Manual Labor and Fencing Failure

In this tiny town, it has been quite the wild week. Not a day has gone by without an increased heart rate. Anja hired someone to complete all the maintenance—a job I’ve grown to appreciate and even enjoy—so our jobs vary each day. On Tuesday, our first day back, we spent all four hours of the morning moving hay. Two of us carried armfuls of the scratchy, invasive stuff through a wet patch and up a small hill to a large truck, where Naman received it and packed it into the back. We tried ropes to compact it, but only Naman’s force was reliable. It took 2.5 hours to stuff the truck, then we three lay on top of the hay, at least 30 feet off the ground, while the truck’s owner drove us down to Occupampa. Of course, the ride was slightly terrifying, but I’ve experienced worse transportation (motorbikes in Vietnam). Next, we spent 1.5 hours unloading the hay into a small room next to the horses’ stables. Again, Naman received the loads and compacted it into the corner with enough space on one side that one particularly mischievous horse, Martin, could not nab extra. We ended the job at 11:58, all of us relieved that we would not need to move hay hopefully ever again. Our clothes hoarded enough hay in every crevice that we have been constantly reminded of the job since.

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Occupampa at sunset.

On Wednesday, we hoped for a nicer job. Instead, we (now four of us) received an assignment on par with the hay: shoveling the poop pile into that same truck. This required more strength and seemed more systematic, so I preferred it, but we were also entirely in the sun and the truck was high and deep enough that we could not simply shovel the poop directly; we needed to fill either a wheelbarrow or a tarp and transfer it. But alas, within the first thirty minutes, our biggest and strongest comrade complained of something in his eye, and when no DIY methods worked to get it out, he left us and (eventually) travelled to Puno to see an opthamologist (but had to wait until 5 pm for relief). So, the three of us that remained did our best to complete the task, but ultimately we were too ill-equipped and too few to succeed. Luckily, the day was not all bad—it was Santiago’s (the co-owner) birthday, so we all ate lunch together and indulged in tres leche cake for dessert.

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A wedding in the Chucuito plaza = nonstop dancing for two days.

The next day, we all expected to repeat this job, but because we would not be able to complete it, we welcomed a much better task instead: leading the horses, one by one, away from the field and back. Because their herd tendencies are so strong, this is important to build both independence and trust. Of the four that we led, two (the mares) had very little issue and two (Martin, a stallion, and Wichyflor, a 1.5-year-old) felt nervous and whinnied or stopped constantly on the walk. While leading Wichyflor, a small and challenging child also showed up and attempted to help us, which only exacerbated Wichy’s confusion. But the exercise ultimately worked because that evening, the horses followed us to their stables without issue. A bit later in the morning, I helped Anja and another volunteer to measure and feed de-worming medicine to the horses. That also worked; their poop the next day had plenty of worms in it. Yum.

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Ratty, the most agile/athletic dog I have ever met, who technically has other owners who put a dress on her to “send a message.” Pobrecita.

Friday, a volunteer informed Naman and I at breakfast that we would again be moving hay, but a different and allegedly worse kind. Dread sunk in and we climbed inside the truck expecting misery. But when we reached the bottom of a bumpy hill and the truck’s driver managed to turn it around, we saw nothing but two medium-sized piles of what looked like straw. Once we learned the carrying method for this material—bunching it together and holding it with rope—we loaded the truck in under an hour. But before that, while we all stood watching, a mouse scurried from the pile and the driver chased after it to catch it in his hat. “Ratón!” he grinned. Then he put his hat back on with the mouse inside, still smiling, and left. We still don’t know what happened after that, or why it happened at all. When we finished, we had a bit of time to waste on a lovely view until we were driven back to the casa, where we unloaded the straw with tarps. Like the first few days of the week, it was certainly physical/manual labor, but I appreciated the system and did not mind the work at all.

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Queen Nefertiti and her babies.

