Thursday, March 27, 2014

Miners' Strike Disrupts My Plans!

My plan to travel from Puno to Cusco changed a number of times. This was due to the miners' strike, which has been disrupting travel this past few days.
My first plan had included an overnight stop in Sicuani to visit a couple of Maude's connections: Jesus is a teacher and I was going to visit his school. Jorge has a natural dye business, and I was hoping to visit there, especially to see the use of cochineal.

Monday the word was the buses were only travelling at night, to avoid most of the strike action. I didn't want to go at night because I would miss the fabulous views en route, and it would also deliver me to Sicuani at about 5 a.m.

At that point, I started to check out the train option. The Andean Explorer is a luxury tourist train, with observation deck and elegant dining room. It is much more expensive than any bus, but it was looking very tempting. Perurail assured me that Wednesday's train would travel as normal, but that I should wait until Tuesay late afternoon to book. I was getting very excited about the train trip, because I love travelling by train. 

At 4 p.m. Tuesday I was informed that the train would not be travelling Wednesday because the miners had blocked the track. Bummer!!! Then my only option (because I had to get to Cusco by Thursday morning to meet Jill) was to take the bus on Wednesday. Luckily Inka Express was still doing a day trip, but leaving at 4 a.m. and taking a back road to avoid trouble.

So I had to get up at 3 a.m., which I absolutely hate. But the bus was very comfortable, with reclining seats, making for easy napping throughout the day. There was a "hostess" who served coca tea, coffee, and cold drinks throughout the trip. We also had an excellent tour guide.

The first five hours of the trip we travelled on a dirt road, which was under construction. Three buses travelled together to help each other out. Many times -probably more than a dozen times -the buses had to stop to do some road repairs so that we could get through. The drivers moved rocks and used shovels to level the worst spots. Then they took turns to guide each other through.

Finally we rejoined the main road, and it was a smooth trip after that. We stopped at a number of interesting sites.

Election signage
Now I am in Cusco, at Hotel Amaru, where I spent a comfortable night. The hotel had a free taxi waiting for me at the bus stop, much to my surprise. I went out for dinner to a charming vegetarian reastaurant nearby. I met a very interesting young woman there, Deborah, who is travelling with her two and a half year old daughter, Ananda. Ananda is possibly the cutest, smartest, happiest two year old I have ever met. She had a great sense of humour, and made me laugh a lot. 

I had a steaming hot shower before bed, which was a delight. They served an excellent "American" breakfast with fresh orange juice, fresh fruit with yoghurt and granola, scrambled eggs with bread, butter and jam, and tea or coffee.
Jill should be arriving shortly. The hotel has sent a taxi to pick her up at the airport. I am waiting to switch rooms from a single to a double.

Final Party in Camacani

I will add this post later.

Alpaca country- Conduriri

Conduriri: March 20-21

I was very pleased to finally be visiting the heart of alpaca country to stay overnight with Olga and her husband. They had just recently moved their flock/herd of 200 alpacas and 100 sheep from higher grazing lands to this area. They actually have three areas at different altitudes. Olga's husband uses their dog and an honda to help with the move. The honda is a rope sling which is used to hurl stones. Olga demonstrated and was very accurate in her throw. The idea is not to hit the alpacas, but just to hit the ground close enough to scare them in the right direction. 

Olga was in Puno for a meeting, so we travelled together from Puno to Conduriri. First one combi on the main road and then another combi inland and up on a very rough dirt road for about two and a half hours. The scenery was gorgeous -vast spaces with layers of hills in the background, and at times following a river. We passed a spectacular natural rock formation, called Ciudad Encantada (Hidden City). I found it hard to believe that it wasn't the ruins of an ancient Inca site. I am surprised that this isn't a major tourist attraction. I would love to have spent a day just walking around exploring the area. 

The driver wouldn't stop for photos or let me open the window due to the incredible amount of dust, so most of these are from a bouncing vehicle through the glass.

Conduriri was a small "wild west" looking village, but very quiet.
alpaca fleeces for sale in Conduriri
We walked from the main plaza out to the wide open lands beyond the village. Here the women of the Conduriri branch of the alpaca cooperative have a building where they meet to do their textile work. They have a big floor loom there and other smaller looms. 

There were instruments hanging on the wall, which belong to the husbands. I checked them out, and they were the focus of a photo shoot.

