Monthly Archives: May 2011

Mi casa es zoo casa

After we briefly visited a plantation, we passed dozens of houses covered in political slogans en lieu of the coming elections and finally arrived at the Madre de Dios River.  We piled all of our things on a boat, and headed downstream toward the MLC.  Tilman told us that the water had risen a good deal because of a storm and their neighbors had lost some of their equipment and structures to the river.  Indeed, we saw one of the main buildings precariously teetering on the edge of the bank, as if it was preparing itself to dive in and join the rest of the lost infrastructure.  Thankfully, the MLC was built farther away from the water, so all of our cabins were still intact- only the organization’s beach front had shrunken.

View of Madre de Dios from the lookout.

We stepped onto the bank and lugged our bags up the hill.  The MLC came into view and I was instantly reminded of a tree house in this book I read as kid- “The Best Little Monkeys in the World.”  No doors, no glass windows, leafy roofs, bamboo walls, and wooden floors on stilts to keep out the floods.

This place was all at once peaceful and alive with the sounds of the forest echoing around us.  Macaws and parrots screeched overhead and monkeys howled from a distance.  Hummingbirds were plentiful, zipping from bush to bush, flower to flower.

Photo cred: Erica Moutrie

And then there were the insects.  Oh my.  In the Amazon, it doesn’t matter how big or small a bug is- it can do some serious damage.  You see a gnat and you think “No way could this little thing bite me!”  But sure enough, it does.  And you itch.  And you swell.  And you promise you’ll wear more insect repellent.  But you never do.  What’s the point when you sweat it all off anyway?

Our cabin/pod/tree house
The view from our pod.

The pod the girls shared. Notice the mosquito/bat/jaguar net. That thing keeps everything out.
Tilman and Erica in our museum/library area.
Our living area.

Once we had settled in and put away our things we met the staff in the living area.  We were all quite shy around each other, but I was comforted by the fact that the staff interacted like a family.  There were smiles and laughter all around, and I hoped that in time we would be integrated into that tight-knit group.

For the moment though, we escaped the heat by going to the nearby waterfall for a swim.  Tilman found us a termite snack on the way, which by the way, tasted like nothing in particular to me, though if you ask Sarah, tasted “earthy.”  We arrived at the waterfall and submerged ourselves in the icy water.  There is no more satisfying feeling than the relief of a cold waterfall on a hot day.  Even now, a continent away I like to imagine myself in that waterfall, washing my soul clean.  I try not to imagine eating termites.

Termites. Yum.

Before we retreated for the day, we attempted to swim in the Madre de Dios.  Maaaybe we should have considered the fact that our neighbors’ lodge was almost washed away just a few days before.  In short, we ended up bouncing down the river on our butts.  Highlight of the day?  Absolutely.


On the Road Again

After a couple of lovely days in Cusco, all of the volunteers, Tilman, Lilia (MLC’s manager), and this random gentleman we never met before all packed into a van and headed up to the Manu Biosphere.  It was a bumpy ride; we drove over streams and rocks, took sharp turns and even passed a tiny landslide in action.   Miraculously, the random man- who turned out to be named Peter and worked for a human rights organization- managed to stay asleep for most of the ride.  Sadly, his beauty sleep was interrupted when we came upon a massive landslide blocking the road.

We all climbed out of the van and saw a group of about twenty Peruvians conversing over a large pile of mud and rubble.  Just then two men with shovels descended on the group and everyone got out of the way so that they could begin the enormous task of clearing the road.  “Right,” said Tilman, “We’re going for a walk,” as he nimbly made his way around the landslide.  I was the last of our group to pass the natural disaster, and though try as I might, I still sunk into the mud that was more like quicksand and gave all of the locals a good laugh.

Tilman and Peter approaching the infamous landslide.

That “walk” turned into a two-hour expedition.  The cloud forest was lovely- we saw orchids, birds, and a waterfall- but after some time and no van in sight, we gave a nod to our early ancestors, sat down, and began to play with rocks out of sheer boredom. Finally, we saw our van turn the corner.  Just in time considering it was beginning to get dark, and we still had a ways to walk before we would reach the lodge where we would be spending the night.

The waterfall we saw during our two-hour landslide hiatus.
Orchids everywhere!

Finally, after an entire day’s adventure of landslides and motion sickness we arrived at Cock of the Rock Lodge.  You heard me: Cock of the Rock.  Peru’s national bird of course!

