Monday, March 31, 2014

To stay, or not to stay, in Peru


I love traveling. I love adventure. I love going places.

I hate planning things. Once I have a general plan, I'm really good at getting the details worked out. I could be a travel agent: "Oh, you want to do this trip? On that budget? Give me fifteen minutes, I'll have your whole month booked." But the planning part turns me into a solid brick of "I don't wanna".

It's the whole Paradox of Choice thing: the more options you have, the more you second-guess whether or not you made The Right Choice.

I've had one hell of a trip, but it's winding to a close. By late April/early May I need to be back in California. I have less than a month left in South America. Two of the remaining weeks will be spent in Cusco and the region, and then I'm back in Lima on April 12th to drop my Aunt--who just arrived in Cusco to join me in hiking to Macchu Picchu--off at the airport.

There's a horrible little part of me that is considering flying home then. And by "home" I mean going to Portland, saying hi to my parents, picking up my car, and making a beeline to the mountains. Maybe the Sierras. Maybe stopping on the way to go play on some of the Cascade's volcanoes.

Why? Why when I have two whole weeks to enjoy exploring Peru would I do that?

Because the mugging in Lima (sorry, still haven't posted that story but I will eventually, this was urgent) freaked me out. It reminded me that, while most of the people I've interacted with during these almost 7 months have been really nice, there are those out there who see me as a walking flea market (the mugger) or as an exotic blonde girl they want to screw (the policemen), or as someone made of money who should be hit up aggressively for every last penny in exchange for things I don't want (over half of the people I have interacted with in Peru).

The latter is annoying, but understandable. Although I don't want more things, I have handed out Nuevo Soles for more things than I usually would (like hiking, tours, beautiful handwoven alpaca stuff, little souvenirs, food prepared by others, etc.) because I feel obligated here to not be the cheapskate backpacker I usually am but to instead support the people in whose country I am traveling. But the former two are scary. And I keep hearing nightmare stories from other travelers, like friends who were also mugged in Lima, the woman who was driven off by a taxi driver and barely escaped an attempted rape, stories of women hiking alone who were followed and killed, presumably for whatever money they happened to have on them. And the woman I sat next to on the plane who said that only her police training saved her from a brutal situation just weeks earlier in Ecuador when, she said, "I beat him up pretty bad. Maybe he's dead now. I don't care." I couldn't tell if she was bullshitting or not, but she looked like she could kill a person.

I've heard similar horror stories everywhere I've traveled. I'm used to smiling and shrugging off, "Young lady, you shouldn't be traveling alone." But until now, the warnings and stories have always been vague "I read this/ saw this on the news" sort of warnings, easy to dismiss as sensationalist journalism and "How many years ago did that happen? And how many car accidents have happened since then in the same area? What's the real danger here?" realism.

But here, everyone I meet has a story. Including myself.

Killer woman (and several others I have since met, all tanned brunettes) told me that I needed to look less like a tourist. To which I laughed. "Really? I'm blonde. Very fair-skinned. I'm carrying a giant backpack because there's a tent and sleeping bag inside because that's what I do. There is no hiding who I am here." She looked me over and reluctantly agreed. Every time I leave my room, I leave it with full awareness that I am a giant glowing target. It's an experience that has made me much more sensitive to what some of my friends face back home, in the land of a white, blonde majority that isn't always friendly to people who aren't that.

I have been an obvious "you're not from around here" this entire time, but elsewhere it made me, as I have written about before, a "target" for kindness.

Is it different here? I don't want to believe it is, but I also don't want to be dumb.

My experience thus far has been that stepping outside my comfort zone has rewarded me a million times over in amazing life experiences. Until I got mugged in Lima and spent the next three hours getting sexually harassed by the police who were supposed to be protecting me.

Normal Carie: "Don't let one bad experience make you jaded when you've had so many good ones."
Paranoid Carie: "It's different here."
Normal Carie: "The majority of people everywhere are kind and helpful and good. There are bad apples, but they are the exception, not the rule."
Paranoid Carie: "It's different here."
Normal Carie: "It'll be fun! You'll come out on the other side really glad you did this, like you always do."
Paranoid Carie: "You're gonna get yourself raped and killed."
Normal Carie: "I hate you, Paranoid Carie."

So here's what I'm debating: do I:

(A) Give South America an epic farewell by heading up to the Cordillera Blanca and going on the longest solo trek I have time for. Upsides: It looks spec-freaking-tacular, I know that in the absence of human danger, it would probably be my favorite thing I've ever done. Downsides: There are people. And there are stories about muggings at trailheads, potential for stalking, etc. It's remote and beautiful and awesome! But people.
(B) Fly home earlier rather than later, call Macchu Picchu my Last Hurrah in South America, and spend that time enjoying mountains where I know I'll feel safe back home. Maybe leave the Cordillera Blanca for an Epic Trek with a future Partner in Fun and Life.

Just one of many mountains in the Cordillera Blanca. You can see why I would want to go. (photo: Wikipedia)

 Sure, there are other options. I could hop on a bus and sightsee. But I'm sick of sightseeing. It's not my thing, and never really has been. I'm here for the mountains. It's either mountains here, or mountains back home. Or I could do the Cordillera Blanca trek with a guided group. That's fine, but it's not what I want right now. I want to be alone. It's how I experience things best. I like having the mountains to myself. I need some mountain time by myself. Given the choice of go on a guided or group trek there or go home, I prefer to go home.

So, my wonderful, supportive, loving friends: what do you think? Has anyone been to that area before? Are the safety warnings overblown (general mountain safety issues aside)? Anyone confident in hand-to-hand combat willing to come down here for a week and be my bodyguard (I'll feed you) while I hike just far enough ahead that I can pretend like I'm alone? Haha.

PS- For all that, Cusco has been awesome. The scenery is incredible, the food awesome, and the people...the nice ones are really nice and the not-nice ones are reasonably easy to avoid. It's a great place.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Long Road North Part VI: Lima

Cool cliffside restaurant near where I stayed with Kathleen in Lima that Kathleen took me to see during an awesome impromptu walking Geology of Lima tour. That bridge? The gap there was formed because there was a dike made of a more easily-erodible material that we could trace up into the beach and up the cliffs on the other side of the road. Neato!

Lima Part I: a not-so-warm welcome

I arrived in Lima after over two weeks of travel, of which over one hundred hours were spent on long-haul buses, all the way from the southern toe of the continent in Ushuaia, Argentina (or, if you're really counting, from the Antarctic Peninsula following a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage by ship). I was exhausted. But I had booked it north in order to arrive in Lima in time to meet up with my friend from grad school, Kathleen, who was in town for two weeks teaching an Earth History course at the university. After all that travel I was very excited to see a familiar face again.

After gathering my bags from the hold of the bus that had just taken me the 49 hours across the Antiplano from Argentina to arrive there in Lima, I asked the woman at the information desk (who, in contrast to every information desk person in the whole of Argentina, was very friendly and helpful) how to get a bus to where my friend Kathleen was staying in the Lima neighborhood of Chorillos. She directed me to a bus station across the street from the main terminal, which served a brand-spanking-new Metropolitano bus line, saying it was very clean and safe. Sure enough, it was equivalent to a nice light rail line in some of the finer public transit systems of the U.S. I was beginning to think that all of the safety warnings for Lima were grossly exaggerated, or maybe relics from a wilder time past.

