Almost Famous

My thirteen year old reading my blog on his iPad.

Joe reading my blog on his iPad.

The other night, my sister stayed with our sons so hubby and I could attend a theater performance. Now that our boys are older, we get out quite a bit more than we used to. Usually, though, we are gone just for a couple of hours and remain completely accessible by text, phone, or Facetime. Our sons often avoid talking to us when we’re out for short periods of time. They’re too busy enjoying their Xbox or iPads without complaints about too much screen time. When we got to the theater, I turned off my phone, completely comfortable knowing the boys were in my sister’s capable hands, and settled in to enjoy an uninterrupted bit of culture.

After the play was over, I checked my phone just in case. There were four texts and a few notifications on my blog. Two of the texts were from my sister. Apparently Luke’s stomach gave him some trouble so he sacrificed most of his dinner to the toilet. “Too much food” was his excuse. (It’s taken me years, but I’ve gotten my children mostly trained to throw up for other people and not me.) Not surprisingly, the last two texts were from Joe inquiring when we would be home. It takes about three hours’ worth of time before our sons finally notice we’re missing. Once we pass the three-hour mark, Joe begins badgering us relentlessly via any electronic means possible. I expected that on the drive we would receive at least 5 additional text messages (it turned out to be 6) and possibly a request for a Facetime chat. It was nearly 11, and we’d been gone for about 6 hours already. He was tired and stubbornly refusing to fall asleep until we were there. We made a hasty exit and headed home.

I decided to check my blog comments in the car. Turns out one of the comments was on my Contact page. It was from Joe. It simply read, “Hi Mom,” which really cracked me up because this was a new and completely unanticipated way for him to contact me in my absence. My sons have known about my web page for years, but neither of them has ever really shown much of an interest in it. They just know that I write, often about them. I had told them what it was called, and Joe simply looked it up. I was shocked that he’d remembered the title and gotten a wild hair to check on it. This was a first.

When we finally got home, I checked on Luke. He was feeling better and having a snack to make up for his lost dinner. My sister had already crashed out for the night. I found Joe sitting on his bunk bed with his iPad.

“I saw your comment on my blog page,” I said.

“Yeah. I was reading it tonight,” he replied.

“I didn’t know you read my blog.”

“I just started,” he said. “I read the one about Safety Dad when Dad and Mr. Jeff went snowshoeing on Mt. Evans.”

My mind thought back to when I wrote that. It had to have been one of the first entries on this blog. He’d started in the archives. He was working his way through them. My heart was full.

“You’re a good writer, Mom. Some of those are pretty funny.”

I couldn’t decide what to be happier about…the knowledge that my son had actively sought out something I had written or the notion that he had actually appreciated it and me.

This is the most important comment I have ever received.

This is the most important comment I have ever received.

Yesterday I caught him going through my blog again. This time he asked me how he could put a comment on one, so I showed him. I know he’s reading them trying to find posts written about him or his brother. Sooner or later, he’s going to find a couple that I am sure he will protest. He is a teenager and having a mom who is a writer can leave you feeling a bit exposed. When that happens, I’ll show him a couple posts where I embarrassed myself and prove that no one, not even me, escapes the occasional embarrassment. Then I’ll use the opportunity to teach him about poetic license and the First Amendment. In the meantime, I am so honored that he is using his free time to find out more about what I do.

I often say that I write for myself. And this is absolutely true. I use my web page to keep myself accountable. If I know I need to publish something, it diminishes my myriad excuses for not writing. I never started out writing with a plan to build an actual readership. I never truly figured anyone would read it. I simply shared it so I would have the impetus to continue writing. Every single time someone follows my blog, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I never felt my blog was important until this weekend. With my readership increased by this one special person, I feel almost famous.

 

 

Mid-Century and the Mona Lisa

Forgot to take a photo of the house, so here's a photo of my son holding a light beer instead.

Forgot to take a photo of the house, so here’s a photo of my son holding a light beer instead. That works, right?

My sister and her husband have been house hunting. They sold their house last month and need a new one. In a week. They’ve done a lot of looking, put in some offers that didn’t go through, and they’re about to be homeless. (Not that they’ll be living in a van down by the river or anything. Instead, they’ll be moving back in with parents. I think I’d take the van down by the river.) I’ve gone to look at some houses with them and even proffered my sage wisdom about the homes they are looking at, and they are still undecided. Tonight, my family and I went with them to look at a house I accidentally found for them yesterday while driving to pick up lunch for the boys. It is a small, but beautifully restored mid-century modern home. It’s affordably priced, has a two-car garage, and it is like getting a perfectly wrapped package with your favorite gift ever inside. Not that I have any opinion on mid-century modern homes or whether they should buy this one. (They should.)

My sister was a bit iffy about the whole thing. She’s concerned about the lack of decent storage and not thrilled that it’s only two bedrooms. (She wants a guest room. Seriously, though, everyone in their families lives in the same city. Why do they need a guest room?) I think my brother-in-law, who was not present because he’s a coach and was working a high school track meet, would love it. It might not be their forever home, but I totally think they could make it work for a while. And, it’s a perfect situation because it was a house flip and they seller needs the money and they could move in fairly quickly because no one is living in it.

