That mild fall weather changed lightening quick. Holy snow storm batman! This has been the longest stretch of cold and snow that I can recall in my life of Pacific Northwest winters. Having such extreme weather in our mild climate means we are mostly unprepared, and everything shuts down. Pipes freeze, school gets cancelled, and just getting to work is a sketchy prospect. As Gerrison Keillor said in a recent "News From Lake Wobegon", the thing about snow storms is that they're an excuse to not do anything. 'I was planning on going to the meeting, but I can't go out in this- it's just treacherous!' I finally had to park my bicycle and take to tromping around in the ever-present icy whiteness, in its strange mix of serenity and chaos.
It's been a dry, mild fall, so much that I've still been working on the farm into December! But the days are short and nights are chilly. I've been spending a lot of time with my roomates, making big house dinners and doing crafts by the fireplace. There's been some beautiful foggy days and gorgeous (early!) sunsets.
I still can't believe it happened. The United States elected a black president in a quick and undisputed election. I feel truly proud to be an American and to have been part of its democratic process. I sat in a friend's packed living room in Seattle listening to Obama's acceptance speech, occassionally taking my eyes off the TV screen to see my friends' eyes fill with tears. People were patriotically drinking red, white, and blue themed beer- Red Stripe, Blue Lebat, White Belgian ale, etc. We heard reports of celebration taking to the sreets of Capitol Hill, and so Lindsey and I headed up to see what it was all about. Businesses had promotions, bars had drink specials, and folks had been hanging out most of election day in nervous anticipation of the results. After the acceptance speech was over, crowds exited the bars en mass. I realized it was the first time in my life I had seen citizens take over the streets in joy instead of in protest. There was cheering, kissing, hugging, gleeful smiling, horns honking, countless high-fiving, and even some interpretive dancing. And while I'm very relieved and filled with hope for the future, I'm not so naive as to believe that electing Obama is a cure-all for anything. He is coming into office at a low point in U.S. history- an economic crisis, enormous debt, messy wars, and serious environmental concerns. Plus, he's a politician like any politician, and has his own set of campaign debts and allegiances. It will also depend a lot on who he appoints in his cabinet, if he sticks to people with "experience" who will conduct business as usual, or if he ventures out with some new people. I guess only time will tell. I could try to say more, but I'll leave that to some women who probably say it better. Here's a link to Amy Goodman's (of Democracy Now!) blog about the election. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081105_unchaining_history/ And here's an open letter that Alice Walker wrote to Obama. Walker was the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature, in the 1980's for The Color Purple. "Dear Brother President-elect, “You have no idea, really, how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you delivering the torch so many others carried, only to be brought down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, this is a different America. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, that was previously only sung about. “I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. Not to mention your brave and precious grandmother, who, of course, as we know, went on. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is only what so many people in the world want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not clear to them yet that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of everyone. “I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain religious or racial devotion. We must, all of us, learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are the commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.” That is, he will soon be the commander in chief. “However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner.’ There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led. “A good model of how to ‘work with the enemy’ internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world. “We are the ones—we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
This is absolutely my favorite time of year. There is still the feeling of life and abundance of late summer, but it's starting to slow into renewal and coziness. Every day reminds me of a being at a pumpkin patch as a child, standing in clean, thin air amid vibrant colors and drinking hot chocolate.
I have jumped into full-on fall mode, hauling firewood and wanting to preserve as much food as possible. I've been harvesting apples and pears and pressed them to make hard cider and perry. My roomate had a ton of tomatoes at all stages of ripeness, so we had a 2-day extravaganza of canning green tomato salsa, chutney, and red tomato sauce.
Last weekend was the opening of deer hunting season, and I went on my first hunting trip. The former vegetarian in me didn't know what to make of it, but the current carnivore, and more importantly the local, seasonal, organic, foraging, self-reliant eater was excited. All in all it was a truly empowering experience. I didn't shoot anything, but was present for 2 kills, and mostly wanted to learn about tracking, field dressing, and skinning.
