Sunday, May 30, 2004

We have bombarded this blog lately and Jacob´s previous entry sums up very well how we have been feeling about Bolivia, but I just had to add a little more. Just to warn, this is another email that is probably not going to feel very nice.

Bolivia was a really hard place for me. I always felt safe but I also felt a lot of anger brewing there. You see manifestations of this anger everyday in the streets filled with protest and the blocaded roads. And when I say people I mean the overwhelming majority of poor people, not the seemingly oblivious group of extremely wealthy folks who are in every city with their SUVs and gated apartment buildings which might as well be on the moon for how isolated they are. I don't know how Bolivians deal with the internal contradictions of their own country not to mention the external exploitation. Or I guess I do know how they deal, they are pissed and I think there is a real possiblity of some serious violence in July given the gas refrendum.

I felt sick many days thinking about this magnitude of global exploitation, how a nation with some of the richest resources is the poorest in S. America, but I also got worn out by what I began to call "death wish" looks from women and the feeling of impossibility to ever really communicate with anyone because the chasm between "us and them" felt enormous and no one appeared to want to engage when I tried. That sounds pretty whiny and I don't want to "blame" the people for not being more pleasant because it is coming from some real hardship but it made traveling in Bolvia an exhausting, important lesson for me. Many times I felt that the small isolated rich in Bolivia were a metaphor for how we live our lives in the US compared to the rest of the world (and often times with each other as well).

I just want to mention two things that really got to me. The first was a scene in La Paz. A crowd of people gathered around newspaper articles taped to an office window. Graphic pictures of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. If these pictures were in the paper everyday in Bolivia, they have to be seen by similar crowds in every country in the world. This incriminating message is now worldwide. These pictures made me want to hurl. It made my skin crawl reading in Spanish, in Bolivia, about the horrible things those prisoners were made to do under torture. This is the image Bolivians have in their minds of the US military and values.

The second thing was in a small village while we were traveling through Uyuni. We stopped the first night at a very basic hospedaje run by a family. It was freezing, and like everywhere in Bolivia there is no heat. I wondered many times how people live with this kind of chill for four months. It has got to be extremely stressful, even if you are used to it. In the morning we were eating breakfast in the kitchen. We started hearing a sound that didn't seem human, like a dog throwing up or something, but it was actually the little girl in the house, layed over a chair with "the cough" as they call it. Extremely ill. I felt awful, my social worker self wanted to refer her to a doctor but knew that out there there isn't one. And then I had this really powerful desire that I WAS a doctor just to do something. We saw so many sick kids with "the cough". On our seven hour bus ride to Potosi there was a woman taking her baby to the hospital, the baby was totally unresponsive to his mother and looked like he wasn't going to make it. Every year many people freeze to death or die from the cold in Bolivia.

This is the country right now that has riches in natural gas. Isn't that how we get heat? They already export the gas to Brazil and Brazilians pay a lower price for it than Bolivians. The largest gas reserve in Bolivia is operated 60% by a Brazilian company and 20% by Total. They were suppossed to be paying a 50% tax to the state, but the government under President Gonzalo (who was forced out by the poeple last October and fled to the US) "re-zoned" the reserve in such a way that considered it new although it had been operating for years and allowed them to only pay 18% in tax. I don't understand the motivation a government would have for selling themselves out like that except for international pressure and maybe personal greed.

It is estimated that if they export the gas to the US, we will exhaust their supply in less than twenty years. I wonder if it is really worth it for them or us? What I gather is that most poor Bolivians fear that they will sell all their gas and then turn around and have to buy it for a high price from the very people they sold it to. This has happened over and over again in history. Right now Bolivia doesn't seem to have the resources to extract the gas themselves. It appears that they need international investment. This is the problem. I wonder how much it would really take to create an infrastructure where Bolivians could have fair access to their own gas? Maybe there is more under the surface here than I can see, I can just begin to imagine the pressures and details that happen behind government doors, but from where I sit it seems pretty straight forward.

We arrived to Argentina yesterday, again I am amazed the difference a line across the sand can make. I felt relieved and I felt guilty and I still felt a little sad to leave Bolivia. I think it was a very important place for us to visit and think about why it was such a hard place for us, I don't think it was because of the poverty. I think it was the incredible sense of a place that has been screwed so royally and the keen look in everyone's eyes that they know it and feel it and we couldn't escape that reality even as a traveler.

Comments-[ comments.]

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Continuing from where I left off in yesterday's post....

As beautiful as this country is, there is a lot of pain here and it is evident. Everyday we read in The Prensa, the biggest daily in the country, articles about the upcoming referendum to export gas (to the US via either Chile or Argentina). It seems the people distrust the presidents proposal to raise needed cash by exporting gas, not because of the proposals' specifics, but becuase such policies have failed the citizens time and time again. The only day the referendum did not capture the headlines was on the day the headlines anounced that the price of bread may increase.

Within the paper each day there is a full page, USA Today-style graphic with a map of the country showing the protests taking place in various cities. Road blockades are signified with black stars and the mines which have been taken over by the miners with hollow stars. One headline announced that 80% of the goverments' time is used setling such strikes, protests, and disputes.

