Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Condors & Yarns

First of all, a shameless plug for my friend Skip Horner, travel guide extraordinaire, who is putting together a Peru trip for January 23-29 of 2010. The trip features Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, done in high style. The highlight will be a couple of nights at Machu Picchu, in the exclusive hotel at the site, a luxury few travelers experience. It’s expensive, but worth it, to be able to wake up and creep into the site before the busloads of people arrive, to watch the sun first warm the mountaintops, and then slowly illuminate one of the most impressive views on our planet. (Ollantaytambo, one of the overnight stops on the trip, was also one of our favorite “finds” when we were here 20 years ago).

There are cheaper ways to visit Peru and Machu Picchu, either with a group or independently, and of course we’ll help you with suggestions and advice if you choose to wait, but we can say from experience that any trip with Skip has serious Trip of a Lifetime potential. Check it out at his website. It would be fairly simple to add a few days to visit us, from Lima taking an overnight bus (16 hours) or flying to the lovely city of Arequipa. (For the few extra bucks, flying would be worth it!) Chivay is another 3.5 hours by bus from Arequipa.

That said, we’ve begun to see a little bit more of our neighborhood, and we’re beginning to engage with the people on a slightly deeper level. The fiesta in Canocota, about half an hour up the road, is an example—it’s a very small town, but every small town in the province throws a big bash on its anniversary. These are not tourist events—it’s just what’s going on. So when we show up, it’s impossible for us to be tourists—food is thrust at us (a large bowl of soup featuring a major appendage of a recently-deceased alpaca, and some long-deceased potatoes), beer and/or chicha are offered (disrespectful to turn down . . .), and very soon we’re drinking and dancing to the local brass band along with most of the town. Chévere.

OK, so drinking and dancing with the locals isn’t exactly deeper engagement, but at least we’re recognized now as more than tourists, especially when we’re seen hanging out with our Peruvian acquaintances on the street or in their shops.

We’ve also begun a program of spending a few hours with each member of our artisan association, visiting them in their homes, watching them work on their embroidery, weaving, painting, or knitting, then having lunch with them (more alpaca, more potatoes, maybe some sheep ribs—very hearty, if not heart-healthy). It’s costing us, because we end up buying something from nearly all of them, but it’s a great way to get an idea of what their lives are like and what we might help them accomplish.

Jean has begun knitting a hat of alpaca yarn with the help of one of “our” artisans, a nearly-impossibly cute 40-ish woman who sets up her table of wares in the Plaza de Armas most days. They sit and chat amiably, Jean learning Quechua and Melina learning how to say her prices in English. Jean is also now rocking a traditional hat from the region, which is getting her a lot of street cred in Chivay.

At the invitation of a guide who is thinking about offering it as a tour, I biked from Chivay to Cabanaconde, 58 kilometers through the heart of the Cañon del Colca. I think he wanted to see if a gringo could survive the ride. It was a long day, made longer by the fact that he had an actively malicious bicycle, the dirt roads are poorly maintained, and he wasn’t as experienced a rider as I am. It’s largely downhill, but it does involve a rather long, hard climb up to 12,500 feet, to the major tourist attraction of the valley, Cruz del Condor. “El Cruz” is an overlook where you can appreciate both the depth of the canyon—roughly 10,000 feet of relief—and the condors themselves, who hang out there in improbable numbers. When we arrived at 3 p.m., the tourist vans were long gone to lunch, and we had it to ourselves. It was quiet enough to hear the wind passing through the wings of these “majestic lords of the Andes” as they played the updrafts to eye me. After 40 km. of biking, I have to admit I probably smelled like something dead. I already felt that the stunning scenery—a combination of mountains and pre-Inca terraces—was justification enough for the ride, but the condors were certainly the icing on the cake. The cultural and historical lore that my guide stopped to impart gave him a chance to catch his breath and added to the pleasure of the trip, too. We arrived in Cabanaconde after 11 hours of biking, and he immediately set about revising his business plan.

Jean and I still don’t have a shower, so we do the “bucket bath” thing on the patio every few days, then every week or so go to La Calera, the hot springs to shower and soak. We went last Sunday, when it’s free for the locals to use the “baño del pueblo,” (not as nice as the “gringo pool,” but certainly not icky) but the ticket-taker at the kiosk didn’t want to let us in. We had to convince a higher authority that we’re really “del pueblo.” Of course once we sauntered in, heads turned, first in our direction to take in the wonder of two gringos in the “locals only” pool, then away to avoid the harsh glare of the sun reflecting off our pale skin. It all turned out fine, of course. We figure it’s best for everyone to get used to the idea of having us around . . . because we’re here for a while, yet!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Modern Conveniences

First, the startling news that Cuerpo de Paz/Peru has issued us cell phones. The idea that our phones might ring and that it might be one of you, dear readers, is both very weird and very welcome. Our numbers are:

Int'l call code 011 + Country code 51 + Department code 54 + 957821550 Jean
+ 957821602 Russ
I have no idea what the rates are, and depending on how the call is placed you may need a “0” in front of the Country or Department codes, or you may not. Feel free to experiment. We have just one word of advice for those who wish to call at minimal expense, and that word is “Skype.”

We also have a new mailing address, which appears on the home page of this blog, but here it is anyway:

Russ or Jean
Cuerpo de Paz
Casillo Postal 228
Serpost Arequipa
Arequipa, Perú

Sometimes life is just very weird. There may be a YouTube video of Peace Corps/Peru 13 performing the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for instance. We threw a bash for our host families at the end of our training, and entertained them with this bit of highly-rehearsed choreography, which left them scratching their heads in wonder. To spot Russ, wait for the moment when all the zombies bend forward, and look for his bald pate. To find Jean, just focus on grace in jerky, un-dead motion.

