Sunday Morning Pickup Basketball In Cusco

Since I left university, I’ve lived in a few different places and one of things that gives me a sense of home is having a regular pickup basketball game. A bunch of guys joking around and getting some exercise on a regular basis gives me a sense of connection to a place, so when Miguel, our Cusco landlord, suggested that we play some basketball I enthusiastically agreed. Anywhere that I’ve lived I’ve been able to find a weekly venue for pickup basketball, a habit from my high school and college playing days. When I lived in New York City I played in a league in Harlem on a team of ex-Columbia University players and in Tokyo I was invited to play in an expat recreation league. While living in Los Angeles I found a regular pickup game about a mile from my house and back home in Marin County I’ve been playing with the same group of neighborhood dads for the last 12 years,

Miguel and I agreed to play the following Sunday morning. That day I rounded up my son and daughter and we met Miguel and his brother David and their niece and nephew downstairs. We jumped in two taxis and headed down to Parque Zonal, a large sports complex with soccer fields, basketball courts, a track and field stadium and a 1960’s-era domed indoor arena. We paid our entry fee and walked over to the courts and met Miguel and David’s basketball buddies. We exchanged pleasantries, chose teams and started playing and I quickly realized how much I missed basketball.

Most of my interactions with Peruvians were on a somewhat superficial level due to my limited level of Spanish. That Spanish ability allowed me constant interaction with locals but it was always on a slightly formal level. I missed making jokes and speaking colloquially and above all, bantering with the boys. There’s a level of intimacy on the basketball court that is not language-dependent so I don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to give my teammate a “high five” after a nice shot. Mastering the intricacies of conjugation is not necessary to set a screen for a teammate. Jostling and bumping and laughing with the locals allowed an intimacy that I didn’t get from working in the office. The little language we needed we picked up quickly. My son made a shot from beyond the three point line and Miguel said “Buen punto.” (good shot) David came up to screen my man and said “ventana.” (screen) My daughter eyed the hoop from the top of the key and Miguel said “Tira!” (shoot!)

We played about an hour and a half that first day, fully winded from a half dozen games and the altitude, but I felt energized from the experience. We slapped hands with the guys we played with and said “buen juego” (good game) as we were leaving. We would be back every weekend during our time in Cusco. It was a little slice of home in the Andes.

Death Ride In The Andes

Our driver picked us up near Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and we headed out of the city center. We turned and moved along the crowded Prolongacion de la Cultura then turned and drove for a few blocks through a residential neighborhood of roosters, dirt roads, barking dogs and concrete-block walls with glass shards sticking out the top. We were let off on a corner and told to wait in what looked like someone’s backyard. My son, daughter and I were here to celebrate my son’s 14th birthday, Cusquena style: riding quadrimotos (ATV’s) through the Andean foothills.

After a few minutes two young men came over and introduced themselves and we began our “training course.” Our guide Juan explained in Spanish how to operate the vehicle and told us to start doing practice runs on the small, uneven oval track in the backyard. After a half dozen loops on the oval, Juan declared us ready. My son would have his own vehicle, my daughter and I would share one and Juan and his assistant would both ride on a small motorcycle. Before we started up the nearby hill, Juan said, “Tenga cuidado. Hay muchos perros en estas calles. Cuando empiezan a correr, no reducir la velocidad.” (Be careful. There are lots of dogs in these streets. When they start running after you, don’t slow down)

I took special note of the fact that he said “when” the dogs start running and not “if,” so I made sure the kids understood this instruction. The five of us took off down the street and within thirty seconds a stray dog began chasing us, keeping up with us, but not quite fast enough to bite our ankles. My daughter raised her feet up to seat level just to be sure. In order to access the road up the mountain, we had to drive on the main De La Cultura thoroughfare for a few blocks, an activity of questionable legality. Once off the main boulevard we started uphill and saw more dogs chasing and nipping at our wheels. In all, we passed by about a dozen snarling mutts on our way to the dirt road that led us away from the residential area and to the hills.

