A World Apart and Yet So Similar

My family spent all of our summer vacations, and many Sundays in-between, at a cottage on Lower Nemahbin Lake. Only about 40 minutes away from our home in Milwaukee, or, when we moved, Watertown, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. Probably because it was the middle of nowhere to my mom, who was a city girl through and through and hated to drive on the freeway. Now it is considered “Lake Country” where professionals live and commute to Milwaukee, but back then it was the boondocks – farm fields, one grocery store in town and the lakes. The cottage added to the boondocks feel: no indoor plumbing save a cold-water kitchen sink added in the 70s, mismatched furniture, tired kitchenware, one “parents” bedroom downstairs and a cobwebby upstairs where we kids fought over the ancient 5 beds. But to me, it was paradise. (Saying Goodbye to My Childhood )

Fast forward 30 years to Puerto Ayora, my and Matt’s new home on Isla Santa Cruz on the Galapagos Islands. This truly is the middle of nowhere – 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador – but as the largest town on the islands, it is a curious combination of isolation and tourism. We have lived here slightly over 2 weeks and it is apparent that nothing prepared me better for life on the Galapagos than those summers at The Lake.

Glorious View from Our Balcony

Glorious View from Our Balcony

I’m sticky. All the time. The temperature hasn’t dropped below 80º or the humidity below 70%. At the moment it is 7:23 am and the temperature is 81.1º with 79% humidity. I sit, as usual, with a fine sheen of sweat and frizzed out hair. We do have a shower but it is an island, so you are supposed to try to conserve water. (Yes, I realize that seems backwards, but while there is plenty of salt water around, there isn’t a lot of fresh water). So I try to shower once a day although sometimes I break down and have to take another one. At The Lake there was no shower. My mom would heat up some water and give herself a sponge bath, but the rest of us would just go jump in the lake. Literally.

The plumbing is a bit…primitive. It looks nice – huge shower, double sink, jacuzzi tub, but the apartment has cold water. To be fair, our landlord asked if we wanted him to hook up the hot water (sun heated, I think, without the aid of solar panels) so we do have some hot water in the shower, but it has a mind of its own and with the heat, I prefer a cold shower anyhow. We were told to turn the water off as we soap up to conserve water and not flood the bathroom. We wash dishes, and everything else, with cold water. You can’t flush toilet paper; it goes in the bin in the bathroom. So the bathroom smells like an outhouse. A bonus of our apartment is that the toilet is in its own little compartment, so at least that is the only room that smells like an outhouse. I realize that years of mouth breathing in the outhouse at The Lake come in handy here as well, especially when I take out the trash.

Indoor Outhouse

Indoor Outhouse

I live in shorts, sandals and swimsuits. For the first time since I was 12, I walked down the road (to the beach) in a swimsuit. A modest one, mind you, shorts and a tummy-covering top, but even so, it felt like being a kid again. At night it doesn’t cool off, so there is no need for jeans or sweatshirts like in Wisconsin, but we are told that will change. I’m not convinced and love wearing casual summer attire all the time.

There are plenty of bugs, inside and out. We don’t have air conditioning in our apartment, so the windows and doors are always open – day and night. We do have screens, but that doesn’t stop the critters (or dirt) from getting inside. The day we arrived, I noticed that our kitchen counters had tons of microscopic ants and spiders everywhere. I was appalled. I obsessively killed them and bought Raid to assist in the genocide. Now I just smoosh them and keep eating. I store food in plastic bags and sometimes in the microwave because I haven’t seen an ant in there yet. Like The Lake, every night at dusk we are driven inside by the mosquitos. Instead of daddy longlegs, our mosquito eaters here are the geckos. I’ve learned to co-exist with them and they have become a part of our nightly entertainment as we cheer them on while they catch the bugs.

Everything is a bit grimy. The water is non-potable and has a sticky feel. We don’t have a washer or dryer so laundry either goes to the full service laundry (no self serve here) or I hand wash and hang dry. When you pay by the pound, your definitions of clean and hand-washable change. But something about the combination of the detergent I bought and the water leaves the hand wash smelling less than fresh, so I am considering in investing in a washing machine though I worry that the dryer at the laundry may be what is killing whatever is stinking up my wash. I sweep, clean the floors and wipe up the counters constantly, but it is a losing battle against the dirt. I remember at The Lake wiping down the plastic tablecloth covered table after dinner and noticing that it was still sticky. That’s what it feels like wiping down the counters here. And the geckos poop everywhere! It looks like bird poop. I am currently trying to figure out how to clean it off my ceiling without it falling all over me.

