Monthly Archives: January 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN:FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #5

PUNO AND LAKE TITIKAKA

A lot of people have told me that they think Puno is boring and there’s not much to do there. I can agree to a point, but there are a few interesting things to do in Puno that most people ignore. Me and Chris arrived from Cusco and after lunch at Mojsa (“delicious” in Aymara language, and a personal favorite) with a view of the colonial cathedral, I took him to see the Yavari, one of the steamboats that navigated Lake Titikaka since 1870.

Yavari, a british made steamboat from 1871

The Yavari was abandoned and it was nothing but a piece of junk when it was found by their current owners, a society of Peruvian-British people who bought the ship from the government and decided to recover it. Now Yavari looks more like a jewel and it’s almost ready to go. The wood in the cabins is original, some of the furniture and the tools like the binoculars, the sextant, the compass, the captain’s wheel, but most importantly the motor, which is today considered as the world’s oldest motor still at work.  If I remember well 80% of the boat is original. The crew are the guides and there’s no entrance fee but a 5$ donation is recommended. Another way of supporting the Yavari sailing again is by staying there. One of the cabins is now a B&B and for 45$ you can spend the night at the ship with breakfast included! The view is beautiful there not only for the lake itself but ‘cause on the duck there are totora reeds and is possible to see wild guinea pigs and many ducks and grebes, or Wilson’s Phalarope, a common migrant from North America. At sunset it’s quiet a sight.

Captain Pepe for you...It's fordibben to hold the wheel by the way

So who said there’s not much to do in Puno! And you have also the Dreyer Museum, you can visit Juli (one hour away) and its many temples, or go to the House of the Corregidor, next to the church, and check the beautiful and unique handcrafts or enjoy what is the best coffee of 2010, Tunki, from Sandia, at the jungle of Puno (yes, Puno has a jungle!).

Next day we leave for the lake. People from all over share our boat: Canadians, Dutch, German, Peruvians, Australians, etc. The weather is sunny and perfect to go and visit the Uros people, the floating islands people. While Ruben, our guide who is actually from the Uros, explains to the group how they make the islands, I sneak away to watch Plumbeous Rail and Yellow-winged Blackbird. I look for Titicaca Grebe without luck. This bird is endemic to the lake because its flightless.

Titicaca Grebe, endemic to the Lake

I spend some time talking to an old man. He shows me a postcard of a man rowing a reed boat. He says it’s him 20 years ago. I don’t believe him but I buy the postcard to take pictures of him. There’s not many elders left among the Uros and Mr. Martin is 80 years old. He also says he was born in the Uros by a “partera”, a women who receives and helps  children at their birth.  I think that I would love to research and learn more of their history and also do something for the sanitary conditions in which they live, that to me look very scarce.

Don Martin

We take a ride on a raft to another island, the perfect moment to tell my story of Thor Heyerdahl and how he got from Huanchaco to the Pacific islands, proving that there could have been contact between ancient peruvians of the Mochica or Muchik civilization and other cultures of the Pacific who, curiously enough, share similar face features, musical instruments, vegetables and legends. I love this story and though the most of the archaeological world dismiss this idea as a possibility I sympathize with it. Why do ancient American (by American I mean from Alaska to Patagonia) cultures are so underestimated? So the Fenicians could travel the world by boat 1000 years before Christ but in South America we couldn’t? What does that mean, that we were waiting to be discovered by the Europeans, quietly and without any curiosity for the world out there? Or perhaps too busy warring everyone and sacrificing everyone ‘cause we were too savage, the barbarians the Spanish thought we were? I ask, who turned out to be the barbarian here? Even the Spanish admitted it, just read the chronicles. Luckily not all of the invaders were barbarians, as I’m sure not all the locals were so rational as the Spanish say they were.

