Sunday, January 30, 2011

Welcome, Gringa Lady!

Rie and I do stick out a little here. Chachapoyas has a slowly growing tourist trade, but it’s still a small town with relatively few visitors and there’s no escaping the fact that our white faces are a bit of a novelty. Sometimes little kids will stand in front of us and stare open-mouthed. Sometimes older kids or wry-faced teenagers will see us and suddenly start spouting some English: “Good morning!” “How are-ra you?” Once a well-dressed local man leaving what looked like a business meeting in the café glanced over at my table and said in perfect English, “Good to see you. Have a nice day.”

Being easy to recognize around town can have its advantages. Sarita, the smiling young waitress at Café Fusiones, always greets us warmly and asks where we’ve been if we miss a day. People we’ve met only in passing say hello on the street. And when we went out for pizza one night, the young and hugely talented charango player we met early on came over to our table, kissed our cheeks and talked to us for a bit. He was there with his band mates, most of them in jeans and black shirts, and they had no doubt seen us in the small audience at their last show.

“Check us out,” Rie said later, laughing. “We are in with the band.”

But nothing tops the reception we got yesterday when we went with a guide to see Karajía, a group of  ancient clay sarcophagi built into a high cliff ledge near a small town an hour or two away. The tall, solemn-faced figures are pretty iconic around here—photographs of the grouping are displayed in restaurants and wooden reproductions are on sale just about anywhere you go. We were picking our way down the steep trail when we came upon a family group, a grandmother in an embroidered shirt and white cowboy hat, two younger women, and a bunch of kids.

The grandmother waited for us to catch up and then took each of our hands in turn, holding them in both of hers, smiling and pouring forth a torrent of words. When it was my turn, all I could make out was “bienvenida,” “gringa” and “señorita,” but her enthusiasm was unmistakable.

The other foreign teachers had already clued us in that gringa and gringo aren’t pejorative terms around here—they’re just descriptive and you hear them a lot. “Gracias,” I said over and over as she held my hand. “Gracias!”

It did cross my mind that she intended to accompany us to the sarcophagi and maybe expect something in return, but that wasn’t it at all. She and her family were visiting Karajía for the first time themselves and were terribly excited about it, exclaiming and laughing at every turn. The figures arouse plenty of local pride—they’ve just appeared on a new Peruvian coin, for instance—and here we were, these obviously foreign visitors, climbing down this remote hillside to go see them. I think she took our presence as further confirmation that the site is unique and special and worthy of international attention.

And after we made our way along the narrow trail, after we all admired the tall, dignified figures and shivered over the human bones that were lying around, she went around a small wooden fence and picked me a bunch of conical purple flowers, handing them to me with an explanation that I mostly didn’t get. I think it was more or less that these were flowers you didn’t see everywhere but that grew here.

I asked if I could take her picture and much of the family crowded in, then all laughed uproariously when I showed them the picture on the camera’s little screen. Then all the kids and one of the younger women were picking us flowers, tall red gladiolas, little yellow blossoms, delicate orchids they pulled out of the ground roots and all. I thanked them and thanked them and stuck a bouquet into my backpack, and still they picked  more.

The sarcophagi at Karajía were striking, even if their impact was a little diminished by the fact I’d seen so many pictures of them before I saw the things themselves. Meeting that family, though, made my day. (KK)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Local Clamor

A few lines just jumped out at me from the novel I’m reading, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje: “What surprised Anil [who is from Sri Lanka] . . . was the quietness of the English classroom. In Colombo there was always a racket. Birds, lorries, fighting dogs, a kindergarten’s lessons of rote, street salesmen—all their sounds entered through the open windows. There was no chance of an ivory tower existing in the tropics.” 

It was so accurate a description of the conditions at the school where we’ve been teaching that it made me laugh—though Ondaatje left out the construction noises, the constant banging of mallet on chisel, the unidentifiable random crashes of demolition that seem to accompany us everywhere in Chachapoyas, at home and school alike.

I used to think it was an immutable biological fact that constant loud noise wears on the nerves and exhausts the person exposed to it. I thought that quiet was an obvious prerequisite for reading and writing and learning. But being here has challenged that belief.

