Brandon and I have been a long time gone from this stage, and we thought we’d return to resurrect our forum by sharing some news:

We are engaged!

After three years’ worth of challenges and changes – personal, philosophical, professional, social and geographical – we have decided to tie the knot. Brandon and I are best friends and perfect complements. Plus, we both look good in the same cheap haircut. Suffice it to say, we are incredibly excited about this new development: a commitment to spend the rest of time together.

And, personally, I have never known anyone but Brandon to be so tolerant of my idiosyncrasies or so encouraging of my ambitions. Or, anyone who can create a remarkably perfect boule of bread dough in 10 seconds flat. I am a lucky individual.

As my mother said when I told her the news, “You two have a bright future.” Indeed we do, Mom, indeed we do.

Step 1: Take a photo and upload it to your flickr account.

This is a photo of a butterfly.

Step 2: Find a popular story on that features a photo similar to yours.

This is a picture of a similar butterfly.

This is a photo of a similar butterfly.

Step 3: Comment on that story and include a link to your flickr photo.

Step 4: Sit back and watch the views roll in.

Characteristically, we’ve neglected the blog for the last few weeks. We’ve been busy – sort of. Brandon has strongly suggested I write a summary of our last, at least marginally notable, activities in Peru before we sign off on our trip blogging – we’ll be flying back to the States in less that a week. So, I’ll do my best to cover our most recent highlights and lowlights, starting with … the Jungle.

Brandon and I spent a five-day holiday weekend in the Amazon basin, gratis (at least in the skewed way I figure finances) due to B’s economic stimulus check from GWB. We stayed at the rustic Inotawa lodge off the Rio Madre de Dios outside Puerto Maldonado, across the river from the Tambopata Reserve. We flew directly down the mountainsides surrounding Cuzco into the basin, leaving behind the cold and dry highlands for the hot and wet jungle. We stepped off the plane into a sweltering heat, feeling instant relief on our chapped, dry skin and fragile nasal membranes, and shedding our Andean sweater layers into piles at our feet. The spicy smell of earth hung heavily in the air and huge green leaves fanned us as we jarred down a narrow pot-hole-ridden dirt road with our guide. A two hour boat ride down the wide, muddy river brought us to our lodge.

We were introduced abruptly to the jungle on our first night. Our guide bought us on a short night walk, into the thick dark forest surrounding the lodge, where we clutched our dim flashlights like weapons and followed close at the heels of our local leader. He poked casually at a tree as we passed, letting loose a deadly scorpion onto the path and saying “Remember never to touch ANYTHING, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME in the jungle.” We heartily agreed to obey, warily eyeing the curled creature. We’d never seen a scorpion before, except on the Discovery channel. Next, we were lead to a momma tarantula’s hole, where she emerged as if on cue with her body as big as Brandon’s hand, bringing her furry babies out to greet us as we approached. Yes, we respected the jungle.

During our stay, we fished and swam with piranha, watched bright red and green Macaws gorge on gray river clay, caught Caiman, swung in hammocks and watched squirrel monkeys clamber up and down trees. We traipsed through jungle terrain, smelled the stench of wild pigs and ate gigantic bananas off local trees. We befriended lonely Pepe, the rusty-red resident howler monkey of the lodge who would curl up in our laps as we read and who would hang from the thick wooden beams of the roof to watch while we ate. And a luxurious sunrise symphony of bird calls roused us every morning- calls that sounded like bells and flutes and large droplets of water falling into deep wells.

We loved the jungle – we didn’t mind that our damp clothes never dried out, that the shower was perpetually cold, that the mosquitoes were hungry, that stinging bees were bright green and as big as golf balls, and that electricity was still a thing of the future. It was a good break – a needed break from the beautiful but barren, dry-season highlands that we have grudgingly come to adore.

Brandon and I came back Sunday from a weekend traveling to see what the Peruanos consider the eighth wonder of the world — Machu Picchu. And, did we get to see it? Yeah. Did we like it? Yeah. A lot? Yeah. But instead of telling about Machu Picchu, I’m going to tell of our trip back – a trip so fun and freaky that the Machu Picchu wonder, even for me, is now only as bright as our flickr photos.

