Sweet Home

Our traveled legs were ready to rest. Our souls were filled with enough adventure to tide us over for a while. Our thoughts started drifting toward home. We began checking flight prices. One day it became clear that our next destination was going to be the USA. Better yet, we were able to secure flights to arrive the morning of my grandma’s 92nd birthday. We decided to surprise her and it worked. She walked into my parents living room to see us sitting on the couch. She wrinkled up her whole face in pure confusion and said, “Well, WHAT in the world are you two doing here?” An outsider may have thought she was disgusted at us, but we knew she was pleased. Very pleased.

Grandma's 92nd birthday

We’ve been in Iowa for a few weeks now and it’s been great to be back. Especially when that same healthy and independent grandma suddenly passed away this past Saturday. It is such a complete shock. I go up to her empty house and cannot believe that she’s not there in her chair, happy to see me. At the same time, I recognize that to pass away in a cozy bed as a happy 92-year-old is probably exactly the way my grandma would have wanted to go. No nonsense and living well until the very end. I’m also beyond grateful that we felt a nudge back to Iowa before we had originally planned. Those small miracles are like friendly, I’ve-got-your-back winks from God. So we won’t complain and we will carry on, just as my grandma has demonstrated in so many different ways throughout her life.

People often ask if we were struck with culture shock or are having trouble adjusting and I always answer, a bit surprised myself, that we’re doing quite well. We seem to have slipped back into the culture we call our own without a fuss. We’re enjoying the variety of foods we had missed and are soaking up time with my family. Soon we will travel again – this time just within the States to visit Isaiah’s family and some of our friends.

Allison, Troy, Marie

Mom and dad in kitchen

Thush and Austin

We don’t have a set plan for our future. We’ve barely started looking for jobs. We haven’t picked a city or state in which to live next. Some moments I’m so excited to make some decisions, get our own casa and unpack those glorious boxes from storage and carefully choose a place for everything (yes, that is my idea of a very, very good time). Other times I’m content to be just where we are. I’m not yet to Isaiah-level ability to live in the moment, but I feel greatly improved since before this whole Peace Corps experience.

Marie in leaves

Isaiah and Marie in leaves

Isaiah in leaves

It’s been a good ride and the adventure shouldn’t stop here. However, this blog will. I so enjoyed using this blog to process my thoughts in Paraguay and it was a great way to keep in touch with you all back home. My grandma kept saying, “What would we ever have done without those blogs? We wouldn’t have been able to imagine your life at all.” I hope it gave you a taste of the Paraguayan culture and the friends we made there. Thank you for following us, supporting us and cheering us on in all that we did.

It’s not goodbye, it’s just see you later. Or shall we say, jajatopata!

Guayaquil, Ecuador

After a week of being beach bums we realized that was the longest we’d stayed in one place for some time. So we knew it was time to head on again. This time to Ecuador. We took a bus into the beautiful city of Guayaquil. Although we really only had one day here, we were struck by its charm. It was clean, well-kept and we spent the day walking along the enormouse boardwalk area that was full of pristine green spaces, restaurants and play areas. The architecture was well planned with a strong nautical theme, which was implemented in an excellent fashion.

We heard that Guayaquil once had been more of a troubled city, but in the past number of years they have cleaned it up, making it a great destination along the water in Ecuador.

 

Mancora, Peru

After our jungle expeditions we thought it was time to relax on a beach and get some book reading and surf watching done. So we headed up to Mancora, Peru to do just that. It was a great little beach town with loads of little coffee shops and delicious restaurants. We soaked up the life of official beach bums for a full week before moving on.

 

Amazon Rainforest

We went to the jungle. We survived. (Toughest part: the overnight bus ride where Isaiah and I took turns losing our lunch in the bathroom thanks to curvy mountains, a break-happy driver, and our Dramamine locked away in our luggage under the bus.)

Once there we recovered and saw monkeys and parrots and birds of all kinds. Our guides invited us up-close to giant tarantulas—not having realized we’d been running into those hairy friends from the comfort of our own bedroom for the past two years.

