Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More photos!

Showing off my tough side on the boat ride to the Pongo.
Crouching in front of Machu Picchu.

Kyla and I enjoying our view of Machu Picchu.

Peru Stage - The Musical!

Now, I must say that I am certainly tempted to write about our trip to Machu Picchu, but really, I would just be repeating many things said before: beautiful, outstanding, breathtaking, etc. I just cannot sum up such an amazing experience via words at the moment. When I return, I will post photos and tell mysterious, Inca-related legends, told to us by a young Peruvian man we met at the top of one of the mountains we climbed. In the meantime, however, I will just say a few things worth noting. First off, I, along with the rest of the group, was shocked at the westernization and cleanliness of Machu Picchu’s town, Aguas Calientes. It did not look like Peru. The buildings did not resemble anything I had seen around here, except maybe in the rich part of Lima. We passed several five-star hotels, and it felt like we had hiked into another country. Not only that, but there were wall-to-wall gringos (Spanish slang for white people). Gringos and gringas were pouring out of every restaurant and store, tons of them yakking loudly in English as they walked along the streets. I categorized them into three groups: retired couples or clean-cut, American families or young backpackers. It was very strange to be surrounded by unknown white people again.
Our hotel was pretty normal by North American standards but was utter luxury for us. Each room had its own bathroom! Not only that, but the bathrooms were equipped with a toilet seat, toilet paper, and even, get this, hot water in the shower! The students could not contain their shrieking. At least half the group took a shower. It is amazing what one can take for granted.
The weekend was fabulous; we were pampered, eating exciting things such as pasta, pizza, and avocado salads in a fancy restaurant (albeit again normal by North American standards). Everything was paid for, even the one free Pisco sour or white wine! I chose the white wine, and after a day of intense hiking, even the half glass made me feel light-hearted (headed).
That being said, we did many hours of hiking. We hiked from a place called Hydro Electrica to Aguas Calientes, which was probably around 12 kilometres but all on flat ground. Once we arrived, we ate (and indulged in that white wine) and an hour or so afterwards, eight of us, decided to climb a nearby mountain. It was a great, yet intense, hike. There were parts were it was so steep to climb that they had installed very long, wooden ladders. After the part with the ladders, it was a steep, rocky climb the rest of the way. Surprising us all, we made it up in exactly one hour, although it was said to take at least an hour and a half. Atop the mountain gave us the most spectacular view of Machu Picchu. The photo I have just posted is the view that Kyla and I, along with the others, witnessed.
It was at the top of this mountain that we met our Peruvian friend. He was dressed in Inca garb, complete with the colourful poncho and hat. Yannick was sure it was a tourist who had been traveling too long. It turned out that he was Peruvian, with excellent English, mind you, who was from a town near Quillabamba. He was our best tour guide, telling us all sorts of myths and legends surrounding the unknown and mystery of Machu Picchu and the Inca trails. Our hike was certainly enriched with his vast amounts of knowledge, and Erika and I both jumped with excitement when he told us that he was part of an emerging NGO that had to do with the protection of the Indigenous and modern cultures. I can’t wait to research more about it when I return home and have the luxury of unlimited internet.

Well, perhaps I said more than just a few things about the weekend, but there is certainly much more to elaborate on.

This will be my last entry from Peru. I hope to write one more blog entry about the Peru Stage upon my return – I want to write about our Peruvian partner, AYNI Desarrollo, headed by four young, incredibly ambitious, and hard-working women.

Hasta luego!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Another perspective

If you want another take on my adventures, read Erika´s blog:

2 photos

Me chilling at the ruins.

After having climbed up to the cross, a few of us gazing at Quillabamba below us.

