Monday, December 31, 2012

Conference, bis

The second day of the conference most of the Europeans have to leave for the airport by 4, which is a shame because the talks don't end until 5:30. Again the translator is often absent for the talks in Spanish, but we all seem to communicate anyway.
There's a 90 minute break for lunch, and my friends and I figure people will split up for the many small restaurants in the surrounding blocks.
But no, last minute change, all the invited guests are to be taken by taxi for lunch together at a big hotel overlooking the beach.
Peruvian schedule.
The people speaking in the afternoon session begin to worry about their talks when we are still not seated for lunch an hour into the break. The day, after all, is not extensible with half the audience leaving at 4.
(But what does it matter? All the speakers for the session are here at lunch, as well as the majority of the audience. Just project the slides on the wall!)
After the inevitable Pisco Sour and halfway into the ceviche starter, we applaud Jenny, whose talk is now « over ». As the main course is served it's Eva's turn to be lauded for an excellent phantom presentation. Helle should be up next, but the schedule is being rearranged so everybody can talk really really fast once we get back to the meeting. 

The Scandanavians are indeed very efficient, and amazingly the session finishes at the bell. Goodbyes are said all around, and we will all see each other soon in Lund.
For the last session, in front of the now nearly empty auditorium, the translation booth has again packed it in. It's just Xana, JB and me now for the visitors, and Xana translates key words for us as needed. The last talk is Mev's own, and she wraps things up magnificently.

And that's it. Now the Dominguez family can sit back and relax. They've all been going full speed to make this conference a success, and they've done a wonderful job. I've been amazed at their energy, and now I see the flip side as once back at the house all is quiet in the calm after the storm.
Everybody collapses into armchairs to discuss what I might do over the weekend, before heading south to Pisco on Monday. A new archeological site has opened to the north of Lima. It isn't very touristy yet, so organized tours are expensive and facilities there are limited. On the other hand, it won't be  very crowded, you can see it without an organized tour, and it hasn't been spoiled yet by busloads of camera-clicking hordes. Sounds like just the ticket.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Conference

The first day of the conference we are to visit two clinics, one private and one public. Driving by the public one yesterday, it looked from the outside not any better than the one I toured in Algiers. We have to skip that tour, however, because we are on a Peruvian VIP schedule, and arrive 45 minutes late at the hotel. We might have been on time but for two factors:
-        the bus leaves the house when the Professor is ready, and not before.
-        We have a bus (a small bus) with the most timid driver in Lima. Well, except for the time he almost ran down a small child while cutting through a residential district, but against cars and trucks and even scooters he's a wimp.
So we load up the bus with the rest of the group at the hotel and go straight to the private non-profit clinic. It's a rather nice place. It used to be a private mansion with extensive gardens, then a motel so the buildings were cut up into  lots of rooms with baths, and now this clinic takes full advantage of both the former lives of the site.
Here we have breakfast in the conference room, and a translated discussion with local doctors. Very informative. If there's a gap between 'the latest' at my university hospital and theirs, there's a yawning chasm between that and the everyday medical corps. We need to stay more than an hour, more than a 2-day conference.
Passing the free time before we gather for the afternoon talks at the meeting venue, everybody retires to their rooms to work on their presentations (didn't they do that yesterday?). All but me. I'm only talking ten minutes on next-generation sequencing and furthermore not until tomorrow, so I go for a stroll in the Miraflores neighborhood, reputed to be the nicest area of Lima.
It is nice. You could be in San Diego. The beach is a dozen blocks away. I stop for a Starbuck's coffee and head to the mall to see if I can pick up one of those colorful Peruvian bags as a carry-on, and maybe a cheap pair of sandals.
Nothing doing. The mall could be in California too: American-type goods at American-level prices (and you can even pay in dollars for those Himalaya sandals and that Rockport backpack). There are a few Peruvian souvenir shops along the street, and I do get a bag there, but I notice for the other souvenirs that interested me as gifts, that the prices were better at the airport. I'll wait.
I need the bag, though, because I'll be taking a bus and then a collective taxi to Pisco on the southern coast on Monday, and I figure it's both safer and less annoying to travel light. I'll leave my big bag with Mev's family's house, and stay there again my last night in Peru.

