Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming Home

August 24, 2011 at 9:00 am, my family eyed the uncommonly shiny, new taxi waiting for us in the parking lot just down the hill from our Pisac hospedaje. A long seven months ago, on February 8, 2011, we piled into a larger, rougher-looking taxi at the Cusco airport – our first non-air transportation in our new temporary home of Peru. So much had happened in the interim, but in such small increments that we could hardly describe the metamorphosis we all had undergone. We noticed the new car, a rarity in this part of Peru, that was for sure. Our understanding of what is common and what is not had grown more comprehensive each day that passed in the small community of 3,000.

As we started loading our bags into it, I noted that, as opposed to our first taxi ride, this time we had more stuff and less taxi.

The driver managed to squeeze the hatchback closed and the four of us clambered into the available seats, holding the smaller of the bags and satchels on our laps. After more than half a year in this foreign place, we were almost ready to leave – leave Pisac, leave Cusco, leave Peru. The taxi took us down the hill about 6 blocks to a restaurant on the main carretera. The bright orange sign showed a Lambayequan god in a large, ornate headdress, poling his canoe into the sun, his name blazoned over his head: “Naylamp”. We had one more family member to pick up.

We spotted the grey-haired Otorongo, his grizzled face softened by the now-smudged, blue tattoo of a nautical star between his eyes, and his young, pregnant wife Diana sitting outside the entrance. Their boys, Prem and Sebastian, moved about on the sidewalk outside the restaurant like impatient farm animals waiting to be fed. The restaurant owners, Mama Nelly and her partner Angel, were there, but one person was noticeably missing: the namesake of the restaurant, our new godson and soon-to-be exchange student in the United States, 15 year old Naylamp. He was not in the restaurant, but his bags were.

I heaved one of his backpacks into the already-stuffed station wagon, remembering how, upon our arrival, I was not allowed to lift anything over 10 pounds. I had had major abdominal surgery 2 weeks prior to our departure from Portland and wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things, but going to Peru was not one of them! Lucky for me, my husband had been ever-accommodating: he carried two of his own backpacks, plus mine, from Portland to Los Angeles to Lima to Cusco to Pisac. This time, strengthened by months of high-altitude living, lots of walking and simply time passing, I could do my fair share.

Naylamp’s family passed around hugs and kisses and we chatted in limited Spanish as we awaited his descent from his grandma’s living space above the restaurant. All of a sudden, he appeared, racing towards us, wet from a shower, smiling as usual, and looking a little bit frantic. Of course he was frazzled. He was about to embark on an 11-month journey, far from his family and friends, to a strange place, a strange house, a strange family.

The taxi-driver had an appointment to pick someone up at the Cusco airport after he dropped us off, so he was in a hurry. He goaded Naylamp and his family into gathering the loose items that hadn’t made it into the backpack – the poncho, the chullo, two sets of Andean pipes – and herded our newly-enlarged family of five back towards the car.

More kisses and hugs all around, more bags wedged between knees, under feet and above heads. We waved goodbye and blew kisses from our squashed positions within. The doors slammed shut. Through what little window-glass was still unobstructed by luggage, I saw Naylamp’s grandma Nelly, standing in the entrance of her restaurant, wiping her eyes. She is Mama Nelly to Naylamp, having raised him since he was small. With no time for sentiment, the driver stepped on the gas, and we were off! I couldn’t see into the back seat to gauge my new dependent’s expression. How did he feel leaving everything he knew? Who were these strange Americans who would presume to be his parents for the next year? Was he scared? Excited? We were all too crammed together to feel much other than the sharp pang of knitting needles and toothbrushes stabbing us through our carry-ons.

The next three days did not impress me. We spent them in Lima, not the star tourist attraction of South America. Dirty, busy and dangerous, it left no impression in my already richly-filled visitor’s brain other than that of expensive taxis, bad food and noise. It was like drinking powdered skim milk after seven months of fresh buttercream straight from the cow’s udder.

The highlight in Lima was meeting and saying goodbye to more of Naylamp’s extended family. Other activities included visiting a military museum that offensively celebrated the very weapons used to subdue indigenous Peruvians and bring their race close to extinction; and walking through a famous shopping mall, famous for no other reason than it is ridiculous for people who earn so little to spend so much on stuff they so don’t need. We hailed cabs, packed into rapid transit busses at rush hour and generally spent most of our time getting to and fro within the gigantic maze that is the typical urban setting in developing countries.

Matt and the girls flew to the US on August 28th. Naylamp and I followed on the 29th. Getting away from Lima was a blessing, in more ways than one. Escaping the city itself was a relief. But moreso, it felt good to eliminate the ambiguity caused by being the responsible ‘parent’ for Naylamp, which started when we left Pisac, while his real family was also present. I felt like I could finally be the authority and the responsible adult without guilt. And then there was immigration. We were a bit nervous as we approached the border-crossing immigration officer stationed just before our boarding area. He looked unkindly at Naylamp’s long hair and paperwork. He silently noted my skin color and my American passport.

“Where are your parents?” he asked Naylamp in Spanish.

Naylamp explained that his mother was outside in the airport right now, having just seen us off, and that his father was in Pisac.

“Who is this notary?” the man asked, pointing at the notarized form authorizing a minor to travel. It was an Asian last name.

“He is in Supe.” Naylamp responded, “Outside of Lima.”

The officer went away to check with someone else about the notary and the documents. The two of us stood there, apprehensively waiting to see if Peru’s infamous make-them-up-as-you-go rules would come into play here. The man returned. He silently stamped Naylamp’s passport. He folded up the original Authorization to Travel and put it away in a drawer, then waved us on our way without another word.

As we rounded a corner, we both let out the breaths that we had been holding. We could finally breath easy. From that point on, we could let down our guard knowing that we had cleared the biggest hurdles. All that remained was US immigration once we landed in LAX. I had heard that, even there, they could decide to send you back if they didn’t like your attitude. But I thought that was pretty unlikely. So we enjoyed the long airplane ride, the raunchy movie selection and the two and a half meals served during our 9 hour flight. Naylamp asked two fellow passengers to take photos out the window for him (we were in the center seats). We made it to the US pleasantly and uneventfully.

Landing in LAX, passing through immigration bleary-eyed at 10 pm, dealing with a small-potatoes hotel chain and their aggravatingly limited shuttle service, even eating at the diner close to our hotel – it was all a blur. We went to bed at midnight and awoke less than 4 hours later to catch our final flight, destined for Portland.

By 8:00 am on August 30th, we had made it home. Matt and the girls had already dived in to the long lost of things necessary to jumpstart our old life in the house. Over the next few days, the five of us visited doctors, filled out paperwork, registered for classes, organized our stuff, cleaned, cooked, visited… It was real. We were back home. As surreal and as jolting as it was, it was shockingly easy and familiar. I once again understood people – truly understood them – when they gave me directions. I knew how much a loaf of bread should cost. I didn’t worry about getting ripped off, or getting lost, or hurting someone’s feelings inadvertently. I didn’t have to look around at others to know where to stand, where to sit, how long to wait, which side of the street to walk on.

I felt empowered, like a long-estranged master of my surroundings. Every traffic movement, every social interaction, every simple custom bowed to my command. The things I took for granted before our travels, when we were completely familiar with the culture and the language, had reappeared, magically fat on the vine for the picking. The frustrations of being less than fluent, idiomatically and socially, fully dissolved the moment I set foot on that loud, American carpet of red and blue at the Portland International Airport.

