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.