Lima. Looks like L.A.

The only problem was that “Chorillos” was not one of the stops on the train map, so I asked a businessman standing across from me if he knew which stop I should get off at. I showed him Kathleen’s instructions, and he lit up when he saw the name of the restaurant she said she was near: Los Hornos. Sure enough, after 20 some minutes, the bus pulled up at a station across the street from a Los Hornos restaurant, so I got off. Except it didn't seem right. I sat down inside the train stop to get my bearings and was surprised that the train stations had free public wifi, so I pulled out my phone, got a GPS signal, and got thoroughly confused. My phone couldn't find the address she had given me and insisted that the restaurant across the street was the only Los Hornos in Lima, but I knew I was not in Chorillos. I asked a passerby who confirmed that I was still several stops away from Chorillos, the end of the line station. So I hopped back on the train to the end of the line and tried again. This time my phone was able to bring up Kathleen’s address, and it looked like I had overshot the jump-off-point by two stations. Back on the bus, back off, and I checked my phone map one last time to make a mental map of where I needed to go. Five blocks down one street, jog one block left, then right and two blocks down.

I couldn't wait to get to food like this: famous Peruvian ceviche (I did get some later).

I started walking. The sun was shining and I felt optimistic and excited: excited to be in a new country, in a busy big city, excited that I’d be seeing a friend soon. I was all smiles as I walked. Kathleen had said the neighborhood was swanky, and I wondered at her definition of swanky. It looked like a seedier version of the seedier parts of East L.A., but hey, I’m in Peru! I grinned and laughed out loud as I walked past my fifth market stall with stripped, freshly-killed chickens hanging on hooks from ropes across the front. I scouted out the little stalls selling food, making mental notes of the gloriously inexpensive prices for the Menu del Días, intending to come back for lunch after dropping my stuff off at Kathleen’s place. I wondered if it had been five blocks yet, the busy market stalls made it hard to judge where streets actually were. I kept walking, and started to feel like I had gone too far, I didn't recognize the names of what street signs I could see. I decided to quickly pull out my phone and consult the GPS.

I had had my phone in my hand for less than two seconds when I felt the shove in the back and the hand grabbing at my phone. I stumbled, clenched my hand tighter, holding onto my phone like it was a lifeline, and spun around to face my attacker. It was a skinny guy in a white shirt, not much taller than me, yanking hard at my phone. I yelled at him. He grabbed my arm. I grabbed his arm with my free hand and started to claw at him, still yelling. I wanted to kick, but I couldn't, I was too weighed down and off-balance with stuff. Then he pushed me hard and I fell sideways to the pavement, and in the split second that my grip loosened as I started to fall, he yanked the phone out of my hand and sprinted away. I looked up, pinned on the sidewalk by my heavy backpack, and saw him run off. I yelled for help: there were people all around, but nobody did anything until he had run off.

Post-mugging: a little scuffed up, but fine (pretty sure the guy lost more skin in the scuffle than I did).

Two women slowly walked up to me as I tried to pick myself up. One helped me to my feet. She asked me what I was doing there, “It’s not safe here,” she said. No shit, I thought. They took me around the corner to a police officer, who chewed me out for being in the neighborhood. “This is the most dangerous street in Chorillos,” she said, “What are you doing here?” I tried to explain that I was trying to get to my friend’s house, but now I didn't have the address and I was too shaken to remember it. I was sure I was within a few blocks, but didn't know where. She pointed me down the road to the police station.

One of the women walked with me to the police station and explained to the officer at the front desk what had happened, then disappeared, leaving me there to fend for myself. The officer told me to wait in the back office for someone to come take my statement and file a report.

About half an hour later, another officer showed up. He introduced himself as the captain, smiling broadly. He asked what happened and I explained. He repeated the street officer’s chiding about how I should not be in this neighborhood. It’s dangerous, he said. When I explained that I didn't know that, I thought it was supposed to be safe, I was trying to get to my friend’s house, he asked for the address. I remembered bits of it, and when I mentioned part of the street name he got furious and demanded to know the name of my friend.
“It’s a center for narcotics, half of the drug deals in Chorillos happen on that street. Are you crazy? You can’t go there.”
Great, I thought.

He must have seen the look of, “well fuck, now what” on my face because he softened.
“Smile, pretty girl, it’s going to be okay,” then he reached out to stroke my back, “You’re safe now. You’re safe with me,” he said, and winked.
That did not make me feel better.
“Do I give my statement to you?” I asked, as I pushed myself away from him.
 “You want to give a statement?” the captain asked, surprised. Why the hell else would I be here? I thought. “Okay, I guess.” And he called in another officer.
After another wait while the other officer got his computer booted up, which apparently was a half hour long process, I was called over to give my statement.

“Carie? Like the song? Caaaaaaaaaa-rie, Caaaaaaaaaaaaa-rie,” the captain started to sing behind me.
“30? So young?”
Marital status.
“I’m single, too,” with another wink.
After I had given the statement and asked for a copy, the captain told me to sit down with him at his desk and excused the other officer. He then started to go through a slideshow of his photos, hikes to a waterfall, him with his shirt off in the waterfall, 
“Oh, have you ever seen a cock fight?” I was slightly relieved that he meant chickens, but the images were still disturbing. “How long are you in Peru?” he asked.
“Three weeks. I am visiting my friend,” I replied.
“My gringa, Peru is wonderful, you will see. Please don’t think it is all like this today. Peru is beautiful. I want to show you Peru.”
I thought he meant photos and I smiled politely.
“You come with me, and I will show you Peru. He grabbed my hand and pulled me to him. I mentally freaked out but didn’t know what to do. I was in a police station surrounded by police officers all of whom had guns in their pockets. I was lost. I needed help to get to Kathleen’s place. But this guy is a creep.
He whispered in my ear, “Come with me, I will show you many things.”
I jerked back and exclaimed that I thought I knew a way to track down the thief: my phone has anti-theft software installed and with a computer, we should be able track the phone. I figured that would get him to think about something other than seducing me, would maybe get me access to the internet to look up Kathleen’s address or somehow contact her and ask her to come rescue me, and maybe actually track the phone.

Pretty view from a bar in Lima at night, looking out towards Chorillos.

The ploy worked, and the captain called in the station’s tech guy. We spent the next hour and a half trying to figure out how to get my pone-tracking app to work to no avail, all the while the captain would come by periodically and put his hands on my shoulders and rub my back and check in. When he wasn’t looking, I tried to signal to the tech guy that I was seriously uncomfortable, help, but he gave me a clear, “dude’s the captain, ain’t nothing I can do about it” look in response. I was able to get to my email, though, and shot a “PLEASE COME GET ME!” email to Kathleen, and looked up her address.

