Days 46-51: That’s a Wrap

This last week was bittersweet. I had to break it to the kids that I was leaving, and they each had their own reactions to the news. The older kids tended to ask “Why?” to which I would respond that I’d been away from my family for a long time and I missed them. They would usually nod, knowing that they too would miss their families in my situation. The younger kids, on the other hand, gave me the cutest, saddest looks, then insisted that I was going to stay, wrapping their arms around whichever limb(s) they could most easily reach. No matter the reaction, it wasn’t easy to discuss.

Okay, so that was the bitter part. Now, on to the sweet.

On Monday, I arrived at work and Marcial told me that none of the first graders (which is all we have on Mondays) were at school that day- apparently the teachers had some kind of meeting or something. We chatted for a bit, then he pointed me in the direction of a great market, where I could get hand-made tapestries and other cool souvenirs. I ended up spending a large amount of time and money there, so I think it was successful for both the vendors and me.

I went to the hostel to quickly change after my shopping spree, then went back to school for recess. I decided that even if I wasn’t teaching that day, I didn’t want to miss the best half hour of the day- especially on my last week. When I walked into school, a younger girl (second or third grade) named Rose Esmeralda was looking at me strangely. After chatting for a bit, she finally asked me “Why are you dressed like a tourist?” I laughed and explained that this is just how we dress in the U.S., but she still wasn’t convinced. I took this as a serious compliment- she wouldn’t have been confused if she didn’t feel like I was a part of her community.

The rest of my classes this week went unusually well. I think the kids were extra good because they knew I was about to leave, and I think I was also extra relaxed for the same reason. I played some more hand games with the fifth graders, and developed a couple secret handshakes with some of them (I’m not going to explain them here since they’re a secret).

The highlight of the work week, though, were the kindergarteners. I often have trouble bonding with them, just because they’re so young and hard to understand and communicate with in general (I think that’s true of five-year-olds in most countries). When Marcial and I went to pick up the class for gym, the kids jumped on me and held on, just like usual. One girl, though, was just gently holding my hand and staring up at me. I recognized her from previous classes, but this time I bent down and asked her name. She giggled and told me it was Ursula. For the rest of class, I would catch her just looking at me and smiling, like we had a secret. It was the cutest thing in the world.

The other reason the kindergarteners were so great was because they were doing gymnastics this week, so we set up mats on the floor and they waited in line to make their way down the mat like a worm or a spider or doing somersaults. This is one of their favorite activities in gym, so it was no wonder they were so sweet and adorable.

IMG_0822

Apparently I was giving some sass to a kindergartener during warm-ups

IMG_5751

Crawling down the mat (Marical is the guy trying to guide the five-year-old in the right direction)

After finishing up with one of the kindergarten classes, their teacher invited Marcial and I into class for breakfast (it’s at 11, so it’s actually more like brunch). Every day, a different mom brings in breakfast for the class, and it just goes through a rotation. When I went into the classroom, the teacher invited me to look around at the kids’ work on the walls and at all the decorations. The kids then excitedly explained what it all was, which I didn’t understand most of but very much understood their excitement. The mom that was serving lunch that day then served me pasta in a big, ceramic bowl (the kids all ate out of plastic ones) before serving the rest of the class. Talk about hospitality- I felt like royalty. I made sure to tell the mom how much I enjoyed it, and ate every last morsel (partially because it’s polite but also because it was so darn good). I’m really glad I experienced that before leaving- food is a community experience here, bringing people together to talk and share. I was flattered to be included.

IMG_0824.jpg

Mouths full of delicious noodles

We didn’t have school on Friday this week, because Friday was Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun god (one of the biggest celebrations of the year). To celebrate at school, we had a big day of fiestas on Thursday, my last day. It felt a little like they were all partying for me, but I realized I’m actually really not a big deal when compared to the sun god. Marcial told Allen and I (Allen was here for a couple weeks, also teaching physical education) that we could dress up for the occasion, and even suggested that I wear a bit of makeup. I complied, and dressed up in my new alpaca sweater.

The morning consisted of a series of performances, similar to Father’s Day, but even bigger. At one point while we were waiting for the next act to start, I looked up and saw Ursula running in my general direction. Before I knew it, she was launching herself into my arms for a big hug. Marcial and Allen couldn’t help but smile and laugh, and I couldn’t help but feel special that she had beelined for me. She sat on my lap for a bit, before the rest of her class came running over and the teacher called them all back.

IMG_0825

Ursula, all dressed up for her performance

Along with the student performers, a team of dancers from a university in Arequipa came, along with a large band, to perform a traditional dance from their area. At the end of their dance, the pairs started breaking off and inviting people from the crowd to join. Before I knew it, one of the dancers was staring at me, clearly inviting me to join. I stared back at him for a little while, frantically trying to figure out whether it would be worse to actually dance or to turn him down. My legs took over and I hopped up, to cheers from my students (luckily there were lots of people out there so I wasn’t really the center of attention). I truly had no idea what I was doing, so I just mimicked his movements and tried not to cause any injuries. According to another volunteer at the school, I didn’t look terrible, and that’s all I could’ve hoped for.

IMG_5778.JPG

These skirts were perfect for spinning

IMG_0838

I was smiling because I truly wasn’t sure what to do with my face

After the pros from Arequipa came the kindergartners. It was Ursula’s class, and they totally killed it. It’s incredible- these five-year-olds have rhythm in their blood. Their feet are constantly moving to the beat, with the girls swaying back and forth and the boys standing tall. I maybe would’ve performed better with Mysterious Arequipa Man if I’d had these kind of genetics and this kind of training.

IMG_5802.JPG

Ursula had her game face on before the performance

IMG_5810.JPG

Some of the sixth graders doing an extremely challenging traditional dance from Cusco

After all the partying… came mass. They had set up the courtyard with an altar and everything, and everyone quieted down and took a seat for mass. It was a totally different mass than any I’ve ever been to- there were kids running around and eating snacks and teachers quietly praying nearby. Again, it was a cool community experience (but it did make me think how hard it must be for the Mormons at school).

As I was leaving, I tried to get a picture with the teachers that I worked with. Unfortunately, Marcial had to leave early and I couldn’t get a picture with him, but I managed to find the others.

IMG_5812

Allen (another UBELONGer), Andres (the other gym teacher I’ve worked with closely) and I

IMG_5836

Posing with Bryan, the high school soccer coach

IMG_2594

Allen and I with Florencio, who’s studying to be a gym teacher and had been working at Humberto Luna

As I was leaving school, one of my favorite fifth graders, named Yakelin (kinda like Jacqueline), came running up to me, digging for something in her backpack. I watched her pull it out and realized that she was planning to give it to me, so I was protesting at first, thinking it was something of hers. She quickly placed it in my hand, said goodbye and then ran away again. I told her thank you as she went, then looked down to see what was in my hand. It was all I could do not to cry- she had made me a booklet out of wrapping paper and computer paper, taped a pen on a string to it and written messages on the first few pages. Take a look:

IMG_5843

“Magui” = “Maggie”

IMG_5844

“Maggie was the best since she arrived in Cusco”

IMG_5845

“Maggie and Yakelin, always together until the end of the world”

As I walked out of school that day, I was really sad to leave. Humberto Luna was my home in Cusco- the place where I felt a part of the city; more than just a tourist. I learned that I actually do like kids, no matter how obnoxious they may be, and I really bonded with a lot of them. The faculty and students at that school made every second worth it, and I am so thankful for their unquestioning love and acceptance. I really couldn’t have asked for a better volunteer experience.

IMG_5841

Taken as I left for the last time

On Friday, most of the volunteers had work off for Inti Raymi, so a group of us went to see the celebrations together. One of the biggest parts of the festival is held at Sacsayhuaman, which are the cool ruins that I saw on my city tour my second week (so long ago!). We trekked uphill to the spot, along with about a thousand of our closest friends.

IMG_5856.JPG

It felt a little like a pilgrimage

When we got to the hill where we were supposed to see the ceremony, we realized that it was going to be nearly impossible to see. There were masses of people in front of us, many of them standing up.

IMG_5859.JPG

What a view (ha ha)

As it got closer to the start time, the people behind the standing people started to get agitated, yelling at those in front of them to sit down. It escalated, and people started throwing rocks at those standing. We were all really glad we were a safe distance from the most intense commotion- we were not interested in being hit by stones.

Luckily, the stone-throwing strategy worked, and people sat down in front. Unfortunately, we still didn’t have a very great view, straining our necks just to see the very edge of the field.

IMG_5866.JPG

The majority of the action was supposed to happen on the green platform that you can just barely see above the heads

IMG_2656.JPG

Our crew sitting in the crowd, waiting for the action to start

As we were sitting and the ceremony was just beginning, suddenly the people in front of us stood up and there was a giant push forward. We were all certain that we’d be trampled if we stayed where we were, so we stood up and went with the crowd. We ended up all being separated, but everyone at least had one buddy. Idan (from NYU, bottom left in the above pic) and I somehow ended up getting great spots with a solid view of the whole performance- a stampede with a happy ending.

IMG_5881.JPG

Our view during the height of the performance.

The whole ceremony was beautiful and entertaining, involving at least 500 performers. At the end, they sacrificed a llama, pulling its heart out of its chest (there is still debate as to which parts of that were real and which parts were acted out). I was ecstatic that I was able to experience both the excitement surrounding Inti Raymi and have a good view of the actual performance. It was crazy to think that the Incas had done the exact same thing in the exact same place, hundreds of years prior (before they were ruins).

Today, I went to a delicious breakfast place that I hadn’t tried before and spent my last few hours with the other volunteers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I’ll miss Cusco and the people at school, but I hadn’t realized how much I’ll miss these other volunteers. They helped me turn this strange city into a home-away-from-home, and we’ll always share a special bond because of that.

I’m currently sitting in the Lima airport, looking around at all the people walking by and listening to chatter in different languages, settling into this Starbucks for my 6-hour layover. It still doesn’t feel like I’m going home- I feel like I’ll wake up tomorrow in my bed at Qorichaska to the sounds of French people talking entirely too loudly for 6am. The thing that keeps me in check is remembering how excited I am to see my family in less than a day (so excited!!).

This whole experience has been incredible and difficult and unbelievable and impactful. When I wrote my first post, listing all the things I was sure of, I was exactly correct when I said I didn’t know what to expect. Coming in with no expectations allowed me to take everything at face value, creating my experience as I went. I am unbelievably thankful for this opportunity, and I can’t wait for my next adventure (after a lot more sleep).

