Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cuzco vs. Lima

Something that struck me about Lima almost immediately was the noise. This is not to say that it was a particularly noisy city, or that Cuzco was particularly quiet, but the two sounded very different. In Cuzco, it was not unusual to hear dogs barking, people chatting in many languages, and salespeople asking you to pass through their stores. It felt as though around every corner someone was asking you to feel the chompa they were selling or join their bus tour (probably because it literally was around every corner). Lima, however, sounded completely different. The echo of dogs barking was replaced by the footsteps of power-walking pedestrians (although one could still find the occasional dog barking. The chirp of salespeople was replaced by the splashing of ocean waves and call of churro salesmen (sidenote: those churros were delicious). The holler of street vendors was replaced by the honking call of passing taxi cabs (speaking of which, the idea that taxi cabs honk to let you know they are available is extremely irritating and inefficient, in my opinion). All in all, both Cuzco and Lima sounded like hustling, bustling cities, just in different ways. While Cuzco felt like an old world Andean city, Lima was its modern coastal counterpart. I feel very lucky that our class got to explore both because they were so different and each gave us a different taste of Peru.

The Market

When our class first went to the market in Cuzco, I was struck by the amount of food out in the open. There was a section displaying pig heads, donkey muzzles, and basically any other form of meat you can imagine. Across from that was an area where you could buy fresh squeezed juices. These juices (along with all juices in Peru) were always fresh made and contained just fruit and sugar—they were rarely watered down. This made them the tastiest drinks you can imagine. The fresh fruits used in these beverages were available just across the market. I have never seen such large avocados, such juicy oranges, and such an exotic selection of unusual produce as were available in this local food hub. Gazing over the massive selections of beautiful Peruvian grown fruits and veggies, it was easy to understand why Peru is sometimes referred to as the “land of plenty”. In addition to all of the meat, juice, vegetables, fruits and grains, there was an area to buy handmade bread (which was delicious, of course) and some hot made food (interestingly, one of the most popular appeared to be Chinese cuisine). At the periphery of the open-aired building people sold handbags, chompas, notebooks and other handcrafts. Basically, you could buy anything and everything in this market, and visiting there was always a good time. 

Blankets and Rocks

Our weekend trip to Chincero ended up being a fantastic exploration of culture and nature. We got to visit an ornate church that featured intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings, we met many artisans selling their crafts, and our class bought A LOT of blankets. All of the blankets were hand-woven and absolutely stunning, featuring homemade thread and naturally dyed fibers. At one point in the day, our class decided to take a picture of us laying in the grass and spelling out “Peru”. Despite many failed attempts and several uncomfortable minutes, we eventually managed to get a nice photo and move on to explore the rocks and fields around us. Several of our group wandered off to look in the giant boulders, and eventually our whole class was squeezing through small crevices to look out at new views. We happened upon some terraces and spent some time enjoying the beautiful weather. Some of us continued to explore, and we found a staircase carved into one of the larger stones. We climbed up and got to see a breathtaking view of farmlands, terraces, mountains and a creek. We sat up there on the carved stone for a while, soaking in the moment and watching sheep and cows meander in a field some distance away. I am still amazed at how the staircase was made, as it couldn’t have been an easy feat to carve it out of the giant rock formation. Regardless, I am glad the effort was taken because the view was breathtaking.

Plantains at Pisac

One of my favorite days in Peru was our class trip to Pisac. After an exciting time at the market (where our class saw the before and after version of cuy) and an unexpected exploration of the local town (Sarah and I got a bit lost outside of the market and ended up watching street vendors chop meat on the sidewalk), our class ascended a giant mountain to visit some ancient Incan ruins. It was clear that the Incans had no fear of heights, as the paths we traversed overlooked massive drops that had awe-inspiring views expanding for miles. At one point, several of us went to explore an optional trail that wound up a small hill to a scenic overlook. Upon reaching the top, I looked out over the beautiful mountains and felt both so impossibly small and infinitely inspired that I wished a camera could capture the moment. Unfortunately, the iphone is simply unable to grasp the breadth of that experience. With the ruins in the background reminding me of the beauty the Inca people were surrounded by, our group of explorers made our way back down the path to meet the rest of the class. By the time we rejoined the group, gasping for air, we gladly welcomed a snack of plantain chips and guzzled back our non-tap, safe to drink water. 

