Stateside

23 09 2013

I’m not writing this post from underneath my mosquito net in Siem Reap. I’m not writing from a bed in a simple room in a guesthouse in Takeo. I’m not writing from an Internet cafe or an expat restaurant in Phnom Penh. At long last, I am writing this post from my apartment in Philadelphia!

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Two weeks ago today, I landed in the States after a 24-hour journey that started in Phnom Penh. When I got off the plane in Detroit, I bypassed the luggage claim area (the joys of bringing home a single, carry-on bag!) and headed to customs, where I was the only person going through. As I passed each station, I had a moment to chat with the staff, all of whom had opinions on the fact that I was coming from Cambodia. “Where’s that again,” one asked. “Weren’t you scared,” asked a couple of others. “You mean you haven’t been back in two years,” one lady exclaimed as she checked my passport. I was only on US soil for a few minutes before the commentary began.

Luckily, I didn’t have to answer too many questions before I saw my parents waiting for me. Smiling, familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in far too long. After a hug, I put my stuff in the car and we headed back to my childhood home, taking the highway through recognizable corn fields and small Michigan towns.

I’ve spent most of the time since I’ve been back relaxing with my family. It took several days for me to get over the jet lag, so the first few days had me heading to bed around 7 or 8 o’clock. While I was home, I got to spend some time with my sister, who served as my shopping assistant as I tried to remember what clothes were considered cool, and I made my first trip down to the house my brother bought. It was great to get together with old friends who still live in the Mitten. Then, from Michigan, it was off to Pittsburgh for more heart-warming reunions. Finally, on Friday, I arrived in Philly, where Tim was waiting for me with big plans for the weekend, including dinner with my much-missed aunt and uncle at a highly-rated restaurant called Stateside, which I thought was fitting considering the circumstances.

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It’s been amazing to be back in the States and to get a taste of what the next few years will look like. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring my new neighborhood. Despite having heard Tim’s stories, I was in disbelief when I saw that three short blocks from our house is Little Cambodia! Much to my surprise, they were selling sao mao, prahok, ansom jayk, and most every other Cambodian dish I could think of. There were shops selling Khmer wedding gear and women walking around in traditional skirts. My mind was, and still is, completely blown by the way my new life and old life have collided.

I am happy to spend the upcoming days and weeks getting settled in a new city, remembering the excitement and energy that comes from new beginnings. I’m also looking forward to cooking some of my favorite dishes, cuddling up with Tim, and – to a lesser degree- job hunting. It will be interesting to see where the next chapter leads.

I don’t anticipate keeping up the blog now that I’m back, but that, too, is unclear. Maybe the time or mood will strike again, but in case it doesn’t, lee-a sen howie, or goodbye!

Katie





Transitions

15 08 2013

I have always had a deep appreciation for transitions. There’s something gratifying to me about the way that our literal actions, like packing up boxes or hitting the open road, mirror the deeper emotional changes they accompany. When making the decision to stay in Cambodia after my close of service date, I thought often of the fact that I would not be able to make my transition back to the States, and later to Philly, with Tim. The symbolism of taking this next step alone, and months after my husband, didn’t sit well with me. For two years, we had imagined our flight home together, our first day back in the States together, exploring our new neighborhood together. Although I do not have even an ounce of regret about my decision to stay, I am still a little disappointed that Tim and I will have these experiences separately.

Last night, while I was fast asleep, Tim began his journey from Michigan to Philly. He loaded up the moving truck, said goodbye to his parents, and headed east. He drove 300 miles from suburban Detroit to Pittsburgh, where he was lucky enough to meet up with the warmest, most caring friends we’ve ever been blessed to have. They had a small dinner party complete with treats like blackberry basil tea, eggplant sourdough pizza, and peach shortcake — things I can only dream of! Tomorrow, he’ll be making the rest of the trip and moving all of our things into our new, adorable one bedroom apartment in South Philly.

To commemorate this important transition, here are a few pictures from his trip.

moving truck

The moving truck loaded and ready to go

Eating a cookie while driving?

Eating a cookie while driving?

The best of friends

The best of friends

Her too!

Her too!

