Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Uros of Lake Titicaca: Life on a Floating Island

A view of the Uros, the floating islands on lake Titicaca which spreads over Peruvian and Bolivian territory
April 3rd 2014.  Puno, Peru.
Winter is starting here.

Despite the chilly morning wind, hundreds of tourists are standing at the main port of Puno, anxiously waiting for the 8 am 200-person boat, which will give them a three hour tour of Los Uros, the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, nowadays one of the main tourist attractions in Peru. 

On the other side of the city, my friend and I are waiting near the shore for a small wooden boat which will take us to the same islands; to the exception that we will stay there one week instead of three hours.

I have the incredible luck of traveling with a paparante of the Uros.  Paparante, or “grandfather” in the native Aymara language, is a much-respected designation attributed to elders who have offered a significant contribution to the history, traditions, or life conditions on the islands.

Eva and her aunt navigate the boat they use to
commute from the island to the city

As it turns out, the friend I am traveling with, Sampi, has been visiting and staying on these islands ever since he began traveling at twelve years old.   Seven years ago, he was nominated paparante of the island María. 
Sampi really does treat the residents of the islands like family: he brings food and medical supplies at every visit; shares with them his knowledge on medicinal plants; and leads groups of tourists there, purposefully generating an income for the islands.

The small boat arrives, paddled by a woman in her thirties with a red skirt, hat, and long black braided hair.  An older woman is sitting at the back, seemingly in her sixties, dressed in the same fashion as the first.
The younger woman jumps off the boat and comes to greet us.
-“Hola, paparante!”, she exclaims while extending her arms to hug Sampi.
-“Hola Eva linda!”, responds Sampi as he puts his arms around her. “De cuanto tiempo! Como va la isla, todo bien?  Y con la otra isla que tal?”.

As Sampi attempts to find out about the state of the island and its neighbourly relations, Eva simply smiles and shrugs, gives a quick neutral answer, and changes the subject.

From left to right: Rosario, Eva, and Olga, awaiting tourists in their
 traditional wear
Two years ago, the island for which Sampi has been nominated paparante became the ground for an unprecedented conflict between the two families who co-inhabited it.  One family had recently built a restaurant (the source of the money required for the investment remains a mystery to the other family to this day), which grew increasingly popular with tourist agencies; and which eventually brought in a significant, but imbalanced revenue to the island in favour of this family. 
One dispute led to the next and a few months later, it was decided that the Law of the Saw would be applied.
 In other word, the island (made uniquely of piled-up layers of totora reeds, a tall grass-looking plant that grows in the lake) would literally be cut in two with the help of a saw: one half for one family, and one half for the other. The first would keep the name of Maria, the second would take on the name of Eva Maria. 
End of the dispute.

The shape of Lake Titicaca reveals a feline chasing a rabbit
       The current situation is a long shot away from the state of peace, solidarity and harmony which pervaded this region in the beginnings of humanity, recounts the legend.

      According to it, the very first humans lived in the Andes under the protection of the all-powerful god Apu. The Apu ensured that the humans always had food, shelter, and protected them from wild animals….but under a single condition: that they do not climb the sacred mountain.

But the devil encouraged the humans to disobey the rule and climb up the mountain. Furious and disappointed, the Apu sent pumas down the mountain to devour the humans; after which the pumas turned to stone.  It is said that in the face of such disgrace, the Sun God Inti cried for forty days and forty nights until his tears inundated the valley, which became known as Lake Titicaca.

This legend would explain the etymology of the name given to this lake: in Aymara, “Titi” is “feline” and “kaka” is “stone” or “mountain”. Astonishingly, an aerial view of the lake reveals the clearly defined shapes of a feline chasing a rabbit.
View  of Lake Titicaca at sunset from Eva Maria island

 Jumping forward a few centuries.

Those who inhabit the islands today are overwhelmingly Quechua and Aymara people.  There are about forty islands with 2600 people living on them.  During his time as president, Fujimori had installed solar panels on some of the islands, so that at least a few gained access to electricity.  Additionally, the islands that have the most success with tourism now have the means to install electricity.

The island I am staying on for the week has no electricity (but the island with the restaurant next door does).
There is no Internet connection, but many households are equipped with cell phones, especially in cases where they have children going to school or university in Puno, the city nearest the lake shore.

The municipality of the Uros
The islands are more organized than they look. Each located on separate islands are three elementary schools; one general hospital; a small municipality; and even a cemetery.

But despite the improvements made over the years – often with financial support from the government- , life on the islands remains difficult.

