Thursday, January 27, 2011

First Aid Without a First Aid Kit

Would you know how to handle a snake bite in the middle of the Nicaraguan wilderness?  How about a broken limb?  A machete wound?  While some have been trained in first aid (albeit about 20 years ago), most of the local health volunteers (brigadistas) in my community wouldn’t know what to do in those situations.  While they have enthusiasm and a strong desire to improve their community and support Health Center activities in the rural communities, brigadistas are often poorly trained and lack resources.  None of them have basic first aid kit materials or are confident to address emergency situations in their villages.

Enter Emergency Relief Services for Latin America (ERSLA).  This non-governmental organization (NGO) runs out of the Nicaraguan city of Estelí and was founded by a former Nicaraguan Peace Corps volunteer named Rodney McDonald.  I have known him for months and since they often work with firefighters and other emergency relief efforts, I brought up the idea of coordinating a basic first aid class in my community.  This month, several volunteers from the U.S. came down to Nicaragua to work with ERSLA training firefighters and helping with administrative efforts.  Turns out one of them, named Ryan, was a paramedic, spoke Spanish, and willing to do the training in my community!
We coordinated a half-day training and invited all the brigadistas in the community.  Ryan and Rodney arrived bright and early, however like most Nicaraguan meetings – it started about an hour and a half late.  Only female brigadistas showed up – I guess that’s what you get for holding a meeting during coffee and tobacco season.  Most of the men were probably doing seasonal harvest work for the local cooperatives.

Ryan led an informal training session and his Spanish was great.  The women were a little giggly in the presence of two American men and were quick to forgive his grammar errors.  Since most brigadistas have little to no first aid material in their homes, Ryan taught simple first aid techniques using common items such as a t-shirt, a bottle of water, a baseball cap or wooden sticks.   They role-played common scenarios making a sling out of a t-shirt, carrying someone who was wounded, and making a splint.  In the case of neck or spinal injury, he showed the women how to make a neck brace using the bill of a baseball hat, wrapping it with cloth.
Practicing sling tying

When there is no ambulance (or donkey) available!
Ryan was quite the clown with the ladies.  Here he is pretending to have a neck injury
Me getting a sling wrapped
Stopping bleeding and elevating

The Health Center Director and Head Nurse were also present at the training and I think even they learned a few techniques.  When resources are scarce and there is no anti-bacterial wash, clean gauze or even band-aids out in the field, using what is available in the home or in the field is the brigadista’s only option.  These brigadistas are paid nothing and volunteer their time and energy to improve the health of their communities.  The brigadistas program began after the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution and is one of the great grassroots networks that we can access and utilize as Peace Corps volunteers to implement community education programs.

The training was a success, and I hope to coordinate with Rodney to have follow-up sessions in the coming months.  Thanks ERSLA and thanks to Ryan!  Check out ERSLA’s web page at: www.ersla.org

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Peru Part II: Alana’s Community – Christmas, Chocolate, Candelabra and Canotaje.

Alana, Ena and I arrived tired and red-eyed after our flight from Cuzco and the three hour express bus ride south from Lima along the dusty, sandy Pan-American Highway to Alana’s Peace Corps site. She lives in a larger city compared to my community in Nicaragua, and I was in shock that she had modern things like a bank, large grocery store, and gym close enough to reach by taxi ride. Alana is a small business development volunteer, so she mainly works with artisans who sell local handicrafts and with youth. She started her Peace Corps service about five months after I did, in June 2009.
A large part of Alana’s work consists of assisting in activities and administration for a “comedor” in her site. The comedor is a soup kitchen/community center and has been in existence for about 45 years. It is funded by a Peruvian-American man. Ena, the Bosnian/Austrian volunteer who had traveled with us to Machu Picchu was volunteering there for six months. She had found the website online and showed an interest in coming and was chosen. Her room and board are free in exchange for her work at the Comedor (she helps serve meals and teaches art and dance classes to the children). The comedor feeds breakfast and lunch to 150-200 children and disabled adults and elders daily. There is a nice area with mirrors for dance and exercise classes, children’s books for them to read, and about eight computers with internet for classes. The comedor’s website is: http://www.bemelsa.org/