We continue towards Amantani island, where we will spend the night with a family (Felicita, Sebastian, Guillermo and Nely). Along the way I start talking with Diana, from Germany. She lives and loves Mexico and that thing in common gets us talking. Later the guide places her and her dad with me and Chris on the same family house. The house is simple but lovely. I love Amantani island. It looks like a huge monument of fertility with all of its Incan and pre-Incan terraces and its 2 temples on top of each hill: Pachamama temple, and Pachatata temple. Our guide tells us that today is a special day as they are celebrating a ritual of “payment” at Pachatata temple. When they  “pay” it means they pay their respect and what they think they owe to Mother Earth (Pachamama) in order for her to be good to them with the harvests.  But we arrive ready for lunch, so after meeting our families we get installed in our houses and lunch with them. Our hostess is Felicita, a woman easily on her 50’s but very active and as most her fellow islanders, easy-smiling. Her children are surprisingly young: Nely is 12 and Guillermo must be 10. Her husband Sebastian is playing with the musicians up at the Pachatata temple. We see them coming down around 5pm, when we are about to go up to the archeological site, once the celebration is finished. The 10 communities on the island participate.

Dancers running down from Pachatata temple waving their flags.

The celebration itself consists of a “pago” performed by the “pakos” or elders who set a woven mantle and on it they place the best products of last year’s harvests: Fava Beans, Corn, Potatoes, etc. The purpose of their asking to Pachamama is that she produces a good harvest this year too. The temple is simple, a square walled rock structure that, inside, guards a sunken terrace with furnaces on the walls, and 2 sets of stairs to access it. The doors of the temple are closed to visitors and only open when these celebrations take place. The doors, as well as the stairs behind them, are aligned with the sunrise and sunset. The view from up there is amazing, we are at 4100 meters of elevation and we can spot the Carabaya mountain range and the Royal mountain range, on Bolivian soil. This is an ancient celebration that takes place since before the Inca was around, meaning perhaps more than a thousand years ago, the Marriage of the earth (Pachamama) and the sky (Pachatata), the prayer for rain upon the harvests.

Inside of Pachatata temple

At dinner we finally meet with Sebastian and Chris asks “what did the colorful flags you were waving when coming down the mountain meant?” . The following is one of my favourite answers of all time: “The colours of the flowers of potato: yellow, white, pink, red, orange, purple…a rainbow”.  And this is what I love of Andean people, how simple yet insightful they can be. True Andean people are like that, there’s no trick behind what they say. If they want a favour they will ask for it, if they don’t want anything from you, they just won’t talk to you.

We stay chatting with Sebastian about the first settlers of Amantani, who didn’t come so long ago. During Inca times the island was exclusively a ceremonial site apparently.

The night sends us to sleep with a lightning storm under a full moon. Simple, yet  beautiful sights. What else can be asked.

Well, maybe one more thing…for those of you looking for a nice place to chat and listen to good music, Positive bar is my advice to go to, where Carlos and Harold will be your guests.

I’m sad to leave Puno just 2 weeks before the carnival of la Virgen de la Candelaria, a 1 week party where, speaking of beer, more beer is consumed during that week that the rest of the year in all of Puno. But the most interesting part are the parades, the dresses, the dancers, the “comparsas” going through the downtown spreading the fun. It’s Peru’s largest carnival and thousands of people come from Cusco. Bolivia and even farther places, to dance for the Virgin of La Candelaria, a Spanish adaptation of a deity of the lake, just like Virgen de Copacabana. I’m happy at least I saw a parade practicing on the street, and I almost lose my ride to the airport. Bon voyage.

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #4

SACACA

Before I left Chris to do Inka Trail we visited a community above Sacred Valley, specifically above Pisaq, called Sacaca. On our way we pass to visit a center that rescues animals and sets them back in the wild whenever possible. They have 2 Pumas that used to be the decoration of a nightclub! Can you imagine how stressed these animals were, in a cage, surrounded by people, bright strobe lights and loud music and smoke. I can only hope the one who did it experiences something similar in its life. There are also condors and macaws, Andean deer, even a Jabiru, 2 Coaties, and what amazes me, an Andean Wild Cat, an animal so common I remember seeing them when I was little in Machu Picchu itself and now extirpated from most of its range.

