Thursday, October 30, 2008

a GOLDEN day...

How is it possible that I: a) don't have a job b) am not actively trying to save the world and c) can't think of anything of huge significance that I've done in the last 1.5 weeks and I still have not found time to update this blog??

I have all sorts of ideas I want to write about but before any further ado...I want to recap my big 28th birthday...

So I'm pretty sure at this point that if you have ever met me, you know that I am pretty big into birthdays (pretty big into them meaning completely and utterly obsessed) so when my GOLDEN 28th birthday was coming around, I was more than excited.

But...I have to say that as of about a week ago, I was pretty sure that while I'm sure the day was going to be nice, I wasn't convinced that it would be anything special. No big plans. No big parties. Just a random Tuesday and as it turns out, most people work on that day :)

But let me tell all of my readers that my family and friends did NOT disappoint. The day (and celebration leading up to the day) was simply just perfect.

The celebration "officially" began last Friday night...

So when I had just arrived in Peru, I got an email from my friend Kara informing me that I would be home soon and we needed to get restaurant reservations immediately on the calendar. By the way, at this point, I still had about 2.5 months left of my 6 month program....but trust me I didn't argue with her!

Especially when she told me that we were not just going to any restuarant but my favorite restaurant in the entire world (and I've been around the block a couple times people...) We were going to the new MANNY'S!!

There are just no words...this restaurant is the best. Where else can you go to get a steak the size of a small infant, double crispy hash browns loaded with onions, a stinky and amazing oversized clump of blue cheese and of course...TWO huge desserts with onto the big day. I woke up on Tuesday morning and discovered one of the best parts of having a lot of newly found international friends is that I got emails all through the night!

Then, just like clockwork the same as the last 28 years, I hear my door opening and lots of rustling going on in my condo. Now you'd think I'd want to check it out to make sure it wasn't a robber but nope...I stayed in bed like a good birthday girl.

My mom and great friend David walked into my room with bagels, yogurt, bananas, MY coffee and of course, lots of Happy Birthday decorations. Breakfast in there really a better way to start the day?
Then I walked out into my condo and on my table were a pile of ALL of my very favorite board games! Yep...we were having a morning of games complete with prizes...Pictionary, Balderdash and my mom and David were even kind enough to indulge me in Connect Four (although I remain the undisputed champion...)After kicking both of their asses in pretty much every competition, it was off to lunch (I mean come on, what's the point of a birthday if you can't be in a continuous state of eating??) We went to the Minneapolis "institution" Monte Carlo for the incredible wings and spicy beans...mmmm. My dad and brother met us and of course, another candle awaited (seriously, like 75% of my brithday pictures are either of me eating or me in front of a dessert...)After lunch, it was off to meet my friends to do some Halloween costume shopping. Normal shopping...not my thing. Halloween costume shopping? Fabulous.'s been an entire paragraph...time to eat again.

All my friends came to dinner at another Minneapolis classic: Ike's. Simply cannot beat their burger (I think I'm hungry...) It was the first time I had ALL of my friends together since I've been back and it was great. I honestly looked around the table a few times and could hardly believe that we were actually all sitting together...
And after dinner? What tops off a fabulous birthday better than a chance to be on stage?? Yep. It was time for some karaoke.
Rachel and I headed off, rocked it out and even met an amazing a capella group who dedicate a song to me (oh...and bought me very unneeded drinks...)
Like I big plans. No huge parties. Just my a day doing my favorite things, eating my favorite foods, singing my favorite songs and being with favorite people. And really, what more could a birthday girl wish for.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions...

See?? I haven't forgotten about you! And thank you all for your e-mails, comments, wall posts, phone calls, visits and HUGS over the last week. I'm telling you that they have made the re-entry period much less painful!

So I've been back a whopping 3 whole days and throughout that time, have hung out with friends, family, ran into old co-workers and caught up on the phone and internet with many "long-distance" friends. And throughout those conversations, I have noticed an ALARMING pattern of the questions I've been getting.

Add to that, I am about to attend the literal Superbowl of weddings this Sunday. It is like the perfect combination of family, friends, parents' friends and a whole bunch of people who I will have no idea who they are but somehow will know me. I am very excited for this wedding but am literally afraid of the questioning I may face at this event.

