I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.
I love to cook. Actually, I love to bake because I have a huge sweet tooth, but I enjoy cooking as well.
Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands, I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!
We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.
The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.
Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.
Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.
It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.
Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.
Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.
We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.
Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.
We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.
Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.
Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).
We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.
We learned to look past natural camouflage.
And to enjoy the flamboyant.
There was something great to see every time we looked.
A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!
Yesterday was the grand opening of the Tomás de Berlanga Open Air Library! In a few short months, we managed to build a new dedicated space for the student library, secure amazing donations of new and gently used books, cull hundreds of unsuitable books and label and index the remaining 900 books for the student library.
We went from this:
The students were patiently awaiting the new library and getting their hands on the newly donated books. Finally, we were ready to open the English section of the library. (I need to finish sorting and labeling the Spanish books, but they are few in number and in even worse shape than the English ones were.)
I started checking out books right after we opened and had a steady stream of patrons the rest of the day. It was amazing! Students were coming during their recess and, I later realized, slipping out of class to come for a book. There was a lot of borrower’s remorse and requests to change books – I think the kids were so overwhelmed with the great new options that they didn’t know where to start. The cool, donated book marks were a big hit and the kids were amazed to find out they could keep them. We also have a lot of education to do about library procedures: starting with checking out books and not just taking them. As we have no computer for the library, the check out system is old school. It took me several nights to fill out a form for each student – they each have 4 names here and it is not always consistent which ones they use.
The best part of the day was when a few 5th graders came to the library during recess. One boy, Matias, picked The Giving Tree to check out and I told him it was one of my favorite books. Other kids chimed in and Matias started reading it at the checkout table. I asked if he wanted to read it aloud and he happily agreed. The other students gathered around and listened (shushing one boy who started reading his book aloud) and we all enjoyed the first story hour at the open air library.
A big THANK YOU to everyone who helped on this project, including
WANT TO HELP? WE NEED BOOKS!
For more information about the school, visit its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/tdberlanga or its website at http://www.scalesia.org/tomas-de-berlanga-school
I have been back home on the island for almost two weeks and within days of my arrival had the rest of our shipment unpacked and our apartment feeling more like ours. Happily, the important breakable made it so I could celebrate!
But our visa/living permission journey was beginning yet again. In order to avoid an annual exile to Quito to get new work visas, we are now in the process of applying for professional visas that do not expire. We will still need to renew our Galapagos living permission on an annual basis, but if the renewal is done properly, we should not have to leave the island to do it. As part of the process for the new visa, we need an FBI background check. After some quick research I learned the process is straightforward – download a few forms, get your fingerprints taken, pay a few bucks and you are set. Our friend Ros was heading to the US and could mail the packet for us, so we were on a quest to get it done.
In Peru, we went to Interpol to be fingerprinted for our Peruvian visas. About 2 months after I received my visa, I received a notice from the FBI that stated it was not able to process my prints because they weren’t legible. Apparently the fingerprinting was more form over substance in Peru as I already had my visa. But if Interpol couldn’t adequately fingerprint me, could I do it myself? I started researching the process – the FBI has a handy pamphlet of tips – and we asked around for places in town that might do it for us.
Armed with our ink pad and the forms, we hit the police station. The guy was confused – why did we want to be fingerprinted? In the end, he said that they didn’t use fingerprints on the island but maybe we could try on the mainland. Not an option. Our next lead was for the government offices: here all citizens, even babies, are fingerprinted for their id cards. We went to one office, waited in line and explained what we needed. Eventually the woman appeared with an ink pad for us to use but no one to help us actually take the fingerprints. Apparently they do digital fingerprints. We explained that we hoped the person who took the digital fingerprints could help us with the paper versions, but no such luck. She sent us to another office and we got the same story.
We were on our own. Matt was confident in his ability to take his own prints. I wasn’t so certain as a main component is to be relaxed throughout the process, not my strong suit. So I decided cocktails would relax me and Ros came over for moral support. We had a system: two practice prints before the final ink, ink up and then a practice ink to reduce the smudge and the real deal. It was stressful.
Ros tried her cat-calming tricks on me – the slow blink, but I think the booze worked better. The rules allow two do-overs, so Matt had to run out to get white stickers to give us another shot at a few messy ones.
