Chicon: Gazing Towards an Endless Horizon

The promotional video for the Chicon trek:

One of the things I’ve come to love most about my life in Urubamba is its dual quality. I live in a small, insular community and yet I learn and see new things everyday. I feel rooted here but have the opportunity to extend outward all the time. I am constantly reminded just how big the world is.

And nothing gave me as intense a feeling as arriving at Chicon’s peak. The decision to go wasn’t made with grace, but rather with ambivalent grumbling. In the two years I’ve been here my lungs have never quite settled in given the altitude, which can make hiking quite difficult. But when I realized that the 2 year anniversary of my arrival in Peru fell on the dates we would be climbing Chicon, I resolved to go whether my lungs liked it or not. I focused, and did my best to prepare, convinced it was for naught.

And as we climbed that first day, I studied the internal landscape as much as the harsh one we scaled. That in the time I had been here and the challenges I had faced, I really have learned a lot of things. That little by little I seem to be gaining patience and the ability to take things step by step instead of expecting a complete outcome. That to focus on the goal and how to accomplish it was much more productive than pondering can or can’t. To take each ridge as it comes, never taking for granted that it will be the last.

And yet, even being able to see these things in myself and the changes my time in Peru had wrought, it wasn’t the most profound experience of the trek. During my time here a common topic is the environmental changes in the valley – the receding snow on the mountains surrounding us. To me, this has been something to ponder in the abstract. Though distressing, I’ve not witnessed the changes myself. And even on the second day, when our guides pointed out where the snow had been the last time they had come to Chicon, 3 hours or so below our final destination, it didn’t really click. We climbed on, scaling the last portion – peaks, valleys and cliff faces of loose rocks. And still, to touch snow we needed to scale the rocks around the mountain lake the glacier towered above.

And there, the glacier was melting. Torrents of water were coming down at an alarming rate. It was more for me than seeing hundreds of news articles over the years about climate change or any Inconvenient Truth could have done. It is one thing to learn about something that seems so huge as to be unfathomable and it is quite another to witness a direct result. Elated to have made it, my emotions were tempered by the weight of how big and beyond me the world can be – a sobering realization of the profound, perhaps irreversible changes taking place as we speak. There was awe and a feeling of privilege that I was seeing something that others may never get to see again.

Urubamba’s water supply comes from the very peaks we climbed that day and it is not uncommon for the water to run out on dry season days. It’s an important reminder that despite the seemingly unending flow from the tap in developed countries, the supply is finite. The question posed as we gazed at the glacier, the “heart of Chicon” just above it, was “What will happen to Urubamba when the snow is gone for good?”

Our mini-documentary about the trek!!

What I’ve Been Up to….

As I haven’t had much time, the blog has been silent for awhile. To make a long story short, last year I got in touch with MicroAid International about building a house for flood victims in Peru as they were looking to begin a project here. Things progressed from there and when I’m not teaching I work at the construction site. Here is some more information about the project and my role in it:

MicroAid International Peru House Project: Erin

At the construction site with Angela, one of the children of the family. I adore this little girl! She, her mother and older brother all have eye problems with varying degrees of severity. We will be taking them to a nonprofit clinic in Cusco. I’m hoping they can head off the children’s problems before they become irreversible.

Gallos de Pelea, AKA, Cockfighting

Fantasma

Fantasma (Ghost), gallo de pelea

There’ve been times when I feel like I’m witnessing something straight out of my cultural anthropology classes. I’ll never forget an ethnography we read about cockfights in Indonesia; particularly the spurs they place on the feet of the roosters that are so dangerous they have been known to disembowel their keepers if the roosters kick out. Failing in the “don’t judge, just observe” maxim of anthropology, the practice didn’t sit right with me at all.

Awhile back I was surprised to learn that cockfighting is somewhat popular here and I became ambivalent about my earlier views. Having the opportunity to visit the fights today, I tried to go with an open mind. I was warned there would be blood and death and blahblahblah, but I was interested in the experience more than anything else; to see yet another thing I had read about, albeit in a much different setting.

