Me laying in the flowers

I’m back in Peru! I got in late last Monday night and spent Tuesday wrapping my head around the fact that they poured another floor while I was gone. That’s right, we have a 2-story building now! And even though there are no walls on the third floor, we can walk up there and see what the view is going to be like when it’s finished (the other buildings on the property are only two stories or less, so this is a new experience for us). Essentially, all the third floor means, view-wise, is that we will be able to creep on our neighbors exceptionally well. Like the ones next door who have a pool that we’re all very jealous of (though to be fair, we already knew about that thanks to the drone).

Mountains from the 3rd floor
3rd story views
View of the new building from behind
As you can see, we have two stories on the left (Module 1) and one story on the right (Module 2). The existing bathroom building is in the middle (with the bricks piled on top).
Construction site
With our new view from the “3rd floor”, you can get great pictures of the rest of the property. Here’s the construction site, and at the top of the picture, you can see the septic gardens (top right) and the equipment/workshop building (top center).
Concrete mixing area
Here’s the area where they do the concrete mixing (bottom left). You can see the piles of different materials, and they usually have the mixing drum right in the middle. The long, bamboo-fenced area running along the top of the picture is where we store a lot of construction materials (for maintenance and stuff, not for the actual construction project). And you can kind of see the neighbors’ pool deck.

As I was saying, the construction has made big strides since I left. I was a little sad to miss out on some of the fun, but no need to get too upset about it because there’s still much to do. Now, they’re starting to work on the first-floor ceiling on the other side of the building (Module 2). I wasn’t super involved with the foundation phase up until they started the ceilings, but now they’re finally installing electrical-related things which means I have more to do! As they’re laying things out, I’m making sure that everything is in the proper location and that it’s going to work the way I designed it. It’s crazy getting to see it all come together!

Ceiling scaffolding
There’s nothing like a good scaffolding forest…
Looking through the roof supports at the existing building
Standing in the second floor hallway looking towards the new building… these buildings are going to be connected when we’re finished!
Module 2 in progress
Ceilings coming soon! The beginnings of the ceiling for the first floor on Module 2!
Boards covering half of the Module 2 classroom
Halfway there!
Module 2 from above
Adding in the steel for the beams
Junction boxes on Module 2
You can see the little, white electrical boxes sitting on top of the wood. Those are for the lights, ceiling fans, and smoke detectors in this classroom.
Stack of bricks on the ceiling formwork
Nearly ready to start adding the bricks!
Looking up at the ceiling
This is what the ceiling scaffolding/formwork looks like underneath after the bricks are added. Between the bricks, above where the wood planks are, is the poured concrete.

I’ve also had fun getting to be somewhat hands-on in the construction process. For example, the electrician came last week to direct the construction crew on where he needs tubes for the electrical wiring, and first, he and I walked around and made sure that we were happy with the locations of the devices. I chalk-marked the walls in the stairwell showing where I want the lights, and he and I talked through some locations for the electrical boxes. This is way more than I would be involved with on a job in the States. There, the engineer essentially just shows the way they want the system to work and then leaves the details to the electrician. Here, I had to include much more installation-related information on my plans, and now, I’m getting to see it all through. How cool!

Me and the electrician on site
Me talking to the electrician and looking very official in my hard hat (though not wearing appropriate footwear).
One of the guys standing on a board spanning between a ladder and a water drum
Do you like this work platform? Very safe… Don’t worry, he’s not doing anything dangerous… just using a saw to cut the channels in the brick wall for the conduit
Box and conduits set into a wall
Nice and ready for some wires!
Mason putting stucco on the wall
Applying the stucco
Half of the wall with stucco, half still brick
Stucco job in progress
Mason smoothing out the stucco
The mason working on the stucco. I’m still not quite sure how he manages to get it from this lumpy mess to completely smooth. He’s using that piece of metal in his hands to level it out a bit, but that seems like a very long process
Finished stucco wall
Smooth!

Besides the construction, things have been nice and chill since I got back… well, with the exception of actually getting back into the country. I had a little scare in the airport on the way in because I’ve already overstayed my welcome for the year. You can technically only stay for 90 days each year without additional paperwork. When the lady at immigration told me I had already exceeded my allowance, I was worried that they were going to put me right back on a plane home! But thank goodness they let me back in, only giving me a 30-day visa instead of a 90-day… which just means that I definitely can’t leave the country again this year until I’m sure that I’m ready to be gone for good, and when I do leave, I’m going to have to pay 60-days’ worth more for the exit fee (that’s the punishment for overstaying your visa, a fee that accumulates for each day beyond your allowed stay).

Aside from that whole mess, though, things have been good. I’m not feeling overwhelmed or overworked (yet). I’m happy to be back working on the project. It’s been a fun week of hanging out with the roommates and getting back into some good habits. I think my trip home came at just the right time, and now I’m back and feeling ready to have a strong finish to my time here.

I want to make the most of the time I have left, so I’m trying to be more proactive about doing things on the weekends. On Saturday, Julie, Jocelyn, and I went on an adventure walk (aka a hike, but Julie thinks that doesn’t sound fun enough). The mountains near where we live are usually nice and brown, adding some extra brownness to the rest of the brown of the desert landscape. Since it’s been such a humid and misty winter, some of the mountains have turned green! I don’t know how so many little plants managed to spawn in such dusty ground, but I’m not upset about it! From a distance, the mountains look like they’ve just gone a bit moldy.

