Travel adventures, anecdotes, musings, and memories.

Posts tagged “Peru

El fin de Suramerica

After my intense stint in basic, post-disaster, third world Pisco, I took the not entirely logical step of going to the other extreme of the development scale: New York City.

I was in town to volunteer at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, a get together of some 50 or so heads of state in town for the UN General Assembly along with leaders from the business, non-profit, and entertainment world. My job was to help manage the approximately 1,000 members of the media covering the conference. It turned out to be a very intense, but interesting, week. One minute I was being yelled at by secret service agents to “lockdown” a room, the next a few feet away from Sting in a live concert.

Sting on stage.

Sting on stage.

After New York for a week, it was back to South America. Thank goodness for frequent flier miles. It’s like a jet set lifestyle on a jet ski budget.

After a brief recovery day in Arequipa, it was back into nature to detox from the intensity of both Pisco and NYC. The destination was Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is also home to Andean Condors – truly majestic birds. The word “huge” is a bit cliche, but with a wingspan of up to 10.5 ft (the largest of any land bird), it seems like a fitting adjective.

Andean condor in flight.

Andean condor in flight.

With Colca Canyon in the background.

With Colca Canyon in the background.

Landing.

Landing.

The canyon at sunset.

The canyon at sunset.

Terraced farms.

Terraced farms.

Post-hike posing.

Post-hike posing.

Next up was Lake Titicaca. Since this seems to be turning into the Guinness World Book of Records post, I’ll roll with it. It is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. I don’t really have any good idea on what “commercially navigable” means other than “we wouldn’t hold any record at all unless we added a legalesque sounding caveat”, but I regress. It is at 12,500 ft above sea level (twice the elevation of Denver), so it is relatively legit. While we’re at it, it is also the largest lake in South America.

Random celebration in Puno, on the shore of Titicaca. No idea what these kids are dressed up as.

Random celebration in Puno, on the shore of Titicaca. No idea what these kids are dressed up as.

Traditional dress - most women in the region wear an outfit like this every day.

Traditional dress - most women in the region wear an outfit like this every day.

More than the above records, what makes Lake Titicaca interesting (other than its exotic name, these guys really have their marketing 101 down pat…) is the people who live on the lake. Normally “on the lake” means on the shore of the lake or on the islands of the lake. But this lake has people who literally live on the water of the lake. Not on houseboats (way too 20th century), but on man-made, floating islands built of reed. The original idea behind the floating islands was defense, as they were portable. Nowadays, the only invasion the islanders must defend against is hordes of sunburned tourists.

An Uros longshorewoman.

An Uros longshorewoman.

Practicing boating skills - essential when you live on a floating island.

Practicing boating skills - essential when you live on a floating island.

After our obligatory stop on one of the floating islands, we spent the night on one of the main islands of the lake, Taquile. It’s a fascinating place. Each day, around a thousand tourists swarm the island, increasing the population by about 50%. Since there are no hotels on the island (or electricity or cars or…), about 990 of the tourists leave each afternoon soon after their “authentic” fish fry lunch (“authentic” in the way that going to Epcot is equivalent to buying a round the world plane ticket and going to Medieval Times is the same as time travel back to the Middle Ages). Suffice it to say I decided to be one of the ten or so that decided to stay the night on the island in a home stay.

Our host, Celso, was wonderful. We learned about massive cultural differences. He’s been dating the same woman for seven years and has a three year old son, but the two cannot get married since he needs 45 goats to hold the ceremony, as the whole island is always invited and that is the minimum amount of meat to feed the people. It’s akin to being required to have at least an iPhone (to live tweet), iMac (to edit the wedding photos), and iPad (to email a honeymoon update to friends) to have a successful American wedding.

Shore of Taquile.

Shore of Taquile.

Woman returning home from work.

Woman returning home from work.

A local neighborhood.

A local neighborhood.

A local traffic jam.

A local traffic jam.

Local grocery delivery.

Local grocery delivery.

Wilfred, our host's son.

Wilfred, our host's son.

Amigas.

Amigas.

Going for a stroll.

Going for a stroll.

After lake Titicaca, I said adios to Peru and moved onto Bolivia. What I did not realize is that unlike Ecuador and Peru, which simply require a valid US passport to enter, our amigo Evo Morales decided to make it a bit harder for Americans to come visit his country. I think he rates somewhere between Fidel Castro and the Vladimir Putin on the “friends of the USA” list. So I showed up at the border with a stack of paperwork – and a stack of money (a visa costs $135!) and was warned I may or may not be able to buy a visa at the border. Of course, the consulate in the nearest town was out of visas, so I had no other option. Fortunately, everything worked out.

Shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivia side.

Shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivia side.

After a brief stop in la Paz, it was onto Uyuni to venture into the Salar. Sticking with the theme of the day, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, at over four thousand square miles. I’m mot quite sure how much competition it as for this title, but it sounds impressive nonetheless. The entire area is mostly flat and covered by a couple feet of salt crust, which is mined by locals for table salt (the Salar also contains more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, which is also being mined… and sells for a bit more than the table salt and is much more likely to be the subject of a future James Bond movie).

A journey into the Salar generally takes 3 days and involves finding a driver with a 4 wheel drive jeep. Given all the horror stories I had heard about drunk and coked out drivers, I spent an extra day in Uyuni doing due diligence. It seemed like time well spent (I did it for you, mom). I will let pictures tell the rest of the story. It really felt like I was traveling through another world. If anything, the pictures don’t fully capture the true vividness and beauty of the colors and scenery of the Salar and surrounding area.

Our ride for the salt flats.

Our ride for the salt flats.

Our lunch spot - an island in the middle of the salar.

Our lunch spot - an island in the middle of the salar.

Our first colorful lake stop.

Our first colorful lake stop.

The second lake - Laguna Colorado. These colors are accurate. The red is from natural microbacteria.

The second lake - Laguna Colorado. These colors are accurate. The red is from natural microbacteria.

Volcanic craters. Otherworldly.

Volcanic craters. Otherworldly.

Hot springs. Freezing cold outside, hot inside.

Hot springs. Freezing cold outside, hot inside.

Our group on the shores of Laguna Verde.

Our group on the shores of Laguna Verde.

Driving back. Stunning views.

Driving back. Stunning views.

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Life in Pisco

A bit more Pisco. An 8.0 earthquake hit the city in August 2007, killing hundreds of people and destroying over 80% of the city of approximately 115,000 people.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, a team of locals joined with expats from Burners Without Borders, an offshoot of the very hippy Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to create Pisco Sin Fronterras (Pisco Without Borders).

First, a disclaimer about the following photography. Since Pisco was considered so dangerous, I didn’t dare bring out my SLR anywhere, so all the photos are from my (semi-broken) point and shoot.

Security at a random house in Pisco.

Security at a random house in Pisco.

The town and its citizens are incredibly poor. They were poor before the earthquake and destitute afterward. Financial and social safety nets are a pipe dream in a place where people live hand to mouth.

The first real project I worked on was “Mother Teresa”, an incredibly sweet woman with two young children whose house was completely destroyed by the quake. She subsequently moved to a makeshift shack with her family — and had been living there for four years.

Mother Teresa and her son.

Mother Teresa and her son.

Mother Teresa's old house.

Mother Teresa's old house.

Her new modular home. It's basic, but has cement floors, a real roof, and a proper frame.

Her new modular home. It's basic, but has cement floors, a real roof, and a proper frame.

Building a door.

Building a door.

South American kids love to bring small animals as enterainment.

South American kids love to bring small animals as entertainment.

Mother Teresa cooked us lunch on our first day on-site. Although I was not particularly thrilled with the cuisine (spaghetti with canned tuna) or the sanitary standards, once I learned that the families see it as an obligation to feed us to maintain their dignity (the work is then no longer a pure “hand out”), but understood also the amount of effort they go through to scrape together the money to prepare lunch, I knew I was going to stay the full two weeks. Rough start aside, there was clearly something very important and special happening here.

After finishing Mother Teresa’s house, we moved on to Pedro. Like Teresa, Pedro had a real house before the quake, but was now living in a particularly precarious looking tent. Pedro worked harder than virtually any person I have ever met. He is a dockhand in Pisco, but the quake caused freight volumes dropped precipitously, leaving him short on work, but not on energy. If a wheelbarrow was left unattended for more than five seconds, he would commandeer it and finish the job.

Pedro's old digs.

Pedro's old digs.

Since Pedro's new house would be built on top of the same land, we had to tear down his old tent. It was strange to demolish someone's home in front of them; the whole process took an hour.

Since Pedro's new house would be built on top of the same land, we had to tear down his old tent. It was strange to demolish someone's home in front of them; the whole process took an hour.

Pisco forced me to re-examine many of my views and beliefs on aid and development. For better or worse, my general view was that projects like PSF were “band-aids” – basically hand-outs that did little to solve real underlying problems. Given my somewhat skeptical view, my general tendency when I heard about a disaster was to throw my hands up in the air in despair. “Why give people tents and temporary shelter when it will only help some people for some time? Shouldn’t we perform “preventative care” and fix the underlying problem (poverty)?”

