June 8, 2015I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while; I haven’t had a reliable internet connection. So much has happened in the last few days. This post is probably more just going to be a flow of consciousness than something rigidly structured, but please bear with me.
On Wednesday, we started the day with lecture, as usual. We discussed pollution on both a global scale and on a Peruvian scale, focusing on Peru’s waste management strategy and the damages it suffers from its illegal gold mining industry. The pictures and the information was depressing, but we would soon find out that seeing it in reality is nothing shy of disgusting. From lecture, we were taken to see one of Peru’s badly polluted rivers. The shallow water stumbled drunkenly across filthy rocks. Open sewage pipes dumped human waste from the nearby households directly into the river. Gulls and irises gorged on the abundant trash that clung to the stones of the riverbed, preferring to poison themselves on easy-to-access food rather than to try and possibly fail to find somewhat better food in tainted lakes or deforested soils, much like a human being turning to McDonald’s to avoid having to fight through Walmart to get to the grocery section.
When I thought this scene could not be more revolting, a quick walk downstream proved otherwise; flies danced about a rotting dog that was lying on the bank of the stream and contributing now to the spread of the very diseases that killed it. I have seen some of the most beautiful sights of my life in Peru, and after seeing that those natural works of art could so easily become this obscene image, my desire to protect the natural world grew to a powerful compulsion. Is there anyone in the world who could see that and not feel that they are now responsible to help make a positive change in the world?
Thankfully, there are some measures in place. We journeyed from the river to a water treatment facility. The manager walked us around and explained from stage to stage what was happening. Gates caught solid waste, huge pools allowed sediment to settle out, and powerful machines blasted water through filters filled with microorganisms that fed on the remaining effluent. As impressive as this all was, however, what struck me most was the landscaping; they kept the place perfectly manicured and filled with bright green flora in all directions. The plants purified the air in the facility while the nearby machines cleaned the water.
After the tour, we went tourist mode. Our Peruvian guide, Magaly, took us to a llama/alpaca/vicuña “zoo.” There, tourists grabbed handfuls of alfalfa to feed to the animals which greedily stuck their heads several feet past the fences to grab at their prized treat. A few of the more entitled ones spat at those few tourists who passed by without giving an offering, but the rest were happy to accept what was offered and ask no more. Further along, women sheared the animals, colored the wool with handmade dye, and wove it all together to make incredibly soft sweaters, socks, blankets, and other creations which were then sold at an on-site boutique. If you plan to purchase, bring a full wallet---a single pure-alpaca sweater can cost as much as $150 US.
We drove from there to Ollantaytambo, where we stayed in a small hotel. On the outside, it was quite pretty; inside the rooms, mold clung to corners and cockroaches scurried around. We slept there fitfully, waking to strange and disconcerting noises. My roommate thought he heard whispered chanting by his bed; in the dark of the night, I could have sworn I heard the distant shrieks of a terrified woman. I don’t believe in ghosts, but if there was a place in the world that is haunted, it would be the hotel in Ollantaytambo.
Bright and early in the morning, we left there and caught a train that took us away from that place. We climbed off partway into the ride and hiked along the tracks next to a stunning river that danced about massive boulders that were surrounded on all sides by the thick foliage of the cloud forest. Midway into the hike, we happened across a hydroelectric plant. We were interested to see the facility, but hadn’t contacted them about it previously because we didn’t know it was there. Thankfully, we had Magic Magaly, who talked first to the security guard and then to the facility manager, batted her eyelashes, and won us not only access to the plant but an impromptu tour from the man in charge of the place.
After the tour, we continued our hike to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. A river much like the one we had hiked along ran through a chasm in the middle of town, working its way past bustling market stalls on its way to a gorgeous vista, three mountains that stood proud right outside of town. After taking a little time to explore town and grab some lunch, we caught a bus that took us straight to Machu Picchu.
