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Australia!

After almost a year of my poor passport gathering dust in the corner of my room, I finally got to use it again a couple of weeks ago.  As of this point, I was only missing 1 (inhabited) continent, so the choice as to where I should go was an easy one for me.  On Friday evening after work, Michael and I made our way to the airport to begin the 32+ hour trip to Australia.  Every time I start looking at plane tickets or discussing a trip, I’m always reminded of my friend’s comment to me several years ago, when he said “Lauren, you look at flights around the world like most girls look at clothes – ‘Oh this looks nice, I’m going to get it!'”  Makes me laugh every time….

Anyway, other than seeing someone bring an odd life-sized packing-tape man onto the train with them, the trip was fairly uneventful.  American Airlines seems to have a love-hate relationship with their partner airlines, Qantas – it is apparently a known issue that you cannot use the self-check-in kiosk if you are going to Australia.  Oh well.  Lesson learned for the next time I go Down Under.

Before we even got to Cairns, our final destination, we met Gaylene, a lovely Australian who was a wonderful introduction to the country.  She was traveling from Brisbane to Cairns for work…we struck up a friendly conversation with her on the last flight over, and upon landing she offered to share a taxi and then ended up paying for our side completely.  It was a very nice welcome for two tired, travel-weary Americans.

We landed on a Sunday afternoon, and were definitely feeling the 14-hour time difference.  It was all we could do to go to the store and get some groceries, cook dinner (crocodile sausage, mmm!!), and then fall into bed at like 6:00 pm.  We travelled the entire trip through Airbnb, which is a website that allows people to rent out their empty homes or guest rooms for a fee that is usually much less than what you would see in hotels…plus you sometimes get the added bonus of meeting some really awesome people!  It was my first time using Airbnb, and I must say that I was thoroughly impressed with it.  The Airbnb place in Cairns was a full flat all to ourselves, with a nice bedroom and pullout couch in the living room, a fairly well-stocked kitchen, and even a little balcony in the back.  It provided a lovely view of the parking deck behind us, haha.

The first day after our arrival, we did very little in the way of…well anything, really.  We went to a big pool that Cairns locals refer to as the “lagoon,” walked through a lovely park, and tried not get run over by the cyclists who were constantly trying to avoid us as we inadvertently walked on the wrong side of the walking paths.  Do you know, I never even realized that walking paths mimic the rules of the regular road until I was constantly having bicyclists beep their tinny little horns at me in Cairns because I was walking on the wrong side of the walking path.  I suppose it was good practice for New Zealand, when we would be having to navigate not just walking paths, but actual roads!

The next day, Tuesday, was definitely the highlight (and the original purpose!) of the entire trip.  We spent a day on the beautiful tropical waters of Australia, going to 2 separate locations to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, on both the inner and outer reef.  I must say, the inner reef stop, Green Island, was less than impressive.  Michael and I both left that island thinking “Is that really it?” (Although in hindsight, it was actually very good that we went there – gave us good snorkeling practice before we moved on.)  But we were not at all disappointed when we got to the outer reef.  The Great Barrier Reef really is everything that is it cracked up to be.  Sparkling (albeit rather chilly) waters cover acres and acres of pristine marine life.  Animals of all types – sea turtles, angel fish, damsel fish, and plenty of others whose names I haven’t the faintest idea of, flitted in and out from among every type of coral you could imagine – stag coral, elk horn coral, plate coral, brain coral, lots of soft corals, and even a giant clam or two.  In some places the coral is so close to the surface of the water that you cannot even swim over it.  My personal favorite was when a mini-school of absolutely giant fish swam right past me – they were so close I could literally touch them!  I even got a video…check it out below!!

Our last day in Australia was fun, but honestly still somewhat of a letdown after the Reef from the previous day.  We took a scenic train through the foothills up to Kuranda, a cool but admittedly very touristy little town above Cairns.  The time went quickly in conversation with a lovely British / American couple, Susan and Steve, who gave us great recommendations on local foods to try, as well as some helpful driving tips for driving on the wrong side of the road (for example, “it’s always the passenger’s job to say ‘keep left!’ whenever the driver turns”).