I told the officers Kathleen’s address and said I needed to get there, but they ignored me. The captain was determined to keep me there as long as possible. He had more slideshows that I needed to see.
“You come with me. I will show you Peru. You will be safe with me. I am a police captain. Nobody will mess with you if you are with me. I have guns.” He pointed to the gun at his hip, then winked.
“My friend has waiting for me for hours. She is probably really worried. Please, I need to go to my friend,” I pleaded.
“I will take you to your friend, but only if you will visit me. VISIT ME.” He demanded. Right, because hanging out with you in the police station is exactly how I want to spend my time in Lima?
“Here?” I asked, trying to show just how little desire I had to come back to the police station ever again.
“Yes, you will visit me here. And then I will take you to see Peru. You will be safe.” He paused for dramatic effect, put his hands on my shoulders, and winked again. “El único que no será segura es tu corazón." (the only thing that won’t be safe is your heart) I looked it up later just to make sure I hadn't mistaken the unbelievably corny line. How he managed to get that one out with a straight face I will never know.
 “I need to go to my friend.” Maybe tears will work, I thought. They weren’t hard to conjure up, stressed as I was. My eyes started to water.
“VISIT ME!” he demanded, shaking me. I nodded, and the first tear fell.
 “Good. Nonono, don’t cry, wait here, I will get a car.”
I was terrified and thought about bolting, but didn’t know where to go. I had Kathleen’s address now, but I didn’t know where I was or how to get there. And running from a police station seemed like a good way to get arrested. But I also did not want to get in a vehicle with Creepy Captain. I was frozen, not knowing what to do. I hoped that he would at least get me to Kathleen’s place and that I’d be safe once I was there.

He returned, “20 minutes, there will be a car,” followed by more photo show-and-tell and stories about how Peru is unsafe but I would be Safe With Him, and I was starting to wonder after 20 mins had passed if there was a car or if I’d be stuck there forever with him when a new officer walked in.

Much to my relief, he had been assigned to drive me to Kathleen’s place. The captain escorted me, hand on my back to the door, demanding, “Visitarme! Visitarme! VISITARME!” He blocked my way out the door.

It reminded me of my bus nightmare, and I had a flashback to the movie scene with the creepy guy yelling at the girl he had locked in his basement: Obedéceme! Obedéceme! OBEDECAME!”

But I was almost a free woman, so I smiled and said, “Si,” and he let me pass, giving instructions to the driver that if a blonde girl (Kathleen) didn’t answer the door at the address he was not to let me out of the car, and was to return me to the police station. I worried about that, because I wasn’t sure Kathleen would be home, she had left instructions that one of the kids or housekeepers would be there to let me in, but decided not to explain that point until I was in the car and on the road.

The officer drove me the three minutes to Kathleen’s door, who happened to have just gotten back from her work at the university and was standing just inside the gate outside of the house when I arrived. I was insanely relieved. The police officer briefly questioned her and Marta, the housekeeper and, satisfied that I wasn’t being dropped off at a drug den, excused himself politely and left.

Wow, was I glad to see this person (and needed that beer)!

Lima Part II: Let's try this again...

Needless to say, I didn’t go back to the police station. Marta, however, later said that she saw police cars driving past the house several times that day, which was unusual, and she thought it was hilarious.

I was determined not to let the mugging get to me. Later that evening, Kathleen and I went out with the kids of the house to go check out some of the nicer parts of Lima: Barrancos, a funky and pretty little artsy (the kids said “hipster”) part of town, and we watched the sun set over the beach and got ceviche, which I was pumped about because I love ceviche and Peruvian ceviche is awesome. The next day we went to the beach (bringing nothing with us but our swimsuits and towels so that there was nothing to steal), which was one of Kathleen’s first escapes from what she called the “Princess Palace”. Turns out that the reason she thought the neighborhood was swanky and safe was that she never left the safety of the beautiful gated home surrounded by tall walls that she was staying in except under the escort of the family chauffeur. Our beach trip was a glorious dash for freedom. We had a few more unescorted adventures, including a trip out for some lunchtime exploring, another for evening beers, and a fascinating adventure when I tried to buy a plane ticket to Cusco and it involved taking questionable taxis around town trying to find a certain bank and then handing over a fat wad of cash at the bank to a series of mysterious numbers that had been dictated over the phone and that I had copied down on a scrap of paper, hoping all the while that I wasn’t just wiring money to some gangster and would actually get a ticket (I did).

Adventures in Peruvian banking. Pretty fancy system, pretty weird way to buy a plane ticket.

But the highlight of my few days visiting Kathleen in Lima was when she asked if I’d be willing to talk about microbial evolution in the earth science course she was teaching at the university. Would I be willing? To talk to a captive audience about, like, my very favorite thing? Ummmm, let me think for half a second… We laughed at each other one night when, although we had planned to “go out” and “have fun” that night, we instead stayed in and ate bland spaghetti while feverishly working on our talks for the morning, the funny part being that we wanted to be doing that, that that was more fun for us than “going out”, because SCIENCE! We nerd partied until the wee hours of morning.

I hadn’t gotten to talk about microbes in what felt like a really long time (almost a year), my thesis having morphed to be about stromatolites = rocks, and my South America Talk Tour being all about stromatolites. But although as my friend Vicky says it’s a terrible abusive relationship, my heart belongs to the microbes. Prepping my talk was an excellent excuse to read back through way too many fascinating papers about photosynthesis and microbial evolution, and it was wonderful.

Teaching microbial evolution in Kathleen's Earth Science class

Class the next morning was fun (for me at least, not sure about the students), we ate lunch, hung out and worked in her temporary office at the university, went out for a final beer, and the next morning after a stroll down the coast we were driven to the airport together. And the driver got in a car accident right under the exit sign for the airport. Luckily we were able to get another taxi from there, but it was one of those moments. We had lunch together at the airport before saying goodbye, Kathleen flying back to her shiny new job in Chicago, me off to Cusco.

Sign on the way to the airport. Kraps crackers! Can't stop eating Krap! Oh, and watch out, prematurely balding kid, there's a pedophilic cephalopod right behind you.

Our taxi got in a car accident right under the sign for the airport. Nice.

Kathleen, thanks for letting me visit, it was great to see you!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Long Road North Part V: Crossing the Antiplano on the Bus to Lima

Video of the journey

Day 1: The Creeps

I woke up early to be at the bus terminal in Jujuy before 7am. I was groggy, having spent the night on the wiggly top of three bunks in an overcrowded and poorly-ventilated hostel dorm room with Argentine and German party animal roommates who kept me up most of the night. I had my 6am revenge, but it didn't feel as sweet as sleeping would have.

My bus was not at the terminal when I arrived, but I was early enough to not be concerned. My bus wasn't supposed to leave until 7:50, but the woman who had sold me the ticket had insisted that it was important for me to be there by 7am, so 7am was when I was there, although it wasn't clear why it was necessary to be an hour early for a bus that, no doubt, was going to show up 2 minutes before departure like every other bus in Argentina ever. When 15 minutes later the bus still wasn't there I got concerned enough to ask at the ticket window, where they told me that I needed to go to another bus station a 10 minute walk away. Why the hell hadn't they put that on the bus ticket?? But I walked over, sweating hard with my giant backpack through a not-particularly-appealing neighborhood. I had been warned about rampant theft in the area and felt helpless with all of my stuff. Fifteen minutes of walking later and there was still no sign of a bus station. I asked the one guy who happened to be out on the street, who pointed further down the road. Cursing under my breath I kept walking, and found nothing. Another guy pointed me back in the direction I had just come from. There had been no buses, no terminals, nothing. But back I walked until, sure enough, I spotted a building with the name of my bus company painted on it, but it was boarded up. There was no bus, were no people, no signs of life…this can’t be right, I thought.

