A Reflection of My Life after living in Uganda as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

South America Part IV: Maccu Picchu

With our new entourage, we took off on the local bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is in the Sacred Valley and the site of some Inca Ruins. Since we got there so early we had time to walk around the town before we caught our train to Aquas Caliente. It was a beautiful day.

Also since it was so early, we stopped on the street for some breakfast. These three girls scarfed down fried egg sandwiches (one girl a few more than the others) and I ate some delicious rice, potato and bean concoction. We all drank more coca tea hoping to ward off any altitude sickness.

From Ollantaytambo we got on the train to Aquas Caliente. It was a stunning and relaxing ride. Sadly, there is the tourist class and the coach class. I was furious when they wouldn't let us ride in coach. We had to pay more money and travel with the tourists. I understand the importance of tourism. I understand the income it provides for an economy and I participate in it with my travels. But I can only handle tourism to a point. And when it creates a clear division between travelers and the people and culture I have come to learn from, I become incensed.

Aquas Calientes is the base town of Maccu Picchu. It only exists because people who want to go up Maccu Picchu before sunrise need a place to stay the night before. I hated Aquas Calientes! While it was in a beautiful gorge, it was way too touristy.

Since, I was about .9% afraid someone was going to check my passport number with my passport, I decided to go to the Maccu Picchu office in Aquas Calientes to clear this error. Ha! What a waste of time. The man looked at us like we were crazy and said, "What am I supposed to do about it?" Correct information is almost as important to Peruvians as it is to Ugandans.

The next morning we got up and were in line for the bus to Maccu Picchu at 4:30am. There was a collective excitement in the line of people. We were going to see Maccu Picchu! There was a slight fear in me that it wouldn't be all it was hyped up to be. I was feed-up with tourism at this moment but Melissa and JaNahn's over enthusiasm carried me through.

Maccu Picchu is all that people talk it up to be and more. What an incredible feat set in a stunning location. I was very impressed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

South America Part III: Cusco

After battling altitude sickness, Melissa and I could hardly wait to be in lower elevation in Cusco. But first we needed to take the bus through the Andes to an even higher elevation. We took Dramamine that causes drowsiness and took off in the nicest buses I had been on since Taiwan. The seats were huge and they laid down with foot rests. We were very comfortable.

While we traveled in comfort, we were still sick and exhausted. Emotions were heightened and our arrival in Cusco was not pleasant. Taxi drivers vied for our attention and with no plan as to where we really wanted/needed to go first (hostel or Maccu Picchu ticket office) our first sisterly fight may have taken place. But fear not, as only sisters can do, we made it through somewhat unscathed and with a slight plan.

We had one day to get Maccu Picchu tickets for us and Kate and JaNahn who would be joining us the next day. We also wanted to see a few sites. However, with our late afternoon arrival and indecision of where to go, we arrived at the Maccu Picchu office after it had closed. We found a hostel and decided to venture out long enough to get dinner then go back and go to bed. We walked down to the Plaza de Armas and surprisingly to me, not to Melissa, we ate really good pizza (our first Western meal) and drank orange Fanta looking out over the plaza. It was a nice evening.

The next morning we got up and went straight to the Maccu Picchu office to buy tickets. When we were almost there I realized I had forgotten my passport in the hostel. Figuring no one would really even check to see if the correct passport number matched up with my ticket at Maccu Picchu, I decided to make one up. And I did, almost completely confident it would work. We then had a nice breakfast and I got coffee before we went back to our hostel to await the arrival of JaNahn (our family friend) and Kate (Melissa's college roommate). JaNahn and Kate were joining us for the rest of our trip.

With every car that drove past and every set of footsteps we heard walking by, Melissa would jump up and look out the window to see if it was them. A few hours after their expected arrival, the girls pulled up in a taxi. The street was incredibly narrow to the point where the hostel door almost had to be open so that the car door could be opened and they could shoot out. There were hugs, lots of laughter and stories to be told of canceled flights, sleeping in the Lima airport and also of our slowly improving health. We were all excited to see each other and continue (for them, start) our adventures.

