Monday, May 09, 2005

Home-Away-From-Home, Lima, Peru

Diane: I wanted to spend our last week in Huaraz, including a 3-day trek around some gorgeous mountain range. But everybody else wanted to spend our last week in Lima. I gave in, but only after everyone understood that I would be using the computer the whole week.

I also insisted on trying out a new place to stay. In March, we stayed at the very-comfortable HomePeru, with free wireless access (from the living room and only when the signal was strong enough), comfy beds, friendly travelers from all over the world, comfy sofas in large shared sitting areas, a shared TV, and a shared kitchen (dirty dishes and all). What more could we ask for? Answer: our new home-away-from-home, the Guest House Marfil, which has all of the above and in addition a washing machine.

Ooh, aah, ...

Ooh, aah, ...

We haven't been near a real, live, working washing machine since we left home, so Tom and the kids are practically keeling over from the life of luxury that is lapping at their feet. Now here I'm guessing, but it's not a stretch to imagine that every article of their clothing was dirty upon our arrival in Lima. I've gotten used to doing a little bit of washing each sunny day, so I do not share their open-mouthed feeling of awe. In addition to the washing machine, the Guest House Marfil has a kitchen which is always clean, a strong wireless signal from every room, a microwave, and walls painted full of color.

We arrived here the day before Mother's Day, and when I checked my email from the comforts of my own room, I found that I had already gotten a Mother's Day greeting post-dated to Mother's Day. Very clever.

The clock on our laptop is perpetually off. Every week or two, I change the time, which is in its own random fashion off by 3 hours, 11 hours, even a full day. The clock is evidently pegged to each account, because even after I change it in my account, the clock in TM's account can still be way off. I have been attributing the variety of timestamps that accompany the email in my inbox as an expected complication of the "erroneous clock". However, I just realized today that the erroneous clock is telling the correct time, but the timestamps on my email are still way off.

Interestingly, my email is always timestamped with a time that has not yet arrived. Another way to say this is that I only get mail from the future, not the past. My friends and family are letting me know some of their thoughts ahead of time. This is very considerate of them as it helps me respond appropriately to prevent dire catastrophes that may be lurking moments away on the time horizon. The first time I noticed the timestamp phenomenon was when I was trying to arrange an IM chat with one of Calliope's Florida Virtual School teachers. Although her email referenced "tomorrow", the timestamp on her email already was tomorrow. So which tomorrow was it, yesterday's tomorrow or today's tomorrow? At that point, mail from the future seemed more of a hassle than a powerful catastrophe-prevention tool. But that was just negative thinking; now I see its true potential.

Since I don't actually plan on doing any sight-seeing, important errands, or visiting family here in Lima, this may very well be my last blog entry from South America. I can unhesitatingly say that it has been a marvelous journey. Every new food, Spanish-language AHA, distinct point of view, amazing bit of history that has persevered, cultural idiosyncrasy, surreal landscape, and helping hand that we have had the pleasure to taste, disentangle, encounter, witness, be part of, view, and receive have made this trip extraordinary and memorable. Onward to Sarasota.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Day 3, Ocucaje Desert, Peru

Diane: After perhaps 3 or 4 minutes looking for shark's teeth this morning, I am ready to call it a day. I have no interest in this obsession. Calliope's enthusiasm level has dropped even lower than mine; she has decided not to bother leaving the truck at all, until we are back in Ica. TM, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is lobbying hard to spend one or two more days here. I know Tom shares TM's desire, but he sees that Calliope would be miserable and he's not sure about me. Since Tom was in charge of the grocery shopping, we have enough food and water for a couple more days. We also have a flexible schedule; in fact we have no schedule for the next ten days.

I decide to spend the rest of my time walking the desert without looking for anything. I really do love the desert, so this sounds like a good time to me. At one of our stops, Calliope changes her mind about leaving the truck. She picks a soft, sandy spot and proceeds to sieve through the sand, finding at least a dozen tiny shark's teeth. Her day is improving.