About ten of the women met us there. Another 6-8 women were still up in the higher grazing lands with their alpacas. They were a vibrant bunch of young women, much younger than the group I had met previously. They were all busy with various projects- spinning, knitting and weaving. Communication with them was  also easier than previously, mostly because they spoke slowly and clearly for my benefit. 

We had the usual blanket lunch of potatoes and roast alpaca, followed by Inka Cola. After lunch, Olga's husband came to pick us up in his combi. He dropped the women in town and then continued with Olga and I to their home -a collection of adobe buildings. They had given me the best room, which had two beds, a table, electric light and, what!? a tv! I didn't turn it on, because it just seemed so out of place.

We went out to the field to check the alpacas and sheep. I enjoyed just sitting there, taking in the tranquility and views. The alpacas were fun to watch too. They really are very cute animals.They were very curious when I arrived, and would all turn to look. Some approached me until the got close enough to realize that I was a gringa. 

Late in the afternoon the animals were herded into a safe area near the house. Apparently they have zorros, large foxes, which are vicious enough to kill an alpaca or sheep. The dog helps protect them.

Olga made a delicious soup for dinner, and then I went to sleep at about 8 because there was nothing else to do, and it was quite cold. I slept well except I had to pee. The outhouse was at some distance, and there was a protective dog out there guarding the alpacas. I waited til morning. There was a heavy frost in the morning.

Olga made a kind of fritter to start breakfast, which were very tasty. Then she served a main dish of rice, potatoes, and salad. We shared my black tea. After breakfast, we took the animals back out to pasture. Olga had to feed this poor little orphan lamb.

In the meantime, Olga had managed to get some river trout (they magically appeared) which she fried up for am early lunch. Olga accompanied me again for the trip back to Puno, because there was to be another 10th anniversary celebration the next day. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Camacani -Another Peruvian Paradise

burrow greeting me with a loud heehaw

Camacani is a beautiful, pastoral, agrarian community, about a half hour drive from Puno, not far from the lake. It is also the site of the university's crop experimental centre. I particularly enjoyed the half hour walk from the road to the experimental centre, through fields of brightly coloured red, purple and gold quinoa, contrasting with the green trees and the blue lupins. That is another similarity to Iceland, where wild lupins grow in abundance.
lupins and quinoa

more quinoa

Walking through the community, I could see many families out in the fields working, harvesting crops, leading cows and herding sheep. Everyone waved to me happily, and often called a greeting.

scarecrow made of plastic bags

The experimental centre was chosen as the location for two days of workshops with the women of the alpaca cooperative. It is relatively easy to get to, and it has good facilities. There is a big meeting room with desks and chairs, three big rooms for the members to sleep on mattresses on the floor, electricity and running water and a few flush toilets. I chose not to stay overnight because I've been doing enough "sleeping around", and wanted the relative comfort of my own place.

There were 45 participants from the various communities, and the women of Camacani cooked and served the meals.  I only stayed for lunch both days, which included a tasty soup both days, and a main of rice and meat one day, and rice and very salty fish the second day.

Maude did an excellent job conducting the workshops with support from Nilda and the nine "leaders".  Some women participated a lot in the discussions, while others were distracted or dozing. Typical workshop in that regard.
Although coffee is never served at these functions, coca leaves are offered around to chew for about the same effect as a cup of coffee. Wrapped candies were also offered at intervals.
Women also stick coca leaves to their foreheads, apparently to ease headaches.

Day two ended with the distribution of certificates of completion, and music and dancing. The director of the agricultural program, and two other men played music while the women (and Michel) danced. Pop and cookies were served.


The power went out at about 5:30 pm, which brought the festivities to a close. It was raining by then, and we all had to get back home. Two combies were waiting to take most of us back to Puno. 

To celebrate the successful completion of the workshops, Nilda, Michel, Maude and I went out for pizza and wine and tea and cake.  All were excellent. I've been avoiding alcohol because it definitely has more of an effect at this altitude. I got quite a buzz from two glasses of wine.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Islas Uros -The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

I was very keen to check out the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, because I just couldn't imagine how people have managed to live on them for generations, somehow feeding their families and building homes and churches and schools.
Going there through the totora reeds
The islands are made up of the totora reeds which grow abundantly in the shallow waters. The base is made up of the rooted plants, with the soil that collects around them. On top of that are criss-crossed layers of cut totora reeds, which are about a centimetre in thickness and grow up to two metres in length.  New layers of reeds must be added every few months as they rot from underneath. When family members want more independence, they actually cut through the layers, and push the sections apart to form two islands. 