So, now we’re at home in Chivay. Have been since Friday, when an overloaded moto—a three-wheeled motorcycle adapted as a taxi—wheeled us, two 50-pound duffels, a backpack, a roll-aboard suitcase, two daypacks, and a queen-size mattress, from the bus station to our new abode, for the Peruvian equivalent of a buck. Now, that’s a bargain!

Of course, our room wasn’t ready. I don’t mean they hadn’t put mints on our pillows, I mean it wasn’t built. Our hosts are super people, very hard-working, but this is Peru, and things just happen on their own schedule here. They are building a 9-by-12-foot brick “cell” for us atop their restaurant. Concrete floor, concrete plaster walls, tin roof and, thankfully, a toilet and a shower. The shower may or may not ever have hot water, which will dictate whether or not we ever use it. In Chivay, at 12,000-and-a-half feet, it’s just too damn cold to shower with cold water, so most of the residents do without, and once a week or so go to the hot springs 3 km. away to bathe. We’re due.

Our cell will probably be finished this week, and we’ll happily move in. Yes, it’s tiny, but we’re here to live like the Peruvians, and this will actually be a notch or two up from most Peruvians. In both host family situations we’ve now experienced, the parents sleep in the same bedroom with their kids—and we’re talking about “kids” from 14 to 22 years old, in rooms not much larger than ours. We’ll have our own toilet, indoors. We’ll have windows to let in the abundant sun, at least in this season, and a “patio” (actually the roof of the house) with outstanding views of Chivay and its spectacular environs. We’ll have a lavatory out on the patio for washing our hands, brushing our teeth, and doing our laundry. We’re ready to count ourselves lucky.

In the mean time, we flop our mattress down at night on the second floor landing, and unroll our sleeping bags, then throw three heavy alpaca wool blankets over them. We crawl into them wearing fleece pants and tops, and sleep very comfortably. Have I mentioned that it’s cold in Chivay? Nobody in this country has heat in their homes—it just isn’t done—and hot water for showers is a luxury item. In a nod to creature comforts, some people put a hot water bottle at their feet when they go to bed, something we may begin doing very soon.

Our hosts truly are wonderful people, and we are looking forward to two years of sharing a rather intimate living situation. They know or are related to everyone in town, so dropping their names is usually a good thing when we want something done. Next door is another restaurant (owned by our host’s sister) with a folkloric show every night, so from 8:30 p.m. until 10 or so, we have a highly-amplified Andean music combo pounding away. Fortunately, they’re very good, and we hope to go see the show, soon.

Random observation: You can wear your clothes without washing them much longer than you think you can. ‘Nuff said on that subject.

We live very comfortably, by Peruvian standards, on a Peace Corps allowance that is now somewhat higher than the $2.75 a day we received in training. Breakfast is a couple pieces of the tasty local bread, some fresh local cheese, and powdered instant coffee. For lunch we have a chef (!) who daily prepares a lunch buffet for 70-150 tourists, and us. For dinner last night we had a fried egg sandwich, and hot chocolate. Tonight it was rice with hot dogs cut up into it, and tea. Contrasts.

We walk around all day long amid scenery and among traditionally-dressed, handsome people who would make a National Geographic photographer drool. Scores of tourists walk around taking pictures of all this every day, but we can hardly bring ourselves to snap a pic, we’re trying so hard not to be the gringo tourists with cameras.

Last Saturday night the restaurant was rented out for a Quinceañera (15th birthday party, a big deal for girls), so to get out from underfoot we stepped outside, then followed the sound of a brass band and found a procession honoring Santa Rosa de Lima, (patron saint of the police), and followed them to the Plaza de Armas. The dozen or so strong men carrying the 12-foot-tall effigies of the saint and the virgin mother had to dip repeatedly to get them under the power lines, a scary sight, but at least they had You-Know-Who on their side—and the policía. That was further evidenced when the guy who was sending up the rockets from the plaza torched off a bomb that nearly blew his clothes off, but everyone survived, Jean’s hair didn’t catch fire, and the city gardener will fill in the crater, later.

When we’d had enough of the festivities, we ambled over to the Irish Pub, had a glass of wine with the (Peruvian) owner, and chatted up a Brit who had been out stumbling around the local Inca ruins for a few weeks. Then we returned to our humble abode, fought our way through the teenagers, and lay upstairs in our sleeping bags until the music stopped at 4:30 a.m.

Due to early linguistic difficulties, Jean is known around the house as something like Jeems, and I’m probably “Bruce” for the duration. Last night we played Bananagrams, and used words in English, Spanish, Quechua, Yiddish and, I think, Ethiopian.

Yesterday we met our Peruvian counterpart at his shop, and helped his extremely charming 9-year-old daughter sort out the right hand-painted tops for the right hand-painted sugar bowls—there were scores of them, all needing to be sorted—then we ambled out to his chakra, or small farm, where he dumped several bags of cuy droppings to fertilize the potatoes, while an eagle banked overhead. For now, this is what passes for our “work,” filed under the heading: “integrating with the community.”

Today we had a meeting with “our” artisans, most of them women in traditional dress, and some of whom needed to have the proceedings translated into Quechua because they speak little Spanish. Our three days’ worth of training in Quechua is getting quite a workout, but I have to say that people are very grateful and impressed that we make the effort.

So, that’s the way our lives go these days. It’s fascinating, challenging, aggravating, and wonderful.

And cold.