But then TM makes the biggest find of the expedition this morning - a large megalodon tooth in excellent shape.

He spends no time gloating, because he wants to get back to the land and search every square inch of it. As with Tom's find from yesterday, Roberto feels that the tooth was meant for TM. I am very thankful for this find and this interpretation. Now we can return to Ica today flying high on the grand vibes of finding a large shark's tooth.

At our next few stops, I wander around noticing all the lumps, bumps, and up-and-coming skeletons. There must be so much out here that does not meet the eye, mostly because it is buried. Check out some of these uncovered bones.

They are so big. They are so well preserved. And they aren't surrounded by fences or hidden behind glass panes in a museum. We can sit next to them and play cards or have a family squabble. Not that we're doing that. We are looking for megalodon teeth in the general vicinity of whales. Because megalodon ate whales.

While in Arequipa, Tom and I stopped in the Peruvian/North-American Cultural Center. They had an open stack library, which is rare in this part of the world, so we spent some time in the periodicals section. There was an English-language archaeological magazine that caught Tom's eye. He found an article in which the author retells his account of accompanying some Peruvian huaqueros on a successful nighttime raid. It was eye-opening for us, even though the article was 2 or 3 years old. Since Roberto used to be a huaquero, he showed us how you determine the presence of a tomb and whether it holds bones or ceramic pieces. The laws of Peru are very interesting when it comes to archaeological finds. People have been looting tombs for centuries and selling their stolen loot to private collectors. Such activities are now illegal. But it is not illegal to own such articles. So the rich collectors have protected their investments, while the huaqueros (tomb robbers) continue their secret and lucrative digging.

The laws of Peru are also interesting when it comes to paleontological finds. Roberto showed us how to read the land to determine the most likely spots for fossils. He gave us some tips concerning spotting shark's teeth, once you were in an area with good potential.

You may be wondering what we are planning to do with the shark's teeth we have found. Isn't it illegal to take them out of Peru or at least unethical to remove them from the desert? The answer appears to be "No" and "No". As far as the legality, it is against the law to dig for shark's teeth. However, if they are lying on the ground in an area that is not a nature reserve, they are fair game. The Ocucaje desert is not a nature reserve, so we are safe on legal grounds. Moral grounds, as usual, are a bit trickier. Roberto says that after a shark's tooth has been exposed to the air for three months or more, they disintegrate entirely. So, if you just leave a shark's tooth in the desert, it will turn into so much dust in very short order. If you take it with you, you then have the ability to protect it from the harsh rays of the sun and the accompanying changes in humidity. You can also show them to others, sharing the wonder of ancient shark's teeth. We found many, many partially disintegrated shark's teeth that bore testimony to Roberto's view.

It was a windy day as are most days here. Tom took a picture of me looking like an inflatable pool accessory with the whipping wind filling out my clothes.

I took a picture of Tom decked out in his bandana face-covering to protect him from that same whipping wind.

On our way back to town, Roberto stopped by some very recent human remains. The clothing and nails were still discernable.

It was a reminder of just how harsh the desert is. If you run out of water or your car breaks down or your buddies abandon you, it is not "Hasta la vista, baby. It's more like "Adios amigo". I haven't mentioned the extra precautions Roberto has taken with his truck to make it desert-ready and desert-rugged. Suffice it to say that I wouldn't have gone so far into the desert without supreme confidence in both our guide and his vehicle.

Our last stop in the desert was a whale with its brains showing. I had a hard time believing that the translucent yellow rocks were once whale brains. Why didn't they just decompose into the orangeish-mustard dirt like the rest of the fleshy material? Why hadn't someone carted it off to a research lab to check the DNA? The cynic in me was and still is wary.