We had a few hours to kill in Kuranda, so we amused ourselves by browsing the many tourist shops that dotted the small streets.  My personal favorite was the store that sold things entirely made out of fur – including a super fancy man’s vest / tie and woman’s bikini set.  Oh my word…I couldn’t imagine actually wearing that atrocity!  After lunch, our bus came and took us to “Rainforestation”, where we got to see some more exotic animals and take a trip on an antique army duck, a 6-wheel drive amphibious vehicle made by women during WWII.  This Rainforestation park has the largest collection of army ducks in the southern hemisphere – only around 2,000 were ever made, and they have about a dozen of them to take tourists on trips into the rainforests and swamps around Kuranda.

I enjoyed seeing and hearing about “Jack the Ripper”, a 15 foot long crocodile that lives up to his name – he has eaten his last 12 girlfriends!  I made sure to stay a safe distance away from that one!  The rainforests in Australia, while comprising only a tiny fraction of the total global jungle area, are the most diverse in the world.  We saw water dragons, and bright blue Ulysses butterflies, and all kinds of ferns, and stinging trees, and golden orb spiders, which must have been what Rumplestiltskin used to spin his golden thread, just to name a few.  It was incredible – pictures of all and more are included in the photo album below.  Aside from the incredible diversity of flora and fauna, however, my favorite part was definitely when we drove straight into the water in the army duck.  It’s definitely a rather unsettling experience to intentionally drive straight into a body of water!

The return trip from Kuranda was made not by train, but by one of the longest cable cars in the world.  We had a fun time enjoying the breathtaking views and admiring the rainforest from above on our way down.  So, when I said that our rainforest excursion was something of a letdown, do not misinterpret me and think that I did not enjoy it.  It was lovely, fascinating, and definitely an experience to remember.  It is only when it is compared to the absolutely breathtaking and completely otherworldly experience of the Great Barrier Reef that it pales :).  See below for lots of pictures!

 

Whirlwind

Things quickly turned into a whirlwind after I returned from Peru (and by quickly, I mean within hours of stepping off of the plane).  That is largely why it has taken me such a long time to finish all of my stories from Peru – I was just going non-stop for months straight.  Since I knew I was going to be gone for 5 weeks straight right after graduation, and I didn’t have a job lined up and thus didn’t know where I would be living, I just let my apartment lease end.  But that meant that when I returned from Peru, I had all of my stuff in storage, was bouncing around with friends because I didn’t have my own place (and doing lots of driving too, since most of them live outside of Atlanta), and also still trying to find a job.  The lack of my own place made everything more stressful, and the increased drive time was wreaking havoc on my back.  Needless to say, it was a stressful time.

But things weren’t all bad.  I did a lot of dancing during this time – in fact, the day I returned from Peru was the anniversary party for Wicked Westie, and you can bet your boots that I was there, even though I was nearly sleeping on my feet from the long trip back.  As tired as I was, I was really glad that I got to be there – I’ve missed every other anniversary party for Wicked because I’ve been in one country or another.

I did skip dancing a couple of times, but it was for worthy causes.  My favorite was going to see the Lego movie at an outdoor showing at Emory University.  It was something put on for alums and friends of alums, so Elizabeth invited a group of people to go join her.  I did miss dancing, but I had a great evening with some awesome people – including Federico, a friend of Elizabeth’s who is actually Peruvian!  Totally worth it :).  It was great being able to reminisce a little bit with someone who understood what I missed so much about Peru.

