Friday, November 26, 2010

How the Asian Squat Saved My Life

I have been in Peru a month, with a couple more to go. I have one more week of spanish classes before they turn me loose into the wild. I'll be meeting up with a friend in Arequipa in a week and a half and we'll spend some time bumming around before another friend flies in and the three of us take Machu Picchu by storm. Things of late:

  • I have officially graduated from the Karen-to-Rosario spanish. The word "travel-o" has been dutifully replaced by "viajar" and the gesture of me spoonfeeding myself has been replaced with "comer."
  • There are two distinct ways in which Mississippians and Peruvians (at least of the Andean persuasion) are akin to each other. First is, of course, their common love of Jesus Christo and the proliferation of crosses anywhere someone might be looking. Second is their tendency to walk excessively slow. In Mississippi, our slow way of doing everything is often chalked up to the heat and humidity. It's pretty dry and mild here, but the elevation demands that people take their time. I believe the tale of the tortoise and the hare might have originated in the Andes - they tend to take it pretty seriously.
  • My homestay mother seems just about as concerned about my looks as my actual mother. When I got my fellow student to give my hair a little trim before she left (perhaps the first time in my life I have gone only 6 weeks between haircuts), my host mom exclaimed with a despondent look, "¿Porque, Margaret? ¡Tu no tienes pello!" (For those of you who don't speak spanish: Why, Margaret? You don't have any hair!)
  • For those followers of my blog while in Asia, you may remember a comment or two about the "Asian squat." It is, quite simply, a squat in which your feet are planted flat on the ground. I attempted several times in Asia, but my center of gravity was a tad off from most Southeast Asians (directly related to my weighing 150% what they do on average), and I never quite perfected it. It seems it is a stance reserved for children and those of Southeast Asian stature. However, in the last few months I have realized that I am now somewhat capable of the stance (thank you, weight loss) - it also helps if I am on a hill of some sort. And, you'll be pleased to know that this stance - the ability to squat so as to hover one's bum just above the ground - practically saved my life this week. I was volunteering at a project in a poor barrio just outside of town. They have a little mud brick school where they have classes for neighborhood kids for a few hours in the morning. The school is on a hillside and backs up against some government land where they are excavating some pre-Inca ruins. Turns out, you can cultivate this government land as long as you're not in the way of the excavation. So I spent one afternoon this week helping a poor woman in the neighborhood, Señora Modesta, prepare some of the land for planting papas (potatos). It's nearly 12,000 feet up here so each surge of energy is carefully balanced with a rest. I took to the Asian squat for my preferred resting position. As I am squatting there, Mario (the dude in charge of the school project) tells me to make sure I don't sit down in the dirt. "¿Porque?," I ask. "Las arañas", he answers, "the widows." Sure enough, at that very moment I look down and no fewer than a few centimeters below the crotch of my shorts are three, yup three, black widow spiders - one the size of a quarter. Turns out the government lets you cultivate this land for free because working in the land is basically poisonous - black widows are all over the hillsides.
  • Señora Modesta is a local woman who lives in a mud-brick house close to the school. The plan is that half of what the school cultivates they'll give to people like Señora Modesta and half they will use in the school. Modesta is a hearty sort - she takes her time with that shovel, but she knows how to use it. At one point in the afternoon we're both working when the silence is broken by a muffled cry. I felt like the narrator in Edgar Alan Poe's "The Man Who Wasn't There" who is shocked when the lumpy bag on the floor begins to talk to him. Turns out, this whole time Señora Modesta has had her baby on her back, carefully wrapped in this colorful cloth she wears around her shoulders. Here I was taking a break every couple of minutes thinking I was doing fine because I rested no more frequently than the local. And all along she's basically been carrying around a 25 pound backpack. Gringa duped again.

  • Thursday was, of course, Thanksgiving. Now, Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday (this may or may not be because it is one of the few holidays that merits time off from school but doesn't require going to church). Cusco has a fair amount of tourism so it wasn't hard to sniff out a restaurant serving a traditional turkey dinner. It just so happened to be a British pub. I am sure the owners undertake the Thanksgiving feast to make a little money. It seems rather doubtful they take pause to think that the holiday, in its original incarnation, is to celebrate a bunch of fanatics literally dying to escape the English crown. History aside, the meal was actually pretty close (biggest fault: no cranberry sauce). I made my reservation for one, since I don't have any other American friends. So the restuarant (of course) sat me at their version of the kid's table - a couch, around the corner of the bar, with all the beanbag chairs basically walling me in (usually the bean bag chairs are all around the room, but they brought in extra tables to accomodate these hefty Americans, and therefore put all the beanbag chairs around my little table). It is perhaps the only Thanksgiving dinner I have ever had (and ever hope to have) where the only words I uttered for the entire meal were, "La cuenta, por favor" (the check, please).

