Thursday, September 20, 2012

THROWBACK : 2008 Kedougou Leadership Camp

I recently found some old Facebook posts dating back a few years to when I was in Senegal and had recently completed the first Kedougou Summer Leadership Camp. It was an experiment, an unknown. Some Peace Corps colleagues and myself had discussed how our lives had been molded and shaped, influenced. We had all had some experience teaching and working with summer camps back in the States. What if we could bring some of that summer magic to the youth of Kedougou, tucked away in southeastern Senegal? It took over a year to plan. We weren't sure if it would even happen let alone be successful. Now, four years later, the camp is still running, mostly by our Senegalese counterparts themselves with Peace Corps Volunteers in the shadows, the way it's meant to be. In 2008, during the pilot camp, I kept a journal throughout the week trying to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper. 

Monday, October 6th, 2008

I woke up early to get down in the market with Willie. We decided to wait until Monday to buy the vegetables for the week long camp. Everything else we had bought was already at the Kedougou regional house waiting to be loaded on the mini bus we rented to take the student campers, Senegalese counselors and Peace Corps volunteers to Dindéfelo. The invitations we gave/sent out to students told them to report to the Peace Corps regional house in Kedougou before 1:00pm to eat lunch and depart for Dindéfelo. A few kids arrived earlier than anticipated so I was a bit stressed trying to accommodate them at the house until the others arrived and make sure everything had been bought for the camp. 

My fear that the kids wouldn't even show up was dwindling as 13 out of the invited 20 wandered into the regional house, a bit nervous perhaps about what they had agreed to do. They came from all corners of the Kedougou region: Khossanto, Missirah Sirimana, Saraya, Fogolimbi, Mako, Bandafassi, and Dindéfelo. Some of them had never even been to Kedougou before; most of them never had seen a waterfall or even a mountain like the Guinée range at the southern border of Senegal. These students don't understand camp like American kids who grow up on the idea. Lunch arrived and was eaten in silence broken by the few kids that came from the same college (middle school) who knew each other. The Senegalese counselors, Alassane Diebakhaté (my school counterpart in Bembou), Ibou Keita (Nikolas Sweet's counterpart in Kedougou), Adama Diaby (a journalist for Radio Communautaire 93.9 FM in Kedougou), and Léa Bangar (a primary school teacher in Dimboli), were much more active than I had anticipated, discussing the rules of conduct for the camp with the kids. 

We loaded up the mini bus with the materials, food, baggage, campers, counselors, and PCV's and embarked on the long potholed ridden dirt road to Dindéfelo. Before the road became very bad, the driver was speeding way too fast, swerving around potholes, and rocking the bus back and forth on its axis. My mind was spinning with thoughts of the bus overturning. We would all die this horrible death before camp would even start and that's how I'd be remembered, as the Peace Corps volunteer who got 13 students killed in a car wreck. Thankfully for me and the students, this did not happen. We made our way over rocks, through sand, creeks, larger creeks, mud, puddles the size of small ponds, and reached Dindéfelo safely shortly before sunset. 4 other kids were waiting for us in Dindéfelo making the total campers 17. 

In the original plan for this camp, it was going to be a shared responsibility between four or five PCV's and the Senegalese counselors leading activities they felt they could help with. However, three of the five PCV's in that original count had other things going on during the week of camp (getting new volunteer sites organized), the responsibility of "Camp Director" fell upon Willie Adams and me. I will not lie. I was terrified that the camp would fail, that the students wouldn't understand or enjoy the program we had organized, that "what could go wrong, will go wrong." In the end, even I would learn something about leadership and about myself. Monday ended without a single problem arising. We ate dinner, introduced ourselves, sang and danced a little before discussing the following day's program and heading to bed around 10:00 pm. I tossed in my sleep about the plan for Tuesday and the problems we would inevitably face...

Tuesday October 7th, 2008

I awoke before dawn, unable to sleep until the whistle blows for everyone to get out of bed. After exercising a bit and taking a cold shower in the cool crisp morning of October (the cold season is on its way), I made sure everything for breakfast was ready. Fresh bread, butter, peanut butter (for the PCV's...Senegalese think its weird we eat PB on bread), chocolate spread, coffee and cocoa was the open menu for breakfast each day. We paid the local baker to bring us 40 loaves of bread each morning. The kids ate breakfast, still kind of quiet, slowly getting to know these other 14 and 15 year olds from different parts of the Kedougou region.

The big activity for Tuesday was to show the kids how to start a tree nursery. We demonstrated the proper sand: manure ratio, how to properly fill the sacs and how to neatly arrange them to ensure efficient sunlight and water retention. Every child seemed excited to get their hands dirty. Adama Diaby, the Senegalese journalist/counselor recorded different campers explaining the process after we were finished. We ended up planting 100 Jatropha seeds and 100 Flamboya seeds. Jatropha is a highly publicized species of tree right now because the oil from its seeds can be turning into biofuel. The Senegalese government is financing large Jatropha projects to get farmers aware of their benefits. The oil can also be used to make anti-bacterial soap. Flamboya is a species of tree with large leaves creating wonderful areas of shade around them and beautiful yellow flowers. For both species of trees we had the campers collect seeds from around the campement and in the village. We set up the sacs in the corner of the campement so the staff could water them daily and outplant in a few months. 

I was amazed at how smoothly the morning activity went and at how excited the students seemed to be learning these new ideas and processes. We gave the kids the rest of the morning to relax and shower before lunch. The food during the week was some of the best Senegalese food I’ve ever had in country. The women who were cooking for us did an amazing job. After lunch we set up three stations to run team building exercises with the campers. Trust Fall, Trust Walk, and the Team Plank. I ran the Trust Fall station where we had the kids fall backwards without looking into the arms of another teammate after telling them they trusted that their partner would catch them. The big fall was where each team of 6 kids would catch a person falling backwards off a high log. It was fun watching the fear in the kids’ faces while they fell and also the relief afterwards when they realized they were ok and no one let them fall to the ground. The Trust Walk, led by Willie involved the team of kids lined up, blindfolded, with their hands on the shoulders of the teammate in front of them. The first kid in the line was not blindfolded and had to lead the team around calling out obstacles in the path (e.g. “There is a large rock on the right” or “Everybody duck under the branches ahead”). The rest of the team had to relay the messages to the person behind them, all the while trusting the leaders messages about what to do and when. The Team Plank, led by Leigh (a volunteer in Tamba), had the kids line up on a plank of wood then rearrange themselves in order of tallest to shortest without falling off the plank or in order of oldest to youngest without talking. We followed up the team building activities with a discussion about why we played those specific games, why it was important, what did the kids learn, etc. 

Before dinner, Tracy helped the kids design cardboard picture fames with paint, markers, and cutouts from recycled magazines. By the end of camp each camper would have a group photo of everyone to put in their frames and take home. It was great how creative the kids became with their frames. One kid, Idrissa Diallo from Dindéfelo, had an American flag designed at the top of his frame, a cutout of Obama as the back piece, and a note at the bottom saying “I like Obama” in English. This was all his idea. 

Ibou Keita did a great job of facilitating the evening activity of dance and songs before and after dinner. The campers retreated to their rooms at 10 and I swiftly passed out. This was going to be one exhausting week but two days were down still without a problem. Could it be possible that the camp would not fail? Could it be possible that it would run smoother than ever anticipated, that the kids may enjoy it, even better that the kids may learn something useful and apply it to their lives? 

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Wednesday October 8th, 2008

The second morning of camp started without a problem again, if being exhausted from Tuesday counts as not being a problem. Eaux et Forets (“Water and Forests”), the equivalent of the Forestry Service, had donated 30 Neem saplings to be planted during the camp. We took the campers to the college, poste de santé, and primary school in Dindéfelo to teach them how to properly outplant a tree from a sac. They learned to keep the root ball intact, mix a bit of dry manure into the holes, and how to dig a “moat” around the planted tree to collect water around the roots and not directly on top of them. Even though it is late in the season to outplant, hopefully the director of the college and primary school with establish a watering schedule with the students during the school year and they will survive. 