Road cut out of a brown mountain
Spot the moldy mountains
A half-green, half-brown mountain
How weird is that line between green and brown??

We’re starved for green landscapes here, so we decided to take advantage of this favorable development and investigate. What does that entail exactly? Well, we had to cross over one row of brown mountains before getting to the green ones, so we looked for a path that didn’t seem too exhausting. We walked from our property through our neighborhood and the next one until we got to the foot of a low point between two peaks. I thought maybe that would mean it was easy to cross over. No. I was wrong (rare occurrence, but happens every so often).

It wasn’t “easy”, but we made it over after nearly 30 minutes of walking up a mountain slope that might as well have been vertical. Seriously, it had to be at least a 75-degree incline. And then we had to walk around the mountain on a skinny, slanted path, only one foot-slip away from a tumble all the way down the steep mountainside. The verdict? Not the best route we could have taken, but live and learn!

 

Climbing up the mountain
Julie and Jocelyn having so much fun…
The neighborhood from the top of the hill
The neighborhood!
Selfie at the top
We made it!… to the top of the “gap” between mountain peaks
Jocelyn walking on the little path
The long, winding path around the mountain
Selfie in the wilderness
Our discussion topic at this point: “When I imagine the wilderness, it looks something like this.”

After that, though, it was heavenly! We learned that the moldy green is mostly wildflowers! There was practically a line separating the brown from the green, and after we crossed over, it didn’t matter how steep the path. We were too busy raving about the smell of plants in the air and the fact that there were actual flowers (no irrigation system required!) and marveling at how much happier we felt being surrounded by green life instead of brown dust. It was magical.

Pretty green mountains
It’s like we’re not even in Chilca anymore! (spot the Jocelyn)
Green mountain selfie!
Just happy to be here, breathing in the fresh, plant-supplied air
Green mountains
It doesn’t even look real!! Such a vibrant green
Me laying in the flowers
Just happy to be here
Mountain color progression
Contrast… Green to less green to less green to BROWN
Cactus in a field of green
Despite the addition of these new plants, we’re still in the desert!
More green
Can we live here? I’m moving.
Line of identical little houses
We walked through this weird little neighborhood on our way home. This is what they usually do when they’re marking out plots to be sold. You get this wonderful patch of dirt and this completely customized hut with your purchase!
Little, purple flowers
Flowers!!! SO MANY FLOWERS!
More purple flowers
Can’t. Get. Enough.

On top of all of that, and I’m sure that I cannot possibly convey the extent of my excitement for this next part, we discovered a new neighborhood gem. One of my favorite things to eat here is cheesy bread… exactly what it sounds like. Cheese + bread = Lara dream meal (I’m very easy to please). Our usual cheesy bread supplier is at least a 15-minute drive away, and it’s been closed for the last couple months with no explanation. BUT we recently discovered that there’s another cheesy bread place just a 15-minute WALK from where we live. We walked there to check it out at the end of our hike, and they have now been quality approved by us. This is life-changing! (no exaggeration… it doesn’t take much) I’ve never meant it more when I say that the future is looking bright!

Cheesy bread
Cheesy bread!!! This one has ham in it too

Our only full day in El Chaltén was dedicated to the hike to Laguna de los Tres. It’s the most popular hike in the area, is listed as “difficult”, and is supposed to take 8 hours, so we were prepared for all of the above. In our usual “let’s avoid the crowds” fashion, we aimed for an unrealistic early departure time (6:30AM) and left at a more reasonable early departure time (7AM) which is apparently still long before anyone else in town is even awake. Well, except for this one guy we met who said he hiked there for the sunrise, but he was a rare bird (we’ve been over this before, but who wants to hike for 4 HOURS in the dark??). Anyway, we were not in good company at 7AM. We were in nearly no company. Fine with me!

The valley on our way up
Sleepy valley

The general profile of the Laguna de los Tres hike felt pretty similar to Laguna Torre, the hike we did the day before, but slightly “more”. The beginning has a bunch of unshaded uphill with great views of the valley. When you feel like you might collapse, it turns flat, and trees start popping up!

The shadeless beginning of the trail
No. Shade. Also, see the little rock peeking up in the far background? That’s where we’re headed (though I didn’t know it at the time).
Slightly sunnier view of the valley
The world slowly waking up
Gnarled forest along the way
Funky forest

About an hour in, the trail forks, and we picked the path that goes to a viewpoint where we got our first glimpse of the mountains we were headed towards. It was breathtaking! And we were super lucky with the weather again, so the skies were clear and the views were completely unobstructed. Seeing the mountains was good motivation to keep going but was also like… “Wait, we’re walking ALL THE WAY THERE??”

Me gazing at Fitz Roy from the viewpoint
First look at the mountains. Can you say WOW!?
Mike with Fitz Roy
This is where I start having the same-ish pictures over and over again because they’re all so darn beautiful.
Selfie with Fitz Roy
Brother-sister selfie!
Fitz Roy and the rest of the mountains
Okay one more. Fitz Roy is the tallest peak in the middle, to the left is Poincenot, and to the right is Mermez.

