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!

Monday, September 13, 2010

More Mid-service Musings

Mid-service med checks behind us (all good), it’s a natural time to reflect on what’s changed in the last year, and to ponder what’s yet to come. It’s a good time, also, to review the shocks and pleasures of this new life, and the adjustments we’ve made—most of which now seem oddly normal.

Random festivals, with brass bands and people dancing til all hours in, ahh, unusual costumes? Check. Normal. Really useful training opportunities that we have labored to create, but that few attend? Or to which they arrive 90 minutes late? Resigned to it. Indoor spaces more frigid than the outdoors, nearly any time of day/year? Acostumbrado, and I always carry that extra layer. Peruvian TV? Never get used to it!

The point is that we're now pretty well accustomed to this life. If someone told us that we were going to have to spend the rest of our lives in Chivay, living as we live now, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen. But—we also now have a much better idea of what we’d be missing.

At the halfway mark, thoughts about what we miss about the States have inevitably turned into thoughts of what we’ll miss about Peru when our service is done—but that’s a topic for a year from now. So far, in other words, it's been exactly the learning experience we were hoping for. We know a little more about ourselves and what's important to us (just a little more private space, please?), and a lot more about the world around us, what makes a way of life beautiful, and what detracts.

In his book, “Deep Economy,” author Bill McKibben cited a couple of studies that resonated with me. In one, a worldwide inquest found that self-described “happiness” rises in tandem with income only up to a fairly modest amount, where one’s basic needs are met, and beyond that point the data scatter. Another study has been tracking how “happy” U.S. citizens report themselves to be, beginning back in the 1940’s. That number peaked around 1957—shortly after I was born, though I’m sure that’s just a coincidence—and though household income (adjusted for inflation) has more than doubled since that time, “happiness” has been losing ground ever since.

I never thought of the way of life we had in the States as “better.” It was pretty sweet, on balance, but what we gave up to come to Peru has been offset by the knowledge and insights we have gained, and a whole new set of satisfactions (OK, and stresses) that we couldn’t have imagined before we got here. We’re still open to exploring other ways of living, other ways of balancing the joys and stresses of various styles of life, but never with the idea that one might be “best.”

This comes from someone who has always gone for the “lifestyle sampler pack”: solid, middle-class-suburban upbringing; college on the six-year-plan, working my way through, followed by six years of seasonal work featuring a steady diet of powdered milk, bulk foods, and venison when I potted something during hunting season. We lived for two years in a log cabin (or, sometimes, in a VW camper) without electricity or indoor plumbing in a Montana ghost town, working for the Dept. of the Interior; we stayed in classy hotels in Europe, visited the White House, and hobnobbed with literary celebrities in mid-town Manhattan when I was president of a trade association; and we have spent decades as Main Street retailers, deeply involved in our small community in Montana.

So what do I now see as a good “way of life?” Enough friends, with whom we can share meaningful experiences and a fair amount of silliness; good, wholesome food, with plenty of variety (and the occasional descent into decadence); a community in which we can feel rooted and where we can make a difference; meaningful work with people we like; a healthful environment offering a variety of outdoor activities year-round; and a lively and varied cultural life of which we can both partake and in which we can participate.

Some of those are admittedly harder to achieve here; we’ll never be a part of this culture, and when we participate it’s usually something of a spectacle—Whoa! The old gringos are dancing Wititi just like us!—and much of the cultural background will forever remain opaque to us. I’m accustomed to making a spectacle of myself, but sometimes it does get tedious.

It’s harder to find good friends with whom to pass the time here, and some kinds of cultural variety just don’t exist. It can all be very frustrating--and yet analyzing that frustration can also be very enlightening.

What's important to the people among whom we live? Pretty simple: family, work, community, and their cultural traditions, in more or less that order. Of course, how they deal with those issues is what differentiates this place from any other, but I'm not doing a sociological study here, just walking around with my eyes open.

On the plus side for us, we eat much, much closer to the source than we did in the U.S.; the alpaca and chicken we eat every day were recently seen on the hoof, not grown and packaged in a “production facility” thousands of miles away. Some of the fruit we eat may be from Chile, but so was the fruit we ate in the States, and we’re a LOT closer to Chile, now! The rest of the veggies and grains in our diet are usually pretty local. Points off for variety in the diet; score some extra for a more rational distribution system.

I also enjoy the feeling that my environmental “footprint” has diminished significantly—the resources we use are far fewer here than in the States, and that’s important to me. I’ll probably shower more frequently when I go back, but I’ll use less hot water, I promise!

So, back to the themes from Bill McKibben’s book: we’ll return to the States in a year, much more focused on the things that make us “happy,” much more attuned to eliminating the things normally associated with higher income but that, in the end, distract or detract from quality of life. We know we can be happy with much, much less. We can live ever more lightly and “locally.”

Years ago, when we bought our house, it was a wreck. We didn’t have enough money to do a fabulous remodel, but we spent a lot of time and muscle getting rid of what was ugly. When you remove what’s ugly, what almost inevitably emerges is the beautiful. You can do that with your life. I’m working on it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Midway . . .

We just passed the mathematical midpoint of our time in Perú—27 months total, a bit over a year to go.

Mixed feelings? You bet.

We look at the clothes we brought with us and try to guess which items will last another year, and which will become too embarrassingly frayed to wear in public before then. Virtually none will be coming back with us, beyond what we wear to the airport.

There are certainly days when I feel like “OK, I get it, I could go home now.” I realize, though, that what you learn from living in a foreign culture for a year is not the same thing you learn from living in that culture for TWO years; and then, there are the days that are just magic.

Last month we had a day where we longed to have lunch at our favorite café in Hamilton, with great food and the sense that we knew everybody in the joint. We had this discussion on our way to lunch at a place on Chivay's Plaza de Armas that serves cheap ($1.40) but tasty--and reasonably sanitary--lunches; we seated ourselves, and lo! we knew everyone who came in. It was an “aha!” moment for us—this can be home, too.