The first obstacle is one often over-looked by tourists: the extremely harsh climate on the lake.
Tourists only visit the islands during the day, when the sun is shining and temperatures can rise up to 25 °C.  But as soon as the sun goes down, an icy cold penetrates up to various layers of clothing one is wearing, and there is no other option but to take refuge inside the little straw houses (far from being appropriately insulated) and under woolen covers.

Daytime is not much better: when the sun rays are at their strongest, they burn the skin of the people, despite their dark pigmentation.
“Before, it wasn't like this”, says Eva. “We could stay out all day and not burn our skin. Now we have to wear hats and long sleeves or else we get burned”.
Candelaria grinds wheat grains with the help of a half-circle-shaped rock

It isn't just an impression. Over the past few decades, a depletion in the ozone layer has been detected over this region of the Andes. In fact, a scientific study executed in 2009 by the University Santiago de Chile concluded that “the depletion strip has its lowest total ozone over the Andes Mountain Range”. 

The economic situation also constitutes an everyday struggle for many families.

 Until recently, the residents would exchange whatever aliments they grew on the islands (vegetables, potatoes, etc.) for rice, quinoa, and barley from nearby producers.  But the recent hike in the price of quinoa (its price rose by 86% only in 2013, according to a business article focused on Peru), due especially to North Americans’ new-found avidity for the much-hyped grain, has incited quinoa producers to instead sell their product on urban markets.

As a result, island residents must now buy cheap starches such as rice or pasta in Puno, and compliment their diet with fish they catch and birds they hunt. On most islands, meals are prepared in clay pots over wood fire.
Faced with this situation, many men of households have opted to find employment in the city, some even moving there altogether, leaving the islands to be managed by the women.

A totora boat especially built for tourists arrives at the island

Tourism helps.

On an organized rotational basis, agencies bring tourists to visit each island about once a week.  On this much awaited-occasion, the women put on their traditional wear, smile widely, give a quick tour of the island, and anxiously proceed to presenting their hand-made crafts to the visitors -mostly embroidery and jewelry-, hoping to obtain the highest price possible from the ignorant tourist. 

-“Thirty dollars! But I don’t have that much money!”, says a young American tourist hoping to buy a tapestry for his mother.
-“Yes you have. Ask your friend.”, casually responds Eva.

“I do what I have to in order to feed my family and pay for my daughters’ education”, says Eva, mother of three daughters. Es muy difícil. A while ago, we had such little income that I became depressed for about a month. Sometimes, we live sol by sol. It’s not like North Americans who receive a monthly salary and from there, can easily divide up their expenses”.

Eva and Candelaria had fun dressing me up in their traditional wear
Despite these difficulties, the Aymara women always find a way to entertain themselves. Together, they go and gather totora reeds (a perpetual activity necessary in order to replace the older decomposing layers at the bottom of the island floor), make embroidery, wash clothes, grind wheat, cook meals, and of course, giggle about their husbands and related intimate activities.

 As a gringa, I was initially treated by the women on the island more as a North American tourist than a friend of the paparante. But after a few conversations (thank God I spoke Spanish!) we bonded over common values, and simply as women – a bond so quickly ignited, yet surprisingly durable, one which I believe only us women are able to form among each other.

Sampi helping the Aymara women prepare a medicinal herb mixture to cure
their knees swollen from exposure to the cold
With more and more children leaving the islands to go to school in Puno, often times settling there for good, I wonder for how long life on the Uros will maintain its momentum. With tourism truly benefiting only a few select families on the islands, it seems as though those made better-off by the industry will stay, and those who do not benefit from it will gradually move to the city.

So if, as a tourist, you go visit these islands, ask your tour guide to visit the islands that receive the least tourists - they will know which ones. Or if you would like to spend a few days there, send me an email at and I will put you in contact with Sampi. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Traveling in Paraguay: An Incredibly Underrated Destination

A colourful house in the Asuncion neighborhood of San Jeronimo

During the three weeks I spent in Paraguay, I don´t think I recognized a single other foreigner. The lack of a tourism industry and the low population density (Paraguay has a mere seven million residents) allow travellers to peacefully enjoy the treasures Paraguay has to offer, while spending very little money.

  •  Asunción

According to the Lonely Planet guide, Asunción is one of the most likeable capitals in South America.  Indeed, its buildings offer beautiful architecture dating from various centuries; peaceful plazas abound, and become the site of antiquity fairs on Sundays;  and the neighbourhood of  San Jeronimo, with its colourful houses and miradors, and has been designated as part of Paraguay´s cultural heritage.

The train that ran the very first railroad in South America in the 16th century

 Asunción was founded in 1537 by Spanish colonizers,  and was the starting point of numerous colonial expeditions aimed at founding other cities, including Buenos Aires.  The railroad that connected Asunción to Encarnación was the very first in South America.

