Monday, June 14, 2010

Serious/Fun

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.