Friday, April 13, 2012

April 3, 2012 - Inca Trail Day 1

We began our Inca Trail adventure bright and early, with a 5 a.m. bus pickup, which felt very early since we’d been up late braiding our hair, in matching pigtails  (obviously). We were told we could sleep on the bus ride to Ollantaytambo but I was too busy snapping photos of the sunrise shining off the snowy mountaintops we could see off in the distance the entire way. We stopped for a quick breakfast where we got to know our fellow trekmates. In addition to Ceri and Pete, who we had already met, there was Steph and Erin, also from London. Kristy and I joked that maybe we’d pick up British accents on the trip (which we did find ourselves doing!).

Then we continued on, past Ollantaytambo and down a windy dirt road that did not seem like the main thoroughfare to a major tourist destination. Finally we arrived at a large parking lot where a few other buses where offloading trekkers. We prepared our bags for the porters, hit our last clean bathroom for several days, and then started off to the checkpoint to officially enter the trail.

Our first steps were crossing a gushing Urubamba River. Then we started a gradual uphill, enjoying the gorgeous scenery around us. For the next few hours we hiked, stopping every 20 minutes or so for a break, a snack, sometimes a bathroom. At one “trailside” stand we enjoyed a fresh prickly pear, right off the cactus. Along the way, our guide Erik shared information about the plants we were passing, the history of the trail, and other cultural notes. When we saw the Perurail train chugging by he introduced us to the concept of train riders as cheaters!

We also got our first glimpse at how hard the porters work. They started after us and no more than an hour or so in they were running past us, all carrying 25 kilos on their backs. Apparently there is a porters race from mile 82 until the finish of the trail and the record is 3 hours 30 minutes. Considering the trail distance is just a bit longer than a marathon that might now seem so fast, but that’s without accounting for the rough trail conditions, steep hills, and high altitude. With those in mind, it is truly an amazing feat!

At one point we stopped to examine a cactus and Erik explained how the white fungus-looking stuff on the cacti was actually bugs, which the local people use to make dyes and lipstick. This was the same thing we had learned in Chinchero. Erik explained that many local plants are exported to other countries used for natural products.

The hike was quite relaxing until we began a steep uphill, which Erik told us was a prelude to Dead Women’s Pass the next day. But this hill was short, and we easily reached the top a little out of breath but no worse for the wear. Then we stopped at another trailside stand where women were selling chicha, the fermented corn drink. Erik enjoyed one, as were many of the porters who had stopped along the way, and shared a sip with us. We also saw donkeys nuzzling each other in the field – so cute. It is surprising how many horses, cows, and donkeys you see along steep hillsides around the trail. It seems like they come out of nowhere, but Erik explained that there are villages all around, hidden by the mountains and the trees.

Later that day we passed through several villages along the trail. It was fascinating to see people walking past us with donkeys carrying goods like pasta, rice, and potatoes. Can you imagine if to get to the market each day you had to hike on a trail that other people do for recreation? At one stop we had a good laugh as two tiny black dogs harassed a passing donkey. Ironically the bigger, older dog stayed out of the fray, too wise – or maybe lazy – to be bothered. At a nearby stop there was a full-scale convenience store and bar, right on the trail.

The end of the day seemed to drag on as we faced a gradual but long uphill to our first campsite. We arrived huffing and puffing, but looking back nothing compared to how tired we were the following days. Our porter team greeted us with applause, again ironic because they had it made it there before us and already set up the tents and started dinner. But it was a sweet gesture. At this point Erik introduced us to the team and we took a group picture. It was nice to have a sense of comraderie with the team, like we were all in it together for these four days.

Then we had our first nightly happy hour, which consisted of popcorn, cookies, and tea. Luckily Steph and Erin had brought cards so we enjoyed several games of Shithead, a game I had learned from Josh and thoroughly enjoy. In subsequent nights our card games also included Spoons and Bullshit (me and Kristy’s recommendations which were big hits), Rummy, which was a little rough because the Brits follow different rules, and even Egyptian Ratscrew, which we taught Erik on the last night.