It is worth noting the tragic fact that during its participation in the War of the Triple Alliance in 1865 (Paraguay stood alone against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay), Paraguay lost nearly half its population, including boys as young as 12 who had been enrolled in the army.
  •                An ardently religious population

The basilica in Caacupe, two hours from Asuncion

The religious fervor of Paraguayans has resulted in the construction of many impressive-looking churches (86% of Paraguayans proclaim Catholicism as their religion).  Do not be surprised to see religious sayings such as “Dios te guía” in the front window of public buses.

  • Good food, but limited for vegetarians

A Paraguayan classic: street stands selling chipa 

Paraguayans like their meat, and they cook it well.  For special occasions, the man of the family will prepare a parrilla on the barbecue:  this all-meat dish must include at least three or four different kinds of meats, all in very large quantities and grilled to perfection.
On the other hand, vegetarians may look forward to tasting chipa, by far the most common street food in Paraguay (vendors will even sell them on public buses, screaming “chipaaaa!” while elbowing their way through the standing passengers), and is extremely cheap . There are doughnut-shaped breads made of yucca flour, cornmeal, eggs, milk, butter and cheese;  just what it takes to make a delicious snack which is impossible to eat just once.
The empanadas (half-circle doughy breads stuffed with meat or cheese) are also exquisite, whether off the street or in restaurants.
  •      Beautiful, scarcely populated natural spaces
The river at sunset beside the Piribebuy village, 3 hours from Asuncion

What I appreciated the most throughout my stay in Paraguay were the stunning rural landscapes, devoid of tourists, and only a one to three-hour bus ride away from Asuncion. I have in mind Emboscada, Caacupé (known as the national religious capital because of its basilica), Altos, Atyrá (known as the cleanest city in Paraguay), and especially Piribebuy, a charming village located right beside a small river.  At every one of those places, we would buy bread, cheese, fruit and wine in town, then walk to the outskirts of the village and camp there.

  •      Emboscada:  a tourist-hotspot in the making

Cracked rocks on the site of Emboscada- am I the only one who sees
the shape of a frog here?

It think it is important for me to mention, even briefly, the very interesting and somewhat mysterious site of Emboscada, located 38km to the North-East of Asunción.
It is mostly known for the three pyramids that were built there in 1988, meant to imitate the ones in Egypt.  But what I found even more captivating were the rock formations found all around these pyramids.  They have an infinity of cracks in them, as if something had exploded there many years ago, and left these rocks as the remains of the explosion.  If you look closely, one may even distinguish certain shapes of animals in the rocks – perhaps of a previous Inca site. I just have the feeling that in ten years, entrance will be of 15 dollars to this site, instead of being free.

If you plan to do a one-destination trip to South America, I probably would not choose Paraguay, mostly because of how small it is, and thus its lack of tourism services.  But if you are doing a long South American tour, I would strongly recommend visiting Paraguay. It has beautiful natural sites, is very affordable, extremely rich in history, and a valuable getaway from the sometimes suffocating tourist industries of other South American countries.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Itaipu: une central hidroeléctrica con beneficios temporales y costos permanentes

Represa de Itaipu, vista de encima

El inicio

Al centro de visitas de Itaipu, donde pasan 400 visitantes al dia, un video explica de que se trata la visita.
 La voz en el video dice, con tono alegre: "La palabra 'Itaipu' fue escogida en honor a las comunidades indigenas que vivian cerca del rio Parana antes de la construccion de la represa.  Habia una pequeña isla en medio del rio, y cuando el agua la chocaba, hacia un sonido.  Asi que 'Ita' significa 'piedra', y 'Ipu' significa 'que suena'.". 
"Desafortunadamente", continua diciendo, "Estas comunidades indígenas tuvieron que emigrar cuando empezaron los trabajos de la represa.".
La voz sigue alegre.
"Claro que hubo quejas", dice Andrea quien trabaja en el centro de visitas, "pero como era tiempo de dictadura, sus reclamos eran en vano".

Los Saltos de Guaira desaparecidos - foto de la página web de
Cecilia Hauff Colcombetz
Según un estudio de la universidad Innsbruck, al iniciar la construcción de la represa, las expropiaciones afectaron  42 400 Brasileños, 25 000 Paraguayos, 800 km2 de tierras agrarias y 600 km2 de tierras forestales.
Quizás lo mas asombroso es que al llenar el embalse de la represa en 1982, se inundaron los Saltos del Guaira.  Estas cataratas, según la ecóloga Glenn Ross Switkes, eran las cataratas mas grandes del mundo antes de su desaparición.