How easy life can be, how at-rest my mind, securely running on auto-pilot as the complex rituals of time and place once again become background noise. But I never would have known how much I know, how competent we all truly are in our own cultural setting, had I not flung my poor flailing brain into the equally complex culture of others. As I now rest my overworked brain, Naylamp’s is the one swimming in that confusing vat of foreignness. We should be patient with him.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Changing Lives, For Better or Worse

Worrying seems to have been my volunteer 'project' here in Peru. For the past 3 1/2 months (has it been that long?!), my primary worry was one thing or another regarding the details of a study abroad program I got involved with. I had been named an official Peruvian representative for ISE, an international student exchange program, and spent countless hours finding documentation and filling out forms for one student in Pisac, Peru who wanted to study in the US.

The first stressor was turning in the application to ISE. We had gotten started late, and the deadline had already passed, so time was of the essence. We gathered documents, got vaccinations, paid fees, administered tests, searched for records and finally turned in the application, 6 weeks later than the normal deadline. But, I like to think due to our hard work, the student was accepted instantly! We also lucked out with a very special exception to a Portland School District rule and they held a spot for the student at Cleveland High, 1/2 mile from our house. The hard part was now over... or so I thought.

At the tail end of that major accomplishment, what I thought was simply highly sensitive parents expressing their disappointment that their kids couldn´t go abroad too, turned into an all-out war of words between some of the leaders in the student's school and supporters of the exchange program idea. The student took the brunt of the pain. Important adults in his life acted childishly and irresponsibly. It was a sad and difficult time. Friendships were broken.

The next stressor was raising money to pay for the program. You all have probably heard about that part enough already! I learned how to create my own website expresssly for fundraising. I made connections with people I have never met before. I found that people can be amazing! From the $9 donated by a Peruvian neighbor, to the $900 donated by an anonymous gentleman from Michigan, I managed to raise the funds in record time with one or two days to spare!

Next was the US non-immigrant visa. I thought we had it pegged. After all, it was for an internatonal exchange program sanctioned by Hillary Clinton and the State Department. It should be a simple "Yes", right? Slowly, I learned that the US Embassy in Lima is like a colonial fortress, prepared for enemy attack at all times, where even US citizens have to pay to gain access, with blood, sweat, tears, and of course, money. I tried to ask questions to clarify conflicting information on the government websites. I was rebuffed: there are procedures for asking questions. I followed the procedures: the responses either never came or were meted out as though every word cost a hundred dollars.

Finally, I figured I had squeezed as much information out of the rock as possible. I made checklists and gave my student assignments to prepare for his interview. He arrived at the intimidating, razor-wire gates with every shred of paperwork we were told he might need, and...his application was rejected!

We were shocked and dismayed. But I hustled. I made more lists and gave more assignments. I rushed to Lima and scheduled an appointment to see the citizen services branch of the embassy (where I learned nothing). I got another load of documentation ready for a second try. To make a long, stressful story short, he returned to the embassy two days ago and was granted his visa.

Immediately, my life changed. No longer did I feel the typical fretfulness about the exchange program. (Had I done the absolute best a person could do?) No longer did I feel the overwhelming crush of possibly letting down this student and his family, who had risked so much for this chance. I slept well. I felt...calm.

I had practically forced through the success of this project. When someone told me it was impossible, I ignored them. When someone said it couldn't be done, I went ahead anyway. Yes, I was pushy. Yes, it consumed too much of my emotional energy. But with the visa granted, it was finally for real. I could happily say that we had won the battle.

That day, I was less grouchy. I was able to look around me at the wonderful things I was expereinceing on my travels, at my wonderful family, at the amazing good fortune I have as a person who can do what we are now doing. Such a heavy burden those worries have been.

And now comes the good part. The student will travel with us to Portland in August and his dream of studying abroad will become a reality. It will be a life-changing experience for him as he learns more about a different culture and becomes fluent in English. He will return to Peru in 2012 wiser to the world. Equally important, he will have four more people who love him and consider him family, because that is how we already feel. The time we have spent preparing for this adventure was itself an adventure, a time for growing closer, sharing secrets, laughter and tears. Naylamp is already a part of our family. Our lives will be changed forever.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Long and the Short of It

Two days from now, our family will switch gears dramatically. Wednesday marks the end of our ‘stay in one place‘ phase, and we turn towards a very different way of life that will carry us all over Peru for five weeks of travel. This change, I predict, will bring with it a new perspective, different standards, and certainly a different flavor of adventure.

For the past four and a half months, I have been trying to blend into our small-town, Peruvian habitat as we have set up residence in Pisac. I don’t wear shorts or short skirts. I cover my skin. I don’t buy fancy food or clothes or tourist goods. I eat the daily specials at the local restaurants for $1.25 instead of made-to-order meals at the better restaurants for $8. I shower when I smell bad, not when my hair is out of place (that means about once a week). I don’t sit on terraces, drinking martinis and looking over the working populace of the town on market days. I don’t talk loud. I don’t wear jewelry or expensive-looking clothes. In fact, I wear the same, plain clothes most days – one of two pairs of pants and one of three or four blank shirts (no “I heart New York” tees!). I try to stick to a routine that resembles that of the people around me, except with moderation – they get up at 4 am to start setting up their stalls and merchandise; I get up at 6:30.

I don’t know if anyone even notices or cares about how I act or what I do, but it makes me feel like I am living in closer alignment with the people around me when I don’t draw too much attention (admittedly difficult at 5’ 10 ½” with two curly haired, rubian daughters...). My neighbors wear all sorts of crazy American tee shirts (one 15-year old girl wore a shirt that read “Pussy” – I know she wouldn’t have worn it if she knew what it meant!), and traditional skirts that show calves and ankles. But I try to fly under the radar with my neutral appearance. I just don’t want to be mistaken for a tourist.

My Spanish may be marginal, my job requires next to no manual labor, and I don’t have to count my pennies like they do, but people tend to treat me as an equal, saying ‘buenas dias’ and ‘buenas tardes’ politely. We are charged the same prices as our neighbors (most of the time). The vendors in the market don’t try to sell to us anymore. Pisacians seem to recognize us as, if not locals, then a different kind of gringo.

This Wednesday, however, we will heft onto our backs large, fancy traveling backpacks, and somewhat self-consciously parade ourselves down the main pedestrian path towards the bus stop. This typical tourist indicator - the backpack - may sound a warning bell among the vendors we see daily but who don’t know us by name. The image of four heavily laden Americans marching away from their town may very well demote us from our special status of ‘gringos who stay’ back to just another group out of the millions of ‘gringos who pass through.’ And rightly so. Because that is what we are doing. We are going away.

We will board a bus, embarking on what in the eyes of Pisacians is an extravagant five-week vacation. We will leave behind us the beginnings of membership in this community: knowing where to get the best hot bread first thing in the morning; walking just so, without breaking stride, to avoid dog poop in the street; greeting familiar, smiling faces as we cross the square. Step by step, as our neighbors watch our backpacks grow smaller and smaller, we will transform back into tourists, slipping silently away through the hubbub of the oceanic marketplace, leaving only a minute ripple in our wake. The ripple will soon be subsumed by the reverberations of ten or twenty other travelers – some who stay and some who don’t - and then it will disappear almost entirely.

Fitting in is a high priority for me in Pisac. But it won’t be as we pass through the twenty-odd cities we have mapped out for ourselves over the next month. We are going to do blatantly touristy activities, eat touristy food and pay touristy prices. Our ripples will be so small that they will be inconsequential. On one level this may seem sad – we will have less understanding, less participation. Relationships will be short and shallow; experiences likewise. But it also grants a kind of freedom – no more small-town responsibilities, no more soap operas or politics. No more trying to fit in. And the breadth of our experience will be dramatically increased. Peru isn’t Pisac. It is so much more. And soon, we will get a glimpse of that truth, day by day, city by city, stepping back and seeing a much bigger picture.

