Monday, January 18, 2010

The Universe has a Wicked Sense of Humor, but I Love it Anyway.

And so, with a great party but little fanfare, my program with Living Routes in Lamas has come to an end. It was a good program, and if you ever want to visit the high Amazon of Peru and get out of the beaten tourist track, I highly recommend the place where I stayed, the Sangapia Hotel (link needed). It was an eye opening experience, and I learned a whole heck of a lot about the indigenous groups in the area, and their struggles to keep their forests intact and preserve their way of life. They need money pretty badly – political organizing takes legwork, but what is two days away on foot is often only a few hours away on a truck – they’re trying to buy a 4x4 truck. However, I believe that Haiti needs your cash much more right now, so I’ll hold the plug for SEPKA (the indigenous rights organization that I got to know a little) for later.

The one thing I will throw out there – if any of you know a grad student or other person with environmental impact assessment abilities, this is desperately needed to try to counter the obviously false environmental impact assessments produced oil and extraction companies which state that their activity will have no impact on the forest. The reason I suggest a grad student is because these indigenous communities don’t have the money to buy a used truck, much less hire a professional environmental scientist. On the off chance that one of ya’ll does have that connection, put them in touch with me via e-mail and I’ll pass them on to the communities in need.

Now for everyone’s favorite: a story.

This is the story of my last 24 hours, because it is exactly what it should have been. We got off the plane back to Lima at 1:40 pm. Picking up my luggage was straightforward, and I got a taxi to the first of two possible bus stops. I say ‘two possible bus stops,’ but actually there were four. Transporte Wari, the bus company I’m using to get to Cuzco, has four locations in Lima, but doesn’t say on their website which busses leave from which locations. Fortunately, my first guess was a good one, and I was able to make it all the way to the ticket counter (after grumbling about expensive airport taxies). At the ticket counter, I discovered that there were simply no more seats left on any busses going to Cuzco that day, Sunday, and I was given the opportunity to buy a ticket for the next day, today. I bought myself a ticket and then sat back wondering what I was going to do with myself in Lima for 24 hours. I knew that some other folks from the Living Routes program were going to be staying in a hostel called Kokopelli in the district of Mina Flores, and that some other folks who had a late flight were planning to meet up before the flight there for drinks on the rooftop bar. I didn’t have the address of the hostel, but I went and found a taxi driver who assured me that he could take me there, and said it would cost 20.

He waited until we were halfway across town to ask me for the address. When I didn’t have it, he stopped in at another hostel and went inside. He came out five minutes later and told me that they couldn’t find the Kokopelli hostel online, therefore it didn’t exist. I chuckled – because what else are you going to do? – and told him to drop me off in the center of Mina Flores. I figured I could find the hostel myself. He didn’t want to drop me off in the center of Mina Flores, and we argued about that some. Eventually, I prevailed upon him to leave me in front of an internet café, and he pulled over on some street a few blocks from Kennedy Park, which is, I think, the functional center of Mina Flores. Then he asked for 30. I reminded him that he had said 20 earlier, so he told me that he had meant 20 dollars. This really didn’t make sense. I had paid about 20 dollars to get from the airport to the bus stop, which was at least three times as far as he had taken me. I usually don’t mind paying good money for services rendered, so if we had been at the Kokopelli, I might have given him 30 soles, but this guy had not taken me where I asked to go, and had then refused to leave me where I wanted to be dropped off. I told him I only had a 20 soles bill, and he could take it or leave it. He took it, but was unhappy about it.

Alone, in a foreign city, with my 23 kilogram home made duffel bag on my back, I did the only thing that made any sense at all – I found an internet café. Thankfully, Peruvians don’t mind giving lost gringos directions or I might never have accomplished that feat. I promptly found the Kokopelli Hostel’s website and copied down their address. Armed with an address, and the knowledge that I was within seven or eight blocks of them, I set out again, only to get lost, again. Happily, a Peruvian guy who was hanging out in Kennedy Park looking for friendly USAmericans to practice English with noticed that I was lost and, after getting directions from a policeman, walked me to the hostel. Predictably, he asked for some money when we got there, and I gave him a sole.

Because the universe has a wicked sense of humor, the hostel was booked up for the night, and they couldn’t give me a bed, but could tell me that the friends I was trying to find had dropped their stuff off and left about five minutes before I showed up. Because people are, after all, good in our nature, they let me put my stuff in their luggage storage space, which they usually let guests use to store gear while out trekking.