Matt did an excellent job with a difficult subject. At the end of the day, I had a new appreciation for law enforcement – who knew taking prints was so hard – and some messy prints that I hope pass FBI muster. It takes 3-4 months for processing, so we won’t know if we failed until it is too late to redo them for our visas. As a backup, we are ordering our state criminal records, but we don’t think they will be adequate. If anyone knows a former law enforcement officer heading to the Galapagos Islands, please send them my way (and I am not kidding).
Out, out, damn spot – it took 2 days of scrubbing and swimming in the ocean for me to get rid of the ink stains!
Matt teased me when I posted “The Wait is Over.” “Really,” he asked, “don’t you think it has just begun?”
Of course, he was right. What was I thinking? I should have known better after living in South America for this long. Nothing comes quickly.
First, it was the wait for our visas. The process is two-fold: we need visas to live in Ecuador and then we need permission to live on the Galapagos as temporary residents. When we were here for Matt’s interview in February, we sat down with a calendar and a school employee and outlined all the steps it would take to get our visas. The school wanted Matt to report to work on April 1 and thought it would be faster if we got our visas in the US. According to our conversation and the calendar, we would be able to go to Chicago sometime the last week of March for our visas. Then we could fly to Quito and wait a couple of days for our Galapagos residency. Perfect, we thought. Wrong, we should have known.
Based on these conversation, the expiration of my visa in Peru and Matt’s Peruvian school happy to have him exit sooner rather than later for cost reasons, we packed up and got out of Peru two weeks after we returned from Ecuador. It was no easy feat, but we got it done and the movers picked up our stuff the day before we flew to the US. Within 2 days of arriving in the US, Matt drove to Madison to get our documents apostilled (certified by the state) and we emailed them off to his new employer. And then we waited.
Oh, we had a good time: hit my family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party and our friends’ baby shower, visited with family, hung out with friends, shopped for the summer clothes we would need on the island, ate and drank to our hearts’ content. But as the days passed and our visas were no closer to being processed, we abandoned hope that they would get done by the end of March and left for Quito.
We arrived in Quito on March 31 and the wait continued. What the heck was taking so long? To this day, we are not entirely sure why we had so many delays, but after 2 1/2 weeks we finally had them: our visas. Oh and did I mention that we would have to undergo this process annually?
Matt’s teachers had already reported to work and he had been trying to have meetings and guide them from Quito, but he was anxious to get on site before the students arrived on May 4. And I was anxious to move into our new home and get settled. Then we learned that the Galapagos permission needed to be refiled and would take at least another week and a half. Matt raised a fuss (not Matt’s style though it is mine) and we flew to the island on April 26.
But there was a catch. While the law had recently changed and Matt could enter the Galapagos as a “transeúnte” or “transient” and transform that permission to temporary residency, I had to enter as a tourist, which meant that I would have to leave the islands and reenter as a temporary resident. In addition, a tourist can only be on the islands for 90 days in a calendar year, so my time was limited. We flew to the islands with 2 large suitcase and 2 carryons as we had been advised to send our remaining three boxes by air freight, so we had dropped those off a few days before we left.
And then the waiting began. First, the 3 boxes didn’t arrive. For two weeks. Thankfully, I had the foresight to make sure we had a set of sheets and towels in the luggage we took with us. But we had no idea that it would take 2 weeks for the rest of our necessities (like more than 2 pairs of shorts and our snorkeling gear) to arrive. I called daily to check the status and was told that it is “poco complicado” or “a little complicated” because several of the cargo ships that serviced the island sank in the past 6 months, which means that transport space is limited. And our cargo kept getting bumped for more important cargo like food and medicine. One day it actually flew from Quito to Guayaquil (a port town on the mainland), was taken off the plane in Guayaquil and sent back to Quito. But one happy day, our 3 boxes arrived and we promptly went snorkeling.
But on the residency front and our shipment from Peru, nothing. Matt would politely ask about his residency and be given vague responses. Eventually Matt got tired of asking and demanded a specific answer and learned that his paperwork had never been started. What?? This was 5 weeks after we arrived on the island and my time was ticking. Similarly, our shipment was nowhere in sight. First it was delayed leaving Peru, then it was caught up in Guayaquil for 2 weeks and finally, it was stuck in Quito because it was, once again, “poco complicado.”
Finally, 6 weeks after we arrived on the Galapagos, Matt’s residency was approved. Great, we thought and made my plans to leave the island for Quito so my residency application could be started. Within hours of booking my flight to Quito for Sunday, the movers contacted me to advise that the shipment would arrive, you guessed it, on Sunday.