So, without further is my list of FAQs and Answers to the most popular "So, you've been gone for 6 months..." questions:

1. What was your favorite country?
This question is impossible. Impossible! But here is what I've come up with...

The overall winner? Peru. Great food, family, friends, project, city, weather...this place had it all.

My favorite school to teach at? Honduras. Amazing kids with a really structured program. It was awesome.

Closest to my heart? Guatemala. I think just being the first country with incredible people, indigenous students in arguably the most gorgeous city, it is a hard one to beat.

2. If you had to do it again, would you?
Abso-fucking-lutly. I have nothing more to add. Just a strong and defiant YES. The best decision I have ever made...

3. What was the food like?
Every country was VERY different but here is a quick run down...

  • Guatemala: Traditional food in the house...good cook...lots of chicken and meat with rice and beans. House specialty? Pepian...SOOO good.
  • Honduras: I actually lived in a restaurant. My house mom served and catered out of her home so every meal was a traditional Honduran delight! But better LOVE the beans in Honduras. And bananas. There are plenty of both. Bring the GasX.
  • Ecuador: Definitely the LOSER on a culinary front. This was my menu every single day:
    • Breakfast: Bread roll and tea
    • Lunch: Mystery sandwich (often bread and caramel) and 2 black bananas
    • Dinner: A plate cut down the center...half white rice, half french fries.
      • mmmm...Dr. Atkins would have loved this place
  • Peru: Great food. A really good mix of Peruvian and "American" food. She even made me blue box mac and cheese a couple times but the best part about my Peruvian family? First family to fully embrace dessert!
4. Favorite travel spots
So hard but topping the list are...Belize (paradise come true), Machu Picchu, the whole backpacking trip through Nicaragua and Costa Rica and Lake Titicaca. (there were so many others...Chile, Colca Canyon, Tikal...the list just goes on and on)

5. What were the low points?
Like I said in my last entry, this trip definitely had its ups and downs...but SO many more ups. But when I think about the low points...three come to mind...
  • Night number 2 in Guatemala (2nd day of the whole trip)...I just remember being on top of a crazy mountain and thinking to myself "I can't believe I just left behind the best friends and family in the whole world for this?" I had serious doubts on whether or not I would make it through.
  • When my grandfather died...very difficult to find out about it so far away
  • One "sniffly" night in Honduras..I had come down with a terrible cold, snot running down my face, terrible kleenex all over the bed, spiders and frogs on the floor, hard rain on my tin roof keeping me awake. I just remember thinking "I am SOOOO over this..."
6. High points?
Again, absolutely impossible question. Just way too many to count. But it really is the tiny, insignificant moments all piled on top of one another that added up to what was just an unbelievable ride.

7. (and the WORST one...) So...what now??
This is the question that we all learn to dread and hate from about February of senior year of college.

The short answer? I do not know yet!

The long answer? Well...first is that I have jury duty so I'm not jumping into anything too huge before that! But, I am definitely exploring some options and I am just trying to find a way to use all of the experience and knowledge I have gained over not just the last 6 months but the last 28 years and use those gifts in the best way I know how.

I know it's not the answer you are looking for and I know the wedding guests' eyes will glaze over at "exploring options" but looks like you are just going to have to keep reading the blog to find out!


P.S...wish me luck on Sunday. I'm thinking of making handouts...

Monday, October 20, 2008

How can sum up the most amazing experience of my entire life?

I just re-read my very first blog entry from over 6 months ago and I just cannot believe that I am back on my big red couch in my downtown Minneapolis condo writing once again. It is so hard to believe that only 6 short months ago, I did not know Spanish, did not know the kids I would teach or the people I would meet, did not know how to live out of a suitcase for months and most importantly, did not know nearly as much about myself.

I have learned more in the last 6 months than through all the hours in a classroom or office cubicle combined. I have been more happy, more sad, more excited, more scared, more curious, more frustrated, more patient and more content than I can ever remember.

When I actually stop to think that the experience that I have wanted to do for a lifetime is now behind me, I really cannot believe it. In so many ways it seems like a blurry dream with photo flashes of some moments that are still clear in my mind.