Waiting for the bus

I hailed a taxi back to the main bus terminal and asked again. The guy swore that the boarded-up building was where I was supposed to go. I made him promise twice that if I waited there, my bus would come and get me. He insisted that I was going to miss the bus if I didn't hurry, so I got another taxi back and sat down to wait, sitting alone on the sidewalk in front of the abandoned building on the sketchy street that was empty except for a few men occasionally staggering by reeking of piss and alcohol and making lewd comments as they passed me.

The 7:50 bus departure came and went. So did 8:00, 8:15, 8:30… I started to think that I should go back and give the guy who had promised me I needed to wait there hell for making me wait in a weird place and miss my bus, or make him call the bus and insist that they pick me up at the main terminal where I felt much safer waiting. The whole situation made me really uncomfortable.

I was about to leave when a vehicle drove slowly by, stopped, and started to back up. I wondered if it was maybe a company representative come to inform me that my bus had exploded and wouldn't be coming or something…that or life was about to get unpleasant. I discreetly pulled my Swiss Army knife out of my purse and unfolded a blade. I wasn't sure just what I planned to do with it, it was handy enough for slicing avocados but not exactly a knife-fight worthy blade, but figured a knife was better than nothing on that street. The van pulled up to where I was sitting, and a man leaned out the window.
“Hoooola,” he drawled.
“Como estas?” 
I wasn’t smiling and was wondering how I’d be able to get proof that the guy was from the bus company, and decided that I wasn’t going to get in a vehicle with anyone I didn’t recognize, and I didn’t recognize this guy.
“Que necesitas?” I asked. What do you want?
“Are you sleeping here?” He asked me in Spanish. Oh great, he thinks I’m a streetwalker.
“No. I’m waiting for my bus. It’s coming soon.”
“No, honey, your bus is late! I will drive you where you are going.” To Lima? I thought. Right.
“No, gracias. I will wait for my bus.”
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“Oh come on pretty girl, come get a coffee with me.”
“Just a coffee, come on honey, I’ll take care of you.”
I turned and looked him straight in the eye and said evenly,
Déjame en paz. Leave me alone.”

He laughed, put his head back in his window, and started to inch the van forward, then stopped again and stuck his head back out the window and made kissing noises at me.

I stood up, knife in hand, and yelled,
“Fuck you, get the hell out of here. Go!”
He left.

Angry and shaken I was gathering my stuff to hail a taxi after an hour of waiting on the street, when suddenly I saw my bus come down the road. It didn't look like it was going to stop, so I walked out into the road and blocked it from passing. Sure enough, after the driver yelled at me and I yelled back and showed him my ticket, it was my bus, and the driver pulled over, threw my bags in the hold, and let me on. I was in a sour, sour mood but I’d be spending the next two days on this bus with this driver, so I figured I should at least try to be nice.

My bus ticket

The bus was full, which was disappointing. After all that time being the only one waiting for it I had hoped it would be a quiet ride, but apparently everyone had gotten on somewhere earlier down the road. There was a guy who had sprawled out across my seat, and I politely asked him to vacate my spot. He was my seatmate and I would spend the next two days smelling his BO, but he ended up being a sleeper, and I was grateful at least for that. Be it plane rides or bus rides or car rides or any rides, I like seatmates best who don’t talk. Ideally ones who don’t smell either, but I’ll take smelly over chatty. I settled into my seat for the two-day journey, then got up to make myself some oatmeal that I had cleverly thought to pack myself, since I hadn’t had breakfast yet. I got back to my seat and realized that, although I had paid for a good seat, my seat was broken and didn’t recline. At all. This was going to be a long 2-day ride.

The drive was scenic, but I had been on the first three hours of it already, so I pulled out a book and read, a book on the history of the Inca Empire.

It looked pretty much like this for 49 hours, except when it was dark.

Usually on these long bus rides I alternate between my Kindle and my laptop and snapping photos with my camera, but after that morning and all the warnings I had heard about thieves in the region, I didn’t trust anyone, and didn’t want to advertise that I had valuable stuff with me. I did shoot some videos with my GoPro, but I kept it strapped to my wrist at all times, and figured if anyone touched it, I’d punch them and scream bloody murder. A tougher target than someone knifing open one of my bags to pull out my camera or laptop. I chided myself for being so paranoid, for behaving differently than I would have in the south. In the south, passengers on the buses were usually European or Israeli tourists. It’s not that tourists don’t steal stuff, but there I was always one target among many. On this bus, I was the only non-Spanish speaker, the only person who didn’t look like they could be Peruvian, and I stood out. On other buses, people smiled at each other and shared snacks. On this bus, I got on as the last person on a full bus, a white girl with fair hair in a sea of dark faces who looked at me not with the warmth and friendliness of the south, but with frowning and suspicious, “what is she doing here?” looks. I’d smile at people, and they’d glare back at me. When I’d turn around to look behind me, there’d always be half a dozen eyes on me, the whole trip, night and day. It was creepy.

Late afternoon rolled around and we had not been fed. I wondered when they were going to bring something to eat or stop for us to get food, since I hadn't brought anything to eat other than my one packet of breakfast oatmeal. The multiple border crossings make having a food bag on the bus impossible as any food would be confiscated. Besides, my ticket read “con servicios” which means “we will feed you on the bus”, and I figured that would be good enough. At around 3pm we stopped at the Chilean border. In the three hours that we were stuck waiting to get our papers processed I could easily have walked to the nearby gas station and bought something to eat, but we were sternly told to not leave the line, and I assumed bus food would eventually come, as it always had in the past.

My giant green backpack on the border securty scanner.
My chariot for the long, long trip.

No bus food came. After being loaded back onto the bus, a woman selling egg and cheese sandwiches—i.e. everything I’m allergic to—was mobbed by the passengers and I asked the driver if we’d be eating soon. “This is your last chance until tomorrow,” he replied. WHAT?? I asked him again to be sure, explained that I was allergic to the only thing she was selling, and she had just sold out of sandwiches anyhow, that I had no food with me, that my ticket said “con servicios”, that I had nothing to eat. He was unsympathetic. I asked if I could walk to the gas station to buy something. He said no. Low Blood Sugar Carie muttered something obscene as tears welled up, and I skulked back onto the bus, slumped down into my chair, and resigned myself to a night of trying hard not to slice the arm off of my seatmate to grill for dinner.

Luckily there were some distractions from my growling stomach. Movies, as usual. Unusual was that most of the movies were not horror movies, which I was grateful for. My creepily staring busmates were scary enough. Ronan, some heist movie that I didn’t watch, Hangover III, Fast and Furious 7 (Really? There have been 7?), Rocky 7 (Grudge Match), Lone Ranger, a surprisingly not-completely-terrible movie by Sylvester Stallone about an undercover narcotics cop hiding out with is daughter in Louisiana, some terrible-looking movie with Vince Vaughn, and then a disturbing movie based loosely on the even more disturbing true story of an Austrian girl who had been locked up as a sex slave in some creep’s basement. In the movie, the guy was a stranger who had kidnapped her as a child, he waited until she came of age to start raping her, and kept her locked in the basement—except when he chained her to his bed—for 10 years before she escaped. In the real life story, the rapist was the girl’s own father who started raping her when she was 12 and kept her locked up in the basement with her seven children/half-siblings for 24 years before she escaped. That night I had nightmares about the bus driver yelling, "Obedéceme! OBEDECAME!!" (obey me) while I was locked up in the luggage hold.