Como funcionan las represas?

En una represa, las aspas de las turbinas hidráulicas se mueven por la fuerza del agua, tal fuerza se transmite su energía a un generador, donde se transforma en energía eléctrica.
De acuerdo a la revista Ojo Científico, las represas producen 24% de toda la energía eléctrica del planeta.  
La cantidad de energía producida por las represas anualmente es equivalente a 3600 millones de barriles de petróleo.
"La represa de Itaipu responde a casi lo 100% de la demanda energética de todo el Paraguay, y al 25% de la demanda Brasileña", refiere Andrea.

En 1995 la represa de Itaipú formó parte de una lista de las Siete Maravillas del Mundo Moderno, que elaboró la revista americana Popular Mechanics.
Durante el tour turístico, el guía explica que la represa genera
 una energía "limpia y renovable"

Una energía limpia y renovable? 
Durante el tour turístico, el guía insiste varias veces que la central hidroeléctrica produce una "energía limpia y renovable".  
Sin embargo, no cabe duda de que las represas producen una cantidad importante de gases invernaderos, a veces mayor que la cantidad producida por centrales eléctricas funcionando con combustibles fósiles (New Scientist Print Edition, 24 de febrero de 2005).

De hecho, al llenar el embalse, las plantas inundadas se pudren en el fondo, creando metano que está liberado al aire cuando el agua pasa por las turbinas. El efecto del metano sobre el calentamiento de la tierra es 21 veces mas fuerte que el efecto del dióxido de carbono.
Al presentarle a Andrea estos datos, ella responde: "Es verdad, no es una energía limpia. Pero Itaipu Binancional  [que también controla los tours turísticos] tiene una política, y nosotros debemos seguirla.". 
"Por lo menos, como compensación, crearon siete áreas silvestres protegidas alrededor del embalse".
Que alivio...
El guía precisa durante el tour:  "Según los ingenieros, la represa tiene una esperanza de vida de 200 a 250 años".  
Sera una energía renovable por 200 años.

"Puede ser menos", dice Andrea. "Cada año, el nivel del sedimento en el embalse aumenta...  también, el nivel del agua en el Paraná puede bajar.". 
Costos agrarios y sociológicos

Los Saltos de Guaira desapareciendo poco a poco - foto de la pagina de Cecilia Hauff Colcombet

Otro efecto que tiene la represa sobre el medio ambiente, y que afecta directamente la agricultura, es el cambio del micro-clima.
De hecho, el agua poco móvil en el embalse absorbe la radiación solar y, al evaporarse, libera una humedad caliente en su alrededor.
De acuerdo a los agricultores, la temperatura en las tierras alrededor del embalse ha subido de 4 grados desde 1984, año que fue llenado el embalse.  También notaron una baja de 30% de la producción de soya desde el mismo año.
En 2003, mil agricultores sometieron un pleito contra Itaipu Binacional para obtener una compensación por sus perdidas. No hubo resultados hasta el día de hoy. 

Vale la pena?

El guía explica que con la cantidad de piedras que fueron desplazadas para
la construcción de la represa, se podría construir una carretera de Itaipu a
Nueva York
¿A pesar de los costos ecológicos, agrarios, sociológicos y financieros (el proyecto costo 15 000 millones de euros en total, y el Paraguay sigue hasta hoy en deuda con los bancos internacionales), son los beneficios bastante importantes para que valga la pena aquella represa?

"Por un lado, si.", dice Andrea. "Nosotros en Paraguay necesitamos esta electricidad para el desarrollo del país, y ademas sirve para pagar la deuda que tenemos con los bancos".
"Y por el otro lado...?", le pregunto.
"Bueno, ya sabes", responde Andrea con una sonrisa triste.

Para mi, la energía de las centrales hidroeléctricas simbolizan un paso por adelante, con otro por atrás. Las represas pueden reemplazar 3600 millones de barriles de petroleo al año, pero también pueden producir mas gases invernaderos que las centrales eléctricas funcionando con combustibles fósiles.
No es una energía limpia, esto es cierto. 
 Si, puede ser renovable, pero solamente por dos o tres generaciones.
Entrada controlada a la represa de Itaipu

No digo que la construcción de la represa de Itaipu fue mala cosa, o que se debería impedir a todo costo la construcción de represas en otras partes del mundo.  Pero si digo que en el futuro, se deberá evaluar mas concientemente los costos (ecológicos, pero también económicos, agrarios, y sociales) contra los beneficios de una nueva represa; y ver si hay una alternativa en el caso que los costos exceden los beneficios.