I went back out on the street, and back to the internet café from earlier. I changed my hostel reservation in Cuzco to reflect my change of plans. Then I started looking for food. I didn’t want to get too far away from my landmark, Kennedy Park, but I also didn’t want to eat at any of the US fast food chains which encircle the park. Eventually, after much poking my nose into side streets, I found a hole in the wall café to sell me some comfort food, which turned out to be a very tasty rough analogy of a hamburger. I ate it while chatting with a British woman who had just finished spending six months in La Paz, Bolivia, working as the barkeeper for a hostel there.

I went back to Kokopelli, where one of the wonderful employees decided that I had suffered enough for one day, and gave me a free shower. Now, this was not just any free shower. This was A) my first hot water coming out of pipes since I left the USA on Christmas day and B) the first water-coming-out-of-plumbing and hence first honest shower of any sort in two and a half weeks. (Lima is in a state of drought, the municipality was only giving water for an hour every other day. When we had a little water, we were flushing toilets with buckets, and to get clean we went to a pipe with a steady stream of, probably a paved over creek, coming out of a hillside at about head height where the local people did laundry.) When I got out of the shower this same very nice employee informed me that he had found and made a reservation for me to stay at another place a few blocks away for 30 soles (about ten dollars) for the night. I put my bag back on my back and, on my way out the door, I bumped into my friends from the Living Routes program who told me to come back and hang out with them.

When I got to the place where I had the reservation, it was much nicer than I had expected. Turns out that, in the same way that in the USA you can get a cheap upgrade if the nicer rooms don’t have guests, in Peru hotels offer cheap, unreserved rooms as overflow space for hostels. I got a big room with a private bath, my own TV (which I didn’t use) and three beds (because, why not?). This room usually goes for five times what I paid for it.

I went back to the Kokopelli hostel and had a very pleasant evening saying goodbye (again) to a bunch of new friends. On a related note, a good Pisco Sour is my new, official, favorite mixed drink. I went to my room around 11 and slept until 8.

Upon waking up I took another shower. (Two showers in as many days! Unheard of luxury!!) At about nine, I went in search of breakfast. Now, searching for a good meal in a foreign city is a particular kind of art. You have to get far enough away from the touristy parts of town to get food that isn’t designed for what they think you want (they almost always get it wrong and you’re better off eating the local food) but you need to stay close enough to the nice parts of town that you get a meal that won’t make you sick. Fortunately, I had all morning. I went and got a hot chocolate from the place I got the burger before and, on a whim, went and drank it in Kennedy Park. I was amazed that three shoeshine guys tried to get me to let them shine my sneakers. Is that even possible? I was temped to let one of them just to find out.

Once I was done with the hot chocolate I was powerfully hungry, so I set out in search. Around 10:30, crisscrossing side streets but staying between to main streets I could find my way back on, I eventually found a little sandwich shop in a business area that seemed just right. This was the place for me, even if they weren’t expecting me. I waited at the counter for a full 90 seconds before I “ahem”ed and got the shopkeeper to look away from a catalogue for music equipment and notice me. I got their only breakfast item, a big bowl of mixed fruit with yoghurt which had puffed rice and some kind of syrup on top. It was delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

After breakfast I meandered back to my hotel, wrote this post and am about to go post it. Then I will check out, probably go straight to the bus stop, and hopefully find some lunch in there somewhere. Unfortunately, I have to leave here at 1, but the bus doesn’t leave until 3, so I must go to the bus stop a little earlier than would be ideal, or haul my stuff around for two hours.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Epic Epicness.

So ... yeah, I'm not even going to come close to even writing about all of the important things that have happened while I've been here. And it's hardly been a week - wow. I feel as if I've been away for a month.

In terms of organizing this blog, I'm a little torn. Do I chronicle my travels or high highlights. If I hit highlights, what's a highlight? Do I talk more about the positives or the negatives? Do ya'll even care so long as I post something? I haven't been taking the pictures for a photoblog - I highly prefer to live experiences and borrow the pictures other people take.

So, the traveling was just traveling. I didn't get to explore Lima like I wanted to because Andrew, one of the leaders didn't want to give me the opportunity to get lost and I decided not to push it. The Living Routes ( program is happening at the Sachamama Center (website coming?) in Lamas, Peru. Near Tampoco, which is easier to find on a map. It's not an ecovillage (I'm a little bummed) and is the project of Frederique, or professor, who is an anthropologist of India who came to Peru and "went native." She's founded this center to work with the native population and has developed a strong spiritual relationship with Ayahuasca, one of the psychedelics used in Amazonian Shamanism. Unfortunately, our other professor had all her bags stolen on the way to the airport while in the states and, for lack of a passport, was unable to come.