Pisco changed this. Most of the projects we did was indeed “band-aid” work. But instead of seeing things from a macro view where “band-aids” seemed ineffective and temporary, I saw it on a micro level where they stopped the bleeding and prevented death. A wood house may not be as good as a brick house, but it is much safer, healthier, and more permanent than a tent, often allowing families to get back to health, work, and school.

A full fix is certainly the best answer, but often this is so far away and elusive that it simply serves as an excuse to do nothing. In a case like Pisco, something is certainly much better than nothing.

PSF has also moved more toward a holistic model, working on both education and community development programs. In addition to building the temporary modular homes, they also started work on more permanent community projects like schools and hospitals (surgery? No pun intended. A longer term fix to still underlying problems…)

My final project: building an addition to a local hospital clinic.

My final project: building an addition to a local hospital clinic.

It's all about PR.

It's all about PR.

In addition to getting a better sense of what life in a post-disaster community is like, I also gained a much greater appreciation for the value (and brutality) of manual labor. I spent three years in Dallas doing Habitat for Humanity, so I thought I already knew. But I quickly realized that is is one thing to work one day at a time and go back to your nice, air conditioned apartment… and quite another to do five and a half days in a row and go back to a dorm room. By the end of week one, I was physically spent. Walking seemed like a massive chore. Cognitive abilities declined. I started to daydream about just lying in bed, not moving.

Like most people, I love cracking jokes when I see ten construction workers on the side of the road, one of whom is working and nine of whom are gazing. “Lazy !@#$ that are wasting our tax dollars.”

Yet, after a day of pouring cement, I was looking for any excuse to take a break. It is easy to judge others from the comfort of one’s car after spending eight hours behind a desk. Personally, I think I am now much more inclined to at least think about the old maxim of “walk a mile in another’s shoes (or construction boots) before you judge them.” Easier said than done, of course, but I will always have my cement mixer to serve as a good memory.

I bled. Every single day. This was one of the less severe looking cuts.

I bled. Every single day. This was one of the less severe looking cuts.

Manning the cement mixer.

Manning the cement mixer.

After my first week, I think I finally got the hang of life in Pisco. Mas o menos. Suicide showers became just cold showers. In a certain light, the rubble on the beach looked a bit historic. Plus, the food was delicious, albeit a bit dangerous (see below).

The other white meat -- dinner.

The other white meat -- dinner.

My favorite South American food: a Tandem bar. Half ice cream sandwich, half frozen Crunch bar.

My favorite South American food: a Tandem bar. Half ice cream sandwich, half frozen Crunch bar.

I stopped focusing on this...

I stopped focusing on this...

... and spent more time appreciating this.

... and spent more time appreciating this.

In the end, I’m glad I gave it a shot. I think I would have been disappointed in myself had I just run away. I learned about life in what really amounts to hell on earth (not for me as a volunteer, but for the actual residents of Pisco), about not judging people by first (scary) appearances, and about myself. It was a draining two weeks physically and emotionally. In addition to lots of bleeding and soreness, I picked up both E.coli and Giardia during my second week. Good times.

But in the end, I was left wanting to push the envelope further. If I could do this, surely I could do something even a bit more intense. Maybe next time it will be a refugee camp in Somalia. Similar to Cotopaxi, by pushing my limits I realized the extent of what I can do — even if I was at first skeptical.

Not exactly a sunset for a postcard, but...

Not exactly a sunset for a postcard, but...


Welcome to Pisco

As mentioned previously, I planned to go from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to the modern ruins of Pisco, Peru.

A bit more background on Pisco and Pisco Sin Fronterras (aka PSF, the non-profit where I was slated to volunteer for two weeks) in a bit. This post is a bit more of a narrative (with no pictures, as it was all in the dark of night… and in an environment where displaying anything of value would have resulted in a guaranteed mugging).

So, the journey to Pisco:

1. Step one is a bus from Lima to Pisco, which is a relatively straightforward, if unpleasant, four hour endeavor.

2. I arrive at the Pisco bus station around 9pm. The place screams dodgy. Think dark, shadowy, with lots of shady looking characters everywhere.

3. I find a taxi driver that looks like he will not kidnap me (i.e. he could be my grandfather). We negotiate a rate and head off. He claims to know the location of PSF.

4. Some thirty minutes later, we are stopping random people on the street asking if they know where PSF is located. Example #849 of people always answering yes to any question in Peru.

