Sunday, April 4, 2010

"TTFN: Ta-ta For Now," as Tigger Would Say

After such an incredible journey through Peru, I'm getting re-settled into real life. For now, the Wandering Ashley blog will be on hiatus ... but rest assured that I'll be using it again on my next adventure. Thanks for all of your comments during the trip and your warm welcome home!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

As most of you know by now, I arrived home safely on Monday afternoon. It's nice to be home, but it's also a bit disorienting -- as if someone had yanked me out of my life with a claw machine and plopped me down into a different life.

Of course, I'm delighted by some of the things waiting for me at home: blueberries, salad, a good shower, a comfortable (and flea-free) bed. I devoured Brooke's homemade refried beans, cuddled with my two sweet cats, and took a million pictures of Will and Cara in their cute Peruvian hats. I even went to the movies -- popcorn, yum.

On the other hand, I also feel a bit misplaced. My first trip to Target was overwhelming: so much unnecessary stuff at such outrageous prices, with so much electricity being wasted on all the bright lighting! Even the Atlanta airport, with its Starbucks cafes and L'Occitane shops, seemed to be a ridiculous indulgence.

Over the next few weeks, I'm sure I'll once again get used to cheap luxuries and American excess. I'll get used to being separated from my Peruvian friends and routines. I'm home, yes, but it doesn't yet feel quite like home.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Homeward Bound

Tomorrow, I´m boarding a plane to Lima, then another plane to Atlanta, and finally, on Monday morning, another plane to Indianapolis. I have had such an incredible experience here, and I´m reluctant to leave -- but it´s time to get back to "real" life.

To get myself ready to come home, I´ve been making a list of the things I miss:
  • Blueberries (and fresh fruit in general).
  • Leafy, green salad.
  • Being able to come and go as I please, without worrying whether I´m disturbing my host family.
  • My giant, comfortable bed with the feather duvet and puffy pillows.
  • A normal, non-bucket-in-the-ceiling shower.
  • Driving.
  • Going to the movies.

Of course, I can´t wait to see everyone again, and I´m sure I´ll be doing a "tour" of get-togethers to catch up with everyone.

On the other hand, I don´t want to fall into my old routine. "Peru Ashley" is quite a fabulous person, and I hope to retain as much of her as possible.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle

This weekend, while everyone else went to Bolivia to renew their visas, I went on a whirlwind trip to the jungle. I boarded a plane in Cuzco on Friday morning, and an hour later I was in Puerto Maldonado, a boom-and-bust town in the Amazon basin.

After another hour in a bus and about three hours in a boat, I arrived at the Explorer´s Inn, the only hotel in the Tambopata preserve. It was pretty rustic -- there was no electricity in my room, but I did have a mosquito net and a cold-water-only shower.

Despite those hardships (which don´t bother me much now, anyway), I had a fabulous time. On Friday evening, we hopped in the boat to search for caimans, a South American alligator. We saw many, including an entire family of caiman babies, nestled among the plants on the riverbank. I also saw a beautiful sunset that evening, and I discovered that the lodge is literally crawling with tarantulas as big as my head. Fortunately, they move slowly, and they don´t go into the guests´rooms. Much.

On Saturday, I got up insanely early for an 11-kilometer hike through the rainforest. We saw lots of insects and plants, including different kinds of palm trees, but not many animals. (I did see a few monkeys from a distance.) The hike was interesting for about five hours, but by the sixth hour I was pretty tired of slogging through ankle-deep mud. (Oh, that´s why you don´t go to the rainforest during rainy season.)
On Saturday afternoon, it was too hot to do anything except lie in bed and moan (even for our favorite Namibian hippo). There were only six guests at the lodge, so we reconvened at dinner, eating our meal at a communal table and sharing stories about our travels in Peru. It was quite cozy.

The next day, I hopped back on the boat and headed for the airport. It was a relief to be back home in Pisac, but it was lonely, too; the rest of the group didn´t arrive until early Monday morning from Bolivia.

Except for the week when Michael came to visit, it was the first time that Henry, Christine, Sara and I had spent 24 hours apart since early January. It was like losing a limb -- so of course I´m dreading our longer-term separation when I return home this Sunday.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You Know How I Hate Children ...