IMG_5890.JPG

The last picture I took in Cusco: Calle Nueva Alta, the street that I called home the past two months

Spanish Word of the Day: “Despedirse,” which means “to say goodbye.” Goodbye, Cusco… Until next time!!

Advertisements

Days 44-45: Lake Titicaca

IMG_5631.JPG

The morning of day two, standing on Amantaní Island with the lake in the background

This weekend, I had none of the problems I had last weekend with finding a group of people to travel with. However, most of the volunteers that I had gotten close with had either already left or were leaving that weekend, so I went to Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) with a group of newer people that I didn’t know as well. It turned out to be a great experience, and I now have 9 new friends. Funny how that can happen in just two days (it probably has something to do with being in a foreign country together).

For this trip, we did the whole overnight-bus-thing again (my body is now kind of mad at me for all the traveling and I think I won’t fully recover until I get back home), but this time it was all organized by a travel company, so I didn’t have to do the whole thinking-thing again. Our bus was double-decker, and our group of ten pretty much had the whole bottom floor (which was kind of like first class) except for one poor man who was stuck with us. The bottom floor was just a room with 12 seats and a door at the front- it was kinda cozy but also kind of creepy, because we couldn’t see where we were going and it felt a little like the bus was just driving itself. Luckily I didn’t have to think about it too much, because I quickly fell asleep for the majority of the seven-hour trip.

We arrived at the bus station in Puno (the big Peruvian city by Lake Titicaca) at around 5 am, and we were picked up by people from the travel agency and driven into the city for breakfast. When we got to the breakfast place, we were allowed to sit for a while and change and become real people again after the bus ride and before heading out onto the lake.

IMG_5233.JPG

View of the sunrise over Titicaca from the place we had breakfast

At around 8, we headed to the docks, where I bought some overpriced water and we all piled into the boat. Our group was probably about 30 people, and the boat looked like a bus on the inside (I kept getting confused throughout the weekend and calling it our busboat).

IMG_5238.JPG

Our busboat is on the bottom left

IMG_5243.jpg

The inside of our busboat (I don’t think that woman on the right approved of my picture-taking)

Our first stop on the trip were the Uros Islands, which are literally groups of giant floating rafts made of reeds. The people of Uros originally built the rafts to flee from the Incas, and still live there today. It was unbelievable to see- there were houses sitting on top of floating reed platforms, and when I was actually standing on the island I could barely tell it wasn’t solid (save the unusually bouncy feeling of the ground beneath my feet). There, the president of the island (each island in Uros has about 5 families) showed us how they make the islands and how they build their houses and cook (very, very carefully… otherwise they burn the whole place down). We also went into the people’s houses and they dressed us in traditional clothing for some fun photo ops.

IMG_5259.JPG

The people standing on the shore welcoming us as we arrived

IMG_5278.JPG

Our tour guide, Ricardo, and the president, showing us a model of the islands and how they were created

IMG_5283

Molly (from Boston College), Edda and I all dressed up (not sure how I ended up in all pink)

IMG_5296

These are the best spinning skirts (really glad you can still see my Michigan shirt under all the pink)

After spending some time on the first island, we took a really fancy-looking boat to another island to go to a “mini-market” where they sold handmade tapestries and mobiles and other traditional items.

IMG_5354.JPG

They call this boat the “Mercedes-Benz” of Uros- the bottom is entirely made of reeds

IMG_5345

Beautiful view from floating island #2

Next, we rode for three hours to another island (this one was made of land instead of reeds), called Amantaní. There, groups of 3-5 were matched up with a host family and taken to separate homes for lunch. I later learned that our guide was from that island, and stayed with his parents that night.

IMG_5369.jpg

Our host dad, Jose, leading us to his home (it was entirely uphill)

IMG_5380.JPG

Taken on the way to our house (like I said, all uphill from the lake)

IMG_5386.JPG

The room that Quinn and I shared (I could not believe how nice it was)

IMG_5388.JPG

Quinn (who goes to Princeton) and Edda sitting with our quinoa soup (it was SO GOOD)

After a delicious lunch involving several different types of potatoes, we met with the rest of our group to hike up to the Pachatata temple (Pacha = earth, tata = father, Pachatata = Father Earth). The goal was to get there in time for sunset, and it was well worth it. The hike was about 30 minutes, and with the altitude (Lake Titicaca is at 12,510 feet) it ended up being a good workout. The tradition is to pick up 3-4 stones on your way up to the temple, and then place them in the four (or just three) corners, making a different wish at each one (the fourth stone is optional because you place that one to wish for love). After placing the stones, I didn’t really pay much attention to the temple anymore- it was cool, but the view was cooler. I felt like I had to take a picture every minute, with the view constantly changing as the sun dipped below the horizon.

IMG_5397.jpg

Posing for a selfie with some muña, aka the “Andean mint.” It had a great smell and makes delicious tea

IMG_5404.JPG

On top of the world!

IMG_5430.JPG

Arms open to the incredible views around me

IMG_5487.JPG

I swear there were lots of other people up there with me, I guess I just took a lot of solo pictures

 

This was yet another moment where reality was suspended for a while. I’ve learned on this trip that I need to seek out that feeling- it’s an incredible experience to be placed face-to-face with things that your brain cannot fully comprehend, and have to just accept that it exists without a full understanding. You feel inferior to the world, with less control and less responsibility in the greater order of things. At least, that’s how it makes me feel, and its oddly comforting.

IMG_5527.JPG

Just before everything got dark and we could see the stars

After taking in every last drop of the beautiful view, we headed back down to town. We ate another delicious meal, then got ready for the highlight of the trip: The fiesta. Our host families got us all dressed up in traditional Amantaní clothes, then we walked to a building where we joined the other tourists and host families on the island. We danced in circles, laughing and smiling and drinking Cusqueña beer (a beer produced in Cusco- I guess the locals knew that tourists need beer to really have a fiesta). This was one of my favorite nights in Peru- I loved the community feel and the way we were dancing (my calves were a little sore afterwards from being on my toes for so long).

IMG_5593

Allen (from Brooklyn), Edda, Tom (from England), me and Rafael (from Oklahoma)

Because of the elevation, it’s really cold by the lake at night, but we slept well thanks to extra clothes and blankets provided by our hosts. The next morning we got up at 6:30 for some breakfast (pancakes!), then said goodbye to our hosts and headed to our third and final destination on the lake: Taquile Island.

IMG_5615

Early morning view right outside my door

IMG_5645

Saying bye to Jose (I’m the gringa who can’t keep her eyes open without sunglasses)

After arriving on Taquile Island, we trekked up to the main plaza (I quickly realized that every island on this lake is basically a mountain emerging out of the water), where we found some cool shops and a beautiful view. We went from the square to a restaurant in another town, where we had a DELICIOUS lunch. After unlimited soup and bread, we were fed trout straight from Lake Titicaca. It was fresh and well-seasoned, and the view completed the whole experience.

IMG_5652.JPG

Up the hill to the plaza

IMG_5661

More great views from the plaza

IMG_5693

Ricardo and one of the natives of Taquile explaining how to make the traditional clothing and the meaning behind it (Since this guy’s hat was flopped to the right side, he’s single and looking for love)

IMG_5699

Trout with a side of rice and a really great view

IMG_5732.JPG

Looking out over the lake on the way back down to the busboat

After leaving Taquile Island, we headed back to Puno, which was a three hour boat ride. By that point we were all in need of some serious naps. Exhibit A:

IMG_5708

Quinn, Akua (also goes to Princeton, but from Detroit) and Molly sleeping on top of the boat

We got back to Puno and explored a bit, got some dinner and then headed to the bus to go back to Cusco. It was really hard to believe that we had just been there two nights before; we had seen so much in such a short period of time. When we arrived in Cusco at 4:30 am, I managed to haggle the price of a couple taxis down to something reasonable (they always try to take advantage of tired Americans getting off busses in new towns) and we finally made it back to the hostel. The most incredible part of it all was that I got to sleep for two whole hours in a real bed before having to get up for work at 7. Success!

This trip was nice to have after the more intense trip to Arequipa. For the most part, I could sit back and just appreciate everything around me, which is the kind of weekend I was looking for. The strange part was knowing that it was my last weekend trip. This week at school is my last week, and I head home Saturday evening. I’ve seen all the things I’m going to see; I’ve gone all the places I’m going to go (this time). I have to say, I cannot believe the places I’ve gone and the experiences I’ve had the past several weekends. While I’m sad that this was my last trip, I feel so content with the experiences I have had and I’m ready for some mac n cheese and consistently hot showers.

Spanish Word of the Day: “quemadura,” meaning burn (and also sunburn). Because of the high elevation of Titicaca and the chilly temperature over the lake in the mornings and evenings, it’s very common for tourists to get sunburned without realizing it. Luckily I lathered on the sunscreen and came out unscathed!

Days 40-43: Selfies

If last week at school was good, this week was even better. I’m falling in love with these kids just in time for me to leave.

At recess one day last week, I was sitting in my usual spot when a fourth grader named Precialinda (in Spanish, her name means “precious beautiful”) came running up to say hi and give me a hug. We talked for a little while, and then she happily announced that today was her birthday! I told her happy birthday and asked how old she was, and she proudly told me that she’s now nine. We sat and chatted for a while, and some of her friends sat down with us. They held up some dolls and asked me if I wanted to join, and I cautiously said yes. I was never great at playing with dolls as a kid (I had a different kind of imagination than your average kid), plus I really didn’t know how to do it in Spanish. Luckily, they did what I used to do- they just told me what to say and do. After a while, they noticed my phone and asked me if they could take pictures with me (a few started yelling “selfie!” in thick accents), so of course I said yes.

Precialinda then started braiding my hair, and of course wanted a selfie of that, too. Once the other kids nearby noticed all the selfie commotion, they came running over to join in on the action. I eventually had to put away my phone, because I was worried it was going to break and couldn’t really breathe with the crowd around me. Luckily I got some really cute ones first (I didn’t really vary my pose much).

That same day, Precialinda sent a voice message to my family group message, saying “Hi my name is Precialinda and I know your daughter, Maggie.” I told them that it was her birthday, so my mom and sister responded with a recording of them singing happy birthday to her. I didn’t receive it until after recess, so I had to wait a couple days to deliver the message. She was totally thrilled, and sent back a thank you message. Shout out to my mom and Monica for that one- it was really thoughtful and really, really made her day (she now asks me to play it for her every day).

