Tales of a wandering lesbian


I don’ t know what I expected to find in Peru, other than a long trail and a big-ass set of ruins at the end.  I expected alpaca, llamas, guinea pig.  I didn’t expect to find archeology everywhere.  It reminded me of Athens, and Rome, the ancient mixed with the modern, built on top of, making itself seen in flashes of stone.

Our second day in Cuzco, Kelly suggested that we see some of the archeological sites in the surrounding valley.

“You can take a cab up to the highest of the four sites and then walk back.  It’s like 7 miles.  We can do that, right?”  We were pretty sure that we could.  LeAnna and I were heading out the next day for the 4-day Inka Trail trek.  And Kelly was recovering from an Achilles injury.  The question was more whether we thought it was a good idea.

“I’ll go ask the front desk about it.”  Kelly headed downstairs while LeAnna and I took turns showering and getting ready for the day.  When she returned, it was with a big smile on her face.

“It’s $5 for the taxi…and she said we can rent horses!”  We stopped pawing through our backpacks and looked up at her beaming face.


“Yes!  You can ride horsed back down.  Should I ask her to call a cab?”

An hour later we were climbing into a hatchback, the three of us crammed in the back seat, grappling with the stubborn seatbelts.

The driver wound through the too-small streets, rattling along the stones, as people jumped out of the way onto sidewalks or up into doorways.

As we drove up and out, we were treated to a view of the city, nestled in the hills high above the distant sea.

Here we found locals.  Real ones.  Dressed in the functional clothing that kept them both warm in the morning chill of 12,000 feet and safe form the uv rays of the sun, relatively unfiltered by the thin air.

Our taxi driver dropped us at the topmost of the four sites we would see:  Tambo Machay.  We were greeted by dreadlocked donkeys and llamas rolling in the grasses.

The focal point of this site was water.  From the spring running along side the path leading to the ruins, to the incorporation of the water in the beautifully hewn stone, there was no question about its importance here.  Beautiful trees grew on the banks of the little spring, shading the path, providing a rare bit of shade.  Despite the biting chill in the air, we lingered out of reach of the sun’s searing rays.

Merchants walked the path, back and forth from a make-shift marketplace at the foot of the ruins, carrying their wares and offering pictures with their livestock.

The archeological site was beautiful.  The stones were smooth and impeccably placed.  The thousand years or so of weather only a mild nuisance to its grand presence.  The aqueducts were clearly deeper than they had been when they were originally cut into the rock; worn away by centuries of flowing water.

The niches, possibly used to display mummies – a connection with the afterlife – still retained their pink hue, and sharp angles.

We climbed to a viewing area and surveyed the site.  Locals gathered water from the spring, the market spread out in a colorful patchwork of textiles, and a shepherd brought his sheep along the ridge just above the site, the modern mixing seamlessly with the ancient.

From Tambo Machay we walked down the winding road that had brought us from the city.  Our next stop, Puca Pucara, was just across the way, a sentinel balanced over the valley.

If Tambo Machay was about water, Puca Pucara was about the earth and air.  Wind whistled around the site, open on all sides to the elements.

When we walked up we found a young man and woman who wanted to show us the site.  “Just for tips.”  We declined, but I was intrigued.  “Without knowledge, this is just a pile of rocks,” he called after us.  We had our guidebook, but his words stuck with me.  How interesting that we had traveled all this way to see a pile of rocks.  To walk on a pile of rocks that had been so carefully placed.  How curious.

On the inside we found carefully constructed windows, small niches, walls built in harmony with the rocks upon which they stood.

And a cave.  LeAnna found the little opening, and we contemplated the intelligence behind entering.  None of us had brought a head-lamp, which, in the end, probably saved us from making a foolish decision.

The thorn bush and stinging nettle pleaded with us to turn back.  Which we did.

The site had a good number of rooms, layered on top of each other.  We climbed stairs cut into the mountain, and spent time looking out at the valley.  It was clear that this site was placed so as to offer a view, whether for aesthetic or military purposes.  In fact, its purpose as either a hunting lodge or a fortress is still in question.