After two lovely weeks of vacation, I've started a new project: teaching English in a secondary school in Qoya, about ten minutes from Pisac. The school's "English teacher" only speaks about ten words of English, so I'm running the show (which, of course, is how I like it). The facility is very basic -- no computers or science labs here -- but it's functional and clean.

The real challenge is that I have to teach in Spanish. I make lots of mistakes, such as telling the students to work with birds (pajaros) instead of partners (parejas). Mostly, however, we do manage to communicate.

Working in a Peruvian school has really helped me to understand this country. Even in a good, relatively urban school like mine, the level of education is far below what we'd expect in the United States. Everything is piecemeal and disorganized -- classes begin and end whenever the director remembers to ring the bell, and the teachers don't know which classes they're teaching until that morning. The students have uniforms, but many don't bother to wear them; overall, the level of discipline seems pretty low. Yesterday, I had to break up a headlock contest at the back of the room, but the "real" teacher didn't even seem to notice.

I have to admit, I'm counting down my remaining days of teaching. I would happily stay in Peru forever, but you couldn't pay me to continue doing this job.

As usual, though, even when things are miserable, I'm still having a wonderful time. I've introduced Henry, Christine and Sara to the wonders of canasta, and they're all hooked. I now have to carry my double deck of cards with me wherever I go (which is mostly to Ulrike's anyway).

This coming weekend is my last full weekend in Peru, and I'm spending it in the jungle -- a side trip to Puerto Maldonado and the Tambopata preserve. Hopefully I'll soon be posting pictures of monkeys and parrots. Today I started taking anti-malaria pills, the major side effect of which is strange, vivid dreams. I'm looking forward to seeing what my brain invents.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Holiday Week

As soon as Michael left last week, I was off on my next adventure, traveling around southern Peru with Henry, Christine and Sara. The week went so quickly -- a blur of overnight buses, sand and sun.

Our first stop: Nazca. We did the usual tourist thing, boarding a tiny plane for a short flight over the Nazca Lines. The real thrill, however, was sandboarding in the Peruvian desert. We rode a dune buggy to the peaks, where our guide, Eduardo, taught us the basics of sandboarding. Standing up required more coordination than I possess, but I rocked at sliding down on my belly! I can´t even describe the thrill of shooting headfirst down a mountain of sand.

Next on the agenda: a few days at the beach. We chose Camana, a small beach town on the road between Nazca and Arequipa, and crossed our fingers that the tsunami warnings would come to nothing. We spent two lazy days on the beach -- delighted to be the only gringos in sight -- before catching a bus to our final stop, Arequipa.

Arequipa is one of the largest and wealthiest towns in Peru. Constructed of white volcanic stone, it also has some of the nation´s prettiest architecture. (That´s the Plaza de Armas at left.) It was a great place to wander.

We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, a museum focused on the Incas´ritual sacrifices in the nearby mountains. In addition to numerous burial artifacts, the museum has the bodies of several sacrificed children, whose deaths were meant to ensure good harvests, fertility and other blessings.

Our final stop in Arequipa was the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, formerly a cloistered convent for well-to-do nuns. Rather than living in simple, dormitory-style rooms, the nuns here lived in their own little houses, complete with servants and kitchens. The convent, which takes up a full city block and has its own streets and courtyards, feels more like a Spanish village than a religious community. The colors, such as cobalt blue and brick red, were especially striking. We spent several hours just wandering here, choosing the set of rooms we each liked best.

In all, it was an incredible week. We had some delicious meals (and a few really bad ones), we saw more than a few breath-taking landscapes, and at one point I even drank a screwdriver while wearing a sombrero ... in public. Yep, it was that kind of week.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Meets Peru, Part III

After last night's guinea-pig detour, I owe you an update on the second half of Michael's visit. It's been a busy week!

On Wednesday, we took full advantage of our boleto turistico, a mega-ticket that allows access to most of the sites around Cusco. (Bonus: During February, it's half price.) We started at Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fortress/temple with impressive zig-zag walls and a great view of the city. Then, after lunch, we took a taxi out to Tambomachay (pictured), the ruins of ceremonial Inca baths. This was a small site, but it was peaceful, and I liked listening to the flow of water through streams and still-working Inca aqueducts.

