The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca Part II – Taquile Island

After leaving the Uros Islands with an uncomfortable feeling that we had just been conned (The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands), we settled in for the 2-hour boat ride to Taquile Island and hoped our next experience would feel more authentic. Along the way, our guide told us about Lake Titicaca and Taquile. The people are known for their beautiful textiles and, in an interesting twist, the men all knit and the women weave. Similar to the Uros Islands, the Taquile community decided to control the tourism on their island. The community is a cooperative and runs day tours, home stays, restaurants and textile sales. After lecturing us for awhile, our guide piped down and most of us cat-napped on the ride.

Taquile is tiny – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide – and stunning. We landed on a lovely beach with farming terraces dotting the hillside above it. Some young tourists who had done a homestay were playing with local children on the beach when we were met by our local male guides.  They were wearing beautiful outfits – bright, knitted hats with earflaps (chullos) and gorgeous woven sashes (chumpis). The men never stopped knitting. It was remarkable to see them walk and knit, especially given that we were not on smooth pavement. The hats denote marital status. While men wear knitted hats, with or without earflaps, married men wear red, patterned hats folded to the right, while unmarried men wear hats that are red and patterned at the bottom and white at the top. Folded to the right, it means he is looking for a girlfriend; hanging down the back means he is taken or not yet interested in dating. The island’s elected officials (men) wear black, felt hats during their terms. The community marries within itself, and our guide bluntly remarked that a disabled man who was causing some minor disruptions is the end result when the gene pool doesn’t expand. In addition, couples cohabit before getting married. If the cohabitation doesn’t work out and they didn’t have children, they part ways. I’m not sure how that works out as it would be pretty hard to avoid your ex on this tiny island!

After a brief introduction on the beach, we walked up the path. Matt and I thought we were pacing ourselves and going slowly, but apparently we weren’t as we inadvertently ended up following another group and had to be shooed back to wait for our own. Due to the altitude, some folks had a trouble with the ascent, but we had been in the Andes long enough to be acclimated. The views are stupendous and we were able to see Bolivia in the distance.

Eventually our group congregated in a courtyard and the women filed in to set up their weaving. I was confused to see the black head coverings as we heard the islanders were Catholic with the usual indigenous bent. Our guide told us that the head coverings were to protect the women’s hair from being bleached by the sun. A woman’s hair is a great asset and a bride cuts off her hair to weave into a sash for her husband’s wedding gift. No word on what a man gives his wife, but apparently he has to finish knitting his married-man hat before he can tie the knot. As our guide talked and got one of the men to demonstrate how to clean wool with a local plant, the women bent over their weaving in the hot sun while wearing multiple wool skirts and sweaters. In talking with one of the women afterwards, she admitted that it was terrible for her back to weave in this fashion. She also said that the runners they were weaving take about 3 weeks to complete.

Ancient Tools

Ancient Tools

After the talk and demonstration, there was the usual setting up of textiles for sale with the obvious expectation that we would buy. In talking with other visitors to Taquile, I think our experience was different than usual due to the elections. The main square where there is usually a textile market was closed, so the selection was limited and we felt more obligation than if we had been wandering around a market. We bought a few things and likely would have bought more given the fine quality if we had seen more than just a sampling. In addition, the weavers and knitters were not friendly (and Matt and I usually get points for at least speaking Spanish though on the island they also speak Quechua) and I felt a vibe that ranged from indifferent to resentful. Very different from the overly exuberant women on Uros, but awkward just the same. Matt and I compared notes later and he felt the same hostility.

After shopping, we were herded to the Eco Lodge Taquile for a traditional lunch of quinoa soup, fried trout and tea. The setting was pleasant and the lunch was fresh and tasty. We then hiked around more of the island to another dock for pick up. The day remained beautiful and the walk was leisurely and lovely. Upon our arrival to the dock, we discovered that the crew had returned to Puno to vote! We were stranded for about an hour and half with no beverages in the hot sun and nowhere to go as we were not allowed to wander. Needless to say, this ended our trip on a sour note. Matt and I struck up a conversation with some friendly Australian tourists who were planning their cocktail hour upon returning to their hotel and we had to break the news to them that it was a dry country due to the elections. We gave them “directions’ to our source in the market and hoped they found some libations for the evening.

There is no doubt that Taquile is beautiful and we felt we saw an authentic way of life (questionable on the Uros Islands), but we also felt unwelcome, which is odd for a community that has decided to become a tourist destination. It is hard to say whether I would recommend either excursion to someone traveling in Peru.

The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands

Maybe it was because we had such a good time in the Colca Canyon. Maybe it was because I ended up so sick that we had to spend substantial cash to change our flights and travel plans back to Ecuador and missed one stop on our vacation. Maybe it is because I live with a gorgeous ocean view and have become spoiled. In any event, Lake Titicaca was the low point on an otherwise spectacular trip to Peru.

Sunrise Over the Lake

Sunrise Over the Lake

Lake Titicaca’s fame, apart from a name that sounds naughty, is as the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,725 feet (3,856 meters) above sea level. It forms a natural separation between Peru and Bolivia. The main tourist attractions are visiting the floating Uros Islands and one of the solid islands known for the handicrafts produced there. Puno is the main Peruvian city on the lake and we knew not to expect much from it. So we booked two nights in a nice hotel and planned to spend our full day on a tour to see the Uros Islands and Taquile Island.