Later in the week, I had Precialinda’s class in gym. After practicing some volleyball skills for about 45 minutes (class is an hour and 15 minutes!), most of them were bored and distracted. I started playing hand games with some of the girls, and they asked me if I knew any myself. I taught them the only one that I remember: Miss Mary Mack. I first taught them how to do it in English, and they were all lining up to play with me. I then realized the words were probably easy enough for me to translate into Spanish, so with the next girl I translated it as we were going. I was totally proud of myself- the only word I didn’t know how to say was “fence” (which I now know is “valla”). The girls giggled as I translated, probably due to a combination of my accent, the funny story of Miss Mary Mack, and the awkward direct translation. It was overall a huge success- the girls loved it and I loved being able to translate it and teach them.

By far the best day of the week was Friday. Friday is always the best day, obviously, but this Friday was even better. Sunday was Father’s Day, so they celebrated the Friday before in school. And when I say celebrated, I don’t mean that they just made cards in their classrooms and called it a day. They had a whole hour-long performance, with speeches, singing, dancing, and poetry. Everyone was involved in the celebration, whether they were performing or helping move chairs or cheering on their peers. It was not only entertaining for me to see the performances, but it was really interesting to watch the traditional dances and see them all in traditional dress. It was another example of how important family is to the culture here.

IMG_5192.JPG

Setting up for the festivities

IMG_5222.JPG

A group of fourth graders before the performance

IMG_5214.JPG

The opening number

It’s crazy that I only have one week left; it feels like I just got here- with one exception. When I  walked into the school the first couple of weeks, the kids would cautiously say “¡Hola!” and some of the most outgoing ones would run up and hug me. Now, I walk in and everyone yells my name and I’m attacked by a group of kids hugging me, and it’s all I can do to keep my balance. No matter how tired I am, these kids immediately brighten my day. Sure, some of them are obnoxious and a lot of them don’t listen to me, but the love they give me after only knowing me for six weeks is incredible. I’m definitely going to miss these kids and this school.

Spanish Word of the Day: “trenza,” which means “braid.” The girls taught me that one while Precialinda was braiding my hair.

Days 37-39: Arequipa

IMG_4473.jpg

The main plaza on our first night

This past weekend, I really wanted to go to Arequipa, which is the second largest city in Peru (behind Lima, the capital). It’s a very Spanish-influenced, colonial city, and outside the city is Colca Canyon, which is the third deepest canyon in the world. With about 40 volunteers in the hostel, you would think it’d be easy to find a group to go. For one reason or another, though, everyone already had plans (Phoebe went to the desert this weekend) or had already been. After almost giving up hope of finding a companion, Edda, who also goes to Michigan and is here for two weeks said she’d be interested in going. I was both relieved and really excited, and we bought tickets and booked a hostel that night.

The bus to Arequipa was an overnight, 10-hour trip. That’s technically not ideal as far as sleeping goes (although we were in very nice, fully reclining seats), but it’s very ideal as far as efficiency goes. We left Cusco at 8:30 pm Friday night, and arrived in Arequipa at 6:30 the next morning.

IMG_4196

The bus terminal was really crowded and kinda stressed me out

IMG_4203

Edda and I had to take this selfie to document the high-tech accommodations (the guy behind us wasn’t nearly excited enough)

Being in Arequipa that early in the morning on a Saturday was an eerie experience. It’s not nearly as flooded with tourists as Cusco, so no one was awake and everything was closed. Edda and I wandered around a bit, and got great pictures of the Plaza de Armas (every city here seems to have one) without anyone in it.

IMG_4216

The empty plaza at 7am

IMG_4247.JPG

A gorgeous church that we wandered into

The beauty of arriving so early was that we got to the Santa Catalina Monastery the second it opened. It’s a giant convent that once hosted 175 nuns and nuns-in-training within its walls; literally a city within a city. There was a family of three from Hong Kong that was also there when it opened (they explained that with jet lag it was just impossible to sleep any longer) so the five of us ended up getting an entirely private tour of the place- just us, our tour guide and a few janitors. Our guide was incredibly patient while we took pictures and explored the rooms and asked every question that popped into our heads. (If you hover your mouse over the groups of pictures, you can read captions.)

IMG_4258

The layout of the convent- literally a city within the city

Afterwards, Edda and I had some really interesting conversations about Catholicism versus Islam. She grew up in Malaysia, and knows very little about Catholicism; I grew up in the U.S., and I know very little about Islam. Throughout our time in Arequipa, people would ask about her hijab- not in a rude way, just a confused way. A man in a convenience store asked her if she was cold; another person asked if she wore it to protect from the sun. She said it doesn’t bother her, it’s just very strange for her that she hasn’t seen a single other Muslim since she’s been here.

After Santa Catalina, we walked around the city, taking pictures of the incredible architecture and admiring all the chocolate cakes in the bakeries (I got a piece every night). We ran into the family from Hong Kong again while we were sitting in a courtyard, and they highly recommended a museum where we could see the mummy Juanita. We took their advice and headed to the museum, and it was well worth it.

IMG_4454

This kind of architecture can be seen throughout the city center

I wasn’t allowed to take pictures in the museum, but the story of Juanita is unbelievable. The Incas used to sacrifice the most beautiful and healthy children to appease the gods in times of need (i.e. in after a drought or an earthquake). It was considered an immense honor to be chosen, and once these children were sacrificed they were essentially deified within their culture. Juanita made a trek all the way from Cusco to Arequipa (recall that’s a 10-hour bus ride), then up a volcano to an elevation of 21,000 feet, where she was sacrificed. The incredible thing, though, was that she was frozen within days of her death, due to the high elevation. She remained frozen for 500 years, until she was discovered by archaeologists. She still has blood, muscle and skin on her body, and from this researchers have been able to discover a lot about how the Incas performed sacrifices. At the end of the museum tour, I was able to see her body, and it was incredible- you would think she had died no more than a month ago.

That evening, Edda and I walked around a bit more before getting an early dinner (and cake) and heading to bed. We were exhausted from the day and had an early wake-up ahead of us!

IMG_4464

I had to take a picture with all the crazy pigeons in the plaza

Our alarms woke us at 2:30am the next morning (is that even morning? I never know anymore) and we left at 3 for our tour of Colca Canyon, which is the third deepest canyon in the world.

IMG_4666

View of the mountains rising up out of the canyon

One of our first stops on the bus ride was a lookout point over the Colca Valley, where you could see towns and farms cut into the sides of the mountains. It was this point in the day where things stopped feeling real, and reality didn’t set in again until I was safely back in Arequipa (the mountains seem to have that effect on me).

IMG_4524

This looks like a wood carving

After the view, we had breakfast and stopped at a town to see a church that represented a mix between the Inca and Catholic faith. In that same town, there was a man holding an eagle on his arm and looking interested in the tourists passing by. As I walked past, he moved to put the eagle on my arm. I decided it was probably safe, and went for it. Edda was snapping pictures of me the whole time, so she captured the moment when he put his hat on my head and the eagle jumped up on top. I was completely shocked, but came out in one piece.

IMG_4485.jpg

An altar decorated with saints (Catholic influence) and mirrors (Inca influence- to capture the light from Inti, the sun god)

IMG_4487

Initially, I did not get along well with the eagle

IMG_4495

Luckily, we became fast friends

IMG_5135

The look of a girl who was not expecting to have an eagle on her head that morning

Finally, we went to the place we had all come to see: Cruz del Condor (the Cross of the Condor). We stood on the edge of the cliffs and had a beautiful view of not only the canyon and the mountains behind, but also the condors flying overhead. Andean Condors are the world’s largest bird, and watching them circle overhead was an awesome experience. When they landed nearby, you could see that they were absolutely massive (wingspan ranging from 8’10” to 10’6″; weighing 15-33 pounds), and we watched in awe as they effortlessly lifted their giant bodies from the ground. We got lucky, because shortly after getting off the bus there were about 15 condors shooting the breeze, soaring out of the canyon and circling back over our heads. If they came close enough, you could hear the sound of the wind buzzing through their wings. The canyon was too deep to get a really good picture of it (if that gives you an idea of how incredible it was to see).

IMG_4775

Looking out over the gray mountains (and the canyon below)

IMG_4925

A condor soaring through the canyon

IMG_4598

A whole group about to fly over our heads and return to the canyon

After seeing the condors, we stopped for a snack: cactus fruit (here called “sancayo”) ice cream. I’ve never enjoyed ice cream with a more beautiful view.

IMG_4850

Sancayo over the Colca Valley

We then had the option to either go to some hot springs, go ziplining, or hike a bit. I chose hiking, because I’ve been to a lot of hot springs and ziplining was expensive (and also I just really, really love to hike). I climbed up a road on the side of a mountain with a couple from Ohio, and got to chat with them while enjoying the views.

IMG_4858

This river is over three times this size during the rainy season

Finally, we started to head back to the city- but not without a couple stops in some of my favorite spots. After about an hour of driving, we stopped at the highest point of the day, at 16,100 feet above sea level. We could see volcanoes in the distance, one of which is active and another of which is Ampato, where the mummy Juanita was found.

IMG_4893

Ampato is to the left of the active volcano

IMG_5158

People stack these rocks with coca leaves in between for good luck

I was running around taking pictures and taking in the view when I looked around and realized that I was the only one not back on the bus. When I got on, my tour guide said that we couldn’t stay long because it was cold and the altitude makes people feel sick. I was on such a high from being in the mountains that I hadn’t noticed- I really, really love mountains.

Our next stop was to let some alpacas cross the road. We drove through a national park, where the llamas, alpacas and vicuñas (similar species to llama and alpaca but protected due to risk of extinction- their fur is incredibly soft) are all protected and run free. We sat for about 10 minutes while herds of them passed in front of us.

IMG_4915

Why did the alpacas cross the road? (To humor the tourists)

After the alpaca event, we all fell fast asleep until we got back to Arequipa. Edda and I spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out how to get to Sogay Falls the next day, a hike to a waterfall that another group of volunteers recommended. After being told several times that we probably shouldn’t go alone and they would give us a “special price” of about $100 per person for a private guide, we were a bit discouraged. We messaged the other group to ask how they did it, and they gave us a few tips, the largest of which was to just ask people for help and we’d eventually get there. This was a little daunting (especially because Edda doesn’t speak any Spanish, so I was entirely in charge of getting us there), but we decided to just go for it.