So what have I learned in one year; what’s changed? Hard to say . . . incremental change can kind of sneak past you, and is best seen in retrospect. I know that my concept of what I “need” to be “comfortable” has been scaled back, considerably. I also know that what I “need” to be “comfortable is still more than what most of the people around me have. It’s a hard lesson.

I’ve learned a very little bit about the frustrations of living one’s entire life in a developing country. I’ve learned mountains about the satisfactions of living in a place with cultural roots that run hundreds, if not thousands, of years deep.

Our Spanish is a little better than it was a year ago.

We have helped some people to see some opportunities they might not have grasped before, but we haven’t put any magic wands in their hands. Peace Corps is rife with stories of volunteers who found, 20 years later, that some seemingly insignificant act they performed during their service had a profound effect on someone’s life, but it’s a long gestation. Likewise, we probably won’t realize the full effect that living here has had on us, until we return—for now, “normal” has been reset to a value that is on an entirely different scale than a US-based “normal.”

It’s a transition time, though—the volunteers from the previous training group, with whom we’ve been sharing the Department of Arequipa for the last year, have largely packed up and gone to where they’re headed next: Lima, Stockholm, Chicago, and parts unknown, destinations as varied as their characters. Part of the next training group were in Chivay last week for their “Field-Based Training,” working in the Instituto Superior with us watching over their shoulders; some of them may soon be returning here to replace those who left. We’re reminded again of how high-quality Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be—these are people we look forward to working with. For the next year, though, we’re the “senior class” here, and it’s an odd sensation.

Our work? It continues, more or less the same. We teach English classes, we coax members of artisan groups to think creatively and “work smarter,” we work to develop a tourism model that is more just and beneficial to the local populace, we do business seminars for whomever shows up. We go to meetings and sit in very cold rooms for extended periods of time, until our blood has congealed and all brain activity has ceased, and then try to contribute, in Spanish. It’s frustrating, maddening, challenging and, very occasionally, studded with gem-like moments that are incredibly satisfying.

Personal lives? We live in a tiny room in which we regularly wish to occupy the same space at the same time. It’s been a test of our personal relationship, but when we crawl under that heavy alpaca blanket on a cold night, we’re still happy to be occupying the same space . . . We have friends—other PCV’s to be sure, but also Peruvians with whom we’ve developed relationships that go beyond just business. It’s hard to share much with them, though—the nature of their lives and culture here is not based on getting together for dinner parties, or doing theater or going camping together, and there are linguistic and cultural bridges that we’ll never be able to cross. We try, though, and so do they, and that’s what friends do, no?

In June we went to Trujillo for a training session on community banks, bringing community partners with us (on their first airplane rides, and first view of the Pacific Ocean). Then, we took advantage of being on Peru's northern coast and spent some of our accrued vacation time seeing a new part of the country. We visited the ruins of the what was the largest pre-Columbian city in the western hemisphere and the largest city constructed of adobe in the world, Chan Chan; nearby is Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol, ceremonial sites that were constructed and then, with great effort, buried under millions of adobe bricks. We visited another volunteer at her site near where the fabulously rich treasures of the Lord of Sipán were discovered. Then we took the overnight bus to Chachapoyas, the capital of the Department of Amazonas, in a mountainous zone of cloud forest with scattered ruins and La Catarata de Gocta,
the third-highest waterfall in the world. We thought we might spend 2 or 3 days there, but ended up staying 6 days, enjoying all that this part of Perú has to offer.

The star attraction is Kuélap, a mountaintop fortress built a thousand years ago. Though it was re-discovered in the 19th century, much of it has only recently been excavated, and tourism has yet to catch up with it, at least to the degree it merits. A gorgeous setting, stonework that lacks the finesse of the Incas but makes up for it in sheer volume . . . it was a great visit.

The other thing that kept us in Chachapoyas was Café Fusiones; here’s a shout-out to Marilyn, her locally-produced organic coffee, her baked goodies, and her thoughtful comments on sustainable tourism.

It’s winter, which means that most mornings are below freezing outside, and in the low 40’s in our room when we awake. The days are uniformly sunny, and warm up quickly, then turn breezy in the afternoon. Have I mentioned how beautiful this place is, in a very unique way, and how much we enjoy and admire the people we work and live with?

Not much more to say—we miss our friends and family, but we don’t dwell on it, and try to focus on “being here now.” We’ll never have this opportunity again, and we don’t want to miss out on any of it by longing to be elsewhere. (We do try to keep up on news from the States and from the Bitterroot, a much easier task in the age of the Internet, but certainly another distraction.)

So, drop us a line and tell us what’s going on—what we really want to know doesn’t come in the form of Missoulian headlines.

Monday, June 14, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I made a flip remark in a Facebook posting about appeasing the Volcano Gods. Recently it came back to haunt me in an altogether serious way.

Ampato is a volcano that towers 21,000 feet above the Colca canyon. It is best known as the site where the mummy of a young Inca girl, about 13 years of age and known informally as “Juanita,” was found, sacrificed at the summit 500 years ago. Was she sacrificed to end an eruption? End a drought? Nobody knows, but her still-frozen body is on display in an Arequipa museum, along with the artifacts that were left with her.

As part of the celebration of the anniversary of the Province of Caylloma, for the last four years they have staged a mass climb of Ampato, one of the “Apus” or mountain spirits that guard the valley. I was invited to participate, but four days before the climb, we got a dump of snow up high, and my local guide friends advised me not to go—too dangerous, really difficult conditions, they said--they were planning to bail out on it. As we had friends visiting over the weekend, the decision was that much easier.

The culmination of the ascent was to be a “Pago a la Tierra,” literally a payment to the earth, usually involving coca leaves, chicha (beer) and other items—a ceremony related in spirit, however distantly, to the sacrifice of “Juanita,” More than 50 people signed up for the climb, but the summit party was only about 25 people. The “pago” was apparently accomplished, but as the party began their descent, an avalanche swept through them, and claimed the lives of two young men from Arequipa, injuring a handful of others. Fortunately, the party included members of the High Mountain Rescue team from Chivay, and three commercial climbing operators from Arequipa, including a doctor, so the survivors were evacuated safely, but it took several days more to find and recover the second body.