Amazon Rainforest - Tarantula Tours

We took boat rides and hikes and soaked up some delicious sunrises and sets. We went with Tarantula Tours and the guides’ vast knowledge made the trip. One of our guides had grown up in the depths of the jungle, never journeying into town (a 6-hour hike followed by 4-hour motorboat ride) until he was 11-years-old.

Amazon Rainforest - Tarantula Tours

He knew all about what plants you could eat and the healing properties they offered. He showed us the palm tree that actually moves up to 30 centimeters per year by putting down a new exposed root out front and losing one from the back. A walking tree.

Our time was enjoyed thoroughly. And with flashbacks of balancing ourselves in the tiny bus bathroom fresh in our minds, we left the jungle via plane.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Waking up at 4 in the morning on my dad’s birthday was worth its effort to get some looks at the famous Machu Picchu without hoards of other tourists in our view. We had arrived in Aguas Calientes, also now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, the night before via train from Ollantaytambo.

Machu Picchu, Peru

We grabbed a quick breakfast and were in line by 4:45am for the half hour bus that takes you to the entrance of Machu Picchu. The buses don’t start running until 5:30am and Machu Picchu opens at 6am, so we waited.

Machu Picchu, Peru

It was a dreary day with rain spritzing on us, not ideal for our probably once-in-a-lifetime look at the old Inca ruins that are famous worldwide. That didn’t remove the sheer awe I felt walking into the old city and catching my first glimpse.

Machu Picchu, Peru

We just stood there and took it in, watching the clouds pass and return, casting their shadows across the meticulously maintained grounds of the old scholarly grounds of the Incas.

Machu Picchu, Peru

A couple of hours later, more groups began to arrive and the clouds had completely eliminated any such view of the city. Then I heard a huge collective gasp followed by claps and cheering as I looked out on the now-clear expanse of bright green lawn and the remains of the city that once was. Being a part of that collective appreciation of beauty and history (and cloud-clearing) caused emotion to well within me and soon my vision was blocked again, this time by my own tears.

Machu Picchu, Peru

We sat, we snacked, we snapped lots of photos, and we hired a guide for more background information. We walked out to the Inca Bridge and then climbed to the Sun Gate to look out over the masterpiece from a distance.

Machu Picchu, Peru

In the afternoon as it was nearing our time to grab our train back to Cuzco, the sun decided to come out and the skies cleared up, giving us quite a spectacular view to carry in our memories from our visit to Machu Picchu.

Copacabana, Bolivia and Ollantaytambo, Peru

After our salt flat tour, we took an overnight bus to La Paz, Bolivia, arriving early in the morning. Due to that day being a national holiday we didn’t know about, we quickly hopped on a bus heading to Copacabana before all modes of transportation shut down for the day. Little did we know, that decision would later having us crying for our lives.

It started out as a normal bus ride, with us feeling victorious that our long distance bus had arrived early, making it possible for us to catch a bus heading to Copacabana that same day. Copacabana is the town on Lake Titicaca and we were all looking forward to soaking in its beauty.

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I dozed off since sleep on a bus is rarely fully restful, but woke to our bus driver announcing that there was a road block due to a strike/protest and asking any of his passengers if they knew another way through. One man in the front spoke up, giving directions and we were on our way again.

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I drifted back to sleep, dreaming of spending a couple of peaceful days overlooking Lake Titicaca. Suddenly I was jolted awake as our bus stopped. I glanced out my window to a sheer drop-off what felt like inches away. The front window showed the tiny, pure dirt road that was serving as our alternative route. This narrow road wound around tight mountain curves and was clearly not meant for a huge bus.

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The four of us looked at each other nervously but tried to remind ourselves that this was surely normal and we just weren’t used to these tight conditions, especially with no guard rails. That didn’t last long, however, as soon as the local folks who were riding the bus with us started to scream out to the driver to “take it slow!” and “be careful!”