My step-dad and step-brother were gracious teachers, and extremely knowledgeable with their life-long hunting backgrounds. I think we both impressed each other- they to find that I (who they would call bookish) was such a brazen hiker and stealthy walker with keen awareness of my surroundings, and I (who would not necessarily call them environmentalists) to find that they are skilled naturalists and trackers. It was 2 worlds colliding in the best of ways.
I didn't know how I'd handle it all considering 1) I don't even kill spiders, and 2)I frequently faint at the sight of a small cut. Oddly enough, knowing that we were out there with the intention of killing changed my reaction to death. Upon seeing the first deer fall from a clean shot in the neck, I was filled with simultaneous horror and elation. "Yes, yes, yes! No, no, no!" said my heart. I said a prayer of thanks for the animal while a primal instinct to clean and preserve the meat set in. I was reminded that most basic parts of human survival are not bad or good, but a complex intertwining of sacrifice and vitality. Even childbirth, which is possibly the most miraculous gift in human existance, is wrought with pain and suffering. And the death of a loved one is sometimes the most profound celebration of life.
And so I watched carefully as my step-dad expertly gutted the animal, its still-warm insides steaming in the cold fall air. That was the absolute hardest part- the warmth of the body and the reminder of just how recently it died. I wanted to wait for the body to cool before handling it, so it would seem more lifeless, but they said No, the point is to cool the deer as quickly as possible by gutting and skinning it so the meat can start curing. We hung it in the garage, and they taught me to skin it, starting at the neck and working down. I skinned the whole thing myself, ending with a whole warm hide in my hands, feeling eerily proud.
After 9 months of excited anticipation, my sister Laura gave birth to a beautiful little girl on September 26. Welcome Emma Adalaide Smith! It was a hard 30-hour labor, and I give mad props to my sister for being such a brave mama, and to my bro-in-law Chuck for being such a supportive daddy.
She is about 4 hours old in this picture.
This picture is of the 5 generations of women in the family. I would like to point out that Emma is being held by her great-great-grandma, or her mom's mom's mom's mom. No joke.
This week I head to Canada for a week-long sailing trip off the east coast of Vancouver island near Desolation Sound! I've been doing a lot of day sailing this summer on my sweetie's boat, but this will be my first extended trip. He has a 38 foot ketch, which means 2 masts and 4 sails, and I am just starting to get the hang of it.
There is nothing quite like approaching a place by water instead of land. I love anchoring in a new harbor and rowing to shore. Last week we spent a night in Bellingham Bay, off Boulevard Park. I lived in Bellingham for 6 years, and yet being there in a boat was a completely different view, different feeling.
I am sometimes met with blank stares when I mention I live in a yurt, so I want to tell you more about my little round home. Basically, a yurt is a portable, lattice-framed tent-like structure originally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia (thanks wikipedia). They are traditionally felt-covered, though modern American yurts use a waterproof canvas material. The word came to English from the Russian "yurta". Here is a photo of my yurt and the front yard. My yurt is in a sunny clearing, whereas my property-mate Whitney lives in one next door in a nice shady spot.
You can see the wooden lattice on the inside and the various windows. It's been a dry, cozy spot for the summer. Mine is a Pacific Yurt and here's the website for more info: http://www.yurts.com/
As a rule of thumb (hah!) I rarely hitch-hike, and never alone, but the San Juans are my exception. As I don't have a car, the roads are aweful for cycling, and public transportation is nearly nonexistant, I rely on hitching quite frequently out here. It is a pretty ingrained and accepted part of the island culture, to the point of having an official hitching post, like a bus stop!
It's been a great way to have conversations with random people that I would otherwise probably never have the chance to talk to as well as learn a lot of history. I've met business-owners, sailors, carpenters, musicians, travelers. Two days in a row I got picked up by two different men who moved out here years ago because they were hired to build staircases from beaches up to people's homes. Who would have thought? I've met residents of surrounding islands such as Waldron and Crane. I met a woman who grew up on the island and moved to L.A. as an adult and became a stripper. She had recently moved back to return to her literal and spiritual roots and become an artist. I've hitchhiked with a carful of children gleefully covered in strawberries and offering me some at the height of the season. I've hitch-hiked with a bucketful of seawater and 2 big dungeness crabs and no one batted an eyelash.
