18 December 2011

Merry Christmas from Cusco!

More photos from Cusco in the lead up to Christmas ...

Santa in his sleigh, pulled by his trusty reindeer, all lit up above one of Cusco's excellent juice shops.

Two of the cute kids at Picaflor House, one of the projects I manage, with the reindeer decorations they made for our Christmas tree.

On 20 December, the kids at our Picaflor House project were making Christmas stockings ... and, as you can maybe see, when I asked for a group photo I got mobbed! They love arts and crafts, and are always so keen to show off their work.

This is one of the Christmas food delicacies here in Cusco, Paneton bread - usually accompanied by hot chocolate. It's delicious!

More of Cusco's Christmas lights ... I like the simplicity of the lone star and the streetlamp.

For the past week, one of the plazas here has been filled with small stalls selling every possible thing you might want for Christmas, including the ingredients to make your very own nativity scene. Here's a small selection of the animals available. I love how they all seem to be smiling!

A beautiful Christmas bell on a tree in one of the small plazas here.

Today was the annual Christmas Eve fair in the Plaza de Armas, here in Cusco so Sarah, our new volunteer coordinator and a fellow photography enthusiast, and I spent several hours checking out all the stalls and taking lots of photos. It was incredibly busy, there were many weird and wonderful things for sale, and we had great fun exploring. 

It's Christmas Day here in Cusco and the jolly red-suited fat man visited overnight. Hopefully, he wasn't harmed by the enormous numbers of fireworks that were let off by every household, starting at about 9pm and culminating in a deafening crescendo of blasts at midnight! A strange way to celebrate an essentially religious occasion.

After midnight everyone opens their presents so, now, at 9am, it's very quiet as everyone sleeps off their excitement. Later, families will get together for a big meal, of turkey if they can afford it. And I'll be doing that later too, with the expat waifs and strays here in Cusco.

Merry Christmas from Cusco everyone!

17 December 2011

Christmas Cusco-style, part one

The run-up to Christmas, in Cusco, in pictures …

In Cusco, everyone seems to be getting into the Christmas spirit. At Molino, one of the biggest local markets, everyone has decorated their tiny stalls with tinsel, or little Papa Noels, or miniscule Christmas trees.

I love this shot! The blue that people use here on their windows and doors reminds me so much of Greece, especially when the geraniums are added. The Christmas decoration here just adds that special touch.

A Christmas decoration Peruvian-style. This is made from a small gourd or calabash, as they call them here. Usually the locals etch images of Inca places or mythology into these calabashes and sell them to tourists as souvenirs. I love the novel use of this calabash, with a tiny nativity scene inside.

On the 14th day before Christmas, I went for an evening stroll around Cusco taking photos of all the stunning lighting displays. This is just one small building of the many that are beautifully adorned with decorations and lights.

This gorgeous Christmas tree is in the window of one of the more upmarket tourist stores here in Cusco, Peru. The tree has been decorated with local ornaments, like little llamas, tiny Peruvian dolls dressed in traditional costume, little chullpas (the local knitted hat with ear flaps), and much more.

The Plaza de Armas, Cusco's main square, is ablaze with Christmas lights, many of them in the shape of animals. I would like to say that I planned to align one of the streetlights to look like this reindeer's eye but it was, in fact, sheer good luck!

This window is in the Palace of Justice, the imposing and very beautiful Spanish colonial building that houses the law courts and justice department here in Cusco. Even in such a serious setting, Christmas is obviously still a big focus for the staff, as many of the windows are decorated with festive scenes. I love the irony of this photo, with Santa looking like he's in jail behind the security bars on the window.

This is Cusco's main Christmas tree, in one of the plazas in the central city. The name Coca Cola seems almost to be synonymous with Christmas here - you can see the logo on this tree but also in many shop window displays. Unfortunately, the Peruvian people drink way too many fizzy drinks, so obesity is becoming a problem in the children here, and such sugar-intensive drinks play havoc with the teeth of children who have no access to dental care. Coca Cola’s best present to Peru would be to stop advertising their products so heavily!