We had the chance to meet with a group of University students our age from the local native Kechwa-Lamistas. They danced some for us, but the main show was the elders who came with them to play the music for the dance. Wow! These two men had small drums they hit with a stick which had a string on the other side to vibrate and played flutes with three holes at the end of the flute. It was amazing how well they played! They were very simple instruments, by my standards, but were also amazingly complex in their use and in the music we played. After a bit the USA students got to dance with the indigenous students and we all had a good time. Below is a picture of me engaged in a wrestling style we got taught. The idea was to knock your opponent over. Naturally, I lost, but it was a fun experience and I was amazed at how easily the guy I wrestled and I bonded after our bout. Must be something cross cultural about friendly competition forging personal bonds.

We toured the Takiwasi Center ( - in Spanish), which a French psychotherapist founded to treat drug addiction with a combination of Ayahuasca use, community living, and psychotherapy. It was an interesting tour, and they claim an impressive success rate for addicts who complete their nine month program. Additionally, it seems that they have been recognized by the Peruvian government for successfully treating addicts with traditional medicine.

While we were there we also had the opportunity to meet with the indigenous activist Santiago Manuin. (If you follow the news you might remember that he was shot at the massacre of protesting indigenous people in Bagua, Peru in June.) He gave the students a talk about the history and cosmovision of his peple, the Awajun, who live north of here. Two days later, he came to the Sachamama Center to meet, for the first time, with the leaders of the local indigenous organization, CEPKA (no website). We were fortunate enough to be allowed to be present at the meeting, and Manuin told his version of the story of the events leading up to the unfortunate events of June 5th. He gave the local leaders some advice on their struggle against the government giving, in concessions, most of their land. (On a side note, this land has been given to a biodiesel company which clear cut it and planted palm trees.)

The day between Takiwasi and the meeting at Sachamama we had a free day and most of the group decided to to to a nearby waterfall. It was amazing. What was even more amazing was that, for his own reasons, the guide ended up inviting me and another student, Claire, to to further up the river and see a second fall! It was a grueling hike up the river on rocks following a path that I could only occasionally make out even when looking back and where we'd come from. It was amazing to me how much the jungle changed once we got away from the tourist area. It was so much more lush and alive and vibrant! The second waterfall was even more beautiful than the first, and I loved the hike, partly because I was able to learn a lot about moving through this part of the jungle by watching how the guide navigated. I came back sore and tired and very happy.

My spanish is improving by leaps and bounds. I'm still very limited by my vocabulary, but my grammar and conjugations are strong. I much more often get hung up because I don't know the words that someone is using than hung up because I said some form of gibberish.

Anyhow - I need to pack for the three day trip to Urkupata. We're working on a project to try to recreate the highly fertile anthropogenic soil found in parts of the Amazon. The indigenous technique for it has been lost, but the cultivation of soil microorganisms for enrichment has been done by agriculturists in Japan, and there are some people here working on a similar project. This is very exciting because, if the local community can manage to develop this soil it could mean that they could practice permanent agriculture instead of the roving slash and burn which has been ongoing in the region for hundreds of years.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Goodbye Gift from the East Coast

For several years now I have been complaining bitterly about the lack of weather in the SF Bay Area, where I've been living. Yes, it's very pretty and balmy there all the time, and that eventually gets on my nerves. Every time there's snow at the homes of one of my friend, I make a point of being just a tad jealous. So, naturally, as my goodbye gift from the east coast, I get a major snowstorm the weekend before I'm leaving.

And, because reality has a wicked sense of humor, this snowstorm tried to trap me in Annapolis, MD, with my dad's side of the family. It was very nearly successful. I had a plane ticket to fly out on Saturday morning, but with the forecasts predicting between 7 and 14 inches of snow for Saturday, we were worried. Then we found out that my plane flight was, in a stroke of preemptive genius, canceled. My wonderfully kind aunt bought me another ticket an another, less easily frightened, airline. It was an early flight because we thought it best to try to get me out as soon as possible. We were all set to try to drive me to the airport at 6am on Saturday morning.

Now, I'm a bit of an environmentally conscious feller, but there are times when you can't help but appreciate a gas guzzling four wheel drive SUV, which is really just a truck with the bed turned into seats (because, let's be honest, sometimes you need one). Had we only had the sedan available to drive on Saturday, I never would have made it to the airport. The predawn blizzard like conditions we were driving in were alternately harrowing and thrilling. Thanks to my uncle's steady driving and the truck with the clearance and power to make it through the snow building up faster than it could be plowed, I made my flight and arrived safely in NC. And just in time too, my cousins in Baltimore, near the airport, are in under more than two feet of snow!

So now I'm not only able to see my parents before I leave but I also get my first white Christmas, with about a foot of snow at the house, in something like six or seven years. Huzzah!

and now for something completely different

well, mostly different. I'm leaving Friday. holy crap.