We quickly took off to explore Cusco. We visited Inca ruins, Spanish cathedrals filled with gold and silver, and made stops for hot chocolate and coca tea. Coca tea is supposed to help with altitude sickness and is made from the leaves of the coca plant which also can be made into cocaine. It has been a controversial plant for centuries.

The carnivores in the group also tried the traditional dish of Peru: guinea pig. It came out looking at us and while they made valiant attempts to finish it, they just couldn't.

Melissa and I had stocked up on our alpaca gear in Puno, where it is said to be the cheapest, but JaNahn and Kate needed to make some purchases. Maybe due to the fact that is was really cold or maybe because they were overly tired, the shopping got a bit out of control and later that night we put on all the alpaca gear we had accumulated between the four of us. Yes, we had become the epitome of tourist. But at least we were warm tourists.

Cusco was beautiful and rich in history. We did not have enough time there. I need to go back some day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

South America Part II: Puno and Lake Titicaca

After Lima, which sits at sea level, we flew to Juliaca/Puno on Lake Titicaca which stands at 13,500 feet above sea level. Melissa and I have never felt so awful! We had altitude sickness as hard as you can get it before you die. I'm pretty sure. Our joints hurt, we had the deepest most painful headaches and I was vomiting. We took coca homeopathy, drank coca tea and went to bed. We didn't get up, except to throw-up, until the next day.

Melissa and I made ourselves leave our hostel and see some sites even though we still felt awful. We walked to the Plaza de Armas and slowly made our way up the steps of the cathedral. Walking inside we sat down to rest. We stayed so long they started Mass around us. Ha! One thing I do like about the Catholic church is that you can walk into any Catholic church and follow along because they are all the same. I find such beauty in liturgy and communal prayers.

After Mass, we had enough energy to walk outside the church and then sat on the steps trying to decide what to do next. While we caught our breaths and tried to not concentrate on our pounding heads, an older Peruvian woman approached us with a fabric bag slung over her shoulder. She sat down and began to show us all the alpaca knit items she had made. Since being in Peru we had encountered many homeless beggars and always struggled with what to do. Now, we had a woman who needed money and had goods to sell. This was a perfect partnership for us. And it was cold so alpaca knit socks, mittens and hats seemed like a good idea.

Back in the 1800's, the Yavari ship was shipped from England to Peru. It took 6 years for it to be carried to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The ship was used to ferry people across the lake for many years and then was deserted and it fell to ruin. In the 1980's it was found and restored. While it doesn't take passengers anymore, you can visit the Yavari. Melissa and I thought this would be a low activity. It would keep us active but not require too much strength. A local woman on the boat was surprised we had come from Lima the day before. She told us when she comes from Lima she has to stay in bed for 2 days! We understood that need!

Besides seeing Lake Titicaca, I had wanted to see the floating islands. The Uros people lived near the Lake and when the Incas came they moved out onto the lake to save themselves. They created villages made of reeds that floated on the lake.

There are local ways to get to the islands and there are tourist ways. 99.9% of the time I would chose the local way. However, I was so sick i didn't care how we got there so we went the easy way, the tourist way. It turned out to be very informative. They showed us how they cut the dead reeds and build their villages. They told us about their lives of fishing and knitting on the islands. And, of course, they tried to get us to buy their crafts and take rides in their reed boats. I had had enough of tourism at this point so Melissa and I got back in the boat we came in with a British girl and a Colombian woman. Everyone else fell prey to paying for a ride across the water in a reed boat.

We made friends with the Colombian woman and soon she was calling us her daughters. We told her we were coming to Colombia in 2 weeks (my Spanish has slightly improved and I kept holding out two fingers saying dos semanas) and she insisted we stay with her when we get there. She told us she loves to cook and she will feed us well. Then with a big smile she said, "Mi casa es su casa." This made us all laugh and nod our heads. It's great to make connections when you travel.

On our last day in Puno, Melissa and I decided to go to Sillustani up in the highlands above Lake Titicaca. These are pre-Incan funeral pyres and burial grounds. By this day we were feeling a little better and actually enjoyed our trip there. It was a hike up to the structures and the sun was hot though the air and wind were cold. My new alpaca sweeter kept me warm and it felt good to be active. It was an interesting place to see.

