Sunday, February 27, 2011

Geocaching and Kitchen Adventures

I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to pass the time in Roanoke. Generally, I get disillusioned after only finding information for shuffleboard tournaments and girl scout award ceremonies, but sometimes something comes up that seems legitimately interesting.

One of the blogs I follow, Rage Against the Minivan, mentioned geocaching. Upon further observation and some solid researching (thanks, Wikipedia!), I learned that it's really just a scavenger hunt for nerds. They even have a legit site for which you need a login. People hide waterproof containers in random locations, and then you get to find it using your GPS device. Or, in my and OfficeMate's case - our iPhones. Sometimes they're filled with fun trinkets, and the idea is if you take something, you leave something as well.

So we did what any normal 20-something in Roanoke would do (because honestly, there can't be more than like 5 more of us) - we went geocaching. There's a park-ish type area a few blocks from our place, so off we went. We began with the caches ranked one-star, or the most simple, and ended up scaling some serious cliffs, and later, walking on some now-out-of-use railroad tracks. Child-friendly? Please. Keep in mind, I of course, was not dressed for this occasion and was scaling cliffs in traction-less flats and trying to keep my Raybans from falling off my head.

After approximately an hour or so of this madness, I began to think this whole thing was a hoax. It was some master plan created by the internet to make two people in Roanoke look like idiots in their neighborhood and potentially trespass for the second time in two weeks. I also questioned whether this was a Peter Pan type scenario - that perhaps we were just too old to properly geocache - since it is really created for children.And then I spotted it. A flash of white inside a tree trunk. At first I thought it was my awful eyes seeing what they wanted to see, but no! It was there! A plastic container with a sheet to sign claiming you had found it, full of fun things for the taking. I took a magic capsule (currently growing into what I can only hope is a dinosaur) in exchange for an old cell phone charm from high school. Walking back to the apartment, we spotted the initial one we were searching for just by chance - of course. I still have a lone monkey from a barrel of monkeys that I need to give to another geocache, so there's still at least one adventure left in this department. Also, I'm telling myself this totally counts as exercise.

Meanwhile, in my kitchen...
When my sister came to visit, she brought with her a bag of spinach, courtesy of my mother. Not being sure what to do with it, I left it for a few days. On Monday, I used my fancy Epicurious app (quite possibly my favorite one on my phone) and found a recipe for Bibimbap. I threw in some spinach and carrots, and had to stop there for lack of space in my bowl. Now, I am far from Korean, and I've had legitimate Bibimbap two or three times, and while mine was not nearly as tasty, it was still pretty solid and not half bad for a Latina trying to be Asian for one night.

This morning, I made sour cream pancakes to rid myself of sour cream that had been building up since Mexican a few nights back. Also courtesy of the Epicurious app, and also delicious. All my culinary successes from the week (I OWNED that spaghetti!) had made me ambitious, and I decided to try a souffle. A spinach-mushroom Parmesan-Chevre souffle.

He's beautiful, as you can see. However, I folded my egg whites in all wrong, ruining the consistency towards the center. Seeing as he was my very first souffle though, I shall continue to be proud of myself.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Off-Season Hiking

One of the wonderful things about living in a valley is that I am surrounded by mountains. Mountains, and hence, a large assortment of trails to hike. Sadly, I was only able to get two hikes in during the fall season before moving (Version 3.0) and cold weather no longer made it possible.

This week was unseasonably warm, and my sister came to visit for President's Day weekend. Due to the 60-70 degrees we were enjoying, I figured we'd explore a new trail. I had heard Peaks of Otter was a fantastic hike, so off we went on a spectacularly sunny Saturday.

The parking area was closed off, so we followed suit of the two other cars and parked by some rocks. The trail we choose was, I thought, moderately simple. It was approximately two miles up to the summit, but what I missed was the choice word up. I felt like I was rock climbing rather than hiking, an unpleasant realization for someone who has barely exercised in the past five or six months. Also, one must ALWAYS remember to factor in the wind chill when you find yourself on the top of a mountain in the middle of February with no foliage. It's also embarrassing when old men pass you, and then sporty looking high-school/college age girls give you false encouragement when they see you struggling.

