Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chivay is Chevere

Pronounced with the same drawn-out inflection, “chévere” is the Spanish equivalent of “s-w-e-e-e-e-e-t.” We heard a lot of that last week, particularly when we told people in Chivay that we’d be living there for two years. It’s the best way to express how we feel about it, too.

We spent our ninth week of training on a visit to our newly-assigned work site, where we’ll be spending the next two years. We left Lima on a Saturday evening, aboard an overnight bus to Arequipa, the regional capital. Overnight intercity buses in Peru are not the Greyhound nightmares of American legend, nor the colorful “bags-of-live-chickens-in-the-overhead-bins” experience of short-haul bus trips in Peru. They’re big, deluxe, double-decker buses that make few, if any, stops in between major cities. They’re very secure, reasonably comfortable, play cheesy movies enroute, and even offer “BINGO” cards to all passengers to play. The only quirk is that, for the 16-hour non-stop trip to Arequipa, the onboard bathrooms are “solo para orinar.” Plan accordingly.

Arequipa is a city anyone could love. It’s the second-largest city in Perú, but is still less than a tenth the size of massive Lima. Its citizens half-seriously think of it as a separate country, and when we arrived, our counterparts issued us our unofficial Arequipeño “passports.” “El Misti,” the 19,100’ volcano that towers over the city (and periodically attempts to destroy it) was attractively accessorized with a snowy mantle. Tourists, pigeons, and Arequipeños all packed the central plaza, admiring the sunny skies & shirt-sleeve weather. A person could become very comfortable here.

The streets are lined with great restaurants, artisan shops, bars, discos, and tour guides offering tours of the Colca Canyon region. We ambled down to the Plaza, and Jean quickly developed the dreamy, “let’s spend some time here” look that we’ve come to trust.

We lunched with some other local Peace Corps volunteers on traditional fare of the region, which includes the signature dish, “Rocoto Relleno,” a fiery red pepper stuffed with alpaca meat, cheese, peanuts, and vegetables. A beer helps control, but not extinguish, the flames.

The city sits at about 7,700 feet elevation, providing a good chance to acclimatize to the altitude. After spending a day enjoying its charms, and tuning our lungs, we boarded another bus for the 3-1/2 hour trip to Chivay. Climbing out of Arequipa, the road passes between El Misti and Chachani, another major peak, and arrives in a high plain dotted with vicuña (the llama’s wilder kid brother). The Lonely Planet guide describes the passage as “bleak,” and I won’t argue the point, but it’s also fascinating, as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed, finally topping out at a breathtaking 15,700 feet—about a thousand feet higher than any peak in the Lower 48, higher than most single-engine aircraft can fly. Many passengers were woozy or napping, but we were too excited by the scenery. From the bus windows, we gazed up at still more peaks, some reaching above 20,000 feet.

Descending from the pass, we got our first glimpse of Chivay, and our smiles just widened as the valley spread out below us. If geography has anything at all to do with it—and I think it does—we’ll be the happiest volunteers in Perú. (At 12,000 feet, we’ll also be the highest, at least until another volunteer occupies a site just up the road from us.) We were both very emotional as we kept our noses glued to the window during the descent, lapping up the terraced landscape, the wild vicuña bounding among the rocks, domestic flocks of alpaca, and the unfolding vision of the Cañon de Colca.

Chivay sits at the head of Colca Canyon, famous as the deepest canyon in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Andean Condors routinely buzz the tourists gathered at Cruz del Condor, deep in the canyon, and pre-Incan terraces are still in use to grow whatever hardy crops can survive at 12,000 feet. It’s cold once the sun sets, and nobody has a heater, so it’s considered normal to sit around eating supper in your parka and your wool knit hat. Nights, we slept in our clothes, under four layers of alpaca blankets. It was just enough.

The altitude required a small adjustment—neither of us suffered, though Jean did experience a mild headache for a while, and we both noticed that third flight of steps, when carrying a load up to our room.

That said, Chivay is the kind of place that we once might have encountered in our travels and wondered, “what would it be like to live here?” Now, we get to find out—and tell you about it.

