Monday, 19 October 2009
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Friday, 4 September 2009
Friday, 28 August 2009
Sunday, 16 August 2009
I don't think I've mentioned The Wire on here before. I could easily launch into the sort of paean that you'll find in The Guardian or lots of other places, but I don't want to get caught up in that. So I'll just say that it is an extraordinarily impressive, exciting and real TV programme, and that everyone should see it.
Tuesday, 11 August 2009
I increasingly believe that the most worthwhile things that you can do with your life are 1) help others, and 2) create something. If you can help people by creating something, so much the better. I know that my only vague talent for creation lies in writing, so I then wonder whether that can help people. I genuinely think that it can - there is, after all, a lot of truth in the phrase "we read to know that we are not alone". For me, the best moments when reading are when I find an idea, a phrase or a line that resonates with something within me, be it an experience, a feeling or a belief.
I hope that whatever career I go on to have (and I have made no decisions), I can achieve those two things I mentioned.
Anyway, I am relearning how to pass the time, seeing friends, writing (or trying to write) poems, watching films. Tomorrow I'm going to the theatre, and will take the opportunity to rediscover London beforehand. For now, I have to go pick up my new bike. Another thing which makes Cambridge a bit more real.
Sunday, 9 August 2009
It is, above all, an island of colours. This includes the colours of the skin of its inhabitants, the colours of the cracked and peeling paint, of the omnipresent propaganda, the 50s cars, the pure sea and sky. It is beautiful in so many different ways. There is the impossibly white sand of the beaches, the bright turquoise of the sea, the timeless (and overused) look of Havana's old streets.
I am slipping into tourist brochure clichés. They are, in fact, mostly true in what they say about the buildings and the cars and the rum and the cigars. But tourism is where the country's contradictions are at their strongest. Often, we as foreigners are herded into a tightly controlled "version" of Cuba...we use different money, stay in different hotels, even visit resorts which Cubans cannot enter. So much for socialist equality, you might think. Indeed, the inequality is worse in that Cubans working in the tourist industry earn many times more than just about anyone else. The result is that you hear stories about doctors and lawyers becoming taxi drivers and waiters, simply because they earn so much more. I could write paragraphs on the phenomenon of jineteros, people who will approach you on the street offering rum, fake cigars, a place to stay, etc. It is a sad fact that the line between a Cuban being friendly and a Cuban wanting money is often (not always) scarily thin.
And yet, there is a magical sense of community. I could walk back through central Havana and the suburbs at midnight and be totally at ease. Old men were out rocking in their chairs, playing dominoes and smoking. Kids kicked a ragged football round the corner. Women hung washing from aristocratic balconies. What's more, nothing seemed too big a problem. When I struggled with the outdated banking system, the crazy money or anything else, my hosts (staying with families is the way in Cuba) would always be completely relaxed, and ready to sort things out. I guess it's a necessary skill in a country where most things are illegal.
I don't really want to get into a detailed political analysis of the government here, but what I heard from most Cubans was that Raúl has none of the charisma or personal charm of his brother, and that nothing seems to be moving forward or getting better. I don't think much needs to be said about personal freedoms, other than that they don't really exist. All I will say is that after 50 years, I think it's time for a change of some sort, even if it's just a new generation of leaders. I would have thought that the concept of "revolution" would encourage that.
What I do want to talk about, however, is the culture and the arts. These, to my mind, are Cuba's greatest treasure. In every city, there are museums, art galleries, theatres and all types of street music and dance - all of which is easily affordable for Cubans. It is a democracy of culture, in that there seems to be little division between "high-brow" and "low-brow" entertainment. Best of all, the quality is universally very good, because people's hearts are in it.
I will finish this hugely inadequate summary of Cuba with a few images that still stick in my head, even after a week. The first is a bike ride I made from the town of Trinidad to the sea, passing clapped out Chevrolets, horse carts, deserted beaches and roads filled with crabs.
The second, the look on a newspaper seller's face as I gave him the wrong money by accident for the newspaper, and so paid him 25 times too much (about $1). I think I made his week.
Lastly, a disco I went to in the town of Cienfuegos. The young people and kids were dressed just like any others you'd see in the US or the UK (though the dancing was infinitely better), and were dancing to the same music as the rest of Latin America. I spoke to a few kids during my time on the island, and the hatred of the US encouraged by the government doesn't seem to have transmitted - which is not to say that they're not proud of their country. Given that, I feel like Cuba's next "revolution" isn't too far off. I'm not sure it will involve tearing down the ubiquitous Che posters, though.
Friday, 31 July 2009
That said, I had a fascinating 10 days in Cuba. It is a country full of contradictions, one you leave with more questions than when you arrived. It is difficult (impossible, in fact) to do it justice in one blog post, so what I write will just be a few impressions and thoughts that stand out in my head. That is, in fact, what all of this blog has been.
Now, though, I don't even have the energy to write those impressions, so it will have to wait a while. I leave tomorrow for a week in the Lake District with the family - it will be a brilliant change to have everything organised for me. Here I am just one gringo among many, and I don't mind it at all. I was getting tired of the funny looks I got on the street.
P.S. This may be "The Gringo Diaries", but now that I have a blog going, I can't see any reason why it should stop (I even quite enjoy writing it!). So I'm afraid there's more to come...
Sunday, 19 July 2009
The place is like Miami, from one angle, all brand new skyscrapers, Dunkin' Donuts and shopping malls with air con. But then, as you look the other way from my hostel balcony, you see the Casco Viejo. Crumbling colonial colour, "reminiscent of old Havana" as the guidebook (Bible?) says.
Somewhere in between, there's the main shopping street with its Caribbean colour (though I'm on the Pacific side). People whose ancestors came from Africa, from Europe, from Asia, from round these parts too. All colours stop to watch the Michael Jackson videos competing from adjacent TV stalls.
There's the canal, too. The ship I saw pass through with 50cm to spare. Somewhere, faint, the memory of thousands of dead French workers. And all the time the heat.
Tomorrow Cuba. We'll see about that old Havana comparison.
Thursday, 16 July 2009
After a difficult start, I have had a fantastic time here, in part due to what the country has on offer, and also thanks to the people I have met. Cuenca was wonderful, as was the nearby Cajas National Park that I visited on Tuesday. It looks weirdly similar to the Lake District, though it is higher, colder and has more exotic plants. That took up most of the day, after which I investigated more beautiful areas of the town, and then to a night bus that evening to Baños. It was one of the worst buses I have yet taken, though thankfully probably the last night one.
Baños is not a nice town...but the setting is stunning, in a green valley underneath a volcano. Around it is prime tourist outdoor activity territory, and I went for a walk up to a viewpoint (saw the summit swimming in the clouds), and then decided to go for one of the big tourist activities - biking along a road to the jungle, lined with waterfalls. I luckily found two young Dutch people who were renting bikes at the same time ($5), and went with them. The waterfalls were very impressive, particularly the enormous final one, the largest in Ecuador. That, and the company was great. The evening turned out to be equally as fun, through a simple bit of chance. I was sitting in a restaurant, and noticed a French family next to me struggling with the English menu. I thought I might as well help them out, and afterwards got talking to them. They were kind enough to invite me to eat with them, and we had a great, wide-ranging conversation. At the end, the dad didn't so much offer as insist on paying for my meal... in all, it was one of the nicest things that had happened to me in a while.