While my sister was unconvinced, my husband loved it and was trying to figure out if we could push a wall out and put an addition on. He was ready to move in. We’ve been talking for a while about downsizing. We’ve got too much stuff, and our stuff is vexing us. I feel the unused “company” dishes throwing shade at me every time I open the cupboard. We want to lighten our load, save money, and travel a lot more. This house would be too much of a downsize for us. We’d lose 2/3rds of our current space. That would be one heck of a downsize. If we’re going to go that small, we should just sell our house, buy the Airstream he’s already wanted, and travel the country while homeschooling our boys at picnic tables like gypsies.

“I think it’s too small,” I said, trying to reason with him.

“We could make it work. It would be an adjustment.”

“The boys cannot share a room. Sure they’re small and cute now, but they’re on the precipice of becoming real teenagers. They’re not going to fit on that bunk bed forever.”

“That’s why we’d push that wall out and make another bedroom.”

“Steve, we are not getting this house,” I said very slowly and clearly, in case he wasn’t hearing very well.

“Okay,” he replied, sullenly. Then I saw him perk up. He’d had a brilliant idea. “We could build our own mid-century modern house.”

This is the point where I looked at him like he was crazy.

“You can’t build a mid-century modern house now. By definition, that’s impossible. Mid-century moderns were built in the 1950s. That’s what made them mid-century.” You never, ever miss with a writer. Words matter.

“You know what I mean,” he replied. “We could build a house like a mid-century modern.”

This is the point where I looked at him like perhaps he’d gone past crazy and straight over the cuckoo’s nest.

“Dude…that would be like repainting the Mona Lisa. It can’t be done.”

He just looked at me and got in the car. I guess I told him.

This is our marriage in a nutshell…my husband, the eternal optimist, and me, the perpetual pragmatist. Someone’s got to keep him grounded, and someone has to remind me to lighten up and dream a little. Nineteen years and we’re still dancing the same waltz. We are planning to move in the next couple years. We’d like to reduce our carbon footprint and go from living large to living less. It’s time to jettison things, like panini machines that collect dust, and lighten our burdens. I don’t know if we’ll build the straw bale house he’s talked about forever or end up in a classic mid-century modern, but we’ll get it figured out. We’ve made the biggest decisions of our lives in minutes. Just don’t ask us what we want for dinner. That’s when things get really ugly.

 

Snarky Snark

I have the best job ever.

This is my career. How could it be worthless?

Warning: I am about to have a tirade. Today, think of me only as Snarky Snark.

Ever since I made the choice to leave my career and stay home with my sons, I’ve been overwhelmed by my choice. There have been periods of time when I felt like I was nothing more than a butt wiper or a housekeeper or, in darkest times, a slave. Some days it is hard to find the silver lining in my current career. But, no fail, right about the time that I am feeling 100% certain about my decision, some working woman or man asks me what I do. The standard response I get when I tell a career person that I am a stay-at-home mom is a simple, one syllable, “Oh.” Conversation over. Clearly, I have no longer have anything current or intelligent to talk about, and no one wants to hear about kids, so they leave. I am a serial conversation killer. I’m not exactly sure when the decision to expend my energy solely as mother and homemaker vaporized my IQ and decimated my inherent worth as a human being, but it happened. Working people get to ask me ridiculous questions about my personal choice without feeling an iota of impropriety. I wonder how they would feel about it if I questioned the validity of their career choice? Really? You’re a programmer? I’ve heard they’ve taught monkeys to do that.

I was fortunate enough to have a choice to make when I was 32: 1) have a career and no kids, 2) have a career and kids, or 3) have kids and no career. I chose what was behind Door Number Three. When Joe was born, I knew that what I really wanted was as low-stress of a life as I could have. To me, that meant not trying to juggle too many things. Steve worked. We could afford for me not to work. We came to an agreement. He puts money in our bank account. I run the house. We share duties with our sons. Our weekends are free to enjoy because I take care of the busy work during the week. As with any choice, it has both good and bad points. The choice I made means I clean toilets and mop floors like Cinderella because we can’t afford a maid. It also means, however, I can go to yoga during the day when my kids are in school because I am my own boss. Like anyone else’s life, my life is a balancing act to keep things working. But, make no mistake about it, I work. Every day. Seven days a week. I get no paid vacation. No bonuses. No salary. But it’s worth it to me because our four lives are more peaceful because of what I do.

To be fair, I know that the work I do is invisible to those on the outside (unless they catch me at Starbucks having coffee with a friend while they’re on their way to work and then comment about how “nice” it is that I have that kind of free time). And this is why people feel free to interpret something they know nothing about. Still, I get tired of answering condescending questions. To that end, today I invented some succinct responses to lessen the agony of being asked them repeatedly:

“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Never. Work sucks.

“What did you do when you worked?” I was an adult film star.

“What do you do with all your free time when the kids are in school?” Day drink.

“Don’t you get bored?” Oh…when I get bored with watching Oprah, I take a nap. Crisis averted.

Really, people. I am doing the right thing for me. I only get one shot with my boys. I have to do my best the first time around because it’s the only time I have. Ask any adult child about their relationship with their parents and you will know this is true. Time with our children goes by fast. I have six years left with my beautiful, deep-thinking, first-born son. It will be over in the blink of an eye. I know I have been fortunate to have a choice, and I know that what is right for me is not necessarily right for others. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice. I simply wish others would believe that there’s more to me than my lack of a paycheck. Right now, I’m somebody’s most important person, and that won’t always be the case. Someday they will no longer need me. I bet I will not be on my death-bed regretting the inordinate amount of time I spent with my sons in their youth. I will only regret acknowledging stupid questions about the smartest choice I ever made.

