Monday, June 18, 2012

Coming back to the Colca




Coming back to the Colca

It will surprise no one to learn that we are planning our return to Peru in October of 2012.  Russ will be leading a group of cyclists on the first "Encounter Peru by Bicycle" tour of the Colca region, which also includes a visit to Cuzco, cycling in the Sacred Valley, and two days at Machu Picchu.  Jean, of course, will accompany the tour as well.  You can find out more by visiting the website we created, in part, to continue promoting independent tourism to the Colca valley, and the handmade artisan goods created there.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Late news--we're home

Numerous people have reminded us that we've never posted anything in this blog about our return. We got home to Montana on Aug. 17, and have been happily trying to figure out what's next, ever since. Thanks to all of our "followers" on this blog for joining us during these 27 months of service, discovery, and adventure. If we head back to our metaphorical "Jauja," we'll let you know!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fiestas Patrias in Sacsayhuaman






Fiestas Patrias in Sacsayhuamán

As I’ve noted before, there are “good Perú” days, and there are “bad Perú” days. The latter tend to wear you down with the sometimes-endless small aggravations that are just a part of life, here—and then really wham you with something categorically shitty. The former, by contrast, are full of the sparkling moments that are also a part of daily life—if you’re alert to them—that are then somehow catalyzed by an unexpected event or sight, into something rare and wonderful. That was Wednesday, July 27th, in la Comunidad Sustentable Sol de Sacsayhuamán.

Really, we didn’t expect much of the morning. This little satellite community of 450 people, just across the river from Chivay, received some money to renew their small Plaza, and did a nice job of it. We’d been invited to an event the night before, some nebulous occurrence scheduled for 5 p.m., as part of the celebration of re-opening the plaza, but when we got there it was only the work crews motoring around, so we didn’t stick around. The community officials had also invited us to another event for Wednesday morning and, being suckers for any form of diversion, we’d elected to make the 10-minute walk, up and over a steep hill, to see what might be going on.

Our first clue was the huge Peruvian flag draped over the Puente Inca, the aged bridge across the Rio Colca that separates Sacsayhuamán from Chivay, and the policía putting out unnecessary traffic cones and blowing their whistles in the inscrutable, random manner we’ve grown, like most, to ignore.

Descending to the new plaza, we were pleased by the sight of so much red-and-white, the colors of the Peruvian flag. This was the day before Peruvian Independence Day, and patriotic feeling runs high. Many of the buildings had a fresh coat of pinkish paint—it either loses or gains something, when applied to adobe or stucco, it’s hard to judge which. A good deal on pink paint must have been part of the plaza renovation budget.

We had walked over with a friend, and all three of us were directed to seats in the shade of the “reviewing stand.” One by one, some heavy-hitters began to arrive—the owner/architect of a fancy nearby hotel who had, no doubt, contributed to the renovation, various other officials connected to the project, and finally the alcalde provincial himself, the equivalent of a mayor at the county level. Our own connection to the project was tangential, at best: we sometimes work with some artisans in the community, some of whom are movers and shakers, and are acquainted with the president of the community board. We go to a LOT of meetings there, and are well-recognized, but I can’t say we’d contributed in any material way to this project.

It was a beautiful morning in a pretty place, at least if your tastes run to the rustic. Ours, now, do. Flags, agricultural terraces, adobe homes, people in traditional clothes, and the mountains that are considered living guardian spirits, rising into the blue, all combined to create a very pleasing prospect, with the new plaza in the foreground. The centerpiece of the plaza was a column crowned by a statue of . . . a local woman, spinning alpaca yarn, dressed in the traditional manner of a good fourth of the crowd. You gotta love THAT!

The commandant of the local army post goose-stepped over, automatic weapon and pistol possibly cleaned but not obviously polished—saluted, and asked permission of the alcalde to start the proceedings. A gigantic Peruvian flag was unfurled, and the assembled officials—us included—were invited to carry it around the plaza. We were ready to do so, but our friend reasoned that somebody had to stay behind in the reviewing stand to applaud, so we did.
Next, a bussed-in marching band from another district marched and played the national anthem. A few people—us included—sang along, but generally speaking, Peruvians don’t really get their heart into the anthem. The flag went up, the provincial hymn was played, another flag went up, and then came the marching.