Escaping the Evil Clutches of Cold

Now, I know that North Americans think some pretty weird things and probably act in equally strange ways at times. However, let me indulge in a common Peruvian belief that I, frankly, find laughable. Peruvians in Quillabamba are utterly, completely, and deathly afraid of the cold. They believe the cold to be some lurking, boogeyman, who comes out at night and who will bite anyone who isn’t covered in eight wool blankets. Cold is the root of all evils. Your toe is swollen? You have a crink in your neck? Your stomach hurts? Your pants are falling off? It is clearly because of the cold. When JP suffered from altitude sickness, the Peruvians immediately covered him in two blankets, one of them being the kind you only use when it is -40 outside. As long as he keeps warm (read: boiling hot), he will be okay. Another student shares her bedroom with her host family, and she is not allowed to open the window at night (which, incidentally, is the best time to open the windows here and let the cool air filter in!) because her family told her that the treacherous cold could wipe them all out. Another student was suffering from diarrhea at the beginning of the program, and all he wanted was some cold water, but no, the family told him that cold beverages can be destructive to the system. This is why everyone drinks water at room temperature. Once, Yannick brought an ice-cold Coca-Cola to a family he was visiting, and they put the soft drink on the counter and only drank it when it was nice and warm.
Just today, a student came over early in the morning, due to stomach pains. Her host mother told us that she is sick probably due to being in a wet bathing suit yesterday. Of course, being in a damp bathing suit in the sun at 27 degrees is the perfect recipe for frostbite!

With all this fear about the cold, you would think that nothing cold would be accepted here. Well, Peruvians do love their ice cream and their swimming pools. While it is true that you can avoid both of these things, it is impossible (let us hope) to avoid bathing yourself. And when you take a shower here, there is only one option: cold. Cold showers and warm drinks. I can’t think of anything better. Except maybe peanut butter.

El Pongo de Mainique

It was planned that on Saturday morning, we were all heading to the Amazon to take a boat and take in the sights. Because the drive was ridiculously long, we needed to leave at a ridiculous hour, which was 6:30 am. I set my alarm for 6:06 am, giving myself enough time to get up, get dressed, and grab my already prepared bag. This 6:06 method, however, did not agree with Erika, as she needs at least fifteen minutes to just roll out of bed, whereas I can jump out of bed within two minutes of hearing my alarm. My philosophy is that 6:06 gives me the maximum undisturbed time to sleep, whereas an alarm going off every three minutes starting at 5:45 would simply make me wake up at 5:45. To summarize, we remained friends and negotiated and set the alarm for 6:00.

We were all on the bus by 6:40 and man was it ever a long one. Eight hours of dusty roads, with the hot sun creeping up on you is typically not my idea of a fun trip, but with the promise of the Amazon jungle up ahead, we all tolerated it and tried to keep as cool as possible. As soon as we arrived, we ate the typical rice and chicken lunch and then were shown our hotels. Now, hotel is a misleading word, as it conjures up images of chintzy beds, large windows, a television set, as well as the possibility of a gym or a pool. Our hotel was directly above the outdoor restaurant, with a creeky wooden staircase, and very simple rooms. The room contained the bed and the mosquito netting (which included quaint holes) and nothing else. At least I had a picturesque window, overlooking the beach and river, and I was also privy to seeing where the raw sewage flowed out into the river.

Now, when you think of raw sewage, you think of staying far away from it – poff, we said (true, without knowing at this point that it was raw sewage going into the river) and we dipped our feet in the river, some of the students swimming. The bathroom of the hotel was also not what you think of when you hear “bathroom”. The restaurant and the hotel shared the same bathroom, and the smell, oh the stench of it, was nearly unbearable. One of the hotels, incidentally, the one I was staying at, did not have running water at the bathrooms, so you had to bring your own water from the river, I suppose, in order to flush the toilet or wash your hands. I avoided this crisis by using the other hotel’s bathroom where the stench was just as deadly, but at least it had running water.

We took a nice long walk on the beach later that afternoon. Erika and I enjoyed the scenery, especially the interesting shaped rocks along the water, as well as the colourful and unidentified flora around us. On the edge of the beach, in the wooded area, one of the students, Laurent, came across several lines of thousands of red ants. The ants were transporting food across the path and into the woods. It was really neat to see tons of ants hurrying back and forth, carrying food many times their own weight. Laurent also pointed out the ants that were on “look-out” duty; single ants were stationed outside the line of ants, in order to warn them of impeding danger. We were certainly a danger, so out of courtesy, we left them alone and headed back to the beach. That evening we decided to have a bonfire right by the water. It was great – we played a game called “Loup Garou”, which is very similar to Mafia, but with a few additions. Very fun. Afterwards, people started telling ghost stories, which, frankly, managed to freak me out, so I requested for jokes afterwards. After a good hour of jokes and such, I headed off to bed and managed to sleep very well, despite the paper thin walls and the raw sewage below me.

