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.

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