Monday, 29 June 2009

The last Cusco weekend

As the title suggests, my planned trip south to the Chilean border didn't work out in the end (you can thank the healthy Peruvian strike culture for that). So I ended up being in Cusco, but unexpectedly had a great time. On Friday morning all the teaching volunteers travelled to Piscacucho, a tiny village that gets overlooked by the tour buses whizzing past on the way to the start of the Inca trail. There, we teamed up with a Spanish NGO to start clearing up the village primary school, which was in a real state. I helped clear out one classroom which was full of random objects - chairs and tables, but also sugar cane, tiles, tools, planks, and a beehive (!).When it was all lying out on the grass, it was difficult to see how it had all fitted inside. We then swept the place out, keeping ourselves amused with songs from our favourite musicals. I am more convinced than ever of the power of singing to lift spirits.

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

Looking at Cusco

Since I'm about to leave it (next Thursday), I thought I'd do a little retrospective. I read my first blog entry about Cusco, and in fact I still agree with most of my first impressions. I was a little overwhelmed by the poverty and the contrast with home, but the fact remains that it is a vibrant city, full of westerners partying but also of images like one I saw this morning: a small boy wandering in a rubbish dump.

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

It's been a while...

during which I have been on the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. The trek itself was stunning, moving from highlands to glaciers to cloud forest. Machu Picchu is one of those places which no amount of over-hyping can spoil. Arriving in the early morning, when the peaks are surrounded with mist, was breathtaking. The fact that we were there on the June solstice was particularly special, as we saw the sun shine through a window in a temple to form a perfectly aligned rectangle on a rock. We also climbed Wayna Picchu, which is the mountain behind the ruins. The stairs are original Inca, and terrifyingly steep, but the view from the top is worth it all. Machu Picchu suddenly seems very distant, and you understand how it went so long without being discovered by foreigners - there is nothing obvious about its location.

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

Friday, 12 June 2009


One of the defining characteristics of Peru is the energy (and frequency) with which the people celebrate. The celebrations could be for the Inca festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi on 24th of June), for a Catholic festival like Corpus Christi (last Thursday), or for any of the countless local festivals which seem to combine Catholicism with local beliefs.

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

Un gringo en la selva

So I'm back from my trip to Manu. Which, in true Peruvian style, wasn't quite how I expected, but was fantastic nonetheless. The first change was the fact that the rest of the group that I was meant to be going with cancelled at very short notice...leaving me with just the guide! This meant we had to go by public transport instead of a private car, but that was no big deal. The road is almost all unpaved and pretty bumpy, climbing into the mountains and passing the colonial town of Paucartambo until you reach the edge of the national park. There, the cloud forest begins (and it is literally covered in cloud). As we descended into the valley, the mist occasionally broke to give stunning glimpses of the forests below - it looked as wild as a shot from a movie. The road only got worse, full of brightly-coloured mud, and we had to stop while a truck than had fallen down a ravine the last week was hauled back up. All its occupants died.

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.