Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Freedom of Movement

Merhaba friends,

I recently spent some time in both Turkey and Lesvos (also transliterated as Lesbos), Greece asking as many questions as I could to better understand the current situation rippling outward from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan (amongst other areas). This is a situation that impacts all of us. This blog is broken down this into two sections:
1) My observations of life at Moria refugee camp (the largest camp on Lesvos island)
2) How you can help
3) Click here for my talented friend, Sabine's, photos that tell the story of many

Please feel free to use the comment section for questions and I will answer them as thoroughly as possible.

Life on Lesvos:

Hope is a concept I keep revisiting. I wish I could say that after meeting the selfless volunteers on Lesvos and thousands of strong refugees, that I believe an end to this suffering and plight is in sight. I did, however, see glimmers of hope. I found hope in the small moments: a volunteer purchasing a ferry ticket for someone who did not have the means to continue onward, the humor in a group of Pakistanis fixing each others clothing before a photo shoot that they initiated because they wanted to be remembered at their best, the positivity and welcoming demeanor of a local Greek woman at the gyro shop toward the thousands of refugees that are taking refuge on her small island, the drive to succeed in Europe by two Kurdish boys who were desperate to learn English at 4 AM, the resilience and strength in an older woman that waited for over three days in the freezing cold in line to get registered so she and her family could continue on to Germany, the family that went into a room that smelled like filthy bodies and found a small space on the concrete near the leaky toilet to sleep as they laid down together and then looked back at me with their thumbs up and smiled, the articulate Syrian engineer that helped us translate for hours immediately after he made if off the rubber boat (while clearly still in shock) because he was so grateful to have made it so far and for the help of the volunteers at the camp, and the countless volunteers that spent their vacations volunteering because they couldn’t turn a blind eye.

They say that the journey to Lesvos, a Greek island off the cost of Turkey, is treacherous; every single person making this passage is risking their life just to have some hope of a life without a need to constantly question their own safety. The typical person seeking refuge in Europe or beyond will hire a smuggler (most are in Izmir, Turkey) whom they will pay anything from $1,000-$3,000+ to get them to Lesvos. I have heard many stories highlighting the callous manner in which smugglers treat their fellow human beings. Smugglers usually promise refugees that there will only be a few people on their boat and the refugees later arrive to find 60+ others that will share their flimsy boat (a boat designed for 20 passengers) and oftentimes provided fake life jackets. From what I’ve heard, many smugglers hold them at gunpoint and force them to load the unsafe boats. It is also common for the engines to stop working along the way, and the Hellenic Coast Guard (the Greek coast guard) will ignore them if they are not on Greek waters. Most refugees do not carry any possessions, and the smaller number that do, may even get robbed while en route to Lesvos. In fact, 44 refugees died just the other day on their way from Turkey to Greece (this article and this article discuss the death tolls of the voyage). Here is a powerful Ted Talk about the dangerous waters and as well as an anecdotal story of courage. This website is interactive and eye opening.

This traumatic and extremely dangerous journey is their only real escape route. Why? It is extremely frustrating that countries (including my own) are trying to slow down or prevent human beings from escaping violence and extremism. These people know, as we all should, that they deserve a future. I see my friends and family in these people; they are doctors, teachers, businessmen, children, engineers, and students desperately wanting to lay down roots in a place where they feel safe. Many refugees stay in Turkey, in refugee camps and cities along the borders that tend to be nationalistic and not exactly welcoming. This video shows some of the confusion and suffering that I also observed. My friends living in Gaziantep (a city that houses several large UN-run refugee camps and a large portion of the 1,838,848 refugees that reside in Turkey) have Syrian friends that believed the best way to leave the limbo-land of Turkey was to fly to Cyprus (an island with a Greek south and Turkish north), cross the border to Greece, get arrested (and pay a $100 fine), and finally get sent back to Turkey, in order to get a valid stamp on their passport that shows they legally entered Turkey. My friends in Gaziantep remarked on the Syrians’ sense of urgency to settle down somewhere. Borders and laws are charging daily and they can’t afford to wait a day longer to start their lives somewhere in Europe or North America. This is easy to understand, especially considering the Syrian war started in 2011.