This was our first introduction to a couple of things.  First, the small, uniform niches that decorated the inner walls of the sites.  They were perfectly sized to house me.

Second, we were introduced to the mountain-shaped rocks carved by the Inka, sacred objects that we would have walked by without knowing they were there.  This stone at Puca Pucara was shaped like the entire site of Machu Picchu.

As we walked from the site, Kelly started to feel the uncomfortable crisp that was beginning from spending hours in the high-altitude sun.  Even her stylish straw hat provided little protection.

A quick reassignment of clothing resulted in a charming expedition-worthy outfit.

I think that one of the greatest parts of traveling with other people is that I don’t have to be the only one to look like a fool on a regular basis.

The walk between Puca Pucara and the next site of Qenko was the longest leg.  We passed a wildlife refuge (about an acre of flooded grassland), fields of great clay bricks drying in the sun, and animals of all sorts.

My favorite was a pig, ridiculously tethered to a clump of grass.

As we turned a corner, the road swinging wide out over the valley, we saw a pack of horses, and two men sitting in the grass.  We all smiled and waved.  We’d nearly forgotten about the horses!  A quick negotiation, and we were on horseback, our guide walking beside us.

My horse was Palomo.  A beautiful, dusty white guy who was assigned to me, after I volunteered that I’d ridden before.

The ride was great.  We meandered through the hills, cutting across the country-side, up and down rocky embankments, and splashing through wild springs.

Kelly chatted in Spanish with our friendly guide, and I tried to slow Palomo who clearly preferred to run ahead of the pack.  Only once did we stop, our guide ordering me off of the horse, and instructing Kelly and LeAnna to continue on.  They looked at me and stayed put as our guide walked over to Palomo and adjusted the saddle, which had slipped back considerably.

With graceful movements, he adjusted the straps and moved with the horse when he sensed the argumentative kick coming.

As we neared Quenko, our guide gave us the go-ahead to let the horses run.  That was what I’d been waiting for.  All thoughts of a slipping saddle were thrust aside as I nudged Palomo on.  And we flew, through the hills of Peru, a huge smile on my face, and a chortling rumbling up from my soul.  Up the hill and into a lane filled with other horses, and we landed, Palomo taking charge of where and when to stop.

We hopped down, said our goodbyes and headed up the lane in the direction our guide pointed.  We were in a distinctly agricultural area now.  Workers were bringing tubs of potatoes from the fields to dry in the sun.

We spent the next while at Quenko.  It was lunch time, and we made a familiar picnic of trail mix, dried peaches and cheese.  The horses had been a delightful break in the day and we were all smiles as we hydrated and rested our thighs.

This site was different from the others.  It was carved into the rock.  Zig-zag channels and natural crags replaced the carefully-formed walls of the other sites.  We walked along the path to the site, noting the differences.

And then we were in the ruins.  Literally, in them.  Quenko was all about the earth.  The great cave in its center was a clear focal point.  The altar, carved from “living stone” is thought to have been used for embalming.  Mummies were an important part of Inka culture, serving actively as a connection between this world and the next.

Between the altar and the niche at the far end of the chamber was a great crevasse.  LeAnna and looked up at the piece of sky above, and the clear path to the surface.  And then we jumped.  She did a neat tuck and roll away from the edge, gently sloping down into the bottomless earth.  I made a comment under my breath about not having health insurance.  Halfway through the muttered doubt, I slammed the edge of my knee into the edge of the unforgiving stone.  One day before the longest trek of my life.

Even with the purple bruise already blooming, I was able to walk, so I shook it off and looked back, thankful that I was above, and not an offering to mother earth.

Up above, we met a young man anxious to talk with us about the site.  Not for tips.  He introduced himself and his culture and told us he was preparing to be a shaman.

“In two weeks.”  He had that long to prepare.  He’d been coming to the site every three days for the last 6 months or so, and was ready to join his father, grandfather and great-grandfather as a shaman.

“That is a good sign for you,” he said pointing to two small butterflies that were fluttering together 5 feet from the ground.