  • Before my turkey dinner I attempted to watch football. This has never been a big part of my family's Thanksgiving, but there are a few bars in town that advertise NFL so I struck out, with an Austrian in-tow, to spend a little time trying to be as stereotypically American as possible. At the bar where we ended up, the DirectTV package only included one football game, which we had already missed (who wants to watch the Patriots, anyway?). We ended up watching sumo wrestling, drinking Peruvian beer, and talking to the bar's pet parrot. Nothing says "Thanksgiving pre-game" like some fat Japanese dudes duking it out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Chicha Morada

Blue cheese and fennel be damned. I found my new least favorite food in the world. Bring on the fried crickets, sauce made from cow excrement, haggis, or cow heart. Just please, please never make me eat chicha morada ever again.

I know, I probably deserve it after that last blog entry when I complained all we ever eat is rice and potatos. And I probably especially deserve it since at today's lunch Ragan (the other student at my homestay) and I joked about how appetizing our green spaghetti lunch with some chickenfriedsteak-like meat on top was going to be for dinner. What I would give to have had green spaghetti round II (and no, it wasn't spinach spaghetti - the source of the green remains unknown)!

So grandma and grandpa are in town, which makes the house a bit hectic. Ragan and I were joshin' around with las niñas tonight before dinner, having a good ole time. We're called to the table and sit down, expecting the green spaghetti. Instead we are presented with chicha morrado. Don't let the picture below fool you (it's the closest I could find to what dinner looked like). Our bowls were one-half somethingkindoflikericepudding, and one-half purple gelatinous goo that could have been sculpted into and number of 3-dimensional figures. Ragan and I look at our plates, then each other, and then to Leah, host mom, who has just brought out a can of condensed milk to pour on top. When I politely attempted to decline the condensed milk she said, "Oh, but it's good. It adds another flavor!" Call me crazy but I am pretty sure sweet and sweeter are the same flavor.

The ricepudding imitation wasn't horrible on its own, but this purple gelatinous goo (made from purple corn) must've been what inspired Robitussin. Ragan and I basically weren't able to look at each other during the meal because we were laughing too hard about this "cultural experience." At one point Ragan actually excused herself from the table so she could pull it together. Little did I know this was the moment of true betrayl. While Ragan was "pulling herself together" in the other room, Leah looks at me and, with the voice only a mother has, says to me, "You must finish, Marr-garr-ette." Head down. One bite at a time. Don't taste. Just swallow.

Of course Ragan missed this command, which means she got away with not eating her entire dish. At the end of the meal, while the parents were doting on the kids, Ragan stealthfully stuck her purple gelatin in the trashcan after it refused to go down the drain. Yup, that's right - this "edible specialty" clogs drains. And just imagine how my stomach feels.

Chicha Morado

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life at 11,000 ft

Hola from Cusco, Peru! Cusco is a charming city. It reminds me a fair amount of Edinburgh, what with its cobblestone streets and 16th century architecture. Although, this city has me breaking more often for that extra wind - 11,000 feet and they aren't kidding.

I arrived last Saturday at 7 am. My last of the three buses I took was uncomfortable, but despite blowing a tire at 3 am on a one-lane road high in the Andes, we managed to arrive unscathed. My host father, Luis, picked me up at the bus station and brought me back to the apartment I'll be calling home for the next month. The mother, Leah, speaks a bit of English, which has helped tremendously in the first week. The two girls (ages 2 and 4) are terrors, but the upside is that children's television en español is basically at my vocabulary level. I take spanish classes every morning at San Blas Spanish School, right in the San Blas barrio - a cool, bohemian 'hood up on the hill. La escuela is a brisk 10 minute walk uphill every morning. In the afternoons so far I have been exploring, but I'm hoping to start volunteering at Helping Hands (an Omprakash Foundation partner) some time this week.