Hotel Libertador

Our Oasis – Hotel Libertador

My highpoint of our stay came that first night. The Peruvian elections were the next day and we remembered that alcohol sales are prohibited beginning the afternoon prior to the election until the afternoon after the election. Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work for us native Wisconsinites. After confirming that the hotel also couldn’t sell alcohol (although we could have broken into the over-priced mini-bar), we were on a mission. We had some other errands to run and then asked the cab driver if he knew somewhere we could buy alcohol. He named the major grocery chain and we explained that his country’s laws didn’t permit alcohol sales. Clearly the man wasn’t a drinker, because he assured us we were wrong. To be agreeable, we dashed into the store to confirm our knowledge and asked him for a Plan B. He thought a moment and took us to the city market – a multi-block, sprawling affair – dropped us off on the corner where he would wait, and directed us to a store a block down and to the left. We set off and were overwhelmed by a typical, Peruvian market of chaos -food, clothes, sundries, probably some live chickens had we looked hard enough. We backtracked after a few rows and then realized we needed to get a grip. This was nothing new for us and we speak the language. After asking the cell phone vendor where to buy booze, we were given the same directions and found a corner stall doing a booming and obvious business. We bought a bottle of wine for each night’s dinner and were on our way. That night at the hotel restaurant, I brought the wine in my handbag and asked the waiter if they were able to open and serve it to us. He was very gracious and assured us it was no problem, but then tried mightily to get us to give up our seller. He told us how incredibly high the fines were and that he couldn’t believe we found anywhere to buy it. I couldn’t decide if he wanted to turn the vendor in or stop and buy a bottle for himself! (Yes, I recognize that this highpoint says something about me, but apart from being happy to have wine to enjoy with our dinner, the highpoint came from the fact that we actually knew about this law and could navigate everything in Spanish. It made us feel like we really had lived in Peru once upon a time.)

The next day we headed to the pier for our trip on the lake. We soon realized that we had paid way too much by booking in advance, but we got over that pretty quickly. We were ushered onto a speedboat that was closed and comfortable, particularly when compared to the Galapagos ferries. We were excited for our trip as we headed to the first stop, the Uros Islands.

Our excitement started to wane when we reached the islands about 20 minutes later. Island after island had the same scene – reed houses, a tower, a traditional boat, solar panels and colorfully garbed ladies trying to flag down our boat.

The floating ATM was a dead giveaway of the shakedown yet to come.

ATM

ATM

We eventually stopped at Khana Marka Mayku and disembarked on the squishy reed island. It was like a moon walk at a county fair. A bit unsteady, we were herded to the communal area where we were introduced to the family that lived on this tiny island and greeted with a song.

The traditional garb was bright and colorful, the people were smiling and friendly and the overview of life on the island was interesting. We learned that the island is made by first hacking though the reeds to turn them into reed-root blocks that are tied together to form the base of the island. Layers of fresh reeds are placed on top and fortified every few months with new reeds tossed on top to counteract the decay. The islands are secured to the bottom of the lake so they don’t float away, but can be up-anchored and moved. Family units live together on the islands and have communal cooking, eating and living areas and private sleeping areas. The government provided solar panels, but there was some concern over what the monthly charges would be as they hadn’t been disclosed. There were two island schools – one public and one run by Seventh Day Adventists – and a soccer field. Families rotate which islands are open for tourism.

We learned that the families mainly eat fish, birds and reeds in addition to what they buy with the money from sale of these items and the tourism trade. We were invited to try the reeds and assured by our guide that they were safe to eat. Given my subsequent illness, I think I should have passed on the reeds.

After the demonstrations and information came the sales pitch. First the women showed their lovely textiles. I am a sucker for textiles and was prepared to buy one or two to support the local economy. Before that happened, we were separated into small groups and “invited” into a home by one of the women. This is where the hard sell occurred as we were shown each of her wares and pressured to buy. It gave me flashbacks to being 20 and locked into an upper room by a Moroccan rug merchant! This time, I had cash and was happy to make a few purchases to spring our early release.

After everyone had bought a suitable amount of souvenirs, we were invited for a ride (at an extra cost) on one of the traditional boats. Most of us gamely climbed on board and Matt and I secured an upper deck seat. They women sent us off with a song and a cheesy “Hasta la vista, Baby!” shout.

Once on deck, 8-year old Israel and his pouty, 3-year-old sister Rosa made their way up top to entertain us. He told me about taking a boat to school, what he studied and pointed out the floating soccer field. He was sweet and cheerful while his sister was a terror who spent most of her time punching him. I couldn’t imagine living on an island with that little monster and wondered how harmonious their island life was. Israel ended with a song after which he and his sister hit us up for money. We complied but were later told by other tourists that they were specifically instructed by their tour organizer to not give money to the children. While I understood, I would have felt worse not giving money to Israel and a few bucks wasn’t going to matter to us while it might to them.

We were dropped off on another island for a short, low pressure shopping stop before heading to Taquile Island, about a 2 hour boat ride away. The Uros Islands were interesting, but the staged, orchestrated affair had none of the charm of our home stay in Sibayo. In Sibayo we were also offered goods for sale, but we did not feel the shake down of the island, nor were the children used to beg from us. We also were unclear: how much of this Uros lifestyle we saw was genuine and how much for our benefit? Matt and I were already toured out for the day and hoped Taquile would be a better experience as we settled in for the boat ride there.

El Condor Pasa – Cruising the Colca Canyon Part III

Soaring

Soaring

The main reason most people travel to the Colca Canyon is to see the Andean condors soar through the valley and we were no exception. While we enjoyed all of our trip: hikes, homestay, bird watching, hot springs, cave art and more, the main event was watching the condors.

Our guide, Salome, planned the viewing perfectly: we left our hotel at 7:30 to travel to Condor Cross and arrived shortly before 8. Only a few tourists were gathered. The bus tours stay in a town farther away or come from Arequipa, so we were able to sleep in, if you consider getting up at 6:30 am to be sleeping in, and still arrive before the masses.

