Sunday, August 21, 2011


In this bonus section, I am tying up some loose ends and have taken the liberty of answering questions that I imagine people would ask me about my blog if people asked me questions about my blog.

Q: Are there any "Things Ecuadorians Like" that you never published?

A: Yes, there are actually quite a few. What normally ended up happening with these is I would get the idea for a "Things Ecuadorians Like" premise, but then either not have any pictures to support it or realize that the premise itself would really be the only funny thing about the whole piece. The following topics had drafts but were never published:

Dressing for Comfort
Not Respecting Waiting Lines
Fruits that Don't Exist
Not Refrigerating Perishable Items
Kids Wearing Spider-Man Costumes When it's not Halloween
Making Fun of Gringos for not Knowing How to Dance, then Being Terrible Dancers Themselves

Q: You have mentioned in your blog that dancing is a an important aspect of Ecuadorian social events, but I have never seen you dance. What does that look like?

A: Like this:

"Who knows how to dance? This guy!"

Q: What ever happened with that Spanish test you took?

I took classes to prepare myself for the highest test of Spanish proficiency available, the DELE level C2. When I did practice exercises I was getting passing results on all of them except the sections on Iberian Spanish idioms. Those were obviously difficult for me because I have never lived in Spain so I've never encountered most of them before and my answers were almost always blind guesses. In spite of this glaring deficiency on my part, my instructor assured me that I would do well enough on the other sections to bring my total grade to above passing.

Unfortunately, a requirement for passing overall turned out to be a passing grade in each section as well, so in spite of the fact that I scored an 80% in total, I technically did not pass the test due to a two point deficit in the "Grammar and Vocabulary" section.

I thought I would score some bonus points with the interviewers because I made them laugh when I responded to the question, "What do firemen do?" with "Make sexy calendars."

I thought about retaking the test, but since the only area I struggled in was Iberian Spanish idioms I don't think it would be worth studying for that section when there are other, more practical language proficiency exams for my purposes (medical Spanish). So for anyone interested in taking a Spanish proficiency exam, leave this one to the Grammar Nazis who have lived in Spain for at least a couple of years or take a lower level because this test is no joke.

Q: What will you miss most about Ecuador?

A: Being the tallest person in 95% of the rooms I walk into.

Q: So "E is for Ecuador" is officially done now?

A: As its name implies, I am limiting the scope of "E is for Ecuador" to my time abroad, so it will be inactive from now on.

However, writing a blog while I was in Ecuador turned out to be a deeply satisfying and fun activity for me, so I would like to continue writing to some degree. It won't have a journal feel like "E is for Ecuador" (because there are only so many takes on "I study so much it's funny in a sad way") and I have no idea how often I will get around to writing things or what kinds of things I will write when I get around to it, but I have set up a new blog, "B is for Brooklyn" (great name, I know), just in case the urge to write ever strikes me and I want somewhere to post it.

It's got nothing on it at the moment, but absurdity breeds humor, and I am sure that between medical school and living in NYC I will have some noteworthy observations I'd like to share and document during the next few chapters in my life.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


This post is a bit confused chronologically, but I was short on time in between my last English class and my trip to Peru so I never got a chance to write about the end of my teaching soon after it happened. It also happens to make more sense to combine my departure from SECAP with my final departure from Ecuador in my last blog post, so I'll join the two in this final chapter of "E is for Ecuador."

School's Out Forever

The end of the semester was supposed to be a Thursday, but SECAP wanted the grades a day earlier so I gave the final exam on Tuesday and just handed out grades and certificates on Wednesday so that there would be no business to take care of for my going-away party on Thursday.

After administering the final in my first class and all schoolwork for the year was over, a bunch of students hung around to see what kind of silly unprofessional things they could get me to do now that they weren't really my students anymore. Their approach was to play card games and have the loser do something embarrassing. For our games it was to do the "8,888", which meant putting your back to a wall and drawing out a figure-eight with your butt to simulate dropping it like it's hot.

The first game we played was called "nervous donkey" and it involved putting down cards and trying to be the first one to slap the pile when a particular card was dealt. They were all a lot slower than me so I didn't have to do the punishment, but they at least managed to get some good slaps on me during the game.

Me dying laughing at the girls screaming at each other for slapping too hard
After a few rounds of losing, one of my students, Maria Luisa, challenged me to a one-on-one round of the Ecuadorian card game cuarenta (translation: forty). I had played before, but the rules of the game are actually quite complex and it requires good memory skills to win. She absolutely destroyed me, but as I did my 8,888 as punishment, everyone was laughing at me too hard to get a camera out and document it before I was done.