Day 1: Coca, Altitude, Socks and Other Craziness

My first day in Cuzco was somewhat of a whirlwind. I remember worrying that my altitude medicine wouldn’t work, panicking a bit at the fact that drinking mate de coca may make me fail a drug test, and marvelling at how many thick blankets were on my bed. After my bed and I became well acquainted (travel exhaustion will do that to you) Julia and I decided to explore the city. We breathlessly walked up a giant hill in search of the Plaza de Armas, and never had I felt a lack of oxygen more (fears about malfunctioning altitude medicine resurfaced). After several wrong turns and a call to profe, we eventually wandered into the large plaza that featured a giant fountain in the center. Unfortunately, our t-shirts and leggings signalled to every alpaca pen seller in a 10-mile radius that we were potential buyers. After many long explanations of why we couldn’t buy [insert small alpaca or Andean culture product here], the two of us realized that “no gracias” was the best phrase to get the persistent salespeople to move on. Eventually, after spotting many dogs, feeling confused about whether it was cold or hot outside, and giving a brief English lesson to a bus-tour salesman, Julia and I meandered back to Casa Elena (the long way… not purposefully but we didn’t know better). The class ate a delicious dinner at Kushkafe, and that night I learned the cold way why there were so many blankets on the bed… and the value of fluffy sleep socks.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Safely Grounded :)

During the trip we participated in many activities that is probably unique to the Span 204 maymester. Within the first weekend, we saw ancient Incan ruins and climbed down an entire mountain. Although I did not necessarily enjoy the mountain climbing while in the process, I can say that I am glad that I had the experience (which I can say now that I am safely on the ground J). During the trip I did many things that I would have otherwise never had done and that I would never have to courage to do. One of my favorite trips during the month in Peru was definitely the trip to the sand dunes in Ica. After weeks of site seeing and informational tours, the sand dunes were definitely a refreshing end to the Peru Maymester. Despite some minor injuries, I think that we all really enjoyed this trip the most and that we all had the time of our lives. The sand dunes were both beautiful and impressive. The rides through the sand dunes, in addition were invigorating and is something I would definitely do again. I felt very lucky that I was able to experience many of the things that I did on this trip, especially visiting Machu Picchu and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Peru.

Standing Out

Before traveling to Peru I had formulated images in my mind about how the locals in Cuzco and Lima would be and looked forward to interacting with them. However, I had given very little thought to the counterpart- how they would perceive me. However, I definitely noticed something different from the moment I arrived in Peru. From the beginning, I got many stares, from both men and women, and adults and children. Although I did not know why at first, I eventually caught on to the fact that it was because I was black. I have never felt that different from others before, especially being from the US where there are people of all shapes, colors, and sizes. However, I soon realized how much I stuck out, especially when also taking into out my different hair. Although the stairs did not really bother me much, I did find it interesting that I was in a place where people either rarely or had never seen a black person before. The attention I got in Peru however did make me appreciate the mixed culture of the United States. From the shouts and whispers I got from locals regarding my skin color, and even the group of children that wanted a picture with the Americans in downtown Lima, the attention definitely gave me insight into a perspective unique to the United States and other western countries- the commonality of seeing people of different races and backgrounds.  

Bone Deep

Of all of the informational tours that we went on, I enjoyed the bus tour of Lima the most. I really appreciated the opportunity to see the city of Lima as a whole, as well as the ability to see the different districts and their unique characteristics. During the tour, we were even able to witness the changing of the guards and other old-fashioned buildings in downtown Lima. One of the highlights of the tour was the visit to one of the old churches in Peru. In the church we were able to see some of the original paintings in the church as well as the detailed of the architecture and décor. The best part of the church however, was our trip down to the crypts in the basement of the church. This was one of the most eye opening visits for me, because we were able to see the history come to life instead of just hearing about it. The human bones in the church showed a rich preservation of the culture and history of the church and was definitely one of the best images of the whole time. Of course, I also left the church with a epic story to tell family friends. After dropping my phone and having to fish it out of a pit full on ancient human femurs, I can definitely say that the visit to the church was one of the highlights of my trip.