So here I sit in Quito, in exile for an indeterminate amount of time while my residency is processed. I could be 3 days, it could be 2 weeks, no one really knows. The shipment did arrive at home yesterday, but 3 boxes, including our TV and iMac are missing. So the wait, on both fronts, continues.
Furniture shopping in Milwaukee was a pain due to the endless choices. When we were in the market for something, we could spend multiple days running around to furniture stores and department stores as we looked for the right piece and the best price. Matt and I are extremely decisive and hate shopping, so two weekends was about our limit. Furniture shopping on the Galapagos is the opposite: I ran around for the past month trying to find ANY furniture to buy. On Saturday, we committed to making it happen and finally were (mainly) successful.
Our apartment is a spacious one bedroom with an amazing patio that lends to the airy feel of the place.
It is above the doctor’s office/hyperbaric chamber (the doc who lives on site is our landlord), which is handy for telling people as street names aren’t often used here.
We rented it partially furnished; the main furnishings are included but few household items are. “Furnished” means some patio furniture, a double bed (we thought it was going to be a king because that is what was in the apartment when we saw it, so I tri-fold the the king sheets we bought; one makes due on an island!), stove, refrigerator and microwave, kitchen table and chairs, and a sofa, wicker chaise and wicker chair. For a month we used action packers as our doorway table. In casual conversations with our landlord, I managed to finagle additional patio furniture and a computer desk (still working on a chair). But the living room furniture was abysmal. Matt referred to the sofa as an airport sofa, but it was actually less comfortable, disconcertingly grimy and unused.
As we have learned, it is best to bite the bullet and buy what we want to make life more comfortable sooner rather than later. We started asking around about furniture shops. “There’s one on Baltra past the bank,” Matt said one night. We headed over. “This?” It was a crowded shop with random items but there was a sofa and table and some dressers. “No, it can’t be this; she said it had a lot of good stuff. It must be closed.” After stalking the street for a few more days, I concluded that dingy shop was the place. I went in and asked if they had additional furniture or whether furniture could be ordered. The woman looked at me like I was crazy. Okay, I guess a furniture shop is anywhere that sells any random piece of furniture.
I continued to run down leads all over town, but never found what we wanted: a sofa, a cabinet for the doorway, some end tables. Or, I might see an okay sofa, but everything is sold as a set, so we couldn’t buy it unless we wanted the settee, two chairs and coffee table too. The coffee tables here are all small and out of proportion to the furniture. And they have glass tops. Matt still has the scar and PTSD from the exploding glass table in our Lima rental, so we were not interested those.
We did find one shop that had nice, handmade furniture, but it didn’t have the pieces we needed. We asked the woman whether we could have something specific made (at that time we thought we would have a cabinet made that would double as a doorway table and a bar for our glassware and limited booze supply). She seemed confused and kept pointing us to the items they had – a bookshelf or bedside table. Eventually she said we could bring in a drawing and dimensions, but we got the feeling that at the end of the day we would end up with either a bookshelf or bedside table. Ultimately we found this table at a different store and bought it on the spot.
The other option was to go to the “artisanal zone” and have furniture made. We asked questions: where is it, is there a person you recommend, do they have furniture ready to buy? The answers were vague and contradictory: someone would have a name, but we would never get it; someone else said they cater to the tourists but they have some furniture; another person would say the prices are expensive and it takes forever to get something made. We learned that we would need to have something made and then find an upholsterer to make the cushions for it.
Armed with this limited knowledge and the assurance that “any cabbie could take us there” we flagged down a cab late Saturday morning and asked to go to the artisanal area – where the carpenters are. The cabbie seemed to know what we meant and sure enough we headed out of town and turned down the road someone had pointed out to Matt. A few turns later, we stopped. “This guy does good work” our cabbie told us. We were parked on a dirt road in front of a gated lumberyard, complete with a chained, barking dog. What? Where are the shops, the wares, the storefronts? Our cabbie got out with us and called to the woman in the yard who sent out an older man. We chatted, explained that we wanted some furniture and then we all hopped back in the cab to head back to town where we understood the carpenter had a showroom. On the way back we drove through the rest of the “artisan area” – a cluster of probably 15-20 lumberyards and workshops scattered over a several block area, with no finished goods anywhere in sight.