Our time in Pisac will be imprinted upon our brains like the deep, intense flavor of a rich wine, concentrated at the root of our tongues to be savored and remembered. This next phase of our adventure will swirl and spin through all of our senses, briefly touching a chord here, causing a shiver there, like a cold splash of water on a hot day. The long and the short, the deep and the shallow, the near and the far: we will discover Peru both ways.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Deeper into the Onion

The longer we stay in one place, the more of our new world reveals itself to us. Each day is yet another layer of skin off of the onion.

At first glance, Peru is an awe-inspiring natural wonder, with mountains steeply rising meters away from our front door and a crystal blue sky framing both the landscape and the human activities bustling and hustling below us. This image retains its potency, but as time passes, we look up to admire it less and less often. We focus on the issue of the hour, or the goal for the day, forgetting the beauty that drew us here, that continues to beckon to millions of visitors every year. The natural beauty and grandeur of Pachamama is like a deep, clean breath, helping us to refocus on the things that are important.

I need a deep blue lungful right now. Because as I unknowingly trod across the delicate garden of this culture, I learn more and more about the individuals, the families, the groups, and the country itself. And not all of it is roses. First-hand cultural education is necessarily full of tripping hazards. The more involved we are with the people around us – one of our main goals in this experience - the more we learn, and not always the easy way.

I, like many extraneros, came to Pisac wanting to do some good for someone other than myself. I wanted to volunteer my skills and time and give to a group that needed what I had to offer. I am so much more fortunate than so many people here. And so I taught ceramics to high school kids and English to elementary and high school kids. I offered after school lunch-and-learn English sessions. I ferried delicate kiln-loads of student projects back and forth between school and the local potter’s studio across town. I made a hot lunch (a daunting task for me!) for kids so they wouldn’t have to walk 45 minutes to their homes and 45 minutes back again just to participate in class.

I paid for school supplies and transported heavy boxes of donated books from Cusco on a crowded bus. I searched high and low for glaze for the ceramics students. In short, I did what any parent would do for their kids’ school in the US. The big difference is that I did all of this in a foreign language of which I can only claim about 25% proficiency, in a new culture whose customs and systems are strange and obscure to me, in a foreign land where I do not know my way around. Hence, I misstepped and made mistakes. I stepped on the proverbial prize-winning rose, resulting in bloody scratches from the invisible thorns of Peruvian manners.

As my big, fat American foot came crashing down, I did not see a valuable garden full of significant blooms and healing leaves, but a weed-choked patch of rocky soil. It was only after I mangled a few plants that I was told that they are beautiful to their owners. Now, I look again and try to see it. I understand the idea, but it is still difficult to truly recognize the nurtured buds from the despised prickle bushes. And so it is with human emotions and the border between individuality and group cohesion. As I go about my daily business, trying to fulfill goals and achieve some form of success, I find that I am, in the end, working for myself, evaluating my work by the standards that I brought with me from home. I am selfishly building my own castle, regardless of whether it truly benefits the people I am here, supposedly, to help. I forget to look up at the grand beauty of the place, forget to remember where I am and why. The garden is not mine.

But even as I acknowledge these things to myself, I grapple with the fact that I personally do not agree with some of the values and ideas widely held in my new community. Some of the purported ‘flowers’ remain weeds to me. Where does ‘working for people who need help’ stop and ‘working against my own standards’ begin? Although I support part of the vision and message disseminated by the different groups I work with, there are some finer points that I find unrealistic and even self-defeating. Sometimes the grand plan, as gorgeous and well-intentioned as it may be, needs to make room for the realities of modern life in an impoverished country. Of course the same can be said in reverse. In the end, these two extremes both are needed to further a stronger, healthier, more stable world.

The fact that I am able to perceive and participate in these conflicts at all is proof that I have penetrated past the surface, through a few of the top-most layers of life in Pisac, the symbolic onion. Through my gaffes, I discover weak spots, the edge between courtesy and real emotion. My errors introduce me to the personal quirks and sensitivities of individuals and I start to understand, slowly and reluctantly sometimes, more about these people I am here to assist and learn from. The deeper I am integrated into this small community, the more opportunity I have to screw up – and to do more meaningful work. In one sense, mistakes offend, but they also mean that something is happening.

Conflicts arise like tectonic plates coming together - the big picture ramming up against the details. Either the plates grind together, turning both sides into dust, or one passes over the other, taking its turn in the superior position this time. Meaningful conflict shines a light on a side of people unknown to the passer-by. For a foreigner, it is a privilege to see, even though at times it may appear ugly. The people in question might find those facets of themselves attractive. Which causes pause. If what we call a blemish, they exalt, perhaps what we ourselves pride, they consider a fault. There is no universal truth. This realization allows us to re-examine our belief systems and decide, now that we see that there is a choice, how we want to perceive character traits, in ourselves, in others and in groups and communities.

Above all, being aware at a level where we can participate, even in unpleasant conflicts, is a reward in and of itself. It is an opportunity that informs us. It broadens our awareness and allows us to experience life differently than we normally would. It is proof that we are more than just a stranger passing through. We are making a difference. The question remains, however, a difference for whom? Is it me that is changed by this new understanding, or the others? Or do we both grow closer to that wide, calm, middle-ground that is acceptance and understanding? That is my goal.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Machu Picchu: Why Do We Travel?

Why do we travel? To see interesting places and have new experiences outside of our normal routine. The great waterfalls and mountaintops, the luscious jungles and pleasant, sunny beaches titillate our senses and remind us how big, how diverse and how amazing our natural world is.

But even more captivating than the sights and sounds of exotic plants and animals are those of the people who live and travel in these foreign places. However intriguing a hairy llama, or a rabbit-like rodent peering at us from atop a crumbling rock wall, the llama’s owner, dressed in colorful garb to attract the attention of camera-loving tourists, or the ancient indentured builder who created those now half-fallen walls, draw us in on a deeper level. While it may be the natural features that attract our attention in the first place, it is the human element in each new environment that links us to it and makes it meaningful. The majesty of the Manchu Picchu site, surrounded by towering rocks that jut vertically on every side, is awe-inspiring and beautiful in and of itself. Add the amazing ancient development, human-conceived and human-built, and the scary switch backs of the modern road that brings us to it, and our minds reach for more than just a simple appreciation of the greenery amongst the impressive rocks. It is the people, past and present that make traveling to this place special.

During both the planning of our trip and our visit to Manchu Picchu, we interacted with a wide variety of people. The professional tour guide, who sold us the expensive tickets for both the train ride and entrance to the site, works in Cusco, the largest city in the region. She wears what we would call business casual, sitting behind a desk on the main tourist drag in the main tourist city. She speaks English and seems every bit the modern city woman, with neat, shiny, black hair that hangs down to her shoulders and rosy, polished nails.

Some of our fellow hostel dwellers, new age hippie types, wear patterned, gauzy harem pants with the inseam hanging down below knee level. They look as if they have come straight from smoking a hookah at a middle eastern bazaar. Others wear patchwork pants and unapologetic, multi-patterned clothes that hide stains easily: the traveling garb of professional wanderers. These people speak in eloquent terms of the healing power and the spiritual aura of Manchu Picchu. They come to commune with other like-minded searchers in an ancient and powerful place full of historic profundity. They burn incense in their rooms and leave their dirty dishes forgotten in the community kitchen.