Real disaster struck early Saturday morning. I have gotten up before six every day this week so I can read (Anna Karenina, which is a very fitting book as a lot of it describes farming life) and recharge my introverted self. So, when Anja asked if Naman and I could do the morning shift on Saturday, which entails feeding both sets of horses at 6 am and leading the Occupampa group to the field, I thought no problem. When we got to the Occupampa field, not all horses cooperated at once and we had to take them in pairs. But Merlin, the youngest and the halterless, did not immediately go in the field. When we managed to get the rest of the horses inside and I went to get Nefertiti, Merlin’s mother, to coax him in, I saw a horrifying sight at the other end of the field: Merlin, Wichyflor, and Venezia all grazing together with no proper fence in sight. For reference, their fencing consists of metal poles strung together with electric wire; a bit flimsy, but when the electricity is on, it does the trick. My first thought was that Wichyflor had kicked the fence down, and I immediately panicked. As I got closer, I saw that the entire back half of the fence was on the ground, but the front half stood; the remaining four horses grazed there and did not notice the lack of containment, but I worried about what would happen if they merely glanced in that direction (luckily, food takes up most of their brain space so they are not often perceptive). After running to grab Venezia and Wichyflor, I threw their ropes at Naman so he could hold on to them while I fixed the fence. Except there were no metal poles. They must be lost in this insanely tall grass, I thought. “I can’t find any fucking poles!” I told Naman, wild-eyed. Remembering the old location of the field, where they had grazed up until a week ago and where three wooden poles still stood, I leapt over a small hill and extracted the poles, running back to the field. But they would not stay standing and I could not both tighten the electric wire around them and make them stable, so I ran back to Naman.

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The opposite of how I felt on Saturday.

“I don’t know what to do!” I exclaimed for the millionth time. “We need to put the horses back!” He, meanwhile, seemed unfazed. We barely managed to grab all the horses (four of them; three were expected to follow) and lead them back to their home base field, but not without a lot of coaxing and pulling (which is forbidden here, but I was in distress and the horses were too confused to listen to me without some push). Then, we again tried to build the fence with the wooden posts, but it was doomed to fail. Finally, around 7:45, with all the horses safely in the home base field and the doors to the extra food shut, we walked the fifteen minutes back to the casa in shame (me) and fatigue (Naman) to tell Anja. Our comrades sat at the breakfast table, tranquilo as ever, and we rushed past, only sharing bits and pieces of the problem, so we could get to Anja.

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The closest Naman will get to the horses (kidding).

When we explained everything, she said, “There were no poles? Ah, then they were stolen.” Stolen. Naman had suggested it back at Occupampa, but I thought it had surely been one of the horses and we were too lacking in perfect vision to find them. But alas, the poles have been stolen before, and we had been too sleepy-eyed to notice the lack of half the fence when we originally put them in. We (I) had spent nearly two hours panicking over something in which we had no role. Relief. But of course, it was not yet over. Anja blessedly told us to eat some breakfast, then instructed one of us to stay and do the maintenance at Occupampa and the other to meet her in Puno (a 25-minute colectivo ride away) so she could buy more poles and send them back with us. After some discussion, I volunteered to do the maintenance because I craved the physical effort after such chaos and because I constantly miss running (I ran once here, for ten minutes, and it was not worth it at this ridiculous altitude) and any tiring physical activity makes me think about running less often. I finished in less than two hours, Naman returned with the poles twenty minutes after that, we repaired the fence, led all the horses inside the freshly fenced field, and returned to the casa by 1 pm, gratefully, for a large quinoa/vegetable/eggs lunch.

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The Plaza de Armas in Puno (the nicest part of Puno).

Sunday, we kayaked. Which is a lot more difficult than I remembered. I thought I had been building arm strength with all this labor, but kayaking is only arms, and without help from my other muscles, mine are pretty useless. Our guide, a friend of Anja’s, gave us a three-hour tour of some mysterious Lake Titicaca sites, including two sets of giant green-tinted rocks with an eerie history. According to him, locals avoid the area because the rocks themselves are native to an area 40 kilometers away and no one knows how they could have ended up on an island in the lake. At certain times of the month, at night, the rocks are said to emit a green glow and even, in some cases, to activate a portal to perhaps another world. On Google Earth, if one connects all three sets of the giant rocks, it forms a perfect triangle (I have not verified this). He also told us a lot about his spiritual involvement, mostly in alternative (to western religion) spiritualities in tune with nature, the cosmos, and energies. Before certain ceremonies (including but certainly not limited to ayahuasca), he makes sure people are prepared physically, mentally, and spiritually. A huge part of it, he says, is to simply do good. This I could get behind. The rock portals and other new-age-veering theories, I’m still undecided.

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And, because it’s Chucuito, a lamb riding the colectivo.

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Chojo Chojo Chojo!