Salome quickly got us situated in a prime spot she had shown us the previous day and immediately directed our attention downward where 5 condors were gathered (we only spotted 4, but Salome leaned waaay over and saw a fifth). We laughed that none of the other tourists had noticed them and then nicely showed them where the condors were resting.

And then we waited. And waited. We were now inundated with other tourists, but held firm to our prized positions. I bushed off some very rusty Italian and chatted with a friendly, Italian-speaking Swiss tourist. A hawk flew by and got us all excited until we realized it was only a hawk. Then one juvenile condor, followed by a second, took off and began soaring through the valley. It was breathtaking to watch them glide and drift through the canyon on the air currents. Eventually, the adult condors got in on the action and other condors also appeared to provide us excellent, live entertainment.

We Have Lift Off!

We Have Lift Off!

What goes up, must come down…

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After about an hour, we started the short hike to the van. I was delighted with having seen 6 condors at that point, but on our return hike we saw another 8 condors. Every time we stopped watching to walk a bit more, another one or two would appear. We felt incredibly fortunate especially because the Belgians we met at the homestay only saw two condors the day they visited. Lilian later teased us and asked whether we would brag about how many condors we saw if we ran into them in Lake Titicaca. We did not see the Belgians again, so we were not tested.

Our day’s fun was not over. On our way out of the canyon we stopped in Maca to enjoy a colca sour  – a pisco sour made with cactus fruit (sancayo) juice. While I normally skip street food due to a sensitive stomach even after living in Peru, I wasn’t passing up a colca sour! Salome knows the owner, so we also got to see the skull of a family ancestor. They don’t know exactly who the person was but found the skull when tilling the family field. They named it Juan (I think) and treat it respectfully (if charging a small gratuity to see it counts as respect). Note his elongated skull of the Collaguas people.

Maca was set up for tourism, something that gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not begrudge anyone from making a living, particularly from tasty cocktails, and if we can help drive a local economy, I am happy to do it. On the other hand, there is a fine line between sharing one’s culture and turning it into a tourist trap. Our homestay was a genuine experience, Maca was borderline and Lake Titicaca was the worst of its kind.

After our drink, we visited Santa Ana church. We had visited a handful of mountain churches on our trip, but after the grandeur of the Arequipa churches and monasteries, we were a bit churched-out. Maca’s church had been damaged in an earthquake but still retained much of its spectacular, gold-leafed interior. It also had an impressive display of statues, most with gorgeous embroidered clothing. Salome pointed out the indigenous and Spanish influences in all of these mountain churches. She also told us how the main statues used in processions would get new clothes every year and how families would try to outdo one another with the grandness of the clothing.

Finally, there were these crazy statues in the town square.

Salome tried to ask a local about the action-hero guerrilla on the woman’s back but all the man would say was that the statue wasn’t a correct depiction. When Salome asked what the proper depiction should be or what the folktale was behind the statue, he kept complaining how the statue wasn’t done correctly. Eventually she gave up, but Matt and I felt vindicated. We feel like we have these bizarre conversations often in Spanish and always attribute it to our lack of language skills. But no, sometimes people just spend a lot of effort repeating the same non- answer over and over again!

We left Maca and made our way out of the canyon with one final scenic stop to view the mountains. Then we were on to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca where Salome and Lilian left us to make their long drive back to Arequipa to be home in time for the obligatory elections the next day. What a great trip we had with them!

Going Native – A Homestay in Sibayo (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part II)

I am wearing an embroidered, gathered skirt, heavy shawl and too-small hat as I dance around a fire in a small, cobblestone courtyard – no easy feat in hiking boots and at an altitude of 12,730 feet (3880 meters) above sea level. Welcome to a homestay at Samana Wasi, in the Peruvian town of Sibayo.

After our stop in Sumbay (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art), we continued through the canyon with a few stops along the way, most notably at the Castillos Encantados (Enchanted Castles) where we took a short hike to enjoy the rock formations.

We arrived in Sibayo and were greeted by Nieves and Vesevio, the owners of Samana Wasi. In an effort to assist communities with maintaining traditional lifestyles, the government has promoted “experiential tourism” in towns like Sibayo. Guests stay with a family and see a traditional way of life and the tourist income allows the locals to continue that life. The Peruvian government fronted money to improve the infrastructure of Sibayo with new cobblestone roads, a quaint town square, a lookout pavilion that doubles as a community center, statutes and paint in cheerful colors to liven up the homes. Several families formed a cooperative to host tourists and initially guests booked through a central agency that placed tourists in the various homes. But Vesevio told Salome that the co-op system has broken down because some families had very poor accommodations and tour agencies began booking directly with the better homes. Vesevio was proud to say that his home had the most bookings, a fact confirmed by our tour agent who made a point to tell us that we were staying in the best home in Sibayo.

Semana Wasi was a small lodge with traditional single story stone buildings with thatched roofs surrounding a courtyard. Our room was…rustic. If this room was the best in town, what were the other rooms like? The plain furnishings, less than spotless blankets and cement floor were not a complete surprise, but the stench was overpowering. We had an attached bathroom, but the promised shower wasn’t there and the bathroom had a 3/4 wall between ours and another bathroom. We stood in our room a bit stunned for a few minutes not wanting to offend anyone. But how could you miss the smell of shit? Ultimately we closed the bathroom door and held our breath any time we needed to use it. No shower? No problem as we wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in the bathroom anyhow. Once again, my years at the cottage with an outhouse served me well. We ultimately decided that the plumbing must not be hooked up properly (or at all) and chalked it up to another adventure.* We met fellow lodgers – a group from Belgium – who told us that they were booked into a hotel but decided to stay another night at the lodge. Apparently their rooms didn’t stink or they weren’t as particular as we are.