The girls insisted that we take two gender separate photos so that I would have "two memories"
Dudes, dudes, dudes!

My second class went to get hamburgers at a famous hamburger truck in Ambato that I had never heard of in my previous eleven months living there. Coincidentally, I played lots of cards with them too.

The only thing I remember about this game is that people kept making up rules
I told them to make funny faces for this one. I don't think they all understood.

Goodbye Party

My students got it together for my goodbye party and rented out a private room at a bar in Ambato. I was very pleased at how many people showed up, especially the students who didn't pass the semester and some of my old students who I hadn't seen since my first module.

Me with my students from the first semester

It started with just the students from my first, younger class. They got bored after a little while talking and eating chips, so they decided that they wanted to see if they could get me to do more embarrassing things. Given my class' maturity level throughout the year, this was not at all surprising.

The first game they played was spin the bottle, but the person who the bottle landed on had to answer any question that the person opposite to him/her asked. After a very inappropriate first question and answer between two of my students, I put an end to that game but let them suggest another.

Just as they had agreed on a new game to play, one of my students warned, "Teacher, this game is almost sexual." Everyone sat in a circle and had to pass a long rectangular piece of paper to the adjacent person using only his/her mouth. After each successful lap around the circle, a section of the paper was ripped off and the rectangle got shorter, making lip-touching during a pass more likely. Again, this game had grammar school written all over it and I stopped it before anyone got the chance to yell "Ichiiiiii, (insert student's name) kissed Teacher!"

Later on in the night some students from my second class came too. Like with my first class, some people I hadn't seen since first semester showed up and I was glad to see them again before I left Ecuador.

It's not clearly visible in this picture, but the guy in the front is wearing a hat that says "" which always made me laugh when he wore it to class

My students left me with some parting gifts to remember my time in Ecuador like a llama wool sweater, a picture of the class, and various other small souvenirs.

Although I would go on to remain in South America for another three weeks, I said goodbye to all of my students because I was fairly certain that I wouldn't be back in Ambato after my trip to Peru long enough to see any of them again.

Adios, SECAP

Our students weren't the only ones who wanted to see us off with fond memories of Ecuador, so SECAP was nice enough to throw Caitlin and I a little party before our departure to Peru. It was a pretty basic setup with some traditional Ecuadorian food like llapingachos (fried potato patties with eggs and sausage) and fritada (fried pork with mote). They thought the festivities would be enough to make up for those last two months when they never had paper for us, but I'll never be able to forget those dark and uncertain times.

How many SECAP employees does it take to buy a ream of paper? Apparently more than five.
My favorite secretary, Elizabeth, wasn't there for our going away party, but I made sure to get a picture with her later since she was my A4 hookup during the SECAP paper shortage.
We also had a final get together with the rest of our gringo friends in Ambato who were still around, because by the time we would return to Ambato some of them would have already finished their time in Ecuador and be home.

From left to right: Latelin, Anna "Beast" Borkowski, LT, me, Wilson, and that loud girl

We didn't forget about this guy in the park who sold the best mora (Andean blackberry) ice in the city and caused a line of cars to form down the block on Sundays when he also had coconut and dealt out cocomora cones.

Last but not least, I got a shot with my Spanish teacher, Guillermo. Coincidentally, he used to live in Brooklyn and was giving me advice about where to go to find Ecuadorians around town.

On the left is his Guillermo's chatty sister, Maria, who would inadvertently give me an additional 30 minute conversation lesson after class to discuss life in America and gossip about Ecuador.

The Real Departure

Caitlin and I had originally planned to travel in Peru until the day before I was leaving for the U.S. in order to maximize our travel time and not get stuck in Ambato with nothing to do. However, the way the bus schedule worked out meant that we would have to return to Ambato three days before my flight out of Ecuador.

This made me a bit nervous because I was concerned that being in Ambato for too long before I left for good would make me nostalgic about my recently terminated experience and make me want to remain for another year. After all, Ecuador is an exciting country, I could continue to improve my Spanish, and teaching is supposed to be much easier the second year (oh, how much fun it could be if I just got a deferral from medical school for a year!).

When people move away from a place they have been in for a long time, they are hesitant to go because they don't want to leave the things they have: friends, relationships, and routines. In my life I have lived in a number of different places, and each time I prepared to leave where I was for a new place, I was struck with this brand of trepidation and anxiety. I always felt like when I went away I would be missing all the good parts of the place I was leaving, and that in my place would be a jigsawed gap in the puzzle that everyone in my life was a piece of.