Despite all of the turmoil we do feel safe, but we also feel guilty. When we read that 88% of the profits from the exportation of gas will go to multinational corporations I realize that the spoils of Bolivian weath falls first into American hands, and only that which slips through our fingers into Bolivian mouths. It is interesting to note that Che´Guavara seems to have retained the most popularity in this South American nation

Yesterday we were in the Plaza 25th del Mayo watching the festivities. I was reading a posterboard of articles against the referendum (and our president) with the referendums' author, Bolivias' President, waiving across the street from the building where South Americas' independance movement began. The bell first rang in Bolivia though they were the last to achieve independance. Bolivia was the biggest prize for the Spaniards and they held their grip harder and longer here. The bell seems to be ringing again with protests and transportation strikes pegged to paralise the country in the lead-up to next months' referendum. The impoverished residents of El Alto are decending on the city of La Paz. The cries of "energy crisis" coming from our country may convince Bolivias' predident, but they do not persuade this croud.

The march around the square included marching bands (playing "when the saints go marching in") featuring baton-waving girls in skirts that fell no lower than 1ft above the knee, followed by cigarette-smoking generals in full regalia, followed by wrinkled-faced women wearing hats, skirts, aprons and big bundles on their backs. This last group was an organization for the elderly, but there were no men. It is likely that they perished in the mines of the city where we now are, Potosi. It is increasingly evident that this country's poverty is directly connected to its natural wealth.

Somehow, but I have yet to figure out how, the imported cars from Japan, where the peddles and steering wheel have been improvised on the opposite side as the spedometer, gas gauge, and clock is a perfect metaphor for Bolivia.

How can this country be, as som many travelers have told us, the best place to be in South America? Are they immune to the ancient women in the streets bearing their gray braids to hold out their hat for the 5-10 cents I may spare? Or the 8 year old boys who follow me, begging me for the opportunity to shine my leather shoes when I forget to wear my hiking boots? Can they speak enough Spanish to hear the peoples' anger and frustration towards their situation? Their president? Our president? Do they see the beautiful architecture and not those who sift through the trash? They certainly, as we do, admire the majestic landscapes and the crafts they can take from the country so cheaply. But when they consume their cheap liquor, "safe salads" and perfectly-done steaks, do they notice the man in the plaza who cannot afford the $3 antibiotics the doctors require him to buy before they will amputate his infected finger, the miners who are 40 but look 70, or the young boys waiting outside the resteraunt with the cheap liquor. "safe salads", and perfectly-done steaks?

We have spent the last few days with a German couple, and as is odd but true, they are more poetic and eloquent in our language that we are. I can only conclude that those aforementioned travelers with unconditional love for Bolivia are, as the Germans put it: running after highlights. These travelers do not, and cannot see as I see. They described Potosi, once the richest and now one of the poorest cities in the world (and the city where I write this) as: beautiful but hard. I can extend this statement to all of Bolivia. It contains the most beautiful cities and the most impressive landscapes I have ever seen. But if you see as I do, it is hard indeed.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Don't miss Raegan's last post on our Salar de Uyuni jeep trip. And if you are having difficulty imagining the surreal landscapes that she described, here are some pictures from our time up until now in Bolivia. Also, although many of these pictures are of strangers, you can see more of our ride on the most dangerous road in the world here (the password is photos). I'll let the fact that we rode down about 12,000 vertical feet and the pictures tell the story.

Raegan and I are currently in Sucre, Bolivia and it is the cleanest and most beautiful city we've visited thus far in South America. We are just as surprised by this as you likely are, but it is indicative of our time in Bolivia. This country is full of contrasts and contradictions: beautiful colonial cities and mud huts with thatched roofs; men in 3-piece suits with cell phones and women in andean dress with 50lb bundles of grain on their backs. Bolivia is the richest country in South America in mineral and natural wealth, but...... This is, perhaps, its curse.

La Paz, as well, was not at all what we expected of the capital city of the poorest country in South America. La Paz is beautifully situated at the base of a canyon -- thus sheltered from the harsh winds of the altiplano -- and surrounded by 20,000ft+ peaks on all sides. At the lower parts of the city the well-manicured gardens, tree-lined streets, and glass apartment buildings can trick you into thinking that you were in a posh part of Denver. It was in such parts that we enjoyed the best coffee we'd had in months. Higher up in the city, however, the buildings are in a lesser and lesser state of repair. It was in these parts where we visited the stands of witch doctors and bought charms to ensure our continuing relationship (but remained untempted by the llama fetuses). Yet, even these parts of the city are no worse (in apearance) than parts of Santiago, and their residents are certainly better-off than those in the slums outside of Mexico City, Guatemala City, and Tijuana. Though Raegan and I only experieced it in passing on the bus, the same seems to apply for the even more impoverished residents of the fastest growing city in South America: El Alto -- still exposed to the altiplano winds, perched on the rim of the canyon where La Paz sits.

In La Paz we watched what I consider to be an Oscar-worthy performance by Snoop Doggy Dog, as Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch after eating in a fake In-N-Out burger next to a real Burger King. We passed men in suits with newspapers in their laps and cell phones to their ear looking at ghastly pictures of Iraqi prison abuses; boys wearing ski-masks covering their faces (?) shining their shoes. Women with cell phones sold calls on the corners. Traffic-cops posted on medians, wearing military-green uniforms, changed the citys' stoplights by playing with its wires. Everyday brought one mellow protest or another and armed military men guarded Bolivias' Capital every night.