Katie





Our plans after service

15 06 2013

With my last day of service looming just a few weeks away, I suppose it’s time to share my plans for afterward. As you may remember, Tim and I will be moving to Philadelphia, where he is starting a Master’s program in Social Work. He received a generous fellowship that will have him focusing on supporting veterans, including a 3-day per week field placement at Philly’s Veteran’s Affairs. He will be leaving for Philadelphia the second week of July; however, he will be heading back alone because I have accepted a short-term contract position with Peace Corps Cambodia and plan to remain in country until September.

On July 3, I will transition from a Peace Corps volunteer to a staff member. As the new technical trainer, I will be in charge of writing, sequencing, and delivering the technical training sessions for the incoming group of health volunteers. I’m excited for the position because I think the health program in Cambodia has so much potential, and I’m looking forward to shaping the expectations and goals of the new group. It’s a natural fit for me, having trained American community development volunteers in Argentina, as well.

Technical training session with last year's trainees

Technical training session with last year’s trainees

I’m thrilled about the position and about the opportunity to contribute to such a great program. However, it will be a little strange to see Tim leave and begin the transition home without me. As he busies himself looking at Philly apartments, cell phone plans, and course schedules, I’m beginning to prepare for a whole lot of lesson planning.

I’m scheduled to arrive in the States on the afternoon of September 7th. I am certainly looking forward to that day, but am equally excited about all that I’ll be doing in the meantime.

Katie





COS Conference

13 05 2013

This week, Tim and I are in Phnom Penh for our close of service conference. We’ll have two days of meetings that are meant to help us process our service, understand the nuts and bolts of transitioning to the States, and prepare us for closing out our projects at site. Despite the fact that it might sound fairly boring, the conference is a big deal for most volunteers, as it provides a sense of closure to the Peace Corps experience. This is the last official Peace Corps training before our service ends, and is therefore our last opportunity to see all the other volunteers from our cohort.

Good swing!

Good swing!

In order to celebrate the (near) completion of our service and spend some time with one another, the staff and volunteers have planned a few social activities on top of the formal meetings. Today was the first of those: a Sunday barbecue complete with swimming and a softball scrimmage. The weather was good and the food was better. However, the best part was seeing the Cambodian staff join in on the fun, learning to play America’s favorite pastime. All in all, a really wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

PC Staff watching the game

PC Staff watching the game

Tomorrow’s activity is a low-key trivia contest, but Tuesday’s river cruise is set to be a wild time. Most volunteers will head back to site on Wednesday, but Tim and I will stay here through the week so we can complete the medical and dental exams that are required before completing our service. It’s becoming more and more real with every day – our service is coming to an end quicker than we had ever imagined!

Katie





So Many Reasons to Celebrate

22 03 2013

What a fantastic week it’s been! Tim and I have been bombarded with reasons to celebrate all week long. Here’s a taste of some of the events that have kept us smiling this week despite the hot, sticky weather.

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Workshop participants practice teaching about the various types of domestic violence

Domestic Violence Awareness Workshop

So many things to be thankful for under this heading! First of all, I received the list of funders this week. I am completely overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends, family, RPCVs and even complete strangers! What a wonderful feeling to have so much support. You should all expect a thank you message this weekend! You are all amazing!

Then, of course, we actually held the workshop. All week long, I was so impressed by the great facilitation skills shown by my counterpart, Sothin. I am also thankful for all the ways that Meghan, a fellow PCV, helped me out during her stay. Most of all, though, I was in awe of the bravery, optimism and commitment to equality shown by all of the project participants. They were a wonderful group to work with, and I can’t wait to see them in action in their villages soon! I’ll write more on this training later, but for now I’ll revel in all of the positive energy.

Tim’s Birthday

This week, Tim had his 27th birthday! I was swamped with the workshop, so we didn’t get a chance to celebrate properly, but there are plans for a fancy dinner out soon. Happy, happy birthday to the best site mate I could imagine! :)

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

The new HC building on the day of the ribbon cutting

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

This week was the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new building at the health center. Although I am still skeptical about the need for a new building, the ceremony was the talk of the town. More than 1,200 people attended, including a slew of government officials and bigwigs. With the excitement and pride surrounding the new building, I think there’s also a chance for me to influence the quality of the services offered there. The staff already has to change their routine to adapt to the change in scenery, so it is the perfect time to offer a few suggestions of my own. They also received a lot of new education materials with the new building, and I’m excited to start using them with patients!