After that we had a delicious dinner. I can’t actually remember what we had each night, but it was all wonderful. Then we went to bed, exhausted from a full day of hiking.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cuzco with Kristy

March 31, 2012 - I have been slacking on the blog and now I need to recap the last week with Kristy before I take off for travels again with Mike. So, I’ll start with Saturday morning, March 31. I headed off to Cuzco via a comfortable but slow bus ride on Tour Peru. I arrived around 3 p.m., happy and a little nervous for some odd reason. After haggling with a taxi driver (because I’m sick of being ripped off) and finally settling to be dropped at the bottom of the hotel’s street and hike the last three blocks straight up hill (bad idea) I arrived at Hostel Corihuasi. Kristy answered the door obviously sleepy from her rest after the long overnight flight, so my timing was perfect. We quickly got ready and headed out to explore Cuzco.

The weather was beautiful so we ate outside at Los Portales near San Francisco Plaza. Before enjoying our palta a la reina (avocado stuffed with chicken salad) and lemonade we were bombarded by tons of people trying to sell us various artesania. Kristy bought a doll, the “Barbie of Cuzco.” Then we headed over to SAS Travel to pay for the rest of our trip and explored a bit more of the city before heading back to our hotel for a cup of coca tea. We ended the night with a dinner at Brava, where I enjoyed stuffed chicken parmesan and Kristy had risotto croquettes. Although it was delicious, we were so tired by the end we were nearly falling asleep in our plates!  So we called it a night and curled up in our cozy room with a heater and down comforters, a welcome change for me from Puno.

The next morning we had a delightful breakfast at our hotel (eggs, yogurt and granola, tea, and warm fresh bread) with a view of Cuzco out the wrap around windows and then headed off early to the SAS office to meet up with the group for our free Sacred Valley tour.

There were 11 of us on the tour, two families from Pittsburgh and two friends from London, who we quickly found out would also be joining us on the Inca Trail. We all piled into the SAS mini bus and headed through winding roads past some of the ruins overlooking Cuzco and into the Sacred Valley. The views were gorgeous with rolling green hills, steep mountains, and gushing rivers. Our first stop was a touristy market where Kristy petted an alpaca and got her first taste of Peru’s cheap but beautiful handicrafts and how hard it is to resist buying them – basically she didn’t. Then we continued on to Pisac where we both fell victim to pretty things. We got matching embroidered pictures we are planning to frame for our offices (future office in my case) and I got a really unique painting of the reed boats from Lake Titicaca, a fitting souvenir I thought since I spent so much time here. We also found baby alpaca yarn at about half the price it was in Puno so I bought some for Mom and then kicked myself for not buying more.

Then we winded up the road to the ruins at Pisac. Our tour guide, Martin, gave a nice explanation of Inca terraces, which in this site at least were used for experimenting with different types of agriculture. The Incas cultivated dozens of types of potatoes and corn. This site was also one of the largest Inca cemetaries, and you could still see holes in the mountainside from where tombs were uncovered due to erosion and exploitation.

Kristy wasn’t feeling well from the altitude so this is probably not her favorite part of the trip. But luckily she felt better as the day went on.

Our second stop was delayed by engine trouble for our bus so we stopped in a tiny little town, which turned out to be nice because instead of eating the 30 soles buffet at the tourist restaurant in Urubamba we ate a still touristy but somewhat more authentic restaurant that was also much less expensive. Then our bus was fixed and we continued on to Ollantaytambo, which was awesome!

I wish we had more time to explore the narrow, ancient alleyways of this “living Inca town.” It is a great example of the Inca’s city planning, which included zoned areas, sophisticated irrigation and drainage systems, and designing cities in symbolic shapes. For example, Ollantaytambo was designed in the shape of an ear of corn, an important symbol and food for the Inca’s. Cuzco, the capital city, used to be in the shape of the puma, the sacred animal representing the “middle world.” And Machu Picchu is in the shape of the condor, the animal representing the “upper world” or heaven because it was thought to carry people up to the sky when they die.

What we did get to explore in Ollantaytambo was the “Fortress Ruins,” although our guide, Martin, explained that while the structures were used last as a fortress during the Incas last stand against the Spanish, they were originally temples and astronomical observatories, as evidenced by the sophisticated stone work and symbols that only exist in sacred Inca places. Also, the mountain across from the ruins has the face of Wiracocha, the supreme god of the Incas, carved in it, as well as another face that is hidden during the solstices, indicating its astronomical importance. The mountain also features a natural food storage structure, which took advantage of the wind and high altitude to keep foods cool. Pretty neat.