We were miserable in Puno due to altitude sickness so I don't feel we can really be objective. We tried to like it there but I can't say either of us are antsy to ever go back. I will caution EVERYONE I meet who wants to go to Lake Titicaca - NEVER go straight from Lima. Stop in Arequipa for a few days and gradually make the climb higher. I never understood altitude sickness before. Now, I can empathize with anyone else who has the misfortune of experiencing it.

While the place wasn't amazing to us, once again we met some wonderful people who showed great kindness and perhaps pity on us. For these hospitable Peruvians I will always be thankful. And for our new Colombian friend, I look forward to time together in Colombia!

South America Part I: I Love Lima

Back in January when my sister Melissa was visiting me in Uganda, we dreamed of where we wanted to travel next. For years, both of us had wanted to see Maccu Picchu. Melissa was seriously talking with her friend JaNahn about going there in the next year and I thought I would tag along. Since I was already planning a visit to Ecuador if I didn't stay in Uganda, I thought it would be perfect for us all to meet in Peru after that. However, my sister actually has a job and responsibilities and couldn't make it happen that quickly so we planned our trip for the end of the summer. Not only did I want to see Maccu Picchu but I wanted to see the highest navigable lake, the Amazon River and jungle and everything else we could fit in a little less than a month trip. Melissa's only request beyond Maccu Picchu was to see Colombia. No problem, I said.

Here we are several months later walking through Lima. What a beautiful capital city, greatly influenced by the Spanish and cuisine wise, by the Chinese. Melissa and I love Lima! While the people don't always look the friendlies, when you start up a conversation they are very helpful and kind. And honest! We took the bus the other day to another part of the city. Going was one price and we assumed coming back would be the same. It was actually cheaper coming back and the conductor on the bus handed us money back and took the time to explain this to us. What a welcome experience!

It is Winter in the Southern Hemisphere which makes Lima very gray. Any color strongly stands out. I told Melissa my summer in San Francisco with all the fog and dreary weather, prepared me for Lima.

Like many South American countries, squares/plazas abound every few blocks. Around the plazas are businesses, government buildings, museums, Presidential palaces and cathedrals.

Me in Plaza Bolivar (Bolivar is on the horse)

Beautiful blue church we walked by every day

More dangerous part of town we were warned to stay away from but got lost and found ourselves there

Pedestrian walkway connecting Plaza Bolivar with Plaza de Armas - full of shops and eateries

On our first day in Lima we went to the Plaza de Armas to see the changing of the guard at the Presidential palace. There was much pomp and circumstance as the guards marched with straight legs to what I thought was Peruvian brass band music but to what Melissa tells me was American composed brass band music. It was a surprisingly long ceremony but many Peruvians and tourists alike where there with cameras to capture the experience.

We wandered around the streets, visiting different churches/cathedrals and eating a traditional Limean lunch of soup, fish and tea. After lunch we went to Catedral San Francisco. The outside is painted yellow but from farther back looks like it also has black polka dots. However, when you get closer you discover the black polka dots are pigeons! They cover the catedral and it's courtyard. We got there just in time for a guided tour. The only problem was that the tour was completely in Spanish. Now, after 2 years in Uganda, any Spanish I may have thought I knew no longer came to the forefront of my brain. I found myself translating everything first into Luganda and then into whatever Spanish I could pull at. It was rough to say the least. Somehow, I managed to get some of the gist of the tour and passed it on to Melissa. About half way through the tour, my brain hurt so much from trying to translate I gave up and we just nodded our heads and pretended to understand like all those around us. After all, we are Rodriguez's. It shouldn't be that hard. It is our heritage.

Plaza de Armas with the Cathedral and government buildings

The Presidential Palace during the changing of the guard

Catedral San Francisco with the pigeons
Around every block is a new surprise for us in Lima. We found so many hidden treasures of beautiful doorways, interesting architecture and even street performers.