After some time deciding which shark's teeth to restore, we are luxuriating back in civilization's hold. Our tummy's are digesting a cooked meal and we have bathed away some of the grit and dust from the crevices in our skin. Tomorrow we will fill them with sand, for we will be sand boarding the enormous dunes surrounding our hostal in the oasis of Lago Huacachina.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Day 2, Ocucaje Desert, Peru

Diane: We woke up to a layer of dew on all of our things. Roberto didn't care for it and said he had never seen so much moisture in the desert. The sun only took a few minutes to dry our gear, and we were off. The first stop today was a beautifully preserved whale's mouth.

Now that's what I'm here for.

The megalodon shark was the most notorious of its kind. Their huge teeth are reported to have been as large as 8 inches in height. Now that's what Tom's here for. The teeth are very similar to those of the current day great white shark. The body of the megalodon, however, was much larger - estimated to reach up to 50 feet long, about three times the size of the great white. They also disappeared off the face of the earth about 2 million years ago. We drove deep into the desert today hunting the megalodon's long lost teeth.

I found a few small Mako shark teeth today, but I wasn't drawn to them. I could easily have left them where I found them. Tom, on the other hand, found a large megalodon shark's tooth at the end of the day. Roberto felt strongly that Tom was meant to find this tooth. There were no other teeth in the area and Roberto had chosen a different area to walk, missing the tooth entirely. Roberto has the well-honed ability to spot shark's teeth from many feet away, while driving in his truck. So, he doesn't generally "miss" a tooth. In any event, Tom was absolutely ecstatic and I think he could have gone on all night looking for more teeth.

Instead we set up camp, which was only slightly more complicated today. It was quite hot and I had had quite enough of fossil hunting and dust in my face, so the first thing out of the truck was the canopy. This was followed by the lawn chairs, which were set up in the shade of the canopy. Now that camp was set, I took a look around and saw clearly that we were just a few specks in the face of all this desert (look closely to see our truck and canopy).

Having washed my face, downed some juice, and found a nice spot in the shade, I curled up with my book and a jar of peanut butter. After a bit, I set my book down and speculated on the history of this place. Long ago, I could imagine that high above me would be the ocean's surface. Although our traveling elevation is somewhere in the vicinity of 400 meters above sea level, this used to be the ocean floor. Due to tectonic plates bumping up against each other about 12 million years ago, the land here has been shoved up and bent at odd angles.

Tom, TM, and Roberto were still out walking these odd angles hoping for more great desert treasure. My thoughts took a jagged turn. Imagine this was gold we were all after and there was a multitude out here with us, all desperately searching for the same thing. Those same strong urges that have propelled Tom and TM to continue their search in the mid-afternoon sun would have resulted in a lot of unmarked graves. Here in Peru, it would have attracted the attention of the Spanish Conquistadors, who killed and exploited the people already here. I went back to my book.

Once the sun neared the horizon, I decided to explore the area. It was extraordinarily windy and I was thankful that Roberto knew the ins and outs of finding a camping spot pretty much out of the wind. I spotted a plant. A cluster of plants really. They seemed to grow similar to spider plants and they were covered in a thick layer of dust.

We had a twinkling night sky totally filled with stars. The kids looked for shooting stars. The desert at night puts me in a reverie.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Day1, Ocucaje Desert, Peru

Diane: I called the Desert Man, Roberto Penny Cabrera, from the Flores bus station as soon as we arrived in Ica. This turned out to be both a good decision and a bad decision.

It was a bad decision, because the bus station was teeming with noisy people, located on a loud road. Although I am proficient enough with Spanish to handle a simple phone conversation, the ambient noise drowned out any possibility of hearing what the man on the other end of the phone line was trying to say to me. About 5 feet away from the telephone, sat the bathroom custodian looking a bit bored. When I asked him to help me out on the phone, he jumped up, grabbed the phone, and determined that the Desert Man was indeed there and gave me his address.