On our way we see a lot of the destruction of last year’s floods, some of it repaired, some being repaired just now. The bridge in Pisaq is a constant reminder of it since the original and bigger bridge was ruined by the river. We stop to photograph the terraces of Pisaq and continue ascending to almost 4000 meters. Around this area they have created what is known as the “Potato Park”, which is nothing more than their own crops of potatoes that amount to about 400 hundred different varieties according to the locals themselves. In case you didn’t know it by now, potatoes are native of Peru and the varieties of tubers in the country amount to 5000 according to the books. A reason for this unbelievable diversity is the fact that Incan society, as well as other societies before them, based their economy on farming, colonization of other territories which demanded adaptation of potatoes to new heights and weathers, and research on how to improve farming products due to natural events such as El Niño, that had the potential to ruin the crops making it necessary to store products to survive.

Once we arrive they welcome us and show us a house they are building. This time of the pause during the rains is when people build their new houses or rebuild the old ones. All the adobe bricks that were made during the dry season are used for this purpose. So we move some rocks and then we climb up the hill to help bring down a eucalyptus tree that will be used to make the beams of the future home.

Everyone was helping...and having fun

 

Our host, Manuel, shows us the crops that were planted with the help of other visitors: potatoes, corn, lettuces, fava beans, etc. I think that’s a brilliant idea because I’ve heard some farmers saying that what the ‘gringos” plant doesn’t grow right, and it seems to me that it was growing alright here at Sacaca.

We come down for a well deserved meal of quinoa soup and, as a main, potatoes, cheese and salad. They finally show us their textiles and I buy some woven strings with white beads, the typical adornment of this part of the mountains. Each community has their own peculiarity on their dresses and one learns that clothing is a language in the Andes. How unfair it is then to say that our ancestors had no written language? The weaving are beautiful, all of Alpaca and dyed with minerals or plants. To buy one of these is to support a millenary tradition.

We come down from the community to visit the market at Pisaq town and try some of the empanadas cooked on the colonial kiln. The market is full of color and the eternal Pisonay tree continues on its plaza. The church has not been rebuilt yet.

-Did you like the visit Chris?

-Yeah, so far I think it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most on the trip. It really gets one to see how the Andean people live.

This opinion was kept until the end of our 15 day trip.

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #2

PUERTO MALDONADO

The rainy season has started and I don’t forget to pack the rain poncho. I hope our flight is not delayed because of that. I don’t like much working on rainy season, the weather factor adds up to all the human factors (strikes, illneses, etc) that I normally face on my job. Luckily we leave almost on time, a miracle in Peru where “right now” can mean between next minute and next year.

Puerto Maldonado is hot, only a light shower refreshes the airport arrival, where our guide from Rainforest Expeditions is expecting us. The real trip begins on the boat, after a quick visit to the office to re-pack. On the way we see Capybaras and Spotted Sandpiper, a migrant bird. A different kind of sight are the gold miners on their rafts along the Tambopata River, a river that brings with its brown waters minerals that wash down from the mountains that give it birth. The miners are legal, some aren’t but nobody seems to care or at least be able to do something about it. Though we are right next to a protected area, gold-mining here is tolerated; the miners are too strong politically, and too many. A statistic speaks for itself: on Madre de Dios region, where Puerto Maldonado is, more gold is produced each year than on the rest of Peru altogether.  And I could stay talking about this subject for hours…This is a delicate topic on the area and it can get spiky sometimes. Not long ago miners organized a strike and Maldonado was paralyzed and on alert. The time before that, they set on fire the mayor’s office. Still this area remains the biodiversity capital of Peru and it’s one of the world’s hotspots for birds, frogs, butterflies, fish, insects, etc.

Capybara or Ronsoco

Once at the lodge we leave our stuff at the nice cabins and go for our first walk to the canopy tower, a 36 meter iron tower from where the landscape is observed above the trees: river, the levels of the forest and even the Puno and Cusco mountains can be seen.  It’s not hard to understand how this green hell was an ocean millions of years ago from this height. And that’s the reason why today you can still find otters, dolphins, giant snails, turtles, terns, etc in the Amazon rainforest. From the tower we catch a good sight of some White-bellied Parrots and Mealy Parrots, both common, on the trees.