Before I left for Peru I said goodbye to all of my friends and students. I had visions of my friends sitting around a table with an empty seat on a Saturday night wondering what they were going to do without me, and my students sitting in a classroom without a teacher waiting for someone to tell them what page to open up to.

When I went back to Ambato, I had to stop by SECAP to drop off some certificates I had forgotten to give out before I left for Peru. I was conflicted about whether I should stop by my classes to see how they were doing with the new course or whether I shouldn't because it would just remind me of my teaching days and make me sad. I decided to go, and the classroom I saw was completely different than the way I had left it.

There was obviously a new teacher in the front of the room, but only one of my former students was back. That particular student was very fond of me and was always starting, "Teacher, don't leave" chants during the last few weeks of classes. I don't know what I expected her to do when she saw me that day, but it was somehow disappointing. She just asked me about my trip and wished me good luck with school. No longer was she trying to convince me to stay in Ecuador because no one would be able to replace me.

It was probably weird for her to have a new teacher the first day of class, but soon enough she got to know her new teacher and her new classmates, and what she thought would be a corrupted version of a period of time she cherished ended up being a completely distinct and rewarding experience in its own right.

I'm glad I ended up going to my old classroom that day, because this short episode reminded me that life isn't a puzzle; there isn't a set place for everybody and things don't result broken and incomplete without all the original pieces. Over time, just about everything in life changes. People make new relationships with each other and routines change. Life doesn't necessarily get worse when someone leaves his spot; things move around, new pieces may come into frame, and a lot of times the big picture ends up looking better afterward than it did before.

I had a formative experience in Ecuador and I'll hold onto my memories of that year forever, but I know that even if I stayed in Ambato for the rest of my life I would never be able to replicate that time. At first it's sad, and at times scary, to move on, but if you don't keep looking forward to the future you run the risk of searching for a past that's no longer there.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

16 Days Later: Vol. 3

Before we began our trek, we spent half a day in Cusco jumping between tourism companies planning for the following week when we would return from Machu Picchu. Booking things a week in advance constitutes the kind of foresight not commonly practiced in South America, so we had a difficult time setting things in stone. The best we could do was give money to some guy near our hostel to buy us a bus ticket to Puno as soon as they went on sale (probably the day before the departure date) and arrange for someone to pick us up at the Puno bus terminal and give us a tour of Lake Titicaca when we arrived.

In addition to the sketchy agency we hired to pick us up from the train station and book our bus tickets, I was also concerned about the hostel we stayed at in Cusco that was holding our bags for us while we were on the trail. We forgot to return our room keys to the front desk when we left, and I was sure they would try to charge us for the week we were away when we tried to retrieve our bags. We briefly discussed our plans to make a run for it if they tried to pin a week of charges on us, but my paranoia turned out to be unjustified and we got away without them even knowing we had the keys (Asia just left them on a couch in the lobby).

Somehow nothing went wrong with our arrangements and we managed to get on a bus to Puno late the night of the same day that we were at Machu Picchu.


From the first day we arrived in Lima I was surprised about how cold Peru was. I had been used to the "eternal spring" climate of Ambato, but as we moved away from the equator we apparently stepped into Peru during its winter season. Puno only provided more provocation for the steady stream of "Why is it this cold, aren't we in South America?" comments that had been pouring out of my mouth the entire trip.

The only instructions we had for what to do after the bus ride was to look for a man called Alvaro, which turned out to be pretty easy because he was holding a sign that said "Asia" on it in the bus terminal. Alvaro then brought us to his tourism company's office, which was really just his living room. We apparently weren't the only tourists who had the idea to take a night bus and to get to Puno early in the morning because even though we got to Alvaro's place before sunrise, the couches were already saturated with napping backpackers awaiting the start of the tour when we arrived.

Lake Titicaca

As advertised, Lake Titicaca was massive. But we have massive lakes in the U.S. too, so what's the big deal about Titicaca? First off, it is the highest lake in the world. That fact is not something that is easily appreciated while actually at the lake, but it is fun to think about how a pool of water that big ends up at 12,500ft above sea level. The second interesting thing about the lake are the floating islands within it.

The people who live on the floating islands are descendants of pre-Incan people, so they have been around Peru for a very long time. From what I understood from our tour guide, they were driven out of the mountains by the Incan Empire and resorted to making their own islands in the lake to live on.

