Stones in the belly button

Cuzco means “belly button” in Quechua, the language of the Inca, as it was considered the heart and center of Inca empire.  From here the four regions of the empire spread through Ecuador and down to Mendoza, Argentina.

Upon our arrival to the city we passed by the massive monument to Pakuchatek, the forward-thinking Inca recognized for modernizing the empire.  The next day, I got my first glimpse of the Incan wall- the best remaining example of Incan stonework.  A wall that is one block long, in which there is not a single continuous straight line and absolutely no mortar.  The wall dances and the stones, ranging in size from a loaf of bread to an oven, seem almost organic.  We walked by this wall no less than 6 times during our two visits to Cuzco and each time I felt transported despite the kitsch that surrounds it.

Cuzco was alive during the month-long June fiestas.  There were parades of folk dances along the Plaza de Armas each morning and on the weekend we were fortunate to catch the closing of the Corpus Christi ceremony.

Numerous towering saints were shouldered out of the cathedral and paraded around the plaza accompanied by brass bands, no less. Wonderous brass bands.

Long after the saints had retaken the cathedral, the bands gatherned in the corners of plazas and revelers drank and danced into the night.  I ate alpaca kebobs (anticuchos) and wandered the plazas recording the different bands.

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Local bus pulls out all the stops

Tour Peru promised me a direct bus from Puno to Cusco, no stops, no locals.  Not my usual way to travel, but it meant two hours less travel time.  However, when the bus made its first stop and a ‘bus load’ of cholitas began to climb aboard with their wares and proceeded to argue over seats, the cat was out of the bag.  We had been sold a local bus at tourists prices.  However, the hassle of the additional hours of travel was soon forgotten as we were treated to a variety show of vendors and beggars who turned the bus into a veritable stage and the passengers, their unwitting audience.

Act one:  “Asadito, asadito,” she cried out as opened up her shouldered burden, pulled out a cleaver and began to hack apart what appeared to be a fourth of a grilled cow, doling out portions into individual plastic bags for sale.  Meanwhile, a minstrel whose voice never rose above a whisper had climbed aboard to serenade us on one of Bolivia’s many variations on the mandolin.  Each song, which consisted of the same fingering and the same inaudible voice, was met with a raucous applause in the form of thunks and chops from the clever-wielding meat lady.

Act two:  “Ladys and gentlemen, men and women, fellow travelers, please excuse my intrusion.  Many of you would prefer to continue your conversation or your reading (only we gringos were reading), but please give me 15 minutes of your time, friends, as I am sure that what I have to say will prove to be a great interest.  Friends, many of you may have experienced, or know someone who has experienced kidney stones, liver problems, impotence…”  This man was a beautiful orator, as he marshaled all available evidence (real or not) and played into the vulnerabilities of his rural compatriots in order to sell his packets of powdered “maca”, a local tuber capable of curing all ailments.  (I later overheard him on his cell phone, “I need more boxes of maca as soon as possible.  What’s that?  Oh, yes (nervous laughter), I know I owe you 100 soles (Peruvian currency), but please understand, I am on hard times, we can work this out…”)

Act three:  A lesser orator followed with a similar pitch for an ointment intended to cure arthritis and similar symptoms.  With his audience proving unresponsive, he fell into a pitch for inspirational pamphlets that explained the meaning of local refrains and dealt out life wisdom.  I bought one of each.

We finally arrived in Cuzco towards dusk, after having traveled about 9 hours.  However, we agreed unanimously that the local bus was worth (almost) every hour.  What was paraded before our eyes on that bus was no less than the drama and hardships of everyday life in the Altiplano of the Puna, where itinerant vendors target, as well as mirror, the hearts and realities of their fellow compatriots.