Also in La Paz we saw the movie Troy and had the some of the best meals we've had thus far in South America. It is in Bolivia that we can easily afford creature comforts and can easily see and feel the seperation between us and them.

We are really enjoying our time here, but are confused by the reports of so many travelers we've met who have named Bolivia as their favorite in South America.

I have a ton more to say on these matters, but will leave you hanging until tomorrow.

Comments-[ comments.]

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Salar de Uyuni

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Salar de Uyuni trip, it is a four day jeep ride through some extremely fascinating, bizarre, and gorgeous scenery in the Southwest corner of Bolivia. The trip includes one full day driving across the actual Salar, an enormous salt flat that blinds with endless flat whiteness, making it hard to tell where land and sky end. For the past four months travelers have been telling us it was one of their highlights, so we had been looking forward to the trip for a long time, and it didn't disappoint, it was fantastic.

The way the trip is done, is you find a tour company who sets you up with a jeep, driver, food and knowledge of the way. For us, we thought this was great, no tour guide taking up time with long explanations, just someone to steer the jeep and make things run smoothly. We were lucky in that we had a great group, eight in total: two Germans, one Brit, one Scot and two Israelis, plus us. We got along amazingly considering the fact that we were stuffed in one jeep all day and sleeping in the same room at night.

We started out the trip from the small town of Uyuni, freezing cold at 3750 meters altitude. This was a pattern for the rest of the trip as we just kept climbing, eventually reaching about 5000 meters. At night we would all huddle together with hats, gloves, and blankets on, playing cards and drinking rum to keep warm in the modest accommodations until the electricity cut out at 9pm. I was astonished by the small pueblos we passed along the way, people somehow surviving in that stark freezing climate, no heat, barely any vegetation; we could only guess what they were living on.

We spent the first three days basically crossing a very high desert with an eerie Dali-esque landscape. The "desert" was dotted with lots of active and in-active volcanoes, often streaked by red, yellow and white colors from sulfur and other minerals. We would pass clusters of jutting rock formations and then spend two more hours just driving on flat sand. We drove by one large Borax deposit that looked like a white crusty field. The colors of the drive where most impressive to me, red sand dunes dotted with bright yellow grass and limes streaks.

We also saw amazing lakes. Shallow, half frozen water that reflected the mountains like a mirror and in two cases were colored pink from algae or bright turquoise from mineral deposits. The most amazing thing about these lakes where the populations of flamingos living and feeding on them. I always thought flamingos were a tropical bird, but there they were tiptoeing across the ice. They made the whole landscape that much more fascinating and colorful. We also saw lots of vicuña, a graceful animal from the llama family that looks like horn-less deer.

The third night we stayed in a hotel made entirely from salt, very warm and luxurious feeling after our two previous frigid nights. The fourth day we spent motoring across the Salar. The sound of the jeeps driving across was like an airplane landing. In the summer months the Salar is covered by a layer of water and our driver told us it is easy to get lost because land and sky blend together completely. For us, in the winter, what we saw was blinding whiteness as far as the eye could see. I feel like it is accurate to say we basically drove across an ocean, an ancient ocean, that is now covered by a salt crust but rivers still flow underneath. The pressure from the water forces raised lines to crack the surface making octagonal shapes. We stopped halfway at the Isla del Pescado, Fish Island, a mound of land covered by huge cacti, a literal island in the middle of the salt.

We took tons of pictures that should be up soon! If any of you ever travel to Bolivia you can not miss this!

Comments-[ comments.]

Saturday, May 15, 2004

We've been in Bolivia for over a week now and there's much to report. Here is a synopsis of our first 24 hours in the country. Soon you'll get a little about La Paz and our time on the most dangerous road in the world.

First Impressions:

Rather than taking a direct bus across the border we decided to do it the real travelers way. We haggled successfully for a 2 sole (66 cent) taxi ride to where the buses leaving for Yunguyo line up. When we arrived at the "station" we were swept quickly onto the next bus for the three hour ride down the shore of Lake Titikaka towards the border. The ride was beautiful. While we cruised by the deep blue lake we passed dozens of small villages whose inhabitants made their living from the lakes reeds and fish -- The reeds for boats and miniature touristy versions, and the fish, well, for eating. We arrived in Yunguyo with sore knees (but I'm used to that by now) and haggled again for a bicycle taxi to the border. The ride was a little longer and steeper than we had thought, but we hadn't taken a bicycle taxi yet so it was all part of the adventure.

Our driver, rather peddler, was very nice so that when the incline (and altitude) became too extreme, we got out and walked while he peddled our bags alongside. We talked politics, of course. He gave us a little more detail on the recent road blockades and his opinion on their affects on locals, tourists and the country as a whole -- bad. He also gave us a little more insight into the recent (civil war-style) lynching of a "corrupt mayor" in one of the picturesque villages we had passed earlier in the day (and also the general strike planned for Peru in June. Sorry and good luck to those planning on going then).

When we arrived at the border he sat down for some water and a breather and we headed off to change money and cross the border. I caught the money changer trying to short me out of a little over a dollar. I thought to myself: man your sharp, Jacob... they can't get a trick like that by you. Bolivianos in hand, we waited in line at the border behind some folks on tour taking a direct bus across, and I have to admitt, I felt a little superior. Once across there was a van waiting to take us to Copacabana for about 30 cents each. Man that was easy, we've got this traveling thing all figured out. No need to be hand-held or baby sat.