Some locals show us how they build the floating islands they live on
The islands and the houses are made out of a reed that grows in the lake. Again, a long time has elapsed between when I took that tour and now when I am writing this, but I think they said that two times a month they add another layer of reed to the island to make up for the deterioration of the lower layers over time. Standing on the island is an interesting sensation because the ground is very soft and mushy, and when waves come by the floor ripples with the water.

The reed houses were neat too, and according to the resident I asked it only takes them a single day to build one.

One interesting consequence of the construction of the floating islands is that sections can be cut off or added to change the size of the islands as necessary. One of the men on the island we visited had recently gotten married so his wife moved from her island to his island to live with him. The number of people on the island then exceeded the allowed population (10 inhabitants), so they had to divide the island into two smaller ones.

The colorful hat the fourth woman from the right is wearing announces to potential male suitors that she is single.
After checking out a couple of floating islands, we visited a permanent island called Tequile where we ate lunch and learned a bit more about the customs of the people of Lake Titicaca.

The lake is shared by Peru and Bolivia, with the border between the two countries passing through the lake. While it is not legal to dock on the Bolivian side without the proper visa, it is permitted to travel on the water to the Bolivian side of the lake and technically be in Bolivia. I was hoping our guide would go a bit farther so I could say that I had been to Bolivia, but we were sitting on the boat for six hours that day so I'm actually glad we didn't add any other stops to our trip that day.

View of the lake from Puno

Overall, I would have to say that Lake Titicaca wasn't incredibly exciting. It made sense for us to go since we were so close and it wasn't that far out of the way going to Arequipa, but I don't think it warrants a trip alone. Also, the tour was too touristy for my tastes. Since we were on a boat we had to stay with the group on a linear path, and the entire time we were pressured to buy things and give money to people waiting for us on the path they knew we would walk on.

Another Rant About Tourism

When the tour around lake Titicaca started, I admit that I felt bad for the natives of the floating islands and Tequile. On the floating island, the people had a corny little show planned out for tourist groups with set-ups from the guide and punchlines from the islanders in response. They exhibited their houses to us and at the end sang a song in the language of each tourist's native tongue (which that day included Spanish, English, and Japanese). When we ate lunch at Tequile, a group of indigenous people came and did a song and dance for us and went around the crowd for money. My first instinct was to feel weird and somehow bad for paying them to make them perform their cultural traditions for us.

As I thought about it more my opinion changed. Sure they are in a way selling out by interrupting their traditional lifestyle and typical professions to put on a show to demonstrate to visitors what they would be doing if tourists weren't around, but the reality of the world we live in is that pretty much everyone has to sell out from time to time to make a living.

Musicians can't always create the kind of music they want because that is rarely what the majority of people want to pay to hear. They need to satisfy their record labels to make hits and generate money, and once they have their own funds they can put out whatever kind of music they want because money is no longer the goal and the music is about the music again.

My dad works at two hospitals: one in an affluent neighborhood and one in a poor neighborhood. I haven't met too many people who are as passionate about their jobs as he is, and one time I asked him why he likes it so much. He admitted that he works in the affluent neighborhood because it pays, but that his real inspiration and motivation for continuing to work (and he works a lot) comes from the cases he sees in the poor neighborhood where people have advanced disease and he feels like he does a lot of good.

And it's not always about money either; it can just be about identity. I can't remember all the times I had to edit my articles for the school magazine at Notre Dame because my particular word selections didn't fit with the style of the magazine. Did I like to edit my work to comply with the magazine and the audience they thought they were appealing to? Of course not, but I had to sell out a bit and change my writing style to get published and have anyone read my articles.

In any field there may be a few cases of people who happen to do what a lot of people like/what makes money and don't have to sell out to have success, but those situations are rare and it is foolish for anyone to expect that path in life. So while the people of Lake Titicaca probably don't like trying to make money by selling their culture to tourists, the fact is that it pays way better than anything else they can do on those islands.

For example, the lunch we were roped into cost about three times what we were paying for lunch in Lima and Cusco. At one point the natives offered us a ride to the next island in a fancy boat made of reed as an alternative to the standard gas powered boat we rode out there. 17 passengers accepted the 10 sol offer, so in 30 minutes that island made 170 soles (~$62). I don't know how long it would take that island to make that much money with their traditional industrytrout farmingbut I can't feel sorry for someone who "sells out" for 30 minutes and makes that kind of money when, if it weren't for tourism, they would be raising and selling trout instead.

If people don't want to be involved in tourism, they can continue to live the traditional way their culture dictates, but that means they won't have the money to pay for developed world commodities (like the battery powered radios and televisions the people on the floating island hadluxuries I imagine are not easily acquired by trout farming purists).