 Once they arrive in Lesvos, it is not all hunky dorey…far from it.  Due to human trafficking regulations, they are not allowed to spend money on the island (including renting a hotel or car) until the Greek police register them. They either sleep in uncomfortable refugee camp shelters (if they are lucky), in a tent, or outside with maybe a blanket for every two people. I worked at Moria Refugee Camp on the SE side of the island, near the main city Mytilini (where the ferry to Athens docks). Due to recent politically-motivated changes, laws have become stricter and are increasing restrictions for refugees, causing them to reroute their boats to middle of island and also at night time, when easier to avoid being detected.

In order to continue traveling and to be able to buy a ticket for the ferry, all refugees need to register at Moria camp. One thing that surprised me was how many non-Syrians there were. I met a large number of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghani, Pakistani and Moroccan refugees. For people from Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Oman and Eritrea registration is faster as people from these countries are officially considered refugees but the registration was known to change without notice. Everybody else- people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Morocco- have to apply for refugee status. People from those countries, upon arrival, get a ticket with a number and a date. Refugees need to obtain a ticket, which could take over a week, just to stand in line to tell their story and hope to be accepted (otherwise they will be sent back to their country).

Moria camp is a detention center with high walls and about a 5,000 person capacity. It is extremely crowded and I would be lying if I said the conditions were decent. The main authorities are the police and UNHCR collaborating with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), whom I worked closely with. The UNHCR had a reputation for putting their name on everything and not doing much (kinda like Trump)…but they did provide nice blankets. I held down the night shift with 2-5 other incredible volunteers in special dormitories for families, wet, sick, disabled, lonely women and unaccompanied children. Families and women without men can ask to sleep inside at the shelter I worked at, but there was a very limited capacity (only about 400 spots on the concrete floor). During the night, I waited for families to arrive. Some nights many boats would arrive and we would need to squeeze in over 30 families on the floor of any room that was not already packed to the max. Luckily, I never had to turn anyone away, but some families chose to sleep outside after seeing the rooms. All rooms had a strong odor from the weary travelers and blankets were always few and far between. There was never enough of anything besides water. We were always in conservation mode. This meant we had to say “no” to people every night that believed they needed new clothes or another blanket. There simply wasn’t enough for everyone that asked. It was difficult to be in a position where I needed to judge others’ self-proclaimed need for supplies, especially when they are pleading or demanding something… an unfortunate reality. Lesvos may have been a vacation destination just a few years ago but they certainly have a winter. Just two days after I left the island it snowed. Many people do not have tents or shelter, so burn cardboard, plastic, or anything they can get their hands on to stay warm. Every morning we woke everyone up and gave the early risers (approx. the first 200 to leave the family compound) water, juice or soda and a small breakfast (e.g. chocolate croissant). Again, there was never enough to go around. Everybody had to leave with hopes to get in again the following night.

My friend, Emma, said it perfectly in her blog when she wrote about the good cop vs bad cop. I felt like the bad cop most of the time having to. Did I say “no, we don’t have enough” more than “yes”? It sure felt like it. I tried to convince refugees that the room wasn’t that bad and console them by saying it was only temporary I hoped I was telling them the truth.

The rest of the camp: the Greek police take pictures and fingerprints. After registration, refugees are free to purchase a ferry ticket to Athens. Refugees are possibly detained and/or deported if they do not meet qualifications for asylum. Thankfully, there is a doctor onsite 24/7, limited food and water provided, a few showers and electricity in some of the rooms. I was pleasantly surprised to see a prayer tent and some access to wi-fi (they are in desperate need to contact their loved ones to let them know they made it to the island). In most of the rooms, they have to sleep on the floor (the first lucky few get roll mats); some rooms have beds and mattresses. There are some large UNHCR cabins and IKEA tents which people were crammed in. Additionally, many slept in tents inside the camp and others in the olive grove outside nicknamed Afghan hill. The queue for registering is frequently over a mile long and many stay in line for days, sleeping outside, so they don’t risk losing their spot. It is not uncommon for fights to break out, mostly initiated by someone sneaking in alcohol and getting drunk. I could sense survival instincts kicking in.