I've gotten to the point where I know some of the people who stop for me, but most the time of course I don't. You're always taking a risk, and in my experience not so much for safety as for social comfort. One time I got in a big fancy SUV with leather interior, carrying my big backpack, and between my hurry to get in and the tall seats... I slid right back out. The man driving looked at me in distain. He was middle-aged, wearing a woven Guatemala-type tunic, long blond hair, and tons of necklaces, driving one of the nicest cars I've seen on the island. I just couldn't connect with him, and our conversation was painfully awkward all the way to Deer Harbor on the other side of the island.
Of course, one golden rule is not hitching when you have a time limit. Expecting a car to stop because you have a schedule is setting yourself up for a bad or tense experience. I leave myself plenty of time, and so far have always had a quick, safe, and interesting ride.
The rest of South America was a blur. I said goodbye to Beth in Valparaiso,Chile and headed to Argentina. Upon arrival in that lovely country, I was immediately kicking myself for not going there sooner. Argentina was everything that the other countries in South America weren't- organized, friendly, and with consistently good food. Well, maybe it's not fair to say the other countries weren't those things, but rather that the beauty and ease of traveling in Argentina really stood out. People stopped to chat all the time, happy to give advice or suggestions. I made friends with some artisans in a cooperative in Buenos Aires, and got a little lesson in silver-smithing. Of everywhere I have been in the last few months, I am really only drawn to go back to Argentina. I have more slang to pick up from their crazy dialect, artisans to learn from, yerba mate to drink, and malbecs to try. Otherwise, I am pretty happy to be home.
I didn't realize what a psychological effect this trip had on my sense of safety until I got back. I was on my guard against getting robbed or hurt or cheated every second of the day. It has been hard to unwind from that feeling. At restaurants here I nervously keep looking at my purse on the chair next to me; the other day when I didn't have my wallet, I assumed it was stolen when really I had just left it at home.
I am living on Orcas island for the summer, and being out here is slowly negating that sense that everyone is out to get me. It is the most nurturing and safe place I could imagine being right now. Among other things, I am really relishing not having to carry a bike lock...
I have wanted to visit Valparaiso, Chile, ever since I found out years ago that Pablo Neruda lived here. As an important port town, it is the oldest city in Chile, now chalked full of art, amazing architecture, and history. Although only about half a million people large, it is considered the cultural capitol of the country and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. The best parts are the hill neighborhoods or cerros, where you have to climb steeply through cobblestone streets, windy staircases, beautiful graffiti art, crumbling buildings, cute bars, haphazard walls, stained-glass churches, and hole-in-the-wall artist studios. You get lost in the labyrinth of streets, whose designers clearly didn't believe in right angles, and find your way not by street names, but by the artwork. "I know I've seen that horse mirror mural, but never the winged lady..."
Here's an approximate recipe for the city of Valparaiso...
Ingredients: * a Tim Burton film set * massive amounts of brightly colored paint * many of Chile's artisans and visual artists * garbage and industrial grime * a handful of slick, petty thieves (they got another wallet of mine, dammit!) * old port area with precarious stacks of shipping containers and military vessels * stockpiles of pisco (white grape brandy) and hot mulled wine (vino navigante) * a dozen colleges and subsequent students (who by the way, have a very distinct style- sort of makes me think of if The Clash moved to South America and got into hip hop and plaid scarves) * clouds and fog of the Bay area
--Combine ingredients and pour onto steep coastal hillside. Let contents settle and enjoy for 500 years!--
A few other random facts about Valpo- it can claim Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world.
