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.



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.

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?


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.



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

Happy Two Year (and a Day) Ex-pat Anniversary!

Two years ago yesterday, Matt and I landed in Peru and began our international living adventure.

Last Hurrah!

In the past two years we have:

  • Lived in 2 countries
  • Learned Spanish
  • Trekked to Machu Picchu
  • Acquired a donkey jaw as a musical instrument
  • Ate guinea pig
  • Swum with sharks, manta rays, sea lions and sea turtles

and so much more!

While the there will always be challenges and we miss our stateside family and friends, this adventure has been incredible. We have made new friendships that will stand the test of time and distance and had experiences we will never forget.

You only get one life, so live the life YOU want to live!

Young, wild and free

Young, wild and free

PS. This is my 100th blog post – thanks for reading!

The Long Reach of the IRS

Filing taxes isn’t fun for anyone, but I am an idiot when it comes to forms. So for years Matt handled our taxes using Turbo Tax. I would review them, make a few corrections (Turbo Tax isn’t perfect) and generally the process was pretty painless. Then came 2013 – the year we moved abroad.

The United States and Eritrea (no clue where that is) are the only two countries in the world that impose income taxes on the foreign income of non-resident citizens. To the surprise of many expats, this means that even if you have lived abroad for many years and have made no money on US soil, your foreign income is subject to US income tax and you have to file a tax return.

I will spare you the tax details, but in general if you are an expat you are allowed to exclude a certain amount of your expat income from taxation if you meet one of two foreign residency tests. One of the tests – physical presence – we couldn’t meet in 2013 because we spent too much time in the US that year so we had to get an extension to file our 2013 taxes in 2015 – after we lived in Peru for a calendar year.

So last December I sat down to work on the 2013 taxes we would be filing in January. I gathered all of Matt’s Davy pay stubs, actually figured out what everything meant on them, pulled up our W2s from our US jobs in 2013 and logged onto Turbo Tax. Denied! No computer system is available for taxes after October of the filing year, even though we had an extension. Thus began about 80 hours of reading tax forms, IRS guidance, and occasionally IRS regulations all in an effort to figure out how to determine our stinking taxes. I discovered that given our situation of both US income and Peruvian income I actually needed to figure out our taxes using 3 different methods. By hand. It was worth it because under one method we owed about $6,000 and under another, we had a $1,600 refund. Guess which one I chose!

We don’t have a printer here, so at one point in this process, I decided to go to an internet cafe to print off the forms and some of the tax instructions because I needed to complete the various worksheets on them. I had never been in one because we have internet in our home, but they are usually packed with kids playing computer games. This day was no exception although the occasional businessman stopped in, presumably to check email (or surf porn, who knows). It took me awhile to figure out the process, but in the end I had to download the documents I wanted to a drive and then go up to the clerk and ask him to open and print the documents for me. At one point he had to send a kid out for more paper and the kid returned with about 100 sheets – not a full ream, mind you! After about an hour I had about 60 pages of what I needed and called it a day.

Once in Wisconsin, I finished up the Wisconsin return and then encountered my next glitch – the paper size in Peru is slightly different than in the US so scanning and copying wasn’t working properly. After several meltdowns the returns were in the mail. But the fun wasn’t done.

First, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue ignored both the address on our tax return and the cover letter indicating our address and sent our refund to our old home, which we haven’t owned for over a year and a half! Thankfully, the kind new owner tracked me down via social media and got the check sent to Matt’s mom’s house for us. Today, after being on hold for over an hour, I learned that the IRS decided to mail our refund to us in Peru despite the fact that I provided bank information for direct deposit and a cover letter indicating that any correspondence should be sent to Matt’s mom’s house. ARGG. It’s anyone’s guess whether we will ever see that check because mail does not get delivered here, so now we will have to periodically trek to the post office to see if it has arrived. Only after a month can we ask the IRS to “investigate” what happened.

But I did learn from all of this. Our 2014 taxes were filed using Turbo Tax today. It was still several hours of work to tell the IRS we don’t owe them any money, but at least is is done. I hope.

To Flush or Not to Flush

After 3 weeks in the US and almost a week in Panama City, Panama, we were back in Peru. I was reminded of this the minute I stepped into the ladies’ room at the airport.