Germany and Scandinavian countries are the most common destinations for refugees, but, as the stream of refugees keeps pouring in, many countries are closing their borders or creating obstacles to enter. Greek islanders have been extremely welcoming and are even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Volunteering was not easy (physically or emotionally) but the hardest part for me was leaving. I left guilt-ridden. Perhaps it’s the guilt of knowing that I could & can do more to help that keeps eating away at me. Maybe it’s the fact that the refugees didn’t/don’t have a choice and I have the privilege to come and go as I please. Either way, looking into their eyes has made it much harder to ignore my responsibility in helping them and the millions that are to follow’s lives.

In the end, yes, there is hope. There must be. Clarissa Pinkola Estes put it beautifully when she wrote, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.” We mustn’t be discouraged by the numbers; hope is what brings change.

Want to stay more connected? Join the Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers Facebook Group and gain access to a diverse array of articles posted by volunteers. You can also click here to see an interactive map that shows refugee camps and information throughout Syria, Turkey & Europe.

Speaking of helping, here are some ways in which you can help:

Money: There are dozens of organizations on the ground, albeit some better than others. Based on personal observations & comments from long-term volunteers, the following are trusted organizations that are doing effective work:
Before you donate to organizations, ask yourself if you know anyone that is volunteering. One thing I was most surprised by was how expensive it was to volunteer. Just accommodation, transportation and food easily adds up to 45 Euro/day (and that’s not including airfare/travel fees). There are few organizations that cover the expenses of the volunteers leaving most volunteers to pay out of pocket. Volunteers work long hard hours and many (including myself) get sick. Support their efforts!
Paul Steed’s YouCaring Fundraising page- I can personally vouch for Paul’s integrity, dedication & passion for improving the lives of the refugees, and hard work ethic. I know that he will make any money donated go a long way and support the local economy by buying food, water and supplies for vulnerable families at Moria refugee camp. Paul and his family have been in Lesvos for months and are dedicated to helping in any way possible, frequently sacrificing to change the lives of many.
Danish Refugee Council (DRC)- I worked most closely with them

Supplies: Before you spend money on shipping supplies, consider donating to an organization or person on the ground. One, the money you save on shipping can maximize what goes to the refugees. Two, it’s no secret the Greek economy is suffering. Supporting local businesses is an easy way to thank the local people for being so welcoming and supportive.
Volunteer: To begin, I want to make it clear that if you care about your fellow human beings and are willing to work hard to help them then you will be most definitely be useful. I was apprehensive to volunteer because I had limited time and did not want to be a burden on the other volunteers to train. Furthermore, I didn't know where to start (including accommodation and transportation to and from the camp) which served as a deterrent for spending more time volunteering, so I hope this information will be helpful. No matter your age, experience level, or time that you have, please know that you will be valued. I will say it again: you will be valued (If you need someone to reassure you again, just look at the posts from volunteers on FB groups). If you feel called to serve on the ground, then go for it!

General Info: If you are serious about volunteering, This Google Doc will make your life so much easier!
Connecting with other Volunteers/ Staying up-to-date: There are two really helpful Facebook groups, Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers Group and, for info on Moria Camp, Better Days for Moria Group, a group that works on Afghan hill just outside the walls of Moria Camp.
To get to Lesvos you can either fly directly to Mytilini (the largest city on Lesvos), fly to Athens and take a ferry to Mytilini, arrive via the Ayvalik, Turkey ferry (the closest large airport is Izmir, although flying to Istanbul may be cheaper). I arrived via the Ayvalik ferry (the ferry is about €30 round trip, the bus to/from Istanbul was about 60 TL ($20) for 8-10 hrs. All busses run several times a day and once you are at the Ayvalik Otogar (bus station) you can take a mini-bus right in the front of the station for 2.5TL (less than $1) to the port. In the winter the ferry does not run every day so it is best to plan ahead (if I had planned it better I could have stayed five more days). Click HERE for a reliable site for finding the ferry schedule. I am not sure about specifics about arriving via the Athens ferry but I'm sure there is information online.
Accommodation can be expensive and difficult to plan before you arrive, but I found The Lesvos Volunteers Accommodation Sharing Facebook Group extremely helpful. Many hotels give discounts for volunteers and for long-term stay so it never hurts to ask. I stayed at Mytiliana Village near Moria camp (about a 10 min drive) and if I wasn't taken in by the good graces of my friend, Peter, (whose Swedish organization was paying for a 3 room with 3 beds, 2 were unused) I would have paid €25/night to share with one person (€50). It was more luxurious than I was used to, had heating (and A/C), amazing complimentary breakfast, and offered cheap dinner in the hotel restaurant. Andres, the owner, does whatever he can to help volunteers and their efforts (including arranging for supply deliveries to the camp) so it was nice to stay in such a supportive environment (the rest of the staff were very loving as well).
Transportation: If you can afford to rent a car, go for it (I believe it is about €20/day and most cars are manual, although some are automatic). If you have some spare room in your car, please carpool with others and make it known that you have space and save other volunteers the stress of finding way to get there... nothing is walkable from Moria Camp. From my experience, non-driving volunteers will make it as easy as possible in drivers and will show heaps appreciation. The Lesvos Volunteers Ride Sharing Facebook group is a good place to coordinate with other volunteers.