Shortly after, I began hearing some people here saying that, tragic as it was, we can expect a good harvest/weather/etc. now, as the Apu Ampato has claimed what it wanted.

Immediately after that, another tragedy struck, when a bus plunged off the road out of Chivay, sliding 300 meters down the mountainside before coming to rest at an irrigation ditch. Four people died, and many more were injured, but the miracle is that anybody survived. The mood here has been somewhat more somber than normal.

Resolved: no more joking about Apus or Volcano Gods.

Working my way slowly back toward the “fun” aspect of life here, I’ll pause to note our two and a half days of translating for a team of Aussie doctors and support personnel, in Chivay to spend a week doing free cataract surgeries for the locals. They were great to work with, and the patients, mostly old and poor, were grateful beyond words. You can imagine what it was like for one of the patients to see their grandchildren clearly for the first time. Nice to be a part of that project, which was put together by a group called Quechua Benefit, headquartered in Oregon and supported by alpaca breeders, both in the States and in Australia.

Then, there’s fun: a visit from our friends Kent & Diane Myers. We did what we could to show them a good time in the Colca in the relatively little time we had together—a couple of months would have been about right.

We took vacation time, with the intention of trekking down into the canyon, but bagged that idea to spend more quality time having fun above the rim. It was strange to relax and just be tourists, now that we’ve lived here long enough to be able to see ourselves as others see us. We’ve spent so much time trying to distinguish ourselves from the flood of tourists, and trying to do everything “Peace Corps style” (i.e. totally on the cheap), that I felt particularly conspicuous—but I got over it. Seeing the cave art is pretty cool.

It also felt like “cheating” to take a break from our Chivay life, and live it up a bit, but ultimately we figured that’s why Peace Corps gives us vacation days!

Now it’s back to normal—no more birthday dinners with candles and wine, no hotels with private bathrooms, etc.. But we DID have River Rising granola for breakfast, and pancakes with maple syrup for dinner. The goodies from Montana are going fast, but we savor every bite!

UPDATE: “Normal,” however, includes an epic 6-and-a-half-hour, 80-km bike ride that was part of the Provincial Anniversary celebration. We rode up and over the pass at Patapampa, 15,800’ feet in the sky, then back to the Colca valley via the “Ruta Escondida” or “hidden route,” the idea being to publicize this little-known resource. The route was mostly on dirt and gravel roads, with 4,600’ of climbing, all told. I had no supplemental oxygen to help me out, and no coca leaves—but I DID have some of Jean’s chocolate-chip cookies, and 2 bananas: practically rocket fuel. Truth be told, the winners had been relaxing in the Plaza de Armas for better than an hour when they swept up all of the not-yet-finished contestants from the course, and I put up no resistance—but it was nice to know that I can still ride.

At the ultimate source of the Amazon, just a day-trip from Chivay . . . but that's another story.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bus Breakdowns and High Lake Towns

We’ve been on the go, traveling within Peru in the last month, so thought we’d share some travel (mis)adventures, and some happy discoveries that balanced the inevitable frustrations.

First, how we cope with the frustrations (and not just related to travel . . .): we wait until something changes. We can’t change anything, people will lie about what may or may not happen, so patience and flexibility, those watchwords of Peace Corps life, are the only tools we have. That, and the attitude of G.K. Chesterton, whom I believe I’ve quoted before, to the effect “an adventure is only an inconvenience, rightly viewed.” We have plenty of “adventures.”

First, though, a travel success: the overnight bus service from Arequipa to Lima averages 16 hours, and while the bus companies have developed some reasonably comfortable reclining seats, it still comes down to a total of 20 to 24 hours of bus transit between Chivay and Lima, a trip we have to make every couple of months. The air service between Arequipa and Lima, however, is quite good, and for Peruvian residents (Green Card! Ta-Da!) very economical, nearly the same price as bus service. We’ll never be done with the bus trips, but we’ve mixed in a few air trips, and the increase in morale is directly proportional to the decrease in hideously swollen ankles.

Bus travel between Chivay and Arequipa frequently means getting up at 3:45 a.m. to catch an early bus for the 4-hour trip. Arequipa is significantly warmer than Chivay, so we like to travel light, but (ever the Boy Scout) every time we leave I ask myself if I’m prepared to stay comfortable and safe if the bus breaks down at the top of the pass. Last Friday, I decided I was, although I compromised on my footwear, sandals with wool socks instead of real shoes.

Of course, the bus broke down at the top of the pass, 15,800 feet high in the sky, dawn breaking, the temperature below freezing, fresh snow from last night’s squall frosting the nearby peaks. Of course after the two-and-a-half-hour wait, my feet got cold, but everything else was fine. Jean was less prepared, but warmed up as the sun rose higher. Remarkably, a passing bus stopped, and just happened to be carrying a spare water pump, like this was a fairly common thing to keep handy. Repairs made, we traveled on, and my feet thawed out in sunny Arequipa.

Coming back from that same trip, we chose a different bus line, but THEIR bus broke down before even getting out of Arequipa. Repairs were effected in an hour or so, but it was not a confidence-builder. On average, we face a delay of an hour or more about half the time we travel that route, but we nearly always get there.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a lost week in Peru, everything shuts down and people tend to travel, so Peace Corps allows us a few travel days, too. We took advantage, going to Puno on Lake Titicaca and being tourists for a few days. We traveled in a tourist bus, only marginally more comfortable than the average intercity equipment, but well-attended with a guide who stopped periodically at scenic or historic spots equipped with (primitive) toilet facilities, a nice touch on a 6-hour ride.

