Sunday, January 31, 2010

Spring break 2008: 10,800 feet above sea level

My roommates in Charleston don't get it. Fly to South America alone? Am I out of my mind? “She's always locking herself out of the house. She can’t even drive off the peninsula without getting lost,” one of the Southern belles says. “Now she announces that she's flying off to the Third World.”

Ten days later I hike up Wayna Picchu, gasping for air and peeling layers. At the peak I gaze down at Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, inducing a wave of vertigo. I recognize the view from advertisements and postcards and sit on a rock near the ledge just long enough for a stranger to take my picture. The rush of having made it on my own and the conflicting urge to share the experience with someone overwhelms me.

It's spring break my senior year of college, and I've booked a $450 flight to Lima on a whim. At the airport gate I wait in a crowd of brown Latinos in scruffy clothes who whisper in Spanish and cradle small children on their laps. I feel like a lone Caucasian diva and start to worry about more than the two days of classes I'll miss.

That night at the Lima airport my friend Julia, ultra-tanned and wearing teeny shorts, waits for me. "You need some sun!" she squeals and hugs me. "This is Pedro," she introduces a short guy dressed like a Hollister model. Of course she’d try to set me up with one of her friends. On the one-hour drive to Julia's house her Mazda speeds around sand mountains looming over deserted beaches. She's the only one of her friends with a car, and they say she thinks she's the Paris Hilton of Lima. "Hola niñas," her family’s live-in maid, a tiny woman in a nightgown, greets us from the kitchen where she watches a telenovela.

The next day we lounge on the beach before lunch in the bohemian Barranco neighborhood. We sit on a terraza and eat fresh ceviche, chunks of fish marinated in lime juice, anticuchos, grilled marinated beef heart, and papas a la huancaína, boiled potatoes with creamy spiced cheese sauce.

“You should talk to Pedro,” Julia winks a few days later when I tell her I want to travel outside of Lima before I leave. “He studies turismo.” We both know I should go to Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, a remote archaeological masterpiece 8,000 feet above sea level. But with only four days left I don’t have time for the 24-hour, cliff-hugging bus ride through the Andes.

Julia touches her heart whenever she mentions Cuzco, the entry city to Machu Picchu and the capital of the ancient Inca Empire. It combines her two favorite things – a perpetual party scene with lots of foreign men. "Tienes que ir," Julia says. “You can’t come to Peru and not go."

At 3 a.m. the next morning Julia shakes me awake. My taxi is here to take me to the airport for my 5 a.m. flight. As the plane descends in Cuzco the majestic peaks of the Andes jut above the clouds. We’ve gone from about 1,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level in 45 minutes.

On the ride into town my taxi driver asks where I’m staying. “That place is full of drug dealers,” he says when I name the hostel. He suggests I stay at another pensión instead and parks in front of an office. I’m confused until I realize we’re at a travel agency. His friend has a deal on a trip to Machu Picchu for me, he says. “No necesito un paquete,” I try to explain. I’ll get to the pre-Columbian enigma on my own.

I arrive to the main Plaza de Armas at 7 a.m. It’s 40 degrees and empty. I feel like death and circle the square until I find an open kiosk selling Diamox, altitude sickness pills. I head to the train station to get a ticket to Machu Picchu for the next morning, praying they're not sold out. I snag a departure trip on the budget Backpackers train. The agent tells me that it leaves at 5 a.m. from Ollantaytambo, a village on the way to Machu Picchu. That means I’ll have to go there tonight. Bussing to a remote village without a map or hostel reservation terrifies me. A wave of nausea strikes again as she writes the address of the bus station.

As the sun rises and warms the air I start to feel better. I go on to visit to a colonial church built over an Inca sun temple and watch a parade of Quechua women in colorful traditional costumes break into song and dance. I wonder if it’s a performance for tourists or if life in Cuzco is like a real-life musical.

That afternoon I give a taxi driver the bus station address. He drops me off on a gritty side of town in front of a crowded dirt yard littered with trash. This can’t be it. I’m the only tourist. Everyone is Quechua. The indigenous women have braided hair and bowler hats and carry babies wrapped on their backs in colorful shawls. The word baños is spray painted on a cinder block wall where men urinate, barely concealed by a low ledge. “Éste es la estación de autobus?” I ask.

