I think my knee hurts

I’ve never felt lonelier, more melancholy, or chunkier than I did my freshman year in college. I had come from a snooty Orange County high school, where I was the most popular kid…in the nerd crowd. High school was excruciating for me. I had frizzy hair, was missing two front teeth, which forced me to wear a retainer with fake teeth in it, and couldn’t justify wearing a training bra. I was ashamed of both myself and of my friends, and yearned to be one of the popular girls…a girl who’s glossy Wet n’ Wild lips got kissed by boys with athletic ability. My loving mom, ever worried about my self-esteem, reassured me that college would be different.

I dreamed of going away to “that party school in San Diego” all through high school. SDSU had quite the reputation, and I figured…SDSU, UCSD, same thing. Since the two schools were in the same city, I thought everyone hung out together as one giant group of buddies. I couldn’t WAIT to get away from home, reinvent myself, and party the nights away with all my new friends. I fantasized about brazenly doing the walk of shame on Saturday mornings, still a little drunk, mascara smudges under my eyes, maybe a little sore.

So imagine my disappointment when I arrived that first week not at the party school, but at UCSD, the place where parties go to die, a college so solely focused on academics that you could walk through the dorms on a Friday night and the loudest noise you’d hear is a group of engineering majors quietly quarreling over a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

When I realized the grave mistake I’d made in selecting a college, I was heartbroken. On top of this, I’d missed out on the dorm giveaway and got squeezed into an on-campus apartment with a recluse. Never in my life had I found it so difficult to make friends. I tried to join the dance team, and though I was an ok dancer, there was that chunky thing, and I didn’t make the cut. I really got tricked by that non-fat food craze of the late 90’s, and in my isolation, I’d sit around for hours on end in my sad, little bedroom, stuffing myself full of Lucky Charms and Snack Wells cookies.

After one semester of utter misery, I was ready to call it quits, go back home, and start high school part two with all my friends. That’s when I met the girl next door, Angela. Though she was studious, responsible, & shopped at Old Navy (all of the same qualities I was trying to shed), there was something desperately attractive about her – a car. Not only did she have a car, but she was willing to use it to take us to TJ at least four nights a week – 5 if Monday was a holiday.

Having solidified the foundation of a virtuous friendship, we began to spend every day together. Unlike me, Angela knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she chose UCSD, and that suited her just fine. She would bury her nose in biochemistry books while I lied on her floor, drank Coors Light, and repeatedly made her tell me the story about how she’d once given a guy a blowjob in high school. We were so lonely, and we saw something in each other we both longed for – she, my carefree attitude and obsession with having fun…me, her car.

We only needed $3 each for a night of good, clean south of the border fun. We could get into the club for free if we were willing to bartend. There was the blue drink and the red drink, and because we went to UCSD and not SDSU, we knew how to make a purple drink. We poured the colors into plastic cups, grabbed the sailors’ money, stuffed it into our bras, and took tequila shots in between. We’d spend $1 on street tacos on our way back across the border and still have money the next morning to buy a non-fat coffee shake.

The only catch was that we had to walk back across the border at 4am instead of pay for a taxi. But as long as we left the club by 3am, we’d be across the border by 4am, home by 5am, and able to squeeze in a refreshing two hour nap before it was time to wake up, change into our overalls, and run to class.

My mom would call me every day to make sure I was still alive, and her supernatural mom radar betrayed me relentlessly. “You’re not going to TJ, are you? Honey, I don’t want you to get pregnant. Please tell me you’re not going to TJ.”

“Mom, we only go to TJ during the day, and it’s because we have to go watch Ballet Folklorico for dance class. They’re MAKING me go.” I really thought I was pulling one over on her, until she dragged me to the ladies-only doctor midway through my freshman year and forced me to get on birth control (thank god). And since the only danger she associated with TJ was premature grandmothering, she didn’t worry about the fact that her 18-year-old, her only girl, the baby of the family, was getting wasted and then walking an hour back across a dark, dank border, only stopping long enough to vomit all over herself or publicly urinate.

On one of our epic walks back across the border, my normally hearty stomach started rumbling, and I knew trouble was ahead. Midway through our walks, we always stopped at the same empty fountain in the same desolate plaza to pee. But this time was different. When I pulled up my denim mini-skirt and squatted, the “pee” came out of both places. That fountain really got more than it bargained for, but I didn’t care. I became desperate to get across the border, knowing there was more sex on the beach and carne asada begging to come out.