And I dreamed of food.

Day 2: Welcome to Peru

I woke up dizzy the next morning, having not eaten in a full day. Breakfast didn't come. Neither did lunch, making 30 hours with no food. I slept a lot. We crossed the border to Peru, there was no food at that border crossing. I looked. I did make some friends, though, after one middle-aged woman approached me while we were waiting in line and asked if I understood what was going on. Thinking she was trying to help me, I smiled and thanked her and said I did. She thrust her papers upside down in my hand and asked if I could help her fill them out. At first I was confused. She spoke Spanish, I didn't, and the forms were in Spanish, why did she want my help? Then she started pointing to the lines as if trying to read them, but they were upside-down, and it dawned on me that she couldn't read. So I sat down with her and went through and filled out her forms for her, and just when I had finished, there were three other women waiting. I helped all of them with their forms and waited with them in the customs lines to make sure everything was okay. From then on I had people on the bus who smiled at me. Apparently the people on the bus had decided that the gringa wasn't so bad after all.

Welcome to Peru! After 7 months in Argentina and Chile, I finally made it to another country!

Finally in the mid-afternoon we stopped at a weird mud-gated building that looked like an abandoned warehouse from the outside but was a sort of restaurant on the inside. I elbowed my way to a spot in the line (one thing I had learned after two border crossings with these people was that an unwillingness to use elbows will get you left behind and unfed) and gratefully accepted the blocker-elbowings of a few of my new woman friends to keep my spot, and when I got up to the cashier I asked the women to help me order Lots of Food because I was really hungry. They were happy to hook me up with the best of hearty Peruvian Fare, and when the meal came it felt like the best meal I’d ever had. It helped that, having been starved of spice for the past 7 months, Peruvian food was legitimately flavorful. It also helped that I was famished. The women sat and ate with me, and made it clear that I was now in their protection. I was grateful for it.

Later that evening, we stopped for dinner, and I felt like my whole world was Food. It was glorious. I was in Peru. And I had food. Life was good.

Finally! A meal! Also, Pincapple and Orang.

Back on the bus, people smiled now. Maybe they had been hungry and grumpy, too. It was like being on a bus in Chile, only whereas in Chile people are warm and kind and welcoming immediately, my Peruvian busmates had taken significantly longer to warm up to me. Now that they had though they were all smiles and jokes and curiosity and advice and niceness.

I slept much better that night.

Bus rest stop bathrooms

Day 3: Arrival in Lima

The bus arrived in Lima six hours late. Six hours. Nobody seemed surprised. I didn't mind, since that meant a daylight versus a 4am arrival, giving me more time for bus sleeping, which I had now been at long enough to have worked out the optimal arrangement of baggage to produce a sleeping nest that sort of passed as comfortable. The Lima bus terminal, once we did arrive, was beautiful—an airy, glass-encased building with security guards posted at the entrances checking bus tickets, which seemed like a good sign at the time, but in reality belied the chaos outside.

My morning in Lima quickly got quite exciting. Continued in The Long Road North Part VI: Lima

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Long Road North Part IV: Salta & Jujuy

After seven months of travelling in, out of, and through Argentina, my final stop was its far north.

After Patagonia, visiting the high Andean desert of Argentina topped my wishlist for things I wanted to see in the country. To blame was Fernando and photos he had shown me many years earlier of stromatolites growing in shallow lakes waaay up in the Andes. My timing was off for being able to join Fer and crew on a trip up to his Stromatosite, but I was assured that there was plenty of other interesting stuff to see in the region, Fer’s former PhD advisor Ricardo even hooking me up with a detailed field guide for finding some fossil stromatolites.

So I kidnapped one of Fer’s grad students, Flavia, a friend who I had met two years prior when she was a student and I was helping teach the Geobiology course, and we set off to do some exploring.

I picked up Flavia in her temporary home of Tucumán, or rather I met her at the bus station after an overnight bus from Córdoba and we both jumped on a bus from there to the city of Salta. From there, we picked our way to the car rental agency for which I had what I hoped was a valid internet voucher for a three-day car rental—I was a bit nervous since the price I had found online was less than half what everyone else in the area charged, and I was hoping it wasn't a scam. Turned out it was only a half-scam. First, the car rental agency wasn't open when we arrived, but the hours on the door assured us that it would open later that evening. So we went to a restaurant around the corner and proceeded to order, in succession, everything on the menu only to be told that they didn't have that (You don’t even have empanadas? Or coffee? Or beer? Seriously??) until finally Flavia sarcastically asked what they did have and we both ended up with water and salads. Two hours later, we returned to the car rental agency, which was unaware of our booking but had a vehicle available and was willing to honor the price on my printout, with one exception: they wouldn't throw in the GPS unit and the extra driver that was supposed to be included in the price. I tried arguing for a discount, but to no avail. At least we had a car.

Our car (the silver one) picked up in Salta

It was my first time behind a wheel since I drove up to Portland from Los Angeles way back in August the year prior to drop my car off at my parents’ house before flying to Santiago for the start of this whole adventure. It felt good. Great. It felt great. God I love driving. Especially in places like Los Angeles and Argentina where driving laws are generally viewed as suggestions vs. rules, which turns getting from Point A to Point B is like a contest to see who has the biggest balls / can be the fastest, most cunning maniac. My favorite game. We tanked up on the way out of town (Argentina is like Oregon, where there are station attendants who fill your tank for you) and made a beeline south for Lago Embalse Cabra Corral, where Fernando’s Ricardo had said we could find road cuts with extensive lacustrine carbonate deposits, including stromatolites.

About an hour later, we found them. We had just turned a corner and exited a tunnel of trees when I saw a gleaming bank of a roadcut to my left. The color screamed carbonate, so I slowed, and sure enough I spotted resistant benches that called to me. Flavia protested that we weren't there yet, this couldn't be them, but I pulled over anyways to check it out. And it was a stromatolite goldmine. Several benches of big, beautiful, brainy stromatolites. Big concretions.  Little stromatoliltes. Stromatolites everywhere. We stayed and played for a while before deciding, since the sun was setting, to keep driving up the road and see if we could find any more.

