Friday, December 24, 2010

We're Back!

Hey, hey!

After a great, long trip, we're back in the States and currently enjoying a happy Christmas with my family in Wisconsin. Next week, it's off to Boston - our final leg of traveling - where we'll settle in so that I can start work on January 10. Hoping it won't be too ridiculous a transition...

We still have a few more posts - a bit more from Cusco, a bit from Lima, and a bit from the jungle - so hopefully we'll get those up here before too long. Hope that everybody has enjoyed reading, it's been a fun way for us to keep in touch (and reassure our families that we weren't getting into too much trouble). Who knows, maybe we'll even keep it up from time to time even after we finish the Peru posts. I can't say that my life at home is likely to be all that interesting to other people, but maybe Erica gets up to craziness when I'm not around...

Merry Christmas to all, a belated Happy Hanukkah, and an early Happy New Year. Prospero ano y felicidad, as the song says.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu seems to be the iconic representation of the Incan empire and it is indeed somewhat breathtaking. Surprisingly, as far as Incan cities go, it is not particularly ancient. Cuzco was the historical capital of the Incan empire for its entire duration, with major temples like Qorikancha, and elaborate palaces, as well as canal systems to control the two rivers and extensive neighborhoods of both royal and ordinary dwellings. By contrast, Machu Picchu was only in use for about 100 years by the time the Spanish defeated the Incas. And, despite (as you can see in the picture) being located on top of an almost inaccessible mountain, it is quite a bit lower in absolute elevation than Cuzco.

Here's some proof that we were actually there, and that there were Llamas present...

The city itself is a mix of religious, residential (royal and common) and agricultural sections. The religious buildings, as elsewhere, can be distinguished by the absence of mortar between the stones, while the residential and agricultural building use less finely-worked rock and employ mortar in the construction. Theories as to the purpose of the city suggest it was primarily a sacred site, a sort of royal retreat, or a guard-post and garrison to help control conquered territory. Here I am at the city entrance, testing out the guard-post theory. Seems pretty solid...

And here (below) is one of the sacred areas. This particular temple is dedicated to the condor: the rocks to the sides are the wings, with the head on the ground below. It was probably a place of sacrifice, which was seen as a great honor for the sacrificial victims, an assurance of entrance into a paradisaical afterlife.

Erica has heard that the city as a whole was dedicated to the sun - there are various remnants of astrological structures at the highest point (in the religious zone) - and that Huayna Picchu was dedicated to the moon. Huayna Picchu is the mountain rising above the city of Machu Picchu in the first picture. You can see, from long-distance, people climbing and exploring it in this picture.

It takes about an hour to ascend and another to come down, and the way is very, very steep. Given our time limits - and that Fredy would have never made it due to his acrophobia (we're proud he did so much this trip!) - we didn't climb Huayna Picchu this time.

Even here, where the drop-off wasn't so extreme, Fredy stayed pretty far back.

Eduardo had no problems with the heights.

All told we spent three or four hours wandering around, listening in on various tour guides to learn more about what we were seeing, posing for pictures, taking pictures, and generally enjoying really amazing sensations of time and place. In a city so well preserved, it seems easy to imagine day-to-day lives of people so long ago as well as to lament the loss of an ancient and vibrant culture to European colonialism. It was also neat to see near-complete buildings to understand better the anti-earthquake engineering. In a seismically active region, you would think that more ruins would have fallen by now, but the preventative architecture - the walls all slope slightly inward and the doors and windows are generally trapezoidal - has helped the structures endure.

Erica wrote already about the train ride out to Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu, but she wanted me to mention the ride back too. It was a bit more luxurious, with a delicious dinner of steak, vegetables, potatoes, cheese and a dense tart. The flower arrangement on each tray was a nice touch too.

But that's not all! In addition to dinner, we were also treated to a traditional dance, complete with elaborate devil/cat costume and some impressive leaping about in the aisle of our constantly rocking train. And, afterwards, a fashion show of sweaters, shawls, hats and other wool products. (The train-attendants put on the fashion show and the dance, to much applause from the passengers.)

All told, a long day, but full of exciting sights and quite luckily free from rain. Definitely worth the trip.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Catching Up

So I just wanted to catch up with our posting - in Cusco we didn't have internet so it put us behind....

We did go to Machu Picchu and it was astounding. We took a train last Sunday from Cusco through the valleys that were so narrow at one point the train did some switchbacks. We took some awesome pictures that we will probably put into a Picasa album, so you can check them out if you are interested.