We led other team building activities in the afternoon. I facilitated one game called “Spider’s Web” where the kids had to navigate through a web of string constructed between two trees without touching the string. Once one person went through a hole, the hole would be “closed” and no one else could pass through that hole. When all the holes close to the ground were “closed” the team had to pass others through the higher holes without them touching the web of string. The other activity led by Willie was passing a marble through cut pieces of PVC pipe from point A to point B. Each student had a piece of pipe about a foot long and needed to catch the marble from the person in front of them, pass it to the next, then run to the end of the line to keep the passing going. The kids really seemed to have fun doing this. We would debrief again after each activity discussing why these “games” were important in succeeding at school and in life. You could really begin to see the confidence rising in the students as they volunteered to speak about the games in front of their peers and to be recorded by Adama who broadcasted their interviews on the radio during the evening. 

After dinner, we had a camp fire in the campement. Each camper stood up individually and sang a song, made a joke, or some other type of talent. Some of the kids sang in their native language of Pulaar or Malinké, while some others sang in English. Mamadou Diallo, from Mako, sang this great song he had learned to practice his English pronouns. It became a hit at camp. 

Everybody likes Saturday night
Everybody likes Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

I like Saturday night
You like Saturday night
He likes Saturday night
She likes Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

We like Saturday night
You like Saturday night
They like Saturday night
Everybody, everybody, everybody likes Saturday night

Another student sang “Bingo” while a different kid sang “The Farmer Wants a Wife.” It was hilarious. Tracy, the PCV from Tamba who also worked at Camp Tockwogh (small world), taught the campers “Princess Pat” with the hand motions (if you know that one). Huge sensation with the kids. 

The camp was going incredibly. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. This was the best thing I’ve done in Senegal, the most fun, the most rewarding, the most exhausting, and the most terrifying. I felt alive. 

Thursday October 9th, 2008

Thursday morning, we walked down into the village (the campement is on the outskirts of the ville on the walk towards the waterfall), to collect Neem leaves to make the Neem lotion. The campers used punctured coffee tin tops to grate the bars of soap like cheese. We boiled the Neem leaves for 20 or so minutes, strained the leaves out of the now green water (retaining the Neem properties), then mixed in the seven grated bars of soap and 4 liters of oil and cooked it until all of the mixture had melted down and took on the consistency of lotion. We bottled the lotion in 250ml bottles of soda we had bought for the campers and kept the bottles. After we were done, we had 44 bottles (250ml) and 2 bottles (1.5L) of lotion. 

We skipped the free time after lunch to take the kids on a 2km hike through the canyon the largest waterfall in the country. Mady Keita, a student from Missirah Sirimana (45km Northeast of Bembou), always has his crutches with him. His legs cannot support all his weight. He can walk very carefully short distances without the crutches but if he missteps he falls. Willie and I had interviewed Mady together when we biked out to M. Sirimana back in March. The guy was smart, excited, and very open to the idea of attending a summer camp, though he had no idea what exactly a summer camp was. I pondered whether he would be ok in Dindéfelo. The hike to the waterfall is not too steep but there are a lot of rocks and boulders you need to climb over. Would he be OK? Would he feel left out if he couldn’t go? I learned so much from Mady during the week, it’s hard to explain. When I first met Mady, I saw the crutches, I immediately thought “this kid is handicapped/disabled.” Oh, but Mady doesn’t see it that way. He hiked out to the waterfall with the crutches FASTER than some of the other students. I was impressed. Then he put the crutches down and made his way carefully over slippery rocks along the edge of the canyon to the base of the waterfall. Water falling from 300 ft above soaking him to the bone. He raised his hands above his head...and danced. He danced with his hands high as if he was saying “I made it! Look at me, I made it!” It will be one of the most memorable moments of the camp and my time here in West Africa. 

The kids and counselors loved playing and swimming in the water. Kids were laughing, splashing, throwing balls around. Willie was taking pictures with his waterproof cased digital camera of kids jumping through the waterfall into the pool at the base. A group of campers who got out of the water were so cold they started a small fire to warm themselves on the rocky shore of the pool. We headed back to the campement with the campers chatting about how great the afternoon was. How great it was indeed. 

Friday October 10th, 2008

Friday’s objective was to have Matt and Nick, two Kedougou PCV’s who are extending for 3rd years, lead a small class on marketing and entrepreneurial training. The kids had decorated the bottles of lotion with ribbons and construction paper designed with things like “protegez l’environnement” (protect the environment) or “luttez contre les moustiques” (fight against mosquitoes). They walked into the village with samples of the product and asked groups of men, groups of women, and young adults, how much they would be willing to pay for the lotion. Some said 300cfa, some 500cfa, some as much as 2,000cfa. When the kids came back to the campement with the data, they found that 500cfa (little over $1) was a good average price. Nik and Matt explained how you calculate your expenses for materials, then how to calculate the profit margin of your sales. Although it was one of the more advanced activities of the camp, the kids did a great job participating and showing their enthusiasm. After all, they were the ones who were going to keep the money from the lotion sold on Sunday. 

Friday afternoon we ran some more leadership activities underneath some mango trees right outside the campement. PVC Golf, where a tennis ball is placed upon a cut piece of PVC pipe which is connected by six pairs of string like the spokes of a bike wheel, showed the kids how they needed to work together as a team to get the ball from one location to another without it falling off. This was also a great opportunity to discuss the problems of communication when everybody’s trying to bark orders at the same time. We had different rules where no one could talk, only some could talk and others were blindfolded to press the importance of listening and working together. We also set up a rope swing where the campers had to swing across an imaginary river and land inside some hula hoops we made out of large electrical wire sheathing. No two kids could land in the same hula hoop so they need to catch their teammates and guide them into an empty hoop. 

Friday evening, we told the campers Saturday would be a “free day” to choose one of two programs to follow. One was to hike up the mountain to Dandé, the village atop the plateau, and see the source (top) of the waterfall which we had just visited the day before. The other program was to paint a mural at the school in town. We figured there would be only a small group that would want to hike up the cliff face to the top of the plateau but we were quite surprised at the outcome. Every student said they wanted to hike the mountain, even my man Mady Keita.

Saturday October 11th, 2008

We hit the trail of the mountain a little after 9am in groups of 6 campers, one or two Senegalese counselors, and one or two PCV’s. The sun didn’t give any gifts either. It was hot. We made sure every camper had their own water bottle. I was with the second group, “Les Cobras” as they named themselves, with Willie and Nik keeping an eye on Mady in the third group, the one behind me. Lea, the Senegalese counselor who took the most responsibility of all the Senegalese, took a break to drink some water. This was early on the hike. She told me that there was no way Mady could make this hike, no way whatsoever. I told her to trust me, to trust Mady. I was already a believer after the waterfall. That kid would make it up if he wanted to. When I called back to Willie at one point to make sure everything was ok, he called back that Mady was at the head of the group, using his crutches in some places, in others passing his crutches back and using his arms to pull himself up the trail. He was doing it again. I was nearly in tears. 

We made it to the top, took a break in the shade with the whole group to drink some water and eat some bananas. There’s a cave on the plateau with a small waterfall that drips over its entrance. We hiked down the slope to the mouth of the cave and took some picture with the kids. Then we hiked down to the source of the Dindéfelo waterfall, 300 ft above where we were two days ago. We all kicked it in the cool shade, waded in the safe pools of water that weren’t flowing towards the magnificent drop and waiting for a couple PCV’s that stayed below a while longer until the cooks had made the sandwiches they were going to hike up the mountain so we could eat lunch up top. After lunch and a bit of rest, we packed up, refilled our water bottles in the stream, added a few drops of bleach to kill anything living in the water and made our way gently down the steep slope of the trail back to Dindéfelo. 

Saturday night we had an end of camp bonfire since Sunday we would be selling the lotion in the market but head back to Kedougou in the afternoon. This was to be our last night. I couldn’t believe it went so quickly, so well. Joy overwhelmed me. Each group did a small theater skit at the fire. The only rules were that guys needed to act like women, women like men, and they had to use props from around the camp. We volunteers did one as well about the misunderstandings of newly arrived Americans to Senegal in the theme of American kids coming to a Senegalese summer camp. Then we taught them the “Hokey-Pokey.” It can be so fun to make yourself look ridiculous in front of children. 

We went around the circle thanking everyone for such a wonderful week at camp. I told everyone how every expectation I had for the camp was surpassed, every fear calmed. I thanked the Senegalese counselors for their commitment, their responsibility, and their enthusiasm. It was hard to believe that tomorrow, we would say goodbye. 

