A Sack of Cuy, Anyone?

Otavalo is famous for its Saturday market, one of the most famous in Ecuador and possibly all of the Andes, but it was Otavalo’s lesser-known animal market that captured our fancy. The craft and textile market at the Plaza de Los Ponchos has a great reputation but in the past 20 years the textiles have gone from predominantly hand-woven goods made of natural fibers and dyes to goods that are mainly machine-loomed with synthetic colors and fabrics. We knew the animal market would be an interesting experience when, as we entered, there were several ladies in traditional costumes holding plastic sacks full of squirming cuy (guinea pigs).

As those of you who’ve been to the Andes know, we’re not talking about pets…we’re talking about food. Prior to the Spanish introduction of cattle, pigs and goats, the llama and the cuy were the primary sources of meat protein in the Andes. Even today, a cuy al horno is de riguer for special occasions in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The only time I’ve tried it was in Cusco and the little fella was brought to me on a plate, fresh out of the oven, with an aji (chili pepper) in his mouth and pepper shaped into a sombrero on his head (see photo). The taste was chicken-like, a little greasy with many small bones and way too little meat. In all, probably more calories were burned searching for edible scraps of meat than I gained from eating the meal.

We had arrived at the animal market as the rain started to pour. The market is a kilometer or so outside of town and the road was clogged with pick-up trucks transporting livestock. We carefully made our way across the slick pavement, along with a 500 pound pig being coaxed by a small boy twisting its tail. We crossed the street and climbed a small hill to get a good visual orientation. The market was about the size of a muddy football field, with different sections for each animal. The smaller animals – chickens, turkeys, cats, dogs, cuy -- were towards the front of the market and the larger animals – cows, horses, pigs, goats – were towards the back, where they could be loaded and unloaded from trucks. The cuy ladies were standing in the cuy section, scanning customers’ eyes for signs of interest. One lady held a particularly fat cuy by the neck and told me he could be mine for eight dollars. The chicken ladies were in a line, holding the larger chickens upside down by the feet. The smaller chickens were in makeshift pens and the chicks were crammed in crates, selling five for a dollar. Near the duck section, an indigenous woman bargained for a crate of ducklings while her daughter watched. Mom and daughter word traditional mantas – large, loomed blankets that hold just about anything, including babies on mother’s backs. On the daughter’s back, the manta incongruously held a blue-eyed, blond haired Barbie doll. We passed a well dressed couple selling turkeys; he wore a blue fedora, wool poncho, white pants and sandals and she was dressed in a white embroidered blouse with a blue skirt and wool scarf. The couple looked very self-possessed and whatever the man’s secret was for keeping his white trousers mud-free…it was definitely working. His immaculate wife held three turkeys on rope leashes. Two of the turkeys were very clean as well, but there was no secret to how they did it…they sat directly on top of the third turkey.

Our kids loved the market, but they didn’t like the sight of several kittens stuffed into a mesh crate. My son concocted a scheme whereby he would buy a crate of ten kittens (each kitten costing a dollar) and, after keeping one for himself, liberate the others. I had just finished explaining the impracticality of that scheme when we walked by the puppies. A year-old puppy, costing five dollars, stared into my son’s eyes and I knew we’d be having the same conversation all over again. It was time to leave.


An Ecuadorian Christmas Gift

While we have been on the road this year we have downplayed the role of Christmas with our kids. Instead of receiving MP3 players, skateboards and Nike basketball shoes, we have played up the things that they’re getting from our trip like a Galapagos cruise, scuba diving certification, and hiking the Inca Trail. Part of this is economic -- we’re spending a lot of money to travel for an extended period of time and we’re not getting paid for the work we're doing. Part of this is practical -- we are living out of our backpacks these days and it would not make sense to receive a handful of bulky presents that could not be brought on the trip. Our kids have been great. They got the message and they weren’t even expecting a visit from Santa Claus.

Santa Claus had other plans, however.
We ate a lovely Christmas-Eve dinner last night, in a traditional restaurant frequented by locals and we walked back to our hotel past happy people rushing home with presents, trying to get all their last minute shopping done as the skies darkened. Even without a full-blown Christmas, we all felt content with our holiday experience. Back at our hotel, while we were all doing our separate things prior to bed, two red-and-white Santa caps were mysteriously tied to our hotel room door. The hats were the battery-operated ones with flashing Christmas lights and they were filled with chocolate candy. Attached to the caps with a long string of decorative tinsel was a note: “Merry Christmas! From Santa Claus in Norway” Our kids were of course delighted and a bit puzzled. Since they weren’t expecting a Santa visit and both are on the verge of becoming Santa-skeptics (if not already there), they wondered who had brought the wonderful surprise. They ran down the list of “usual suspects” – starting with us. We (truthfully) denied any and all knowledge. They ruled out the hotel staff – they wouldn’t have added the “Norway” part. Was it a hotel guest? We’d met a few guests, but none were from Norway. It must have been Santa.
It had escaped the kids’ attention, but I’d noticed two young Scandinavian women sitting on the terrace as we returned from dinner. They were playing Christmas tunes and were both wearing Santa caps with flashing Christmas lights. I think I’ll keep this bit of information to myself.

Feliz Navidad!

This post was part of a Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival Christmas Traditions Around the World, hosted by Abi at Inside the Travel Lab.


Islas Galapagos: Dances With Sea Lions

The four of us swam ahead of our group, slowly snorkeling along a reef of coral and volcanic rock, when two of them shot right past us, abruptly stopped and turned around to size us up. Size-wise, we were similar and we all had shiny black skin and fins, but our family probably looked a little odd with bulky glass masks and tubes protruding from our mouths. After checking us out, the smaller one dove down about 20 feet, did a barrel roll, a somersault and came back up and looked directly at us from 6 feet away: the challenging expression said, “Okay, what can you do?” We were snorkeling at Sombrero Chino in the Galapagos and some sea lions had decided that it was time to play.

After a few moments hesitation, I lamely tried the same maneuver and before I was able to finish, the other one impatiently whizzed by us, gliding through a series of seven or eight barrel rolls. The four of us spent the next couple minutes playing with our new friends until we were visited by two 6-foot, white-tipped sharks. My daughter edged closer to me and I heard my son yell “shark!” in a garbled underwater voice through his snorkel. Once the sharks passed by us, and we realized that they weren’t very interested in us, we followed them. Our sea lion friends followed for a moment and then decided it was time to shoo the intruders away. One of the sea lions burst forward and gave chase to the larger shark, close enough to nip his tail. He hounded him for a minute or two until both of the sharks swam away. It was as if the sea lions were saying, “Go find your own friends!”

By this time, the rest of our group – all on an eight-day tour of the Galapagos – had re-joined us, we resumed play with the sea lions. One of the hallmarks of the Galapagos experience is all of the animals’ complete lack of fear of humans. In “The Voyage of the Beagle,” Charles Darwin documented his 1835 visit to the islands, and remarked, “A gun here is almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.” This phenomenon made such an impression on Darwin that he concluded his 35 page section on the islands with his view that fear of humans, or any predator, is a learned characteristic, “We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power.” Indeed, none of the animals seemed the least bit afraid of us. Sally Lightfoot crabs didn’t scurry when we walked past, giant sea turtles went about their business as we walked a few feet away or followed them underwater. All of the trails we took were littered with dozing sea lions and iguanas that didn’t budge an inch for us as we tried to walk the trail. Later, we walked through the nesting grounds of frigate birds and blue-footed and Nazca boobies, passing less than two feet from their nests. A few were sitting on eggs and several were feeding or caring for very young chicks, but they did not seem to notice us a bit.

Aside from the lack of natural fear of humans, Darwin was of course very impressed with the uniqueness and variation of life on the islands and the Galapagos’ role in informing Darwin’s ideas on evolution is well documented. In “Voyage of the Beagle,” Darwin sums it up, “The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width.”

Darwin did a lot of great things, but he really should have snorkeled in the Galapagos. Our group played for about 15-20 minutes with the sea lions -- sea mammals dueling humans in underwater gymnastics. Towards the end of our session I heard my daughter scream underwater “penguins!” Two smaller ones raced by on their way somewhere, not interested in joining our sea lion play-date. It was another perfect day in the Galapagos – day two of eight. We’d already got our money’s worth.