We checked into a nicer hotel -- it cost $5 a night -- and set out for a $1 three-course trout lunch and our first taste of Bolivian beer. Not bad. We read and rested for a while, and when we left, the hotel receptionist told us that the front door locked at 10:30 sharp. With our curfew set, we headed out to watch the thunderstorms in the distance and the sun setting over the ocean, rather, lake. We also watched a soccer game between women in full andiean attire: flowing skirts, aprons, and the now familiar hats. We splurged for dinner, as we often do in a new country, city, or any other excuse that will do. I had trout stuffed with bacon, spinach and herbs, and Raegan had the fettuchini with wild mushrooms. We sampled a bottle of Bolivian wine which was not as bad as we'd been warned it was. By the time we paid our tab and tip which came to under $10 -- bolivia is cheap -- the resteraunt had cleared out. We figured the town bedded down early, as beds are the only warm place in town after sundown.

I had a whisky at the bar next door to warm me up. Raegan had a drink mixed with rum, red wine, and lemon which wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds. Then another. It was only 9:35 by the time we decided to head to the warmth of our bed. When we arrived at our hotel the gate was already locked. What the...? We knocked and were let in, thankfully.

We set the alarm for a little after 7 to catch the next mornings 8:30 boat for a few days on the Island of the Sun, the site of the Incas most famous creation myth. When we came down for breakfast after a snooze or two, the receptionist warned us that the boat had already left. I knew that he couldn't be right. I had read about the 8:30 boat in my book, and on a schedule at the dock the night before. Seeing that our watch read 8:10, we hurridly ate our breakfast in 10 minutes, exchanged a few dollars, bought some provisions, and headed to the dock. "The boat left at 8:30" the ticket-seller said. But it's only 8:25 you freako, can't Bolivians keep time (I thought to myself). He explained the difference between the way Bolivians and Peruvuians keep time: one hour.

Feeling foolish, we sat in the morning sun, on the dock of the (lake), watching the time go by. We read our books, ate our rations of Pringles, considered whether Don Rumsfeild still had a job, waited for the 1:00 boat to the island until 12:30, when we took a bus to La Paz.

Comments-[ comments.]

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Do we have a treat for you blog readers! Below are two guest blog entries from my parents about their time in Peru. Someone's voice other than ours! I put them below one after the other so it is pretty long but a great read. My Mom´s is first and then Dad's. Thanks Mom and Dad, it´s great to read you reflections and you both say such nice things!

Raegan and Jacob invited us (us being Raegan´s parents, Pam and Brad Joern) to write on their blog site. We decided not to read each other´s reports ahead, so weגre probably tumbling all over each other. Still, here´s my stab at it:

Three Encounters that Caused Me to Think about Life as I Know It

Consider the Incas: We saw a lot of Incan ruins. The two most striking sights, ”the famous Machu Picchu and the lesser known Sacsayhuaman which is high on a hill above Cusco” are as other worldy as the best fantasy fiction. The Incas were brilliant architects and engineers. No one knows how they managed to build these enormous structures of quarried stones (single stones taller than Jacob standing and wider than Jacob lying down!) intricately fitted together without mortar. Some stones had 12 or 20 or 32 different angles. At Sacsayhuaman, there are three zig-zagged walls, each as long as two football fields, one nested inside another. More like cliffs than walls, they stretch 20 to 30 feet high. At each angle of the zig and zag, the stones are carved around the curves so there is no joint on the inner or outer corners. All this without steel or iron tools, without carts or horses or oxen, without roads, and ”here´s the real kicker” over mountains.

While the physical feat was stupendous, Brad and I were struck with the enormity of the vision. Who would imagine building a city on a mountain, floating in the sky? Who would conjure zig-zag walls, a gigantic artistic rendering of the sacred puma´s teeth?

We learned that the Incas sacrificed humans, prepubescent girls, chosen for their long eyelashes and white teeth. The priest removed and studied the heart, and if it did not seem to be a sufficient sacrifice, another followed. This sounds barbaric to our modern ears, but apparently to be sacrificed was a great honor and there was much competition to be chosen.

Enter the Spaniards, who worshipped a Christian god, predicated on the interpretation of Jesus´s death as sacrifice, an idea not so far removed from the Incas since both believed in gods or a god who required appeasement. Inspired by their assumed superiority, the Spaniards betrayed, murdered, and enslaved the Incas. We toured a cathedral in Lima where Pizarro´s body lies in a room decorated with elaborate mosaic tile. I asked our Peruvian English-speaking guide how the people feel about Pizarro, the conqueror, and she said, "we don´t like him." Yet, in a side chapel, there is a statue of one of the earliest Catholic bishops, also a Spaniard, who was much beloved because he helped the poor, brought medicine and education.

Most of you do not know that I am a student of religion. As always, I was struck by the ambiguous role of religion in human societies. On the one hand, inspiring beauty, nobility, and compassion. On the other, shoring up conquest, validating cultural jingoism, even excusing murder. Both potentials are present, among Incas and Spaniards, and of course, within our current world.