Si, Si,” everyone says. Still I’m sure there’s a mistake. I run down the street looking for a taxi, but there are none in this part of town. Half an hour later a bus pulls in. I wait in the long line, panicking as the sun lowers. The little man in front of me, Luis, assures me that this bus will take me to Ollantaytambo. "You just have to change líneas once," he says. “What? Change buses?” I ask. I pay the 20-cent fare and squish my way on. I feel suffocated under the backpack in my lap, inhaling the stench of unwashed bodies. Passengers stand crammed in the aisles, hugging their belongings in garbage bags.

We curve up into the mountains. We’re flying along the cliffs, winding through peaks and valleys of gargantuan proportions. Luis in the seat beside me senses my fear and occasionally makes reassuring comments on our progress. I’m having a minor nervous breakdown, imagining that I’ll freeze in the mountains or bandits will kidnap me. No one in the world knows where I am right now. I am alone in the Andes with a backpack.

What seems like hours later it’s pitch black, and we’re deep in the Sacred Valley of Urubamba. Finally, we come to a town. “Vamos! Rapido!” Luis nudges me. The last bus to Ollantaytambo is leaving. He pushes aside his wife and baby and jumps off the bus while clutching my arm. He runs with me across the dark parking lot to a white van ready to pull away. Inside sit an old man and a couple with a baby who gawk at me. It feels like midnight when the driver pulls down steep gravel driveways to let passengers off in front of what look like shanties in the darkness.

Eventually we turn on a road guarded by an original Inca stonewall. I climb up the hill to Ollantaytambo to a plaza where children play tag and teenagers flirt. Adults chat outside storefronts. Relieved, I find a hostel listed in my Lonely Planet. I’m the only one in the cold, dark, two-story building. I wash my face with the icy water but skip a shower. I try to sleep in the silence but think about Julia and Pedro back in Lima. Pedro showed me around Lima all week, but it doesn't matter now. "You've already ruined it," Julia told me before I left. I replay the scene in my mind.

"Are there no attractive men in Peru?" I'd said to Julia at a dance club. When Pedro glanced toward me and walked away I knew he’d heard.

My alarm goes off at 4 a.m. I look in the mirror and see that my eyes have nearly swollen shut. I imagine I've been bitten by an exotic bed bug. Outside I get disoriented in the rainy night. My train leaves in 10 minutes. I’m panicking. I see headlights ahead and wave. “Dónde está la estación del tren?” I ask the handsome driver with a mustache. He nods to the teenage boy in the backseat and says he’s dropping him off there. He tells me to hop in, and I do.

On the four-hour train ride into the Amazon basin my exhausted head throbs to the blaring laughter and German conversation of the women beside me. We hear the violent Urubamba River rushing down the mountains in the darkness as the train climbs up the steep tracks. Finally dawn breaks, revealing the Andes in all their mystic glory. My classmates are sitting listening to a Media Law lecture right now, and here I am in deep in the South American jungle.

Our train journey ends at the little town of Aguas Calientes where I join a bus with a group of perky visor-wearing and Nikon-toting Japanese tourists. We ziz-zag for 30 minutes up a narrow dirt road to Machu Picchu. I shiver in the dense fog that shrouds the mysterious city. Its isolation protected it from invaders until a British historian rediscovered it in 1911. It lies between two mountains, with its edges dropping down a cliff into the surrounding Urubamba River 1,500 feet below. The self-contained city is invisible from beneath and guarded by a formidable mountain from behind. The fading fog reveals the Indiana Jones-worthy ruins -- houses, temples, and staircases. Llamas graze between the agricultural terraces and aqueducts. Crowning the city is the Intihuatana stone, an astronomic timepiece that aligns with the sun during equinoxes.
Back in Aguas Calientes I follow the signs to the eponymous hot springs when a hole rips in my backpack. My things spill so I hold everything to my chest like a giant baby. When I pay to enter the thermal pools the toothless man wearing a fitted gray cap at the counter offers to sew my backpack. I ask him how much he’ll charge. "Nada," he says. I hesitate, unsure if I should trust him but hand over my backpack.

The pools have a muddy look and the faintest sulfur smell but are soothing and warm. South American women wearing T-shirts and shorts in the water whisper among themselves. “Que bonitas y bronceadas,” one says, admiring a gaggle of bronzed French girls in bikinis.

