Per aspera ad astra

13°31′S 71°58′W: Peru-d.

August 22nd, 2009

About sixty hours after arriving back from Russia  (spending a night in DC and Iowa), I arrived in possibly the most beautiful country I’ve visited so far- Peru. Three continents in three days? Not bad :)

I spent most of my time in Peru in Cusco, which is appropriately enough a sister city of Moscow and a relatively small (population 300K) town in the middle of the Andes. At over 10,000 feet, it’s literally and figuratively breath-taking.

In part due to the climate change (remember, south of the equator = winter in August) and what felt like non-stop travel, I spent most of the first day cooped up in my hostel room recovering from a bout with a cold. Sounds dreadful, but considering this was my view, I couldn’t complain (too much):

A succinct history of Cusco- the Incans founded it (as the capital of their empire); the Spanish found it and took over; the country declared its independence. Like most cities that have gone through colonialization, the surviving architecture is a mix of the ancient and the colonial power.

And like most Latin American cities/towns/villages, Cusco has its own Plaza de Armas (another Spanish influence) around which a large part of the city revolves. In the case of Cusco, this is the place you’ll most likely get accosted by a tour company, souvenir vendor, lady with a llama, or relentless children who won’t leave you alone until you buy one of their one sol (33 cent) finger puppets or postcards. It’s also a beautiful and incredibly clean (thanks to the high influx of tourists) part of the city.

As is the case with most places I visit for a short period of time, I wish I was able to stay longer and really experience local culture. As a tourist (particularly in such a tourist-driven town), I felt incredibly spoiled by the variety of foods, goods, and services available at reasonable prices (keep in mind, though, that prices are still much higher in Peru than in many South American countries). I could get a sandwich for under $3, bought a kick-ass purse for $8, and an hour-long taxi ride for around $5.

This is all well and good for me- a relatively well-to-do American- but it’s certainly not the locals’ lifestyle. Salaries vary based on occupation, of course, but even the highest-paid locals don’t make more than a couple thousand (US) per month. I’ve seen the disparity between tourists (and their ‘areas’ of town) in Egypt and Russia, but in Peru, I felt the gap constantly.

Back to the photo tour! To get a little more local flavor, my travel companions and I visited a local market (like a grocery store, the aisles are labeled- unlike a grocery store, um, there are dogs in the aisles).

Despite the fact that it was winter, fresh fruits and vegetables were readily available (thank you equator!).

Ignoring the constant calls from tour company vendors (“Amazon! Sacred Valley! Nazca!”), I opted to spend my vacation relaxing in Cusco. Walking around the city, I ran into some random bits of pretty architecture and took almost as many photos as I did at Machu Picchu :)

My travel buddies and I stumbled on the Manne Cafe in the San Blas neighborhood- if you find yourself in the area, it’s worth a stop. Excellent sandwiches and the best coffee we tried in town- plus a set of super comfortable couches.

We spent a lot of time in local cafes, each with its own particular style and flavor. Here’s a shot of a great tapas place- Cicciolina.

We weren’t terribly worried about compensating for the amount of delicious food (and coffee) with exercise- the stairs and hills in Cusco more than made up for our appetites.

There are two things you cannot avoid doing in Peru: visiting Machu Picchu and shopping. We opted to visit the market in Pisac, a smaller town outside of Cusco), where you can literally buy any Peruvian item your heart may desire. The Sunday market is reportedly packed with tourists (we opted to hit Machu Picchu instead as a result), but the crowds die down on Tuesday- and there was certainly no lack of vendors ready to bargain.

Of course, while shopping, you should be aware that you will be roped into buying a ridiculous hat…

while being accosted by women in traditional garb with llamas who are more than happy to for you to photograph them– for a sol. Of course, budget travelers opt to snag a photo from a moving taxi.

Volkswagon (classic) beetles are everywhere in Cusco- probably thanks to the fact that the streets are too narrow to accommodate many other types of car.

There are plenty of books out there on Peruvian cuisine, but I thought I’d focus on a traditional Peruvian drink- the pisco sour. While I feel obliged to mention that the drink contains pisco (a local liquor), lemon/lime juice, and… wait for it… egg whites, I also feel obligated to mention that, when done right, it is delicious.

Two last things any visitor to Cusco should be aware of. There are dogs everywhere- I’m used to the average pack of dogs in the Moscow metro stations, the Cusqueñan dogs ar in a class of their own. While it’s incredibly sad to see so many homeless dogs (animal shelters aren’t nearly as prevalent abroad as they are in the US), the animals themselves can be incredibly interesting-looking- and they pop up in the weirdest places.