It was every bit as glorious as I had imagined. High up in the thin air, we gazed over verdant mountain peaks that reached up to the bright blue sky. Near where we stood, remnants of the Inca completely covered the area; ancient stone paths upon which messengers had once run wove around hand-crafted rock walls that supported stunning green terraces. Homes, places where people had once lived, still welcomed humans into them through tiny open doorways. Each stone that made them was cut by hand and transported from the nearby quarry. An ancient sun dial still spoke the time to all who would listen, and a boulder was carved into the exact shape of the mountains among which we stood. I can’t bring myself to call any of it ruins, as if Machu Picchu had somehow been immolated and left in shambles; rather, everything hummed with a timeless energy that felt joyful, as if the place was somehow welcoming travelers there. I could have spent an entire day there, but unfortunately we had arrived late, and the guards were rounding people up and sending them back down the mountain. We turned and walked back to the bus stop, everyone giving quick “last” glances over their shoulders at the wonder we were leaving behind.
The next morning, we rose and left for Santa Teresa, an impoverished town of about 2,000 people nestled into the Andes. We dropped our stuff at one of its hotels, caught a quick nap, and then promptly left to go ziplining. We hiked up a mountain along weaving jungle paths, led as much by two brilliant German Shepards, Santa and Negro, as by the guides who owned them. The lines themselves crisscrossed a canyon that I struggle to find adjectives to describe. Once again, the focal point of the view was a river every bit as beautiful as the ones we had passed before, but along this one stood tall white trees (some sort of aspen?) that reached up with their branches as if they were worshipping the sky above. Immediately on either side, steep slopes rose up from the valley below. These slopes sported a dense green beard of vegetation, but on top, tall purple grasses swayed lazily in the breeze. I remember whizzing through the air at top speed but feeling still and calm as I gazed upon the tranquil place. There are few places were I’ve felt more at home than there.
We left that valley for a place that was, if possible, even more relaxing: Peruvian hot springs. We slipped into the warm water, surrounded at all sides by a beautiful night. At our backs was a sharp and rugged stone wall that makes rock climbers, including myself, itch to give it a try. At our fore and sides, pristine stonework lined the springs, some of it moderating the level and temperature of the springs, and some spouting rapid flows of cold water that guests were expected to shower in before entering the springs. Above, there was nothing but stars; we spent some time gazing up and searching for the llama constellation, which despite what a few of my group members say, I believe we never found. Not that it mattered; the warm water, the light conversation, the presence of friends, and the beauty of the places lulled us all into a state of almost meditative relaxation.
The next morning, however, was anything but relaxing. We climbed into a small bus and were jerked about on a rough mountain road that threatened to pitch us off its face or send us careening into impossible to see incoming traffic at any moment. The view at the window was beautiful, but the rough ride after a heavy breakfast left me too sick to enjoy it. The ride was about six hours long and left me wanting to kiss the Cusco sidewalk when we finally arrived.
We again dropped our stuff off at the hotel and promptly left, much as we had in Santa Teresa. This time, we headed an hour away to a set of farms to discuss how the locals were managing their water supply. Being a Nebraskan through and through, I thought I knew what a field was supposed to look like; row upon row of corn or soybeans as far as the eye could see. But looking out at the field, I knew I had been wrong my whole life. At this farm, a single lake rested peacefully, reflecting perfectly the sky above. On the rolling hills surrounding it was a patchwork of multicolored fields; each patch had a monoculture of a single crop, like back in Nebraska, but no one patch was very large, and they were all bunch together, forming a bustling ecosystem. Butterflies and other assorted insects flitted from crop to crop, giving a hum of activity to the air. Nearby sheep and a single cow munched on the weeds that as always threaten the welfare of the crops. Some form of reed grew thick and tall in the shallows of the lake, and a farmer standing on a small boat collecting these by hand. On the far side of the lake stood a jaw-droppingly beautiful snowcap mountain, a bright and shining white that threw the light of the sun that slowly set behind it upon the green mountains and rolling fields that formed a bowl around the lake. This, my friends, is agriculture, and while I will always have a special place in my heart for Nebraska farmlands, nothing quite compares to this.