At this point in the tour we were running behind so we headed off as the sun was starting to set for Chinchero. Along the way we saw a huge rainbow crossing the valley, which we later learned was seen by the Incas as a sign of the end of the rainy season and the time to plant crops. When we arrived in the town of Chinchero, which is itself an archeological site, it was dark, and we climb quickly up to visit a colonial church. Then we passed through a busy artesan market to visit an almost hidden women’s cooperative. There a young women, in quite impressive English, walked us through the process of how they make wool for traditional textiles. First, she showed us how they clean the wool using a native root. It turned alpaca wool instantly from dirty to sparkling white. Then they use natural products for dyes, such as bugs that grow on cacti. We were all amazed as she crushed what looked like a small white seed and it made a brilliant red color on her hand. She told us they use this product for natural lipstick too, and joked that it is kiss-proof. Other colors were made from seeds, leaves, and flowers. Plus they add things like lemon juice to change the colors. After that she explained the process of drying and then spinning the wool, which she joked women can do while walking, talking, dancing, even kissing their husbands. Then she showed us the weaving process, which was very similar to the exquisite techniques I had seen in Guatemala. We were thrilled to finally see some original handicrafts that weren’t carbon copies of everything you see in all the stores (although we did later see similar things in Cuzco) so Kristy and I bought some table mantels.

Now quite dark, our group headed back out of Chinchero and home to Cuzco. It was an exhausting day but a great glimpse into the diverse and interesting cultures in Peru. For me it was nice to be a tourist for a change and actually learn about the meanings behind many things I have seen but not understood in the last two months.

The next day we were going to check out the other ruins near Cuzco but decided to sleep in and take it easy instead. We walked around San Blas, enjoyed a very Gringa lunch at Jack’s Café (I nearly melted when I tasted my juicy burger!), checked out a history museum and the chocolate museum, and shopped until we dropped. We also visited the Santo Domingo church and Qoricancha. This was a fascinating place, well worth the $5 we paid for a guide. The Spanish built a church and convent on top of the Inca Temple, so everywhere you turn you see the juxtaposition of old and new, pagan and Christian. As our guide must have said a hundred times, the innovative Inca architecture has long outlasted the Spanish designs through earthquakes. Each time, the Spanish would rebuild using their same process of stone with cement, even though the Inca technique of fitting stones together without cement or mud and using trapezoidal shapes with slight inclines rather than straight square/rectangle shapes had clearly stood the test of time. We also learned more about the beliefs of the Incas, such as that temples for “male” deities like the sun were adorned with gold while “female” ones like the moon temple were decorated with silver. The temple also featured an interesting painting of the Milky Way, showing the animals the Incas thought appeared in the constellation, including a black llama and baby, a frog, a snake, and a condor, all of which have important meanings.

Later that night we got to see a processional for Semana Santa. Right as it was getting started, rain began pouring down, so we ran into an Internet café. With a few hours to kill before our orientation meeting, we decided to get a massage. After all, it only cost $8! It wasn’t the greatest massage ever, but it was relaxing. Then we headed to the orientation meeting and home to pack for the Inca Trail!

More to come on that amazing adventure….

Friday, March 23, 2012

Freak Out Moment

March 23, 2012 - Despite a very productive day (only 119 surveys left and two more interviews schedule for next week!) I reached a breaking point today. Maybe this is something that happens to everyone doing this type of research. I hope. I'd like to think I'm not alone. So what happened? I had a terrible thought pass through my mind. I almost hate to say it out loud, but here goes. I thought, why am I doing this again?

What led to this moment of self-doubt, or maybe better to call it project-doubt? Well, first I got some not-so-positive feedback on my initial analysis outline (where I basically said here is what I hope to be able to say). Then, I was happily entering the 38 surveys I collected today only to find out that several clients completed only half the survey. So frustrating because I'm really trying to maintain a decent level of data quality.

While I realize these frustrations are normal, especially in programmatic research, it got me thinking, is this research even going to be useful? All these questions start popping into my head. For example, we decided to focus on client behaviors, but maybe a health knowledge test would have revealed more useful results. Can you really show a difference in behaviors between new and old clients with a sample of only 5%, which aren't even all complete? And obviously I should have done multiple choice for questions like where do you live and what is your business because the women wrote so many different things it will be impossible to reconcile them. And why didn't I make the range of membership bigger? Everyday women laugh at me when I say "más de 2 años?" Of course, they say, años, más de 10!" On top of the survey shortcomings I start thinking about my interviews too. With only three left to do I'm still wanting to add questions, but then I won't have that data for all clients.