Children's african dance class at the comedor

Food prep

Dig in!
We stayed with Alana’s host family, and Alana graciously let me sleep in her twin bed while she used an air mattress (what a great host!) We were so tired out from our Machu Picchu trip (see previous blog), that for the first day we simply rested and wandered her neighborhood. We settled in to Alana’s daily routine: hanging out with Alana’s Peruvian boyfriend Jose, going to the gym in the nearby city, eating meals with her host family, helping serve meals at the Comedor, and walking Alana’s dog “Lady.” Alana bought Lady as a puppy in her site and raised her – she plans on bringing Lady back to the U.S. when she finished her Peace Corps service.
Alana's host mother
First meal with her host family - rice, potatoes and beans

Alana’s site is located in the region of Chincha in the department of Ica and was surprisingly cool and windy and very dry. She said it never rains – I was thrilled since in Nicaragua we have recently come out of a horrible rainy season in which several hurricanes and tropical storms passed through flooding streets and washing out bridges. In Alana’s site we were able to wash our own laundry and it dried in the same day! I was thrilled not to have mold growing on wet clothing and shoes (as it does in Nicaragua, and as it had also been doing on our rainy visit to Machu Picchu).

Alana and her boyfriend enjoying some Peruvian seafood - YUM
The days passed surprisingly quickly in Alana’s site. We were very relaxed, and I was enjoying a well-deserved break without thinking about work or the daily dramas of my site. However I was very tired and slept much more than usual – every day I woke up feeling like I could have gone right back to bed. I think it was because it is customary to drink tea rather than coffee in Peru. Coffee is more expensive, and what is grown domestically is sold abroad. I was having serious withdrawal symptoms since I am quite the caffeine addict. Although Alana’s host mother had graciously found some coffee in town and made me a watery cup every morning, it just wasn’t cutting it. I dreamt of my French press and strong coffee back in Nicaragua.

We were arriving in Chincha just in time for Christmas celebrations. A typical Peruvian Christmas activity for children is to hold a “Chocolatada” where invited children are treated to a mug of hot chocolate (made with Peruvian chocolate, condensed milk and cinnamon), and the Peruvian Christmas necessity: panetón. Panetón is similar to fruitcake, but made with lighter dough. It is simply not Christmas without hot chocolate and panetón. The comedor had a large Chocolatada planned and had invited all the children and adults who ate there to attend. Gifts had individually been purchased for each person. During the Chocolatada, the children sat around in small chairs around the Christmas tree and nativity scene while Alana, Ena and I busied ourselves helping to pass-out mini-panetons and cocoa as Christmas music blared over the speakers. Two dance groups formed by children who ate at the Comedor performed – one of them was a class that Ena taught in modern/jazz dance.
Panetón
Ena with all the gifts in front of the Comedor's nativity scene and tree
That's a lot of hot chocolate...
All dressed up for the party

Afterwards, when the kids had been sufficiently sugared-up, a young Peruvian girl stuffed a pillow under her shirt and put on a Santa Claus costume to hand out presents. They were “supposed” to wait until the night of Christmas Eve to open their gifts, but many could simply not contain their excitement and slowly worked away with their little fingers at the edges of the wrapping paper until the present had “accidentally” been revealed. They received balls, electric cars, dolls, books, and clothing. For most of these children, this would be their only Christmas present, making the Chocolatada even more special.

In Peru, the main Christmas festivities occur on the evening of Christmas Eve. A special dinner of turkey, French fries, Inca Kola (an integral part of any Peruvian party, it is bright yellow and tastes a bit like bubble gum), hot chocolate, canned peaches and panetón is served late, and the entire family attends a midnight mass. They carry with them the baby Jesus figurine from their nativity scene to be blessed by the priest, afterwards returning home to place him in the manger and go to bed. Nothing much happens on the 25th – most people take the opportunity of day off to eat more panetón and drink a few beers on the front porch.