For the next 20 minutes we climbed a dirt road until we reached a crest with a spectacular view of the Cusco valley. In another ten minutes we arrived at a higher plateau and we stopped to take pictures and I gave my daughter a chance to drive the ATV by herself. From here we followed a rutted dirt road past farms and we started to feel raindrops. Juan looked up at the ominous clouds and told us that we would have start back. As the rain started getting heavier, we turned left past a creek and my son caught a rut and his ATV tipped over. He safely jumped off beforehand but with the rain coming down harder, I wanted to get back down the mountain as soon as possible. By now we heard thunder and saw lighting flashes and the dark grey clouds that were previously down the valley were directly overhead. We were completely soaked and I was starting to worry that we would be hit by lightning. The Andes have a rugged, rocky beauty but they are not known for a lot of forests and trees. Most of the trees that I’d seen were transplanted gum and eucalyptus trees and there were not that many. The sound of thunder become louder as we raced across a treeless ridge, racing to get back down the mountain before being stuck by lighting. As the rainstorm turned into a hailstorm, I chided myself for the dangerous position that I had put my kids in.

We started our descent down the same dirt road but now it was filled with mud. The road hugged the side of a valley, so we were now protected from lightning although the rain and occasional hail continued to pelt us. The road was slippery and mud had packed into the crevasses of our knobby tires and Juan looked back every 30 seconds and motioned for us to go slowly. Juan’s tires were completely caked in mud and he was soon unable to control his motorcycle, his assistant falling off every time the back wheel lost traction. At one point it became impossible to drive with two of them and the assistant jumped on the back of my son’s ATV. We eventually made it down the hill, past the angry dogs, and back to our starting point.

We arrived back home completely soaked with our pants and shoes caked with mud. We peeled off our clothes and all took showers, the warm water getting our body temperature back to normal. It was an eventful afternoon. Aside from illegally driving on a main thoroughfare, escaping from the snarling dogs, my son tipping over his ATV, surviving the rain and hail storm, narrowly avoiding being hit by lighting and successfully navigating the dangerously muddy downhill road, it was a fun time. Fun, but we won’t be doing it again soon.

This post was part of a Blogsherpa carnival by Joe at Hello Pineapple called Scary Stories.


Harvest Time In Peru's Sacred Valley

We pulled to the side of the road in complete darkness, the rapids of the Vilcanote River rushed through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and drowned out any other sounds. Alfredito and Zulma, got out of the car and started yelling across the river, “Alfredo! Alfredo!” My daughter turned to me in the back seat and asked, “What are we doing here?” “We are on our way to the Chavez’ farm but I don’t know why we’ve stopped here,” I responded. After a pause, I said, “It’s an adventure,” which was my way of telling her to not worry and enjoy the uncertainty.

We had not been in Cusco for more than two weeks when our host family suggested that we come out to their chacra (farm) to help with the corn harvest. My daughter and I were staying with them for six weeks while my wife and son were still in California tying up loose ends before joining us. The chakra has been in the Chavez family for a few generations and is ideally located in the Sacred Valley on a bend in the river between Pisac and the town of San Salvador. Our hosts got back in the car, turned it around and we started to go back the same way we came. My Spanish was still rusty and my daughter was just beginning to learn, so we didn’t have a clear idea about why we had stopped, yelled across a river and started back the way we came. After 20 minutes we entered the main plaza of San Salvador and there we saw Alfredo. We got out of our car and got into his 4-wheel drive SUV and started out along an extremely rocky dirt road. From these developments and few clues from Alfredito’s conversation, I surmised that access to the farm was only by 4-wheel drive and cell phone reception was nonexistent in this part of the Sacred Valley. Indeed, the only way to get to the farm was to drive past the town to the point across the river from the farm and yell for a pickup in San Salvador. After a very bumpy 20 minute ride, we pulled up at the farm and saw kids watching an old black and white television outside, while the adults drank Cusqueña beer and prepared for sleep in their tents. After sharing a beer with the family, my daughter and I went to sleep in our guest room.

At 4:00 a.m. we were awaken by extremely loud Peruvian music from a radio just outside our bedroom window. The laborers were getting up for a long day of harvesting. After 20 minutes of hoping they would turn it off, I rifled through my bag looking for earplugs. I found them and my daughter and I eased back to sleep. At around 7:00 a.m. we got up and roamed around the cornfields watching the 70 or so laborers at work. The high mountains of the Sacred Valley dwarfed the flat river plain in an impossibly beautiful setting. Zulma mentioned that they have received offers for their 40 acre lot, mostly from hotels and upscale bed and breakfast developers. While the offers are tempting, Alfredo, who is a dentist by profession, loves getting to the farm on weekends, driving the tractor and enjoying what he calls terapia (therapy).