We woke up at 7 and packed up all of our stuff, then stored it at the front desk for when we got back. We then ate some breakfast at the hostel (which was pretty good) and set off in search of a taxi. I talked to one taxi driver who told us that it would be very far and he’d have to charge us a lot of money, so I let him move on and then hailed another. The next guy gave me a better deal and a better feeling overall, so we went with him.

After about a half hour of driving, we arrived in a small town. Our taxi driver rolled down his window, and I could hear him asking someone if something was safe. He rolled the window back up and turned to me, explaining that the safest combi stop that would take us to Sogay was farther back, so he was going to turn around (A combi is like a mix between a bus and a taxi- it’s a van, and they usually have the same stops and the same route every day). I was both shocked and extremely appreciative that he had asked someone and that he was going out of his way to take us to the safest place. When we got to the combi stop, he took out his card and wrote down the name of the city we needed to go to and pointed us to the combi stop. He went on to write down his name and number, saying that we should give him a call if we needed anything. Needless to say, I gave him a hefty tip and thanked him repeatedly.

Edda and I then walked cautiously over to the combi, and asked if they were going to the town that our taxi driver had written down. The driver nodded yes, and we climbed in. I was extremely relieved to see a whole group of older Peruvian women filling the combi- that was a good sign that it was trustworthy.

IMG_4939

Our view from the backseat of the combi

Every time the combi stopped, we asked if this was the place we should get off to hike to Sogay Falls. Finally, one of the women turned around and smiled, telling us that we should get off when she does (and that if we got off here we’d be really, really tired by the time we got to the falls). That was another good sign- that someone was going the same place we were.

When we finally got to the town of Sogay, we could not believe it. We had made it! We still had a hike ahead of us, but we knew that we had done the hardest part. The nice woman explained to us that we should stay to the left and follow the trail, then hugged us and said the Spanish version of “bless your little hearts.” We set off, feeling a lot of love.

IMG_4943.jpg

The sign that showed us we were in the right place

Luckily, the trail was really easy to follow, and had signs scattered throughout to guide us. The signs were a little humorous, because we’d pass a sign that said “500 meters until the falls!” and then we’d walk another half mile and see another that told us we only had 200 meters to go. The hike ended up being about 4.5 miles total, with a lot of climbing towards the end.

IMG_4949

Beautiful views of the farms below at the beginning of the hike

Arguably the best part about the hike, though, was our “guide.” Within the first couple minutes, a dog started trotting along in front of us, checking back every now and then to make sure we were still there. At first, we joked that he was our guide, but it started to really feel that way when we would come up to a turn in the trail and see him panting in the shade, hopping up again to lead the way when he saw us. He did the whole hike with us, only venturing away from the trail to wade in the stream and cool off. I know I’m crazy, but he felt a little like a human to me.

IMG_5027.JPG

Just a couple bffs enjoying a snack along the stream

IMG_5035

We thought that this was the end of the trail (we were wrong)

After getting to the point in the last picture, we thought that was the highest we’d go. We then saw a group of Peruvians coming up behind us (this was the first time we’d seen other people the entire time), and watched them pass us, wading across a pool of water and climbing up the rocks. I asked one of them if it was safe and if the trail continued, and they said yes and gave us advice about the best way to cross the pool (Nice People #3).

IMG_4392

Another photo of me wading in freezing cold water

IMG_5129

Intense climbing pic (I ended up going around the cacti to the left)

We finally got to a point where you couldn’t climb any higher, and just sat and watched the waterfall, accompanied by its beautiful white noise. We chatted a bit with the people that helped us along, and they took a couple photos of us to document the moment.

IMG_5061

The falls at the end of the trail

IMG_5070.JPG

Edda gesturing grandly towards the falls in the background

After sitting at the top of the falls for a while, we realized we had a long trip back and would eventually be very, very hungry. We headed back down to Sogay, ending up at the same plaza where we started. We looked around, realizing that we weren’t entirely sure how we’d get back to Arequipa. I spotted a family waiting on a bench with some luggage, and I asked where they were headed. They responded that they were waiting for a taxi to Arequipa, so I cautiously responded by asking if there was room for two more. They said, “of course, there’s always room!” and that was how we met Nice People #4. We all squeezed into the tiny taxi and chatted the whole way. It was a mom and her two adult kids, and they were from Lima, visiting family in Sogay. The son is studying to be a lawyer, and the daughter is studying hospitality and spoke English really well, which was great because it made it much easier to include Edda in the conversation.

From the taxi, we took a bus, and then another taxi from that bus into the city. The family from Lima paid for the second taxi, which was incredibly generous and again, unbelievably kind. By the time we got back to Arequipa, I was hangry (we hadn’t eaten lunch) and totally exhausted from speaking so much Spanish all day, so we said goodbye to the family (very appreciatively) and hit the road in search of food. We ended up going to a crepe place that was highly recommended by other volunteers, and I ate two giant, meal-sized crepes. I was very content.

IMG_5104

I was really squished against the window during the bus ride back

We went back to the hostel to pay for some showers, then took a taxi back to the bus station. Our bus back to Cusco left a little late, and we must have hit traffic or something because we didn’t arrive until 7:30am. I tiredly haggled with a taxi driver for the price back to the hostel (they were trying to charge me 10 soles for a trip that was clearly only worth 7!), and we got back at 7:50, giving me 10 minutes to get ready to leave for work. I reminded myself all day that I was so glad I went to Arequipa and I was barely even tired, and it kind of worked. I did take a nice, long nap when I got home.

Overall, this trip really showed me that I can venture out on my own. My other trips have been largely organized by tour companies, so I haven’t had to do a lot of thinking or coordinating. Not only did I learn to trust myself, but I learned to trust others. I obviously won’t be naive and trusting of every person on the street, but I was amazed and delighted at how trustworthy and helpful (and generous) random strangers were to us on our quest to find Sogay Falls. There wasn’t a huge difference in my conversations with the two taxi drivers, but I think my instinct told me to go with the second, and instinct is a pretty powerful thing. The only way that we were able to get to the falls was by completely handing the reins over to different people along the way, and they went above and beyond every time. It was an empowering experience. I returned from this trip with pictures, stories, and an overall positive feeling about humanity.

Spanish Word of the Day: “cataratas,” meaning “waterfalls.” It’s a really important word to know when you’re asking directions to waterfalls, so I’m glad I learned it.

 

Days 32-36: Recess

The past week at school, I have really started to feel like I’m not only useful to the teachers, but also making meaningful connections with a lot of the kids. Because my Spanish is better, I can both joke around with them and sit down and have serious conversations, too. I’m starting to put names with faces and understand dynamics among friends, and I’ve found that the most important time to make these connections is at recess. It’s a half-hour break before my last class, and at first I wished I didn’t have that break and instead had things back-to-back for efficiency. Now, though, I’m realizing that it’s one of my favorite parts of the day.

During recess every day, I sit in the same spot in one of the courtyards, and a few groups of friends who are my regulars will often come join me. Ivan, Angel and Ardel (and sometimes more of their friends) will come running up and sit down next to me some days. I’ll always ask them how they’re doing, and they’ll respond that they’re doing well and ask me in return. If it’s the beginning of the week, they know that I do fun things on the weekends and they’ll ask me where I went and what I saw, oohing and ahhing the whole time. Occasionally one of them will have been there, but generally they’re living vicariously through my stories. They’re young, so it makes sense that they haven’t seen a lot of these things, but it definitely does make me realize how lucky I am that all of these places are so easily within my reach.

After the formalities, they’ll almost always start rapid-fire asking me how to say certain things in English. One of their current favorite questions is how to say different people’s names in English. I explained to them that if you go to the U.S. or another English-speaking country and introduce yourself with your Peruvian pronunciation, people will use that one (or at least try to). They don’t think that answer is very fun, so now I respond by telling them how we would pronounce it if it were written down. They roar with laughter for some of them, and will often ask me to repeat them several times. They’ll then ask about their moms’ and dads’ and siblings’ names, then ask me to repeat it so they can remember and tell them later. I giggle along with them, because their reactions are entertainment in themselves.

The three boys have also taught me a few games, including one where you spin a top and another called “Chipi” (not really sure how to spell it) where you have to throw a plastic chip (kind of like a thin poker chip) at another one and try to flip it over. They also think it’s hilarious when I play those, because they’re so common here that someone my age should definitely be a lot better at them than I am.

Another group of regulars is Angie and Michelle, who are 9 and 10 (both are in 4th grade). Angie is a little quieter than Michelle, but they’re both very mature and we have really interesting conversations. The first day I met them, they walked up and sat down next to me, so I asked the usual question, “How are you?” Michelle responded that she was “más o menos,” which means “more or less” and is the equivalent of saying “okay.” I asked her why she was just okay, and she totally opened up to me. She said that she really misses her mom, explaining that she lives and works in Chile because she can earn more money there. Michelle and her younger sister, who’s six, live at their aunt’s house because her parents are divorced. We talked for a while about all of this, me asking questions and her responding very matter-of-factly. By the end of the conversation, she was telling me about how she dreams of being a fashion designer one day (and Angie wants to be a doctor like me!).

A couple days after our first conversation, I saw them again and asked Michelle if she’d heard from her mom. She excitedly responded that she had called the day before, and launched into one of the stories that her mom had told her about Chile (I had a really hard time understanding it through her excitement). This interaction was really cool: 1. Because I knew her well enough to ask her a meaningful question and get a meaningful answer, and 2. Because she is normally so poised when she talks, and this time her eyes sparkled and she was smiling, with words spilling out of her mouth like your average 10-year-old. Even though I couldn’t understand all of the words she was saying, I could understand her excitement, and that was enough.

Beyond chatting with kids at recess and getting to know them, I feel like I’m more helpful during class. I’m finally starting to get a hang of being nice but also firm. It’s a hard enough balance in English, but even harder when I can’t quite find the words in Spanish. The kids obviously still often ignore my orders (and pleas) and class descends into chaos about 15 minutes after the teacher leaves (occasionally I’ll teach the class on my own for a while), but it’s a lot better compared to the 30 seconds it took at the beginning.

IMG_3790

Series of photos of me explaining something about volleyball to one of the second graders (I’ve actually learned a lot about volleyball since coming here- unexpected twist)

After all this, it’s a little easier to believe I’ve been here for five weeks. The part that’s harder to believe is that I leave in only two… you know what they say, “time flies when you’re in Peru!”

Spanish Word of the Day: “bacteria,” which is the exact same word and meaning in English: “bacteria.” It’s the word of the day because it relates to one of my favorite stories: During class one day, a girl marched up to me and announced “¡Esa bacteria me quitó de mi pelota!” as she pointed at a boy in her class running away with her ball. Translated, she said “That bacteria took my ball away!” I couldn’t help but start cracking up- what a beautiful use of the word “bacteria.”