The night is musical on crickets and bats, and the rain follows after. At morning we decide to wait for it to pass to go visit Laguna 3 Chimbadas, an oxbow lake which name makes references to the locals say that on dry season they can pass it on 3 paddles or “chimbadas”.  There we hope to see the elusive Giant River Otters, one of the largest and most endangered mammals on the Amazon, affected today more by miners than by hunters, who at one point almost exterminate the whole population. Only around 2 thousand of these amazing animals are left in all of the Amazon, where their population has been estimated to have been of 200,000 once.

Oxbow lakes are very important habitat on the Amazon and they are product of the ever changing rivers during the rainy season, when the streams are charged and may change course, leaving an arm or curve of the river isolated. This is the future oxbow lake, which eventually will become a swamp.

This Tarantula was the size of my hand!

On the high grass next to shore we see Gray-necked Rail and Azure Gallinule (first time!…and this is what birdwatchers call a “lifer”), a common migrant during austral summer only. This ecosystem is vital not only for otters, who tend to adopt a lake as a family pack territory, but for migrant birds. Last time I was at 3 Chimbadas on 2010 I saw Unicolored Blackbird, a first time record for Peru reported weeks before that first visit, but gone during this last visit. We also fish Piranhas but release back to the lake; don’t wanna steal from the otters’ lunch!

Yellow-bellied Piranha, one of 5 species at 3 Chimbadas

The afternoon is dedicated to visit a botanical garden where medicinal plants are grown and a medicine man attends locals from the Ese-Eja tribe, the ancient inhabitants of this area. The medicine man explains to us their rituals and a map of the gardens and why locals come on to him. Medicinal plants are a big part of people’s lives as here one is far away from the nearest hospital, and the nearest hospital makes you wanna go to the next one. Medicine men here, or so-called “shamans” (a word of Siberian origins rather than native American) claim to be able to cure cancer with the plants the jungle offers. And there’s Ayawaska, the master plant and entheogenic (or hallucinogenic) that the tribes of the jungle have used to cure their spirits and that a lot of people of the Western world are curious to try these days. Perhaps the first recognized westerners who came to Peru to try Ayawaska during the 50’s were Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, whose experiences are saved on the book The Yage Letters.

I buy some Chuchuwasi, a local tree cortex, for my raspy throat. I figure that can somehow help my leg hurt less with its properties. At least the alcohol in it will make my muscles relaxed…

The next day we are early off back on the boat ‘cause we need to catch a plane o Cusco. I always want more of the jungle, 3 days and 2 nights is too little. I like the jungle a lot. I feel like a fish in this green ocean.  

Dusk at Tambopata River

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #3

 URUBAMBA, CUSCO, PERU.

During my stay in Cusco, Chris went on to do Inka Trail. I found myself with 2 days off deciding to go and visit my father and my brother in Sacred Valley. They had moved to a new place, beautiful, just outside of Urubamba. I used to live nearby, in Yucay, for a year.  Back then I always heard of La Cruz mountain, my friends used to go there. I never did,  whatever the reason. My dad’s house is right next to La Cruz mountain.

Chicon glacier on the back

My back was really bad so I was dubious if I was gonna go or not.  On Saturday we decided to climb. I went, back hurting and all. The path is beautiful. We saw 2 Tinamous, Andean Tinamou most likely, and also Sparkling Violet Ear, very common humming bird of scrubby hills in the Andes.

I didn’t take time but we must have done it in 45 minutes. Up there the scenery was unbelievable: We had 2 rainbows above our heads exactly at the moment as a storm was on its way to Cusco, passing right next to us. There was also the moon and all the chiaroscuro that the clouds, the rain, that lovely 5pm sunlight and the rainbows produced, making it look as if we were inside a bubble of light surrounded by a dark universe. And Chicon glacier overlooking all from its almost 6 thousand meters.

