Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day 104 Feliz Navidad

Computer points are few and far between in the high country of Peru, but in virtual silence, I steadily made my way to Cusco for Christmas as planned.  Surprisingly, it was almost a White Christmas for me this year, despite the tropical latitude.  I spent the ten days afoot from Lake Titicaca bouncing between 4,000 and 5,000 meters - 14,000 to 17,000 feet - of altitude which sees a fair dusting of daily snow in this wet season.  I love it!  Cold is far far easier on the feet than hot.  The limiting factor to my daily distance is the number of hours of daylight rather than achy feet.

I've been following an old Spanish Colonial road, one they lovingly call a highway, though potholed packed dirt/mud with few bridges to cross the raging runoff streams - plunge right in.  The 17th- and 18th-century towns established by Spaniards for Spaniards look identical to ones of the same era in Spain and in Mexico, in architecture and design, and with the mountainous backdrop, it's easy to see Galicia in every town.  Red terrecotta-tiled roofs on stone or adobe houses with stone lintels and doorframes.  Very much Spanish style.  At the lower elevations, below the treeline, beehive hornos are everywhere.  Many of the churches have the typical Gallego three-tiered bell tower, though here they lack the ubiquitous stork's nests of northern Spain.  Some of the churches are plain on the outside yet loaded with gilded treasures and painting on the inside; others are the opposite with carved masonry on the grand portals yet plain on the inside.  Interesting.  On the other hand, the slightly younger towns built for Peruvians contain Spanish Mission style churches that look very much like the ones of the same era in the American southwest.

Incan and pre-Incan remnants abound, some of which are noted for tourists others not.  It's amazing, though logical, that some of the ancient circular stone buildings with grass roofs are still lived in by the alpaqueros.  More common are the adobe houses with either grass or corrogated metal roofs.  The life of the animal-tenders is pretty simple, and little has changed about it in the centuries with the noted exception of cellphones - everyone's got one, from the small children to the grandmothers out there tending their flocks.  They have a funny idea that during the daily thunderstorms, using a cellphone puts one in a protective bubble of electrical neutrality and they can't get struck by lightning.  They hunker down under the cover of their heavy alpaca blankets and chat away during the storms.  They laugh at me walking in my rain gear and offer me blankets to keep my dry - even a dry one weighs a lot more than my whole backpack!  I'll stick to Gortex.

The pilgrim route to Mexico divides itself into natural stages and the arrival of Cusco completes the first major etape, about a third of the way.  The second major chunk of the globe is between here and the Darian Gap between Colombia and Panama.  This might take until April-ish.  The next smaller subdivision is making my way to Lima, again along old Spanish Colonial roads, which of course are largely on top of Incan Roads, themselves on top of earlier transits.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Day 91 On the Shores of Titicaca

At high altitudes, it's probably best to be aware of your own loopiness... I crossed a pass at nearly 5,000 meters - over 16,000 feet - but for the last three kilometers, I felt like I was half in a wonderfully blissful sleep.  Being aware of the sense of sleepiness, I sat for a quick rest every few hundred meters or so, but was careful not to curl up for a much-desired longer rest.  Not many folks out four-wheeling on the single lane dirt 'highway' to rely on for assistance.  I was in the company of hundreds of cuddly alpacas, babies, too, all adorned with brightly colored tassles at the tops of their ears for identification.  Once at the pass, I overlooked broad grassy valleys far below with fierce black thunderstorms passing through, and made quick time down, regaining my full wits.

I passed one night in the sparsely populated high country on a soggy bed in a municipal building; five or six workers stringing streetlights in the village slept on mattresses in another room.  Another night in another municipal building in another village.  Finally, another night at the home of the local Baptist pastor, very antiCatholic at first, but he warmed up after a long and gentle conversation.  Though a potable water delivery system is being installed, there are only external faucets of cold water, and I was offered no water to wash for the three nights spent above.  Personal hygiene seems low on the priority list.  There are no fireplaces or heaters in the little houses, to endure the cold nights, more heavy alpaca-wool blankets are piled on.  Alpaca meat was in the soup, no surprise in the alpaca-based society, but what is a surprise is that they don't eat much bread.  Potatos and thick boiled corn kernels make up the starch.  Root vegetables round out the soup.

Very interesting cultural experiences through very pretty countryside of high-altitude alpaca ranchers.  Some of the girls and women wear the traditional colorful puffy dresses to the knees and wrap themselves in brightly colored blankets, topped off with formal tall felt hats, two long braids coming down their backs terminating in complex knots of colorful wool tassels.  Others were more modern clothes, even in the same families, by personal choice.  The houses are generally all timeless and ever-renewed adobe with either grass roofs or corrogated metal.  Walls of abandoned houses stand melting back into the ground.  Stone walls mark grazing areas for the alpacas, and at slightly lower altitudes llamas and sheep.  Terraces requiring an incredible effort to build extend high up the steep slopes to extend the grazing areas.