So about Chileans in general- they are so hard to understand! I've been studying and speaking Spanish for over 10 years, and I had little trouble communicating in Peru, but here it's a constant, "Como? Como?" Oh, maybe it's because they don't finish their freaking words! They take the 's' off the ends of words and drop it like it's hot. For instance, 'mas o menos' (more or less) becomes 'mah o mayo'. There are words here I have never, ever heard of that they don't say anywhere else. I was struggling to understand a man at the store the other day, and his coworker said it well, "The poor girl speaks Spanish, not Chilean!"
I am staying with a high school friend, Elizabeth, who is living here teaching English at a college for a year. It has been absolutely wonderful for several reasons. It's great to see an old friend, and one who speaks Spanish and has similar interests. Her apartment is amazing- centrally located, beautiful bay view, and q u i e t. I have slept better here than I have in all of South America (excluding the quiet of camping on the Machu Picchu trek).
She also is a fabulous cook and has kept me well fed. To back up a little, I have to say that my taste buds have been seriously neglected the last month. After I left the fresh seafood and tropical fruit of the northern Peru coast, the cuisine took a turn for the worse. Through southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile, my standard diet has been (dubious parts of) chicken and plain rice, with a lot of gummy boiled potatoes and sometimes fried fish... Some meat soups, an alpaca steak, mushy spaghetti, and occasionally "salad" which is a lot of raw chopped red onion with a tiny bit of limp lettuce. I generally eat where locals do, at little restaurants, stalls, or markets because the food is cheaper and more authentic than the touristy places and usually delicious. It's funny that the ONLY time I got throw-up sick on this trip was from a nice gringo restaurant in Huaraz when I thought the chicken curry and mango chutney would be a nice change of pace. I had a night of sleeping by the toilet to regret that decision. Later, for more variety I tried some nachos in a gringo restaurant in Copacabana, and they were so bad. The tortilla chips were stale Doritos covered in cheese and greasy shredded chicken.
Anyway, here with Elizabeth I have finally found redemption- she's made hearty egg and hashbrown breakfasts (including bacon, which we had to go to 3 butchers to find, and finally ended up paying $18 for a half kilo, apparently it's rare here), curried garbanzo and spinach pitas, salmon lasagna, bruschetta, and green salad. There are really good restaurants, some foreign-owned- all with ocean views or great ambiance or funky decor-and we've had Spanish tapas and wine, seafood soups, tofu burritos, and saffron rice balls. Well, it hasn't all been that varied or healthy. Elizabeth did have to introduce me to Chorillana- a quintessential Chilean dish which is a HUGE pile of french fries with chopped onion, beef, and fried egg. No condiments. If you ask for ketchup or anything they just stare at you. There are restaurants that serve nothing else, and is often the Sunday family meal after church. You can only order by number of people, so we obviously had to get a Chorillana plate for 2, which by my personal calculations could have easily fed 5.
Finally, I have to mention some of the big current events going on. There's a drought, and subsequent power shortage since much electricity comes from hydro plants. There are big student protests going on in Valpo about transportation and other things, and a bunch of colleges are "en toma", or in take-over. The students literally have seized control of the schools, keys and all, and some haven't held classes in over a month. Finally, the volcano Chaiten is erupting after being dormant for thousands of years. The nearby cities are having to evacuate, and relief has been a national effort. We donated to a victims of Chaiten food drive yesterday. Here's a picture of it.
I just took a jeep trip from southern Bolivia through the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. There are islands of cactus in the middle of the salt plains, and frozen colored lakes with pink flamingos. The landscape changes constantly, from puffing volcanoes to jagged rocks to dry rolling hills. Yesterday we set out at 5am, in the dark and cold, arriving at a geyser field just as the sky was turning a lighter blue. It was 4,900 meters, or almost 15,000 feet, the highest I have ever been. Grey mud boiled and lurched under steam in this other-worldly place. Then as the sun was rising, we arrived at hot springs, taking a dip before breakfast.