The following morning, breakfast consisted of rice, fried bananas, and runny eggs. The eggs were a bit too much to handle, especially considering the smell that surrounded this restaurant – a stomach churning mix of urine, diesel, and fried chicken. Shortly after eating, we eagerly left the restaurant and jumped into our boats (we had two boats for the group). The minute we took off, I knew I was going to love the boat ride. Catherine and I stayed in front for a good chunk of the ride, taking photos, commenting on the scenery, and just enjoying the wind and the rocking of the boat. We hit rapids many times during the ride, and man, was it every exhilarating! As our boat crashed into the rapids, we yelped with joy and enjoyed getting splashed. Erika kept screaming, “Oh my god, it’s a big one guys!” Who needs roller coasters when you’ve got the jungle?!
The landscape – astounding as always – amazed us with its lush colours: deep greens, bright yellows, and shocking reds. Large trees with gigantic leaves lined the sides of the rolling hills. Along the side of the river were shiny, strangely shaped rocks, often resembling faces, and sometimes looking like a pile of garbage bags, just glistening in the sun. We also passed countless waterfalls, delicately running down the large cliffs that were on either side of the river. After three hours of being the boat, we got off in the heart of the jungle, named the Pongo. We explored a little of the area, but spent most of the time splashing around in the river. It was wonderfully refreshing. When we boarded the boats again, most of us were still in our bathing suits (or underwear for some), and we just lounged about, letting the sun and the wind dry us off. And just to top off a perfect boat ride in the jungle, the sky became overcast, which allowed us to enjoy the return boat trip in a cooler, much more relaxing temperature.

Of course, another 8-hour bus ride back was waiting for us upon our return. Again, it was stuffy and uncomfortable, but it being night, I was able to sleep a little. Even though it was an exhausting ride to and fro the Pongo, the trip was certainly worth it. It was impossibly beautiful - I would love to return someday with any of you who would care to join me.

This weekend, we visit la piece de resistance – Machu Picchu! The recount of the trip should be posted on Monday.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Quillabambian Evenings

Evenings in Quillabamba are always bustling with excitement – it is my favourite part of the day. I love walking at night, considering it is the perfect temperature: cool and windy. Unfortunately, as a female, I need to be extra careful at night. Catherine ops for a moto-taxi, like most girls in the group, but I take a different approach. As soon as the sun goes down, I become a biker chick from hell. It was Catherine who gave me this title. She says I look like one, especially when my curly hair is poofed out, and I wear a black shirt. I walk with a most confident stride, with my shoulders thrown back, and my arms out and determined at my sides. No one dares to look twice at me when I pull out my biker chick personality - and when they do glance at me, they are trembling in their shoes.

Some evenings, I visit students at their homes and eat supper with their families. Last week, a student and I made pancakes for her host family, so that they could try maple syrup for the first time. Peruvians seem to love the stuff - every student I´ve asked have said they´ve had positive results with the syrup.

Other evenings, we take walks around town or go up on the roof to bathe in the comfort of the star-filled sky. Sometimes, Catherine and Erika will share a beer and will make fun of me for refusing it. Even though I have explained numerous times that I am just not a fan of beer, Catherine insists that one little cup of beer will do me good. I refuse and eat my popcorn instead. So, far they have drunk five bottles of beer (they are much larger bottles than the ones we are used to), and Catherine says that, by the end of the program, her and Erika will make it to a 100 bottles of beer on the wall. This is when the silliness begins and when our Peruvian cook shakes her head and laughs at us. Our broken Spanish is a great larf for our cook, who enjoys our antics (or so it seems), as well as our attempts to explain silly things in Spanish.

We visited the Pongo de Mainique this weekend, which is a part of the jungle. More on that exotic adventure later!

Fun times

Climbing up the waterfall!
Erika and I on the footbridge en route to the monastery.