Along the way to the famous archeological site, we moved through the now familiar Castellano hustle and bustle of taxi drivers and food hawkers in the modern cities of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. But, as we stepped onto the only means of transport to Manchu Picchu, the tourist train, it was like falling into a suburban American outpost, hidden within the narrow walls of the sterile, light-infused train compartment. English was spoken – loud and clear. People all of a sudden were three shades lighter and thirty pounds heavier. Seating was assigned, but it seemed the ticketing agents used a random selection method for every group. A game of musical chairs ensued until families were seated together and friends sat near friends. Almost as soon as we had all settled and the train jerked into motion, the family across the aisle from us whipped out a grocery bag full of junk food and spread it across their table. Among the delicacies that we didn’t know you could purchase in Peru were Ritz crackers, cookies, an aluminum squeeze container of mixed peanut butter and jelly, fruit, soda pop and other typical, big city foodstuff.
Upon arrival at Aguas Caliente - the city that serves Machu Picchu’s tourist needs, such as $5 hostel beds and $5 pizzas - we witnessed an architectural style reminiscent of the Mercado (the open air market). Buildings squeezed up against one another in a very busy, cacophonous, vertical design. Restaurant owners stood outside their establishments vocally advertising their specials (all of the specials are the same in Aguas Caliente – competition for tourist dollars is strong). The town rises up steeply from a muddy, raging river within the confines of a small footprint of buildable space. The main road winds up about 5 city blocks to the top of the town. There is situated the famous hot springs for which the town is named. You know you are drawing near when the vendors’ capitalistic mating call changes from “pizza – 25 soles” to “towels for rent – 5 soles”.

The people here hawk hard. There seems to be a quiet desperation beneath their calm and sunny faces. The entire town of Aguas Caliente depends solely on tourist dollars. There are no bakeries or butcher shops here; no services for the residents themselves. This town exists only for us – the rich Americans coming to see one of the world’s most famous archeological sites. There is a rumor that UNESCO, the governing body of funding for special sites like Machu Picchu, wants to close it to tourism to halt the heavy toll of so much human use. If the rumor becomes a reality, entire segments of Peru’s population would become unemployed overnight. Aguas Caliente would cease to exist. Peru itself would fall into an economic depression unheard of since the drying up of jungle resources in the last century. Desperation would rise exponentially.

Our family spent the night in a flea-bag hostel (literally – I have the bites to prove it) with windows in the rooms that looked into the interior corridor. They did not lock and walls smelled of moldy plaster. Sleeping was a moist, noisy and uncomfortable affair. We got up early the next morning and took a bus up a long, winding road, listening along the way to a variety of Japanese, French, Spanish and English tour guides educating their clients.

When we finally reached the ancient Machu Picchu, the fog shrouded it all so thickly that we could barely see 20 feet in front of us. But the day improved with time. By 10 am, we had covered the entire site from within our veil of moist mist (we had arrived quite early). Matt and the girls decided to hike up an amazing pinnacle of rock connected to Machu Picchu by a thin saddle of land, called Huayna Picchu. They set off in the fog and were rewarded at the top with a sudden reversal of weather. Sunny skies blessed them with the best view of Machu Picchu and the Urubamba river that surrounds it like a snake encircling its prey.

The rest of the day was hot and sunny. We retraced our steps and re-visited the entire site again, touching the huge rocks carved with 32 angles to fit perfectly within the walls of an important religious building, and wondering at the Intihuatana, an erect stylus of stone believed to have been used to measure time and track celestial patterns. Katie, Georgia and I added on a trip to the perilous Incan Bridge. The bridge itself is only a few large planks of wood laid across a gap in the path – thus forming a rudimentary bridge. However, the real majesty of the site is the path itself, carved literally out of the face of a sheer granite cliff. This path was the most impressive part of Manchu Picchu that I witnessed, both in its engineering and its apparent lack of concern for loss of life of the workers who built it. Obviously, the indentured workers took great risks to create it. The vertical drop from where they carved out the width of the path - barely as wide as my shoulders – was thousands of feet, straight down the majestic, smooth cliff.

The people who made this amazing place were amazing themselves, kings and commoners alike. They built in a remote and jaw-dropping location, barely accessible and truly astounding in its natural and topographical beauty, not because it was close to resources – it wasn’t – but because these people thrilled at the sense of doing amazing things, living close to god in amazing places and doing the impossible. Andean people to this day seek out high points for a sense of accomplishment and celebration, running impossibly straight up to the top of the highest hill in long lines of dancing revelers during important ceremonies.

Andean people built Machu Picchu because they could. And that is what makes traveling to this incredible historic site more than just a photographer’s dream. It truly makes the visitor stop and consider why he himself exists, what she hopes to do with her life. Although our legacies won’t be 5-miles wide and built from stone, this site reminds us that we can set our sites higher; we can do the impossible. We should do it; because we can.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carnival in Pisac

This weekend was a big deal in Pisac, our new chosen home away from home for the next four months. Of course, at first blush, it was hard to tell the difference between this Saturday morning and every other Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday, when all of the wooden tables are set out along the little street that dead-ends right past our house, and long, straight poles are fastened together to form the framework for plastic-tarp-roofs covering what will soon blossom into a cacophony of orange, yellow and red fabrics, dolls, masks, and clothing for sale.

This Saturday morning promised a familiar experience as I walked from our hospedaje, or hostel, to the colonial oven a few blocks away. I go there daily to buy five small bread rolls for one sol (about 35 cents). I passed between young and old Peruvians bustling about their daily routines, building the same portable tiendas (shops) that they put up and break down 6 to 14 times a week. A baby lay, wrapped snugly in his colorful swaddling blanket, balanced atop a mound of similar blankets yet to be unfolded and put on display. Silent, still and wide-eyed, he was barely distinguishable as a life form amongst the chaos of preparation. A tiny, sun-leathered woman in the traditional women’s costume – brightly patterned red skirt, white top hat with blue ribbon, and strong, dark, bare legs in salt-water-sandals - looked as if she could be the child’s great-grandmother. She hefted a bundle of thirty tent-poles three times her height from her back onto the steep incline of the narrow, stone-paved road.

To her right, a man that could be her son, her grandson or just a neighbor and competitor, had finished his plastic tent construction and was busily installing the goods, hanging first the large colorful tapestries and tablecloths from the main horizontal poles, then carefully stacking variations on that theme to the left and right, and placing the most eye-catching colors and patterns, by the hundreds, atop his two tables. Soon, the grey, aged wood, the poles shackled together with bits of rubber and plastic, the dirt patch upon which the tent was built, were hidden from view. The effect was dazzling. Vibrant and high-contrast colors, hand-stitched into outlines of Incan apu – representatives of the spirit world and of nature itself - caught my eye and inspired a secret lust to buy.

Dogs of all shapes and sizes, most looking at least moderately well-cared for, ran underfoot, hoping to find scraps forgotten from the night before. Vendors cried out to me even before their set up was complete, the women calling, “Amiga, buen precios for tu amiga,” the men seducing with their low, sultry voices, “Cui, alpaca, calendario incaica, hecho a mano…”

Three days a week, I see this same scene as I go to fetch our morning pan (bread). The other four days of the week, the stalls fill the main square, but do not venture up the hill towards our hospedaje. Today, however, I noticed that the tiendas had branched to the right, populating the usually-empty bus station off to one side of the road, but they went no further than the bottom of the hill where Calle Intihuatana hits the main Plaza de Armas. In fact, as the plaza came into view, its emptiness was shocking in its solid barenakedness. I saw acres of flat, grey surface. And an enormous, moss-covered tree had mysteriously sprung overnight from the stones in the middle of the square. “How did that get there?” I silently exclaimed, looking up into ancient branches reaching the width of a good-sized house.

The plaza was motionless, dull and dusty; not the bustling sea of orange, red and yellow that I was used to. I stopped to marvel at the transformation and imagined a Pisac before the Mercado (Market), when the Plaza de Armas was actually used for military maneuvers. Perhaps the soldiers performing the drills were colonials, the red tassels on their uniforms the only splash of color against the dry, dusty cobbles and the earth toned, work-worn clothing of the campesinos (farmers) gathered to gape at them. The sun actually shone all around me, no longer impeded by ten-foot-tall tarps.