Our last stop in Peru was a city on the coast called Arequipa. In Arequipa we visited a few interesting places that included various mansions and churches, a convent where the nuns are never allowed to leave once they enter, and a museum that houses the nightmarishly creepy mummy of a sacrificed Incan girl.

Cathedral in the main square
Volcano outside of Arequipa
A typical Arequipan dish: rocoto relleno. Pepper stuffed with meat, potato on the side, and everything covered in cheese and egg.

Peruvian Spanish

Unlike Ecuador, I really didn't notice a difference between the Spanish on the coast of Peru and in the mountains, so I will generalize about my experience with Peruvian Spanish to include everywhere I went.

Even on the coast, Peruvians speak very understandable Spanish. It is softer than the mountain Spanish in Ecuador (they hit their "ll" and "y" the same, like "ye") and it is slow (although not as slow as Ecuadorian mountain Spanish).

I also noticed that people are much less formal in Peru, and everyoneincluding people selling us bus tickets and people working at the hostelsreferred to us using the informal second person singular .

An interesting usage came from a woman we met in Cusco who was originally from the Peruvian jungle. She was the first person I've ever heard use the word vuestro. I'm actually not completely sure what that means (I never learned these forms in any Spanish class), but I think it is the possessive adjective/pronoun for the second person singular vos. I don't know how they use vos in other countries, but in Ecuador they used it only with very informal relationships (more informal than ). I imagine it has the same connotation in Peru (I asked people about it, but unfortunately native speakers rarely know anything about their language except how to communicate in it), which goes to show just how informal they were even with strangers.

Wrap it Up

Arequipa was the final stop for Caitlin and I in Peru, and before we left we saw Asia off to the next part of her extended tour of South America. We caught a plane from Arequipa to Lima, got on a bus for 27 hours, then transferred to another bus for a 5 hour ride from Guayaquil to our final destination and home base: Ambato.

In comparison to Ecuador, Peru is an immense country that has a ton to offer. Two weeks was hardly enough time to see the country in its entirety, but I'm happy about our trip and what we were able to experience in a relatively short amount of time. Shout out to Caitlin and Asia for being all around troopers and rolling with the punches like one would expect from great travel buddies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

16 Days Later: Vol. 2

Getting to Machu Picchu can be as easy as catching a train from Cusco to a closer town called Aguas Calientes during the day then taking a bus up to the ruins the following morning. But for the more outdoorsy and adventurous tourists,  there are a variety of trails that lead up to Aguas Calientes that can be hiked over the course of 2-7 days, depending on the route.

The most popular is the Inca Trail because it was one of the main roads used by the Incan Empire and there are a variety of small ruins to be seen on the trail itself. This trail is the most commercial of all the trails and the amount of people that the government lets go up on any given day is tightly regulated, so trips book up months in advance. Caitlin and I decided on an alternative trail called the Salkantay that would take us up a snowy mountain before descending into a warmer sierra-jungle border climate that would eventually end up in Aguas Calientes four days later.

Salkantay Trek

When we arranged the trek on the internet back in Ambato, the company led us to believe that tennis shoes, a sweatshirt, and a "sock hat" would be enough for the weather we were going to face on the way up to Salkantay, and their recommendation to bring shorts for when it would get hot made me feel pretty comfortable with the hoodie and long-sleeve shirt I brought with me for the cold stretches. However, when we got to Cusco, it was cold enough that I was not warm wearing all of my warm clothing. We did the altitude math and pretty quickly came to the conclusion that we would all need to buy more warm clothes before hiking to Salkantay, so we hit up some of the trekking gear places and while I laughed at Asia for renting a North Face winter coat and wool socks, I stuck with a thermal shirt ("This will definitely be enough").

On our way to the starting point, we got our first look at a snow-capped mountain that I'm pretty sure was Salkantay

Our tour guide was a trilingual (English, Spanish, Quichua) Peruvian man named Jose. The tour company we were using boasted that they were under indigenous management, and Jose and the rest of the crew (chef, chef's assistant, horseman) were all from rural areas of Peru and spoke the indigenous language Quichua as their first language.

The trek was supposed to be four days of hiking around five hours a day. We drove a car up to the starting point will all of our food and gear for the hike, and within a half-hour we had our first problem. Jose approached us from the meeting he was having with the rest of the crew a small distance from us and informed us that he had some bad news. Apparently the horseman never showed up, so we wouldn't be able to hike at all the first day because we didn't have anyone to carry our gear. So the first day, instead of hiking up the trail we went to a nearby lagoon just to check it out and take some pictures.

