Sunday, 31 May 2009

The price of things

I am about to embark on a 5 day trip to the Amazon, since I have school holidays this week (the only volunteer who does!). This type of tour is the sort of thing that bucks the general Peruvian trend, and is pretty expensive. In fact, Cusco itself is not exactly cheap - that is, if you stick to the touristy areas. This evening, while wandering through some backstreets, I found a traditional pollería. This is Peruvian fast food - huge chunks of roast chicken with chips. I had a quarter of a chicken, a load of chips, some soup and a Coke for S/. 9.50, which is about 2 pounds 50. I had a similar shock when I got my hair cut last weekend in Cusco: I paid S/. 10, which was apparently a rip off! Back in the valley, the going rate is S/. 3. Peruvians (including those working for Projects Abroad) were shocked when I told them how much I would usually pay back home. A wander through the supermarket in Pisac only underlines the difference: on everyday items, the gap is colossal. Which suits the equally colossal gap in average income. The English teachers we work with earn about S/. 900 a month - I'll leave you to work out how much that is.

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

One week more

So what's happened in the week since I last wrote in here? Well, I had two days of teaching that only really involved the students doing English exams. The English teacher I'm working with is about to have a baby/ has just had one, so I was on my own. Getting the kids to shut up (to put it bluntly) was challenge enough, not to mention the fact that they were terrible at cheating! I have to say, though, I quite enjoyed catching them. Some had some quite ingenious strategies - and others were just blatant. I feel obliged to say that this did not extend to 1A, who ever since I was padrino to their football team, have more or less adored me. So they were brilliant: no cheating, hardly any talking, which was amazing.

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


The following are a few encounters that happened over the last few weeks, that I noted down in my journal and seem worth sharing:

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

Politics and boredom

I am now approaching the end of the 48-hour strike by the local farmers, protesting against the privatisation of the water supply. "Strike" here means that everything stops working, from public transport to the water itself this morning. It also involves huge marches, breaking of car windows, and moving of boulders onto the roads. At the moment, they don't have to pay for water here, so at first glance privatisation doesn't seem unreasonable. But, since the farmers need a supply of irrigation water to even be able to grow their crops (as the climate is so dry), you can kind of see why they're angry. On a personal level, the major consequence has been that I've had a very quiet, pretty boring couple of days.

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

Another weekend's travels

For such a successful weekend, it didn't start too well. I turned up at the Cusco bus terminal at 5:30am (for a bus at 6am), expecting to exchange my receipt for a ticket. The guy hadn't shown up my 5:50am, so I took no chances and bought another ticket for 20 soles (half what I originally paid). Just as I was about to get on my new bus, the man showed up with my original 40 soles ticket, which was for exactly the same bus! I was not massively pleased.

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

Bits and pieces

A few random bits of news...

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

Teaching Report

I thought I'd take some to talk about what the teaching experience is like - apologies for any clichés which pop up during this.

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


After a wonderful weekend. It started on Thursday evening with my first experience of a long-distance night bus journey. As I expected, I didn't sleep much, but on the whole it was pretty comfortable (which is more than can be said for the return - see below). Puno, the major Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, is an uninspiring, dirty place with an unfinished look. However, it did give us a beautiful and silent sunrise over the lake.

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
I'll put the Bolivia ones up soon.