Cue minor freak out. But...deep breaths...and I start thinking back to the preliminary analysis I did. Sure, it probably needs some tweaking, and it won't be perfect. But, based on the surveys collected so far, I've found that longer-term clients were more likely to have had a PAP in the last year. That's interesting and certainly valuable to Pro Mujer as PAPs are a key metric. Also, longer-term clients were more likely to report good health than bad (although overall this variable is dismal). Also, I've found that while the concept of exercise is foreign to most clients, many of them walk for several hours everyday. Hours!

So, after a "calm moment" as we used to say in college, plus a little internal pep talk, I've decided, my research is valuable. And hopefully Pro Mujer will use this information, plus direct suggestions I pass on from our clients, to improve their health services and health education.

Ok, all good now. Back to work....

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Glorious Arequipa

March 21, 2012 - Well last weekend we once again escaped the cold and dreariness of Puno and finally visited Arequipa. Everyone told me I was going to love Arequipa, but I had no idea how much until I arrived! It was quite a weekend and I've already re-capped it via email for some of you so here are some highlights (in somewhat chronological order):

1. Arriving in the evening and being able to walk around after dark without freezing. Plus marveling at all the people out and about and all the options for restaurants and bars.
2. Eating Mexican food for the first time in more than two months. Delicious make-your-own tacos and a Corona. Yum.
3. Walking around Saturday morning, basking in the beautiful scenery and sun.
4. Eating a late breakfast outside. Quiche and fresh fruit juice. Yum.
5. Relaxing by the pool (yes, pool!) at our awesome hostel, the Wild Rover.
6. Getting wild and crazy for St. Patty's Day, which started around 4 with beers (Guinness!), face paint, and green t-shirts.
7. Helping with the bar's attempt at breaking a record for Baby Guinness shots. Yum.
8. Being served drinks by a real Irishman on St. Patty's Day and asking him if I look Irish, to which he responded no, but I can definitely tell you are European. Um, no...
9. Eating falafel. Yum.
10. Realizing it was only 7 p.m. after eating falafel and feeling ready for bed.
11. Dancing on the bar.
12. Losing my camera but then finding it.
13. Meeting lots of new friends, mostly Americans.
14. Calling it a night at 10 p.m.
15. Waking up early to explore the city more.
16. Getting a tour from our co-worker Gaby and her friends which included delicious food and visiting several "miradors" or look out points all around the city that we would never have seen on our own.
17. An exotic lunch including fried cuy (guinea pig), stuffed peppers, a potato dish similar to scallop potatoes, pork, duck, and later fried dough desserts.
18. Eventually heading back to Puno, feeling much relieved that Bloodsport, the movie we were forced to endure on the way there, was replaced with two decent movies on the way home.

Immediately after getting home I updated our itinerary for when Mike comes to visit, two days in Arequipa are a must!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

T-Minus One Month

March 15, 2012 One month of work left at Pro Mujer and I'm half way there...almost. I have completed 5 interviews out of 10 (yay!) but only about 160 surveys out of 357. Needless to say the next four weeks will be very busy! Wait, make that three, because one whole week I'm traveling with Kristy in Cuzco. AHH!

I've mentioned before the frustrations of getting people to take a survey. It takes me back to my days as a telephone surveyor during high school (worst job ever). This isn't quite as bad since you are doing the survey to help the people you're asking to take it, but still, imagine you go to the bank to make a payment on your loan or to the clinic for a health checkup and someone asks you to fill out a survey. Not that interested, right? Now imagine they speak English with a terrible accent. Yup, now you get the picture.

Despite this challenge, I've been chugging along with the surveys. Sometimes I walk into a room and, after a short and incredibly important introduction by the credit assessor (someone they know and trust), the woman all agree to participate. Other times, I have to practically twist arms just to get one or two surveys.

The interviews are a whole other logistical nightmare. I schedule the interview usually about one week in advance so I have to call to remind the women. Sometimes they answer, sometimes I leave a message, sometimes it’s a wrong number. Then I go to the appointed meeting place and wait. So far, I have been stood up three times, twice by the same person. Today I started recruiting a few more women to take the places of the ones that probably won’t ever happen.