The jeep left me at the border of Chile, where I took a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. We dropped about 2,000 meters, a welcome relief for my struggling lungs and cold, tired body. I took a nap before heading to a stargazing tour in a private home outside town. An astronomical French/Chilean couple have huge telescopes in their yard and do star talks. I saw the closest star to earth, the spot on the moon of the first landing, nebuli, another galaxy, and the rings of saturn.
The day that started on another planet ended there as well.
"The city which has given the most to the world and has the least," said an old Potosi lady.
I have been fascinated with the Bolivian city of Potosi ever since I read about it years ago.
Uruguayan historian and author Eduardo Galeano writes about the rich and exploitative history of the largest silver mine in the Americas, the basis of extreme wealth for the Spaniards in colonial times. In Open Veins of Latin America, he writes:
"They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi. The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens..."
"...By the beginning of the 17th century it had 36 magnificently decorated churches, 36 gambling houses, and 14 dance academies. Salons, theatres, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver; multicolored damasks and clothes of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks and fabrics came from Granada; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; crystal from Venice..."
Towering over Potosi is the Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill. Apparently, it was an indigenous man who discovered that the hill was full of silver, but once the Spaniards found out, they flocked there to start mining. Not that THEY started mining, but rather that they began to take indigenous people from all around Potosi to force to work in the mines as slaves. They would often have to work for one or 2 days straight, with almost no food, only coca leaves to chew on. At the Coca Museum in La Paz, I learned that the Spaniards banned coca use when they first arrived in the Andes, claiming that it was a devil's plant and interferred with a godly life. But then about 20 years later, when they realized that coca helped the miners' productivity in Potosi, they allowed it again, by decree of Philip II.
Galeano continues: "Only 28 years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same poulation as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris. A new census in 1650 gave Potosi a population of 160,000. It was one of the world's biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston..."
Potosi is a classic lesson of colonial economics. "The colonial economy, supplying rather than consuming, was built in terms of- and at the service of- the European market."
And so what happens when that raw material slows down, when they can no longer supply? "The regions now the most underdeveloped and poverty stricken are those which in the past had had the closest links with the metropolis and enjoyed periods of boom. Having once been the biggest producers of goods exported to Europe, or later to the US, and the richest sources of capital, they were abandoned by the metropolis when for this or that reason business sagged. Potosi is the outstanding example of this descent into the vaccuum."
And finally, Galeano says: "Potosi society, sick with ostentation and extravagence, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendor, in the ruins of it's churches and palaces, and of 8 million indigenous corpses."
And even though there was constant mining for hundreds of years, and so many indigenous killed, there are still 20,000 miners working in the Cerro Rico today. Although there are only trace amounts of silver, miners still eke out their living from lead, tin, and zinc. I did a tour of one of the cooperative mine shafts with an ex-miner, and it was truly horrifying. The men in my guide's family have been miners for generations, and all have died from mine-related lung diseases. Though the workers are part of a cooperative, they are essentially independent in their work, so if they want any safey equiptment, they have to buy it themselves, at prohibitively expensive prices. They breathe gas in the unventilated mines with no masks, touch arsenic-ridden walls and rocks with no gloves. Inside the mines, there are dangerous drop-off cliffs, and wooden beams haphazardly holding up rock avalanches. Blasting times are from 10-noon and 4-6pm daily, you can hear and feel the blasts shake in the tunnels. "Don't worry," my guide said, "That blast is at least 100 meters away." Um, that's only about 300 feet between me and unchecked dynamite.
My guide also said, "Outside we are Christian, and worship God. But inside the mines, we worship the devil. We have to, to survive."
The devil god's name is Tio, possibly from the Spanish "dios" meaning "god"- but in the miners'language of Quechua, there is no d sound, so the word was altered. Even today, most of the miners are indigenous and Quechua-speaking. Tio was invented by the Spaniards to put an other-worldly presence in the mines as a form of control. Every cooperative tunnel has an abandoned gallery with a statue of Tio, a horned man-beast-looking god. And on Fridays after work, the workers make offerings to Tio for continued health, safety, luck finding new veins, or any other desire for their daily life. They sit around his statue, and place on it coca leaves or cane sugar liquor, and light cigarettes for his mouth (he only likes one certain brand). Then they drink the 96% liquor in the dark of the gallery.