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Going native island style

Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet above sea level and is 118 miles long.  About one third of the lake belongs to Bolivia, representing the country’s only port of call ever since Chile wrested Bolivia’s only access to the ocean in the War of the Pacific (circa 1880).  To this day, the quest to reclaim this ocean access remains a national obsession (elementary students sing songs evoking Bolivia’s desire for a ‘little piece of ocean.’)  One man said to me, “it is the only thing that unites us.  Otherwise we would just end up killing one another.”  A self-declared multinacional state by law, Bolivia faces strong internal divisions.  Historical antagonisms divide Altiplano indigenous from the eastern cruceños of Santa Cruz, as well and those from the southern region of Tarija.  Many of these issues revolve around resource extraction and wealth distribution.

The remaining two-thirds of Lake Titicaca belong to the Puno region of Peru, a beautifully bleak treeless landscape which in winter season is brilliantly alight in golden sunshine as the last grain and potato crops are harvested.  Sparse adobe buildings dot this provocative landscape while the continuous lakeshore provides an endless horizon.

We set out by boat from Puno to the islands of Uros.  The islands are famously known as the ‘floating islands.’  The lakeshore was once home to the Uros people, who were later conquered by Aymará and later the Quechua speaking Inca.  Seeking refuge, they fled into the lake and developed a system of floating reed islands, subsisting off of fishing, hunting, and small scale agriculture.  Islands could hold up to five families and when conflicts arose, islands could be cut in two and set a drift.  In the last 50 years, the Aymará speaking residents, no longer the Uros, have come to depend almost entirely on tourism. Island communities receive visits on a rotating basis.  Visitors are treated to a didactic lesson in island history, translated by bilingual guides, and are then ‘invited’ to a family’s home and dressed up in local costume.  Lastly, and almost obligatorily, handicrafts are offered up for purchase.  Our girls enjoyed the experience and despite the circus-like nature, I too was fascinated by the dwellings, islands, and boats, all built from the totora reed.  As we paddled the lake my host unashamedly admitted that things have changed with tourism.  “Even this boat (a rather large catamaran raft) uses recycled 2-liter bottles for flotation in the hulls, in order to save labor and time.”  He concluded, “gracias al tourism, vivimos felices.”

Two more hours on our tour boat brought us to the island of Amantaní, one of two large mountainous islands whose inhabitants also benefit from tourism but who also continue to pursue subsistence agriculture.  These islands have no roads and thus no cars.  Only walking paths.

There are few meat animals, so they villagers are largely vegetarian.  There are primary schools, with teachers traveling from the mainland each week.  Quechua is the primary language and families live in small ‘comunas’ dotting the island.  We were housed with a local family with two small children the girls’ age.  Not nearly as over done as the floating islands, here we were able to observe the natural pace and activities of daily life.

Engaging with a local family was wonderful for the girls.  We also got to practice the Quechua phrases we were taught by our guide.  Not to be outdone by our reception on the floating islands, we were also dressed up and accompanied by our families to the town hall for dancing to live musica nacional.

Overall, we were struck by the isolated, pastoral life on Amantaní.  The beauty of Lake Titicaca left a lasting impression.

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Landing at 4,000 meters

La Paz, Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world at 3,500 meters above sea level (the airport is at 4,000).  While living in Mendoza, hiking above this altitude involved acclimatizing for a day or two, so its no surprise that in our hotel coca tea as well as coca leaves where available around the clock.  We took several days walking the city to acclimatize.  Any uphill walking was an immediate reminder of just how high we were.

La Paz, and Bolivia for that matter, is a very different place from where have been living and traveling in Argentina and Chile.  Over half the country’s population is indigenous and in the Altiplano this number is certainly higher.  The indigenous in this area are largely Aymará speakers.  The Andes are dramatic here, with charismatic, snow-covered peaks towering over the high plateau- the most prominent being Illimani, whose size and prominence never ceased to amaze me.