My family likes to tell ourselves we're outdoorsy. I really don't think we are.

Upon (almost) reaching the summit, after being blown around by strong winds and humiliated by all those we encountered, we saw the piece de resistance; we saw a man in the middle of the trail, napping in his hammock strung up between two trees (see right). My mind immediately raced to the headlines: "Two Hikers Found Dead on Flat Top Trail - Interrupted Angry Murder's Nap." My sister, the elder and thus the braver, forged ahead, trying to be quiet as leaves crunched around this guy's camelback while we creeped on by. On our trip down from the summit, we noticed he was now cuddling with someone in his hammock. Both hammock-dwellers even said hello. At least Angry Murder was pleasant.

Fast forward to Day Two of Sister's visit. I'm itching to see Foamhenge something fierce, and by my awesome powers of persuasion, I convince both her and OfficeMate that this is a fabulous idea. Let's drive 45 minutes to see Stonehenge made of Styrofoam! There was a caveat, though, and that was that we had to do another hike while out there. Now, I was still pretty sore from my rock climbing/wind beating/creeping around potential Angry Murders from the day before, but one must compromise in life, especially to see Foamhenge.

Foamhenge was just as epic, if not more, than I thought it would be. Sadly, some people have defaced this dorky work of art, and it could go for a second spray of paint. Sister and OfficeMate were perhaps amused, but not nearly as enamored as I, with Foamhenge.

Once in the car, we researched nearby trails. One option was a hike I had done back in October, and another was by a lake. Similar to Smith Mountain Lake, Cave Mountain Lake claimed to be man-made, but on a much smaller scale. Wanting to diversify my hiking experiences, this is where we headed.

Similar to the day before, the entrance was locked with a sign that said, "Closed for the Season." Nature doesn't close for seasons, so we refused to acknowledge this suggestion. Again, we parked outside the gate, and walked in. Turns out, we were at a national park with campgrounds and everything. Just, no people, because it was closed for the season. We walked around, looking desperately for a trail to hike, to no avail. Finally we encountered something titled the "Panther Trail," and there was much rejoicing. This trail, because it is the off-season, was unkempt. At one point, I used my Hulk-like strength to hurl a tree (small branch) out of our way. Sister has photographic evidence. And then... and then we saw the lake.
Except, it was just sand. And mud. There was no lake. Nature, it seems, can close for the season. Especially when nature is man-made and drained when the park is closed to the public. This, I suppose, was our punishment for trespassing? It made for a most amusing hike, though.

We ventured past the dam which was stopping nonexistent water from nothing, and began to trailblaze. This was a mistake. Venturing off the beaten path while trespassing at a closed national park is generally frowned upon, I would assume. We crossed a stream via fallen log, and found ourselves in the forest, next to a gravel road. Handy iPhone helped find our location, but we soon noticed some rather shady houses with angry looking dogs locked in cages in their front yards. We retreated into the forest, towards the faux-lake, beyond the unnecessary dam, and back to the car.

Don't hike in the off-season. It's cold, humiliating, and potentially illegal.

It is, however, amazing. And I mean, really, this weather is begging for it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sign the Petition for AmeriCorps!

A dear friend of mine who also happens to also be a VISTA, emailed me this article the other day.

Without going into excessive detail, it describes how the GOP is trying to eliminate AmeriCorps in order to cut spending. I don't want to get political, I don't, but this infuriates me. Of all the programs to do away with, AmeriCorps shouldn't even be a contender. We volunteers dedicate our time, dedicate a year of our lives, at a minimum, to help with capital projects, with direct service, to improve educational facilities or achieve sustainable development for nonprofits across the country. To deem us unworthy of the pittance we're paid is insulting. Pray tell, GOP, what do you deem a more worthy cause of my living stipend? I'm sorry to be inconveniencing you in my efforts to raise money for nonprofits in Roanoke. You're right, incredibly cheap labor for a righteous cause... it's worthless.

One of our clients, a nonprofit after-school program, has an 80% high school graduation rate, whereas the rate for Roanoke City public schools is a mere 67%. They've had one pregnant girl in their thirty years in this city. One. You dare tell me that's not an institution worth building capacity for? You have the gall to say let them fundraise on their own in these trying economic times? You honestly believe they don't deserve a VISTA to assist in their sustainability efforts?