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Attempting to dance at the wedding

Another Wedding

This time of year always brings a lot of weddings, and this week was no exception. This wedding was particularly fun though because of the sweet village health volunteer who invited us. She is a younger volunteer, maybe around 30, who has always been very friendly and fun. At the wedding, she showed true Khmer hospitality by looking out for us at every step: making sure we had enough to eat and drink, saving our shoes from the giant pile that accumulates during the chants, teaching me to dance, and riding her moto home with us to make sure we arrived safely on our bikes. She just has a fantastic energy, and I always like spending time with her.

Becoming a Quaker

Another big event this week was that Tim officially accepted his spot in University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. He will be getting his Master’s in Social Work in Philly starting this fall! He received a nice financial aid offer, but also had an interview for additional fellowship money this week. For those of you in the States, please keep your fingers crossed. In Cambodia, we’ll have to figure out another way to send good luck to him because crossing your fingers is considered vulgar.

Here’s hoping you all had as good of a week as we did here!

Katie





“Settling Down” in Cambodia?

26 09 2011

In just one week, Tim and I will officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers and (finally!) begin our two years of service. At this stage, all of us trainees are plagued by questions and doubt:

Will I get to work on projects that interest me?
How will I make friends in my new community?
Will I ever get used to eating rice three times a day?
How will I know if I’ve made a positive impact on my community?
What will it be like to leave the company of other volunteers/trainees?
Do I really have enough skills to do this?

Although these questions are probably common ones, the question that rings in my head is this: How will I react to being in one place for two whole years? Most of you reading this are probably well aware that I have been on the move constantly in recent years. In fact, I recently sat down to figure out the stats:

In the past 7 years, I have lived in seven different cities across four different countries (not including Cambodia). And, to top it off, I have moved residences at least six times more than that! The last time I have lived in any given place for two full years, was from 2002-2004! High School.

I guess you could say I am a nomad. I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to do this, and I have learned more in the past few years than I could have ever anticipated… but am I ready to sit in one place for two years??

Moving so often has allowed me to meet some truly exceptional people. It has given me insight into how people live their lives. And I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process because moving so much has made me step out of my comfort zone so frequently that I’m no longer sure where my comfort zone ends.

Moving so often has also forced me to constantly evaluate– and appreciate– my circumstances. Every time I pack up boxes (or backpacks) full of my things and say goodbye to a place that has become home, I am forced to take stock of the wonderful memories that place has given me.

Furthermore, moving keeps things interesting. It scratches that itch we all get at times, that need to try something new, to get out. There has been a steady stream of curiosity and hope, as I try to predict (to no avail) what my next life will hold.

Of course, being on the move presents a number of challenges as well. The most difficult for me has always been the fact that I haven’t had time to form deep friendships with people before taking off again. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have left just as I was beginning to form a meaningful relationship with someone. Leaving before these relationships are solidified has, at times, left me feeling isolated. Not to mention that having friends all over the world means that you’re friends (and family) are rarely at your side.

However, the positive aspects have always unquestionably outweighed the negative ones… Until now. Now I am ready to “settle down” for two years in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’m ready to trade in my wanderlust for the great opportunities I will have as a health worker with the Peace Corps.

I’m sure there will be times I will go a little stir crazy over the course of the next two years, but this experience is one that is absolutely worth it. The friendly people, the beautiful landscape, the work opportunities, the sense of community… Settling down in Siem Reap is hardly a sacrifice! If any opportunity is worth staying put for, this is it!