Duties/shifts: There are so many things to do. Always. Some examples are sorting donated items, helping people as they arrive on the beaches (lifeguards are always desired), making food, cleaning the shelters, distributing clothes/food, working in the shelters, transporting the newly arrived refugees to a camp, etc. Some shifts are more desirable than others. I would recommend doing whatever is needed- that’s why you’re there.

What to pack: Layers, layers, layers. Some depends on what you will be doing, what time of year and what shift you volunteer. I only did the night shift in late December (1AM- about 9:30AM) and it was very very cold. When I was moving or carrying supplies I was plenty warm but there were times when I was the gatekeeper and no families arrived for hours and so we would just sit. If I were to pack again here is what I would bring: a warm jacket, long sleeve shirts, shirt sleeve shirts for the daytime, hat, gloves, warm socks, a headlamp with extra batteries, small flashlight on a lanyard sturdy (waterproof, if possible) hiking boots (with traction... The hills can be steep and slippery), a thermos for hot coffee or tea, a fanny pack, a small daypack, a small notebook (sometime body language isn't enough to communicate), pens & a few sharpies, a wetsuit if you have one and are planning to do boat rescue, a pocket knife, EmergenC (almost every volunteer gets sick), antibacterial liquid, a European outlet adapter, and whatever you need for self care (running shoes, books, etc).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Argentina 10; Salta/Cafayate; Bueno, Muy Bien

I will begin this entry by setting the record straight on Argentinian bus companies. After my fancy first ride to Bariloche my expectations were high, which is always a mistake. The subsequent rides were mediocre and definitely didn't include bingo. For example on the 24 hour ride from El Bolson to El Chalten they played horror movies at night and only provided 2 small pieces in a 20 hour time span. I'm used to bad service, heck I even prefer it if I pay less, but when I pay $100+ for a bus journey it would be nice to not have demon children haunting my dreams. First world problems.

Anywho, I arrived in Salta after a 24 hr bus ride and my only goal was to not sit. I hiked to the top of Cerro San Bernardo, which proved an excellent view of the city, people watched, then ate the best empanadas I've ever had. The next day I went on a tour to Cafayate per recommendation of friends at my hostel. I am not a tour girl and as much as I try I don't think I will ever be. We would drive 20 min., stop, take pictures, drive 10 min., stop, take pictures, drive 15 min., stop, take picture...and so on. As much as I appreciated the photo opportunities I felt like a tourist instead or a traveler and it just didn't feel right. The scenery was amazing in a Utah sort of way and since the tour was completely in Spanish is was great listening practice. My guide's catch phrase was "bueno, my bien," which his said during every pause. every single pause. We ended up in Cafayate, went to a winery and then I ate and ate and ate. I was sick if not knowing what the food on the menu was so I went to a restaurant where you pick 3 entrees. I picked the ones that I hadn't a clue what they were. I ate very well that day.

The antibiotics seemed to be working!!!! Hallelujah! I also got an e-mail from the doctor in Buenos Aires confirming it is a staph infection.