Double rainbow over Sacred Valley

One thing I love of sacred Valley is that there are so many places like this that are enchanting. Most people don’t realize this as they quickly pass by. But those who do are touched by it. It’s the presence of the mountains I think. How were these giants not going to be revered when they have such an absolute presence over the people who live at their skirts? The Apus is how the quechua speakers call the mountains. Apu means “grand” or “mister”. They are the givers of rains, thunder, flowing ravines that nurture the crops. But they are as human as us, so they also bring floods, rockspills, etc. This is the reason why people pay homage to the mountains. If one sees carefully over the scenery of Sacred Valley one will find many small colorful chapels on the hills. These are now for patrons or catholic crosses, in the past those were the spots where “payment” or homage was given to mountains or Apus. Still today, once a year, people climb up there and they clean and wash the chapels and pay their tributes to the mountains, no matter that there they see a catholic image, that is not the point. How not to adore mountains?

Chicon glacier from the Maras plains (photo by Jose F. Orihuela)

And why climb them anyway? Well, I believe it was Mr. Hillary, the famous explorer and climber who answered that question: “Because they are there”. They are there, they definitely and absolutely are.

I had a great time with my family and the double rainbow we saw was so beautiful, like a gift from nature. And this I know it may sound too romantic for some people, but only one who has climbed a mountain, with pain or enjoyment, and has made it to the top feeling on top of the world yet being so  little and insignificant to the whole universe of giants out there, only that person can be humble enough to realize the gifts, the very simple gifts that nature gives to us. Why can’t we just give back?

My family takin' cover from the rain

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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #1

I work as a Tour Leader. I get paid for traveling. They call it the best job in the world and though I prefer to make lists of my favorite things, it certainly is a great job. I didn’t know this job existed until 2 years ago when my friend Pedro, a tour leader as well, contacted me and said “you’d be perfect for the job”. I’m not sure of that, but I do like it a lot ‘cause I can share my knowledge and passion for my people with other people.

I guess writing a blog about one’s job is sort of making it into a reality show. I just hope it doesn’t turn that way. But now that I have a blog I do wanna share more of what I do and practice my writing.

So, trip began in Lima. I showed Chris, my only traveler on this group, the downtown. We visited San Martin square, walked Jiron de la Union towards the Plaza de Armas stopping at La Merced church and the Courret brothers building. First one is one of the first churches of Lima dating from 1535, an example of “overloaded Barroque” style. Second one is one of the few, if not the only one building of Art Nouveau in Lima and its first photographic studio dating from 1865.

Jiron de la Union

The Courret Brothers building

 

Jiron de la Union is lively on a Sunday and families walk by, pushers invite to have a tattoo or buy some grass or cocaine. In fact one of them approached Chris inside of La Merced church and told him to beware of Peruvians (he being one) and after offered him some grass! In the church! And I’m not a catholic but there’s gotta be some respect, right! Unbelievable…

At the Main Square there’s the Cathedral, next to it is what used to be the first hospital of Lima, and the government buildings. We head towards San Francisco monastery where Chris decides to see the beautiful gardens, the Sevillian tiles and the “catacombs” of Lima. I later show him the remains of The Wall of Lima, once a walled city as in Europe, scared of pirates and natives attacking it. On the back San Cristobal hill stands with its cross on top to remind us that we turned catholic. The Rimac neighborhood looks all colorful in summertime and the Rimac river has increased its level thanks to the rains in the highlands. Vultures and seagulls fly around above us.

The Rimac River and bridge from the Desamparados train station

We then go to the old train station of Desamparados, now turned into the Museum of Peruvian Literature. The building is beautiful and gives an idea of how luxurious life in Lima was once. There’s a homage to Mario Vargas Llosa, our new and shiny Peruvian Nobel prize of literature. The library at the museum is named after him.

Desamparados train station. Mario Vargas Llosa library.

I love downtowns of Latin cities. I remember I used to go to Mexico City’s Zocalo all the time just to take pictures, be curious and get into buildings, cantinas, find out their history. I guess I was training to be a tour leader then. And downtowm Lima is the same. There are more than 2000 historical building here, imagine all the history and stories there! And after, we walk back to one of the new Metropolitano bus stations, the fastest public transport way to get back to Miraflores, where we have dinner at La Lucha, the new sandwich place (“sangucheria”) on the park. They have Peruvian sandwichs and chips for a good price. We have a early call tomorrow to go to Puerto Maldonado so there’s no time for a beer. I’m sure at the jungle there will be.