The afternoon talks are good, though there's not a whole lot for the European speakers to learn from each other. We're here more to impart information to our local audience, and to develop collaborations with them. Perhaps on this assumption that we have « nothing to learn », the translation of the talks in Spanish into English is lacking. After the last talk in English, the translator packed up and left.
In the evening the university has a surprise for Mev – we're not just eating in some restaurant; we're to be given a tour of some of the old university buildings, and dinner on the porch of one of the cloisters, with ethnic dancing and a live band to entertain us.
Quite the gala!

Getting there is difficult. Our bus is stuck in traffic, as usual, so eventually the visitors are paired off with the locals, either in taxis or personal cars, and off we go in 3's and 4's. Exiting the meeting center, there's a woman holding up traffic because she's trying to get adequate directions to our destination. Our driver kindly tells her to just follow us, and the relief on her face makes me suspect that this lifeline has instantly cut off all attention to how to actually get there. It's dark now. Traffic even on this small road is heavy, and we lose her after the first turn.
I'm in a carful of French speakers – Xana, Jean Baptiste, and an elderly professor at the School of Medicine. One of his daughters is a pediatrician in the US. He spent some years training in Strasbourg, and we talk of medical training in different countries for the 20-minute battle of the streets of Lima (for a mild-mannered professor, he's just what you need at the wheel in Lima - perhaps he'd like to drive the bus tomorrow). At one point I joke he's not taking us to the university at all, but kidnapping us to make us teach molecular genetics all over Peru. There is no need, I say, we will happily come back and give as many classes as you want.
Little do I know this is the Dean of the School of Medicine, he will joke about kidnapping us in his speech later, and that not only workshops among the elites (such as today), but classes for all the students will be suggested for a new meeting in two years.
You really can get as much done in a casual car ride as in an official meeting sometimes. More, even.

The original University buildings are no longer used for teaching, but have been preserved as a national monument, and serve for various functions like ours. We are ushered into what used to be a room for presenting one's thesis, with a head table & three gigantic armchairs on a raised area facing rows of high-backed wooden benches, and a lectern at one side for the postulant. Everything is opulently decorated, from the carved benches to the painted and gilded ceiling. Once everybody arrives there are speeches of welcome and we all receive certificates of Associate Professor for our participation.

Then comes a very long and scholarly – and dull – explanation of the history of the room. A little history is welcome, but one this long and detailed overruns interest by a good deal, especially when we cross a cloister to view another room. No, we're not ready for dinner yet!
This room is as austere as the other was opulent. There's nothing to distract us now from noticing that the speaker always closes his eyes to talk, and then pauses to look only at the translator. Not once does he look at his audience, and indeed he's not talking to us. He's not interested to see if we're interested. He's just talking to himself.
He seems very satisfied with the result.

We are seated at tables of 8 for dinner, and people stay fairly segregated. Only one person at our table doesn't live in Europe: Mabel from Columbia joins us. Her English is limited, as it is for many of the Peruvian guests, which is probably the main reason for the segregation. It's a shame we don't take more advantage of this social time to build links between our groups. At the same time, I know how tiring it is to spend hours communicating in a language you don't really master.
The band gets going, and it's time to dance.
Ah, here's the first round of Pisco Sours, and some little sandwiches. They're pretty ordinary little sandwiches, and we all try to hold out for the real meal to come. Except JB. Any plate with a sandwich still on it eventually makes its way around to JB's part of the table and is cleared.
As the last of the plates is emptied just as the waiter is trying to whisk away the last crumbs in order to serve the starter course, I say to Helle that JB's dog would starve, provoking hysterical laughter that infects our whole section of the table. Jenny vows to remind Helle of JB's dog just before her talk tomorrow. That should lighten things up.
The evening fills with food and drink and dancing, both on our part and by a group of a dozen students doing a traditional display. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

