A Blog from Peru and Ecuador
Since getting home, I’ve been stopped by the question, “and how was your trip?” It was so multifaceted – so varied – so full of things that I didn’t expect – that it’s been hard to sum it up in in any thing more useful than “fabulous.” Which of course tells you nothing.
So I thought that I’d write a “post blog” as I work with the 650 pictures I took (and the 250 that Daniel just sent this morning) – trying to get down a small piece each day. Here goes one of the first impressions:
Urubamba, Peru: April 21, 2014
All of you who know me well would not expect that one of my first special experiences would be with food – but there it was. The first night I Lima, dinner was on our own. Angie and I went to a restaurant nearby and I had causa limonada, and I was hooked. It was a wonderful dish of mashed potatoes, chicken cooked with onions and spices and a thick layer of avocados. Two more weeks of fantastic meals followed – a huge breakfast (quinoia and kefir is my new favorite breakfast) plus two more three- course meals. Yet I came home and had lost a pound! The secret is just tons of veggies and fruits – prepared in all kinds of interesting ways. Eating was a real pleasure.
As was our early morning trip to the Urubamba market. It was a going to be a day that OATs calls “A day in the life.” We were to visit all kinds of places typical of this small corner of the highlands. We were sent to the market with a sentence in Spanish and had to negotiate our purchases that we were to bring to the various places we were to visit. For me, it was the place that unlocked my Spanish. My teacher forty years ago was the vegetable lady in the Salamanca market, and I’m still pretty good on vegetables. But then there are more kinds of potatoes than I’ve ever seen before – each with a different name – but my confidence was back. I was the only one of the group that spoke Spanish so got pulled into all kinds of situations over the two weeks.
That only gets us to 9:30 on this day. Lots more to come.
The Sacred Valley: Urubambo April 20-21st
Here’s another surprise. One of the most enjoyable experiences was shopping! Me who hates to shop. What made the difference is that everywhere we went with an opportunity to shop involved a wonderful demonstration on how the product was made. Here – and in the next e-mail – are two examples.
We arrived in Cusco – 11,000+ feet – after an early plane from Lima, and immediately got on a bus and went down 2,000 ft. The OATs folks definitely know how to prevent altitude problems and I had none during the trip. On the way to the Sacred Valley, we stopped in Chincero at a weaving studio. The women were dressed in native costumes – which in the Inca days had real purpose. The black overskirt has three black rows symbolizing the Inca belief in the spiritual life (the condor), this life (the puma), and the underworld (the snake). Underneath are embroidered skirts that along with the shawls were for warmth. Wood is used for cooking but not for heating and most people live outdoors except at night. Married women have one long braid but can wear lots of flowers on their hats while unmarried girls have lots of braids but only one flower.
Here we got a full demonstration of weaving from washing the wool, spinning, dying it, and weaving it. We all had a chance to try it – and it wasn’t easy. The results are incredibly beautiful. I came away with a table runner which has in its pattern two near-by lakes and a diamond pattern that symbolizes the four directions of the Inca empire – north, south, east, west. Symbolism is an integral part of the arts in this region and goes back way before the Incas.
Blog #3 Pablo Seminario’s Studio, Urubambo
The second shopping adventure was to the workshop of Pablo Seminario. He is a world-renowned potter with works displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago and at the Smithsonian in Washington. Here’s a web site with a good introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFt_oW440VA
Again, we saw all parts of the process from the shaping of the clay to the painting and decoration with all kinds of shells and stones. We also got a short interview with Pablo who is deep into new shapes and feelings about his art. Though he’s less forthcoming about the meaning of the symbolism. “It’s up to the viewer,” he says.
Then, of course, the shop was amazing. It was very hard to leave!
Blog #4: Andean Agriculture 2014
Another surprise was that our first real encounter with agriculture in the highlands was not with the justifiably famous Inca ruins, but at a little farm outside of Urubamba. It was a place not just where the years had stood still but the eons as well. The first time we stopped by, the senora and her children were off somewhere so we just looked through the gate. The farmhouse was built around a courtyard and had one of the inventions brought by the Spaniards – a second story. However, the space was not used for living, but for storage. As Freddy explained, many of these inventions that came from the cities – like a microwave or a TV – have no function in rural life and so are treated more like works of art to be admired rather than used.