Days 28-31: Manú

IMG_3996

Looking out over the Madre de Dios river on the third evening

The turnover from Salkantay to Manú was incredibly fast. One second I was hiking, the next I was back in Cusco consuming as many calories as possible in the two-day period in between, and the next second I was in the jungle. It actually ended up being really cool to have them back-to-back, because the jungle was so different from trekking: instead of covering large distances and chatting with the people next to me, we walked slowly, carefully and quietly over shorter distances, hoping to spot some wildlife.

IMG_3210.JPG

Erin, Carlos, Phoebe, Kelsey and I before leaving (Hailey also came but is not pictured for some reason)

I woke up feeling pretty sick the morning that we left, and thought to myself that maybe I shouldn’t go. I then realized that was the silliest idea I’ve ever had, so instead I just took some medicine and went for it. After the first night I felt completely better- I think I have the traveler’s diarrhea drill down by now (sorry if that’s TMI).

Throughout the bus ride the first day, our driver, Charlie, would stop if he saw any cool wildlife, which is how we ended up getting out of the bus to see our first bird. Just like Salkantay, we first descended into a cloud forest before getting to the jungle. Unlike Salkantay, we made frequent stops for our guide to tell us about certain plants or set up his binoculars so we could get a closer look at a particular animal. We discovered that our phones could take pictures through the binoculars, so I was able to keep record of almost everything we saw.

IMG_3243.JPG

One of the roads we walked along in the cloud forest

IMG_4173.JPG

The first animal we saw- a bird called a Potoo. It was just peacefully sleeping atop a really uncomfortable-looking stick.

IMG_0238.jpg

Bird #2, the Andean “Cock-of-the-Rock” (the national bird of Peru)

IMG_3253.jpg

Our guide, David, demonstrating how this flower (called the Pico de Gallo) is shaped kind of like his nose

On one of our walks the first day, David spotted a mother wooly monkey carrying a baby on her back, but she then went deep into the trees, out of view. He set up his binoculars to try to get a better look, and we all ended up getting a tiny peek at one of her arms through the dense trees. Even though we didn’t get to see much of her, it was still exciting to know that she and her baby were in there and we were out in the jungle with them.

After the long day of driving, we arrived at the Bambu Lodge, which was very aptly named considering it was made almost entirely of bamboo. This is another thing that was very different from Salkantay- we slept in cabins with REAL BEDS.

IMG_3277.JPG

We slept 2-3 to a cabin (there were two beds and a bathroom downstairs and one bed upstairs)

IMG_3271.JPG

My bed upstairs with the princess canopy above (it was actually for bugs, but I felt like a princess)

The only negative about the first night was that it was about to rain, so the bugs were out in FULL force. They weren’t the biting kind (because we weren’t yet in the depths of the jungle), but they were the annoying kind who get onto and into everything. We discovered that if we used our headlamps on the red setting instead of the normal setting, the bugs weren’t nearly as attracted, so we called our cabin the “Red Light District” and forbade the use of any other color light. It worked out very well; the bugs disappeared.

The next morning, we walked around the grounds of the Bambu Lodge, and David told us about some of the plants there. A couple of my personal favorites were the achiote, which is used for natural face paint, and the coca plants (because coca is such an important part of the culture here).

IMG_3300.jpg

Rows and rows of coca plants (but don’t worry- not nearly enough to make cocaine)

After the tour, we took the van another couple hours (passing through the entrance to Manú National Park, which is part of the Amazon Rainforest) until we got to Atalaya, which is a town along the river Madre de Dios. There, we switched from bus to boat, and the trip really got fun. Riding down the river on the boat was absolutely gorgeous, and it was the only time I was in the jungle and not sweating through my bug-proof layers.

IMG_3317.jpg

Our group of 6 UBELONGers who went to the jungle (Hailey made it into this one- she’s next to Carlos)

IMG_3334.JPG

Beautiful view of Kelsey, Carlos, the roof of our boat and oh yeah, also the rainforest

IMG_3500.jpg

This oversized life vest was perfect to rest your head on and take a nap

Quick disclaimer: Here, they use the words rainforest and jungle interchangeably, so if you’re confused about why I keep switching back and forth… I’m just as confused as you are.

After a quick boat ride, we got out and went for a two-hour walk on the shore. When we first got onto shore, we were walking through the tallest grass I have ever seen. Phoebe said that she felt like she was in the movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and I couldn’t agree more.

IMG_3471.jpg

Took a picture of Phoebe taking a picture of the crazy tall grass

After walking for about 20 minutes, David motioned for us to stop and took out his binoculars: he had seen a caiman (similar to an alligator) in the stream nearby. The whole time we watched, the caiman was just sitting there, soaking in the sun and totally unconcerned with our existence. He seemed like a happy guy.

IMG_3394.jpg

View of the caiman through David’s telescope (it was pretty small, probably 4 feet long)

IMG_3400.jpg

This giant is called a Walking Tree, for obvious reasons (it has one central trunk and continuously sends more roots into the ground)

After about an hour of walking, we came out of the trees at a gorgeous lake. We went for a ride on a couple rafts to explore and got to see some birds up close.

IMG_3403.JPG

Our first view of the lake

IMG_3430.JPG

A group of Screamers (they make an awful sound) sitting next to the lake

IMG_3434.JPG

Stinkbirds (also known as Hoatzins) sitting in a tree to the right of the Screamers (these names cracked me up)

After the lake, we hopped back on the boat and continued down the river. We stopped again after another couple hours, this time at natural hot springs (if you’re keeping count, these are my third hot springs in Peru).

IMG_3486.JPG

Phoebe, Hailey and Erin enjoying the hot water in the already-hot jungle

After the hot springs, we continued down the river, getting to our destination, Dorado Lodge, just in time for sunset. This is where we stayed the next two nights.

IMG_3517.JPG

Our boat in the sunset on the shores of the Madre de Dios

IMG_3550.JPG

The cabins at Dorado (it was just built a year ago)

IMG_4038.JPG

More beds and princess canopies

That night after dark, we went for a walk to see the jungle at night. I laughed to myself several times, realizing that I was walking through the dark jungle with nothing but my headlamp and rubber boots to protect me. My favorite part about the night walks, though, were the sounds- they were layered with the calls of so many different animals, and every so often I’d challenge myself to try and distinguish one sound from another. We stopped a couple times to look at spiders (there were SO many cool spiders), and one of the times the spider ended up only being a minor attraction. We were all stopped looking over David’s shoulder when I heard Carlos calmly mention that he was confused about what we were all looking at, considering that there was a snake curled up on a branch right next to us. David first congratulated Carlos on his find, then went on to tell us that the snake was poisonous. I was able to get a picture before finding my sense of self-preservation and backing away.

IMG_3566.jpg

David called this the “rattlesnake of the jungle”

IMG_3556.jpg

Cute lil frog we found

IMG_3576.jpg

I found it adorable that this moth attached itself to me for the whole walk back. The others told me I was crazy.

After the walk, I showered off all the sweat and mud from the day, doused myself in deet to counteract how clean I was, then tucked myself into my princess canopy and went to sleep.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30 to go to a clay lick where the parrots, parakeets and macaws feed. As soon as we got there, the birds started coming in droves and sitting in the trees above the water. David told us that they’re very cautious when they feed here- the risk of predators is high, but the reward of the food makes them keep coming back. Unfortunately (probably more so for them than for us), the group of humans standing there staring at them and applying bug spray every ten minutes scared them even more, so most of them didn’t come down to feed. We still got beautiful views of the sunrise and the birds sitting in the trees.

IMG_3607.jpg

A group of parakeets in a tree (it’s hard to make out, but they have green bodies and blue heads)

IMG_3588.JPG

Sunrise over the clay lick

IMG_3631.JPG

Gorgeous views over the river as we arrived back at the lodge

After breakfast (delicious, like all the meals), we went for a walk. This walk was not your average walk; it was the kind where you wade through mud and are accompanied by the sucking sounds of boots that feel dangerously close to being stuck in their spot in the earth forever. It was this walk that made us all really grateful for the rental gum boots that are provided with the tour- my hiking shoes would no longer exist if I had worn them this day.

IMG_3659

Mudding our way through the rainforest

IMG_3666

Our group in front of a huge ceiba tree (the six of us are in the middle; the man in the front and the two women on the sides are Swiss and were incredibly tolerant of us)

We returned from the walk thoroughly muddy and sweaty (we didn’t see many animals, but saw some cool jaguar and tapir tracks), and very hungry. Lucky for us, we were about to get the best meal of our trip. Alex, our chef, walked out of the kitchen carrying a tray of something wrapped up in banana leaves. We had no idea what to expect on the inside (kinda similar to how I felt coming to Peru- it was just an unknown wrapped up in a lot of leaves). Our guide told us that it’s a traditional jungle dish, called Juane. It turned out to be filled with delicious rice, chicken, and a hard-boiled egg (also kinda like my experience once arriving in Peru- super delicious and full of rice). No one was left hungry after that meal.

That afternoon we had free time to nap or swim or lay out in the sun. I chose the swimming option- the river looked so inviting, and since it moves fairly quickly the bugs don’t hang out above the water. After trying to stand up and brace ourselves against the current for a while, Phoebe and I soon found that the most fun and efficient method of “swimming” was to lay on our backs and let the current take us downstream a little, then get out and walk back to our starting place and do it again. The water was the perfect temperature and the scenery was gorgeous and it all felt like a dream.

IMG_3755.JPG

The part of the river where we swam (I wore flip flops in the water because of the rocky bottom)

After swimming, we went to a little pond close to the lodge and went “fishing.” I put fishing in quotations because we were just holding onto lines and throwing them into knee-deep water where the tiniest fish lived. Hailey almost pulled in a three-incher, but it unfortunately got away.

IMG_4013

Hailey with her game face on

After another gorgeous sunset, we went for our second night walk, where we found my favorite spider: the scorpion spider. Its body is relatively small, but its legs extend outward and make it the size of a dinner plate.

IMG_4041

Sunset over Dorado Lodge

IMG_4050.jpg

I couldn’t get a great picture because it blends in so well, but if you look closely you can see that one of its legs extends off of the bottom of this photo

After returning to another delicious dinner and my evening deet routine, I fell asleep again to the sounds of the bugs.