A week or so ago, I had my Spanish lesson in an empty classroom at the school and struggled to concentrate as Miguel outlined three ways of expressing future action. The children in Priscilla’s English class were shouting enthusiastically in unison in a classroom nearby: “Good morning!” “How are you!” “Thank you!” Next door, a construction project was underway—either that or someone was passing the time by hitting an iron pipe with a hammer at thuddingly regular intervals.

“Could we have our lesson at the café tomorrow?” I asked Miguel.
“Yes,” he said. “I can see you are not comfortable.” Then he paused and said gently, “But perhaps we can try one more time to tolerate this?”

I could tell that all the noise wasn’t really bothering him at all, and I wondered if my desire for calm and quiet to study in seemed a bit demanding and fussy. More than likely, I realized, his schooldays had taken place in conditions very much like these and he had simply learned to block out all the racket.

It’s an enviable skill. Despite the frequent claim that life in Chachapoyas is muy tranquilo, it’s actually pretty noisy around here most of the time. The church bells start ringing at 6:30 on Sunday mornings—6:30! Early each weekday morning, a garbage truck works its way through the streets, clanging its own distinctly non-melodious bell to alert people to bring out their trash. But no-one is sleeping anyway because by then the roosters have been going at it for hours, the dogs have loudly reasserted control over their little dominions, and the concrete streets ring with footfalls, the occasional clop of horses’ hooves or the roar of a motorcycle starting up.

Few residents of this town own cars and so there are always people in the streets, walking and talking below the windows of whatever building you’re in. The houses have interior courtyards but no lawns and so their front windows hover directly over the sidewalk. And through the ironwork grills of the open windows comes a constant stream of conversation, the beeping of colectivos as they approach intersections that don’t have stop signs, and of course—since no activity here is complete without a festive soundtrack—the thump and blare of amplified music.

Out on the streets, kids yell and laugh and chase each other with the water balloons they use to celebrate Carnival time. Over near the market, men with clipboards who work for competing taxi companies solicit passengers for a nearby town by shouting “Pedro! Pedro!” at anyone who walks by. On Chincha Alta the other day, a couple gutted a two-story adobe house with their bare hands, throwing each rounded beam with a thud into the street, where someone else would pick it up, shoulder it, and trundle it off around the corner.

And then there is the sound that I’ll always associate with this room, this house, this street, this town: The Shriek. Rie and I both heard it our first night in the house we’re living in—it shattered the wee hours with an eerie and penetrating quaver.

“What was that?” we asked each other the next morning. We couldn’t even tell for sure if it was a human sound. Maybe it was a feral cat? Or some enormous and deeply unhappy bird?

Whatever it was, it woke us every night between midnight and 2:00. For a while I would jump up when I heard it, open the window and look out, thinking that if I could identify it I would learn not to hear it anymore. But I could never see where the sound was coming from, just hear it reverberate up the empty street. 

I had almost decided it was a pishtaco, a malevolent Andean creature of legend I’d read about, when one night I noticed it was interacting with what was undeniably a human sound.

“Oooh-weet WOO!” somebody was whistling.

“Oooh we-heet wa-WOO!” came the reply, making up in volume for what it lacked in precision.

It was a parrot and somebody was teaching it to wolf whistle, though I’m not sure why the lesson had to take place at that particular hour.

In any case, its late night practicing of this and other sounds no longer jars me awake like it did at first. I guess that after all a body can get used to the clamor around it. When somebody says that Chachapoyas is such a wonderfully quiet town, I just nod and agree.

“Sí, eso es. Muy tranquilo.”


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pictures of the Week

The internet café closed unexpectedly for renovations. The school lost online access while it hashed out a dispute over the bill. Rain fell. The power went out. In other words, life in Chachapoyas went on pretty much as usual. We had a great time but we had no way of sharing it. But today Café Fusiones threw open its doors again and at least we could catch up Picture of the Day, our trip-diary-in-photos. More soon!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Field Trip to Huancas

Everything went wrong on our outing to Huancas, but by the time I got back to my room Saturday night, I couldn’t help but grin. Against all odds, the day had turned out to be one of the best of the trip so far.

Things started off OK. Miguel, my Spanish teacher, had suggested that Rie and I join him for a trip to Huancas, a tiny town near Chachapoyas that’s famous for its clay pots and beautiful views. We met at the school at 4:00 and walked to the taxi stand, a muddy lot where colectivos sat waiting. A driver called “Huancas?” out his window and we piled into the back seat. Shortly a fourth passenger arrived, a short, bent, wrinkled woman who sat up front and began chattering in a way I couldn’t decipher.