The Last Days Of The Incas

It’s safe to say that if our family had not all read Kim MacQuarrie’s “The Last Days of the Incas” we might not have visited Cajamarca. The Peruvian mountain town was out of our way and many of the structures that existed on that fateful day of November 16, 1532, when Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards routed Emperor Atahualpa and the Incas, are no longer standing. MacQuarrie’s book was so good and so compelling that it brought the town to life for us and we just had to go there to experience it. It’s an example of how a good book can enhance the travel experience and influence an itinerary.

Our family is in the middle of a year-long reading contest and each month we give ourselves prizes for reading above a certain number of pages. Both our kids are being home-schooled this year so there are a lot of recognizable titles: “The Great Gatsby,” “1984,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc., but we also try to read good historical books set in the country that we’re visiting. We keep the results in a spreadsheet and update it immediately upon finishing a book. My son holds the record for most pages read in a month but my wife looks like she will beat that this month. My daughter has read the most total pages thus far and I have read the most books.

It is a good thing that we all read “Last Days,” because the Plaza de Armas at Cajamarca today looks nothing like it did in 1532. The battle of Cajamarca was a surprise attack by 160 Spaniards on the Incas that claimed 7,000 Inca lives and captured their leader Atahualpa (on the litter in the picture). The Spanish had some clear advantages in this battle. They relied on a surprise attack, soldiers on horseback with steel swords and cannon. It was a brutal half day of Spaniards slashing Incas from horseback…almost 44 Incas killed for every Spaniard. Over a thousand Incas dying every hour…almost 17 dying each minute. With the size of the great plaza much smaller and virtually none of the original buildings still standing, we had to use our imagination to visualize all that blood. The only original building still standing is the ransom chamber, the 20’x15’ adobe building that held Atahualpa while the ransom – a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver – was being collected. On our visit to the chamber, we tried to imagine Atahualpa pacing back and forth, wondering how it was that he found himself in this predicament. They eventually filled those rooms and then murdered the Inca Ruler.

The next day we went to the Royal Inca baths, the location where Atahualpa, upon learning that the Spaniards had arrived, decide to stay an extra day to relax, apparently not sufficiently worried about the funny looking visitors to interrupt his spa session. The original baths are still there but on this cold November day we bathed in the private, enclosed baths. The baths were extremely soothing and relaxing; perhaps Atahualpa and his generals were not sufficiently alert to fight properly against the Spaniards.

MacQuarrie does infinitely more justice to this story and there are lots of interesting anecdotes to flavor the tale. For example, just before the ambush started, the Friar Vincent de Valverde approached Atahualpa and asked him to accept Catholicism as his faith and Charles V as his sovereign. Atahualpa then asked to see a bible, which Valverde said “spoke to him,” but the Inca leader was unimpressed with it. (The Incas had neither books nor writing). He threw it down and that’s when the fighting began. Had we not read “Last Days,” Cajamarca would have been just another Peruvian mountain town to us.


Juanita: The Ice Princess

On our first day in Arequipa we had two goals: see Juanita, the 12-year old Inca ice princess recently found near a glacier and find a toasted bagel with cream cheese for our 12-year old daughter. Our daughter is keeping a list of the foods that she misses most from home and a toasted bagel with cream cheese is high on the list. Among other things, she has “drink tap water,” “eat real pancakes with real maple syrup,” “eat real cheese” (those of you from France, you can lower that supercilious eyebrow now) and “eat clean and big strawberries.” We went to a place that our guidebook described as a “Starbucks-style” coffee house searching for that elusive bagel, but had no luck. After eating a tasty lunch, we visited Juanita.

Juanita is the frozen body of an Inca girl who lived to be approximately 12-14 years old and she died sometime between 1440 and 1450. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) in Southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate. Juanita was remarkably well-preserved after 500 years, due to being encased in a glacier for most of that time. In September 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato (20,700 ft), Reinhard and Zárate found a bundle inside the crater that had fallen from an Inca site on the summit. Owing to melting caused by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcano of Sabancaya, most of the Inca burial site had collapsed down a gully that led into the crater. To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain a remarkably well-preserved body of a young girl. In addition, they found—strewn about the mountain slope down which the body had fallen— many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods; these included statues and food items. A couple of days later, the body and the objects were taken to Arequipa. The body caused a sensation in the scientific world due to its well-preserved condition.

Pointing out the similarities in gender and age to our daughter, we learned about what her life could have been like as Juanita. We summarized the advantages: she would be buried with expensive artifacts and jewelry, could wear a very expensive vicuña wool garment and spend eternity with the gods. As for the disadvantages, well, there’s the death thing. During the height of the Inca Empire, sacrifices were common as way to appease the mountain gods who controlled nature. Children from all over the empire were gathered for selection in Cusco and only the most beautiful, innocent and perfect child would be chosen for the honor of going to live with the gods.

We visited Juanita at the Museo Santury on a beautiful spring day in Arequipa and she was in pretty good shape for a young girl over 500 years old. While her skin was a leathery brown, her hair was shiny and black and pulled into a tight pony-tail. The right side of her face is slightly marred due to a couple of weeks of sun exposure (the time between being jarred loose from the glacier and being discovered). For half the year she sits in the fetal position in a refrigerated glass case in Arequipa; the other half of the year she is on tour.

Anthropologists and historians have deduced that Juanita and the presiding priests walked 150 miles from Cusco and climbed the chilly Ampato volcano for the sacrificial rites. At the summit, she would have been extremely cold and was probably given a libation that put her to sleep. When the ceremony was over, she was struck with one precise blow just above the right eye that killed her instantly.

After learning all this, my daughter respectfully declined consideration for the role of sacrificial virgin. We decided to go hunt for the toasted bagel and cream cheese instead.


Peruvian Archeological Sites: The Tip of the Iceberg?

Our guidebook confidently listed the Sipán ruins in northern Peru as an archeological site not to be missed, mentioning it in the same breath as Machu Picchu. Sipán? I’d never heard of it. In my one-month whirlwind tour of Peru 23 years ago, I came to Chiclayo, the largest town near Sipán, and kept going. Reading further into the guidebook, I began to understand why. Apparently Sipán, the elaborate royal tombs of the Pre-Inca Moche culture, was discovered months after I passed through the region. The question my wife and I asked each other was: if Peru has been densely populated for the past few hundred years and Sipán was found just over 20 years ago, what else is out there?

Our bus arrived in Chiclayo around nine o’clock in the evening and I left my wife, kids and bags at the bus station and went searching for a hotel. It is always preferable to have a reservation when entering a strange city, but sometimes it’s just not possible. When we don’t, we’ve found the best course of action is to have either my wife or I head out and find a hotel fairly near the bus station, while the remaining three family members stand sentry over our belongings. I chose the first place I checked out, an inexpensive, clean, centrally-located hotel with a friendly manager. We freshened up, walked around the Plaza de Armas, changed money and ate a delicious meal of chicken brochettes on skewers. After dinner, we went to bed, ready for the next day’s assault on Sipán.

We woke early, intending to take the bus to the ruins. As we sat in the bus waiting for it to fill up, we got progressively longer answers every time we asked how long the bus would take, so we jumped out and got in a taxi instead. We drove on a dusty road through flat fields of sugar cane and I could see why Sipán had been undiscovered for so long...nothing on either side of the road remotely suggested an archaeological site. The ruins themselves weren’t discovered by any Bingham-esque explorer, but by looters from the Chiclayo area. It was only when a local archeologist began to see Moche culture artifacts flood the local markets that he realized that there had been a major discovery made nearby. Not long afterward, local authorities found the Sipán tombs and the windfall ended for the looters, who were not too happy about their gravy train derailing.

We arrived at the ruins after 50 minutes and were treated to the underwhelming site of about 3 or 4 large semi-eroded, earthen mounds. The mounds themselves looked like any other of the nearby mounds that we’d passed and we wondered how many more of them contain priceless artifacts. Perhaps there’s still hope for the Chiclayo looters, after all. We toured a small on-site museum and learned that the site was a series of burial tombs for the royal Moche family, filled with valuable ceramics, exquisite jewelry and Moche-era (200 BC to AD 850) skeletons. The pyramids were constructed with thousands of adobe bricks and burial chambers were laid over one over the other, but to grasp this you needed to see graphic reconstructions in the Lambeyeque museum we visited later that day. To the casual observer, Sipán looked like just another dirt mound rising out of the sugar cane fields.