Yesterday, “La Bellisima Pisac” contest took place. We were too late to get into City Hall, where the event was full to capacity, but I imagine this contest for the most beautiful woman in Pisac involved a few crusty old men – I mean town officials – and resembled something like a high-school popularity contest. I don’t know, as I wasn’t there, but with a town so small, how could it not?

Today – Saturday - with its queen chosen, Pisac got ready for Carnival. Workers cleaned the square and set up a stage near the big tree. It turned out to be a beautiful, hot, blue-skied day - lucky for the young people in Pisac because Carnival involves lots of traditional water balloon throwing and shaving cream spraying, especially between teenagers who have crushes on each other. Herds of boys, from 5 to 19 years old, roamed the streets of town in small gangs, armed with buckets filled with water and plump water-balloons. They hunted the other gangs along the small grid-pattern of the town, which wasn’t hard because there are only four or five streets in each direction.

Katie and Georgia got in on the action, but in a safe, controlled environment. Here at our hospedaje, there are two grandkids, Eros and Marcelo, ages 6 and 13. The girls bought some globos (water balloons) and used a bowl from the kitchen for their own little arsenal. Once the rules of the ‘war’ were decided and the two sides took their positions, it was clear that Marcelo had done this before. With a strong throwing arm, he launched his globos from far away and aimed for the adobe wall directly behind the girls. Even if his aim were off, the splash from the balloons hitting the wall usually got them wet. And him aim wasn’t off often. Eros was more manageable, being 6, but his energy and enthusiasm were unequaled by the other three combined. At one point, no one was left to play with, so he asked me to pour water on his head from the balcony. Or maybe I suggested it - and he accepted gladly!
The day concluded, or should I say the party started - from 5 to about 11 pm, with more formal, adult activities. People started to line the sides of the street around the square late in the afternoon. Two 15-foot tall trees were ‘planted’ in the street and decorated with streamers and balloons. Strangely, two sequined and tiared Senoritas Bellisimas Pisacs – maybe one was runner up - paraded throughout the town on pedestals fixed to the beds of two pickup trucks. Each had a young handmaid dressed in customary Peruvian garb.

Hundreds of dancers wove throughout the city and circled the main square a number of times. The women wore the traditional, knee-length skirts that reached to the horizon when they spun (modern modesty has introduced shorts underneath because, frankly, most of these women were old enough to be grandmothers; some, great grandmothers or better). The typical dance is a shuffling ‘step-ball-change’ by the men, with handkerchiefed gestures to their female partners. The women do a similar step, but include a spin of some sort to get the most out of the circumference of their skirts. They too hold a handkerchief and wave it at the men. The men wore brown ponchos draped with paper streamers, black felt hats and black pants and shoes. It was interesting to compare shoes and pants between dancers and try to guess their age and place in the social hierarchy of the town based on these articles of clothing. Some men had shoes that obviously did not fit well, others had shiny dress shoes appropriate for an office job in Cusco. Some men wore tight black jeans, other saggy trousers.

Although the uniforms were at first glance uniform, upon closer examination, they were each quite unique and specific to their owner. The women followed a theme, but each had her own style, like the Sisters Sledge: one blouse was off the shoulder, another a halter top, and a third with a large cut-out to show off her cleavage. These dancers weren’t so brazen. They wore petticoats, colorful skirts, blouses and sashes across their chests. Most wore top hats of white or black, brightened with colorful glued-on sashes. All had extraordinarily long black braids. The braids of the older women were fashioned from their own hair, but many middle aged women wore hair extensions made from black yarn.

The parade circled us in the square for an hour, mas o menus. Senorita Bellisima Pisac and Senorita Vice-Bellisima Pisac, in their strapless gowns, donned wool coats as they shivered on their mobile daises. The coats also served to protect their expensive dresses from the revelers, who didn’t hold back, not even for royalty, with their spray cans of foam. The less stalwart of the dancers broke away from the line as rain started to fall, retreating to a covered area a few blocks away. But other dancers kept right on dancing through the short-lived rain, after the parade turned into a dance demonstration in the street, and after that, when it turned into a party, also in the street, accompanied by live, amplified music that kept right on going until long after my customary bedtime. Their feet must have been sore on Sunday!

We stayed for the first hour, but returned to our home when the music and the dancing didn’t stop – or change for that matter. The musicians maintained the same song for hours; the dancers the same steps. It was mesmerizing, and might have been hypnotic for the dancers as they repeated the same motions to the same beat with the same tune over and over and over again. We checked back in on the party to see if anything new was happening (we live two minutes away). At one point, some men chopped down the two little trees that were erected in the street – not sure what the symbolism was there. The auto-repeat song finally ended at about 7:30 pm, but music was still flowing over the airwaves in the tiny town of Pisac at 11 pm, when I fell asleep. And this was only the preparatory day.

Carnival took place on Sunday. Everything that we witnessed on Saturday was repeated Sunday, but with more gusto. The festivities started earlier in the day, the music lasted later into the night, and everything took on an even more exaggerated tone. Boys with balloons and foam canisters stalked and attacked girls and tourists with more viciousness, chasing, cornering and incapacitating their victims by aiming for the eyes. Street venders offered a huge, mouth-watering array of snacking and lunching options, from picarones (deep-fried pumpkin dough donuts) to pollo a la ceviche (vinegar stewed chicken and vegetables). We spent the entire day in the plaza eating, watching the stealthy antics of mischievous boys (and feeling their wrath at one point) and passing time talking to random Pisaquians. For the second night in a row, we grew weary before the locals did. We went home after 8 hours in the sun, but the party kept on going until 4 am (and on a school night!).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ten Days - Day Eleven

You thought I had forgotten, that I had left you hanging on day three of our ten-day touristic splurge. But ah! You get more than what you bargained for with eleven days of tourist revelations where there should have only been ten!

How, you might ask, does one get eleven days out of a ten-day ticket? How did I work this magic, you ask? It wasn't hard. People in Peru have been all around very friendly with us and willing to negotiate. The security guard at the Pisac Archeological Site - aside from being very charming and handsome - was patient as I fumbled with my broken Spanish, and was very accomodating.

After the long voyage back from Moray and Pikillacta the weekend before, we spent the following weekdays going to Spanish class and visiting a few museums that were included on our ticket. We saved Ollantaytambo for the second weekend because it is another long bus ride from Cusco. We had pretty much decided to save Pisac for later when we live in the city with the same name. Besides, the ruins are within a few hundred yards of the girls' school - we are bound to visit multiple times.

On Friday, we set out to accomplish a number of very important errands in the Pisac area. First, we had to find a place to live; we also had an appointment with the director of Katie and Georgia's school. An added bonus was we got to spend two (or in my case, three) nights with the lovely Rocio at Casa de Mama Gloria in Calca. On Saturday, we were lucky enough to find a place to live that pleased us. On Sunday, we took the girls for their stamp of approval and sealed the deal with payment of the first month in advance. Then off we went to catch a bus to Urubamba on the first leg of our journey to Ollantaytambo, an historic and rare Incan town. Most Incan sites were built for religious or military purposes, so the fact that this one was also a city is unique. The first leg to Urubamba was via our typical mode of transport - a dirty, broken-down, overcrowded bus. But we had grown accustomed to this mode of transportation and didn't bat an eyelash. It was nothing like the jam-packed bus from Pisac to Calca the night before, where the girls were so stuck in amongst the hoards of people trying to get home, that, after Matt and I elbowed our way off, I had to reach back in to the jumble of arms, legs and packages, and pull my daughters out of the maw of what seemed in the dark to be a people-eating, deisel-spewing road monster. No, for this bus ride, we even had seats.