Back at the counter the toothless man presents me with my sewn-up backpack. "Mil gracias. Un milagro," I say and offer him a few soles, but he flashes his gums and shakes his head. I run to the station in a rainstorm of Biblical proportions.

I join middle-aged American couples wearing designer hiking boots who’ve just trekked the Inca Trail on the tourist train this time. I notice the big diamond rings on the fingers of the women and wonder how they’ve maintained manicured nails. "Why do the parents allow this?" they say when village children chase our train. "They're as bad as the suicidal bus drivers."

At dawn the next morning a taxi drops me off at Sacsayhuamán, a prehistoric walled fortress forming the head of a jaguar overlooking Cuzco. No one is there. When it starts raining I wrap my pink scarf around my hair and wander the ruins alone in the wet silence. From Sacsayhuamán I walk along a deserted, muddy roadside and imagine Pedro and Julia lazing on the beach in Lima and my friends in Charleston hustling to class. I veer off the road to a maze of unmarked ruins in a valley. Then I ask the clerk at a desolate orange store how to get to Puku Pukara and Tambomachay. He points across the road and tells me to wait there for a bombi. While I wait a shepherdess in colorful indigenous dress leads her herd and two dogs up the road. Soon I realize that bombi means another Volkswagen van like the one I rode to Olllantaytambo. This time, I climb in with confidence.

I catch my overnight flight home to the States from Lima two days later, arriving so discombobulated that I circled the long-term lot almost an hour before I find my car. I nod my way through the three-hour drive home. A nasty waterborne bacteria keeps me in bed the next day.

Still, for weeks I walk around campus glowing with my big secret: Who’d believe that the shy girl with the lip gloss and pink scarf just got back from backpacking in the Andes?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Classical Majesty: A West Virginia Symphonic Series

I went to hear the West Virgina Symphony Orchestra at the Clay Center with my dad last weekend. Guest solo violinist Corey Cerovsek performed on his glossy Stradivarius in a performance entitled Classical Majesty, part of the Symphonic Series led by resident conductor Grant Cooper, a dapper New Zealander.

The event almost sold out (they didn't open the second balcony). Although it was an older crowd in long coats (even a few furs!) I did spot some younger faces and families in the well-heeled audience.

The evening opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, my favorite hands down. "What?" my dad said. "You like that stuff better than Mozart?" I appreciated Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 (with some surprise string effects), but sometimes we just like the way a piece of music makes us feel. And I thought Williams' interpretation of British composer Tallis' liturgical music had the qualities of a killer movie soundtrack with the power to inspire imagination and spark emotions. (I just looked it up and it has served as a soundtrack in various movies. Now I don't know whether to feel perceptive or uncultured.) It was a strings-only piece, and I have a thing for violins and cellos, even in pop music. (Now that I think about it, that's probably the reason I appreciate bluegrass.) The full orchestra didn't take the stage until the final segment, Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 8.

The three featured composers mastered the architecture of classical music, the structure that keeps music's tendency of passionate explosions in check, to create majestic statements. (My summary of the program description -- I was curious about how it all fit together.)

The Canadian violinist Cerovsek, 37, lives in Paris. Although he's not a household name like, say, Paganini, his international performance credits, along with a few network TV appearances, took up an entire page of tiny type in the program. But what impressed me the most was that he graduated with bachelor's degrees in mathematics and music from the University of Indiana at age 15, earned masters in both at 16, and finished his PhD's at 18. Oh, and he's a concert pianist too.
Left Photo Credit: 
Right Photo Credit: (c) 2008 Claves Records

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Carmen: in HD

I got an overdue dose of culture this weekend. I went to the opera at the Met. It was my first -- a new production of Carmen directed by Richard Eyre that's been all over the New York Times arts section of late. But I'm still in West Virginia, you're thinking. How did I manage to see a New York opera?

Well, although it was a live performance, I wasn't actually at the Lincoln Center but in a cinema in the little town of Barboursville that broadcast an HD version.

I've always wanted to go to an opera. I like the old glamour of the idea and even tried to see one in the Teatro Colón when I lived in Buenos Aires. But the opera house, which has some of the world's best acoustics, was closed for renovations that year. (Actually I just looked it up, and it's still closed -- it will reopen after a four-year hiatus later this year.)