Don't Flush the TP

Don’t Flush the TP

Yep, you read that correctly. Don’t flush the toilet paper. In the toilet. These signs are prevalent in Peru, but I have to admit – even if I am reading the sign, the TP often goes right in the toilet. Why? Because it’s toilet paper. As Matt said, it is not called poopy paper: it is specifically designed to be flushed. So my practice is that if there is a sign, I do my best to override 44 years of toilet training and throw the paper in the trash can. But if there is no sign, all bets are off and in the toilet the paper goes.

But I was never really sure about the propriety of my actions. Every private home also has a covered garbage can in the bathroom, but I preferred to assume this was to throw out Kleenex and the like. Unfortunately, when we rented our very nice vacation apartment in Lima, a similar sign reared its ugly head. I pointed it out to Matt. “Ugh, no way,” was his reaction. After I mentioned that he would be the one plunging any blocked commode, we both did our best to comply. Gross.

One evening over drinks, I asked our Peruvian friend Korinne about the proper etiquette. “So, if I am at someone’s house, can I flush the toilet paper?” I casually worked this question into our conversation. She was aghast. “No, it wouldn’t be polite!” The horrified look on her face was priceless. It was as though I had asked if I could poop on the floor. Matt sought clarification, “So it is more polite for me to put shitty paper in your garbage can?” “Yes, of course.”  She sought to clarify: “The pipes aren’t very big and can get blocked.” This makes sense with objects apart from toilet paper. We all know the yahoo who ran out of TP and thought a napkin or paper towel would suffice. Or maybe if the home was old and had poor plumbing. But Korinne didn’t budge.

So now I know. And wish I didn’t.


Selling a Cow to Buy a Computer

My housekeeper, Maria, asked me about a month ago if I could bring back a laptop from the US for her nephew. He is hoping to study engineering next year and the family thought it would be beneficial if he got a computer. While he could buy a laptop here, apparently the prices are much better in the US. Generally Matt and I decline to bring back electronic items for people because we don’t want the responsibility or the potential to have to pay import taxes on it when we return to Peru. And because I am usually using a kitchen scale to stuff the last permissible 6 ounces into my luggage. But given that Maria’s family is not wealthy and would not have access to other people traveling to the US, I agreed to help her out.

Magnificent Maria

Magnificent Maria

I asked Maria what computer her nephew wanted. He didn’t know and she suggested that I just pick one out for him – they trust me. Are they kidding? I know nothing about computers except that I pitch a fit when ours doesn’t work properly and whine to Matt until he solves my problem. I suggested that her nephew talk to friends, someone at the university – basically anyone but me. I did contact my nephew, a US college student, to enlist his aid. He came up with a couple of low cost options and I presented them to Maria along with website addresses for her nephew to review them. (Now I know you are thinking, “but Kerry, her nephew doesn’t have a computer, you idiot.” Rest assured that there are internet cafes, and I am using the word cafe very loosely, all over our town.) And I heard nothing more about it.

Now Peruvians tend to bring up important matters at the last minute. I let the computer issue rest for awhile because I really didn’t want to be responsible for bringing one back with us. But I adore Maria and I knew she felt awkward asking the favor in the first place, so last week I asked if her nephew had decided on a computer. The response? “Well, it depends on whether they can sell a cow.” What?! The long and the short of it was that her brother needed to sell a cow to get the money for the computer. He took the cow to the market but the prices were just too low. The family suspects the low prices are because everyone is saving their money to buy turkeys for Christmas, so beef is not in demand. He tried again this past weekend, but the prices were still too low and he couldn’t take the loss on the cow. So Maria’s nephew won’t be getting a computer this Christmas.

I am reminded that in 2014 Peru is still a developing country where the farm ladies in the market wear traditional garb and yet chat on cell phones and where someone might need to sell a cow to buy a computer.




A Weekend in the Country

From the first time I heard of Granja Porcon, I had no interest in going there. About an hour from Cajamarca, numerous people mentioned it to us as a “must see” tourist site. But when I asked what one did there, all I heard was that it was in the country and had a zoo. In the country? Don’t I live in the country? Roosters wake me up long before dawn, cows graze on the side of the running path, horses frolic along the bank of the river a few blocks from my house, I recognize the burros that carry a farmer’s milk down our street every day…how much more country did I need? As for a zoo, I have mixed feelings about them and was pretty sure a small, private zoo would make me feel less mixed and more distressed. Add to the fact that Granja Porcon is run by Evangelists and had been described as both a commune and a cult and I was not sold.