The next day was our travel day: 5 hours by boat and 7 hours by bus, back to Cusco. Luckily we had the boat at the beginning of the day- it’s impossible to be that upset about traveling when you have the wind in your face and you’re surrounded by the rainforest. This time we were traveling upstream, so the shallow areas got a little dicey. A few times one of the boat captains had to go to the front of the boat and push us along with a stick. I was really impressed (and also a little nervous).

IMG_4086

Resting between pushes in one of the shallow areas

The highlight of the trip home was when we stopped at an animal sanctuary just outside of Atalaya. There, they had caimans, pigs, monkeys, sloths, and birds, many of which were originally pets until their owners decided they could no longer handle them. Because of this, they were really comfortable and playful around us.

After the long bus ride home (we got pretty sick of it), we all just picked up some sandwiches and ate in our rooms before going to bed. I’m not sure about the others, but I had a little trouble falling asleep without the jungle sounds around me.

Spanish Word of the Day: “picaflor,” which means both “hummingbird” and “womanizer.” David told us it might be better to use the word “colibrí” (also meaning hummingbird) instead to avoid confusion.

Days 26-27: Fútbol

After returning from Salkantay, I mainly just wanted to spend some time relaxing in Cusco. I only ended up doing that for a couple days, because a group of friends wanted to go see the rainforest the following weekend, and you don’t say no when someone asks you if you want to see the rainforest. (For the record, I’m not missing nearly as many days of school as it seems- we’ve had a lot of days off for festivals and the recent elections.)

I went to work my two days back at “home,” and they turned out to be really good days. Since no one speaks English at school, I’m always challenged there to improve my Spanish, and I always leave feeling like I’m speaking just a little better (except the days when I’m really tired- those days I’m learning too, I just don’t know it at the time).

When I arrived at school on Wednesday, one of the gym teachers excitedly asked me if I wanted to go watch the soccer team’s game. I happily responded that yes, I would absolutely love to go live vicariously through elementary school students, and he immediately launched into directions on how to get to the field. For whatever reason I had assumed that the game would be right at the school, which was silly considering that we definitely don’t have a soccer field. Anyway, I paid really close attention to the directions (luckily they weren’t too complicated) and made it to the field without even getting a little bit lost.

The game had just started when I got there, and for a little while I sat down on the spectators’ side and just took it all in. After watching for a few minutes, I could clearly see that the red team was the dominant team. At the age of 12 (and under), they were passing and moving the ball down the field beautifully as a unit- I was really impressed. The uniforms that the kids wear at school are blue, so I assumed that the red team was the other team (and that made me a little sad). I was really glad when I saw Marcial, one of the gym teachers and the coach, standing next to the red team. I felt a sense of pride knowing that we were clearly the better team (probably because I’m more competitive than I’d ever admit).

IMG_3194.JPG

View of the game from the spectators’ side

I decided that I was probably allowed to go on the players’ side, and when I joined them on the sidelines all the boys greeted me as “Profe!” (short for profesora, or teacher) with huge smiles on their faces. The game unfortunately ended 0-0 because our guys just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net (a feeling that every soccer player knows all too well), but I was still proud of them for their performance.

After the game, the soccer team (which was mainly the older players) was sent back to school, and Marcial and I went with the younger futsal team to the futsal complex. (Futsal is like soccer on a basketball court, and is played with a smaller ball and less players). When we arrived, I was shocked to see a girls team playing! I asked Marcial about it, and he said that more and more public schools are developing girls soccer teams, and that they’ll start developing one at Humberto Luna next year! Yipee!!!

IMG_3198

Me with some of the futsal players on the bus, headed to their game (they were super pumped to take this)

IMG_3199.JPG

A girls team warming up on the futsal court

The team we were playing against is well known for being good, so I was prepared and not too invested in the game, for my own sake. That ended quickly, once we scored a goal in the first minute. I was cheering and giving the guys high-fives and totally, completely invested in an elementary school soccer game. We (yes, I said “we” on purpose) ended up winning 7-1, and I think I deserve a little bit of credit.

After that soccer-filled day, I went home and got ready for my 4-day trip to the jungle, which I left for the next day. My next post will have all the pictures of the giant plants and amazing accommodations!

Spanish Word of the Day: “silbato,” which means “whistle.” Very important for both soccer referees and gym teachers, who often can’t get anyone’s attention without one.

Days 21-25: Salkantay

IMG_2525.JPG

Leading up to this 5-day trek, I was so nervous. What if I forgot something? You can’t buy a toothbrush in the middle of the WILDERNESS! What if I was cold? You can’t sleep when you’re cold and when you don’t sleep you’re too tired to hike for five days. What if I hated it? Just kidding, I knew I’d love it. That’s what got me through all the other worries- I knew myself well enough to know that I would love it, and all the other worries wouldn’t matter after that. After finally coming to that conclusion the night before I left, I was able to get some sleep and get ready to trek.

Day 1: The Lake

IMG_2304.JPG

Phoebe, Kristin and me, all way too excited for 5am

IMG_2305.jpg

Phoebe getting ready to nap in style on the bus on the way to the trailhead

The four of us who were going on the trek (me, Phoebe, Kristin from Michigan and Kenny from Chicago) were picked up from our hostel at 5:00 am on Thursday. After a three-hour bus ride, we arrived at the trailhead and were already amazed by the beauty around us. I had to keep reminding myself that I had to save my phone battery and memory for another four days so I would stop taking pictures in every direction. After a few hours of hiking, we got to our campsite for the night. We dragged out our mats and siesta’ed in the sun (which became a daily pre-lunch tradition) and then ate our first meal together.

IMG_2315.JPG

Our trekking group getting ready to start at the trailhead, with Salkantay peak in the background

IMG_2325.JPG

Phoebe and I repping Michigan and taking a break for a picture about an hour and a half into the hike

IMG_2346.JPG

Day 1 siesta time!

I’m going to just say this once, because it applies to every meal, but the food was absolutely delicious. We had a chef and two cooks who traveled with us, and they really came through for every meal. This is one of the reasons (as well as the fact that our tents were set up and transported for us) that we referred to this as “glamping” rather than camping. Turns out I am very happy to glamp, thank you very much.

After lunch, we hiked up to Humantay Lake, which was about an hour and a half straight uphill (at an altitude of 13,845 feet- a 1,150 foot climb). The trek to the lake was the true test; if you could get to the lake, you would make it to Salkantay Pass the next day. When I started heading to the lake, I remember thinking that there was no way I would make it in an hour and a half. Just like with Rainbow Mountain, I was huffing and puffing and exhausted within seconds. This time, however, I had a definitive amount of time and a known destination (as well as a little more experience at high altitudes). Instead of taking frequent breaks, I found a comfortable pace and trudged uphill, slow and steady. I focused on breathing deeply and swinging my arms, and before long I had a rhythm going. It reminded me of going for a hard run; looking ahead and picking out a boulder as my destination, then reaching it and picking a new one.

When we got to a lip in the terrain, we knew the lake was on the other side, but were completely unprepared for how gorgeous it would be. It was incredible- one second, all you could see ahead of you was the hill, and the next you were staring at a giant glacier and the turquoise waters of Humantay Lake. I had to put my toes in for a picture and also because I didn’t realize how cold I was that point (still in shock from the climb).

IMG_2367.JPG

The view just before getting to the top and seeing the lake

IMG_2378.jpg

The view I was greeted with after completing the climb- and this isn’t even the whole thing

IMG_2398.jpg

I think this is what euphoria looks like from behind.

When the sun went down, the temperature quickly followed. Before getting too cold to stay outside, a few of us laid down on a boulder and stared up at the sky. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life- you could clearly see the Milky Way, and I learned a few Southern Hemisphere constellations. It was incredible- we were sitting in this vast mountain range, looking up into the even more vast universe. That night, we slept in tents inside of little grass huts, which definitely helped keep us warm (but I was still wearing several layers).

Day 2: The Climb

IMG_2434.JPG

View of Salkantay peak from our campsite at 5am

Before leaving for this trek, all of us knew about day 2. We had read that it was the hardest and longest day: a nine-hour hike at a high altitude, starting the morning with a steep 3.5-hour climb and then the rest of the day downhill (which sounds easy but is really hard on your knees and quads).

That morning, Enrique (our guide who was quite a character) knocked on our tents at 4:30 to wake us up. After fumbling around in the freezing, dark morning and eating some breakfast we started the trek a little before 6. I used my strategy from the previous day and got into a pretty good rhythm, and luckily I had gorgeous views in every direction to distract me.

IMG_2467.jpg

Slowly but surely getting closer to Salkantay pass

IMG_2470.jpg

Watching the moon fade with the sunrise over the mountains (notice the incline that I’m standing on while taking this)

IMG_2477.JPG

The group getting excited to start the steepest climb of the morning

IMG_2482.jpg

I wasn’t lying about beautiful views in every direction- I took this while looking back towards camp

The hardest part of the morning were the switchbacks- we were practically scaling a cliff (that’s kind of an exaggeration, but it definitely felt that way at the high altitude). Enrique claimed that there were 7 switchbacks, but when I mentioned later that there were definitely more than 7 he responded by laughing and saying “everything in Peru is an approximation.” I appreciated his honesty.

IMG_2490.JPG

Looking down at some of the switchbacks after reaching the top

IMG_2500.JPG

At the top of the steepest part of the climb, feeling like a pro

There was still quite a bit of climbing to do after the switchbacks to get to Salkantay Pass, our highest point, but luckily it wasn’t ever that steep for that long again. By the time we got to the pass, we had all stripped down into our pants and t-shirts. After about a minute in the pass, we were just as bundled up as we had been the previous night. After about another 15-20 minutes, the adrenaline from reaching the top had fully worn off, and we were shivering and ready to start moving again.

IMG_3186.JPG

The views as we were reaching the top (if you look closely I’m standing on a boulder in this)

IMG_2533.JPG

Top of Salkantay Pass (there are only 11 people in this picture, but I promise all 15 of us made it)

IMG_2541.jpg

I was really really cold when I was taking this (totally worth it though)

IMG_2548.JPG

Breathtaking views on the way down from the pass

Over the next couple hours, the terrain changed completely. As we walked, we slowly descended into a cloud forest, with everything slowly growing greener around us. Every so often I would turn around to make sure that the terrain from just a few hours prior was actually real, and every time I was reassured that I indeed was not dreaming.