Sunday October 12th, 2008

This was it the big finale. After breakfast, we designed advertisements for the lotion at the market. The kids went down in groups to sell it in different places. Some were walking around the market with two bottles in their hands, while others were sitting in one place. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t really pick up until after lunch but we needed to leave after lunch to ensure the kids had time to find a ride back en brousse or to find a place to stay in Kedougou before dark. The campers themselves sold more than half of the lotion in the first two hours in the market Sunday morning. We were getting close to lunch with some left so we gave campement (hotel) owners some money from the camp finances to buy some lotion of the kids which they could then resell to tourists, thereby getting rid of all our product so they kids can each share the profits. 

We ate lunch and packed our bags to be loaded onto the mini bus. It seemed like just the day before that all these kids were strangers, that we volunteers were just “toubobs,” that Dindéfelo and the waterfall were just places they’d heard about but never seen. Now we were getting ready to leave, to say goodbye to friends, teammates, family. I dispersed the profits from the sales and the reimbursements for the kids that needed to travel far to return home. Some of the kids were crying and exchanging village names and cell phone numbers if they had them. We loaded the bus, and took off. The mountain of the Guinée plateau faded into the haze, the car bumping along made its way through sand, over rocks, through mud and puddles the size of small ponds, back to Kedougou...back to their villages. It was hard for all of us. Silence filled the bus as we departed just as silence filled the bus full of strangers a week ago. We arrived at the garage in Kedougou right before a storm was rolling in. We gave out the group photos, gave hugs and handshakes, told the kids we would visit their colleges (middle schools), and said “Mbe lun doe, nin Allah sonta” (See you another day, if it is God’s wish). 

I made my way back to the Peace Corps regional house and opened a cold beer. Did we change any of these kids? Nin Allah sonta....nin Allah sonta...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Amazon Wedding

In February, 2012 while in an indigenous Shuar community in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador, my then-girlfriend of two years and myself found ourselves being offered a traditional indigenous wedding in our hosts' community. Though we never planned on being married on our adventure, we never planned not to be either. So, we let life happen. This is the email sent to close family and friends describing our ceremony and commitment barefoot in the jungle. 

Buenos Dias a Todos,

Four months into our journey through South America and I still find myself breathless, wondering if this journey has all been a dream, wondering if we've really seen some of the things we've seen, met some of the people we've met, experienced some of the things we've experienced. I find myself overwhelmed with joy and happiness, unable to form concrete sentences to express such gratitude, thanks, and love for the people who have not treated us like tourists or travelers but as family. The simplicity down here in the way people live, surrounded by family and loved ones, living sustainably off the earth with little thought or energy put towards money is something I believe we're all capable of, a way of life Kara and I have been striving to find. These people are an inspiration to me just as each of you are an inspiration as well. Thank you for all you have given me over the years, from guidance, to advice, to support, to love. I am a blessed man through and through.
We have always set out to not have a plan, to let life happen in its most simplistic way, like a stream flowing through a forest that does not plan its way to the river but flows accordingly to the changes in topography that are laid out in front of it. We never expected to find Eden's Rose Foundation in Tosagua, Ecuador, an hour and a half from the beach. We never expected or planned to stay with Cecelia and Mario and their three kids, watching a woman support a family, teaching other women of the community how to make beautiful macrame jewelry, saving her husband from having to work 365 days a year mixing fatal pesticides and chemicals. We brainstormed with the director of the foundation and volunteered to take some of the jewelry to the beach town Canoa, to see if there was a market for selling some of the jewelry in Ecuador instead of waiting until the summer when all the jewelry is shipped to the states to be sold at music festivals. We spent a week at the beach, setting up a small table near the beach, talking with passing tourists about the foundation and how all the money comes back to support the women and children of Tosagua, raising a bit less than $1000 for the community.
While volunteering with Eden's Rose, our path brought us in contact with an American ethnobotanist living and working in Ecuador for the past 10 years. He told us he could take us into the jungle of the Amazon to stay with an indigenous Shuar community where we could teach English to the kids in the school. How could we have planned this? We arrived in Nantar, the community of about 25 adults and 30 or so children a little over two weeks ago. We were taken in as family immediately by Martin Chamik and his wife Nely, their beautiful 8 year old daughter Nanta, their 3 year old son Naiyemp, and their 6 month old baby Intia. Martin is a recognized hero of Ecuador, having fought in two wars on the border with Peru years ago taking seven gunshot wounds and surviving. He's been to the U.S. and Geneva as a spokesperson for indigenous people of Ecuador with the United Nations. We spent our days working with the community in the fields, Kara and Jess following the women into their yucca and platino fields, learning to make "chicha" or fermented yucca beer, a staple food source for the Shuar. We ate what they ate, at one point having the larvae of the Goliath beetle, giant worms found in the decomposing tree stumps of harvested palm trees. They were not bad either. They made us the traditional meal of taking chicken, yucca, platino, and heart of palm, with some native herbs, wrapped in a large leaf, and set upon the coals of a roasting fire. We were given Shuar names, myself (not Danfakha this time) given the name, Tsunki Chamik, "Tsunki" meaning "man of the water" (we would soon see if that was the case) a "man of the water" being someone who is sought out in times of help by the Shuar ancestors. Kara was given the name, "Kisar Wampanty," "Kisar" meaning "the spring that gives nourishing water to the land" and Jess being named, Aja Wampanty, "Aja" being a medicinal plant used by the Shuar. We spent nights sitting around a fire outside under the amazonian sky talking with David, the father of the community. All of Nantar is made up of the children of David and his wife Dominga. David is a teacher at the primary school in the next community but the children have the month of February off from school so we spent much time discussing cultural differences. David is an intellectual, a seeker of knowledge, wanting to know about our life and culture in the states, sharing the history and culture of his people, and content with the way things are.
Our first night in the community, David asked us how long we were planning on staying and we had said one week, leaving sometime around the 8th or 9th. He told us how on the 13th it would be the festival of Nantar, celebrating the founding of the community. The 13th also happened to be Jess' birthday and we decided it would be awesome to celebrate her birthday with an indigenous Shuar community so we would stay for two weeks instead of one. The conversation soon led to David asking Kara and I how long we've been dating and we said nearly two years. He was a bit taken aback and explained how in Shuar culture, two months is a long time to date before getting married. The community and David offered Kara and I a traditional Shuar wedding the day before the festival of Nantar. Let life happen. And so we did. We floated down that stream through the forest. As the weeks led up to the 12th of February, different people in the community lent us or gave us traditional Shuar clothes. David became Kara's adopted father in the community and Martin became mine. The day of the 12th, the women went out to a grass thatched cabana in the forest used for cooking and began preparing the fiesta. Chickens were sacrificed, heart of palm was collected, maeta was prepared. The women of the community dressed Kara in the tradition blue cloth of the Shuar with red face paint, earrings  and necklaces made from hand, a belt and anklet made from the seeds of local plant. A smile grew across her face I can only describe as angelic, as happy, and right where she was supposed to be. She was beautiful. Next the women helped fit my traditional Shuar man-skirt around my thin body. Long strands of snake bones were draped over my shoulders, a necklace of local bright red and black seeds was over my head, a headdress tied behind my head, my face painted like the Shuar warriors, a spear put in my hand. Pictures were taken before Martin and I walked back through the forest barefoot to the cabana where the girls and David were waiting. Martin spoke first in Shuar, telling David that I, Tsunki, had come to ask for Kisar's hand in Shuar matrimony. I had to explain in Spanish why I wanted to marry Kara, who was sitting out of sight behind a curtain of paim fronds. I told David how I loved her. How I would work to support her and make her happy. How I had faith in what Kara and I share. Kara was brought out and in the Shuar language said, "Yes, I would like to marry Tsunki". David accepted. Kara and I were brought together to sit and drink chicha and eat maeta. After the meal, we were officially Shuar married.
I miss all of you and apologize if you're upset about not being in Nantar for the ceremony. But I hope you all understand that Kara and I have such love for each other and are so happy together and we never planned on getting married on this journey. We agreed to let life happen. To enjoy every breath of every day. And so we have. This doesn't mean we are planning a wedding in the states or even going to a courthouse when we get back. Just that we made a spiritual bond with each other and for now, that's all we need. I hope you are happy for what we have and have experienced. She is my light and love of my life. We cannot wait to share more stories with you all when we get back. We miss you and love you all.
Oh, and a couple days later I nearly died in a river with anacondas being swept downstream, barely being able to stop by decent down the roaring river and having to take the most terrifying swim of my life to cross the swift water to get back to the side with the trail. It was crazy and the closest I've come to dying, seriously. Miss you all. Stay Free.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cañon de Cotahuasi - Deepest Canyon in the World

Kara, Jess, and I at 13,000 feet, El Bosque de Piedras, Cañon de Cotahuasí
In the latest version of Lonely PLanet Peru, there are two or three pages devoted to Cañon de Colca, one of the deepest canyons in the world, the second deepest to be exact. What to do, where to stay and eat, and all the prices. They make it easy not to get lost...which is most of the fun. Just to enter the canyon, you need to pay a boleto tourismo, or a "tourism ticket," of S60 or S70 (roughly $28). That´s 3x our budget per person per day of ten dollars each. Ouch. All the tour agencies in Arequipa try to sell tourists and backpackers on the Colca Canyon and most foreigners and Peruvians alike take a tour or at least go solo to experience the canyon. I´m sure it´s amazing and it should be considering the cost to visit it. Peru is very good at realizing what gringos want to see and making them pay for it. It´s Capitalism! The canyon´s location, a three hour ride from Arequipa, makes it easily accessible as well.