Women in colorful blouses, long alpaca skirts, felt hats with their hair in long braids separated the choclos (cob) from the husks and placed them in sacks, to be collected by teenage boys who then carried them to the tractor. Younger women carried babies in multicolor slings on their backs while they worked the field. At the mid-morning break, Zulma brought out oranges for a quick snack. The younger kids munched on the dried corn stalks and offered some to us. My daughter and I tried some; they tasted like sugar cane, only less sweet.

While I helped the boys move the sacks of choclos to the tractor, Zulma put my daughter in charges of quality control. The corn would be dried for a few weeks and then sold at auction to the highest Japanese bidder, to be turned into dried corn snacks. Zulma explained that the Japanese were very particular and only wanted pure white corn. My daughter’s job was to find all the purple, orange, pink and red choclos and remove them from the 75 by 40 foot rectangle of dried corn that was laid out on the ground in front of the house.

After the long day, we sat on the front porch with the foreman and drank some warm beer, congratulating ourselves on a productive day. We all shared the same small glass, even though I knew there were plenty more in the kitchen. It was a sign of camaraderie and brotherhood to drink from the same glass and after every turn, we’d leave a bit in the glass and deliberately pour it on the ground, an offering to the Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), the Andean fertility goddess who is responsible for planting and harvesting. It was the least we could do for another successful day at the corn harvest.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn't Take A Year Off: Reason #8 "How Will You Communicate Without Speaking The Language?"

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: How will you communicate without speaking the language?

With an itinerary covering thirteen countries and eight languages you might think that language would be a major stumbling block for our family. With half our time in Spanish-speaking countries, it helps that we are all now proficient in that language, but we have spent half our time in places where we don’t speak the local language. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are traveling and you don’t speak the local language.

1) English is (almost) everywhere. The English language is spoken in one form or another in many places on the globe and you’ll continually be surprised by the number of people in out-of-the-way places who can converse in English.
2) Motivation trumps language skills. Most of the people you’ll deal with while traveling are people who want to sell you something: a hotel room, a meal, laundry services, that pretty little artisan handbag. To travel is to be needy on a daily basis; those whose livelihood depends on fulfilling those needs will be more than happy to overcome language differences to close the sale.
3) Context conveys meaning. If you show up at a hotel at midnight with your backpacks, looking tired and desperately in need of sleep, do you really need to speak a common language with the hotel owner to understand what is being communicated?
4) If you really need it, so do the locals. Much of communication while traveling is driven by need fulfillment. Your interactions with locals will be about what you need, not about philosophy or art history. For example, if it is monsoon season in Thailand, there will umbrellas on sale everywhere.
5) Think about who colonized the country. If you are going to Morocco, chances are your high school French will come in handy. In Hong Kong all you will need is English. In central and south America, whatever Spanish you’ve learned in school will help considerably.
6) A smile is worth a thousand words. A smile goes a long way to smoothing over language barriers. 25 years ago I traveled with a young German man who had been in South America for 7 months and had not learned a single word of Spanish. In the interactions that I observed, he spoke English slowly with a huge smile on his face while trying to get his point across. The locals were so charmed with his smile they tried extra hard to understand what he was saying. He usually got what he wanted.

With these things in mind, you will find yourself in situations where there is a language barrier. When you do, here are some tips to help you communicate.

1) Learn the basics. Get a phrase book and learn the basics: “good day”, “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “please”, “how much”, etc.
2) Use your fingers. While negotiating a price in a market, flash a single finger and then five fingers to convey that your offer is fifteen of the local currency. It’s a market so they’ve seen this before. In a restaurant, point at that tasty meal that the guy next to you is enjoying.
3) Write it down. If you have a pen and paper handy, negotiate by writing down the prices on paper. This has the added benefit of documenting the final price, in case an unethical merchant tries to change it after you’ve struck an agreement.
4) Use a calculator. When haggling, use the merchant’s or your calculator to make sure that you both have the same number in mind. Punch in your offer and hand it to the merchant. He or she will counter by punching in a new number and handing the calculator back to you. Simple head nodding will convey agreement or disagreement.
5) Use your pantomime skills. Once when I was in China, I wanted to order an omelet in a small restaurant. After trying English and quickly exhausting my limited Mandarin, I got my protein with a succession of 4 crude but effective pantomimed movements: flapping wings accompanied by clucking noises >> reaching down for an egg >> breaking the egg >> scrambling the egg. Yes I got an incredulous look, but I got my omelet as well.

I’ve seen many circumstances where two people speak the same language but don’t communicate, leading me to believe that communication is not language dependent. The bottom line is that an inability to speak the language is not a barrier to enjoying a great overseas trip.