However, when I actually do get to sit down with women, it is usually incredibly enjoyable and rewarding. I get a peek into their routines, their hopes and dreams, what they are proud of, and how Pro Mujer has changed their lives. Some are hesitant to answer my questions, giving me mostly one-word answers, but others open up, smile, and say surprising and insightful things.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Feliz Día Internacional de la Mujer

March 9, 2012 - Yesterday was International Women's Day, a great day to reflect on how far women have come while also recognizing the challenges we still face around the world. I started the day reading some reports and articles put out by various health and development organizations and posting my attempt at being inspirational on Facebook. To my surprise, the day continued with much more celebration than expected.

First, I was greeted by all the staff at Centro Bellavista with a big hug and "feliz día." Wow, I thought, they really celebrate this day here. This was a surprise since most of my friends and family in the U.S. probably do not know it is International Women's Day, unless they work in health or development. But, as my colleague Marita pointed out, Peruvians like to celebrate EVERYTHING, so I shouldn't be surprised that this day is included.

Later in the day we learned there would be a meeting at 6 p.m. I expected snacks and maybe a few inspirational words, but was delighted when our male co-workers began giving short but heartfelt speeches about the importance of all the women in their lives - including us (their co-workers), mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, and so on. I also loved the theme many mentioned, "No hace falta ser anti-hombre para ser pro-mujer." Or roughly being pro-woman doesn't mean you are anti-man. So true. Another co-worker commented that women are the essence of life, also a true and beautiful sentiment. So, feeling sufficiently celebrated, I was further delighted when the men asked us to close our eyes and presented each of us with a rose. Then, to top off the day, we all received Pro Mujer water bottles. Anyone who knows me well knows I am a sucker for free logo-ed items, so needless to say I was very happy. (Cue cheesy photo.)

Closing out the day, when a co-worker and I stopped in a store on the way home, even the woman running the store wished us a "feliz día." I thought about how important this day is in a country where women have gained rights, for example the right to work, in the more recent past than in the U.S, and where sadly many are still seen as second-class citizens in their homes. What a wonderful day to celebrate women and re-commit ourselves to improving the future for all the women in our lives and around the world. I went to bed feeling very grateful for the opportunity to be here working with so many amazing women AND men in Pro Mujer and doing some good, however small, for the women of Peru.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


March 6, 2012 - This weekend we once again escaped from Puno, this time taking in the fresh air and beautiful views in Sillustani. Not an escape from the cold, as the weather turned quite chilly the moment we left Puno, but a nice break nonetheless.

After a short and enjoyable ride boasting comfy seats and views of the flooded but pretty countryside, we arrived in the small town of Sillustani, which is one of those towns that seems to only exist for the purpose of tourism. We slowly made our way up a muddy path until we began spotting stone towers on the hillside. Our guide carefully, and in much detail, told us about the history behind this "mystical" place. The towers are chullpas or funeral towers built by pre-Inca civilizations to bury dead nobility. Many of them lay incomplete or in ruins because the Spanish destroyed them for their strange, magnetic powers. I was a bit skeptical of these magical powers until our guide ran a compass in front of the rocks and it did indeed go haywire. Also, most of the towers have been pilfered for their valuable artifacts, some of which, thankfully, made it to a museum in Puno.

There were three main towers named after animals, the lizard, snake, and puma towers. Two remains of towers next to each other were sun and moon temples where offerings (and likely human and animal sacrifices were made). Apparently people were buried in the fetal position, preparing them for rebirth in their next life.

Given my short attention span for historical facts, those are the only details I recall. Mostly I spent my time taking in the crisp, pollution-free air and enjoying the delightful harmony of the blue sky, shimmering lake, green grass, and happy yellow flowers all around us. Plus, the occasional herd of cute llamas and alpacas (still can't tell the difference).

On the way home we stopped at a traditional home, the ever-so-stereotypical "cultural" experience that no good tourist trip in a developing country can leave out. Despite being cliche, it was enjoyable to see inside one of the stone courtyards we had passed on the way there. Inside were several small rooms, which seemed very bare and cold to me, except one which was decorated with a bright pink bedspread. Also quite comical, and maybe just for the tourists, was the tiny guinea pig (or cuy) house. Like all the houses we had passed, even the guinea pigs had two ceramic bulls on top for good luck.