But while the room was lacking, the hospitality was not. After a stroll through town, we joined Nieves, her daughter-in-law (whose name I never caught) and Dulce, a rejected 1-month old alpaca, in the kitchen as our meal was made. Nieves and the other woman were friendly and we had a nice conversation about Dulce and the food that was being prepared. We also learned why the women wore different hats. Nieves and Lady (Nieves 13-year old daughter) wore tall, white hats with some shiny bling and a flower or two. Nieves daughter-in-law’s hat was lower with embroidery as was one of the other woman’s hats. The women wear the traditional hat of their culture: Collagua or Cabana. Both cultures practiced skull shaping until it was banned by the conquering Spaniards. The Collagua forced skulls into a taller, narrower shape and the Cabana forced skulls into a squatter, broader shape. Once the practice was banned, they demonstrated their cultures through their hats. The Collagua wear white, tall hats, and the Cabana wear low, embroidered hats. Marriage does not change the hat one wears, which is why the daughter-in-law still wore the hat of her ancestors, and the type of hat is determined by the mother (so the daughter of a Collagua man and a Cabana woman would wear the Cabana hat of her mother’s culture). After our visit in the kitchen, we sat down with the friendly Belgians to enjoy a traditional meal of fresh tea, quinoa soup, pancakes and rice.

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

That evening we were treated to a traditional Pachamama (World Mother or Mother Earth) ceremony. Honoring pachamama through traditional rituals remains common and Salomé’s family still engages in the practice despite living in Arequipa. Offerings are made to Pachamama to ensure good plantings, harvests, travel and health. Vesevio asked for good travel for all of us and good health for an ailing guest during our ceremony, which included offerings of coca leaves and other herbs being passed around the circle and offered to the mountain apus (spirits). It was very interesting but we did not take pictures out of respect.

Then the party began. We were dressed in traditional garb and the local musicians showed up. Soon we were all dancing. And what would be a dance without some shots?

Shots!

The Belgians had a 5:30 wake up call so the party ended around 9. We crawled into bed and were thankful for the heavy alpaca blankets as it was about 50 degrees in the room. We slept well until a rooster started crowing at 3:30. Yep, we were back in Peru! We had a simple breakfast and then Nieves escorted us on a walk through the town to a suspension bridge. Sibayo’s people were famous for the long treks they would make from the mountains to the coast. They would pack up their mountain goods, trade them along the way to the coast where they would collect seaweed (needed for iodine in those days) and trade it along the trek home. The round trip took about 3 months. There are still some older villagers who made this trek in their youth.

We continued past the square, to the suspension bridge and then up to the lookout. Our conversation lagged a bit, but then Nieves and I began to talk about the plants she was collecting and their uses. It was very interesting to hear how the plants are still used to treat all common maladies and made me want to learn more about their medicinal properties. Back at Samana Wasi, we said goodbye to the family and headed on our way through the canyon.

We enjoyed a unique experience with a wonderful family who made us feel welcome and at ease. It is odd to view someone’s lifestyle as a tourist attraction, but this visit was very comfortable and it felt as though the family was showing us their normal activities and not a “show” for the tourists. A few days later we would experience the “show” when we toured Lake Titicaca, but we left Sibayo with a warm feeling and an appreciation for the life they continue to lead there.

Part III – The Condors

* Note: I mentioned the plumbing problem to the tour operator who said he would tell the family so it could correct the issue.

Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art

Las Ventanas del Colca - the Windows to Colca

Las Ventanas del Colca – the Windows to Colca

We were happy to be back in Peru: we had dinner with friends in Lima, revisited Machu Picchu the easy way and not after a 4-day hike, relaxed in Cusco, and enjoyed the great restaurants and colonial streets of Arequipa. Then we hopped into a van with our driver Lilian and our guide Salomé, left Arequipa and headed for the Colca Canyon, hailed as the second-deepest in the world at 3,400 meters (11,155 feet)  and “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon,” for a 3-day adventure.

What a fantastic time! We lucked out with the weather – the rain came as we drove (not lucky for Lilian) or ate lunch. I generally hate car rides, but Salomé was an entertaining and knowledgable guide and Lilian an excellent driver. The roads on this trip were well maintained by Peruvian standards and I had none of the terror our trip to Kuelap had induced. (Roadtripping and Kuelap – The City in the Clouds posts) We enjoyed the views and a few hikes back at high altitude. It was great to be in the Andes, breathing the fresh mountain air and enjoying the vicuña, alpaca and llama sightings as well as the mountain peaks.

Apart from seeing the condors (subject of an upcoming post), my other goal quickly became to finally learn to identify the difference between alpacas and llamas. Confession: for the 2 years I lived in Peru any time I had a camelid picture, I would run it by my cousin Maureen who raises alpacas to get the proper identification (thanks Maureen!). Salomé gave me more specific identification pointers and, after 3 days, I felt fairly confident. Until we learned that some of the confusing ones were likely cross-bred and thus a combo alpaca-llama. So here it goes: llamas have bigger, curvier ears and pointier faces while alpacas have straight ears and less pointy, smaller faces. I had been told that before, but things like “bigger” and “smaller” are relative, so it helps to have both animals to confidently distinguish. Then I got the definitive factor – look at their butts. Llama have tails that poof out and up and alpaca tails are against the body. At last, an easier method!