A few of us making friends with the women who sell flowers at the cemetery.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

My Peruvian Ritual

At around 6:30 am, Catherine is puttering around the apartment, hoping that Erika and I will get up with her to go for a nice morning walk and take dog pictures or do some yoga. Only once have we gotten up for yoga, as she had started it at 7:30 am, a much more reasonable time. However, she lost hope for us over a week ago and hasn’t bothered us much about yoga since, which is really too bad, because with enough coaxing and perhaps starting at that reasonable time, I may drag myself out of my cool bed and fling myself into the acrobatics of yoga.
At around 7:30 am, Erika’s alarm and Erika begin their morning ritual. One rings, the other slaps. This goes on for about an hour. Catherine and I have plans to drown the godforsaken thing at the end of the program. It will be flushed down the nearest toilet.
We roll out of bed and realize, as usual, that there is no water. Another morning ritual is to turn on the water in the mornings. If we don’t, the water pump will go on and off all night and would make sleeping impossible. Usually, it is Catherine or I who turn it on. The pump runs for almost an hour before we have full water capacity again. In the meantime, we have either coffee or tea made with coca leaves (with the water held in a thermos that was boiled that night prior). For most breakfasts, Catherine, Erika, and I head to Don Felix, our favourite restaurant. Cute kittens and parrots greet us at the restaurant, which makes the stay that much more enjoyable. I order papaya juice and honey pancakes. We give our waiters Canadian flag pins.
After a leisurely breakfast, we head off, either all three of us, two of us in a pair, or alone. I either visit student at their work placements or in their families. Today, I visited Jean Philippe, who, incidentally, has regained most of his energy, at his school. I ended up teaching an English lesson with him. JP encouraged me to do most of the talking, since English isn’t his first language. After going over the months and the parts of the body with the students, I took my leave. Sometimes, I will visit another student at work, help out a little at their work, and again move on. Sometimes, I walk around the market, buy some of my favourite ‘maïs levantarse’, which is a kind of sweetened popcorn. Today, I poked my head into a so-called ‘Music and Art’ school, where a guy was painting and another was playing a small keyboard. I talked to the painter, and he was telling me that they offer painting and guitar lessons. I told him I played the piano. We chatted a little more about his style of painting before I headed out again.
Other days, I have lunch or supper, or even both, at a student’s family. The families are always so warm and hospitable and usually interested in your doings and anecdotes about Canada. The more I talk, the more I improve my Spanish, and I have learned that no matter how horrible and broken you speak a language, as long as you make an effort, you will improve. Besides, Peruvians love it when you speak Spanish, even though your verb tenses are all wrong and you used the wrong words to begin with. But hey, they understood you, and even if they didn’t really, at least you gave them a laugh.
We eat lunch at around 2 pm, which is the main meal of the day. We have a fantastic cook, who has also become our Peruvian mother. She gives us advice about Quillabamba, how to stay safe, where to go, and never stops telling us how beautiful we are. Our lunch begins with a soup and then a main course, which is usually rice and meat. We are also lucky enough to eat many vegetables, such as cucumbers, avocados, and tomatoes. I had been craving spaghetti for awhile, so I requested spaghetti for lunch the other day. Spaghetti is a known dish around here; it’s just not very popular. I told her what ingredients went into the sauce and left her to do her magic. Spaghetti was a welcoming change, and although the sauce was different (even though she duly used all of the ingredients I requested), it was delicious. Even Erika, who often finds it too hot to eat hot food in the middle of the day, licked her plate clean.
After lunch, I will either go and visit more students, or I will have a siesta (oh yeah), or I will just walk around town. I love just coming across soccer games on the side of the road. The town is always so full of life, full of people, full of energy. It is hot and sunny, there is music playing, and some shops are closed for the siesta hours. Most shops, however, seem to be open all hours of the day (save for on Sundays)
At around 4 pm, when the day starts to cool down again, Erika and I will head off for a walk or visit more students. Sometimes, we window shop at the little boutiques in and around the market. Whilst Erika was in the market for a traditional Inca hat, I was on the lookout for orange pants. Yes, I realize the search for orange pants seems to be never-ending, but it had its closure the other day. I found orange pants that were 55 soles, which, frankly, I wasn’t willing to pay. However, instead of just shrugging your shoulders ‘oh well’, you whip out your bargaining skills. After being prepped by Yannick on how to bargain, I was ready to go back into that shop and buy those pants for 40 soles. That was how much I wanted to spend. I marched in and asked to see the 28 sized orange pants again. The store clerk smiled; she remembered me. How could she not? Here I am, the only white person looking adamantly for orange pants. Also, the last time we were in that store, Catherine, Erika, and I made a huge scene by taking a picture of me posing with the mannequins, who, apparently, all looked like they had to badly use the bathroom. Besides the colour of our skin, our silliness makes being inconspicuous impossible.
I asked if I could buy the orange pants for 30 soles. She went to the back to the store to ask the owner, I guess. She came back and said, no, these pants are worth 55, we’ll sell it to you for 45 soles minimum. I replied with, look, I can buy cheaper pants back in Canada, so if you don’t sell it to me for 40 soles max, I am outta here. Well, that did it; pants sold at 40 soles!