He pointed out the phallus-shaped site visible from where we stood – the companion to the uteral cave we’d just escaped from – as well as the male and female mountains visible from where we stood.

We thanked him and walked back to the road.  Without horses to guide us, we chose the road that seemed to be headed most directly down and began our journey to the final site.  We walked past houses and fields, llamas and soccer goals.

Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) our final site for the day, was the largest, by far.  The Cuzco region is said to be shaped like a puma.  Sacsayhuaman is known as the puma’s head.  The walls of the site form jagged, tooth shaped battlements – the puma’s mouth.  Even from a great distance, it was easy to see why.

The road took us out of the way, through a small resort, and next to more llama pastures.  As we walked past one, a herd of llama escaped, running through an unsecured gate.  We considered whether we were morally obligated to attempt to wrangle the llamas.

We decided, no.  We were not.

Once at the ruins, we found a spot in the shade to relax and hydrate.

And to take in the enormous Cristo Blanco standing opposite the ancient Inka site.

The site was gigantic.  We spent at least an hour there and saw a small fraction of what there was to see.  The stones that were used were incomprehensively large.  One was something like 70 tons.

We wandered through the doorways, up the steep stairs, along terraces.

We contemplated the strange, chalk grids marked on the walls, designed to help reconstruct the site in the case of an earthquake.

I also perfected my Peru look.

The hat kept me warm, the camelback kept me hydrated, and the tank let me get some sunscreened rays.

And then we went in search of the old Inka trail that our guidebook said we could take form the site down into the city itself.  But there were a lot of stone trails.  Eventually, we chose one that we thought looked promising, and headed down hill on the worn stones.

We made our way back into Cuzco, alongside the stray dogs that inhabit the streets.  Along side the tiny, old women walking the sidewalks, and the insane motorcycles carrying propane tanks strapped to their metal frames.  We walked back into the city with a boy and his grandfather carrying loads of rubbish on their backs.

We walked back into the city and directly into a pizza place.

Along with the excellent pizza we had what became our favorite meal, avocado relleno.

One of the vegetable dishes that we could eat, the avocado relleno was stuffed with boiled vegetables and cheese.  It was delicious.

We also sampled a local potato and egg-sauce dish that wasn’t shabby, even if we weren’t exactly sure what we were eating.

And we each had a local beverage.  LeAnna opted for some kind of juice, Kelly for hot chocolate, and I won out with a huge mug of coffee, served concentrated with a beaker of hot water.

While we ate, the World Cup played in the background.  Locals leapt up periodically to cheer on a particularly good play.  We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry, walking the Plaza Armas, and in a briefing for the next day’s Inka Trail trek.  But generally we were waiting until it was dark enough for us to return to the cake shop for dessert.

Which we did.  It was good.  I even ate a cheese sandwich.  And I think we shared four desserts.  But we’d been walking and riding and learning all day, so we were hungry.

With full stomachs, we went to bed early, ready to wake up at 4AM and catch our shuttle to the Inka Trail, and our next adventure.

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August 24, 2010   1 Comment

Venice day 3

Every day in Venice has been like a gang initiation.  I wake up, pretty much alone.  I’ve been stripped of everything familiar to me, and wondering what the day will bring.  Even when I think that I’ve figured something out – where a building is, how to get there – the city, which I swear can sense pride, knocks my feet out from me.  Then, on its own terms, it gives back to me.

After breakfast at the hotel, I gathered my supplies for the day (I still had half of my picnic from the day before, and was confident enough to take only about half of my tourist info with me).

The plan for the day was to see the rest of St. Mark’s and then, maybe see another museum.  I absolutely knew how to walk to St. Mark’s now, so I’d probably be done by noon, leaving lots of time to do whatever I found myself in the mood to do.

I’d had good success with the tragetti yesterday, so I thought I’d try again.  Consulting a map, I found a stop.  It was a decent hike away, but it would put me right at St. Mark’s, and the hike would take me past a the Salute church, which I’d wanted to see, out on the point of the peninsula on the east end of Dorsoduro.  I have no idea how I did it, but I ended up on the wrong side of the peninsula.  I think I picked the wrong church to navigate by – or I held my map upside down, or something.  I walked for at least 30 minutes, maybe more, before I realized that the open water I was dutifully keeping on my left was the wrong water, and I’d walked in the entirely opposite direction from Salute.