The last month since I turned 26 has been a little rough. Right after my birthay I cut my right hand badly, and it is only very slowly that I've been able to start to use it again. Still no brushing my teeth or picking up heavy things. And my 2 fingers above the cut are still half-numb and swollen. But at this point I've talked to 4 different Peruvian doctors and 2 American medical students, and they all say the hand looks good and that the nerve recovery takes a long time.
Then there was getting robbed on the bus, then a sketchy incident with people I thought were my friends, then a bus breaking down and being stranded for hours on the desolate highway, then harsh Bolivian border people...
Oh, then the WORST bus experience of my life from La Paz. It was supposed to leave at 8pm, but they wouldn't tell me a gate where to catch it, though they had already loaded my backpack. They said instead, "follow this guy!" So I ran to keep up with this guy, through the lobby, to the dark back bowels of the station, then outside... and across the street. What? The point of buying your ticket at the station is safely boarding there. But luckily, other people I had seen buying tickets were all waiting on the corner, so at least I was with a group. Then they said the bus couldn't stop there, so we should walk to the next curve. So the whole group of maybe 30 or 40 starts tromping down side of the HIGHWAY in a procession, indigenous women with bright woven bags on their backs, mestizos with sacks of fruit and plastic woven luggage, and a few foreigners with backpacks. It was quite a sight. We stopped after about a mile and waited. I was worried I would never see my backpack again. Finally around 9:30 the bus arrives! It's an overnight bus and my seat is broken- to the point that if I lean back at all, I go all the way to the lap of the person behind me! And then the window is broken and doesn't close all the way- remember it's night and around 12,000 feet, like being on top of Mount Baker. I am so cold I can't sleep. Then the bus breaks down. 3 times. And there is no bathroom. The bus stops in the middle of this random town, and I get off to pee, in the middle of the street like everyone else. Anyway, I find out later that there had been protests in La Paz, and people were blocking the highway, which was why the bus couldn't get to us.
And on top of it all is a broken heart, and having to say goodbye to Ata. I already stayed in Peru much longer than planned, and had to get moving south. But then again, life is full of those things that you don't plan.
When you spend your whole life being a traveling artisan like Ata, you get to know the people and places where you vend pretty well. There are good times to be in various cities, depending on the time of year. For instance, Mancora slows down in March when the academic year starts in South America and vacationers go home. Cuzco, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu, heats up in April/May when the rainy season ends and more tourists come.
After Mancora we headed through Lima and to Huacachina. Huacachina is a tiny desert oasis in the middle of massive sand dunes. It's surreal, and also a popular tourist spot. Every city we go to, Ata knows people- his mobile community. Because he's been going to these places so long, he gets discounts on lodging and food. In Huacachina there's a place he can camp for free, and when foreigners paid 8 sols for a meal, we paid 4.
He also knows his clientele, and is amazing at telling where people are from. He'll nod toward someone strolling in the distance, "Canadian" or "Israeli" or "French". How do you know?! He knows greetings and funny phrases in Hebrew, French, Dutch, English, Japanese, Italian, and Quechua.
It was here in Huacachina that I met volunteers who are helping to reconstruct damaged buildings from last August's earthquake. They are international volunteers, based in Pisco with Burners Without Borders, an organization formed by American Burning Man folks. Pisco was hit the worst, but even in neighboring cities, I was shocked by how in ruins the cities still were. You'd think the earthquake happened last week. International reports put the quake around an 8.4, but official reports from the government said it was a 7.9. Oddly enough, it's only considered a national emergency in Peru with the govt required to help the people when it's an 8 or more.