To Lima

The hotel staff kindly sets out breakfast around 5:40, and Lucio doesn't come around until 6:10, so we have plenty of time for coffee and wonderfully fresh pineapple and watermelon. The night rain tapers off and stops just in time for us to load our luggage on the top of the van and rush to the airport. The mountaintops are dusted with snow this morning.
Our flight is meant to board at gate 2 at 7:40, but at 7:15 nobody from our airline is there. Then another airline appears there at 7:40 and a crowd gathers  for the 8:15 to Lima. Hey! What happened to us?
After quite some effort, Mef tracks down the lone Peru-Air person in the terminal and extracts information from her. Oh, the plane is late, and there's no gate yet. You will go at 8:35. I will make an announcement when the gate is fixed, she says.
Any gate announcement must have been unintelligible, but we learn by word of mouth that it's number 4. There is eventually a boarding announcement, asking for the back rows first, and a huge crowd leaps up. Having forward rows, we decide to let the line shorten before getting up with all our hand luggage. The crowd ebbs and grows again – must be a really big plane. Then we hear our names being called on the loudspeaker. Apparently there are two flights boarding at the same gate at the same time, and we are the last passengers for ours. Well, thank you for making that clear!

Most of our group is staying at a hotel in the Miraflores sector on the coast, but Eva and I are staying at Mev's family's house on the north side of the city. Mev has a lecture to give at the medical school, so we drop off our stuff and turn right around. The plan is to join up with the others for a tour of the old downtown.

Michel drops Mev off, and although it's only a mile or two to the central square it's not easy to get there through the crazy traffic and one-way streets. At one point, there's  construction blocking one way at a T intersection where both of the other streets are one-way toward the blockage. What do you do? Just drive the wrong way for a block and honk a lot.
Eventually Michel drops us off at the Plaza de Armes, with the presidential palace on one side and the Cathedral on another. Mev recommends strolling down the pedestrian-only shopping street to the Plaza San Martin, or visiting the catacombs under the San Francisco church and monastery. Or both; they're not huge places.

Mef and the others haven't left their hotel in Miraflores yet, so Eva & I figure at least half an hour before they join us. The cathedral steps seem the most visible place to meet, so we fix that and wander off in search of a snack. At first we think to be choosy, but hey, it's just a snack/lunch before a huge dinner, so any little place will do. In fact, we settle on the first place we come to with seats available. 6 soles (about $2.25) for a starter plus main dish and beverage. Among the 3 starter choices none rings a bell from our Cuzco experience, so we pick at random. Mine is boiled potatos in some minty sauce, quite interesting. All the main dishes seem to be chicken-based, and I end up with fried chicken while Eva's comes in mystery sauce. The fried chicken is among the best I've ever had, light and crispy but not at all greasy. Plus rice and a pile of fries. I like the fries here; they're not made from the usual kind of potato, and they have a certain body to them inside the crunchy surface. Eva and I both pass on the strangely chemically colored beverage included in the special, insisting instead on bottled water that must be fetched from next door.

Once we finish, I would like to poke around just a block farther away, where they're constructing some kind of waterfront for the river that passes through the city, but we're going to be late for our rendez-vous if we hang around much more. (we've not yet learned the reality of Lima traffic) We do pause, though, for plastic cups full of jello and custard. The bottom bright yellow layer is vanilloid custard, then strawberry jello in red, topped with hot pink whipped strawberry jello.
When Mef and Carl, Inge, Helle, and Jenny arrive, they too want to have lunch before exploring. So we set off down the first block of the pedestrian street in search of their happiness. No luck on the main street, but down a side street there are plenty of little eateries. They settle on Chinese through a lack of willpower to search further for a place with a large enough table. While they order and eat and chat in Swedish, I go around for some photographs.
I love this group. When I get back they're really interested in what I saw. Which is cool, because we won't be going that way for them to see for themselves.
It is decided to visit the Catacombs first. It turns out I am the best navigator in the group, which is surprising because I tend to look at a map, choose my landmarks and my route, and then start instantly in the wrong direction. This time, I spied the spires of our destination while out on my little excursion, and we are saved.
On the way, Eva and I recount our own lunch, and Helle remarks that she's a great fan of jello, so at the next jello vendor, and there are a great many so this takes less than a block, we stop for one. No custard for Helle, just jello.
As another detour, we discover that you cannot walk around the back of the presidential palace.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it, all those presidential deliveries & getaways & whathaveyou. But who's thinking? We're on vacation, and we have jello.
San Francisco church and monastery

