Cusco, Peru: Mate De Coca, Anyone?

The Red Bull of the Andes
 You have just arrived in Cusco, Peru at 10,800 feet, which is probably two miles above wherever you’ve come from. You head straight to the Plaza de Armas, the center of Cusco, which is the center of the Incan Empire, because you don’t want to walk anymore. You’re huffing and puffing up the stairs to a restaurant with a balcony on the plaza and every three or four steps you stop to regain your breath. From your seat on the balcony overlooking the plaza, your waitress brings you your mate de coca, your coca leaf tea. It tastes a little like Japanese green tea with a hint of menthol and it goes down easy, its warmth counteracting the chill in the air. After a few minutes you realize that your heavy breathing has abated and that dull pain in the back of your head is now gone. It’s not an alcoholic buzz, but you definitely feel better, sharper, more yourself. Two women in indigenous dress pull llamas in front of La Catedral down below you. As you look at life go by from above the plaza, you think about how this ritual has been done for centuries here in the center of the Andes. You take another sip and give in to the acclimatization process. There is no better way to spend your first few hours in Cusco.

This post was part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival "Toasting Around the Globe" from Orange Polka Dot.


Peruvian Cuy: Pets or Meat?

In Michael Moore’s 1989 film “Roger & Me” there is a scene in which a woman in Flint, Michigan has a sign in her yard next to a cage of rabbits that says “Rabbits Bunnies Pets or Meat For Sale.” The film blames General Motors chairman Roger Smith for Flint’s economic decline and this scene is supposed to show the desperation that Flint residents have stooped to: they’re so hungry that they’re eating their pets!

Pets or meat? The answer depends on where you are. Take the guinea pig for example. In the United States and Europe the answer is pets. If you are in the South American Andes, the answer is meat. Before the Spaniards arrived with cows, goats, pigs and chickens, the main sources of animal protein in the Andes were llamas, alpacas and cuy, the Quechua name for guinea pig. With animal protein sources scarce, the pre-Columbian indigenous people did what they had to do to survive. If you are invited over to someone's house for a special occasion while in Peru, undoubtedly you will be served cuy.

The picture here is of my plate of roasted cuy over a rocota rellena (stuffed pepper) with some papas (potatoes) on the side. My little fella has an aji (chile pepper) in his mouth and sports a dandy little pepper and huacatay herb hat. Cuy has a chicken-like taste with lots of little bones and I wonder if I lost more calories searching and picking out bones than I gained by eating my dinner.


Volunteering In Cusco: A Day At The Office

What’s it like to be a volunteer in Cusco, Peru?

A typical day starts with breakfast with the family and out the door by 8:30 am when Patty, the kids’ Spanish teacher arrives for their five hour lesson. I walk along the mortar-less Inca walls towards the Plaza de Armas and observe the day beginning in the ancient Incan capital. The women who work at the produce market push carts with large sacks of fresh fruits and vegetables, a woman in indigenous dress hangs handbags and blouses outside her store and down one alley, a man relieves himself against ancient stones.

I pass by a busload of tourists waiting to visit the famous Korikancha and as I approach my work, the Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco (CTTC), I say hello to the man who sells candy in front of the building and then I’m buzzed into the front entrance. There are about a dozen people who work in the main office which sits above the retail store and museum on Avenida El Sol, and I have to greet each one with a “Buenos dias” and a kiss on the cheek. My office is basically a picnic bench in a communal area that is frequently where indigenous women weave, crochet and spin yarn with their babies eyeing everything from the slings on their backs. The women are genial, speak a bit of Spanish and all smell like they’ve slept in a cornfield. Most of the mothers look like they are 15 years old and will drop everything and lift up their blouse to breastfeed when their babies start crying. Sometimes they let their infants crawl around on the dirty floor and I’ll occasionally be working when I feel a tug on my leg.

I boot up my laptop and inevitably have to re-start the wireless internet router which dangles precariously from a loose nail high on the wall. I’ll then make some manzanillo tea from the tea and coffee station outside the Director’s office. Since I typically leave by early afternoon each day, Jenny or Paula usually come by to tell me what I’ve missed the previous afternoon. My main project is to budget a large conference for weavers that the CTTC wants to host. Everything they want to plan is in a large spreadsheet on my laptop, and every time there is a change of plan, I have to make sure that it is reflected in the budget.

By mid-morning, I’ve done a little work and had a 5-10 minute chat with most of my co-workers and I go outside and walk around the corner to the bakery and buy a dozen warm onion rolls, fresh from the oven. I’ll lay them out in the communal area and they will quickly disappear.

Much of my work is impromptu projects that require financial analysis. Jenny will often come by with a request, like “Senor Jason, we have to ask for money and the foundation wants financial statements. Can you do this?” or “We need an insurance policy for our antique textile collection, but we have no idea how much it should be…can you help us?” The combination of my budgeting work for the weavers’ conference and requests like these always keep me busy.

By one or two O’clock my day is done and pack up my laptop, say my “hasta luegos” and start walking home to my apartment. Typically I will pick up some bread at the bakery or some causa (a delicious savory, potato pie filled with chicken and avocado) at a deli around the corner. As I walk into our apartment for our late lunch, Patty is wrapping up Spanish class with the kids. So goes another working day for a volunteer in Cusco.