The streets of the city are like an unending bazaar.  Vendors set up on the street, curb, and sidewalk, selling grains and nuts, potatoes, vegetables and fruits, coca, clothing, electronics, street food, and more.  My favorite were the puffed grains.  These sweetened chunks looked like over-sized Sugar Smacks (or any other puffed breakfast cereal).  They were transported in bags twice the size of a human body.  Watching porters walk with these bags strapped to their backs was like a cartoon.  The sheer number of vendors and ready buyers spoke to the popularity of this food, which could be for munching, or served as a cereal.

Most indigenous women and some mestiza women wore multiple layers of skirts, known as polleras, and the curious bowler hats.  Too small to fit over their head, the hats seemed to balance precariously, serving more as a marker of identity than as protection against sun or rain.  These women are called ‘cholitas’, and by all appearances they seem to represent the backbone of the informal economy in the Altiplano, which represents 8 out of 10 jobs in region.  These women are tough, working from dawn well into the night. They seem to spend most of the day seated, watching over their vast wares.  They take no flack, and a camera toting tourist like me was reproached often for invading the sanctity and privacy of their urban realm.

La Paz has around 1 million inhabitants.  However, up beyond the bowl in which the city is set, lies El Alto, a sprawling satelite city of adobe buildings with another million plus inhabitants of its own.  While we didn’t see it for ourselves, El Alto hosts a massive flea market and is home to cholita wrestling- yes, skirted, braided women engaged in WWF-like wrestling!  (I bought a DVD and the girls and I watched a YouTube video that profiles these wrestlers.  Good documentary:  Wrestling Women- Bolivia.)

The girls and Jenny trekked with a guide to the base camp of the Condoriri peaks.  The trek brought them to about 4600 meters.  The stamina of the girls brought much attention from other hikers!

Because of a bad weather day, the outing conflicted with my mountain bike ride with Gravity, Bolivia.  We rode some splendid single track in the Sorata area.  It was outstanding riding.

There was much more in La Paz, like shopping!  So many textiles and crafts!  We soon moved on to Lake Titicaca.  More to come…

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A closing chapter…

Apologies for not posting in a while.  No news is good news, right?  My parents were with us for the last three weeks.  We did some nice traveling in the north of Argentina.  We visited beautiful towns and landscapes in the northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy.  It was my mother’s first visit to Latin America!  My parents also followed us in our daily routines here in Mendoza and were quite taken with our many activities and the wonderful people that have come into our lives here.

About two months ago we made the decision to leave our apartment in Mendoza and travel before returning to the U.S.  For the last three days we have been packing up  our material possessions, assessing just how we will bring everything back.  We have almost got it down to a reasonable amount.  Tomorrow we are off to Santiago, Chile for the weekend, and then we are off to Bolivia and Peru.  In the mean time, a friend has offered us a place to store everything while we are away.

Today was the girls’ last day of school.  It was emotional for all of us.  They both left school with huge envelopes full of cards and gifts from their classmates.  We thanked the staff and teachers and walked away from the school for the last time.

In Peru we plan to spend at least two weeks doing volunteer work at two different sites.  One is called Suai Wari, near Cuzco, where we will work with local youth, teaching, playing, and tutoring, as well as helping with chores.  And later we will visit a farm closer to the Amazon, where we will also work with local children as well as doing chores on our hosts’ farm.  The girls are excited, as are we.  We hope it will be a nice way to close out our year abroad.  In mid July we return to Mendoza to collect our things and fly home.

There are many pictures that I would like to have posted, including the film of our bike trip, but there just hasn’t been time.  Jenny has been much more active with her blog, so better to read her food blog for ‘gastro-oriented’ updates on our travels.  See

If time and online access permits, we will post more on the blog during our travels.  If not, upon our return I will post some updates with photos.  But for now, thanks for reading!

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Haciendo planes para un viaje al noroeste de Argentina

Este post va para los estudiantes de español y mis colegas en Blake.  Con estas pautas espero que puedan investigar sus propios viajes por Argentina o cualquier otro país latinoamericano.

