Sunday, July 17, 2011

Life lesson from the school of hard knocks

On July 4th, I learned a very important lesson…never confront gang members when they have fireworks. I was home nursing a hangover from Sunday lying on my couch. My living room faces a closed off street that serves as a pedestrian mall. Around noon, the calm was shattered when my windows shook from an explosion. Yes I said explosion, not fireworks. My first reaction was that someone had fired off a shotgun. After I got off the floor, another loud boom sounded from the pedestrian mall. When the fourth explosion rocked the neighborhood, I decided to go outside to investigate. The local gang kids were lighting off M-80’s 10ft from my condo building. Small children were running around and could have easily been put in danger since an M-80 is 1/3 or 1/4 of a stick of dynamite. My front half neighbors were all out on their balconies watching with concerned faces. Okay backing up, my condo building has two halves. The back half (where I live) is the ghetto half where there are no balconies or yard. You enter through two locked doors. The front half is the beautiful (and expensive) half where it resembles Tara from Gone with the Wind. It has large white balconies and a fenced in small yard. Okay back to the story…I called up to my neighbors asking them if they had called 911 yet. They said everyone had called the cops, but another call wouldn’t hurt since the cops would be spread thin due to the holiday. I called 911 and described my concern for the combination of children and hand severing explosives. I could practically hear the operator roll her eyes at me before cutting me off and hanging up. Granted I don’t blame her, another call about kids and illegal fireworks…on the 4th of July. Since the fireworks were going off so close to my property, I snapped some pictures on my phone just in case they damaged our building and we needed to file an insurance claim. I heard the teenage boys shout out “yo yo, cover your faces, she taking pictures…yo you can’t do that, that’s illegal.” I then made the mistake of saying “well I am just getting evidence for the cops when they show up.” MISTAKE! They then shouted threats at me and started chasing me with lit roman candles and bottle rockets. Instead of running to the building back part (where I would have needed to whip out my keys and unlock the door), I headed over to the fenced in yard for the front. I yelled up to my neighbors to buzz me in. Once I was in the yard, the gang bangers lobbed firecrackers over the fence. I ran into the building and hid out in my neighbor’s condo. Of course my neighbor was on the phone with 911 again, and I heard him say “yeah and now they are shooting at us” to the operator. After things calmed down around there, the neighbors snuck me out the back way and into my place (there is no enclosed connection between the two building halves). Just another day in the hood. The next day, the cops held a holiday BBQ right outside my place (go figure, a perfect location for a gathering of cops since they normally would be hanging around here anyway). Our new alderman was even there and my neighbor related the story to him. Hopefully this will help spur the clean up on our block.

What's in a name

My little sister’s most recent facebook post read “Ava just went poopy in the potty!!!!”. I agree it is quite the milestone. Ava will soon have a little sister to keep her company. My other sister is also pregnant and the little boy is due around the same time. She selected the name Bennett which is a bit high class for my family (no disrespect, I just know we are no Waltons). However I do think Ben will be a very cute name for my nephew. My new niece on the other hand will be called Hadley. Yes Hadley. Hadley AArine. WTF! How will I shorten that…Haddie? Someone is destined for a reality TV show. I guess it could be worse though. A friend's brother is naming his son Raylon. Yes like the combination of Rayon and Nylon which results in 100% hillbilly. All of us had a good chuckle at that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

South America Adventures – Part 2 (Cusco)

Our first stop in Cusco was the main square, the Plaza de Armas. There is a cathedral built in an ancient inca temple there. Plus most of the historic cool buildings and museums are found there. With any area heavy with tourists, we expected to be harassed with shop and street vendors. Surprisingly, the only people actively approaching every tourist are Asian women offering massages. No matter the country, you will always find Asian massages (even on a remote beach in Greece).

In the midwest, towns are identified by painted water towers. In Peru, they can just use the sides of the mountain. We found in Cusco (a realtively big town) and several tiny mountain towns all decorated with town pride mountain side signs.

Our lunch was our very first of many ham and cheese sandwich of the trip. I point this out because by the end of the trip I would have eaten about a dozen of these sandwiches strictly because I knew how to say it in Spanish. We sampled other cuisine of Peru that included potato chips (Peru grows like 50 different kinds of potatoes), real chocolate ice cream, and Inka Cola which tasted like cotton candy mixed with club soda. Later we picked up a can of potato chips to snack on, and again we found the brand hilarious…that’s Mister Potato Chips to you. With each meal, Dana amused me by saying “Okay I know I will be shitting myself later”.

Pringles….goooooal (not stereotypical at all)

Peru’s version of Gatorade (electrolights…makes sense)

The Fanny brand. To us Americans, fanny means your bottom. To the British, fanny means vagina. The British boys on our tour would roll over in laugher when we discussed wearing fanny packs around our waist.
We traveled uphill (everything was uphill) to a plaza in the San Blas neighborhood with the nicest view overlooking the city. Around the plaza fountain were llamas and Peruvian women in traditional mountain dress. It made me think about Disneyland characters…you know, something you see in postcards but never in person. I didn’t get too close because I was worried about fleas and didn’t want to fork over some money in order to pose with the animal.

The town had a few women and girls dressed in traditional mountain dress, some with llamas or baskets. They strictly were there to make money from photographs. The interesting thing I found out later was that little details of their dress distinguish the different villages they hail from. The arrangement of stripes and colors on their skirt and the shape and color of their hats. They carry goods on their back by putting the stuff in a blanket and then tying the blankets around their shoulders. It didn’t seem all that comfortable, but I later saw men carrying 60lbs of stuff using that same method.