With the car full, we were off, jouncing over the most rutted, uneven track we’ve been on so far, and that’s saying something. We climbed up out of town, rattled past the tiny airport, and bounced along for 10 kilometers or so, looking out over the green hills. (I’ve learned they’re considered hills here, not mountains, however high they seem to me.) The chattering woman got out at a small gate among the agaves, and then the driver took us into town and let us out at the plaza.

It was like stepping into another century. There were no cars and few people, just timeless-looking adobe and wood structures lining the square. Mud streets ran around the plaza and outward in several directions, a few tile-roofed structures on each one. Then the roads ran off into the hills where widely-spaced houses sat on small plots of corn and cane. Mist wafted through the hollows and the clouds hung low.

It started to rain, and Miguel took us down a side street to the pot-making center, which turned out to be empty and locked. We looked through the slatted wooden gate, but there wasn’t much to be seen besides some big flowerpots at the far end. So we stood under the overhanging roof, our backs to the wooden gate, and watched the rain.

Up the street a few buildings away, a Seventh Day Adventist service was underway and we could hear singing out the open door. Otherwise, there were few signs of life, just chickens and a turkey pecking their way along the street, the occasional stooped woman going by in a knee-length skirt and sturdy shoes, a blanket-wrapped bundle on her back. From time to time, an older woman came down the street, lifted a crossrail or two out of the fence opposite, climbed through and tended a wood fire over which was an iron pot of boiling water sending up steam into the wet air. Miguel said she was probably cooking moté, fat kernels of corn, and later it turned out he was right.

I could tell he felt bad about the rain and the locked gate, but he kept his good nature and made an effort to salvage some semblance of a Spanish lesson. “What is the woman doing?” he asked me, grinning as he added “Presente continuado,” the tense we’ve been working on.

I gave it a try: “Ella está cucinando.” That’s about where my Spanish stands at this point.

We reviewed my colors and ran through what’s become our routine in my daily lessons with him—when I got up that day, what I’ve done, what I’ve eaten. He described how to make a local dish called arroz con pato—rice and potatoes cooked with onions, culantro and cumin—and then made a pitch for the healthfulness and deliciousness of el cuy. I asked him where the best cuy was to be found.

"In my mother's kitchen," he replied. She prepares it, he said, in a clay pot like those made at Huancas, boiling it with onions and potatoes and other things.

“Meanwhile,” he said, humor in his eyes, “the other guinea pigs run around the kitchen floor. When the stew is finished and you eat it, they maybe come over and you feed them a little bit and they sniff it to see if it’s somebody they recognize.” He laughed and we did too.

We talked about our childhoods, he quizzed us on the capitals of the South American countries, and he asked about our lives back in the States. How much does it cost to rent a room in Chapel Hill? How much does it cost to stay in a hotel?

At one point he indicated a donkey and asked me,“Como se llama?”

“Burro,” I said.

“Burro,” he repeated slowly, as I hadn’t gotten my double-r quite right. And then again, “Como se llama?”

But my brain was getting tired from the hard work of communicating in Spanish. “Mike,” I said.

He laughed.

The rain went on and on. When it finally let up enough so that we could walk up the road a bit, admiring the ancient-looking adobe houses, it suddenly struck me that I had to teach my English class at 7:00. It was 6:15. We had to go, immediately.

We hurried back to the plaza where the colectivo driver had told Miguel we could get a car back to Chachapoyas. The place was utterly deserted—no cars, no people. Shortly the rain started up again and we took shelter in a small adobe structure. Miguel tried to call Fidel to tell him I wasn’t going to make it back on time for my class, but there was no signal. He tried again and again—nothing.

No colectivos showed up. The light began to go out of the day, the streetlights came on around the plaza, and the quiet town grew even more silent and deserted as night fell. Rie and I started to joke that maybe we should just stay there, that we’d probably get a better night’s sleep in Huancas than we did on our noisy street in Chachapoyas, but the prospect became more disconcerting as more time went by. Was there even anywhere there to stay? There was clearly no hotel on the plaza. Would we have to knock on doors and ask for lodging? Miguel was scarcely more familiar with the place than we were—he’d only been there once before.