Another reminder of Peru was the World Cup, which started while I was still there but continued for a while after I returned.  I happen to have several stateside friends who also like soccer, so for the Netherlands-Mexico game we decided to go to a pub that’s popular for watching World Cup matches.  They were rooting for the Netherlands, so in the spirit of unity I dressed up in my best orange outfit and started cheering on the Netherlands.  But I couldn’t make it through the whole game like that – pretty soon my Spanish roots took over, and I took off the orange topshirt I had on and went over to the other side of the pub to cheer on Mexico.  Hey, I may have never been to Mexico, but it’s a whole lot closer to Costa Rica and Peru than Holland is! 🙂

More than just a mission trip

My adventure in Pampachiri started long before I even got to the city.  I left from Chiclayo on Saturday morning, headed for the airport in Lima.  I got there late in the evening, and settled in to spend the night in the airport.  I got an email later from a few of the other people on the team who were also camping out at the airport and trying to connect with me, but I didn’t see it until later, so I just found an isolated corner of the airport, used my backpack as a pillow and pulled my jacket over my face, and went to sleep.  Thank goodness for earplugs :). Early the next morning, I got in line to check into my flight, and finally met up with the rest of the group – it’s pretty easy to spot a large group of foreigners with extensive amounts of medical supplies in the small airport in Lima.

The flight to Andahuaylas was fairly uneventful, other than the normal chaos that comes with transporting lots of bags and people.  After we landed in Andahuaylas, we had to hang around the airport for several hours until the buses came to get us on the 3 hour trip to Pampachiri.  And when it finally did arrive, it was too big to actually make it all the way to the “airport” (I use the term loosely), so we had to bring all of our bags and the medical supplies by foot until we got to the buses.  I was very glad at that point that I had packed so lightly – my backpack that I used for the entire month was actually much smaller than most of the other personal bags for the week and a half mission trip.  Always an adventure!  I love it ^_^.  It was even more complicated because of the enormous amount of medical supplies that they brought – it was too heavy to fit in the tiny plane from Lima to Andahuaylas, so it had to be bussed in several days earlier from Lima to make sure that it got there on time.

Before I met up with the group, I had some concerns about how I would assimilate with a group of people I had never met, especially since I had missed all of the training that they had together in the States before leaving.  I needn’t have worried.  They accepted me instantly.  By the time we got to Pampachiri, I felt like I had known them all my life.  Same thing with Ingrid and Carlos (our hosts), and the other Carlos (Ingrid’s cousin).  I like to call him Carlos the Second :).  In fact, as the week, went on, I found myself spending more and more time with the Peruvians in the evening, and less with the Americans.  I loved them all, but since I got to see so much of the Americans while we were at clinic during the day, I tried to spend my time in the evenings learning from the Peruvians.  They taught me slang Spanish, and Peruvian folk songs, and all about their national and personal histories.  It was really fascinating; definitely time well spent.  I really connected with the Peruvian culture and the people that I met while I was there.  It’s definitely a place that I will be going back to.

My job as part of the mission team, since I have absolutely no medical experience and zero desire to change that fact, was serving as a Spanish-English translator.  Definitely one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done.  I would say that my Spanish is at a pretty decent conversational level; however, speaking medical Spanish is a completely different language.  Whew.  Many of these terms I didn’t even know in English, let alone Spanish.  On several occasions every day, I found myself having to ask the doctors what a word meant in English first, before I could move over and translate it into Spanish.  And then sometimes there was an added bonus if the patient only spoke Quechua; then we had to do the same process through 2 separate translators.  Yikes.  It was quite a challenge.  But it was fun.  Of course there were some times when I wanted to give up and go home, but overall I really enjoyed it.  Something I’ve noticed about when I travel: when I’m in the States I’m happy and comfortable, but when I’m abroad I feel….fulfilled.  In a way I’ve rarely or never felt when stateside.

The daily devotionals we had as a group were also a huge encouragement to me.  I particularly liked Tuesday’s devotional, which was on the story of Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter.  The title was “seeing the unseen,” and talked about how God is working behind the scenes to put the pieces of our lives together for our good.  We may not know or see how He’s doing that, but we can be confident that He is.  As I talked about in my previous blog, my trip to Pampachiri was the culmination of weeks of God teaching me just that very thing.  As a translator, I not only got to tell people about good health and hygiene, but I also got to tell them about Jesus and what he’s done in my life.