But as our entertainment options are limited, when some friends suggested we go there for the weekend in order to take advantage of the hiking trials, I was persuaded. We set off Friday after work in Korrine’s dad’s car with Rodrigo as our driver. Our first stop was at the grocery store to buy some wine that we intended to “sneak” onto the grounds. To be honest, while alcohol was not served on the premises, I never saw any mention that it wasn’t allowed, but it added to our high school feel for the weekend: dad’s car and smuggled booze.

The drive out of Cajamarca was pretty and uneventful. After about an hour we arrived at the turnoff to Granja Porcon. Another 25 minutes and we were at the gate, just as the sun was setting. We had reserved a cabin and the guard gave us directions to get there. I tried listening to the directions in order to help navigate, but after he kept describing the roads we were not supposed to take, I gave up. We started up the mountain, darkness descended and we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at one place where we saw lights and the woman there told us to continue up the road. Just as we left, a man ran after us shouting that we should take a left – but left led us back down the mountain. We confirmed that we were supposed to go up the mountain, took a right to do so and then laughed at his “left” direction. 20 minutes later we were not laughing when we could see nothing and were utterly lost. We headed back down the mountain, intending to go back for more directions, when a lady on the side of the road waved us down, introduced herself as Marleny and told us that she had been waiting for us to show us our cabin. The “left” made sense as we had to take a left to go down a small, dark road that led only to the cabin – a left that was only about 5 minutes away from the house where we had asked directions! It was now about 8:00 and there was only one restaurant – back down the mountain – that was open to serve us dinner. We unloaded the car, nervously trying to hide our bottles, called in our dinner order and then began the trek down the mountain. Marleny came with us because she thought we would get lost otherwise. She was right!

The way back

The way back

Despite calling ahead by about 1/2 hour, the restaurant was deserted. A man quickly appeared and opened the place up for us. It was a cold, beautiful, rustic room with windows that overlooked the Porcon main square, but at the late hour we could only see a few lights in the distance. We enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken soup and fried trout and headed back up the mountain to our cabin, stopping to pick up a thermos of hot, boiled water from Marleny’s house. A few drinks later we called it a night. It was freezing in the cabin – the only heat was the fireplace in the main room and the beds had those old fashioned wool blankets that weigh you down so you can barely move. Matt and I slept with our hats on and were still cold!

Warming at the heath

Warming at the hearth

The day dawned overcast, but it was still breathtaking. It felt as though we were on a movie set – gorgeous setting, rustic cabin, cows mooing, lambs bleating and roosters crowing – unreal.

We headed back to the restaurant for a breakfast of caldo verde (my favorite soup) with numerous stops along the way to admire the vicuñas and avoid the lambs. Vicuñas are cousins of alpacas and llamas (and guanacos, another wild camelid in the Andes) and are prized for their wool, which can run up to $3,000 a yard! The animals can only be shorn every 3 years and then only about a pound of wool results from each animal. While they are described as shy, the ones at Porcon are obviously accustomed to tourists because we got amazingly close to them. They were gorgeous – so graceful and delicate. The lambs, on the other hand, were just hilarious. They were all over the road and it was all Rodrigo could do not to hit any of them. The downside of all the lambs was that meant there was no sheep cheese for sale – something I was really looking forward to as I am so tired of the limited cheese selection here.

Once we tore ourselves away from the vicuñas, I then became fascinated by a hummingbird feeding outside of the window at the restaurant. It was quite a dramatic scene when another hummingbird appeared and they began fighting. In addition the view was breathtaking.



After breakfast, we wandered into the town to check out the weaving shops, dairy and zoo.

I found the dairy products to be disappointing – while there were some decent fresh cheeses with herbs and a brick that was sharper than anything else here, nothing came close to amazing Carr Valley or other Wisconsin-produced cheeses. The others were hyping the ice cream and I, lover of Kopps frozen custard, couldn’t wait. What a letdown! The so-called “ice cream” was really ice-milk on a stick and not at all creamy. There were many exotic fruit flavors, but that was little consolation for me. After that crushing disappointment, we headed to the zoo.


Zoo Sign

Zoo sign

The zoo was interesting. One the one hand, the old-fashioned, small enclosures were incredibly depressing. But all zoo enclosures are depressing – no matter how big the enclosure, the lions and tigers still pace in captivity, the birds can’t fly free and many animals are far from their natural habitats. On the other hand, it was unbelievable how close we could get to the animals. As I was watching the spectacled bears, native to Peru, walk along the fence, a little girl stuck her finger into the enclosure and I started panicking, wondering if it is socially acceptable for a stranger to yell at a kid when you think she might lose a finger (and then, to try to think of how to say it in Spanish!). Thankfully, her mother saw her in the seconds these thoughts raced through my brain and pulled her away. Yikes!