Our cabbie (Angelo) and the carpenter (Rafael) chatted the entire way back to town. Matt and I sat in the back seat, ignored. Wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and sure that Rafael was Angelo’s uncle or other relation, we went with the flow. We ended up a few blocks from our house in front of a nondescript building. Rafael unlocked the gated and let us into the first level of a house where there were some lovely pieces of furniture. A few sofas, bedroom sets, tables etc. Matt and I had already decided on two chairs in addition to a sofa and we liked what Rafael had to offer. Next thing we knew, Angelo was helping us pick out our furniture, asking Rafael about finishes, explaining what we wanted etc. We crossed a courtyard to the first floor of another house where there were some additional pieces. In the end we chose a sofa, two chairs, a coffee table (still small, but with a made-to-order wood top) and a small end table, which is a concept that does not appear to exist here.
More conversation ensued and we all hopped back into the cab to the upholsterer. We stopped here:
Rafael talked to a young guy, a kid really, and then we headed up an unfinished stairway to the work room, mindful of the edge the entire time. Rafael described the cushions we needed and asked what fabrics were available. There were some really hideous ones and a few that could work. To save time we wanted to choose something in stock and not wait for a cargo ship to bring some fabric. Once again, Angelo helped us choose our fabric. Where else does your cabbie pick out fabric with you? We selected one but I told them I didn’t think there was enough for all of the cushions (I’m no seamstress but it was pretty obvious even to me) and eventually the young guy conceded that was the case. More discussion and Angelo inquired whether they had a fabric that would coordinate. Go cabbie Angelo! We found one one from the limited options, placed our order and were assured it will be ready on Wednesday.
On the way to our house, we made arrangements with Angelo to pick us up at 5pm to go pick up the furniture (with the exception of the tables that Rafael needs to make for us). 5 came and went and no Angelo. I called him. ” I’m sorry, I’m busy now.” Okay, on to Plan B. We walked over to Rafael’s store (thankfully Matt remembered where it is) where he and his wife were waiting. We apologized and explained that Angelo didn’t show up and Rafael says they can call someone for us to move the furniture. We talked more, established what we were taking and what he will make and then awkwardly kept waiting for the financial part of the transaction. Eventually we realized that they were politely waiting for us to do that part, because we had talked with Rafael about prices earlier, so we finally just said “okay, we want to pay do you want to pay here or in the other house” and got the deal done.
Rafael flagged down a cab for us and told the kid that he will be making two trips with our stuff. The kid looked reluctant, but helped load the furniture. Here is Matt taking the first load home.
All in all a successful day, even if the furniture looks somewhat like park benches until we get the cushions. Here is hoping they are ready on Wednesday. As an added bonus, our shipment from Peru is supposed to arrive this week, so we can finally get organized and settled.
I started writing this post before Matt secured his job as director of the Tomás de Berlanga school on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. When I saw it in the archives it brought back all of the uncertainty we were feeling at the time, which continues in a reduced form to the present time as we hang out in Quito waiting for our visas to be processed, with our belongings somewhere in Lima, waiting to be shipped to us.
The waiting is the hardest part. Okay, that probably isn’t true for Matt. For me, it’s the hardest part: wondering where we will be moving, where Matt will find a job. For Matt, the hard part is the endless interviewing, selling himself multiple times a week and sometimes multiple times a day.
For our time at Davy School and in Peru is coming to an end. Unfortunately, within a few months of our arrival in Cajamarca in July 2013 the mine that funded that school announced it was cutting its support by 50% in 2014 and 2015 and then exiting the school business altogether by 2016. Matt’s expat salary, and those of the other expats, was an obvious place to cut costs. While the school would honor the contracts, the sooner we all left, the better. Matt’s contract is up July 2015, so this provided ample time to find a job.
I realize that many, many people have been involuntarily without work, but it was a first for both Matt and me. I also realize that he has had several months of lead time to start looking for a job, which is a luxury most people don’t have. But we don’t have a home. We sold everything when we decided to embark on the this expat life. We live in Peru because Matt’s job is here, but as soon as his job ends, his work visa is revoked and we need to leave. Where will we go?
So in August Matt began applying for jobs that were opening in January (Davy would be thrilled to release him from his contract) or July. Our geographical parameters were broad: South and Central America, most of Southeast Asia, Europe, Taiwan and Hong Kong. For political, safety and assorted reasons, the Middle East, Africa and Mainland China were off our list, as was Venezuela. And so the interviewing began. We didn’t keep track, but Matt made it to the “semi-finals” for several schools. It was exhausting for both of us. With every round of interviews we speculated endlessly. This one was the place, the location of our dreams. We would research weather, apartments, safety, etc. in an effort to convince ourselves that it was meant to be. Then, once we reached a comfort level and got enthusiastic over the possibility, Matt wouldn’t get the job. And on we would move to another part of the world.