Shame on you. My work means more than that.

Please sign the petition to keep AmeriCorps up and running. Remind the rest of this country of the importance of community service.

Edit: Here is a great piece on the importance of AmeriCorps in Florida, and throughout the country.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In the words of Petula Clark, CALL ME!

I very much dislike spending money, as you can probably tell from my miserly budgeting post. In college, I had friends talk me into spending over $25 on a pair of jeans on various occasions. I prefer to save my money for exciting food expenses, like a new cheese or a fun bottle of Spanish wine (which, yes, I bought the other week. I'm saving it for a special occasion). Buying Mr. Merlot was a huge accomplishment for me that was accompanied with various headaches and moments of hesitation.

However, when Verizon got the new iPhone, it didn't take much convincing on my brother's behalf before I caved. At one point in his persuading, I said, "Come on, at least let me think it over," and he said, "Whatever, you know you'll end up ordering one by the end of the day." That's exactly what happened.

This is my old phone. Yes, I am well aware of just how ghetto it is. This phone, along with looking sad, had a plastic cover inside that was coming off. Sometimes, it would just shut itself off when it was mad at me. Other times, it got temperamental about texting and would only accept them if i hit the "end call" button twice and then went to my inbox. Most fourteen year olds I know, or see, had nicer phones than me. But I was okay with that, generally, because I liked being on Verizon and I didn't like any of their other phone options. Regular phones were ugly and expensive for what they were. I'm not a huge fan of the Droid. The only Blackberry that truly appeals to me is the Torch, and that's on AT&T. So I waited.

And then Verizon got the iPhone. Oh, the iPhone. So within one day of Verizon offering it, I had ordered it. A few days and frustrating phonecalls with UPS later, I had it. It really is glorious. I've synced my personal calendar and my work calendar, I woke up this morning, and was able to read the news INSTANTLY from my NPR news app. I, of course, have Angry Birds, which OfficeMate has been playing more than me. I no longer have to be embarrassed by my phone - I can take it out with pride!

What is depressing is acknowledging just how old Maccy, my computer, has gotten. His software is too old to handle the latest version of iTunes, which is what you need to make the iPhone function. At least I live with someone whose computer can handle what mine can't.

I know what you're thinking. "MV, you make zero money. How are you affording this?"

I'll tell you how. 1. My friendly savings account. Happy you've-had-bad-phones-since-you-were-17 gift to ME! 2. The phone itself is really what's pricey. Adding a data plan to my current cell bill isn't that horrendous. It's actually incredibly do-able. Once I finish with VISTA and hopefully find myself with a salary and benefits, it'll be a drop in the pond of expenses.

On a side note, poor Mr. Merlot was backed into today while we were running errands. (We being me and my car, of course.) The man was very apologetic and we exchanged information, but I became very aware of how protective I am of my little car. I wasn't so much angry that he busted my rear bumper as I was sad that my car, my new years resolution of five years, was hurt. I know my car's not the best and shiniest, but I am awfully attached, much more than I was with any car I drove in high school. Here's to emotional attachment to inanimate objects. I know he loves me back.

(I'm fine. It would be a stretch to even call it a fender-bender.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Guest Blogger - Hermana Oso

As I hopped into the shower tonight after Glee, I was grumbling to myself about poor life decisions by fictional characters in Ohio and about how my iPhone has yet to reach me for an array of reasons that I won't get into today. Needless to say, I was insistent on being glum.

A few minutes into my shower with a head full of conditioner, my water goes ice cold. This happens on occasion, and I generally chalk it up to paying nominal rent. I stepped back and waited, as usual, for the water to heat back up. It didn't. At least not for a good five freezing minutes, complete with me stepping out of the shower, contemplating sticking my head in the sink, and wondering if maybe perfume in the morning would have been a better option than this shower.

When I was eighteen, I went to visit my sister who was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. It's true, we're those obnoxious do-gooder sisters. Go go civil service! However, I recall showering at her house there and having to do jumping jacks prior to hopping into what was truly a freezing shower, with no hot water available. I skipped conditioner every day I was there, to avoid the very conundrum I found myself in today.