Dentro de dos semanas mis padres vienen de visita.  Tenemos pensado llevarlos al noroeste del país a las provincias de Salta y Jujuy.  Estas pronvincias quedan bastante lejos de Mendoza, así tuvimos que pensar en la mejor manera de llegar a la ciudad de Salta que servirá como base para nuestra visita.  ¿Cómo hicimos?

Primero, calcula que diponemos de 10 días para el viaje.  Y que queremos más o menos siete días para pasear en Salta y Jujuy.  Con esto en mente, tuvimos que decidir como viajar:  en avión, en omnibus, o en coche alquilado.  Puedes usar la Red para saber cuantos kilómetros hay entre Mendoza y Salta.  ¿Vale la pena manejar?  En otras ocasiones cuando hemos ido de viaje en auto pudimos hacer más o menos entre 500-600 km por día, haciendo paradas, etc., y sin pasar todo el día en el auto.  ¿En cuántos días llegaríamos a Salta?

Aquí en este sitio puedes sacar los precios, igual como hicimos nosotros, para el aquiler de un auto.  Una vez que tengas un precio, hay que convertirlo a U$S.  Alquiler de autos

¿Qué tal los precios para vuelos?  Recuerda que los vuelos directos de Mendoza a Salta son cada tres días.  Si no, tienes que viajar con escala en Buenos Aires, que te sale mucho más caro.  ¡Ojo!  Las tarifas para extranjeros son distintos a las tarifas para los nacionales.  Mira este sitio.  Para comenzar hay que elegir los EEUU como tu país de residencia para que te den la tarifa que te corresponde como extranjero.  Precios para vuelos de Mendoza a Argentina

Por fin, ¿qué tal el omnibus?  Hay que ver los precios y la duración del viaje.  Véase este sitio de la empresa de buses que viaja a Salta:  Andesmar

Ahora, una vez en Salta tenemos dos opciones.  Podemos alquilar un auto si es que no hemos llegado en auto alquilado.  O podemos usar los servicios de una agencia que nos lleva a los lugares de mayor interés.  Miren el sitio de la agencia Monumental Travel para saber de los precios.  A lo mejor no están actualizados los precios y tendrían que hacer una consulta por Skype!  ¿Qué sería preferible, alquilar un auto y buscar hospedaje por tu propia cuenta o contratar Monumental Travel para todo?

Para darte una idea a donde ir en Salta y Jujuy, les voy a dar una lista de lugares.  ¿Pueden encontrarlos en Google maps o Earth?  Salta  Cachí  Cafayate  Purmamarca y Tilcara.

Ahora si quieren saber que es lo que hemos decidido hacer nosotros, responde con un

“Comment” y les contesto.


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Cardboard diorama of Mendoza

An after-school project today with Solana and Frances.  The box diorama is something I learned from my friend Jim, who is now with Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe in Duluth, MN.

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House guests from Brazil

photo by Laura Sobenes

Last week we said good-bye to three cyclists from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  They came to us via Santiago, Chile where they had gone to the see the Lallapalooza festival.  After many days lost in the black hole of Valparaiso, they eventually found their way to Mendoza.  Bruno, Laura, and Ian are three bike activists in their twenties who met one another via ‘critical mass’ rides.  They were a pleasure to host; exceptionally out-going, wonderful with Frances and Solana, excellent English, way into music and art.  Bruno is a computer programmer who found us on ‘warmshowers’ and decided he just had to meet us (thanks for your perseverance), Laura is a photographer who took the above ‘light drawing’ picture, and Ian works in film production.  Together, we had some nice bike rides, fun conversation, meals, game playing, and exchanging of digital music (thank you Bruno and Ian!).  In Sao Paulo they ride fixed gear, stencil streets to create bike paths, and they work with a program know as Bike Angels (bikeanjo), a bike advocacy group, which, among other activities, offers to initiate and orient new cyclists to the challenges of urban cycling in Sao Paulo.  Thanks again for your visit.  Até logo.