But then, it happened. In February Matt received a tentative offer for a school in the Galapagos Islands and an invitation for both of us to visit. So we went. Matt was instantly sold; I was not. I don’t know what I was expecting, but Puerto Ayora wasn’t it at first glance. It was, well, sort of Peruvian, but very expensive. Not the resort island I had expected.
The next day I walked to this beach. And fell in love.
The beaches aren’t the only highlight of the Galapagos. The Darwin Research Station is pretty amazing too.
The highlight of our initial visit to The Station, as it is called, was the Giant Tortoise fight. One tortoise appeared to be the aggressor and would saunter over to the other tortoises, stick its head out and then sort of bite one of the others. The other one would sloowly back away and then the first one would lie down for awhile before starting over. It may not sound like a Tyson-Holyfield bout, but let me tell you, it was pretty darn entertaining!
Another favorite spot was Las Grietas, which translates not very well as”The Cracks”, a deep chasm of volcanic rock with unbelievably blue, cool, fresh water. The trip requires a water taxi to “the other side” of the island and a nice walk to Las Grietas, but it is well worth it despite the crowds. Apparently there is a hole somewhere in the cliff and you can dive down into another pool. We plan to try it with our new snorkeling equipment.
So in the end, we are both delighted to be moving to Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. And the adventure continues…
Filing taxes isn’t fun for anyone, but I am an idiot when it comes to forms. So for years Matt handled our taxes using Turbo Tax. I would review them, make a few corrections (Turbo Tax isn’t perfect) and generally the process was pretty painless. Then came 2013 – the year we moved abroad.
The United States and Eritrea (no clue where that is) are the only two countries in the world that impose income taxes on the foreign income of non-resident citizens. To the surprise of many expats, this means that even if you have lived abroad for many years and have made no money on US soil, your foreign income is subject to US income tax and you have to file a tax return.
I will spare you the tax details, but in general if you are an expat you are allowed to exclude a certain amount of your expat income from taxation if you meet one of two foreign residency tests. One of the tests – physical presence – we couldn’t meet in 2013 because we spent too much time in the US that year so we had to get an extension to file our 2013 taxes in 2015 – after we lived in Peru for a calendar year.
So last December I sat down to work on the 2013 taxes we would be filing in January. I gathered all of Matt’s Davy pay stubs, actually figured out what everything meant on them, pulled up our W2s from our US jobs in 2013 and logged onto Turbo Tax. Denied! No computer system is available for taxes after October of the filing year, even though we had an extension. Thus began about 80 hours of reading tax forms, IRS guidance, and occasionally IRS regulations all in an effort to figure out how to determine our stinking taxes. I discovered that given our situation of both US income and Peruvian income I actually needed to figure out our taxes using 3 different methods. By hand. It was worth it because under one method we owed about $6,000 and under another, we had a $1,600 refund. Guess which one I chose!
We don’t have a printer here, so at one point in this process, I decided to go to an internet cafe to print off the forms and some of the tax instructions because I needed to complete the various worksheets on them. I had never been in one because we have internet in our home, but they are usually packed with kids playing computer games. This day was no exception although the occasional businessman stopped in, presumably to check email (or surf porn, who knows). It took me awhile to figure out the process, but in the end I had to download the documents I wanted to a drive and then go up to the clerk and ask him to open and print the documents for me. At one point he had to send a kid out for more paper and the kid returned with about 100 sheets – not a full ream, mind you! After about an hour I had about 60 pages of what I needed and called it a day.
Once in Wisconsin, I finished up the Wisconsin return and then encountered my next glitch – the paper size in Peru is slightly different than in the US so scanning and copying wasn’t working properly. After several meltdowns the returns were in the mail. But the fun wasn’t done.
First, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue ignored both the address on our tax return and the cover letter indicating our address and sent our refund to our old home, which we haven’t owned for over a year and a half! Thankfully, the kind new owner tracked me down via social media and got the check sent to Matt’s mom’s house for us. Today, after being on hold for over an hour, I learned that the IRS decided to mail our refund to us in Peru despite the fact that I provided bank information for direct deposit and a cover letter indicating that any correspondence should be sent to Matt’s mom’s house. ARGG. It’s anyone’s guess whether we will ever see that check because mail does not get delivered here, so now we will have to periodically trek to the post office to see if it has arrived. Only after a month can we ask the IRS to “investigate” what happened.