And lastly, visitors who find themselves in Cusco may be under the initial impression that Peruvians are really accepting of- and proud of- gay rights. Truth is, Cusco’s city flag just happens to be a rainbow.

And that’s all she wrote!

13°09′S 72°32′W: Machu Girl

August 20th, 2009

I figured I’d start my first Peru post with the highlight of my experience: my trip to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

My two travel companions and I set off from Cuzco on Saturday afternoon, taking a cab from our hostel to the train station at Ollantaytambo (mostly known as the starting point of the Inca Trail). The Peruvian government has a pretty strong monopoly on the ways to get to Machu Picchu- train or hike- so costs are high. This is great for the government, but not so great for budget travelers and a mixed blessing for the site itself (less visitors= less damage, but the money isn’t necessarily going to preservation).

The train ride from Ollanta to Aguas Calientes took about an hour and a half, in addition to our hour and a half (more comfortable) taxi ride– all to get to Machu Picchu, which is only 80 km (50 miles) from Cuzco. Aguas Calientes itself is a bit of a tourist trap. Overpriced souvenirs, Mexican/Chinese/Peruvian food (plus pizza!) on every menu, and

I woke up at 4 to get ready, down a quick cup of coffee, and stand in line for the bus (which starts at 5). Running a little behind, we arrived at Machu Picchu around 6:15 (sounds early, eh? We weren’t even in the first few hundred people there). Walked up in time to see the sun just starting to hit the ruins.

We headed over to Huayna Picchu (the big mountain in back) right away in hopes of being able to hike up to the top (they only allow 400 people to climb a day)- only to find this line and learn that, at 6:30am, we were too late to get one of the coveted spots.

No worries though- we found an alternate (and much less crowded) trail to hike along before exploring the actual site. Along the way, we found a few precipitous points…

a few leaps of faith…

and a bridge that, even without the sign, I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt without a rope firmly affixing me to the wall.

After a short walk around the area and a snack (shh- food isn’t allowed!), we ventured back to actual Machu Picchu, where the llamas are just sitting around, hanging out.

And hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Needless to say, what followed were dozens of photos that thousands of people have taken before. But it’s really just an awe-inspiring archaeological feat in an awe-inspiring environment- what can I do?

As the day progressed, more and more crowds started showing up (statistics say that between two and three thousand visitors can see Machu Picchu daily in high season). The llamas were unperturbed.

After spending several hours of hiking and taking photos, and eavesdropping on other tour groups, we headed back to Aguas Calientes around two o’clock. Of course, I took the opportunity to take one more death-defying photo (behind me is a straight drop to the forest below) before we hiked (down the longest set of stairs I’ve ever seen) back to town.

J & J Wedding

June 20th, 2009

Last week, Brandon & I made the long journey in my beautiful year-old Corolla through the area just east of the Great Plains that we might refer to as ‘least interesting part of America’ (though our return trip through LA and MS was quite lovely- check out the map). Why would we willingly visit Oklahoma (albeit only for the night)? Good people and wine, of course!

Brandon’s best friend of many, many (16?) years got married on June 13th and B was the best man.  We drove down Tuesday and Wednesday, spent Thursday and Friday relaxing by the pool and reading (okay, only I did that. Brandon rushed around getting his tux and delivering way overdue senior fundraiser gifts). Friday evening was the rehearsal/dinner, at which newlyweds-to-be Jay and Jen practiced feeding each other cake, with varying degrees of success. 

Meanwhile, Brandon and I practiced posing for the camera. Hey, as the best man, you’re in a lot of photos- you need the practice.

I bravely wore my hair down for the dinner, but I didn’t trust the Texas humidity to take it easy on me for the wedding. Brandon’s fantastic mom and I trekked off early Saturday morning to get my hair done by Huna, an incredibly interesting woman from Pakistan who managed to tame my hair into this:

The wedding was at St. Anne’s, a Houston church that the coordinator said brides ‘die to get married in’. Very beautiful place, which doesn’t come through photos as nicely when one of the church’s Big Rules is no flash photography.

The ceremony began and one of the most adorable ring bearers made his way down the aisle. Interestingly, the groomsmen/groom waited at the altar while the bridesmaids came down the aisle- I’ve never been to that kind of wedding before.

This was the best (not blurry mess) photo of Jen & her dad that I could get.

The gang’s all here! Including that pesky woman who also wanted to take photos. You can’t tell in the photo, but the bridesmaids had very pretty olive green dresses (think this color) and darker orange-red bouquets.

After the wedding (you guessed it!) came a ton of photos. Here’s Brandon taking a break from BM duties to ham it up with me.