At the San Francisco complex, there are no self-guided tours. You wait for a guide who speaks a compatible language, and he will take you around and show you what he feels like showing you. It's a big place, having previously housed up to 400 friars, although today there are only 30. They rent out some of the space for exhibitions and a school now. This makes for a curious tour. We leapfrog other groups, skip some rooms, visit others, and seem to see things in no logical order. If you took the tour again you would surely see a different selection of the possible sights.
Common to all the tours is the visit to the catacombs, and probably the library.
The library is about ¾ full of old and ancient books, the empty shelves waiting for volumes to return from restoration work, or scanning. Unexpectedly, the books present are just piled right there on the shelves, unprotected from humidity or bugs or anything. Just a braided rope to keep them from theft. Most of the volumes are stored sort-of upright, not being packed tightly enough to keep them from leaning. That must be great for the bindings.
While they last, the books are fabulous. With official permission you could probably read one. The gigantic illuminated hymnal open on display is gorgeous. Sing slowly – they turn the page once a day.
Around the main cloister there's an art exhibition, with paintings for sale from local artists, with mostly local and religious themes. Some of them are quite interesting. Our guide studiously ignores these as he whisks us along to listen to the history of the remaining original frescoes more or less visible above and between the canvases.
The gardens are beautiful, full of flowers and slender trees, but we are allowed no dawdling to admire them. No photos, either, of the exceptional architecture. Our mission is to get through the lives of the early friars and patrons of the church, to the catacombs below. This place is so obviously alive, continuing to evolve from its beginnings through to modern times and new uses and policies, that it's odd to tour it as if only its first century mattered.
So on to those catacombs. These used to connect most of the major buildings of old Lima, and not just the religious ones. The tunnels are mostly blocked off now, or collapsed by earthquakes, leaving only the bit below San Francisco accessible.
Bodies used to be piled high in the niches, and to make room they would occassionally take all the old bones of a niche and throw them down a large pit. Tens of thousands of bodies were laidto rest here.
Today the bones that have not turned totally to dust – the femurs and tibias and skulls that are our thickest bones – have been sorted by type and laid in neat designs in the niches open to view, and the pit that's part of the tour contains a rosette of skulls and tibia.
Helle finds this design macabre, but then, tossing them in a pile would hardly be nicer. This way, they have taken care with the remains, and shown such respect as is possible for keeping them on display at all. In rooms at the periphery of the tour, there are just piles of dusty grey bones and drifts of fragments everywhere.
I dunno. I think I can skip catacombs in the future. I am neither interested in seeing the display, nor paying my respects: there is just no point in coming here other than that my comrades are here and I didn't fancy waiting around outside.

A caged trash bin.

Outside, Mef and Carl decide to go back to the hotel. A few blocks later, Helle, Jenny and Inge decide to do the same. We've pretty much seen the 'sights': outside of the cathedral (they charge to much to go in), Catacombs, Presidential Palace (again, just the outside), the main square. The pedestrian shopping street we've had a taste of, and with the absence of any uniquely Peruvian shops, it doesn't grab us. My friends would rather get back and put the finishing touches on their presentations.
Eva and I decide to go with the pedestrian street down to the other square, San Martin, just for the walk. It's only about 10 blocks. In fact, it's rather one block of shops, reshuffled and redealt ten times.

At San Martin it's time to negotiate our first taxi. Mev said to expect to pay about 50 soles. We pick our ride carefully, no dented and horrible car for us. Mev recommended the yellow cars, but there isn't a nice one in line so we let that go. Some of the junkers it's amazing they still move. The first guy with a nice car wants 200 soles. This we don't even discuss. Never mind, and on to the next.
The next guy wants 25.
Yes, really, just 25 soles and off we go. Our driver is not sure of the way once we get out of his usual zone, but Mev's written directions are clear and we're there in about an hour. We give him a nice tip.