It was a good decision, because the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Although I didn't know it when I arrived, the Desert Man had just returned from a trip out into the desert and was sitting at the next table sharing a hearty meal with his clients. He had upcoming trips planned, but enough time to squeeze us in. We met up with him again that evening to look at some of the desert artifacts he keeps in his home - some fossils, maps, shark's teeth, etc. Roberto puts his clients into one of two general categories - paleontologist/scientist or tourist. The paleontologists generally have a good idea of what they are looking for and what they need from Roberto. The tourists, on the other hand, aren't always so sure, so Roberto gives them some idea of the geology behind the desert, the distances involved, shows photos, and then gauges their reactions. That is how we ended up in his home.

Roberto's home spoke a bit to his family's history, Ica's history, and perhaps the history of South America in general. It was a colonial mansion on the central plaza. The fancy exterior belied the almost total lack of ornamentation or furniture of any kind immediately inside the entryway and interior patio area. The rooms were large with high ceilings, harking back to the family's wealthy days. One of Roberto's ancestors was a founder of Ica. At one time, the family had a museum, which the government took away from them, ostensibly for the public good. Today nothing remains of the museum; the individual pieces are now in unknown private hands.

Roberto has spent some time in the military. After that he worked for mining companies. And his occupation that most closely resembles what he does now was that of huaquero (tomb robber). Now, he looks like he fits in the desert.

Our first stop was a cemetery in the village of Ocucaje. Roberto pointed out the wall of the graves of newborns and toddlers. The numbers were staggeringly high for such a small town. And then he pointed out that the numbers dropped off to almost nothing in the 90’s. This was when President Fujimori was in power. He actually went about the task of setting up health centers with doctors in every city, town, and village in Peru. This is not to say that he wasn’t corrupt; just that he did something in addition to steal money. The deaths were back up in the 2000’s, once he was out of power. Roberto held that he would make a good president again, even if he had have to govern from jail.

Our first stop in the desert was a well-preserved whale, whose remains are being slowly uncovered by the process of erosion in the desert. We could see the spinal column quite clearly.

Although Tom came to the desert intent on finding shark's teeth, I came to see a bit of marine and geological history. As Roberto explained it, this part of the desert was once an ancient bay. In the rocky and hilly areas we traverse, it's hard to imagine a bay here, but the wide open sandy/pebbly expanses provide fodder for the imagination.

The largest, fiercest marine predators ever known to exist swam freely in this area. The bones of the whale we saw today are bleached-white and interspersed with an orangeish-mustard soil, the result of decomposition of its fleshy, organic material. The orangeish-mustard color is a good indicator, when searching for fossils.

At this point in geological history, the primary force of erosion here is the wind, since it pretty much doesn't rain here and there are no rivers. So the wind blows away the sand, leaving small bumps in a layer of sediment.

Or bones start to reveal themselves amongst the pebbles.

Over time, more and more of the animal remains are exposed, revealing skeletons, decomposed flesh, and shark's teeth. The wind also blows sand leaving unending panoramas of partially-exposed, visually-appealing rock formations. These formations may have been the result of erosion caused by ancient water channels.

Layers of sedimentary rock are everywhere, the remains of shells and bones built up over time.

We are surrounded by a huge variety of landscapes, yet none of them include vegetation or animal life as far as I can tell without a microscope.

We set up camp, which consists of taking the lawn chairs off the roof of the pickup and setting them up around the fire pit.
Tents aren't needed here in such an arid area. The sleeping bags come out only as the desert cools down. Roberto starts a fire by dousing a couple of blocks of wood with kerosene, spraying them with fire starter, and lighting them with a lighter.

The kids are totally dazzled, having only been exposed to the more environmentally-friendly and arduous back-country methods of starting fires. For us that means scavenging for firewood, building tenuous structures made of different size branches, fanning the small flames, and gradually feeding the fire larger pieces of wood as it grows. I was dazzled by the really cool, dense piece of wood that burned in glorious patterns for most of the evening.