IMG_2567.JPG

Descending into the cloud forest… you can really see why it has that name

 

IMG_2586.jpg

The most beautiful view out of a bathroom window I’ve ever seen (every so often we could pay to use a bathroom as we walked through a village)

IMG_2583.jpg

This is the tiniest puppy in the world- we found him at our lunch site

IMG_2601.JPG

After lunch, the change in terrain was even more obvious

IMG_3192.JPG

Suddenly surrounded by green everywhere

That night, we camped in a small village in the cloud forest. As I was getting ready to go to bed, I had considered putting my earplugs in, then realized that the white noise I was hearing in the background was the sound of a waterfall near our camp. After that realization, there was no way I’d block it out.

Day 3: The Jungle

The next morning we were woken up at 5, so we got to sleep an extra half hour from the previous morning (!!). We started the trek that day as a group, and Enrique told us about some of the plants we were seeing as we walked farther into the jungle. The highlight of my day as far as foliage goes was when Enrique helped me pull a passion fruit down from a tree and I ate the delicious seeds (it’s kind of like a pomegranate on the inside) as I walked. I was practically skipping.

IMG_2765.jpg

My own, personal, fresh, jungle passion fruit

IMG_2742.jpg

Our jungle trail (can you believe how green?!)

The other highlight of my day was finding a connection with a random stranger in the Peruvian jungle. We took a break in a clearing by someone’s house, and another trekking group was playing a small game of soccer. As I watched, trying to find an excuse to join, I noticed that one of them was wearing a UVA drumline shirt. On a whim, I asked him if he knew one of my best friends from middle school, James Johnston who’s now on UVA drumline. He responded “JJ?! YEAH I know him!” We decided we had to get a picture to document the fact that James provided the connection between two strangers in the jungle in Peru in the middle of a 5-day trek. Thanks, James. (Also, I got to play soccer with them after that, which was the goal anyway).

IMG_2781.jpg

Proof that I made a connection with a stranger in the jungle

As I’m writing this, I’m remembering that there were actually 4 highlights of my day. Highlight number 3 was the cable car. At another clearing, our guide showed us a cable car that the people who live there use to cross the rushing river below. It was literally just a little wooden box attached to a cable above and controlled by a rope. He then asked if anyone wanted to try it, and I heard a voice coming from my throat that said “Yeah, I’d like to!” I’m still not convinced that I was in control of that voice, but I’m so glad that it bubbled up. I climbed into the box with another person in our group, and we were pushed off the ledge, suddenly suspended about 100 feet over a rushing river. The views up and down the river were absolutely incredible, and the rush that came with being suspended in a tiny box made the overall experience unforgettable. The takeaway: Sometimes you have to just go with your first instinct.

IMG_2769.jpg

Jen and I being pushed out over the river in the cable car

The fourth highlight of my day was the hot springs. After lunch and a siesta, we rode in a van to nearby hot springs. It was not only nice to just sit and relax for a little, but the warm water felt so good on our aching muscles. I spent the majority of the time in the water just stretching everything that hurt, and I think my body is really thanking me for that now. We could also use the showers at the springs, so I left feeling clean and refreshed.

IMG_2829.jpg

We were packed in that van, jamming out to 90’s rap (Isidro, our awesome chef, is the one with the hat on)

IMG_2831.jpg

Kristin smiling at me from the springs

That night at the campsite I barely even had to use my sleeping bag because it was so warm. It was a welcome change from the first couple nights.

Day 4: The Railroad

IMG_2844.JPG

Just some inspiration at our campsite on the morning of day 4

The next morning, we got to sleep until the sun (and the roosters) woke us up, because we were going ziplining and didn’t have to leave until 10. As we emerged from our tents, we all compared bug bites- with the warmth comes the bugs. Luckily I didn’t get eaten up too badly.

Leading up to ziplining, I was so excited but definitely also nervous. I wasn’t technically scared logically, but I was giddy and jumping around like a child (which was especially embarrassing considering that we were the youngest in our group).

IMG_2853.JPG

The view in the field where the ziplining company was located

IMG_2876.jpg

Personality pic of Phoebe, Kristin and I pre-ziplining (Phoebe was so nervous)

When I was sent down the first line, I was determined to see everything. I looked around in all directions as I sped over the treetops, and by the time I got to the end I was crying from keeping my eyes open in the wind. There were a total of 5 ziplines and one suspension bridge, and the suspension bridge was absolutely the scariest part. When you’re ziplining, you have no choice but to move forward; when you’re walking across a suspension bridge, you have to be conscious of every single step. I was very glad to be done with that one.

On the last line, we went in a position called the “Super Condor,” where they reversed our harnesses and we were soaring through the air face-down like a bird. I’ve had dreams ever since I can remember where I’m flying, doing something like breast stroke in the air, so of course I had to try it for real. As soon as I started moving my arms and legs, I started spinning a little and wasn’t quite facing forward, but for a moment there my dreams really did come true (I could totally do an advertisement for these guys). I didn’t bring my phone with me ziplining, so I unfortunately don’t have any action shots, but if you imagine me flying through the air crying and smiling at the same time, then you pretty much get the idea.

After a morning of soaring through the air, we had an afternoon of walking through the jungle. That afternoon was really different from the day before, because we were following railroad tracks the whole way. There’s something really satisfying about walking on railroad tracks- I think it makes me feel kinda artsy.

IMG_2925.JPG

Phoebe and I posing on a bridge- you can tell we’re getting close to Machu Picchu based on the terrain in the background

IMG_2946.JPG

Enrique laid on the tracks to take this hilarious group photo (I’m perched on the bridge in the back right)

IMG_2969.jpg

Phoebe and I took a quick detour off the tracks to see this gorgeous little lake nestled in the mountains

After about an hour and a half on the railroad tracks, I was exhausted. My legs were questioning me: “We thought we were done with all this walking stuff yesterday, what the heck do you think you’re doing?” They don’t actually talk but that’s what I imagined they were thinking. I think since we had that break, I was out of my rhythm and had lost some adrenaline, which is really all that keeps you going after a certain point. Luckily I had a Milky Way in my backpack, so I ate that and felt a lot better.

When we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, which is the city below Machu Picchu, we were all ready to take some showers and sleep in real beds (we were staying at a hostel that night). As we walked into the city with our packs on our backs, I had this deep feeling of pride looking around and realizing I had gotten there with my own two feet. We must’ve been quite a sight for the people in the city as we trudged in, flanking Enrique.

IMG_3031.JPG

Taking Aguas Calientes by storm

The hostel we stayed in was very white everywhere, so we felt like we couldn’t touch anything until we showered. Needless to say, the shower was lovely and the bed was even better- we slept like rocks.

Day 5: Machu Picchu

That is, we slept like rocks until 4am, when we had to wake up and start the hike up to Machu Picchu. We started so early in order to get there before the place was flooded with everyone who rode up on busses, so I didn’t really mind the early start.

IMG_3037.jpg

Took this picture of the sky over the tops of the mountains as we started the walk up

It was dark for about the first 45 minutes of the hike, but we were still dripping with sweat: the hike was entirely stairs, with an occasional road to cross to split up the monotony. Unfortunately, the roads ended up being Phoebe and my downfall. We stuck together as we were hiking, and somehow missed the next flight of stairs at one of the roads. We ended up just taking the road all the way up, which added about 20 minutes to our hike and separated us from our group. By the time we got to Machu Picchu, we were sweaty, exhausted, and totally lost.

We asked around, but no one knew where our guide was or how we could find him (other than just wandering through the ruins), so we decided to just try and find the rest of our group. When we emerged out onto the lookout where you had your first view of the ruins, we were amazed but also really upset. We were lost at one of the manmade Wonders of the World, so how the heck were we going to make sense of what all this beauty meant?

IMG_3056.jpg

We had a group of strangers take this photo of us (we were smiling through our confusion and exhaustion)

Our strategy was just to follow the path that all the tours take through the ruins but do it quickly so we would pass all the groups currently inside. As we were rushing through, we kept looking around at the structures around us and experiencing a mix of awe at their beauty and annoyance that we didn’t know more about them. We made one loop through and didn’t find our group, so we took a break and put on some sunscreen (safety first) before diving in again- this time going backward.

As we walked through, other guides kept telling us that we were going the wrong way, and we would turn and respond that yes, we knew we were going the wrong way, but we lost our guide. I think once they saw the haggard look on our faces they decided that they’d give us a break. Either way, we emerged again at the start, still without finding our group.

IMG_3076.JPG

The tiers that the Incas cut into the sides of the mountains for farming (turns out there was still time to appreciate beauty even when we were lost and stressed out)

We sat down, dejected, trying to decide what to do next. We decided to go to a higher point (more stairs) and see if we could recognize anyone in our group in the ruins below. We got up to the top, and after scouring the crowd I saw someone wearing Kristin’s green backpack and jeans, just like she was wearing that morning! We rushed to where we had seen her, only to find that it was a man…and he was in a green jacket, not a backpack. I think maybe I know now what a mirage in the desert feels like.

IMG_3090.JPG

90% of the structures currently at Machu Picchu are remains that are still standing today (10% of the current structures are reconstructed)

We started walking through the loop AGAIN, the correct way this time, because what the heck else was there for us to do? We were moving pretty slowly and barely looking for our group, instead listening in and trying to hear snippets of information from other tour guides. Of course, that’s when we finally found our group, at an intersection between two paths. We were too tired to even be very relieved, but I was just so glad to stop running laps around one of the wonders of the world (but c’mon, how many people can say they’ve done that??). Our guide finished the last 15 minutes of the tour, then headed off (but first gave us our train tickets home which was super important).

IMG_3089

Real smiles this time

Most of the people in our group had bought entrance tickets to Machu Picchu Mountain, which overlooks the ruins but is another hour and a half hike up MORE STAIRS. I think I had some sort of ridiculous adrenaline kick in once we found our group, because I decided to do the hike (a lot of people opted out, which is probably the more sane option after our 5 days of hiking).

I did the hike with a French couple from our group, and the woman echoed my exact thoughts when we took a break on the stairs and she breathed “I am going to die here.” We eventually did make it to the top, however, and that made it all worth it. If you looked in one direction, you could see Machu Picchu, and the other direction was Salkantay Peak- we had come full circle. We made it.

IMG_3104.jpg

The stairs where Vanessa said she was going to die (it was also pretty dicey on the way back down)

IMG_3116.JPG

Adrenaline-induced euphoria with the Salkantay range in the background

IMG_3122.JPG

Looking out over Machu Picchu on the other side

Kristin ended up coming to the top too, and we decided that we’d head down together and walk over to the Sun Gate, which is the traditional Inca entrance to Machu Picchu. As we were walking there, we passed a couple and asked how far we had to go. They responded that it wasn’t too far, just 45 minutes! We were expecting something closer to 5, but since we were already walking there we decided to stick with it.