We transitioned immediately from a lavish, over-the-top lifestyle on the train to a simple, back-to-basics farm existence. Here, we sleep in a stone-walled room with one outlet, one table, and one small window. We rise by seven and sleep before 9:30. We cook all our own meals on a double-burner that requires lighting by match and use the limited ingredients provided for us: quinoa, eggs, white bread, a few vegetables. Starting at eight, for four hours (sometimes less), we do the “maintenance,” in which us 4-6 volunteers (depending on who has the day off) separate into two groups: Occupampa and Chojo Chojo. At the former, we lead the seven horses (Jantor, Martin, Venezia, Maru, Nefertiti, Wichyflor, and Merlin) from their stable area into a separate field, then refill their waters, food, hay, and clean the poop from their stalls. At the latter, the same, except that herd contains five horses (Valiente, Venus, Cappuccina, Venere, and Luba).

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The 6am shift feat. baby Merlin and the Occupampa crew.

Each station has its perks—Occupampa is farther from the casa and has more horses, but it is more beautiful and the field is nearer the stables; Chojo Chojo begins and ends with the horses at the casa, where all resources are easily accessible, but the walk to their field is farther. This week, I have spent most of my time at Occupampa—which I prefer—while Naman has stationed at Chojo Chojo. After preparing lunch, we have most of the afternoon to ourselves, during which I read, use the spotty internet located at yet another location, the posada, and shower. At 4:30, we again separate into groups and fetch the horses from the field back into their stables.

All this sounds simple, seamless, and elegant, but more than often it is chaotic. Just the other day, only myself and another volunteer went to Occupampa and our attempts to rally seven horses at once from their stables to the field resulted in two loose horses without halters. One, Maru, is a pregnant mare full of hormones and stand-off-ish to humans (hence the lack of a halter—whenever we approached her, her ears pinned back and she ran at us for a few steps before turning her backside to us); the other, Merlin, is the youngest foal and confused whenever he and his mother, Nefertiti, separate. We tried food, running at them, approaching them, but nothing worked. We managed to get Merlin in by bringing Nefertiti back out and coaxing them together, but Maru refused. Eventually, the other volunteer journeyed back to the casa to recruit someone who Maru trusts, and when he arrived twenty minutes later he caught Maru and returned her to the herd.

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Cappuccina, the pregnant troublemaker of the Chojo Chojo group.

The next day, Anja, the co-founder of this farm, asked if I would like to ride Maru. But riding here is not traditional—they do not use saddles, opting for pads instead, and the bridles are bitless. The horses themselves, meanwhile, are trained with natural horsemanship, so punishment is rare and I would describe their character as quite wild. Even for me, with years of experience with horses, these animals are far more unpredictable, unruly, and ultimately have more personality than any others I’ve encountered. On our first night here, Anja told us that while she initially (1.5 years ago) saw this project as a riding school, she now feels more moved in the direction of horse therapy, wherein being with and working with horses can heal. Of course, I am fully on board with this mission and applaud these horses’ treatment, but I was still a bit concerned to attempt riding one—especially Maru. Still, Anja knows these horses better than anyone, so once she helped me get on top of Maru, I felt relaxed. I channeled the occasional “body riding” sessions I received from my horseback riding lessons and tried to remain in tune with Maru’s energies while using my own to calm her. It was a short ride down a path and back, but I felt more connected to her afterward and now have even more respect for the power of horses.

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Muña tea, a secret weapon against indigestion and altitude sickness.

Another note: the casa also includes three dogs—Maca, Ratty, and Elvis. Dogs here run wild without collars, leashes, or any fencing to keep them from exploring. Whenever we leave the casa, at least one (usually Ratty) trots alongside us. Despite their immense freedom, they are unbelievably loyal.

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Demonstration of weaving and building on the floating island Uros.

On Sunday and Monday, we had our two days off for the week and journeyed to Puno at 6 am to find a tour to the islands on Lake Titicaca. While wandering a street near the Plaza looking for an ATM, we happened upon the only open shop on the street, which sold overnight tours to Amantani and had one leaving in less than an hour. 40 minutes later, we boarded a bus that slowly filled with other tourists, then boarded a boat on the lake, and set off for a two-day trip. Our first stop—patiently explained in both Spanish and English by our bilingual guide—was Uros, a floating island. There, people build the island by combining cubes of the reeds’ root system, then covering it with layers of the reeds themselves. They anchor the islands, but use the wind to move them when their area lacks fish. I was awed by the simplicity and sustainability of it all, but we had to move on to our overnight destination, Amantani, a normal island two more hours away. Our guide gave us the spiel before: on Amantani, there are no cars, dogs, or police; they are peaceful and healthy; our meals, provided by our host families, would be vegetarian. I was immediately enthralled, and the island itself did not disappoint. Our family was lovely, including the two children, and every meal was delightful.