“Come ON, Angela!! We need to hurry. I feel GROSS.” I HAD to get to a non-fountain toilet, so I hustled us along in our Payless ShoeSource heels. As we approached the border crossing and saw the unusually long line, I panicked. The pre-911 border crossing was a pathetic joke, but it appeared as if they might be straying from their usual routine of herding drunk college kids across without a second glance and were actually checking I.D.’s that night. That’s when I spotted a hole in a chain-link fence, which would definitely cut our wait time. It was a small hole, low to the ground, and only big enough for an excessively drunk person to fit through.

“NO WAY!” Angela said. “I am NOT squatting under that fence. It’s ILLEGAL!”

“Oh, come ON, Angela. Don’t be such a pussy.” I taunted her, willing myself to hide my own fear of getting in trouble.

Poor Angela’s biggest mistake was being too sober. Everyone knows drunk people have tougher bodies. The second she squatted under that fence, she froze. “What’s wrong, Angela?? Hurry up! I REALLY have to get to an American bathroom.”

“I can’t move!” cried Angela. I knew her to err on the side of drama when it came to ailments, so when she crouched under that fence and couldn’t get back up, I wasn’t worried. Plus I was a selfish monster, so I grabbed her arm, yanked her up, and pushed her limping legs across the border, through tears and pleas for an ambulance. MY stomach hurt, and I wasn’t about to be deterred by her make believe injury. Furthermore, instead of cutting in line, we’d bypassed the line altogether and accidentally crossed straight into America, meaning we could get to a bathroom even sooner.

We finally made it to Angela’s gray Ford Taurus, where I lied down in the plush back seat and forgot all about her fake knee pain. We drove for about 30 seconds before I knew my stomach just wouldn’t hold. “I’m gonna hurl!!”

“Oh my god, Jen. Here, barf into this Kleenex box.” She tossed a full Kleenex box into the back seat, I tore the tissues out, threw them on the floor, and filled that sucker up. When it was full, I drunkenly pressed the automatic window button and emptied the box onto the 5 freeway, filled it back up, and repeated the whole process twice more. I was really proud of myself for containing my barf so well, and I told Angela as much the next day.

“Oh really? “Then why was I scraping your pink barf off the side of the Taurus, scrubbing it out of the back seat, and prying it out of the seat belt buckle today for three hours while you were lying on the couch eating Doritos? Oh, and by the way, my knee is swollen and purple, and I can barely walk.”

“Oh, puhlease. Lemme see it,” I said as I buried my guilt somewhere deep inside. Her right knee did look a little different from the left one, but I knew she just wanted attention. “Well, you probably strained it. Put some ice on it and it’ll be fine in 2 days.”

The first knee surgery happened two weeks later, over spring break. Angela had to lie to her parents and tell them she injured her knee on the elliptical machine at the gym. They’d raised a nice Catholic girl, sent her to the nerdiest school in America, and had no idea she’d become best friends with a girl who coaxed their daughter into spending her nights in TJ. I kept telling myself Angela probably had a pre-existing knee injury. Telling myself this made me feel like less of an asshole. After this happened, Angela wouldn’t drive me to TJ for weeks. She got over herself when I promised to pay for a cab to haul us back and forth across the border, and she was considerate enough to schedule her future knee surgeries for winter and summer breaks, so as not to ruin our fun. It was then that I knew Angela wasn’t just somebody to fill the void, but that she would be a lifelong friend.

Six knee surgeries later and a knee replacement on the horizon, Angela still won’t forget about that night in TJ. It’s a miracle she’s still my friend, but I’m sure it’s her way of thanking me for making her squat underneath that border fence twenty years ago and setting her on the path to find her true calling in life. Through her agonizing pain, complicated surgeries, and intense rehab, she developed a passion for helping injured people, and she’s now one of San Diego’s most successful physical therapists. So you’re welcome, bitch.

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All Roads Lead to Machu Picchu

Part 1 – ¿Cuánto Quesadilla?

I used to be an asshole when I traveled to other countries. Not your stereotypical obnoxious American asshole traveler, but a whole different breed of asshole (assholes do come in many colors and sizes, after all)…one who showed up boldly to other countries unannounced, too cool to make any plans ahead of time, expecting everything to work out in my favor. And it did for awhile. Until the hand of Peru reached out and bitch slapped me something fierce.