There is another canyon mentioned in Lonely Planet, with only half a page devoted to it. El Cañon de Cotahuasí, the deepest canyon in the world. Twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. The book says a twelve hour, bumpy and uncomfortable overnight bus will get you there and only a handful of adventurous travelers go. Say No More. No boleto tourismo (not yet at least) and the traditional canyon culture that is untainted by mass tourism. We caught an overnight bus for S32, fairly comfortable until halfway through when the bus crests a high Andean pass upwards of 4,000 meters (around 13,000 feet above sea level). Dark, in the middle of the night, the bouncing bus felt like the moon rover. At one point, we hit a huge bump on the right side of the bus, immediately followed by a crater and bump on the left side sending the bus hurtling from side to side nearly tipping over, a few Peruanos screaming towards the front for the driver to take it easy, tranquilo. When locals scream and yell as the bus tips from side to side, you know it´s bad. I look out, as best I can, each side of the bus to see if there´s surrounding land or if we´re on the side of a mountain. I figure if there´s land, we can survive a tipped bus with only minor injuries. But if we´re on the side of the mountain, one of these craters could send us flying to a certain death. I think I saw land on both sides. 

We arrived in Cotahuasi before dawn and found a hostal to check into and go back to sleep. Most places with tourists, if you try to check-in before dawn, even one hour, they will charge you for an extra night. In Cotahuasi, we asked before agreeing to a room and the owner said, un regalo, "a gift." Untainted canyon hospitality. We fell asleep quickly, making up for the lack of sleep on the bus. 

It´s always interesting and a surprise to arrive somewhere at night, not sure what´s surrounding you. It is kind of like waking up on Christmas as a child to find a foot of snow where green grass had been the day before. I woke up and went to the sink on the roof of the hostal to fill our water bottles. Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus! We were in it. Huge green mountains surrounded the tiny town. Waterfalls cascaded from the unseen heavens above. Blue sky and sunshine lit the peaks miles in every direction. We are in the Temple of God, I thought to myself. Pachamamma, the heart of Mother Earth. Kara and Jess came up and we all began laughing. Look at where we are! This is our life right now. Every cell in my body is breathing, vibrating, smiling. We are alive, to the true meaning of the word. What have I done to deserve such blessedness? What have I done to deserve the woman next to me, beautiful and so full of love? I am overwhelmed by love and joy. 

We contain our excitement enough to wander the town, snapping photos off every five seconds. We find a tourist information office and stop in to ask about how to go about visiting the Catarata de Sipia, a waterfall, los pueblos de Velinga, Pampamarca, and the hot springs. We get maps and bus times and decide to take the 6:30 AM bus the next morning to the Sipia falls, then trek for three hours through the canyon to the village of Velinga and stay the night. For the rest of the day, we wander, catch a delicious lunch of rocotto relleno con pastel de papas, stuffed hot pepper with scalloped potatoes, a typical dish of the region. We make arrangements with our hostal to leave most of our stuff so we don´t have to hike with unnecessary gear. We will be back in a couple days. Again, in places where there´s hardly any tourism, you do not have to worry about people stealing you belongings. 

The hour or so ride to the trail head of the waterfall is the most beautiful drive I´ve ever experienced. Weaving back and forth down switchbacks on a dirt road, the canyon stretching out in front of you around every bend. Small fincas growing vegetables and fruit on terraced fields and plateaus using the same landscape and irrigation techniques used by the Incas 500 years ago. The road passes over over the Cotahuasi river twice before arriving at the trail head. The bus, full of vibrantly dressed women in the traditional high Andes clothing with straw hats or bowler hats, colorful pieces of fabric on their backs to carry fruit and supplies or babies or both. Dark, furrowed creases through their faces, each one silently telling a different story of hard work and family in the canyon. We get off at the trail head, the bus continuing on, the men and women returning to their pueblos and fincas to continue working the Earth with stiff hands, smiles and missing teeth. 

The trail to the waterfall is easy and not far. The rushing water gets squeezed through a tight bottleneck in the  canyon and takes a violent drop throwing mist up through the lower canyon, a rainbow refracting in the rays of sunshine. We get trigger happy with our cameras, pictures from a distance, then close up, trying not to slip on the wet, smooth rocks to a quick death. When we hike back to the dirt road, Kara and I stop occasionally searching for rocks to bring back to our niece and nephew, rocks from the DEEPEST CANYON IN THE WORLD!

Deep in the canyon, the environment is desert. The towering peaks rising 10,000 feet around us turn from burnt orange and red to green the higher your eyes follow. Some waterfalls pour down the sides of the canyon, eroding away the path of least resistance, creating green veins of life in the middle of the red and orange cliffs with cactus clinging to any resemblance of flat ground. We hike down the same road that the bus travels, slowly winding and rising away from the river below. As we hike further up, the river takes on its    classic snake feature, meandering back and forth, looking effortless, yet one of the most powerful forces on Earth, carving out mountains, sanding stones smooth. 

Along the way, we pass through a couple of small fincas of tunas, a red fruit growing on cactus, maize morado, the purple sweet corn used to brew chicha, the sweet fermented drink common throughout Peru. Oranges, guayaba, chirimoya, and palta (avocados). Although the environment is desert canyon, waterfalls from the high fertile green peaks pours down the sides of the rock faces used for irrigating the orchards and fields. Not much has changed here since Inca times and before. Same fruit, same day to day work, even nearly the same buildings, created and put together from the canyon´s own stone. 

Past the fincas, we trek through el Bosque de Cactus Judiopampa, a forest of long spined cacti reaching fifteen to twenty feet in height. The road ends at a turn around where the bus goes no further. There are a couple of shacks with women cooking for people coming from and going to Velinga. We were told, at the end of the road there is a trail that leads to Velinga. We were not told that the trail descends precipitously down a cliff then precipitously back up another steep cliff. We had begun chewing coca leaves throughout  the three hour trek to help curb the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue. Coca leaves, contrary to the stance of the United States of America government, are not cocaine. Nothing close to it. The people of the high Andes have been chewing coca leaves for thousands of years. There is no "high" from chewing the leaves, only a reduction of high altitude symptoms and fatigue. To take coca leaves and produce the narcotic, cocaine, the leaves need to be soaked in kerosene until they turn into a brown mush, then they are mixed and soaked with sulfuric acids and petroleum or something similar. I can promise those who believe that the plant equals the drug, that I could take basil or daisies and soak them in kerosene, sulfuric acid and gasoline and create something that you could put up your nose and feel high, though I wouldn´t and 
wouldn´t recommend it. The U.S. government and the D.E.A. believe the best way to combat drugs, specifically cocaine, is to spray poisoness chemicals in the pristine high Andes of South America, specifically Bolivia, to eradicate the cultivation of the plant completely. Never mind that it´s considered sacred by the people, part of their cultural heritage, offered in ceremonies to Pachamamma, the Earth Goddess. None of this goes into consideration when a "developed" nation has a drug problem. Why don´t we combat the use of prescription drugs to mask the problems of a culture of consumption. We don´t we take pills to lose weight. We can´t sleep or we´re depressed from genetic engineered plants or hormone induced meat, so we take pills. Pharmaceutical companies make millions of dollars making the general public believe they NEED this or that, never mind the side effects which are often more dangerous that the original problem. I´ve been through this before. We, as Americans, have our own cultural heritage and we would be damned if a foreign government came around and said guess what, we don´t want you doing this or that. It´s absurd. 