Since I’ve mentioned Freddy, let me introduce him. He’s a native of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas. Like Daniel, who was our guide in the Galapagos, he had the academic training to be a guide, excellent training from OATs on how to deal with all the “stuff” that can happen with Americans traveling, and a thorough knowledge of the area. The day we met him was also his daughter Amelia’s first birthday, so we met his family as well.
After a bit, we walked across the road to the small plot farmed by this family. There was a field of corn husks surrounded by beans and squash. These families have no money for fertilizer and so use the time-honored organic farming techniques. Water often comes from the old Inca irrigation ditches. We had stopped to see a field of lupine (the eatable type) interplanted with fava beans. Later we stopped to see a woman winnowing some quinoa. It felt like we were coming full circle with today’s “modern” organic farmers rediscovering the wisdom of the ancients.
The next day when we stopped, the Senora and her three children were home. They were making tamales from the corn husks. Families basically live outside in this culture. The main room in the house is the kitchen with a small stove for cooking, nitches in the wall that are the same as one finds in Inca monuments, room to sleep on the dirt floor, and a pack of guinea pigs happily eating away. Their concept of “house” is more like ours of “room.” As Freddy told us, one lady asked him when he was describing his apartment in the city, “Why do you build a separate house for your table?” Sanitation is the age-old – take a scoop of ashes from the fire with you and go out into the field.
Another ancient custom is that children work – pretty much from the age of seven. Little girls learn to spin and help with the food preparation; boys farm or herd animals. We came across a 12-year-old boy entrusted with his family’s herd of sheep – which is how family’s store wealth. Every day he walked them a good distance to their pasture. People feel it’s cruel to keep animals penned up, so they walk daily to pastures where the animals can go free. Imagine our children entrusted with all of our family’s wealth!
And then there’s those guinea pigs, but that’s a story for another day.
Oropresa, April 25th
It was as if I’d walked into my daughter’s bakery up in the White Mountains. We had arrived in Oropresa. Back in the day it was the town from which all the gold was shipped to Spain. Now it calls itself “the Bread capital of Peru.” We walked into a modest courtyard and there was a very familiar oven with wood-fired, long paddles to slip the bread into its far corners. Inside, the operation also looked very familiar with dough being kneeded, shaped, stored to rise on shelves, shaped again and then off to the oven. The owners rent the oven for four-hour time slots to members of the community who do their baking there as well.
For those of you who don’t know Sunnyfield Brick Oven Bakery, here’s a link to a TV spot made last summer: http://www.wmur.com/new-hampshire-chronicle/Sunnyfield-Bakery/21406710. Even though the atmosphere is similar, there are key differences – including in her mom’s opinion, that the bread is a lot better. Sunnyfield does not use yeast; they use sourdough and whole grains rather than white flour, and they don’t use machines. What’s similar is that it is a community-focused business; the crust is great from the wood-fired oven, and it’s great when you get it fresh from the oven.
Villa Marcela Elementary School
Another thing that makes an OATs trip unique is that they have a foundation – The Grand Circle Foundation –that supports schools in the areas where they run tours. We visited two of the schools. Villa Marcela is in a village close to Urubamba. It serves grades 1-6. We visited a fourth grade classroom where students ranged in age from 8-10. The school is free – at least for its instruction time, but what keeps many children away is the cost of the books, uniforms, pencils and such. Plus there is no transportation. The typical child walks about an hour each way to school, and some walk as many as two hours. Edgar was my guide and cheerfully showed me his math and the pictures at the beginning of his theme book. He also read a passage and sang with the class when they did their presentation. We reciprocated with “This Land is my Land,” and some introductions. I took some pictures and am looking forward to seeing what Maddie and Wesley think of Peruvian 4th grade work.
The other visit was in Quito to the Sinamune School, a high school with a music focus that serves children with disabilities. It was Sunday but the orchestra had come in and gave a rousing performance complete with children, most with Down’s syndrome, dancing and playing. The theory of Mastro Elgar Palacios who founded the school 22 years ago is that music can help children achieve perfect balance – which in turn can help academic performance. Children can enter the school at age 9 and can stay in as long as they want. They do academics from 8:30-1:30 and music after that. They clearly love the music.
I found the economics of the school interesting. It was initially supported by the government but has been on its own for a while now. It gets Grand Circle support, offers lessons to non-handicapped children in the afternoon, charges a small tuition, gives concerts, and has a small shop. Clearly this kind of support for special education is a drop in the bucket, but for these children and staff it was a very enthusiastic drop. They had us all singing and dancing by the end of the concert.