In Lima we spent a day with a Peruvian family. Jesus Alpaca, 18 and studying to be a lawyer, told us that he thinks Bush is engaged in a holy war against the Muslims. He can make no other sense of our invasion of Iraq.

I hope that we, as a nation, will think and rethink and think again about what we are doing in the world in the name of religion, whether the religion is one of ancient tradition or secular Americanism.

Consider the shopkeepers and sellers of tourist goods: On our last day in Cusco, Brad and I went to a shop that sold art. Raegan and Jacob had purchased four small oil paintings two days prior for 70 soles, about $20.00. The paintings were taped to a board leaned against a desk, and while we bent over to peruse the collection, the shopkeeper quoted us his price: 85 soles for one painting. In halting Spanish, I managed to convey to the shopkeeper that our daughter had purchased 4 for 70, only two days earlier. He looked up the transaction in a black notebook. "Ah, from California," he said. "For you, 3 for 70."

The bargaining of Peruvian shopping is not comfortable for a U.S. novice. It´s hard not to feel ripped off if you don´t make a good deal. In fact, you have no idea what a good deal is! At home, we might find cheaper prices for the same goods in a different store, but we´re not used to the goods in one shop being priced differently per customer. Yet, when I stop to think about it, why shouldn´t the shopkeeper size people up according to their ability to pay? I teach writing at a place that offers a sliding fee, people with less income pay less for classes, and that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Peru is struggling to develop its tourism industry. The goods we wanted to purchase are made for tourists, cheap by our standards, but priced higher, no doubt, than what a Peruvian would pay. But bargaining is part of the culture, and we wanted to enter into it. It´s a way of establishing relationship. So, we told this shopkeeper we´d pay 70 soles for four small paintings. He agreed. And after he wrapped the paintings and took our money, he offered us a handshake with a big grin on his face. "Good business," he said, in perfect English.

Consider women and womens arts: We were homeless the day we spent in Ollaytantambo. We arrived on a bus in the morning, stowed our bags in a nearby hostel, toured the ruins, and under a threatening sky, hunkered down in the town square to wait a few hours before taking a train to Aguas Calientes, where the next morning Brad and I would get up at 5:00 to catch a bus to Machu Picchu. Bored, Brad and Jacob wandered down the road to watch a soccer game. Raegan had asked me to teach her how to knit so she´d have something to occupy long hours on buses. We pulled out the needles and yarn and were immediately surrounded by women, children, even a couple men. One woman, named Sylvia, took over the teaching. She had tourist wares draped over both arms--small bags, water bottle pouches--her dark hair tied back from a handsome face. Raegan good naturedly allowed herself to be the brunt of much joking while her fingers awkwardly tried to duplicate Sylvia's rapid demonstrations. I was happy to sit back and watch. I´m not much of a knitter, and the women of Peru are experts at knitting and weaving. Raegan promised to send Sylvia her finished scarf, we took a lot of pictures, shook hands all around. It was a sweet, sweet moment and a reminder that women everywhere have much the same concerns: they love their children, they try to get by, they eat and sleep, they love beauty and sometimes, if they are lucky or gifted or taught, they learn to make beauty with their hands. They crave laughter and connection. They want respect and appreciation for what they do well.

Before leaving Cusco, we went to a weaver´s collective and bought a piece made by a woman who is trained in the ancient Incan art, ”gorgeous, complex, all the dyes from nature. I wanted a piece of this historical textile (who knows if I will ever get back to Peru). Still, it´s Sylvia I will remember, standing in a square on a cold afternoon, laughing, her hands dancing, teaching my daughter to knit.

I realize I´ve left out the sensory impact of Peru: Inca terraces carved high on mountainsides; red tile rooftops; roosters crowing at 4 a.m.; women dressed in layered skirts and deep crowned hats; the banana bubble gum taste of Inca Cola; bicycle carts rolling past our window at 5:00 a.m. to set up for the Pisac market; mountains green all the way to the top; bags of red chili powder and yellow curry; a row of pig´s heads at the meat market where they all seemed to be smiling; blue plastic awnings stretched over stalls of multi-colored blankets and shawls and rugs; cobbled streets with steep staircases; and one elderly woman, one of the few beggars on the street, who swatted me with her hat each time we walked by.

Finally, if any of you are considering visiting Raegan and Jacob while they are on this adventure, we can tell you that they are excellent travel companions. They know what they are doing, they´re patient and gracious. They make friends everywhere, they both speak fluently and can translate any menu. We never felt anything but glad to be part of their world. We miss them terribly, of course, but it made us feel good to see them doing well, sharing this dream they have realized together.

Keep reading...here are my Dad´s thoughts...

Fresh home from Peru, I thought it might be best to log a few thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind. Pam and I had the pleasure of joining Raegan and Jacob for nearly two weeks in Peru. Our time was spent in Cusco and in Peru’s sacred valley, which includes Machu Picchu. Many images have stayed with me, but I thought I would say a few words about the children that I saw.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t really know much about Peruvian culture, so some of the following might simply be crap. It is certainly filtered by my gringo perspective, and my limited observations during our stay.