We talked and talked to distract ourselves. At one point, Miguel made a comment about how many bowel sounds there were in English, which of course cracked us up.

“We’re even now,” I told him, grinning, and I explained to Rie that in one of my first lessons I’d mispronounced the word años.  

“She told me she had 42 anuses,” Miguel said and we all laughed. (Actually, I’d told him my real age—I guess he knocked off a few years out of courtesy.)

Finally he reached Fidel on the phone, easing my conscience about my class. Then he disappeared, leaving Rie and me to wonder whether this was all an elaborate initiation process on the part of the school—you take new teachers out to Huancas and abandon them. But when he came back he had a packet of crackers for each of us and a bit of information—there were no colectivos in the plaza after 6 p.m. If you wanted one, you had to call and have one come out from Chachapoyas. So he called Fidel again and then reported that Fidel was sending a car.

To pass the time as we waited, I asked Miguel to teach us a song. He was singing short snippets of a wistful and romantic waltz—something about your red lips and your eyes which I will never forget, something else about three things and no more—when a colectivo suddenly appeared on the other side of the square and went around a corner onto a side street.

Was that our car? Didn’t the driver see us? Where had he gone and was he coming back? We were tired and hungry by then and eager to get home. Miguel walked up to the corner of the street down which the taxi had disappeared, but three or four dogs surrounded him, growling and jumping.

The car finally came back, a couple of passengers in the back seat. But by then Miguel had reached Fidel again and learned this wasn’t our car. Or something. I was getting confused about what was going on. In any case, Miguel told the colectivo driver to go on without us. We stood there some more, all of us beginning to shiver.  

More time went by. Once a light shone down the road and we heard the sound of an approaching engine, but it was just a motorcycle. Then another colectivo drove up—a small and very welcome miracle. “Chacha?” the driver asked out his window. Rie and I were ready to jump in but Miguel was hesitating, trying again to reach Fidel. He couldn’t get a signal, and Rie and I opened one of the car doors, seeing as we did that on the shotgun seat, which was fully reclined, was a year-old baby, sound asleep. Then suddenly Miguel was in the front seat and we were off.

Where was the baby? I looked across the back seat past Rie—nothing. Was Miguel holding her? No. The driver hadn’t put her in the back of the station wagon, had he? We were hurtling down the dark hillside, bouncing over the ruts and rocks, and I prayed the baby was secure.

By then it was full night. Every once in a while, a face would appear in the headlights--people walking along the dark road, a couple of kids on horseback, cows coming at us randomly, the odd motorcycle roaring past. At one point, a colt came toward us diagonally across the road and I gasped as we sideswiped it, or seemed to. I felt no impact and heard no sounds of pain, so perhaps we didn’t, but the close shave scared me. At least I’d finally located the baby. Her little feet were hanging over the stick shift—her father had put her across his lap and she was riding that way, still sound asleep, while he shifted gears and ate something or other and carried on a conversation in Spanish with Miguel.

Meanwhile, Miguel was still trying over and over to reach Fidel, who he said was now on his way to Huancas to get us. We passed a colectivo on the road, but it had two passengers in the back and it didn’t stop when our driver honked, so we figured it wasn’t him. And that was the only car we saw. Everything else we passed was a motorcycle, a person or a beast. Soon we were headed down the last hillside towards the city lights of Chachapoyas.

Miguel turned to us. “Should we go to the school?”
“Let’s go eat,” I said. “Let’s go to the plaza.”

His face was troubled and apologetic. “Fidel says the car he’s in will cost 25 soles and that we have to pay for it.”

“Then I guess we should go to the school.” It was the last place I wanted to be just then, but what could we do?

“La escuela Ingles?” the driver asked Miguel, and then we were there. The school door was open and the lights were on. Fidel’s mother was at the secretary’s desk and another of the local teachers came out the door grinning.

“Where have you been?” he asked, laughing at our bedraggled state.

“Huancas,” we said.

“In this weather?”

“It looked fine when we set out,” Miguel said, looking to us for confirmation. We nodded.

The teacher was still laughing. “Why on earth did you go?”

“It was a field trip,” said Miguel, looking at me. We had compared the Spanish and English phrases earlier. “It was Kathleen’s Spanish lesson.”

“Was it at least a good lesson?” the teacher asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “It was.”