When we left Tambomachay, we hit a small snag -- not a taxi, bus or combi in sight, and no way to get back to Cusco. So, Michael got to experience Peruvian hitch-hiking: Just wait for the next bus or combi to drive by, and flag it down. We easily caught a bus to our next destination, Q'enko, a cave containing a ceremonial Inca altar.

After a full day of "ruining," it was time for my regular Wednesday evening activity, the Projects Abroad pub quiz in Urubamba. Oh, how I love the pub quiz! My team won last week, so this week Henry and I were in charge of writing the questions. Michael jumped right in and helped lead his team to victory, answering questions about movies, sports and even Shakespeare. He also tried Inca Kola, a popular local soda, and said it tastes like cream soda. (Maybe, but I can't stand it.)

On Thursday, we went a bit farther afield to Moray, a unique Inca site featuring concentric circular terraces. Each terrace has a unique atmosphere, so historians theorize that Moray served as a sort of agriculture research lab for the Incas. It's also reported to have a unique "energy," but we hiked most of the way down, and I can't report any unusual vibes.

We also visited Salinas, a collection of open-air salt mines that cascade down the valley like a giant wedding cake. The mines have been in use since Inca times, and each plot is passed down from generation to generation. We didn't see anyone working, but the mines themselves are an awesome sight. We bought some salt, too, so we'll have to see whether it tastes any different.

Last night, as you know, we celebrated Michael's last Cusco dinner with traditional guinea pig. (I had paella instead.) Today, however, we only had time for breakfast, packing and a quick lunch before sending Michael on his way home.

On one hand, it was hard to see Michael go, and it will be difficult to adjust back to my normal Peruvian life. On the other hand, I'm now beginning the final leg of my journey -- one week of traveling with other volunteers and three weeks of teaching in local schools. The first two-thirds of the trip have gone so quickly, and in the blink of an eye I'll be packing my bags for home.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Michael Meets Peru, Part II

Michael and I have been exploring Inca ruins like crazy people, but that's not what this post is about. No, this post is about dinner. Tonight, Michael experienced a classic Andean delicacy: baked cuy, also known as guinea pig.

As you can see, it comes whole, with head, arms, legs, tail and all. You're supposed to eat it with your hands, so the arms and legs make convenient little handles.

When the waitress delivered the dish -- which requires a reservation three hours in advance -- she said, "His name was Miguelito. Goodbye, Miguelito." When we finally stopped laughing, Michael reported that cuy actually tastes pretty good, unlike any meat he's tried before. Still, he says, he probably won't be eating it again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michael Meets Peru, Part I

Michael is halfway through his trip to Peru, and I'm keeping him busy. We started slow as Michael adjusted to the altitude, exploring Cusco's churches, museums and shopping areas. I've been force-feeding him a steady diet of mate de coca (coca-leaf tea), so he's avoided the worst of the altitude sickness.

On Sunday, we spent the day at "home" in Pisac, where Michael joined my host family for a traditional meal. In their opinion, his blond hair and blue eyes make him the perfect gringo. We also joined my Peruvian pals for all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Blue Llama, a stroll around the market, and a few hours of card games at Ulrike's. (Michael even got to meet Ulrike herself!)

Today we went farther afield to Ollantaytambo, which has some spectacular Inca ruins. As you can see, it's a steep climb! (As always, click for larger photos.) The site served as temple, agricultural center and fortress, according to my guidebook, and the Incas successfully defended it against the Spanish in 1537. It's hard to imagine that a civilization capable of such incredible architecture could so easily crumble.

I'm having fun being Michael's designated tour guide, and it's interesting to see Peru through fresh eyes. As Michael pointed out, the buses here are rickety and uncomfortable, the street peddlers are everywhere, and the poverty is intense. After seven weeks, I've stopped noticing all of those things.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Switching Gears

Yesterday, our six-week teacher-training program came to an end. We had a graduation ceremony, in which each class presented a song or skit. Our class split into two groups and presented two fairy tales, "The Three Little Pigs" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." I laughed so hard that I almost fell out of my chair.