A few months ago, I saw an article about the discovery of a scale model of a ancient Peruvian city that was never found and I emailed it to both of our kids. I thought that since they now spoke Spanish, were comfortable trudging around in the third-world, had an interest in Pre-Columbian cultures, and had visited dozens of Peruvian and Bolivian archeological sites, they were each well on their way to becoming the next Indiana Jones. After visting Sipán, we’re sure that there are plenty more sites out there waiting to be found.


New Pre-Columbian Culture Found In Peru: The Teletubbies

Last week we visited Nazca in coastal Peru and did the obligatory flyover of the Nazca Lines. Like many tourists before us we marched straight to the airport and organized our 35 minute flight over the lines. On that day of perfunctory sightseeing, however, I made the startling discovery of a totally-new Pre-Columbian culture: The Teletubbies.

Before I offer the details of my groundbreaking discovery, here's some background on the lines. The Nazca Lines are a series of geoglyphs located in the Nazca desert, a high arid plateau that stretches more than 50 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana in Peru. These mysterious lines are largely believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 200 BCE and 700 CE. There are hundreds of individual figures, ranging in complexity from simple lines to stylized hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, fish, sharks or orcas, llamas, and lizards. The lines are shallow designs in the ground where the brownish pebbles that cover the surrounding landscape have been removed, revealing the whitish earth underneath. Hundreds are simple lines or geometric shapes, and more than seventy are natural or human figures. The largest are over 660 ft across. Scholars differ in interpreting what the lines were for but generally ascribe religious significance to them.

We arrived in Nazca after taking all all-night semi-cama bus from Arequipa. We’d heard that there was not much else to do in Nazca beyond flying over the lines, so we decided to arrive in the morning, see the lines and then keep heading north. We took a taxi to the airport, arranged our flights, ate an overpriced meal at the airport café and popped some motion sickness tablets. Most of the flights are in 5- or 7-seater Cessna planes which often make sharp banked turns in order to get closer looks at the lines. I remember the last time I flew over the lines, 23 years ago; our pilot pointed to a rectangular funnel shape and said, “UFO landing strip,” and dove the plane down towards it as if to land it there. It was at this point that Bernard, my French traveling companion, vomited into his air-sickness bag.

We met our pilot, got into our 7-seater, took off and began our aerial tour of the Nazca Lines. Not five minutes into our flight I made my startling discovery. There, on the side of a mountain was what our pilot called the “astronaut” or “owl man” figure. I’m not an archeologist or an historian, but it was pretty obvious to me that what we were looking at was a Teletubby. Round head, vacant eyes, puffy body, big feet and a friendly wave. Don’t take my word for it; judge for yourself with the two photos below.

Much is known about Nazca, Moche and Aymara Pre-Columbian cultures but very little is known about the Teletubbies presence in the early part of the first millennium here on the flat dry Nazca plain. My discovery was further supported by a visit to Las Ventanillas near Cajamarca in Northern Peru a few days later. Carved into the volcanic rock are what my guidebook described as funerary niches. Again, it was clearly obvious that these niches were perfectly carved to accommodate a television set (see photo below).

After making my startling discovery we continued with the flight, seeing the famous humingbird, monkey and whale figures, but my mind was on my breakthrough. I plan to publish my findings soon in the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian.


Peruvian Buses: Survival Tactics

Buses are a great way to get around in Peru, but there are definitely some things to keep in mind. Peru is a fairly large country (almost 500,000 square miles) and unless you can afford to fly everywhere, buses are your principal means of transport. Fortunately, we have no horror stories, but here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Peruvian buses can be divided into overnight buses and daytime buses, with varying degrees of service and quality within those categories. Overnight buses are for runs longer than 7-8 hours and the service can be either cama (fully-reclining seat) or semi-cama (partially reclining seat), with the luxury companies obviously more expensive. We took the luxury company Cruz Del Sur (see photo) from Cusco to Arequipa primarily because of safety reasons. A quick scan of Latin America Herald Tribune’s headlines for Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador reveals a disturbing number of bus crashes…almost always by budget companies and usually very early in the morning because the driver fell asleep. The mountain roads are notoriously bad and the budget companies have an obsolete fleet as well as drivers who obtain their licenses on the black market. As we settled into our lower-level cama seats, a Cruz Del Sur employee took a short video record of each passenger and we watched the “features” video talking about the bus having two drivers who work in shifts. To combat fatigue, the luxury companies have two drivers who take turns driving and the budget companies have one driver who chews coca leaves non-stop.

For the less dangerous routes along the coast, we used budget companies for overnight runs and have seen the difference in the quality of the comfort, meals, entertainment and restrooms. For our 13-hour, Arequipa-Nazca semi-cama overnight run, our seats reclined partially but did not have head rests and no blankets were provided. There was no meal served and there were no restaurant stops. There was no video entertainment and after the first hour or so, the toilet was clogged and unusable. It should be noted that even when meals are provided they are not always good. One of our “breakfasts” consisted of Oreos with pink center icing and a small box of mango juice. Likewise for the on board video entertainment: our Lima-Cajamarca cama run showed a really bad World War II film of a psychotic Nazi commander psychologically torturing and then killing the members of a Jewish theater troupe.

Taking the budget overnight companies or for a long daytime service, we have our own bus survival kit. The first item, obviously, is toilet paper, but we never want to be caught without bottled water, snacks and earplugs. There have been a few occasions when I’ve forgotten my earplugs and -- with the driver’s favorite folk music turn up full blast -- I’ve been caught sitting directly below the speakers.

Lastly, don’t expect to get a great night’s sleep on these buses. Make sure you have nothing planned the morning of your arrival and if possible, secure a reservation at a hotel that will allow you to check in early.


Darwinism In The Monastery

Perhaps it’s because I’m slowly working my way through “The Origin of the Species,” but I can’t help but look at Arequipa’s Santa Catalina Monastery through Charles Darwin’s eyes. Darwin visited Peru in 1835 but never made it to Arequipa (he took one look at Lima, didn’t like what he saw and decided to head immediately for the Galapagos). I see the Monastery as an organism, one that has adapted over four hundred-plus years in its quest to survive. For the first 300 years of its life, the Monastery existed in a privileged vacuum, then it was forced to reform by the Pope and for the next 100 years it existed in a tightly religious vein until 1970 when another evolution caused it to open up its doors for tourism. As we toured the Monastery recently, I couldn’t help thinking that some commercial real estate developer would love to help it evolve into an upscale shopping mall.

The Monastery, located near Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas, is a cloistered convent that was built in 1580 and enlarged in the 17th century. We wandered throughout the 215,000-square-foot monastery, taking in its vividly–painted walls, its Mudejar-style architecture, its quiet courtyards with fruit trees and its austere cells for the nuns. The founder was a rich widow, Maria de Guzman, who only accepted nuns from wealthy Spanish families. Each family paid a dowry when their daughter entered the monastery, and the dowry that gained you the highest status was 2,400 silver coins, equivalent to US$50,000 today. Traditionally, the second daughter of these families entered a nunnery, a fact that my wife playfully pointed out to my (second-born) daughter on several occasions. Theoretically, the nuns were supposed to live in poverty and renounce the material world. In fact, each nun at Santa Catalina had between one and four servants or slaves, and the nuns often had parties and invited musicians to perform in the Monastery. In addition to the stories of outrageous wealth, there are tales of nuns becoming pregnant and one story of a baby skeleton being discovered encased in a wall.

This cushy existence lasted until 1871 when the Monastery was forced to adapt to a stricter lifestyle; Sister Josefa Cadena, a Dominican nun, was sent by Pope Pius IX to reform the monastery. She sent the rich dowries back to Europe, and freed all the servants and slaves, giving them the choice of remaining as nuns or leaving. The Monastery made the adjustment to this new environment for the next 100 years, until it was forced to adapt once again.