The first picture in my outdoor winter fashions portfolio
After that short trip there was no hiking, which meant no moving, which meant no body heat from physical exertion, which meant it was freezing. We played cards in a wooden shack with no door, so we were essentially outside the whole time. When it came time for bed, I didn't think I was going to make it through the night with all my extremities intact because I couldn't feel my big toes even when I tried to rub them to keep them warm.

Luckily for me, after our second day's hike (ten hours to make up for the unproductive first day), the temperature rose dramatically and I didn't have to sleep in fear of being two little piggies down the following morning. Below are some pictures of the trek.

Me and our tour guide Jose. He's not taller than me, he was just standing on a rock in this picture.

Getting warmer as we head down from the mountain
Not our mule

Where the Salkantay merges with the Inca Trail for a small stretch (note the stairs in the background)
Machu Picchu from a distance (terraces visible in the middle of the picture if you look closely)


On the trail up to Machu Picchu, my friends and I had a lot of time to talk with our tour guide Jose. Jose is an indigenous man from outside of Cusco who now spends some of his time in the city working full time with an indigenous owned tour company leading different trails to the ruins. I was interested to hear more about how Cusqueños feel about their city and historical sites being flooded by tourists, so we ended up discussing tourism quite a bit.

It was clear from the beginning that Jose was not happy about the treatment of indigenous Peruvians. He talked about the rural community he was from growing up before he learned English and got work in tourism, and how he makes a point of giving back to indigenous communities with the money he makes when he can. I was impressed by how Jose seemed to not want to forget his roots, but when we started talking about the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, I found his attitude towards foreigners to be bitter and misguided.

While the ruins at Machu Picchu had been observed earlier and known locally, they were only made internationally famous by an American named Hiram Bingham (hence the use of the term "rediscovery" in reference to his expedition). According to what Jose told us, when Bingham came across the ruins he wanted to excavate to see what he had stumbled upon. Not an archeologist by trade, he apparently destroyed some relics there and set fire to the ancient city to clear away all the vegetation quickly. Also, some of the items that he discovered were sent back to Yale, the university he was working with at the time.

Nowadays, the Machu Picchu operation is run by the Peruvian government. Jose told us that the government takes nearly all of the money that the ruins generate through tourism. Regardless of the fact that Peru is now benefiting from the popularization of Machu Picchu, Jose still expressed disgust for Bingham and what Jose considered his exploitation of the descendants of the ancient civilization that built the ruins.

I agree that Bingham probably should have been more careful with his excavation and perhaps should have studied his findings in Peru or returned the artifacts to Peru when his work with them was finished. However, I do not think Bingham is the real bad guy and that Peruvians should be grateful that he made Machu Picchu an international tourist destination.

First of all, Machu Picchu generates a tremendous amount of money. Far from even entering the ruins, there is an entire industry based on the hiking trails near Cusco that wouldn't have attracted anyone if the final destination weren't Machu Picchu. I am confident that the indigenous guys on our trek with us make much more doing that respectable work than they ever could in their rural communities farming or making crafts. Also, the unique location of the ruins makes them nearly impossible to reach without using buses and trains, so tourists are forced to spend money on transportation. Then there is the entrance to the site itself which also costs money that the Peruvian government collects. Nothing associated with Machu Picchu is cheap, and without it none of that money would be in Peru. If it weren't for Bingham, Machu Picchu would have remained in the shadow of obscurity as the homes of a handful of indigenous families from the area.

Now, I understand that just because there is money being spent doesn't mean that it is going to the right places, but that doesn't mean it is an American who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911's fault. The first thing that was clear to me was that all of the people we dealt with in Cusco while trying to rent equipment and book tourist activities were Peruvians. Granted, I don't know too much about business and who ultimately runs the show at the level above storefronts, but the operations were too informal and unprofessional for me to believe that they were anything more than a group of Peruvians who got together one day and thought it would be a good idea to make some money from tourism.

The second thing is that Peruvians were employed everywhere we went. Bus drivers, waiters, store clerks, and tour guides were all Peruvian people who were employed because of the international draw of Machu Picchu. Again, I don't really know too much about how business and money work, but it seems to me that without these opportunities all of those Peruvians I saw would be either out of a job or working in a less desirable area outside of tourism like agriculture.

