Well it has been a while- my last entry was right before we left for Tena- Mijal, Arden, Julia and I left on a super early bus, around 6 to start an approximately seven hour venture on public buses to Tena, which lies near the jungle very close to sea level. After a weird scary movie called Vertigo and lots of random stories to entertain ourselves, we arrived to get situated in our hostel. We took a wooden canoe across this little river to a kind of zoo, a shelter persay for certain animals. We saw a tapir, monkey, capibara, turtles, a massive tree and even a tree with cinnamon leaves. The tree we saw was over 100 years old! As it grew, it grew down into the ground and then grew out until its death, so that the tree was symmetrical upside down. The amount of species and biodiversity in the region is unreal- the baby monkeys scrambling around in tree branches especially entertained and touched us all. We saw the other kids from EIL as we stripped into bathing suits and played in the river.
The next day was our last day, really, because of the long travel time. We managed to find a package deal for only 60 dollars- rafting in the morning, jungle tour in the afternoon, followed by a night in an indigenous home. The White water rafting was one of my highlights that weekend- I didn’t know what to expect really, and as I realized that we did not actually sit in the raft I began to worry a bit. So we have to sit on the side of this raft as we paddle and make sure to stay in the boat when the white water carries us into the rocks? I started to think about falling out when we learned the proper body position should we fall out of the raft- on our back, knees bent so we don’t ram into rocks as hard. Nice. Sure enough, I fell out the first rapid, called the butterfly rapid- freakn embarrassing. Luckily there were two German guys with us too, and one fell out with me so it wasn’t too bad. None of us fell out for all the next rapids, over about two hours. It was a lot more fun in the front-as my dad says, “the view from the back never changes”. It’s very true. We passed some native people, cleaning some metals in the river and looking for more, bathing, washing clothes, or some kids playing in the rapids with old tires. It made me think how much the river meant to these people, going back to the title of one of the group’s media project titles- Water is Life. I think they realize the importance of water more than I do. We stopped towards the end of our trip on the river to jump off a 6 meter bridge- it looked rickety. I saw each plank bend under the weight of a car passing by and also wondered how deep the water was where we would land. Our guide assured us that as long as we ben tour knees as we hit the water we could be fine. Great- so I hesitated a bit as I climbed up onto the metal railing but it wasn’t bad. Barely hit the bottom on impact. Even better was that all these locals on the shore watched us, most of the kids naked too. They looked pretty excited to see foreigners, but they probably see many other rafting groups along those rapids.
On our jungle tour, our guide found a plant called achiote whose seeds gave a deep red natural dye, used in some of the indigenous tribes to dye their hair red. So we got some neat face paint, although in the sweltering heat and humidity I sweated it right off. Our guide led us up onto this ridgeline overlooking the jungle, and we got to look out across the expanse of trees and clouds. We continued past an elastic tree, where once sliced under the bark, the tree would ooze a black liquid, then hardening to form rubber, a natural elastic. Pretty awesome the amount of resources found in the jungle- it seemed like every other plant could be used to alleviate an ailment- stomach problems, coughing, sore throat; everything the people in the indigenous villages could need came right from the jungle. I can now see why they are so angered by petroleum companies’ taking their jungle- the jungle is their way of life. We passed by a natural waterfall pool for a quick dip and a water massage. So cool- literally everything is in the jungle!
The place we stayed at for the night was not really an indigenous village- a father and his son lived there, but were not what I thought of when I heard “indigenous”. That night a shaman visited the house to go through a cleansing ritual with the girls in the group. He uttered incantations as he shook a leaf around their body, shaking away the evil spirits. It was quite the ritual to watch, and we payed for only a small sample. Usually the rituals the shamans conduct are much longer and more grandiose. It was a very neat side to see of the Ecuadorian culture, and we experienced only a tiny bit of the real culture. The next day we ate there and rode in the back of a pickup in order to get back to Tena, catching the bus back to Atahualpa and meeting with everyone else.
Seeing everyone felt a bit strange at first- I got used to the small group and all of a sudden I felt surrounded by smiles and stories and talking. Bit overwhelming- it took me a few days to become accustomed to the big group again.