  • Peru may not have lots of money or any sort of organized public transportation (it's all private minivans combis that will pick you up and take you to what may or may not be your intended destination), but there are three things it has plenty of: churches, stray dogs, and old school VW Beetles. Cambodia has its Toyotas, Peru its Volkswagons.
  • Peruvians like their dogs. I will say it's a welcome sight to have dogs on the street rather than the menu (read my Vietnam posts for more on that). Plus, the dogs here are super chilled out - not mangy and barking all the time. The other thing is that pet dogs mingle seemlessly with the strays. I've seen maybe 2 people actually walk dogs on a leash. It seems much more common to just turn your dog out for the day while you're off at work. How would I know that these dogs aren't just strays? Well, unless there is a local charity providing sweaters for stray dogs, it seems these clothed pooches must belong to someone. Yes, Peruvians love dressing their dogs in sweaters

  • A word on food and drink: Through my homestay I am given 3 meals a day. Almuerza, or lunch, is the big one. Dinner is literally whatever we had for lunch, just a smaller portion. It's been mostly some sort of meat mixed with rice and potatos. I am totally jonesin' for a little Tabasco, but don't want to offend my hosts. I am looking forward to traveling so I can diversify the culinary experience. Cuy, or guinea pig, is a specialty around these parts and I fully intend on trying it out. Pisco is the favored alcoholic beverage of choice and is key to the infamous pisco sour drink. I have learned that altitude makes a fairly distinct difference in one's ability to properly digest said beverage. Glad I learned that one early on...

  • Pretending like you actually speak spanish is fun. In Lima, I jumped in a van with a sign ¨San Christobol¨ in hopes that the van would take me to the top of the hill that overlooks the city (yup, the one with the cross). I hopped in only to realize that this minivan is actually a tour, and they're only speaking in spanish. So I sat there on my stool (Asian style - plastic stool in the aisle), pretending like I understood every word that woman said. When the others laughed, I laughed (mostly at myself for laughing in the first place). When they looked left, I looked left. It's just like ¨follow the leader¨only you have no idea what you're actually following.

I am still having some trouble uploading photos. If you're on facebook you can find some of them there. Otherwise, you're just going to have to wait.

Here is a video of a gathering in Lima on All Saints Day, honoring those who died during the country's internal conflict:

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Last Chance Express

Plan: Get to Cusco overland from Lima. I have no idea how many kilometers or miles it is, but basically the Andes lie somewhere in the way so the most ¨direct¨looking route is actually something close to 30 hours. I decided to break it up into three different buses, each somewhere between 8 and 12 hours. Plenty of folks just fly from Lima, or take a more roundabout route through other popular tourist towns. However, when the guidebook said, ¨Central Highlands is the place to get off the gringo trail and see authentic Peru at it´s finest,¨I said, ¨Sure.¨ When the guidebook also said, ¨The bus journey is not for the faint of heart¨they weren´t kidding. I am currently only 2/3rds there (day-long layover in Andahuaylas), but there is already enough fodder for a blog post so here it goes. Oh, and sorry no pictures yet. I´m waiting until I get to Cusco and can find a somewhat reliable computer to plug my camera into (as opposed to these magical concrete block structures tucked away in the back of alleyways where I am currently writing you from).
  • I love the ¨Which would you rather¨game, e.g. would you rather have the super power of invisibility or flight? On last night´s bus ride I came up with a new one: Would you rather be able to just be able to extend your legs all the way, or be able to recline your seat for a 9 hour overnight bus ride? I was faced with this predicament and opted for the latter. I´m still not sure which is the better choice.
  • When the guidebook says, ¨Some of the roads to Andahuyalas from Ayacucho aren´t paved¨ they actually mean NONE of the roads are paved. The ride felt like 8 hours in one of those Sharper Image chairs on display at the mall gone horribly awry.
  • I have learned the armrest is functional in additon to comfortable. My first bus I lost the armrest race and just kept my arm to myself. The second bus, however, had no armrest. If it had, perhaps it would have kept the man next to me from basically sleeping in my lap.
  • My first bus was super lush. It had a bathroom, a movie dubbed in spanish, and even a round of Bingo to keep us entertained (I opted out of bingo for fear some one would catch on that I don´t speak spanish). They also showed a bus safety and information video, like airlines do. Of note, the bus is monitored by GPS by ¨central control¨to discourage bandits from trying to hijack the bus. Also, the bathroom is only for urinating. If you must produce something else during the 12 hour ride, please tell the driver and they´ll pull over on the side of the road for you.
  • Yes, there has been a history of bus hijacking around here. I guess something about Maoist rebels - but it was mostly in the 80s and 90s. They actually have metal detectors and what not as your getting on. Hello, airport security. Didn´t think I´d find you here.
  • The bus company´s nam for last night and tonight´s journey is Expreso Los Chankas, which I am sure translates to something. However, because the driving is so bad you want to shut your eyes the whole time, I´ve translated it to The Last Chance Express.
  • I sent a few postcards from Ayacucho, where I was for 2 days. Turns out sending 5 postcards is 50% more expensive than a 8 hour bus ride through the Andes. So, don´t get your hopes up - there won´t be nearly as many postcards sent from this place.
  • Luckily for me, the town of Andahuyalas doesn´t sem to have a ¨homeless people sleeping on park benches problem¨because the benches are perfectly long enough for a normal sized human (i.e. me) to stretch out. Since my bus dropped me off at 3:45 am this morning, I wandered into the town square, locked my baggage to the park bench, and promptly fell asleep for a few hours. I woke up to screaming school children and the bells ringing at the church. Hello, Peru.