Thirty minutes later, the bus dropped us off at the Urubamba bus station, where we caught a combi - or collectivo. The combi concept is much like a bus - each person pays less than a private taxi ride, sharing the expense, but it is a minivan. This one took only the number of people who could fit in the seats. However, along the way, others were welcomed in if there was enough standing room. Luckily, it was not a busy hour, and we only had about 4 or 5 extra riders along the way to Ollantaytambo.

Although it had been drizzling throughout our journey, as soon as we alighted in the brick-paved central square, the rains got serious. It poured. We decided that then was a good time for lunch in a nearby restaurant. We ordered minimalist meals - the chicken sandwhich consisted of two slices of wonder bread with a slice of grilled chicken for five soles - and it came with a side of faux-Motley Cru blasted at near-deafening volume from the kitchen below. By the time we had eaten our lunch and listened to the best of no-name bands that cover famous heavy metal songs, the skies had cleared and were beckoning to us.

We walked the 400 yards to the entrance gate of the archeological site. It was right at the edge of the small town, with many colorful vendors lining the path. Up along the walls of what coud be called either a very small, very steep mountain or a very large rock, were terraces and stone structures leading up several hundred feet. We hiked up the ancient stairs while the sun generously warmed the backs of our necks. We climbed through the farming terraces and up to a temple for the sun where one wall appeared to be a single carved rock of about 20 feet long by 5 feet high and I don't know how thick. I looked down from the temple remains to see a small stadium filled with people - not tourists. An open-air concert or a party of some sort was going on in the modern town of Ollantaytambo below, despite the recent torrents of rain. But now the sun had evaporated half of the dark stains on the stone floor of the stadium and the umbrellas were put away.

A long, narrow path, lined with a 1-foot tall rock wall - apparantly put in place so that weary tourists would not plunge to their deaths 600 feet below - wound away from this face of the rock pinnacle, around the contours of the hillside to another group of structures and terraces. As I walked along it, I imagineed modern US standards for tripping hazards and thought this wall would qualify, making it as dangerous as if there were no wall at all.

The other face of the mountain held a few odd, parallelagram-like storage houses for grain. The mountain face was so steep that the wall of the house on the uphill side was about 5 feet tall, while the wall on the downhill side was more than 18 feet tall. As I peered in through what was probably an opening used for dumping grain into the silo-like facility, I caught a glimpse of the young Peruvian family who had preceeded us to this site. A man of about 22, his equally young wife and their three-year-old daughter were grouped in the corner of the dim, earth-floored facility. The woman was squatting down, I assumed to rest or to take in the view through one of the low windows on the downward side of the building. When I hiked around to the door through which, by then, they were just exiting, I discovered a small river of liquid staining the earth, its origin the place where the three had been grouped. The smell was not the fresh clean smell of rain.

Go figure: a people who claim in all of the cultural literature to respect the earth and live in tune with it, but who pee inside of national monuments instead of in the great outdoors (or in readily available toilets conveniently located at the nearby visitiors' center). In fact, I can't count the number of times I have seen someone urinating or deficating in public - man, woman and child. Mothers in the busy streets of Cusco often take down the pants of their young children and instruct them to poop right there in the street or gutter. Little boys, without guile, send their yellow arc over the public lawns they were just picnicing on moments earlier. Dog poop is everywhere: no one picks it up or sweeps it off of their own front walkways.

The new (to me) pervasiveness and public nature of this otherwise private and, by US standards, foul bodily process, flummoxed me. I thought again about what it means to be in touch with mother nature. Peeing and pooping is natural. Animals do it, people do it. When in the forest or countryside, animals and people alike do it where they happen to be. This custom appears to have followed Peruvians into their cities to some extent. At least people don't appear to think of it as much of a problem. These body processes are just another part of the natural world.

My musings aside, Ollantaytambo was beautiful, our favorite site out of all of them to date. Our ride home was via a rare (for us) taxi cab, and this driver knew how to get places fast. He passed every car and truck and bus on the road in front of us, bringing us back to Urubamba in record time. Matt and the girls returned to Cusco, while I took a separate bus to Calca to sleep another night at Rocio's. I had another appointment on Monday morning to finish up paperwork at the school.

On Monday, I took care of business and then wandered (slowly) up the very steep path from the school to the Pisac site entrance - a 150 yard journey that took me a good 5 minutes! There, I met my friendly park official.

Pisac was the only unpunched site on my Boleto Touristico, and here it was, one day past the ten-day period. I explained to the very patient guard that I was about to set up residence at the foot of that hill and would want to visit frequently. Eventually, I figured out what he was saying: he told me that I could enter the park for a reduced rate. I was grateful and expressed it gratuitously, then set out to see this last punch on my all-around tourist experience.

This hike was by far the most grueling, but the first segment was such a treat, with waterfalls and beautiful greenery, cows grazing on the Incan terraces and hummingbirds fluttering at flowers that I could actually name from my gardening days in Portland. The botanical similarities between the Cuscenian Andes and Portland are striking! This place is as pristine and lovely as any natural space in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Northwest (but sans cows). I sat on a sharpish rock at the edge of the trail, not feeling the ridges digging into my thighs, and looked out across a valley, lush and beautiful in its natural flood-prone state, but made even more satisfyingly bucolic with miniature red-tile rooftops laid out in grids and curves, far below. The juxtoposition of the untouched green, giant mountains over linear patterns of crops, curling into swaying, corn-colored brushstrokes along the contours of the mud-flush river, represented perfectly our place as humans in nature. The scene below me coelesced humanity, living in harmony with the earth; development dependent upon the land; and nature in her powerful and generous form, providing for creatures with two, four and more legs.

From high up, there is no poop on the street, no diesel exhaust, no overcrowded busses. With the roar of the Pisac cataract in my ears and the smell of sweet Black-Eyed Susans in my nostrils, Pisac was the crowning glory of my Boleto Touristico experience. The sun warmed me, the butterflies fluttered gently across my fingertips. And I had only just begun exploring the amazing and awesome site way high up on the rock against which the modern-day city of Pisac rests.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ten Days - Sunday

Sunday morning, I awoke with the early dawn in a soft, warm, comfortable king-sized bed with wonderfully smooth sheets. Rocio’s bed and breakfast, La Casa de Mama Gloria, was like staying in the Hilton. We all eventually meandered down to breakfast, which Rocio generously cooked for us, and by 10 am, the Hastie family was ready for day three of the Boleto Touristico weekend odyssey. This time, Rocio agreed to join us as we worked our way back to Cusco by way of another set of ruins to the east.

Our initial destination from Mama Gloria’s was by foot - 200 yards to the street, which serves as an all-purpose bus stop. Just wave your hand as the bus approaches and it will stop for you, empty seats or no. We flagged down the bus to Urubamba; by the halfway point, seats become available and we got to sit (it costs more when you sit!).

In Urubamba, we disembarked and looked for a taxi. Rocio, being the strategic genius that she is, negotiated what we soon would find out was a bargain deal. The driver would take us to three historic sites, Salinas, Moray and Chinchero, and wait for us as we explored the first two. He agreed to what seemed like an astronomical price of 90 soles. I ran into the bus depot for two bottles of water – that and a few Power Bars were our only sustenance for the day trip. Little did we know we wouldn’t get home until dinner time.

The taxi driver took us first to Salinas – a site with a natural salt river that has been harnessed and redirected into hundreds of small salt ponds. The drive was long, and it ended with a very narrow winding road with blind curves and steep drops, not a favorite for the acrophobes among us. But when the hundreds of small brown squares, rimmed with rock borders came into view, it was strangely beautiful, like a vast earth-tone quilt sewn by a giantess. We drove down to the ponds and explored at close range, stepping along tiny little paths that wove between the shallow mud flat ponds. Below us on the terraced hillside was a woman in traditional dress with child and dog in tow, harvesting the salt. Rocio was able to take home a few handfuls for foot baths and massages.