As volunteers, we were also asked to present something, and we opted for the song "Volare," sung in Spanish and our three native languages (English, Danish and Italian). It was a hit!

Afterward, we presented our students with their completion certificates, and they surprised us with gifts (a Peruvian purse), certificates and a serenade in Quechua. Later we all went out to lunch, and then Christine and I met several of our students for drinks.

Fun fact: When I´ve had a few drinks, the English accent I´ve acquired here becomes much, much worse. I might as well have said "Cheerio"!

Now, I´m switching gears for a vacation within my vacation. Tomorrow, Michael arrives, and we´re going to explore lots of sites around the Sacred Valley. Unfortunately, we can´t go to Machu Picchu, as it´s closed until 1 April. (In case you´re wondering, I´m scheduled to come home 29 March but might change my ticket.)

After Michael goes home, I´m traveling with Christine, Sara and Henry to the southern part of Peru, focusing on the Nasca lines, Arequipa and the coast. We had a major planning session last night, and today we started booking buses and making reservations.

At the end of my two weeks, it´s back to teaching, this time in the Sacred Valley rather than in Cusco. I don´t have the details of my placement yet, but I hope to hear something soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

End of an Era

It´s hard to believe, but our six-week teacher training program is coming to an end. As teaching partners, Christine and I have covered everything from phrasal verbs to the pronunciation of the letter J. This Thursday, we´ll have a graduation ceremony, where we´ll say goodbye to our 17 students -- very likely forever.
This past Thursday, our students prepared a special surprise for us: a Valentine´s Day feast, complete with choclo, two types of homemade soup, beer and wine. They even decorated the classroom, and several of them gave toasts (in English!) about how much they have enjoyed our class. Finally, they presented us with boxes of chocolate. It was one of our best moments here in Peru.
After the craziness of last weekend in Puno, we opted to stay home this weekend in Pisac. On Friday and Saturday mornings, we volunteered in the nearby town of Calca, which was hard-hit by recent flooding. We worked with a child psychologist to entertain children whose houses had been destroyed.
Today, we had grand plans for a Valentine´s Day session of all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Blue Llama. But, we´re in Peru, so the Blue Llama is inexplicably shut at the moment. Instead, we claimed the balcony at Ulrike´s, which was the perfect spot to watch the Carneval dances and water-balloon fights in the square. We spent all day there, with brief interludes for shopping and lunch.
Tomorrow, we´ll start the final week of our training program, and then our whole routine will change. Michael´s coming for a week, then we´re all going traveling, then we´ll be back in Pisac, starting new projects and establishing new routines. Here in Peru, nothing is ever certain, and nothing stays the same.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy Travels: My Peruvian Pals

Hello! Happy here, with the hippo report from Peru. I´m taking over the blog today to tell you about Ashley´s new Peruvian pals.

First, meet Sara. She´s Ashley´s housemate. She´s from Denmark, and she really hates gelatina (the Peruvian version of Jell-O). Fun fact about Sara: Ashley can take a shower in the time it takes Sara to brush her teeth -- and that´s really saying something. Sara´s favorite thing about Peru is the view from her bedroom: the quiet town of Pisac and the soaring, green Andes beyond.

Here´s Henry. He´s from Exeter, and this fall he´s going to Oxford to study Spanish and French. First, though, he´s going to wander around South America for a few months. Fun fact about Henry: He´s been to every continent except Antarctica (Ashley intends to catch up soon). His favorite thing about Peru is our morning commute through the winding, ever-changing Andes.

This is Christine. She and Henry are housemates here in Pisac, and she´s also from Exeter (small world!). She´ll be studying English and Spanish at Nottingham this fall, but in the meantime she is Ashley´s teaching partner. They have arguments in class about how to pronounce things like aluminum and iodine.

This is Laerke. She´s also from Denmark, and she´ll be studying in London this fall -- subject yet to be determined. She lives in Cusco, and her favorite thing about Peru, she says, is the cute, chubby children.