My sister used to send out mass emails to those of us state-side during her time as a PCV, to let us know she was alive and to keep us abreast of her adventures. I bring you her adventures on an Ecuadorian bus, circa 2007.

For all of you Peace Corps volunteers, past and present, thank you. Thank you for being solid representatives of us abroad, proving the importance of global citizenship. Thank you for all you've done, and all you continue to do. Thank you for your inspiration. (Sister, that means you!)

Written by: Hermana Oso

During my last day in Quito, I was able to meet up with Lauren from my freshman hall at William and Mary. Lauren is studying in Quito on a Rotary Scholarship, and it was great to meet up with her two years after graduation. The time absolutely flew by, and I am still waiting on her to call me up and announce she is coming to visit me in Cuenca (that´s a hint, Lauren!).

Also while in Quito, it dawned on me that I could request 100 PC Ecuador folders to use during the upcoming Anti Trafficking Conference. Patting myself on the back for thinking ahead, I joined the line to board the 10pm night bus back to my home in Cuenca, all the while toting my backpack that held the contents of three days of survival in the capital city, and lugging the 100 folders as well as a plastic bag of small candle molds I had inherited from the PC Office.

The bus line my friend Matt (or, here in Ecuador, Mateo) and I take from Quito to Cuenca is the Panamericana. Due to it`s lack of heat while taking on the frigid temperatures of the Sierran Panamerican highway in the middle of the night, ancient seats, and the lone TV from 1983 blasting such unknown American classics such as "Komodo vs. Cobra" or anything violent with Jean Claude Van Damme or Sylvester Stallone, we affectionately call this bus line The People's Bus. Don't knock the People's Bus, though. If you still can't figure out where the People's Bus´ more posh and expensive big brother bus line Flota Imbabura is located, The People's Bus gets the job done.

Imagine my surprise when trying to board the People's Bus the attendant stares at my innocent backpack and says: That needs to go under the bus.

I'm sorry, what?

That needs to go under the bus.

(Now, I have heard enough stories of peoples´ stuff getting robbed from underneath the bus that I know better than to trust this lady. Right, like I haven't been taking night busses for two years in this country. You think you're messing with your everyday gringa? Think again, lady.)

Um, well, I took this same bus line up from Cuenca and they let me bring it up top. Look, I know it looks large, and maybe I have been accused more than once of overpacking in my lifetime, but trust me. Don't worry, it fits in the overhead bin.

That needs to go under the bus.

(As I open my mouth to protest, she busts out with…)

We aren't letting anyone bring anything up because the luggage will block the heating vents.

Heating vents? On the People's Bus? I must have the wrong bus line! As I silently revel in my good fortune, I hand over my backpack to another attendant wrestling luggage from other stubborn passengers like myself. The monstrous bag of Peace Corps folders and candle molds, however, I sneak past the attendant. There is no way I am putting these under the bus, just to get to Cuenca to discover they have been abused and smashed beyond all recognition by the unforgiving curves of the mountain road.

Before I settle into my seat, I take in this new addition to the People's Bus fleet. This baby has comfortable, clean reclining seats, a flatscreen TV, and sure enough, the upper bin is empty so as not to block the heating vents. I take the lead of some other rebellious passengers and place my bag of cherished PC folders up top. Certainly one bag won't really make a difference in the heat circulation of this beautiful bus? I smile, pop a Dramamine, and, after thinking, ¨Maybe night buses aren't so bad after all¨, am off to sleep…

…until about 4 hours later (on this 10 hour journey) when we hit the major curves of the Panamerican highway and all I (and the other 44 passengers on the bus) can hear is the WHOOSH of the bag of my coveted PC folders as it slides back and forth, threatening to slide off the bin which is not really a bin at all but more of a ledge, actually. Each turn, each curve, is one step closer to impending doom for the passengers ahead of me. I can see the headlines already. Panamericana passengers injured due to PC folder injuries. Doctors save QuiteƱo from gringo paper cuts.