There are few Catholics in the area and no awareness at all of pilgrims or pilgrimages.  To all, I'm just a tourist, though tourists are pretty rare in this part of Peru.  Cusco is the touristic center.  Unlike the influences of European immigration in Argentina and Chile, here, I stand out even more noticably as a gringa and get the mild harrasment of frequent invasive photo-taking and horn-beeping, both of which I find irkingly unnecessary, all the moreso as I descend into the more populated areas.  I'm wanting to say to these morons pointing their fingers and gawking at me, 'didn't your mother teach you it's impolite to stare?', there's the mother staring right along with them.  On the flipside, there's tons of history all around, interesting architecture, lots of folklore, and some polite and helpful people.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Day 86 Up and Out of the Desert

My long walk along the beach ended in Iquique, and I headed up into the great beige of the unpopulated hot desert.  The Desert Collection of this season's pilgrimwear includes a light cap with long flaps around the sides and back accesorized with a linen hanky (fetching tone-on-tone embroidered) pinned across the face.  Very 'Dakar'.  The cap and hanky wetted every hour or so makes the passage endurable.  No shade, no place to sit, very little to interrupt the unchanging desert landscape all day long.

However inhabitable the landscape seems, I learned a lot about the saltpeter mining industry, which drove three countries into battle for years over this inhospitable land.  The saltpeter, key ingredient of gunpowder, is right at the surface and merely needs to be scraped up and processed.  The first night in the interior, I spent in a bonafide ghosttown, formerly with more than 3,000 inhabitants, churches, schools, markets, tram station, houses, offices, everything, now empty wooden structures.  If there were any ghosts, they let me sleep in peace.

In addition to the mining history, there are some impressive enormous petroglyphs created by a long-ago culture to indicate where to enter and exit the desert to reach various places of interest.  I've seen petroglyphs on many of the pilgrimages, but never so large as these.  Kudos to the early crossers of this empty space, the dryest desert on earth.

Funny thing, walking along a highway, even a little traveled one... the things that collect on the side of the road are thought provoking. In the one day from Iquique to the ghosttown of Humberstone, I collect 284 pesos and a wedding ring. At an exchange rate of nearly 500 pesos to 1 US dollar, the value wasn't so life-changing (600 pesos for a beer), but the little coins people come to loose add up; and the wedding ring? did someone throw it out the window in a fury or was it an unintended loss? Who knows. Funnier still, the number of marbles lying about the roadside... it's unclear if a few people lost all their marbles or if many people lost some of their marbles.  Either way, it's evident: people have lost their marbles.

I faced a weighty decision... a very kind young man, whose churchlady grandmother invited me into the house for the night - a large and lovely, exquisite modern home, hot and cold running water, no sand - offered me during the course of conversation a large modern edition of a book written in the early 1600s by the son of an Incan princess and a conquistador nobleman about the pre-conquest Incan culture.  Rich stuff, right up my alley of interest as I head into the core of Incaland - but at nearly a kilo, what's an egghead pilgrim to do???  If I take the book, I'll likely regret it on the big ups to come; if I decline thinking I'll find it and read it sometime in the future, I'll likely regret it just as well.  Doh!  I took the book and am reading it as fast as I can with the thought that I'll send it ahead once I've finished it.

The border crossing was relatively uneventful and I refilled the water bottles for the remaining 30 kilometers of desert crossing to Tacna, the first town in Perú.  Despite enormous tiring efforts, I could find no useful map of the country suitable for a journey on foot.  Google is useless, showing a wonderful highway that doesn't exist and misrepresenting distances with inexcusable error.  Shame on Google.  The women of the tourist information center went to great lengths to help me, and with a photocopy map of the province, I started out.  I met the first challenge by accepting a ride for 40 kilometers, hopping out at the ruins of a mule station for the final 40 kilometers to the first village of the mountains.

The rise in elevation was less strenuous than exciting - I heard the sound of running water beneath baked rocks; the patter of little critters in the underbrush; oh, the existance of underbrush!  Up and up, some big ups, twists and turns, more big ups... up up, the temperature dropped, more scrubby brush, some small trees, some bigger trees, some vicuñas, cloudcover, more birds, some little rabbity animals called cuyes, more ups toward a pass.  My heart pounded hard in my ribcage and I thought it was from having gotten soft during the desert trudge and from carrying an unnecessary but interesting weighty book, but no, the sign at the pass indicated more than 4,000 meters of elevation - an incredible ascent in one day, from a start of 800 meters.

The first full day walking in Peru and the slight miscalculation of the impact of the two-hour time difference at the border resulted in the arrival in the wee village of Estique Pampa a half-hour after nightfall at 6 pm.  Fortunately, the police control point, staffed by one young and very bored officer, was well-lit and resounded a television variety show, allowing me to find my way down the dark switchbacks easily enough.  The officer was happy to have a guest, fed me well, heated some water on the stove for me to wash my dusty clothes, and opened an unused barrack for me to sleep the night away.  I took the wool blanket from every one of the empty cots and stayed warm enough through the cold night.  Sunrise at 4:30.  In full daylight, the verdant valley of terraces and stone cottages seemed right out of a travel advertisement for this land of Incas.  Forty shades of green there are not, but a good half dozen anyway and an inviting contrast to the shades of inanimate desert beige.