This movie-theater opera had its appeal. Yes, it lacked the world class people watching and cultured atmosphere I'd expect at the actual venue, and I missed out on an excuse to wear a (faux) fur coat over a luxe outfit. (This full house theater was of the gray-haired, sweats-wearing variety.) But the views were better than a front-row seat at the opera, with the camera crew artfully panning and zooming for maximum dramatic affect and focusing in on the key singers when appropriate.

So for $22 I saw the brass buttons on the soldiers' military coats, the star mezzo soprano's false lashes, and set details like the handwritten postcards on a military camp wall. We probably saw much more than those in the front row Center Parterre who paid up to $370 for their seats, no opera glasses required. When the camera focused on the orchestra pit we could even see the sweat drops on young conductor's forehead.

And in the theater we could eat snacks (smuggled Starbucks in my case) while watching the three-hour performance. During the 30-minute intermission we got to see interviews with the leads, the Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna who played Don Jose and the curly-haired Elina Garanca, who on stage was pure feist and sex but backstage wore a huge grin and rattled away into the microphone in Latvian.

Both of them were well into their 40s, unlike most big Hollywood productions. I suppose it takes years to rise to the level of international opera star. I felt aware of my own superficiality when I couldn't get over how Barbara Frittoli looked about 50 but was playing the young, goody-two shoes Micaëla. I noticed her matronly chest rather than simply appreciating her world class voice and expressive face.

Ultimately, Carmen is intended to shock. The story is rife with sexual tension that culminates in violent tragedy. And this edition was indeed intense -- all cleavage and passion. Bizet's French opera (accompanied by English subtitles) is set in Seville, Spain. (That immediately sold me because last year I spent some time in that Andalusian city, which is a sunny place full of Spanish stereotypes like bullrings, voluptuous dark haired women, and flamenco dancing.) The gypsy Carmen, a fiery and volatile heart breaker, seduces Don Jose, a lowly soldier betrothed to his childhood sweetheart Micaëla. She convinces him to desert and join the gypies for a smuggling operation in the mountains, then ends up leaving him for a celebrity bullfighter. This particular production was dance heavy for an opera, with fierce numbers by an athletic ballerina couple opening each act.

I came across a newspaper article reporting that 240,000 people in 37 countries saw the live telecast. And now you know that record-setting number included a few art-hungry West Virginians.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera/ Dusan Reljin 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Leaving it all behind: Packing and materialism

My cushy stay back at home -- even life as I know it in the U.S -- is about to end. Thank God. I'm itching for some independence and a return to an urban lifestyle, ready to discover a whole new country.

But it's bittersweet. After a few extended stints abroad I know I'm in for some sacrifice. I'm leaving my family (along with a certain cuddly cat). And I'll be doing without some shallow comforts as well.

That leads to a confession: I'll never be a hardcore, Swiss-army knife-carrying backpacker. Yes, I'll skip a few showers and sleep in a tent, but please, I beg you, don't deride me because I powdered my face and brushed on mascara before I started trekking through the Peruvian Andes. Don't roll your eyes because I won't skip conditioner or give up my moisturizer. I'm already savoring my last days with a few luxuries that won't be taking up space in my luggage: a fluffy bathrobe, a pair of cozy house slippers, a designer flat iron, and a light-up makeup mirror.

Because while I don't know anyone in Chile or where exactly I'll live, I do know that for the rest of the year I'll be living out of two 50-pound suitcases.

I remind myself that it's a good exercise to cut back to a more simple lifestyle. Since I moved back to the States in May I've already started accumulating more stuff. I'm buying into a materialistic culture fueled by millions of advertising dollars that convinces us that consuming more things will make us happier.

Some of my recent purchases were good investments, like a Mac notebook, an iPod (my first -- a refurbished Nano), and a DSLR camera. But at the same time I've realized that the more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to worry about, and the more complicated life is. Having less can be freeing.

Until the day you must settle into your own apartment and realize you don't have anything to put in it. I'll save that predicament for next year.

(Exploring Incan ruins, with a bit of lip gloss.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On moving down south. Waaay down south.

Twenty-four days from today, this blog will get a lot more interesting. Because in just a little over three weeks I'm moving to Chile. So this will once again become a real travel blog instead of Rachel's online diary recounting her exile in West Virginia.