The last thing that really annoyed me about Jose's badmouthing of the American explorer was the fact that the Peruvian government now runs the operation and absorbs the profits. If Jose has a problem with the way the money from Machu Picchu is being spent, he should be mad at his own government, not a man who passed through 100 years ago. In my opinion, the big picture is that by putting Machu Picchu on the international stage, Bingham handed Peru an incredible money making attraction that has brought in a tremendous amount of revenue for the country. Now that America has got nothing to do with it, however, I think Peruvians upset with the fact that Machu Picchu isn't benefiting them directly should either get involved in the tourism industry or take it up with the Peruvian government, because from what I have seen, if anyone in tourism is exploiting Peruvians in 2011, it's Peruvians.

Machu Picchu

When we arrived at the ruins early in the morning, a thick fog covered most of the city and there was hardly any visibility. It actually looked really cool like that, and it reminded me of how a dramatic reenactment of Incan times would look like on some show on Discovery Channel. 

As the morning went on, the fog cleared up and we got to see the ruins more clearly. Below are some pictures of the ruins I took that day, trying my best to take shots with no tourists in them.

Incan stonework was so precise that nothing was needed to hold bricks like these together.
In this room, sunlight comes through the windows and hits the rock in front, creating a shadow that, together with the shape of the rock, forms an Andean cross.
In the Temple of the Condor. When sacrifices were made on this stone, blood ran down the neck and "fed" the condor statue.
View from the top

The thing about going to see ancient ruins is that you need to have a good imagination to appreciate what you are looking at and the history behind the site. People who don't inevitably end up wondering why they traveled so far/paid so much to look at a pile of rocks on a plain. I'd say I fall more into the latter category. I saw a lot of ruins when I studied abroad in Mexico, and after the first couple of sites I started not really caring because it all looked the same to me.

However, regardless of whether or not someone likes history or has a good imagination, I don't believe that someone can visit Machu Picchu and not be impressed. Even if a person knows nothing about the history or what the purpose of the ruins were when they were created, the location is really what makes Machu Picchu special. The fog in the morning gives you the sense that you are so high you are in the clouds. When it clears up, the tremendous mountains all around manage to instill, even in a modern man, the sense of awe that inspired the Incans to worship mother earth as their protector. Not surprisingly, I knew Machu Picchu would be the highlight of my trip even before we continued on to see Lake Titicaca and Arequipa.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

16 Days Later: Vol. 1

After my trip to Peru, things got a little hectic as I returned to Ambato and prepared to head back to the States, so this post is coming late and in pieces as I try to write down everything noteworthy I did during my 16 days on the road.

The Journey South

My trip to Peru was shared with my coworker Caitlin and our mutual WorldTeach friend, Asia, who was based in Cuenca. Although the flight from Quito to Lima only lasts about an hour and a half, the fact that it is international apparently makes it very expensive. Caitlin and I weren't down to pay $550+ for a ticket, so we instead traveled to Guayaquil and took a 27 hour bus ride to the Peruvian capital where we would meet up with Asia.

The bus company was called Cruz del Sur, and after having my host sister-in-law make some phone calls we secured our seats on what turned out to be a legitimate ride. The seats went back quite far, we had a good view from the second floor of the double decker bus, and we were seated in front of the staircase so there was no one in front of us to recline into our laps. Three on-board meals, two immigration offices, and seven horribly dubbed movies later we touched down in Lima.

Ecuadorians don't have a culture that values travel, so nearly everyone I talked to about my trip had nothing to say from personal experience. Of course, that doesn't mean that they didn't have anything to say at all. The two most common comments I got were "Peruvian people are ugly" and "Lima is dirty and dangerous."

The first comment I found confusing, because I was under the impression that Andean people share a lot of the same ancestry (Quichua/Spanish mestizos) and more or less looked the same. With the exception of the occasional Chinese immigrant or Afro-Ecuadorian, the continuum of physical appearances in Ambato is due to the ratio of indigenous to Spanish blood in the individual. People with more indigenous blood have narrower eyes, darker skin, short stature, and no body hair. Those with more Spanish blood are typically whiter, taller, and able to grow facial hair. My students all had to fill out census-like sheets to take classes at SECAP, and not a single one of them identified him/herself as purely indigenous or purely white; they all consider themselves mestizos.

What I think is the difference in the perceived attractiveness of Peruvians by Ecuadorians, then, is the ratio of indigenous to European blood (Peruvians generally look more indigenous than Ecuadorians). For whatever reason, white is considered very beautiful in Ecuador (as evidenced by all of my white girl friends being hit on and gawked at constantly) and indigenous features are less desirable.