From the viewpoint until the very last segment of the hike, the trail wasn’t bad at all. It’s basically flat… and then you get to the end, and there’s a sign that says the last kilometer is going to take an hour because it’s like 400m of elevation. And then it actually takes an hour. And it is SO steep. And long. And steep. It wasn’t the worst hike I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either (lol but technically it was a walk in the national park).

Fitz Roy with some cloud cover
Stay away, clouds!
Fitz Roy with some clouds trailing off the peak
It’s like a little smokestack. Getting closer…

The good news was that we were there early, so there weren’t a lot of people coming down. That part of the trail is only really wide enough for one person at a time, and it would have made things much worse if we had to keep moving aside to let people pass. And, probably most importantly, the sun still wasn’t too hot because of course there was zero shade from that point on.

The one thing that was far from ideal was the wind. It was crazy! Most of the way was shielded from by the mountains, but the final stretch was completely exposed. I know I’ve said this before, but I meant it then and I mean it now… I was not confident that I was safe from blowing away. At the very least, there was a very real possibility of blowing over, and it was so steep that blowing over would probably also mean rolling down the mountain. I stopped multiple times and just dug in because I wasn’t confident that I could land my foot where I wanted.

Green valley
100% chance that I took this picture as an excuse to stop hiking for a second. We came across that river on the left side and through the green patch above it.
Rock and wood-covered trail
The way up…
The rock peaks just over a ridge
Almost there almost there almost there!

Then, I got to the top (Mike was already there), and the struggle was all but forgotten. The mountains you’ve been looking at all day are RIGHT THERE, with their jagged peaks and snowy slopes. The lake below them is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. (After the brownish Laguna Torre from the day before, it looked especially blue.) There weren’t many people there, and it felt like we were part of an exclusive group lucky enough to experience the magic. Like what the heck is this world we live in??? Who would expect a lake like that, tucked up in the mountains? It’s not even fair for places like that to exist in the world. You blink and blink again and then one more time just to be sure… and it’s still there. And it’s still incredible. And even though it’s clearly real considering you’re standing there looking at it with your own eyes, you think they must be messing with you. How is this place real??? And the weather! I can’t talk enough about the weather. There was one little cloud near the peaks when we first arrived and then it cleared away completely.

Mike and me with the lake
We made it!
Laguna de los Tres
Okay, sorry in advance but like… I took a LOT of pictures, and I only picked a few… But there are still so many because they’re just too pretty! And also basically all the same, but can you blame me?
Me with the lake
Okay now glamour shots
Same pic without me
Okay now get out of the picture, Lara!

We walked down to the lake and then around the edge until we could see another lake right next to Laguna de los Tres, Laguna Sucia. That must be one of those Iceland/Greenland naming things (they named the green land Iceland and the icy land Greenland so that people would leave the green land alone) because “Laguna Sucia” means “dirty lagoon”, and that name couldn’t possibly be less suited.

Me on a rock looking down at Laguna Sucia far below
Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia from above
What dirty water, right?

While the two lakes are, basically, right next to each other, it’s super weird because Laguna Sucia is like 100m lower in elevation (that’s a pure Lara estimate though, so take it with a grain of salt because my estimates can absolutely not be trusted). There are waterfalls coming out of the top lake that turn into rivers flowing past the lower lake. So strange.

Laguna Sucia and Laguna de los Tres above
This was my best attempt at getting both lakes in the same picture so that you can see the elevation difference between them. How weird is this??
The blue waters of Laguna Sucia
Someone please explain to me how this lake got the name “dirty lagoon”. The glacier that feeds the lake is at the far end of the picture, Glaciar Rio Blanco (white river).
Laguna Sucia and its awesome surroundings
How is this place real?
Laguna de los Tres and the drop-off to Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia is to the left, where it looks like the world just ends.
The waterfall between Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia

We admired the lakes for a while until Mike said he was getting cold from the wind (he was in shorts and a t-shirt. I had long pants and a jacket). Then, we hiked up this little mountain nearby to get one more view of the two lakes before heading back down. Already, we could see that the crowds were getting bigger (aka they actually existed), and clouds were starting to gather around the mountain peaks!

We also eavesdropped on this tour group whose guide was explaining how people rock climb Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest peak. After doing the hike that we just did, they walk around the lake, strap on crampons, and hike up the ice. Probably they will stay the night on the ice, so he pointed out a good place to set up your ice cave for sleeping. The next morning, they walk the rest of the way up the ice, partly having to ice climb until finally there’s just rock. They’ll switch into their rock-climbing shoes from there and take one of the routes that have been defined over the years, basically all named for the origin country/state of the people who first completed it. And after all that, they have to go allll the way back down. Geez. People are crazy!

The water. The mountains. No clouds. HOW did we get so lucky???
The lake. The mountains. Again.
I can’t handle this. Also, that’s the ice patch you have to climb up to get to the peak.
Another lake pic
No words, mostly because I already used them up on the infinity other pictures.
The lake. AGAIN.
THE WATER. I’m still not over it.
The valley
View from the top while trying not to blow away
Laguna de los Tres and a little Mike
Spot the Mike, running away from the wind.
Pano of the lake and surrounding mountains
Pano by Mike from the edge of the lake. AHHH so pretty!!
Me with the lake
This was hurriedly taken in a split-second of calm when the wind stopped blowing because I looked like a marshmallow in the other pics with my shirt all filled with air. Also, look at how the peak is already starting to gather clouds.
Super aqua waters of Laguna de los Tres
LAST ONE I PROMISE.