About a year and a half ago, with my college graduation approaching, I spent hours writing and polishing nearly 15 pages of essays. Then I spent a week locked in my room translating those essays into Spanish (with some help from South American friends via instant Messenger). I met with the director of my university's Hispanic Studies Department to get the scoop on South American universities, then I pored over his recommendations and their course offerings. I met with local high-society community leaders. The vice president of our college even took me out to lunch. (I wore flip flops. Her initial glance at my feet told me BIG MISTAKE. But they were classy flip flops!) Finally, I drove two hours to the state capital for impromptu written essays and interviews, in which I sat at the end of a long board room table and a dozen professional-types interrogated me.

And it was all worth it. (Somehow) I got the scholarship. I'm going to study for a year at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Valparaíso, Chile (that long, skinny country on the west coast of South America. Yes, some people ask me where it is.). And Rotary International is paying for everything. I'll come back with a certificate in Latin American Studies from a respectable university on the rocky Chilean coast.

Now why would Rotary give me $24,000 to live and study abroad for a year, you ask. Well, their goal through this Ambassadorial Scholarship Program is to promote international peace and understanding by sending young people from all over the world to live and study outside their home country. The idea is that the students who receive these scholarships will be positive ambassadors for their own nations and develop friendly relationships in their host countries, and then they'll come home and share their enlightening cultural experiences, and that ultimately these "scholars will be tomorrow's community and world leaders," according the the Rotary International website.

So in addition to taking classes in Latin American literature, culture, and politics, I'll also be giving presentations on the U.S. to local Rotary clubs and co-heading a service project. I'm a teensy bit nervous about the (Spanish, of course) speaking engagements, but I've heard from other scholars that they're not all that bad -- low key with a sympathetic audience. And I'm really excited about the volunteer project. I won't know exactly what it will be until I get down there and see the needs, but right now it looks like it could involve a big sister-big brother type program with foster kids in an underprivileged mountain village.
When I'm not studying or volunteering I hope to be traveling. I'm dying to get down to Patagonia and maybe up to Brazil or back to Buenos Aires. I'll be flying into Santiago, the capital, where I'll spend a month reviewing Spanish at a language institute and living with a host family. Then I'll have to find my own apartment (eek!) in Valparaíso.

Valparaíso has been called the Little San Francisco of South America, as it's a colorful and shabby seaport city built on hillsides overlooking the Pacific. Antique elevators serve as transportation in some spots, and the historic quarter is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and allies. The so-called Jewel of the Pacific has become a cultural mecca of late too. I read an Allende novel set in Valparaiso, La Hija de la Fortuna (turned out to be one of my all-time favorite reads) that painted the bohemian city as seedy and full of haughty European ex-pats. (But that was in the 1800s. Surely things have changed by now, right?) Today the university campus is divided between Valparaíso and its sister city, Viña del Mar, which is more polished and modern and popular for its beach resorts.

I've been waiting for this adventure for nearly TWO years. "Are you in Chile yet?" has become a sort of cruel joke. Since I returned from Barcelona in May I've felt like my life has been in limbo. But when very important people conclude that you're worthy of a very generous gift that allows you to see the world, educate yourself, and help others, you don't turn it down. Even if it involves a whole lot of waiting.

Now the waiting is about over, and I'm wondering ... am I ready?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rewrite: My Hometown in 500 Words

Way down a sloping gravel driveway a big woman with white hair stands by a barn with her hands on her hips, her muumuu billowing in the breeze. I jog up and down the hills of Cow Creek Road contemplating the trailers in muddy ditches with ‘80s-era swing sets, rusty tricycles, and shells of old cars piled in the front yards. Across the road are gated brick mansions with landscaped lawns, pools, and Hummers in the driveways.

My grade school classmates who lived in the big houses would only stay for a year or two until their dads were transferred again. Now all my other old friends have moved away too. As kids we'd dig crawdads out of muddy creeks in the summer and pile in sleds to fly down snowy hillsides in the winter. Now they’re married and working as nurses, pastors, or accountants. I avoid visiting their Facebook profiles because links such as “Al Gore Invented Global Warming” upset me.