Flavia inspecting the stratigraphy

The cool thing about this particular site is that the formation (Yacoraite) is tipped such that the road cuts across its many layers, which means that you get to drive back in time in a giant lake system (also argued to be shallow marine) as you follow the road. The stromatolites we started with were toward the top of the formation, representing the most recent deposits, formed around 68 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous (elsewhere in the formation, there are dinosaur bones and tracks, but who cares about dinosaurs when there are stromatolites?). As we took our magic drive back in time, we saw alternations between shale and carbonates, reminiscent of the Green River Formation in Wyoming where I did part of my PhD thesis work, saw some bright red paleosols, big deltaic deposits, and plenty of things that I didn't know the meaning of but was too busy driving to look in the field guide. We stopped a few more times and found more stromatolitic deposits, but the best ones were the first ones, so we eventually decided to turn around and go back. Since taking fossils and artifacts out of Argentina is highly illegal and I didn't want to risk getting arrested this time (I had to meet my aunt in Peru in a week, otherwise I might have tried it. Getting arrested in a foreign country is an item on my bucket list and getting arrested over a stromatolite would make a great story) I didn't take any samples, but my field assistant may have…

The sun went down and we set off in search of food, stopping at a cavernous but empty (bad sign? We were too hungry to care) restaurant in a tiny village on the side of the road. They had tamales. I loooooove tamales. They also had beer, although it only came in a giant 1.5L bottle and, since Flavia neither drinks nor drives, that left me with a lot of responsibility. I had a few swigs, intending to cap it and save the rest for once we had camped for the night, but was chased down on my way out of the restaurant. Apparently you can’t take an open container of alcohol from a restaurant in Argentina. This had never come up before, so I was unaware, but the waitress literally chasing us down the street made for a pretty memorable scene (it was really good beer!).
Dinner: tamales & beer

I wanted to camp off in the hills somewhere, but Flavia preferred a campground, deeming it safer. Not wanting to drag her out somewhere where she’d be too freaked out to sleep, I went along with the “find a campground” plan, although personally I always consider “no people” to be safer (and quieter and better for a good night’s rest) than “with people”. In the end we decided to head to the municipal campground back in Salta, which was mentioned in Lonely Planet as one of the best campgrounds in the country, spent an hour driving through what seemed like sketchy back-streets in Salta trying to find the damned place, and finally found an urban campground surrounded by the Salta ghetto behind tall barbed-wire fencing. Inside were strange toothless men and party music blaring and I wanted to sleep anywhere but there, but it was late, and we didn't really have other options, so... I drove—despite the campground manager’s wishes that we camp next to him (heeeeellll no, creeper)—to the far end of the campground which was darker (i.e., not directly under a spotlight) and semi-quiet despite the neighbors up until the wee hours of the morning drinking and chatting, set up my tent on the lawn, locked Flavia (with the car keys) into the car, shoved in my earplugs, took a sleeping pill, crawled into my sleeping bag, and tried to sleep. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than driving all night. We woke up with the sun next to what turned out to be an immense, dry swimming pool, which may have explained why the campground got such a glowing Lonely Planet report in other years or seasons. We got the hell out, stopping only for gas station pastries and coffee for breakfast on the way out of dodge.

The giant swimming pool at the urban campground in Salta

First, we went for a romantic drive through the jungle on a windy narrow mountain road. After months of Patagonia, jungle was pretty novel. So green! So lush! Then we passed the city of Jujuy and headed for the mountains—the real ones, the Andes. Our goal: lunch in Purmamarca, home of the Cerro de las Siete Colores (Hill of the Seven Colors).  We were there by one. Flavia desperately needed a restroom, so we booked it into the first café we found, but got a familiar line: the only thing they had available for eating were cheese sandwiches. Screw that, I said, so we offered to pay a dollar to use the restroom and went somewhere else to get our food. Good thing, because we found a great restaurant that served, get this, Llama steaks. They were delicious.

Llama for lunch
Colorful wares for sale in Purmamarca

After lunch, we put the 4WD capabilities of our non-4WD vehicle to the test and explored around the area trying to get a better view of this so-called seven-colored hill. It was really impressive. I wished I had a geologist with me to explain everything, but we had left the range of the field guide (which was also in Portugese, making it a rather difficult read), and pulling out my laptop to consult the papers on regional geology I had downloaded seemed like a good way to make my navigator puke and/or break my laptop.

Exploring around the Cerro de las Siete Colores

We continued on toward the heart of the Andes up a steep half-dirt-half-paved road that switched back and forth through the desert up into the mountains. We could both feel the altitude, the air tasted different, noticeably thinner. We crossed rows of mountains, spotting snow in the distance, until dropping onto the Antiplano, the massive high-altitude plateau (the largest outside Tibet, and the visual similarities are striking) that characterizes much of northern Argentina and Chile as well as most of Bolivia and southern Peru. We drove on toward the Chilean border where we reached our next objective of the day: Salinas Grandes, a huge salt flat (the third largest in the world) that is twice as big as Utah’s famous Bonneville Salt Flat. We parked the car and walked out onto the salt flat, Flavia quickly getting an altitude headache at the nearly 3500m elevation while I felt my body responding to the low oxygen levels (“Breathe faster! Faster!”). We poked around, hoping to see endoliths, but although we did see faint colors in some of the hypersaline pools, there was no life visible in any of the crusts we saw, although we didn't have rock hammers with us to break away fresh chunks. It was beautiful, salt flats always are.
Vicuña standing guard over the Andean Antiplano
Salinas Grandes

Salt sculptor working in Salinas Grandes

I wanted to camp there, in the mountains, so we drove off on a side road until I felt like we were far enough from where anyone could see us, then turned the car 90 degrees and drove straight out into the sand rim of the salt flats, avoiding deep sand as best I could (because wouldn't that be exciting: getting my rental car stuck in a sand drift in the middle of the Andes). The little 2WD rental handled like a champ on the uneven, soft terrain. I drove toward cross-country toward the salt flat until the car was no longer easily visible from the side road. I was hoping to get closer to the rim of the salt flat, but decided not to take any more getting-stuck risks. It was a nice spot, with 360 degree views of mountains and a nice view of the salt. We were just in time for sunset. I quickly set up my tent, unpacked our dinner and a bottle of wine I had bought myself, and we sat and watched the mountains turn pink, and then purple, and then dark as we ate and drank wine straight out of the bottle (even Flavia, who doesn't drink, had a few sips). Flavia retreated back to the car, but I laid with my head out of the tent for a long time.

Our campsite in the Antiplano

Our campsite, as reflected in the bottle of wine we shared that night

The stars were out.

Not just out. The altitude, the long distance from any towns and sources of light, the dryness of the air, and the temporary absence of the moon conspired to make probably the darkest night I had ever witnessed, and the stars were like a glittering ocean overhead. The milky way was bright, and other dull celestial clouds were visible. It was hard to sleep, I was so awestruck by the show over my head. Eventually the moon came up like a spotlight, and I had to bury my head inside my sleeping bag to sleep.

I was awake just before dawn, and sat in the sand and watched the sunrise paint the mountains and salt flats with a range of pastel colors. I felt peace again, something I had been missing in the previous month of nonstop activity and travel. It’s like John Muir’s quote (John Muir has all the best quotes):

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

Llama tracks in the desert at our campsite

The mountains have always been my cathedral, the place where I’m reminded of my soul and my place in the world. If I go too long without spending quiet time in them, I get antsy, agitated, nervous, stressed. I need them.

Eventually Flavia woke up and we ate breakfast, packed up camp (although I had intentionally parked it on top of a set of bushes, I was a bit worried that the car might have settled into the sand during the night and would be difficult to get out…it was fine), and made our way through a thick fog back down the Andes. We made a detour to stop for lunch in the scenic pueblo of Humahuaca before continuing back down to drop the car off in Salta.