Salomé - left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Salomé – left hand is alpaca, right is llama!

Our next destination was to see 8,000 year old cave art in Sumbay. Sumbay is at an altitude of 14,429 feet (4,397 meters), so we first stopped for some coca tea to counter the effects of the high altitude.

We headed off the main road down a a rutted, rocky path, the worst of the entire trip. “Are you sure you don’t want us to walk?” I asked Lilian as I had visions of the van bottoming out and being stuck in the middle of nowhere. She assured us it was fine and navigated the so-called road. Salomé explained that during a mining boom the railroad stopped in Sumbay and the town was thriving, but subsequently better roads were built, the railroad ceased and Sumbay became a ghost town save one lone holdout who literally has the key to the caves. As soon as we pulled into the abandoned town, there was José. We initially weren’t sure whether he was irritated that we were there as he stood with his arms crossed over his chest in a somewhat aggressive pose, but it became quickly apparent that he was anxious for the company and happy to show us around. He told Salomé that he was halfway up the mountain with his grazing animals and when he saw the van on the road, he ran down the mountain so he could be waiting for us. A race we didn’t even know we were having! I found José as interesting as the cave art: why would he stay isolated in Sumbay when his family and village had all moved on? Like most people, José didn’t want to leave the life he knew. He had animals to care for, the cave to protect and he found Arequipa, where his wife and children lived, to be too chaotic and busy. So he lives alone, with occasional visits from his family and one or two tourist visits a week.

After some conversation, we set off on a 20 minute hike into the canyon to see the caves. Along the way we saw this cute viscacha skipping over the rocks.

Viscacha

Viscacha

We arrived at the caves and José unlocked the chain link fence so we could get close to the art. Most of the figures were camelids and it is believed that the pictures depict the domestication of the animals. There are some hunting and domestication scenes as well a couple of pumas and some rheas, which are American relatives of the ostrich and emu.  It was a spectacular sight tucked away in the valley. José was a capable guide and pointed out all of the notable figures to us. After hiking back to the town, we said goodbye to José after tipping him and giving him some of our snacks. We would have bought provisions for him had we known the isolated life he leads.

And that “twice as deep as the Grand Canyon” claim to fame? Well, it’s a bit misleading. The canyon’s depth is measured from the tippy top of its highest peak, not anywhere tourists are going to hang out. In some places, the top of the canyon is pretty close to its bottom. It doesn’t have the wide, open expanse of the Grand Canyon, and the vertical drop-offs aren’t as steep. The canyon is habitable and pre-Incan and Incan cultures created terraces for farming the land. While the Colca Canyon is spectacular, the majesty of the Grand Canyon is still tops in my book.

Farmland in the Valley

Farmland in the Colca Valley

Next Stop: A Home Stay in Sibayo

Our Failed Hike to Pichincha

We spent a few days in Quito in January for our visa paperwork. We had picture-perfect weather and took advantage of the blue skies and temperate climate to hit the mountains. Quito is the highest capital city in the world at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) above sea level, located in the Andes mountains on the eastern slope of Pichincha, an active volcano. Our plan was to take the “teleférico” or cable car up the side of Pichincha, stroll about and enjoy the views. The plan started out perfectly – the gondola line was short, the trip from an elevation of 2,950 (9,678 feet) up to 4,050 meters (13,287 feet) pleasant and the views breathtaking. We could see all of Quito and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We started to stroll about and I pointed to a peak in the distance and said, “let’s go there.”

We have done this sort of thing before. In the Italian Alps we wanted to hike to the Ritten Earth Pillars and and set off on a trail that we thought would get us there (it didn’t). We had no provisions, and I wore sandals and a straw hat and looked like I was ready to go to an outdoor brunch, not climb a mountain. Soon we were surrounded by hearty Germans with their hiking boots, poles and rucksacks. Despite our appearance, we made it to the summit albeit a little cold and with sore feet. Similarly, in the High Tatras of Slovakia we set off on what we intended to be a provisioned hike except that our hiking lodge only sold potato chips and candy bars. We did have hiking boots and backpacks in addition to our potato chips and candy bars, but some miscalculations caused us to hike about 10 miles away from our lodge and we still needed to get back! We will be eternally grateful to the two Polish guys in the scary-looking red panel van who stopped and gave us a ride back down the mountain although we still needed to catch a train and then hike 2 miles back to our lodge. We got there… around 10 pm. But I had none of this in mind when I pointed to the peak.

Truth be told, I pointed to a peak very near us. I had no idea that the trail went all the way up the darn mountain (4,698 meters/15,413 feet)and also forgot that once we start hiking, Matt always wants to go to the highest peak. So off we set with two entirely different hikes in mind. Once again, while we had some water we had no other provisions but at least had on semi-adequate footwear.

High Peak - Where Matt Thought We Were Headed

High Peak – Where Matt Thought We Were Headed

It was a glorious day. The hike was relatively easy apart from the elevation that always leaves me short of breath. We were giddy to be back in the mountains after months at sea level. Other hikers were on the trail: just enough to make us feel comfortable but not too many to spoil the experience.

It became cooler and cloudier but we forged ahead.

And then we got to the end of the trail.