The 16th of December was La Chocolatada in the small village of Oropesa where I work. My organisation, Globalteer, and the kind folks at Southern Crossings travel agency gave all 800 of Oropesa's primary and high school kids a large hunk of Paneton bread and a mug of freshly made hot chocolate. The smiles were heart warming.

07 December 2011

I love llamas!

Not only are llamas extremely cute animals, they are also useful and unusual.

Llamas have a fine undercoat, the wool from which can be used to make clothing and handicrafts, and their coarser outer hair is used for wall-hangings and rugs (I have one!). Just as llamas come in a variety of colours, so does their wool range in colour from white or grey to reddish-brown, light and dark brown, and black.

Llamas have been used as beasts of burden for centuries. They are sturdy and sure-footed, making them ideal beasts for bearing heavy burdens along the narrow mountain trails of the South American mountains.

And now for the unusual bits ... According to Wikipedia, llamas mate lying down – it’s called a kush position (sounds cushy to me!) – which is rather unusual for such a big animal and, also unusual for their size, their mating is no quick fling. Instead, they’re at it for between 20 and 45 minutes! Plus, the sexually aroused male makes a gargling sound – called an orgle – before and during the mating process.

But wait, there’s more ... As the tongues of female llamas (called dams – the llama, not their tongues!) cannot reach more than half an inch outside their mouths, they are not able to lick off their babies. I presume the foetal sac comes off when the baby llama (called a cria) rolls around on the ground. Instead of bonding with their offspring through the licking process, the mummy llamas nuzzle their babies and hum to them. I haven’t witnessed the humming but doesn’t it sound delightful? I wonder if they have favourite tunes.

This heavily pregnant female was rolling on the ground like a horse does. I can just imagine her humming
to her baby.

Llamas also have a reputation for spitting. A local once told me that llamas never spit at beautiful women, only at the less beautiful. I can verify there is some truth to that statement as I have had a llama spit at me. However, when I asked various other locals about this statement recently, they said they’d never heard of it, so maybe it’s just a good story to tell gullible tourists!

Wiki says that llamas which have been reared correctly rarely spit at humans, though they do spit at, kick, neck wrestle and ram into each other. These actions, by the males not the females, form part of the disputes they have to establish dominance in the herd – their way of moving up and down the social ladder of llama society. Apparently, the females do also spit, as a way of controlling other herd members – an interesting concept.

Is a nuzzle or a neck wrestle about to happen?

Though this spitting, kicking and neck wrestling all sounds rather aggressive, llamas are family animals and do look after each other. When threatened, a llama will emit a warning bray to alert the rest of the herd, and llamas often hum to each other as a way of communicating. As well as these sounds, they also make groaning noises or produce a 'mwa' noise when they’re afraid or angry. Strange then that humans use ‘mwa’ as an expression for sending someone a kiss.
A herd of llamas grazing in Bolivia
The llama is a symbol used in most of the Andean nations in South America. Here in Peru, you can buy soft toy llamas made of llama wool, they appear in paintings and on murals, and their image is frequently found on t-shirts.

As the word llama is pronounced yama in Spanish, puns are made on the name – for example, I have seen a t-shirt with a cartoon of a llama riding a motorbike, with the word Llamaha written beneath.
Peruvian women and children, dressed in traditional costume and leading llamas, are a common sight in central Cusco. Tourists can pay to have their photos taken with the women and/or children and/or llama.

Llamas are not to be confused with their close cousins the alpaca and the vicuña ... more on those creatures in a future blog.
The real thing ...
and the cuddly imitation

My, what big knockers!

Urubamba church
Cusco has a lot of big knockers. So do many of the other towns I’ve visited in Peru.

Typically, they are found on the doors of large old constructions, like municipal buildings and churches.

Door knockers are, of course, attached to doors so that people outside can let those inside know they’re there. But most of the large knockers here are purely ornamental – some are placed so high on the door that only a giant could possibly reach them. And most are very ornate, with grotesque faces, naked cupids, and fantastical creatures. 

Here is a sampling ...

