Saturday, May 3, 2014

May 3rd - Back in the USA!

May 2nd- Lima , last day in Peru

By the time you read this we may already have landed at JFK unless I can post this before our flight takes off. We are at the airport in Lima waiting to board our flight home. Students are frantically working to finish journals and everyone is excited about going home. 

Our last day in Peru has been amazing. Lima is an exciting city and we have had another great guide who had taken us on two tours of the city. We started the morning with a visit to a local market. This was a market with many vendors gathered under one roof selling everything from fruits, vegetables, staples, meat and every animal part imaginable, spices, utensils etc. It reminded me a lot of similar markets in Karachi. In fact Lima seemed in many ways very familiar because it was so similar to Karachi with its clearly marked divisions between the wealthy and poorer areas, the same status symbols in terms of cars, homes and foreign franchises. I actually felt quite at home. For the students it was a real eye opener and such a different experience from anything else we had seen in Peru. 

We spent almost 45 minutes at the market trying a dozen or so different fruits , all native to Peru. We then began a bus tour of the three trendiest neighborhoods in Lima- Miraflores where our hotel was, San Isidro and Barranco. We saw beautiful houses, well maintained neighborhoods and interesting architecture mixing Spanish colonial with other styles. 

We then drove to an area on the outskirts of the city where we could see the vast tracts of shanty towns. Our guide Franz, explained to us the various development stages of the shanty towns and we had a long and interesting discussion about the informal and formal economy in Peru which then turned into a discussion of economic development in Peru over the last few decades. It was another one of those spontaneous moments that turned into a valuable and interesting discussion for the group. We learned that only 7% of Lima's 10 million residents live in the upper-middle class neighborhoods we had seen, with the majority living in much more modest homes and the shanty towns in front of us.

As part of our tour we stopped for lunch at a place that specialised in beef heart kabobs. This was definitely an adventure for us but we all tried them, some liking them more than others.

After lunch we had a few free hours to shop or explore, so we split up into groups and went our separate ways. A few students went down to the beach and dipped their feet in the water so they could sample the Pacific Ocean. 

We then met for our last dinner together at a restaurant called Tanta. This is a restaurant (one of many) that is ownend by one of the most famous up and coming chefs in the world - a Peruvian chef Gaston ( forgotten the last name). We had an incredible last meal, complete with amazing desserts, which was the perfect culmination to a fabulous three weeks. 

But we still had more to see as on the way to the airport we had a night tour of the historical district in the center of Lima which was beautifully lit, including museums, government buildings and the Presidential palace. 

I can't believe what an enriching last day we have had. We are now on the plane ready to take off so I probably won't be able to post this until we land tomorrow morning (Saturday). I'll try and include a picture of us at JFK so all the parents know that we made it in safely. 

Hasta mañana!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

May 1st - Arequipa - Lima

The pace is slowing down during our last two days of travel and we are basically soaking in some new sights and enjoying ourselves. We had a half day tour of Arequipa which included a visit to some scenic viewpoints where we had a great view of the three volcanoes that surround the city. We then visited the old part of the city which was built in the Spanish colonial style, some beautiful churches and a monastery that was of enormous historical significance to the city. 

Along the way we learned that one of the main economic activities in Arequipa is copper mining which would explain why the city appears to be economically vibrant in comparison to some of the other places we have visited along the way. 

During lunch we had the most amazing chance encounter with a gentleman who turned out to be a 94 year old economist from Luxembourg who was in Peru for a project sponsored by the government of Luxembourg. The project is to build a city with housing for low income residents and to create jobs to attract people to the city. He seemed really knowledgeable about the Peruvian economy and spoke quite a bit about what he thought the biggest issues were. He also had an amazing life story- he was a Holocaust survivor who had spent three years in Auschwitz; he had served as minister of finance in Luxembourg, taught in several universities around the world, published a book, been retired for thirty years and traveled all over North and South America. He gave us his business card and as soon as we get back to the US we are checking the website for the urban project that he is working on. 