Then Thursday morning I was off to Quito. Like Lima, it's a city which you can't sum up in a blog. The Old Town is very grand and full of colonial churches, though it's somehow not as charming as Cuenca. I am getting ready now to leave for Panama tomorrow morning, and then on to Cuba on Monday. They are small steps towards home, which I am now quite looking forward to.
I wanted to also write some things about Ecuador, and how it differs from Peru. It feels much less of a 3rd world country, and the people look markedly more European. The American influence here is stronger - not only the dollar, but the Chevrolets which line all the streets. The teenagers skateboard, play basketball and wear their baseball caps backwards. The other big influence is Colombia, to which Ecuador clearly feels culturally closer - they were at one point the same country. In a sense, it is easier to travel in than Peru...things work a little better. It has to be said that months in South America take a toll. It is simply tiring to have to worry about where to find a hostel, how to get a bus, how to not be pickpocketed. Although I'm repeating myself, getting back to the UK will be a in that way a relief.
Monday, 13 July 2009
By the time I got to Cuenca I was feeling pretty miserable, to put it bluntly. But then other things happened, as they tend to do. I made a comforting phone call home, and set out to find a hostel. I found one - El Cafecito, a restaurant-cum-hostel that was full of friendly travellers (a relief). Another plus was the fact that Cuenca is probably the most beautiful place I have been so far. The city centre seems entirely made up of white-washed or brick old houses with red tile roofs and little balconys, lining cobbled streets. It is also filled with churches, including the "New Cathedral" which is monumental and inspiring. Most importantly, however, the place seems relaxed - a world away from the eternal noise of Cusco. I met a group of Canadians at the hostel (including two Québecois - whose French I could understand some of!), and with them went up to a viewpoint over the city in the late afternoon. The dinner we had afterwards at the hostel's cafe was lively and delicious. The more Canadians I meet, and the more I hear about the country, the more I really, really want to go there.
I have heard that because of swine flue, all school in Peru has been cancelled from Wednesday until the 3rd of August - which will make life pretty difficult for Projects Abroad!
Unrelated thoughts - I just read an article on the Guardian website about the British people's lack of faith in government, institutions, or anything representative of our country. It is a slightly depressing thought, but probably true. I know at least that I would take our cynicism over blind faith any day. It's just a shame if the cynicism becomes so enveloping that we are reluctant to see anything in a positive light. I think one of the greatest things about Barack Obama's presidential campaign was that he brought back an optimistic tone. Sadly I wonder whether the tone of his speeches would have worked in the UK - or whether he would have been shot down by the media.
P.S. I have been doing some other writing while on this trip - poems and the like. I might put some up - though I better get a move on, as Internet in Cuba is not easy to come by, from what I hear.
Saturday, 11 July 2009
More importantly, I have only a few hours left in Peru. Yesterday I was in Chiclayo, which is not as pretty as Trujillo, but has an absolutely astonishing museum just outside it. Called the Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipán, it presents what archaeologists found at the site of Sipán, 30km away, in 1987. This was a series of tombs from the Moche civilisation (same guys from the last post). They in fact got there just in time, as grave robbers had started to plunder the old adobe pyramids. At least one robber was killed by the police in the ensuing struggle - very Indiana Jones. Anyway, the royal tombs contained gold and silver ornaments which are literally unbelievable in their quantity and quality - experts have said that the only comparable find in the 20th century is that of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The museum these are in is very well laid out, on a par with anything I've seen in London.
In a slight repeat of the previous day, I balanced out my cultural morning with an afternoon at the beach, and this time, I managed to get a swim in too. While the water was not exactly warm, it was definitely better than the North Sea!
Today I have been in the town of Piura -which, despite what the guidebook says about aging charm, is a bit of a dump. Still, I have had a relaxing day, reading, and generally trying to avoid the scorching heat - Piura is in one of the driest deserts in the world. Tomorrow it will be back to the Andes, which will be a nice change from all this sand and sun.
I am sad to leave Peru, which has been home for the last few months - it is an amazing country, as much because of its natural diversity as because of its diverse people and societies. Hopefully I've given some impression of that through this blog. I remember an advert that was on TV during my first month here. It was about Peru's natural wealth, and emphasised the fact that of about 120 ecosystems in the world, Peru has something like 90. The slogan at the end was "Perú lo tiene todo" - Peru has it all. Jungles and deserts, slums and 5 star hotels, traditional dances and very active politics.
Perú lo tiene todo.
In more ways than one, that just about sums it up.
Thursday, 9 July 2009
On Tuesday I visited the Museo de la Nación, which had exhibits on all of the different pre-Columbian cultures in Peru. However, the best bit was an exhibition on the 20 years of terrible violence between 1980-2000, as the government essentially waged a war against groups like the communist Shining Path. Funded by the EU and Peru´s Truth and Reconciliation commission, it was a powerful exhibit of photographs and testimonies. I hadn't realised that over 69,000 people were killed during that time. The bleakness of the subject matter blended well with the museum's stark concrete architecture, and while it did not shy away from the brutality, everything was sensitively handled. The big problem is that atrocities were committed by both sides (though there is no question that the Shining Path was the root of the problem, and more destructive than the government).
I feel like I could write a lot about Lima - it lacks the overwhelming European feel of Buenos Aires (from what I have heard), but is a fascinating mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures, of global brands and distinctly Peruvian street food. You probably need a long time to get to know it properly. As a final note, I didn't feel threatened once, despite all the bad stories you hear.
I managed to sleep the whole way to Trujillo - a first!
The city feels very colonial, with plenty of old mansions painted in blocks of primary colours. Around it, in the desert, there are stacks of ancient ruins. I by chance ended up spending yesterday with a friendly Austrian guy called Marcus, and with him went to the ruins at Chan Chan, a huge adobe city from about 1400 AD. More impressive, however, was the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) of the Moche civilisation that I saw this morning. It dates from between 100 and 800 AD and still has the most amazing painted friezes and sculptures. It made me realise that the rest of the world is unaware that Peru's history is about a whole lot more than the Incas.
This afternoon, I'm being less cultural and going to the beach, before getting a bus north to Chiclayo.
Monday, 6 July 2009
The drive from there to Lima was pure desert, towns made of adobe with reed roofs and huge sand dunes. The political graffiti changes here - there is far more in support of Fujimori and his daughter Keiko, who is planning to run for president in 2011.
Lima itself is colossal, a city of 8 or 9 million people. Arriving in the centre and being confronted by huge commercial buildings and global brands was something of a shock after three months in Pisac. My hostel (Loki, part of a great chain in Peru) is opposite an enormous McDonald's. In Lima you have to stick to the right neighbourhoods at the right times, but if you do that there is little to deserve its terrible reputation from what I have seen so far. The upper-class coastal suburbs of Miraflores and Barranco have beautiful sea views, and remind me a lot of Spanish cities like Barcelona or Madrid. There are houses with electric fences, walls and private security, and the people look very different - essentially, because a lot of them are white. Miraflores also has a shopping centre called LarcoMar, which is built into the seafront cliffs - a stunning location, even if it's not exactly a hot cultural destination. It was there that I went to the cinema last night, which felt like a novel experience after three months.
The historic centre is beautiful but crumbling, kind of like how I imagine old Havana. Yesterday I saw the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, and had a wander through the old streets. I am spending two more days here, probably leaving on Tuesday night for Trujillo.