Another colectivo pulled up. Fidel got out and with him, unexpectedly, Priscilla, a young, pretty Peruvian teacher. Fidel radiated irritation as he paid the driver and when he came in spoke sternly to Miguel in Spanish. I apologized to him and Priscilla for their trouble and paid him back immediately for the cab fare, but still he was annoyed and mimed strangling Miguel.

“What could we do?” I put in. “We’d already let one car go. There was a colectivo, Miguel couldn’t reach you, and we just got in.”

I was tired and hungry and just wanted to get out of there, but first I asked Fidel about my class. Had any of my students showed up?

“Two of them,” he said. “They went up. I think they’re still there.”

I thought at first he was teasing me but then realized he was serious.

“I was distracted trying to get a car to go get you,” he said, shrugging.

They were still there? Nobody had told them what happened and sent them home? Shit! I went up the stairs to my classroom, saying goodbye to any credibility I may have gained with my students that week. But there was another class in there, no sign of my kids. I went back down, shaking my head at Rie and Miguel. There was nothing to do but wait till Monday and explain to my students then.

The three of us sidled out of the school, Miguel hanging to one side as if about to say good night and go back to his house. He still looked abashed, though we’d told him several times he had nothing to feel bad about.

“Come eat with us,” I said.

“Really?” he said.

“Yes, really. Please come.”

And he did. We walked down to the plaza and ordered a big meal and a jug of Pisco sours. A few bites, a few sips, and the disastrous day shifted into a shared joke, something we could laugh about together. We talked and talked, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, covering Peruvian and American historical figures—we toasted Martin Luther King, whose birthday it was—and where exactly each of us stood with regard to the Catholic religion we were all raised in.

When Miguel first asked about this, Rie said gently that in the United States people didn’t usually talk about religion, that asking about it was almost taboo.

“I like to talk about it,” he said simply. And so we did.

After supper, he walked us to a corner near our house, gave Rie the cheek-to-cheek air kiss we’ve become accustomed to, and then turned to me. I did the air kiss and then just hugged him, wanting him to know there were really and truly no hard feelings and that we’d meant it when we’d said earlier that, in a weird kind of way, it had been a good day.

For me anyway it came down to this: When we set out for Huancas, we were teacher and student. By the time we got back, we had become friends. (KK)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Warriors of the Clouds—Kuélap Fortress in Pictures

The road to Kuélap is not for the faint of heart. For three hours on Sunday, we rode up a narrow dirt road that clung to a series of mountainsides, wondering at times whether the ruined fortress we were going to see would be worth the moments of sheer terror on the trip. 

It was.

The Chachapoyas, who called themselves the Warriors of the Clouds, were a federation of tribes who apparently fought among themselves most of the time but banded together in the face of common enemies. They built their fortress on a 3000-meter mountaintop over about a thousand years starting in A.D. 500, carrying the stones from a quarry a week's walk away. Kuélap fell first to the Incas and then to the Spanish, but the ruins that remain are the most spectacular either of us have ever seen. 

There were eight of us in our tour group, and--probably thanks to that road--we had the place almost to ourselves.

Rie was fascinated by the lichens and bromeliads . . .

. . . but I got to see the llama.

Augusto, our guide, showed us the tree he said saved Peru--its bark contains quinine, which cures malaria.

The Chachapoyas' circular stone houses had several holes in their floors--some for food storage, some for the remains of their ancestors.

Kuélap is still a working archeological site, and the locals have high hopes it will someday rival Machu Picchu as a tourist magnet. We haven't been to M.P. yet, but it's got a tough act to follow.

(KK. Pictures by MK and KK)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Office of Provisional Normalization

On Monday morning, a jovial, well-rested Peruvian border agent brought his children to work with him, read them our names, showed them our passports, gave us our entry stamps and wished us a good journey. From that point, the day was a blur of towns and transport, too many people crammed into a series of white station wagons, the windows open, the roads dusty, the mountains, rivers, high desert plains and planted fields rushing by.

We went through hilly, twisted-street towns, past adobe huts painted with political slogans, along wide, business-lined boulevards crammed with cars, trucks and moto-rickshaws. In some rural stretches there were so many rickshaws, palm trees and rice fields that I wondered if this was in fact Peru and not Southeast Asia somewhere.

