carrying much of anything and I was huffing and puffing. But for them, this was just regular life.

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At the top of the mountain, we stopped to catch our breath in the town square. It’s not a particularly happening spot, but we learned later that this is where all the important town meetings and gatherings takes place.

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During lunch we received a crash course on the intricate practices of the Taquileños. The Taquileños are known for their brightly knitted hats and scarves, but these colorful items serve a utilitarian purpose. There are different hats for single men, engaged men and married men, and different hats for single women and married women. The position of the scarves’ tassels are used to indicate whether a person is happy or sad, and if they are sad, one of the councilmen will approach them and solve their problem. If only my problems could be solved that way.

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The Taquileños are incredibly self-sufficient, relying on the island’s natural resources to get by. In the below picture, a man demonstrates how they make soap out of a plant.

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Finally, the island’s natives demonstrated a traditional Taquile dance for us, even pulling in members of our tour group.

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Lisa and I both really enjoyed Taquile Island, though I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I wasn’t so tired. Most tourists we met in Peru gushed over the Uros floating islands, but I thought the commercialization of them detracted from their beauty. In contrast, Taquile had a purity about it. There weren’t throngs of tourist groups or natives selling souvenirs at every corner. It was just a beautiful hike up a mountain under a startling blue sky, engulfed by the wold’s highest perpetually navigable lake.

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The dynamic duo.

 

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Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market

You know you’re obsessed with photography when you hire a driver to take you on a photography trip. But that is exactly how we spent our last day in Cusco. We hired a taxi to take us to Chincheros and the surrounding countryside in the Sacred Valley simply to take pictures. The driver’s English was severely limited and our Spanish was not much better, but we communicated simply by saying “Photo!” every time we wanted him to pull over to the side so we could snap away.

Most tourists visit Chincheros to see the town’s ancient ruins, but when we tried to visit, we were informed that we could only enter by purchasing the costly tourist ticket that includes many sites in the region. Since we had already been to many of those sites and were off to Puno that afternoon, we shrugged our shoulders and told our driver, “more photos!”

The views were truly beautiful, and I literally took over 1,000 pictures in the span of two hours. So don’t say I didn’t warn you…

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The dynamic duo!

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I Have Become a SUPer

If you are completely befuddled by the title of this blog post, take comfort in knowing that I was in that very same position only two weeks ago. SUP stands for stand up paddling, which is pretty much what it sounds like. You use a board that looks  like a surf board and a single paddle to power yourself on a body of water.

I decided on a whim that this was something I should try. I like kayaking and like the idea of having really strong arms and abs, which is, apparently, what happens if take up SUPing. After a quick google search, I found a SUP lesson on the Potomac at the Key Bridge Boathouse, just over a mile from my house. The lesson was only $35 and lasted about an hour and a half.

Getting on the paddle for the first time (on your knees) and then standing up was a little daunting. But once you’re up, it’s actually pretty easy to move and get the hang of it. I found it incredibly freeing and empowering. I cam to the conclusion that I really, really, really like stand up paddling.

And when I finally stood up and looked out at the horizon, I remembered what an awesome city I live in. Sure, our nation’s capital can be particularly sweltering in the summer months, but it is a beautiful city with so many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

I obviously couldn’t take any pictures of us out on the water for fear of never seeing my iPhone again, but here are some shots after the fact.

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10 Things You Can Buy At Cusco’s San Pedro Market

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows

Cusco’s San Pedro market is not a tourist market primarily. It’s meant for the locals and they sell pretty much everything you can imagine – and some things you couldn’t possibly imagine. You will find your standard market fare – fruits and veggies, cheese, fish and meat, etc. But then, there will also be some surprises…

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To the countdown!

#1. Any kind of juice you want. When you first walk into the market area, you will be bombarded by rows of women offering you a variety of fruit juices. Their products and prices are all the same so just pick any which one. You can pick any fruit you like (mango, passion fruit, papaya, banana, etc.) and any liquid you like (milk, water, ice, etc.) and they’ll make you a fresh fruit drink on the spot.

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#2. A pig’s head. Because why wouldn’t you need that?

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#3. Pig feet. Because if you’re going to buy a pig’s head, you might as well go all in for the feet too.

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#4. Massive loaves of bread with decorative engravings.

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#5. Huge wheels of cow cheese. It looks like butter, but I’m told it’s cheese.

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#6. Weird, tiny fish. Not sure how you eat these, but if you want to, you can buy ‘em.

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#7. Masks.

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#8. Colorful corn – a Peruvian staple.

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#9. Colorful custard. I have no idea how this tastes but it looks pretty.

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10. A nap. Okay, it’s not something you can buy, but you can clearly take one if you’re so inclined.

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Part 9: Cusco: The Highs and Lows

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)

Cusco is a strange mix of modern and old. With nearly 350 million people, Cusco is Peru’s seventh largest city, but it is also the capital of the ancient Inca empire. We saw real street lights for our first time in Peru and large, modern stores, but the city reeks of oldness. The city is literally built on the layers of its Inca foundation. Many buildings retain their original Inca stone foundation, and there are small Inca ruins scattered throughout the city.