After the zoo and a mediocre meal in town, we headed back up the mountain to our paradise. Marleny, who was parking cars in town, tried to persuade us to stop at the trout farm or come back to see the 4 o’clock milking, but as neither of those things are novelties to us, we declined and relaxed the afternoon and evening away. Well, except for the parts where Rodrigo smoked us out of the house by trying to start the wood stove in the kitchen, not realizing that he had blocked the flue and that we didn’t have the key to the kitchen door so there was no ventilation and then, when Marleny showed up unannounced and we scurried around trying to hide our wine bottles and glasses!

We were all in bed by 10 pm, but that allowed Rodrigo, Matt and me to get up early and climb to the summit of Mt. Porcon the next morning. It was only an hour hike on a dirt path to reach the top and the views were amazing. After all my reluctance to go, I completely fell for Porcon and would love to go back to do more hiking. It was peaceful and picturesque – the perfect getaway weekend.

Yoga in Peru

Last year, my friend Luzma invited me to join her for a yoga class. I had taken yoga in the US and missed it, so I readily agreed. In addition to a yoga class, it proved to be an excellent Spanish class – left, right, up, down, breath in/out, parts of the body…I felt like I was getting a double bang for my buck. The instructor and other ladies in the class were very nice to me and patient with my limited Spanish skills and lack of cultural knowledge. For example, I learned that even in an exercise class, you greet everyone individually and give them the customary kiss on the cheek (in Peru, always one kiss, and everyone goes to the left). This means that even if you are already sitting on your mat, you get up every time someone enters the room. What a far cry from an exercise class that my friend and and I took for several years in Wisconsin during which we never learned anyone’s name and I am sure the instructor never knew ours! I also learned that the infamous Peruvian tardiness applied to classes as well – often I waited 15 minutes for anyone to arrive and once, because the class was held in a daycare, a father and I waited a half hour for anyone to show up to open the building. He was understandably upset; I just tried to be very “in the moment” and go with the flow, which is not my usual habit. The instructor, Patty, is a wonderfully kind woman and an excellent teacher and taught yoga how I like it: not as a exercise class but as a true yoga class designed to open your mind and body.


The class would have been harder with my limited Spanish had I not already practiced  yoga in English. One day Patty talked to the class about mandalas. Everyone seemed very enthusiastic and a date was set on which we would make mandalas. I hoped I was misunderstanding: it sounded like some sort of art project, and I am far from artistic. Ever since getting a mean frown face on my apple drawing on the first day of first grade, any art project fills me with great anxiety, particularly one in a group setting. I went home and googled mandala and discovered that a mandala is (more or less) a circular, cosmic design that represents the universe and is used as a meditation tool. Apparently we were going create our own mandalas in class. I was stressed out just thinking about it, which kind of defeats the purpose of yoga. Adding to my stress was that I had to go buy craft supplies to make my mandala. Here, you cannot just go to Target, browse and then select from an vast array of art supplies; you go to a stationery shop where everything is in a case or back on shelves, which means you need to know what you want and how to ask for it. I had no idea what I wanted apart from possibly skipping yoga class on the appointed day, but managed to come home with colored markers and a large sheet of poster board.

Mandala day arrived. We spread out our mats and our art supplies and began some meditation exercises before being let loose to make our mandalas. We were supposed to let the drawing just happen- meditate, draw, meditate, draw. I did my best to go with the mandala flow and actually was okay with the process. Then, to my horror, Patty began walking around the room and talking with each student about her mandala. More horrifying was that most students cried during the discussion. Apparently, I was missing something. It kind of reminded me of a cassette tape I have from when I was about 5 and I am pounding out a made-up tune on the piano and telling my dad what it meant (it was obviously around Easter as it was all about Jesus being crucified and resurrected, pretty deep for a 5 year old)! Sweet Patty got to me and we chatted about what I thought my mandala meant, but it did not bring me to tears. The final step in the mandala process is to burn it. I actually put mine up on a shelf and forgot about it, but will make sure to burn it soon!



Patty lost her space early this year and my classes ended. I missed them terribly and was delighted when she contacted me to say she was ready to teach again. Now, I have a private lesson twice a week. So far we have been able to have class outside in her backyard; despite the beginning of the rainy season, the rain usually holds off until the afternoon. I love having class outside despite the noise and occasional neighbor peeping at us!