When we finally got to the Sun Gate, we didn’t really even look at it, we just sat down in some shade and guzzled water. We saw some groups who were just finishing up the Inca Trail and arriving in Machu Picchu, which was really cool to see them arrive the same way the Incas did. After recovering, we started talking to a couple guys named Mark and Kevin who are studying abroad in Lima and are from the University of South Carolina, and ended up heading down to Aguas Calientes and getting lunch with them. They were great hosts and took us to a delicious pizza place, and kindly ignored the fact that we were very dirty.

IMG_3182.JPG

Kristin and I at the Sun Gate- the last photo I could take on my phone before running out of memory (our cue to give our bodies a break I think)

We spent the evening in Aguas Calientes (found some hot springs where we could shower), then took a train home at 10pm. We got back to the hostel at 1, and wasted no time falling fast asleep.

Overall, these 5 days taught me:

  1. That my body is capable of some really awesome things,
  2. Everything doesn’t need to go perfectly for it to be perfect, and
  3. I really, really like mountains.

Throughout the 5 days, I went from the mountains to the jungle to Machu Picchu, hiking 70 miles and countless vertical feet (3,650 on the Machu Picchu day alone). I went from nervous to euphoric to exhausted to euphoric all over again, and every emotion in between- I think I can’t wait to go trekking again.

Spanish Word of the Day: It’s actually a phrase, “La mente vence el cuerpo,” which is the Spanish version of “mind over matter.” I learned that one from someone I passed while hiking up to the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain- it was my inspiration.

 

Days 18-20: Chiriuchu

I got back from my trek late on Monday night, and since then I’ve been searching for enough bandwidth to be able to load all of the pictures (there are tons) onto a blog post. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen before tomorrow, which is when I’m leaving for the jungle (so excited!!).

So, instead I’m just going to do a quick post about my days before leaving for Salkantay trek, because they were some of my favorite days in Cusco so far.

Last week, I went to mass one morning at 7am. I went partially because I’ve heard that attending mass in the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas is a great experience, but also because it was the anniversary of my grandfather’s passing. I knew that was a place I could go to remember him and have some peaceful reflection.

Going to mass also reminded me about the universality of religion and the unity that it brings- I walked into mass in a foreign country where my blonde hair always makes me stand out as a tourist, and I immediately felt accepted into the community. I could easily follow the mass (no matter the language, it’s the same sentiment) and I was allowed to just coexist beside the people of Cusco. Thanks, Pop, for giving me that opportunity.

IMG_2126.JPG

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption (it has a very long name because it is a very big deal)

IMG_2122.jpg

The smaller area where they hold weekday mass (I wasn’t really even allowed to take this picture, so I couldn’t get any of the rest of the inside- take my word for it, it’s gorgeous)

Later, I got to try chiriuchu, which is a traditional Peruvian dish including cuy (guinea pig). I LOVED IT. I was exploring the Chiriuchu festival with a native Peruvian named Javier, who is going to school to be a gym teacher and is doing his “prácticas” (practical training, aka teaching class while being observed) at the school where I volunteer. He showed me the correct way to eat it (with your hands) and what not to eat (the herbs stuffed inside the guinea pig).

IMG_2140.JPG

Javier and I with our chiriuchu, consisting of gallina (a type of chicken), cuy (guinea pig), seaweed, fish eggs, a cornbread-tortilla-thing, and dried corn. I did not particularly enjoy the seaweed or the fish eggs, but the rest was delicious!

I also got to see some of the parades and festivities leading up to Corpus Christi, which was Thursday. We had already left for our trek during the main event, so I was glad I got a taste of it the day before.

IMG_2158.JPG

These men have to carry these giant statues for hours during the parade, each one representing a different saint

Being able to walk into a church and feel like I belong and sit down and eat traditional Peruvian food with Javier made me feel a little bit like a part of the community here, where I normally feel like (and look like) a tourist. I realize I am privileged to be able to come here for a limited amount of time and then leave, while others have no choice but to stay here, but it was still a great feeling to see some things from the point of view of people who live their everyday lives here- it definitely allowed me to “discover Cusco” in a new way.

Spanish Word of the Day: “jerga,” which means literally means “jargon,” but here seems to mean “colloquialism” or “slang” (which is cool in and of itself- the word is exactly what it means). When the gym teacher I work with tries to explain a word to me, he’ll often say “es una jerga,” and I finally asked the other day what jerga means. I’m now one word smarter!

Now I’m heading to the Manu jungle for the next four days- I’ll return with more pictures to struggle to post and probably more bug bites!

 

Day 17- Pacha Mama

IMG_1859

We felt like our bus was going to go straight off a cliff as the driver pulled over to let us take these pictures of the Sacred Valley

The day after the Rainbow Mountain trek, Phoebe and I had scheduled a full-day tour of different historical and archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley. After Phoebe’s illness and me underestimating how taxing the trek would be, we were both a little nervous about how the tour would go. We decided in the morning to just go for it and hope for the best- after all, we’d already paid.

Luckily, it ended up being a great decision. The Sacred Valley is fairly long (about an hour and a half end-to-end), so I took a series of about five 30-minute naps throughout the day as we hopped from site to site. If I had stayed at the hostel and napped that much, I would’ve felt like a total bum- instead I got to see some of the most interesting sites in the region. Although I must say, Phoebe and I were NOT happy when our alarms went off at 7am (still Viva La Vida of course).

We started the tour with a drive to Pisaq (the archaeological site- not to be confused with the town of Pisac). There, we learned about the design of towns in Inca times. When we first walked onto the site, we were standing where the soldiers would have lived, which makes sense that they’d be the first people that strangers would come into contact with.

IMG_1864.JPG

The view of the military part of the town as we approached

To get to the part of town where the royalty lived, we had to walk uphill (they had the best view). On the other side of that hill was the temple dedicated to Inti, the sun god, and beyond that was the largest known Inca burial site. The only problem with the site was that there weren’t actually any bodies there- the Incas were buried with a lot of their possessions (like the Egyptians), so their burial site was full of gold. The Spanish wasted no time digging out all the bodies and looting the burial site, and now all that remains are holes in the side of the mountain.

IMG_1869.JPG

Looking up at the royal neighborhood from the military part of town (we didn’t go to where the normal people lived, it was on the other side of the mountain)

IMG_1886.JPG

This isn’t just a great picture of Phoebe and I- if you look closely you can see holes in the mountain behind us (specifically to the left of my head). This is the burial site with no bodies (spooky).

After Pisaq, we went to a silver factory (it wasn’t really a factory, it was a shop where they also made the merchandise). We learned how to tell the difference between real and fake silver and where the different kinds of precious stones come from (there are so many different colored stones from all over Peru), which was a lot more interesting than I was expecting. They then let us loose to peruse the store, which was a really great idea considering that we were tourists armed with full pockets and, recently, a story to tell anyone who may ask where we got that beautiful new necklace.

You may have already guessed it, but I’m the one who got the beautiful new necklace. It was a trap, but honestly I’m really glad I fell into it. I bargained a bit and walked home with a great souvenir that I get to wear around my neck and tell people about.

IMG_2082.jpg

 

The symbol of the spiral represented Pacha Mama in Inca culture, which means “Mother Earth.” The stone is (1) not actually a stone, it’s a conch shell and (2) not actually from Peru, it’s from the ocean in Ecuador. I also decided these things were okay, because (1) who cares if it’s a shell and not a stone? and (2) at least I know its true origin. Also, the iridescent nature of the shell resembles my birth stone, opal. I decided that the necklace was meaningful enough to justify falling into a tourist trap and also buying something that’s kinda from Ecuador.

 

After the tourist trap, we went to a delicious buffet lunch in a city in the middle of the Sacred Valley called Urubamba. It was definitely worth the 20 soles- I think I had three full plates plus soup (I’ve gotten so used to always eating soup before lunch here that I couldn’t not have soup).

IMG_1941.JPG

It was a gorgeous restaurant (unfortunately the wifi didn’t really work)

IMG_1942.jpg

Look at all this food! (and you can’t even see the dessert)

After lunch (and my third nap of the day) we arrived at the opposite end of the Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo was my favorite Inca site that I’ve seen- not only are the ruins incredible, but half of the town below is considered to be a living museum. The people in these houses are living in the same place that the Incas lived in hundreds of years before them.

IMG_2046.JPG

The view of the town below from the ruins- a lot of the buildings and walls on the left side of town were restored from original Inca structures.

IMG_2043.jpg

Me posing in front of a room that 20+ Inca soldiers slept in every night (I think the little windows in the wall are where they put their cell phones while they slept)

IMG_2052.JPG

There are a few cool things I want to point out on the mountain in the first and last picture:

  1. On the far right (in the first picture of the three), you can see structures on the side of the mountain- that’s a military checkpoint, again to screen those going to Machu Picchu.
  2. The road then goes up and to the left (this can be seen in both pictures), where archaeologists found evidence that the Incas preserved food there- sun never reaches that side of the mountain and it gets a glacial breeze, so it acts as a natural refrigerator.
  3. You can also make out a face carved into the mountain- this is the face of Inca’s Creator, named Wiracocha (many historians think this makes the Incas more similar to the Catholics that they thought, since they believed Wiracocha created the universe).
IMG_2060.jpg

View of Ollantaytambo from the bottom

Next, we drove to Chinchero, which is a small town known for its textiles. There, we learned the entire process of making blankets and sweaters out of alpaca wool, from cleaning the wool to dying it to weaving the cloth. It was fascinating- making a blanket for a twin bed takes 3 months! We were set loose there too to buy things, but this time I held myself back (I actually just didn’t have enough money on me to buy anything).

IMG_2075.JPG

One of the women in Chinchero teaching us how to clean the wool (they use a certain kind of root as natural soap- it looked like soap and everything!)

By the end of the day, Phoebe and I were totally exhausted but really glad that we went. I think that’s probably a lesson for the rest of my time here (and maybe for life): sleep is important, but isn’t generally a good excuse not to experience things.

Spanish Word of the Day: “sandía,” meaning “watermelon.” They sell it everywhere on the streets here, and I finally bought some today. It was delicious!

(I leave tomorrow morning for my 5-day trek, so you won’t be hearing from me for a while. So excited!!)