Alana, Ena and I had Christmas Eve dinner with Alana’s host family. Along with Jose, we decided to make some American treats to donate to the meal and used a Peace Corps cookbook I have to make oatmeal/raisin/chocolate chip cookies and a mango cobbler. After baking, we had a lazy day sitting around using the internet at the Comedor (I was so jealous that Alana had free internet right around the corner from her house!) Alana’s host mom started tearing up when she was expressing how happy she was that Alana and I were there to spend Christmas with her family. “I’ve never had people here before for Christmas…” she began, but then she broke down and had to run off to her room to compose herself. She is a very sweet woman and made me wish that I lived with a caring host family like that in my site.
Me, Ena, Alana and Alana's host sister

After Christmas Eve dinner we went to bed rather early since we had big plans for the next morning – a visit to Paracas, on the Pacific coast, about an hour from Alana’s site. There, we were going to go on a tour of the Ballestas Islands wildlife refuge which had penguins!

We were up early and on the boat tour by 9 AM. I was surprised to suddenly see so many tourists, even on Christmas Day. Our boat was full of Japanese tourists, but there were also many Europeans and Australians. In Alana’s site there were few gringos, but the area in general is very touristy because of Ica’s proximity to Lima. Many tour companies organize day trips there.

We donned our mandatory bright orange life jackets and were off, straining our ears over the engine to hear our tour guide – he spoke in Spanish and then in a weird English. We actually weren’t sure if he was really speaking English, or just making English sounding noises… I think he had learned English by looking at written English words and simply memorizing them, using Spanish pronunciation. At least we could understand him in his Native tongue.

As we sped through the brilliant blue water, we saw the Paracas Candelabra prehistoric geoglyph on the side of the coastal sand dunes. The design is cut two feet into the soil and possibly dates to 200 BC and is 595 feet tall. When we arrived at the Ballestas Islands we were instantly surrounded by birds. They were flying beside and above us, going sideways, diving into the water to fish, and pooping. Our guide warned us not to open our mouths if we looked up. There were gray and blue-footed boobies, guano birds, pelicans …. But the stars of the show for me were the Humbolt penguins! I had never before seen penguins outside of the zoo or the animated movie, “Happy Feet.” They were quite small and relatively far away, but with a good zoom on the camera, you could see them well. I hadn’t been out in a boat since being back in Alaska, and it was refreshing to feel the ocean mist and the movement of the waves.

Sea lions in the foreground, penguins in the background!


After our two hour tour, we ate breakfast on the shorefront. As it got later in the morning, more and more Peruvians showed up to set up camp on the beach with their children to go swimming. Alana and Jose went in swimming, but Ena and I just dipped our feet in – we were just enjoying the sun, remarking on how odd it felt to be on a warm beach on Christmas Day. Last year, I was also on a beach for Christmas while traveling with a Swedish friend in Costa Rica. Sun seems to be turning into the “norm” for me – I’m a little worried about having to live in North America after this and having to learn how to deal once again with the cold rain, clouds and snow.

We saw real and fake penguins that day...
On the 26th, we had another outing planned - we were going to go whitewater rafting (in Spanish, “canotaje”) with a few girls from Alana’s youth group, Ena, and Jose. Alana had been several times – it was located about an hour and a half from her community – but the young Peruvian girls had never been far outside of the city, much less ever engaged in something as adventurous as rafting. We took off early, but this time went north to the town of Lunahuaná. There were about 30 rafting guide agencies in the town – this was also a popular tourist destination. On the day we visited however, we didn’t see many other foreigners. We all got geared up in life jackets and helmets, leaving everything that couldn’t get wet behind. A guide went in the boat with us and another rode in a kayak alongside to help rescue anyone who fell in.

The rapids were at “level 3” due to the water level and the ride was fast and fun. As we went over big swells and bounced around, one of the Peruvian girls (Alana’s host sister) became more and more quiet and stopped paddling. Her face froze in a worried expression of angst. “Are you okay??” we yelled at her over the rush of the river – she nodded solemnly. No, she said, we didn’t need to stop, yes, we could keep going. However, we could tell that she was pretty scared. The guide told her not to worry and took her paddle from her so she could concentrate on simply hanging on to the raft. The other two Peruvian girls were doing okay, although you could tell that when they had planned to go whitewater rafting for the first time, it was simply an abstract idea in their heads and they hadn’t quite imagined this. Alana, Jose, Ena and I on the other hand were having a ball. We were getting soaked by the splashing river and it cooled us off in the hot sun. The hour long ride wasn’t long enough, and I wish we could have kept going; however the poor Peruvian girls looked like they were ready to finish.