Sobre un blog tratando del tema de energía, leí una entrada que decía:  "Que irónico que las energías mas limpias son las que siempre han sido aquí: la energía solar y la energía eólica".
Vaya ironía....

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Buenos Aires: A City of Artists

On a Tuesday evening, Porteños enjoy a glass of wine while watching couples refine their tango steps

Leaving from the South of Peru, a logical plan would have been to start by the North of Argentina, stop by wine-country Mendoza, to visit the birthplace of Che Guevara in Cordoba, to finally arrive in Buenos Aires, where I expected my stay to be of about two weeks.

But my illogical instinct told me to go straight to Buenos Aires - where I ended up staying five weeks.
After having visited parts of the US, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Brazil, Buenos Aires was certainly the best part of my trip. I hope the reasons that brought me -and got me to stay- in the Argentinian capital will incite you to one day visit it for yourself.
Every Monday night, Cafe Vinilo offers tango lessons, followed by
a free show of Argentinian folklore music

In Buenos Aires, art is incredibly valued and accessible to all.  On any day of the week at any time of the year, one is sure to find a quality concert, dance show, play, or tango lesson at very modest prices, if not for free.
I was in my element.

During the day, fully-equipped bands will use the sidewalk as a stage, attracting dozens -or hundreds- of passersby, who eventually allow their bodies to sway to the rhythm of the music.

Tourist-oriented tango in the neighbourhood of
La Boca

 In the evening, guitarists opt for the metro as a music venue, and select popular Argentinian songs in the hope of inciting metro riders to sing-a-along.

 One Friday night, I witnessed to my great surprise an entire metro car of people singing along to every song the fired up musician -armed only with a guitar- was leading, barely pausing between the songs. Another time, a 20-year old break-danced on the wavering floor of the metro car... where else does this happen?

It's true!  People do dance tango in the street. At night time, entire streets are closed up to cars; projectors are set up, wooden boards are placed on the pavement, folklore music is played through loud speakers, and couples enthusiastically walk onto the improvised dance floor, followed by the amused looks of those sat at surrounding patios tables.

Book lovers will not want to leave.
With 200 bookstores, 70 libraries, and scores of kiosks, it is no wonder that Buenos Aires was inaugurated as the World Book Capital of 2011 by UNESCO.  Here, demand is so high that certain downtown libraries stay open all night... it is difficult to tell whether the placement of small coffee counters inside these libraries are a cause or a consequence of the extended hours.

(As a side note, tourists should try to avoid libraries located right in the middle of downtown - the books there will be two or three times the price of books in libraries just a bit further away.)

One should be aware that a cup of coffee at Cafe Tortoni includes the price of
the place itself - it is not cheap.
It is common knowledge that Buenos Aires has attracted important writers, artists and intellectuals for various centuries now.  There are 73 bares notables throughout the city - these are coffee shops/bars that hold 50-250 years of existence, and have been the setting of important cultural or historic activities.

The most famous is Cafe Tortoni, inaugurated in 1858, where the hundreds of portraits hung on the walls are proof that famous figures such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel, and even Albert Einstein have once sat at these tables.

Thin crust, wood oven-baked pizza with mozarela, sun-dried
tomatoes, and arugula - irresistible.

The excellent food of Buenos Aires encompasses a mix of Italian, Spanish and French culinary influences. Pizzas, empanadas (salted pastries stuffed with meat or cheese), and coffee with medialunas (small croissants) are the food of choice of Porteños (such are labeled the residents of Buenos Aires) - and they are all fantastic. Pizzerias and bakeries are actually on every. Single. Corner.
Outdoor seating is found everywhere, and nearly every cafe exhibits a deal of the like: "Coffee and 3 medialunas for 25 pesos (5$)".

Coffee with medialunas
Parks, tall trees, and plazas abound within the city.
At a short distance from downtown, a 360-acre ecological reserve offers a wonderful getaway from the concrete of the city. It has a river, a bike path, and a surprisingly large area of tall grass. It is free to the public, and open all night when there is full moon.

Buenos Aires is a city so big that Porteños themselves often ask each other for directions, which they exchange without the slightest sign of annoyance.

It is a city of music and books, of coffee and cigarettes, of pizza and wine.

This is Buenos Aires ; and it holds every right to its widely spread reputation.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Peru: It's not Just About Machu Picchu!

Colourful houses in the center of Lima 

I had the amazing fortune of spending an entire month in Peru, traveling by bus through five cities:  Lima, Huacachina, Ayacucho, Cusco, and Arequipa. Many who travel to Peru are convinced that Machu Picchu will be the highlight of their trip- and as magnificent as it was, it was definitely not my highlight.  Peru's numerous and diverse landscapes, its food, and its people were, in my eyes, its most memorable aspects.