One Tough Cookie

Look, ma! No hands!

Look, ma! No hands!

A couple of weeks ago, I decided I could no longer live with our basement. We had it finished eight years ago when the boys were small, and our big dream was to get the train table out of our family room. At the time, we had no practical idea about what the space would be used for other than glorified, out-of-sight toy storage and therefore we had the contractor paint the whole space a muted and incredibly boring white, reasoning that white would keep the area bright. Over time and with much abuse by boys, the white walls became foul. For years, I’ve avoided the basement altogether, only occasionally going down there to pick up trash, throw out broken toys, and vacuum up dead spiders. That was all I could handle.

Then I decided it was time to face my fears. The boys are growing up. The train table is gone. It was time for the basement to be a livable space for all of us. I needed to paint. We had to begin by cleaning the pit. I dragged the boys downstairs with me and my black, yard-size, plastic trash bags. We got to work. It was bad. Now, I’ve never wanted to be the Clean Police. I prefer to pick other battles with my sons. And I believe a boy should have someplace that isn’t subject to relentless, maternal scrutiny. (Besides, like a drill sergeant who loves surprise inspections, I prefer scrutiny on random occasions when it is unexpected.) As we continued around the room, though, I did voice my concern about their slovenliness. They reminded me that they do pick up when I ask them. I suggested that perhaps they can be more proactive about taking responsibility for the space when I don’t ask. Shockingly radical idea, I know.

I requested help moving the futon away from the wall. It had been in a bed position since Luke’s sleepover birthday party at the end of May. No. I had not gone down there since the party. I left the clean up to them. They’re old enough to handle that, right? Then summer hit and life got chaotic. We were training for the Inca Trail, and the state of our hideous basement was nowhere in the vicinity of my mind. Don’t judge. As we pulled the futon bed away from the wall, I saw something stuck there. I took one step closer to investigate and realized it was half of a chocolate chip cookie. A chocolate chip cookie. Stuck to the wall. For how long, I was not sure. Oddly enough, my first thought was not, “I am the world’s worst housekeeper.” Instead it was, “How is it sticking there?” I was concerned with the physics of the situation. I actually wondered if it had frosting or something that had adhered it to the wall. My next thought was that it was reasonably disgusting that a cookie stuck to the wall for who knows how long had no mold on it whatsoever. My children had ingested those. I shuddered at what a horrible person I am for feeding that “food” to my offspring. Certainly that should qualify as child abuse.

As I stood there with my mouth agape, staring incredulously at that stupid cookie, the boys started doing the math.

“When did we have cookies down here?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know. You know you’re not supposed to bring food down here,” I answered. “When was the last time I bought cookies?” I puzzled. “I never buy cookies.”

Joe, whose 13-year-old mind can’t remember to come home wearing two shoes, replied,”I think it was Luke’s birthday party.”

Now I started doing the math. Luke’s 11th birthday party was on May 23rd. Oh holy hell.

“That cookie has been on the wall for over three months!” I gasped. “You guys!”

“We didn’t know it was there,” came the rejoinder.

“Well…you should have,” I replied, peeling its overly preserved remains from the wall. “Look,” I said as I showed the cookie to them. “It still looks edible. Want a bite?”

They declined. Later on, though, curiously enough, both kids asked if we could get cookies for dessert.

Sometimes I think back to the days before I had kids, days when I never would have found a half of a cookie stuck to my wall. I think about those days, when my house was always clean and there were no random, inexplicable scuff marks high on the walls and no Legos in my vacuum canister. There were days when I was not afraid to enter any room in my house for fear of what terror might lurk pressed up against the wall behind a piece of furniture. Once upon a time, my house looked good enough for company…all the time. Then I had boys, and my house went to the dogs. Funny thing is it has never felt more like home than it does now. If you come over and find something stuck to the walls, try not to notice it. We’re busy living here.

My Mary-Shelley Monster

The calm before the non-creative storm

The calm before the non-creative storm

By chance today, I came across this comment on an old blog I had written: “You are such a talented writer.” It made me giggle a little. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a sweet compliment, and one I know that the issuer meant sincerely, but I don’t think of writing as a talent. Writing is work. It’s something I’ve been working on since I was 12. You have to find your voice and your style. You have to understand how to tell a story. There’s the whole sentence structure piece, the one that I have spent years tinkering with and studying. You need a strong command of your native language or, at the very least, a handy dictionary. A prodigious vocabulary is helpful, but so is a thesaurus. Of course, there are the small matters of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. You also can’t downplay the importance being a good editor plays in being an effective writer. And, after all that, you’ve still got proofreading. Don’t get me started on proofreading and what a bear that is at midnight when you’ve been up for 18 hours and are so tired you can hardly see straight. Writing has next to nothing to do with talent. It has to do with arduous, tedious, unending work that stems from an inexplicable addiction to written communication.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning how to spin an insignificant event into a meaningful message, a crazy anecdote into a tall tale, and a cautionary tale into a public service announcement. On my best days, I can take a quiet moment between my son and I and transform it into a thousand-word love story. The fun of being a writer is that you can tell whatever story you want. You can be creative, embellish, and turn mundane fact into hysterical fiction. You can reduce the static and make your crazy life seem normal and beautiful. It is a skill I work on nearly every time I write a blog post because real life is not always flattering or interesting. Some days are simply not pretty and I am not at the top of my game. Some days I am overwrought and overtired and only the ugly truth of my day comes out. It looks a little like this:

I woke up at 6:30 when my Fitbit vibrated on my wrist. Because our whole-house fan and run all night, I decided it was too cold to get out of bed until 7:25. At 7:28, I began to stress a bit because I had to be out of the house in 20 minutes with two boys dressed, fed, and ready for school and I hadn’t even walked downstairs yet. I skipped unloading the dishwasher so I could make lunches while the boys brushed teeth, combed their hair, and got their shoes on. Six minutes before we needed to leave I told Luke to eat a banana or a yogurt because there was no time for the usual eggs. We got to school five minutes later than we should have. I had the dog in the car so I took her for her requisite 3-mile, 40-minute walk around the lake at the park. Then I hit the library to return a book with a hold on it. Afterward I drove home where I spent the next 4 hours doing laundry, ironing, making two homemade banana breads, vacuuming, hauling an old armchair out to the garage, cleaning the basement, doing dishes, and unloading the dishwasher I had skipped earlier. Eventually I got a shower and made a smoothie for lunch. Then it was off to Goodwill to drop off two huge bags of clothes heavy enough that the collection guy asked if I had dead bodies in them. Picked up the boys, cooked two dinners (because the boys won’t eat lentils), cleaned up dishes, and went back upstairs to do some more ironing while watching Parks and Rec. Discovered one son sitting in a laundry basket lined with blankets while wearing no pants. Who knows why? Confronted the other son for walking in the hallway naked (what is it with naked people in my house?) and threatened, quite realistically, to publish a blog about it. At approximately 9:45 I lost it because I had been going non-stop all day and had no idea what to write about. Barked at my sons to go to sleep, tucked them in anyway, yawned on the way back to my room, and then said screw it to writing because I was tired. Then I picked up my laptop and started writing anyway because that’s what writers do. Oh. And I also killed two spiders today.

You still awake?

My writing is not about talent. It’s about self-management. It’s putting just enough of myself out there to be real but not so much that I’m too real. It’s also about knowing when to shut up and exit stage left. It’s akin to being Dr. Frankenstein, breathing life into the lifeless and then acknowledging 821 words in that perhaps I need a timely escape from my wayward monster. An ice floe in the Arctic might be just the thing. If I leave now, I should be able to make it by morning.

Parkour and Seven Years Ago

Our little guy works on his vault skills.

Our little guy works on his vault skills.

“To try and fail is at least to learn; to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.”
― Chester Barnard

When our boys were little, we did what all suburban parents did. We enrolled our kids in class after class, letting them try out countless activities to see what might be their thing. We tried swimming, soccer, baseball, tumbling, and multi-sport camps. Nothing clicked. I can’t tell you how many times our sons did not advance from a basic swim class. I can recall four different swim schools that could not teach them. We were beating our heads against a wall. I used to complain that if I could get the money back for every class they attempted and found no success in, I could fly to Europe and back. Twice. Yet, we persisted in our parental folly and perpetual money wasting because we felt they should be able to do these things other kids could do. Our expectations told us to hang on. If we threw enough money at it, sooner or later something would have to stick, right?

When they were 4 and 6, they were diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, which affected their fine and gross motor skills. They had very low core strength, as well. This explained why swimming and tumbling were nearly impossible for them while other kids their age breezed through without any trouble, but it did not make us feel any better. With assistance from occupational therapy twice weekly, they both learned to ride bicycles after they turned 8. They still had difficulty throwing a ball. Catching one was nearly impossible. Over time and with continued therapy, their core strength improved. They made progress, but they were still years behind other kids their age physically. We accepted it for what it is, and we stopped enrolling them in activities that made them feel slow, incapable, and defeated. We figured there was no point pushing them when they physically and mentally were not ready to be successful. We made the choice to let them just be kids. Time would take care of the rest.

Tonight, we made a big leap. We decided it was time to try again. I drove them to Apex Movement, a parkour gym, and enrolled them in an introductory class. I’d heard about parkour years ago from a male occupational therapist who worked with the boys and thought it might be a great thing for them. At the time, I showed the boys videos of professional parkour to pique their interest. They thought it looked cool, but weren’t totally on board. I talked about it the last two summers, telling them I could register them for parkour camp. Still…no interest. I reminded them of their successful work on the climbing wall at school and told them they were ready to take this step. No go. Then, lo and behold, a couple of weeks ago both boys come to me and tell me they want to try it. I thought I’d finally gotten through to them. Nope. Turns out their friends are doing it. There you go.

On the way to the gym, Joe was nervous. He began telling me that maybe he could start next month instead. I told him that you’re always nervous the first time you do something. It’s that nervousness that tells you that you’re actually growing. If you go through your whole life, never putting yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable, you never progress. I reminded him of some recent times when I had been nervous about something and how it worked out without incident. You can’t have success if you’re afraid to risk failure. I reminded him that his success rate so far in surviving uncomfortable, new experiences was 100%. All of the times he’s tried something new, he survived and was better for it. This would be no different.