Our cabin at Cock of the Rock Lodge.

Cock of the Rock is aptly named for the Cocks of the Rock that grace the site veeery early in the morning.  We were supposed to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning to see them but, well… we kind of slept through the whole thing.  We did manage to see some hummingbirds though.  Then it was off to the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) where we would be staying for the next month or so.  “Manu is half the size of Switzerland.” Tilman told us.  “Half of Switzerland?  Half of Switzerland?”  I thought.  Sheesh.  At that moment, as a directionally challenged individual, I prayed that I wouldn’t get lost in the jungle.

Took a break during the ride in the rainy, gray weather and this puppy descends on us out of no where. Heaven sent? How else would you explain how his fur stayed so clean with all that mud around?
Erica and Hanako before we drove into the Elfin forest which I initially thought was called the “elephant forest.” Yeah. Kind of the opposite.
In a cloud.

That is one Sacsayhuaman

On our last day in Cusco, we had the pleasure of going to the outdoor market.  Women with babies on their backs carried on with business as usual selling fruits I’ve never seen before, a variety of different potatoes, cheeses, textiles, jewelry, and mysterious herbs to heal and protect.  Scrappy dogs perused the aisles for tasty morsels, and children playing with sticks ran in between flower stands that filled the air with fragrant perfume.

Tilman in the market

I wish I could tell you all that we ate there, but I can’t for the life of me remember the Peruvian fruit names beyond star fruit and papaya- a.k.a. the bane of my existence.  Anyway, the fruit featured below was tasty, but I kept imagining I was eating frog eggs, which detracted from the experience just a little.

A granadilla

Soon after, we visited the office of the organization to get more information about the compilation of occupations we were going to partake in.  Yes, I am ridiculous.  We met the founder of CREES- who seems very passionate about his work- and the other members of the group as well.  Got to say, as usual, one of my favorite parts of this undertaking was the food.  We went to a restaurant for lunch after our meeting and ate ceviche- a classic Peruvian raw fish dish.  It was delicious.

Ceviche is amazing.

Back to the center of town, and Tilman informed us that we were going to take a scenic walk.  Now, I thought we were going to go on a nice little stroll through the side roads of the city, but no, we are full-out trekking up this “hill” which would definitely be considered a mountain back in North Carolina.  At first I ambled along, unaware of our destination, but after a good twenty minutes, it was obvious where we were headed.  We were going to see Jesus.

At the top of the hill was a massive, cream-colored, Rio de Janeiro-like statue of Christ watching over the city, arms open wide.  God, I needed a hug right then.  I struggled up that hill.  At some point, the incline was absolutely vertical.  I whipped out my inhaler to battle my exasperating asthma and prayed that my brain wouldn’t explode from the altitude.  To add an element of confusion to the mix, a man passed by and called Tilman a “sexy woman.”  Eh?  Only days later did someone explain to us that the man was headed to the ancient Incan site of Sacsayhuaman.  Anyway, by the time we got to the top of the hill, I understood the need for the statue- I’m pretty sure I almost died on the way up.

Approaching Jesus.

By the statue were three decorated crosses.  In the background, an old man played the guitar and sang Peruvian folk songs.  We looked down below at the landscape of the city, and what do you know, the climb was worth the reward.  Before we left, a little boy named Roberto let me take a picture of him with his baby llama, Poncho, and so I felt that even if my brain did combust, I would die happy.

The view from way up there.

Roberto and Poncho the llama
Our green meal at the end of the day.

Coming to Cusco

I slept through the flight from Lima to Cusco until turbulence jolted me awake, and I opened my eyes to the most incredible mountains looming outside my window.  Stepping off the plane and onto the runway, my mind still felt like it was high in the clouds; the altitude and fog melded into a strange dichotomy of obscurity and definition- a bright haze settling over everything.  In a blur, I retrieved my bags and merged into a cinnamon-colored crowd pleading with me in Spanish and English to please stay at their hotels.

For the first time since I had begun my journey, I was confused.  Where were the people I was supposed to meet?  After having to convince many a taxi driver that I did indeed already had a ride to my hotel, I finally spotted two white faces in the distance: a man with glasses holding a tiny sign with my name scrawled across the bottom, and a friendly looking young woman.  I made my way over to them.  The man introduced himself as Tilman.  I failed to mention that I already knew him and that he was German through the organization’s facebook page (best not creep out these people from the beginning), and instead introduced myself.  The girl, Sarah, an aspiring archaeologist from the UK, and though she seemed a bit shy at the beginning, she opened up soon after, admitting to a deep love for all things Inca.