My husband and I arrived in Lima in April, 2009, knowing only that we wanted to visit two places – Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu. And yes, I wanted to go to Lake Titicaca for the reason you think. We headed straight for the bus station, planning to jump on a bus headed for the best-named lake in all of the land. But the buses to Titicaca were canceled on account of a farmer’s strike, and rumors circulated that if you tried to take a bus down there, angry farmers would launch giant carrots (or was it rocks?) at you from the side of the road.

So instead we hopped on an overnight bus to Cusco (jumping off point to Machu Picchu). But not before we indulged in giant bowls of the famous Peruvian ceviche and tall glasses of Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. We gloated in our ability to go with the flow and allow things to work out as they should.

As we boarded the double decker bus and climbed up to the top level, the driver stopped each person and asked us to state our name and country of origin into a video camera. A twinge of uneasiness set in. When I asked the driver, “¿Por qué?” he said, “Requirement.” Satisfied with that explanation, we snuggled into our plush seats, covered ourselves with soft blankets, and I popped a Dramamine.

I’ve got a pretty rocky relationship with motion sickness. I’ve spent hours barfing off the sides of boats, out the windows of cars, into the breathing apparatus while scuba diving in 50 feet of water, in airplane bathrooms, and after swimming in a pool (a pool!). But 99% of the time, I’m ok so long as I take a Dramamine. So I closed my eyes and dozed off as the bus began ascending up into the Andes.

I quickly awoke feeling rather woozy. A dread-filled anxiety washed over me as I realized we were 20 minutes into a 12-hour bus ride and I was already sick. It was pitch black outside and we were on the top level of a bus whipping around sharp switchbacks at 50 miles per hour. I glanced over at Eric, whom possesses what I consider to be a superpower – the ability to read in the car, and he, too, looked green around the gills.

“Eric, are you ok?” I asked halfheartedly, consumed by my own horrible sickness. He was sweating and vurping. “Dude, go throw up in the bathroom. You’ll feel so much better. I’ll hold my barf and go next.” But when he stood up out of his seat, we began to realize we weren’t in this alone. Both toilets were Ocupado by other people who just wanted to feel so much better, too. Passengers began stirring, whispering regrets to each other about taking the bus when flights were almost just as cheap, and my ingenuity kicked in. I reached into my backpack, emptied out my Ziploc toiletries bag, and threw it at Eric.

Then I tore off my favorite pink hoodie, grateful I’d chosen to wear something with a hood (aka, bucket), barfed into it, and then held it in my lap like a hammock. We were so sick we wanted to die. I looked over at Eric, a string of ceviche and Pisco sour barf trickling down my chin, and said, “God. I hope this bus gets hijacked.” Eric, returning my hopeful sentiment, said, “I hope this bus careens off the side of this fucking mountain.” As we fantasized about dying, I told Eric I loved him, just in case our dreams came true.

Thirty minutes passed before we were rearing up to go again. This time I managed to fight my way into the bathroom, but the toilet had clogged from everyone else’s vomit, and had begun to overflow into the aisles, so every time the bus made a turn, the collective barf would slosh back and forth across the floor. When I returned to my seat, I saw Eric holding his luxury bus blanket in a wad on his lap. He’d had nowhere else to store his barf after he’d filled up the Ziploc bag.

Passengers were calling out to the bus driver, begging him to pull over for a break and to let us out to clean ourselves up and get some fresh air. But he would stop for nothing.

“¡No puedo!” he shouted back at us. “¡Sí, se puedes!” I yelled back at him. And our 12-hour bus ride continued in this way until we’d puked everything out and had only gut-wrenching dry heaves and no more fucks to give, when we finally pulled into the Cusco bus station at 7:30am. As we grabbed our backpacks, the beautiful, young Peruvian bus attendant shyly asked Eric to pay for the blanket and explained that the bus company took money out of her salary to cover the cost of “damaged blankets.”

“¿Cuánto quesadilla?” Eric asked, demonstrating his command of the Spanish language by knowing how to ask how much something costs. $20 later, we stepped off the bus and meandered around Cusco in a putrid cloud of bile stench, and for the first time in our adult lives began questioning the choices we made while traveling.

Part 2 – I don’t think my brakes work

Because we were cocky dicks (ha!), we’d falsely assumed we didn’t need to book the hike to Machu Picchu ahead of time. We reckoned we could weasel our way into an already established group. Not only was this impossible, it was rude and presumptuous. But Cusco has a backup plan for people like us, and it’s called the “Hike & Bike,” the “More funner way to get to Machu Picchu!” They told us they only used top of the line bicycles – Treks.