Baiting to Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Above all, I’m glad I went and if I have the opportunity I’ll go again. They dropped the roosters to the ground for the first fight I witnessed, and we all sat watching them for almost five minutes as they scratched at the ground, crowed, flapped their feathers and wandered around the ring. I watched the crowd, trying to get a sense of whether this was normal or not and couldn’t gauge either way at all. Finally, one noticed the other and the fight was on. It turns out that this is generally the way fights go and that the roosters usually take time to engage. But at first it was quite comical to think that these two roosters who had been set up to fight one another were just moseying about doing the exact opposite.

Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Despite all of that, it only cemented and strengthened my earlier views – I just don’t think it’s right, and it seems downright cruel. Of course my understanding of cockfighting is limited given my command of Spanish isn’t 100%. I asked a lot of questions during the fights, and what I learned just frustrated me about the whole process given how senseless it all seems. They use spurs here as well which is what causes all the blood and death. A lot of whether a rooster is good or not also seems to be based on bloodlines and breeding, and I haven’t gotten a handle on what any of that means. One rooster looks like any other to me. You can ‘train’ your rooster, but I wonder how much that really helps. This concentrates on their physical prowess, which still seems more about chance to me. I mean, what if your rooster is having an OFF day?! In addition, they seem like very dim animals in general.

Another pair

Yet another pair duke it out.

In every fight, at least one rooster must die for the other to win, and the winning rooster may have injuries grave enough that it also dies. That means the next match will be fought with another rooster of the owner’s. I had wrongly assumed that one rooster would fight its way through to the end of the tournament, therefore demonstrating it’s ‘the best’, but witnessing the injuries of some of the winners made me realize just how silly that is.

Cages

Cages and cages and cages…. tiny… dark… dirty.

It can be gruesome to see the roosters vomiting blood in their death throes. Luckily, they get a quick death after they’re carried from the ring. The winners aren’t so lucky. They don’t get medical attention, whatever their injuries, which again is senseless and cruel to me. It seems to me that this is really just a revolving door of slaughter, and I wonder how much the odds favor someone who has a huge amount of roosters given quality seems to count for so little (even though the countless conversations I’ve heard about rooster and hen bloodlines should tell me otherwise). Why would one allow the injuries of the winner to go untreated if not?!

Caption contest

This picture needs a caption contest. Pssst…. Fernando, when do we go for the killing blow?

I also wonder about the dynamics of ownership when you’re grooming an animal for something that could result in its death within minutes. The many fighting roosters I’ve seen are kept in small, dark cages. I’ve heard the argument that it’s “natural”, and sure, if two roosters come across each other in a field they will fight. On the other hand, it’s not natural to tie spurs to their feet so that when they kick out at each other they inflict grave injuries. It’s not natural to set this scenario up and ensure that they continue to fight to the death when they seem to lose interest or have had enough (in a few of the fights the roosters were repositioned when they stopped fighting).

Snack Time

It’s “give the roosters a special drink and talk about their condition” time.

I wish I could say I’ve gotten a handle on the cultural dynamics of such a thing in all the conversations I’ve witnessed concerning rooster fighting. Obviously there’s something beyond the brutality of the practice. It’s important to note that the region I am living in is agrarian and animals are often used for utilitarian purposes. They provide food (While this might seem obvious, I think this connection is lost to most of us in the shrink-wrapped, sterilized world of the supermarket.) in the form of meat, plowing the fields, and fertilizer. Not even pets are treated in the often doting manner of pet owners in the states. While I think there’s a limit to animal rights (I always think people should go first.) I wonder at what seems like obvious cruelty to me – is it the difference in viewpoints between those from agrarian and industrial societies? (Factory farming muddies the argument though I think few people would deny that it is cruel and there’s definitely an element of out of sight, out of mind.)