When we got to the gym, the boys could barely stand the waiting process while I filled out waivers and verified payment and class information. They were dying to get out and jump around. When they got the all clear, they went into the open gym time and started trying out every obstacle they saw. When class started, they listened and tried everything that was asked of them without concern about failure. As I sat watching them make honest attempts at new things, some successfully and some with definite room for growth, I was so proud of them for being willing to move forward and try again, for facing their nerves and taking a chance on themselves. I was a fearful child. I did not learn how to take risks. I instead learned that failure is not an option. I hid behind excuses so I didn’t have to try anything. I left important things unsaid and undone. I avoided opportunities to make mistakes or do goofy things until I was in my forties, when I finally realized that I was letting life slip by unlived.

Most of the time, I feel I am an adequate parent, just good enough. I try. I make mistakes. I apologize. I try again. Tonight my boys showed me something. They’re braver than I was at their age, which means we are all making progress. We’re learning to give ourselves a chance. Seven years ago, my kids weren’t ready for the opportunities we gave them. And seven years ago, I made a conscious decision to begin work on my own risk-taking skills. Now here we all are together. The stars and planets have aligned. We are still nervous but trying because it’s better to try and fail and at least learn than never to know what might have been. Who knows with a little parkour and seven more years where we might end up?

Peru Adventure – Final Day in Lima

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

An open air restaurant in Miraflores

On our last day in Lima, we knew we had a few things to cross off our list. We hadn’t yet made it into the main part of the city nor had we taken the time to visit a museum. We decided the best way to knock these things off our list would be to take a tour. We’d seen some red, double-decker tour buses touring the city during the earlier part of our visit. That seemed like the way to go. So after taking time to work on our repacking a bit, we made our way to the tour bus kiosk located in Parque Kennedy. Our earlier research told us that there should be a tour leaving early in the afternoon. We made it our mission to be on it.

After we purchased our tickets, we walked across the street to a local jugeria and sandwich shop. One of the things I’ve loved in the past about traveling to Central and South America is the freshly squeezed, tropical fruit juices that are readily available. So far on our trip, I’d missed out on this. I was not leaving this country without having a juice. I decided on a orange, pineapple, and strawberry juice and shared a grilled ham and cheese. It was a simple, comfort-food lunch and it was heavenly. Now all we had to do was keep the cats in Parque Kennedy from jumping into our laps to eat our food.

On top of the world...or at least on top of the bus

On top of the world…or at least on top of the Mirabus

The Mirabus tour began at 1:30. We boarded the bus and found our seats on the upper deck. As we were about to depart, the tour operator told us that we would need to watch our heads and be sure not to stand up while the bus was in motion due to low-hanging power lines. That got my attention. I looked up as the bus took off down one of the main thoroughfares in Miraflores and was surprised to see the faintest bit of blue sky peaking through the lightly overcast sky. Could it be that we would finally see some sun and blue sky in Lima the day we were leaving?

We toured through the Miraflores district and then into the upscale San Isidro district. I was enjoying the opportunity to see Limeños in the midst of their daily lives. Sometimes when you travel to a location that is very touristy, your view of what is normal life for the locals can become skewed. Riding down city streets during the midst of lunch time rush offered an opportunity to see men and women in business attire going about their usual routines. Lima is a bustling, lively city. It was fun to be in the thick of it.

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

Basilica Cathedral of Lima

The tour landed us in the Plaza Mayor where streets were closed off for a political rally. At the same time, a local cathedral was also having a street parade with the requisite pageantry. The area was so congested that we had to disembark and walk for a bit, which was fine with us. We entered the main plaza where riot police were ready near the political rally, just in case. One thing we noticed quite often in Lima is the number of uniformed, armed police officers on the street. They are everywhere, on foot, on bike, on horseback, and on motorcycle. The Limeños are under constant surveillance. There are cameras everywhere. The police presence was far more noticeable than it is in the States. Oddly, the predominance of uniformed police officers made me feel more safe in Lima. I’m sure some could argue the opposite.

The colonial-influenced architecture in this part of Lima is striking. What is interesting about it, though, is that it hasn’t been around as long as you would think. The Basilica Cathedral of Lima was built between 1535 and 1541. It was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1746 and then rebuilt. The cathedral, along with other structures in the Plaza Mayor, have been damaged and redone after multiple, strong earthquakes, the most recent one in 1940. Maybe that’s why the old looks so new here.

IMG_9418

Blue sky in winter at the Museo Larco

The main stop on our tour was to the Museo Larco. The museum is in a lovely, 18th century building that was actually build over a 7th century, pre-Columbian pyramid. The museum houses an impressive, privately-owned collection of Peruvian pre-Columbian artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years. It also houses a large collection of ancient, erotic pottery, which we ran out of time to see. It’s too bad too because that would have made for some amusing dinner conversation once again.

The tour ended with a lovely drive down the coast and back to Miraflores. The blue skies were fading with the sun, and our time in Lima was wrapping up as nicely as it had begun. We were worn out after 11 days in Peru and opted to return to our new favorite restaurant right around the block from the hotel for one last round of Pisco Sours and a flawless meal. Then it was back to the hotel for final packing preparations and to await our shuttle to the airport. We had an overnight flight this time, for which I was highly grateful. Amazingly, I slept most of the way home, a feat I nearly never accomplish. It must have been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that gave me the peace of mind to rest. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several “trip of a lifetime” experiences. Our time in Peru reminded me that nothing I can own is as important as spending money on experiences that will live a lifetime in my memory. So…where should I go next?

Peru Adventure – Cusco/Lima

July 15, 2014

Coffee!!!!

Coffee!!!!