Alright, more and photos once I get to Cusco. I spent the extra 5 soles (like $1.80) for the nicer bus tonight with a bano on board. Here´s to hoping.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The South, and then further south

I know, I know. It has been over a month since I last blogged. I may or may not have been distracted trying to get ready for the next step - Peru and Bolivia. I also have been busy with music stuff because THE ALBUM FINALLY CAME OUT. If you haven´t already, you can buy it from our website

I left you last in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where I had two very lovely hostesses. From there I drove back to Denver to chill out for a while, then I flew to Maine for Bowdoin´s homecoming, then back to Denver to retrieve Penelope and the rest of my belongings. I left Denver at some point in mid-October and drove back to Mississippi via a stopover in Kansas City, Missouri. I then went with my folks up to the cabin in North Carolina for a week of R&R before returning to the hospitality state to finish packing and head out for Peru on October 30th. I landed in Peru late on Saturday night and I´ve been kicking it in Lima the last couple of days. From here I´m heading to Ayacucho and then on to Cusco (or at least that is the plan). Below are some musings from the last month or so.
  • Kansas is the worst state to drive across. It is nothing but wheat fields and oil wells. But I did learn from a billboard that Obama is a wanna be Marxist dictator and that Pornography hurts, Jesus saves.
  • There is a town in Arkansas that is voting on whether or not to be dry, so all the churches (except the Catholic and Episcopalian ones) have signs out front saying ¨Vote Dry,¨ which I think is rather unfortunate for the guy running for Senate whose name is Boozeman.
  • The people in Peru may be short, but we´re not in Vietnam any more, Toto. You can actually cross the street here without ducking behind eldery people. And, get this - they actually stop at traffic lights!
  • Lima may be a fog-cloaked city perched on cliffs above the Pacific where you hear mostly spanish and you´re worried about earthquakes, but it´s similarities with San Francisco end about there. The main part of the city is actually flat, the rainbow flags don´t mean what you think they do, and the day after Halloween is far more important than trick-or-treating.
  • I think there is a glitch on my transcript from Bowdoin. There is no way I took (and passed) spanish 101. I don´t even know how to say ¨What´s your name?¨ My default is just to add ¨o¨ after the english word. For example, ¨May I have-o a rum & Coke-o, please-o?¨Okay, not really - but I do sound pretty ridiculous. I am signed up for a spanish class for a month in Cusco and I think it´s probably a good idea. Of course, that means I have a week to get from Lima to Cusco overland speaking-o little-o spanish-o. Wish me luck.
  • The world is small. I mean, really small. I was hanging out in the lobby of my hostel last night when I hear, ¨Munny?¨It was Rachel Rasby, who used to be my neighbor in DC. Not only are she and her brother staying at my hostel, we slept in the same room my first night and we didn´t even know it.

Alright, I´ll blog more regularly, I promise. But for now the task is to successfully and safely travel the 30 hours by bus to Cusco this week. I have a feeling this will give me some good writing material...