In the meantime, I’ve been marveling at all the anthropologists who have gone to live in cultures different from their own where they cannot speak the language, only to be able to piece together how they work and analyze what is going on around them. Either that, or there are a lot of tomes of bullshit on the shelves. I often feel utterly lost given the language barrier, and when making an effort to draw conclusions tend to second guess everything I think (count the use of the word ‘seems’ in this post). I suppose I can console myself with the idea that if I had the time to note everything I saw and heard given it was my intent, maybe I could synthesize it into something coherent. In addition, I can feel proud of myself that I’ve achieved something I used to daydream about in those anthro classes – going off to a foreign place to live in and learn about it.

Mummy

A mummy with future breeding hens/fighting roosters.

Efficiency be damned

Status

You know you’ve really arrived in Peru when you opt to handwash your clothing instead of bringing it to the Lavanderia once a month for 10s (3 dollars). I am staunchly NOT thinking about opportunity costs like time vs. money or amount of work accomplished vs. amount of clothing washed. Because then I wouldn’t be doing this. A lot of things should be coming down the pike, but that’s been the case for awhile and I just haven’t had the time. Perhaps when I find my way out of this pile of dirty clothing.

Language: Lobsters and Mishaps

Puno Region

The view from the bus on the way to Puno - somewhere in the region before reaching Juliaca.

Given El Arte Sano is tourism focused, much of my Basic 2 course centers around food: food vocabulary, menus, and situations like ordering and taking orders. To spice things up a bit (pun intended) I brought in a worksheet that profiled strange restaurants around the world. One of these, a restaurant in London called the Archipelago,  serves such things as locust salad and crocodile. I was mystified when my students couldn’t figure out which terms for locust and lobster were appropriate, and why they were such close words in the first place. The consensus seemed to be that the words were opposite the indication of the dictionary:  mangosta and langosta (Don’t ask me which is which, I can’t remember!!).

Yesterday I came across an article about the ritual of cooking lobsters by David Foster Wallace and was fascinated to find out that the word lobster in English is thought to come from “a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider.” Now having knowledge of the roots of the word, the similarity of the Spanish words make a lot more sense.

A tangential, fascinating bit of history from the article:

“But they themselves [lobsters] are good eating. Or so we think now. Up until sometime in the 1800s, though, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.”

When I told my students the current status of lobster in the United States as an expensive, indulgent food they seemed to agree with the above opinion. I love learning about these kinds of cultural differences.

Mural

A mural at one of the bus terminals.

Somewhat related is that when learning a new language one is bound to make mistakes – sometimes with hilarious and embarrassing results. (NOTE: Embarazada is pregnant – NOT embarrassed – luckily I learned that before ever saying “Estoy embarazada!”, “I am pregnant.”)

Once when asked for my phone number, I said in response “No me acuerdo mi nombre.” (“I don’t remember my name.”). The ‘b’ in both words makes me think they are the same despite the spanish word for number being numero (like ‘numeral’). I often have to think for a moment before saying the words name and number in spanish or I’m liable to make that mistake.

In the beginning, even the simplest things could be a bit of an ordeal. Getting photocopies was one of those. With my boyfriend in the copy shop, who could generally help me out when I messed up, I repeatedly asked for ‘nuevo’ copies. He and the shopkeeper both looked at me in utter consternation, and I returned their look with my own – NUEVO!! How hard is that?? Well, neuvo is NEW. Nueve is nine. (I still mix them up allll the time.) So when asked again and again for how many I was responding with new instead of nine.

I bought a pastry at the bakery once and, pointedly waving it, asked for the “basura.” Seeing the clerk’s shocked look I realized I must have said something wrong – I meant to ask for “bolsa” a bag, and instead asked for the trash.

Puno region

The somewhat desolate landscape of the Puno region - houses averaged every few miles, nestled into the landscape of mountains and hills.

Being a teacher: Grading fairly

A little Peruvian boy coming to deliver a puppy at my feet.