Some of my most vivid memories are not what you might expect. It's not summiting Machu Picchu or swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos. Some of the most vivid memories I have are the simple ones.

I can still remember my first Friday in Guatemala when a little girl tied a friendship bracelet onto my wrist. I didn't have a camera to capture the moment but for some reason, at that very moment when I looked at her hands on my hands, I knew that this would be an unforgettable ride.

But I could never, ever have imagined just how incredible it really would be.

Every single person I have met along the way has made the last six months extraordinary. I cannot thank you all individually here but to every volunteer, host family, student, teacher and friend...I thank you with my whole heart.

Throughout the last year, many of you and others have said to me that they have often thought about doing something like this. If you are serious about it I say DO IT. I can promise you it will never be a decision you will regret.

I completely understand that not everyone is in a position to take 6 months from their lives and do this journey. But I met so many people who are doing this work in other ways, for shorter times, with their families, with jobs waiting...the list goes on. If any of you, at any time want to talk to me about doing something like this...please do!!

When I started this blog, I thought it would simply be a place to capture my thoughts and experiences in a public forum. What I never expected was that it would become a huge part of the experience itself.

I know that sounds crazy but there were honestly times when I chose to do something a little crazier, a little funnier, with a little more spirit because of this electronic journal. Even when things got rough, I could usually smile and say, "at least it will make a good blog story!"

About half way through, I installed something on here so I could track how many "fans" I have. I have about 40 people or so that check this every day. Other than my mom, dad, sister and 3 friends, I have no idea who you are! I would LOVE it if as many people as possible could leave a quick comment or drop me an email just so I know who has been along with me on this ride.

You need to know that by you my reading my blog, I was inspired to keep writing in it and because of that, you have all given me the best souvenir that I could have ever, ever asked for. I will treasure these entries for a lifetime.

Also, I have enjoyed blogging so much that I think I'm going to keep it up! I know my stories will take a SERIOUS turn for the more mundane and boring but I hope I can still keep you guys interested! I'll probably blog a little less often but hopefully pretty regularly.

I hope the blog will continue to inspire me to do crazier, more outrageous, more passionate things and that you will all be there to join me on the ride (a bit of a preview?? I have JURY DUTY starting in about 3 weeks!! Yep...I was summoned while away...)

So how does it feel to be home? In a word...weird. In two words? Weird and wonderful.

In reading my very first journal entry, I realized how focussed I was on "figuring out what I wanted to do." I think I can honestly say I have made no miraculous discoveries. No big decisions. No life changing moments.

But I have learned something even more important about "figuring it out"...I'm not sure I ever will or ever actually want to.

Of course I will make career decisions and of course, I hope that I am happy, passionate, challenged and maybe even making some small difference in the world. But for me, the answer of what I want to be when I grow up has changed.

I want to be a person who cares about others. Who follows her passions and dreams. Who never stops being curious. Who always knows that everyone can teach you so much and the biggest lessons usually come from the smallest people. Who never stops learning. Who loves passionately.

I know this journey has brought me closer to that place.

Thank you all for coming with me on the ride.

Here's to the next chapter...


Saturday, October 18, 2008

The long road home...

Ok can do this. You have written for 6 months we go.

Well, the last 8 days since I left Arequipa have been a whirlwind to say the least. But I just ate my very last Lomo Saltado (the most delicious dish in Peru...) and I think I am now ready to write about my last travel adventure (at least in this chapter...)
I basically have spent the last week working my way up from Arequipa to Lima to fly home.

So last Friday night, I boarded a bus in Arequipa. I said a very tearful goodbye to my host family in the terminal and climbed aboard Peru's Finest: Cruz del Sur bus line. Seriously...Northwest could learn a thing or two from these people.

Seats recline. TV screens like every 2 feet. Good snacks. All good. But there are a few things that Cruz del Sur lacks:

1. Heat (I have never been so freaking cold in my entire life)
2. Movies that were released post 1985 (we watched Explorers...Ethan Hawke when he was like 9 battling green aliens...oh...and in Spanish)
3. Oh, right...hire drivers that can drive!