Aside #1: the FAA requires pilots to use oxygen if they’ll be above 12,000 feet for more than 30 minutes, and requires both pilots and passengers to have oxygen or a pressurized cabin any time above 14,000 feet. We live at 12,000 feet, and though we regularly travel over that 15,800’ pass, nobody—and especially not the driver—has oxygen. Most people just zonk out, but that’s not a great option for the drivers. We watched our driver stuff a handful of coca leaves in his mouth to deal with the altitude, the traditional local remedy.

Once in surprisingly scenic Puno, we took a boat to the Uros Islands, which truly are floating islands made of reeds--they just keep piling them on as the stuff on the bottom rots and floats away, century after century. It’s one thing to read about a floating island, another to step off the boat and have the whole island rock underfoot. Everything is made of totora reeds—the island, the homes, the cuisine. We paused a bit, then carried on to the (real) island of Amantaní, where we spent the night.

“Turismo vivencial” is the big thing here in the Colca, tourist home-stays with rural families who provide traditional meals, the family including the visitors in their daily activities, maybe even throwing in a hike to a historic site, or attending a cultural event. They’ve refined that to an art on Amantaní, and we wanted to see how they managed it. Amantaní is accessible only by boat, has no (or very limited) electricity, and the 4,000-or-so inhabitants engage in subsistence farming—and tourism. Interesting to feel like a “crop,” ripe for the harvesting. We stayed with a family, ate an astonishing variety of tubers (this is Peru, after all), a vegetarian diet that was rich and satisfying on an island where no livestock are kept for meat.

Aside #2: This is truly a nation of entrepreneurs, but we find that they tend to think more in terms of communal enterprises, consortiums or associations. Instead of having nine separate families competing for tourists in their homes, they form a consortium, and when tourists arrive, they’re farmed out to whichever family is next on the list, all sharing equally. It’s required a shift in our thinking when we deal with businesses, as we’re more accustomed to the I/me/mine style of American competition and free enterprise. We’ve come to appreciate the difference.

Every region of Peru has its distinctive style of traditional dress, at least for the women. Skirt color and cut, and headgear vary remarkably. Men, in general, have just adopted standard Western attire.

We, along with all the other tourists on the island, ascended to ruins at the top of the island, a hill called pachatata (father earth), for a spectacular sunset. I have to say, Lake Titicaca is quite beautiful, even moreso when viewed from one of the islands. It’s immense—like ten Flathead lakes, or one liquid Ravalli county, running 102 miles long by 40 miles wide—and on the day we visited, tranquil. Snowcapped mountains rise in the distance, both in Peru and in Bolivia, which shares part of the lake. (Peruvians snicker that Peru gets the Titi, Bolivia gets the caca. . . ). Then, after dinner, our hosts flung traditional (not Sears) ponchos and other fashion accessories over us, and away we went for 90 minutes of dancing and drinking, coming home to sleep under the standard four alpaca blankets.

The stars that night were the equal of any we’ve seen anywhere, ambient light being utterly absent, and at that elevation (12,500’) not a lot of atmosphere in the way, either. It was also the quietest night we’ve spent in Peru, as there are no dogs on the island, no roosters, no cars, no planes overhead, no public address loudspeakers blaring announcements at 6 a.m. It was rapturously tranquil.

Motoring back to Puno, we stopped for lunch on the island of Taquile, which features a closed society in which only the native islanders can own land, or operate a business. It’s a system with advantages and, obviously, some disadvantages, but we admire their fierce sense of self-determinism. Here, interestingly, the men knit the distinctive hats that they wear, and which tell you something about their marital status. The quality of the knitting—specifically, its ability to hold water--also signals something to the young island maidens about the supposed suitability of the knitter.

Well, that strayed significantly from my intended transportation focus, but there’s another slice of life in Peru for you—nothing ever goes quite where or how you intended, but it always ends up some place interesting. Call it an inconvenience or call it an adventure, but in the end somebody eventually shows up with a water pump, or a poncho, or maybe just some herbs and an incantation, and it’s on to the next adventure!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Good Week

Because we’ve traveled in Peru and South America before, because we’ve worked for the government before, and because we did some “due diligence,” we had a notion of what our Peace Corps/Peru experience might be like before we got here—and the many ways in which we were wrong have been fodder for our previous blog posts.

In the last two weeks, though, my PC life has matched up remarkably closely with that image I had, which is a sufficiently stunning development that I thought I’d describe it.

First of all, Jean is Lima-bound, for 3 days of training in teaching English, so she’ll just have to tell her own side of this, later. In perfect English.

We went to Arequipa on Monday of last week to pick up our mail, run some errands, and to do some shopping for things not available in Chivay. Picking up the mail meant spending two hours at Serpost for what should be a 5-minute transaction, bailing a box of goodies out of petty-bureaucrat-from-Customs hell. It got better after that—Arequipa is a fairly magical city, and the mere fact that it was warm and not raining made it a much-needed break from Chivay. The shopping consisted mostly in large necessities and small luxuries, at a mix of small storefronts and an awful, giant supermarket swamped with back-to-schoolers.

We spent the night in Arequipa, as the next morning all the regional volunteers had to receive our H1N1 vaccinations from our Peace Corps doc. Never mind that H1N1 has all but disappeared from Peru—the U.S. Government requires it, so we got expertly perforated.

We then met as a group with a regional NGO to plan a meeting in Chivay for young elected officials and community leaders, to share their experiences and explore ways to involve more youth in the political life of their communities. We then splurged a bit on lunch--$8 really is a lot for tacu-tacu, a kind of mashup of leftovers topped with a sauce of rubbery bits of creatures recently yanked from the sea—but it was good. The bus ride back to Chivay was only 3-1/2 hours, a pleasant surprise, as recently it’s been running 4 hours or more. I used the ride to finish reading “The Book Thief,” (‘bout time, huh?), Jean listening to our infallible and inexhaustible audio book of “Moby Dick,” brilliantly performed by William Hootkins.