Last Monday Fredy and Eduardo returned to Lima, leaving us to explore Cusco and the surrounding areas. Left on our own, we checked out some local museums, went shopping, and to top it all off took a tour of closer-by ruins on horseback. Again, photos coming at some point.

When we arrived back in Lima on Thursday, Fredy and Eduardo greeted us with their customary generosity and a delicious lasagna. They kept us busy for the next few days eating and touring around their city. On Friday we saw a Christmas spectacular that consisted of about 60 children belting out tunes in Spanish from the windows of a HSBC building in the Plaza de San Martin. This did include a rendition of Michael Jackson's heal the world. That evening we also enjoyed the famous Pardo's Chicken, a Peruvian roasted and grilled chicken chain that did not disappoint. They apparently have a restaurant in New York City!

On Saturday we continued our exploration of Lima and visited one of the two zoos. We learned the difference between vicunyas and llamas (vicunyas are skinnier, but both spit when approached). We saw giraffes, jaguars, zebras, the tail end of a tiger as it went inside for the night and all sorts of different birds and monkeys. Later that evening (as in 10:00) we headed to an amazing pena, or dinner show, at Brisas de Titicaca. We got some close up exposure to various different Peruvian folk dances, including a Limeno (from Lima) Marinera, as well as a northern one that we are more familiar with. There was also the Tijeras (scissors) dance that was crazy - men in some heavy costumes bouncing and flipping around while holding scissors. It was all very impressive, was interspersed with live-band open-floor dancing, and lasted until past 2:30 in the morning. We also got to try chicharron (double fried) chicken that was delicious. (We've already had chicharron de puerco - cooked, then fried pork - so just the fish variety left to sample.)

After lunch on Sunday our animal body parts eaten has expanded greatly. We have enjoyed beef heart, beef stomach and chicken kidney as well as gizzards. Yum!

We are now in Iquitos (ee-key-toe-s), a town on the edge of the Amazon river, very close to where it begins. One website that Rory read said that this is the biggest town in the world that is not accessible by road to the rest of the country. We still have to corroborate that. There certainly aren't very many cars, as you might guess: the main form of transportation seems to be motorcycle and motor-rickshaw. Tomorrow, we'll embark on a three day tour of La Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, a national park at the head of the Amazon river. We are pretty excited to get to experience the Amazon, though our short trip will limit the amount of wildlife we will get to see. Also we will again be without internet, so you can expect further updates when we get back to Lima on Thursday evening.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sacred Valley

Upon arriving in Cusco and arranging our stay at a hostel attached to a catholic school, we rushed off to find a tour of the Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado). It was still early enough in the morning (5:45 am flights are good for something, I guess) for us to fit in most of the hot spots in the former heart of the Incan empire. We hustled off as fast as our low-altitude lungs would allow, caught our bus and were on our way.

Our first stop was a small market area. I wasted no time in finding a weaving that I couldn't leave without. We also got our first taste of choclo - the mega big corn on the cob that is everywhere. It is a real treat with a bit of aji (salsa made from chiles).

Next we made our way to Pisaq, a rather large area of ruins about 25 km from Cusco. We caught sight of some of the terraced farm land that the Incas developed and that is still used today. Quite a sight to look up into the mountains and see these uniform horizontal lines.

Pisaq has a bit of everything - the agricultural, military, residential and religious construction. What separates residential and religious buildings depends on what is between the stones. If there is mortar then the buildings are just regular living or storage spaces. If there is nothing between the stones then it was a religious building. (More pictures of that later.) We got a small amount time to check things out on our own during which we were able to finally get a picture of all 4 of us together.

It was at Pisaq that we began to understand the extent of Fredy's fear of heights. He wasn't pleased about having to take a plane earlier in the day and his mood did not brighten at the prospect of some of the sudden drop offs and staircases that seemed to lead to nowhere. That and Eduardo and Fredy were too cute in basically matching outfits....

Next we got to see Ollantaytambo, a town that is home to another set of ruins where three river valleys intersect. We challenged our hearts and lungs to a climb to the top of some stunning terraces to check out the large sun temple that was never completed.