After lunch it was time to catch our plane to Lima and when we arrived we met up with the other half of the group that had stayed on in Cuzco for the Spanish immersion course. The students were excited to meet their friends and we had a spirited group that checked into our hotel tonight. We immediately set out to find a place to eat and everyone got to walk around and see a bit of Lima this evening. We are staying in one of the best neighborhoods in the city and there are plenty of shops, cafés and restaurants around many of then well known US chains. It's a fascinating contrast to what we've experienced so far in Peru and it'll be interesting to see if the students realise that this small microcosm of society is not representative of Lima as a whole and certainly not of Peru. 

Tomorrow we get a couple of tours of the city so we still have time to form our impressions of the place. Our last day in Peru should be interesting.

April 30th - Colca - Chivay - Areqipa

Another early start for us this morning and another long day (it seems that lately every blog begins with this statement). We left our hostel in Sangalle at the bottom of the canyon while it was still dark at 5 a.m. along with a number of other groups. The climb up is so grueling that the guides have hikers complete it before the sun becomes too strong. A couple of us rode mules all the way or half way through or else we would have kept the rest of the group waiting for a long time. 

The students did a fantastic job of sticking with it and just pushing through all the way to the top despite legs turning to rubber and cramping up. It was sheer determination in the end that got them through and I am so proud of the whole group. Everyone made it to the top in under three hours and there were many celebrations not only amongst our group but all the other hikers who were cheering their team-mates on from the top.

From the top of the canyon it was a short hike to our restaurant in the village of Cabanaconde for breakfast and we then made the 90 minute drive back to Chivay to pick up our luggage. After a quick stop for lunch we were on our way to Arequipa. Everyone was tired and desperate for a shower (we hadn't had one in over two days) so we didn't stop anywhere along the 3.5 hour drive. 

We did see some vicuña really close to the side of the road and pulled over to get some great pictures. Pablo told us that vicuña wool, because it is so fine, sells for about $400 per kg. Unlike the llama and alpaca which are domesticated, vicuñas are wild and because they are the national animal of Peru, the government is taking great care in protecting them. Since they are wild, we wondered how their wool is obtained and Pablo explained that once a year, local communities are allowed to use nets to trap them briefly so they can shear them but they are then released immediately.

As we got closer to Arequipa we saw an enormous cement factory in the middle of the desert. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru with a population of over 1million. It was obvious as we approached the outskirts of the city that this was a much more developed and prosperous area than any we had visited so far. The city is the center of commerce and industry for the region and one could see why more and more people are moving there for the prospect of employment and a better quality of life. Unlike the smaller towns that we saw in the Andes, where jobs appeared to be scarce because the economy was centered around agriciculture and tourism, this area appears to be growing and we saw many signs of economic progress. 

When we reached Areqipa it was time to say goodbye to Pablo. He had been an excellent guide but more than that I really appreciated his social conscience. He really cared about the communities still living in the canyon and tried hard to create an awareness of their lives and also to get tourists to interact with them like we did so that the focus was not just on trekking, which was ideal for our class. He was originally from that area but like many families his parents had moved to Arequipa for the education of their seven children. Pablo still had relatives who lived in the canyon and he he tries to help a different family each time he is down there. I think he has been one of my favourite people that we have met in Peru.

Our hotel is located a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas (the main square) and close to dozens of shops and restaurants. As soon as we had checked in and showered, the students wanted
to set out for some shopping. Lists were made (I'm so impressed with how organized some of them are) and names were slowly crossed off as we wandered from store to store. Some of the students have been so good at practicing their Spanish and have enjoyed the process of bargaining as well. 