The drive that morning looked like this.

Flavia demonstrating the fierceness innate in Northern Argentinians

The colorful, scalloped hills of the Quebrada de Humahuaca

We made it to Salta just in time for Flavia's bus back to Tucuman, and just in time for me to wait an hour and a half for the car rental people to bother to show up so that I could drop the keys off. I thought several times of just leaving the keys in the glove box and dropping the car there for them to deal with on their own watch, but after making a dozen phone calls was finally able to wake a napping person who promised someone would be “right there”, “right there” meaning 40 minutes later. I almost missed my bus back to Jujuy, but made it to the bus station with a whopping five minutes to spare. And, of course my travel luck being what it is, I happened to be walking through the main park en route to the bus station just as the weekly pan flute circle started up, so I got a free show in on my way.

Thanks Flavia for joining me on the adventure, and Fer and Ricardo for the tips on where to go! More photos from Salta & Jujuy up on the Google+ Album.

Next stop: a 49 hour bus journey across the Antiplano to Peru.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Long Road North Part III: Córdoba

For my overnight journey to Córdoba, I was seated next to a well-dressed older woman who very much admired the fact that the water cooler had a plastic flower perched on top. I tried to sleep, but the TV blared loudly (horror movies, as usual) well into the night, until, looking around me at around 3am and confirming that everyone was at least trying to sleep, I went up and knocked on the driver partition and pleaded with the driver to shut off the sound. He seemed surprised that it was still on, and did. And then I finally slept. For 3 1/2 hours until the bus rolled into Córdoba a full hour early.

I had stopped in Córdoba to visit my friend Fernando, who is now a geologist on the faculty of the University of Córdoba but who was still a freshly-minted PhD when I met him in 2008 when we took the Geobiology Course together. Geobio friends are forever friends, and Fer was my best friend from that summer. Our staying in touch has been helped by the fact that we both share a tiny subfield as researchers of lacustrine stromatolites. Actually Fer shares some of the blame for getting me into stromatolites, since I had only barely heard of them before taking the Geobio course, and they were, like, his favorite thing. I had just finished my first year of grad school and knew nothing. Fernando, on the other hand, had the Dr. title in front of his name. So I was prepared to believe everything he said (and I still do).

A few fun photos from Geobio 2008

Fer & me working on final data analysis, or something serious, and I'm pretty sure I'm seated where I am so that I could easily turn around and make him help me figure things out.
Fer analyzing microarrays (remember those?) while I modeled the latest in labwear fashion.

We were a good team: I taught him how to pipette, he taught me how to rock hammer. The spirit of Geobiology.

A lot had happened since that summer course. Fer moved to Tennessee for a postdoc. I switched projects and passed my qualifying exams. Fer returned to Argentina and starred in a TV series (see videos below). I switched projects again and started working on stromatolites for realz. Fer got married. I graduated. We had so much to catch up about! So I was thrilled when, while sitting at the bus terminal cafe sipping coffee,  eating a medialuna, and working on my talk, Fer showed up and gave me a big hug.

TV special on Fernando and his High Andean stromatolites

Part I (unless you are a math nerd, skip to 4:44)

Part II, filmed since of the whole series that year, Fer's segment was the viewer favorite (mine, too)

So yeah, Fer is pretty awesome. And so I was excited about meeting his wife who, I assumed, must be amazing to have landed a guy like him. And she was.

Wendy answered the door when we got to their house and greeted me without any hint of a Tennessee accent (how, Wendy?) despite being Tennessee born and bred. After the three of us chatted a bit, Wendy announced that she was going for a run, which sounded like an excellent idea so I asked if I could tag along. She took me on a mini-tour of the neighborhood, and we ran along the banks of what was usually a nice riverside park but that day was mahem thanks to the unusual flooding of the river that not only jumped its banks but decided to take over some of the nearby streets as well. Meanwhile I peppered her with questions and was deeply impressed with her story: a smart, tough, independent, successful lawyer who had fallen in love and followed a guy to a different continent, arriving in a foreign country and culture without knowing the language, but adapting so quickly and thoroughly that she's now the relationship's social anchor and has carved out her ever-evolving niche doing contract work as her own boss, speaks fluent Spanish, and has been adopted into Fer's extended family. Fer even half complained, "She has more friends than me here!"

Ferris wheel in Cordoba designed in 1916 by Gustave Eiffel. Ironic, since George Ferris designed the original Wheel in 1983 for the Chicago World's Fair as an answer to Eiffel's Tower built for the the 1989 Paris Fair. There must be a story behind this...

I was doubly impressed because I know from experience how hard that is. In the end, I had not wanted to stay in Germany with my ex-fiancé. I spoke fluent German and had German friends and "family" even before I met him, but the culture and environment was too different, and it went beyond my capacity (and willingness) to adapt. I said I would have done it at the time, but I know it would have driven me nuts. I'm pretty sure I couldn't have lasted. It made me wonder if I could have done that under different circumstances, in a different culture, but a part of me doubted it. We are who we are and home is home and our culture is a part of that. And admired Wendy all the more for it. Home is also where your heart is, and where her heart was was obvious.

We returned to the house, and I showered and crawled straight into bed to catch up on the night of sleep I didn't get, and Fer and Wendy promised to wake me when it was time to eat. They didn't need to. My carnivore's nose pulled me right out of dreamland as soon as Fer fired up the Asado in their back yard. What followed was a feast: a giant slab of meat (and more meat) as well as grilled veggies that, I found out, had quite a story attached to them. Wendy may have arrived in Córdoba as a fish out of water, but she didn't waste any time in tracking down a laundry list of local farmers from whom she could reliably procure various families of organic veggies, like a sort of one-woman patchwork CSA. Now, years later, the whole system has gotten a bit more organized and she no longer has to go to 20 different farmers' homes to get 20 different types of vegetable, but she still puts the rest of us "yep. bring the box to my door. I can make it that far in my pajamas thanx" CSA-supporting veggiephiles to shame.

Was it delicious? What does it look like?? Of course it was.
And that's when the miracle occurred. My innate lunar cycle-timed capacity to lose a not-insignificant percentage of my body weight in uteral lining, apparently finally satisfied with the offerings of steak steak and more steak (and organic dark leafy green vegetables, too) that I had been plying it with all week, decided to return to me. It was a little, well, anemic, a [mercifully] far cry from its usual buckets-of-blood gory glory, but I was reassured me that my ovaries had, indeed, not been taken over by an alien or basketball-sized tumor. Iron. Turns out it's an essential mineral. If I had kept eating like I had been eating the past few months, the gnomes working in my bone marrow factories pumping out my red blood cells probably would have given up on the whole heme thing and would have started trying to substitute in manganese in hopes of producing chlorophylls instead. That could have been neat, but I don't know if I'd like life as a plant.