“How did I end up back in West Virginia?” I say to my mom when she picks me up from my run by Mid-Valley Mart. I’d vowed I’d leave for college and never come back. I wanted to move somewhere where I heard foreign languages and everyone didn’t have the same skin color and vote for the same presidential candidates. A place offering urban vitality.

“It’s only for a few months,” my mom laughs. She grew up in an impoverished mining town in the mountains and is content with an upgrade to suburban Teays Valley.

I grew up to a soundtrack of roaring interstate with interludes of bellowing train whistles. This place I consider home doesn’t even qualify as a small town. It’s more of a highway stop-off with gas stations, a couple of truck stops and motels, and a representative of about every fast food establishment in the Southeast. Fifty years ago it was rolling farmland. Today Teays Valley is a district of 13,000 people who live in subdivisions crammed with look-alike houses.

My mom’s phone rings as we pull in the garage of our brick home in New London Commons.

“Hi Janet,” she says to her friend from church.

Janet drove a school bus for 30 years and can’t go anywhere without seeing someone she knows and stopping to chat. She collects fairy lights and nurses wild animals back to health. I can hear her voice on the other end.

“They say it’s gonna be hotter than a hen on a hot rock this weekend,” she says. “Are you and Michael still planning on going out hiking?"

That evening Michael, my dad, comes home from work to pick up my mom for Wednesday night church service. He’s a physician at a rural public clinic nearly an hour away. Although he grew up with a Harvard-educated professor father in a college town, he sometimes speaks in the Appalachian-hollow dialect of his patients. My parents bought a house in Teays Valley because it was a couple of miles from their church and the adjacent Christian school, where they sent my brother and me.

While my parents are at church a storm hits. “Do you hear water running?” my dad asks hours later.

“It’s still raining,” my mom says.

But he goes outside and sees water flooding from our house. He calls Frank, Janet’s husband. He’s a trim, white-haired Korean War veteran who can fix anything.

“Sounds like you got a loose pipe that needs fixing,” Frank says. “I’ll be right over.” It’s 11 p.m.

Frank drives over in his truck. He goes out in the downpour to shut off the main water line in our front lawn. The next morning Janet calls. “I thought y’all might be interested in some hot showers,” she said. “Come on over ‘cause we got some hash brown potatoes, scrambled eggs, and biscuits too.”

This morning, Teays Valley is okay with me.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bluestone: Winter escape to the mountains

I holed up in a secluded little cabin with my family in the snowy mountains of Bluestone State Park the first three days of 2010. Outside the wilderness temperatures plunged below 10 degrees, leaving us with a new dusting of snow each morning. We kept a fire burning in the brick fireplace at all times, fueling it with logs from the stack in the backyard. My weekend uniform consisted of ski pants, a puffy down coat, and snow boots. We cooked oatmeal for breakfast and hot soup for dinner and sipped hot cocoa in between. It was three days of snow angels, wind gusts, and snowy footprints.

One morning we walked down the long road from our cabin, winding around rugged hillsides to a trail behind a tiny red cabin that led into the forest. That afternoon we took a drive to Pipestem Resort State Park where we spotted dozens of deer. They were extra shaggy, giving them a prehistoric look. The furry young ones with blunt faces looked as sweet as puppies. I snapped lots of pictures of them, and the forested hills framing Bluestone Lake, and anything else that caught my eye, from pine cones and icicles to frozen waterfalls.

I’d had fears about spending a weekend isolated in the wilderness in a two bedroom cabin (I’d get the cot) with my family, as my tolerance for a certain young couple’s use of the terms “hubby” and “honey” and “sweetie” was already waning. But in the woods I forgot my frustrations, if only for a few brief moments such as an especially competitive round of Uno or Sequence by the fire. 

My brother brought along his laptop with its stand (for ergonomic purposes, he reasoned), state-of-the-art headphones (with a splitter for his wife), and a wireless mouse and keyboard (again, ergonomics). He planned to work on his forthcoming philosophy book. I’m serious. I was content curled up on the not-so-comfy couch with cup after cup of green tea reading La Casa de los Espiritus. I’d brought along the Isabel Allende novel rather than Soren Kierkegaard’s A Fragment of Life -- a 640-page philosophical discourse on the ethical versus the aesthetic that my brother and sister-in-law gave me for Christmas. (Maybe he's trying to send me a message? I got him a pair of slim-fit J. Crew jeans.)