After two hours of shopping we found the restaurant we had made reservations at. I chose a fancier restaurant for our last night as a group since tomorrow we meet up with the Spanish immersion half of the group in Lima. We had a nice dinner and talked about our experiences during our travels. We also talked about what we had learned about the economy of Peru in the different regions we had visited from the Andean mountains, to the Amazon rainforest, to island economies in the middle of the highest navigable lake, to poor communities at the bottom of a canyon. Upon reflection it's quite remarkable to think about the variation in physical geography and environment that we have experienced in these three weeks and how each region posed different challenges and sometimes advantages for economic activity. 

I had gotten a little token keychain for each student to represent something about them or something that happened to them on the trip. Hannah got a macaw to remind her of the two that tried to steal her bread in the Amazon by landing on her shoulders. Sydney got a pair of sandals to represent relief from her hiking boots which caused such painful toes for her. Alyssa got an image of the sun to remind her to put on sunscreen. Kurt got a Peruvian hat since he wore one almost every day. Kyle got a vicuña because he had the longest strides I've ever seen as he passed me up and down every mountain we climbed (I couldn't find a mountain goat).  Kathleen got a journal for being so diligent in keeping up with her writing every day. Last but not least, Connor got a sombrero-like hat to represent the intrepid explorer hat he wore all the time. 

Tomorrow we have a half day tour of Arequipa that we are all looking forward to before our flight to Lima in the mid-afternoon. We actually get to sleep in tomorrow until 8 a.m. which seems deliciously decadent considering our past mornings. 

Hard to believe we will be back in the US in two days!!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The path out of the canyon

View from a bridge

April 29th - Colca Canyon Day 2

Our second day in the canyon began with a visit to two more families in the community to deliver more of the supplies we had brought for them. We then had a delicious breakfast of crepes with sliced bananas and chocolate and caramel sauce drizzled on top (who would have thought?). 

Before leaving the village where we had stayed overnight we stopped at the primary school and were fortunate enough to see class in session. We gave them the games we had brought for them and took some pictures. The school only had two children because so many families have moved out of the village to the bigger towns outside the canyon. Pablo told us that there were only ten families left and the teacher was worried that he would soon lose his job because the goverenment would close the school. To attend secondary school the kids would have to walk to the top of the canyon to the village of Cabanaconde and then come back down again every day - a six hour hike! This is another reason why many families chose to leave the canyon.

We then started the second day of our hike. Our destination for the day was the village of Sangalle, which is an oasis at the bottom of the canyon where there was the promise of a pool and lush greenery to provide relief from the dry, desert like climate of the canyon. As we hiked, Pablo stopped on numerous occasions to pick fruit for us to try from the groves of fruit trees we passed along the way. We got to try pears and cactus fruit and something that looked like kiwi but was very sour and lemony.

The lower part of the canyon was green and lush with avocado, apple, lemon, fig, pomegranate and all sorts of fruit trees. Unfortunately transporting this bounty to the top of the canyon and to market to sell was so difficult that the villagers couldn't use the harvest for income. Instead they consumed it themselves and used it to barter amongst each other.

We hiked steadily for about two and a half hours and then came to a point where we could see the oasis down below. That motivated everyone and we practically flew down the canyon to get there, although it took another hour to actually reach our lodgings. Most of the students went right to the pool; I took advantage of some hammocks to rest after the hike. 

After a late lunch we then had the entire rest of the day free, something that hasn't happened yet during our travels. Students rested, wrote in their journals and talked. Then a couple of the guides set up a volleyball net and we played volleyball for close to two hours. I had never played volleyball before and have concluded that it is a decidedly painful game; my forearms and hands are still sore. The fact that I was probably not hitting the ball correctly might have something to do with it. The students however had a blast and as always became competitive with some good natured taunts being thrown on both sides. I think they've really enjoyed this day; I'll get some feedback from them over dinner which we are waiting for.

After dinner it will be early bedtime because we are to leave at 5 a.m. to begin the climb out of the canyon. Pablo has shown us the zigzag path that will lead all the way up and it looks intimidating. The students are preparing themselves for a tough hike tomorrow. Buenes suerte (good luck) to us!