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The hike to Pachatata (Father Cosmos/Earth).

In the afternoon, after lunch, our whole group hiked an hour to Pachatata, one of two temples. While most of the group struggled, Naman and I had a full week of acclimatization (sidenote: Naman did feel some symptoms of altitude sickness on Thursday, but he took all his Diamox in the proceeding days and has felt fine since) under our belts and reached the top first. At the temple, our guide instructed us to walk around it three times, then place four stones with our wishes into the temple. After sunset, we hurried down in the dark, found artisanal beer at a random shop, rejoined our host family for dinner, and witnessed the beginnings of a spectacularly starry sky, enabled by the lack of lights on the island. Though exhausted after dinner, we rallied to don the traditional garments of the islanders and again join our group (who all also wore the garments) for a fiesta full of traditional music and group dancing.

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The wall of stone wishes outside the temple (feat. ankle brace).

The next morning, after a deep sleep and a (disappointingly) light breakfast of two pancakes, we hopped back on the boat for Taquile island. Like Amantani, this island had no cars or dogs, so we hiked 40 minutes into the town square and immediately purchased two ice creams despite the fact that it was 10 am. On Taquile, they advertise their “knitting men” because unlike other areas, the males of the island knit and weave goods as much as the females. After some wandering, we all trekked down some dirt paths to our lunch location, which Naman and I somehow got for no extra charge even though it was not technically included in our package. Then, a three-hour boat ride back to Puno, sustenance at an internet cafe we chanced upon that ranks second on Trip Advisor for restaurants in Puno, a quick stop at the supermarket, and hops from an auto taxi to a colectivo to return to Chucuito. And now, back to work.

An (Unintentional) Week in Cusco

We have been in Peru less than a week and already an ATM has eaten my debit card. But this only happened after a string of unexpected events in a so far wildly unpredictable trip. Even before we left the States, when I learned about the terrifying and foreboding altitude sickness that might strike, we changed our entire first week’s itinerary. Instead of flying straight to Puno, which rests at 12,500 feet, from Lima (sea level) we decided to acclimate slowly—first, the Sacred Valley (9,000 feet) for two nights, then Cusco (11,000 feet) for another two. The changes caused stress and ignited my rare but intense anxiety, but we felt as prepared as possible.

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Our first accommodation: a rooftop in Callao, the airport district next to Lima.

Then we arrived in Cusco. Per the instructions of our Airbnb in the Sacred Valley, we were to take a cab to a street with colectivos, then hail one to Calca. Our taxi driver took us to the empty street and informed us that all roads to Calca were closed. No colectivos, no buses, no taxis. Instead, we were stranded at 11,000 feet with no way down. Within a few minutes, we decided (we had no choice but) to brave it, booked another Airbnb in Cusco, and started the real journey. We had arrived in Lima at 3am the previous night/morning, but the airport district of Callao had little to offer vegetarian tourists. Cusco, on the other hand, caters to tourists flawlessly. Before we even reached the main square, the Plaza de Armas, we fell victim to an easy tourist trap: two women dressed in bright colors offered us two alpacas—one baby and one adult—to take a picture with, then asked us for money after we took it. Other tourists laughed at our excitement but the baby was too cute to ignore. (We know better now.)

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The first of (too) many tourist traps.

Once in the Plaza de Armas, while chatting with an art vendor who would eventually sell us a painting, we learned why the roads were closed. Teachers and professors, among other groups, were staging protests against their unfair pay. All day, demonstrations and marches flooded the street; hordes of police stood by in groups. But from what we saw, it was completely peaceful. Neither the protesters nor the police ever gestured toward violence. Of course, as my mother later reminded me, it is illegal for visitors to participate in Peruvian protests, as they would end up in jail or back in the States, so we merely watched.

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Demonstrations and protests filled the Plaza de Armas.