In 1970 the Monastery finally opened to the public when the mayor of Arequipa forced the Monastery to comply with laws requiring it to install electricity and running water. The nuns, who were at this point too poor to do this, opened their doors to tourism to pay for the modernization. It was evident to us from the very Spartan accommodations – unadorned walls, a simple mattress, one escritorio (writing desk), an oil lamp, a chamber pot, a storage trunk and a cross on the wall – that these nuns were nothing like their wealthy forbears of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Monastery once housed approximately 450 people (about a third of them nuns and the rest servants) in a cloistered community. Today, there are approximately 20 nuns living in the northern corner of the complex; the rest of the monastery is open to the public.

In addition to societal and religious pressures to evolve, Mother Nature did her part with major earthquakes in 1600, 1687, 1868, 1958, 1960 and in 2001, which caused the architecture to be rebuilt and retrofitted with an eye towards withstanding the frequent earthquakes in the Arequipa region. As is evident from our tour, the Santa Catalina Monastery is in great shape; it's a survivor.


"Now I Believe In The Pachamama"

Olivia, our guide for our three-day trek in the Colca Canyon was never really a spiritual or religious person…until about two years ago. “I would drop some chicha or beer on the ground and say something about it being an offering to the Pachamama,” she says, “but I did not truly believe that this was anything more than a ritual. Now I believe in the Pachamama.”

The Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is usually translated at “Mother Earth” but a more literal translation would be “Mother World.” In Inca mythology, Pachamama is a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting and is responsible for weather – both good and bad -- as well as earthquakes and volcanoes. Many Peruvians and almost all indigenous people of the Andes believe in the Pachamama.

Olivia is a single woman in her early 40’s from Arequipa who earns a good living as a tour guide. The Colca Canyon is the world’s second-deepest canyon and is the biggest tourist attractions in southern Peru. She speaks English pretty well and can communicate in Quechua, as well. She is friendly and talkative and on our way to a three-day trek of the Colca Canyon, we sat together in the back row of our van. Our rambling conversation somehow got on the subject of Andean spirituality and she told me the following story:

“About two years ago, I was taking a group through the Colca Canyon and at some point near the end of a trek I fell down on the trail and I could not get up. One of my clients helped me up and my leg felt numb, almost paralyzed. I limped back and that night I could not move it. My leg was paralyzed for a few days and I was really scared. Without knowing it, a friend of mine got some herbs from a shaman she knew and made a tea for me. The next morning, I was perfectly fine.”

“A few months after that I suddenly became ill with headaches and fever and I didn’t know what was wrong. I went to my doctor, who couldn't figure out what was wrong either. He prescribed some pills but they did nothing. I felt this way for almost two weeks and I decided to visit the shaman that my friend went to. I met with him and he asked a lot of questions and he talked about the power of the Pachamama and told me that he would gather some things and come to my house later that day.”

“He came over and brought some herbs from Bolivia and a dried llama fetus (see photo), as well as some incense and small bottles. He set up a small shrine in my family room and was ready to begin. He talked about how the Pachamama was everywhere and he just needed to get me into the right state of mind to allow the healing process to happen. He chanted and hummed and talked some more about the Pachamama for almost 45 minutes. I was very relaxed throughout the process and then I suddenly felt very tired. I told him I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. He led me to my room and I don’t remember anything else except waking up in the morning and feeling 100% better.”

When Olivia finished this story, I asked her if her life was in any way different now that she believed in the Pachamama and she said, “No…my day to day life is the same, but now I feel like I’m a part of something bigger. Now, I believe in the Pachamama.”


Stealing Fat: Peruvian Pishtacos

A CNN article recently reported Peruvian police arresting four members of a gang that allegedly murders people and then sells their body fat. Apparently, European laboratories are paying $15,000 per liter for human fat to be used possibly for cosmetics and in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. The four men were arrested in association with the disappearance of at least 60 people in two mountainous states in central Peru. Authorities are calling the suspects "pishtacos," which are Andean mythological creatures. The lead prosecutor Jorge Sanz Quiroz acknowledged the uniqueness of the allegations. "We are not making this up," he said. "They have confessed to this. That's what's coming out now."

In Maria Vargas Llosa’s 1996 book “Death In The Andes” he follows two Lima detectives as they travel to Andean Peru to investigate the murder of three people in a local village. While everyone seems to think that the murders were done by the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), when they talk to the locals in the village they get a different story. The locals place the blame on the pishtacos. Vargas Llosa describes pishtacos in the book: “A stranger. Half gringo. At first glance you didn’t know what he was because he looked just like everybody else in the world. He lived in caves and committed his crimes at night. Lurking along the roads, behind boulders, hiding among haystacks or under bridges, waiting for solitary travelers. He would approach with cunning pretending to be a friend. His powder made from the bones of the dead was all ready, and at the first careless movement he threw it in his victims’ faces. Then he could suck out their fat. Afterward he let them go, emptied, nothing but skin and bone, doomed to waste away in a few hours or days. These were the benign ones. They needed human fat to make church bells sing more sweetly and tractors run more smoothly, and now, lately, to give the government help pay off the foreign debt. The evil ones were worse. They not only slit their victims’ throats but butchered them like cattle, or sheep, or hogs, and ate them. Bled them drop by drop and got drunk on the blood”

A few months ago, as we were driving back from a trip to an orphanage, Señor Alcides, the director who also has 27 years of police experience, pointed to a village on the road about 20 minutes outside of Cusco. He told me of an unsolved crime in that town, which was supposedly full of brujas (witches). The crime involved a murder where some of the victim’s organs were missing. Señor Alcides said that everyone in town suspected pishtacos. After a year of no leads in the case, the police hired some brujas, who “guaranteed” they could help solve the case. The witches held séances with the policemen present and everyone heard eerie voices during these sessions. Despite the voices, no progress was made on the case even though the brujas were continuing to get paid. One day during a séance, one of the policeman, a turned the light on when the voices started and a small boy, who was making the voices from behind a bookshelf, ran out of the room saying that his mother, one of the brujas, made him do it. The brujas voluntarily gave the money back, the case was never solved and no pishtacos were ever caught.


Spanish In The House

One of our objectives in choosing to spend quite a few months in South America was to ensure that the kids would learn to speak Spanish conversationally. My wife has always been frustrated living in California, where 30% of the population speaks Spanish but our kids have been unable to say more than “Buenos Dias” to the gardeners. Budget cuts at California schools mean that in our school district, daily Spanish classes don’t start until the 7th grade. Considering that most experts agree that languages are best learned at a much earlier age, this has been a problem.

For the past 5-6 months in Cusco, our kids have learned a tremendous amount of Spanish, but in public they are often reticent to speak. They have daily lessons from 8 am to 1 pm with Patty, our profesora who comes to our house, but we decided that we needed to take it to the next level. We initiated the “Speak only Spanish in the house” rule. I’ll admit that this has been challenging. We started out with a point system: anyone who speaks English in the house gets a point and the person with the most points has to give the other family members a massage at the end of the day. Initially, the kids really got in to this and any utterances in English were greeted with a rousing family chorus of “PUNT-O!” (“Point!”) This worked well at times, but we ran into problems when the kids kept the tally. Our son and daughter are 18 months apart and extremely competitive with one another and even the mere possibility of one sibling uttering a syllable in English would send the other scurrying to the scorecard to record a point. If we heard “PUNT-O!” from the other room, we knew we were in for an argument.

From this punitive method we migrated to a more incentive-based approach…yes, I’m talking cold, hard cash. Go all day with less than three utterances in English and you get a couple bucks…between four and six mistakes, you get a little less. Our reasoning was that this unique opportunity to learn Spanish had a limited shelf life and when we got back to California, we’d be paying $50 per hour for private lessons...so what’s the big deal with a couple bucks a day? This has been the method that has worked best thus far.

Occasionally, there are some things that just can’t be communicated in Spanish, like a math or science homework explanation or something very complicated. During these times one of us prefaces an explanation with, “Voy a hablar en Ingles.” (I’m going to speak English). Once the quick English explanation is over, it is back to Spanish. Another challenge with speaking only Spanish in the house is disciplining the kids. Nothing gets their attention like a quickly barking out, “Stop screwing around and get on with your homework!” Trying to say this in Spanish with the right tone, force and curtness is difficult and slowly fumbling through the grammar just defeats the purpose. When I’m trying to be angry in Spanish and I’m halfway through a sentence and the kids are trying to suppress a giggle, I know that it is time to revert to the mother tongue.