In the Colca valley the rainy season is tapering off and everything is a vivid green, like the Bitterroot in May. We get beautiful, sunny, warm mornings, late afternoon rain showers, and occasionally splendid nights: clear, with the constellations of the southern hemisphere piercing the night sky like someone’s crazy idea of the view from God’s back porch.

By day we slaved away, going to meetings with NGO’s, working to help the locals find ways to harvest tourist dollars like they were the quinua crops maturing in their fields. We worked with artisans trying to build a center where tourists could come to try their hand at “artesanía,” spinning alpaca fibers into yarn, and knitting a shawl with it, or turning a blank piece of fabric into an embroidered landscape of birds and mammals with a few deft movements at a sewing machine. I wrote up “oficios,” densely-worded documents overflowing with flowery language, to solicit the use of a meeting room and an extension cord. We talked with nascent entrepreneurs, about how to promote their rustic lodgings to tourists who are willing to take a chance on something other than a standard hotel room in Chivay.

We also were invited to judge the artisan works at a competition held in honor of International Women’s Day. It’s very gratifying that we’re accepted and invited like that, I have to say. We had a great time talking with all the women, and a difficult time judging them. We took advantage of our time in the hall to take in the food competition, too—alpaca “ham” (VERY good), swiss cheese (salty, but a nice change from the ubiquitous “queso fresco”), and excellent cookies and cakes made from corn, quinua, kiwicha, barley, and a few other items I can’t even describe.

What set the week truly apart, for me at least, was seeing a couple of seeds I’ve planted starting to take root. I’ve been pushing a proposal for a campaign similar to “Local First” efforts, encouraging the purchase and use of local products, and especially local artisan work (versus cheaply-made, machine-produced copies from outside the valley). At the afore-mentioned competition, I started seeing labels featuring my “buy local” idea printed on them, before I’ve even officially launched the campaign! (That’s two wins right there—getting people to use labels has been an effort in itself).

At a meeting later that night for the artisan center, I got them to change the idea for their sign from something featuring the incomprehensible acronym for their association, adorned with a condor, to something more descriptive and appealing to tourists. The condor, admittedly magnificent in flight, is still just a big buzzard when it lands, and it’s overdone here. Take that, carrion-breath!

We also started teaching English classes for guides and anyone working in a tourism-related business, three times a week, for the next three months. Prep is time-consuming and demanding, and thankfully Jean has done most of that. We have a mix of people with some knowledge of English, and others with practically virgin ears. Teachers of the world, we salute you.

I spent Saturday biking to Coporaque, 8 muddy kilometers distant, for a work party thrown by a group trying to attract more tourists by developing a nice ½-day hiking circuit. We planted scores of trees, cleaned the path of rocks and debris, built trail and hacked cactus, back-breaking work in a spectacular setting. More Quechua was spoken than Spanish, leaving me gaping stupidly most of the time, but occasionally responding appropriately, astonishing everyone. Rain moved in on us as we worked our way back to town, where we ate a huge lunch, possibly the source of my digestive woes the following two days. Exhausted, I biked home in even-deeper mud, and fell over.

Jean spent that morning working in the small garden plot one of our “socios” offered her, and a friend called to invite her to take a walk that afternoon. If she’d had someone with whom to play some duets in the evening, it would have been a 5-star day for her, but alas, that’s still a piece missing from our lives—cultural opportunities OTHER than those typical of the Sierra are rare, indeed.

Aside from work, I finally started exercising once again, hiking up the mountain that fronts Chivay, with legs of lead. After biking to Coporaque and back Saturday, on Sunday Jean and I rode a nice 90-minute out-and-back on a moderately-challenging trail along the river. She’ll be a mountain biker yet.

I also completed our shower, by installing an electric shower head that currently lacks connection, but which—when and if our host wires it—will provide us with a hot shower, if it doesn’t electrocute us. At least now, for the first time since we got here, we have a COLD shower as an alternative to bucket baths. Small luxury. I live for the possibility of having a hot shower available to us whenever we want it. Things like this come to dominate your life in ways you never expected.

Our social lives? Glad you asked! Peace Corps volunteers who live in smaller towns, with less going on, spend more time watching movies than we do, so Oscar Night was Party Night! We got together with five other volunteers from this province to watch the awards, sporting our finery—t-shirts with tuxes drawn with markers, for example, but Jean rocked the red carpet in her tiara and custom-made local traditional garb. Ballots were filled out, and drinks were consumed either in celebration of correct picks, or as punishment for uninformed guesses. I withdrew myself from most of the drinking, suffering “mal de estómago” of a dangerously explosive nature.

I continued suffering on Monday, with perhaps a hint of clinical depression. February was not a stellar month, health-, work-, or climate-wise, but I had begun to feel much better until I got sick again, and it got to me, I’ll admit. Jean, understanding very well what that’s like, went to the market to buy some bananas for me, and I nearly cried. I rode it out, though, and have felt absolutely buoyant, since. One-and-a-half low days out of six months ain’t so bad.

And that, in 1,500 words or less, is a Peace Corps experience that comes close to matching my expectations, both the good and the bad. Next week, and next month, and the 17 months after that, will be utterly different, no doubt. But I expected that, too.

(Some young actresses Jean worked with in a theater class)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

From Carnaval to Carnivores

We figure you don’t read this for the sometimes boring, frequently frustrating, day-to-day details of Peace Corps volunteers in a developing country. Meetings that happen, meetings that don’t; and the other “inconveniences” we put up with--we recently congratulated each other for an exceptionally long period—2 months!—without either one of us suffering from serious diarrhea. Russ was almost immediately rewarded for this act of hubris with a case of giardia. That’s just daily life.

Down here, “Carnaval” is what they call the weeks before (and a few days after) Mardi Gras. In many parts of Latin America it’s a huge party, but it also has more dimensions to it than you ever imagined.

For one thing, it’s an auspicious time to make a “pago a la tierra,” literally a payment to the earth. It’s also a time for various kinds of flute competitions . . . and thus begins one of the weirder weeks we’ve spent in Perú so far, and that’s saying something!