Finally, meet Irene from Florence, Italy (one of my favorite cities)! She´s starting a Ph.D. program this fall at King´s College London in the philosophy of economics and biology, but in the meantime she´s enjoying the constant sense of discovery here in Peru.

So, if you´ve been keeping track, four of my five Peruvian pals will be studying in England this fall. Michael, I have bad news for you about Ashley´s upcoming travel expenses.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Festival in Puno

Each February, the city of Puno celebrates the Virgin de la Candeleria festival, one of the biggest festivals in Peru. Never ones to miss a unique Peruvian experience, we took an overnight bus this past Thursday and arrived in Puno early Friday morning. After a few hours of sleep, we explored the city. Then, in the evening, we caught the opening ceremonies of the festival, an outdoor extravaganza of music and dancing that lasted well into the next morning. (It was still going on when we woke up Saturday.)

Saturday was full of adventures. First, we took a tour of the Uros floating islands, which literally float around the bay of Lake Titicaca. The original residents fled to the lake to escape the Incas, and their descendants have carried on the simple way of life. The islands are built of mud and reeds, and the residents have to continually replace the reeds as they rot. The reeds are also used as a construction material, as fuel and as food -- we even got to taste them, and they are bland but refreshing.

Our next stop on Saturday was the ruins of Sillustani. The tombs were beautiful, as was the surrounding landscape. Afterward, we toured a traditional Quechua home, where we finally learned the difference between an alpaca and a llama. (Alpacas have downward-pointing tails, shorter ears, sloped backs and a fringe of bangs on their forehead.)

In the evening, we spent more time at the festival, watching the parade and even dancing along. Then, on Sunday, we saw the real show, when locals dance in costumes worth more than everything else they own combined. Here are a few examples:

The adventure continued on Sunday, when we took a bus back to Cusco. Unfortunately, our bus driver was completely insane. At one point, he plowed through a flock of sheep crossing the road, killing at least three, and he didn´t even bother to stop. Later, he almost ran head-on into another bus -- but we´re so used to that by now that it didn´t really bother us.

We arrived home in Pisac late on Sunday evening, exhausted but safe and satisfied. Unfortunately, four of the six of us had to visit the clinic on Monday -- I have both parasites and a bacterial infection, but both are quite common here and easily cured.

After our Puno adventure, we´re curbing our travel plans for the next few weekends. Recent floods have devastated many Sacred Valley communities, and Projects Abroad has organized food distribution, children´s activities and other programs. Fortunately, we´ll still be able to squeeze in time for all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Blue Llama this weekend.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Llama or Alpaca?

Actually, I don´t know. But it´s pretty darn cute.

UPDATE: We solved the mystery this weekend. This is an alpaca. You can tell because it has bangs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

... As Big as Your Head

If you´ve been following this blog, you know the rainy season in Peru can be ... inconvenient. But there is one advantage to visiting at this time: choclo, fresh from the fields.

I know what you´re thinking: "Um, Ashley, that´s corn on the cob." Yes, but that´s a dinner plate it´s sitting on, and those kernals are as big as a thumbnail. It´s corn on the cob on steroids, and it´s pretty yummy.

Peruvians eat their choclo alongside a hunk of white cheese (see the top left corner of the photo). We call it squeaky cheese, because it squeaks against your teeth the way Wisconsin cheese curds do. Combined, choclo con queso is a perfect street food and an easy lunch -- the Peruvian version of fast food.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Home, Sweet Home: An Update

We are home in Pisac this weekend. After a few sunny days, the water level is down, and we´re back to business as usual. Unfortunately, we now have to hike a mile to reach the buses and taxis to Cusco. (I´ll post a picture soon of the super-scary suspension footbridge we use.) We´re told that a new bridge will be completed by the end of February.

This weekend has been fairly quiet. We went into Cusco yesterday to visit the ruins at Sacsayhuaman, but my travel companions balked at the 70 soles entry fee (about $25). The plan instead is to get up super early on another day, because the ticket-takers don´t arrive until 7 a.m. Hmm ... I think I´ll sleep in and go with Michael instead.