Mike had big dreams for the rest of our hiking excursion. After we hiked down from the lake, he wanted to explore these two other offshoots of the trail. One was to see another glacier, Piedra Blanca. We walked until we had a good view (we decided there was no need to go all the way to the viewpoint when we could see it just fine already) and then turned around and walked back to the main trail.

Piedra Blanca
The glacier Piedra Blanca is peeking out between the mountains

On that path, there were SO many caterpillars. Earlier in the day and the day before, we noticed that there was a weirdly large quantity of caterpillars on the trail, and we tried to avoid stepping on them. On this trail, there was no avoiding them. It seemed like they might have been an invasive species because there were WAY too many. Besides being all over the path, they were also EVERYWHERE in the branches of the tree and bushes. It got a little creepy once you noticed all of the places where they were lurking.

 

Trail littered with caterpillars
Spot the caterpillars! (It’s not hard.)
Creepy bush-lurking caterpillars
Me refilling my water bottle from the river
Water break! Drinking from streams never gets less awesome to me.

There was one more offshoot that Mike wanted to check out, and I had decided that I was fine with doing whatever he wanted to do (my feet were feeling surprisingly okay). We got about 6 steps down the path before he decided that the weather seemed questionable, so we should head back. Also fine with me! We still had like 3 hours of hiking ahead. The skies had been getting cloudier and cloudier from the moment we left the lake, and by the time we decided to head back, you could see almost nothing of Fitz Roy! Thank goodness we went early! I’m sure the lake is still beautiful even with cloudy mountains, but if you have the chance to see them all together, there’s no question that clear weather is the best way to see it.

The valley with two lakes
The two lakes in the distance to the right are Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija. They’re along the second side trail Mike wanted to explore
Fitz Roy blocked out by clouds
Looking back towards Fitz Roy… So. Many. Clouds!

On the way back, we went the other way at the fork and walked by another lake, Laguna Capri. I wasn’t expecting to walk right along the shore! I imagined that we would be up high above it. It was a cool surprise. We didn’t stick around for too long, though, because I think we both just wanted to get back at that point.

The clear waters of Laguna Capri
I wouldn’t mind going for a swim in there!
Campsite in the woods
One of the campsites along the way
Trail through the forest
Nothing better than a hike through a forest! Also, on the way in, there was a sign warning you about the high winds in the area and saying that if they’re really bad, you should avoid standing under a tree. Can someone explain to me where we should be standing in this FOREST to avoid the trees?

Back at the hostel, I think I sat on the ground and “stretched” for about 2 hours before I felt like I wanted to move again. We hung out with some of our new hostel friends, ate our usual ravioli dinner feast, and went to sleep at the usual “way later than planned”. At least we could sleep in the next day, for once!

At about 10PM after my day of Kraków wandering, Annika, my friend from the city tour, texted me and asked if I wanted to go with her family to Zakopane. She had mentioned it at dinner the day before and said that it’s supposed to be good for hiking. I googled it, and the pictures looked incredible, so I said sure! (Brace yourself for SO many pictures. I can’t help myself!)

Zakopane is in the very south of Poland, right along the border with Slovakia and on the edge of the Tatra mountain range (which is mostly in Slovakia). It’s a popular destination for mountaineering, hiking, skiing, etc. and is beyond picturesque. There’s also a cable car for the less adventurous which takes riders to an amazing view from one of the mountain peaks.

I was supposed to meet them at their hotel at 9AM, and of course I left late, so I had to speed walk/run my way across the city. I assumed we wouldn’t leave right at 9 (because when has a group ever left on time), but I didn’t want to be the late one. I made it there by 8:59… and then we hung out while everyone finished eating breakfast.

There was a marathon happening that morning too, so my mad dash across the city was further complicated. Excuse this incredibly blurry picture… I took it while running haha.

Finally, we set off to Zakopane! The drive was about 2 hours, and Annika and I sat in the back and chatted the whole way there. Annika, her dad Kurt, and I planned to do a hike that Annika had researched. There were three parts to it – the starting point to a hostel, hostel to lake, lake to peak. We wanted to at least go to the lake, but if possible, we hoped to go all the way to the peak and take the cable car down. The rest of the group (her mom Karen, and Peggy and Jorge) was taking the cable car both ways.

Soooo this is how the hike started. And the views were all uphill from here. Like in every way.
YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME
Love love love. Also, I apologize for the completely worthless captions on half of these pictures but like… I am so beyond obsessed that there’s no chance of you getting anything more coherent. Sorry.

We were a good hiking group. Annika was definitely in the best hiking shape, her dad was doing really well, and I was probably the worst, but we were close enough in ability to be okay. The first part, to the hostel, was the steepest. There were a ton of stairs, and they were brutal. At least though, the paths were clear and well-marked. I was a little nervous because we saw all these people coming down dressed like it was the dead of winter and carrying skis. Where were they coming from? We were in shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers, and it seemed like we were reasonably dressed for the current conditions. The thing about mountains, though, is that it gets colder as you go farther and farther up (I know, duh).