The Inca Empire lasted for a very short time – beginning in the 13th century, reaching its height under Pachecuti in the mid 15th, and flaming out with Pizarro’s conquest in 1532. However, it was amazing in its size, reaching from Columbia down to Chile and Argentina, and in its public works. I am just now reading 1491 by Charles Mann, which is beginning to fill in my deficient education from the 1950s. At the heart was a rich agricultural economy with solid terraces built on the steep Andean slopes and an irrigation system that still functions today. The Incas had 200 different staples, 3,000 varieties of potatoes and hundreds of kinds of corn. That variety meant that organic farming was successful, and that farming itself was far more sustainable than it is today with all of our genetically modified/herbicide-infested crops. The terraces were built to last earthquakes and floods, often with double walls, and layers of rock sand, and soils.
As lands were conquered, the men were required to provide the mit’a – both labor on these large infrastructure projects as well as military service. However, in turn, they received food during lean times. Hunger was pretty much unknown. The empire was united by an incredible system of roads, with tambas – or storehouses – located every 20 miles or so. Inca runners would run full tilt to the next tamba where someone else would take the message on a “quipu” or string message system – a writing system that has yet to be fully translated.
We visited Tipon, a partially excavated site near Cusco. Here you can see the interrelationship of religion with science. There is a spring at the top of the terraces, but the priests wanted people to believe that they caused the spring to increase way beyond what it seemed. So they built a complicated set of aqueducts bringing water down from the mountains and merged them underground with the spring so that people would honor the priests’ power over this vital resource. Only the priests and nobles actually lived at Tipon. Laborers lived in the hills above on their own farms, coming down to perform their mit’a as required.
It was interesting to find out that a major problem in Peru today is that they don’t have a mit’a system. 65% of the population live off the economy. They don’t pay taxes, but they also don’t get anything in return – no sewer, electricity, health care, pensions. The power of the government to extend the country’s infrastructure is severely limited. Obviously the Incas had a governmental system with much to recommend it.
When Angie and I booked this trip, the only goals I had were Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. As you can see, there was much more, but Machu Picchu was also amazing. We also had great weather. You get there via a train ride along the steep gorge of the Urubamba River followed by a pretty hair-raising bus ride up the mountain. You can see why the site stayed hidden for so many years. It’s really inaccessible.
As best as anyone knows, Machu Picchu was a summer retreat begun by the greatest of the Inca emperors, Pachacutec in the mid 1400’s. It was never finished. Rather when the rulers heard of the fall of Cusco to the Spaniards in 1532, they deserted it. Within 30-40 years, the jungle or cloud forest had reclaimed the site. Hiram Bingham from Yale is given the credit for rediscovering it though there were actually others who got there in the 19th century. What’s unique is that the Spaniards – who destroyed much of the Inca heritage in the rest of the country – never got there.
It too is a miracle of Inca engineering and science. Incas didn’t use wheels, and so all those huge stones had to be pushed up those incredibly steep slopes. The terraces, irrigation ditches and roads as well as palaces and houses are still standing despite being in an earthquake zone and under the jungle for centuries. Those giant stones link together and were fitted precisely without a crack between them. At the top are all kinds of astronomical stones precisely measuring the solstices. The temples always have the three steps representing the Condor (the spirit world,), the puma (this life), and the snake (the underworld).
And of course, because it’s so famous, there are lots of people getting their pictures taken, and llamas. We spent two days there, the second walking up to the Sun Gate, an entrance way to the Inca Rd. that leads down to the valley.
The Guinea Pigs
One last note from Peru before heading north to Ecuador. One of the events that OATs plans on most of its trips is a meal with a local family. Ours was with a middle class family – Emma, her twin fourteen-year old daughters, her mother, and a seven-year old. The house still was built around a courtyard, but this time there was a second-story that was being used, and a very nice dining room big enough for celebrations. Their guinea pigs were off in a pen and not in the kitchen.
Guinea pig is the major meat used for birthdays/weddings and other high occasions. Our group was pretty evenly divided between half that had had strong relationships with guinea pigs in their nursery school years and those who wanted to watch the process of preparing the beast from live animal to the table. Since my memories are of Templeton and Tucker, two white rats from David’s nursery school, I was ok with watching.