We left Atahualpa forever, hopefully not, but I’ll see. My host brother gifted me a beautiful wood recorder and pictures, and everyone asked me to come back sometime in the future. It was a hard question to answer- I wanted to say yes but I have no idea where I will be in one, five, ten years, so I answered a vague “I hope so”. The families of Atahualpa voiced that their doors will always be open should we return- their hospitality is unbelievable. I felt odd accepting the gorgeous recorder as a gift, but the effort made to remember Atahualpa was astounding, so David must have really wanted me to have it. I tried to play it unsuccessfully, but have since learned “hot cross buns”. Working on it.
My last night in Atahualpa was pretty unforgettable. The whole town practically showed up to see our media presentations; except the funny part was that they arrived about a half hour later than the scheduled time. Very relaxed in Atahualpa as far as getting places on time. We all presented, a local pan flute and guitar band performed as we danced, tons of food was passed around, including a traditional colada morada, a rich dessert drink made of berry. We all sat and talked with our families, and each of us, including the leaders, received certificates/graduation recognition from the parroquia of Atahualpa. Later as the food dwindled, we had a huge dance party to electronic music. My host brother said I could be a professional, which flattered me. I am not quite the professional grade dancer. We watched 10,000 BC as a family before all going to bed.
The last morning before leaving, I made sure to get some family pictures on the roof- at first I was worried because I did not think my host dad would make it back from Quito in time, but luckily he came back the night before. Worrying about not saying a proper goodbye or getting a picture reminded me how much they meant to me. David went off to school, my host Dad to Quito for treatment, and my host mom still there with me as I stuffed all my belongings in my backpack. I ran down to pick up my pants, getting mended for a hole, but the store was closed. I hated that- making everyone know that I left something, being the limiting factor in the group. But more than that was the town’s reaction to my problem. Two women from the store next to the one with my pants immediately pulled out cell phones and called her house, offering to get a car to run down, practically mobilizing the town to get my pants back. They suggested sending them to Quito to pick up, everything; eventually the storeowner ran up from her house down the hill to give me the pants. At that point I felt so bad for making everyone run around for me I was ready to get another pair of pants- but the happiness and willingness to get me those pants stunned me- they were worth about four dollars.
We returned to Quito for a day, back to the mission from before. We had a cool bowling night with the Ecuador semester group, cosmic bowling in the Quicentro mall. Really fun to be with some of the other kids going through a similar experience- they studied public health in Ecuador instead of environment, and we got to see their media projects too. Modern vs. Traditional medicine focused, and it was interesting to see how many plants could assuage a cold, or stomach problems, or other minor symptoms. The next day we were free to walk around the city before evaluations and a night city tour, where we got to see La Garda, a statue of the Virgin of Quito overlooking the city. Pretty spectacular at night with the soft purple aura around it. After our last meals at the mission and a really early wake up on Halloween, we navigated the airport and took a flight to Cusco. We got a lot of strange looks- not every day the Ecuadorian sees a hippie jester, batman, zombie, reindeer, or bumblebee walking through an airport.
After climbing Machu Picchu and about to be off to South Africa, I have much more to write about. Unfortunately, the internet in South Africa is speculative at best, so it will be difficult to post any pictures. I’ll see what I can do. All I can say is that we’ll be in a lot of airports.
Cusco was a lot like Otavalo- big market scene and a ton of opportunity for shopping. We took a roundabout way to land- big banking turn into a skinny valley for a long runway- funnily enough, there were some seats lined along the sides of the runway should locals want to watch the planes land. The city is pretty big- some market like setups but mostly streets lined with stores, and multiple squares mixed into the normal city block style. It was a relaxing few days before Machu Picchu- cafes, shopping, and Alpaca craze set in, along with a lot of holiday shopping too. I still had some bouts of buyer’s remorse, but I think after initially regretting some purchases, now that I realize I might not ever be back in Cusco, I do not feel as bad. Although the need to stuff my big backpack and have two carry ons made me think a little bit about the reality of having all that stuff. And of course whether or not I would actually use those items- I keep struggling with the idea of buying new items, especially clothing, and how easy it is to justify any action I make. Either it’s “I’m supporting the economy”, or “it’s a better form of consumerism in a market…at least they get all the profit”, or “you’ll never be in Cusco again.” At the end of the day, I still needed to leave a whole backpack of Ecuadorian and Peru clothing with Andrea in NY. I still don’t know if I am happy with my choices, but I’m leaning yes.