We were invited to visit Espinar, a province in the region of Cuzco, to learn something of their touristic resources and critique their efforts to develop tourism. Item 1) Espinar isn’t really close to anywhere, and the roads aren’t paved, in spite of what we were told. Item 2) It doesn’t make the best of impressions when your van gets stuck in the mud, not quite a minute out of town on the show-me trip, and the nearest neighbor comes screaming out of her house when we start using “her” rocks to get some traction.

Nevertheless, the place has some impressive resources, and with Machu Picchu temporarily closed, they aim to attract some tourists. We were knocked out by the landscape at Tres Cañones, where three forks join to form the Rio Apurimac, (headwaters of the Amazon); or maybe we were just VERY glad to get out of the bus, finally. The Inca ruins nearby are a well-preserved religious site, where odd rock formations are said to cast shadows of puma and condor, and the view from atop the mesa on which they were built is spectacular. The whole area is very reminiscent of the Dillon/Big Hole country of Montana--but 7,000 feet higher, around 13,000 feet on average. It potentially offers a range of adventure sports, from kayaking and rafting to rock climbing/rappelling. All it lacks is tourists, infrastructure, and access.

Later that evening, as we were waiting for our meeting with the municipal officials to start, someone suggested we might like to spend a few minutes at a private “pago a la tierra,” much more intimate than the official ceremony scheduled for later. So, of course we got into the truck with complete strangers, and were whisked to we-know-not-where, strolling into a private and fairly serious ceremony where they may or may not have been expecting us. A bit scary, to tell the truth. We were welcomed and made to feel part of it all, though, as is almost always the case in Peru. There was music, men in distinctly odd costumes which were not explained to us, dancing, drinking, and . . . other stuff. We were instructed in the proper ways to make our offerings, and then, just as suddenly, we were trucked back to our meeting. It was in the nicest town hall we’ve seen, but it suddenly seemed very sterile.

The “official” Pago a la Tierra that night was still a serious affair, with a ram sacrificed in front of us (more on that sort of thing, later) and offerings made with great attention to detail and in very specific ways. We participated with as much gravity as we could muster.

The following day, after visiting more, very scenic ruins, we were taken to something like the local rodeo grounds, for the “Chaka Sabado” festival. Thousands of people lined the hillsides, like tailgaters at a NASCAR event (well no, not really), to watch a man, (the Chu’ko) dressed in an elaborate costume with miles of red yarn simulating the coat of an alpaca or llama, or maybe a pom-pom. He was playing a very large, phallic flute (Pinkuyllo), in an attempt to seduce a soltera (single woman) who was sassing him in song. The whole scene builds to a literal climax as they finally wrestle, and one of them (guess who) is thrown to the ground and . . . er, mounted.

OK, their clothes never came off, but there was no question about what was going on.
Each neighborhood has their Chu’ko and soltera, so we watched the same thing, more or less, repeat itself for a couple of hours. (Seduction? Rape? Elaborate sexual play?) Truly, it was a fascinating scene. At that point, we could not have been surprised by anything.

The whole thing felt like exactly the Peace Corps experience we signed up for—we were able to contribute a bit of our expertise to a development project, while experiencing some completely alien cultural traditions not as tourists, but as anyone else in the community experiences them—albeit, without context.

Now, back in Chivay, we had President’s Day free, so we accepted another invitation to a Pago a la Tierra, at our friend Pedro’s wife’s estancia, where they keep their llamas and alpacas in the rainy season. (Peace Corps rule #1: say “yes” to any invitation!) So off we go, high into the Andes, collecting juniper shrubs to make a smoky fire inside the stone corral to provide the right atmosphere.

The eldest son (Pedro’s brother-in-law) started taking notes so that he can conduct the ceremony when the paterfamilias is no longer able. A blanket is spread on the ground as a kind of altar. Sprigs of a particular shrub are placed on it. Everyone is given two pieces of llama tallow, on which you breathe three times, and place them on the altar—one to ask permission from the “apus,” or mountain spirits, to remain in their territory; one to ask protection from Santiago against lightning. The process is then repeated, only this time the two pieces of tallow petition protection for the llamas and the alpacas.

After this we begin downing many, many, cups of chicha (homebrew), beer, wine, and anything else they put in front of us. Seashells are dipped into the cups, a mineral is ground over them, incense is blown on three times and passed around. We’re hoping the brother-in-law is getting all of this down. Corn. There’s a couple kinds of corn, too, and dead birds, and more chicha. Things get a bit more fuzzy.

Then we go out into the mountainside to round up the animals and herd them into the corral. It was great fun to bring together this sea of alpacas and llamas, against the backdrop of the high Andes. Once they’re all together in the stone corral, the climax of this particular ceremony comes when Pedro selects an alpaca and brings it over near the altar, apologizes, and


throws it to the ground, where the women hold it down. Brother-in-law dons a ceremonial poncho, rolls up his sleeve, picks up a knife, sips some chicha, then slits open the animal’s abdomen. He reaches inside, high up into the chest cavity, and yanks the beating heart right out of the animal! Leaping to his feet, he quickly runs a lap around the corral and all the animals, before breathlessly placing the heart on the altar. Next, he fishes out lungs, spleen, and kidney, which are analyzed for their shape and size, which augur for the coming year. Jean and Russ watch all this as impassively as they can manage. Pedro’s 7-year-old daughter is shooting video.

After this, more beer, more chicha, more whatever; the offerings are breathed on 3X by all present, and burnt. Russ is busy helping skin out the alpaca, Jean is shooting photos of an alpaca that walked into the corral a few minutes ago, and is now dinner. It’s a good lesson, I suppose.

All of a sudden, somebody spots the last bus into Chivay coming over the pass, and a few of us gather our things and gallop down the mountain to the road to flag it down, climbing on bedecked in alpaca blood, Mardi Gras streamers, and face paint that was applied just before the sacrifice. The people on the bus don’t quite know what to make of these gringos they just picked up in the middle of nowhere, but they give us a ride to town.