Although Roberto appears to live on jerky and Coca Cola in the desert, he did break out some canned food for dinner. He doesn't believe in cooking in the desert, not based on high moral principles, but based on his experience that many people get sick, when they accidentally eat calcium carbonate that blows into their food as they cook it (Tom says its the magnesium sulfate, but I suppose it just boils down the desert dust). Now here we are in 100% agreement, albeit for different reasons. I never cook, when I camp - too much prep-time, clean-up, and additional gear to tote around. Tonight the kids learn how to heat canned beans over a fire. I make sandwiches. According to Roberto, the adventure starts tomorrow.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Nasca Lines & Colca Canyon, Peru

Diane: Watching condors fly over a beautiful Peruvian canyon after enduring a bumpy 6-hour bus ride to be followed by a bumpy 6-hour return bus ride did not strike me as a pleasurable way to spend my time. Unfortunately it did strike Tom and boatloads of other travelers that way. Tom and I came to a compromise in that we would spend at least 2 nights in the canyon, if we were to go. I was hoping that perhaps we would do an overnight backpacking trip down into the canyon. Or maybe spend a day at one of the hot springs in the area.

The results are now in. Condors fly nicely in their native habitat.

The hot springs at the Colca Lodge were luxurious, although I could get neither Tom nor TM to join us for this night-time foray. We were told that you couldn't get to the Lodge from Yanque, the town closest to the Lodge. Then we were told it was not walkable. Then we were told that it was exhorbitantly expensive. Then we were told that you couldn't drive there from here. This information all came from different people, who genuinely had our best interests at heart.

This is so common in Peru that I've gotten used to asking different people the same question over and over, until I get the answer I want to hear or until I get close enough to be able to figure it out myself. This is not my usual mode of operation, but I have adapted. I remember when we first got to Peru, we were in a small town looking for the largest straw hat in the world. When I say small town, I mean a population in the hundreds, if you count the recently dead. We had no trouble finding the town, but once we got there, the local people sent us from one side of town to the other and back again. We must have asked at least 10 people, before we found it. I don't know why this was, but I do know that it was not due to a communication gap, since we were riding with a Peruvian who lived less than an hour away.

Given this history, Calliope and I eventually headed out on our own on foot in search of the hot springs. It was a bit of a challenge finding the route, ending in some narrow footpaths on a very steep incline. But the pools of varying temperatures overlooking a beautiful river and a clear night sky with a path lit by gas lamps made for a great adventure.

That was a couple of days ago. In the wee hours this morning, we arrived in Nasca. Nasca is another extraordinarily popular tourist destination in which I had no interest. From the air, you can see what look like stylized drawings of various animals. There has been a lot of speculation about aliens and UFO's over the years. In my opinion, once you've seen photos, there is no need to actually fly over them in an airplane. Tom and I struck up another compromise. If we could get in and out of Nasca on our way to our next destination, without staying overnight, I was game. So, off we went.

Calliope enjoyed sitting up with the pilot

Once up in the plane, you could really see just how dry this area is and that rivers used to flow here. You could also see just how big these "drawings" are by comparing them to the dry river beds and current roads in the area. From an airplane, the drawings are very obvious; unfortunately, it may be hard to pick them out in photos with low resolution. There was a spider,

a hummingbird,

a compass,

and a monkey

amongst others.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Arequipa, Peru

Diane: As soon as we arrived in the center of Arequipa, I could tell that we would be comfortable here. Since Tom needs to fully recover from his sinus infection and Calliope seems to have contracted another full-blown case of tonsillitis, I decided to find accommodations that we would really enjoy. The rest of the family waited patiently, and then expectantly, and then worriedly as I tracked down the perfect-for-us Colonial House Inn. After a round of complaints, I was inundated with gratitude at this wonderful find.