After visiting the field, we returned to Cusco and went to market. Some sort of celebration was starting and will continue the rest of this week. In this celebration, one of Cusco’s squares becomes choked with stalls selling fresh fruits, handmade crafts, and the world’s best coffee. Carnival games beckoned to any who would like to try their hand and attempt to win a prize. People flowed like water through the narrow paths between the stalls, jabbering away in any number of languages.
As the sun set, we walked away from the activity to someplace more peaceful. We passed through Cusco’s main square and headed up a steep, narrow street split down the middle by an ancient aqueduct. The street gave way to a stretch of Inca trail that then fell to dirt path which wandered through the country side. Along the way, we made friends with a stray dog we named Pablo Sanchez who walked by our side and fended off other strays. Eventually, the group split up, and Pablo and I took off at a run across a barren agricultural field, vaulting walls and hopping over trenches, as we made our way to our destination. Finally, we arrived and stood at the feet of a brightly lit statue known as Christo Blanco. The giant Jesus stood with arms open to Cusco below, which appeared now as if someone had taken a large handful of small yellow lights and cast them out over the valley below. Above, stars shone as pinpricks of silver light that complemented the golden electric lights that shone up from Cusco. I gave Pablo a scratch behind the ears and sat to enjoy the night and wait for the rest of the group.
I write this the following morning, sitting at a table in the courtyard of the Universidad de San Ignacio Loyola (USIL), where I have been receiving my lectures. Today is one of my last in Peru. The place is beyond what my humble words could ever hope to describe, and it made itself a space in my heart instantly. It is as much a home to me as Nebraska, and I have loved every minute I’ve spent here. I know already I will return here someday, and I hope those of you who read this will consider following in my footsteps and making the journey here. You will love it.
June 3, 2015The last couple of days have been an absolute whirlwind. Inevitably I will miss some special moment or prized memory as I write this, but this is the best I can do. So here goes.
On Monday, we had class bright and early in the morning. We sat in a classroom in La Universidad de San Loyola (USIL), a stunning white building with blue pillars and railings all made in a style distinctly reminiscent of colonial Spanish elites. We discussed everything from the hydrologic cycle to Peruvian history starting in the 1200s. Once our professors deemed us sufficiently knowledgeable, we were sent up a mountain to collect data. On our way up, we were surrounded by glorious ruins that once were home to Inca nobility. The land between these ruins was terraced, wide and deep, and perfectly cube-shaped stone stairs jutted from the face of the terrace walls, facilitating travel between the terraces. Crisscrossing this ancient farm ran our quarry: thin aqueducts that still supply enough water to keep the grassy terraces bright and green. Here we set up surveying equipment to learn about the structure and changing slope of the aqueducts. We later returned to USIL to learn how to input this data into specialized software to learn all about the behavior of the water in the aqueducts.
Yesterday (Tuesday), felt like multiple days on its own, so I am going to break it down as such. For the first “day,” we started again in lecture. This time, we learned about a somewhat narrower but still broad range of topics ranging from solar panel design to crop rotations. From lecture, we went straight to the repair shop of a geothermal plant for a tour. They had massive turbines in various stages of repair, taking as long as six months to repair a single one. They examined their turbines with ultrasounds and X-rays to pick up the tiniest holes in its structure to make sure that it was absolutely perfect before sending the giants to whir around in intense heat at 450 rpm. If they missed a single detail, the turbine could fracture and potentially cause the whole plant to detonate. Knowing that gives me respect as enormous as those turbines for those workers. I hope they continue to take such pride in their work.
At the start of my second Tuesday, we toured a statue of Pachacutec, the transformer of the universe, he who shakes the earth. He is to this day considered by Peruvians to have been their greatest leader. I’m told that he was incredibly wise and lead the Inca civilization to an altogether new level of prosperity. His greatest achievement is also the first thing most people think of when they think of Peru: Macchu Picchu. Underneath his statue in Cusco is a tower containing multiple exhibits surrounded by a spiral staircase heading up to Pachacutec’s toes. Our Peruvian guide, Magaly, explained each of these to us as we worked our way to the top to gaze down at the bustling city of Cusco.