Stay with us here, we’re almost done.

Mardi Gras isn’t a big day here—it’s a big SEASON: Carnaval. In Chivay, it’s celebrated by kids throwing water balloons (OK, we laid in a stock, too, to be lobbed from our convenient 3rd-floor perch) and spraying aerosol foam on everyone, and by adolescents playing drums and flutes. The flutes are metal or plastic, mostly made from plumbing supplies, some still threaded for later use. They’re not very musical, and the short phrase they play isn’t very catchy, but they do play enthusiastically.

For days. And nights. The same damn music, over and over.

Not only that, but these “bands,” representing the neighborhoods of Chivay, roam the streets, and the official flute competitions sometimes devolve into fistfights as the peripatetic pipers encounter each other in dark alleys. The Chivay Fighting Flautists! Stay in your homes, folks, the streets aren’t safe—there’s flutes out there! Fortunately, they are accompanied by young women in their beautiful traditional costumes, swinging . . . what? Whips? Slingshots? Oops, back into the house!

We constantly try to avoid being judgmental, but this last week has caused us a few raised eyebrows, and a little squirming, in spite of our cultural sensitivity training.

So, write us and tell us about YOUR Carnaval/President’s Day festivities!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Swept Away by the Floods--NOT

Perhaps, if you’ve been paying very close attention to the news, you’ve heard about the flooding in the region of Cusco and Machu Picchu. I’ve kept an eye on the news in English, and have had to search hard to find any word about it--but let me tell you, it’s BIG news here!

First, for anyone concerned, even though we’re not that far from Cusco, we haven’t been getting any such epic soakings. Rain, yes, nearly every day, but very moderate, so we’re fine, so far. (We’ve got another 6 weeks of rainy season yet to go, says the vizcacha, the local equivalent of the groundhog). Keeps everything very nice and green, here in (usually) very dry Chivay.

Next, for anyone considering a visit, Machu Picchu is closed until they can fix the railroad access, but the government says it will re-open by early March. I’d bet on late March, myself. There are bargains to be had right now, and I don’t know how long they’ll last, but one is a “Cusco at half-price” promotion that a number of hotels are in on. If you’re thinking of visiting soon, they have operators standing by. . .

In January, powerful and incessant rains first caused a 500-year-old stone wall to collapse at the “fortress” of Sacsayhuamán, near Cusco. Then, the rivers began to rise, taking out bridges in the “Sacred Valley” where Machu Picchu and other significant archeological sites are located. Then the Urubamba river began eating away at the towns themselves, sending the debris rushing down the eastern slope of the Andes towards Brazil.

Machu Picchu itself is accessible only by a railroad that runs between Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba, and Aguas Calientes (now known as Machu Picchu Pueblo). Finally, the rains caused a series of landslides that closed the rail line, stranding thousands of tourists at Machu Picchu. Various governments sent in helicopters to take out their citizens and, finally, everyone else. I can imagine the last group to go, drinking and eating their way through the last remaining supplies in town before the chopper came . . .

So far as we’ve heard, Machu Picchu itself isn’t damaged, though it’s soggy. (I imagine it’s been soggy before). The Peruvian government is losing millions of dollars a day in tourist revenues, so they’re very motivated to get that rail line fixed, and they’re starting to think, once again, about providing some alternative access to the site as well. We were there in 1990, when Maoist guerillas were terrorizing the country, and we were well-aware of how very susceptible that one, key rail line was!

We’re headed for the Department (state) of Cusco for a technical exchange this weekend, visiting archeological sites and talking about eco-, adventure-, and cultural-tourism development, but we won’t be in Cusco itself, or anywhere near Machu Picchu. Still, we’ll be visiting some Inca (and older) sites that are almost entirely overlooked, and Cusco is desperate to broaden their tourist attractions to include things that aren’t currently underwater. “Snorkel Cusco!” . . . doesn’t cut it in the international tourist market.

Jean just got her "traje típica" back from an artesan friend today, so she can dress up in a complete and authentic outfit just like ALL the other women here! Just in time for Carnaval and more dancing . . .

That’s the major news right now. We’ll have more to report from Carnaval, which is just starting to gear up in Peru. It’s not just a 1- or 2-day party, it’s a couple of weekends of rowdy water fights, parades, and who-knows-what, but we’re here to experience it all for you!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Yellow Underwear & An Inconvenience, Rightly Viewed

The holiday season has departed, swirling counter-clockwise down the toilet bowl of time, but we thought it would be instructive to discuss some of the new customs we acquired, or at least encountered, here in Chivay, followed by some of the frustrations, large and small.

Christmas was a revelation: almost nothing happened. In Chivay, there was little acknowledgement of the approaching holiday, no Christmas tree in the Plaza de Armas, no tinsel in the Mercado. You could buy figurines for your crèche in a few market stalls, and many hotels, restaurants, and no doubt homes, had such displays, with krumpled kraft paper, brown for the earth and indigo for the starry night sky, and odd assortments of animals unknown to Bethlehem, but no baby Jesus in sight.

We were in Arequipa a few days before Christmas, and there the bustle was more apparent, the shopping frenzy building, but never to the level of the States. Amid northern European and patently American images of Christmas, snow and sleighs, we were walking around in shirt sleeves among palm trees. We paused to watch families pose, in the unsmiling Peruvian way, with a distinctly Andean Papa Noel, in front of the beautifully-illuminated Cathedral. It was all somehow oddly pleasing.

Christmas Eve, we bathed a pavo (turkey) in secret Peruvian juices and spices, and took it over to the bakery, where a flotilla of turkeys floated in similar baths, awaiting their turn in one of the few ovens in town. We finally feasted with family at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., and presented our hosts with a few gifts, including a Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt for Enrique. They had nothing for each other or for the (teenage) sons, and nobody really expected anything. We finished dinner with hot chocolate and a paneton, chased by a bit of wine and champagne.