 

While I hesitate to post this, I’m genuinely interested in what other people have to say – particularly other teachers. When I first began teaching I would grade all the tests of my students as uniformly as possible. This came from the belief before I was a teacher that this was the fairest thing to do. Now having just a bit more time under my belt and in my second round of classes, I began to notice a big change in my grading process. Grading is modified depending on the student: While one student diligently comes to every class, working hard to understand the material but still struggling, another only comes sporadically and fails to take the classes seriously when present. I’d find myself marking the former’s test more easily while being harsher with the latter. One can’t deny that personal opinion plays into this: I really enjoy the student who struggles and don’t want her to feel discouraged. The other girl’s flippant attitude and space cadet ways annoy me to no end. Another example regards my best students. My first instinct when they make silly mistakes is to go easy on them: They know the material, this is just an instance where they slipped up. And then I decide they will be far less careless the next time around if I take off more points than less.

**A clarification that I wrote below in the comments: I probably should have clarified that the maximum points are all the same – if a struggling student differentiated correctly between “do” and “does” but didn’t conjugate the verb correctly I might take off a point out of 2 instead of all. If my best student did that I might take off the whole 2! Don’t know if that makes sense.

I’m still not sure if this practice is all right, but I’m happy to hear your evaluation – thanks!! Admittedly I didn’t even think about the idea that it’s a disservice to other students. I feel that because some of my struggling students work just as hard as some of my best but it comes less easy to them, they deserve the recognition when they’re on the right track. Some of my students got in the 70s on the last test – a grade range that I balked at before I started teaching. But I was really excited for them, because I could see the basic concepts were beginning to sink in. The number didn’t really matter so much as they were getting there! For me, their tests were great!**

Tiene Pulgas

Upon depositing the puppy at my feet, both children solemnly warned me 'Tiene pulgas' (It has fleas.). I really wasn't sure what was cuter.

When I first began to observe this new process, basically a unique mental calculus for every student, I was horrified. As mentioned previously, before I began teaching I believed that assignments and tests should be graded as uniformly as possible. To some extent, one could say this is the very rigid, black and white view of a person who never taught before. At the same time I wonder if this is the kind of slippery slope that leads to things like low marks for things such as political disagreement (As an ESL teacher, nothing I think I’ll have to worry about.). In addition, this does factor in my personal opinions just as much as it does the habits and abilities of each student. While somewhat less horrified by the realization of the change in my method of grading, I´m still ambivalent about it and interested in what other people have to say.

Tiendas y Hornos Calientes (Shops and hot ovens)

Learning another language in the immersive environment of a foreign country is one of the hardest things I have ever done. After preparing for my English classes, studying Spanish and constantly trying to think in two languages (along with the endless questions that come with learning) I tend to have little energy for other serious endeavors. I usually go for a book or a movie before sitting down to write for the blog and given that, it is updated a lot less than I’d like it to be. Below is a bit about what has been going on here and what I’ve been thinking about.

A typical shop. I like this for the Inca imagery on the poster which is very popular around here. I'd love to know more about that - while it is often used to sell things (the poster is for Inca Cola), people still seem proud of the heritage and legacy of the Incas. I also like the sign Se Vende Miel - This is the construction in Spanish that means one does something: one sells honey. While exact, a more accurate translation is probably We sell honey. It's not uncommon to find these messages scrawled or spray painted all over doorways in the area that vary depending on the item.

Things that still fascinate me about Urubamba and the surrounding region:

  • Most people live in the rooms behind or above their shops. To those of you who fight traffic every day on your way to work, whether it’s 20 minutes (given my intense dislike of driving even this had me cursing) to an hour or more – just think of the ‘commute’ from the back rooms of your living area to the front room of your shop. It’s not uncommon for people to close an hour or so in the afternoon for lunch. In addition, they often take advantage of the close proximity by doing chores or cooking in the back rooms while open – a ‘senora’ or ‘senor’ gets their attention so you can buy what you need. I wonder a lot about the economics behind this and how it impacts culture.
  • I’ve come to theorize that an oven is a luxury item here. I’m not exactly sure what the standard of living is for the average Peruvian in my area though I’m pretty sure it’s nothing like I’m used to. I’m not even sure how many people have access to electricity given how dark many of homes are (‘rooms’ is actually more accurate). But when it dawned on me that there were public ovens that one could bring things to get baked for payment I was stunned. I’m still amazed by this and given we don’t have one I fully intend to partake in the experience of getting something baked. In addition, they aren’t the ovens we are familiar with but rather more like large bread or pizza ovens. People manage them and you leave your item with the specific time – something that seems iffy to me as I’m thinking they’re probably much more powerful.