A church in Sucre, Bolivia
Another Sucre church door

Cusco cathedral
In Potosi

Another Cusco building

A church in Potosi

27 November 2011

Bolivia day 12: I survived Death Road!!!

My itinerary said nothing about risking my life!

It simply said: ‘In less than 3 hours’ drive, and after an amazing trip full of gorgeous sights, the Yungas Valley is reached, where the most exotic and delicious fruits are grown.’

In fact, from the 8am pick-up to the 12.45pm drop-off at the hotel in Coroico for lunch, was a 4¾ hour drive, with a few short stops here and there, and I never did see any exotic and delicious fruits. But what a drive!

First, we wound up through housing perched precariously on the clay cliffs above the city, then on to a road between high hills that looked like they’d been carved by glaciers eons ago. We passed a dam whose reservoir supplies most of La Paz’s water, though its level is currently low, awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replenish it. We passed an area of small shops selling mattresses stuffed with the tufty mountain grass that grows so plentifully at these altitudes. And we passed vans stuffed full of mad young people about to risk their lives on the mountain bikes propped atop the vans by biking Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.

The highest point on our journey was soon reached – 4700 metres above sea level. It is marked by a statue of Christ, around which were scattered empty alcohol bottles and the remains of fires. If the guide hadn’t told me these were offerings to Pachamama, I would have thought it was the remnants of some drunken party! We passed two small towns, Pongo and Unduavi; the second was a breakfast stop for our driver while I wandered up and down taking photos. Up to the right you could see the reverse side of Mururata, the flat-topped snow-covered mountain that towers above La Paz.

Mountain bikers prepping for their ride

The road to Coroico

Mt Mururata

About 50kms from the city, we turned off the wide, new, tarsealed road on to a dirt and gravel road, the old road to Coroico, the aptly named Death Road! It was narrow, hair-raising and bumpy; at times stomach-churning for someone who doesn’t particularly like heights because the drop to one side was often vertical for a thousand feet or more; sometimes wet and greasy from waterfalls cascading directly on to the road from the towering cliffs above; often scary negotiating unstable narrow tracks across huge rockslides that had wiped out whole mountain sides.

My heart was in my mouth for almost the entire 20kms we stayed on the road, except for the couple of times I walked a short way so my guide could take photos of me standing above sheer drops. I was so much more comfortable with my feet on the ground and I would, in fact, have been very happy to have walked the road, as it was all down hill and the views were spectacular. One particularly wet part had been nick-named St John Baptiste, as the mischievous truck drivers who used to carry people up this road would pause there a minute or two, thoroughly wetting their passengers.

Me checking out the sheer drop
- but not too close!
The size of the truck gives a good
indication of the size of the cliffs

We saw plenty of evidence of why the road got its name – the roadside crosses are numerous! Now, the road is mostly only used by tourists and mad mountain bikers, and over-jealous bikers are the only ones who die on the road. We were passed by many adrenalin junkies, and saw one injured, luckily not badly as he’d skidded to the right side of the road, not over the edge!

We eventually emerged into the Yungas Valley, where much coca is cultivated in small plantations at the side of the road. There is supposedly a lot of wildlife in the area, though I saw only a few butterflies and, later, on the road back, some large birds of prey – Caracaras and Andean vultures – no monkeys or parrots.

Some pretty butterflies
A coca plantation

Coroico is a small town of around 10,000 people, clinging to the steep hillsides amidst lush vegetation. Its climate is semi-tropical and it was hot, about 30°C. It exists as a retirement place for the rich of La Paz and as a weekend vacation spot. I was surprised to see a few black people there, especially one older woman who looked somewhat incongruous dressed in traditional Bolivian costume, complete with small bowler hat perched on her frizzy hair. These blacks are the remnants of the African slaves who were brought to Bolivia by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries to work the silver mines at Potosi.

 In the distance, Coroico

Lunch was delicious, at a posh but empty hotel: palm hearts with tomato and lettuce salad; peanut noodle soup – a local favourite; some kind of breaded meat with chipped potatoes and coleslaw; and rich and refreshingly cold chocolate ice cream! No wonder Tony kept knodding off during the two-hour drive back to La Paz – I could’ve done with a siesta as well, but didn’t want to miss a moment.