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The fact that the locals were getting nervous meant I needed to get myself off that bus. It was clear to me it was not worth the risk of one of our tires slipping over the edge. Just then we came upon a particularly tight corner pass, including needing to cross over a washed out section that had caused a deep divot. I looked behind us and saw a long line of 4×4 vehicles and a couple of smaller buses. It appeared we were the guinea pigs in this situation, not a preferred position.

At this point the locals were standing up and asking to be let off the bus, so the bus could attempt the pass without passengers and if all went well, we could re-board. Relieved at the chance to get off the bus, we four stood up and watched as the first handful of passengers scurried off the bus to the safety of solid ground. Then the driver shut the door and started moving forward.

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What? I am not one to stay quiet in many situations so I started shouting to the driver in Spanish, “We want to get off, sir! Please, let us off!” and when that wasn’t getting a response I let out a loud, “Sir, WE WANT TO LIVE!” This got some chuckles from a few local people, but only out of their shared nervousness about the situation and their equal desire to live.

I was furious but my cries weren’t being answered and the aisle was blocked with all the other people calling out to get off, to no avail. The driver inched forward and forward, and after some agonizing moments of holding our breath we had made it across the divot and around the tight bend.

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The few lucky ones who had escaped got back on the bus except for one particularly feisty and smart woman dressed in her traditional Incan clothing, who continued to jog ahead of the bus, long braids swinging, until at last she felt comfortable re-boarding and joining the rest of us who were now bonded from the terrorizing experience.

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A few minutes more and we reached the end of the alternative route, turned back onto a wide, hard-surfaced non-mountain road and everyone thanked their God, lucky stars, and the Pachamama for the chance to keep on living.

Then when we got to a body of water and our big bus started climbing aboard a long wooden boat with a tiny motor, we thought it odd but in comparison to what we just lived through, was quite easy to endure.

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We arrived in Copacabana safe and mostly sound and spent a relaxing couple of days there, with highlights of running into a fellow Goshen College grad as well as walking around the beautiful Isla del Sol (Island of Sun).

Next we crossed the border into Peru and its Sacred Valley. We all loved our time in the small, quaint town of Ollantaytambo with its delicious restaurants and cute cafes and narrow traditional little streets.

From Olly, as we liked to call it for ease of pronunciation, we would set off by train for our chance to finally see the big kahuna: Machu Picchu.

Bolivia Salt Flat Tour: Day 4

The last day of our tour started early as we explored Fish Island, which wasn’t really an island as it was surrounded by salt flats instead of water. Still, looking out at the vast expanse of white salt was quite stunning.

Then we drove farther out into the salt flats so you could hardly see anything else. This was not only unique but also provided the opportunity to take some silly pictures since the miles of nothing but salt really alter your sense of perspective.

Bolivia Salt Flat Tour: Day 3

Rock formations in the middle of deserts, flamingo-filled lagoons, and more mountains filled our third day of the Uyuni Salt Flats Tour. That evening we had our first really good night of sleep in a little hotel made completely of salt that was vacant except for the four of us.

Before heading to the hotel we were shown human remains and some small artifacts of a now extinct indigenous group that had once inhabited the area. They were of a slight build–probably not much more than four feet tall. The woman in charge of the “exhibit” wanted to turn it into more of a museum once she could raise the necessary funds, but at the moment it seemed there wasn’t much known about these ancient folks.

Bolivia Salt Flat Tour: Day 2

Bolivia Salt Falt Tour: Day 1

After trying our hand at mining in Potosí, we headed to Tupiza in order to start our much anticipated 4-day tour of the Bolivian salt flats.

Bolivia Salt Flat Tour, Day 1 - Llama

We were highly satisfied with the company we chose, Ciudad del Encanto Tours. It’s a family-run business where you communicate with the son to get everything set up and the dad is your driver, tour guide, and even cook when his wife needs to tend to their llamas at their home, like during our tour.

He was laid-back and professional and such a hard worker. His days started early and ended after we fell into bed. The food was delicious, the company was welcome, and the scenery was quite spectacular.

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