Marching is an important part of any civic ceremony. From a young age, students are taught to goose-step in a disturbingly Nazi style, to martial music either blared from loudspeakers at painfully-distorted volume, or played by sixth-graders issued trumpets and drums. Bad idea, either way. But, every school in district was there to parade by, plus a number of civic groups who, too, self-consciously and half-heartedly goose-stepped, or not, by our reviewing seats.

Late in the proceedings, the head guy of Autocolca, the quasi-governmental agency that’s charged with managing tourism in the Colca, urgently motioned me to join him. Turns out, he needed a “tourist” to march with the Autocolca brigade, which included half a dozen llamas, to simulate someone “llama trekking.” He was disappointed that I wasn’t wearing a backpack, as most tourists are, but in a pinch I’d do. Jean, too, was recruited to hold their banner as we marched. We have mixed feelings about Autocolca, but the taxpayers pay us to be good sports, so we filed down the short plaza, carrying the banner and walking amid the llamas, and were laughingly applauded for our efforts.

Then, as we were milling about the plaza waiting for the next phase, I heard my name called on the loudspeaker, and was startled to find myself in the lineup to be awarded a “corazon de pan,” a large loaf of bread baked in the shape of an oversized heart about 18” across, decorated with flowers, and tied to the chest of persons whom they wish to honor or acknowledge as special. I was very pleased, and very humbled—I really don’t feel that I’ve contributed THAT much, but it was a very nice gesture on their part.

After that, it was cups of chicha (local version of homebrewed beer), Caballo Viejo (literally “old horse,” a cheap, sweet champagne that is regularly offered as a toast), and plates of food, to inaugurate the newly-paved playground of a nearby primary school. That much alcohol on school property in the U.S. would generally get someone fired, if not jailed, but here it’s customary. It saddens us, sometimes, to see the behavior that gets modeled for these kids, but it’s a culture that we’re not going to change.

Then it was still more food, until the ceremony wound down. I was never called upon for “palabras,” (literally, “words”) where you are expected to stand up and speak extemporaneously for a few minutes to thank, honor, or toast, as the occasion demands, but I was ready.

We left in the early afternoon, the unexpected events of the day embedded as yet another pleasant memory of our “good Peru.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

The End Times Chronicle

OK, so it’s been since February since we posted anything. We really have no way of gauging how fascinating we are to our friends and family, and as our life here becomes more and more routine to us, we have less and less to say about it. That said, every day here still brings some new experience, some new emotion, so we'll try to catch you up a bit.

In March, we took a break from the cold, rainy season here and went to Argentina and Uruguay. Buenos Aires had always attracted our notice, and it didn’t let us down. It’s a beautiful city, and at times felt more like Brooklyn than a South American capital. Montevideo, Uruguay, was a pleasant surprise due to the unique (and protracted) manner they have of celebrating Carnaval—we took as full advantage as we could, and really enjoyed our time there, too. We then made our way to Iguazu Falls, a stunning and overwhelming natural wonder; and Tierra del Fuego, where the landscape at 46 degrees south in March reminded us of Montana (46 degrees north) in September, with snow dusting the mountaintops. It made us a little homesick.

All our other vacations have been within Peru, and coming home from that one was hard. We spent two weeks in first-world cities and at world-class tourist destinations, and came home to rainy season in Chivay. . . a difficult adjustment. We got over it, but not without some serious moping.

And now, we’re coming to the close of our service (officially, Aug. 16), and we're more focused on wrapping things up than starting anything new. In early May we had our "Close of Service" conference, where we began the lengthy process of getting OUT of the Peace Corps. It was the last time that our entire training group would be together, and now some of them have already left Peru. It makes every day a little sad.

After the conference, we burned the last of our vacation time and went to Ancash, the Colorado of Peru, which was spectacular--the second-highest mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca, was outrageous. We did a 4-day trek (burro-supported) that was stunning, crossing a 15,600' pass over which 20,000'+ peaks towered. It was great to be out afoot like that. We also made a detour and finally visited the real Jauja. They'd never heard of the legend referenced in the title of this blog. Ahhh, Peru. . .

I'm also thick with a bunch of local guides, and whenever they need a gringo for a photo op or to see if their new idea is survivable, I get the call. Lately, that meant Jean and I went rafting on a nice, peaceful stretch of river with a rather inept captain, and I did a downhill-mountain-biking-on-snow photo shoot, bombing down from 17,000 feet (after breathlessly chugging up) on a local volcano. Verdict = survivable, but exhausting.