After a lively, late night dinner with our tour group that included the opportunity to make our own Pisco Sours, surprisingly we were up early for our final morning in Cusco. Our first stop was to Starbucks. Don’t judge. Old habits die hard, and Starbucks has free wifi. And reliable caffeinated beverages. And we wanted to Facetime with our sons. We hadn’t seen their cute little faces in days. We were due.

Just another morning in Cusco city

Just another morning in Cusco city

This Starbucks store sits on the second floor of an old building right off the main plaza, so it offers a nice view of the city while you wait for your latte. While we were sitting there, a procession of local, Catholic school children was making its way down the street in front of the store. Some were dressed in uniforms. Some were in angel costumes. All were adorable. It was one of those scenes you just don’t get to see in suburban Denver, so we snapped a few photos to share with our kids.I don’t feel one bit bad for visiting that highly commercial, Seattle-based coffeehouse. The way I had it figured, we were supporting American workers.

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

With caffeine on board, we went out to find some final souvenirs before heading to the airport. Walking around the central area in Cusco is fun. The city is both modern and ancient. You’re just as likely to encounter a hip student on a cell phone as you are a woman in traditional dress walking an alpaca. We lucked out and ran into Ray while we were trying to decide the best place to buy some last-minute gifts. It’s great to have a local to give you tips when you’re not familiar with an area. They can be invaluable in suggesting restaurants and pointing you in the right direction for exactly what you need. It helps when that person is also energetic, fun, and an all-around nice person. I was glad to discover that Ray is on Facebook. Facebook, for all its absurdities, makes the world a bit smaller by allowing me to stay in touch with amazing people I meet along my life’s journey.

Salud!

Salud!

We got to the airport with time to spare before our scheduled departure. While we were sitting there waiting, Andrew went off to buy some snacks. He returned carrying a bottle of Inca Cola. We’d seen this on the menu nearly everywhere we went. Inca Cola is Peru’s answer to Coca Cola. It looks like Mountain Dew, but Ray told us it tasted like bubblegum. Andrew poured us each a sample in a plastic cup and we toasted to our trip and our successful completion of the Inca Trail. Salud! Turns out it does taste pretty much like bubblegum soda, which I thought would be horrific but really wasn’t as disgusting as I had imagined. Not saying I’ll be buying cases of it on Amazon or anything, but I always figure I’m better for every new thing I’m brave enough to try.

Dinner at Saqra

Dinner at Saqra

We arrived in Lima hungry and tired. When we checked in at our hotel for our last night, I pulled up TripAdvisor and looked for a restaurant nearby. Saqra was ranked #14 in Lima and, bonus, it was just around the block from the hotel. It was a definite find. The ambiance was modern, fun, and funky, and the food was delicious. Up until that point, the four of us had been fairly conservative about what we ate and drank because, well, we were nervous about being sick on the Inca Trail. But with our trek behind us, all bets were off. We started with our first official Pisco Sours of the trip. The night before we’d sampled them but didn’t commit. I finally understood why people rave about these drinks. They’re tasty, they hit you like a ton of bricks (hello…cheap date here), and despite the lovely buzz there were no ill-effects afterwards. We ordered a couple appetizers, Parmesan scallops (which were served on their lovely shells) and ceviche to start. Perfecto! I settled upon ravioli for my main course and was not disappointed. The most fun part about Saqra was the restrooms, which were infinitely more amusing after a Pisco Sour. There are two unisex rooms. One is decorated with walls covered floor to ceiling in padded, red vinyl. The other room is entirely mirrored. Neither was occupied, so I had my choice. I won’t share which one I drew me in first, but I will tell you that a second Pisco Sour and another glass of agua con gas guaranteed that I eventually got to experience them both. When I got back to the table, as gauche as it is, I mentioned that the restrooms were not to be missed. I was curious to see what room would intrigue my friends. I’m all about initiating spirited (and occasionally inappropriate) dinner conversation among friends.

After dinner, we were worn out from shopping, touring, sampling, flying, drinking, and laughing, so we called it an early night. We had to rest up for our last full day in the City of Kings. Tomorrow we would tour Lima, visit a museum, and enjoy one last Peruvian meal before boarding a red-eye back to the States. As excited as I was to see our boys, I was melancholy about leaving Peru. Or maybe it was merely the effect of my Pisco Sours wearing off.

Peru Adventure – Machu Picchu

Postcard photo

My personal postcard photo

Until you’re standing there, surveying the whole of the place, you can’t comprehend how big Machu Picchu is. That was the first thing that struck me. The place is huge, big enough to once have housed perhaps a thousand residents. It’s hard to imagine that when you realize where these ruins are. They sit at around 8000 feet in elevation and are surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, which is about 1500 feet down from the ruins. The ancient city itself is impressive with nearly 200 buildings, but it’s the impossible surroundings that you miss in a postcard photo focused on the ruins that blew my mind.

After a while, Ray told us we had to leave Machu Picchu and re-enter it through the main gate. We would have our passports checked with our entry tickets and might need to store our backpacks if the guards deemed it necessary. Ray also told us that the main entrance had proper toilets, vending machines, and a snack bar. We were all on board for that, so we walked out to begin again. There was a small entry fee for the bathrooms, but that was of no concern. I would have willingly forked over $20 to sit on an actual toilet at that point. The faucets with running water were heavenly. I briefly considered stripping down to wash up and I might just have done it if the restroom hadn’t been packed with an international crowd that would have frowned upon my personal bird bath in the sink.