We did find some amazing stores in Cusco- one in particular with a Native American man selling great quality leather- expensive, but in my eyes worth it. My friend Chris bought a gorgeous hand painted drum with the three spirit animals painted on- the condor, the puma, and the snake. The condor represents peace, the puma represents energy, while the snake represents intelligence. It’s fascinating the meaning behind these symbols. These red and black seeds used for bracelets and necklaces represent protection—also the stone turquoise represents creativity and mental health. The owner was very animated and proud of his work, happy to explain to us the greater meaning behind his work.
The most common way Hope and I spent most of our time in Cusco was looking at art. Yet we did not look at art in galleries or stores, just peering over the shoulders of young, walking artists in the squares. The artists carried with them their entire portfolios- paintings with oil, charcoal, or watercolor on paper or even felt for better transportation. After the first day when an artist stopped us in the square, we seemed like targets for all the artists. We spent at least over an hour looking through vibrant shaman faces, the Indian in the mountain of Machu Picchu, spirit animals, or the Peruvian ladies’ hats and dangling braids of midnight black hair. Fascinating and incredibly detailed work, requiring days of toil- almost all of the work shown was by the student, maybe one or two by their instructor, and the artists we saw were all still in art school. Most of the themes shown were the same, but each had a slightly different style or preferred medium, and spending all the time looking and arguing down a price seemed a bit annoying at the time, but getting to know the artist behind the work felt rewarding. I don’t think I would’ve got that experience at a gallery- plus the pieces in the street were far less expensive. Bargaining the price of a gorgeous piece of artwork down made me feel degrading almost- I ended up buying one beautiful piece a bit overprice, but stood outside this restaurant while my lunch got cold trying to be reasonable with the man. Hope explained it pretty well- I did not want to cheat him for a price too low, but in a way a price too high cheated me. A delicate process.
Machu Picchu hike began. Much like other hikes, well some, Machu Picchu has a train option to get to the top; we took the longer, four day trek on foot. Yet we did not have to carry any of our necessities, save clothes, toiletries, etc- we had a team of 18 porters carry everything from chairs to tables to food and water for us up the mountain. These literal mountain men astounded me- I thought carrying a 50 pound comfy pack was hard- these guys literally tied tarps together with rope, threw a few tarp straps on, and powered up the trail in sandals. Some wore shoes, some sandals—some had better packs too, but almost all of the packs I saw had no sturdy, comfortable waist belt. The waist belt is the most important part of a pack really, especially a heavy one, because it transfers most of the weight from the shoulders to the hips. I felt pretty pathetic standing in a stretching circle about to shoulder my cushy, 20ish lb pack as the porters saddled up 50 lb behemoths in sandals. Not only would all the weight be on these guys’ shoulders, but they would practically run up the trail, especially downhills. Every day by the time we got to camp, the tents were set up, food being prepared, no sweat for us at all. Plus they would clap upon our entry- too bad we weren’t there first to clap for them, they deserved it most. On top of the porters, our two formal guides were aptly named Socrates and Jesus. They introduced us to plants and gave insight into the Incan culture as we hiked—what better leaders to follow up to Machu Picchu than Socrates and Jesus.
On top of physical demands, the trip did not demand very much preparation. The porters provided all meals and even hand and feet washing buckets for us, as well as bathrooms at every camp site and the rest points along the way. The bathrooms did not have seats or provided toilet paper, just a hole with some for grips for the natural squat position. Uncannily comfy really- once I got used to it. They even had trash barrels for the used toilet paper. Our meals were incredibly luscious- pancakes, rice, meat, vegetables, even flaming banana with alcohol. Popcorn, tea four times a day, once each meal and a five o’clock tea time- the quantity of food was incredible for a hiking trip. It made the hiking part that much easier.