We spent a day with the other volunteers moving to the canyon, meeting our Peruvian “counterparts,” with whom we’ll be working over the next two years. One of our counterparts is from the Municipalidad, (roughly the equivalent of the County), and the other is president of an Artisan’s association. He brought a number of weavers (wearing their traditional costumes) to the meeting, some of whom spoke primarily Quechua. We spent an interesting and demanding day, getting to know each other and figuring out what we expected of each other. It was a good test of our Spanish, and we even learned a bit of Quechua. Then we went to meet our host family, and to inspect the room they have for us in their home.

Our prospective hosts run a restaurant in Chivay. They were told well in advance when we’d be visiting, so they could have our room ready for inspection. They sheepishly escorted us up to the second floor, then up some rickety steps to the third, and opened the door to . . . the roof, piled with the remains of a cuy cage, some bricks, maybe some plumbing supplies, boxes of junk. We stood around catching our breath, admiring the view from the roof, noting the lack of door, windows, walls, and roof—in short, anything that might constitute a “room.” I have to admit, we were a bit upset, though we were careful not to say too much about it.

They assured us they’ll have it ready when we return in 2-3 weeks: brick walls, tin and/or thatch roof, and some form of plumbing. I wouldn’t place any bets on it being done when we return, but if it means we can live upstairs from some really good chow, we’ll put up with the inevitable delays that you come to expect in Perú. The room, when finished, will be smaller than a typical American bedroom, probably no more than 10 X 14 feet—not much living space for 2 adults and all their worldly possessions. It helps that we can share the restaurant’s dining room as common space in the evening, with the rest of the family. We’re supposed to live like Peruvians, and we recognize that our cramped, third-floor “penthouse” will make us privileged Peruvians indeed. . . when it gets built.

The other part of the equation is that the host family is great. Smart, interesting people, running a good business. Our host “mamá” is a warm and engaging Chivay native, who speaks Spanish and Quechua, but wants to learn English. We think we can work out a language exchange. The rest of the family—her husband and 3 sons--work in the restaurant, along with a chef and some servers. Yes, we may have our own chef. That makes up for a lot of sitting around in a parka amid a pile of bricks. If we get too cold, we can always bike to the hot springs—did I forget to mention the hot springs?—about 3 km. up the road. Because most showers have only frigid water, it’s common for people to go without showers for a week or two until they can get to one of the hot springs that dot the area, used as communal public showers.

We spent our three days in Chivay meeting people, including some weavers with whom we may be working, and getting to know the town. Among our favorite moments were the time we spent with a family of artisans in their yard, the husband at his ancient loom, the wife sitting in the shade nearby, knitting a hat, the kids spinning yarn by hand from a pile of raw alpaca wool, all sitting around talking, working, sharing—and all aware that this is a fine way of life, even if they live in a rude adobe home. We also enjoyed a view of the startling Irish Pub on the town square, with a row of traditionally-dressed women sitting on the curb out in front for contrast.

We restrained ourselves with the camera—everywhere we turned were “photo ops” that tourists were snapping: the market, crowded with women in their traditional dress, “our” artisans, all incredibly picturesque--but we didn’t want their first impressions of us to be of more gringos with cameras. We figure we’ve got two years to document our lives there, so you’ll just have to wait. We DID get the camera out when a procession appeared, with a brass band and lots of women dancing the Wititi, the traditional dance of Chivay. It’s usually presented as “la danza de Amor” en Español, but in Quechua it’s more like “la danza del sexo.” You can figure that one out . . . More on that when the big holiday fiestas begin in Chivay in December. The parade was in honor of the Virgin of Copacabana, and the celebrations went on for two days. By day 2, I was feeling bad for the brass players’ lips, but they were liberally administering liquid lubrication and anesthesia in the form of chicha and beer.

OK, we haven’t said much about our work, but that’s because we’ll spend our first 3 months in Chivay surveying the community to determine the most serious needs, in order to define and prioritize what our work will be.

We were sad when we had to leave Chivay and return for the last weeks of training, (though a night of dancing in Arequipa helped). Back into the hazy skies of Lima and Chaclacayo—but not for long! Our group will be “sworn-in” next Friday, and most will depart for their sites on Saturday, Aug. 22, but we’ll be detained for a week of “survival Quechua” lessons.

Our Colca Canyon "Family Photo"--Volunteers Kristen and John will join us in the Canyon when we move up in a couple of weeks.