It was also here that I celebrated Earth Day, or Dia de La Pachamama. Here they had a big garbage clean-up, something desperately needed in most Latin American cities. You fill up a garbage bag of trash and bring it to a collection site, and they give you one ticket per bag. Then after 6pm, local participating businesses give a free prize for your ticket. There was personal pizza at a pizzeria, free drinks at bars, chocolate candies, bottled water, soda, real coffee. Pretty good incentives for one bag of trash.
After Huacachina we continued south, to Nasca, then to Arequipa, where I got a great haircut for 2.5 sols, less than a dollar. From Puno we crossed to Copacabana, Bolivia together. It is a sweet little city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There were a lot of Argentinian artisans, so many it was almost hard to find a place to put the parche. There are a lot of unspoken rules about where it's okay to vend- not in front of a business, a doorway, or in a spot where someone more established and longer-residing always sets up. From here you can catch a boat to the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Incan sun god. There are a lot of sacred ruins, mostly pre-Inca, and a beautiful trail to walk across the island.
Little did we know we had arrived just in time for a huge festival weekend, the Festival Del Señor de La Cruz. Unfortunately it meant that prices skyrocket- on Thursday we paid 15 Bolivianos each for our hotel, and Friday night it was 40. On Friday morning a parade started with several marching bands, folk dancers, and traditional costumes... and didn't stop until Sunday afternoon. Sometimes the performances were precise and tight, or sometimes in the middle of the parade, an overheated dancer would take off his headdress and stand and drink a beer. By the evening, most people were drunk as skunks, and it's a religious festival! The indigenous women stumbled around the street in bright colorful dresses with gold embroidery, some in plastic but fancy almost space-age looking outfits. Ata and I would weave past them to get to the market, for our evening cup of coca tea or api, a sweet hot drink made from corn, lime, and cinnamon.
I was playing with a cute little 5 year old girl, and swinging in a hammock. These should be particularly safe activities. But the hammock threads were grinding against a fence, and suddenly broke, sending me to the ground. I cut my hand and assumed it was on a rock. Luckily my boyfriend Atahualpa was right there, and we started walking across the street to the pharmacy, even though I felt nauseous from the injury. It was a nasty gash in the upper corner of my palm, but all I could think of was getting it clean. I made it to the pharmacy and the next thing I knew I was having an out of body experience. Do you remember the photo montage in the last 10 minutes of Requiem for a Dream? It was like that, an incomprehensible compilation of images and feelings that I was dead or on another planet. I had fainted in Ata arms, and woke up smelling rubbing alcohol and feeling much better. After it was clean, we went back to the hammock and looked underneath. There was the huge piece of glass that I had fallen on, a broken beer bottle. People who break bottles when they are drunk piss me off. Seriously, someone should do a public ad campaign with pictures of all the injuries people incur from broken bottles.
Later we went to a medical center to see if I needed stitches. Beforehand, I had to look up new vocab in my dictionary: stitches, antibiotics, gauze, bandage. I ended up getting 7 stitches, or puntos. And turns out that here in Peru, you can bargain not only in the market, but over medical bills too! It was going to cost me 40 sols, but Ata talked to the doctor and got it lowered to 30. So that was right around 10 dollars to have my hand cleaned, stitched, bandaged, and then later have a mid week check-in, and 7 days later get the stitches removed. Absolutely no paperwork either, my favorite part.
The last week has been a pretty low point of my trip though. The cut is deep, and I couldn't do ANTHING for 3 or 4 days. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got til it's gone..." Man, hands are useful and I am going to be so much more thankful for mine from now on. Even raising my arm over my head to get dressed would send shooting pains. Good thing Ata was there. He cut up my food, helped me get dressed, put sunscreen on my left arm, and one day washed all my laundry by hand. It was even worse, since I was just getting into making jewelry. Now I can't work at all. And the only thing worse than not being able to work is not being able to play. With the healing and the antibiotics, I couldn't drink. Plus no running, swimming, yoga, writing, nothing. What kind of vacation is this? I tried to still be an artisan student by taking notes on names of stones and seeds with my left hand. But I also kind of moped around and took a lot of naps.