Since it's getting to the end of my trip I am more aware of how pressed for time I really am. I had to make the painful decision to cut out Humahuaca and Iruya and head straight to San Pedro de Atacama, the only city in the Chilean Atacama desert.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Argentina 9; Iguazu Falls; The Cascados of all Waterfalls

After a 24 hr bus ride I arrived in Puerto Iguazu. There was no way I could come to Argentina and not see what all this hype was about. Here are some fun facts for you:

1. Iguazu Falls aka Iguassu Falls or Iguaçu Falls, are waterfalls of the Iguazu River located on the border of the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Misiones. The falls divide the river into the upper and lower Iguazu.
2. The waterfall system consists of 275 falls along 2.7 kilometers (1.67 miles) of the Iguazu River.
3. The first European to find the falls was the Spanish Conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1541, after whom one of the falls in the Argentine side is named. The falls were rediscovered by Boselli at the end of the nineteenth century, and one of the Argentine falls is named after him.
4. Some of the individual falls are up to 82 meters (269 ft) in height, though the majority are about 64 metres (210 ft). The Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo in Spanish or Garganta do Diabo in Portuguese), a U-shaped, 82-meter-high (269 ft) , 150-meter-wide and 700-meter-long (490 by 2,300 feet) cataract, is the most impressive of all, marking the border between Argentina and Brazil. Two thirds of the falls are within Argentine territory.
5. About 900 meters (0.56 miles) of the 2.7-kilometer length (1.67 miles) does not have water flowing over it. The edge of the basalt cap recedes only 3 mm (0.1 in) per year. The water of the lower Iguazu collects in a canyon that drains into the Paraná River at Argentina, shortly downstream from the Itaipu dam.
6. Iguazu currently has the greatest average annual flow of any waterfall in the world. The water falling over Iguazu in peak flow has a surface area of about 40 Ha (1.3 million ft²) whilst Victoria in peak flow has a surface area of over 55 ha (1.8 million ft²). By comparison, Niagara has a surface area of under 18.3 ha (600,000 ft²).
7. Taller than Niagara Falls and twice as wide, Iguazu Falls are the result of a volcanic eruption which left a large crack in the earth. During the rainy season of November – March, the rate of flow of water going over the falls may reach 450,000 cubic feet (12,750 cubic m) per second.
8. On her first sight of the tremendous falls, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed: “Poor Niagara!”

Eight is my personal favorite. After spending the entire day completely in awe, I came to the conclusion that the hype was well deserved. There was the unavoidable tour group/pushy "move so I can take a picture" crowd but it was all part of the experience.

Argentina 8; Buenos Aires 2; Time Machines

My second go at Buenos Aires was much different than the first. I had two main missions: do something about my infection and find a dress for Kelsey's wedding. I has only half successful, but I accomplished the most important thing. You thought I was going to say I found a dress, didn't you? Wrong, I guess sun dresses aren't in high demand in autumn.

I got several major outbreaks while I was in the trek (and my initial sore was filling with puss again) and my scared-o-dometer was at an all time high... also, ouch. One inch puss volcanos aren't the most comfortable things. I got up early to make it to the hospital my hostel recommended to get a good number. Everyone else must have had the same brilliant idea because about 70 other people were crowding the waiting room when I arrived at 8:00. I went to the reception to ask for a number and this is when things went downhill. She rifled off a series of questions that I didn't understand in the slightest....like absolutely nothing. She was more than peeved with my blank look, I think that was the wrong answer. I just wanted a number...quiero un numero por favor (my plan was to point and show the doctor the prior notes). Yes, my Spanish is that of a 2 year olds (if we're being generous) but this was plain ridiculous. I looked for someone in the room to translate but the best of their combined efforts didn't get us anywhere except a room full of laughing Argentinians that felt bad for me. By the time they fetched a doctor that could almost form an English sentence I was on the break of tears. I told her I just wanted a number, she handed me one and then I ran out of the room to let my panic attack take its course. Why was this so difficult? Needing medical attention is no fun but needing medical attention for a mystery infection in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and nothing seems to be working...yeah. I calmed down enough to start breathing again and a plump man who I imagine stays up to 2 AM playing video games every night came over to me. He used what little English he knew to make me feel better. I reacted completely inappropriate and started laughing harder than I was crying, which caught him off guard. How hilarious was this...I was a blonde foreigner outside a hospital crying because I couldn't communicate while others were getting tested for STDs...things could be so much worse. I saw the doctor, (she was extremely patient with me) she took a puss sample, and gave me some new antibiotics, third times a charm, right...