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Actividades en nuestra comunidad

Ya que estamos de regreso del viaje en bicicleta, nos hemos vuelto a la rutina de nuestra vida en la ciudad.  Las chicas van al ‘cole’ desde las ocho horas hasta las doce y media.  Ya no van a la doble escolaridad porque las tardes en el colegio consisten en la clase de inglés.  Así, en vez de ir al ‘cole’ por la tarde, van a diferentes clases y talleres deportivos y artísticos.  Jenny y yo también tenemos nuestras actividades, además de los quehaceres diarios.  Uno de los lugares es la estación cultural o “Centro Cultural Ciudad”, una antigua estación de ferrocarril que se ha convertido en centro cultural (el letrero dice “Mendoza:  una ciudad para vivir y disfrutar”).  Aquí se ofrecen una gran variedad de cursos subsidiados por el municipio y todos de la familia hemos aprovechado las oportunidades.  Además hay muchos otros lugares a donde vamos durante la semana para diferentes actividades.  A continuación les presentamos una vista de algunos de estos lugares y actividades en nuestra comunidad.

Danza Árabe – Solana
En la clase de danza normalmente hacemos ejercicios para calentarnos, después hacemos un juego de bailar, luego hacemos la coreografía y terminamos estirando.

La clase tiene muchas edades, va desde los 3 o 4 años hasta 10 años y siempre tenemos que traer el caderín que es la falda que tiene las monedas colgando.

Aquí estoy con la profe de la clase.

Natación – Solana y Frances
En natación normalmente empezamos haciendo unos piletas (lengths), con flota, (noodle floaty) de patada crawl, patada espalda y patada rana, la verdad es que seguimos haciendo esas patadas durante toda la clase pero le agregamos las brazadas, sacamos el floto, etc.  No tenemos foto de nosotras nadando, pero aquí hay una foto de Frances con la profe.

Plástica – Solana
En plástica normalmente soy la primera para llegar así que ayudo a la señorita a prepararse y cuando empieza la clase empezamos a dibujar, dibujamos todas cosas – Bob esponja, árboles, cosas que hemos visto, etc.

Plastica también tiene muchas edades que van desde los 4 años para arriba. Por ahora hay solo dos personas que tienen 4 años y son divertidos. En la foto de abajo estoy dibujando la familia Simpson.

Coro de Niños – Frances
Primero estiramos el cuerpo y calentamos las cuerdas vocales y practicamos los movimientos de la boca, después ensayamos las canciones y tratamos de que las notas sean parejas, algunas veces cuando hacemos canciones con 2 melodias tratamos de que se escucha lindo.

La señorita se llama Elisabeth, nos ayuda mejorar nuestras voces.

Telar – Jenny   Estoy empezando aprender como hacer telar. En Argentina y Chile, hay muchas  diferente estilos de tejer, con diferente tipos de lana.  Yo estoy estudiando como hacer con un telar.  Es un pequeño cuadro con clavos alrededor.  Mi Maestra, Lupe, sabe como hacer todo!  Casi todas las mujeres en mi clase están haciendo mantas o ponchos para sus nietos.  A mi me gusta hacer artesania con mis manos!

Quena – Jon  La quena es una flauta andina.  Es un instrumento difícil de tocar porque la embocadura de la flauta requiere que los labios estén en una posición muy exacta para producir un buen sonido.  Para principiantes toma tiempo hacer sonar todas las notas.  Como es un instrumento que suena fuerte, no puedo practicarlo en el departamento.  Tengo que ir a un parque, plaza, o (preferiblemente) la antigua estación de ferrocarril que está cerca de donde vivimos.  Los demás estudiantes en la clase son muy ‘piolas’, de buena onda, y nos divertimos mucho.