Friday, 3 July 2009
Likewise I will miss my host family. They have been unfailingly kind, generous and welcoming, and gaining an insight into their lives has been invaluable. Predictably, at the end of the day they are much like any other family on earth.
Other things I will miss: the rickety Daewoo Tico taxis, and the impromptu parties on the street. The steep cobbled streets of San Blas, and the hills covered in morning mist.
I will not miss the children selling sweets or shining shoes, or the women offering massages on every street corner.
This is it, then. On to new places.
Monday, 29 June 2009
A friend from Deloitte (my job in the first half of my Gap year) was in town at the weekend, and with him on Saturday I went to the fair at Huancaro, which has been running nearly all of June. It was like a cross between an agricultural show (with alpacas), a funfair and a music concert. We also decided to brave the cock fight, but didnt last long once we found out the birds had blades attached to their legs. Brutal doesn't seem to quite cover it.
My friend was staying in a hostel called Loki, which is housed in a 450 year old colonial mansion, and is quite simply brilliant. It has its own bar, a cheap barbecue supper at the weekends, a security guard outside, and a fun atmosphere. Luckily there is a branch in Lima too - a good idea for next weekend I think.
On Sunday, we decided to go to the football match. I felt like I couldn't leave without having seen the local team play. Cienciano (Cusco) were playing Sporting Cristal from Lima, a team unfortunate enough to have been named after a beer. By half time Cusco were 3 - 0 down, but managed to recover to 4 - 4. With 5 minutes to go they went 5- 4 up, only to concede an equaliser in the dying moments of the match. There was a thrilling atmosphere (flares and fireworks), and ten goals in one match isn't bad in anyone's book. All in all, not a glamorous weekend, but a very South American one
After that, today was a quiet day, trying to sort out things for my departure. My last day of teaching is Wednesday, which promises to be a bit emotional. I leave for Nazca on Friday evening, and will be in Lima late on Saturday or Sunday morning. After a couple of days, I head to Trujillo, a colonial city on the north coast, and so on with a few stops up to Ecuador.
Thursday, 25 June 2009
That is the thing - you are hit with one memorable moment after another, and it's impossible to record all of them. Just today, for example - an old man in the bus urging the driver to drive into the slow car in front.
The surface, like the Plaza de Armas, is Hispanic, but neither the Spanish nor the hordes of tourists manage to stifle the Quechua undercurrent that is the real driving force in the city. Get out of the centre, and you're definitely in a developing country, and a long way from Europe. Andean Peru doesn't conform to the traditional image of Latin America - it just doesn't feel that Spanish.
This has been a short, jumbled blog post, but I hopefully got something across. Tomorrow is some community work, then I hope to travel south to the Chilean border this weekend. That will only happen if the Peruvians stop their endless striking! The country is in a bit of political turmoil at the moment.
P.S. Was shocked and saddened by Michael Jackson's death. However strange he was, he had an extraordinary talent. I read an article on the Guardian website, which contained a comment that Fred Astaire made after seeing Jackson perform in 1983: "You're an angry dancer. There's rage in your feet". Telling stuff.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Our tour group was a lot of fun too. I went with another volunteer, and there were also two Spanish girls, two Basques (emphatically NOT Spanish!!), an Irish guy, a Belgian couple and a Puerto Rican, a real character named Ricardo. We were lucky in several ways - our guide was good, and the food was excellent. All in all, a very successful trip!
Other things to report - I have just one week left as a volunteer, after which I plan to head north through Peru to Ecuador, and then fly to Cuba, for 3 or 4 weeks probably. I'll be back home on the 13th of August. I had my last lessons with some classes yesterday, and at the end of them, a boy got up and said some words about how grateful they were for my teaching, and how much they had enjoyed it. Say what you will about Peruvian education, the kids are nearly always impeccably polite and very kind. I was really quite moved.
Tomorrow is Inti Raymi, the biggest festival of the year in Cusco (which is saying something). I'm heading up there this evening to catch the start of the party, and then will watch all the celebrations tomorrow. I in fact only have one day of teaching left (next Wednesday), so am considering going away for the weekend and then coming back to say goodbye. It will be sad to leave my family after three months, but I have a lot to look forward to. I met a friend from London in Cusco yesterday, and his stories of travelling made me quite jealous. Time to get on the road, I think.
P.S. Should mention that I have new photos up, as always at http://picasaweb.google.com/paulmerchant1
Friday, 12 June 2009
One of these is the Señor de Torrechayoc, which was celebrated in Urubamba on the 30th and 31st of May. There were, as always, beautiful folkloric costumes, church services and a whole lot of dancing. Yet the entire point of this festival was to ask Jesus to give the people of Urubamba material wealth....better harvests, greater fortune. As far as I see Christianity, I had thought that material gain was not meant to be that important. In reality, the people are asking these things from the Earth (Pachamama) and the Sun (Inti). In a strange way, Jesus becomes a legitimising channel for these requests.
Corpus Christi, on the other hand, was unmistakeably Catholic. A crowd of thousands packed in Cusco's main square to watch a mass presided by the Papal Nuncio, and then a procession of huge statues of saints. It was an impressive sight, even for someone like me who had begun to question the value of all this celebration. I even ate the traditional dish of the day, chiriuchu, a plate piled with chicken, beef, liver (I think), and of course guinea pig.
The most inspiring thing about these festivals is always the dancing. The commitment with which people just "go for it" is amazing. In fact, in Cusco last night I saw crowds of teenagers dressed in jeans practicing a dance. It is clearly a very important part of the culture, and one which is not ignored by the youth.
Plans for this week - two days of teaching, then leaving on Wednesday morning to do the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. Very exciting.
Sunday, 7 June 2009
Eventually we arrived at Pillcopata at 3pm, after 10 hours travelling. It instantly felt like jungle, with the buildings made of wooden boards and surrounded by trees. Within two minutes of arriving at the lodge, I spotted a hummingbird in the garden. The trip was clearly going to be very different from the Peru I had experienced so far. After a nap, Carlos (my guide) took me to see some of the surrounding area - we saw leafcutter ants, parrots, and many, many other birds (this became a bit of a trend). We also went to Villa Carmen, which was essentially a house converted into a free-range jungle zoo. It was worth it, as many of the larger mammals are very difficult to see in the wild. I saw two types of macaw, a monkey, a toucan, tapirs, peccaries and a capybara. We saw some of these in the wild, but not all!
I was going to do a day-by-day account, but the truth is that would be far too long and probably not very interesting. So here are the highlights. We had to wait an extra to get our boat down the river, as the driver (also my guide's best friend) had been bitten by a snake the day before we set out! It took a while to find this out, as in his village (no road, only accessible by boat) there are no telephones. In much of the jungle, the only method of communication is by CB radio. This was one of the reasons why going there felt like stepping back in time. The delay with the boat meant that Carlos had to improvise the programme, which to his credit he did pretty well. On the second day, we saw a jungle lake, in which we spotted a baby caiman (at night, for about three seconds). As ever, the variety of birds was astonishing.