So, what do I enjoy here? Watching the kids walk back from school, joking with each other, ice cream in hand, all looking so professional and old-fashioned in their school uniforms. I love waking up every morning surrounded by mountains, with clouds interlacing the peaks. I enjoy walking around Plaza de Armas (one of the town squares), as well as the market, just watching other people or the ones selling you things. It is incredible to see some tiny women, with long, black hair braided down their back, decked out in layered skirts, as well as the colourful Inca blanket. These women must be well over sixty, yet they do not have a trace of white hair.
I enjoy the sun, the wind, and the cool evenings.

My Peruvian Ritual to be concluded shortly.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ventana del Corazon

Last Sunday, Yannick, Erika, and I spent the day trekking around Quillabamba, visiting host families. What struck me was the difference in the standard of living between each family. One of our student’s bathrooms is carved into the cement, slanted part of the staircase and is a favourite hang out spot for cockroaches. The bathroom also sports a special door; it is not on hinges, so you must move the door to the side, go inside, and then put the door back in order to ‘close’ it. The bathroom looks like a dripping, rotten, cockroach-breeding prison cell. On the flip side, another one of our other student’s not only has her own bedroom, but her own clean, tiled bathroom, complete with a toilet seat, a shower, and even toilet paper with puppies on it!
It is also interesting to note what families choose to spend their money on. The family who cooks on an open hearth owns a television. The family who owns a personal car (very rare here) and a motorcycle does not have toilet seats. I wonder if material worth is associated with status because, in that case, having toilet seats wouldn’t matter, as most people usually are not interested in peeking into your bathroom, but people do notice if you own a car. This luxurious family is very keen to disassociate themselves from any kind of poverty in Quillabamba because they have the means to. It makes sense that those who have experienced poverty and now are well off never want to look back, but it is also extremely commendable when one who was once poor can look back and help those who are still behind. I also wonder if people who own little else buy a television in order to distract themselves from their daily miseries. Is it simply a distraction or are they trying to assert their social status?

