Leopold in the Jungle

A guest post by one Christine Ribeiro

As part of our South American adventure, the Amazon was always expected to be one of the highlights. Though we were not visiting Brazil, we had heard from a friend that Ecuador was the best of the other countries, as the rivers that flow through the jungle are narrower, thus allowing for more animal sightings. While other travelers we met along the way regaled us with tales of their Amazon adventures in Peru and Bolivia, we kept the mantra and were fully committed to Ecuador. Amidst a range of options, we decided to stay at an Eco lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve, in the northeast of the country. To get there you had to take a 2 hour flight from Quito to Lago Agrio, followed by a two hour bus ride to the river, and then a two hour boat ride to the lodge. It was out there. We arrived to our basic but comfortable lodge, after seeing various monkeys, birds and even a sloth along the way.

Cruising down the Rio Cuyabeno

Cruising down the Rio Cuyabeno

Though the lodge was in the middle of the jungle and had only partial walls, in your mind there was a separation. The animals are out there and we are in here. This bubble was initially burst when we arrived back from our night tour on the river to see people staring at the entrance of the dining cabin. There seemed to be something of interest, so we headed over only to find a large tarantula in the entrance way. Not what you want to see before you head to your cabin at night for the first time. The guides tried to assure us that they only lived in the dining cabin and rarely went to the room. Not so reassuring.

Unwelcome visitor

Unwelcome visitor

We went to bed our first night, checking all of the sheets and blankets first to make sure the coast was clear. We then sequestered ourselves inside of our mosquito net and were seemingly safe. In the middle of the night, however, Omar had to go to the bathroom. After using the bathroom (attached to our room) with his headlamp on, he went to wash his hands, only to find a frog sitting right in our sink. A bit of a shock when you are groggy in the middle of the night. He told me about it the next morning, but when we went in, the frog was nowhere to be found.

Later the second day, after a hike through the muddy forest, we were hanging up our clothes to dry around the cabin. Omar wanted to hang his hat, but there were limited hooks in the room. He saw a hook just outside our room where he went to hang his hat, only to realize that this hook was actually a frog looking out of a hole in the wood!

Not a hook at all

Not a hook at all

We later learned that our frog friend, which we quickly named Leopold, would spend his days in the hole. As it got darker, you would see him start to move further out of the hole and, inevitably while we were at dinner or out of the room, he would make his way to the bathroom. One night, we invited the others people on our tour to meet Leopold and he posed on the sink for them.

Leopold in the shower

Leopold in the shower

Now expecting Leopold to be in sink, it made things much less scary when you found him there. The last night, however, he decided to switch it up and waited on the door, exactly where you put your hand to push it open. He got Omar again when he went to the bathroom. His final joke, which I am sure he will be laughing about for days after.

Waiting for the sink to be turned on

Waiting for the sink to be turned on

We saw a lot of interesting plant and animals during our trip and were glad we waited for Ecuador. We are also glad that Leopold was the only to enter our room, as far as we know.

Leopold waving good-bye

Leopold waving good-bye

Advertisements

Chasing Rebels in Southern Peru

Ayacucho is a place most travelers to Peru don’t wind up visiting. It served as the epicenter of Peru’s battle with domestic terrorism in the 1980s and 90s, and the home of the Shinning Path. It is also reportedly one of Peru’s poorest and more indigenous regions, an oft-cited incubator for the insurgency. It was for these reasons that despite the looming prospect of a 16-hour non-direct, decrepit night bus along windy mountain roads, I insisted we make our way to the town in between the journey from Cusco to Lima. I wasn’t sure what we’d find or even what I was looking for, perhaps I was just curious to set foot in a place I had remembered from childhood time spent watching the news (Saudi Arabia often lacked for viable young-people entertainment in the early 90s – or maybe I was just a dork. Both perhaps?).

Upon arrival, the city itself did not appear to us to be struggling, but rather sufficiently recovered from whatever transpired 20-30 years ago. A few decades can make a huge difference, I surmised, while some public works projects were active. In fact, the vertigo-inducing 16-hour journey to get there from Cusco was actually an improvement, as a new road and repaired bridges last year cut down the travel time from 28 hours. In addition, the roads of the entire town were under construction, part of a project to provide better drainage during rainy periods. Perhaps just part of Peru’s larger road-specific development aspirations – or perhaps more due to a special focus on this region to deter support for Shinning Path remnants now largely involved in the cocaine trade along the Brazilian border? Who’s to say (well someone probably, but not me nor anyone I met during our 72-hours in the town).