The location of the temple relates entirely to the movement of the sun through the valleys. On June 21, the longest day of the year, the sun comes over one of the mountains at a point that appears to be an eye of a face in profile. The spot of light that appears lands right at the sight of the temple at the top of these terraces. Rory saw the face a little bit lower than the rest of us, but you can make out the profile towards the top of the mountain. This picture also shows some of the storehouses that the Incans used. They knew they needed a cool, dry place to keep their produce and the winds coming off the valleys made these locations perfectly ventilated for their needs.

Though it was raining when we visited, we could get the sense of the immensity of the task of building something so sacred in this location. Along side the partly constructed temple there was clearly a ramp made of earth that lead down the mountain. Our guide, Marco, told us that on the other side of the mountains across the valley from us there are places where you can clearly see where the Incans mined the rocks. There are continuing excavations happening here at the base of the mountain so I am sure there will be much more to learn from the area.

Our last stop took us too our highest altitude, about 3800 meters. We were all a little light-headed, wet and cold as we took in the last sight on our tour, Chinchero. Upon arriving we were treated to a demonstration of the yarn making and dying techniques of local craft/artist families. We were taken through a process similar to the one we saw in Teotitlan in Oaxaca. First the washing, then the combing, then the spinning (by hand), then the dying. Rory got a shot of our demonstrators doing some quick dying, all with local plants and some molds.

Chinchero was also the site of an Incan town that was destroyed by the Spanish upon their arrival. It seems the Spanish and the different religious orders that followed them were eager to completely dismantle the Incan culture, along with the buildings. They largely and brutally completed their task. What does remain, in many places, are the foundations of many Incan buildings that were concealed by other constructions. Chichero's main church was a prime example of this. The Incan stone work was covered and painted, it's original purpose erased. Many of the building we saw around Cusco also had bits of Incan stonework along the base.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fountains in Lima, la Marinera, and Anticucho

We have been offline for almost a week now as we traveled around Cusco. Before we get to that great adventure I thought I would post about what we did right before we left.

There is a big park in the middle of Lima that has 13 fountains and during the evening they are lit up in exciting ways. The Circuito Magico del Agua was quite entertaining, as well as being the largest public fountain park (as noted by the Guinness Book of World Records)! All the fountains themselves were fantastic to look at, but the ones that demanded a bit of interaction were certainly the favorites. We all took advantage of the photo opportunity at Tunel de la Sorpresas and enjoyed the walk through.

We also enjoyed la Fuente Labarinto del Sueno! Rory decided to keep the camera dry while Fredy, Eduardo, and I all scampered through the "labrynth" trying to avoid getting totally soaked. I, unfortunately, got splashed directly. Here's a video of that little adventure.

Another one of our favorites was Fuente Magica. It reaches over 80 meters into the air. I was somewhat entranced by this one because it seemed so much like the movies - the silhouetted shot with the water spraying behind.... Clearly it was a perfect time for spirit fingers.

We were at the park for the laser light show that they put on through, yes through, one of the fountains. It was pretty awesome! If all the geometric shapes and lines weren't enough, they projected movies of Peruvian folk dances into the mist. Here is a video of the Marinera, a dance that originated in the North, but is danced with different regional flare all over the country. We have had a bit of exposure to la Marinera because one of Fredy and Eduardo's good friends, Ivonne, has been dancing Marinera and competing for many years.

Last Friday we got to experience two Peruvian treats! Ivonne, Vonny, Eduardo and Fredy's friend who dances la Marinera invited us to one of her classes to watch. It was fantastic - lots of fancy foot work, full skirts swishing around, handkerchiefs twisting to and fro, and a coy chase between the man and woman. While the woman's footwork remains somewhat of a mystery, we learned that the men's feet are supposed to look a little like horse hooves dancing. There was a time when horses were trained in the particular steps of the Marinera. Not sure which came first, the dance or the fancy-footed horses. (Sorry no pictures of it, but hopefully the video from the fountain gives you a sense of it.) There is a large Marinera competition coming up in the north of Peru and this dance school is in the process of partnering younger dancers so we got to see a girl and boy of about 10-12 years of age dance the Marinera. They were fantastic! The little boy was totally hamming it up and the little girl looked so graceful.