And his family! (B, mom, dad, Austin-of-the-welcoming-smile)

The reception was further north at a very posh country club. Delicious food (chicken/fish/roast beef & all the extras), endless wine (see?), and dancing.

Fairly traditional reception- the couple danced, mom/groom, bride/dad danced, everyone did the Hokey Pokey. And then there was cake! A lovely white for Jen and (to the right in the photo below) a groom’s cake in the style of a baseball field (Jay is a huge Astros fan, which I’ve graciously forgiven him for).

Then Brandon had to fulfill his final role (after throwing a bachelor party and being photographed a hundred times) and join MOH Patricia in toasting the couple.

Brandon’s toast was excellent- short, simple, funny, sappy- and with a genuine “Live Long and Prosper” to conclude. He also looks about ten times less nervous than I would feel in his shoes.

Cue some champagne, cake-for-all, more dancing and wine– and all before 5pm!

Best wishes to the beautiful, happy, intelligent couple (oh, and Jay & Jen too)!

You know, some statistics say that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, but I prefer my stats:

States visited: 8 (MO, KS, OK, TX, LA, MS, AR, TN)
Miles driven: 2,335
Average MPG: 37-38–  <3 the Corolla!
Cute golden retrievers playd with: 1
Puns created: at least 6 (including one of my best- Wichitalkin’ about Kansas?)
People wed: 2
Adorable photos taken: Too many to count. Here’s one of my absolute favorites from the week:


5K or Bust?

May 22nd, 2009

Long time no blog. I’ve been busy? :)

About a month ago, I jumped on the health/fitness wagon, in large part due to an addictive little website called SparkPeople. I’d been a member since February, but never really played around with any of the features (which include a nutrition tracker, fitness log, health-related articles, and interactive community of users). Then Facebook started changing things for the worse, I needed to get measured for a bridesmaid’s dress, and I found solace from both issues in SP. I’ve been able to consistently eat well and work out on a regular (5-6 times a week) basis- and it feels awesome.

On that note, a coworker of mine started a program called Couch to 5K, which is a running program designed for beginners looking to build endurance, and she absolutely raves about it. We’re both of the mentality that people shouldn’t run unless there is a grizzly bear involved, so I decided to try it out. I finished Week 1 on Wednesday (each week involves three days of a running workout; this week was intervals of 60 seconds running/90 seconds walking) and, while challenging, it wasn’t terrible. That’s the most positive thing I’ve ever been able to say about my relationship with running.

So while Erinn’s wedding (and the hot dress) in October is a good long-term motivator, I need something more tangible to work towards in the short term. Enter the Solstice Stride, a 5K Run/Walk in Coralville at the end of June. I submitted my entry form yesterday (am working on convincing the coworker to join me) and am pumped. Granted, I may end up more focused on the ‘walk’ part, but I’m looking forward to having something to push myself towards. Wish me luck (and endurance)!

Online Me

January 27th, 2009

My first assignment for one of my courses (Open Source, Open Access, Open Education) was to write an introduction to ourselves, in part defining who we are online. Here’s my go at it:

In a sense, the Web and I grew up together. I’m only two years younger than the original Macintosh and when I was a toddler the Internet had just evolved past its acronymatic ARPANET, et al. incarnations to become more recognizable as the accessible global network we know today.

While computers never defined my childhood as they do for many growing up now, I can still trace the progression of my maturity through my former AOL screen names: from the parent-created luvbks (love books), to the rebellious bsb1427 (liking boy bands seemed rebellious at the time), to the slightly cooler tennisplayamandy. My search engine of choice? AskJeeves. The Y2K frenzy struck as I turned the awkward age of 15 and was trying to figure out how *I* was going to survive to 2000 (survival being contingent on having the proper wardrobe and friends, of course).

Then of course I went off to college, shed AOL forever, and met Google. I got my first laptop, became eternalaurora (on Pidgin) and started checking my email daily (a requirement at my college). Within three years of undergraduate study, my liberal arts education, with the help of the Internet, had defined the person I was becoming and am today. Facebook hit my campus in early 2005, about the same time that Wikipedia had become the ultimate quasi-academic time wasting tool.

So who am I now online?

I text, I blog (, I tweet (, I Skype, I Stumble ( and I’m LinkedIn. I have fifteen stations on Pandora and 168 books on Goodreads. I stay connected with my Russian friends on VKontakte and ICQ, my Korean friends on Windows Messenger,  and my US friends on Facebook and Pidgin.