People feel save enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

People feel safe enough to put on seemingly daily parades, as everywhere in Peru!

Roads under repair

Roads under repair

Nonetheless, we did notice some evidence of gloomier times. We came across a large poster advertising a new political party by the name of Movadef, a coalition grouping which may or may not be linked to the Shinning Path’s continuing political arm. The Peruvian Government has previously rejected the party’s registration, ostensibly for that reason, but volunteers were still there collecting signatures for another attempt. An old man approached us and explained, “the United States thinks we’re a bunch of terrorists, but we just want our rights – people are working 10-hour days and still not making any money.” A seemingly legitimate demand, we bid him good luck and made on our way. One of our next stops was the Museo de la Memoria, or a memorial museum set up by the family members of some of the victims of the violence, both those killed by the Shinning Path and the government. The museum, small but brimming with information, served as the most vivid reminder of what used to transpire in Ayacucho and the surrounding region. The lady running the show there explained to us that the new political party “is somehow linked to the Shining Path’s ideas but different,” without delving further specifics before essentially shutting that conversation down. Perhaps some things are still best left for a more discrete conversation.

Victims of the violence from both sides

Victims of the violence from both sides

From the museum, it’s just a short walk to the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga (UNSCH). It was here where the Shinning Path had its origins, stemming from the teachings of philosophy professor turned guerilla leader, Abimael Guzmán. A normal looking university, we walked through its grounds surrounded by hoards of fashionable young students occasionally looking up from their smart-phone technology to register a non-Internet related thought. I was curious to ask to see the philosophy department specifically, but we (re: Christine) decided against it.

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

the thiriving students of San Cristobal University

The story of the struggle is not confined to Ayacucho despite the Shinning Path’s urban beginnings, as significant activity occurred in the surrounding countryside. Thus, we took a day trip to visit some nearby ruins and a small town. Along the way one woman complained that “nothing is changing here despite what the President is saying about malnutrition rates and education – maybe in the cities it is getting better, but not here in the rural areas,” a reaction that perhaps answers a bit of the question regarding how the rest of the province has fared since the culmination of violence in the 1990s.

Sevetny-two hours in an area, especially one in which I only had a cursory background in, is not sufficient to make any sweeping conclusions, but that won’t stop me. I don’t know what Ayacucho was like before, but I do know it would’ve been near impossible to visit this region twenty to thirty years ago for foreigners concerned about long-term survival. It is perhaps in this that I took away the greatest lesson from the short detour off our otherwise obliviously happy trip. Given that the vast majority of my professional focus revolves around areas currently ravaged by the sort of terrorism and conflict that used to afflict Ayacucho, it’s more than a little encouraging to visit a place that has been able to reduce such concerns to history. It’s an optimistic reminder that despite the seemingly intractable violence in locations such as northern Nigeria or south-central Somalia today, this can be a blip on a longer-term time horizon, as Ayacucho, albeit under extremely different circumstances, has demonstrated. That optimistic lesson in itself is enough of a reason to make the 16-hour journey, vertigo and all!

Translation:

Translation of a message on a wall right outside the university’s gates: “The secret to peace is in the respect for human rights”

Memorial to the victims of the battle with the Shining Path in Lima

Memorial to the victims of the war in Lima

Festival Season in the Sacred Valley

Whilst in the sacred valley location of southern Peru, Machu Picchu is obviously the star attraction, and not without merit. Nonetheless, other towns in the region host a number of smaller ruins, that if not overshadowed by Machu Picchu’s grandeur, would be stunning enough sites to tour in their own right. It was for this reason we decided to visit Pisac, a small town overlooked by a sprawling collection of former Incan buildings atop a hill.  It was for a completely different reason, however, that we almost wound up never leaving.

On the afternoon of July 15th, when we arrived in Pisac and couldn’t locate our hostel, we wandered to the main square to get a better sense of direction. Instead we saw a man on a horse holding a chicken, while trying vigorously in vain to grab a box tied to a string hovering above him. Considering we had just arrived in town, I took the bold assumption that everyday in Pisac unfolds as this one. Instantly, I was hooked.