Preparations for the evening's festivities are in full swing. The original guest list of 15 has swelled to 30 as no dignitary or relative is left out. The living room has been cleared of every stick of furniture to make way for the rented tables and chairs. Downstairs in Mev's sister's house the living room is also cleared and lined with chairs: we are to be treated to a display of native dances, so yes it is supposed to look like a ballroom.
For a while it's just Eva & me and Mev's mother & aunt, and the DJ. I motion to Mom to go ahead and dance, and she immediately pulls me out to the floor with her. I asked for it! Eva gets into it too, but the Aunt stays on the couch.
The busful of guests eventually wins a victory in the traffic war and the party can start.
Which it does, and it's great.
I'm sitting next to Helle, and we play at making up stories about people we don't know. One Peruvian guest in particular is our favorite. He's a small, dapper man in a tweed coat fand a sharp hat which he does not remove. His wild white hair floats around his shoulders. He wears headphones around his neck, as if he has just momentarily interrupted his private life to observe us, and in his hand is a videocamera that prevents him from shaking hands or giving a cheek kiss as everyone else does. A character. We decide he is an older, japanese version of Johnny Depp, whom he resembles greatly.
Music and eating and Depp jokes until midnight.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Crunchy, salty, fatty.

We take the long and scenic route around Cuzco, passing through towns and by ruins we don't have time to explore. There's a lot more traffic down here in the valley, and it begins to rain lightly. We've been ahead of the rain all day, pointing to it in the distance and joking that our fellow travellers will get drenched unless they stay indoors. Near Tipon, on the southern outskirts of the city, the rain tapers off so when we pull up to a tiny, unassumng eatery we don't need our forgotten umbrellas.

On the porch in front of the dining room there are two ovens going, and trays of pre-roasted guinea pig waiting for us to pick one out. One big one, or two small? Two small or one big? One big one. That one there. The man pops it into the oven and we take our seats.
It's a plain place, nothing to make you stop here instead of elsewhere. Linoleum and rickety chairs, dim lights. The women's toilet runs so badly you don't have to flush, and the hand dryer is broken.
There's a small yard between the dining room and the bathrooms, filled with flowers and a children's swingset. The house is adjoining and it seems there's just the one kitchen, family and restaurant.

Our beast arrives sizzling hot, with spaghetti and potatos and a stuffed pepper on the side. The man quickly chops it up with a cleaver as soon as we have properly admired it. The belly has been stuffed with herbs, and the thick skin rubbed with salt before roasting. The crispy skin is especially good, and the tender, fatty meat is a little like duck, though not so finely grained. It's the tiny bones everywhere that are less pleasant, for those of us who don't just crunch them like JB. They bring us more napkins to deal with the grease running down our wrists, and finally our beer.

Even Inge, who was going to pass on the GP, enjoys it. We all agree it was well worth the trip. The last pieces are passed around, and JB gets the head. Anybody want the other eye, he asks? As we finish, the owner brings over a shotglass and a bottle of local anise liqueur, which we pass around with delight. For a moment we forget we are a finger-wipe kind of crowd, and drink from the lone glass without hesitation. Why not? This stuff is proof enough to kill anything dangerous...

We get back to the hotel just after 7, time enough for a quick wash and a short rest before going out for our fancy dinner. It's a good thing I took that morning stroll for 2 or 3 photos of Cuzco, because I won't be getting another chance. We imagined we'd be back by 5!

Cicciolina (isn't that the name of that Italian porn star who went into politics, rather successfully? Indeed.) in Cuzco is a modern restaurant that could be anywhere in the western world. Quite different from our snacking-spot. Euro-California-Asian fusion food and decor. You only know you're in South America from the near lack of European labels on the wine list, and the guinea pig confit or alpaca carpaccio among the main courses.
Nobody orders a starter, much to the relief of those of us who are not yet finished digesting lunch, but we go all-out on the main courses and dessert. It is indeed nice food. What's missing is something special, something to make you appreciate being in a foreign land with its own cuisine. Our snack was great – we had a ball participating in something really local, something non-transplantable. Dinner is good, but we will do this again, soon. Stepping out the door to walk back to the hotel it's like returning to Cuzco, as if we had left it for a moment.
I think our guides must have recommended this place to us because to them it is so unusual. It's their idea of what we expect from a nice restaurant, which I guess it is if we were at home.
The group makes an early evening of it, and we arrange wake-up knocks (no phones in the rooms) at 5 or 5:30. Lucio will pick us up at ten to 6 to catch our 7:40 flight back to Lima.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Moray and the GP