“Casas Vivenciales”, or home stays with local families is also an idea everyone thinks may bring more visitors (and more money) to the region, and many families are trying to make their homes and daily routines into tourist attractions. We have appeared as gringos in a couple of promotional videos (along with our “children” John and Kristen—other volunteers) and a friend recently asked us to come to his parent’s house for a photo op. The routine is familiar. We show up, they dress us up in traditional garb and giggle. We tag along for whatever work is scheduled for the day, this time the barley harvest. The first order of business was stomping down the dirt where the barley would be whacked with big sticks, so the grain wouldn’t get pounded into the dirt. We all stomped around to the rhythm of the tunes from the tinny radio, laughing and making a dance of it. Next, the men take the sheaves of barley (harvested by hand with a small scythe), and whack as much of the grain off of the stalk as they can with custom made whacking sticks (there is a name for it, no doubt, in Quechua…), then they spread the stalks out and the women do a little jump-plus backward scoot step across them to coax a bit more grain from the stalk. It is more exhausting than you might imagine, jumping and scooting at 12,500 feet above sea level. We gratefully took a break for lunch, which was boiled corn, fava beans and potatoes with a spicy sauce, a bit of homemade cheese from the family cows, and then a hearty stew. After lunch we made a token show of milking the cows, then stepped aside for the professionals. We imagine we have done some hard things in our time here; but “hard” is getting up every day, doing what needs to be done in the fields, and going back to your adobe home to take care of the family, go to bed; repeat.

Here in the alturas we're now into our "winter," which means the people are wearing alpaca, and the alpacas are wearing sweaters. In truth, the days are glorious, sunny, immensely enjoyable, but the air does not hold heat well, and if you step into the shade, or when the sun begins its slide down toward the horizon, you feel the chill. So, we sit around in our parkas like everyone else, and go on about our business.

We get either the 4th of July or Fiestas Patrias (Peruvian Independence Day) as a holiday; both provide 4 “free” days in July, but we want to be in Chivay for the fiestas, so we took a 4-day Independence Day backpacking trip into the Colca canyon. It was exhausting—dropping down into the world’s deepest canyon is not to be taken lightly—but fascinating. We soaked in hot springs, hiked to waterfalls, ate strange fruits hanging off trees, and traversed some crazy-steep trails, without serious incident.

After 3 days of med checks in Lima in early June, the verdict is that we're pretty healthy, and not bringing back any known parasites. Jean tweaked her back in February, and the doctor suggested swimming as excellent therapy, so a few times a week she's up early to bike to the local hot springs 3 km away; in the "piscina del pueblo" (people's pool, as opposed to the tourist pool) it costs her about 17 cents; she's going to miss that more than just about anything, when we get back.

As far as work goes, we’re focusing now on making whatever we’ve done here sustainable. Jean’s Warming Wawas project just got funded by the municipality, so it’s on solid footing for at least two years. The municipality just adopted and expanded my project, and is seeking funding from the Peruvian government for a 5-year horizon. Sustainability: check.

Most days now are more than a little schizophrenic. We’re trying to live here as intensely as possible for our last few weeks, while also actively planning for our return to the Bitterroot. We're ready to come home to Montana, but it will truly break our hearts to leave. We don't have friends here the way we have friends in Montana, where we've lived for 30 years; and the cultural barriers to true friendship are real, though surmountable. But we do have friends, we are well-known and accepted in the community, we've left a mark on this place and it, in turn, has marked us deeply--it will be every bit as emotional to leave Chivay as it was to leave Hamilton!

As much as our Peruvian friends, we’ll miss the other Peace Corps volunteers with whom we’ve served over the last 2 years. They’ve been our closest thing to “family,” and we’ve formed what we hope will be lifetime relationships with many of them.