Overall, we’ve done a fair job speaking Spanish in the house, although my wife’s fear is that we are creating our own brand of Spanglish that only we can speak. About a month ago, we passed a milestone of sorts. The kids have started to correct my grammar in public. Ordinarily, this might be kind of annoying, but I honestly love the fact that they know their stuff.


Tiempo Peruano

Most of what we’ve learned about tiempo Peruano (Peruvian time) we’ve learned from our kid’s activities. We’ve gotten to the point where if someone tells us a las cuatro (“at four O’Clock”) we can probably show up at 4:40 and if someone says cuatro punto (“Four O’clock sharp”) we can probably show up at 4:20.

Juan, our daughter’s basketball coach, is a great guy but we’ve learned to significantly pad his practice and game start times. For her first practice, he told us 8:00 am on a Sunday morning. Just to be sure, we showed up at 7:55 am and waited for him to stroll in at 8:40 am. Once he was there the other players quickly rolled in and everyone was there and practicing by 9:00 am. It was if everyone was in on the joke but us gringos. When I asked the mother of one of the players why no one arrived at 8:00 pm, she smiled and shrugged and said “tiempo Peruano.” For each ensuing practice, we arrived a little bit later until we had found the right formula. Likewise for our daughter’s first game; when Juan said "seis punto" we dutifully showed up at 6:00 pm but the game did not start until 6:20 pm. Thereafter we padded the basketball game start times by 20 minutes.

The kids’ afternoon volunteer jobs at Colibri are supposed to start at 4:00 pm, but the first few times we dropped them off, there door was locked and no one was there. Thereafter, each day we left 5-10 minutes later than the day before and finally settled into a 4:45 arrival slot. The kids’ nightly swim practices are scheduled to start at 6:30 and every time we ask Coach Cristian it is reinforced as such, but a practice has never started earlier than 6:45 pm. In fact, the other swimmers roll in between 6:45 pm and 7:15 pm, seemingly oblivious to any schedule.

We are thankful for these experiences, as it gives us insight into how Peruvians view time differently than we do. By experimentation, we’ve arrived a formula that works for us and gets our kids to their activites “on time.” No one can explain to us why 4:00 pm really means 4:40 pm…they just shrug and say “tiempo Peruano.”


Cusco Characters: Coach Cristian

We’re eternally grateful that Coach Cristian allowed our kids to join his nightly swim practices at Cusco’s only indoor heated pool. Cristian has been gracious, friendly and willing but a variety of factors have caused our swim team experience to be a lesson in “going with the flow”.

Cristian is a handsome man with thick, tousled black hair in his late 20’s and is the swim coach and P.E. teacher for one of the local colegios (combined middle school/high school) in Cusco. At practices, he walks around the pool with a jock-like swagger as he barks out instructions to his swimmers. I often see him exhort his swimmers to take larger strokes by animatedly stretching out an arm, with fingers pointing to the sky and his back arched. His swimmers like him: at a recent all-comers meet, he swam freestyle in a master’s event and dozens of his swimmers wildly cheered him on. The fact that he participated in the meet also speaks well of him; his enthusiasm for the sport and his swimmers outweighs the ego of a former competitive swimmer past his prime.

On our swim team back home in Marin County, any and all information about the swim season is readily available: meet schedule, practice times, heat sheets, etc. are all on the team web site. In Cusco, none of that information is available and Coach Cristian, our sole source of information, doesn’t always have it himself. There is no web site and the schedule doesn’t seem to be known by anyone until a week or two in advance.

Because of this we never quite seem to know what is coming up week to week in the swim season. Coach Cristian’s communication style doesn’t help, either. Whenever we’re confused about a practice time, the date of an upcoming meet or what stroke the kids will swim, we’ll ask him directly and we never seem to understand the answer. Learning a language is like detective work; based on the context and sleuthing out significant verbs or nouns in the response, one can glean the meaning and communicate. For example, I’ve asked “What time is practice tomorrow?” several times in the past few months and I often get a one or two sentence response with no times or even numbers in it. The question requires a second or third iteration before I can understand the answer. Amidst this occasional confusion, Cristian smiles and carries on in a friendly manner, oblivious to my befuddlement. To be fair to Cristian, many external things have transpired to cause a delta between our expectations and reality: for example, the TransAndina Youth Games in Bolivia were canceled because of a Dengue Fever outbreak and a swim meet in Arequipa was canceled because of the Swine Flu epidemic. My wife and I think that since he only speaks Spanish, he is not used being in the shoes of someone speaking a second language and accordingly uses a lot of slang and doesn’t slow down his speech.

Along with teaching our kids swimming, Coach Cristian has taught us to not worry if we don’t know what to expect from day to day or week to week. Just go with the flow.


Cusco Characters: Señora Melvyn

Approximately 60 years ago, a Peruvian couple was anxiously awaiting the birth of their child and in the days leading up to the delivery, they had yet to pick a name. That night, they went to a Lima movie theater to see a Hollywood movie and to relax. To this day they can’t remember the name of the movie but it starred an enchanting actress who was paired with a well-known Hollywood leading man. They loved the actress’ performance so much they decided right then that if they had a girl, they would name it after the actress. Unfortunately, they left the theater hurriedly and didn’t get the actress’s name and a few days later they gave birth to a baby girl.

When it came time to name the baby girl they had a lasting memory of the actress’ performance but not her name. Under pressure from the doctor who was filling out the birth certificate, they did the next best thing. They named the girl after the film’s well-known leading man: Melvyn Douglas. At that time, Melvyn Douglas was one of America’s finest actors and would finish his career with two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy award. He won best supporting actor awards for “Hud” and “Being There” during an acting career that spanned six decades.

This is how Señora Melvyn got such an interesting name, not to mention a perfect icebreaker at social events and business meetings. Señora Melvyn’s works at the CTTC and spends most of her time working on preparations for a textile convention next year. She is extremely affable and warm and makes friends quickly. She seems to know everyone in town; when we walk across town for a business appointment, we often have to stop multiple times to briefly chat with business acquaintances, extended family members and friends. After every stop I remind her that she should run for Mayor of Cusco.

Melvyn and I became fast friends back in June when we first started sharing an office. We discovered we shared a joint love for the 40’s Cuban bandleader Perez Prado and I offered to make her a CD of his greatest hits from my digital library. She was thrilled and spent an inordinate amount of time making a detailed and intricately decorated CD case for it. Melvyn thrives on details and she will often spend a good part of her day organizing her office belongings, alphabetizing the business cards of her business contacts or re-writing meeting notes.

Melvyn thrives on interaction with people and is very good at getting the information she needs in order to push her project forward. I often hear her on the phone setting up appointments and often, after introducing herself on the phone, there's a pause and she launches into an abbreviated version of how she got her first name. From there the conversation becomes animated and she usually gets what she needs from the person she's talking to. Señora Melvyn has made the most out of a very unique name.


Peruvian Fusion: Día de Los Muertos

We knew that the Día de Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) was a big holiday in Mexico, but we weren’t sure to what extent it was celebrated here in Peru. When I asked people at my office, they talked about tantawawa (breads shaped in the figures of babies and horses) and lechon (roast suckling pig) but when I asked about visiting a cemetery, I was told that there was not much to see and the gatherings were private.

Like most Pre-Columbian cultures, the Incas were an agricultural society that worshipped their ancestors. In the northern hemisphere, Day of the Dead festivities focus on sharing the harvest with dead ancestors; south of the equator, early November is a time of returning spring rains, the re-flowering of the earth and the anticipation of the harvest season. As such, the start of the very important planting season is celebrated and shared with ancestors. When the Spaniards arrived, they found a way to fuse these pre-Columbian traditions with All Saints Day (Día de Todos Santos) on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. In Peru, November 1st is celebrated nationally, but in Cuzco it’s known as Día de Todos los Santos Vivos (Day of the Living Saints) and celebrated with food such as lechon, sugar cane, chicha and the tantawawa breads. November 2nd is considered the Día de los Santos Difuntos (Day of the Deceased Saints) and is honored with visits to cemeteries.