And the bike ride through the mountains was absolutely stunning. We were deep into the Andes on a well-paved road, flanked by emerald green valleys on both sides, along with the occasional view of a waterfall. The sun was warm, there were big, puffy clouds in the sky, birds chirping in the trees, Incan mamas toting babies on their backs alongside the road, and a cool breeze in our faces as we sped downhill on our bikes.

And speaking of speeding downhill on our bikes, I couldn’t help but notice I was going quite fast. “Eric!!!” I shouted. “I don’t think my brakes are working!!”

“You gotta squeeze them harder, baby. You’re not squeezing hard enough.” he yelled into the wind as he peddled frantically to keep up with me. I glanced down at my white knuckles, which had begun to cramp from squeezing so hard, and wondered how much harder I could possibly squeeze. After I flew past Eric, I knew I was fucked. I had been humming that song from Wizard of Oz the naughty witch cackles when she’s driving her bicycle through the sky….do do do do do doodoo, do do do do do doodooh shit..

The guy in front of me braked suddenly, and I crashed directly into his back tire at full speed, flew over my handlebars, and landed on my back in a ditch. In a thick bed of daisies. I smiled as I gazed up at the clouds, knowing I was dead, and that heaven was indeed beautiful.

Eric scrambled over to me, thinking my serene smile was the result of head trauma. I lazily turned my head toward his and said, “Told you my brakes didn’t work.” I stood up, unharmed, and moved to climb back onto the horse, as they say, but Eric stopped me. He picked up my bike, shook it, and the back tire dropped onto the pavement. The guide was kind enough to give me his bike while he rode in the backup van.

The next leg of our Hike & Bike was a taxi, driven by a 12-year-old boy without shoes. By this point we were at 12,000 feet, and the road, more like a poorly maintained trail, was fraught with cavernous potholes and giant boulders that continually tumbled down the mountain wall from above us. We stopped several times to get out of the car and push these enormous boulders out of the way so our car could pass. And every time the window fogged up, the driver reached down under the passenger seat and ripped off little squares from a roll of toilet paper to wipe the condensation off the window and smear wet chunks of toilet paper onto the window. We again said our goodbyes to each other; certain that taxi was a one-way ride to the river thousands of feet below us.

Part 3 – Are you on cocaine, or are you just happy to see me?

We finally made it to the last leg of our journey – the 12-mile hike to Machu Picchu. We were experienced hikers on a clearly marked trail, so we finally relaxed, knowing the rest of the way would be easy. But our guide, Elmer, kept veering off the trail into tiny, remote villages and telling us to continue without him. When the otherwise grumpy, sluggish Elmer would catch up with us an hour later, he was euphorically happy, eyes red, pupils dilated, enthusiastic, and chatty. And with every disappearance and reappearance, he’d have a different backpack on. That’s when one of the members of the group, who’d been living in Peru for a few years said, “Oh, this is just how the guides make extra money. They run cocaine through the mountains.” “That’s cool,” I said, feeling utterly defeated after the previous days’ adventures.

When we got up the next morning at 4 a.m. to climb the primitive, treacherous staircase to Machu Picchu, it was dark and raining. It had become apparent that our tour operator maybe wouldn’t get all 5 stars on TripAdvisor, and as such, hadn’t told anybody to bring headlamps. “Don’t worry,” Elmer reassured us. “I have light.” So he lit the way with the dull, purple light of his tiny flip phone, while the members of our group slipped and fell and crawled on hands and knees up the mile-long staircase. We never saw Elmer again after we entered Machu Picchu, and I was actually a little sad because I kind of really love ridiculous assholes like him.

But Eric and I were just getting started, and we had ourselves a magical time in Peru, making it not only to Lake Titicaca, one of the most unique and incredible places I’ve ever seen, but also to the beautiful colonial town of Arequipa, where we drank delicious cafés con leche on our hotel balcony with a view of a volcano in the background, not letting our severe, 5-day-long, diarrhea deter us one bit. Nothing a little Immodium can’t handle. And we promised each other next time would be different. We’d plan everything ahead of time. Traveling like this was ok in our 20s, but we’re in our 30s now, and we’re too old for this shit.

Six months later, we boarded a plane for Japan, without a hotel room, transportation, or plan in sight…