The Old and The New

One of the lasting impressions that I had of Peru was during the trip to Ica. After leaving Lima, the majority of the cities that we passed were smaller, less developed cities. For the most part, these cities were filled with some of the same architecture and landscape as the cities we saw around Cuzco- small buildings made of clay and stone, many of which that were crumbling. After miles and miles of this type of architecture, I saw what appeared to be a very modern mall. Instead of crumbling walls and ruins, the mall had electricity, escalators, and bright electronic advertisements. In addition, I was able to see the westernized clothing that was being sold in the stores of the mall. For me, this image of the mall amongst the ruble of the surrounding city, exemplified my image of Peru after arriving in Cuzco. Many places in the country had a mix of the old and the new. In the end, I think that this is what surprised me the most about my visit to Peru- not that there were some areas that were less developed and others that were very modern. Instead I was most surprised to see how the two mixed and coexisted. Although mostly rustic and old-fashioned architecture, for example, Cuzco had some characteristics of westernized civilizations, such as wifi in most of the hotels and restaurants. This ability to incorporate new characteristics into richly traditional and conservative areas shows Peru’s potential to integrate into a Progressive world. 


I have always been interested in fashion and love patterns and colors. Thus, the Peruvian textiles and clothing was definitely a highlight of trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the stop in Sacsayhuaman through the pueblo where women were making textiles, as well as the demonstration in Chinchero. To me, the making of textiles and the elaborate patterns and designs of the products is both fascinating and                     mind-blowing. Watching the women make the patterns from the modest wooden tools is something that I can still not fathom. The products that these women are able to make with a small amount of modest tools demonstrations extreme skill and ability. While on the tour in Sacsayhuaman, the guide informed us that learning to make the textiles is something that all the youth in the area have to learn. The passage of such techniques down to generations despite being in the 21st centuries shows the communities emphasis on preserving traditional practices. For me, the ability to learn how to make such beautiful garments is a skill that I would love to have and one that I think is important to preserve. In the end, watching the construction of the textiles in Peru was one characteristic of the country that set it apart for me.  

The Ancient Wonder of Machu Picchu

One of my favorite experiences of the trip was visiting the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. There, we toured the ancient city, learned about the history of the Incas, and even had time to hike to the Inca Bridge along a path with an absolutely breathtaking view of the mountains that surround Machu Picchu. In the early morning, there was a large amount of mist surrounding us, but as the day continued, we watched the clouds part to reveal the awe-inspiring city and mountains beyond it. From all the information we learned about the Incas and how they constructed the ancient city, I never ceased to be amazed by their intelligence and skill. The Incan people truly were masterminds in engineering, architecture, and stonework and used their knowledge in such effective ways to construct a city that has endured over 500 years. Looking at the ruins of the city, one could almost imagine a bustling cultural center dedicated to the nobility of the Incan empire from the traces left behind by the people who once lived there. Having witnessed the marvelous beauty and prestige of the ruins, I can definitely understand why Machu Picchu is considered one of the ancient wonders of the world and will never be able to completely grasp how impressive it really is.