It may have been at this point that I realized I am in possibly the worst shape of my life.  I think it’s even worse than when I was a baby and unable to hold my head up.  My calves were like granite from the week of intense walking I’d forced upon them, but one of my feet was refusing to flex appropriately.  Only when I slowed down to a stroll did the pain go away.

Fricking city slowing me down.

So I turned around and walked the entire length of the peninsula, slowly, past the pink-glassed lanterns of Venice, to the tip of the peninsula and finally to the Salute church.  Where there was no traghetto stop.

Pink lamps

I consulted my map and felt like “Tom Tom” recalculating routes on the fly.  There was another traghetto stop just on the other side of the church.  I could bop in, take a look around, and then catch the boat across the canal.  No problem.


The Salute church is beautiful.  I played musical tabernacles, trying to figure out which of the 6 or so chapels housed the Eucharist.  (I try hard not to totally offend every culture I come in contact with, but there were candles lit everywhere, and it was practically impossible for me to tell.  So, I chose the one with holy water close by, genuflected, and continued my walk around the church.)  The sacristy had some beautiful art, and I felt compelled to light a candle for the health of my family.

Health candle

Then I was ready to make my way to St. Mark’s, which was, after all, my original goal.

I was able to find the traghetto stop, but it was roped off and clearly closed.  The detour treated me to some beautiful views of the Canal, and now I was in a totally new place – an opportunity to see new streets and squares.  Also, I was hungry and caffeine deprived.  I’d only had one cappuccino, and breakfast seemed ages away.  I needed coffee and pastry asap.

This should have been easy, but for some reason, I chose only the streets that had no food and very few shops.  I started to panic a little.  This is Italy.  Where, for the love of all that is holy, was the coffee?  Perhaps I should have lit a candle at the church of caffee and paste.  Finally, I passed a moderately busy bar and walked in.  They had pretty much no pastry, but did have a pile of sandwiches and an espresso maker.  I picked out a crustless wonder and pointed.  “Questa” and a macchiato.


I’ve stopped drinking cappuccino after noon, because of the looks I get.  Macchiato, which has about half the milk but all the caffeine, seems more acceptable to the locals.  When in Rome…or Venice, or whatever.  The sandwich was egg and asparagus, and it was perfect.  I should have had three or four.

After my refueling, I took a peek at where I was on the map and plotted a course for St. Mark’s.  It was now almost lunchtime

When I arrived at the piazza, the sun was starting to peek through the grey mat that had lain over the city for two days.  St. Mark’s was even more luminous than it had been the day before.

St. Mark's daylight

Today, I took in the murals of the basilica, saw the golden altarpiece, and climbed the steps to see the horses that adorn the face of the church.  Both the replicas and the originals were beautiful, and the views from the terrace were excellent.


While in Venice, I got a number of workouts.  My legs walked me all over the city, my mind got a nice dose of orienteering, and my stomach went through a stretching routine.  Every night I packed it full, and every afternoon it demanded refilling.  It was maybe 30 seconds after I walked out of St. Marks that I jammed the remains of yesterday’s cheese into my mouth, having unwrapped it as I walked down the steps.  Passersby stared a little as I munched and raised my eyebrows in greeting.  The cheese and remaining bread was good, but I was in serious need of something more.  I needed pizza.  And I needed a nap.  Growing up, it was common wisdom that you shouldn’t eat and sleep immediately, but it was also common wisdom that you don’t drink coffee right before bed, either.  I’m still getting used to both ideas.  This day, however, I was going to eat pizza and climb into bed.  I might even bring pizza back to the room where I could eat it IN bed.