As it turns out, 11,000 feet is fine, especially for two people hyper-vigilant of any symptoms and dedicated to drinking green water tinted by chlorophyll drops. So, instead of worrying about breathing, we spent the next four days visiting every street and shop vendor we could find and haggling for mostly fair prices; we even bought a new duffel bag and filled it with our loot. We also ate a lot of incredible food. We sampled options ranging from fried potatoes on the street corner to organic, farm-fresh salads and pastas. Taking advantage of our vegetarian status (breaking vegan), we found plenty of ice cream and desserts to indulge in. On Friday, while waiting to print out our train tickets to Puno, an employee offered us complimentary champagne. Though alcohol is on the list of things to avoid while acclimating, we could not resist and later tried the famed Peruvian pisco sour, the local mojito, and, of course, Peruvian beer. All delicious.

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Stray dogs (and cats) everywhere. A lot of them wear clothes.

On Saturday, I vouched for an early start to journey to Saqsaywaman, ruins a 30-45 minute walk above the main square. But Naman is already slow to awaken and he felt unwell after a late-night pesto pasta, so we did not get started until mid-morning. After scaling a steep staircase, we rested at the cathedral of San Cristobál, where an opportune local convinced us to use our limited funds (exactly enough for admission into the ruins) to hire a horseback tour to see multiple sites rather than simply visit Saqsaywaman. We hopped in his car to a village, where a teenage boy helped us onto our horses and began our “tour” down a dirt path. The boy barely spoke, but Naman spent most of the ride convinced that we would be kidnapped, sacrificed, or both. We were not, but when we stopped at some (different, smaller) ruins an hour in, we watched another tourist’s horse lose control and the man fell off. Naman was comforted by the presence of other tourists on horses, but watching the man fall was enough to scare him for the remaining 20 minutes of our ride. Unfortunately for him, our next stop is a horse farm to WWOOF for three weeks. Our riding tour ended on a random dirt path, which we followed to some more sites we could not access without a ticket, and eventually to the Cristo Blanco, a giant white Jesus statue. From there, we found our way back down to the plaza along the edge of Saqsaywaman.

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Proof that Naman rode a horse (and loved it).

The real trouble began when I raised the topic of our Salkantay Trek to Macchu Picchu, which we will complete when we return to Cusco in three weeks. We planned to do the four-day trek alone, using our guidebook and common sense as resources (mostly because the online prices for a guided tour did not dip below $400). But walking the streets of Cusco, every other door is a guide company advertising their treks, and when we inquired about the prices, we found at least three between $160 and $190—the prices were higher for a train back to Cusco on the final day, but opting for a bus saved us a significant amount on the quotes. It took some convincing for Naman, but to me, the extra cost for ensured safety, direction, and meals is worth it. Choosing between the lower and upper options within our price range, the cheapest company did not have any online reviews, the mid-range had mediocre reviews, and the highest had the best and most consistent reviews.

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Did not make it inside Saqsaywaman but still got a pic.

But I’m bad at planning things, so by the time we decided on the company we had ten minutes to spare before we were scheduled to meet a planetarium tour. We needed to pay in cash for the cheapest price, so I sent Naman off with my card while I finalized the details with the company. Twenty minutes passed with no Naman, and when he finally returned he said, “We have a problem. The ATM took your card.” Much frazzlement and stress later, I learned that the two ATMs he tried did not want to provide the withdrawals, and on the third try it did not give the card back. Upon contacting the bank (it was Saturday, of course, so the bank itself was closed), they offered to print me a new card, until I told them my card was from a small credit union in the States. So, for now, I have no money, but luckily Naman brought not one but two cards, so we are set. We also ended up buying the trek tour tickets later that evening (with his card) and missed the planetarium tour.

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Views from 14,000 feet halfway between Cusco and Puno.

Now, we are starting a completely different part of the trip working on a horse farm near Puno and the wonderfully named Lake Titicaca. But first, we took a luxury ten-hour train ride from Cusco to Puno that offered us plenty of indulgence and reminders of our privilege before we embark on drastically simple living. The train was expensive, over-the-top, and thoroughly enjoyable. They gave us plenty of drinks, more lunch than either of us could finish, two instances of live music and dancing, a stop at 14,000 feet, and we also met some excellent people on the trip. It was the most luxurious thing we will do in Peru, but it was fun to pretend to live like that while it lasted.

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Our pretend home for ten hours.

To characterize the first week of the trip: spontaneous, colorful, indulgent, delicious, high, contrasting, and, of course, unpredictable. Much more adventure awaits.