We found a bus at the hydroelectric dam that would take us directly back to Urubamba, en route Cusco. We considered ourselves in luck since the dam is only the fourth-to-last stop on the route home from Machu Picchu (note: the budget trip to and from Machu is a two day long affair – it’s much easier if you can spend the cash) and we had been travel weary all day. Brandon and I take a seat in the front where we can see the entire road through the wide bus windows. Other tourists slowly trickle on, filling the bus only a quarter full. We set off for the six-hour journey home, along the narrow dirt streets that wind along the mountain sides, high above a river valley, between the tiny towns Santa Teresa and Santa Maria.

We pass through Santa Teresa and come to a small village. A middle-aged man, standing in a doorway, catches sight of our bus. He grins excitedly, waving us down. Our driver slows and the man gestures behind him to the passenger, his daughter, a young woman about my age. The man and his wife rush their daughter to the bus, moving fast as though the driver will change his mind and leave if they don’t make haste. The parents, in their eagerness and pride in having hailed down such a rare ride (all the way to Cuzco!), they press toward the automatic bus door – eliciting a reprimand from our driver (Passe! Passe!). They move aside and the driver releases the slow-opening door. They tug at the unweilding door – urging it to open quickly – and push their laughing daughter into the bus, tossing a brightly colored and tightly bundled care package in after her. The daughter is wearing city-bought jeans and an urban haircut, and a cell phone charger dangles from her silvery leather purse. She must attend college in Cuzco, the urban center of the Andes. The mother scurries away to wave from the side of the road, avoiding the dust and exhaust. The father stands near the bus window, his dark wrinkled face accenting his brightly shining eyes – grinning, grinning – so proud of his daughter, and so happy she came to visit. The bus pulls away, the family waving together until the dust from the road covers the parents’ figures at the roadside.

We finally leave the dusty dirt paths and arrive on the main route, passing over the Sacred Valley mountains which guard the way between Machu Picchu and Urubamba. We stop at a small fruit stand where other buses have pulled up. I realize it is something of a rest stop as I see a line of men standing along the road, urinating. I get out, too, looking for a bathroom a bit more concealed. There is a small house next to the fruit stand, and I see a handmade cardboard sign, “BAŇO.” I walk over and am greeted by a small girl, who pushes me into line behind two other waiting passengers to use her family’s outdoor bathroom. I am informed I must pay 50 centimos, and I give 1 sol, not asking for change. The little girl has placed a trillion shiny KungFu Panda stickers, collected from Oreo cookie packages, outside along the walkway. She tells me the names of each as she hands out sheets of paper to squirming customers. She’s very charming. I wish her well, silently, as I tell her thanks and goodbye.

Another hour on the road. On almost every pass has stood a recent mini-landslide, piles of gray rocks covering half the road. I wonder what would happen to our bus if we were to pass by as rocks began to fall. We pass a turn where the road has collapsed, the thick black tar jagged, sticking out into the air as the cliff drops off sharply beneath it. We feel insecure in our bus seats. Across the valley we see evidence of a huge landslide, the earth beneath the narrow road steeply dropping and smooth. We see the remains of a broken vehicle amidst the rocks – a window, a door, a fender – it is not recent but not old. As we approach the site of the slide we see a neat row of black wooden crosses, names hand-painted in white, of those who were in the vehicle as the road collapsed. I am saddened and frightened, imagining the vehicle falling from the road. We have at least another 4 hours to go.

It is almost dark and we are high up – the world is an obscured white as we drive through low-hanging clouds hugging the mountain top. I am looking out the side window, straining to see something. A giant black figure quickly approaches the side of the bus along the road – a cow. Its flanks nearly brush the side of the bus as we pass. On the left now, a bright blue edifice emerges from the thick white. Our driver slows, making a sign of the cross across his chest. It’s a church. I wonder what our driver is thinking.