But I did learn from all of this. Our 2014 taxes were filed using Turbo Tax today. It was still several hours of work to tell the IRS we don’t owe them any money, but at least is is done. I hope.
My housekeeper, Maria, asked me about a month ago if I could bring back a laptop from the US for her nephew. He is hoping to study engineering next year and the family thought it would be beneficial if he got a computer. While he could buy a laptop here, apparently the prices are much better in the US. Generally Matt and I decline to bring back electronic items for people because we don’t want the responsibility or the potential to have to pay import taxes on it when we return to Peru. And because I am usually using a kitchen scale to stuff the last permissible 6 ounces into my luggage. But given that Maria’s family is not wealthy and would not have access to other people traveling to the US, I agreed to help her out.
I asked Maria what computer her nephew wanted. He didn’t know and she suggested that I just pick one out for him – they trust me. Are they kidding? I know nothing about computers except that I pitch a fit when ours doesn’t work properly and whine to Matt until he solves my problem. I suggested that her nephew talk to friends, someone at the university – basically anyone but me. I did contact my nephew, a US college student, to enlist his aid. He came up with a couple of low cost options and I presented them to Maria along with website addresses for her nephew to review them. (Now I know you are thinking, “but Kerry, her nephew doesn’t have a computer, you idiot.” Rest assured that there are internet cafes, and I am using the word cafe very loosely, all over our town.) And I heard nothing more about it.
Now Peruvians tend to bring up important matters at the last minute. I let the computer issue rest for awhile because I really didn’t want to be responsible for bringing one back with us. But I adore Maria and I knew she felt awkward asking the favor in the first place, so last week I asked if her nephew had decided on a computer. The response? “Well, it depends on whether they can sell a cow.” What?! The long and the short of it was that her brother needed to sell a cow to get the money for the computer. He took the cow to the market but the prices were just too low. The family suspects the low prices are because everyone is saving their money to buy turkeys for Christmas, so beef is not in demand. He tried again this past weekend, but the prices were still too low and he couldn’t take the loss on the cow. So Maria’s nephew won’t be getting a computer this Christmas.
I am reminded that in 2014 Peru is still a developing country where the farm ladies in the market wear traditional garb and yet chat on cell phones and where someone might need to sell a cow to buy a computer.
From the first time I heard of Granja Porcon, I had no interest in going there. About an hour from Cajamarca, numerous people mentioned it to us as a “must see” tourist site. But when I asked what one did there, all I heard was that it was in the country and had a zoo. In the country? Don’t I live in the country? Roosters wake me up long before dawn, cows graze on the side of the running path, horses frolic along the bank of the river a few blocks from my house, I recognize the burros that carry a farmer’s milk down our street every day…how much more country did I need? As for a zoo, I have mixed feelings about them and was pretty sure a small, private zoo would make me feel less mixed and more distressed. Add to the fact that Granja Porcon is run by Evangelists and had been described as both a commune and a cult and I was not sold.
But as our entertainment options are limited, when some friends suggested we go there for the weekend in order to take advantage of the hiking trials, I was persuaded. We set off Friday after work in Korrine’s dad’s car with Rodrigo as our driver. Our first stop was at the grocery store to buy some wine that we intended to “sneak” onto the grounds. To be honest, while alcohol was not served on the premises, I never saw any mention that it wasn’t allowed, but it added to our high school feel for the weekend: dad’s car and smuggled booze.
The drive out of Cajamarca was pretty and uneventful. After about an hour we arrived at the turnoff to Granja Porcon. Another 25 minutes and we were at the gate, just as the sun was setting. We had reserved a cabin and the guard gave us directions to get there. I tried listening to the directions in order to help navigate, but after he kept describing the roads we were not supposed to take, I gave up. We started up the mountain, darkness descended and we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at one place where we saw lights and the woman there told us to continue up the road. Just as we left, a man ran after us shouting that we should take a left – but left led us back down the mountain. We confirmed that we were supposed to go up the mountain, took a right to do so and then laughed at his “left” direction. 20 minutes later we were not laughing when we could see nothing and were utterly lost. We headed back down the mountain, intending to go back for more directions, when a lady on the side of the road waved us down, introduced herself as Marleny and told us that she had been waiting for us to show us our cabin. The “left” made sense as we had to take a left to go down a small, dark road that led only to the cabin – a left that was only about 5 minutes away from the house where we had asked directions! It was now about 8:00 and there was only one restaurant – back down the mountain – that was open to serve us dinner. We unloaded the car, nervously trying to hide our bottles, called in our dinner order and then began the trek down the mountain. Marleny came with us because she thought we would get lost otherwise. She was right!