For as involved as I am in the online world, my ubiquitous moniker enables me to slip into anonymity (as anonymous as any connected twentysomething can be). According to the following search engines, Amanda Ross is one in:

Facebook: More than 500
PeekYou: 762
MySpace: 9,410
Google Search: about 3,810,000

And if you believe Wikipedia, I’m rated as the most influential person in British publishing.

In many ways, my generation got lucky. My transition into this open society has been steady, but gradual- following the course of my adolescence and early adulthood. I know how to use an iPhone and subscribe to RSS feeds almost daily. Though I’m not dependent on technology to get by (my sister, six years younger, texted up a $200 phone bill without breaking a sweat and can’t go a day without her MySpace),it’s hard to imagine my world without it. I have found my last four jobs (language camp chef, ESL instructor, SAT instructor, study abroad advisor) on the Internet, I bought all of my living room furniture on Craigslist, and I saved $100 getting my laptop on Amazon. Mindful of concerns about privacy and being ‘too open’, I must also be aware that openness (and adaptability to that openness) is what our society embraces these day and find a healthy, rational compromise.


January 9th, 2009

Resolutions, goals, lofty aspirations– whatever you want to call them. Here are mine for 2009.

1. Be more aware of the world
Though I travel a decent amount, I’m only learning that I’m more and more ignorant of- well- everything. Today I subscribed to Foreign Affairs magazine to give myself a tangible link to the outside world and I’ll be more diligent about reading non-pulp BBC stories.
2. Read 100 books.
A repeat goal from last year, though I only made 72 then. I have a list of recommendations (mostly fiction) from friends, but I’d also specifically like to read:
-Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello
-Catcher in the Rye
-The Satanic Verses (and other by Rushdie)
-The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Book Thief, Kabul Beauty School– and other similar fic.
-More books by foreign authors
-More books on the topics of: globalization, women’s education, population control,  and other ed topics I can’t get enough of
3. Actively maintain 4.0 in grad school
I did well this past semester in my program, though I could have put more effort in. This semester I tackle two classes (as opposed to one and an independent study) and I want to be on top of readings and posting on Moodle to really get the most out of my degree (if not for the job market, then for resolution #1).
4. Lose 10 pounds
Because a weight-loss/health-gain goal is almost a requisite. Should be simple, right?
5. Write something
For as seldom as I write something non-blog, I really do enjoy writing. So my goal for the year is simple: write something tangible- even if it’s just a ridiculous short story.

It feels like it took a year to get this post up, phew. I also have a heavy emphasis on intellectual-type things, but “continue budgeting money, maintain my friendships/relationship/familyships, and continue being awesome at work” are all undeclared resolutions, because they’re more maintenance-related than New Resolution! type deals.

In Unrelated News That Makes Me Happy: Read me. It’s really about time.

Seventy-Two Percent

December 31st, 2008

One of my goals for 2008 was to read 100 books. As of this afternoon, I have 71 (and will at least eke out a 72nd by tomorrow). So no cigar. Regardless, I think I did well. My books are from a range of genres (sci-fi, Judaism, basketball, YA, Russia, grammar, etc.) and I even knocked out a few classics I’ve been meaning to read.

Rather than clog up your page with a list of my books (check out my Goodreads if you’re interested/want longer reviews), here are the best/worst of the bunch:

1. The Kite Runner : Khaled Hosseini
2. Atlas Shrugged : Ayn Rand
3. Three Cups of Tea : Greg Mortensen & David Relin
4. Doctor Zhivago : Boris Pasternak
5. Midnight’s Children : Salman Rushdie

Runners-Up (and equally recommended):
Do They Hear You When You Cry? : Fauziya Kassindja
I Know This Much Is True :
Wally Lamb
The History of Love/Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close : Nicole Krauss/Jonathan Safran Foer (married)

Happily, it was much easier to narrow down the Worst- I read so many fabulous books this year, but the few terrible ones stick out like sore thumbs.