Aside from that, my ability to communication in Spanish meant that I was also able to enjoy a traditional festival that happened while we were in town, go on a couple of hikes with Ingrid and Carlos the Second and some people from the group, and have late night discussions with Carlos and a few of the younger doctors, with me serving as a translator and lots of laughter all around.  Pampachiri was more than just a mission trip.  It was a time of relaxation and rejuvenation, an answer to my prayers that my trip be more than just sightseeing, an encouragement and affirmation of my worth as a child of God, a reminder of His fervent desire to bring more people into that family, a glimpse into the lives of some very passionate and inspiring people from several different countries, a taste of human hardship – but also grit and determination – and what I can do to lessen that hardship.  It was truly an incredible week.  I can’t wait to go back!!!

Inauspicious beginnings

My first trip to South America had a rather inauspicious beginning. My plane was supposed to leave at 11:00 in the morning of Tuesday, May 13th;  however, I got an email notification that morning saying that it had been delayed until 12:30. Ok, no biggie, I’ll just get there a bit later. Michael, Elizabeth and Matt all saw me to the airport – I felt very loved. But then after we arrived, as I was checking in around 10:07, I looked at the departure board and saw that my plane had been moved back to its original time. Yikes! I spent the next 50 minutes in a panicked rush through the Atlanta airport, getting there just before 11:00. All that hustle and stress, and then the plane didn’t actually leave until almost 1:00. Apparently the crew got lost – that was why we left so late, cuz they just hadn’t shown up earlier :p.

But no worries, I still had a layover of several hours in Fort Lauderdale, even despite the delay in Atlanta.  I met a fascinating man named Joseph while I was waiting. He is Haitian, but grew up in the States, and is now back in Haiti working in an agricultural organization that he started to help the people of Haiti. He was a very inspiring man. I wish I could have spoken with him longer.

But anyway, my second flight was fairly uneventful. I met two girls, Adriana and Laura, who were doing a similar thing as I – winging it for the whole trip. Except their trip was only for 2 weeks, and not only had Laura never left the country before, but she didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I thought that was a pretty gutsy trip for your first time out of the country :-).

I arrived in Lima around 10:00 pm. Mario, my pastor from South Korea who, conveniently enough for me, happens to be Peruvian, picked me up from the airport.  I stayed with him for the 2 nights that I was in Lima. I was glad for his company and advice. Peru is a completely different world. Nothing is done the same way as it is in the states.  The first thing that I saw as we were leaving the airport was a mass of taxi drivers. There was basically an auction for our business once we got there – Mario told the “auctioneer” how much we were willing to spend on a taxi, and he found a taxi driver willing to drive us for that price. Forget metered taxis – everything is bartering in Peru :-).  It’s a blessing and a curse – they can’t run up the meter by driving around in circles, but if you don’t know where you’re going they can still take advantage of you.  I quickly learned to ask nearby pedestrians how much a ride should cost, and then flag down a taxi driver.  That way I knew if he was charging me a fair price or not.

Anyway, the day after I arrive Mario took me on a city tour of Lima.  We had ice cream made from lúcuma, a fruit which is only found in Peru. We also went all the way across town to eat lunch at a great Peruvian buffet.  It was so far away that we actually had to take 2 taxis, because no 1 taxi would take us that far, but Mario was determined to not expose me to “Peruvian germs,” to use his terminology.  It was great food, but probably unnecessary to go to such lengths to protect me from germs.  I wasn’t going to take that much care in my diet for the rest of the trip – might as well get exposed early on! 😉

My favorite part of the day, though, was definitely a 2-hour bus tour of Lima that we went on.  We saw lovely parks, and beautiful old churches, and even a monk jump off a cliff into the frigid water far below (apparently a monk from that order does that several times every day; the restaurant located on the same cliff they jump off of is even named “The Friar’s Jump.”) I had to really focus on the Spanish explanations rattling through the tinny speakers, though. My Spanish is no longer good enough that I can understand without actively listening :-(. Oh well, hopefully it’ll improve in the next month :-). Here’s to a grand 5 weeks!!

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(If you look closely, you can see the monk in a brown habit crawling back up the middle of the cliff after his insane jump into the water)