From Chinchero we head to the Moray archeological site, with several brief stops for photographs of the gorgeous spring countryside. Fields down by the river are fully green, with the corn in tassels and fat ears, and the potatos in flower. Up here they're just planting, and two things are striking. One is that the women really do wear the traditional dresses out here in the country, even to sow corn. Another is that a great many fields are turned over using oxen and simple plows. Here and there a tractor makes its way across a field, but the usual is a pair of bovines. The people here are proud of their oxen, too. On the rooflines of houses in the countryside and smaller town, they put a pair of terra cotta oxen, to symbolize the family within and bring luck.

School lets out at 1pm, and for a while the paths and the roadside are covered with blue-jacketed children making their way home for lunch or even directly to their elders in the fields where they join in the work. Things are pretty spread out here – a lot of these kids must have a few miles ahead of them, every day.

The Moray site consists of three stepped circles dug into the ground. Seven steps each, both of these special numbers for the Inca. The main one has two additional 7-step constructions to the side. Though bare now, the terraces apparently used to be planted, like a sort of botanical nursery before distribution of new domesticated strains to outlying farms. In the main structure, on the wide terrace between the stepped circle and the second arc of steps, are the remains of a building. Not a word about this ruin, is if it were not there at all. When I ask our guide about it, he says it was a colonial construction; the Spaniards taking over the Inca site for their own use, and part of their effort to erase the native culture.

Once we finish wandering about the enigmatic terraces and their steps made for giants, we are  very eager for lunch (it being well after 3). There is nothing between Moray and our next stop, the salt mine, however, and when we get there we throw ourselves upon the corn snacks to be had at the gift shops. We are told our guinea pig is on the other side of Cusco, more than an hour away. (« More than an hour », it must be noted, does not mean « less than 2 hours », as one might commonly assume. There's time before an hour, and then there's The Rest of Time after that.)

The salt mine is not a mine at all. It's more of a salt farm. Water from a salty spring is directed by a series of narrow channels to fill hundreds of shallow pools built into the hillside. When a pool is full, they block off the channel with stones and let the water evaporate. Several grades of salt are then harvested with rakes and shovels. Today we are just at the beginning of the rainy season, so the mounds remaining next to some pools will be packaged up yet, but salt production is at a halt for several months to come.

We've spent the day thus far on the high brown plateau, with wide views in every direction. We've been watching the dance of the clouds as they hang onto and then detatch themselves from the mountain peaks to rain on Cusco or perhaps the village we just left. Now it's time to descend to the river valley where all is lushly green and the shadows of evening come early. It's 4:30 and we're told that it's more than an hour to our guinea pig restaurant. Very special restaurant – noplace else is as good. In the back, we look at each other with alarm. As intrigued as we are by this Peruvian delicacy, we have dinner plans at 8, and we don't want a meal just before! We try to politely decline our GP adventure, but our host Lucio has his heart set on taking us to this one place. No substitutes, no cancellations. As a compromise, we let him take us there on the condition that we will not have a whole meal, just a snack. One GP for the four of us. And beer: we would like some beer with that.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


1. Chinchero
Our third day in Cusco is a free day, and various people want to do various things. The Inca museum and Shopping are high on the list for many, but four of us are tempted by a trip out of town to see an alpaca wool 'factory', an Inca archeological site, and a salt mine, with a lunch of roast guinea pig « done the right way » as a bonus. Sounds like a great day. Surely we'll be able to tour museums in Lima, and our shopping will be taken care of by visiting the producers directly. We figure we'll be back by 5, in plenty of time to stroll around the city and then freshen up before the big dinner planned at the fanciest restaurant in town.
Details on the cathedral with a particular theme.

An Inca ruler facing down the colonial presence.