The beginnings of a fantastic view
Like, come on. HOW ARE YOU REAL???
Tell me this isn’t straight out of a brochure
I can’t handle this
The mountains though…
I. Love. You. Mountains.

After the hostel, things leveled out a bit, but that’s also when we hit snow. We had to walk more carefully to keep from slipping, but thankfully it had melted and refrozen and been walked on enough that our feet stayed dry, even in our sneakers.

Me and Annika. I wish I had gotten a picture with my entire adoptive family, but I didn’t think of that until later. So this will have to do.
“Where did this snow come from??”
Kurt and Annika on the snowy path
The path!

The whole hike was unbelievably beautiful (when I stopped huffing and puffing and took a second to look around). We walked through tunnels of evergreens, surrounded by mountains streaked with snow. The views in every direction were stunning, like something out of a storybook. Nothing looked real. Then, the lake seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it was next-level awesome. One second we were trekking through endless snow, and the next, we were standing on the shore of a breathtaking lake. The water is snowmelt, so it’s super clear. The lake is surrounded by mountains. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. It was one of those views that I wish I could bottle up and capture forever because a picture can’t quite do it justice.

The lake! Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy, in case you were wondering about the name (ha!)
Pinch me
THE MOUNTAINS. AND THE LAKE. AND THE REFLECTION.
Straight out of a travel brochure

We were doing okay despite the snow, so we tried to keep going past the lake. After walking around the edge to the other side, the next step was a super steep stretch with a lot of snow but also a lot of rocks. I thought we’d be fine if we just stuck to the rocks, but Kurt wasn’t on the same page. He thought the rocks seemed unstable. He was probably right. I think my sense of danger is completely messed up now, and I don’t get afraid as quickly as I maybe should.

Going around the lake
Trying to keep our feet dry
Excuse me while I keep posting lake pictures until the end of time
Oh just one more
Okay one more
Okay… one more. Until the next one.
The rocky uphill.

A couple of girls in full-on cold weather hiking gear were coming down, and he asked for their opinion about whether or not we should keep going. They took one look at us and gave a strong “no”. I still thought they were being dramatic. They seemed amazed we had even gotten that far. Oh, well. We turned around, and who knows, that may have been for the best. Annika was thinking that we could take the cable car down from the top, but I’m not 100% positive that we were even headed to the right place.

Okay actually I just looked at a map and plotted out our location. It is DEFINITELY a good thing that we turned around because we were not very close to the cable car. (We were, however, super close to the Slovakian border which I totally didn’t realize.)

This lake rocks, don’t you agree?
Just happy to be here!
Okay maybe it is kind of steep
Andddd back down
“Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall”
Just as good on the way back down
The lake, featuring the girls who totally judged our shorts and sneakers
I’m obsessed. This is definitely in my top 5 favorite places in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there’s a wrong way to go when the view looks like THAT.
Dinner! This picture was obviously not taken by me because how often do I successfully remember to take a picture pre-consumption? Almost never.

When we got to the bottom, Karen, Peggy, and Jorge were waiting for us to head back to Kraków. When we got to the city, I was planning to say goodbye and thank you and go back to my hostel for dinner (Side note: dinner was included there… which is insane. Breakfast, dinner, and a bed for like $12/night!). I felt like I had already imposed enough. They didn’t give me an opportunity to duck out, though, and that’s how I ended up eating dinner with them again. It was great. I felt like I was with family friends and like I had known them forever. They basically adopted me, and sometimes it’s nice to feel adopted. They even told me that if I ever wanted to soul search in Florida, all I had to do was tell Annika I was coming. Jorge said he’d take me out on his boat! Like, these people! How cool!

After dinner, we parted ways, and I seriously felt like I was saying goodbye to people who I had known for years. It completely changed the way I’ll remember my time in Poland. I mean, I loved it there anyway, but how much better is joining a family and going on an adventure than just spending days walking around by yourself?

I took my time walking home that night. Nighttime strolls aren’t too common for me while travelling because I’m usually back before dark and then too exhausted from the day to go back out. I almost forgot how much I love cities at night. There’s an energy that doesn’t exist during the day, an almost magical feeling. I sat in the square for a bit, enjoying the night air, the building lights, and the people watching. In that moment, everything felt perfect.

Very dramatic

My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:

Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.

Along the drive from Kapan to Goris. Excuse the fact that they’re blurry… the window was dirty and kept fogging up, so use your imagination.

In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.

Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!

I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.

These mountains. Are so weird. But I love them.
Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.

Cave dwelling

As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).

This is one of the caves I climbed into and immediately fell in love with.
Chimney above the window.
Door to the left, window to the right.
Cave window views.

After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!

Picturesque
Here’s a series of my favorite random buildings from around town. I’m in love.

I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. Check out the gate in front.
On the side of the church (between the door and the window to the left), you can see artillery shell damage from the war with Azerbaijan

Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?

St. Hripsime
One thing that consistently makes me sad is the amount of trash that’s just laying around the country. This could be such a pretty river, but instead it’s polluted with garbage.
Field of trash encountered during my hike.
The central square
Spot the little cave door!

Another outside-of-Beirut adventure came about by chance. At church on Sunday, Maria bumped into an old friend who was visiting Lebanon for a few days. She was going out into a few villages the next day to see some Christian-run refugee schools, and their conversation resulted in an invitation for me to join!