1. A Separate Peace
It bugs me that so many of my Worst Books are required readings in high/middle school/Korean SAT prep courses. There’s not much I can say about ASP except Ugh. John Knowles, next time make a semi-sympathetic narrator, and kill off the martyr character using a disease/complication that actually exists.
2. Island of the Blue Dolphins
As much as I love stories with a self-sufficient female protagonist, this book fell short of my expectations. Fans will say it’s better because it’s based on a true story, but I feel there’s a large difference between a 20-30 year old woman (True Story) and a twelve(?) year old girl being marooned on an island. So, okay, it’s a coming-of-age-Robinson-Crusoe story. I wish it had been written by a woman, preferably a culturally-sensitive one, because O’Dell’s cautious storytelling robs the book of what it could have been.
3. Robinson Crusoe
Some people have a problem with the premise- but I think a novel about someone on a desert island, even with religious overtones, has potential written all over it (look at something like Life of Pi- okay, there’s a tiger, but Crusoe had a dog AND cats). This story was just dry, insensitive, and overly pedantic, without even having the grace to be well-written.
4. Hairstyles of the Damned
Book Summary: Whine Whine Whine. I’m Punk.
5. The Twilight Trio (I didn’t bother with the 4th, after hearing devotees spurn it)
I understand why these are so addictive for the tweens and teens (hell, after the Required Books like RC and ASP, I hardly blame them for wanting some action). But wow, are these terrible. Vampire coolness aside, here’s the summary: Spineless female protagonist with unhealthy addiction for emotionally dependent boyfriend. Thrilling!

Here’s to 100 in 2009!

Feliz Navi-cumpleaños!

December 19th, 2008

It’s my mom’s birthday! Happy birthday, fellow female traveler extraordinaire!

Thanksgiving 2008.

Pont Alexandre III- Paris 2007.

Delfont Mackintosh Theatre, Les Miserables- London 2006.

Coming in 2009– the Ross women do Ireland!

I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep

December 17th, 2008

Sinatra had it right when he said that New York never sleeps; it’s one of those cities that has an energy about it that’s irresistible. And as I discovered in early December, there are few places in the world that can get you in the holiday spirit better than the Big Apple.

My favorite building in the city- none other than Rockefeller Center. There are photos of the tree out there that are heaps better than the ones I took, but I like this shot.

We walked a good portion of Fifth Ave, including (of course) all the the must-see shops and their decorations.

Lord & Taylor storefront (above) and one of the window displays (below). I haven’t previously been a big holiday person, but a few Christmases away from home (and the ebullience of Katya, who has never experienced Christmas American-style) have made a sentimentalist of me.

One of the greatest parts about being in NYC is just walking around everywhere and seeing the different architecture, neighborhoods, and people. For the latter, there’s arguably no place better than Central Park.

Skating at either rink at Central Park (below) and Rockefeller was $20+, with a wait of more than an hour. Somehow I was content with watching from the sidelines. (Katya was upset there wasn’t more fast, daredevil skating)

Okay, so we cheated and got a tour with one of the rickshaw drivers hanging along the edges of the park. It was cold! At any rate, ’twas well worth it.

Our driver (biker?) was from Tunisia and is moving to Chicago in a few months (and is so far the only man I’ve heard complain about the beauty of New York women). Super personable guy, though he was a bit daft and let Katya try to bicycle.

Final NYC shots: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, partially obscured by the soft, ethereal fog of… the food vendor right next to me.

And my favorite NY statue (located appropriately right by my favorite building)- Atlas, 1937.

Get it? If not, you’re obviously not as big a fan of Atlas Shrugged as I.

After bidding farewell to Jenni & Katya, I was on my way back to Iowa. Goodbye, New York!

Broadway is dark tonight

December 17th, 2008

Okay, so Broadway is never really dark. It reminded me a lot of Seoul- neon lights everywhere and masses of people rushing about. Just a really cool, exciting area to be in.

Katya, Jenni and I at Times Square on Friday night.

The red stairs (which we’re sitting on in the above photo) on top of the ticket booth in the middle of the road are apparently fairly new and provide for a great view of Times Square.

In the spirit of doing everything stereotypical tourist-y (and because I love musical theater), I resolved to see a Broadway show. On Saturday, Jenni and I ventured down to the tkts booth under the red stairs in the hopes of scoring discounted tickets. Our show was playing at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre, which only seats 1108 (Several hundred less than the theaters that show Wicked and Lion King). Could we do it? Jenni prays.

An hour later, our toes were numb, but we were indeed the proud owners of two half-price orchestra seats for Spring Awakening! (Music by that guy who did Barely Breathing)

We spent the rest of the afternoon warming up by walking around Washington Square Park (the park with the arch from When Harry Met Sally and a dozen other movies) and the NYU area, then returned for the 8:00 show.

Hands-down incredible, incredible show. It’s won 8 Tonys and a handful of other awards- and for good reason. It’s a rock musical about teenage angst in 19th century Germany– though the description does it absolutely no justice (in the same way that saying Avenue Q is about a bunch of twentysomething puppets).

After the show, we walked down to the Stardust Diner. It’s famous for the singing waiters that prance. I got an apple streudel and wasn’t terribly impressed . Maybe worth it for the experience, but if you must go, get a (very overpriced) coffee and be done with it.

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