Poopy Gecko

Poopy Gecko

We have plenty, but not exactly everything we want. Much to my dad’s annoyance, my mom used to pack two cars to the gills (and I swear at times things were tied to the top) to go to The Lake for 2 weeks even though it was less than an hour from our house. Now I understand. Like my mom, I packed my own things. We have 29 boxes, about half of it kitchen/household wares, in transit from Peru. It has been two months since it left my old home and is currently on a cargo ship. I don’t really expect it to arrive to the island for at least another month, but it will feel like Christmas when it does. Our apartment is partially furnished, so we have the basics but the dishes are mismatched and chipped, the sheets don’t fit the bed and we have one small frying pan and two pots. Unlike my mom, who would never buy anything, I broke down and bought two utensils and some dish towels to tide us over.

Kitchenware

Kitchenware

It is the same with food. We can get plenty to eat, but not the variety we are accustomed to (even less than in Cajamarca). My mom used to bring food from Milwaukee – the brands of pasta and sauce she liked among other things- and turned up her nose at the limited selection at the local grocery store. On the other hand, I embrace going to the Saturday morning market (the earlier you arrive, the lower the prices!) and buying from the farmers, but also look forward to next April when we will be back in the US and can eat lamb or Mexican food or countless other ethnic foods that aren’t available here.

Entertainment is both limited and limitless. There are no movie theaters, concerts, plays, or golf courses. Our internet is sporadic. The town has a minuscule library that I have yet to find open. At The Lake, the black and white TV was only turned on for the late news and Johnny Carson (except when Nixon resigned). Days were spent outside: swimming, canoeing, going for walks, goofing off. At night or on rainy days, we played cards and board games or read a book. So it is here. We have a TV, even cable and a DVD player, but we don’t turn it on often. We can go swimming and snorkeling every single day, there are great walks to take to beaches and in the highlands, and we can stroll though town at night and watch the sharks feed alongside the pier or the sea lions sleep. We play cards and games and just relax. Life is slower here and it is fantastic. Some might find it boring or frustrating, but I find it a return to the best part of my childhood: waking up to the sound of the water on the shore.

Paradise

Paradise

Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

As is clear from my prior posts, Matt and I take full advantage of our life in the mountains and hike most weekends. But the truth is that I like walking far more than I like climbing up and down mountains. That said, when Matt, our friend Carl and Carl’s brother Mark decided they were tackling the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, I decided that I would regret not hiking more than I may end up regretting hiking the trail. We shall see if that proves to be true come early October.

The last time I did an overnight hiking/camping trip was in 1984. Yes, 30 YEARS ago. Watertown (WI) Senior High School had this bizarre right of passage reserved for a select group of decent students: Survival Hike. Led by biology teachers Carlos Alvarez and Dan Herbst (I think another teacher, Tim Gifford was also along for the ride my year), Survival Hike occurred the summer after sophomore year and involved 5 days of trekking up to 20 miles per day in Northern Wisconsin with the “treat” of white water canoeing on the 6th day. The catch, apart from the fact that we carried our own gear, bushwhacked trails, were eaten alive by mosquitos and camped every night: no food. Actually, in the early years food was allowed. First, groups were given $20 to buy provisions for the week. By the time my sister, Mick, went on the hike, provisions totaling a few hundred calories were provided and included a dog biscuit and chocolate. Six years later, we were given nothing – we only ate what we foraged or caught. A few years later, the hike was discontinued.

To this day, I have no idea why our parents allowed Mick or me to participate in Survival Hike. We were not an outdoorsy family and never camped. My mom considered it part of her martyrdom that our vacations were at a cottage with an outhouse. I was not athletic and didn’t own any gear; my mom borrowed a pair of hiking boots that were a size too big for me from a friend’s daughter and I have no idea where my pack came from. Apart from some city walking (we had actually moved to Wauwatosa during my sophomore year but I was given a special exemption to go on the hike, probably because my dad played baseball with Mr. Herbst), I didn’t train at all and never carried a pack.