The drive out of Beirut was beyond breathtaking. I took a few inadequate pictures out the car window before giving up and just looking with my eyes.

I was very interested to see the refugee situation in Lebanon and how it compares to Armenia. Before this, Armenia was my only real reference point, and that isn’t exactly a typical refugee scenario. One major difference is simply the number of people. In Armenia, a country of 3ish million people, the numbers we usually cite are that 22,000 refugees have come to Armenia, and 15,000 of those are still in the country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is estimated to have around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not to mention the almost 200,000 Palestinian refugees who have been there for decades now (though no one really knows the accurate numbers, so they could be higher or lower than these).

Another big difference I didn’t think much about beforehand is housing. I was answering some questions about the refugee situation in Armenia, and someone said, “What are the camps like?” I was a little thrown off and replied that there aren’t camps in Armenia. The person looked impressed by that fact, but I tried to clarify that that doesn’t mean Armenia really has its act together or that most refugees have decent living conditions. Maybe things are “better” for people here, but it doesn’t seem productive to use that word when the situations are just two varying levels of horrible.

One of the refugee camps from a distance. It’s a little tent city, and with the cold of winter (which can be decently cold despite being in Lebanon), a tent is definitely not an easy or comfortable living space.

There are estimates that as many as half of the school-age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon aren’t going to school. Despite many initiatives to change that, various challenges such as language barriers, transportation costs, and kids working to help support their families all contribute to keeping kids out of school.

We visited two out of the six total schools that this particular ministry operates. Between all six, they have about 1,600 kids enrolled! The principal at the first school explained that even though it’s a school run by Christians, they don’t explicitly teach the kids about Christianity. For a while at first, they just operated the school and gained the trust of the community. After that, they started talking a bit more about stories from the Bible and such, and they do teach Christian values.

Kids at the first school singing and dancing. They were all so excited to show off what they’ve learned.

She told a story about a boy from one of their schools. His father told him to go and steal some fruit, and the boy said that they learned at school that you’re not supposed to take things that don’t belong to you. The kid’s teacher went to see the father, explained what they’re teaching the kids about how to behave, and said that it only works if they’re also getting the same reinforcement at home. She told him that they needed to work together.

Now that the school has been around for a bit, they’re gaining people’s trust more and more. They’re bringing the parents in for meetings and getting them involved. Most of all, they’re just trying to show the people God’s love. They said that they’ve heard multiple times from the families they work with that the only people who treat them like they’re people and not animals are the Christians. That’s nice and I’m glad that the Christian community is treating people right, but honestly, that statement mostly just bothers me. They are people. Why is it so hard to treat them that way? Or better question, why is it so easy to not treat them that way?

One of the classrooms in the second school. The school is located in what looks like a very small strip mall. You can see the garage-type door on the opposite side of the room.

We have this horrible human habit of thinking that we deserve what we have, and if people are in unfortunate situations, it’s their fault. How do we have such undeserved, high opinions of ourselves? As if we deserve success and happiness because we’ve never done anything wrong in our whole lives, and they don’t because they definitely have done something that justifies their circumstances.

These people had lives back in Syria. They had businesses. They were teachers, writers, mechanics, artists, jewelers, shopkeepers. They didn’t start the war. Most of them didn’t want the war and would have been happy to keep on living life the way they were. They are just people who were caught in the middle of a conflict in their country. They deserve to live as much as any of us. They deserve to build lives and to be able to support their families. They deserve to be treated with love, respect, and dignity. How can you look at a person, know nothing about them, and think of them as less than you? Saying it like that makes it sound ridiculous… because it is. Somehow though, we manage to do it constantly.

Every time I hear someone talk about their experiences in Syria during the war, I get this weird mix of emotions. It’s the same thing I feel when Maria and Badveli talk about something that happened during the war in Beirut and they’re so matter-of-fact about it. “Well, this bus only ran to here, and then you walked to taxis over here but you had to be careful because of snipers, and then you drove to these buses here and you had to be careful again because other snipers, and then you got home!” I think I feel a combination of horrified and baffled because the words don’t match the tone. The words are horrific, and the tone is simply factual. It’s amazing what people can get used to. We can train ourselves to feel like almost anything is normal, even when it absolutely isn’t. People shouldn’t have to know what shelling sounds like or how to avoid getting sniped or what to do when bombs are being dropped on their neighborhood. Those are not things that should have to be accepted as part of “normal” life.

View from one of the schools.

Visiting those schools, it was hard to reconcile the knowledge of the horrible things those kids have lived through with the smiles on their faces. Part of that is because kids are amazingly resilient, and in these schools, part of it is definitely because of the teachers. It was immediately clear to me that the teachers are passionate about their work and that they love the kids. I was so impressed. I’ve seen a lot of teachers all over the world, and you can very quickly tell which ones see teaching as more than a job. They know that they can have a huge impact on the kids and who they will become, and they take that responsibility seriously. In all of them, I saw that look in their eyes where you know that they love those kids like their own. The students can feel it too, and every single kid in those schools was clearly thrilled to be there. Their families are still facing plenty of challenges, but for a few hours each day, they get to be regular kids who smile and laugh and play.

Kids at the second school taking a break from classes to sing, dance, and run around.