Instead of touring the ruins, we spent the afternoon at The Real McCoy, an expat restaurant in Cusco where you can get full English breakfasts, burgers and other familiar, comforting foods. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closing for the whole of February.

Now, I´m off to wander the Pisac market, which is in full force on Sundays. The real trick is avoiding the tourists ... they´re so annoying. :)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Home, Sweet Home

The emergency situation continues in the Sacred Valley, with two of the three vehicle bridges collapsed. As it stands now, all of the Pisac-based volunteers will be living in Cusco during the week and making the long trip home (via Chinchero and Urubamba) on weekends. It´s less convenient in some ways, but it´s better than driving treacherous mountain roads early every morning to get to work.

Here, by the way, is the collapsed bridge in Pisac (click for a larger view). The one in Ollantaytambo is just as bad.

Many of you have requested photos of my home in Pisac. This is the view of the house when you enter the front gate. The kitchen is through the door on the right, and the bedrooms are upstairs.
This is the kitchen and living room.
This is my bedroom -- quite large, but I could really use a chest of drawers!
And, finally, the infamous bucket shower. After three weeks, it doesn´t even seem that strange.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere

As you may have heard, the Sacred Valley is experiencing significant flooding. The rainy season is much worse than usual, apparently because of El NiƱo, and the devastation is significant. Today the government declared a state of emergency for the Cusco region.

Rest assured, we are all perfectly fine, as are our host families and their homes. However, the bridge between Pisac and Cusco collapsed last night, so it´s quite difficult for us to get to work. As a result, all of the volunteers in Pisac are being temporarily relocated to Cusco. We´re going to camp out in the home of Projects Abroad´s local director, who is on vacation.

At this point, we are planning to return to Pisac on Thursday evening, when our school week is finished. It depends on the weather, however, because the transportation situation will worsen if the rain continues.

I´ll continue to post updates as I can. If you want quick reassurance, feel free to call my Peruvian phone.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yes, It´s True

I have a family of guinea pigs in my kitchen. They eat the kitchen scraps and wait their turn to become dinner. Sometimes I think, ¨Dude, stop eating! You´re going to be next!¨

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Happy Travels: Sacred Valley Fun Facts

Hello, friends and family! Here I am in Peru, continuing my journey with Ashley. This is a photo of me in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, the hub of the Sacred Valley region.

Since arriving in Peru, I´ve learned many things about Amerindian culture, and Ashley asked me to share a few fun facts.

First: In the Sacred Valley, a rainbow signifies that the gods are communicating with Pacha Mama (mother earth). Many older people won´t talk when a rainbow is out, because they don´t want to interrupt.

Second: The Amerindian culture recognizes three levels of existence, roughly translated as heaven, earth and hell. The levels are symbolized by animals -- the condor for heaven, the snake for hell (sound familiar?) and the puma for earth. The nearby town of Calca even has a giant statue of a puma.

Third: The locals here use the mountainsides as billboards, stripping areas of vegetation and putting down lime or other rocks in the shape of words. This is most commonly done by schools, political parties and municipalities. If you look at Ashley´s pictures from Cusco two weekends ago, you´ll see some examples.

Finally: Driving along the road in Peru, you´ll notice tall sticks leaning out into the road, topped with a cluster of red plastic bags. This makeshift flag means that the house is serving home-brewed chicha, a fermented corn drink. Ashley and I haven´t tried it, but we hear that it´s an acquired taste.

Stop by later for more fun facts about Peru!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Week in Review

This week flew by. In our class, we tackled difficult grammar, such as articles and prepositions. We gave a test Thursday, and we asked the students to prepare short presentations for review. They took the assignment seriously, preparing games, handouts, posters and other materials. It was incredible to see our students -- who will be teaching English in Peruvian schools this year -- really take charge of the classroom and demonstrate their understanding of difficult concepts.

We are working full-time here, with classes each morning and lesson preparation every afternoon. With a one-hour commute back to Pisac, we are lucky to be home by 6 p.m., and more often it´s 7 p.m. By the time we eat dinner, it´s almost time for bed. No wonder the week went so quickly. But we´re having so much fun, too!