The drive back was on the ‘new’ road – it was actually begun in 1935 by prisoners of war. They were from the last war fought by Bolivia: the bloody Chaco War with Paraguay from 1932-1935 over a disputed piece of territory. The road is an impressive piece of engineering, needing constant repair, as it winds up and over the mountains. Some sections are cantilevered out over deep precipices, and there are several tunnels, one of which is perhaps a kilometre long, directly through a mountain top.

As we neared La Paz, the weather began to close in behind us, with mist and low cloud swirling eerily around. I was so glad we had enjoyed fine clear weather earlier in the day and, though I was exhausted from the nervous tension of the journey, I was also happy to have seen such stunning landscapes, and to have travelled such a treacherous road and survived!

26 November 2011

Bolivia day 11: the ruins at Tiwanaku

An archaeological day! Along with about 20 other tourists in a small bus – including the Swiss couple I had spent the day with in Potosi, and bumped into again when back home in Cuzco – we headed out of La Paz towards Lake Titicaca, to the site of Tiwanaku, 20kms from the lake.

The countryside on the way to Tiwanaku

How the site might have been

The Incas are the best known of the ancient South American civilisations but the reality is that, though large, they were only dominant for 170-180 years, whereas the people who created Tiwanaku were active from 1580BC to 1200AD, almost 2700 years. The ruins at Tiwanaku are in the middle of the Altiplano, at 3870 metres above sea level, and consist of one large pyramid and three other temple structures on one side of the small township and another large pyramid on the other side (named Kalasasaya and Pumapunku, respectively). Nothing has been fully excavated and, in the 1970s, some attempts at reconstruction were made, badly, without piecing the stone together correctly and using concrete – so it is difficult to know what is authentic and what isn’t.

We visited the museums at the site first, one that contained ceramic and metal remains, some skulls and textiles – strangely some items looked slightly Asian. The second museum housed the monolithic sculpture for which Tiwanaku is famous, almost 70 metres tall and covered in carvings, some of which have astronomical meanings (e.g. there are 365 circular patterns on the skirt, one for each day of the year). The sculptured figure also has strangely placed hands – the right is depicted in a physically impossible position – and this arrangement is repeated on other sculptures. No one knows why.

The sun gate

Much-weathered carved heads
Interesting carved figures
Another stunning gateway
We walked the site, climbed the tiers of the pyramid (where there’s a constant repetition of seven steps), admired the sun gate (through which the first rays of the sun shine on the morning of the mid-winter solstice on to an obelisk placed directly behind), and puzzled at more astronomical symbols and strange figures carved on another gate.

Next came lunch – and a respite from the blazing sun. The meal was delicious, with quinoa soup, then trout that looked and tasted like salmon, followed by banana and the artificially coloured pink yoghurt that seems to be everyone’s favourite in Bolivia.

Pre-Inca crosses?

More precisely carved stones

After lunch we visited the second part of the site, the pyramid at Pumapunku, where very little has been excavated. However, the large stones visible on the ground have Inca cross (so it’s actually a pre-Inca design?) and other precisely cut carvings, as well as indentations where metal butterfly clips had been used to join the stones together. It was a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture, about which so little is known, and it will be interesting to see what is revealed in the future.

One small highlight – literally – was the sudden appearance of a wild guinea pig as we walked around. It just scooted across our path and, obligingly, paused long enough for some photos. So cute! I really can’t understand anyone who wants to eat this little creature, though it is as much a favourite in Bolivia as it is in Peru.

We arrived back in La Paz late afternoon and, after dumping some of my gear, I headed out again to explore. I didn’t get to the street with the museums as I’d resolved to, but I walked streets lined with small stalls selling everything from sexy lingerie, a million and one pirated DVDs, food and toiletries, to the fancy petticoats and brightly coloured skirts the women favour in Bolivia. Eventually, my feet would carry me no further and I returned reluctantly to the hotel, weary but entranced after another day of fascinating sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

An alleyway of shops

Tourist tempters!