Then we found ourselves stranded in a hot, metal-roofed adobe shed in Bagua Grande, waiting for a colectivo that was promised but nowhere to be found. The young woman on duty in the shed put her feet up against the door frame and watched her telenovela. The five of us—the same five who had waited for the hostel to open in La Balsa—avoided saying out loud that we seemed to be in for a re-run.

But a driver did eventually come. By 9:00 that evening, after a long, slow ride up into the mountains, we arrived at last in Chachapoyas. In two long days, we’d covered 189 miles as the crow flies.

Our first morning here, still exhausted and disoriented, I saw a sign that said something like The Office of Provisional Normalization. “I should probably stop by,” I thought. “Some provisional normalization sounds like just what I need.”

Except for the gleaming white cathedral, the buildings that lined the plaza all looked identical to me at that point—two-story, white colonial buildings with wooden doors, red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies under the second story windows. The streets too seemed impossible to tell apart—there were no street signs, not even placards at the street corners. (Later we learned to look for the address plates over individual doors, which also give the name of the family that lives there.) Everything was dusty, and the sun was hot and so bright I kept reaching for my sunglasses before realizing I already had them on.

Everything we needed to do involved learning new words and navigating new systems, and that morning it all felt overwhelming. We worried that if we plugged in the computer, the 220-volt current would fry it. Finding a laundry service and dropping off our dirty clothes seemed an almost insurmountable task. Every word of Spanish abandoned me, and I felt like we were staggering around, confused, bumbling and blatantly out of place in our gringa-ness.

It didn’t help that when we met the director of the school the night before, he didn’t seem quite sure who we were. He appeared surprised to learn we hoped to arrange home stays, and he kept alluding to some difficulties the school had been experiencing. It would open, he told us, five days later than scheduled.

The delay has turned out to be a good thing, though. Now, five days after our arrival, we are well settled into big, thick-walled, wood-floored rooms that open onto a courtyard full of flowers and small trees. We look out over tile roofs to the mountains to the west and south, and at night the sky is full of stars and the courtyard full of fireflies. Our landlady, Andrea, has a warm smile, honest eyes and a lot of patience. When we were moving in, she indicated she’d like me to come downstairs and sign a piece of paper summarizing our agreement. I understood what she said, but could not get a reply together for the life of me. She just laughed and gave me a big hug, as if to say, “Oh, you poor thing! You’re in way over your head, aren’t you?”


We’re getting there though. Staying in one place and catching up on sleep has helped enormously. The streets have started to take on individual identities, and we’re quickly building our web of local landmarks—the school, the market, the vegetarian restaurant, the café with the decent internet connection, the shop with the really good lemon pie.

And our fellow teachers have taken us in hand. One of the first nights, Gregory, the academic director, sent word he wanted to meet us. He was a bit in his cups when we arrived, but kindly and welcoming. He explained the splatters of blood on his shirt with an involved story about a chicken that got caught in a closing door and subsequently needed comforting.

“Where is that chicken?” he asked Fidel, the director of the school and the owner of the pub we were in.

“In the toilet,” said Fidel. I had to hope he meant the bathroom, and in fact, a little later on, Rie discovered there was a live chicken perched on a red bucket in there. Before long, Fidel brought it out to the bar and they all gave it a cuddle.




Then he made us Pisco sours, and Gregory and Tom, another teacher, insisted we carry them to the roof of their lodgings a few doors down. It was a great place, with a view over the rooftops to the cathedral on the square. In the other direction, you could see the lights of the houses climbing up the hill to the west. Gregory pointed out the South African flag he flew from one corner of the roof, the internet router that hung from a telephone pole inside a plastic bucket to protect it from the rain, the few stalks of corn he has sprouted in a pile of clay apparently intended for repairing the house.

A few days later, they took us off on a strenuous but wonderful hike, delivering bits of teacher-to-teacher advice and local knowledge along the way. (“Only eat the cebiche in the market on Wednesdays—that’s when the fresh fish comes in.”) Next up is the trek to Huancas, which Gregory keeps recommending, though in his South African accent it comes out more like “Wankers.”



We met more of the teachers at a staff meeting last night, including the two kind souls who will teach us Spanish, and this morning we went by the school to pick up our books. The secretary’s desk and the bookcases that normally lined the walls were all pushed into the middle of the room and the computer screen had a cloth draped over it to protect it from the dust. A radio was playing and a painter was rolling blue paint on the walls. In the midst of all this, the secretary was registering two little girls for school, that is, until Fidel sent her out for glue to repair the teacher’s manuals he wanted to give Rie and me. The CD for my audio-based class is missing, but I’ve been assured it will be in hand by Monday.