We'll be back in the Bitterroot on Aug. 17, with absolutely no idea what comes next. For the last 30 years we've been talking about doing this Peace Corps hitch, and that's been our horizon. Next, we've got to figure out who we are now, and what to do about it. We'll be happy to be home, but we're sure going to miss the life we've come to know, here. As hard as it was to leave Montana, coming home is going to be equally disorienting. And that’s exactly the experience we signed up for.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A GOOD day in Peru

A GOOD day, en mi querido Perú

1. The 4:30 A.M. bus got to Arequipa by 8 a.m.
2. Good breakfast, VERY good coffee.
3. Picked up a package from Serpost without it being intercepted by The Denier of Customer Service, with a very funny—and highly profane--script (with a possible role for when I get home!).
4. Also picked up my Peace Corps W-2; $3,100 income in 2010, either the hardest I’ve ever worked for that little money, or the most I’ve ever been paid to have such a great time.
5. Medical appointment—OK, all things considered.
6. Video guy in the Siglo XX mercado hails me, has the classic dvd I asked about 3 months ago, and an Oscar-nominee; pirated copies, no doubt, but there’s no other choice in Peru. Total cost: $2.
7. The nice lady in the mercado made me a large jugo mixto (mostly papaya, piña, & something unidentifiable she fished from a questionable-looking jar), and yappa-ed me a second large glass. The 8-hr countdown clock has expired, with no GI consequences.
8. Found a new sandwich joint where my pollo, queso, & tocino sandwich came with mango salsa and SPROUTS! Unheard of! Total cost: $2.
9. The always-nice folks at Hospedaje Caminante Class, who let me drop my stuff off for the day, and use the bathrooms, even when I’m not staying the night.
10. The 4:30 P.M. bus got back to Chivay at 9:20 p.m., not a fast run, but at least it didn’t slide off the road and fall over a cliff in the heavy snow that was falling in the alturas, a very real possibility.
11. In rainy Chivay, I stopped at Juan’s store on the Plaza de Armas to buy a box of Corn Flakes, conducting the whole transaction (including pleasantries and comments on the weather) in Quechua, which amuses us both.
12. The one remaining cat in our home greeted me enthusiastically and affectionately, an unusual quality in a cat.
13. Late (10 p.m.) supper of Corn Flakes in our cozy and not-too-leaky nest, followed by rum and grapefruit juice w/ my enthusiastic & affectionate mate.

The usual day-to-day annoyances that Peru regularly provides were also present in their usual number, but it was somehow much easier to overlook them today.

¡Que Viva El Perú!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pago a la Tierra

Last year was tough for our host family—though tourism numbers in the Colca Valley are up (according to the local authorities) it appears that a higher percentage of the tourists are coming on one-day package tours, which leaves the local hotels, restaurants, and artisans almost completely out of the picture. The family’s restaurant, which was open—and full—nearly every day for the first 9 months we were here, is now open only when they have a group reservation, one or two days a week. Tour guides demand a “commission” for each passenger they bring, and their demands are escalating to unreasonable levels.

The family is middle-class, by Chivay standards (by U.S. standards? Our yardsticks don’t even apply). They have two sons studying at the university in Arequipa, and another who is about to start, an expensive proposition any way you look at it. There is a possibility that some of the people in town who are envious of them have cursed them.

What to do?

Obviously, it’s time to start the New Year with a “pago a la tierra,” literally a “payment to the earth.” It’s a common ritual, particularly in January, February, or August, in which sacrifices are made to Mother Earth (“Pachamama”) in order to bring forth blessings, and specific blessings may be asked. It also serves to lift any curses placed on the house or those who live there.

The house was cleaned in preparation, and a well-known “curandero” was imported from nearby Tuti. Sobriety was an issue when he arrived, so he was given a bowl of hearty soup (a common breakfast here) and put to bed for a few hours to sleep it off.

The role of curandero (shaman, more or less) is not hereditary here, as it is in some cultures. Instead, it is acquired by the dubious distinction of being struck by lightning, which enables some people to speak with the “apus,” or mountain gods, and perform the functions of the curanderos. Amanda, who herself can read the coca leaves, had him read the leaves for her this morning, and was satisfied with his interpretation of her fortune for the coming year, so he was given the stamp of approval.

All was in readiness at sundown—the door to the house was locked, and the curandero arranged a small altar, with different offerings representing different desires of the family. Their business plan for the coming year is to keep the restaurant open, but also to open a tourism agency in Arequipa to bring passengers to the restaurant on 1- or 2-day tours to the valley. For this, they’ll need money, a 30-passenger tour bus, and lots of tourists.

A couple of years ago, when they first opened their restaurant, they also had reason to believe that they had been the subject of curses placed by various neighbors, but a pago a la tierra had enabled them to prosper. It came up in conversation that it was well-known in town that at least four people (they could name them) had sold their souls to the devil. Black magic was in the air, and their financing was in jeopardy.