End of the Trail...for Us

End of the Trail…for Us

It was weird how the path abruptly ended at this narrow part in the trail. We stood there looking at it and a few guys we had passed earlier while they enjoyed lunch came up behind us. We pointed out how the trail ended and they assured it it didn’t – we just had to scale this 15-foot rocky area and the trail begins again. Go ahead, we told them. Next thing we knew the 3 guys were up and over and out of sight. Hmm, it can’t be that hard, we thought. The guys weren’t particularly athletic looking and we were keeping pace with them the entire hike. We tried, we really did. Oddly, Matt was less enthusiastic than I was. He kept mentioning that if we fell we were going strait down and how even if we got up and over, we would still have to descend. I was determined but after 3 attempts was ready to quit. Then two other tourist – German or Swiss or some alpine heritage to be sure – arrived. We showed them that the trail didn’t end and in a blink of an eye, the guy was up and over. The woman offered to let us go next, but we declined. Her final tips were to keep our bodies close to the mountain and to use our arms and then she was over. She looked like she was ready to coach us through the experience but we waved her along her way. I tried one more time, thinking “close to the mountain, use my arms, 5 people just made this look like child’s play” and got stuck again. Enough was enough and we had a pleasant descent feeling only slightly loser-ish. “We didn’t have enough water anyhow,” we justified, “we were getting cold and didn’t have warm clothes.” Yeah, whatever, we were just chickens and bad climbers!

Stuck!

Stuck!

The next day we went for a pleasant walk in Metropolitano Park. Again at high altitude, this really was an easy experience except for a difference in opinion on how to leave the park that ended with us walking about a mile and a half out of our way via a descent to a locked gate and then back up the side of the mountain. While the views were not as spectacular as from Pichincha, it was another beautiful day in the mountains.

Our legs were a bit sore from two days of hiking, but it was a nice change of pace from swimming.

Our One Year Ecuadorian Anniversary

One year ago today, Matt and I moved to Ecuador. It was a whirlwind: we traveled to the Galapagos Islands at the end of February 2015 for Matt’s job interview with the Tomas de Berlanga school, the school made him an offer and two weeks later we left Peru. After two weeks in the US getting together paperwork for our visas, we landed in Quito. A frustrating month of bureaucracy later, and we were on the Galapagos, ready to begin the next phase of our expat lives. One year later, we are back in Peru on vacation to visit some friends and see the sights we missed when we lived there. Who said you can never go back?

Truth be told, we preferred our life in Peru to our life in the Galapagos. As my friend Beth pointed out when we announced our move, we never even went on beach vacations but were moving to an island. We were captivated by the beauty and mystique of the Galapagos and forged ahead. We did not account for the isolation, intemperate climate, small town life and limited accessibility to well, everything. We thought we were prepared for these things (apart from the climate) after living in the the Andes of Peru, but island living is psychologically very different and the Galapagos are more remote than Cajamarca. Island living also seems to attract many interesting types of people and while we have made some excellent friends and met many smart and accomplished folks, there are a lot of quirky personalities that land on an island and never leave.

Despite its challenges, we have had amazing experiences in the past year. We’ve snorkeled with sharks (more times than I wanted, which would have been none), rays, penguins, turtles, eels and fish galore. We’ve seen blue footed and red footed boobies, albatrosses doing their mating dance, frigates, herons, tropicbirds, rare gulls, hawks, owls and Galapagos finches and mockingbirds. We have visited the giant tortoises in the highlands and hiked on lava fields and in lava craters. Daily we stroll past snoozing sea lions, seemingly prehistoric marine iguanas and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs. We go to sleep with the sound of the surf as our lullaby.

We buy fresh seafood at the fish market and have learned the true meaning of “when your ship comes in” as we wait for the cargo ship to arrive to restock the grocery shelves. We coexist with geckos, teeny-tiny ants and spiders, and I kill huge cockroaches (almost) without a second thought. I will never get used to not flushing my toilet paper. We have become friendlier with strangers because sometimes all it takes to forge a connection is a Green Bay Packers shirt.

And our experiences are not limited to the islands. One day after our arrival in Quito we witnessed the Good Friday procession, which was a purple-clad sight to be seen. We experienced the equator twice – once by land and once by sea. We visited the Amazon jungle where the monkeys were my favorite although swimming in a lake full of caiman, anacondas, electric eels and piranhas makes a great story. We toured churches and museums in Quito, including the moving Guayasamin museum. We learned that land iguanas sleep in trees when we couldn’t find them the morning we went to Iguana Park in Guayquil and then thought to look up.

This year has not been the easiest, but it has brought new and unique experiences. Some day I will be sitting in a nursing home and the staff will be rolling their eyes and assuming I have lost it when I talk about when I lived on the Galapagos Islands.

Hanging Out in the Highlands

Santa Cruz Island is not all beaches and marine life. There is also the middle of the island, the “Parte Alta” or Highlands, that is lush and green. Here you find the giant tortoises*.

The Galapagos giant tortoises have had a rough history. After enjoying island life for many years, they were rendered close to extinction (and some species are believed to be extinct) due to their use as a food source by pirates, whalers and sailors and the introduction of animal species that feast on the eggs, compete for food or damage the tortoises’ natural habitat. Human habitation on the islands also contributed to the tortoises’ demise. The tortoises are now legally protected and thanks to conservation efforts, including eradicating some introduced animal species and captive breeding and raising, their numbers have increased. It is not unusual to see them on the side of the road in the Highlands. Shortly after we arrived, a school parent was driving us in the Highlands when I mentioned that I wanted to see a tortoise in the wild. He obliged me by spotting this one.

Wallowing in the Mud

Wallowing in the Mud

Of course, then we had to oblige by trekking through the mud to see it up close!

To increase your chance to see more of them and to get a little closer (but not closer than 6 feet – the law in Galapagos for any animal) it is better to visit a tortoise reserve. The reserves are nothing more than private land on which the tortoises like to hang out. They cannot be held captive and come and go as they please. For females, this includes making an annual trek to the beach to lay their eggs.