After we pulled up to the shore, the girls walked, like shocked little wet cats up to the guide hut and we turned in our gear and headed to the park to eat a picnic lunch. After they dried off and the adrenaline began to leave their system, they became more relaxed. They were thrilled to see the pictures one of the workers on the shore had snapped of us when we paddled by, and I could tell that they couldn’t wait to tell their family and friends about what they had done – and survived – that day.

My last couple days with Alana were spent lounging around some more and enjoying vacation. We talked about our plans post-Peace Corps and caught up on lost time together. It had been two years since we had last seen each other – right before I left for Peace Corps in January 2009. Alana is considering extending her service and spending a third year in her community, taking a more active, managerial role at the Comedor. She was also trying to talk me in to extending my service and maybe even serving a third year in Peru – I’ll have to say, it is pretty tempting. I will probably end up back in the U.S. though, working for a year before I go to graduate school for International Relations. I was trying to convince her to come back to the U.S., and I know she is feeling torn by the decision of either staying in Peru or going back to the States. Her parents and younger sister are coming to visit in January, and I know she will talk it over more with them.

On my last day, Alana and I spent the night in Lima where we went shopping, ate amazing sushi and wandered the busy downtown streets people-watching. We tried a purple cornstarch pudding, bought some DVDs and CDs at Peru’s largest pirated movie and music market and enjoyed our last hours together. The next morning I left very early and was back in Managua by midday. As I stepped out of the airport, both the hot sun hit and the numerous catcalls from men nearby hit me like a brick, both of them reminding me that yes, I really was back in Nicaragua. The towering skyscrapers of Lima faded from my mind as I drove through Managua in a taxi to the bus station, not one building around me rising above a story or two; the depressing – yet familiar – poverty I have come to call home.

I suddenly felt like I was in known territory – unlike in Peru where I had relied on Alana to pick the hostel, catch our bus on time, decide what sights we would see, now I was back “home” where I knew how to handle the male comments that kept hurling at me, the begging children at the bus station, at which little store I could buy saltine crackers to settle my stomach, I knew where the bathroom was and how much I should pay to use it without being overcharged by the woman who liked to increase her price a córdoba or two when she saw a gringo. After living here for 23 months, Nicaragua was almost as familiar to me as coming home to Alaska. I’m not sure how I feel about that – it’s sort of an unwilling acceptance; sometimes it feels like my life here is only a superficial temporary one, while my “real” U.S. life is on hold. Seeing Alana in Peru, I saw that she had her U.S. life and Peace Corps life more merged – she had a boyfriend, had more luxurious amenities like a gym and a nice grocery store, she was planning on a third year of service… I was jealous of her country of service, but I was also glad that I was serving in Nicaragua – it seemed more wild and uncivilized, smaller and poorer. Peace Corps might not be harder here than any other country, but it some ways it felt more necessary and more like the Peace Corps that Kennedy had in mind when he founded the Peace Corps 50 years ago (this year is the anniversary!).

I caught a bus back to site and was back in my little pink house by nightfall. What a day. As I unpacked that evening, I could still smell Peru on my clothes and feel the dust and sand of the dry climate on my skin. For the next few days as I went through my daily routine and adjusted to life back in-site, I imagined what Alana and her host family were doing at the same time – waking up, walking Lady in the park, washing clothes by hand, eating rice and seafood, sitting in a hammock… Our lives are similar, as most Peace Corps volunteers lives tend to be, but also different. I’m looking forward to our next reunion…who knows in what country it will be! Being around friends like Alana and Emily (from AK as well who joined us for the Machu Picchu part of our trip) who have known me practically my entire life made me realize how much I miss that feeling of friendship and community. We were able to give each other advice and talk about our problems and I knew they really understood me. In my site, many girls my age are still living at home, pregnant, married, or living in the larger cities studying. It’s hard to find someone to really talk to and hang out with. I know that these last four months of my service are going to go flying by, and soon back in the U.S. I’ll have more “community” than I can handle – and probably be ready to go back somewhere where no one knows my name or gossip about me!