On the way home we stopped at Concord University in Athens, WV where my parents met in 1977. On campus they subjected us to the details of their meeting and courtship. They pointed out the student union where a mutual friend introduced them, the pine grove where they'd stroll, and the window of the TV lounge on the bottom floor of their tower dormitories where they'd spent their evenings.       
I'm happy that this on-campus love affair led (one two-month engagement and seven years later) to me, but I count myself lucky that I didn't inherit the genetic inclination for collegiate matrimony. (Click here for more photos of our snowy weekend in the mountains.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Arrivederci, 2009

The night of December 31, 2008, I traipsed around Rome with a group of new friends. This grouping started with a struggling actress from New York City and her curly-haired, college student sister who were sharing my hostel dorm by the Vatican. They invited me to join them to meet up with their middle sister who was studying in Rome through Loyola University for the year. 

That sister’s friends, a tipsy American girl and a blonde Austrian girl who both worked as au pairs in the city, met us on our way to the Coliseum. Finally, a petite American guy who was also studying abroad with the aforementioned middle sister joined us. I don’t remember his name, but I recall his combed hair, fitted leather jacket, and purple scarf. He raved to me about the gourmet dining opportunities in Barcelona, where I was working. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that none of my young foreign friends would spend the money to join me for a sit-down restaurant experience in the economic crisis-stricken city, although they somehow had the cash for club entrance fees and alcohol. 
That night I wore a gold T-shirt dress, black tights, and heeled boots. But it didn’t matter, because as with the rest of the 22 days I spent in Italy, I never took off my long brown parka. We carried champagne bottles as we slowly shoved through the masses to near the Centro Historico. We hung onto each other like old friends so not to get lost in the chaos. We'd missed the rock concerts and found no sign of the colorful showers of fireworks we'd expected.

At the stroke of midnight no giant crystal ball dropped, but champagne spewed and ornery spectators shouted and set off renegade firecrackers. The champagne sprayed in my eyes and soaked my hair. The firecrackers shot off like dangerously erratic bullets. Then within minutes the plaza emptied, with gold lights glistening on the wet, litter-strewn streets. I walked home sticky and half deaf and limping after two straight weeks of exploring urban landscapes and steep Tuscan villages on foot. 

The two exchange students led us on a circuitous route back to the hostel. After traversing back and forth the city for a week I grumbled that I knew my way around better than these students who lived there. I wasn’t surprised because in my experience studying abroad with an American program tends to foster a routine of afternoons piled in dorm bunks watching DVDs, evenings drinking at the same bar down the street, and weekends jet setting to another European city via RyanAir.

So my New Year’s Eve in Italy wasn’t the night of a lifetime, but I’d still rather be spending the evening stumbling around Rome in the cold instead of sleeping in Hurricane, West Virginia like I did this year. But even if 2009 didn’t go out with a bang, I came up with some highlights worth listing:

1. Exploring sunny Andalusia during my last weeks in Spain, particularly Granada where I wandered through silent Sacromonte, a gypsy cave quarter, and ate Lebanese tapas in Little Morocco with two lovely friends. I won’t forget feeling like a lost outsider during Seville’s world famous Semana Santa, a week-long, raucous street party in celebration of Easter, either. Or hiking down into a 400-foot deep gorge and photographing the sort of countryside that makes you question your urban intentions in the Spanish mountain town of Ronda.

2. Running a 15-mile race (with a significant uphill component to boot!) in a respectable time. My thighs still burn when I think about the overzealous hill training I did the week before.  

3. Discovering New Mexico with my parents. We fell for the Southwestern state with its roasted chiles, turquoise jewelry, and adobe chapels. We still rave about the glorious golden views on the Aspen Vista Trail and our hike through the otherworldy Kasha Katuwe Tent Rock Canyon.  

4. Getting over myself and baring the braces. In four short weeks I’ll be flashing a broad, well aligned smile for a lifetime.

5. A few milder 2009 highlights – owning my first iPod and Mac, becoming a redhead (part of me doesn’t want trade the fiery shade back for my natural brunette), acquiring new cooking skills, getting reacquainted with my inner yogi, meeting a bunch of travel nuts (like me but brainer) at a scholarship orientation in Philadelphia, and rafting the Gauley River with my dad.