We are in the middle of nowhere – there are no settlements, no lights, nothing to see past the sheet of white in the dim light. Our bus passes a family of four with their dogs loping beside small kids. They are ragged and weary, the father raises his hand slightly, a friendly gesture in the bus lights. The driver stops quickly, reaches behind him to the big black bag of yellow bananas he has stashed there, purchased from a market near Machu. He opens his window and starts pushing the big bag out. The mother is passing and stops, tugging at the bag, helping it out the small window. I can see her smile in the lights, the driver says nothing, just nods as the bag falls into the mother’s arms, and pulls away from the family.

It is now pitch black and the lights cut through fog and haze, crackling from a loose wire. We approach another shadow, tiny and crouching in the shallow ditch, avoiding the vehicle. It’s a child, a boy, dragging a large sack. The driver stops, opens the door and gestures the boy in. The boy clambers up the steps, tripping in his haste and as he struggles with his heavy load. He hesitates as he catches sight of our foreign faces in the front seat. I smile and motion to him to take a seat, and he slowly sits across from us, leaning forward to look out onto the road.

Several more minutes down the road we encounter another boy, a bundle thrown over his thin shoulders. He waves at the bus and the driver stops, again. Where are these children going? – I wonder. The boy grins widely, laughs as he hops up the stairs. Gleefully, the new boy squeezes into the same seat as the other boy, too polite to choose his own from the many empty seats on our tourist coach. Both hunch forward in the dark behind the driver, too excited to relax. I am so touched and exhausted.

Finally we begin our descent into Urubamba. We pass through a bigger town, Ollataytambo, and I am relieved to see bright lights and bustling life. Another twenty minutes finds us in Urubamba. It feels like home as we drag ourselves off the bus, thanking, thanking, thanking our driver as we gratefully leave the dark bus behind and walk toward our street.

Brandon and I are in Cuzco this weekend. Right now we’re sitting in a cafe, overlooking the Plaza de Armas, watching the shadows fall across the church steps and hearing a bunch of different languages from our neighboring patrons – patrons from everywhere but Peru. Cuzco is a deluxe city, sprawling and grand, covering the floor of a vast valley 11,150 feet above sea level. It is a city accustomed to tourists, quite unlike Urubamba, and we blend in well – even though visitors from the states are a minority here. This weekend is a treat for us, and we’ve been doing little else but walking and shopping and eating – spending more than we should from our tightly budgeted finances. Last night we had a delicious Peruvian meal, Aji de gallina, for $5 a person, and then stepped next door to a cushy wine bar, slopped on a couch, reading National Review and Vanity Fair from June 2007, and sipped our first delightful Pisco Sours – made from Pisco brandy and topped with frothy meringue. We returned to our hostel, and watched from our privately barred balcony as the younger tourists weaved drunkenly back from the discotheques whose heavily bass-laden music shook the walls of our tiny room until 5am.

Cuzco is so deluxe it even has its own Inca ruins, Sacsayhuaman, settled high on the mountains overlooking the Cuzco valley. We traveled there by foot early this morning, climbing smooth-worn stone steps through the city until we reached ancient, massive walls created from gigantic gray stones. Beautiful, mysterious, impressive ruins. However, our sea-level blood is still not accustomed to the altitude – or we are terribly out of shape – and once we were close enough to touch the stones, we leaned on them for support as we rested and tried to enjoy the sight between heaving gasps of air. We wandered through the ruins for a while until we got bored and until tour buses arrived, belching more tourists who unapologetically shoved themselves into our exclusive photos. Before we descended to return to the city, we visited the chalky-white, enormous statue of Jesus which neighbors the ruins, acting as a towering figure who watches over the city.  Tonight, from the open shutters of the cafe, we can see the brightly illuminated statue hovering high in the blackness surrounding the Plaza.

We are returning to Urubamba tomorrow afternoon sometime and will welcome the tranquility of the little town – at least until next weekend arrives.