Maybe it was the Dramamine making me loopy, but I couldn't sleep for the rest of the night. Do I stand up and try and adjust the bag's location? Then I´d be admitting the bag was mine. No, better lay low. It won't fall, right? As I try to ignore the whooshing bag and try and return to my pimped out People's Bus slumber, I suddenly hear a new noise. CLANK. CLANK CLANK. CLANKCLANKCLANKCLANK. Ah yes. It seems that the candle molds Irene, the friendly PC secretary, had regalar´d (gifted) me, were feeling rebellious and had escaped from their cozy bed of PC folders to explore the upper storage bin of the People's Bus. Again, picture the headlines. Well, you get the idea.

Admitting defeat, I arose from my plush People's Bus armchair to survey the damage. Expertly balancing myself against the swaying chariot so as not to be propelled into the lap of the man next to me, I did the best I could to stuff the folders and molds back into the bag, now torn with battle wounds from hours of Sierran highway curves. Hoping I had avoided catastrophe and that the 44 pairs of glaring eyes would forgive me and my funda of PC folders, I settled back into my seat and hoped that sleep would arrive before the dawning Equatorial sun.

But alas. Sleep was not in the cards for me that night, nor for my fellow passengers. The plastic bag, the folders, and the molds were not to be silenced. Twenty minutes later, they were at it again, robbing the Peoples´ Bus of precious slumber. It finally occurred to me to place the bag under my seat. Brilliant. I blame the Dramamine for not thinking of this sooner. That, or I was just too stubborn to give in so easily. While this solved the problem, I was so afraid of a bus uprising against me that I did not shut my eyes until we rolled into Cuenca at 7 am and I was safely in my bed.

There are now WANTED posters of me in all offices of the Panamericana. Next time, I´ll just take Flota . And put my stuff under the bus.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Welcome to the Kitchen!

After Monday's baking fiasco, I took a break from my kitchen. Enjoy this photo/proof of my non-muffins. Yes, that is my pot of failure rice back there.

I went out to eat Tuesday and Wednesday night, something that is rarely seen in these parts. My eating out, that is. Last night, the kitchen and I rekindled our romance via porkchops brought to you by the New York Times. They were delicious and I highly recommend them.

Now, Tuesday night, OfficeMate and I were welcomed home by the sight of two boxes in front of our door. They were addressed to me, with no information regarding who possibly could have sent them. After Nancy Drewing the situation for a few hours, I deduced that they were from family friends. The boxes contained a massive crockpot and a super sexy hand mixer.

As a result, I would like to offer a warm welcome to my various new small kitchen appliances, both the ones that joined this week, and others that joined over Christmas.

Immersion Blender
This was a biggie on my Christmas wish list. He was a gift from my brother and, amusingly enough, I gifted him the same make&model. Mine came with a variety of fun attachments that includes a mini-food-processor type thing. It has proven most useful for making emergency breadcrumbs. The blender has been used for large amounts of various soups. Win. Also, not to be forgotten, although not new, my electric kettle that you can see in the background also holds a very special place in my heart. He is used CONSTANTLY, comforting me with tea and waking me up with coffee on a daily basis.

Mandolin Slicer
This bad boy assisted me in my potatoes au gratin endeavor, and you know what? They were delicious. Also a Christmas gift, he has the ability to slice things the same width, and mine even has the capacity to handle julienne strips! Fancy!

Crock Pot
Four quarts. FOUR. Seen cooking in there is my Adobo Chicken that will be ready for dinner this evening, circa 9pm, probably with rice, if I can get over my scarring rice experience from Monday. I can't get over the size and sexiness of this crock pot. It even locks, so I can bring it with me without spilling things. Brilliant! I'm going to be getting my slow cooker ON these next few weeks.

Hand Mixer
We eat a lot of potatoes. Generally as a result of my making a ton of homefries on the weekends. I've made mashed potatoes a few times but get discouraged when I have to mash them with two small forks. Now, I can mash 'em with a hand mixer! Also, I intend on using him to conquer my fear of baking. I have a carrot cake recipe lined up, and together, the hand mixer and I will defeat baking!

Also, I bought an iPhone. Irresponsible spending? I like to think not. I budgeted for it! Get stoked for a comparison update of old phone vs. new phone when it comes in. I fear old phone won't stand a chance.