In the past year I have gone to three tortoise reserves: Rancho El Manzanillo, El Chato and Rancho Primicias. All are essentially the same. You take a cab from town and then pay $3 to wander around and look at whatever tortoises are hanging about. El Chato and Primicias have the added bonus of lava tunnels on the property that you can walk through. I first went to El Manzanillo with a visiting tourist, Diana, whom I met on a snorkeling tour. Diana was traveling alone so we palled around for a few days. The day we went to the Highlands was rainy and by the end we were soaked and muddy.

In addition to El Manzanillo, we also stopped at the Los Tuneles de Amor for a walk through an 800 meter/875 yard lava tunnel (also muddy but too dark for good photos) and hiked into a crater at Cerro Mesa. I set us on such a brisk hiking pace that the owners didn’t believe we went all the way to the crater’s bottom!

My next tortoise reserve visit was with Carl and Sheri to El Chato. This property has a number of short lava tunnels. Sheri and I walked through one of them and then left Carl to do the rest on his own. Above ground, we saw several tortoises.

Last week Matt made his first visit to a tortoise reserve with our friends Jill, Claude, Jamie, Sonia and Kathy. We started our Rancho Primicias adventure at the challenging lava tunnel and were rewarded by this guy at the entrance.

Tunnel Greeter

Tunnel Greeter

After shimmying our way though a tight squeeze, it got even tougher when we had to crawl!

We remarked as we made our way through the tunnel that it would never fly in the US due to liability concerns. The way was dark, slippery, rocky and treacherous at times, but we had a ball and were happy to be out of the scorching sun.

After the tunnel, we went in search of giant tortoises and were not disappointed.

General silliness ensued after the hike.

A visit to the Highlands is worth it when you are on the island. It is nice to get away from the beach and see a different environment and the tortoises are amazing. Some we saw were around 170 years old and one weighed about 500 pounds. Even Matt, who was a reluctant visitor to the reserve, thought it was a good time.

Thanks to Diana, Jill, Jamie and Sheri for their photos. Matt too, of course, but I always am using his photos!

*Thanks to Jill, I finally learned that a turtle swims and lives in water at least part of the time and a tortoise lives on land.

 

2,000 Books and Growing – Library Project Update

As I previously blogged about (here https://kerryedwyer.com/2015/07/10/one-book-at-a-time/, here https://kerryedwyer.com/2015/08/20/power-of-social-media-kindness-of-strangers-500-books/, here https://kerryedwyer.com/2015/09/25/open-for-business/ and here https://kerryedwyer.com/2015/11/01/the-kindness-of-strangers-part-ii/), my volunteer project in the Galapagos is to create and maintain a bilingual library for the Tomas de Berlanga school. In 8 months, we have made a lot of progress.

This is what the library looked like when I started the project in June:

Dumping Ground

Dumping Ground

We built and unveiled a new library with 900 books on September 24, 2015:

The New Stacks

The New Stacks – Room to Grow!

And closed the library for the school year last Friday:

Fabulous Volunteer About two weeks after the library opened, the school welcomed a volunteer from Germany, the amazing Helena. In addition to being hard working, fluent in English, friendly and kind, Helena is mature beyond her years. Helena’s help was crucial as we embarked on changing the school culture from one with limited reading and no accountability for the books to one with a fully functional library. Between the two of us, we were able to keep up with the indexing and labeling of donated books, have the library open 3 days a week and provide set library times for all of the classes.

Library Accomplishments In the 4 months the library has been open, we:

  1. More than doubled the number of books in the library to 2,075 books.  1,790 books are in English, 267 books are in Spanish and 18 books are bilingual.
  2. Manually checked out 972 books to students and 115 books to teachers.
  3. Held story hours with pre-school, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade classes.
  4. Increased the number of teachers using the library from 2 to 12, including all of the English teachers.
  5. Trained the students on proper library conduct: checking out and returning books, shelving books, appropriate book handling.

Fundraising In addition to the on-site work, we continued working to obtain books and other resources for the library. In November, through the efforts of Hector Viela and Amy Torres, we started a GoFundMe campaign that raised $725. https://www.gofundme.com/wa6skk5z. We have spent about 1/2 of the funds to buy library materials and to mail books that Amy continues to collect for us in the US. The remaining funds will be used to build seating for the library once we have enough raised to commission some tables and benches.

Book Donations We continue to receive book donations from friends in the US. Thank you Tanya Oemig and Candy Underwood for mailing books to the Galapagos! Matt and I also brought back 100 pounds of books from a weekend trip to visit our family in NYC. Thanks to Mick, Andy, Tom and Sue for collecting these books (and Mary Ziino and Bridget Paul for their donations) and bringing them to us in NYC. Galapagos visitor Alex Doubek kindly brought some books from his collection when Mick put us in touch before his trip. Amy Torres also was able to deliver another 84 books to us via Pablo Weaver and his students from the University of La Verne who came on a study trip to the Galapagos. Amy is visiting us again this summer, this time bringing her daughter, more books and her never-ending support!

We also received donations from the school community. A school parent and labeling volunteer, Jessi Pfeltz Mahauad, donated 50 books when her family returned to the US. A 6th grade student, Lymin, took it upon herself to donate books she had read or outgrown, and additional parents have donated some books from their collections as well.

Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Bring a Book Program Visitors from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic ships are invited to visit the school as one of their on-shore expeditions. Every time Matt led a tour, the tourists bemoaned the fact that they hadn’t brought books to donate to the school. Some were kind enough to mail books after their trip. The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic fund is also a generous donor to the school via student scholarships and an invaluable school supporter. Through conversations spearheaded by school parent and Lindblad employee Emma Ridley, we launched a “Bring a Book” program for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic travelers. Those who wish to support our library can bring a book or two of their choice or select books from an Amazon wish list (https://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/wishlist/2OPJUUA6G2N4D). I constantly update the list to reflect the gaps in our collection as well as specific requests by students and teachers (although I nixed one student’s request for a World of Minecraft manual).