We arrived in Urubamba almost a week ago and have been really busy ever since. We took a 4:30am flight out of Lima and after touching down in two other cities arrived in Cuzco at about 8am. Our gracious host Connie was waiting and whisked us away to her and her family´s campsite at the foot of one of the mountains that surrounds Urubamba. There lies the Nevo House which is a cute little cabin with a full kitchen and two bathrooms recently constructed to house us volunteers. The land is a wonderful sanctuary from the world where we can relax and study or read a book in peace after a day of volunteering.

We started on our projects almost immediately. Amanda with her reproductive health campaign and me with my dental health campaign. They keep us busy during the day while our evenings are spent taking Spanish lessons and studying. The biggest obstacle for us is learning to speak Spanish well enough to communicate with the people we are working with. There is no shortage of opportunity to practice our skills and by the time we leave we should be pretty well versed.

This past weekend we visited some of the many ancient ruins in the Urubamba Valley including Ollantaytambo and Pisac. Both of these places were amazing. It is mind boggling to think of how these ancient civilizations were able to construct such elaborate structures on the sides of the mountains. To walk in and around them fills you with awe as well as sadness that the structures and the people who built them were destroyed for greed and conquest.

The biggest market in the area is in the town of Pisac. It attracts many tourists looking to buy ¨authentic¨ alpaca and llama wool products as well as locals buying and bartering their goods. We loved the market. We spent hours walking around trying to see all that it had to offer. We ended up buying a few gifts for our family and some things for ourselves as well.

The week is flying by and we hope to have another exciting adventure to talk about this weekend.

Our stay in Lima was short, yet sweet, and I am writing this brief post from the backroom of one of Urubamba’s cheap internet/restaurant/convenience store/house-cafes.

Lima is a beautiful, beautiful city, and the affluent neighborhood of Miraflores is especially catching, with flowers everywhere – on the ground, in the trees, along the walls and gates of houses.  Which is fitting, of course, since miraflores means “to see flowers” and which helps to dispense some of the gloomy mood gifted by the perpetual haze of smog/fog that hangs heavy over the city everyday.  We stayed with a family of physicians there – what luck! – and felt rottenly spoiled by the luxuriousness of our surroundings, and, well, just how dang nice they were.  Our hosts spoke English and they gave us a good earful each day on their culture – especially on the healthcare and politics, double luck!  They even warned us of the frightening-looking cuy dish (guinea pig) which all the rural highlanders eat – however, we are now in the highlands and have yet to see any cuy.  And, I don’t think we’ll spend too much time looking.

Lima is a gigantic, sprawling city, which, in addition to the smog-fog, contains trillions of plastic bags which fly hither and thither through the streets.  There are three unofficial divisions of neighborhoods of Lima, each with its own level of affluence – the suburbs, the poor urban neighborhoods, and the shanty towns.  Residents of each rarely cross-over into the other, unless those from the poorer parts work in the richer parts.  The affluent neighborhoods lie far outside the center of the city and hug the coastline beaches.  There are ultra-modern mid-rise apartments popping up amidst the doomed colonial and republican-era buildings, which are made from concrete with cut-out, open-air windows.  Everything lies behind tall iron and concrete walls, even in Miraflores where each block hires 24-hour guards.

The central downtown is reserved for people and families who have undertaken the urban migration from the Andes and inland forests, yet are not poor enough to live beyond the city limits in the shanty towns.  We took a trip downtown to see the ancient buildings and central park.  There, the old colonial buildings which are left have been divided into flats for multiple families.  We took a tourist-bus to the top of a steep peak where an enormous cross watches over Lima.  When we reached the top we could see all of Lima, sprawled out under its haze, below us.  Best yet, we finally found out where all the errant plastic bags come to rest – at the foot of the cross.  Each minute as we stood there, a new bag would arrive, floating in the breeze, to settle at our feet and stay for the rest of its little plastic existence.  Quite comically appropriate.

Anyway, we never made it to the shanty towns, but we have heard that they keep growing and are being pushed farther and farther outside the city as the urban sprawl and urban migration to Lima continues.