I’ve had some very unique opportunities this year to see the world from different angles. Some have been fun and beautiful and some have been sad and uncomfortable, but all of them have been equally important. Ignoring sad things doesn’t make them go away. Paying attention, letting yourself feel, and trying to understand are what lead to empathy. Empathy connects people. And paying attention usually also reveals hope because where there’s a problem, there are “ordinary” people working to fix it. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Anyway, I know this isn’t exactly my usual type of post. I’ve just been thinking a lot about these things recently, and my experience in Lebanon reinforced a lot of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. I’m still not completely sure what to do with them, but for now, they’re pushing me to see people and situations in a new way.

Here are a few more pretty mountain views 🙂

Darjeeling is beautiful!!! I already feel like I need to come back here to do some hiking. The crew I’m with right now is not exactly the hiking type, so I don’t think we’ll be uncovering any hidden gems of Darjeeling while we’re here. Anyone out there want to come and trek across northern India with me?

The train at Ghum Station. It’s interesting to see how the British have left a legacy in the most random of places… if you’ve ever been to London, that station sign should look familiar. It’s the same symbol as is used for the tube.

We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (also called the “Toy Train”) from Sonada to Darjeeling (elevation = 6,700 feet). Its tracks are only 2’ apart, so obviously, it’s much smaller than normal trains. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been running since 1881. It’s kind of amazing to see how the tracks wind their way through the mountains, and they’re 48 miles long! I mean, that’s not that impressive if we’re just talking about regular train tracks, but add in the mountains, and I think it’s pretty remarkable.

After probably an hour on the train (it doesn’t go very fast, plus it made some stops along the way), we arrived at Darjeeling Station. The views for the entire ride were great, and at the station, we got another glimpse of some of the awesomeness that lay beyond (I say “a glimpse” because there were power lines galore blocking us from getting an unobstructed view). I personally am all about mountain views. I’ve seen a lot of them, but I don’t think they’ll ever get old for me. Plus, they’re all so different. The mountains in Peru were green and awesome, and these are also green and awesome, but they look NOTHING alike. Earth is the coolest.

Ah, what a beautiful view! I’m so glad that there isn’t anything blocking it!
The wildlife starts before you even get to the zoo. There are wild monkeys all over the place. Pastor Daniel talked to me about the monkeys soon after I got here and told me what to do if you’re even in a face off with one – don’t make eye contact and DON’T smile. It’s funny how, depending on where you grow up, you learn very different animal facts. Growing up, I learned about what to do around alligators and mountain lions. Here, the kids learn about what to do around monkeys and elephants.

From there, we headed to the zoo. It’s a decent size, and it was interesting to see what animals they had because many of them are native to nearby areas. I also got to see my BFF, the snow leopard. It was just as magical as it always is. Pro tip though, the best place I’ve found to see snow leopards is the San Diego Zoo. You might have heard about how amazing that zoo is, and I’m telling you, people say that for a reason. The zoo is beautifully designed, it’s HUGE, they have multiple snow leopards, and you can get so close to them! Anna (the snow leopard) and I made eye contact and instantly became best friends. Sorry this is a huge aside, but seriously, you should go. Also, they have koalas. And Tasmanian devils.

Anyway, as I was saying, this zoo wasn’t the best ever, but it was still cool. I felt like we were in the forest (because we were), and besides the snow leopards, they also had some red pandas which are adorable. As we were leaving, one of them climbed up into a tree that was probably 100’ tall (at least). It’s nice that they have the space to give them such a big habitat! Or maybe it escaped, who knows.

Not a bad-looking zoo!
It’s a yak!
I love you, snow leopard.
One of the many super-cool walls at the zoo. Come for the animals, stay for the moss-covered walls.
Weird bear sculpture-type thing in the bear enclosure.

 

Some 100% safe electrical wiring at the zoo. Yes, at the zoo. Like in a public place where people and children visit. Yes, those splices are wrapped in electrical tape. Keep in mind that the voltage here is 240V, so a shock would be quite unpleasant.

After the zoo, we spent some time wandering. We walked farther up the mountain, somehow managing not to get hit by a single car even though we were basically walking in the middle of the street. I frequently feel like I’m some sort of safety nut here because I’m like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t walk in the middle of the street” and everyone else is posing for selfies right in the path of oncoming traffic. I think I’m just being reasonable though, right?

 

This makes me laugh. All of the bags of chips here are puffed out because they’re brought up from a lower altitude (so as the air pressure outside of the bag decreases coming up the mountain, the pressure inside stays the same and puffs the bag out).

There’s another cultural difference you can add to the list. People here love selfies. Well, okay, maybe that’s not a cultural difference, but the love of selfies here is far beyond anything I have ever experienced before. Maybe I’m just not running in the right crowds at home. It’s not just selfies though, to be fair. It’s all pictures. People take SO MANY pictures, and most of the time, they’re of very underwhelming things. Like we’ll take a selfie in the middle of the street with nothing interesting in the background. Then we’ll take a selfie on the train. And next to the train. And sitting at the train station. And walking down the street. And and and and and… the list could go on forever. I’m more of a “take pictures for the memories, but also use your eyes and just enjoy the experience” kind of person, so I quickly grew weary of the constant picture-taking. Luckily, everyone’s phones except for mine were dead long before the end of the day. Life’s little blessings.