5. After multiple queries of random street folk, we finally find PSF. I grab my luggage and knock on the door. No answer. It seems eerily quiet. I knock again. No answer. I emailed the day before to confirm my arrival, but never received a reply. The taxi driver is getting impatient. Young men in hoodies lurk menacingly.

6. After almost ten minutes of futile knocking, I ask the taxi driver if I could borrow his cellphone. “Sorry, no credit” comes the reply. He suggests I go to the gas station across the street and use the pay phone.

7. Imagine the sketchiest gas station you have ever visited. Multiply by three. I put some coins into the phone and dial the PSF number. No answer. I try again two more times with the same result.

8. It is now around 10pm in a town that resembles Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I’m alone with a taxi driver who speaks no English and is rapidly tiring of playing chaperone. I have not seen a single other hotel in the city. I don’t quite panic, but I definitely feel a wave of helplessness washing over me.

9. As I’m about to ask the driver for a safe place to stay for the night, two people covered in red body paint walk up to me and ask me what I’m looking for — in a British accent. They say they are volunteers at PSF and that everyone else is down by the beach for a burning man party. I’m relieved to have been rescued, but no less skeptical of the overall endeavor.

10. I thank (and tip) the taxi driver, drop off my bags, and we take a tuktuk to the beach. I’m told to never walk alone in town after 6pm, no matter what (even in a group), and never to carry anything of value. Volunteers have been robbed walking across the street to buy a bottle of water — in a group. Fantastic.

11. We arrive at the beach, which more reminiscent of a Jersey construction site dump than paradise. Much of the rubble from the earthquake was dumped on the beach out of convenience. Everyone is intoxicated and most are cross-dressed. Coming off a ten hour (sober) journey from Cuzco, I have a hard time getting into the party mood. My newfound British saviors sense this and bring me back to PSF headquarters.

12. When walking in the door, I’m greeted by a cross-dressed Australian wearing little more than ladies underwear. He wants to give me a tour of the place. Sensing danger, the Brits say they’re going to take me to their place (a second PSF property) to stay, as it is supposedly a bit less chaotic there (which in my mind seems to be a low bar to surpass).

13. We arrive at the other property, the “school house”. The room consists of a number of bunk beds crammed together with a piece of plastic sheet separating the bathroom. I didn’t expect much, but this was pretty basic.

14. I ask my British friends what I should know about Pisco and PSF. At this point, I am already wondering what I have gotten myself into and mentally working out how I can get on the first bus out of Pisco the next morning. Most of the conversation centers on digestive illnesses. During the earthquake, the water and sewage pipes mixed together. The city has been perpetually sick since then. Parasites are the norm, as is e.coli (more on this later). PSF had a massive typhoid outbreak the month before. Dysentery is not uncommon. I have a strong stomach, but for some reason the thought of parasites in particular freaks me out.

15. We go to bed around midnight. I am freezing cold since there were no extra blankets and put on a motley array of random clothing for warmth. The person below me has a snore resembling a freight train that suddenly has a massive engine failure every five minutes or so. Stray dogs are barking wildly outside. Mattress coils are poking into my back.

At this point, the overwhelming feeling I have is a desire to flee; more so than I can recall having at any other moment on the trip (even Cotopaxi). These people seem crazy and life seems awful. I’m leaning toward making up some excuse the next morning and hopping on the first bus back to Lima.

The next morning, I decide to give it one day. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the ones you learn the most from, I tell myself… not particularly reassured.


Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

No trip to Peru is complete without a visit to the infamous Machu Picchu, the 15th century Incan city located outside Cuzco.

I met up with two HBS friends, Gayle and Katrin, for the experience. As context:

1) Since we are not 80 years old, we were obligated by pride to opt for one of the treks to Machu Picchu instead of simply taking the train from Cuzco.
2) If we were going to do a trek, we might as well do the infamous Inca Trail.
3) Since we are of course very culturally sensitive travelers, we tried to find a socially responsible company. Our choice was Wayki Trek, which proudly claimed to be “under indigenous management”. I’m still not fully sure I know why being “under indigenous management” is a good thing, but I feel like it’s one of those things one cannot question, like “is recycling actually good for the environment?”

Indigeneous Management?

Indigeneous Management?

One of the key selling points of Wayki was the inclusion of the “Wayki experience”. Now, I’m inherently skeptical of anything labeled an “experience”. I feel like it’s akin to someone describing a potential date as “interesting”.

The gist of the “experience” was to get a better sense of the lives of the porters who would be carrying all our worldly belongings with us for our three-day trek. To do so, we would visit their village and spend the night with one of their families.