So in reference to number 3, this ride was supposed to be about 9 hours give or take. About 3 hours into the ride as I was drifing off in my freezing seat, we hit something. At first I thought we just blew a tire or hit a speed bump (seriously, my frame of reference is so screwed up). I honestly almost just turned over and went back to sleep.

But then, I realized we were not moving again. Nope. Turns out...we hit...a TRUCK. Yep. Double decker bus meets truck. Not pretty.

So rather than press on to Cusco as planned, we turned back around to Arequipa! And this time, we were moving at a snail's pace. So at about 3:30 am...we rolled BACK into Arequipa. Dragged our half frozen asses into a NEW bus and again, headed to Cusco. Not exactly an ideal way to start a week long trip.

In any case, I arrived in Cusco, got my bag and started putting on my best "I look lost. Are you looking to pick up someone named Debra?" face and roamed around the terminal. I didn't have high hopes. It's not like these people who were going to pick me up can exactly check the flight schedule to see when I was supposed to come in.

But I just plopped down and waited. I honestly am not sure I was completely conscious at this point. After about 20 minutes...I was found. Hooray!

We headed to the hostal and was told that I had missed the tour I was supposed to take that morning but do not worry, there was another in about 2 hours. I did my best to stay awake, freshen up a bit, de-thaw and and I was off to the Land of the Tourists.

Now before this 6-month trip, I was a classic tourist. I liked hop-on hop-off bus rides. I liked iteneraries. Not so much anymore. As soon as I stepped on the bus and was surrounded by a Florida woman who didn't stop complaining and a family of like 6 kids, I was ready to be back in Arequipa.

But I put on my tourist hat and we were off. Church. Church. Ruin. Ruin. Debra had a bit of ADD during the tour but apparently, we saw some super famous ruins: Sacsayhuaman (pronounced Sexy Woman...not kidding) and went to a very stylish Alpaca outlet store.
Needless to say...I then promply lost consciousness for like 11 hours.

I woke up the next day ready to HIKE. This whole trip was planned and included in my program so I had nothing to do with the planning. I pretty much had a 7 minute meeting about it about 2 hours before I left so I knew very little about what was going to happen.

But I was told that I had a full day of hiking Machu Pichu on Sunday. So I strapped on my hiking gear. Packed up my water, my snacks, my bandaids...I was ready.

So I got in the car with some other travellers and we were off. I looked at their gear and it just didn't look really "up to the task." Whatever...we'll see how it goes.

About 2 hours into the ride, I asked, "so do you know when we start hiking?"

"Hiking?? We aren't hiking! We are driving all the way to the bottom of Machu Picchu!" apparently the Arequipa people were misinformed. So with my hiking boots on and bandaids in hand, I was on a 9.5 hour car ride to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. The ride was beautiful...and terrifying! We were basically hanging off the edge of a cliff for the majority of it and when we had to pass another car, we had to drive on these cliffs in REVERSE. Basically I almost died several times but I would have died in good views.
Anyway, we arrived in Aguas Calientes in one piece and had to take a quick 40 minute train ride in. On the way, I had to use the train bathroom. So there I was and I looked up out the bathroom window...and caught my first glimpses of Macchu Pichu...I will NEVER forget that moment!

So we had one night in Aguas Calientes and we were up at 3:30a.m. to start our climb at 4:00. This was the hike part. ..and I was ready!
We climbed STRAIGHT up stairs for about 1.5 hours. It was hard but not nearly as hard as some other hikes I've done and I actually started to feel like a pro-hiker (ok...I mean, not a pro....but I really have come a long way since the says on Volcano Pecaya in Guatemala)

Our guide (who left us...not much of a guide) assured us it was a straight shot. But...we got lost.
Luckily for us, we got a new guide...a four-legged one! He guided us all the way up...and only on 3 good legs...thanks buddy!
At just a few minutes before 6, we arrived at the top...and it really was amazing. I was half -expecting to be underwhelmed just because there is SO much hype about it. But the hype is very well deserved. It is incredible...
After about 2 more hours of touring and hiking, I found a nice little mummies cave to seek some shade and hang out and just take the moment in for about an hour or so. It really was a time I will not soon forget.
(I promise that my pants are not actually this short...)