Midnight was greeted with scattered fireworks in the streets, and baby Jesus was brought out and placed in the manger. That was about it. Pretty low-key by American standards.

Christmas Day we spent in Yanque, a town of about 1,300 people 8 km. down the road, with Jenny, who has a small restaurant, and a few of the other Peace Corps volunteers from the area. Jenny baked her first turkey, and Russ introduced the concept of gravy to the Colca valley, with some success.

That was Christmas—no binge shopping, no wallowing in gifts, no big buildup to the Big Day . . . just a chance to spend a pleasant evening together with family and enjoy a nicer-than-usual meal, and then the company of a few other muy simpatico volunteers.

New Year’s Eve was a bigger deal. Chivay and Yanque both planned bashes in their Plazas de Armas, and went to the same sources to finance them, engendering some less-than-friendly competition and a few hard feelings. Very Bitterroot, very Colca. The markets were full of everything you need to celebrate New Year’s properly:

Candles—blue for peace or tranquility, yellow for abundance, red to bring passion, green for health, white for purity or clarity in your endeavors, orange for intelligence, and so forth.

Food—the table is set with the best tablecloth, plates, glasses, and cutlery possible. That may just be the same as ever, but wiped extra-clean with a paper napkin. Pork was the universal choice for dinner, with lentils, chocolate, and a paneton. Champagne (a bargain at $3 a bottle—but undrinkable. We should have opted for the $4 stuff) at midnight. You should also eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each stroke of the clock or each month of the new year, and make a wish with each one.

Yellow underwear—best if a gift, it should be worn at midnight. Some traditions say that wearing your underwear inside-out will bring new clothes in the new year. Our Peace Corps medic advised us that wearing white underwear until it turned yellow doesn’t count.

At the Mercado in Arequipa, Jean bought a secret mix of herbs from a kiosk staffed by “brujas,” (witches, shamans, herbalists . . .) and then a batch of flowers for her baño de florecimiento, a flower bath to bring good luck, deter evil, etc. The flowers and herbs are boiled, and then you bathe in the water. As with so many things, everyone has an idea of which herbs and flowers are best, and in what proportion. If Jean encounters any bad luck the rest of the year, it will probably be a result of bathing with too much rosemary and not enough yellow carnations.

Amanda also told her fortune using coca leaves--the leaves speak if you pay a small propina (tip), breathe on them to inspire them, and respect the ritual. Short version: the road ahead looks good, with job satisfaction and improving Spanish, everything very “tranquilo” with lots of signs of “florecimiento,” or flowering. Nice. Russ prefers to be surprised by life, so he didn’t ask the leaves anything, but they threw in an advisory, gratis, that he’d probably be seeing the doctor about something, but nothing serious. Thanks, leaves.

Jean has also been busy giving language lessons, and one of her most eager students is a young woman who works at the restaurant. She took the opportunity to use cookie ingredients sent by a friend in Hamilton (thanks, Christine!) as a language class as they baked cookies together. A major success!

Since our arrival in Chivay, we’ve been looking forward to the first visitor from the U.S., our first chance to show off the place and get a reading on how it appears to an unbiased observer. To no-one’s surprise, Skip Horner got here first, but only just barely. Skip’s a guide, and he was leading a party to Machu Picchu, but as long as he was in Peru, he figured he could drop in on us.

It should be so simple.

A few days before he was due to arrive, the transportistas declared an indefinite “paro,” or work stoppage, to protest a great injustice, we were never clear on what. There would be no buses, no taxis, no colectivos, no nothing. Great. We hadn’t had a paro since last July, and the first visitor to come visit gets sent to purgatory, instead.

Skip arrived in Arequipa on Wednesday. His bags did not. Russ had planned to meet him at the airport, but couldn’t leave Chivay. We set up a ride for Skip with a tour operator (tourist vans were getting through the blockade if they left at 3 a.m.), but he elected to wait on his bags instead. They arrived Thursday, and early Friday morning he rode from Arequipa to Chivay in a truck offered by a local NGO, arriving 48 hours later than planned.

We packed all the fun we could into one afternoon, then in the evening he gave a great slide show into which we inserted some useful and inspirational material for the local guides, and interested townspeople. This is the very bright side of our lives in Chivay.

We got up early the next morning to go birding with Skip, successfully enough. Breakfast, though, was demoralizing: the restaurant staff displayed every annoying customer service issue we have ever fought to eliminate in Chivay, like they had been practicing the “bad service” part of an instructional skit, resulting in a comically-awful experience. Make no mistake, we eventually got enough to eat (though not exactly what we ordered), and even got our correct change back the same day (not always assured), but between the paro and the experience of breakfast, we were reminded that one cannot expect a seamless, stress-free tourist experience in Peru. It might happen that way, but you can’t expect it.

The other lesson, though, is that it all works out. Skip got here, after spending a couple extra days in Arequipa, certainly not the worst place in the world to get stuck, and though our visit was shorter than hoped-for, the joy of contact with a good friend from our “old lives” was undimmed, perhaps even enhanced. It’s all about flexibility, comfort with uncertainty, and that G.K. Chesterton quote that Skip introduced us to, more than a decade ago: an adventure is merely an inconvenience, rightly viewed.

Lastly, here’s an adventure, rightly viewed: we were invited to participate in the “Concurso de ciclismo de alta montaña,” part of the town of Sibayo’s annual anniversary celebration. It was a 10k bike ride that involved crossing a suspended bridge, fording a river, and dodging cows (surprisingly, not alpaca!), all at 12,600 feet. We had a great time, and everyone thought us good sports, stretching toilet paper across the street for us to break as we came in last.

We had been drafted off the street the week before to portray a couple of tourists in a "socio-drama" they were staging to try to win a grant to bury the ugly power lines in their beautiful village. They actually have a law against tin roofs, requiring instead the traditional thatch roofs and stone walls. They won their grant, we were cheered, so we had friends when we got there for the bike race.

Sometimes, too, life in Peru is very gratifying!