We grabbed food in a little shop waaaaay off the beaten path. The owner was so happy to have guests that he fawned all over us the entire time. Granted, we were the ONLY patrons of this place which was a shame because the food was not bad. The owner asked us if we wanted to hear music, and we requested “pop”. He seemed a bit confused before putting in a Rod Stewart CD. When Rod started to sing “do you think I’m sexy”, the owner was all nodding and saying “yes, this is good right”. Hilarious! He further charmed us by making us a pisco sour cocktail drink which is a combination of spices, alcohol, and an egg. I say yummy; Dana says too strong.
On the wall of this place was an unusual painting. It was a plate of cooked guinea pigs. Mmmnn, yummy.

Over at the Convent De San Francisco was the open market for locals. We walked along the stalls checking out spices, textiles, and dead chickens. Some British guys we met later scored some South American chocolate bars (part cocaine) which were sold in 2ft brick sizes.

The plaza outside the Convent De San Francisco was uncharacteristically busy with adolescent boys and donkeys. Donkeys in clothing (most in drag). The school’s mascot was a donkey, and apparently they needed to find next year’s lucky representative. Some donkey’s had on hats, skirts, and even oversized glasses. I found it amusing that many of the donkeys weren’t having anything to do with this beauty contest. Many were locking up and refusing to budge even when a couple of boys would start pushing it’s behind. Yeah they knew they looked ridiculous.

The church anchoring the plaza was closed to tourists because they were hosting a parade/procession. Some saint was hoisted up and marched down the street with a hundred or so followers. The most unusual characters of the pious group included three girls leading the parade as some sort of drum majors. Their costumes were short skirts, a jacket, funny top hat, and sequins…lots and lots of sequins.

We checked out the Inka museum where we viewed ancient mummies and elongated skulls (both just as creepy as they sound). The skulls were elongated just like that last shitty Indiana Jones movie. The mummies were arranged in the fetal position or folded up into baskets (most time involving the breaking of legs in half). One interesting (and creepy…everything in there was creepy) artifact was early brain surgery evidence. The evidence being skulls with holes cut in them. Surprisingly, they discovered some of the people didn’t die because of the surgery…at least not immediately afterwards.

One last quiet night in Cusco before we head off to the sacred valley and start our hike on the Inca Trail.

Monday, July 04, 2011

South America Adventures – Part 1 (Airport & Cusco)

This trip was a trip of firsts. First time to South America and first time that my luggage made it on the first try.
We spent our first hours in South America in the Lima, Peru airport. Our flight landed in the late evening and our connecting flight to Cusco was 6am the following morning. Instead of venturing into the city (which all the tour books and testimonies advised us against) we decided to spend the night in the airport. We weren’t hurting for company as there were several dozens of other people doing the same thing. Apparently most of the international flights land at night. Due to the tricky nature of flying into Cusco, they only have flights in the early morning. Therefore most tourists bound for Machu Picchu play the waiting game at the airport.
The good thing is that the airport is perfectly ready for the overnight guests. The food court and stores stay open all night. There is plenty of chairs and tables for tourists to eat, play cards, and drink all night. Even starbucks is open with wi-fi. My favorite food court place was “Manos Morenas” which Spanish translation is “dark hands” and their pitchman was Aunt Jemima. They advertised both Chinese AND Peruvian food. Curious.

Dana and I met a cute guy from Brooklyn on the flight and hung out with him overnight. We figured it was safer to have a man sitting with us since two women were not so intimidating (of course we didn’t tell him that, but made him feel like two girls were flirting with him instead).
A few tables over was a group of about 6 local men probably heading home to Cusco. They were all about the cheap beer and collected a table full of bottles. Paaaarrrr-ty!
In another attempt to herd men as company, we talked with four other guys from Chicago. They showed up in tee shirts, shorts and flip flops. Sure it was temperate in Lima, but Cusco is at 11,150ft and is much much colder. When we got off the plane in Cusco, it was about 40degF and the poor Chicago boys were SOL. They said they thought it would be warm since it is so close to the equator (it isn’t). I guess they didn’t realize it could be cold when you are in the Andes Mountains, in September which is also winter for South America. We later ran into the group in the main square and I couldn’t help blurting out “hey you found pants!”
It was interesting flying into Cusco which is a small valley/bowl in the middle of a mountain range. Abet a little unnerving seeing mountain peaks sticking up above the clouds and remembering the movie Alive.

Landing involved doing a tight 180 turn and then dropping down because of the surrounding mountains. Everyone on the flight basically slept at the airport (or stayed up all night in the food court), so since there were empty seats, many people laid down on a row to nap on the flight. The stewardesses didn’t make anyone fasten their seat belts, so when we touched down, some guy (who was laid down asleep) flew off the seat and impacted the row in front of him. His face was hilarious because one minute he was sound asleep, and the next minute he is on the floor of the aircraft. Maybe you had to be there...punch drunk with a lack of sleep.
We drank coca tea to help with the altitude. It is the universal recommendation and they practically shove it down your throat anywhere you step. It wasn’t all that bad (once a generous amount of sugar was added) but the travel book warns that you will test positive in a drug test for a few weeks because the leaves contain cocaine.
Most tourists get altitude sickness, and the symptoms range from shortness of breath, headaches, and an urge to void all of your bowels (aka massive sudden shit). Dana needed a few stops while walking to catch her breath. Me, I just had gas…lots and lots of gas.
Our first dinner was at a children’s education center that moonlighted as a restaurant. Our menus were Disney fairy tells with a Peruvian spin. I ate alpaca stew which was a bit gamey/grassy. We talked about trying out guinea pig before the trip was over. Yeah, lets see how that goes.