A little later, in the copy shop/laundry service where I went to pick up our clothes, I found, next to piles of pantyhose and unidentifiable pieces of hardware, something I’ve been looking for for days:  a notebook! With that and a pen in hand, I’m as ready as I can possibly be to start classes on Monday.

Every day has some kind of mistake in it—Rie asked our landlady’s granddaughter where her birthday was, and I apologetically told a woman we met that unfortunately she didn’t speak Spanish very well. And every day there’s some kind of technological breakdown, whether it’s the electric shower head sending out sparks or the power going out entirely. But bit by bit we are becoming provisionally normalized, even coming close to feeling at home.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Hiking the Izhcayluma Loop

Now that we've had time to catch our breath a bit, Rie has written some reflections on one of the wonderful hikes we took in Vilcabamba last week.

Setting out into a light rain one morning in Vilcabamba, Kath and I were well prepared for our hike. We had a map and directions from the hosteleria, plenty of water and lunch. Off to a good start, we followed a well-defined trail along a creek. All too soon however, things got fuzzy. We couldn't find any blazes, and then we couldn't even find the trail. Were we on a trail, a cowpath, or neither? With no way to be sure, we traipsed back and forth across the creek several times, climbed up and down the bank, all to no avail. Finally we headed up a steep hill into a llama/cow pasture hoping for a view of the road or path. No luck. So, on we trekked, through pastures, over fences, through fences, up and down. We fondly reminisced about our parents - - Mom, with whom we walked through many a cow pasture during visits to the family farm, and Dad who led the way on many adventurous hikes when we were kids. We also ran through our Spanish vocabulary. Did we have the words to say, “sorry, we are lost”, or, “can you show us the way to the road?”.


The good news is that, at last, we found the road and headed off in the right direction. Following an old dirt road, we passed small farms and homesteads, a woman milking a cow, some young children playing. We paused for lunch at a school named in honor of a local farmer who had never been to school himself.

By this time the rain had let up and the skies were clearing. On up the road we continued. The views were increasingly impressive the more we climbed, but the real treat was yet to come. Crossing a paved road, our directions read “climb a small ledge to reach the trail”. Well, to us the ledge was not so small. So, we scouted around and found an alternate way to the path, and then on up to the ridgeline.


We hiked through grassy fields with scattered agaves, small shrubs and trees. Soon we reached a wonderful old stone wall full of treasures - - agaves large and small, cactus, several species of ferns and lichen, wildflowers and a perfect lime-green begonia with a red edge and red flowers. Gorgeous!


Up and up we climbed along the ridgeline and were rewarded with a most spectacular vista. Kath and I plopped ourselves down in the middle of the trail to try and absorb the view. Words cannot possibly do it justice. We were looking out over miles and miles of steep peaks and deep valleys, all lush and green with sunlight and shadows playing over all. There was no-one else to be seen, just some swallows and butterflies and some very sure-footed cows.


After some time we reluctantly gathered ourselves and headed back down the ridgeline, past the agaves, past the old stone wall, past the grazing cows to the road and on down to the hosteleria for a well-earned dinner of vegetable soup and homemade bread.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Postcard from Limbo

Well, we made it to Peru, sort of. We were expecting the two-day overland trip from Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Chachapoyas, Peru to be our transportation boot camp—rough roads, uncertain vehicles—but the first leg went like clockwork. The windows of the bus from Vilcabamba rattled and the whole thing jounced, and the road was narrow, steep, winding and unpaved. But the surface was dry, and though we passed several recent rockslides and drove through a number of streams, nothing untoward happened.

In fact, what we’d been told would be a seven-hour trip to Zumba took just five and a half hours. And instead of waiting there for the ranchera—an open-sided truck fitted with padded wooden benches—we went in with some other travelers and hired a yellow pickup truck taxi to take us on to the Ecuador/Peru border at La Balsa, a river crossing between high green hills.

We should have known things were going too well. No sooner did we get our Ecuadorian exit stamps from the little building on one side of the river and step onto the short but grandly named International Bridge than a young man with a German accent stopped us. He was sitting in front of a glass-enclosed shrine on the Ecuadorian end of the bridge, in the shade from the corrugated metal roof, luggage all around him.