Horno Caliente - Hot oven 24 hours

Below are various stories about my time here:

  • Shortly after my return to Peru in January another scorpion made an appearance. Insects seem to like our outside door jam. Upon leaving the house for dinner, I slammed the door and noticed something dangling – a scorpion by its leg above my head. I kicked open the door (sound familiar?) and let it drop to the ground. A shout brought my new housemate running. At first I was going to stomp on it but figured distance was the best option and ran for the broom. Despite returning and charging in like Rambo, my housemate informed me that the scorpion had ensconced itself neatly under a ledge, just out of reach. In a wildly counter-intuitive move, I jabbed at it with the bristled side of the broom to the point that we could no longer see it at all. Resigned to being unable to kill the thing, we agreed to keep an eye out for it and I left the broom in the hall. I felt very silly, having taken charge of the situation only for it to result in a poisonous insect having free roam of the house. On returning from dinner I kicked open the door (a common theme) and did a careful inspection before entering. Barely visible, it had wedged itself into the molding behind the door. This time I completed my charge, not allowing myself to think about its VERY spider-like characteristics as I went for the kill. Note: In the past week scorpions three and four have made an appearance.
  • Sometimes things go very, very wrong. In November we had planned a camping trip to Lares, hot springs about 2 hours North of Urubamba. I had just gotten a cold that week and I am currently in this years-long phase where colds make me feel like I’ve been physically hit by a truck. This one was no exception, but I was really excited about the trip and I had been talked into going. Two days of soaking in hot baths actually made me feel great – almost as if I wasn’t sick at all. By Sunday I felt well on my way to recovery. I had gone camping with a very bad cold and contrary to what I had anticipated it actually worked in my favor! Well, not quite. It seems I had to pay for brazenly taking such a chance.As we were packing up to leave it became cloudy and began to pour. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as warm rain here – when it’s cloudy, it’s cold and when it rains it’s colder.

    We got in the combi (public transportation van) and I couldn’t figure out why it was SO COLD!!! I shivered for two hours, only realizing halfway through that I was sitting next to a broken window. By the time I got home I had a chill I couldn’t shake. A shower and hot tea would be just the thing. I generally don’t have a reliable shower in terms of temperature (….which means I go for longer stretches unshowered than I would ever permit myself otherwise….) but for some reason the water was wavering between hot and cold more than usual. I had put the electric tea kettle on so it would be ready when I got out. Well, we lost power in the middle of my shower – showers here rely on electricity to warm up – so this left me fumbling in the dark to turn off the water as it became numbingly cold. If I had a chill before, I really had a chill now and it was pitch black besides. I huddled under my blankets with wet hair and ‘waited’ for the power to come back on. Five hours later, at 1am, the lights woke me up. Relieved that I could finally do something about getting warm, I went to boil the water – except – it seems the loss of power shorted out the electric kettle. In desperation I put on two more layers of clothing and went back to bed in my hat and scarf in an effort to ward off the chill. The next morning I awoke with my cold as bad as ever and was sick for another two weeks. In spite of all this, I still loved being in Peru. If anything I got a funny story out of it and confirmation that I had made the right decision about coming here.

  • It is currently carnaval season. I was disappointed to find out that carnaval isn’t celebrated as much in the Cusco region as in other areas in Peru. The surrounding towns celebrated this past Sunday. I have no pictures and I regret this. A major feature of carnaval is that people carry around buckets of water and randomly soak people. Silly string and shaving cream are also very popular and I spied huge sacks of brightly colored powder in Cusco. I was torn between worry for my camera and the desire to document. I did get shaving creamed by some laughing teen boys, and when I got over my surprise I turned around to go at them with the intent of smearing it on their faces. Marc held me back, which was probably smart considering they had two cans of the stuff and I had…. well, not much. Not something I was considering in the heat of the moment.