It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Not only was the village and surrounding area beautiful, but the family we stayed with was incredibly welcoming. We ate, drank, and danced together – and picked up some Quecha (indigenous language) along the way.

Bus ride to the village. Much more crowded than it looks. But the locals were very kind and made room for us in a obviously full bus.

Bus ride to the village. Much more crowded than it looks. But the locals were very kind and made room for us in an obviously full bus.

Main Street Peru. Eat your heart out, Walt Disney.

Main Street Peru. Eat your heart out, Walt Disney.

Our casa for the evening.

Our casa for the evening.

Sunset and approaching rainstorm.

Sunset and approaching rainstorm.

Old school processing.

Old school processing.

Mountains at sunset.

Mountains at sunset.

A few observations:

1) The traditional food is quite hearty. Lots of corn, but not of the American variety. One kernel takes 30 seconds to chew. Also a case in point of the pitfalls of modernity: with the introduction of processed food, lifespans have dramatically decreased.

No Snickers bars to be found here.

No Snickers bars to be found here.

2) The local people practice a blend of Christianity and indigenous religion. They will go to mass on Sunday morning and come home and make an offering to Pacha Mama (the earth god) immediately afterward. Both religions have endured for centuries, blended together. I wonder if either deity is jealous?

Quite a bit of religious symbology blended together.

Quite a bit of religious symbology blended together.

3) This was not unique to this village, but particularly prominent in it. The way to support the politician of your choice is to paint your entire house with his or her name. Suddenly the American proclivity for yard signs seems lame in comparison.

With campaign materials like this, it´s hard to be a Sarah Palin supporter one day and Barack Obama fan the next.

With campaign materials like this, it´s hard to be a Sarah Palin supporter one day and Barack Obama fan the next.

So, the trek itself.

The scenery was nice, our crew great, and the going not overly difficult.

With our new porter friends.

With our new porter friends.

Trail up to Dead Woman´s Pass.

Trail up to Dead Woman´s Pass.

At the top of the pass, some 4200 meters above sea level.

At the top of the pass, some 4200 meters above sea level.

Everything went splendidly until after we passed the highest point on the second day. Suddenly we were pelted by massive hail. Which seemed bad, until we were presented with the alternative: freezing rain. Since it was dry season, I had of course neglected to bring along a poncho. When we finally arrived at camp, it felt as if cold water had soaked through every inch of my body. Moreover, everything was wet – our tents, our bags, even our food. Definitely the low-light of the trip. There are no photos for this 12 hour stretch as a) it was too wet b) I was too cold.

The next day was warm and sunny. Our offerings to Pacha Mama were well received.

What better way to celebrate the nice weather than jumping?

What better way to celebrate the nice weather than jumping?

Lunch - quinoa risotto, chicken fried rice, a potato and carrot mix, a mushroom medley, and fresh veggies. Having a chef nicknamed Gordo turned out to be very fortuitous.

Lunch - quinoa risotto, chicken fried rice, a potato and carrot mix, a mushroom medley, and fresh veggies. Having a chef nicknamed Gordo turned out to be very fortuitous.

View of the valley below.

View of the valley below.

The final day was a bit of a crazy experience. We were woken up at 4am, lined up at a checkpoint which opened at 5:30am, and then rushed to the sun gate along the way to Machu Picchu.

We were about number 30 out of 150 in the line (we had pancakes for breakfast, which slowed us down a bit…)

But, one of the benefits of having our own small/private/fit group was that we didn’t have to stop along the way. As such, we ended up passing all the other groups and being the first to reach the sun gate and Machu Picchu. The experience definitely felt more real and intimate without our closest hundred SLR toting friends.

A little 5am anticipation, made possible by headlamps.

A little 5am anticipation, made possible by headlamps.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

Success!

Success!

Sin Gringos.

Sin Gringos.

I’ll avoid repeating lots of random historical and archeological facts about Machu Picchu, suffice it to say it is quite the engineering feat and beats out much of the infrastructure we have in the US today.

Incan temple. Note the intricate stonework.

Incan temple. Note the intricate stonework.

Old school lawnmower.

Old school lawnmower.

The tourist train.

The tourist train.

Final sunset.

Final sunset.

Overall, an interesting cultural immersion, nice hike, and fascinating history.

Up next: Pisco, Peru to volunteer with a non-profit helping the town recover from the large earthquake that hit the Peruvian coast in 2007. A transition from well-restored 15th century Incan ruins to completely un-restored 21st century ruins.