Capoeira – Frances
Capoeira es de Brasil y es una lucha disfrazada en baile.  Siempre comenzamos estirando.  En la foto de a lado estoy ‘saludando’ a una compañera después de terminar una serie de ‘media lunas’ (cartwheels), o en la lengua de capoeira, ‘aú.

En la foto a la izquierda estamos cantando una canción en portugués y mi profe está tocando el ‘berimbau’, un instrumento de Brasil que se usa en capoeira.

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Would you like a bribe with your wine?

“Your vehicle registration is expired. See here? It should say 2012.” The officer at the road block held the green plasticized registration card at a distance, far enough so I could not make out the numbers, his thumb indicating the expired date. This was our fifth road block during the past several days and no one had mentioned the card was expired.  I didn’t ask to see the date in question. It didn’t occur to me that he was lying, making the whole thing up. His next move was to distract me away from the actual fabrication, to the consequence.  “I am going to have to fine you. This car is a danger to others.” Fine me, I thought, this can’t be. Rather than pursuing whether the registration was indeed expired, we were conveniently engaged in a debate over how much I was too pay. He had me. I fell for the ploy and it wasn’t until we were driving away that Jenny pointed out that the card was indeed valid until 2020. He had fabricated an infraction, where one did not exist.

When we arrived at the check point, he had begun by asking me how the kids were behaving, were we on vacation? He was gaining our trust with small talk, while feeling us out. Where are you from? “The United States,” I replied. “All of you?” he asked, looking further into the car, making eye contact with Jenny. “Yes,” she replied. He needed to verify who he was going up against before casting his net.

“How much do you intend to fine me?”, I asked.  “900 pesos (about $200)”, he replied.  I immediately explained that I didn’t have that kind of cash on hand and there was no way I could pay it.   The actual amount of the fine was not as important as was convincing me that he had a legitimate right to fine me.  I hadn’t done my homework, I didn’t know that Argentine police cannot collect a fine on the spot, in cash.  At that moment, all I knew was that I simply needed to avoid paying the fine.

He walked away from the car and appeared to consult a fellow officer.  Returning to the car, he said he would not fine me but that he expected a “colaboración”, which is a euphemism for a bribe.  Because I believed at that moment that he was letting me off the hook, saving me some $200 dollars, I felt I couldn’t just give him a dollar or two.  I gave him $10.  (I am strongly against the idea of paying bribes, why had I so easily done so?  I wasn’t thinking clearly, I had panicked.)  He pocketed the money, and we drove off.  Only then did we understand what exactly had happened.  A police officer had lied to us, threatened to fine us, and then extracted a bribe.  I felt burned.  Foolish for having fallen for the ploy.  I wanted to go back and get into it.  Jenny wisely said, “if his plan hadn’t worked, he would have found some other way to get money out of you.  Let’s just drop it.  It’s ten dollars.”  Pride.

I have since discovered that police corruption in Argentina has been a problem for decades.  On the Web I read several travelers’ stories, many of which were far worse than ours, where the $200 fine was actually paid, and officers verbally berated and threatened drivers.  A while back, we read an article about levels of corruption, in which Chile was listed as the least corrupt country in Latin America.  But Argentina, well, it’s a different story here.  One writer suggested that corruption goes back at least to the end of the last dictatorship, when the new civilian government did not have the clout to control the police.  Another offered up the fact that during and after the numerous financial crises, with very high unemployment rates, being a cop was a way to get by, to serve yourself, rather than others.

Corruption is an insidious part of many countries, in which citizens must navigate, negotiate, and grease the palms of public servants in order to get basic goods, documents, services, and even jobs.  Our experience at the road block pales in comparison to what many Argentines have had to deal with and what many average citizens around the world must deal with.  Why is corruption a significant feature of some countries and not others?  The colonial and post-colonial experience in many countries has, I believe, a lot to do with this, as do the disparities in wealth and the nature of the economy in a given country.  Our experience certainly makes me appreciate the lack of corruption in our everyday lives in the United States.

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