Sarah and I quickly caught onto the practice of thrusting ourselves into the middle of traffic in order to get across the street- a habit that I am now struggling to break- and nimbly climbed into the taxi that took us to our hostel, the Hotel el Rosal.  Even after all the days we spent there, I still can’t tell you what that place is.  Tidy and bright-colored, with statues of llamas and a neon-lit Virgin Mary, there are always tourists, children, and nuns coming and going, and populating the lawn.  My best guess is that it is one part hostel, one part convent, one part orphanage, and two parts labyrinth.  Basically, it’s an awesome place to stay.  When we arrived, the other volunteers were still asleep after their nearly two-day long voyage from Singapore, so we drank some tea for the altitude sickness and went off to explore the city for a few hours.

Hotel el Rosal. Hostel, convent, or orphange?
No one knows.
Cusco landscape
As Sarah mentioned, pigeons are the same everywhere.

Cusco is a modern city with a rich history as the Incas’ capital and the center for Spanish colonization beginning in the 14th century.  In some places, the stones of the ancient Incan walls look as if they were erected yesterday, seemingly left unscathed by the Spanish conquest.  More impressive than the endurance of these massive walls are the images that they hide in plain sight.  If you look hard enough, you can see that some of the stones make up the city’s symbols: the puma, representing strength, the serpent, representing knowledge and a connection to the spirit world, and the condor representing wisdom, freedom, and balance.  This information, of course, was derived from a savvy artist who decided that Sarah’s and my walk to the nearest deli was actually a tour which had been entrusted to him.  Needless to say, I bought one of his paintings by the end of the day at much too high of a price.

As we walked down the spacious sidewalks, I realized that I had never really experienced sticking out so much as much as I did at that moment- my dark hair and eyes usually let me pass for many nationalities, but in Cusco, my light skin and cargo pants definitely gave me away.  While I certainly did not look like a local, Sarah had me beat with her fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes.  Taller than most people there, she shone like a beacon from miles away.

Sarah and I bonded over some coca tea at Jack’s café, discussing our pet cats and mutual love of dresses, still somewhat reeling from the altitude.  Please, if you ever go high above sea level, do not underestimate altitude sickness.  You walk over a speed bump and you get lightheaded.  A flight of stairs?  You’re out of commission for at least a couple of minutes.  Your body feels like a ton of bricks, and you basically just feel like poo for a good while.

Anyway, by the end of this very long day, we finally met the other volunteers, Hanako, who is of Japanese descent, and Erica, who is English- both friends living in Singapore, traveling together on their gap year.  Tilman, our ever-helpful guide took us all to a pizza place where we met Harol who also works for the organization.  Things were a bit awkward since we didn’t know each other and we were all tired, but the pizza was delicious.

So, all in all, though we didn’t know quite yet what we would be doing in the jungle, this first day gave us a taste of what Cusco is all about.  Like many other places, the city is a contradiction where new and old, wealth and poverty, acceptance and rejection exist alongside one another.  There is the brightness of the multicolored hats and dresses, plaited hair, and smiles of the locals, and the sadness of the homeless, shivering on the side of the road in the cold, Andean nights.  Tiny children play on the side of the road while their parents work to sell their wares- beautiful textiles, jewelry, and hot meals.  Tourists are at once cherished and detested depending on the person, depending on the day, depending on the season.  The weather is changeable too.  In the rainy season, one instant it’s warm and sunny, and the next it’s raining and freezing with not even a hint of what’s coming next.  And that is life in Peru.  What will happen tomorrow?  Heaven only knows.  But you know it won’t be boring.

Cusco and Hanako

Sorry, I’m on Peruvian time.

Hello, all, I’m a bit (A LOT) late on the blog front, but I couldn’t access Word Press from where I was stationed in Peru, SO… better late than never?  I kept track of all the happenings in my journal, so I could remember them for the years to come and relay some of them back to you.  I’m generally not the type of person to miss the locations I’ve visited- I remember them fondly and appreciate them for what they are, and carry on- but I can honestly say that I am missing Peru and that even in the short time I was there, I fell in love with the place and the people in it.  I don’t know where life is going to take me, but I hope there will be a pit stop in Peru somewhere along the way.

The following posts will be bits and pieces edited from my journal.