On our second day in Lima we decided to go see Miraflores, a more upscale neighborhood known for it's stores, restaurants and craft markets. It is very touristy. Miraflores is on the coast and as I am a lover of the ocean, I wanted to spend some time here. The coast was beautiful though the restaurants that dotted the boardwalk were U.S. chain restaurants, much to my horror. Miraflores is a popular place to hang glide too and it was fun watching people do this. It was very windy and cold so here are Melissa and I trying to stay warm.

While Miraflores wasn't our favorite part of Lima, I did have the best vegetarian meal I've had in a long time! After lunch we went to see some ruins. Melissa and I both appreciate history and we like visiting historic places. However, maybe due to our guides thick un-understandable accent or maybe to our sleepiness, we never really figured out what they were ruins of or from. The mud brick reminded me of Uganda. The excavation in the middle of the city reminded me of Israel. It was fun to climb around them though we still don't know what they are.

In Lima we stayed with Familia Rodriguez. Having grown up in rural-Scandinavian-heritage-only-Minnesota, we didn't know any other Rodriguez's growing up. So coming to Lima and finding the Rodriguez Family we were sure they must be long lost relatives. Familia Rodriguez was an older couple who rented out rooms in their beautiful old apartment in Central Lima. They were very hospitable and kind to us. Papa Rodriguez gave us a map and a lecture our first day instructing us on where it was safe for 2 young women to go. He made big X's over parts of the city he deemed too dangerous. Every morning they made us breakfast and while I sipped a very satisfying South American cup of coffee and Melissa drank her tea, Mama and Papa Rodriguez would read their newspapers and sip their coffee with us. We loved this family atmosphere.

While our Spanish will improve over the weeks to come, at this point it is near extinction. I had read about Penas (Peruvian gatherings) much like a dinner show where a meal is served and traditional dances are performed. Because we were not confident in our Spanish, we decided to go to a club where Penas were performed in person to inquire on the times and prices early in the day. This way we could make our plans around the Penas and not show up at the wrong time due to our lack of understanding the posters we attempted to read.

We walked down a very random secluded street past Peruvian men who knew the only reason 2 white girls would be there would have to be to go to the Penas club. They greeted us and kept pointing further down the street. When we arrived at Club Titicaca we were surprised to find many middle aged women in clusters standing around the waiting room. We were further ushered in to a ticket counter and after attempts at speaking and trying to understand what was being said, we circled pollo (chicken), the only food word we recognized on the paper the man held out and were handed 2 tickets and pointed at a door we were supposed to wait at. Not very long after, the doors opened and we were taken to our seats.

What ensued for the next 5 hours was one of the most fun and crazy experiences of our lives. We felt like we had been thrown into Havana back in the 1950's. There was a stage where a live band played traditional Peruvian music and also crazy dance music. Every few sets traditional dancers would come out and perform folklórica. When they were not performing, the audience would get out of their seats and dancing on the platform. We had stumbled upon the great Limean pass time! They love to dance. No one came off the stage without sweat dripping from their faces and chests. It was really so much fun to see people doing what they love.

Melissa and I enjoyed our pollo and were pleasantly surprised to also receive Pisco Sours. Pisco is the traditional liquor of Peru. It is a grape brandy they mix with lime and put an egg white on top. It taste similar to a margarita. For a girl who is allergic to eggs, this drink isn't the best choice. But it was delicious. You can't go to Peru and not experience this traditional drink!

Melissa and I also enjoyed eating off the street. If we saw many Peruvians buying empanadas, churos or most anything, we would try it. We only really had two disasters with this approach. The first was a pink desert thing Melissa saw several Peruvians with. Terrible. Just terrible. It was fake strawberry flavored soft styrofoam if you ask me. The second was hot chocolate from a street cart. Hot chocolate in South America, how can you go wrong right? They grow the cocoa beans there. Well, it was from a powdered mix. Not authentic in the least.

Melissa was a very excited to see the animals that are so famous from coming from the Andes. Too bad our first experiences were with fake ones!

On our last night in Lima we went to Hotel Bolivar, where the Pisco Sour originated. It was good. It was over priced. But it was authentic!

Many people had warned us that Lima is a dirty and dangerous city and we should get out of it as quickly as possible. It should only be used as a passing through place. But Melissa and I loved Lima. We wish we had more time here. I guess we'll just have to come back someday.