Once again, I chose streets that didn’t have food.  This was one of Venice’s cruel tricks, breaking me down to build me up again.  And it was working.  I was frantic.  A sandwich just wasn’t going to cut it this time.  I wanted pizza.  I was almost back to the hotel.  This was not good.  I’d decided not to eat at the same place twice, but this was bordering on emergency.  I pulled out the map, located the square where I’d had pizza the first day, and headed directly there.

One bite, and I was okay.  The city had given back.

Return to Pizza

I resisted the urge to have another 6 pieces.  It was afternoon, and I wanted to have a decent dinner.  Plus there was a gelato shop on the way back that I wanted to try.

My brain was addled form the scare of not immediately finding pizza, so I forgot to take a moment to shift my language to Italian.  I spent a lot of time alone in Venice, which meant talking to myself in my head, which is still in English.  If I can take a minute before I step into a situation, I can shift my language to Italian as much as possible.  This time, I forgot.  This might have been partially due to the attractive woman who was standing behind the counter.  It’s kind of a miracle I didn’t smile nervously and run out of the shop.

Instead, I picked out a size – in Italian – but she responded in English.  That’s always disappointing.  With a simple “questo” I’m found out.  Oh well.  Momentarily, I gave up.  Instead of nicciola, I ordered hazelnut.  “Just hazelnut?”  She was surprised.  “Oh, no…what would you recommend.”  I almost always choose hazelnut and then ask for a recommendation for a pairing.  That way I know I’ve got something I’ll like, and I also have the opportunity to try something I wouldn’t otherwise.

She smiled, and disappeared to a back bank of freezers.  I paid, wondering what I’d get.  When she reappeared, she was still smiling and handed me the cup.  “Grazie.”  My language shifter was stuck between English and Italian and I couldn’t think how to ask her what it was.  As I walked out, she said after me, “oh, con marron glace!”  I tried to look excited, smiled and stepped outside.  What the hell was marron glace?

Marron Glace

I filled my little plastic spoon.  Marron glace is damn good, that’s what it is.  I tasted the gelato, trying to isolate one of the chunks that dotted the creamy goodness.  It dissolved.  “Perhaps chestnut?”  I thought to myself.  The consistency wasn’t quite right, but the flavor was close.  Soon, I stopped trying to figure it out, and just let the excellent gelato melt in my mouth.  Tasty.  The shop was the exact right distance from the hotel for eating a medium gelato.

I ate the last spoonful as I walked in the door to the hotel, up the stairs, and climbed in bed for a nap.  Maybe it was a bad idea to nap directly after pizza, but napping directly after gelato felt utterly acceptable.

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December 2, 2009   2 Comments


It’s day two of my leap.

Day 2

Because of the time change, day two is really two days: yesterday, the day I arrived (which was part of day one, I think) and today, which is about 48 hours after I left the US.

Here’s a recap:

Flight to Amsterdam was good. I got free upgrades for baggage and also my seat (thanks to my seat-mate for that last one).

Amsterdam had great chocolate and cappuccino.

Cap 1

That’s a rhubarb bonbon on the plate. Va bene.

The flight to Florence was good. Lots of turbulence, which I totally prefer on a small plane. Makes me feel like I’m in a car. The hum-drum of the big planes makes me a little nervous, like I’m on some alien aircraft that might not land (am I totally crazy? I might be totally crazy).

When I got to Florence, my friends Deb and Sandra were even there to pick me up! Serious bonus and kind of amazing seeing as we met for one day and communicated over the internet until yesterday. Deb even changed cars with her dad so we could fit all my luggage. Amazing.

We headed to a great pizza place for lunch on the way back to their home. The food was so good I forgot to take a picture until the cecina was almost gone.


Cecina is a kind of breadish thing made out of garbanzo beans. Yummy. Incidentally, while we were eating, I asked, tongue and cheek, if the pig flu was as big a deal in Italy as it is in the US. Evidently, Sandra and Deb’s son, Tommy, had it about a week ago. Sweet. He’s all good now. So, it’s not getting quite the hype here as elsewhere – although we did use a significant amount of hand sanitizer at lunch.