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the tantalizingly elusive (and empty!) box

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

the less tantalizingly elusive chicken

so close!

so close!

In reality, once a year Pisac puts on a spectacle – a town-wide celebration dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. As of about a week ago that meant nothing to me, and likely still means nothing to you, but it just so happened that we randomly arrived the very day this annual festival kicked off, a recent rare bout of inadvertent but perfect timing. We stood in awe at this half parade, half horse race, half grab-the-box contest, and all street party. I didn’t care if we ever found our hostel at this point, I was ready to live here. Cooler heads (i.e. Christine’s) prevailed, and after about two hours and with dark rapidly approaching, we managed to pull our eyes away from the main square to go drop our bags off. But that’s all I was prepared to do, for as soon as we located our abode for the night, I was jetting back to the main square.

Luckily, as we found out via our helpful hostel hosts, today was just the first of a four-day fiesta (anything less than that really doesn’t even qualify as a ‘fiesta’ per say). There would be plenty of fun to be had, with non-stop music and action until the Virgen del Carmen herself had enough and limped back to church. Returning to the main square, the horse racing part had ended, but the plaza had descended into an open-air party, with a multitude of street food options. Opting for chicken necks, a chicken sandwich, beef hearts, and three rounds of a local drink made from the fava bean (ponche), we got our fill for a total of $4. But that’s was not even really the exciting part – the entire time in the corner we had seen people constructing these weird looking structures, which they kept stacking on top of each other. There were three separate groups more or less, and the structures kept getting bigger and bigger. It was like a team of engineers were competing the build the weirdest looking possible useless wooden robot. Still perplexed, while walking by Christine noticed what she thought was “dynamite” attached to one of them. They were going to blow these things up!

soon to be on fire!

soon to be on fire!

And blow them up they did. Without warning a few hours later, one of them light up next to the unassuming crowd, forcing many to take a few steps back as the next few minutes descended into a dizzying array of lights, smoke, fireworks, and other spinning things (take a look for yourself).

IMG_5792 IMG_5789 IMG_5790

The spectacle of these three firework buildings, for lack of a better term, effectively brought a close to the first day of festivities. I couldn’t believe there were going to be three more days of such action! The next three days, of which we witnessed two, largely consisted of music and dancing. Usually not my cup of tea, but then again usually the people don’t look like this:


IMG_5741 IMG_5914

IMG_5942

Divided into 18 associations, the townsfolk of Pisac dressed up in various costumes that included intricate masks, and performed a number of cultural routines that evoked common historical traditions and themes such as Spanish people are horrible, Chile is an aggressive land-stealing nation, big noses and monkeys are funny, and that the job stability brought on by indentured servitude doesn’t fully mask its negative consequences. Ostensibly a contest, the 18 associations each had a party headquarters scattered throughout town, while at any given point two or three would be parading about. It could perhaps be described as a more tame, less sexy, poor man’s version of Rio’s Carnaval. Or perhaps not, since that doesn’t make much sense. But you get the idea (maybe).

Profile of some of the associations

Profile of some of the associations

The third day was an official contest, with each association getting about half an hour to show their best. Some were rowdier than others, replete with the occasional danger-inducing but somehow never injury-filled firework into the crowd. In addition, the dances often included whips, interactive crowd measures such as child stealing, candy/fruit tossing, drink spraying, and even silly string. People of all ages partook in each association’s dance routines, including unhappy but ostensibly voluntary child labor.

some good ol' fashioned child-stealing

some good ol’ fashioned child-stealing

silly string battle!

silly string battle!

(un)happy child labor

(un)happy child labor

Given a previous scheduling conflict, we were unable to stay for the fourth and ultimate day of the festival. Perhaps for the best, as our hostel host informed us that in the early afternoon the associations would go around and steal everything they could from anyone they found on the street, only to then return to the plaza and set up a makeshift market where they sell you your items back. But it’s ‘funny,’ she said. Despite moseying on before the finale, we considered ourselves fortunate to have participated in 75% of Pisac’s locally famous Virgen del Carmen festival, all the more remarkable given that we had arrived in town for a completely different reason. The next time we make it to Pisac, however, won’t be under such oblivious circumstances, but rather to begin an annual tradition of partaking in the madness – and everyone is invited!

IMG_5929 IMG_6041 IMG_5954 IMG_5952 IMG_5988IMG_6013