...I've fallen in love with a Peruvian artisan boy and we are selling jewelry on the street and I am never coming home.
Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I am not quite in love, but I like him a lot. And I will still probably come home as scheduled, by this summer. But for now, I have found a great boyfriend, travel buddy, business partner, teacher, and friend. His Quechua name is Atahualpa, after an Incan prince. And how did we meet? Same way I meet all my latino loves: talking about indigenous cultures of course! I was in Mancora in northern Peru over a month ago, and was looking at his jewelry. He was telling me about a shell that was used by the Inca as a form of currency. He said, "It's the same as the way the Maya used-" and I finished the sentence, "cacao beans." The rest is history. We spent a day and a half together, but I was with Serena amd Erin and had to keep moving. We planned to meet up 3 weeks later in Lima to see what happened.
So we met up a couple weeks ago, literally an earth-moving experience. That first night there were 2 earthquakes in Lima, 4.7 and 5.3.
Since then we've settled into a pleasant rhythm in Mancora, the small touristy beach town where we met. On a typical day, I go running on the beach first thing, when it's still pretty cool in the 70's. Then Ata and I go to the market for breakfast, always ceviche and fresh fruit smoothies. I love eating fish in the morning. We buy fresh bread and avocados for later. Then we head to the vendor's row and set up the booth or stall of jewelry, called el parche, or "patch". All the artisans greet each other with "hola, wayky" or "brother" in Quechua. We chat with passersby and he slowly teaches me things about artisanal jewelry making, such as what the stones are or how to make metal chains or clasps by hand, or how to do a wire wrap around a stone. It is really empowering to learn how to make these things, sort of a dream come true. For lunch we always eat at a little stand with an old man Ata calls el papacho, or big father. He gets up at 5 to start cooking and bring all the food in on his cart. It's usually rice, seasoned noodles, a little potato, a slice of sweet potato (sounding like a low carb nightmare so far), chilean beans, pickled onion, and either fritata, chicken, or fried fish for the entree. All this plus a cebada, or homemade barley drink, for 3 sols, or right around a dollar. By then I need a little nap in the hammock, which we hang nearby. Or we ask an artisan friend to watch the parche and we go swimming in the ocean. Did I mention it's like 90 degrees? Top priority is staying in the shade and drinking cold things. By afternoon some one is selling bolas, or homemade fruit popsicles in a little baggie, for 20 centimos, or about 8 cents. I always get coconut. Later I try to finish whatever project I started earlier, maybe a necklace or bracelet. We stay at the parche for as long as there is light or people, which ever comes last.
In the evenings we'll get dinner, use the internet, go for a walk, and hang out with our Argentinian neighbor friends. They are a couple renting the room next to ours. I still don't even know their names, Ata just calls them the Che's since they're from Argentina. I have a really hard time understanding their accent. In the beginning they would talk about going to the plasha, and I was wondering for DAYS why they spent so much time in the plaza. I finally realized they were saying playa, or beach. Despite our communication breakdown, the did teach me how to pour a proper cup of mate. I thought I already knew how, but there is even more to it than I was aware of.
The only break from this lovely routine is when someone convinces Ata to go to the chicha. Chicha is a prehispanic corn drink, or Incan beer. It is only homemade, not sold commercially. The houses that sell it will hang a white flag outside their door. It only ferments for about 3 days, has a really low alcohol content, and tastes like milky kombucha. But it's cheap and an important social ritual. You go in and buy it by the bucket, and they also give you a pitcher for pouring and one bowl to drink out of. One person drinks at a time and then passes the bowl to the next person. When you patron a local place, it is customary for them to give you free food with your purchase, usually a pretty substantial plate of ceviche. Or you can bring your own food- we brough fish, limes, yucca, and sweet potato- and the señora cooks it up for free.
I'm a writer and editor in Seattle. I started this blog in 2008 to chronicle my travels in Latin America, and continued writing through jaunts in Europe and Asia.
Now I'm back where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and can't stop hiking to fire lookouts in the Cascade Mountains.