The taxi driver adeptly brought us up and out of that precipitous area, honking to let any oncoming traffic know we were coming around the numerous blind corners, and slowing to save his shocks in the deep holes and small rivers we crossed along the way. We continued on to the second site – Moray. The sign to Moray read 12 kilometers, but after awhile no one in the car believed it.

We drove for another twenty minutes through beautiful green pastures and rolling hills, passing small hamlets with farmers and shepherds working on their land. At one point, we came to a small dirty place that almost seemed to be a ghost town. The rare signs of life included broken down trucks taking up half of the street, a few pedestrians hauling huge bundles wrapped in plastic tarps, and, directly in front of us on the one narrow road that led to where we wanted to go, a couple pushing their stalled vehicle up a small incline. Our driver played a slow motion game of ‘chicken’ with the poor couple who were pushing their inoperable car along the only lane. The man had to practically scold our driver to get him to back up again and go around on another block. But machismo aside, our driver successfully backed his way down the rutted alleyway and past a truck that was blocking the next street over, edging past within a hair’s breadth of both the wall on the right hand side and the truck’s mirror on the other. Further accolades to him!

Outside the walls of the little town again, the scenery opened back up to treat us to many variations on the same theme – natural beauty not unlike that found in the Pacific Northwest. February is the wet season, and everything is emerald green, except for the occasional red dirt color of bricks that make up the walls of homes and structures dropped clumsily into the loveliness of the picture. We drove on and on and finally arrived at the archeological site.

Moray is an Incan construction that uses the natural contours of a circular pit or ravine to create what looks like a hybrid between alien crop circles and Stonehenge. Retaining walls create at least 15 circular terraces. Each wall is about 10 feet tall, but the entire depth of the bowl is 150 meters from rim to bottom. The Incas used the terraces to experiment with varieties of corn, using different hybrids for the different temperatures and altitudes on each terrace in order to create crops that could bolster the Incan people in times of drought or frost.

We climbed down into the center of the bowl, which is said to emanate healing powers and a spiritual magnetism of some sort. Of course, a group of yogis were meditating in the center when we arrived, one standing with bare feet in the exact middle of the Moray forcefield, in a mud puddle. Luckily, the nice weather from Saturday had carried over and the woman standing there for what seemed like a selfishly long time - considering that there were five others in her group waiting to try out that mud puddle too - did not have to worry about frost bite.

After a relaxing rest on the grass in the healing circle, we started back up the stone outcroppings that were inlaid into each wall, serving as steps. Twenty minutes later, huffing and puffing at the top of the bowl, we looked back down to enjoy a last look at the amazing manmade pattern below us. The woman in the mud puddle was still there. Her yogi friends had given up and left her.

Our ride back down the long road and through the small ghost town met with no obstructions. Another 30 minutes of great out-the-window photography and we arrived at our third and final site of the day. Chinchero is a town with an Incan ruin right in its midst. A catholic church sits atop former Incan foundations and is surrounded by toppled Incan walls. Sundays bring many people to the market that takes place both at the main square in front of the church and below, near the main road. We browsed the wares and met the women who actually made the goods on display. Unlike the markets in Cusco and even small Pisac, these textiles were actually made by the women who sat next to them in uniforms of traditional red wool jackets and navy blue skirts atop layers of square-dancing underskirts.

We were tired and only glanced around at the Incan stones. Most of our time was spent sitting inside the small church, gazing up at its hand-painted, rough-hewn timbers. Every wall was adorned with relics and religious iconography. There were a total of 5 Jesuses within 15 feet of where we sat. Strangely, the smallest was the 2 foot tall golden statue at the main altar in the front of the church. The two to our right made a life-sized matching set, with the same Rastafarian hairdo and blue, Miss America-like pennants across their chests.

As the sun began to edge towards the horizon, we set out to find a ride back to Cusco, about 15 miles away. Rocio bargained a shared taxi ride for 2.5 soles each, but after we got in the car, the driver started arguing with another man – he said he was his brother. The discussion turned into a smallish fight, complete with head butting and threatened violence, but it was all in Quechan, so the Americans didn’t understand a word of it. I was, however completely disgusted when the second man’s wife, with a baby on her hip, demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the life of her child by standing in the road at her husband’s side, contributing to the argument. Traffic in Peru slows down for nobody. A bus, speeding past, came within inches of the woman and her child, but the argument continued unabated. This was our signal that these people were truly crazy and we would not be riding in a car driven by any of them.

We found another cab driver up the street who hesitantly agreed to take us to Cusco for 20 soles. It is unlikely he made much of a profit, considering traffic and gas, but he stopped in a nearby city soon after we started and picked up a man for 5 soles, turning our private taxi into a combi – a communal ride. The man, dressed well enough, climbed into the back with our luggage. It made Georgia and I a bit uncomfortable having him behind us where we couldn’t see what he was doing, but in the end, he was just an honest guy trying to get home.

The taxi driver dropped us at a bus station, steering clear of more convenient places where, we assumed, police might issue him a citation for not having a license. The driver, surprisingly, seemed grateful for our fare. Like our first driver from Urubamba, he shook our hands, smiling, and seemed genuinely happy to have served us. This man made 25 soles with a dirty, weak, rattling car in 45 minutes. It seemed at times that even he wasn’t sure if he would make it all the way. Our Urubamba driver made 90 soles over the course of 5 hours, was as cool as a cucumber and offered the Peruvian equivalent of a classy, comfortable ride. The two men and their livelihoods were fascinatingly different, and yet both part of the same machine that relies on tourist money to churn economic sustenance for most of the people in the Sacred Valley.

We were back in Cusco, relieved after a long, bumpy, exhaust-filled ride, and hungry, having partaken only of a bottle of water and four Power Bars since breakfast. Half a chicken each and a plate full of fries was a feast that had our concave bellies protruding from our waistbands within the hour. We headed back to the apartment, satisfied with a good day’s adventure and looking forward to a good night’s rest.

Ten Days - Saturday

Transportation is everything here. Saturday's adventures started with a 3-sole taxi ride to the bus station, about 1.5 miles from our apartment (3-soles equals approximatley one US dollar). Next, we paid 9.6 soles for assigned seats on the bus to Pisac, which is 20 miles away. With bus gears grinding, we bumped along atop ancient struts past Saqsayhuaman (which we reached by taxi for a bargain basement price of 10 soles the day before) to our first stop of the day - Q'enqo, a mere 2 miles from Cusco.

The day was blessedly warm and clear, making it that much more enjoyable when compared to the thunder and lightning of Saqsayhuaman. The girls frolicked in the grassy courtyards as we passed sunbathing students studying atop some fallen Incan handiwork. We walked through dripping caves with sculpted homages to the lightning, one of the Incas' spiritual incarnations thought to be the source of life. Some naughty local boys climbed on top of a Incan wall and received a sharp whistle as a reprimand from a Ministry of Culture employee still sitting at the entrance gate 400 yards away. I told our girls, "Don't do whatever those boys just did."

We walked back up to the main road after we had had our fill of peaceful Q'enqo, and waitied no more than 10 minutes before a bus from a different bus company appeared. We took it to the next stop - Puku Pukara.

The bus was packed and we stood for this leg of the journey, hanging onto the overhead rails and trying not to bump our fellow passengers with our overloaded backpacks. The highlight of this ride was when I let go of the bar for a split second to adjust my pack, just as the bus rounded a sharp, steep curve. I lost my balance and fell backwards in slow motion, but we were all so tighly packed together that the result was more like leaning heavily on the young Peruvian teen behind me, as if I were a heavy sack of traditional weaving and alpaca sweaters to be sold at market. He might have thought it was funny, the big clumsy American woman who didn't know how to ride a bus properly, but I couldn't tell. I was so tall in comparison to both my fellow passengers and the front windshield, that I couldn't see the boy's face nor what the road promised ahead of us. I apologized to the back of his head and resolved to hold on at all times from there on out! Puka Pukara was only 2 miles up the road. The fare was 4 soles.

