30 October 2008

Copa Grande

Ask and ye shall receive, when it rains it pours, pick your poison....after tracking down folks I unintentionally stood up my first week here, I managed to schedule a full week of site visits. It was a brutal schedule, up at 5am everyday enduring hours of bumpy truck rides on steep, scary roads up through high altitude peaks, but I saw quite a bit of the valley and all the sites on my short list. Of course, I ended up choosing to stay in one of the first villages I met: Copa Grande. For those in the know, it is a short walk from Vicos, a well-known village due to a 30-year Cornell anthropology project. It is known mostly for its in-fighting and general discord. Fortunately, Copa is nearly its opposite.

The impending move is very exciting, and not a little bit scary. I have not yet laid eyes on my specific living situation, but I know that there will be no electricity or running water though there is cell phone reception. Crazy world.

In the last few weeks I've managed to add some new friends to my local family just in time to celebrate one of my favorite holidays: Halloween. It is still a new holiday here, so the costumes are quite basic (if you can even find something for an adult) and they don't quite get the play on social commentary angle that is so prevalent in Athens. One friend wants to go as a potato! I thought briefly about going as a typical Peruvian party girl but figured that nobody wouldn't think I was dressed up at all! Not to mention it would attract some attention that thus far I've been able to avoid for the most part. What officially shut down the plan though was that I tried on the obligatory tight pants yesterday and while N. was surprised to find that I had a body and kept telling me how good my badonkadonk looked, I absolutely could not stop laughing at myself. So now I'm thinking about going as a construction worker....

I met some of the new additions when marching with Copa Grande in a small health demonstration (informative in nature) and fortunately they live nearby for the next handful of months while they carry out their year of rural medical service. There is talk of a group house in a nearby town where I could crash on occasion....bless them! Meanwhile they are regaling me with tales of their adventures in the valley and laughing with me about how many potatoes I am going to eat in the next 10 months (a LOT). I'm just holding out for choclo (corn) season because I can eat corn all day (unlike boiled potatoes with no salt, sauce, butter or anything to choke it down with)...they start harvesting in March and I already cannot wait.

I'll be sending good vibes up north on Tuesday although will be blissfully (or painfully) unaware of the outcome until I am back in range for a few hours next weekend to pick up B., one of my committee members and an academic rockstar who is coming to check out my field site and make nice with the natives. Until then, eat some macaroni and cheese for me...

19 October 2008

At least the view is beautiful!

So I have shockingly little to report since my last entry. What started out as a promising week quickly changed when I again fell victim to the Peruvian weight-loss plan and had to abandon several scheduled visits into the field. Once back on my feet I spent the whole time trying to reconnect with the folks I had to ditch earlier in the week, a seemingly impossible task. After practically forcing a poor social worker from a town over to meet me at her house on Friday night to talk about how she can help me (yeah, really ridiculous) I proceeded to get terribly lost in her neighborhood and had to call her a million times to help get me there. The damn street numbers went from 200s to 800s to 500s back to 200s then 800s again...absolutely impossible. Thankfully she is a sweetheart, and even better, was excited to have me work in her field site since she is being moved to more desk-based work. I am going there on my own this week sometime and she is taking me on Saturday to see what her work has been about: ecological bathrooms, which I think is a septic type set-up, but I'll let you know.

The Huascaran National Park Office is being surprisingly helpful. Fortunately, there is an ulterior motive...one park officer has been selected by Fulbright Peru to do master's work in the U.S. and his English is not quite up to speed. We quickly agreed that I would help him in exchange for his help with finding a research site. They are taking me to a site on the other side of the Andes this week, which is said to be beautiful and very friendly, a killer field work combination if you ask me.

After banging my head against the wall with my other contacts, I reached deep into my bag and emailed a high mountain guide that a friend from last year suggested. The guides, especially the high mountain guides, really are pieces of work egotistically so I was not super keen on going to them, but was feeling a bit backed into a corner. He turns out to be very friendly, keen on the project, speaks Quechua, and on top of it all, has done high mountain treks with Lonnie Thompson, a big time glaciologist who works in the Andes on tracking glacial loss. It is a rather perfect fit and we are going to check out some sites nearby this week. Depending on how those go, I will probably hire him to take me to some sites quite a ways north this weekend.

I really, really hope to make the decision on where to spend the next 10 months of my life this weekend and actually move my butt up there early next week. However, time lines such as these are not my friend lately so we will see how it goes...I keep telling myself that at least the view in the meantime is beautiful.

09 October 2008

Sexy Women

Okay, this is FAR overdue, but I was aprovecharing all my time with D. before we went our separate ways last night: I on a 16-hour overnight bus ride back to Lima, and her towards her last week in Peru before heading back to a new job, house and civil status. We had an absolutely fantastic two-weeks exploring Cuzco and trekking through the mountains of the Sacred Valley. I am working on getting pictures up...