The boat, when we did get it, was basically a long canoe with a slightly dodgy motor attached. Nonetheless, it managed to get us down the river and back up again with only one scary moment. On day 4, we were joined by a real character called Macuco, a man probably in his 50s (though people there looked older than they were, and the normal age to live to is 60). He showed me some medicinal tree bark, had a great political discussion with the others, and told me a sad story. He worked for a while with a biologist from Chicago, who invited him to go there, and to other places in the US. However he didn't go, for the simple reason that his family didn't want him to. As it is, he has never left the jungle. He also told me about the drinking problem there - the extreme strength of the aguardiente they drink has caused several deaths, including recently an 18 year old who simply fell in the river and drowned.
In many ways, through my conversations with Carlos, the boat driver and Macuco, the trip was as much cultural as natural. There were, however, two magical moments. The first came while we were sitting in some hot springs, and all of a sudden the boat driver shouts "Monkey!". There were 5 or 6 small ones, jumping from tree to tree and eating berries. Seeing them in the wild was a powerful reminder of just how far I am from England! The second moment was early on the fourth day, when we saw hundreds of green parrots descend onto a hillside to lick the clay (it helps with their digestion).
The last night of the trip was also wonderful: Carlos, the boat driver and I camped on a riverbank, lit a bonfire, ate supper and talked. It was calm, idyllic and a perfectly fitting end to a trip that, although it didn't follow the traditional tourist itinerary (or maybe because of that) probably gave me a greater insight into life in the Peruvian jungle. I went four days without seeing another white foreigner.
P.S. This really is only a snippet - there are many other things to tell. One was the fact that in Salvación (a jungle town with a name that made me think of García Márquez novels), a large amount of infrastructure and building had been financed by the EU. It struck me as a great initiative, and only makes me more annoyed with the short-sighted way people in the UK seem to have voted last week.
Sunday, 31 May 2009
Anyway, a bit more about my jungle trip. I am going to an area called the Parque Nacional Manu, an enormous slice of rainforest which is very well protected by the Peruvian government (unlike the northern jungle), and designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is known as one of the best areas of the Amazon for spotting wildlife, though I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high. I could see tapirs, capybara, giant otters, and am almost certain to see hordes of parrots and macaws, as well as the Cock of the Rock, Peru's national bird.
Aside from the national park, there is another area into which practically no one is allowed to enter. In it live several tribes which have hardly had any contact with the outside world, and don't really seem to want any. For once, that wish has been respected.
I forgot to mention in an earlier post that I saw the Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También recently. It's brilliant, since it works as a traditional teenage coming-of-age story (with all the requisite sex), but has one eye on a wider social and political situation. What's more, it's beautifully shot. We watched it with Spanish subtitles, which gave an insight into Mexican slang - a lot more difficult than the Peruvian version!
I had better go...getting up at 4am tomorrow!
Friday, 29 May 2009
I only had two days of teaching because on Wednesday there was yet another strike - I had been told that lessons were going ahead as normal, but I physically could not get to school. We have however got classes this Saturday, to make up for the two-day strike last week!
Two images struck me from my evenings in Pisac. On Wednesday evening, I turned a corner to find an enormous bull walking straight at me down the street. There were several others wandering seemingly aimlessly through the town. The other image was that of a huge crowd of kids standing in the cold night, transfixed by the movie Ice Age on a TV.
Interesting current event: the famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is in Venezuela for a forum on liberty. He got detained at Caracas airport for an hour, and now President Chávez has challenged him to a debate on TV - he accepted. Could be very interesting....
Final thing - today I went to the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. It's a fortress in the mountains, one of the few places where the Incas won a battle against the Spanish. Very impressive indeed- will try to get photos up soon.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Last Tuesday in Cusco, I was sitting in a square in the evening, and a little boy and girl came up to me. First, they asked whether I was a gringo (I thought this was quite obvious!), then wanted to know how to say random words in English (door, roof, teeth, etc.) The girl said one word in Spanish which I didn't understand, and got very frustrated when I couldn't tell her the translation! Still, when I left with another friend, she shouted after us Cuidense mucho! , which means "Take a lot of care!". Very sweet.
On a similar note, when we were in Huacachina, the group of us was mobbed by a horde of 1st year school students who had walked from Ica (several km through the sand). They were eager to know where we were from, what our names were, and to share our bottle of Coke. And, sadly but inevitably, to ask for some money. Still, like above, when we left there was a joyous shout of "Ciao!" from all of them, which was strangely heartwarming. (Apparently they write it "chau" here).
For all its annoyances and little difficulties, South America, or Peru at least, does seem to have a great interest in people. That fact alone makes the little difficulties easier to deal with.
Recent news: a new volunteer has arrived at my house, a girl from Portugal. She seems really nice, and as kind as my family are, it's great to have someone new to talk to.
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
All this is quite similar to what's happening in the Peruvian Amazon, where there are protests against the privatisation of public land. The President says it's in order to share the resources with all the people of Peru, but indigenous leaders (and the Catholic Church, and eco groups) say the environmental consequences could be disastrous.
There are a couple of other small observations I wanted to share, but I have to leave it there for now. Hasta luego...
Monday, 18 May 2009
Still, the journey to Arequipa was stunning, if very long. The first part rose to over 4000m, passing snowy mountains. Then we had the high, grassy altiplano, and the final part was an ascent into a desertlike scrubland, through which the road went straight as far you could see, and was punctuated only by the odd dusty town. It felt a bit like the North American Wild West, especially with disused rail tracks cutting through sandy rock alongside the road. The difference, of course, was the mountains. Arequipa is famous for its volcano, El Misti. At one point I thought I had spotted it, only to turn a corner and see it rising out of the desert, perfectly conical and enormous, like a cut-out Japanese print of Mount Fuji.
Arequipa itself is huge, Peru's second-biggest city. The centre is built largely of an off-white, pockmarked rock called sillar, which has a distinctly volcanic look and rough edges. There is a colonial feel to the place, and it definitely seems richer than Cusco. For the first time, I saw Peruvians who would pass for your average European city-dwellers. Teenagers dressed more or less like my friends at home. I arrived at 5pm on Thursday, found a hostel, had a great meal of ceviche, and explored, soaking up the atmosphere.
On Friday morning, other volunteers arrived, and we set about seeing the sights. First stop was a museum containing a frozen Inca girl, found offered as a sacrifice to a mountain at over 6000m. The body is in amazingly good condition, though almost equally impressive were the items she was buried with. These included one piece of fabric so well preserved it could have been for sale at Pisac market. It was incredible to see that the designs haven't changed a bit in over 500 years. The other big attraction was the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, established by the Spanish soon after their arrival. It is big enough to be a small town in itself, and even has its own streets. The buildings are brightly painted, and in the sunlight it practically sparkles. There's a good story behind it too: for 300 years from its foundation, the nuns came only from the richest Spanish families, and had to pay an enormous dowry for the privilege. They each had several servants or black slaves, and were renowned for hosting wild parties! Funnily enough, the monastery tries to skirt around this - it's safe to say the current nuns don't live like that (as far as you can tell, as they live in isolation).
After another long bus journey, this time at night, we arrived at the coastal town of Ica early on Saturday morning. During the drive, I had caught glimpses of the Panamerican highway cutting through the sand dunes, and once or twice, the Pacific shimmering in the lights of a town.
We were there to visit the tiny town of Huacachina, little more than an oasis in the desert. It looks just how you would imagine an oasis to look: palm trees and water surrounded by towering sand dunes. We could have been in the Sahara. The views alone were amazing, but we had to try sandboarding as well. It's hard!