Swim Meet in Cusco? Bring Your Lawyer

The time had finally come. Our kids had dutifully practiced for months without a competitive swim meet and now was their chance. The Campeonato de Natacion, the annual city-wide swim championships, was taking place in Cusco and our kids were ready.

For a while, it seemed like we’d never have a swim meet. In the first few months coach Cristian rattled off a list of swim meets that the kids would be in – Quillabamba, Arequipa, Pisac – but we later realized that without enrollment in the collegio school system, they could not participate. The first swim meet the kids could swim in was the Transandina Youth Games, the international games for the Andean countries of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile that happen once a year. We had timed our arrival in Cusco to make sure that the kids had a chance to qualify, but the day after the qualifying trials, we were told that the meet was postponed because of Dengue Fever. Six weeks went by and Cristian told us about an upcoming meet in Arequipa and we eagerly made preparations to attend. After making our hotel reservations and only a few days prior to the event, Cristian told us that the meet had been canceled due to concerns over the Swine Flu.

We put all this behind us and enjoyed a long Saturday of swimming at the Piscina Municipal de Wanchaq. Our kids are competitive swimmers so we expected them to do well, but we were here for the sense of community and the chance to meet other parents and improve our Spanish. My son won his 100 meter breast stroke race by half a pool length and received his gold medal on the medal stand while local newspaper photographers took his picture with the silver and bronze medalists. By the end of the day, both kids would earn 3 gold medals each and thoroughly enjoy the day.

Everything went smoothly but there was one incident in the late afternoon that caused a small delay to the proceedings. Two twin girls who also happened to be on my daughter’s basketball team were competing and one was involved in a small controversy. The parents of the twins were both lawyers who were very genial and financially well off by Peruvian standards. The father greeted and bantered with the mayor as he entered and settled into a chair, using his video camera to capture his girls’ successes. After one of the races, in which one of the twins narrowly missed a bronze medal, there was a long discussion between her father, the meet chairman and the mayor, all of whom were studying a playback on the father’s video recorder. While they were talking, the first three finishers stood on the medal stand and received their prizes.

After the awards were given and another 10 minutes of studying the video camera, an announcement was made that his daughter, who originally came in fourth place, was now the third place finisher and they had a separate medal ceremony for her to receive her bronze medal. Apparently, the father had used his video camera to disqualify one of the top three finishers and get his daughter a medal.

Despite this awkward display of favoritism, the meet went very well and it was a long and enjoyable day. We had thought about altering our schedule to have the kids complete in the rescheduled Transandina Games in Argentina, but we were concerned that it might again be cancelled. We considered going but in the end we opted not to and this was a good decision: it was canceled.

Surf's Up! Sandboarding At The Huacachina Oasis

We arrived in the unattractive town of Ica after a long, hot bus ride along the Pan American highway from Nazca. We planned to completely bypass the town of Ica and take a taxi five kilometers southwest to Huacachina, a picturesque oasis dotted with palm trees and surrounded by huge sand dunes, some of which get to 700 feet in height. As we drove to Huacachina, the hot, dusty commercial landscape of Ica gradually gave way to the sand dunes that lie outside the city. Our plan was to enjoy the oasis, then take a dune buggy tour of the sand dunes and do some sandboarding the next day.

The next morning we organized a tour and got started before the weather became unbearably hot. After cresting a tall dune, we stood above the village of Huacachina and saw nothing but white sand for miles and miles. Peru’s biodiverse terrain never ceased to amaze us: Amazon jungle, Andes mountains, Pacific Ocean coastline and arid desert. We were about 200 miles south of Lima and 30 miles from the ocean but felt like we were in the middle of the Sahara desert. About a hundred miles to the south stood Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, some 6,561 feet above sea level.

Huacachina was interesting for its physical geography and contrast to the nearby commercial and agricultural center of Ica, but it was also a little strange. The lagoon in the center of the village was a murky dark green color and smelled a little putrid. I’d heard that many residents had installed wells and the resulting low water level of the lagoon had to be offset by bringing in water from elsewhere. The two days we were there many of the businesses were closed and the entire town was geared towards tourism. It was an odd mix of Peruvian weekenders sitting around a smelly lagoon and backpackers wielding sand boards.

Riding the dune buggy was a blast. Ours was a brand new buggy with a red chassis and bright yellow bars encircling the riders. We sat in protective seats that resembled portable infant car seats with multiple straps that attach in front of the chest. The yellow bars surrounding much of the vehicle made the dune buggy look like a big yellow, egg-shaped cage on wheels. We zipped up and down the dunes and our kids squealed with delight. Our driver climbed up one of the taller dunes, rested for a moment to admire the view then plunged straight down the other side, causing us to tighten our stomachs and hold our collective breath.

The sandboarding was not as fun as riding the dune buggy. Our driver gave us a quick introduction by telling us to lie face down on the board and slide down a dune. After a couple times doing this we tried it standing up with mixed results. Although our driver repeatedly waxed our boards, we just couldn’t get enough speed to make it interesting. In response, we tried shorter, steeper dunes but that ended with us falling over into the sand. After a pound or two of sand in my clothes, I retreated to the dune buggy and watched my son and daughter battle the dunes. They gamely tried more boarding but after about a half hour we were all done. We scooted back to Huacachina and after getting all the sand out of our clothes, took a taxi back to Ica and caught our bus to Lima.