It is made from sillar, the white volcanic stone from which the majority of the buildings here are made, including the elaborate archways and facades of the finer mansions and churches. The walls of our room are about a meter thick, maybe thicker. The rounded ceiling has a small opening to light the interior. As the sky brightens early in the morning, it shines on my bed. As the hours of the day go by, each area of the room brightens as the light reaches there. We also have glaring fluorescent lights, when natural light is insufficient. Our window looks out on the interior courtyard, which even has a fig tree with some mature fruit hanging from it. Upstairs, the rooftop dining area is surrounded by potted plants. There is an exchange library of English-language books and common areas where the kids can watch TV, cook, do laundry, etc.

Our first meal in Arequipa was in a restaurant that appeared to be the exact same dimensions as our room, made from sillar with rounded ceiling, just as our room is. At first I thought it was the stock size of all sillar rooms in Arequipa. As it turns out, many rooms are long and low to the ground to prevent earthquake damage.

Having now visited a couple of universities and cultural centers made of the lovely sillar, I can say that no building quite captures the heart and soul of this architectural style as the Santa Catalina convent. We took a family outing there today, to visit the city within the city center of Arequipa. It was a cloistered convent for 400 years, until 1985, housing daughters from many wealthy families. Since 1985, the remaining nuns have been half-cloistered. The buildings have sustained significant earthquake damage over the years, but most were restored in the 1980's, and the nuns now live off the convent entry fees. The sillar is everywhere as are the cobblestone/river-rock streets and lovely archways that lead from one tranquil space to the next.

The woodwork on the doors as well as the solid columns both add to the safe and solid feel of the place.

Even the roof lines are lovely. You can see where rainwater would come off the rooftops. There are well-organized stone gutters running in the streets as well to catch this falling water.

This was not a communitarian convent. I'd estimate that we saw at least 50 kitchens. Each kitchen had been well-used as evidenced by the grimy black ceilings.

A couple of centuries ago, after a visit from the archbishop, an order came down to limit each nun to one servant. This order met with such disapproval and organized resistance, that the final result was the resignation of the archbishop.

The only reason our room at the Colonial House Inn is not as tranquil as the convent is that WE are living there. Once we leave, it should take on the same serene air we encountered at the convent. Until that time, only the ceiling truly reflects the spirit of our room.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Day 3, Salar de Uyuni Tour, Bolivia & Chile

Diane: Although the shortest day of the tour, it was the most visually exciting for me. We headed out at 6:30 a.m. and headed straight for the fumaroles and mudpots. They were exceptional and we could walk around as well as right up through the center of this volcanic activity. At first, the very land we were walking on was shrouded in the steam of the fumaroles. It was hard to keep track of Calliope, my walking companion

Some of the mudpots contained muddy water; others contained watery mud; and yet others, had hardened up entirely. The subdued gurgling and popping belied the extreme heat and danger at the edge of our shoes.

Every view held its own attraction.

As the sun rose, the steam and bubbling mud, danced in the light of a new day. The mineral and sulphur smells only added another sensation to the mix.

From the bubbling mud and steam, we continued to some nearby hot springs, translated in one of our brochures as the "thermal bathrooms". We have come across hundreds of humorous English translations during our travels. It makes me wonder about all the funny things I must be saying in Spanish. For the most part, nobody corrects me, so I'm sure I add a bit of internal merriment to those I interact with each day. Wearing my long underwear, heavy sweats, and warm hat and looking at a pool with water at a mere 85 degrees, I didn't dare venture into these hot springs. So, we headed off to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

We would have taken the bus back up to Peru tonight, but it was full, so we'll head out tomorrow. Since we now have an extra day on our hands, I thought we might go to the Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) tomorrow. This is the third Moon Valley we've come across in the past week or so and I hear it offers up panoramas that are markedly different from those on our LandCruiser tour. Speaking of our tour, I decided to complain to Colque Tours about our guide who hadn't provided us with breakfast or lunch today. After a short discussion, the owner of the agency offered us free tours to the Moon Valley - I like these guys! Since we are here an extra day, I am also trying to make an adjustment to the Chilean currency - 565 Chilean pesos to the dollar. Everything costs thousands of pesos, which makes me jump at first when I read a menu or calculate bus fares.