We set 9 am as the hour to gather and pile into the minibus, which gives me time for a quick-time tour of the central square with its giganic cathedral, and a few of the surrounding blocks, before it's time to go.
The alpace factory is in Chinchero, about half an hour north of Cusco in the beautiful Sacred Valley. The part we saw couldn't be called a factory in any industrialized sense, though literally it is the place where stuff is made. There's a large house and a big yard where demonstrations for the tourists are set up. Two women and a backpack baby show us how the wool, which is combed from the animals, not sheared, is washed and then spun on drop-spindles into yarn.
I don't spin, but I do knit, and I always thought that drop-spindles would be rather inefficient at generating the quantities of yarn in evidence in all the knitted and woven products on display everywhere. Of course some people us industrial methods, our hostess explains, but we spin all the time, we spin with one hand on the pot or the baby, we spin in our sleep. I might find it an exotic task, but to her all she needs is fiber in her hand and it turns to yarn.
They show us the different natural dyes used, including the unexpected RED from the coccineal insects in their white webs on prickly pear leaves. Then there's a woman weaving a wide strap on a backstrap loom, the complicated color pattern all in her head, row upon row.
It's all very interesting, and you certainly could do it that way. Though I can't help but wonder if there might be more convenient spinning and weaving methods used to get the perfectly even yarn and perfectly regular woven and knit goods on display in the shop area. I guess if you spend your whole life at it... Perhaps they really do all the work here by hand, but for me, as long as it's real alpaca fiber it's ok with me.

The hanging hanks of yarn are perfectly homogenous in color for each batch of about 300 grams, but each is a slightly different shade from the next, showing they weren't all dyed together, but one by one in the ceramic pots on the fire. I take one red hank, and the deepest of the greens, then choose a multicolored cardigan in reds and oranges, and a wrap in black & white. 
My companions take their time, buying shawls and blankets and sweaters and hats and etcetera. Each time somebody takes time over a choce, that lets another become entranced, and pretty soon we're spending the morning at it! So much time, that I almost crack for another two hanks of yarn, the orange-red and the deep yellow. Or maybe the grey-green, or the dark blue. I hold firm, reminding myself that this is just the beginning. Who knows what wonders will present themselves this afternoon, and tomorrow, and the next day? And what of the vast stock of yarn waiting for projects at home, living in boxes and baskets and cupboards all over the house? In the end, my indecision saves me as Xana makes her last purchase and we head back to the van.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

More Machu


Add some thatching and it would be like new.

There's another temple way up top, but only 400 people a day get to go there.

Time to find some (very late) lunch

Here we are, at a restaurant with a table for 20 plus live band in the next room, and Christ with his 14 apostles. Oh, yes I will have another Pisco Sour, thanks!

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is 4 hours from Cusco via a very comfortable train that winds its way slowly, slowly, through the countryside. 
This is one of those sites that are known in magazines and TV specials around the world. You've all seen it. But, like Monument Valley, having some inevitable expectations when you arrive doesn't diminish the feeling of astonished wonder when you get there. The Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum in Rome, other places I've been, I've kind of said to myself, yeah, here it is in person. Cool, but it would have been better to keep the surprise. Here, the reality surpasses any iconic ideas laid down by media-saturation.
Ya gotta go. 
So here are some pictures anyway.
Machu Picchu Village: time to switch to the bus

The hill next door


The Southbound Inca Trail, where they would just destroy the bridge behind them if pursued

Bromelaids everywhere

The Temple of the Moon, if I remember correctly...

Just imagine that covered in crops

Monday, December 24, 2012

The sights around Cusco

Not even grass growing between the stones, after all the centuries

The first Inca site we visit is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced « sexy woman », a very large complex of terraces and angles made of stonework so perfectly fitted that little has changed in the centuries since its construction. The work is incredible. You won't find anything like it today. Niether time nor wind and rain have reduced the walls to rubble, though earthquakes have taken a toll and the thatched roofs are gone.