I thought the best thing to do after leaving a hospital was to go to the dead so I went to a cemetery, Ricoletta cemetery to be exact. I saw a lot of graves of people who were probably really important. Lots of statues of men with beards and fancy houses for the honorable deceased. Some of the memorials were so fancy I could probably live in them.

I finished up with a night and morning run around Puerto Madero, gosh do I love that run.

Argentina 7; Ushuaia; Fin del Mundo (End of the World)

My flight to Buenos Aires had a one night layover in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. This was awesome for more than just the bragging right. It reminded me of Glenwood Springs, CO. in a way (with the Beagle Channel instead of a hot springs). I had limited time so I roamed the streets, fed the ducks on the dock, tried Oregon chai at a coffee shop and took a stroll along the port until it got dark. Now that I was traveling solo I felt like myself again. I was able to eat whatever I wanted for dinner at whatever time and talk to whoever I wanted....I felt completely free! I'd also like to point out that I went to the end of the world and didn't fall off!

B Burt and I were on the same flights and after I waved at him and he walked away, avoiding all eye contact, I realized we were playing the ignoring game. I like checkers more.

Chile 2; Torres del Paine; Easter Present

I don't know to even begin to do this trek justice. Every day was drastically different as we crossed forests, mountains, glaciers, lakes and creeks. The circuit was 100 km (62 mi.) in total which is a lot less than it sounds. We drank water from the creeks and the only mirrors we looked at were lakes. We had uncharacteristically sunny weather everyday and caught the 2 week period where the trees are changing color. Don't worry, it wasn't all cupcakes and puppies, I did get the wind knocked out of me....or the wind knocked the standing out of me, rather, on a couple of occasions.

Day 1: We took the bus and mini van from Puerto Natales to the beginning of the trek at Hotel Las Torres. We were enchanted with rainbows, waterfalls, lakes (rainbows in lakes), fierce winds, snow and rain up the steep path to our first campsite, Campamento Torres (free). The weight of our full packs and the brutal weather double teamed us, making it the hardest (although shortest) day of the trek. I count myself lucky after hearing stories of girls getting thrown off the trail 10 feet. Gracias walking poles.

Day 2: We woke up dark and early in order to hike up an hour to see the sunrise at the towers (torres). This was truly magical. The towers turned from red to pink to yellow to orange to brown. I have never seen anything quite like it. definitely worth shivering uncontrollably in my sleeping bag for over an hour. I later found out that even if the towers aren't covered by clouds the rocks don't change colors every time. There is something very special about getting to be there for this phenomenon. We then went back to camp to eat and pack up then headed West toward Campamento Seron, on the O part of the circuit (outside of the typical hiker's itinerary). When we passed the hotel B Burt lightened his load by leaving some of his things, like his white jeans and khaki shorts, at the hotel. I felt satisfied after I gave him a big "I told you so" and laughed it off. It was a relatively easy and peaceful walk through trees and streams. B Burt had really been struggling and needed to take several breaks along the way so it was a stop and go sort of day. Toward the end of the day I told him I would just meet him at camp (since due to language and fitness, talking while walking was out of the question) and set up things at Seron (which ended up being free since it was closed for the season, no complaints by me). I then met the people who I would spend the next 4 days with: an Australian man that kept craving a quality brew, a young British vagabond, an older man from FORT COLLINS, and a group of Americanos consisting of 5 guys studying in Buenos Aires and an American girl who joined their posse earlier in the trek. What I loved about the "O" part of the circuit was the community and solitude. We all chatted at the end of every day about how beautiful and rough our day was while we cooked our dinners, yet we rarely shared the trail with anyone else.