After dance class everyone was famished so we went to a local spot for a Peruvian specialty - Anticucho. Anticucho is beef heart that is sliced, marinated, put on skewers and then grilled. It seems to be regularly paired with different sauces of varying degrees of spiciness. The history of the dish goes back to the colonial times when the Spanish would indulge on the meat of animals, and reserve all the extra bits for the people they had enslaved. Turns out the Spanish were the ones missing out because anticuchos is delicious! There are other dishes that feature kidney and stomach that we have yet to try....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lima - Centro Historico

We enjoyed a bit of a rest on Monday - just a quick evening trip to Miraflores, by the ocean - then headed downtown with Fredy around lunchtime on Tuesday. It seems that Lima has changed a whole lot over the past ten years, and the historical center has changed from a desolate and dirty place, to one replete with clean, vibrant plazas, pedestrian walkways and parks, and a brand new bus/metro. We wandered quite a bit, waiting for Eduardo to finish work, which gave us the chance to appreciate the range of beautiful architecture. There are lots of influences here, even to an ignorant eye like mine, including Art-Deco and touches of Arabian aesthetic by way of Spain. One prominent characteristic, dating from colonial times, can be seen in the elaborate balconies the adorn the older (and now-renovated) buildings.

Here you can see the fountain in the Plaza de Armas, where the militia used to gather, when called upon to defend the city, for example, when Chile stormed Lima over a century ago. (This was the same war in which Bolivia lost its coastline.) The fountain itself is very, very old, but continues to function well and, if Fredy and Eduardo are to be believed, runs with the national liquor, Pisco, instead of water during the Fiestas Patrias celebrations in July.

The Plaza de Armas is surrounded by lots of old, beautiful buildings, including the Palacio de Gobierno, where the President lives and works (way bigger than the White House), and the Archibishop's residence (below). Note the balconies...

After not too long, Eduardo met us for a delicious lunch at Tanta, the restaurant of a famous Peruvian chef, whose name I've forgotten. The cebiche - fish and other seafood marinated in lime and chile ("aji" in Peru), then served raw - was delicious, as was everything else we had. Erica ordered Seco de Res, a kind of roasted meat dish, and I had a Saltado, different types of marinated and grilled meats, served over tacu tacu, a seasoned and then fried mix of rice and canary beans. I like tacu tacu a lot.

Limeno food seems so far to be really diverse and realy delicious. Much of it is a fusion of various styles, including those Italy, Spain, Japan, China (Chinese food is called Chifa, from Mandarin for eat rice/food, and it is everywhere) and other regions of Peru. There are dozens and dozens of kinds of potatoes and related tubers and so, so many tropical fruits. Already we've tried four different kinds of bananas, two types of mangos and a few others whose names still haven't anchored in my brain. Should be fun!

Feed me!

After lunch, we visited the San Francisco cathedral and monastery, just a few blocks away. The original chapel on these grounds was built in 1546, just 11 years after Lima was founded, then destroyed in an earthquake in 1656. The cathedral you can see below, towering about the two of us and Fredy, was finished in 1672 and the monastery, in 1729.

Inside the cathedral/monastery is beautiful, filled with paintings, sculptures, woodwork and all sorts of religious accessories. The tour, boldly taken in Spanish instead of English, was great, although the photos below are borrowed from the web: cameras aren't allowed and we didn't have cellphones to snap pictures surreptitiously.

This is the library. Because the books were so flammable, candles weren't allowed. Light for reading came exclusively from the many skylights.

This ceiling was really striking - as were many throughout the buildings. Sorry the picture is so small, but it gives at least a sense of the intricate patterning and layering of the wood. I'd say the dome was about 25 feet across.

And underneath the cathedral . . . the catacombs! Until 1821, Lima had no cemetery, so most people who died in the city were buried in the labyrinthine tunnels under the San Francisco campus - around 25,000 Limenos in all, two to a grave. Much of the subterranean structure was damaged in subsequent earthquakes, but it is still in use as a final resting place for the remaining Franciscan monks. It was very much like being in an Indiana Jones movie (our second this trip!) and I had to be careful not to hit my head in quite a few places. It was well lit for the most part, but our tour guide said that she had been down there once when the lights went out for 6 or 7 minutes. She laughed it off, though, saying that so many of the tour group had cell phones that they were able to find there way around with no problem. The bones you see here were recovered during repairs and arranged for effect - that isn't how they were actually buried.

Just before heading back to Las Molinas, where we're staying, we swung through a new city park built around a part of the original town walls. There's a statue there that used to be more centrally located until they discovered that it wasn't actually a statue of Francisco Pizarro, Lima's founder, but Cortes, who was active much farther north, in Mexico. So the statue was relegated to a forgotten corner of this new park.