I went back down Machu Picchu in the afternoon and hung out in Aguas Calientes for the rest of the day. I was booked on the 10 hour bus ride back down but somehow doing the winding roads on a cliff at NIGHT, in the RAIN did not appeal.

So ( will be proud), I bought a train ticket outta there and back to very well spent.

The next day was basically another travel day...hung out in Cusco for the morning. Left on a 2:00p.m. bus and got to Nasca at 5:00am..yes...13 hours. Seriously people, is this for real?

I arrived at the dodgy station in the one to greet me. But within about 10 minutes, the friendliest man in all of Nasca named Fernando met me with open arms. He took me to his hostal (which I think is pretty much his house...with a bunch of rooms) and I had about an hour nap before starting the day.

Nasca is famous for one thing and one thing only...the Nasca Lines. Ever seen the movie Signs with Mel Gibson with the crop signs? It's kind of like that but the signs are like 3000 times bigger and they are from the Incas.

So how do you see these amazing wonders of the world?? In a TEENY TINY plane of course!
So I got in the smallest plane I've ever gotten in in my life (4 people in total including the pilot) and we were off to see the Nasca lines.

The pictures do this NO justice whatsoever... Seriously...Google guys. Google.
But the ride was awesome. Our pilot Raul did not move on from a symbol until all of us had seen it. Even if it meant doing virtual 360s until we were all on the verge of losing our breakfasts.

So like I said, the only thing to do in Nasca are the Nasca lines. But that doesn't stop tours from trying to make money by taking you other places. So basically I spent the rest of the day being dragged around (again, half in a coma) to see skeletons buried places, a dry dessert, a guy who made phallic pottery and some overly excited gold miner dude. It was all quite thrilling.
Next day, off again to Paracas. This time only a 5-hour ride (remember when I used to think that 5 hours to Madison was long? Not anymore...) I got in in the late afternoon and this was my cab...
I decided to check out the beach...and found my own little nirvana: Me, the beach, a sunset, a good book, a beer and french fries. I was a happy girl.
Early the next morning, it was off to see the Ballastras Islands. After the Galapagos, it is hard to impress this girl but I'm telling you, these were amazing! We had about a 3 hour boat ride with sea lions, birds, waves and just unbelievable sights of these islands formed purely of volcanic rock. Sooo cool...
Guess what?? It was back on the bus but this time, for the last time. Off to Lima. Cruz del Sur even treated us with a movie from this century and the ride flew by.

Got to Lima...surprise, one there. No big deal. Just wait...these people show up, right? Well...not this time. No one came.

Again, no problem. Just get in a cab. Tell the guy your hostel name. Well, three taxis later and no one knew of this hostel. One guy was willing to ride me around to look for it though.

After about an hour in the cab, I had had enough...just take me to ANY hotel with a bed. So he did...Percy came through and found me a somewhat dodgy, but more than acceptable hotel.

Let's just say I was a bit irratable when I arrived. Probably had nothing to do with the fact that I hadn't really slept in like a week and was just abandoned...nah. I actually went to check my email in the hotel's lobby and when a traveller tried to make small talk with me, I nearly lunged at his neck in frustration. Clearly, I was in no shape to be entering the outside world.

So I did what any good, tired, frustrated, hungry, American girl would do....order Domino's!

Yep...within 30 minutes of near melt-down, I was eating a pepperoni pizza and cinnastix in bed watching Dr. Phil...ahh...
The week had it's ups and downs but so many more ups than downs. It was a week of more long bus travels, more death defying experiences, more sweaty hikes, more unexpected turns...and more time to realize just how incredible this entire journey has been...

Debra (and probably last!) blog to come from stateside!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My kids...Peru Edition

I have just reread my latest entry about Arequipa and have decided that it just doesn’t tell the whole story. Trying to describe the spirit of a city on a website is just so difficult.

But as difficult as that task was, trying to explain the spirit of the kids at my school is absolutely undo-able.

Every kid I have taught has had a unique personality and spark that just cannot be captured in pictures or with words. And my Peruvian kids may be the hardest to describe of all.