While our other book collection efforts have yielded great books, mailing books is cost prohibitive and takes several months, while transporting large quantities of books from the US is inconvenient and burdensome for the traveler. Through the Bring a Book program, folks can bring one or two books, nothing onerous, and we get a steady stream of needed resources. In the first 2 months of the program we received 370 books! When the library opened, our limited book supply meant that students could only take out one book at a time per language and teachers were limited in the books they could check out for classroom use. Due to the new books, we will be able to increase the checkout limit and provide more books to the teachers.

Community Value While the library patrons are limited to the school community, the impact goes beyond our students. One 6th grade student consistently took out a picture book in Spanish to take home to read to his younger sister. A teacher also checked out books to read to her young child. It is exciting that the resources are being used to instill a love of reading in children who are too young to attend school.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the library project. It has been exactly what I need. I find island living extremely challenging: isolating, limited and lonely at times. Reading is my passion and to turn that into an on-going volunteer project that engages me is a win-win for me and the school.

Ringing in the New Year

Happy 2016 to All! I am all set for it to be a fantastic year because I participated in all of the Ecuadorian superstitions/traditions in order to ensure luck, prosperity and love (hot sex too, according to some). I collected everyone’s advice and on December 31, I was ready. My lovely German volunteer, Helena, was on board with me to make 2016 a year to remember.

First up, yellow underwear.

Yellow Underwear

Shopping for Luck. Or Hot Sex.

I first heard that one wears yellow underwear for luck. I don’t own yellow underwear (TMI?) but while out shopping on New Year’s Eve came across this display and thought, “why not?” I was all set when we headed out for dinner with some friends on December 31 until one friend told me that you couldn’t wear the underwear early but had to change into it at midnight. Umm, we planned to be in the main square watching fireworks (and eating grapes, but that comes later) at midnight, so I opted to ignore this additional caveat. Another friend who heard of our tradition quest asked about the yellow underwear, but she told me it was to ensure a year of hot sex and that the underwear had to be new and a gift. However, she said wearing it all night was just fine. As my underwear was new and Matt had pulled the money out of his wallet to pay for it and our other purchases, I am all set for a year of luck and/or hot sex.

Wearing red and green. Red is for love and green is for health. Which one to pick? If I don’t wear red, will Matt run off with an 18 year old Galapagueña? But health is top of my list as I get older. I opted for a shirt with red in it and green earrings, thus covering both bases. Matt stuck with plaid shorts that had a thin line of green, so apparently he is not concerned about me running off with a hottie surfer. Helena covered all of the bases with patterned underwear with red, yellow and green.

Money in one’s shoe to bring a year of prosperity. This was a problem as I wear sandals here. A little tape and I was set. A cabbie had told me $10, so I went with that figuring I didn’t mind losing $10 if the tape loosened.

Money in Shoe

Ready for Prosperity

Once again, caveats were added by a friend – LEFT shoe and it was better on the sole. Also, the bigger the bill the more prosperous, according to some. We were already out so I did a quick adjustment with my 10 spot.

LEFT shoe!

LEFT sole!

Change jingling in one’s pocket is also said to bring prosperity. I put change in BOTH pockets and fully expect to win a big lottery jackpot this year. (Note I did not say “win the lottery” as I do not intend all this effort to result in me winning a measly $2 in the Powerball!). Helena was equally committed and changed out of her cute, pocketless skirt into shorts with pockets.

Jingle Jangle

Jingle Jangle

My final tradition was to eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, while making a wish for each month. I gave it a shot but could only find large, seeded grapes on the island and it took me about 3 minutes to eat 12 of them. Maybe my January wish will come true? Matt and Helena did a much better job.

12 Grapes at Midnight

12 Grapes at Midnight

I contemplated another tradition to ensure a year of travel: pack a suitcase, carry your passport and run around your block or neighborhood at midnight. The farther you run; the farther you will travel. I decided to skip this one because my passport is with our attorney in Quito for visa paperwork, we live on an island and won’t have much opportunity to travel this year, and we planned to be in the square at midnight. Helena really wants to travel this year and was stuck with a dilemma until another friend said it was adequate to pack your suitcase and leave it by the door of your house and that your passport was not needed. Others questioned this modification, but he said that he did it twice and one year spent considerable time in Colombia and the other year spent 3 months in the US. We stopped at Helena’s house so she could pack her suitcase, and I hope she has a fantastic year of travel.

Another tradition is for men to dress up as the widow of the old year and beg for alms. During the day, Matt and I saw about a dozen such widows. He and our friends decided that they will participate in this tradition next year, so size 13 heels and a wig are now on our to-buy list for the US!

The night was a lot of fun with people out and about, effigies (Año Viejo or Old Year) that were burned at midnight, music and fireworks.

The effigies were a bit confusing. Why were people burning cartoon characters or the Pope? Especially the Pope tableau with the army figures where the Pope was labeled the “Pope of Peace” in obvious contract to the tank and soldiers.

Others were easier to understand although we needed the political one explained to us. We got the significance of the President (fair game on New Year’s Eve to poke fun at him), but the animal was a sheep representing his unquestioning followers and the sandwiches because he apparently gets supporters to events by giving out food.

All in all, a fun celebration and a good start to 2016. I can look forward to luck, love, health, prosperity, a wish or two and hot sex!