By the time we finished our wandering and made it down the mountain, dark clouds were starting to roll in. Oh, rainy season, how I hate you. The rain comes frequently, quickly, and heavily. We snagged a bus back to Sonada before the worst of it started, thankfully. Oh, and we also ate more momos… yummm! I ate beef ones this time, so now, in two days, I’ve hit three different kinds. That’s pretty good, right?

THIS IS SO COOL!!!!!!
Hi, mountains.

Beef momos! Not nearly as beautiful as the ones we made. This is very close to what my first attempt looked like, actually.
Just to give you a sense of where we are, Darjeeling is about 5 hours west of Jaigaon.

For the next couple of days, Anisha, Neha, and I are staying with Anisha’s aunt and uncle. They live in Sonada, a town about 17 km away from Darjeeling. We’ll go into Darjeeling for tomorrow, but just getting to Sonada was enough of an adventure for one day!

Us on the train with some of Anisha’s cousins.

We left Jaigaon this morning at 5:00 to go to the train station which is about half an hour’s drive away in Hasimara. From there, we took the train to Siliguri. That took 3-4 hours, and from there, we still had a way to go. The train was MUCH different from the trains at home. There are usually different classes of train ticket that you can buy, but I don’t know that the train we were on even had a first-class-type car. We got our tickets (that cost about US$2) and sat in a car with bench seats, broken fans, and glass-less windows.

The train is moving… and the train door is very open.

There was no conductor or anything in our car, so after the train started moving, no one closed the door. It was just flapping around as we chugged along, and I don’t think anyone even thought twice about it. The windows had shutters that you could slide up and down to block the sun as well as a glass window that you could also slide up. Can you imagine a train in the States where you could completely open the window and could stick your arm out??? There were a couple of horizontal bars so that you couldn’t fit your whole body out, but still…

One of the things that I CANNOT get used to is the way that people dispose of garbage in this country (and to be fair, it’s not just here). When I’m travelling and eat a snack or something, I put the wrapper in my bag until I can find a trash can. Here, you just throw it out the window. Anisha and Neha got some tea, and when they finished, out the window their cups went! Every time I see someone litter without a second thought (probably without even a first thought), it physically pains me. I want to just go and pick everything up! All of the trash cans here say “Use Me” on them, and at first, it’s kind of funny because you’re like, “Uhhh, why does the trash can have to tell you what to do?” Then, you realize that it really does need to be said, and it’s not quite as funny anymore.

This isn’t the one we took, but it’s basically the same (besides the lack of chickens).

When we finally got to Siliguri, we took a car the rest of the way to Sonada. It was basically the same concept as the mini-buses that I took in Ghana and Peru, but this was clearly made for the mountains. I’m not fully informed on car terminology, but I think it would be an SUV? I have no idea. It reminded me of an army vehicle or a hummer or something. Ugh, I don’t know. Just look at the picture. Ours also had caged chickens strapped to the top, so that’s fun.

Here’s a map view of the drive from Siliguri to Sonada. Needless to say, my stomach got a little queasy at times.

Leaving Siliguri, it was hot, dusty, and miserable. About half an hour into the drive, we started climbing up a mountain, and the air started changing. It got cooler and cleaner (or so it felt), and I felt like a new person. The drive took about 2-1/2 hours, including a lunch stop along the way. We got vegetable momos (dumplings), and I was in heaven because momos are quite possibly my favorite food here.

Dumpling wrapping!

We finally made it to Sonada, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I don’t understand why travelling is so tiring when all you’re doing is sitting for hours and hours! The plan for dinner was chicken momos (yes, we did just have momos for lunch, but those were COMPLETELY different… vegetable vs. chicken… duh), and I was determined to learn how to make them. I’ve been trying to force my way into the kitchen this entire trip because I want to learn how to make a few things for when I go home, but no one ever lets me help with anything. I refused to take no for an answer this time, and I learned how to wrap the momos! They had already made the dough and the filling by the time I got there, so that will have to be a lesson for another day.

Check out that beautiful detailing

The first one I wrapped looked horrible, and everyone (myself included) spent a solid 5 minutes laughing at it. I watched Anisha’s sister make about three more before I was convinced that I understood the technique, and from there, mine got better and better! By the end, Anisha’s sister said that mine were better than hers! Which, of course, I protested against, but I will say that I made vast improvements. Of course, each one took me about 1 minute to make while hers took maybe 15 seconds, but you have to start somewhere!

Tomorrow we’re going into Darjeeling, and I’m excited for more mountain views! The views were amazing on the drive up to here, and Darjeeling is even higher in the mountains.

You can see the road zig-zagging up the mountain.
I saw a lot of people carrying very heavy looking things this way. There’s a strap wrapped around the bundle, and then you wrap that around your head.
This guy had one of the most impressive loads. I tried to creep on the boxes as he walked past to see if they listed a weight, and I’m pretty sure one of them said 43kg. If that’s right and those boxes weren’t refilled with something else, that means he’s carrying about a 660-pound load!
Since Sonada is built on the side of the mountain, most of the town isn’t accessible to vehicles. There’s the one main road that we came on from Siliguri and that leads to Darjeeling, and the rest of the paths are more like this (or are made of rocks). Definitely not handicap accessible!
Another random “street” in town