The homes are built on this springy foundation, with walls and roofs also of totora reeds.  In fact almost everything is made of totora reeds -furniture, decorative arches, handrails, and of course, boats. The island I visited has a well established tourist business, and has made 20 very comfortable cabins, and a dining room,  nicely decorated and very clean. The washrooms have modern compost toilets. The electricity for lighting is provided by solar panels.

Cristina, my host
Views from the island

I was taken over by boat and at first I was the only guest.  I sat in the sunshine watching two of the many begin construction of one of the traditional boats. They created large mats of totora, and then placed a few dozen empty plastic pop bottles on top. The wrapped the mats tightly around the bottle, and tied then in many places, with no plastic showing. This makes very buoyant pontoons. Over the next few hours a totora platform was created on top of the pontoons. They told me it takes about two weeks to complete a boat. 

While I sat there, a cute little girl came to chat. She was not shy at all, and told me her name is Anita and she is four years old. I took a couple of photos of her, and then she wanted to use my camera. She took dozens of photos, and had lots of fun seeing the results.

Taken by 4 year old Anita

Then her five year old cousin, Milagro (Miracle) shyly approached. Anita tried to take her photo but she kept pulling her hat over her face.

It didn't take long for her to come out of hiding, and soon she was also taking photos, including a bunch of very funny selfies.

I was served a fabulous lunch -asparagus soup and bread, then fried trout with quinoa and vegetables, and finally fruit and tea.  All was beautifully presented. Apparently a couple of members of the family have gone for hospitality training, and it really makes a difference. 

Dining room
Three young Americans arrived in the early afternoon, and after they had their lunch we were all dressed in traditional clothing and then taken out on a traditional boat to check the fishing nets. There were only six little fish in the nets, which we were told is because it is the full moon. The Uros inhabitants eat mostly fish, birds, and bird eggs gathered from among the reeds. Chicken and other meat is a treat about once a month.

Then our boatman showed us how the reeds are cut and piled in bundles across the boat. He also peeled the root of one to show us. He said it is very nutritious, but not a good idea for tourists to eat, because of the large lakewater content.

When we got back, ten more tourists had arrived, from France. By then it was getting cool as the sun went down, and we were invited to sit in the dining room for a cup of tea. Dinner was served soon after that. We were offered a taste of the tiny fish from the net, but they were more bones than meat. After that, tomato soup (Campbells, I think), and then the main dish, which was chicken with veg and rice. Dessert was very yummy too -crispy triangles of pastry with mango inside, served with a drizzle of sweet cream. 

Not much to do after that so I headed to my room. The evening was getting very cold, so I put on many layers to stay warm while I was reading, including fleece top, woolen sweater, down jacket, hat, scarf and gloves. Cristina had put two hot water bottles (actually 2 two litre pop bottles filled with hot water) in my bed, so when I got in it was quite cosy with the typical two ton layer of blankets. Perhaps I will end up kind of wide and flat.

My bedroom
 I slept very well, in absolute silence, and awoke to another gorgeous sunny day. My little thermometer registered 8 degrees Celsius in my room, but as soon as I got into the sunshine it was hot.

 Breakfast was also a notch above the usual : fruit juice, scrambled eggs, bread, butter! jam, yogurt, tea or coffee.

Back in the sunshine, the women of the family showed us their embroidered wallhangings and cushion covers, as well as miniatures of the reed boats, made by the men. I bought a very pretty cushion cover, mostly to help support them.

Although the family has a successful business there, it is a very difficult life. They said that arthritis and rheumatism are common ailments from living in a constantly damp environment. They have to work constantly to avoid deterioration of their "land" and homes and transportation. Fruit and veg and other staples must be purchased on the mainland. There are five small elementary schools on the islands, but after that students must go to Puno for further education. Tourism is the only way to survive or get ahead, if they want to remain on the islands. 

Inter-island convenience store
It is hard to imagine that many young people, having been away to Puno for education, would want to return to the traditional lifestyle on the islands. I imagine that the only way it will continue is with ever-increasing tourism.