Puka Pukara was a military lookout post. Although the ruins were simple and not much to write home about when compared to the enormous stones of Saqsayhuaman, the view won top prize over all other sites. From left to right, when standing at the former tower site, the vista encompassed sheep with their brightly-dressed shepherdesses roaming over green fields; the long, deep valley leading towards Pisac on display with various other shades of green; smallish blue mountains in the near distance; and the gigantic grey masses of the Andes further off. The bright blue sky with nary a reminder of yesterday's heavy, black storm clouds topped off the photogenic scene like a South American cherry on the top of this deliciously beautiful Incan sundae. Closer to us on the right were four burros, tied up below the tower to graze in small circles, conceivably providing a public service by cropping the public grass.

Across the road was another site - Tambomachay - a resort and ceremonial center for the Inca and his princess built in 1500 AD. The famous ritual fountains, built by carving out pipe-like cylindrical passages in the enormous stones, provided spring water year round. It was a little less impressive than the other sites due to its middling size and view, but it was a well-preserved working example of Incan technology in action.

We ate lunch on top of another Incan tower foundation - peanut butter and jelly inside of traditional Peruvian bread rolls - then headed back to the road to hail another bus, this time one with the same company who issued us the original tickets. We had 15 twisting miles to get to Pisac.

Originally, when we planned our day, we knew that we would have to pay the extra cost for the leg from Q'enqo to Puka Pukara because we would be riding with a diferent bus company. But when we tried to board the bus owned by the original company with our original ticket to Pisac, we were denied. It seems that the ticket was only good until we disembarked, even if it were only 10 feet from the front door. We had to pay another 6 soles to get the rest of the way to Pisac, and of course, we stood, packed in like sardines between the luckier sleeping passengers who had boarded in Cusco - something we had done 4 hours earlier.

In the end, it was only $2 more, and regardless, we arrived in Pisac intact, not too weary, and with nothing picked from our pockets. Everyone on that bus had a purpose and it wasn't to take home a pair of cheap American sunglesses or a half-used Boleto Touristico. I began to relax about the numerous tourist warnings we had read against robbers and scoundrals. Most people were just going about their daily business of commuting to and from work or buying supplies in town. Nevertheless, I still insist on zippered pockets for me and my girls whenever we go out (mostly to guard against accidentally tripping and spilling the irreplacable contents of our pockets down a grate in the street - I like to call it being careful, although I know others might label it paranoia).

We hung around in the town of Pisac for awhile, drinking cold fruit juice and tepid coffee and peeking in the gate of Kusy Kawsay - the school the girls will attend in March. We saved the ruins of Pisac for when we move there next month. The main square is small and manageable; the city welcoming and not too big. I can't wait to start looking for apartments!

It was only mid-afternoon when we took another bus to LaMae (4 miles, 4 soles) with our friend Rocia. There, we got to know Sandra and Sandy, the couple who run the organization where Matt will volunteer. We toured their beautiful property by the side of a gushing river and met their children, age 12 and 14 who also attend Kusy Kawsay. We spoke Spanglish and ate a wonderful home-cooked meal as we listened attentively to the other guests - the best way to learn Spanish in my opinion.

Bedtime came too early and we caught a taxi to Calca (10 miles, 15 soles), where Rocia housed us for the night in style at her beautiful bed and breakfast, "La Casa de Mama Gloria". The gifts of friendship had warmed us, fed us and made us feel at home in this new territory. In all, we spent 62 soles - about 24 American dollars - and 12 enjoyable hours getting from Cusco to Calca, Peru and, more imporantly, getting to know our new friends and new home. What a day!

Ten Days - Friday

The Boleto Touristico - the tourist ticket - allows you to visit 16 archeological sites and museums in the Cusco area, but limits entrance to one 10-day period. We thought about the timing of our purchase, and selected a Friday in order to squeeze two weekends into our 10 days. Coincidentally, on Friday "llueve cubos" - it rained buckets! But our faithful guide Israel, a masters student in archeology at the Cusco university, wearing an ill-advised outfit consisting of white jeans, white tennis shoes and a green windbeaker, met us at the Plaza de Armas in the center of town.

He managed to lead us through our first archeological site, Saqsayhuaman, for three hours in the mud-inducing downpour without one shiver, grimace or stain on his seemingly supernatural attire. His clothes must have been made by Edna Mode. Perhaps all Cuscenians have an 'Mr. Incredible' gene, because most make their way thorugh the alternately drenching and frigid weather without the benfit of lycra or gortex. It is not uncommon to look out our dining room window and see young men walking to work in a downpour with nothing more protective than a polo shirt and slacks, but through some optical illusion, they appear dry. Drops of water run down their faces and their shirts must be saturated throughout to maintain that consistent color scheme from shoulders to waist, but to the casual observer, these guys could be walking down the sunny sidewalks of a balmy beach town. Maybe this speaks to their abilty to persevere without complaint, or to a lifetime of living without unnecessary baggage and articles of clothes.

Throughout our archeological visits, however, the Hastie family was well prepared for our climate-adaptive inadequacies. We lugged along with us a backpack full of gloves, raincoats, extra socks, food, water, and of course, books. Starting with the wet Saqsayhuaman with its collasal, man-made assembly grounds and 130-ton foundation cornerstones for ceremonial builidings designed as resting spots for the sun, we set out to see what Cusco had to offer its visitors. Israel walked us through pitch-black tunnels and across a courtyard big enough to play five NFL football games simultaneously. He showed us roads and doorways that purposefully dropped off into thin air (they were built for luminary beings greater than us - the sun has no use for stairs) and terraces where crops were made to bloom out of the rocks - a promise the great Inca Yupanqi made to his people if they would accept him as their leader. Israel knew where to find "the most beautiful Incan artifact in all of Peru": in a cracked and dusty greenhouse in the basement of the site administrator's office. The artifact is a stone circle of about 3 feet diameter, wrapped with a lounging, smiling 'feline' - Israel's word for the puma, one of the three main spiritual icons found repeatedly in Incan artwork. The other two are the anaconda and the condor.

This site, along with numerous others near Cucsco, was built surprisingly fast during Inca Yupanqi's (and another ruler's) 77 year rule with the labor of 360 extended families (adding up to a pool of millions of people). It was left unfinished when the Spaniards invaded in the early 1500s. The foreigners destroyed everything they could in their greedy quest to steal and melt down the multitude of gold and silver adornments they saw in the Incan ceremonial buildings, and later, to rid Cusco of all signs of non-Catholic belief systems and culture. Needless to say, words cannot do justice to the grandeur and mystery of this site and all it represents.

At the end of the day Friday, drippy, happy and tired, we walked back to town: Saqsayhuaman is less than a mile from the city center.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Short Preamble

Up until today, the possibility of my health status interfering further with our travel plans was very real. But here I sit, in my hospital-issued nightie, with a soon-to-be detached IV and 130 odd stitches, awaiting release from the hospital. The surgery was a success and my recovery was stellar, if I do say so myself! I credit my 1.5 mile daily walks up and down the corridors, and of course Dr. Imatani's tremendous skill as a surgeon.

I feel great; ready to tackle the last-minute list of things that have to be done before we head out to PDX next week, as long as they don't involve bouncing, lifting, or roller coaster rides (I've had enough roller coaster to last a lifetime these past 6 months!).

The girls seem ready, even if they are slightly scared to death, and Matt has taken care of numerous loose strings to ensure everything is in order while we are gone.

I have 3 more work days. The girls have 2 more days of school. This is really happening!