We then got a bus to Nazca, though annoying timing issues meant that I couldn't see the famous lines this time round. Not a massive problem, as I wouldn't mind an excuse to venture back down that way.
I taught this morning (Monday), but won't be doing so again this week as there's another two-day strike about water starting tomorrow. Which is fine, but not great for my students, who are meant to have an English exam next week! There are some things about this country that you just have to accept and not worry about too much. Strikes are one of them.
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
I had a chilled weekend in Cusco, during which I discovered that El Comercio (the main Peruvian newspaper) is actuallly very good. There was a great discussion between Mario Vargas Llosa and other SA intellectuals on the state of democracy in the region, as well as a scary editorial piece on the state of Peru's police force.
Sunday was Día de la Madre (Mother's Day), which is taken hugely seriously here. On Monday, most of my school's classes were cancelled to make way for a long succession of songs, poems and dances.
This weekend, I am probably heading southwards to Arequipa and Nazca, which will show me some very different landscapes (e.g. desert). Not to mention the famous Nazca lines.
Friday, 8 May 2009
The most striking thing here is the enthusiasm of the kids to learn English. They are forever asking me for translations of randomly selected words, and for how to say their names in English. For some, this is easy (Juan = John, Carlos = Charles, etc.). However, loads of them have English names (Kevin, Percy, Roger, Richard, even Doris) and are a bit disappointed when I tell them it's the same! For others (e.g. Grimanesa), I don't even know where to start.
They have enthusiasm for this sort of learning English, but when it comes to the actual lessons, many if not most are very shy when it comes to answering questions and taking part in activities. I have a feeling this is because the teaching style in Peru is very old fashioned - listen to the teacher, copy notes from the board, and little more. The moment I write anything on the board, the kids want to start copying, and quite often I really don't want them to! The solution, which I am getting better at using, is to practice whatever you are teaching them many times before writing it. That way it might just go in, instead of being blindly (and mostly wrongly) copied in their books. The other thing, of course, is games. My fourth year class the other day got so excited about a comparatives and superlatives race I couldn´t hear myself think.
Nonetheless, I sometimes feel like I am only really teaching a handful of the students from each class. And there are some really talented students - a couple are exceptional. Striking a balance between keeping them entertained and not letting the majority fall behind is pretty difficult. Some volunteers in the past have run extra classes for these kids... I am wondering whether I should do something similar.
I have had a victory with regards to the curriculum, in that I now have relatively free rein over what to teach, which is good since the recommended curriculum here is massively optimistic. That said, I can see the good work of previous volunteers in my older classes, some of whom have at least a bit of retained knowledge...and here, that is wonderful.
In all, the main problem with education here seems to be the triumph of form over substance. The teachers [and, as a consequence, the children] quite often seem more concerned with the neatness of their exercise books than the content inside them. I cannot begin to explain how long it takes the kids to copy from the board. Once the coloured pens come yet, you know that disaster is looming. I found one girl who had [at home, I hope] made a title in her book by gluing bits of pasta into the shapes of letters.
I moan about this, but it does sometimes have a positive side. Like the school sports day this Thursday, which had a magnificent sense of ceremony and occasion. This included our own Olympic torch, the obligatory singing of the national anthem, and of course marching. I was named "padrino [godfather]" of the 1A football team, and for the honour was practically leading the parade, and had to buy the kids a football [which they promptly broke]. All a bit surreal, but I felt like everyone was making a big effort to make me part of the day and of the school, and appreciated that hugely.
That is more or less all I can think of for now...this weekend is in Cusco, having a goodbye part for all the volunteers leaving next week [a lot]. The turnover rate here is pretty high, and as a consequence I almost feel like one of the old guard already.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Crossing the Bolivian border posed no problems, at least for the Europeans among us. Americans have to pay $135 just to get in (apparently Evo's revenge for what Bolivians have to pay to get into the US). The ticket collector on our bus offered us a sort of package, including a hotel, return to Cusco on Sunday, and boats to the Isla del Sol. Since this was what we wanted anyway, we accepted to avoid hassle for ourselves. There is always a degree of concern when going for this kind of deal, but in the end it worked out fine. I was however glad that the two Americans didn't accept his offer to get them across the border more cheaply (perfectly legally, of course!).
Copacabana is a very small, quiet Bolivian town in which, although touristy by Bolivian standards, gringos are a definite minority. The non-residents were mostly other Bolivians or South Americans - it has a local seaside resort feel (complete with pedalos). And the lake is so enormous it does feel like the sea.
The relief at escaping from touristy Cusco was offset by the fact that there was considerably more begging, more visible poverty here. The town has a stunning white Moorish cathedral, in whose courtyard the old and infirm sit and stretch out their hands. It was quite upsetting to see. Things were cheaper here too, including the food. I had trout from the lake twice, and it was equally delicious both times.
On Saturday, we got a boat to the Isla del Sol. This is supposedly the birthplace of the Sun and the first Incas, and given the heat that day, it was easy to believe. The island itself looks incredibly similar to southern Italy or Greece - bleached rocks, shrubs, white sandy beaches. We got off at the north end, visited the Inca ruins, then walked three hours to catch the boat home in the south. The walk was very beautiful, though the fact that the path went right over the top of all the hills was a bit frustrating. No one feels very fit at 4000m.
That evening, there was the most enormous party in Copacabana. I think it was due to a combination of labour day, and the feast of a saint - in any case, it resulted in brass music, enormous glittering costumes and drunken dancing well into Sunday morning. I was very impressed by the Bolivian stamina. There was a slightly more poignant moment when a (drunk) old woman in traditional dress came up to me and said "No quiero tu dinero! (I don't want your money!)" An insight into resentment of the foreigners? Who knows. It was an interesting comment anyway.
As I mentioned above, the bus back to Cusco was not much fun. In fact, it was not very different from the ones we get in the Sacred Valley (except we spent 7 hours on it, not 1). Still, when you're paying about 6 pounds for the journey, I don't feel you have much right to complain. It was certainly an authentic Peruvian experience, too, summed up by the box of squawking chickens on the roof.
After all that adventure, it's back to the normality of teaching. Which is not that normal here, to be honest, but I will write more about it another time.
Ciao for now - my photos are at http://picasaweb.google.com/paulmerchant1
I'll put the Bolivia ones up soon.
Thursday, 30 April 2009
From this week - teaching more or less successful, the usual noisy enthusiasm from the kids.
Tried to go help out at an orphanage yesterday afternoon with another volunteer, but was given pretty vague directions, and after asking several people (including one slightly crazy man) ended up at a completely different orphanage! So that wasn't entirely successful, but did at least feel like a proper adventure.
For some reason can't think of a lot else to write at the moment...no doubt the weekend will bring lots of interesting experiences.
Saturday, 25 April 2009
On Thursday, there was a workshop/discussion involving the teaching volunteers, the Peruvian English teachers, and the regional director of secondary education. Most of the time was taken up by a discussion between the teachers and the director, so that I in the end didn't have time to give the presentation I had been asked to prepare. I've got used to this sort of last-minute change now: whenever it happens, I just say to myself "It's Peru!". In fact, the discussion was very interesting. The teachers began by complaining that since the goverment had introduced a new area of evaluation in English (oral), they would now have to spend all their time evaluating, not teaching The director however made the very good point that an extra evaluation area does not necessarily require more time - teaching and evaluation can and should be done together. Moreover, oral skills in English are arguably the bit of the language which will be most important and useful to the kids in this area.