Katie





Less than a day…kind of

22 07 2011

In the last 2 weeks, Katie and I left our jobs and embarked on the wandering, homeless journey that is family visiting. First stop: Sterling Heights, MI. Home to my parents and their adorable Boston Terrier, Bella. After stuffing ourselves with a near-lethal dose of Erma’s custard, we drove toward Katie’s parents with a not-so-on-the-way stop In Mt. Pleasant, MI. After a surprisingly nostalgic trip through our old campus (Fire Up Chips!), we moved to to dinner in Lansing and our last major stop pre-flight in Homer, MI. It was great to see friends and family before we fly out on Friday. Besides reconnecting with people, we tried our best to gorge ourselves on all things we typically miss while abroad: cheese, Mexican food, ice cream, burgers and pizza. Cholesterol counts aside, we had a great time in Michigan.

So the schedule for the next 9 weeks is this: We’ll be flying out of Detroit at 9 am Friday, arriving at 11:30 in San Francisco for Peace Corps meetings from 12-7. We’ll leave San Francisco at 11 am Saturday, laying over in Tokyo, then flying into Bangkok with a longer layover with a hotel room in the airport. The morning of the 25th, we’ll make the hourish flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh.

We’ll be in Phnom Penh for a night, then leave for a 4 night stay in Takeo Town in Takeo Province, 78 km outside of Phnom Penh. From there we’ll be assigned to our training host families in smaller district towns in Takeo Province. We will have both limited time and internet access throughout our 9 weeks of training.

Training will be a hectic time, with classes from 7 am to 7 pm, 6 days a week. In the morning, we’ll have language training in small groups. In the afternoon, we’ll receive technical training in our service areas, meaning Katie and I will be separated at times.

We’ve had a great time the last few weeks and although it’s hard to say goodbye to everyone, we’re very excited to start our service.

-Tim





Travel Blog Revived!

21 06 2011

“Fascination, beauty, stimulation, empathy, compassion. [Cambodia’s] a strange place that many people love despite the fact that just about anything you would describe there is awful.”

— Seth Mydens to Karen Coates, as reported in her captivating book, Cambodia Now

The travel blog lives again! That’s right, after a six month hiatus, we’re back with big news: One month from today, Tim and I will be leaving for Cambodia! In late 2009, we submitted applications for the Peace Corps, and we just recently received an invitation to serve abroad beginning in July. Tim will be doing youth development and teaching English, while I will be working with community health issues. We are very excited about our placements and are eager to get started!

The first couple of months there, the Peace Corps provides intensive language and technical training. Also during this time, the in-country staff will be assessing our skills and personalities to determine the best placement for us. That means that we currently do not know where in Cambodia we will live after training; it will be determined, at least in part, by our performance the first couple of months.

After we complete training, we will be sworn in as volunteers and will begin our two years of service. The Peace Corps finds housing for volunteers and provides a stipend while abroad. Tim and I will live with a host family for our entire time in Cambodia, although they’ve assured us that they do everything possible to ensure that couples receive the amount of privacy and space that they need and deserve. From having communicated with married couples currently serving in Cambodia (thanks to Facebook), it sounds like many of them live in guest home-type scenarios, with either an entire house or floor to themselves.

Southeast Asia is a region that we had been wanting to visit for some time, so we are ecstatic to get to spend two years really getting to know what seems like such a beautiful country and its people. Cambodia has a complex and devastating history which has resulted in some interesting contradictions and challenges. We can’t wait to delve into these issues, broaden our own understandings and, hopefully, help out in some small way.

Katie





El viaje al norte

6 11 2010

We are back to La Plata, sunburnt and happy! Here’s a not-so-quick recap of our trip up north:

The trip started with the 24-hour train ride that I mentioned in the last post. I think Tim and I would both agree that if we ever have to travel that long again, train is the way to go. It was so cheap, we were able to wander around, absorb the views from the dining car and retreat to our private room to sleep through the night. All in all, not a terrible travel experience.

On the main plaza in Tucuman

We arrived in the city of Tucuman on Saturday and spent most of the afternoon wandering around the city center. Tucuman has a very urban vibe, with lots of retail and restaurants. Tim even said that it felt like they had “injected a little bit of BA” into the city. The only sign of the great historical significance was the handful of museums around. Unfortunately, they were all closed when we were there; so we spent our time sampling new foods instead. Our first meal was in the mercado: two tamales and two Cokes, all for around three dollars. Delicious! As we ate, we were surrounded by sacks and sacks of chilies. You definitely don’t see that in La Plata. And although it wasn’t super spicy by our standards, it was still one of the only meals we had tried until then that had even a little spice. Needless to say, it was a much welcomed change. The other notable meal we had in Tucuman was a street food called a panchuque, a hot dog (pancho) wrapped in a pancake (panqueque). It tasted a lot like a corn dog– not a meal I’d want very often, but it was a nice snack on a warm summer day.