Although I was sad to leave Peru and Alana, there was one major thing that I missed about Nicaragua and was happy to get back to: my French press and strong coffee!
Until next trip!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Peru Trip Part I: Machu Picchu

I spent two weeks over Christmas visiting my lifelong friend Alana, who is currently serving as a business development volunteer in Peace Corps Peru. We began studying Spanish together in high school and have remained close throughout the years, despite our different paths to college in Alaska, Washington, and South Carolina. I had never before been to South America, so I jumped at the chance to visit Alana before my time in Nicaragua was up.
Traditional Peruvian woman and child
Another friend from my hometown named Emily also joined us for the first part of our trip where we went to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. A Bosnian/Austrian volunteer named Ena who works with Alana at a soup kitchen/community center in her Peace Corps community also came along. Emily and I arrived in Lima and Alana and Ena met us there (their town is a three hour bus ride south of the capital). I was impressed by Lima’s large buildings, modern highways and downtown shopping area. Having been in Nicaragua for so long, I’d forgotten what a city felt like. To give you some perspective, the city of Lima has about 8 million residents, while the entire country of Nicaragua has 5.5 million residents. There were foreigners everywhere – it was nice not sticking out. Alana told me that Lima is “like being in America. But once you get out of the city, there is still real poverty.” She also explained that Lima’s economy is one of the world’s fastest growing. Natural resources like minerals, seafood, as well as tourism seem to be the main industries.
After spending one night in Lima, we flew on Peruvian Airlines to the city of Cuzco (it was more expensive than the 14 hour-long bus ride alternative, but because of time limitations we decided to fly). Cuzco is located at 11,000 feet (about twice the altitude of Denver) and the side-effects of the altitude really got to some of us. I had taken some medicine to help with the effects, but Alana said she felt the altitude the minute we stepped off the plane: headache, fatigue, an odd feeling of floating, and difficulty breathing when walking or hiking. We arrived at our hostel and drank some Coca tea which has been used by the Incas for centuries as a natural remedy for the negative effects of altitude.

Me and Emily enjoying Coca tea
  We spent one night in Cuzco – a street of cobblestone, winding streets, and steep hills. There were many tourists, all on their way to or coming back from the infamous Machu Picchu. We spent our time wandering around and shopping in the markets. Items made from alpaca wool were the specialty of the area – prices ranged from $4 for a scarf to $400 for a boutique sweater. Silver jewelry was also crafted there and featured the Inca calendar, the Pachamama (or Mother Earth) symbol, and llamas.

A woman in traditional Inca clothing and a baby llama!

Dolls for sale at a market stall


  From Cuzco, we left on a bus for Ollantaytambo (try saying that five times fast!) to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the base camp for seeing Machu Picchu. The drive was breathtaking. From Cuzco we started our winding descent among green vertical hills lined with terraces, cows, sheep and the occasional llama. We followed the river valley which eventually led to Machu Picchu, located at about 8,000 feet. The snow-capped serrated peaks of the Andes were visible in the distance, yet the sun and a warm breeze coming in the windows made this feel surreal. On the way, we stopped for chicha, a fermented drink made from corn (also made in Nicaragua) that is mildly alcoholic. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, which was a few thousand feet lower than Cuzco, my friends instantly started to feel better; headaches lessened and breathing became more regular.
Chicha

Emily, Alana, me and Ena on the drive

The view we had of the Andes on the drive
We caught a night train to Aguas Calientes which was pleasant although expensive - they have a monopoly on transport to Machu Picchu. Peruvians get a discount however and sit in their own cars, separated from the hoards of foreigners who visit Machu Picchu. During the two hour ride we were served Coca tea and we talked excitedly (and loudly) and played card games (as Ena commented, entertained by us three gringas, “We are being like…how do you say it? Typical Americans right now!” probably annoying the other travelers….but hey, you’re on your way to Machu Picchu – get excited!) 
Aguas Calientes is a town built on tourism – it serves little more than as the starting and ending point for visitors to ascent Machu Picchu, and afterwards to relax in the hot springs and grab some pizza or Chinese food (the restaurants all advertised these gringo favorites). After settling in to our hostel, we set our alarms for 3:30 AM and packed our bags with snacks, rain jackets, drinking water and our cameras. We slept fitfully, afraid of over-sleeping the alarm. Our hostel started serving a light breakfast at 4 AM (they’re used to travelers who get up early to arrive at Machu Picchu first). Still groggy from sleep, we walked briskly in the pitch darkness about 20 minutes to the gate leading up the vertical mountain to the Machu Picchu ruins. We had forgotten a flashlight and were a little intimidated by the dark shadows of the surrounding mountains and the rushing river noises. Weren’t there also wild cats in this area?? At the entrance gate we found other travelers already waiting who were also planning on doing the hike up the mountain (the first buses up the mountain start at 5:30, so a few motivated, in-shape tourists like to hike up instead, leaving at 5). At 5 AM the gates opened and we sped off in a crazed rush towards the peak like the beginning of a race.