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

When we had finally cleaned up and had some snacks, it was time to re-enter. We would get a tour with Ray for about an hour and then have a couple of hours to tour Machu Picchu on our own before getting into the bus queue for the ride down to Aguas Calientes where we would catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. From there we’d be getting back in a van for the ride to our hotel in Cusco for the night.

The number of visitors inside the ruins was already growing. Machu Picchu accepts a limited number of tourists per day (I heard between 2500 and 4000) and, despite its large size and the 11 hours it is open each day, it can feel crowded and overwhelming. When Ray was giving us his tour, he would have to scramble to find a quieter spot to give us information so we could hear him. He was able to give us some info about the site before he turned us loose to tour on our own with some recommendations about what we should investigate.

Steve and I split off from our tour group with our traveling buddies, Andrew and Heather. The four of us set off to see the temple first. I managed to get myself separated from everyone else while trying to take a photo of Pichu inside a building. When I tried to get to where I thought the others were, I was told by a guard that I could not go that way. What the heck? Turns out that to mitigate congestion, visitors must follow arrow signs in a particular direction while inside the ruins. Really? Okay. When in Rome. I turned around and followed the crowd, slowly and surely moving in the approved direction where I might eventually find everyone else.

I was starving. It was close to 11 a.m. and I had been awake almost 8 hours already. We’d been given sack lunches at breakfast, so I dug into my bag and started gnawing on a cheese sandwich.

“You’re brave,” a Canadian tourist said to me.

“Why?” I asked.

“You can’t eat in here,” she replied. Then she told me she’d gotten reprimanded for such an infraction earlier. I’d simply been lucky and no guard had caught me eating.

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Rocks imitating art imitating nature

Snap. Now I was hungry, without my companions, and feeling my blood sugar dip. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s angry. I turn into something reminiscent of the Hulk when I need to eat. Things would get downright scary if I didn’t eat something quickly. I decided to be a rebel. It had to be done. I pretended to put my food away in front of the other tourists who had caught me nibbling, but I kept part of the sandwich in my hand. When I’d get beyond a guard, I’d sneak a bite in my mouth as surreptitiously as possible. As far as I was concerned, it was a matter of life or death this breaking the law. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.

Steve found me and together we pushed ahead to catch up to our friends. When we found them, we decided en masse that if I was going to meet my goal of being photobombed by a llama we would need to get over to where we had seen them grazing earlier. The problem was that they were nowhere near where we currently were. We had 45 minutes to make our move. We started heading in the direction we needed to go. Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a tour group of seniors. It was clear that most of them were struggling with the stairs and the altitude. They were moving very slowly, and it would have been exceedingly rude and ugly American to shove through their group. So we stayed behind them and waited for their tour guide to move them through the narrow room where they were all standing. We were trying to be good citizens and follow the prescribed pathways, but the prescribed pathways were clogged with people who were not in the particular hurry that we were. I was becoming anxious. Time was a-wasting, and llamas wait for no one.

Help! I'm lost in Machu Picchu and I can't find my llamas.

Help! I’m lost in Machu Picchu.

We tried several different paths to head in the direction we needed to go, but we kept going around in circles by following the arrow signs. Finally, the guys split off to try to get their bearings or perhaps get directions from someone (who’d have thought that possible?). Steve returned to tell the tale of how he’d found an English-speaking tour guide but felt bad for asking him the fastest way out of the ruins. I never imagined that during my time in Machu Picchu I would become so discombobulated and frustrated that I would be looking for the exit. Andrew and Steve had separately landed upon the same solution to our problem. We now had an exit strategy, so we began cruising in that direction.

We found the llamas where we had seen them, happily munching on grass along the agricultural terraces. Now to get close enough to get a photo with them without getting kicked out for going the wrong direction or treading where we should not tread. This was going to be a trickier task than we had originally anticipated. Apparently it was everyone’s Machu Picchu dream to hang with the llamas. I didn’t want a photo of the llamas in the crowd. Time was ticking away until we needed to be out the main gate and waiting in line for our bus to Aguas Calientes to meet the rest of our group for lunch and train tickets.

Close enough

Close enough

All I can say is that Pachamama must have been looking out for me because as we were standing there puzzling out how to make this llama photo work, the llamas began to move down the terraces toward us as if Pachamama’s divine hand were urging them toward me. This might work out yet. We had 15 minutes left to get this photo and be out of the gates. Steve started snapping shots as they came closer, hoping that one would turn out. I did my part by jockeying for position near the llamas but out of the way of the other tourists who would not get the heck out of my photo-op. I did not make this long journey to share my llama photo with strangers. In the end, we had several decent photos of the llamas by themselves and one passable photo of me and the baby llama in the background. We had to call it good because it was time to make like a baby and head out.

As for the rest of our day, it was long. It started with a bus ride down from Machu Picchu that nearly did me in. The cobblestone road from the ruins, as you can imagine given the location of Machu Picchu, is set into the side of a steep mountain above a river. The road is wide enough for one bus. Needless to say, there is more than one bus transporting the thousands of visitors each day. I think I left impressions in the seat in front of me with my fingernails. I’m not even sure a Valium could have made that ride pleasant. It was the last sweat I broke on the trip.

