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.