There were many times when I wanted to kill them (ok...maybe not kill them...but at least heavily sedate them or at least administer shock treatment) and other times when I was sure I wouldn’t be able to leave Peru without a few of them stuffed into my suitcase.

When I think about the incredible energy of each of these kids, I cant even believe the backgrounds they come from and the homes they live in...or maybe I just don’t want to.

Meet my kids...

Before I even met Dayana, I was told that she was going to be the first female president of Peru. This girl has got some serious ‘tude...and I love it. She is absolutely incredible bossy, overly confident and the majority of the time, just pretty annoying...and I absolutely loved every bit of her.

She was always the first to say “I’m going to tell the teacher” when someone was out of line and even said it to me once when I told her how much homework she had. And ya know what? I was honestly scared of her!

Dayana—I can’t wait to see what you are going to do one day...Peru needs more strong women like you putting everyone back in line.

Yes, yes...teachers aren’t supposed to pick favorites but I have and his name is Cesar. I think part of the reason this one stood out as my favorite is that he is a virtual hispanic replica of my nephew, Josh. And he even acts like him!

He is smart, a bit of a suck-up and scared shitless of Dayana...who, by the way, I’m sure he is going to marry one day. He loves climbing all over the volunteers and says “Monkey” in perfect English before he hitches a ride. He has the most contagious laugh I have ever heard. Once he started in, the whole class was done for.

Cesar—keep laughing, keep climbing...and please invite me to your wedding to Dayana.

Kevin and I definitely had our ups and downs to start with. This kid can definitely put a teacher a bit over the edge. But one day, when Kevin was being particularly naughty, I sent him to see the “intern.”

Now this “intern” (who shall remain nameless) told him in the kindest way that if he didn’t shape up, he would be getting no birthday present this year. Well...let’s just say from that moment on, Kevin was a new man.

Kevin—stay sweet and please...don’t forget your glasses at home again.

Alex, Elizabeth and Pamela
I hate to lump three kids into one but honestly, these three have a lot in common.

One, they are all tiny. Easily half the size of the rest of the class which makes them beyond adorable.

Two, let’s just say none of them are the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. I honestly don’t think that Alex knows the difference between the letter A and the number 1. Elizabeth couldn’t spell her own name and Pamela...well, let’s just say that Pamela honestly doesn’t even know where she is half the time let alone that she is supposed to be learning.

But three...these kids are easily the sweetest kids in the class. I honestly think that any one of them would do anything for a sticker or even a “buen hecho” (good job) from the teacher.

Alex, Elizabeth and Pamela—stick together. You will need each other...

Jose Antonio
What can I say about this kid besides he is terrible and wonderful rolled into one child. He is bright...but beyond naughty. Sweet and probably one of the biggest bullies in the class.

I simply cannot get enough of this child.

Jose--I hope you never lose your "cheekiness"...that killer smile will take you far.

This child is intense with a capital I. He is easily motivated and easily frustrated. He is in 2nd grade and can rattle off his times tables from 1 to 12 but put a simple art project in front of him and the tears come easily.

Alvaro—I know there were times when you hated me for making you be creative but I promise...your paper plate fish was worth the effort!

Milagros is a tough nut to crack. She comes from one of the toughest backgrounds of any of the kids which makes her very difficult to control. But once you have her wrapped around your finger, she is as sweet as they come.

She loves being hugged and tickled. But be warned...tickle her too hard and she farts. And usually directly in your face. It’s not good.

Milagros—I hope you stay strong and soft at the same time. It is a wonderful combination.

I think I can say that Julia is the smartest, “coolest” and just most beautiful girl at our school. She is in 6th grade and is at eye-level with most of the 2nd graders. She works hard, plays hard and has a fire in her that you can see from miles away.

Even with all the talent this girl has, she is humble and by looking in her eyes, you can see she has wisdom far beyond her years.

Julia—please don’t let that fire die. With it, you could light up the world.

I wish I could write about every single one of them and let me tell you, that for every one I have written about, there are at least 5 more amazing, smiling, farting, laughing and just plain, unforgettable kids that I have had the honor of teaching...and the honor of having them teach me.


P.S...For those of you who are wondering, I am currently traveling up through Peru for about a week (lots of good blog stories to come...) I will be home this Sunday...crazy!