Me on the hike up

Mountains in the early fog
 The hike started out fast like any other hike I’ve done in Alaska – steep and slippery with mist and mud. The trail skipped the switchback road and ascended straight up the mountain. There were few breaks, if any, and we strained our eyes to see the stone steps of the trail through the darkness. It was very foggy out and moist – rainy season was beginning in Peru and the probability of having sunshine during our visit was unlikely. After the first 30 minutes or so of straight uphill hiking/running (we just had to be the first ones there!) my lungs started to feel funny. As a child I had asthma, but recently it hasn’t been a problem. After hiking at high altitude for a while, I started to feel the familiar feeling of my throat closing up and my lungs straining. I couldn’t tell if it was my asthma acting up or if it was simply the thin air of the altitude. Either way we had to push on, and with short breaks it was bearable. We made it up the mountain in under an hour and were there when the gates were opened. We were planning on climbing Mount Waynapicchu (the immense dagger-shaped peak that rises above the ruins), so we had our entrance tickets stamped for that since they only let 400 people climb the mountain daily.

It was daylight by then, but the clouds were thick and the wind was strong. Visibility was extremely low. We raced into Machu Picchu, but were slightly disappointed when we realized that we couldn’t see much more than 50 feet in front of us. Mount Waynapicchu was covered in clouds and we couldn’t even make out the ruins. Ena and Emily became separated from Alana and me. We felt disoriented by the fog – we studied the map and tried to figure out where to go. Then it started to rain, hard. There were few places to take cover, but Alana and I took refuge in a cave that was part of the ruins for a bit. I found a plastic bag tucked in a corner that the maintenance staff uses for trash and made it into a makeshift poncho. Alana’s guidebook on the ruins turned into a wet pulp and our rain jackets became soaked.

Alana and me hiding out from the rain in a cave.  We got a few weird looks from passing tourists -
we think they were jealous of our spot!
 After an hour or so the rain cleared off and the fog began to slowly lift. I became dizzy looking around me at the peaks surrounding Machu Picchu (which means “Old Mountain”). It really rests on the narrow edge of a mountaintop and is surrounded by dozens of green, jagged peaks. We had been tired from our hike up and I couldn’t imagine how the Incas had lived here and hiked around the city daily, hauling food, building, and farming.

We wandered the ancient city for hours – it was very well-kept and preserved. We had surprising freedom and could walk virtually anywhere unattended and unobserved – since it was so early there were relatively few tourists present. I’ve even heard of people who get naked at Machu Picchu to take a memorable photograph… We chose not to hire a guide, but in hindsight it would have been beneficial. We did however talk to one of the Machu Picchu caretakers for quite a while – he showed us the Condor temple/prison area and the King’s palace (complete with his own urinal). The Incas had made an intricate water system that ran throughout the city providing irrigation and disposing of waste which still worked! The terraced land at the entrance to the city was also still in good condition. Workers wandered the grounds throughout the day collecting trash (Yes, apparently even at Machu Picchu, one of the world’s greatest wonders, people still throw trash on the ground).
I was blown away at the way the Incas had made the stone walls before modern machinery. Immense rocks weighing many tons had been cut in straight lines and fit together exactly without mortar.
During the downpour, the rainwater flowed easily through the water system which acted as a gutter – we never stepped in puddles or in excess water. I think modern city planners in Nicaragua could take a note from the Incas – my house there overflows every time it rains and the streets fill with water.