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Down by Law

 

Recently I discovered the world of torrent downloads thanks to my friend Naun Amable. We were camping in the jungle as part of an expedition doing research on birds. Every night when it got dark he went to his tent and I could hear him laughing out loud, so I asked what was he watching and he showed me his film collection. There I learned about film downloads. I also copied all the ones I liked from him.

I started downloading films I really like that are hard to get pirate. For those of you who don’t know it in Peru you can get movies way before they hit the screen on a pirate DVD for 1$! But this applies to big Hollywood films mainly. Even though there are a few pirate places that specialise on “weird” films, indie films. But even there is hard to find what you are looking for. I remember once I went to El Hueco (the Hole), a huge market of pirate DVDs in downtown Lima, 2 blocks from the Congress. I was looking for Apocalypse Now! and as I asked around I was lead to the Religious film alley where they showed me other films about  apocalypse I wans’t really interested on. Funnier than that might be the fact that the Religious alley was right in front of the Porn alley, as in a confrontation to see who wins the battle. But what battle?

Oh my, I drifted…

Yesterday I downloaded “Down by Law”, a film by Jim Jarmusch that is very hard to find. I hadn’t seen it in a long time so watching it was like discovering it again. The film is from 1986, is shot in black & white by cinematographer Robby Muller (Buena Vista Social Club, Dancer in the Dark, Dead Man) and stars Tom Waits (yes, Tom Waits the musician), John Lurie and Roberto Benigni (who most people remember from “Life is Beautiful”).

The movie is set in New Orleans and is a slow paced story, a constant in Jarmusch’s films, about 3 strangers (Waits, Lurie and Benigni) who end up in the same prison cell. Waits plays a bad luck disc jockey with a “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop” attitude who is dumped by his girlfriend and later is set up by the police. Lurie plays a coming-up pimp with a tendency to “fuck-up things”, who is also framed. The only thing both have in common is that they are innocent. And Benigni is a tourist with a very limited english vocabulary and a need to talk a lot which contrasts with his 2 jailmates who are very quiet. Ironically he is there for killing a man.

The movie focuses on the relation of these 3 characters and their escape from prison.  But I don’t wanna give the story away (which makes me think how do real film critics do on their reviews to tell you about a film without giving it away?). But I guess I just wanted to say what a wonderful film this is, it makes me laugh so hard in some scenes (specially Benigni’s if you understand a little italian) and the photography is wonderful and the story is like life. I love how Jarmusch finishes his films, without the need for a big wrap up as in Hollywood films, it’s just the end. It’s not the kind of films that tries to leave a moral with you, what matters is the actual story. And the story is one of friendship I guess.

If you don’t know Jim Jarmusch he is regarded as one of the fathers of Independent film making in the US for Stranger than Paradise (1982). Other films that I love of his are Night On Earth, Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes and Ghost Dog: The way of the Samurai.

Enjoy.

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About Extranjia…

When in university me and my friend Tarik were asked all the time the same old question “where are you from?”. One day Tarik came up with the answer “I’m from Extranjia”. I thought it was brilliant! It’s not a real word in spanish, but it comes from stranger (extranjero). Extranjia would be then Strangeland. The idea of being a foreigner wherever one goes is how it stuck with me. It also did the job of leaving people puzzled and quiet.
I feel like that in my own country, a stranger. And I love it. The idea of a person who looks different though may blend in, a person with a different point of view in a conversation, with a different sound and accent, someone who doesn’t have the right to vote yet is so passionate about the reality of a place that travels through it, somebody who cares and appreciates what’s there cause he may not be there the next day. A she or he who will, as everyone does, pass.
Extranjia are my traces of the places where I pass. But mostly it’s the traces of those places that remain in me.

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to leave a comment.

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