Typical shopfronts

The devil is in the details

Aside

The photos and random pieces of writing keep piling up, I just need to synthesize them into something presentable. Always the most difficult part. Being a painfully slow writer anyway, learning another language just seems to complicate matters. My brain doesn’t enjoy grappling with English after grappling with Spanish. This is my favorite photo from the week:

corn girl

A little girl in Urubamba's outdoor market.

ER: Farm Animal Edition

I seem to say this phrase at least once a day: “Life never gets old in Peru.” Something is always happening that is interesting, different or captivating. I had committed to making an appearance at a going away party last Friday, but other than that it promised to be a relatively uneventful, quiet and relaxed night hanging out with the Peruvian guy I’m dating, Marc.

Mother and child

A goat roots around for something to eat at the feet of the mother and child posing for my picture!

Instead, the night took an abrupt and rather fascinating turn when a mutual friend called Marc to ask for his help – one of his young chickens was badly hurt. We rushed out of the house and I assumed we’d be taking the animal to the vet a couple corners down from my house. It didn’t dawn on me what was intended until we stopped in one of the many little shops along the way and Marc purchased black thread, a scissor and a set of needles. The next stop was the Botica (pharmacy), where an anti-inflammatory usually intended for human consumption was purchased. Marc spoke to the woman and asked what dose he would give to an injured chicken – while I couldn’t understand all of the Spanish, the conversation occurred between them in a manner that suggested this was a perfectly normal topic and that the discussion wasn’t at all out of the ordinary. As I live in a relatively rural area where farms and roaming livestock are a stone’s throw away, this begins to make sense*. I try to imagine the same conversation taking place in a US pharmacy and can only wonder what kind of look I’d get from the pharmacist.

Lamb

I somehow managed to catch the attention of the lamb I was sitting next to for just a moment before it returned to looking for bits of food on the market floor. Despite seeing how cute they are in person, they still remain my favorite food.

So we arrived at our friends’ and I could feel the blood draining from my face as I walked into the yard at even the idea of being in close proximity to a seriously injured animal. This was noticed with laughter and the comment of “tienes miedo” (roughly – you have fear/you are fearful). Yes, indeed – word was that its chest and stomach were ripped open and I steeled myself to look at the injury full on – I mean, my American friend killed the duck we had on our Thanksgiving celebration a few weeks before. The least I could do was woman up and really look. I mean, I’m in Peru. We settled on the couch, the operation to take place on the coffee table. I took a good look at the injury, felt slightly whoozy and think that any blood that remained really left my face at that point. I never knew one could actually feel the sensation of being as white as a sheet.

sheep dance

A dancer participating in competitive folk dances costumed as a sheep.

Regardless, I was in much better shape than the chicken and my curiosity mostly began to overcome lightheaded wilting. Our friends tied the feet and held the animal down while Marc prepared needle and thread. The injury was positioned to expose the stomach (Which I had to ask about – “Que es eso?” – “What is this?” with a point of the finger!) so it could be stitched up first. After this Marc closed up the outside wound. The chicken was obviously in a large amount of pain and this was somewhat difficult to watch. During this time a more detached part of my brain marveled that 1) I never thought I’d miss a party to attend an operation on a chicken and 2) I never thought I’d admire/swoon over a guy because he demonstrates prowess in sewing up farm animals.

As far as I know, the chicken was in good shape the next day. Unfortunately I left for a visit to Florida two days later and haven’t heard anything about its condition since. I highly regret not having had any sort of picture taking capability to record the incident but it was the last thing I was thinking about as we rushed out the door. It also seems there is a general lack of chicken photos in my collection despite my constant delight at walking into yards they roam.

*A somewhat related side note: In teaching the usage of “can” and “can’t” to my Basic 1 English students I aimed to pose culturally relevant questions, one of which was “Can your mother grow corn?” – the most popular crop in the Sacred Valley. All eight students answered “Yes, my mother can grow corn”, an answer which might be met with some humor and disbelief in the U.S. To them, it was a completely serious question and answer, reminding me of how much more I have to learn about my new home.