However, there's no denying that English doesn't have enough space in the timetable. At the moment, the schools average two hours a week (one and a half in my school). Since this consists of just one lesson, it is very difficult for the kids to make steady, consolidated progress. The teachers were asking for just a third hour. Unfortunately, it's not within the director's power to change this. It's all horribly complicated, but essentially each school has a large degree of autonomy over the teaching time in "non-core" subjects like English. So, some prioritise Quechua instead. Now, I'm all for rediscovery of cultural roots, but this just doesn't seem to make sense. Besides, as my host mother told me, most of the kids speak Quechua better than their teacher anyway.
So, that was the major work event of the last few days. On Friday, there was a volunteer "social", which involved running around Urubamba answering riddles and was a lot of fun. On Friday I also met two new English volunteers, girls from Reigate and Croydon. As if that wasn't spooky enough in itself, I have several friends in common with one of them. The Gap year world really is tiny.
We were out in Cusco on Friday night, and then on Saturday morning four of us went horse riding in the hills above the city. As this was an all-male excursion, one member of the group dubbed it "Brokeback Mountain". Two hours came in at the princely sum of S/.25 (about 6 pounds). The weather was glorious, and the views of the city stunning, so it was tempting to imagine yourself as a conquistador, exploring an unknown land. I have no doubt, however, that the Spanish were far far better horse riders than any of us (not difficult). Saturday night was again out and about in Cusco, and a lot of fun. As a result, Sunday has been a very slow day, culminating in some lesson planning this evening.
Every Monday morning, there is a patriotic ceremony at the school, involving flag-raising, singing and marching. This lasts half an hour, and therefore one of my final year classes only gets 1 hour of English a week. This annoys me quite a lot. What's more, there are rumours of a teachers' strike this Wednesday, so my teaching this week may be minimal. You can't escape the feeling here that secondary education is of secondary importance. And this is what frustrates and saddens me the most: I see bright kids in my classes every day, and I know that the chance that they will fulfil their potential is very slim indeed. For the girls, especially: marriage and childbirth happen very early here, and before they know it they'll be in a domestic role, another of the bowler-hat wearing Andean women. There are so few who break out of this.
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
The Lares baths looked at first glance like any outdoor swimming pool, albeit an outdoor swimming pool 3 hours' drive from the nearest settlement. The water in the pools was an unappetising yellow-brown, and comes hot out of the side of the mountain. I can safely say that after two days' trekking, sliding into one of the pools at 8 in the evening was one of the best things I have done since I arrived.
So the trek as a whole was a great success. All of us felt slightly awkward at the level of service we received - mules to carry most of our luggage, cooked meals, general kindness and hospitality. Yet we paid for it, and by doing so supported the main source of income in these parts. And watching the mules climb the steep, rocky mountain paths was astonishing.
As I mentioned above, the drive back was 3 hours, during which we passed no more than 5 vehicles. I have some stunning photographs of empty valleys, huge herds of alpacas, and snowy peaks. One of the vehicles was a taxi which had half slipped into a ditch at the side of the road. We all got out to help, and with a combination of piling rocks and pushing we got it out. This was one of those places were you can't just drive on by when you see someone in trouble like that. I'm not sure the alpacas would have been very helpful.
The beginning of this week has been a bit of a sharp return to reality. Which is to say, I am still finding the teaching totally exhausting, though far from boring. I could only smile yesterday when some the girls in my top year classes asked me whether I was married. My students are also trying to teach me Quechua, though so far I have only managed "My name is", "How are you?" and "Where are you from?".
This in fact leads me on to an interesting point. For many of my students, Spanish is a second language. This sometimes becomes obvious, as yesterday, when I asked a boy a question and he replied "no sabo" to mean "I don't know". This is logical, but wrong (to know is "saber", but I don't know is "no sé"). Often, when I ask them to do a particular activity, someone will turn to their friends to explain in Quechua.
This is of course another challenge. Tomorrow I have to teach the use of "do" and "does" as auxiliaries to my fourth year students. I am beginning to think that English must be quite difficult to learn properly.
Sunday, 19 April 2009
Thursday morning was very quiet, taken up by reading and chilling out. I am only working three days a week, and haven't yet decided whether I want to ask for one day more (four is the norm). There is a significant possibility of getting bored, but also of recovering, plannning, and doing long weekends away. In the evening, most of the volunteers went to Urubamba (the largest local town) for a traditional Peruvian meal. All the food was cooked in hot stones in the ground, and tasted delicious, apart from the odd bit of gravel. Needless to say, there were were plenty of potatoes and choclo (a type of maize which they adore here).
I stayed in a hostel Urubamba that evening, along with another volunteer from England. The reason behind this was that early on Friday morning, we set off from Urubamba on a two day guided trek to Lares, a town with famous thermal baths. With us were three volunteers from Denmark. The trek was astonishing, as much for the variety of the landscapes as for the remoteness of the places we reached.
We started by climbing up through a series of valleys, following the course of a river. As we climbed over ever-higher passes, our surroundings changed from sub-tropical vegetation to flat green meadows, to steep slopes with ever more rocks. Things that stood out were Inca ruins and a Quechua farming community. The Inca buildings were far from the usual quality - it turned out that this was because they were built in a hurry, fleeing the Spanish up into the mountains. The current famr buildings were of a very similar appearance. There was no road, no electricity here. Chickens, sheep, guinea pigs and dogs roamed wherever they wanted. We spent a very cold night at just below 4000m, sitting around a fire and listening to strange languages (for me, Quechua and Danish). The view from the campsite was astonishing- we could see down the valleys we had climbed, and towards mountains that must have been a hundred miles away.
Saturday morning was tough. We climbed to the highest mountain pass, at 4300m. The landscape was nothing but rocks - no plant could grow up there. There used to be a glacier, but as our guide explained, in 18 years it has completely disappeared. Something is clearly happening to the Earth's climate. Climbing at this altitude was tough - we had to stop pretty often just to catch our breath. I have even more respect now for people who can tackle far higher mountains, in the Andes or the Himalayas.
Hard as the ascent was, the view from the pass was more than worth it. It was a real panorama of valleys, snow-capped mountains, and lakes. We then descended through this, to have lunch in another remote village. This one received electricity and a road for the first time last year. Again, animals were everywhere. In the low, dark stone house where we ate, guinea pigs scurried all over the floor. There was one room, and as far as I could see, no proper beds. It is very difficult and a bit distressing to imagine people living their whole lives in these conditions. We all live on one planet, but there are many different worlds.
There is more to say, but I have to go now. Part 2 to follow...
Tuesday, 14 April 2009
But before I do that, something on the society that I promised yesterday and didn't end up writing. In this school, the major problem (so the English teacher says) is that most of the parents in the area don't see education as particularly valuable. Apparently, very few sh0w any interest in their children's progress at school. Economic conditions for farmers (i.e. most people in the area) are worsening, so they think that it is better for their children to help with the family work. Here there is no legal requirement for children to attend school. As a result, only 2 of last year's top year students went on to higher education. The rest go on to work.
There are some kids who come from Patabamba, a town in the mountains. They come on foot, and it is a 2-3 hour walk. School starts at 8, so they have to get up so early that by the time they get to school it's pretty difficult for them to give it any real attention. On a more national level, there are rumours that the government wants to privatise the entire education system, so that it is fee-paying.