Top Claims Made By Cusquenian Shopkeepers and What They Really Mean

When “No, gracias” just doesn’t cut it...stay strong and remember this advice:

1.       “Es de 100% baby alpaca”
Odds are, when you are shopping in Peru, whether it be in Cusco, Chincherro, or Pisac, you will hear this phrase. Odds are, as in I can almost 100% guarantee to you, it is not true. Baby alpaca is a coveted textile in Peru and, after having felt it, one can completely understand why. It is extremely soft to the touch and makes for a wonderful chompa. That being said, it is not found in nearly as many items as one might think hearing nearly every shopkeeper insist that their chompas or scarves or hats are made of baby alpaca. There are some stores, such as Sol Alpaca, that have special, authentic baby alpaca items, but take caution.
2.       “Special price just for you, linda”
Many shopkeepers will insist that they are giving you a discounted price, and in some cases they are, but in many situations they are just asking for what they think you may be willing to pay. When bargaining, don't be afraid to walk away, as many times at the last second the storeowner will reduce the price just so you will buy something before leaving. Be sure to shop around before choosing to purchase an item that may be sold in multiple stores-what may be a steal in one store may seem outrageously expensive compared to another.
3.       “Chompas"
Most everywhere you will go in Peru, especially in Cusco, there will be women selling alpaca sweaters, which are very warm and comfortable. Take caution, however, in trusting the authenticity of the source, as what may appear to be 100% alpaca could end up being 20% alpaca and 80% synthetic materials. That being said, even the lesser quality chompas can be very nice and make great gifts to family and friends.
4.       “Massage?"
There is a surprisingly large massage business in Cusco and walking down the street you will receive numerous offers for massages by various women handing out flyers. These massages, however, are not all that they seem and I would strongly advise to steer clear of them and devote your time to other activities.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Improvement of Chocolate

While I’ve always considered myself a lover of chocolate, I had never made my own before. I can now accurately say that this finished product I much better than the bean it is made from. After smashing the beans on the counter, we tried the beans in order to taste the raw material’s flavors: coffee, banana, wine and worst of all olive, which I personally hate in all forms. After crushing the beans in a mortar and pestle in order to create a dark, cocoa bean paste. The drinks made from this paste such as the hot chocolate with cinnamon sticks or the tea from the bean shells were both much better than the beans alone. After learning about the 24 hour refining process, it was finally time to fill our personal molds with dark or milk chocolate, with milk chocolate being my personal choice. We could fill the molds with almost anything from kiwicha (which tasted really good and made the chocolate crunchy) to salt (which ended up being pretty terrible). The end products were little truffle sized chocolates that in my opinion tasted really good, with the oreo filled ones being the best. Overall, this class was really fun and the chocolate only lasted about 2 days it was really good while it did. 

Translation Mishaps

While in Peru I learned that when speaking in a new language a lot can be left to be desired, and even more will get lost in translation. Neither side of the language barrier can be blamed as countless mistakes were made by both parties. One day, one of my fellow classmates got tired of being hassled by one of the street sellers while we sat outside just to relax. This particular man was trying to sell us wool hats on a sunny and hot day. My classmate intended to inform the man that it was too hot outside to buy a hat but rather, said that it was too expensive outside. To say the least the man was very confused and insisted his hats were very cheap. Unfortunately, this was not the only instance that our Spanish vocabulary failed us. The biggest failure on the other side came in the form of menus in English. One menu offered pasta with “sause any you choise like” and another a whiskey drink simply called “something”. I personally wasn’t too excited to order either of these items. Translations in Peru definitely can be approved upon.

El mercado

 Shopping in Cusco is definitely an experience. Women dressed in traditional garb will chase you with items that you will never have any use for like alpaca keychains or pens with alpaca figurines at the top. Venders line the streets and call out to you to walk into their shops. While at first it was definitely very overwhelming, I learned to embrace it. No price is ever fixed, you can literally haggle with everyone. Also, because we were American they will most definitely try to overcharge you. The most shocking part of it all was the San Pedro market. There we could buy anything from an entire dead pig to fruit juice or quinoa. In Cusco, this is used as the main market instead of any grocery store. It’s a source of a great variety of fresh and tasty ingredients. While I wasn’t too fond of the raw meat on display, there are some things I’m really going to miss. There was this large cake like bread that was amazing and one fruit that resembled yellow grapes called alimentos, both of which I wish I could get in the states. I wish fresh food was as available in the states, but also really appreciate target and whole foods now that I’m home again. 