So...from the end of the road, we started down the steep trail, crossing the tributary heading towards el río Cotahuasi, then back up the steep switchbacks to the pueblo. My right knee had been flaring up in a bit of pain during our hike down from Kuélap near Chachapoyas a month ago, and it was flaring up again after three hours of trekking. It´s nothing serious I´m sure, just that we have not been doing that many long treks on this trip and my muscles have been tight from so many long bus rides. What it comes down to is that I need to stretch more. Period. After an hour hiking up the cliff face we reached the pueblo of Velinga, wondering if we were in the right place of if we´d stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient village. Not a soul seemed to be around. The stone buildings had no roofs and weeds and trees and maïze were growing from their sunlit centers. Finally we saw a man bringing his donkeys down the mountain and asked where the Hostal Velinga was. He told us to head to the center of town. 

We found the hostal and were greeted by the wife of Ignacio. She showed us our room where we quickly collapsed onto the beds (surprisingly the bed was one of the most comfortable beds and pillows our whole trip). Starving, after only eating a banana and some bread during our four hour trek, we asked if there was lunch (this was around 2:30 PM). She said no (even though they knew we were coming), but dinner would be around 5 PM. Sleep it is! We all took a nap for a couple hours until dinner was ready. It was a delicious hot soup with quinoa and locally grown potatoes, carrots, squash, and peas with a hock of beef made the same way as it´s always been since Inca times. Our plate was rice with a squash based stew. My body needed it. A cup of hot tea to finish dinner off and we were feeling alive again. I asked Ignacio how old the village was and he said it´s been around since well before the Spanish colonized Perú. A few of the homes had solar panels for light and Ignacio´s home/hostal had the only satellite powered phone, the only contact with outside Perú in the village. Other than these two modern advances, the village has largely been untouched and unchanged in 500 years. Spanish is their second language as well as ours. Quechúa, the language of the Incas is their first and still spoken throughout Perú, Bolivia, and Ecuador in indigenous populations. They cook over an open fire. They work in the same terraced fields as their Inca ancestors did before them. We stayed up for a bit chatting away with Ignacio and his wife about tourism in el cañon de Cotahuasi, the good and bad effects of it. He loves the simple life of Velinga. Most people live simply off what they grow, selling any surplus fruit and veggies in Cotahuasi when they can. "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" as Thoreau put it so wisely in Walden. (Ignacio is in the 2010 Perú Lonely Planet. Backpackers and trekkers can rent a gas stove from him and camp down by the river for S10 a night. The hostal has been up and coming since the last edition was published) 

We woke up around 7 to the sun lighting up the canyon like Nature´s cathedral. We thanked Ignacio and his wife and they gave us some avocados, guayabas, and chirimoyas as gifts for our hike back to where the road begins. We snacked on the fruit while waiting for the bus back to Cotahuasi. Two and a half hours later, we were back, laughing and smiling and overjoyed by the beauty that surrounded us. 

At 4 PM we took the two hour bus to Pampamarca, a town tucked on a plateau higher in the canyon. From Pampamarca, we could take a trek up some more steep switchback trails to 13,000 ft to see el Bosque de Piedras Hulto, a series of eroded rock formations overlooking the canyon which locals have likened to mystical figures. We arrived in Pampamarca after dark, found a room and made guacamole sandwiches and spent some time in our freezing cold room writing in our journals before bed. 

My alarm rang on my watch at 4:50 AM. Our plan was to leave around 5 for the two hour, mas o menus, hike to the rock forest in the hope of seeing Andean Condors around 7 or 8 when the sun hits the canyon and creates thermals for the condors to make their rise. We packed our bags with water, coca leaves, bread, avocados, binoculars (Thank you German guy who accidentally left his nice binocs in Iquitos, which I found) and of course our battery-charged cameras. Out the door just after five, it was dark for our first hour or so before the still cloudy skies turned from black to dark blue. We walked up the road until a sign post marked the beginning of the trail. It said, El Bosque de Piedras, 3km, max altuda 4000 meters asl (+13,000 ft). This would be the highest hike I´ve ever done. From the trail, there is a split and we stayed to the right thanks to some information from a French girl who we met the night before. There is no mark to stay right and the real trail is thinner and looks less used. Had we not met the backpacking chica we would have stayed on the larger trail, never reached the rock forest or ruins and hiked for seven hours. (A guy from Poland we met did just that, seven hours to nowhere)

pottery fragments inside ruins near El Bosque de Piedras
Up, and further up we strode. The sun´s rays lit the tops of our mountain but the clouds lingered if not grew in the area of sky they covered. Maybe the skies wouldn´t clear. Near the top, Jessica spotted a pile of rocks with an opening, the rocks clearly placed by humans precariously on the side of a cliff. Inside to our amazement were human bones. This was an ancient burial mound! The bones spread out, no longer in their proper alignment had at least two sets of human remains, two skulls with their craniums cracked open, either from their death (possible sacrifice to Pachamamma) or from the rocky grave collapsing throughout time. This was amazing. Another mound up the trail had a crushed skull in it as well, weeds of tall grass growing from the open crater. The trail split, left going up to the rock forest, right to what looked like more ruins. We explored the ruins, stone circles which once must have been dwellings. How old must these have been?! High grasses and bushes obscured most of the ancient village on the side of the cliff. Who lived here? When? We found pottery shards, red and broken. None that we found bore markings of advanced civilizations. I found an intact handle of a clay vessel. I felt like Indiana Jones (Kara is laughing when she´ll read this). I wish I had the means of carbon dating the pottery or the bones. What secrets lie beneath these stones? Above 12,500 feet and the energy of this place was surging through my blood. Sure, others had been here before but not many. It felt like it was our discovery. 

From the ruins, we hit the main trail again and climbed the last leg to the sandy rock forest. The rocks, eroded pointed cones, dominated the upper portion of the mountain. By 8 in the morning, the sun´s power burnt away the clouds and we had a million dollar view. Fertile green fields terraced the steep slopes of the valley and canyon below. Along the southern horizon, the top layer of the deepest canyon in the world was lined with snow capped volcanoes and mountains, topping out about 6000 meters. We were the only people there. It was as if the entire canyon was our personal playground. My camera kept saying its battery was dead but I knew if was just the cold and the altitude. A little time in a warm pocket and it was full again. We had breakfast at 13,000 feet of bread and avocados. Nothing could make this morning any better. 

We were wrong. Looking down the trail towards the ruins we had just explored, three condors rose from the canyon beyond, wings spread, rising on the morning thermals as the rocks heated and warmed in the sun. Camera in one hand, binoculars in the other. This was our dream come true. These birds are sacred to the indigenous of the Andes, their feathers used by shamans and healers in traditional ceremonies. What the jaguar is in spiritual power to the people of the Amazon, the condor is to the high Andes. One of the majestic birds took a turn on his wings and flew right over my head, not 10 feet above me. I could feel the air pass over its wings. My camera clicked at the perfect moment and I had my picture. All around us was pure, untainted beauty. Sacred. I could cry describing it. No picture will do it justice (especially from my camera). I am at peace. 

We hiked back down, much quicker and easier on the lungs. Returning to our hostal (i.e. a woman´s house) we ate a huge lunch, so filling, so delicious, afterwards taking a nice three hour nap. We deserved it. Outside our hospedaje, there´s a volleyball net set up. The woman who runs the hospedaje/hostal asked us at lunch if we wanted to play later. We said of course, thinking it was going to be a friendly game of back and forth. After our nap, Rufina, the woman, knocks on our door and says Vamos a jugar volley! We head outside and it´s Kara, Jess, myself, and a local teenager against two men, a woman, and our cute hostal owner. She asks what we´re playing for? A bottle of soda? They wanted to make stakes for the game! We said we´d just play for fun. One of the women had clearly played organized ball before. She´s spiking and serving hard. They weren´t screwing around! Ha! So we play a match of three games and end up winning the second and third to take the match. By the second game, the rain had started and we were getting wet in the only clothes we brought and it´s FREEZING in the evening and at night. Everything else was in Cotahuasi. But the game was an unexpected competitive volleyball, a wonderful surprise. I loved it. 