We went to Plaza Tupac Amaru on Día de Todos los Santos Vivos hoping to see displays of baby and horse breads and to try some lechon. On the way out the door of our apartment, our landlords had a whole suckling pig laid out on a table in the middle of their enclosed courtyard, ready to be roasted. At Plaza Tupac Amaru, we passed by bread vendors selling tantawawas on our way to a corner of the plaza with many makeshift food stalls. We walked to through until we found some selling lechon. We ordered two plates for the four of us and found a quiet corner to sit down and eat. The lechon was delicious: tender, moist suckling pig with a robust smoky flavor, laid on a bed of tallarines (noodles), with rocoto rellena (stuffed pepper) and a potato. We order two more plates and my son devoured another very large portion of lechon in about 20 seconds.

Despite being downplayed by my co-workers, on Día de Los Muertos we walked across town to the Almudena Cemetery in the late afternoon. We bought some flowers and offerings in the plaza next to the cemetery and walked through the massive stone gate. Inside there was more than a thousand people gathering about their ancestors’ wall niches. In South America, when a person dies they are buried in a casket for 10 years, before being dug up and cremated, and the ashes are placed into a wall of the cemetery. For those who are wealthy, the ashes go into little stand-alone marble houses that are large enough to accommodate the entire family. The wall niches at Almudena were interesting little dioramas of the deceased one’s life. Inside framed glass enclosures were symbols of the lives that the people led: dinner tables with large feasts, large beer and pisco bottles, automobiles, flowers, dolls, photos, religious statuettes…each 2-foot by 1.5-foot space selectively representing a life. The mood was festive with dancing, drinking and singing, but I got the sense that worshippers were pacing themselves. I’d heard that many would stay at the cemetery all night to greet the dawn with their dead ancestors. There were several bands playing upbeat music and I saw quite a few people who looked like they were halfway between crying and laughing. We found a quiet corner of the cemetery to hold a small service for a relative of ours who had died recently. We laid our flowers on an anonymous marble crypt and each of us talked about what our deceased aunt meant to us. It seemed a very appropriate place to remember her.


Peruvian Fusion: Anticuchos

Peruvian food is one of the world’s great fusion cuisines, incorporating influences from the Andes and coastal Peru with Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese flavors. One example of this is anticuchos, beef kebabs that are grilled and sold on many a Peruvian street corner. While skewered llama meat has been around in the Andes since Pre-Columbian times, it was African slaves in Colonial Peru who perfected the marinated and skewered beef heart kebabs that are so popular today.

During colonial times, the Spanish would give their African slaves the parts of the cow that they disdained: heart, stomach, organs, etc. The slaves took the beef heart and seasoned and marinated it heavily prior to grilling and over time the dish became very popular in Peru. Basically, the cow heart is cut into portions that easily fit onto a skewer and are heavily seasoned with ají panca, a full flavored but mild red chili and marinated in vinegar and spices (such as cumin, aji pepper and garlic). The meat is marinated for a day or two before grilling over charcoal, then the skewers are usually served with a boiled potato and a spicy dipping sauce. Anticucho comes from the Quechua word antikucho, meaning 'Andean cut' or 'Andean mix'.

Up until recently my experience with anticuchos was primarily through my nose. As I’d routinely drop the kids off for swimming at the Wanchaq pool, I’d walk over to the supermercado to do the food shopping. Just outside the pool, a woman sets up a tiny grill on a rickety stand tucked into a corner and the smell and smoke of grilled meat usually invades my nostrils as I pass by. Turning the corner and heading up Calle La Infancia, I always pass a small anticucheria that sets up their grill at the front door and a fan blows the smoke towards the street. After reading a bit about the Afro-Peruvian origins of anticuchos and getting a recommendation from a co-worker, I went to anticucheria called El Condorito on Calle Tacna. Inside the smoky restaurant, families sat at benches and devoured the skewers while drinking chicha morada or cerveza. I ordered a plate of anticuchos and sat down. I’d love to tell you how much I enjoyed them but I can't. While some people sing the praises of the “best-textured muscle in a cow’s body” and the delicious seasoning, I found myself wishing my anticuchos were made from a regular cut of beef.

Peruvian food in general is a combination of many influences. The Incas grew hundreds of variety of potatoes, corn, quinoa, barley and chili peppers, with cuy (guinea pig) and llama being the main sources of protein. The coastal Incas loved their ceviche, shellfish and various types of seafood. The Spanish added chickens, cows, pigs and goats to the mix, providing more meat and protein into the Andean diet. Africans came and added yams and peanuts, along with new dishes like anticuchos, tacu tacu (beans and rice with aji amarilla) and Cau-Cau (seasoned tripe). The Chinese came to build railroads and brought soy sauce and fresh ginger as well as stir-fry cooking, creating a blend of cuisines known in Peru today as chifa. The Japanese, who arrived in the early 1900’s to work on the sugar and cotton plantations, brought their love of seafood and their techniques for simple and beautiful preparations and opened cevicherias and shaped nikkei, or second-generation Japanese cuisine.

While I can’t in good conscience recommend the marinated cow heart, you can substitute regular beef cuts if you want to try anticuchos. Here is a recipe:


• 1 Beef heart or 2 lb of beef rump steak
• Salt and Pepper to taste
• 3 to 4 cloves of crushed garlic
• ½ cup of red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large chili peppers, finely chopped without seeds
• 1 tablespoon ground cumin


Firstly make sure the heart is clean of all veins and fat. Cut the heart or rump steak in small 3 to 4cm (1 to 1½ in) cubes. In a large bowl mix the vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, crushed garlic, chili pepper and ground cumin. Add the heart cubes and let the heart marinate for several hours or overnight. If you are using rump steak you do not need to marinate the meat for as long. Remove the meat cubes, lightly salt them and put 3 pieces onto each metal skewer. Cook over a hot grill for approximately 3 minutes per side, brushing them with the vinegar mix. Serve immediately with steamed corn on the cob and boiled potatoes.

This post was part of a Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival at Kat's Tie Dye Travels, called Food Around the World.


Peruvian Fusion: Corpus Christi

Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Quechua people celebrated a fruitful harvest by honoring the Father Sun ("Tayta Inti”) in the presence of his “children”, the mummified remains of the Inca kings (“mallki”). The mummies were adorned in fine clothing and jewelry and were paraded about the main plaza in lavishly decorated litters, while the Quechua people gathered and celebrated with traditional Andean foods. When Francisco Pizzaro arrived in Cusco in 1533, I can only imagine the reaction of the priests in his conquering party: “Hmmm…pagan deities, mummies…this will have to go.”

As a replacement ceremony, the Spanish priests instituted the feast and procession of Corpus Christi ("Body of Christ") in Cusco and virgins and saints were paraded around the main plaza in place of mummies (which were burned) and the Tayta Inti and the Pachamama (mother earth) were put on the back burner in favor of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Since the feast and procession of Corpus Christi was coincidently held each year around the same time as a southern hemisphere harvest (May/June), it was a logical substitution. The Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega observed that the first Corpus Christi was held in Cusco in 1550, perhaps as early as 1547. In 1572 the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo instituted Corpus Christi in all Peruvian provinces.

This past June, more than 450 years later, my daughter and I ventured to the Plaza de Armas and obtained second-story balcony seats at a corner restaurant and ordered lunch shortly before noon. We were there to watch the entrada (the entrance of the saints) without getting mobbed by the crowd below. The first saint was San Antonio from the San Cristobal parish, who slowly moved past us with his beard, staff and light blue robe embroidered with silver. He is the patron saint of swineherds and was single; as such only young unmarried men hold up his litter. Next up was San Geronimo from the parish of the same name, dressed in a broad red hat and robe and holding a pen in his right hand and a silver model of a chapel in his left hand. More saints continued: San Cristobal held the Christ child while standing under a palm tree, San Sebastian shaded by a tree with arrows in his chest and the easily-identifiable Santiago charging forward on his white horse with sword in hand. Once we’d finished our unappetizing lunch, we’d wished instead that we eaten what most of the Cusquenas were eating. Everyone was eating chiriuchu (roasted guinea pig with toasted corn and potatoes) washed down with either beer or chicha.

During the entrada a total of 15 saints and virgins parade around the plaza, after having been carried by a couple dozen men from their respective parishes. The statues are left in the cathedral for 8 days at which time they depart and head home. The highlight of the entrada is the impressive silver “Carroza” carriage that is paraded around the Plaza de Armas midway through the entrada. It contains the bread – the symbolic body of Christ – and is topped by a chalice decorated with the image of the Holy Sacrament. As the centerpiece of the entrada, it effectively replaced the ruling Inca’s litter from Pre-Columbian times.