We only spent one day in Tucuman before heading to Salta, about four hours further north. Salta is a beautiful city that sits in a valley. Cable car gondolas run from a park in the city up to the top of Cerro Belgrano for a stunning view. Salta seems to be one of the cities that everybody falls in love with but, for whatever reason, we were a little underwhelmed. The colonial architecture was beautiful and we certainly appreciated the museums, but it did not live up to the resounding praise we had heard before going. The whole city seems to revolve around tourism, something both of us found a little off-putting. Food and lodging was overpriced and, generally, sub par. It’s one of the only cities in Argentina that either of us have been to where tour companies practically assault you in the street– not nearly as bad as many other countries, but also not the tranquil travel experience we’ve come to expect from Argentina. People generally seemed less friendly and less interested in talking to tourists, as well. That said, we certainly enjoyed our time in Salta. We spent a lot of time people watching in the city, went to the market and visited several museums, including one with a slightly over-sensationalized exhibit featuring perfectly preserved mummies of children that had been sacrificed by the Incas. In Salta, Tim also had an interview with a social service agency in Pittsburgh for a mental health counselor position that would start when we get back to Pittsburgh in January. (For those of you who haven’t heard, Tim and I have decided to move back to the US in December. We’re planning on spending the holiday season with our families in Michigan and then moving to Pittsburgh for the New Year… more on that some other day.)

Looking down onto Salta

After a couple of days in Salta, we continued north to the city of Jujuy. Of the three cities we visited, Jujuy was our clear favorite. Despite the fact that it was not as bustling as Tucuman or as photogenic as Salta, Jujuy had an energy that we both fell in love with. Immediately after getting off the bus, it reminded both of us of Nicaragua. Reggeaton was playing in the streets, palm trees decorated the parks and plazas and the city just had a much more lively feel. Everyone was much friendlier, prices were more reasonable and the food was great!! Although there were still lots of shops, it wasn’t the high-end European style stuff that dominates in cities like BA, La Plata and Tucuman. There was something about Jujuy, that we haven’t been able to clearly articulate, that just made it stand out to us. During our three days there, we stumbled upon a great little bakery with delicious breads and cookies. We visited a fantastic art gallery/cafe with a truly excellent exhibit and the best iced tea I’ve ever had. We spent a lot of time in and around the market, went to a couple of small but impressive museums, wandered in and out of bookstores and hung out on top of a hill with a beautiful view of the city below.

From Jujuy, we continued north to Purmamarca, a small but touristy village along the Quebrada de Humahuaca. By the time we arrived, we were ready to finally get to the desert. The dry heat, surreal rock formations and tranquility were perfect. From Purmamarca, we did a short hike that was rewarded with unbelievable views of the Quebrada. We also took a short bus ride to the salt flats, the Salinas. It was great to get out of the city and see some of the amazing scenery Argentina has to offer. By this point in our trip, it became hard to believe we were in the same country as La Plata. People don’t realize how big Argentina is, but it’s the eighth biggest country in the world. That means that, like the US, when you travel from the middle of the country to the north– for example–the people, the language, the food, and the culture are all different. In Northern Argentina, there is a much stronger indigenous influence and, therefore, a much smaller European and US influence. There are pockets of people who speak Quecha fluently, and many Quecha words have simply been incorporated into the Spanish language. People tend to be more community-focused, as well. The food is based heavily around corn, with tamales and humitas being particularly popular. Instead of beef, llama meat is king in this region. It was neat to get to experience all of these new things, especially being surrounded by the breathtaking landscapes of the region.

Tim playing at the salt flats

From Purmamarca, we went to Humahuaca. We fell in love with the cobblestone streets and quaint church of Humahuaca instantly, but were only able to spend 12 hours there. We got in at night, and only had time to have dinner and explore a bit on foot before bed. When we woke up, the electricity had been cut off for the entire northern region and Tim had a second interview for the counselor position, so we headed south to Jujuy that morning.