Cusco is also extremely hilly. You can hike up (or take a bus or taxi) up to Christo Blanco (White Jesus) for beautiful panoramic views of the city below. You can make out the Plaza de Armas and the two famous churches in Cusco’s main square.

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The Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman are about a 10 minute walk from the White Jesus. We had seen plenty of ruins already so we opted to simply photograph the ruins from afar.

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This is a classic Cusco street: Cobblestone roads, colonial architecture, and stone foundations with mountains lurking in the background.

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An awesome alligator sculpture in the middle of Cusco:

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Here we are wandering around the Plaza de Armas, the heart of Cusco’s bustling city life. Tourists mix with citizens enjoying a short rest on the many benches.

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After some downtime in Plaza de Armas, we made our way uphill to San Blas, Cusco’s artsy neighborhood. Be prepared to hike up steep cobblestone roads, but take comfort in knowing you can stop to catch your breath to laugh at Cusco’s version of the food truck and smile at the creative street murals.

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Cusco side by side

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San Blas side by side

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This was awesome – just a young couple painting a mural on the wall outside their apartment.

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As we walked back to our hotel, I snapped a photograph of one of the side streets. It’s not particularly beautiful, but it is a good example of Cusco’s ancient charm. Notice the bottom layer or neatly stacked stones on the right wall — those are the Inca stones. The messy, round stones on top were laid by the Spanish colonialists. Much of Cusco looks like this – a city of layers, an evocative mix of past and present.

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Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues

Cusco is a good base for several side trips in the Sacred Valley. Our second day in Cusco we spent exploring the countryside, namely the town of Pisac and its famous market. The Pisac markets operate every day, but the big days (and most heavy tourist days) are Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. You can easily take a bus or collectivo to Pisac but we met a couple who was planning on going the same day, so we shared a cab with them.

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The advantage of taking a cab (besides for the comfort) is getting to stop at the condor farm along the way. For all I know, the condor farm has an official name but I don’t know what it is. It’s one of those things locals tell you about but you won’t find in the guidebooks. It’s basically a small farm with some pretty cool local animals. There is no entrance fee but they ask for a donation at the end of the tour.

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Apparently, this is a big no-no, but Lisa likes to live on the edge. I snapped a picture before she was gobbled up.

After the condor farm, we made our way to Pisac. The town of Pisac is tiny and easy to walk around. We simply asked someone to point us in the direction of the the main plaza and that’s how we stumbled on the array of locals hawking their wares.

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Because everyone needs a pair of colorful sneakers.

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Hot.

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I don’t think this lady was too happy with me.

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I’m in love with this. It’s just so random.

And of course, I loved photographing the kids of Peru.

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The kids in traditional Peruvian dress will stick out their hands and say “propina” after you take a picture. That is how I learned my fifth spanish word. Propina, apparently, means tip.

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This kid became my best friend.

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After you visit the markets, you can hike up to the ruins overlooking Pisac or pay a taxi to take you to the top and walk down. We were a little ruined-out (and carrying quite a bit of purchases) so we hopped on a collectivo and made our way back to Cusco.

 

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Another Birthday, Another Deep Thought

I’m not a big believer in birthdays. I don’t believe in parties or birthday specific presents. If I want to treat myself to something nice, I shouldn’t have to wait until my birthday. And if you want to buy me a present you should do it any damn day you want. Personally, I think I deserve to be treated nicely all year round. But since I’m officially a year older, it’s a good time to reflect on the year behind me.

Highlights:

  • I’ve had some amazing trips and experiences. I hiked to Havasu Falls in Arizona over Labor Day, visited Cambodia, Thailand and Honk Kong over Thanksgiving, and just came back from Peru. These were all awesome experiences, filled with good people and beautiful scenery.
  • I’ve kind of fallen in like with Yoga – something I used to think was stupid and hipstery.

Lowlights:

  • I lost my best friend, the love of my life, and the guy I thought I was going to spend my life with (those are all descriptions of one person, not three different people). To borrow a classic cliche, my heart is broken and feels like it will never be whole again.

Looking Forward:

  • I know this makes me a political nerd, but the presidential cycle will be exciting and chaotic – all things I love in politics.
  • I am planning a December trip – I don’t know where yet, but I love the planning process. Maybe it will be Eastern Europe, or Argentina or someplace else entirely. Stay tuned.
  • My niece is nearly two, adorable and wickedly smart. She is at the age where everything coming out of her mouth is hysterical, even when I don’t understand it.
  • I am making an effort to try new things. Now that I’ve surprised myself by liking yoga, I’ve signed up for a stand-up paddle class in a week. Stay tuned for more on that as well.
  • When I feel sad, it sometimes seems like there is no way things will turn around. Rationally, I know that isn’t true. The rational part of my brain knows that life is full of surprises and some of them are bound to be good ones. I am looking forward to being positively surprised.

Happy birthday to me!

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