My first observation is that there appears to be a difference between city kids and country kids. Kids who live in Cusco seemed very serious, or maybe just not very happy relative to those who live in the small towns of the sacred valley. In our seven days in Cusco, I think I saw kids playing together only once outside of school hours. Many of the kids we saw in Cusco were working on the streets, selling wares—postcards, paintings, finger puppets, chocolate, shoe shines. (I simply could not understand why the kids thought my grubby tennis shoes needed to be polished.) We are talking about 5 to 10 year olds here folks—working instead of going to school. We went into an internet “cafי” one day that had about 10 computers for “rent”. It was run by a boy who looked about 10. And why are children working? Because, school is either too expensive for their families to afford, or the family needs all the wage earners it can get in order to survive. Pretty sad. We also saw kids in Cusco garbed in various sorts of uniforms: private school attendees. The girls were dressed a lot like the kids one would see on their way to parochial school in the US. Matching skirt, socks, and sweater with a white blouse. I saw a few boys (ages 10-12) dressed in uniforms as well. Some were dressed in military khaki and ties—like army officers. Others were in black pants, white shirt, camel sport coat, black tie, and briefcase. These boys seemed pretty serious.

Once we got into the country, the number of “nina/nino marketers” decreased. A few still wanted to sell us stuff, but the more frequent case was like cute Sonia (7) and her tag-along cousin Hernando (4?) who approached Pam and me in the Ollentaytambo plaza. They saw us sitting on a bench, ran up to us, said hola with a big smile, and promptly sat down beside us. I kept thinking “when are the postcards going to come out?”. It never happened. They just sat next to us and smiled. We each tried to have a halting conversation with a foreigner. It was such a relief. Or our encounter with Jaime (12) on our way up a steep hill to view the ancient salt mines outside of Urubamba. Raegan. Pam and I were about half way up this hill when we heard a voice yelling from the bottom. We stopped to determine the source of the yelling, and saw a young boy RUNNING up the hill (pant, pant) to meet us. Jaime was very friendly, and gave us a history of the salt mines. The country kids still work, either in the fields, helping the family get ready for market, helping in the market, or tearing the market down at the end of the day. But afterward, they laugh and play soccer in the plaza until it is too dark to see.

In Lima, Pam and I met the teenage children of a relative of a man that I work with in Minneapolis. Maria (16) and Jesus (18) are both bright, energetic, hard working young adults. They have had the privilege of attending school, and have not wasted that privilege. They speak quite good English and hope to become an architect (Maria) and a lawyer (Jesus). We had a good conversation with Jesus about politics. I suggested maybe he should run for president of Peru one day. He smiled at that suggestion. The problem in Peru is not a lack of ambition, but a lack of opportunity. Most of us in this country are very fortunate in that we are able to send our children to school.

Finally, I want to say just a few words about two incredible children that Pam and I met in Peru. I am talking, of course, about Raegan and Jacob, who were true friends and companions on our travels through the land of the Inca. We had a great time with and because of them, and appreciate their willingness to take us on for two weeks. For any of you who are wondering, how they are “really doing”, fear not. They are healthy in body, mind, and spirit. They work well together. They are committed to learning and doing good in the world. When they open their mouths and speak Spanish to the locals, eyes light up.


Brad Joern

Comments-[ comments.]

Monday, May 10, 2004

Hola Blog Readers! Well, we are in country four Bolivia!! We will write much more about this interesting place but first I wanted to say some last comments about that wonderful country, Peru. Actually, these will not be the last words on the subject because my parents have agreed to write some guest entries for your enjoyment about their impressions and our time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Also, stay tuned for a new way to see our photos on the left margin of the page.

Okay, so we spent five weeks in Peru, during which we stayed put mostly in the area of Arequipa and Cusco, so my impressions are limited by time and area but I wanted to write a general entry about what I saw and learned there:

Peru is about corn (in multiple colors), potatoes (in hundreds of varieties), beans, barley and coca. It is cows, burros, pigs, chickens and cuy (guinea pig). There is a wide spectrum of culture and appears to be grand differences between city and country. We rode one especially cramped combi that had it all: four tourists (us), two businessmen who looked like they worked in a bank, a man dressed head to toe in traditional fabric eating puffed corn, a family of five that "looked like they were from Chicago" (my mother noted), two young obreros or workers jammed in the front seat and an older woman wearing her thick skirts with long braids and her goods wrapped in a colorful blanket, towing along a little granddaughter with the signature "burnt cheeks" (from sun or malnutrition?) and speaking only Quechua.

In the country the farmers can't make enough money from their crops at the market so they farm to eat. The old Incan ideal of communal work still exists (there is a special Quehua word for it I can't remember) and families from the villages help one another harvest the corn, potatoes, coca, barley and beans. People work together in the fields with hand tools, the woman wearing big skirts and fancy hats at all times. The houses are made of mud bricks with straw roofs and dirt floors. The kitchen is home to cuy and chickens and a clay stove. The children in the towns are inquisitive and friendly and try out their English with passing tourists. It is common for families to send their children to the city to study, a woman we met in Ollantaytambo who couldn't have been more than 35 had three children already sent to Lima to work and study.

The cities seem pressured and busy and harsh. There are lawyers and doctors and teachers but work is scarce and pay is bad. Many people complained to us that prices and people couldn't be trusted and doing business was impossibly difficult. The Incan ideal of communal work has died in the city. One friend we met told us: " En Peru somos guerreros" he said. (We are warriors, or fighters). Given the all that I still really liked the cities with their crowded lunch spots, markets, businessmen on the street selling typed letters, Jenga games, can openers, etc. The people are "guerreros" but they are also playful and smile and it was easy to talk to them, making friends for the day or the hour.