I don't yet feel able to comment on what is good or bad about any of this. The situation is so different here from what I am used to that I can't judge anything.
From a non-educational perspective, there was one other thing I wanted to say. It was that watching Peruvian TV, you realise what a divided country this is (50% indigenous, 50% Hispanic). The TV programmes are clearly all made in Lima, and I have so far seen only one person on them who resembles the Peruvians I see every day here. There is a huge imbalance.
Sunday, 12 April 2009
Saturday night in Cusco was a night out with some other volunteers. Inevitably, at one point we ended up in an Irish pub. There, I met two guys who had gone to school at Judd (a school in Tonbridge). It seemed like a strange coincidence, but then if I am going to meet other English people out here, it is most likely going to be people from a similar background to mine. There was also an Australian woman ranting about the floods of English gap year students on this continent, and how they give the impression that they know how to handle everything the world throws at them (and of course we don't). I thought it was an unfair generalisation, but the fact is that a large number of said British teenagers, like me, were probably educated in an environment that is very far removed from the real world. So she had a point.
The rest of the evening was unremarkable - I probably had slightly too much to drink, but made to our hostel in one piece. As I mentioned before, I got up early to see the morning mass at the cathedral. It was in fact not quite what I was expecting. I hadn't realised before, but the cathedral has no organ. Instead there was a Yamaha keyboard with speakers and sound effects, and in place of a choir a group of 5 ladies with microphones. No amount of Catholic devotion can get rid of the fact that this is a developing country.
Having said that, as I left to get back to Pisac, it looked as if there were preparations for a parade/procession in the main square. That is how they do things here. I didn't stay, partly because I wanted to get on with things in Pisac, and partly because these parades have all started to merge together.
I know I have spent a lot of time talking about religion recently - I will soon have lots to say about teaching, and there are things I want to say about the society, both here in Pisac and what I can make out of Peru in general. However, for now there is the more pressing call of supper. Tomorrow, I am not starting teaching like I expected, because there is a strike. So I have time to plan some lessons, write, and sort out this pub quiz.
P.S. If anyone has seen the news about the recent Shining Path attack, don't worry - it's not the region I'm in. So much for my belief they were dead and buried. Though now they're more drug traffickers than Maoist revolutionaries.
Saturday, 11 April 2009
In the morning, I played yet more football, this time in Pisac, with some of the other volunteers, and Peruvians from the host families, including the elder brother from my own. I was not totally hopeless, but was definitely pretty breathless. It was nice just to stand in goal and look at the mountains... I will not tire of these views very quickly. The Good Friday tradition here is to eat nothing in the morning, then have an enormous lunch (los doce platos, "the twelve dishes"). We may not have had quite twelve, but I lost count. We had a vegetable soup to start, then fried fish with rice and potato, then jelly, and a maize cake, two different types of flan, and "guisado". The latter is a a hot drink with peaches in it - very tasty. Lastly there was a sort of rice pudding, which I will confess to have failed to tackle.
One thing that stood out is that table manners are pretty different here. You start to eat when you are served; there's no waiting. People will come and go from the table as they wish, and generally you eat just with the fork. All small things, but they add up to give quite a distinct impression of social norms.
Then in the evening there was the procession. It ever so slightly tacky, with purple and white balloons. But then (without wanting to offend anyone) I have come to expect this from Catholicism - a glorious disregard for "taste". It is in that way a very powerful affirmation of faith. There were three statues - one of the Virgin, one of St John the Evangelist (I think) and then a giant coffin containing the body of Jesus. These were paraded through the town, stopping at beautifully made flower carpets where the priest would say something, sing and pray.
His words were sometimes surprising... when talking about Judas and betrayal, he mentioned abortion, unsurprisingly, but then also talked about the betrayal of the workers and the poor. It was very clearly anti-globalisation, anti-technology, anti what he sarcastically called "progress". It made me think of the Liberation Theology movement famous in these parts. I don't think we're used to such a degree of politicisation in parish churches at home! Much of the procession was a jumble of noises - the band playing over the priest's singing, the emergency vehicles honking furiously in the main square at the end. The authorities are unashamedly deeply involved in religion.
Easter Saturday, by contrast, has been quiet. I had a slow start, then went into Cusco with a couple of other volunteers. My desire to try ceviche ( traditional raw seafood) has been thwarted for now, but we did catch yet another procession in the Plaza de Armas. We are staying the night, so will be around early tomorrow for the resurrection mass in the Cathedral, which should be quite something.
Ciao, as they say here, and happy Easter.
Thursday, 9 April 2009
One real perk of the teaching this week was the fact that by way of thanks, we got to see the Chinchero Inca ruins for free. Annoyingly I didn't have my camera with me, but the stone terraces against a green mountain backdrop were, as always, awe-inspiring. Particularly good was the chance to stand on a stone platform from which the Inca used to address crowds in the field below. It was very much like the podiums used by political leaders today - though press conferences rarely happen in such dramatic settings.
On Wednesday evening, there was the weekly volunteers' pub quiz in a bar in Urubamba (one of the largest towns in the Sacred Valley). This is done by a pair of volunteers, and yesterday's was a lot of fun. However, as part of the winning team, I have been accorded the privilege of organising the questions/activities for the next one. Nothing like a bit of pressure to add to my teaching obligations!
Today, I have had a relaxed, and in retrospect, very South American day. I had a slow start to the morning, and started reading La casa verde by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru's most famous writer). Then this afternoon I took the bus to Urubamba and played football with other volunteers and some Peruvian kids. It was great fun and I didn't embarrass myself too badly, though it has to be said that playing football at 3,000m is a bit more tiring than usual. At this rate, I will be very fit by the time I come home.
P.S. I think I have finally found somewhere where I can upload photos. Might be able to do that tomorrow.
Tuesday, 7 April 2009
First thing to say is that I forgot to mention that on Sunday morning, although I failed to go to Mass at 4am, I did go to a later one in Quechua! Needless to say I didn't understand a word, but it was worth it to see how even in a modest church like Pisac's, they really go to town on decorations, music, palm crosses, etc.
Going to town doesn't even begin to describe the festival I saw in Cusco on Monday. It was to celebrate Jesus as "Señor de los Temblores" (Lord of the Earthquakes). According to the source of wisdom that is Wikipedia, this is because there was an earthquake in 1650, and a crucifix sent to Cusco from Spain was paraded around the town, at which point the earthquake immediately stopped.
The crucifix is about 3 metres tall, and entirely black. Every Monday before Easter, it is paraded through the city, and people throw red petals at it. It visits every church in the city, carried on the shoulders of 10 men. Officials of every sort meet it at various points, from politicians to police to the army. Then in the evening in re-enters the cathedral, by which time the main square is literally full. There are candles, music, church bells, street vendors selling food. It is, quite simply, a party atmosphere. The only thing I've ever seen like it was Easter Sunday in Florence: though here there were probably even more people.
It came as no surprise that there is no school this week. So today and tomorrow I'm teaching basic English to local artesans, to help them sell their products. Will write more on this tomorrow, but even the little I taught my groups (greetings and farewells) felt worthwhile. It is something that will genuinely help them in their daily lives.