We began hiking at Chayacancha (3500 meters) along the Rio Blanca looking up at the Umantay and Salkantay glaciers (about four hours outside of Cuzco). Throughout the morning we expected our guide to take a sharp turn at any moment and begin leading us straight uphill...the nervousness was tenable. After lunch, as the trail began its inevitable ascent, above us on Salkantay it began to get quite stormy so our guide suggested that we set up camp. We disagreed and decided instead to brave a few more hours of vertical hiking into the mountain to camp at the planned spot. Fortunately for us, the rain passed and we made it into the campsite just as dark settled, to sleep at 4200 meters. Salkantay pampa was a beautiful site, just below the glacier, but bitterly cold even with all our possible layers.

The next morning we were greeted with mate de coca in bed before beginning an hour of rough uphill to the Seven Snakes pass, our hightest point at 4600 meters. This was the beginning of our longest day of hiking, all downhill from the high mountain pass to puna, through cloud forest, and even to the doorstep of the selva. We spent our second night camping in a field with horses, pigs and chickens but with a lovely view and only 15 minutes from a natural hot spring. This was a day full of wonderful scenery, however our view of the glacier and other mountains was obscured by clouds (a consequence of trekking during the rainy season).

After again being greeted with mate de coca (we finally figured out it was not out of kindness, but instead to ensure we got up) we spent the next day doing more downhill, except kindly more of a rolling trail than the ski slalom angle of the previous day. Another lovely day of scenery down to La Playa at 1600 meters, which we wrongly assumed would be a river beach campground. Sadly mistaken, we were instead greeted by a camping spot at the intersection of cancerous chickens, bus exhaust and stagnant water (with the requisite mosquitoes). A literal hole, or perhaps more fishbowl, as we were gawked at non-stop. While eating lunch we casually asked about alternatives and our guide just as casually suggested that we could pack everything into a minibus and ride an hour away to the resort hot springs of Santa Teresa and camp there. We all jumped at the idea and while we were skeptical about where we were heading, were thrilled to be leaving.

Driving up to Santa Teresa did not calm our nerves as we initially landed in the construction of a hotel. Once we were inside, however, fear subsided as we set up camp next to two large natural hot spring pools. All other reservations melted away as we realized there was not only a small store with important survival items like chocolate and Doritos, but also plenty of beer. We quickly realized however, that while it looked like an oasis, one had to stay in the pools or the tent to avoid being eaten alive by the thousands of mosquitoes. Any exposed skin was immediately attacked...we left there with hundreds of bites that continue to itch like crazy today. Through the following week we were identified as having been around Machu Picchu by fellow travelers through our bite covered arms and legs. Thankfully the mosquitoes went away at night (strange twist), so we were able to enjoy our beer while lounging by the pool as soon as the sun went down. We were also the only folks to camp at the springs, so had the place to ourselves. And we were smart enough to buy a few big bottles of beer before the place cleared out...it was lovely.

We awoke early the next day with large welts on our bites and slightly less ready for the day than previous mornings (surely that does not coincide with beer availability) and prepared for what we didn't realize was the most difficult day yet. We drove back towards the trail where we hiked several of the 40,000 kilometers of Incan highways to get an alternative view of Machu Picchu from the Yactupata Mountain over the Urubamba River, from 1500 meters to 2800 and back before lunch. After climbing up, we were able to rest at the Incan ruins of the same name before the knee jolting hike back down.

That afternoon we boarded the tourist train to Aguas Calientes where we found more beer, plenty of palta and hot showers! Although there are buses that shuttle tourists from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, we decided to haul ourselves out of bed at 4am to hike the hour of steep steps up to the site where we stumbled into line with the masses of clean, fresh-faced tourists. Once in the ruins we were regaled with tales of how Machu Picchu was 'built with love', although we were hoping to get more on how exactly the love built them, or used them... The ruins were wonderful, and significantly less crowded than any of us anticipated, but the highlight for me was our final hike, the hour scramble (as in, on hands and knees) up Wayna Piccu, the well-known mountain just behind the ruins, where additional temples and terraces awaited. Already fantastic views were made better by the fact that while waiting in the line to enter (only 400 people/day) we were all questioning whether we really 'needed' this last hike or would rather just lay in the grass with the alpacas (we were exhausted). We rallied, climbed and were thrilled with the reward.

A fantastic time was had by all with the mosquitoes and the threat of camping at La Playa being the only negative aspects we could come up with that evening while lying nearly comatose in bed after our second round of hot showers.