Then we stopped at the store to pick up provisions for that night’s dinner party, and some more hand sanitizer. Sidestory: while checking out, Sandra lost her rewards card when it was sucked backward into the moving belt in the check-out line. After partially disassembling the under-carriage of the counter, I found a card and recovered it. Sadly, after we checked out, Sandra realized it wasn’t hers! Too funny. Well, at least I got to take something apart. Then I used some hand sanitizer, just in case.

When we got to Fornaci di Barga, we dropped off the groceries and headed into Barga, which is up the hill from Fornaci, to switch cars and stop by the castagne festival at the old folks home. “Castagna” is “chestnut” in Italian. The trees grow locally, and are used in construction, and the nuts and flour are used in cooking and baking. We had some lovely castagne snacks, said, “caio” to some lovely old folks, met Deb’s dad, and a couple of Deb and Sandra’s friends who happened to be in town from Chicago. It was good times, for sure.


I asked what I was eating, and the ladies told me whipped cream. I’m telling you, this is not ordinary whipped cream. It was heaven. Maybe it’s changed since I last ate whipped cream, or maybe it was the setting. I don’t frickin’ know, but it was divine.

After the festival, we headed to Deb’s parent’s house to change cars, and say hi to Daisy.


The day, by the way, was beautiful. Warm, clear and lovely.
Once back at Deb and Sandra’s, we had about 30 mins before friends started to arrive. The evening was spent in the company of some fascinating people. First was a wild artist – beautiful and intense – who is known to walk the streets of Barga barefoot, promoting art exhibits. (More to come on her, I think. Deb showed me one of her etchings, and it was quite excellent.)

Next was a string of ladies from Lucca, the walled city down the road a way. It has a fascinating history. One of the women, a nurse originally from Genoa, reminded me strongly of my mother and aunt.

The other two are union organizers, one for the schools, and one for the workers in paper factories in the region. Cool. These two reminded me powerfully of union organizers I know in Oregon.

Dinner Guests

We spent the evening talking politics, figuring out how to build a loft in Deb and Sandra’s place (so that I’ll have a room of my own – can you imagine? These women are amazing, generous people), eating, eating, eating,

Pasta dinner

and eventually singing Beatles songs – learning each other’s languages along the way. Fantastico!

It’s also possible that Tommy and I snuck off for a short time to play some guitar hero. Amazing how easily that translates…

At the end of the night we made a lovely nest for me out of a mattress and sleeping bag. When my head hit the pillow, I was just able to grasp a piece of the enormity of the leap I had made. Today, I am comfortably in Italy. Yesterday (or something) I was in Oregon. Where will I be tomorrow? Probably Italy, but you never know!


This morning, waking late, I packed up my sleeping bag and enjoyed cappuccino #2, made lovingly by Sandra. Truthfully, it is one of the best I’ve ever had. It might have been the setting, or the company, I’m not sure.

Cappu 2Fornaci MorningHolly Walking

I enjoyed breakfast with Tommy and Hollywinter, then headed to Barga with Deb for a photo shoot at the local dog shelter. She’s putting together a calendar to be sold to benefit the shelter. After a short shoot, which included a dog-bite [link] for Debbie, we headed over to her parent’s place, where we met her sister’s family (they’re living with her parents). One of the kids was on his way to a riding lesson, so we took the two boys to the arena.

We spent the next hour in an absolutely beautiful setting, collecting rocks and watching horses.

Andre and DebLuigi and cavallo

Now I’m sitting with Deb, drinking tea and watching Italian TV (Willie Wonka!), after a beautiful lunch with Sandra’s mother, who lives downstairs, and Sandra’s brother, sister-in-law (who is from Chicago) and their kids, all of whom had swine flu earlier this month. Looks like their tails have finally gone, so no worries.

The highlight of the meal was focaccia made by Sandra’s mom. Bellisimo!

Tomorrow, I’ll go pick up a sim card for a cell phone and an internet pen drive. And I’ll likely have at least one cappuccino. I feel like I’ve already had a month’s worth of adventures. I am a lucky, lucky girl to have such beautiful and generous people in my life.

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October 25, 2009   4 Comments