It´s bitterly cold here at night. I don´t know what temperature it may be but it rains in the afternoon and evening so it can´t be below freezing but it´s awful close. Even when it is warm and sunny outside, it´s cold and dark indoors. Kara and I are splitting a single bed. S10 per bed (not per head) the way it should be makes this the cheapest place we´ve stayed yet, slightly less than $2 per person. But being frugal has its ups and downs, strikes and gutters, as the Dude says. The bed is small....and cold. I move a lot in my sleep, roll from side to side, normally not a problem...when it´s warmer. But the wool blankets tend to move with me pulling them (accidentally!!) from Kara. We both haven´t slept well here. 

Sleep or no sleep, or bad sleep, hasn´t thwarted us from rising early to get a head start on a beautiful hike or trek. This morning we left at 7 to hike down to some thermal baths flowing from the depths of the mountain. we asked some locals for directions (there´s two ways of getting there) and everyone seems to give the longer, harder and safer way of getting there. The faster, easier way is supposed to be very narrow at points, on the side of a cliff, and dangerous. Faster AND dangerous you say?! We´ll take that one! We were supposed to take the trail towards el Mirador de Oskune, a lookout over a beautiful waterfall. Where the trail splits, we should stay left and follow (i.e. find your way from there). Something about a canal, then down, down, down. So we head out down the trail and find what seems to be the split in the trail on the left. We start up this narrow rarely used trail bushwhacking through the brush and avoiding cacti. This doesn´t seem to be right but someone told us something along the likes of "up and over." This must be the up. We eventually reached a stone road. Not so much a road you could put a truck on (you couldn´t) but enough for a family and four donkeys hauling concrete bags to their fields to build a stone shelter or terraced wall. We had inadvertently 1: not found the right split in the trail and 2: somehow bushwhacked our way up a steep hill to the harder, longer way to the hot springs. Oh well. The hike down into the canyon was beautiful none the less. Every hillside had new or ancient terraced fields. Wildflowers of every color dotted the landscape and wouldn´t you know it, another condor walking from its cold slumber flew right over our heads! 

We kept heading down and more down until we could see the thermal pools below along side the río Pampamarca. We could see the steam rising from the confluence of the hot spring water hitting the raging river. Down the last set of switchbacks and we arrived to find a boy of nine years named Ricardo already soaking and swimming in the warm thermal water. We chatted and found out that Ricardo is from Pampamarca and he usually comes down to the springs every Saturday. Nine years old! Down a canyon 1-2 hours on his own. Can you imagine this in the States? We´ve become very conservative about the level of independence we give our children. I can remember taking my bike with my brother and best friend Jimmy on weekends down into the woods behind our housing development to explore the creek., the old snapping turtle pond with the rope swing and the abandoned farm house with the broken windows and a hole in the floor between the kitchen and the master bedroom (Of course we went in!). We would just tell our parents that we were heading into the woods. No cell phones, no parent-teacher chaperon. As long as we were home for dinner with our hands washed, all was O.K. It´s not the same now. At least here in Perú, in the deepest canyon in the world, that nine year old independence still thrives. 

The water was not as hot as we expected. It was more like a warm bath. But I hadn´t showered since Arequipa, at least a week ago (the shower water in the canyon is mind numbing!) and this seemed like heaven. We massaged our aching muscles and my aching knee (it´s getting better). Ricardo told us that the spring is heated from a volcano further up and beyond the rock forest where we were the day before. The distance through the mountain gives the water some time to cool down a bit. We spent a couple hours relaxing in the water, complacent with the fact that we would not be making it back to Pampamarca for the noon bus back to Cotahuasi. One more night it is! We snacked on some cookies and Ricardo pulled out a bag of tostadas, toasted corn kernels (delicious) and was generous to share some with the group of gringos. We promised him when we get back to town we´d buy him a couple snacks at the tienda. 

We headed out, slightly cleaner than we had arrived, Ricardo as our guide taking us back the easier, faster, more dangerous way. We passed through fertile and vivid green terraced fields before hugging rocks on the side of a cliff (the dangerous part) next to the amazing and impressive irrigation canal bringing water from streams and waterfalls further up the mountain down and around the cliffs to the fields below. You read about ancient irrigation techniques of the Incas at Macchu Picchu, or the Chachapoyas at Kuélap but you SEE it here. It´s honestly amazing. Reading about it does no justice. 

Our trail led us almost right to the lookout of Oskuné waterfall, only one more incredibly beautiful landscape scene in the most beautiful place I´ve ever experienced. We made it back to Pampamarca and had a typical dish of chicken, boiled potatoes, choclo corn on the cob, a larger kernel of corn commonly used as a base for ceviché, and some beans in a pod. We planned on catching the 6:30 AM bus the following morning back to Cotahuasi to see if we could bargain the price of renting horses for the day to take us to some other hot springs of Luicho and Lucha, upriver from Cotahuasi near the pueblos of Tomepampa and Alca. But first, one more freezing night. 

Best sleep in Pampamarca! I managed to 1: not have to pee in the middle of the night (a freezing endeavour) and 2: managed to keep the two wool blankets on all night, keeping me in a warm bubble of dead air. I woke up and ordered us three cups of coffee from Rufina before the 7 o´clock bus back to Cotahuasi. Rufina, who if I didn´t mention before is the cutest indigenous Peruvian woman on the planet, was also heading to the hot springs of Lucha. There are two thermal pools very near each other. One is Luicho, popular among locals and the other is Lucha, rarely used and as it turns out for us, FREE! Luicho has an entrance fee of S2 as of 2010´s Lonely Planet. 

We caught a colectivo (van) to Lucha for S2.50 which was constantly stopping to pick up more locals from the small pueblos and fincas along the way heading to Luicho for a nice Sunday soak. We got out at Lucha and hiked down to the thermal pools adjacent to the river. Snow capped mountains hung on the horizon like a tapestry on a wall. Though there was a gate to get in (it was open), no one was there or seemed to be there to take money to enter. Maybe just Sunday´s are free? There were two pools, but one was empty. The full one had hot water pouring into it from the mountain slope. So crystal clear you would think it was treated with chlorine. On the side facing the river, an exit pipe directed the flow towards the cold mountain flow. The pool was large enough that the pool temperature was slightly warm, with only the hot spot being while you sat just in front of the source of the pool. Even though the sun was out, you realized we´re still fairly high in altitude when you´d get out of the water and the air was COLD. 

We had lunch of sweet bread, similar to English muffins, and avocados, with the rest of our time spent sun bathing and thawing after three freezing nights in Pampamarca. We caught a bus back to Cotahuasi and took steaming hot showers! What a luxury. My first real wash in over ten days (again, don´t judge). We had dinner at our favorite old lady in town who always comes by our table afterwards and talks to us about the canyon, her life, or what type of dish we just ate. This night she explained the green thick soup with cheese we just had, a very common taste around here for pastas, soups, or a sauce for meat and veggies. 

Exhausted, we were in bed by 7:30, asleep by nine. 

Our last day in Cañon de Cotahuasí, sad to leave, we took an overnight bus back to Arequipa, 12 hours, then the first bus we could catch to Puno, Perú, sitting on Lake Titicaca. Puno is the border city with Bolivia. We were saddened to leave such a beautiful and magical place and unfortunately would miss the festival de Cotahuasi at the beginning of May featuring bullfights, traditional dancing and music and local artists, all the while partying all week. If we had more time, we could have spent a month easy in the canyon but we don´t so we can´t. 