An interesting thing to note about Corpus Christi is that over 750 years ago the festival was started as a way to re-consolidate religious belief and reinvigorate Catholics in Europe. Corpus Christi officially celebrates the belief that the Eucharistic bread contains the real presence of Christ. By the 13th century, religious belief was becoming diffused by the older cult of the saints. The numberous saints with their relics and the dismembered parts of holy men and women (skeletons, locks of hair, toes, etc.) were more tangible symbols of faith and served to keep religious focus decentralized. By re-focusing belief onto the Eucharist with a formal religious ceremony – controlled by priests – the Catholic Church was able to re-consolidate their power over the populace. If it worked in Europe, why not in the New World?


Peruvian Fusion: Eva Ayllón at the Teatro Municipal

As our taxi rushed through the Cusco streets Friday night, on our way to the Eva Ayllón concert, we had reason to believe that the event might be lightly attended. Our tickets cost 70 soles ($24), an amount that caused most of my co-workers to decide not to a see the “Queen of Afro-Peruvian Soul.” The fact that it was so easy for me to get front-row, center stage tickets gave me another reason to suspect a low turnout. Arriving late from our kid’s swim meet, our taxi dropped us off and instantly knew we’d been mistaken: we walked into a packed and energetic Teatro Municipal.

Eva Ayllón is Peru’s most celebrated musical artist and is recognized worldwide as a leading exponent of música criolla (Creole music) and Afro-Peruvian music. Música criolla is a fusion of mainly African, Spanish and Andean influences and Afro-Peruvian music was first created by African slaves in Peru during the Colonial Period. She has 4 platinum records, 10 gold records, and two Latin Grammy nominations for “Eva” Leyenda Peruana” and "To My Country," an album she recorded with Los Hijos del Sol and Alex Acuña. Afro-Peruvian music has its roots in the communities of black slaves brought to work in the silver mines along the Peruvian coast and in the Andes. The music was little known even in Peru until the 1950s, when it was popularized by the seminal performer Nicomedes Santa Cruz. One of the high notes of Ayllón’s 30-year musical career was selling out Carnegie Hall in November of 2008.

On Friday night Ayllón came out on stage in a super-tight, black stretch outfit, high heels and a Christian cross necklace supported by Amazonian hauyruro beads. As she sang her first few songs we began to see why the Los Angeles Times described her as “The Tina Turner of Afro-Peruvian music, energetic and playful, sexy and fully charged.” Friday night’s concert was a tribute to Chabuca Granda, a performer known for Afro-Peruvian inteerpretations late in her career, and the audience sang along to popular Granda songs such as “Jose Antonio” and “Fina Estampa.”

As we sat and listened to the toe-tapping Afro-Peruvian beats, I meditated on the origins of the two principal instruments accompanying Ayllón’s vocals: the guitar and the cajón (box drum). I knew a little about the guitar’s Latin and Moorish origins and I’d heard that the cajón, a rectangular wooden box that doubles as percussion instrument and a seat, came from African slaves using agricultural crates in Colonial Peru. The guitar is descended from the Roman cithara brought by the Romans to Hispania around 40 AD, and further adapted and developed with the arrival of the four-string oud, brought by the Moors after their conquest of Spain in the 8th century. The prevailing view about the origins of the cajón, while similar to instruments in Africa and Spain, is that indeed they were adapted by Peruvian slaves from the colonial Spanish shipping crates. Slaves used boxes as musical instruments to contravene colonial bans on music in predominantly African areas. Thus, cajóns could easily be disguised as seats and avoid identification as musical instruments.

The instruments, the singer and the music were all beautiful examples of the Peruvian fusion between Andean, Spanish and African cultures. The Peruvian writer Ricardo Palma wrote, “If you are not Inca, you are Mandinga,” reinforcing the idea that all Peruvians have indigenous blood, African blood, or both. While Afro-Peruvian music has been around for hundreds of years, for the past 30 years Eva Ayllón has helped Peruvians accept and embrace that heritage.


Peruvian Fusion: The Cusco School of Painting

Fusion is everywhere in Peru. Every place you look you can see the collision between Andean and Spanish cultures. It’s in the blood, in the food, in the music, in the language and it’s in the paintings. We got an introduction to the Cusco School of painting last week when we bought a ticket gaining entrance to three churches and a museum: La Catedral, La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, Iglesia de San Blas and the Museo de Arte Religioso.

Our first stop was La Catedral on the Plaza de Armas. Construction of the church started in 1559 (aided by many large stones pilfered from the nearby Sacsayhuaman fortress) and had to be re-built after the massive 1650 earthquake. In the northeast corner of the cathedral we saw the epitome of this Andean/Spanish clash of cultures in Marcos Zapata’s rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (left). What better way for an Andean painter to accept a forced-upon religion, yet still be true to his indigenous roots, than to place cuy (guinea pig) on a platter in the center of the table? It’s open to debate what the main course was for The Last Supper (grilled eel? lamb?), but I’m certain that Leonardo didn’t depict guinea pig and chicha morada (fermented purple-corn drink).

The Cusco School of Painting is a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco, Peru during the colonial period. The tradition originated after the Spanish conquest of the Incas and is considered the first artistic center that systematically taught European Artistic techniques in the Andes. The main purpose of the school was didactic, to inculcate catholic religious values and almost all of the painters were indigenous. Ironically, the school got a boost after the 1650 earthquake destroyed most of the churches and artwork and Cusco School artists were commissioned to paint hundreds of new paintings to adorn the walls of the new structures that were being built.

Across the plaza from La Catedral is La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, which was built in 1571 (also rebuilt after the 1650 earthquake) on top of the former palace of Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule an undivided empire. Our guidebook directed us to some paintings of catholic weddings near the entrance, where we found The Marriage of Captain Martin de Loyola to Beatriz Ñusta. In the background of this painting of a Catholic ceremony are indigenous Incas, one with an Amazonian parrot on his shoulder. It was not uncommon for Cusco School painters to use Andean flora and fauna in their paintings of religious topics.

After a quick tour of the modest Iglesia San Blas and its intricately-carved wood pulpit, we debated whether we should visit the Museo de Arte Religioso, even though it was included in our ticket. Our guidebook gave a ho-hum description of the museum and even referred to it as a “musty religious art collection.” For us, the museum turned out to be the best in Cusco, with excellent audioguide-descriptions of various Virgin Marys, warrior angels, Corpus Christi processions and Diego Quispe Tito’s zodiac paintings.

For us, the depictions of the virgens were the most interesting. Most of the Virgin Marys, like the Virgen de Belen to the left, were fairly “flat” and lacked perspective, which would be expected from a culture new to representative painting. The Pre-Columbian Andeans had superior skills in ceramics, architecture, gold and silver work as well as textiles, but painting oil on canvas was a foreign concept. Many of the Virgin Marys, along with baby Jesuses they held, were triangular in shape, suggesting the shape of apus, or sacred mountains. It’s almost as if the Virgin Mary put on a couple hundred pounds once she set foot in the New World. Making the shape of the virgin’s dress suggest the mountains that the Incas revered made acceptance of the new religion easier. In their depictions, the virgens quite often have ruddy cheeks, suggesting the cold mountain weather of the Andes, and there is always lots of detail in their dresses which is not surprising given an Andean culture obsessed with textiles and weaving. Lastly, most of the paintings in the Cusco school (with some notable exceptions: Marcus Zapata, Diego Quispe Tito, etc.) were anonymous, due to the Pre-Columbian traditions that defined art as communal.

Immediately after leaving the museum, inspired by my exposure to the Cusco School, I went on a search for a reproduction Virgin Mary painting, stopping in various shops in San Blas. There is something very noble and appealing to me about how indigenous cultures, when forced to accept a foreign religion, find subtle -- in some cases, not so subtle -- ways to express their defiance. I looked in several shops, but had difficulty finding one that had a wide enough triangular shape. Each one shown to me by a shopkeeper was turned down with the words “No es bastante gorda” (“Not fat enough”). My wife and I resumed the search a few days later and we finally found a perfectly rotund Virgen de la Merced, complete with slightly-ruddy cheeks and resplendent dress detail.