After two intense weekends of travel, we´re taking it easy this weekend. We´re going to a salsa lesson this afternoon, and we´re planning to attend mass in Quechua (the local Amerindian language) on Sunday, but other than that, we´re just going to relax.

My Backyard

What´s in your backyard? In my backyard, I have the ruins in Pisac, second only to Machu Picchu in terms of size and quality in Peru. Here are a few photos from last weekend´s trek up the mountain.

Here´s a view of one part of the ruins. You can see the buildings on the tippy-top.

Here´s a view of the valley from the ruins. It was a foggy day, but it finally cleared enough to get a few pictures.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Some Basic Geography

I´ve been talking about many towns here in Peru´s Sacred Valley without providing much context. So, for those of you following along at home, here´s a map (click it for a larger version):

Cusco is the main city in the region, and I work there during the week. I live in Pisac, which is about an hour from Cusco by bus and which sits along a single road through the Sacred Valley. The Projects Abroad office is a bit farther along, in Urubamba. Even farther along is Ollantaytambo, where we attended a festival during my first week. Keep going that way, and eventually you´ll stumble onto Machu Picchu.

Beyond that, I don´t have much to report. We spent Saturday evening in Cusco, where a room in a decent hostel can be had for just $10. We had brunch Sunday morning at a restaurant called The Real McCoy, which celebrates English food like Marmite and baked beans on toast. Even for the Americans, it was a nice taste of home! Now, we´re back in the classroom for another intense week of teaching, and our students are doing very well.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Teaching: Week One

This week has gone so quickly, I haven´t had much time to reflect. On Monday, we (the team of teaching volunteers) administered a placement exam to local English teachers in Cusco, and on Tuesday we taught our first classes.

I´ve been assigned to the advanced class, along with another volunteer named Christine. Our students are fairly comfortable speaking in English, so we´re conducting the class as an immersion course, all English, all the time (which works out well for us!). The students´knowledge of grammar is quite advanced, enough even to challenge me, but their pronunciation and listening skills are poor. We have quite a lot to cover in the remaining five weeks!

As a team, our schedule is pretty full. We catch a taxi from Pisac to Cusco at 7:30 each morning, teach from 8:30 to 12:30, grab a quick lunch, and spend the afternoon planning the next day´s class. We usually return to Pisac around six, in time for dinner, laundry and last-minute class prep before bedtime. It´s exhausting, but we are having so much fun with our students and with each other.

On Wednesday evening, I experienced my first pub quiz, apparently a British tradition. Two people act as quizmasters, and the rest of the group divides into teams to answer random trivia questions. From the winning team, two people are chosen to be the next week´s quizmasters. Somehow, I got roped into this, along with fellow volunteer Henry, so perhaps later this week I´ll post our pub quiz questions!

Yesterday, we took a 30-minute bus ride to Calca, where we switched to a taxi for a perilous trek to the thermal baths. As the car swerved around rockslides and farm equipment and hugged the edge of the cliff, we realized that, in two weeks, our standards of personal safety had slipped. (This was especially true for the three volunteers riding in the trunk.) Fortunately, the suspicious-looking brown water of the baths turned out to be quite restorative. We were all silky-skinned and relaxed when we came home a few hours later.

Everyone stayed in Pisac last night, including the volunteers from Cusco, so we finally had an excuse to eat dinner at Ulrike´s, a restaurant on Pisac´s main square that´s famous on the hiker circuit. After skipping dinner at home (a strange berry soup the consistency of warm Jell-0), I had quinoa soup and a stuffed avocado -- plus, joy of all joys, an actual chocolate chip cookie. Yum.

This morning, we all got up at 5:15 for a hike to the Pisac ruins, which are said to rival Machu Picchu (and they´re right in my backyard). Why so early? It´s comparitively expensive to visit the various ruins in Peru, but if you go before the ticketseller arrives (at 7 a.m.), you can walk in for free. So we did, and we had an entire Inca ruin to ourselves for several hours, as we watched the fog slowly lift from the surrounding mountains. It was physically quite difficult, especially in the thin air, but it was worth it. (I´ll post photos soon.)