After Tim’s interview, we headed further south to Cafayate, one of the wine-producing regions of the country. Cafayate is known primarily for producing Torrontes, a dry white wine. Like in the more popular Mendoza region, tourists can rent bikes and visit the bodegas around the city for wine tastings. Tim and I did this, visiting five or six of the nearby vineyards. It was a fun experience even though many of the wines were not particularly impressive. What was delicious though was the wine flavored ice cream sold in the city. Who knew that Cabernet flavored ice cream would be good? While in Cafayate, we also took a hiking tour of a nearby gorge, the Quebrada de Cafayate (or the Quebrada de las Conchas). Like the quebrada around Purmamarca, it was stunning. The different colors and shapes of the rock formations were incredible. Our time in Cafayate was the perfect combination of relaxing and active. It was a great last stop for us before we took the train back home from Tucuman.

Just outside of Cafayate

So now we’re back in La Plata. We’re working on getting everything in place to return to Pittsburgh next month, and once again, we’re becoming slaves to Craigslist. Tim accepted the mental health counselor position, so all we need now is to find an apartment and me a job. Things are coming together and it will be great to see our families for Christmas and our Pittsburgh friends shortly after.

Pictures:

The cities of the north: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=95108&id=1355022833&l=c2e62887f7

The Quebrada of Humahuaca: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=95114&id=1355022833&l=4268299672

Wine country: Cafayate: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=95119&id=1355022833&l=3d4b1c9187

Katie





Argentina, here we come!

8 05 2010

As most of you know, Tim and I decided that after nearly two years in Pittsburgh we were ready for a new adventure. So this Wednesday, May 12, he and I will be moving to La Plata, Argentina, where I accepted an International Program Coordinator (PC) position with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).

FSD is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that “supports the efforts of grassroots organizations in the developing world that are working to better their communities, environments, and the economic opportunities around them” (fsdinternational.org — check it out!). A quick way to sum up the work that the organization does is to say that it places interns and volunteers– of all ages and backgrounds– with local organizations in six different countries. In fact, FSD placed me with the health clinic in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua in 2008. I had such a wonderful time working with FSD in that capacity and am eager to continue my relationship with the organization as a PC for the La Plata program.

Being a PC is pretty close to my dream job at this point in my career. It’s a perfect way to combine my interest in strengthening the efforts of small nonprofits with my passion for international development. I will be working with FSD’s partner organizations, which will certainly provide insight into the ways that different organizations address community-level development issues. Another large portion of my job will be volunteer/intern management, meaning that I will get to interact with people with similar interests as me while gaining some meaningful management experience. I’m excited to conduct trainings and orientations for the interns and partner organizations, and, hopefully, I will get some (albeit limited) experience with project design and management. On top of all of the great work, taking this position means moving to a new country and getting to know a new culture, which is always a great learning experience in and of itself.

La Plata, the city where we’ll be living, is the capital of the Buenos Aires province and is home to roughly 600,000 people. Supposedly, the cathedral is the biggest church in the country and the city’s layout is one of the best. For our first month, Tim and I will be living with a host family, as a way to get accustomed to the language, food and culture. After that initial month, however, Tim and I are free to live wherever we choose. I’m sure we will want more independence (and spending money!) than living with a host family will allow us to have, but who knows what kind of accommodations we will find.

Tim does not have a job lined up yet, although the FSD field staff have assured me he will have no problems finding a position in social work or education. Despite not having a job secured (and not really knowing the language!), Tim seems genuinely excited for the big move. He just finished his last days with Gateway Rehab this week and appears to really be looking forward to this new stage. I feel unspeakably grateful to be with someone who is not only willing, but excited!, to pack up our Morningside apartment and move to the other side of the world with me on only three weeks notice. I have no doubt that our time in Argentina will be as wonderful for him as it will be for me.

This is where I conclude the first of our blog entries. We will both try to update as often as possible, especially in the first weeks and months as we get settled. The next time you hear from us though, we’ll be enjoying a cool fall day in La Plata.

Love and besos.

Katie