  • Extraordinary Landscapes
The sand dunes in Huacachina, near Ica,  are the most majestic landscape I
have yet seen.
Peru has everything: ocean, jungle, mountains, sand dunes. If you have the chance to go to Huacachina, get up very early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the that moment, the only things moving are yourself and the clouds in the sky. What I couldn't help but think there and then is that if Nature is so beautiful and tranquil, it is so to inspire us to be the same, but as humans. 
An oasis is situated at a 2km's descent into the
Colca Canyon

From Cabanaconday (160 km from Arequipa), one can hike down the Colca Canyon, which is the deepest in the world (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon) at 4000 m in depth. There is an oasis at the bottom where one can spend the night for 15 soles (about 5$), eat at one of the few restaurants, hang out in the hamacs, or swim in the pool. A tourist's paradise.

Palm trees and flowers abound in the oasis at the bottom of the
Colca Canyon

 In Ayacucho (between Ica and Cusco), there is not a whole lot to do, but it is aesthetically pleasing, has many great restaurants (in particular the Via Via restaurant, where you can eat a truly delicious lunch for 9 soles, or about 3$), and is the subject of a very interesting history (it has been the center of bloody conflict between the Inca and the Huari; between the Spanish and the Inca; between Patriots and Loyalists; and finally, between the Sendero Luminoso marxist terrorists and government forces in the 1980s).
View of the cathedral and Plaza de Armas from the Via Via restaurant in Ayacucho
As for Machu Picchu, yes it is absolutely worth it -it is hard to imagine that I had debated going or not. I tend to avoid very touristy places, and it could not be more so, but for good reason. I will spare you the pain of posting yet another picture of the Inca ruins, but I must share one of the hike in the jungle on the way to Machu Picchu, which I enjoyed as much as the abandoned city itself.
The view one can enjoy on the way up to Machu Picchu
Exquisite food

The food in Peru is absolutely delicious. Among the typical meals one should try are:  rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper with beef), caldo de gallina (chicken soup with egg and vegetables), pastel de papa (a sort of "cake" made of potatoes, cream and cheese), ceviche (raw fish with lime, olive oil, coriander, served with corn and sweet potato), cuy (fried guinea pig -actually quite savoury, and very nutritive), and lomo saltado (sautéed beef with onions and peppers).  For drinks, try chicha de jora (a purple, corn-based beer), the famous pisco sour, and my favourite, emoliente:  a warm drink served on the street, which contains a wide array of medicinal plants (toasted barley, flax seeds, plantain leaf, dried grass, etc.). I'm almost certain that the emoliente saved me from getting sick a few times. 
Cuy (fried guinea pig)

Rocoto relleno at the front, lomo saltado at the back, and
chicha de jora

A woman is preparing emoliente in Cabanaconday

Golden People

I found Peruvians to be an extremely generous people, curious to learn about other cultures through their interactions with tourists, caring of their families, and very laid-back. The best way to meet those kind and inspiring people, in my opinion, is through couch surfing. I easily found a place to stay in Ayacucho, Cusco, and Arequipa, thanks to my beautiful hosts Juan, Hermogenes, and Anibal.
Ricardo and I, at the house of Hermogenes in Cusco

 Please allow me to share one of countless illustrations of their kindness. Not long ago, I took a two-day bus from the South of Peru to Buenos Aires. All I had for money was my debit card. We crossed the Chilean border without problem, but crossing the Argentinian border was a different story. I take the blame, I had not checked beforehand the requirements, and found out at the border control that Canadians had to pay a reciprocity fee of $75....which could only be paid online with a credit card. They would not accept cash or my debit card, so the bus driver so generously lent me his credit card. After two long hours (the Internet was not working for a while), I finally succeeded in paying the fee.  The other passengers were so understanding, and barely complained about the extra two hours I added to their trip.

Petty theft

Though rumors abound of petty theft in Peru  (and surely, it does occur -a few friends of mine did have some items stolen), I never got robbed.  Keep your bag closed and close at hand, be aware of false bills, and nothing should happen to you.  
I was unaware, at the time, that this taxi driver would steal a small amount from me.

The only time I did get robbed was when I gave a 50 soles bill to the taxi driver to pay for a 5 soles ride, and he gave me back (supposedly) 45 soles in coins!  Of course, I counted them later to find out there were  only 35 soles.  But hey, 10 soles ($4) is nothing. 