Best Vegetarian Foods to Try in Peru

As a vegetarian, I was initially a little anxious before embarking on this Peruvian adventure. Knowing that I most likely could not eat raw fruits or vegetables washed with tap water, I was curious to see how my gastronomic experience would be in Peru, and I can now say that it was more than enjoyable. Below I have compiled a list of the best vegetarian foods to eat in Peru and why:

1.       Quinoa (in all forms)
Quinoa is one of the main crops that is grown and cultivated in Peru and, therefore, it is widely used in Peruvian cuisine and I would highly recommend taking advantage of this fact. Quinoa also is high in nutrients and protein so it is great for you too! Personally, I enjoyed having quinoa soap at many meals, which essentially consists of a vegetarian broth, quinoa, cooked vegetables, and some spices and it is very delicious. Additionally, if you have time to visit Calle del Medio in Cusco, there is a scrumptious dish of spaghetti and quinoa and mushroom balls that will leave your taste buds wanting more and is very simple to cook at home if you simply ask the chef for instructions!
2.       Avocadoes
The avocadoes in Peru are much larger and more delicious than those typically found in the U.S. They are also used often in Peruvian dishes, in ways such as serving half an avocado stuffed with various vegetables (or chicken for non-vegetarians) or with other ingredients in sandwiches (see item #4). I would highly recommend having a few avocadoes in Peru, even if you are not a vegetarian!
3. Passion fruit
Passion fruit was definitely one of our group's favorite foods on this trip and, after having tried it, you can surely understand why. I particularly enjoyed having jugo de maracuya, or passion fruit juice, which can be found at nearly any restaurant or at juice bars that serve juices made of a variety of local fruits.
4.       Vegetarian Triple Sandwich

The vegetarian triple can be found in many restaurants and is a simple, yet satisfying, sandwich, usually consisting of avocado, tomato, and hard-boiled eggs stacked with three pieces of bread. It is usually a safe option at nearly any restaurant and is very delicious!


A Sandy Adventure

I feel that a large portion of the class would agree with me when I say that our day trip to Huacachina and the sand dunes was one of the most enjoyable days of our three week stay in Peru. Legend has it that, one day, a beautiful princess of ancient times was bathing in a pool of water and was startled to see a young man watching her. Upon seeing this man, she dropped a handheld mirror she was holding to become the lagoon, threw her towel to become the mountainous sand dunes, and became a mermaid. We had the opportunity to visit these dunes, one of the driest areas in all of the world, in an extremely interactive way by riding in dune buggies and sandboarding down the sand slopes. Most of the class slid down the sand dunes on their bellies, but a few tried riding down in a manner similar to snowboarding, which led to some entertaining results. Our tour guide, Fernando, was quite a character and encouraged all of us to enjoy the area and all it had to offer. Being in the middle of the sand dunes, it really felt and looked like we were in the Sahara! This adventure was on one of the last days of the entire trip, which allowed the group to end the trip on a high note and I know that, personally, I would love to try sandboarding again.

Pondering Pisac

One of my favorite experiences in Peru was our first weekend trip, during which we hiked throughout the archaeological site of Pisac. We stayed overnight in the urban town of Pisac, a beautiful city center full of Andean culture and tradition. This modern town was bustling with a large market and tourism base, standing in stark contrast with the deserted Incan ruins of the ancient city of Pisac lying in close proximity. It was inspiring to hike throughout the archaeological sites and see many examples of the impressive engineering and architectural feats of the ancient Incas, along with the absolutely breathtaking view. For example, the terraces of Pisac were among the first of many terraces we saw on the trip, which were hydraulic engineering masterpieces built by the Incas that allowed them to cultivate many crops with high degrees of success in difficult terrain and climatic conditions. The Incas constructed sound foundations beneath the terraces, consisting of layers of various types of soil and rocks, which allowed for the development of strong drainage and irrigation systems that prevented high levels of erosion. It is awe-inspiring to think that the Incas developed such advanced systems so many years ago and the ruins of Pisac truly serve as a reminder of what the human race is capable of doing with a strong sense of purpose and dedication.