House Hunters International Comes to Peru

We were approached last week by a producer for the television show ‘House Hunters International”, who had read this blog and thought that our family might be a good fit for their show. We knew nothing about the show, which is apparently a smash hit in many countries on the Home & Garden channel (HGTV). Based on the producer’s enthusiasm, we started to become excited about the possibility of our overseas adventure being documented on a television show. A flurry of emails back and forth with the producer escalated the excitement and my wife and I started to think about the possibilities. He told us that they would need to start filming on location in Peru in 2-3 weeks and they needed our audition video within two days in order to get executive buy-in.

That evening I skyped my mom in Northern California and asked her if she had ever seen the show. It turned out she was familiar with the show and her take was that it was only for people who were actively seeking to purchase a home overseas. We were neither seeking nor purchasing; we’d already found our rental apartment in Peru. Later that night, our Internet connection finally stabilized to the point where I could watch a few YouTube videos of the show and this confirmed my mom’s view. The basic premise of the show was to follow a couple or family who are looking to buy property in a foreign country. A real estate agent shows them three homes and guides them through the emotional process of buying a home in a foreign environment and the couple ends up choosing one of the properties. I watched an American couple in their 20’s go to Costa Rica to choose a property from which to run a Bed &Breakfast and I followed a San Diego couple as they went to the Amalfi Coast to find their retirement villa.

At this point, the gap between what seemed like the show’s format and our Peruvian experience needed to be reconciled. Were they planning on altering the format for us or did they want us to pretend to be looking to buy a house here? At this point, my wife's and my collective state of mind had gone from naïve excitement about our expat experience being documented on TV to guarded optimism and the creeping suspicion that we’d be asked to act out a “Reality TV” scenario that had nothing to do with us. Around midnight, I fired off an email to the producer in New York with a couple questions: Is it OK that we are not looking to purchase a house? Is it OK that we are not actively seeking a property? The response back was that these were not issues, we had a great “story” and it was actually a requirement of the show that the people on it already own their property.

[Cut to light bulb brightly shining above my head]

Of course! Now this seemed like a great business model. By choosing people who had already bought their house, the show doesn’t have to rent a foreign location and it avoids any unforeseen delays in the purchase process. By using a local realtor, they gain free access to two other properties for filming, and of course the realtor is only too happy to forego payment in return for free television publicity. As for the show’s participants, all they have to do is “re-create the scenario” that led to their property purchase. Now the question was: how much did they pay the show’s participants?

Initially, when my wife and I thought that they wanted our story, we were extremely flattered and probably would have done it for free. As it became more apparent that they wanted us to fit into an existing format and “recreate the scenario,” money became more of a factor due to the time involved and the disruption to our schedule (we’d need to fly back to Northern California to recreate some scenes there as well). We felt that there was value in our experience and to some extent we were losing control over our “story.” My wife and I sat down and asked ourselves: “How much money would make this worthwhile for us?” Once we had that number, we fired off yet another email diplomatically asking how much we might be paid for the show. When the answer came back – far, far lower than our number – we politely declined and our television careers came to a screeching halt.


The Cost of Cusco

Peru is less expensive that most countries and Cusco is more expensive that most Peruvian cities. Here is a breakdown of costs (in US dollars) of a random sampling of everyday items:

Housing and Utilities:
Monthly rent for an unfurnished apartment near the center of Cusco (3BR/2BA): $250.00-300.00
Monthly utilities (water, electric, trash): $80.00-100.00
Re-fill a five-gallon tank of propane for a gas stove (that will last 2 months): $10.00

8 medium-sized potatoes at the produce market: $0.40
Large chicken breast at the supermarket: $2.80
A dozen eggs at the supermarket: $1.20
A dozen fresh-baked bread rolls at any corner store: $0.80
1-liter carton of milk at the supermarket: $0.83
Fresh-baked Baguette from San Blas' Buen Pastor bakery: $0.17
Bottle of Peruvian Tabernero Cabernet Sauvignon: $6.00

Taxi Cab ride across town: $0.83
Air Flight from Cusco to Lima (round trip) $90.00 (seems to have gone up lately)

Shoeshine in the Plaza de Armas: $0.33
Double-scoop of gelato: $0.60
Trip to the dentist for teeth cleaning: $35.00-45.00
DVD movie (pirated) from El Molino market: $1.00


Delicious Picarones

One of our family’s Cusco traditions is to go out for picarones, which are deep-fried, donut-shaped treats with molasses drizzled over them. Though not the healthiest snack in the world, they are delicious. A week ago, we invited another American expat family to join us at our favorite picaroneria and they loved them as well. Their young daughter, who was falling asleep after a long day, rallied when she took her first bite. We all watched her as extreme fatigue dueled with overpowering sweetness, creating what looked like a 4-year old devouring a picarone while fast asleep.

Picarones, a popular dessert in Peru and other Andean countries, are made from squash and sweet potato, along with flour, eggs, yeast and spices. They are sweetened with miel de chancaca (chancaca honey), a sweet sauce made of raw cane sugar. They are frequently paired with anticuchos (marinated meat on skewers) and are often served during the month of October during the procession of Señor de los Milagros. Picarones were created during the colonial period to replace buñuelos, which were too expensive to make. People started replacing traditional buñuelos ingredients with squash and sweet potato and the new dessert rapidly increased in popularity throughout the Andes.

Just as the Incas imported their creation myth and religious traditions from Lake Titicaca, this tradition of ours originated there as well. Coming back from our Bolivian vacation, my wife and daughter decided to visit the Titicaca islands of Taquile and Amantani, while my son and I headed straight back to Cusco. They were hiking to the top of Amantani to see the sunset and some Pre-Inca ruins when they saw a stone cottage with “picarones” written on a chalkboard in front. It was cold, windy and getting dark and the fire inside was inviting. They sat down at one of the two tables and ordered the only two things on the menu: picarones and hot chocolate. They watched the lady knead the dough and place it in the cast-iron skillet filled with hot cooking oil. After frying it, she set them on a plate and drizzled molasses on them. When my wife and daughter returned and recounted the highlights of the trip to the islands, picarones were high on the list.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered our favorite picaroneria in Cusco while walking home from work. The shop is on a corner with a large vat of hot cooking oil right near the door. Inside there are five tables and the back wall is dominated by a large photo of a smiling woman with blue eyes and too much make-up biting into a picarone. Three ladies work there: one kneads the dough, one woman fries it and the other takes orders. While close to San Blas and the Plaza de Armas there seems to be many Cusqueños frequenting this place, a Peruvian version of a blue-collar donut shop in the U.S. For me, this comparison was reinforced about a month ago when a policeman walked in and ordered a dozen picarones to go. Some things transcend borders.

Recipe for Picarones:

Ingredients for picarones:
/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled sweet potatoes
1/2 kg (1 lb) of peeled buttercup squash
1/2 kg (1 lb) of flour
3 tablespoons of yeast
2 stick cinnamons
4 cloves
2 tablespoons of aniseed
3 tablespoons of sugar
A pinch of salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Vegetable oil

Ingredients for the chancaca honey:
1/2 kg (1 lb) of chancaca
1 cup of brown sugar
4 cloves
2 stick cinnamons
2 pieces of orange peel
4 cups of water

Chancaca honey: Cut the chancaca in pieces, put them in a pot and add sugar, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and water. Boil until it gets a little thick (200º F, 110º C), more or less for 20-25 minutes. Strain.

Picarones: Boil in a pot a lot of water with the cinnamon, cloves and aniseeds for 10 minutes. Strain. In this water, cook the sweet potatoes and the squash. When they’re ready, take them out from the pot and strain. Keep back 2 cups of water and let it cool down.
In a bowl, mix the yeast with this 2 cups of water and the sugar. Go down for 15 minutes.
Mix the sweet potatoes and the squash making a purée. Add the salt, the yeast mix and the eggs, beating and mixing good. Add the flour while you continue beating with energy. You must get a soft and elastic pastry and it mustn’t get stuck to your fingers. Go down for 1 hour or until the preparation doubles its volume.
Heat a lot of vegetable oil in a big frying pan. Moisten your hand in water with salt, take the pastry and let it fall in the hot oil forming a ring. Let them get brown and turn over.
Usually, the portion is 3 picarones topped with miel de chancaca.