Over four days, we covered a little over 40 km, up and down hill about evenly. Our second day was the most challenging- seemingly endless stairs up, and seemingly endless stairs up. Wind and rain pummeled us for the duration of the day, and drying our clothes in the tent worked to a point- even my Gore Tex 3L jacket was absolutely soaked, either to sweat or water, or most likely both. I was not pleased. Luckily after day 2 the weather cleared for our long day three- for our early five wake up the porters not only woke us up, but also brought us coca tea. The leaves are most potent chewed, causing more energy and less need to eat or drink. A lot of the porters used the coca leaves on the trail, occasionally stopping on uphills to change leaves. I tried it one day but didn’t feel much effect, though I could have used too few leaves. Interestingly, one break spot I saw one of the porters intentionally spill his drink, a sort of murky looking drink I thought was chicha. I later learned that in the Inca culture, they frequently offered the first sip of their drink to Pachamama, or Mother Nature. One lunch break we made sure to give Her some of our orange juice for good luck with the weather.
Our last day hiking up to Machu Picchu we had a very early wake up, about 3, in order to make a checkpoint before 5:30- there were many other groups on the trail, and all the groups needed to make it through the checkpoint in order to continue to Machu Picchu. At al the check points we could receive stamps in our passports, evidence of our trek- six all together, with the most awe inspiring stamp of course at the gates of Machu Picchu. After a stimulating conversation regarding religion, psychology, and the death penalty, we made it to the sun gate. Strange how my mind wanders during a hike. Unfortunately the clouds hid our first view of Machu Picchu for a few minutes, but once it cleared all the cameras came out. I felt that as many pictures I took of the view, I cold never get enough. Every few seconds down the trail a better view emerged, better light, better clouds. Yet at the top of the Sun Gate I could not help but feel oddly unsatisfied. It wasn’t the view, or the fact that I just walked to one of the new 7 Wonders of the World- it was me. I kept thinking that it would’ve been better if I had worked harder, or if there weren’t as many people there, or that no matter how long I gazed upon that site I knew it would not be enough. I thought how I could not be like the Huoruani tribe; I knew the beautiful moment had to come to an end. One quotation that Conner told me stuck, although this might not be phrased correctly, “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that you’re there.” The quotation intertwines wonderfully with my goal of staying in the moment, a goal at that moment I did not fulfill. I escaped my snit little by little as the tour progressed, but I still felt tired in all the beauty. Tourist groups walked by, security guards stationed around the site to guide traffic and beep at the walking on the grass or taking jumping pictures, which I found out first hand. The face in the mountain looks much stronger in pictures and paintings, but gazing at the site I did recognize the face. Words can’t describe the awe of Machu Picchu, or the brilliance of the Inca culture. The Incas had a compass rock, facing almost perfectly in all four directions, a rock to determine the solstices and equinoxes depending on shadow, and most importantly their most important symbol, called the chacana, or Andean cross. The symbol embodies their entire culture- the spirit animals, levels of life, numbers, even the seasons, geography, four parts of the year, everything. Their way of life can be interpreted from that sole symbol. The architecture of the site was also unbelievable- water canals, structures stronger than our current houses- their rock walls appeared rudimentary, but inside all the rocks had grooves, making them fit together like puzzle pieces. Instead of just flat rocks, the grooves strengthened the wall exponentially- brilliant. All the water flowed underground, or above, into certain pools, like little fountains. Everything revolved around nature and the Earth.
A few aspects of Machu Picchu disappointed me, mainly the tourist aspect of the site itself. American food at the bottom, one of the most expensive hotels in the area near the base, and overall a commercialization of the area. But without that commercialization, my visit to Machu Picchu would not have been possible. Still, all those people and the American, tourist touch to that Incan site takes away from its beauty- everywhere so far I’ve seen American aspects and highlights, for better or for worse; all the while it makes me feel strange. The idea in globalization that despite travelling, you can never leave home. The Incas never said goodbye in their culture, only “see you later”. So until my next South Africa entry, as the Incas say, spelling probably a bit off, “Tupananchiscama”.