Cañon de Cotahuasí, you are forever in my heart.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rumbling Through Peru

Though our adventure through the Amazon is through, our adventure from a broader perspective is far from over regardless of the days trickling down, less than three months as I write. We set sail once again on a passenger/cargo ship from Iquitos heading up the Amazon river to its headwaters. Even the headwaters of the Amazon are rivers not to be taken lightly. Our second cargo ship was far better than the floating conglomerate of rust we took from the border of Ecuador to Iquitos. The Gilmer V. was bigger, stronger, and much cleaner. No animals, but still stocked full with cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuk mototaxis we've come to love, and roughly 350 people. You had the option of paying for a general ticket which allowed you 3 meals a day and a first come first choose where to set up your hammock though this boat had two levels for hammock sleeping and a lot more space. The more expensive option was a private room which in truth was a converted locker stuffed with two bunk beds and a steel door with no window. Sounding too hot and sweaty with no ventilation we opted for the cheaper option (would you expect less of us?) and set up our hammocks on the third level of the ship. The trip to Yurimaguas, lasting two and a half days, passed with much less excitement as cows committing suicide or water buffalo trying to ka-bob anyone in front of him. Our excitement on our second cargo ship voyage passed with incredibly clear nights watching the stars of the southern hemisphere roll through the sky, and the Milky Way, the Amazon of the night sky, flowing through space and time. South America, Peru in particular, is famous for alien conspiracies and UFO sightings and I thought to myself, what better spot to see a UFO zipping through the Amazonian sky but alas none showed for the occasion. We did have a nice run in with some shallow water. Kara and I were sitting on a bench in the front of the boat cruising along upstream when the boat lurched forward, people in their hammocks floating effortlessly forward by the momentum as we hit a shallow beach in the middle of the river. These boats are designed for this though, flat on the bottom so that they can take almost anything the river has to offer. With a little reverse and detour we were moving again with zero casualties, the memory behind us. On a separate occasion, our small but powerful wake knocked over a canoe with a man and a few young children in it, sinking their canoe and motor in the shallow flooded water of the edge of the river. Some passengers witnessed it, and screamed for the captain to stop the boat and help. A john boat with a motor was put in the water and some of the deck hands zipped back to rescue the children and get the canoe afloat again and bailed out. Again, no casualties, just a hint of excitement. We spent most of our time reading and catching up writing in our journals before we made it to Yurimaguas on the morning of our third day.

Yurimaguas is connected to the rest of Peru by roads, something we'd been without for over a month. Although cars were found on the streets of Iquitos (the streets didn't go anywhere other than throughout the city) we hadn't seen many since we left Coca, Ecuador. We wandered the streets of Yurimaguas with our five year old Lonely Planet Peru Edition searching out an ATM machine. The ATM didn't work (they rarely do but as long as I get my card back I'll consider it a successful trip in Peru) so we caught a mototaxi to the bus terminal heading towards Tarapoto, the gateway to the jungle if you're coming from the rest of connected Peru. We didn't need to see the jungle around Tarapoto so we immediately caught a bus from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas, a city situated at 7600 ft above sea level in the Andes mountains. Named after the fierce people who once dominated the region, The Chachapoyas, meaning "People of the Clouds" battled fiercely against the Incas before being conquered. They left behind the lost city of Kuélap, a stone fortress on top of a mountain 9000 ft surrounded by an impressive stone wall sixty feet high. The entrances into the fortress were ingeniously engineered as narrow passageways to make any invading force enter in single file, thus much easier to defeat from the inside. The stone structure of the citadel is so impressive, some archaeologists have theorized that engineers from Kuélap helped design Macchu Picchu.

To get to Kuélap, we had to wake up at catch a van at 4 AM to take us the 2.5 hrs to Kuélap, but they don´t stick around. We were the only people at the ruins making the experience that much more amazing. Thinking about all the times I´ve been somewhere full of beauty, wanting that ONE picture untainted, uninterrupted by that person in the corner with their camera in the air too. That wasn´t a problem here. It was ours. We brought bread, avocados, tomatoes, and some funky cheese to make sandwiches for lunch before making the long journey back to Chachapoyas. From Kuélap, we had to hike downhill about 3,000 ft in elevation on a steep switchback path full of deep, wet, heavy clay mud requiring us to wear our rubber boots, then the trail switches to hard packed rock which the boots are horrible for. It didn´t help that my size 13 feet barely (and I mean barely) fit into my rubber boots, so after 3,000 ft down steep trail for 3 hrs, my toes were killing me, as well as my knee. We finally reached the town at the river in the valley below and waited on the side of the road, snacking on fruit, toasted corn, and any other junk the ladies were hawking to passing cars and trucks, for another 3 hrs for a bus heading back to the city. The aches and pains of the hike were well worth the experience. Kuélap will remain one of the highlights of the trip.

After a day of recovering from our battle wounds from our Kuélap hike, we caught a 5 AM bus from Chachapoyas through the high Andean passes over a potholed, riveted dirt road for 13 hrs to Cajamarca. The road there reminded us of the road we took from Macas, Colombia through the Andes towards the Ecuadorian border. Bolivia may hold the rights to ¨the world´s most dangerous road¨ but this road wasn´t too far behind. No guardrail, no room to pass oncoming traffic, and the slightest mistake would throw the bus down a 6,000 ft mountain slope never to be found again. But God was it beautiful.

Cajamarca, 8,900 ft above sea level, but drier and sunnier than Chachapoyas, is a busy, bustling city, famous for it´s rich history between the Spanish conquistadors and the beginning of the end of the Inca empire. In 1532, the Inca king, Atahualpa stopped at Cajamarca to bath in the famous ¨baños del Inca,¨a set of thermal hot baths engineered by the Incas just outside of the Inca city. Francisco Pizarro and his band of 168 soldiers decked out on horses and armor massacred the thousands of Inca civilians and soldiers wielding simpler weapons and captured the Inca king. Atahualpa offered the Spanish a ransom for his freedom, a room filled with gold and two rooms of silver. Gold from as far as Cuzco was sent for the ransom but alas our ancestors from glorious Europe under the banner of heaven (read sarcasm here) executed the king instead of releasing him once the ransom was paid. El Cuarto del Rescate, or ¨the ransom room¨is the only Inca building still standing in Cajamarca although the room itself is supposedly the cell in which Atahualpa was held and discussed the ransom, not the actual room of gold itself.

While visiting this amazing piece of Inca history as well as other beautiful buildings and museums throughout the city, our highlight in Cajamarca had to be the cheese. Seriously. The region surrounding the city is well know for its dairy products, something we´ve been lacking for 5 months. Sure, Colombia and Ecuador have cheese, technically, but it´s all queso campesino, a locally made cheese that can taste ¨good¨at times, while at others it can taste like dirty socks that fell in the toilet. But in Cajamarca, they have cheddar. They have edam. Gouda. Swiss. AND THEY LET YOU TRY IT...FREE. What more could three welfare travelers want out of life?! So we made our way from cheese store to cheese store, acting interested (we were) and as if we might buy some (we would not) trying the cheeses. I lied, we did buy some. One of our nights we bought a cheap bottle of wine (the wine is really sweet in Peru) and bought some smoked mozzarella and some other type as well as some bread and that was our dinner. It was marvelous. The cheddar was by far my favorite, making my knees weak, but was too expensive for us to enjoy a whole block of it. Ah! How I miss cheese (read here: Mom when we get back I hope there´s a lot of cheese in the house).

From Cajamarca, we headed on an overnight bus to Trujillo, our first time in Peru´s coastal desert. We didn´t stay in the city though, instead catching a local transport bus to Huanchaco, 12 km outside the city on the beach. Although an attractive beach town, the influence of tourism is evident on every street. Hostels, hotels, and guesthouses (they are actually ALL THE SAME), Surf shacks selling lessons and restaurants selling ceviche six times what you can find it for in the market lined most streets. No beach town will compare to our experience in Canoa, Ecuador. Tiny, quiet and cheap where you feel like a local after two weeks. I´m sure though if we return to Ecuador some day a few years down the road, it will have succumbed to the same fate as Huanchaco. We stayed for a few days, using the beach town as our base to check out surrounding ruins and historical sites of Chan Chan and Huaca de la Luna y Sol.

Chan Chan, the largest Pre-Columbian city in South America was constructed by the Chimu kingdom around A.D. 850 and lasted until they were conquered by the Incas around 1470. The city of Chan Chan covers around 12 square miles and once housed over 30,000 people. Situated on the coast of Peru but in the desert climate, the city is entirely constructed from adobe. As with most museums and ruins throughout Peru, there is a price to enter, and an opportunity to hire a multi-lingual guide. On our budget however we cannot afford guides as well as the required tip at the end. But as luck would have it at Chan Chan, there was a group of European tourists in front of us (I would guess German) but the tours are either in Spanish or English and their second language was English. So as we made our way throughout the ruins of Chan Chan, one of the three of us would semi-hover around the tour group acting as if we were looking at some interesting piece of the adobe city while focusing our energy on hearing what the tour guide was explaining to the tourists. Then as they would move on to the next part of the ruins, we would gather together and the spy would explain to the other two what was important about this or that certain area of the ruins. In the center of the ruins was a plaza where the royal Chimu would gather for ceremonies and there was a man, dressed in a Chimu costume acting like the Chimu king posing for pictures. When we passed (he must have heard us speaking English) and we asked Como esta? he responded with (I´m not lying about this), ¨Same fucking shit everyday mang!¨(in perfect English he said this...if you consider mang perfect English). We laughed because it was hilarious and asked him where he learned English. He said he was from Trujillo but lives in Kansas, U.S.A. (weird) He has his own plumbing company but came back to Peru for his father´s funeral. We didn´t want to pry into his personal life but found it humorous that he has his family and work back in the states and (as sad as it is his reason for coming back) he´s passing the time working part time dressing like the Chimu king of Chan Chan for pictures from tourists. He told us maybe he´d see us out at the bar in Huanchaco and we headed off to find the next ruin and museum.