Yesterday, the majority of the group, including Yannick and I, took a three-hour bus ride to some old ruins. Our bus was actually a large van that Yannick drove. Driving here is certainly a unique experience. In the Quillabamba area, only main roads in town are paved. All roads leaving Quillabamba are hard dirt and are only wide enough for one vehicle. So, if you encounter another vehicle on the road, depending on how big it is, you either have to slow down and squeeze by each other or back up to a wider part of the road. Twice, we came up against large trucks; Yannick had to back up right into the mountain in order to let it pass and even then we were barely an inch apart. Bumping and tossing around the mountains, in a filthy, falling-apart van, only a few feet away from a most treacherous cliff is an experience in itself. It is quite scary at times, but you really have to forget about the danger part of it or else you would not be able to spend more than a few minutes in that van. The best mind set to be in is to think of it as a roller coaster – complete with live chickens and cows crossing the road at any given time, adding that extra bit of excitement, as well as oncoming traffic that you just barely miss hitting.
After a breakfast stop in a small town restaurant (we had made reservations, but that doesn’t seem to matter here, as they only started cooking when we got there), we made it to our hiking spot by late morning. I feel like I am a broken record here, but the landscape and the view were fantastic once again. A ten-year old kid and his six-year old brother were our tour guides. Apparently, they climb up the old Inca trail to the ruins all the time. They led us up a very steep rock-built trail, during which I discovered how much higher in altitude we were. Usually, I can trek uphill for awhile without getting tired, but here I was almost immediately out of breath! We had been warned that we were going to be in very high altitude, so it is always best to take it easy and take it slow. During the hike, I was thinking about the children, who had appointed themselves as our tour guide, and I was wondering if their parents knew where they were or if they even cared. The kids just took off with us, and I didn’t notice them telling anyone. They were with us for the entire hike, which lasted about three hours, without a hat or a coat (we were caught in a light rain for about twenty minutes) and without any food. Any North American parent would find this absolutely atrocious and would say it was neglect, poor parenting, and just plain dangerous. This just isn’t the case in Peruvian towns. As long as the kids return at night without a wild hyena gnawing away on them, everything seems to be fine.
Either way, the hike was great. Although the ruins were very interesting, I still think I appreciated the landscape and the fabulous view even more. We actually visited two Inca ruins; the first one was used for sacrificial ceremonies. They would bring young women to this site, whom they thought were not virgins, and they put them to the test: the women were told to pee and if their urine went down a specific crack in the ruin, then this meant that they were virgins. If their urine missed this crack, then they were clearly impure and were sacrificed on the spot. After hearing this story from one of the Peruvian women who came with us, a few of the students and I started talking about how happy we were to be in the 21st century and just how many strange myths and tests such as those (ie, those that determined if women were witches or not) existed for so long and were believed as facts. It is curious to think of things that we now believe are facts, even though they are based solely in stories, beliefs, and superstitions.
We had a picnic at the second set of ruins and gave some of our food to the kids. We stayed there for awhile, taking pictures and enjoying the cool air. I even put on my sweater, which I haven’t done since being in Quillabamba.
After stocking up on some snacks, we all made our way back into the van at around 4 pm. Shortly after we got in, the van wasn’t able to make it up a hill, so a few of the students got out and pushed. After pushing the van, one of our students, Jean Philippe, ran up the hill to meet us and then jumped in the van and we were on our way. After a half an hour later, as we were bumping along, Jean Philippe (JP) told me that he needed to get out of the van to get some air. It wasn’t like JP to ask something like this. I assumed he was car sick, so I told Yannick to stop. JP got out and bent over, looking like was going to be sick. Two other students were with him, making sure he was okay. Only a few seconds later, he was on the ground. Now, people were worried. Everyone got out of the car and ran up to JP. He was writhing on the ground, his wrists and fingers turned inwards and his legs flailing. When he talked, it came out all slurred; he said he couldn’t feel his hands and was sure that his hands didn’t exist. It was terrifying. I had no idea what to do. Fortunately, the two Peruvian women with us identified this right away as altitude sickness. We massaged his hands and fingers and gave him a lot of water. Everyone was horrified, as none of us had seen anything like this before. We put him on a mattress in the van, and he fell asleep nearly immediately. Yannick drove the fastest he had ever driven on those roads until we reached much lower altitude. We reached a small town and brought him to the clinic. We were relieved to hear that everything was normal; he just needed to sleep and eat a lot. JP usually eats massive amounts of food, and he hadn’t eaten much that day, and he hadn’t slept well, AND he had ran (albeit very briefly) in high altitude. It was just a bad combination.
This happened on Saturday, and today is Monday, and he is doing much better today. I am actually at his house right now. He is still weaker than normal (he stayed home from work), but he is slowly regaining his energy. It is amazing to see someone so full of energy and spirit come crashing down. It really took a toll on him, even though he is young, fit, and healthy. He was just telling me on how scared he was because he had no idea what was happening to his body. He describes it as, “je sentais que mon corps se crispait”. He also said that it felt like thousands of ants were invading his body and taking over. It is certainly an experience that will stay with him, as well with the rest of us who saw it, although to a different degree.

What I encounter here is something I would never have encountered back home. Some things are difficult, sad, and uncomfortable, but also very valuable.