Peru is an extraordinary country to visit. You will have a great trip there, regardless of whether you speak the language or not.  But if you do speak Spanish, you will discover the most beautiful part of Peru: the generosity and warmheartedness of its people. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Meet Hermogenes, the host of 620 couch surfers in 547 days.

Hermogenes, 34, surrounded by his two boys Ricardo and Sebastián, and by their friend Alysa.

I arrived in Cusco, Peru around 7 pm, after a 22-hour bus ride.
Exhausted, I didn’t bother to barter the price for the taxi ride. I paid the ten soles requested by the taxi driver, even though my couch surfing host had told me beforehand to pay a maximum of six soles (“For six soles”, the driver told me, “I can drive you to the Plaza de Armas. But then you’ll have to walk ten blocks. It’s up to you.”).
I arrived at the given address, surprised to have the door opened to me by two very young-looking boys. The eldest, who appeared to be about eight years old, interrogated me in Spanish.
-Who are you looking for?
-Hum, Hermogenes?
-OK yes this is the place, please come in. Sorry about the mess, we just moved in a few days ago.

The place wasn’t messy, but it was small. I scanned the single room: one double bed, one bunk bed, one table, two chairs, and a two-feet wide gas stove (although it also contained an oven, the latter was out-of-use because a rat had found refuge there once, and had unfortunately been cooked while the oven was heating up, the eight-year old had confided. So there’s lots of bacteria in there now, he concluded).
Hermogenes's home: a single room with two beds, a table, a gas oven, and a
 non-functional refrigerator
Sebastián was eight years old, and Ricardo was three. Both were clearly used to travelers crashing at their place for a night or two.
“Here is your mattress”, said Sebastián while taking out a thin blue camping mat. “Sorry there are stains on it.  It’s because lots of other people slept on it. My Dad should be coming home soon from work. If you’re thirsty, we have water already boiled”.
Wow, I thought. I can’t wait to meet the man who raised these unusually well-behaved children.

Hermogenes arrived around 8:30 pm. While cooking some dinner, he explained to me their living situation.
“We actually just moved into this place three days ago. We used to live down the street, in a much bigger place. Then, I could host many couch surfers at a time. Three, four, even five.  Here, I can only take one or two”.
I was apparently standing face to the male version of Mother Theresa.
“You see”, he continued, “The rent at the other place was $200 per month. Here, it’s only $50. This way, I can send Sebastián to private school.”.
The cost of sending him to private school is 250 soles ($92) per month. But this expense lags far behind the expenditures for food, at 900 soles ($330) per month.
Sebastián, 8, and Ricardo, 3, enjoy some chocolate-covered peanuts-
rarily figuring on the grovery shopping list

And yet, despite this modest way of living, Hermogenes hosted 620 couch surfers over the last year-and-a-half.
Founded in 2004, the website Couchsurfing provides a platform for its members to either “surf” on couches in the city they are traveling to, or to receive “surfers” in their home for a few nights.  In 2012, the website counted 3.6 million members. One year later, this number had reached 6 million, connecting members in 100 000 different cities worldwide.  A system of references (positive, negative, or neutral) allows members to gauge the reliability of the surfer they will potentially host, or of the host whose couch they may surf on.
With 146 positive references on Hermogenes’s account (not all surfers left references), I had nothing to fear as a single woman surfing at a man’s house.
The only obligation a Couchsurfing host is bound by upon acceptance of a surfer is to provide him or her with a couch to surf on.  Nonetheless, Hermogenes always outdoes this criteria, offering a key to his guests for them to have unlimited access to the house, as well as sharing breakfast, and even sometimes dinner with them.

The motivating force behind his active participation in Couchsurfing is based on the desire to learn about and to build a connection with other people, says Hermogenes: “I do it for the friendships.  For the sake of sharing. I learn many things thanks to my guests: which types of people are most appreciative of what you give them, which ones need more commodities, etc.”.
One of the many plazas in the city of Cusco, where Hermogenes lives.

Hermogenes currently works in the administrative branch of a tourism agency; but this was not always the case, he tells me:  “The kids’mother and I used to own a hotel in the historic center. We both spent over $22 000 to buy and renovate it. I was quite invested in it. I spent sleepless nights driving to the airport at night to attract potential clients to our hotel. When the mother and I separated, I left her the hotel so that she would have a source of revenue. We got back together a year later. I was expecting to resume managing the hotel with her, but she had sold it without telling me. I had to start again at zero. ”.  His facial expression was devoid of any trace of rancor. It only revealed a sense of knowledge that had been gained the hard way.