Despite calling ahead by about 1/2 hour, the restaurant was deserted. A man quickly appeared and opened the place up for us. It was a cold, beautiful, rustic room with windows that overlooked the Porcon main square, but at the late hour we could only see a few lights in the distance. We enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken soup and fried trout and headed back up the mountain to our cabin, stopping to pick up a thermos of hot, boiled water from Marleny’s house. A few drinks later we called it a night. It was freezing in the cabin – the only heat was the fireplace in the main room and the beds had those old fashioned wool blankets that weigh you down so you can barely move. Matt and I slept with our hats on and were still cold!
The day dawned overcast, but it was still breathtaking. It felt as though we were on a movie set – gorgeous setting, rustic cabin, cows mooing, lambs bleating and roosters crowing – unreal.
We headed back to the restaurant for a breakfast of caldo verde (my favorite soup) with numerous stops along the way to admire the vicuñas and avoid the lambs. Vicuñas are cousins of alpacas and llamas (and guanacos, another wild camelid in the Andes) and are prized for their wool, which can run up to $3,000 a yard! The animals can only be shorn every 3 years and then only about a pound of wool results from each animal. While they are described as shy, the ones at Porcon are obviously accustomed to tourists because we got amazingly close to them. They were gorgeous – so graceful and delicate. The lambs, on the other hand, were just hilarious. They were all over the road and it was all Rodrigo could do not to hit any of them. The downside of all the lambs was that meant there was no sheep cheese for sale – something I was really looking forward to as I am so tired of the limited cheese selection here.
Once we tore ourselves away from the vicuñas, I then became fascinated by a hummingbird feeding outside of the window at the restaurant. It was quite a dramatic scene when another hummingbird appeared and they began fighting. In addition the view was breathtaking.
After breakfast, we wandered into the town to check out the weaving shops, dairy and zoo.
I found the dairy products to be disappointing – while there were some decent fresh cheeses with herbs and a brick that was sharper than anything else here, nothing came close to amazing Carr Valley or other Wisconsin-produced cheeses. The others were hyping the ice cream and I, lover of Kopps frozen custard, couldn’t wait. What a letdown! The so-called “ice cream” was really ice-milk on a stick and not at all creamy. There were many exotic fruit flavors, but that was little consolation for me. After that crushing disappointment, we headed to the zoo.
The zoo was interesting. One the one hand, the old-fashioned, small enclosures were incredibly depressing. But all zoo enclosures are depressing – no matter how big the enclosure, the lions and tigers still pace in captivity, the birds can’t fly free and many animals are far from their natural habitats. On the other hand, it was unbelievable how close we could get to the animals. As I was watching the spectacled bears, native to Peru, walk along the fence, a little girl stuck her finger into the enclosure and I started panicking, wondering if it is socially acceptable for a stranger to yell at a kid when you think she might lose a finger (and then, to try to think of how to say it in Spanish!). Thankfully, her mother saw her in the seconds these thoughts raced through my brain and pulled her away. Yikes!
After the zoo and a mediocre meal in town, we headed back up the mountain to our paradise. Marleny, who was parking cars in town, tried to persuade us to stop at the trout farm or come back to see the 4 o’clock milking, but as neither of those things are novelties to us, we declined and relaxed the afternoon and evening away. Well, except for the parts where Rodrigo smoked us out of the house by trying to start the wood stove in the kitchen, not realizing that he had blocked the flue and that we didn’t have the key to the kitchen door so there was no ventilation and then, when Marleny showed up unannounced and we scurried around trying to hide our wine bottles and glasses!
We were all in bed by 10 pm, but that allowed Rodrigo, Matt and me to get up early and climb to the summit of Mt. Porcon the next morning. It was only an hour hike on a dirt path to reach the top and the views were amazing. After all my reluctance to go, I completely fell for Porcon and would love to go back to do more hiking. It was peaceful and picturesque – the perfect getaway weekend.
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