Later today, we are going back into Cusco to celebrate another volunteer´s birthday. My social calendar is quite full already: Wednesday´s pub quiz, perhaps the Nasca lines next weekend, and a big festival in Puno the first weekend in February. There´s so much in Peru to see and do. When I get home, I´m going to need a vacation!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Weekend in Cusco

Some people come to Cusco to see the beautiful churches, the Plaza de Armas, the nearby Inca ruins ... I, on the other hand, was lured by the promise of a normal shower, a quiet room and wireless Internet access. And, with bus rides costing less than a dollar and hotel rooms starting at $20, why not?

Several other volunteers live here, and we spent the day exploring the bohemian San Blas neighborhood, which has innumerable shops and beautiful vistas of the city. Unfortunately, getting to the area involves lots of steep streets and staircases, which are especially difficult in the thin Cusco air (about 500 meters higher than my hometown of Pisac). But it was worth it for views like this:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Photos: Festival in Ollantaytambo

As promised, here are a few photos from Wednesday's festival in Ollantaytambo, called Bajada de los Reyes Magos. The festival celebrates the visit of the Three Magi to baby Jesus, and it's also the date on which the outgoing mayor passes power to the new one. A statue of baby Jesus is paraded around town, and the afternoon concludes with a humane bullfight.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Getting Settled in Peru

At first glance, this is the stupidest thing I´ve ever done. I´m living in Pisac, a tiny town in the Sacred Valley region, and it´s a much more primitive area than I anticipated. My shower, for example, is a bucket in the ceiling with holes in it. The bathroom door is a sheet of plywood, and I spend my showers eyeing the spider who lives in the corner. My kitchen is a fire pit in a shack, which also serves as home to a family of guinea pigs (who are food, not pets). Each day, I have to take a one-hour ride on a rickety bus to Cusco or Urubamba, holding on for dear life on the hairpin curves.

The biggest problem of all, however, is that my hair dryer doesn´t work -- it´s too powerful for the electrical circuits here.

And yet, I am having an incredible time. My family, the Rivera Villanuevas, are welcoming and kind. On my first evening, the kids -- Rafael (12), Paola (10) and Gonlazo (7) -- took me on a tour of the town, pointing out the beautiful stars and the bustling square. My bedroom is large and private, despite the lack of furniture (just a bed and a table, so I really am living out of a suitcase). That one-hour bus drive is a visual feast of towering green mountains, with rainbows arching from mountaintop to mountaintop. Once we even drove under a rainbow! And, it´s incredible to have a home in Peru and interact with locals, rather than remaining insulated from the culture in a hotel.

I arrived in Cusco around noon Tuesday, and I was greeted at the airport by Tess, a staffer with Projects Abroad. She gave me a quick tour of the area and the PA office, and then I was introduced to my host family. They speak no English, so I´m finally using all of that Spanish I studied for years. Fortunately, I find that I know enough to communicate what´s necessary. We had a great conversation about our families, but they are perplexed by my husband´s willingness to let me wander around the globe without supervision.

Yesterday, I went with a group of other PA volunteers to Ollantaytambo, which was holding its annual festival. I took so many photos of Peruvians in native Andean dress, which I will post as soon as I figure out how. We visited a cafe, where the new volunteers all ordered coca tea, which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. For lunch, I had an incredible burrito with delicious homemade tortillas and guacamole. We also went to a humane bullfight, although we couldn´t figure out the rules or the scoring system.

Today, I had my orientation to the teacher-training program, which is my project for the first six weeks. We learned about ESL teaching strategies and reviewed the wealth of available resources. Tomorrow, in another workshop, we get a crash course in lesson planning. Then, on Monday, we´ll start teaching. The students will be divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels, and I´m crossing my fingers for the advanced course.

So far, I´m very pleased with Projects Abroad. My teaching partners are from all over the globe, including England, Denmark and Italy, and yet we´re all united with a common goal and here for similar reasons. As anticipated, I´m the oldest volunteer by several years, but it doesn´t seem to make much difference here.

Now that I´ve found the Internet cafe, I´ll post another update soon. So far, my only goal this weekend is to visit the huge market in Pisac. I´m in the market for a nice Peruvian hat.