Hermogenes blows on a small fire in a ceramic bowl, in
preparation for a ceremony of the reading of coca leaves.
Proud of his Inca roots, Hermogenes considers himself a mystic.
Despite this unfortunate experience, Hermogenes still hopes to build another hotel in the future, near the new international airport in Cusco that will be built in the coming years.  

Another dream of his is to one day become the mayor of Chinchero, his home town. “I think I have good chances. I am the only person from my town who has attended a private university.”. 
Ultimately, Hermogenes’s aspirations reach beyond this: “The truth is, I would eventually like to participate in the National Congress of Peru. But all of this is down the road. I have two boys to look after for the next few years.”.

Hermogenes is one of the most inspiring people I have come across in my lifetime.  Through living and interacting with him for the eleven days I was surfing at his place, I gradually gained the belief that anything is possible; and that serious downfalls happen even to the best of us – but with the right attitude, they will always be overcome. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Huacachina: tourists love the oasis, but are unaware of the water scarcity problem in the area

From the top of a sand dune, a view of Huacachina, with the city of Ica in the background

"Does that come with asparagus?", inquires Steven, an English tourist who is spending the day in Huacachina, hoping to catch a sand buggy ride through the majestic dunes of Ica.
He is contemplating ordering the arroz chaufa, one of the few traditional Peruvian dishes available in the restaurant Desert Nights. Most gringos (the South American term for Western tourists) tend to order burgers and fries, or beer and chicken wings.

A buggy carries tourists to the top of a dune for some sand surfing

Here is the irony: according to The Guardian, a study conducted in 2010 revealed that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley, a large portion of which is sent overseas to the English market, is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers are finding wells running dry. 
Steven was unaware of this.

In 2012, the National Water Authority (ANA) confirmed that water shortages in the Ica region have caused major agricultural firms to move to Northern Peru.
Yet, in the midst of this dryland glows the lake of Huacachina, the only oasis in South America. 
"Huacahina was discovered in the 1900s by the Italian Angela de Peroti. She found out that the water there had medicinal properties, like curing rheumatisms and skin diseases.", says Pablo, a tour guide in Huacachina. "There was a time where there were seven lakes in the Ica region. Out of those seven, Huacachina is the only one left.", he says.

Peru water shortages causing Ica agro firms to move north
Farmers collecting water from a well (courtesy of The Guardian)
Today, hotel owners advise against swimming in the lake, due to water contamination.  Moreover, the oasis is no longer natural, having seen its level gradually decrease over the years. "Every day, tap water is pumped into the lake from that well that you see, over there." says Pablo.   
It is said that in 2008, the water level diminished by five metres in two months

Despite the two or three scattered signs asking visitors to "respect the environment", the majority of them (especially the gringos) seem to be gleefully unaware of the ecological footprint their stay in Huacachina induces.
 After having sand surfed for a few hours, tourists go have a shower in one of the eleven hostels surrounding the oasis. They brush their teeth and wash their clothes anytime they wish.

They could not appreciate this unlimited access to water without knowing that 5 km away, in the city of Ica, restrictions abound. "In certain districts, residents only have access to water four hours a day. Two in the morning, and two at night.", says Eduardo, a tourist agency owner who lives in Ica
Does this imbalance not infuriate the residents of Ica?
Some gringos at Desert Nights, where the ´menu del dia´ consists of burgers
and fries
"They are used to it. For some, these restrictions have been in place for ten years", he shrugs. 
Christopher, an English traveler, was astounded to find out about this issue. "It´s not right... but I guess they´re still making money off of us. And I don´t think our presence here affects the restrictions in Ica. They would probably still be there". After a moment´s reflection, he adds:  "But yeah, there should be more information around about this problem.". 

Matheo, who works at the hostel Desert Nights, did not wholeheartedly embrace this suggestion. "Most people here come for a day or two. 80% are gringos, and very few speak Spanish. We cannot force restrictions upon these vacationers. There is a sign on the bathroom door that says that water is a scarce resource here in the Huacachina desert.", he says. 

Despite ecological concerns, there is a consensus among the Peruvian workers in Huacachina that tourism is extremely beneficial to the region. "If there were no tourists, many people in Ica would be unemployed", says Richard, a tour guide from Ica. "The average salary for Peruvians is 700 soles a month (250$). Here, we earn between 1500 and 2000 soles.", he explains.

I definitely had mixed feelings about staying in Huacachina. The empty sand dunes early in the morning and around sunset time are what kept me there for three days (OK, the sand surfing was pretty amazing too!).  I found out about the water scarcity issue on my last day. It´s something to be aware of... 
From top left: Richard, Pablo, Eduardo and Marcos. All four work as tour guides in Huacachina.