But I survived. Oh, I whined and probably cried, and threw up when the only thing we found to eat for the entire trip were unripe apples and raspberries (to this day I despise raspberries) on the first day, got about 50 mosquito bites and several blisters, hiked in the rain (I hate wet grass), and lost 15 pounds in 6 days, but I did it. I still don’t exactly understand why I did it, but I have some great memories from the trek: like when two of the guys had to share my friend Katie and my tent because they lost their tent poles and then one of the guys slept walked during a thunderstorm and knocked our tent down. You can imagine the ensuing teenage-girl hysteria. Or when some other kids were getting sent home due to health issues and Mr. Alvarez gave me the option to leave (I really was whining that much) and I made the decision to stay. I like to think that I stopped whining quite so much after that point, but that may be wishful thinking. Or the fact that a guy from Mick’s year, who cried and blamed her when their canoe tipped in the rapids, came along on my year (I think he was doing a bit for NPR) and acted all cool, college-guy when I knew the truth – he just wanted redemption. Plus, it was in the days where your parents signed some waiver and then you got to do totally dangerous, unhealthy things AT YOUR OWN RISK and they didn’t check up on you during the week. And it was long before cell phones so you were in the moment doing what you were doing (hiking! starving!) and not taking pictures and posting every two minutes or calling your parents (or your sister to tell her that cry-baby guy was on your trip although that would have been fun). In fact, I don’t have a single picture from the trip although I am sure someone took a few that I would love/cringe to see.

So with that questionable history, I am signed up for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Compared to Survival Hike, it should be a piece of cake: no bushwhacking, porters to carry the heavy gear, good meals made by the camp cook, decent hiking boots, 26.5 miles over the course of 4 days and no white-water canoeing. But the reality is that the altitude is a killer for many people, the hike is very steep both in ascents and descents, and I am 30 years older. This time, though, I am training and Matt and I have stepped up our weekend hikes to add more altitude. I am even carrying my daypack despite the fact that Matt is usually my porter on our hikes. So maybe my whining will be kept to a minimum on this hike although be warned Matt, Carl and Mark – I am not promising anything.

Don’t Cry for Me – I’m in Argentina

After a wonderful 3 1/2 weeks in Wisconsin over Christmas, Matt and I escaped the bitter cold for Buenos Aires, Argentina.  We have literally gone from a low temperature of -17 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees F.  For the first time I understand why people think we are crazy to live through Wisconsin winters – I’ll take the heat over the cold any day.

Our time in Wisconsin was non-stop as we packed every moment with visits with friends and family.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I had all but two of our days booked before we even got to Wisconsin!  As an added bonus, the frigid temperatures allowed us to spend those two unplanned days with Shannon and Kieran whose school was closed.  We spent our last weekend in the US with friends in San Antonio, Texas – a good way to ease back into warmer temperatures and a less hectic pace. Here are pictures of some of the fun we had in the US.

And then we were off to Argentina, via a 24-hour layover in Lima. Because we have been to Lima a handful of times, we decided to take it easy and spent a leisurely day walking through some parks and along the coastal cliffs before we headed to the airport for our midnight flight.

IMG_2477

After what seemed like endless travel and waiting (our connection in Chile was delayed), we finally landed in Buenos Aires.  While both Matt and I still have a lot of Spanish to learn, we were proud of how well we navigated Argentine immigration and customs.  Unlike other countries we have entered, the Argentine government took our mug shots and thumbprints.  As Matt pointed out, we have no idea what the US government does for non-citizens, so maybe this is similar treatment.  Our flight had been delayed about two hours so we were relieved when a driver holding a “Matt Geiger” sign was waiting for us.  Franco took us to our apartment in Palermo Hollywood, a very nice, vibrant part of the city, where we met our landlady, Norma.  Norma was headed to Washington DC to stay with her daughter for 6 months and spoke excellent English, which was a bonus for us after a night of little sleep and travel.  As we are in Buenos Aires for 3 1/2 weeks, we opted to get an apartment because it was more economical than a hotel and would give us more space.  We are happy we did so and have settled in nicely to our new digs and neighborhood.

Our apartment is a duplex, which means we have a downstairs living area and narrow staircase up to the second floor.  The second floor has an office niche that we are using as a luggage storage and clothes drying area, an awesome walk-in closet,  bedroom, another patio, and a unique bathroom area – a small, separate toilet area, a nice open area with the sink, a bathtub and a bunch of open shelves and then the shower, which is a narrow 5×2 foot area that has the patio door at the end of it.  While the door is frosted about halfway down, I think I may be flashing the neighbors when I shower! There is also a typical European shower in the downstairs powder room toilet area – a hand held shower and a drain on the floor, but I will stick with flashing the neighbors rather than showering over a toilet in a 3×2 space.  The upstairs is too narrow for photos, but here are pictures of the downstairs.

Buenos Aires is amazing – we love the vibe here and are having a great time despite the heat.  The food and wine are delicious and the dollar is strong.  More to come soon…