“There’s nobody on the Peruvian side,” he said, smiling ruefully. “The border agent took the key and went off somewhere. Nobody knows when he’s coming back. Maybe tomorrow.”

He and his girlfriend had been traveling in Peru. Now they wanted to enter Ecuador but couldn’t without getting their Peruvian exit stamps. And we couldn’t legally enter Peru without entry stamps. On our way to the border that day, we had been stopped at a checkpoint in Ecuador, and though we had no problems, the frown on the face of the young man in camouflage there reminded us that we don’t want to be traveling around without our papers in order.

“So you’re still in Peru and we’re in no man’s land,” I said. I looked at the short, concrete bridge, wondering if we would end up spending the night there. At least there was shade at the shrine. Or maybe we could re-enter Ecuador, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Yes there was someone at their border post, but beyond the barrier we had just crossed, there was nothing but a small group of shacks.

The three travelers we’d shared the cab with—Jacob from Utah, Natalie and Fannie from France—joined us and we filled them in. The German man’s girlfriend walked over from the Peruvian side. A good-humored, take-action sort fluent in English, German and Spanish, she was a handy person to encounter just then, and she gave us all an account of the phone calls she’d been making. She’d already done everything any of us could think of and more besides—she’d asked around to see when the border agent might be back (no one knew). She’d called embassies. She’d checked whether in such a situation you can legally continue on to the next town of any size. There was nothing for it, she reported, but to sit tight and wait for the border agent.

But eventually we realized there was nothing to stop us from simply walking around the wooden barrier on the Peruvian end of the bridge and getting something to eat at the little restaurant we could see there. It was right next to the brown wooden customs building—if the agent showed up, we figured, we would surely see him. The German pair stayed where they were, but, driven by hunger and heat, the rest of us unceremoniously entered Peru.

The restaurant was a little blue-painted cinderblock place with red tablecloths and green chairs, steamy despite being open on two sides, and the music was at high volume. I ate a plate of rice and fish, then the five of us pushed two tables together and got a game of rummy going. A burly Peruvian man came over and, speaking so grandly none of us fully understood him, shared with us his conviction that music was the universal language and knew no borders. Out of respect for our country, he said, he had asked the man who ran the restaurant to put a special CD on the sound system. Somewhat puzzlingly, given the fact that we were collectively from France and the U.S., the special CD turned out to be Rod Stewart.

We sweated and played cards and an hour went by. Another German traveler showed up, this one a young man who was also trying to get to Ecuador. Jacob went off and came back with the news that there was a hostel next door. It wouldn’t be open for another half hour, but we decided we should form a line outside the door before the ranchera from Zumba arrived and poured another couple dozen people into our little state of limbo.

So we sat on a concrete ledge in front of the tienda on the first floor of the locked-up hostel.

And we sat.

And we sat.

Two hours went by, and though the tienda owner was smiling and apologetic, the key was still nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t like there was nothing to do. We watched chickens peck at the corn the tienda owner scattered for them. We watched two little girls race their bikes up the dirt road. Rie and I took turns wandering back across the bridge to the Ecuadorian barrier or a hundred yards or so along the road on the Peruvian side, not sure quite how far you could go in a country you weren’t legally in. As if to taunt us, horses or donkeys would occasionally canter loose across the bridge. (“Where’s your exit stamp?” Jacob called cheerfully to one headed for Ecuador.) Pickup trucks, white collective taxis and moto-rickshaws brought more travelers to the Peruvian side. Most sat down outside the customs building. Others wandered. Eventually, most of the Peruvians dispersed again.

But still we sat on our ledge, the hot afternoon going on and on. Around 5:00, there was a stir: the key had arrived! “One more minute,” said the tienda owner. We saw people go in the building with sheets and towels. This looked promising. Another half hour went by. Three-quarters of an hour.

“A Peruvian minute,” said Jacob.

By 6:30 or so, we were in, trundling up four flights of stairs to small, dim, smelly rooms for which we were by then thoroughly grateful. Rie’s and mine had one small bed and a bathroom with no door, toilet seat or hot water. But it got cool as night came, and it had a stunning view of the stars over the Ecuadorian mountains. And we slept, more or less, and are now ready for whatever today might bring. A border agent would be a nice start. (KK)