Day 3: I took the tent and all the shared gear from B Burt for the rest of the trek in hopes that he would have a more enjoyable journey and would be more positive (complain less). I decided it was better to walk at our own pace and reap the benefits of solitude in nature for the rest of the trek. I mean, who wants to look at someone's back when you're in nature? After I came atop the first big hill to view the crystal blue Lago Paine and countryside I could barely stand; I used my pole to stab the mountain to keep from being smashed into it. I walked through grassy fields, teetered on logs that prevented me from falling in ankle-deep mud and then I reached Refugio Dickson. Refugio's, in case you are unfamiliar, are usually cabin-esque type buildings built on hiking trails or on the top of mountains for hikers to stay. To me this meant I had to pay 4,000 pesos to camp (same as our hostel in town)...but I got a warm shower. Refugio Dickson was my favorite setting. It was nestled by Lago Dickson, Lago Quemado and had Glacier Ohnet as its backdrop. I wouldn't have minded going to summer camp there. While lazing in the sun, we got acquainted with a Chilean guy that had just finished working at a campamento and he joined our crew.

Day 4: Since we had a really short day (only 9km), I joined the Americanos on the hike to Campamento Los Perros (another campsite you have to pay for). Most of the day was spent along a river going through a forest and the grand finale was Glaciar Los Perros.

Day 5: This was the day everyone had talked up since we began (6 hrs are estimated for 12 km). "The pass" dun dun dun. I was told that winds can reach 200 km/hr. I didn't really understand what that meant but 200 sure does sound big. Turns out it's about 124 mi/hr and it is frequently closed when conditions are too dangerous. B Burt, our Chilean amigo, and I decided to take on the task together. We were extremely lucky with the weather and made it over the rock piles leading up to Grey's glacier with little difficulty. It was cold and windy, but tolerable. When I went over the peak of the last hill I was speechless. I felt like I was almost in the glacier I was so close, an indescribable feeling. The rest of the day was spent viewing this glacier from different angles (it is seriously massive) and being awed by Lago Grey. That night we stayed at Refugio Grey, where our Chilean friend used his connections to let us camp for free...hey oh! It was a bittersweet night since it was everyone else's last night (they had started with the W portion of the trek). We said our ciaos, took their extra oatmeal and continued on...

Day 6: On Easter Day we went from Refugio Grey to Italiano (the first leg of the "W" portion). Gorgeous views of mountains and lakes throughout. I had been spoiled with the O portion by always having the trail to myself but now I was saying hola to passerbys every 20 min. Just as I passed Refugio Paine Grande I saw something I've never seen before, I'll call it a raybow; rainbow colors formed a crown on the mountain yet there was no sign of rain. I didn't get to go to church this year, nor did I get an Easter egg hunt but I received the most glorious Easter present of all. Muchas gracias Jesus (Hay-zoos)!

Day 7: Since Campamento Italiano was a free campsite we decided to stay there 2 nights (and avoid packing up camp and paying 8,000 pesos for the nearest campsite) and have a lazy day. I went up Valle del Frances with my Chilean amigo and was blown away by the autumn colors. I've always liked doing things a little off season and this was no exception. Mountains, waterfalls, the whole shebang. I get 2 autumns this year!

Day 8: I was very sad to leave the park but I went out strong. Since I had carried the tent, set it up, and broke it down for most of the trek (without getting a single gracias...*cough* unappreciated housemate) I asked if B Burt could take it over now that his pack was lighter, and boy what a difference that made! I woke up for sunrise so I could make it to the buses by 2:30, an estimated 8 1/2 hour journey. Seeing the sunrise's reflection over Lago Nordernskjold was spectacular, why don't I get up early more often? I beat the crowd and had a wonderful walk, seeing more llamas than people. One thing I have learned about Patagonia is that they consistently overestimate hiking times, it took me less than 5 hours to walk out of the park so I had the remainder to relax and soak in where I was. I couldn't do anything but smile. What a week, what a week :)

Recoup- B Burt and I decided it was best to travel separately and what a relief that was. Still like the fella, just not compatible travel partners. I had a few days to kill while waiting for my flight so I was as lazy as humanly possible in Puerto Natales and El Calafate. I more than made up for all the calories I burned, liked everything and their mom on FB (sorry FB world), wrote postcards, e-mails & blogs, and hung out with people at my hostels. I exhibited symptoms of the all to familiar post-trekking depression combined with sadness about missing sakura/hanami (cherry blossom/picnic) season in Japan so I ate away my blues with a heavenly blueberry crepe. I thought it was fitting.