Worth 27 long hiking miles and three nights on the ground

Well worth 27 long, hiking miles and countless stairs and three nights sleeping on the ground

We had Coke and wood-fired pizza in a real restaurant while waiting for our train. Our group barely spoke because we at last had wifi and could contact our families. We were back in civilization and it felt good. I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride to Ollantaytambo and even our bus ride back to Cusco. I didn’t sleep like some of my fellow tourists because I am one of those travelers who hates to miss a thing. I simply watched Peru as she flew by. I hadn’t even left yet and I was already wondering when I would return.

 

 

Peru Adventure – Day Four on the Inca Trail

Pichu...because nothing says ancient ruins like a plush toy from China.

Nothing says “ancient ruins” like a cheap, plush toy from China. I will do anything for my sons.

The wake up call for the final day of the hike was 3:30 a.m. I eschew any wake up call that happens at an obnoxious time, for example, 3:30 a.m. But on this particular morning I flew out of my sleeping bag ready to hit the trail. It had been a long, life-changing hike, and I was ready for the big finale. I was also growing weary of my filthy hiking pants and sports bras, and I knew at the end of the day there was a hot shower waiting for me. It was somber that morning at breakfast. Maybe we were all just sleepy, but it seemed like there was something in the idea of this journey being over that made us all a bit more contemplative than we had been. We loaded up our gear for the day, and I dug to the bottom of my pack to bring to the top something I’d been waiting until Machu Picchu to break out. Before I left, the boys had given me a Pokémon plush to bring along, 1) because they wanted me to have something of them with me (as if any part of me is ever without them) and 2) because they wanted to see a photo of it at Machu Picchu. I was merely glad they wanted me to carry a plush instead of, say, a rock. Either way, today it would fulfill its destiny and Pichu would visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu with me. The boys would be thrilled.

As with every morning on the Inca Trail, we headed to the passport station to be checked onto the trail for the day. The reason for the early morning wake up call was so that we could get onto the trail and through the Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise on the ruins. The passport station did not open for a while, so we stood there in a line in the dark with other hikers, headlamps on, waiting for daybreak. This only added to the novelty of the day and our growing anticipation.

The Monkey Stairs

The Monkey Stairs

Finally the passport station opened and we were on our way. The sun began rising so we could jettison our headlamps and enjoy the last of the scenery on this hike. We were slowly heading our way up to the Sun Gate. I stopped a lot on the way to the Sun Gate. Not because I was gasping for air or needed to lower my heart rate but because I knew these were our last couple hours on the trail and I wanted to soak it all in. I stopped to take mental photographs and simply to be present in the Andes and appreciate all I had done to get to that point. It’s easy to rush to the denouement when it was the whole impetus for your journey. But, over the course of the past three days, I’d had the opportunity to focus solely on the journey. It transformed what would have been a great trip into a life-altering one. It’s our rushing through life to the next big thing that ruins us.

The last section of stairs you climb are aptly called the “Monkey Stairs.” This is because you more or less climb them on all fours because they are so steep. There’s no way to capture adequately a photo of these stairs, but imagine that you’ve just hiked nearly 27 miles, slept on the ground for three nights, and are dog tired from getting up at 3:30 a.m. To make matters worse, you’re wearing a pack. You approach a significant length of steps. They are uneven, worn, high and, frankly, the last thing you want to see at this point, but they are the final obstacle between you and Machu Picchu. You suck up your pride and begin climbing, hands on the stairs ahead of the ones your feet (or knees) are on so you can keep your balance. No point in getting this close to Machu Picchu and then injuring yourself so you can’t walk around and experience it.

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The end of the line

When we got to the top, I realized we had reached the end of our hike. I hadn’t realized it was that close. At the top of the stairs is a sign that tells you that you’ve finished the Inca Trail. With a bit of melancholy, I took this photo of the sign to mark the occasion. I looked ahead of me, but the Sun Gate sits around a corner and there are people at the top resting from the stairs. The view is obscured. I finally summoned the courage to walk ahead to find the actual Sun Gate and see what I’d only read about. The Sun Gate itself is not something special to look at. It’s not a gate of any sort any longer, just a bit of ruins with windows overlooking the scene ahead.

Machu Picchu before sunrise

Machu Picchu before sunrise

I walked through the group of people gathered there, and it took me a minute to adjust myself to the view and what I was seeing. You’re still a hike away from Machu Picchu. It is there ahead of you and you can make it out, but it is a faded image in the distance. Because it’s still a way off, there’s some sort of mental acknowledgement that you’ve made it but the excitement of being there hasn’t kicked in because, well, you’re not there yet. The Sun Gate is an excellent spot for a photo-op, though, so we hastened to get that done while we waited for the sun to begin lighting up Machu Picchu.

We had timed our hike perfectly because the sun was on the hill directly behind Machu Picchu but it hadn’t yet landed on the ruins themselves. We all realized we needed to move it in a hurry if we wanted to hike the 1.5 miles down from the Sun Gate to watch the sun slowly sneak over the ruins until they were totally bathed in sunlight. The weather had been with us the entire trip. We’d encountered not one drop of rain, and the sky this day was again clear. There were no low-hanging clouds to obscure our view. It was literally a picture-perfect day.

Getting my zen on

Getting my zen on

I found speed in reserves I didn’t know I had while trying to reach Machu Picchu and enjoy it a bit before the crowds became insane. I am not afraid to admit I was nearly skipping my way down the last of the Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. I had done it. There I was. And there it was. My lifelong goal of being at Machu Picchu could be crossed of my bucket list. There aren’t many things that can eclipse the feeling of a long-term goal achieved. All that’s left is to savor it.