I find this very interesting because during our orientation we received a talk from some kind of sex and relationship expert who told us that the reason why the Spanish mixed so much with the indigenous people is because Spanish men found the indigenous women to be irresistibly attractive. Another thing I read recently said that people of mixed ethnic origins are generally considered to be more attractive than either single-race parent because the mixed ethnic features demonstrate a more diverse, and therefore more resilient, genetic makeup. In either of these cases, however, white skin would be an undesirable feature. The popular conception that indigenous features aren't attractive might have to do with the fact that very indigenous people work and live in rural areas and are poor.

The other popular comment about Lima being dirty and dangerous was completely off. It may have been that we stayed in a nice neighborhood and only hit touristy sites, but Lima was better looking and more modern than any city in Ecuador I have ever been to. I also felt safe the entire time carrying around my big camera and catching cabs around town.

One of the shopping centers in Lima
We entered the catacombs underneath this church
Visiting cities has never been a particularly attractive prospect to me because unless you know someone who lives there, it's sometimes hard to do things that don't cost lots of money besides look at buildings. The one cheap item I did have on my list of things to do was to get one of Lima's signature dishes: raw fish ceviche. I don't like ceviche of any kind to be honest, but when I travel I make an effort to try the local specialties. When we went to the market I ignored the menu full of appetizing, normal food options before me and checked one off my list by ordering the dish of uncooked fish, onions, and lime juice.

The woman at the market warned me not to eat the ceviche because it would be bad for me. That was followed by my friends telling me that if the person serving you food tells you not to eat something they are about to prepare, you probably shouldn't eat it. I ate it anyway, but just as I suspected from my previous experiences with ceviche, it was gross.

While searching for more cheap sights to see, we learned that Lima has the world's largest public park with fountains in it. If I remember correctly, there were 16 fountains in total with all kinds of designs. Although we didn't stay late enough to see it, at night they also have a light show in the fountains.

Trying to get a sip of that sweet tunnel water

The only other notable thing from Lima that I saw was in the McDonald's we entered to handle Asia's Big Mac craving. The employees there were all wearing denim shirts and jeans with the golden arches sewn into the butt pockets.

"Damn girl, can I get fries with that shake? No, for real, I'd like a small fries with my McFlurry."

Luckily for us, flights within Peru are not nearly as expensive as international flights, so we bought plane tickets to our next destination: Cusco. At airport security I checked out the box that they use to contain all the potentially dangerous objects taken from passengers and noticed some interesting items worthy of a quick snapshot.
I want to see the biceps on the guy who felt it was necessary to bring a dumbbell in his carry-on
When Caitlin and I traveled, it was never our style to plan things out before going on a trip, so it was quite the surprise when we stepped off the plane in Cusco and were immediately greeted by dancing and music celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu. When the lady at the airport told us the significance of the date we had arrived on, we were nervous that it would mean an even more absurd tourist presence in the city, but it really didn't turn out to be anything outside of a concert in the main square.

The flag of the city of Cusco is a rainbow, and since it was a celebration of Machu Picchu they had rainbow flags posted up everywhere. It honestly reminded me of Gay Pride Week that summer I spent in San Francisco.

Main Square
Cusco is a very touristy. While the city itself is quite nice to look at, most visitors use it mainly as a launching point for their hike up one of the trails that leads to the ruins at Machu Picchu. Most businesses in the city are hiking gear rental places or tourism agencies, and nearly everyone in town tried to talk to us in English before checking to see if we spoke Spanish.

While traveling around in Ecuador, I never thought of myself as a tourist because I lived there and spoke Spanish well. Even when I was away from Ambato I still though of it as "my country", and when I spoke to people in Spanish and explained my situation, they were usually nice to me. The entire time I was in Peru I felt uncomfortably touristy and American.

"Ancient city of the Incas or not, I'm ain't going if they don't got a McDonald's!"
Whenever there are ancient places that have become tourist hot spots, there is always tension between the locals and the tourists. One of the signs I saw at an outside art show said something along the lines of, "Those who carried the rocks up to Machu Picchu now carry the backpacks of tourists." Seeing that sign made me wonder what most people in Cusco think of the tourism industry that has very visibly become the main source of income in their city. During the next part of my journey, I would discuss this topic at depth with our indigenous tour guide.

So after two short-winded days of adjusting to the altitude in Cusco, frantically getting all our bus tickets and hiking equipment sorted out, and trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Asia and Caitlin to go to the Machu Picchu Electro Party, we packed our stuff and headed out to the Salkantay trail to start our five day hike to Machu Picchu.