Anyhow, happily full of delicious food, and happy that my body had apparently started to return to normal functioning, I was ready to hit the town. Fer and Wendy took me on a brief driving tour of the city and then to a nice central park on a hill overlooking the city where we drank mate for a bit before continuing on to Córdoba's famous weekend artisanal market. The market, claimed to be Argentina's biggest, consists of a good several hundred stalls selling handmade jewelry of a thousand varieties, whimsically-painted pottery, mate gourds and bombillas in every imaginable shape, size, and design imaginable, books on the million medicinal applications of marijuana, the standard cheap trinkets you can find everywhere on this continent, giant chandeliers woven from sticks, antiques sold by Fer & Wendy's transvestite tailor neighbor, and everything in between. Meanwhile music drifted through the crowd from a group of enormously talented local kids performing on the street to a half-seated, half-dancing crowd.

Fer and Wendy as my designated Pathclearers for the Cordoba market.
Seen at the Cordoba Market. I'm a sucker for creative, artistic graffiti art.

Once we had had our fill of the market (Wendy bought a cute pair of handmade earrings), we settled into seats on a balcony overlooking the bustle from one of the hip resto-bars lining the market's street and drank some beers as the sun set.

The next morning I went with Fer to the university and gave Talk #2 in the Dr. Frantz and her Stromatolites South America Tour. I met Fer's academic extended family, from his PhD advisor to his current students and undergrads under his care. The excellent questions reassured me that I had made it mostly understandable. It was fun chatting with everyone and discussing the doubts that Fer's advisor had, which was good practice for the reviewer responses I needed to write up for the manuscript I had written on one of the topics I presented. He later hooked me up with tons of tips for my upcoming trip to the north of Argentina, including a field guide pointing out the location of a bunch of really nice stromatolites. Stromatolite people are good people.

Poster for the Cordoba talk
After lunch, Fer took me to the cafeteria for lunch and we reminisced about the Geobio course and how it had changed both of our lives. It certainly shaped mine. Life consists of a billion small and large decisions that subtly and dramatically alter the course our living takes. The Geobiology course was--and continues to be-- a giant magnet that pulled my life into its orbit and changed its direction in a huge way.

When I took the course, I had just finished my first year of grad school, a tough year where I spent a lot of nights sleeping in my office at the university while running all-night measurements and teaching early-morning classes on topics that I had previously known nothing about. I came to grad school with a background in engineering and a degree in chemistry. Yet the PhD project I had chosen was a pretty hardcore microbial metabolism study, and the department I was in was a geology department. I had never had a microbiology or geology class before in my life. It was a steep learning curve, and I felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water. The Geobiology course came highly recommended from  all of my mentors and I hoped that it would finally give me some background in the two subjects I was supposed to become an expert in--biology and geology. It did that, but more than that it made me fall absolutely in love with the field of geobiology, in love with the colorful and talented microorganisms that have shaped the chemistry of our planet since life's beginning, and introduced me to stromatolites, which years later would become the topic of my PhD thesis, despite spending most of my PhD working on bacterial metabolism. It also introduced me to the people who would later become my advisors, mentors, letter-of-recommendation-writers, and some of my closest friends.

More fun Geobio 2008 photos

Fer: "These are beautiful, domal, rounded, nicely formed stro..."
Richard: "Boobs?"
Fer, getting held up by a bird somewhere in Wyoming.
Will, 2008 course director, demonstrates the proper investigation of sensitive sites while Frank, current course director supervises.

In addition to the professional and academic impact, the course was a catalyst that changed my personal life as well. Being surrounded that first summer with smart, interesting, and largely well-adjusted people who liked and respected me was novel. I had spent the past three years in an intense and serious relationship with a smart, interesting, but not-so-well-adjusted boyfriend who regularly echoed the self-doubts in my own head that I was not smart enough, not good enough, not talented enough to be in grad school, to be a scientist. Who celebrated my successes by telling me that the only reason I was accepted to programs like my PhD program and the Geobiology course was because I was a girl and programs had quotas to fill. Who would yell at me for hours about how stupid I was when I would fail to do things The Right Way, like the time I hung a pot in our kitchen from The Wrong Hook and he took that as an opportunity to berate everything from my pot-hanging logic to my abilities as a scientist and my goodness as a person until I left the house crying to go sleep in my office again.

The course was a much-needed reprieve from that. The people there made me feel at ease, accepted, a valuable part of the team, even though I was one of the youngest students and knew nothing. The mix of students from very different backgrounds provided a valuable life lesson: none of us know everything, and in order to succeed, we need a good group of friends with talents and skills different than our own. That you don't have to be perfect or the smartest person in the room to contribute, as long as you leverage the skills and knowledge you do have. And the course reminded me that I had skills and I was smart enough. And that I didn't have to put up with the bullshit I was used to getting from my boyfriend.

Monster! Giant kinda adorable inflatable one in a modern art exhibit in Cordoba.

In retrospect, I should have shown him the door when I got back home at the end of the course. I had intended to. But like many abusive partners, he had a charming and a sweet side and was a master manipulator. When I laid out my grievances when I came home that summer and told him he needed to go, he cried and swore earnestly that he was sorry, that he had been wrong, and that he would change. I wanted to believe him, so I did. I loved him like a person loves a three-legged puppy. "It's not his fault he's a asshole sometimes, he's insecure and sort of autistic, he needs me, I can't leave him." He was my best friend, we had a house together, the relationship was a disaster but it felt comfortable. And when he was good he was wonderful: kind, caring, empathetic, devoted, romantic, and bend-over-backwards helpful. But when he was bad he was a monster. He swore the same things again and again and again for years more until I finally, finally pulled my shit together and closed the door for good. It took years and was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and things may have turned out a lot differently for me if not for the glimmer of hope for a different life that I saw during the Geobio course that made me ultimately refuse to accept a life with someone who called me stupid.

All of that flew through my head while chewing my lunch and thinking about how the Geobio course changed my life. And across from me was someone I will always be grateful to for the part he played in both recruiting me to the Cult of Stromatolites and for being a living reminder that it was possible for a man to be smart AND kind, respectful, secure, and handsome (seriously Wendy, you won the love lottery! but then, so did he!).

Cordoba is famous for, among other things (like being a crazy university party town), its pile of historic Jesuit churches and educational institutions.
Not Jesuit, but very pretty. Everything was plated in gold in this cathedral. After seeing this, all the beautiful cathedrals I saw in Germany don't seem quite so impressive.

I spent a few more days with Fer and Wendy. One day when Wendy didn't have to work in the afternoon, she took me on a tour of some of the more historic parts of Córdoba (and was my guardian angel when she helped me arrange bus tickets for my upcoming adventures, dollar exchanging, and a camera repair). The two of them also took me to their local 50-year-old Arabian restaurant (apparently there is a large middle eastern community in that part of Argentina--who knew?) where I ate brain for the first time in my life (it was surprisingly tasty). But not before first stopping off for a late-night desperate exchange at Wendy's dealer where pesos were slipped through a wrought-iron gate in exchange for a paper bag full of goods: arugula, squash, beans, and other organic CSA veggies. Being that close to fresh produce made me itchy.

Hummus and Brain: not your typical Argentine dinner.
And not your typical Argentine restaurant sign.

I was excited to head up to the Argentine high desert--something I had wanted to do ever since Fer had showed me photos way back in 2007 of the stromatolites at his field site up there--but sad to say goodbye to Fer and Wendy. Thanks you two for the hospitality and I hope to be back someday! (and come visit me, you promised! haha)

Dangerous drug paraphernalia from Wendy's shady back-alley dealer.