In Peru the children work. In the cities as young as four they sell chocolate, post cards, shoe shines and photos of themselves in over-the-top costumes to tourists. In the country they heard the cows in from the fields at night with a stick. In the country they play after dark when work is done, they play massive games of futbol in the main plaza. I made friends with lots of city and country kids and the ones in the country seemed generally happier, just as hungry possibly, but their work seemed less demeaning and they had more space to play.

The buses: these vehicles that take passengers crammed in every possible space through cities and towns and beautiful country with colorful terraces high up on the mountains. Green mountains. There are constantly women jumping on selling anything they can manage to gather announcing their wares in a special nasal voice used for peddaling: corn with cheese, orange cake, lamb asado, popcorn, papaya juice, peach juice, gelatina, empanadas, pan con queso, etc. etc.

There is little confidence in government but a lot of interest in the political process. We met no one who approves of current President Toledo, feeling like he is inexperienced and has done nothing for them. They romanticize the time of Fujimori, the past dictator who has since fled to Japan. He is credited for ridding Peru of the Shining Path, a Maoist terrorist group that killed thousands in the eighties and nineties. But our guide on the Inca Trail reminded us that people have short memories and Fujimori robbed from the people. When a new goverment is elected all the public employees in the country are replaced. Like a lot of South America public business is being sold to foreign private interests. People we spoke with are frustrated with a lack of consistency and stability. Everyone has a relative or friend in the United States but they are "not sure where".

And finally, I am not sure how to end this, but Peru had amazing colors. Ten different squares of green on old Incan terraces could cover the mountain side. The bright colors of the women's skirts and the blankets they used to wrap babies on their backs. Mud bricks. Orange roofs in Cusco. Dark long braids. Oranges, melon, papaya and pinneaple. Flourescent green coca tea. And a brillant blue sky over green green mountains or a deep misty canyon.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

In the last episode you left the gringos in the porters' village, full from four meals of corn and potato soup, and about to party.....

Out comes the harp and the fire water. There was no chicha, or corn beer, so we had to settle for corn booze. The interviews soon stretched into conversations about who was single, and more questions about our respective homes. The award for most interesting question was: "what kind of tools do you use to harvest crops in the United States." When machines were the answer, the follow-up was: "what about the crops in the mountains?" We did our best to explain until the music began.

I was the first to be asked to dance. In nearly every instance, I feel truly awfull about what the spaniards did to the incan culture. Many traditional cultural forms have been ruined and sometimes replaced by those of the spaniards. Thankfully, despite the damage done by the spaniards the quechua language persists, as do some original crafts and music of the Incas. I feel differently about dance. Unfortunately, although the spaniards and their african slaves brougt some great hip-shaking moves to the new world, the traditional Inca dance persists. It is riduculous. When my parter asked me to dance I was prepared for a life-changing cultural experience: to learn a traditional inca dance. We held hands, and shifted our weight from one foot to the other as the harpist strummed. When the song quickened 5 minutes later we started to trot or jog in place still holding hands. After the 10 minute song and dance ended, I joined Raegan in her avoidance tactic: helping a young boy with his homework. It didn't work.

By the time we returned to the van we had drank a plastic bottle of corn booze, eaten four meals, chatted and mingled with the villagers, and danced for about an hour -- the men with women in Abe Lincoln hats, the women with men in Yankees caps. The boys had deserted us for their bed, and so we headed off to our tents.

The next morning we drank our Coca tea, and one of the porters families donated a special treat to bolster our meal -- some cuy, a guinea pig. This is a local delacacy so we were honored that one had met its end on our behalf, but I couldn't help but think that this animal roasting over the open flame was pretty lame in comparison to the goat Raegan and I had a month earlier. I kept that thought to myself and ate the sweetest meat I've ever tasted.

As the cuy was settling in, our group set off on the inca trail. Here were a few highlights:
-- In the first day of walking the hills are covered in dry brush and cacti. By the 4th we were esentially in the jungle, the threshold of the amazon.
-- Our group: We liked everyone in the group, and enjoyed getting to know them. Plus, we all traveled at more or less the same pace, which led our guide to tell us "you guys are ready for the competition!"
-- Our guide, "super" Mario. He was terrific and very knowledgable about both the archeology and the botany on the trail.
-- Coffee or Coca tea in our tents every morning. (And, for that matter, all of our meals).
-- The second day: We climbed over our first pass. Nothing but up for the first 4 hours or so, from just shy of 10,000ft to just shy of 14,000ft. I missed the lunch spot -- the first time this had happened to our guide after years on the trail -- because I was charging up the hill too fast. A couple other folks in our group, too, had to accend closer to 5 or 6000ft that day as a result. After the pass we headed down what we heard was more than 1500 steps, or over 2,000ft, to our campsite.
-- The fever I got that night, and held for the last two days of the trek.
-- The number of orchids, and other blooming flowers on the trail. According to super Mario we were on the trail at the best time of the year.
-- The many other ruins we saw which were only accesable by trail.... especially, the "secret" ruin he showed us, still grown over by the jungle. It really stoked our imaginations about both what Machu Pichu looked like when discovered and the posibility of countless of other undiscovered sites in the jungle.
-- Learning to say thank you in quechua to the porters after their hard work.... it sounds like hawking a loogie with a mouthfull of marbles.