The water/irrigation system
We saw the famous Temple of the Sun (we were there just two days before the Winter Solstice, when the sun is supposed to shine through one of the temple’s windows, marking a specific area on the temple floor), the Temple of Three Windows, the fountains, and the astronomical observatory. 
The Temple of the Sun
 
The astronomical observatory - these circles of water served as reflecting pools for the night sky.

The dwellings
As we eavesdropped on various tour guides and read our own information, we learned that despite all the research that has been done in the 100 years since it was discovered by an American professor, Machu Picchu remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries. It is not known exactly what the city was used for or who lived there, but it is speculated that it was used for important religious ceremonies, although as we were told by a guide, they did not engage in human sacrifice. More than 100 mummies were found in the ruins, mostly women, leading some to speculate that it was used as a convent.
It was breathtaking just to sit and look at the ruins and think of the lives the Incas used to lead here. The fact that there is so much mystery surrounding Machu Picchu makes it more interesting – you can invent your own history for the place, your own ideas for what it was used for.

Terraced farming area (and llamas)

The only beings that permanently live at Machu Picchu now are chinchillas (there were droppings everywhere!) and llamas. The former were hiding out during the day, but the latter were obviously accustomed to humans so we were able to get quite close for some photos. They’re soft and friendly, but they can also get annoyed and spit at you. I was almost run over by one large female who sprang down the stone steps unexpectedly towards me, her ear bells jangling and her enormous rump bouncing under her thick, matted white wool. I moved quickly out of the way. The Incas decorate llamas with bells, ribbons and woven fabrics for special ceremonies to show them off and make them beautiful, and the llamas residing at Machu Picchu were no exception.

Lounging llamas
When we were getting ready to head back down to town at about 1 PM, the weather was finally beginning to clear up. Sun was trying to shine through the clouds, and Mount Waynapicchu finally emerged from the clouds (we decided not to climb it due to the low visibility and our own exhaustion). At last we were able to get pictures with the image of Machu Picchu that everyone has seen before, with the mountain looming in the background.

We opted to take a bus down the mountain since we were so worn out (it was worth those $7!) and we went straight to the hot springs that gives the town of Aguas Calientes its name. They were located right beside the rushing river. Most travelers come to the hot springs after a long day hiking around Machu Picchu, and we were glad we did too. The warmish to mildly-hot water soothed our muscles and brought us back to life again.

For dinner, we walked up and down the hilly streets of Aguas Calientes, being harassed by hostesses who stood outside restaurants and called to us, grabbed our hands, and offered us free drinks if we’d pick their restaurant. The nice thing about this is that you can negotiate your price, and the restaurant we finally decided on gave us a good deal. Alana, Emily, and Ena ordered Alpaca meat (they were going to get guinea pig, the traditional Peruvian delicacy, but it was too expensive), and I ordered a stuffed pepper made with rice and potatoes. The traditional ají chile sauce was included and I fell in love with it. In Nicaragua, the principal spice used in food is salt, and the only condiments are very sweet ketchup and mayonnaise. I was impressed by Peruvian food and their use of spices – it revived my taste buds.

We ended our trip with another night in Cuzco and by going out dancing at a discotheque (once again we were harassed by the workers of the clubs who grabbed our arms and tried to charm us with free drinks). We were up until the wee hours (amazing considering what a busy four days we had had).
Cuzco plaza at dusk
After just a couple hours of sleep, we had to wake up to catch our flight back to Lima (note: Peruvian Airlines is consistently 3-5 hours late. Be prepared to wait in the airport for a long time). From Lima, Emily left back to the U.S. (with only two hours of sleep to go on, she had to wait until a standby flight at 1 AM), and Alana, Ena and I headed to Alana’s community in the department of Ica, on the southwest coast of Peru. We were so exhausted, we could barely muster the strength to say goodbye to each other. The past five days had been a blur of short hours of sleep and lots of exertion and fun at high altitudes. We had bought matching silver rings in Cuzco featuring the Coca leaf to remember the trip and each other and vowed to exchange pictures as soon as we had access to internet. However, my trip was just beginning – I still had nine days left in Peru. My next blog entry will be about the second half of my trip in the more rural area of Alana’s site in Chincha, Ica.