The third Tuesday started as we headed off to community service. An elementary school not far outside of Cusco has a greenhouse that it uses to teach students both practical gardening skills and traditional topics such as math and science. Nearby, they had four compost bins for which we spent some constructing lids made of mesh wrapped around a wooden frame. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, as is typical in construction: tools broke, people tripped on barbed wire (yes, barbed wire at an elementary school), nails stripped, and we ran out of mesh. That send, it was a wonderful experience working with friends to improve the lives of impoverished Peruvian children.
The final Tuesday was nothing if not classy: we dined on alpaca, trout, and beef at a nice restaurant near the main square of Cusco, then headed off to an hour and a half of salsa dance lessons at USIL. It was a blast getting to dance with friends and let myself move so freely and with the music. I hope I have the opportunity to do this again soon.
This morning, we are packing up to leave our hotel for multiple days, so if I post at all, it will be quite short. I wish all of you well, and I will see you in about a week.
June 1, 2015Perhaps one of the greatest ways to expand yourself as an individual is to travel. Immersion into another culture through listening to its songs, drinking in its sights, and bringing its food into your body makes the new culture physically and mentally a part of you. So when I found the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Peru, for educational purposes no less, I could not possibly pass it up.
I did my reading on Peru before leaving the States, but I still had to wonder what it would really be like. It’s like going to see a movie adaptation of a book you love; you have this wonderful image in your head, and you know that the movie will be different, but you have to wonder how different it would actually be and in what ways. I had pictured the Chamber of Secrets differently than it appeared in the movie, but that’s a fictitious place, so any way you picture it is valid. Peru is real, and I was eager to see how much of the magic in my head was accurate.
So I stepped off my plane in Lima, chomping at the bit to explore. My eyes were thirsty for a good spectacle, and my restless legs were ready to carry me to wherever it may be. I pushed through immigration, entering the main part of the airport, and I saw...
America. Everywhere. McDonald’s, Papa Johns, and Dunkin Donuts stood in a neat line. Signs and announcements in English as much as in Spanish. I understand that many travelers wander in here from the US, but I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. I came all this way for exactly what I could find in Omaha or Lincoln? No, there had to be more to it than just this. Surely there would be something incredible in my next stop, Cusco.
That little bit of faith proved accurate. I was practically drooling on the back seat of a van as I was driven from the Cusco airport to the hotel. Houses and businesses sprawled over the mighty hills that surrounded me on all sides, their old tile and tin roofs at the perfect hodgepodge of heights that would force any parkour enthusiast to tremble with the strain of resisting the temptation to run and climb all over them. Soaring churches, built by the Inca and repurposed by Spanish Catholics, acted as great stone bridges to the past, letting the modern passerby stand at one end and see the silhouettes of past denizens of Cusco hiding in the mist at the other side. Stray dogs ran around the legs of people dressed in modern, Western-style clothes; these people in turn chattered in languages ranging from Spanish to Quechua to French while they wandered around the legs of a statue of the great Pachacutec, the greatest rule in Peruvian history. The soft burble of water coursing through ancient aqueducts sang gently and constantly, but it was only noticeable in the slight lulls of traffic, when the blaring of car horns and the mechanical purr of engines did not completely dominate the soundscape.
And oh! the food! I later sat to a meal of the freshest fruits I’ve ever tasted and a chunk of alpaca flesh. There was an explosion of flavor in every bite, the warm and savory alpaca perfectly contrasted the sweet juiciness of the fruits. I could eat my weight and still not be satisfied. Here’s hoping the other meals are like that.
So far, it has been an excellent start to the trip. I am with good people in an incredible new place. I wish all the people at reading this at home the best, and I will see you all when I return.