The closest we came to a group photo

Looking down from Sacsayhuaman at the main square of Cusco

The other sites, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, and Qenqo, are all different and all fascinating. Puca Pucara is a bare lookout hill with a perfect view in all directions, at the point where the roads from the four quarters of the ancient empire came together. Paths, really, not roads, since without heavy pack animals or wheels, they travelled on foot, often single file, along these long distance paths.

The captured spring at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is just across the modern road and a short ways up a canyon: a spring where the paths to the south and west come together. The astonishing Inca stonework makes the spring area look as if it was built just recently. Most of the walls just held up the earth for the nice level terraces - they were never any higher than that.

Unpronouncable (even to our guide!) Qenqo is a maze through a jagged mass of rocks jutting up like fangs from the ground, used for mysterious ceremonies. On the solstice, the shadow of one rock on another makes a sacred puma silhouette. You'd never know just by looking at it today; it's just one rock in front of another.

We have a wonderful visit, and an excellent guide. At times it's a bit ridiculous, though – the people in 'traditional' dress gathered at tourist spots when nobody seems to dress that way anywhere else. The alpacas and llamas paraded around the same photo-op spots when there are only cattle and sheep to be seen on the neighboring farms. 

At the hotel in the evening the group is divided between those who prefer to turn right around and go out for dinner, and those who prefer to wait just a little because 7 just isn't « dinnertime ». So the Scandanavians go in one group, and the rest of us (all 3 of whom live in France, although only one is French) take a longer break first. It's unlikely we'd find a table for 13 anyway.
Before Xana ('shana', short for Alexandra), JB and I go out, it starts to rain, and rain pretty good. I've finished my shower and am having a quick nap (jetlag!) when I hear dripping and other noise in my bathroom. The ceiling leaks in there, and the plaster just above the sink is coming down in sodden chunks. I ask if I can change rooms, and tonight the hotel is full, but tomorrow they'll move me. I'm not the only one to move – Inge comes back from dinner to find a leak over her bed has made things rather uncomfortable as well. In fact, the whole idea of water-tight building appears not terribly important here, with leaks all around.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Heading for Cusco

At the airport we are even more than previously. 13, I think, though it's hard to tell, with people coming and going. Our flight was listed for 10:00 on our e-tickets, but is posted at the airport for 9:30 (since when are flights half an hour early??) and doesn't board until 10:20 (never mind...). No matter. We are all together and we will be met in Cusco for lunch and an afternoon tour of the city. Over an extended coffee pause I'm introduced to friends of friends and indirect colleagues whose names I instantly forget, but there's a good atmosphere; a good feeling about this trip.

Wait, let me write them down. Helle, Eva, Inge, Mef, Patrick, Pauline, Carl, Erasmus, Christina, Jenny, Alexandra, and Jean-Baptiste.
They pretty much all know each other already, everybody naturally knows Mev, and to my surprise most have heard of me. Only the couple working in France, Alexandra and Jean-Baptiste, don't already know the Scandanavians. It's a fun group so far, nice and casual and with lots in common but also more to talk about than our common work.

Our Cusco hotel has a glorious little courtyard with the rooms all around on 3 levels. We're treated to coca-leaf tea, which is recommended in quantity to combat the least signs of altitude sickness. Coca leaf is a cure for all ills here, to which we all nod and agree before heading out for the city tour. Lunch, we gradually discover, is not a big thing here – graze if you're hungry!

The view from the rooftop terrace.

Mosiac on a wall of St Catherine's

The first stop is in the center of town, at the church and convent of St Catherine (?) built on the site of the Inca Sun Temple. The colonizing Spaniards made sure that all the impor:tant holy sites in the city were not put into competition with the Church, but were taken over/crushed by/hidden under the buildings of the new order. So this major temple became the building site of a church and monastery, as did other sites across the continent. We are here today for a tour on Inca history, and as we go around the cloister not a word is said about history any more recent than that of the coming of the conquerers and the building of the convent. This will be a constant theme, the deep interest in everything pre-Columbian, a little on the painful conquest itself, and then not more than a brief nod to Peruvian independance.
One of the Inca bits of the remaining Sun Temple

Random street in Cusco
It's a little later in the day than planned, so we skip a second planned stop in the city, in order to have sunlight for the Inca sites surrounding the city.