This leads me on to my last point: I moaned about the commercialism of Cusco in my last post. However, this is probably unfair, as someone pointed out to me. Said someone has an annoying tendency to be right about these things - you know who you are!
The fact is, it's easy for the Lonely Planet backpacker crowd to criticise commercialism, spoilt beauty and loss of local character, but put yourself in the street sellers' shoes. If you had no money, wares to sell and saw a wealthy tourist coming towards you, what would you do?
Sunday, 5 April 2009
By contrast, my family has a large TV, a computer, bikes. They run a bar which adjoins the house, from which loud cheerful music is always booming. Two things are inescapable: football and Catholicism. The walls of my room are plastered with images of players from the Cusco team (Cienciano), as well as international icons like Zidane and Beckham. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to watch the Arsenal - Man City match yesterday live on Peruvian TV. As for religion, there are posters of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, carved figures in boxes, and Bible quotations scattered through the house. Today, Palm Sunday, they got up at 4am to go to Mass.
The father is a quiet man, whereas his wife is entirely the opposite - she takes every opportunity to make conversation, which is great as otherwise it would be easy to feel very isolated. The boys are both very smiley and quite chatty once you make the effort to talk. They bicker like any set of brothers, though probably even more than I do with mine! I have already lost abysmally at chess to the younger - it never was my strong point, though I will demand a rematch to try to save my honour.
So they are relatively prosperous, but as I keep remembering, of the three bedrooms, two are taken up by volunteers, so the four of them sleep in one room. There are other reminders that this is a developing country, like the fact that all their washing is done by hand. Coming from a country where a washing machine is considered a necessity, it is a valuable (if clichéd) lesson to see that not having one is not the end of the world.
There are two more things I want to mention. The first is the Internet/computer craze. The younger of the boys in my family spends as much time playing computer games as any English kid - he is lucky enough to be able to. And then there are two types of Internet café - ones for foreigners, and ones which are always full of shouting Peruvian kids playing games on the Internet. It seems to take up most of their time.
The second thing is something my hostess said to me yesterday evening: "I've never been in a plane, but if I flew at night I'd be scared of crashing into the stars".
Saturday, 4 April 2009
What made it particularly special was that there was no one else there. There was a silence that is very difficult to find in the UK: the only noises were birds and the waterfall. The same was true of the stars last night...there are few places back home were you can see so many - though of course here they´re all different.
This afternoon I´ve been in Cusco. It is a city with an extraordinary past, where Spanish colonial buildings are literally built on Inca foundations. It is beautiful, too, but so touristy it severely tries my patience. After you´ve said `No, gracias´for the thirtieth time to a street vendor or shoe shiner or Quechua woman with baby llama, it gets a bit tiresome. It makes me sad to see the traditional culture reduced to this, though I suppose since tourism is the main source of income here there´s no avoiding it.
In fact, I saw something this morning at the ruins that makes me more optmistic. As the sun rose over a ridge on the horizon, three or four Quechua women appeared on the summit above the citadel. They raised their arms, and though I was about 200 metres away I could make out the soft sound of a pipe. They were welcoming the sun god, `Inti´, in a way that probably hasn´t changed in centuries. And they can hardly have been doing it for tourists - I was the only other person there. I felt very lucky to have seen it, and happy that Andean culture is escaping total globalisation for the moment.
What else to report? The ex-president Alberto Fujimori has been on trial for the last 15 months, and is going to be sentenced next week. He is charged with organising two massacres and various other human rights abuses in the 1990s. It´s an interesting case, as although he probably did overstep the mark, he managed to restore the economy and defeat the Shining Path terrorists - both catastrophes he inherited from his predecessor, Alan García. That would be the Alan García who´s President now...
So Fujimori is a very divisive figure. The Peruvians have a wonderful habit of writing slogans in enormous letters on mountainsides, and I´ve see both for and against him so far.
That´s all for now folks... Ciao.
Friday, 3 April 2009
Next week looks like it will be really quite exciting - the Holy Week processions in Cusco apparently have to be seen to be believed.
The altititude seems to be having an effect... got surprisingly out of breath going up stairs this morning! I know I haven't said much about the family and the house yet... there is a lot to say. However I now have to go for lunch - the food here so far has been amazingly low on vegetables. Potatoes, rice, pasta, a bit of meat, and soup, but very little green stuff.
I'm not sure if I'll be posting to this every day, but since Internet costs 2 soles (40p) for an hour, price is not an issue.
Thursday, 2 April 2009
This is largely to do with the fact that the journey in total was 20 hours, of which I slept about two. It had its positives - I had an interesting chat with a Frenchman off to the Amazon, and saw two very good films (Fight Club & Witness). I promised a friend I wouldn´t be pretentious on this, but I think I can get away with saying that Fight Club is pretty unique (and very, very violent). Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were totally enthralling, and I reckon the anti-consumerist slant now seems in a perverted way to be ahead of its time.
Anyway, I ended up at Cusco airport at 9am. Met people from Projects Abroad, then was taken on a whirlwind tour of the city in a rickety old taxi. The experience was a bit like watching parts of Slumdog Millionaire through a car window. The colours of people´s clothes and the buildings is unlike anything in Britain. But then many of the buildings and roads are crumbling, and it only seems picturesque until you realise people have to live in it. There is something uncomfortably voyeuristic about this sort of trip, perhaps. Though of course I´m here to do more than just look.
A combination of altitude and interesting driving left me feeling sick on the way to the Sacred Valley, where I´ll be living. The scenery was nonetheless astonishing: steep slopes of deep green capped with glaciers. This is a rural area in the sense we can barely imagine. It is really a different world. Farm animals roam the only main road at their free will, and children walk miles home from school. The old women really do wear the traditional Andean dress - colourful striped shawl with bowler hat. Again, the buildings are at once romantic and tragic.
The family with whom I´m staying seem cheerful and welcoming, though they of course do not have the whole world to share. My teaching looks as if it will be delayed a bit due to Holy Week (which supersedes everything), but there is apparently other community work to be done.
That´s all I can remember of what I wanted to say. Must try to stay awake this evening...
P.S. the flag of Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, is exactly the same as the Gay Pride flag. I will admit it puzzled me when I first saw it on the town hall...
P.P.S. At some stage I will work out how to upload photos to this thing. Haven´t actually taken any yet.
Monday, 30 March 2009
The plan as it stands:
Fly out to Peru on Wednesday evening, arrive Thursday morning. I am staying with a family in Pisac, a town near Cusco. The area's called the Sacred Valley - lots of Inca ruins, including Machu Picchu. I'm going to be teaching English in a rural school for three months. Which is very exciting, but also scary, given that the average class size is 40, and the ages range from 10 to 21!
So that takes me to the beginning of July - teaching, exploring the area, maybe a bit of trekking, trips to Lake Titicaca, who knows. Then the only fixed date I have after that is my flight back from Mexico City on the 24th of August. At the moment, I'm thinking: explore some of the rest of Peru, then Ecuador, Panama, up through Central America to Nicaragua/Honduras, then fly to Cuba. From there, I'll probably fly to Mexico City, see what there is to see there, and then catch my flight home. It's safe to say I'll be avoiding the north of the country - not to keen on getting caught up in the drug wars. I think there have been 8,000 dead over the last few years...
I reckon that's all for now. I have packing to do! I don't know how often I'll be posting to this - everything will depend on Internet access, which could be...variable.