The next day, we visited Huaca de la Luna (¨Temple/Shrine of the Moon¨). It is a large adobe brick pyramid build by the Moché culture before the rise of the Chimu empire. We were required to have a guide at this ruin (it was worth it, he was informative and pretty funny). Covered by the sands of the desert over centuries, the excavation and studying of the Temple of the Moon only began 21 years ago in 1991 and is ongoing today. The Huaca would have been an amazing site to behold after its construction. It was decorated with murals of black, bright red, sky blue, white and yellow. Many of these murals have been faded and or completely erased by the sun, wind, and friction from the blowing sands over hundreds of years. Fortunately, some murals can still be seen and are being conserved, not restored which means they´re being recreated. Many of the murals depict the Moché deity known as Ayapec, a pre-Inca word translating as all knowing. Many of the bricks used to build the pyramid show one of over 100 different markings, like signatures of the family name responsible for producing the bricks, as an accounting measure for the quota of each household. Many of the ceramics found amid the pyramid depict two warriors fighting until one is captured. The captured warrior would then be given a tea of the san pedro cactus which has psychedelic properties before the warrior would be sacrificed to the Gods. The Huaca, next to Kuélap, was one of the more amazing ruins to visit.

After our nerd-out of archaeology and ancient ruins of northern Peru, we caught a bus south on the cheapest bus to Lima we could find, only to find out post-purchase that our bus line is known for accidents (cross your fingers). But we´re still here and we made it to Lima without incident and found our good friend Michael at his student housing near the Catholica Universidad. Michael is good friend from Germany who we met back in Ecuador in Canoa. We chilled around the beach with him and found out he was studying in Lima towards his Masters degree in Anthropology. Jessica has her B.S. in Anthropology and they quickly fell into deep intellectual discussions. Michael´s laid back attitude and similar interests made him feel like an old friend within a couple of beers down the hatch. Our second week in Canoa, when we were selling macramé bracelets for Eden´s Rose Foundation ( Michael helped sell a few pieces to some German tourists whose English was shaky. Good dude. He said that when we get to Lima, we were welcome to stay at his house for free. Awesome. So we took him up on his offer and he put us up for our week in Lima which worked out great because one, Lima is expensive to stay and two, our week there was the week before Easter or Semana de Santa, the biggest holiday in Peru making bus tickets, hostel prices, and food triple in price. His house was beautiful, the nicest student housing I´ve ever experienced. A huge kitchen, dining room, open courtyard with a pool table, and a great rooftop deck for relaxing or lounging in the sun. Lima for us, staying at Michael´s was like being back home for a week. A major supermarket down the road where you can buy just about anything you desire (we couldn´t afford those things) and REAL COFFEE. Tangent off the subject: South America is renowned for it´s coffee and yet each country´s culture prefers instant Nescafé coffee to the rich, organic, fresh coffee that is grown there making the search for a good cup of coffee exasperating. End of tangent. So for a week, we made cup after cup of dark, rich, organic coffee, and cooked like a family with Michael and a couple of his roommates from France. One night, the french cooked a typical french dish of potatoes and cheese (from France! sent by his mother) another night we cooked eggplant parmasean (my stomach is growling as I type). We didn´t visit much in Lima, we didn´t visit anything actually. We will be flying out of Lima in June and will be staying with Michael again and just figure it will give us something to do before we leave. By the end of the week, Michael´s landlord kicked us out (for no reason other than he wanted us to pay to stay so we peaced) and we headed south down the coast to Chincha and El Carmen, the Afro-Peruvian capital of Peru.

In El Carmen, outside Chincha, we spent an afternoon walking around listening to kids play the typical cajon, a wooden box with a hole in it used as a percussion since the times when the plantation owners outlawed the use of drums for the slaves. Young kids or teenagers would walk around and play the cajon and dance for S1 each (about 40 cents) for a minute or two. In town we stumbled upon a family run restaurant (meaning two tables set up in front of a family´s door selling lunch) and ordered the pescado encetomatado off the set menú for S5 ($2). It was the most delicious meal we´ve experience our entire journey from Colombia to Peru. It was amazing. This plate in the U.S. would be worth $25 easy at a decent seafood restaurant. It was a nice cut of fish cooked with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, with corn, baby clams, baby shrimp, squid, seaweed, and yucca. The flavor was mind-numbing. I couldn´t get over it. The chef and father of the house came out to ask how it was (unusual for Peru) and we expressed our deepest appreciation. He spoke English (many Peruvians we´ve met have spoken English well) and we discovered that he lived in Dallas for a number of years at a warehouse (he should have been running his own Peruvian restaurant). Pescado encetomatado is on my growing list of Peruvian dished to learn how to cook when we return to the states.

From Chincha to Nazca, famous for the mysterious lines running kilometers through the desert of southern Peru. The Nazca Lines have been on my bucket list of things to see in life. Unfortunately, the best way to see them is from a small aircraft from above, but due to the high demand of tourism and the unsavory safety record of some of the air crafts, the price has skyrocketed over the last few years and a 40 minute tour by air costs around $150. Welfare travelers will have nothing of it. Fortunately (always top a bad with a good), there is a mirador, or ¨lookout¨ where the more budgeted (read: poor) traveler (read: not a tourist) can view two of the lines. Oohh a lookout you say?! I´m thinking a viewpoint from on top of one of the surrounding mountains but come to find out it´s nothing more than a watch tower, 30 or 40 feet high on the side of the pan-american highway. From the top you can see at a wide angle el Arbol (the tree) and los Manos (the hands) for S3 (barely more than $1). There used to be another line, the lizard, but the pan-american highway was built smack through its tail and the years of traffic, dust, and trauma has made it vanish. In Nazca, we met up with our French amigos, Tristan, Amandine, and Alex who we met way back in Pantoja waiting for the cargo boat to Iquitos. We´ve been traveling the same route, mas o menus, a day or two ahead of the others since hitting Iquitos and keep bumping into each other every place we visit. Chachapoyas, Cajamarca, Huanchaco, Nazca, and Arequipa (haven´t gotten there yet in the blog). In Nazca we found a hostel that let us sleep on the floor in the courtyard for S6! (Travels and Bojanglin on a Welfare Budget to hit bookstores in 2013) Heading out of Nazca we caught a bus to Chala, a small fishing village on the coast that has sprawled into a large fishing and tourist town during the warm sunny months. We caught it at the beginning of the endless fog season where we had the entire beach and the ice cold Pacific ocean to ourselves, except for the people dumping their trash behind us.Boo.

From Chala, we caught an overnight bus to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. Surrounded by towering snow capped active volcanoes, we spent a week wandering around, searching for cheap knit gloves since our next two months will be spent upwards and above 10,000 ft and COLD. We´re going to wait until Bolivia for hats and scarves, and alpaca sweaters and other trinkets. As you get higher in the Andes, the soups keep getting better and better. We visited a few museums, ate the best soft serve ice cream we´ve had on the trip (just about everyday), drank lots of coffee, had a couple Arequipeña cervezas one night, and spent our time meandering the cobbled streets of a beautiful city.

It´s interesting, as you continue to travel, you expect things to stop being so amazing, for a near norm to set in. As we´ve made our way from Colombia to Peru, we´ve seen and experienced things that I´ve thought, ¨This is it. The best place we will see or experience.¨ I´ve since learned to stop putting tags on the intangible. I am a student of the Earth, always with eyes, ears, and mind open. I will never cease to be amazed to the point of tears. From Arequipa, we´re heading into el Cañon de Cotahuasi, the deepest canyon in the world, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Surely it will hold experiences that will shake the bones, rattle the DNA, slap the stillness from our minds saying ¨Wake Up! You´re alive and part of the Earth.¨