Machu Pichu was a highlight, too, and arriving there the way we did made the experience all the richer. I'll let others tell you about the site itself. But for now, here are some photos!

Comments-[ comments.]

Monday, May 03, 2004

WE'RE ALIVE!!! I am truly sorry about the lack of communication on our part. I've got a couple of excuses, but I won't bother you with them. I will, however promise that in the next few weeks we will make it up to you, our readers, with rapid-fire entries likely to make your head spin. There will be our entries, our first guest blog entry, tales from lake titikaka, and if your lucky... more photos. Stay tuned.

Raegan's parents are here in Peru and we've been living in the lap of semi-luxury. We're currently staying in a hotel which offers both hot water and real towels. Last week we left Cusco for the market town of Pisac in the sacred valley of the incas. Over the last few days we headed from one small valley town featuring inca ruins to another until we hit the big daddy ruins of Machu Pichu. It's been great to have travel buddies, but I'll let them tell you about their time here. Raegan and I have some catching up to do (as we've been reminded in countless emails), so let me tell ya about the week prior to the coming of the padres.

Despite the fact that Raegan and I are now experieced backpackers, we didn't go solo on the Inka trail as it is no longer an option. We chose the company Waiki Trek for our Inka trail experience after reading glowing reviews of their guides and reports that they treated their porters much better than many of the other companies on the cheaper side of the spectrum. True to form, the company just began offering a new option to the trek: to stay one night in the porters' village prior to embarking on the trail. We took the option, and are glad we did.

After meeting our fellow trekers, we piled into a van and headed into the hills above Cusco. We passed many villages on the way, all very far off the well-worn tourist route in and around the sacred valley. Each village consisted of a few two story mud-brick houses with spanish tile roofs and elaborately carved wooden balconies. One could be tricked into envy by the idylic mountain setting of these beutiful, but simple houses. Of course the inhabitants of these houses were poor subsistance farmers. Most got by with a few animals and crops of barley, potatoes and corn. For extra money, a few families would send thier sons off for weeks at a time to Ollatetambo to wait for the opportunity to do 4 days of back-breaking labor carrying 50 pounds up and down the mountanous inka trail. If a family was really fortunate, they could save enough to send their youngest son to school in Cusco. Our guide was one of those sons.

The village we arrived at was at 3700 meters or so -- about 12,000ft -- and as such was too high for corn. The fields were all worked communally, potatoes and barley were the crops, and they traded the excess for corn with other, lower villages. We arrived at rush hour, though ours was the only vehicle. The men and women of the village were still in the fields harvesting potatoes, but their children were driving (or watching) burros, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and a few chickens (of course) make their way down the dirt road. As our van honked and weaved through the traffic, some of the children pointed and shouted "gringos, gringos." According to our guide we were the first gringos to visit this village.

He took us to his moms house (and childhood home) and we set up our tents in what, the week before, was the burro bathroom. His mom wore several skirts, leggings, sweaters, and the now familiar Abe Lincoln hat. Wearing a big, two-toothed smile she invited us into her home with hand gestures. She did not speak a word of English or Spanish, only qechua. We practiced our newly-learned qechua: "hello". Her house was one room. Her walls were costructed with mud-brick, her roof was thatched roof and her floor was dirt. She was building a fire in the earth-oven in one corner and air was filled with euctalyptus smoke. She waved for us to sit on her wood bench, so we did in silence -- "thank you" was well beyond our collective quechua abilities. Next to us were a few chickens pecking at cornmeal leftovers on a mortar and pestle. Bellow them were dozens of guinea pigs either eating barley or hiding from sight. One lone bulb hung in the middle of the room.

We drank the coca tea she offered once her fire warmed the water sufficiently. Our guide figured the porters wouldn't return until well after dark, so after our tea we headed to the dirtpatch to rummage up a game of soccer. Getting a game together was not tough, but playing at 12,000ft wasn´t so easy. As hard as it was we had a great time. I did my best to ensure that every score recieved the proper "goooooooooooooool." We played until the southern cross was easier to see than the ball.

When we returned to the house the boys who had shouted "gringos" were waiting. Most of them couldn´t speak a word of spanish, so verbal communication was out of the question, but they were sure interested in us and remained our companions for the rest of the evening. The porters filed in to the moms' house and each invited us to theirs. Before we could leave, however, the mom insisted that we eat some of the soup she fixed us. It's customary that visitors be offered food or beverage, and apparently the tea she offered earlier didn't count. After our meal we piled into the van, the curious children took the last two rows, and headed to visit our first porter and his father.

The children stayed in the car and we entered the house which was very similar in nearly ever respect except that he had a lot more guinea pigs. We made our introductions and were offered our second meal -- the same type of corn soup we'd eaten earler. After a nice chat, we woke up the children as we piled into the van and headed off to our third visit. There we made introductions and were offered our third meal -- corn soup. We were all very full, but even more polite. This time the children didn't stir when we piled into the van and headed off to our next, and out of neccesity our last visit. After introductions and our fourth meal, things got more interesting.
to be continued..............

Comments-[ comments.]

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?