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.

In Defense of the Ordinary to Create the Extraordinary

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

After a stellar season opening race, my second favorite professional runner, Kate Grace, posted this quote alongside two pictures: the first showed her in her warm-up, composed and polished, while the second displayed her in the race, fierce and wild.

The trouble with quotes is that they often matter to someone not because the words themselves are exceptional, but because the person reading them, living in her instant where past meets present, needs them. The quote, then, is not about its meaning, but about the moment.

I had been thinking about routines and their power for months, even years, before I read this, but because this came from a runner I admire, and because I was at the time injured and clinging to my routines­–physical therapy, sleep, journaling, etc.–Flaubert’s words hit me with almost religious sincerity. I crave simplicity and intentionality in my daily routines for the freedom it affords me everywhere else. If I spend 40 minutes of every day on PT, strengthening my micro-weaknesses with mundane, monotonous micro-exercises, then I will once again feel the bliss that is running fast, the synergistic flow of mind, legs, and lungs that can take me places beyond the ordinary.

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Thinking about routines and how it all relates to tides & waves & rocks. Mother Earth, man.

Work, to me, right now, is not where I make money (I hope I was not violent with the kids I worked with all summer), but where I seek and find purpose. Kate Grace went on to win the Olympic Trials and race the Olympic final. All I want is to run faster and stronger than I ever have before. To think and learn and write better than my previous self.

But all this is not to say that I reject spontaneity or refuse unpredictability. In fact, I welcome such unknowables like never before. When I budget my time and energy, I am liberated to discover experiences, people, books, that I otherwise would have been too distracted and disorganized to notice.

As I enter my last year of undergrad, I feel excruciatingly aware of finitudes. I know that each first is a last, and that because I will almost certainly never again live in Corvallis beyond June, I must become an expert in its intricacies and opportunities. There is almost all of McDonald Forest left to explore, non-obvious food places to try, and, of course, so many classes to take. Last weekend, I missed my last cross country season opener, but I also watched my teammate/roommate/friend race for the first time in 1.5 years, an experience perhaps even more satisfying. The most I can ask of myself is that I welcome these feelings, all sizes of good and bad, without limits.

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We should all be zen like this donkey. Just look at that focus; purely content.

A certain wildness emerges when all the particulars fall into place. At the end of each day, comforted in my prescribed and sustained efforts, I sleep prepared for something spectacular to happen tomorrow. I burden myself with responsibilities at the appropriate times in order to let my mind and spirit wander later. The philosophy of routine is one of discipline and self-regulation, but once it is established, life clarifies itself, if only a little bit.

The burden of finding a life purpose/career/calling is confusing enough without the mess of existence to complicate it. Perhaps my desire for routine is a predictable need for control of the minute in order to feign a larger influence. It is probable and logical that all of my life experiences and circumstances are randomized and meaningless, but why would I read books so feverishly if I were not always grasping for believable narratives?

I want to believe that my choices matter, that I matter, but if I spent all my time worrying about how best to achieve this, I would do nothing. So, I choose instead to buy in to my own systems, to pretend that I know what I’m doing until I have convinced myself, and I can say that I’m more at peace, if not happier, because of it. I have always established my own moral codes, rather than accepting these from ambivalent authority figures, so if I can justify my theoretical routines once, then I can perform them, indefinitely, without question.

My philosophy, like all philosophies, is flawed and limited, but without some boundaries I could never rationalize personal dogma. I want to do great things, but I need a method to my madness. Even if I do not go on to win the Olympic Trials, I know that I can and will go on to do and create the thing that I should and must, whatever the work is that will sustain me. However flimsy my premise and however distant the results, that promise is enough to ground me in routines that make me free.