It was clearly time to make another pago.

The offerings consisted primarily of carefully selected, perfectly formed coca leaves, tallow from the chest of a llama, coins, dried herbs, kernels of corn, wine, incense, and an alpaca fetus. Each offering represented a specific desire—more money, lots of tourists, a bus, etc. The fetus was mostly just a particularly appeasing morsel for Pachamama. The offerings were variously placed in a seashell, or on a small square of woven alpaca fiber.

The entire family—including us—gathered ‘round, and the offerings were passed from hand to hand; you were to visualize what they represented, and with all your faith, breathe on them three times. The wine was sprinkled over them all, with an invocation to Pachamama and the local apus, Cotallaully (the mountain above Chivay) and the Puente Inca (Inca bridge), before everyone downed a slug.

(By the way, it’s always good form, when drinking, to offer the first few drops to Pachamama and the local apus).


Then, Enrique chiseled a hole in the concrete floor of the house, until he broke through to the earth below, and built a fire over it. The offerings were burnt, and the fire sprinkled with more wine.

Everyone was satisfied that it had gone quite well, and the curandero was remanded back to Tuti with a handsome payment in hand. The doors were unlocked to let the smoke out—and so our New Year commenced. We’ll let you know how our wishes are realized!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Wititi Week 2010


The annual madness is in full swing. For four days, beginning the 8th of December every year, Chivay goes crazy. It may be that we’re celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception—that’s the religious occasion that overlays all of the festivities--but at times it’s a pretty thin veneer. Whatever the excuse, though, the town is alive like no other time of year.

This is the Wititi Festival—the traditional dance of the Colca, danced with fervor, amid massed brass bands, men and women wearing their colorful embroidered skirts (polleras), traditional hats, blouses, a whole vocabulary of accessories and adornments that add up to an astonishingly beautiful swirl of color and motion when they swing into action.


And the noise! Three large brass bands, of up to 100 players, parade through the Plaza de Armas, or prowl the streets at all hours between 6:30 a.m. and . . . 2:30 a.m.? Maybe later. We lose track. It’s like living in the middle of an elaborate bowl game Halftime Show, surrounded by trumpets, drums, and baritones (mini-tubas, called “bajos” here), all blowing their lips off amid an orgy of eating, drinking, and dancing.

The mercado is lined with impromptu food and drink vendors (José standing with cases of beer stacked up and a sign, “happiness in bottles”). Ranks of tall arches, made of eucalyptus poles and festooned with shiny pots, pans, trays, flashing lights, and stuffed animals (the significance of which escapes me) line the streets of the Plaza de Armas. People dance and weave in and among the arches, which are “sponsored” by individuals or families in Chivay.

Chivay is divided in three districts, Urinsaya (lower), Hanansaya (upper), and Ccapa (merchant), and each competes to outdo the other with the volume of their musicians, the gaudiness of their arches and altars, and the enthusiasm of their dancers. People host breakfasts, lunches, or dinners at their homes for dozens of attendees.

Virtually nothing gets done for the four days of the Wititiada. Some businesses may be open in the mornings, when less is happening, but by mid-afternoon, hundreds of people are dressing in their outfits and preparing to dance. As the sun goes down, the bands really crank it up, and the true craziness floods into the streets.

Generally, there’s rain. This is the beginning of the rainy season, and it is considered good fortune if it rains, at least by connoisseurs. Gotta think about the growing season, I guess, although for those of us with no beans in the ground it’s less thrilling, and really just kind of muddy and cold, but that’s the local ethic for you. Sometimes it hails, and I guess that’s good, too, although it IS harder on the beans.

The best is when you’re dancing in the middle of it all, and just let it sweep over you. The incredible volume and physical impact of the noise; the sensory overload of lights, color, and motion among the dancers; the physical closeness of the partner you’re spinning; the intensity of the dancers; it all adds up to something elemental, primal, a collective expression of something unique to this culture in the specific way that it’s expressed, but recognizable across cultural barriers as something innate.

Yes, it’s also an occasion for serious public drunkenness, yes there are a lot of mixed messages getting sent, yes the ostentatious spending on frivolous fiestas instead of addressing deeper social problems are all troublesome; feel free to extend that analogy to the American football halftime show, too. You can see a darker side to anything; sometimes you just have to acknowledge all that, and then choose to live in the beauty of the moment.

And what a beautiful moment it is!