The grandmother did the honors and she was skilled, so it was much less violent than I remember our chicken slaughtering days were. In no time it was in the frying pan, and we were preparing the tortillas. The lunch itself was delicious, starting out with black corn beer, a soup made out of lupine beans and a main course of rice, and lots of other vegetables including more lupine, with a nice sauce, then the tortilla, and the culo (guinea pig) – almost as an afterthought. Meat is not usually the main feature of the mid day meal. We ended with a sweet made of tomatoes and celery and chamomile tea – a most enjoyable meal.
Quito and the Galapagos
Quito was a shock after being in the Peru highlands. It is a big city, highly developed with horrendous traffic. We did some interesting things but as I am not a big city person, I will skip that part. The next day we flew to the Galapagos and soon joined our catamaran, the Archipell II. The crew, including the cook, were wonderful – entertainers as well as good sailors.
Our trip the first day was to Seymour North where we saw many of the endemic species that the Galapagos are famous for. The first was a good title for a poem – “The Frigate in Love.” Male frigates have this loose red balloon at their throats. When they spy a lady-love, they puff it out, raise their heads into the air and flap their wings. It’s quite a sight. But the ladies are very picky as there are more of them than there are of the guys. They circle around and make a careful inspection of the nest he’s built. If it’s half done or sloppy, that’s it. She’s off to see someone else. She only lays one egg and then needs to share feeding it for six months, so her spouse’s housekeeping skills are very important.
Aside from frigates, there were blue-footed boobies, iguanas, sea lions, lava lizards, and even the famous Darwin finches. I just finished reading The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, which is a wonderful update on modern research into Darwin’s theories. The wild life here is both amazing just to see and even more so when one understands all the evolutionary pressures that allowed them to adapt to this very hostile environment.
It had been at least 40 years since I’d been snorkeling – but, thank heavens, it’s like riding a bike – a couple of minutes and then I was floating over an amazing array of fish – totally relaxed and absorbed in this colorful world. For pictures I’ll have to send you Daniel’s pictures. He was our extremely knowledgeable and interesting guide for this part of the trip. I had one of those throw-away cameras that aren’t worth buying.
Daniel’s family has lived in the Galapagos for 120 years. He’s also a naturalist, and his father – originally a priest – was very involved in many of the early battles to preserve the islands. Today, there are an amazing set of regulations that safeguard the islands. Almost all the land is national park and as of 1998, only people then living on the islands can have a home or work there. Also no group larger than 16 can go ashore, and the ships run by native companies each get a new route every two weeks so that visitors are spread out among the islands. The current crisis is the large cruise boats that manage to get around that regulation by saying that they can’t find workers, and then bringing in people whose work permits somehow always get renewed. Money changing hands in Quito is the reason. A new law passed in 2009 is taking back the cruise boat licenses over ten years, but there’s lots of pressure to undermine this latest addition to the regulations.
In any case, OATs only works with native companies and guides and their groups are never bigger than 16. Daniel was a great guide – and photographer. He’s in the last stages of getting permission to build a small hotel on Floreana that will offer an interesting variety of activities. There may be another trip in our future some day!
A Last Blog
May 1, 2014
Time to end this set of memories and to get out in the garden that is finally growing. For this last piece, I am again depending on Daniel’s photography. He captured the spirit in several fun videos. The first was the day we went looking for tortoises. We had actually seen quite a few earlier but they were all in captivity. Two of the endemic species on the Galapagos are endangered – the iguana and the tortoise. Tortoises can actually live over a year without eating or drinking. That made them very valuable to pirates and sailors back in the day. They would scoop up some tortoises on their way by the islands and have fresh meat on the voyages to Asia. That practice decimated the population. Another thing we learned in our visit to these centers is that there are ten different species that evolved on six islands. Five of them evolved separately on the largest island, Isabella, that used to be five separate volcano-tipped islands. Naturalists are just recently keeping them separate.
The fun for us though was seeing them in the wild – up in the highlands of Santa Cruz – wandering around making whoopee. Now a tortoise, making love, is a sight to see. This lady did not seem at all happy about it, and I don’t blame her! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jomm9jm3tw) The Galapagos penguins in Daniel’s other video seem much happier with their lives. (https://www.youtube.com/edit?video_id=bIjBadHNPyw)
Finally our crew on our last night on the ship had a whee of a time. It was a trip full of new places, fascinating stories, lots of new knowledge, and lots of fun. Who knew that I would be dancing round a catamaran with the moon shining over the Pacific at this stage of my life! (http://youtu.be/bdZHibraOYI)