Thursday, 25 February 2010

Leaving Cajamarca

My last day and exit from Cajamarca went well. I began the day by checking out the cathedral and later treated my adopted family and friends to lunch. In the end there were 15 of us in Salas Restaurant in the Plaza. This is an old, typical, busy and large restaurant and offers all of the favourite Peruvian dishes. I had lomo saltado and we drunk some passable Peruvian wine.

For the evening, I was  invited to accompany my cyclist friends to an evangelical regaton event. Seemingly an unlikely musical combination, we arrived at university sports hall at 7pm. By 9pm about 300 people had arrived but the sound team were still ironing out problems with the balance, decks and microphones. The act comprised 2 fattish, baggily dressed Mexican Americans and they punctuated their songs with short sermons. The audience, mainly young people were at once animated by the beat, the electrified voices sounding to me as if they had been at the laughing gas. I pretty much got sucked in by the atmosphere and was reminded of my one and only attendance at the Elim pentecostal church. Still, they were a good natured bunch pogoing like mad but without a drop of alcohol.

The next morning, before 6am, Vicky and Mirita kindly saw me off into a taxi and Richard, my cyclist guide met me at the bus station to wish me well. How kind! The journey to Celedin was breathtaking and a tad worrying. We climbed to about 4000m and followed a snaking dirt road with fabulous views and steep unprotected cliff edges.

Celedin is a slightly sleepy mediums sized rural town and I am lodged in the Hostal Celedin with a simple  ensuite  bedroom for only £7.00 a night. By the end of the afternoon I had explored the town to its edges and enjoyed its comparative tranquility.

Awaking early I went on an excursion to some thermal baths. Llanguat is a small village 23km down into the tropical zone, I Joined 2 others at 7am sharing thee cost of the fare of £12 round trip. The journey was   fantastic as we passed into a vast canyon down to the river bed. The road was pretty bumpy and narrow made worse by a recent mud slide 'hauco'. These naturalevents happen in the rainy season when great chunks of mountainside gather speed and come cascading down; their force destroys or covers everything in their path. The baths comprised 2 swimming pools, the hot one iron red and a very comfortable temperature. I soaked and chatted with othersand we returned after a lunch of chicken, yukka and rice, topped off with bananas and sweet lemons. 

All is well; I was sad to have left Cajamarca but pleased to be moving on and experiencing some different countryside.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

More random thoughts and observations

I am continuing with some random thoughts about life in Peru, in particular as it has revealed itself here in Cajamarca.

Most towns have a Plaza de Armas. I don't think there is a UK equivalent and that is probably a pity. Taking this evening's observations as typical, one is treated to a variety of services handily located together. Around  the edge of the Plaza in Cajamarca are a couple of fine churches, hotels, tour agencies, restaurants and bars. In the square, with its gardens and seats, I noticed parents and children enjoying ice creams, young people locked in conversation and sometimes embrace, police on duty, shoe-shine boys, people selling things like chewing gum, sweets, ice cream, cigarettes, drinks, toys etc. There was a political mime artist group. Cars and taxis circulate – it is a genuine hub to the city. But perhaps most importantly the atmosphere is great, relaxed, friendly and inviting.

I cannot say I a overly fond of the Peruvian dogs. There is a distinctive Peruvian breed, perhaps one of the most ugly dogs you can find but you don't see it here. Dogs mostly occupy the street in residential areas. They roam free, hunting out scraps of food from rubbish. sometimes the enter restaurants hunting for scraps.  On the corner near where I live there is a pack that has a regular mad half hour chasing motor taxis and cars. Often though they are sleepy and disinterested. Aside from the feces they leave they can be extremely aggressive. My strategy when walking home late at night is to carry 2 stones. If a dog is aggressive towards me I first show it the stones and pretend to throw one; often that is enough. If not I throw one stone past the dog and often it stupidly chases it and in this distraction I pass by. Failing that I aim to hit it which I have only had to do once. Otherwise, when cycling they can give chase, a great motivation for sprint practise!

Recycling and environmental issues
There doesn't seem to be much of a formal approach to recycling, but informally it is pretty good. You can see Campecino women collecting great bundles of plastic bottles and the deposit on glass bottles is as much as half the price of the drink it contains thus encouraging their return and reuse.  In our house there is a cuy box to feed the guinea pigs and some people fatten a pig on waste food. When water is heated for cooking or making tea, spare clean hot water is retained in a thermos for later use – maybe we'll try that at home although it could well be controversial. Clothes are mainly hand washed in cold water and always hung out to dry. There is wastefulness, for example in the ad hoc transport system with far too many taxis and motos chasing too few customers; the mainly unregulated pubic transport system leads to too many ery old and poluting buses and cars. In terms of the bigger picture the mining industry is a huge factor. Today I saw a convoy of 10 petrol tankers heading up to the Yanacocha gold mine and some other lorries carrying what were described as dangerous waste mining materials. Clearly I am scratching at the surface of a complex topic but maybe these casual observations  suggest a huge environmental  problem for the extraction of a precious (but not to me) metal.

Pissing, spitting, whistleling and sitting
Men mostly do the former 3 while women the latter. On urinating many men care not where and this often imparts a horrible smell on corners and in alleys. Men also spit a fair amount but probably no more than parts of the UK. They can also whistle out of their proverbial; Most can whistle very loudly, sometimes through their teeth but they also have a trick of bunching their bottom lip and inhaling to cause a distinctive and piercing call.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


Perhaps I am just a little pleased that the carnivals have come and gone. The build up to these festive events has been palpable during these last 2 or 3 weeks. Children especially have anticipated it with the buying and throwing of water filled balloons, 'los globitos' and by drenching each other and passers by with water on every opportunity. One would think that the joke would wear thin after a while but not so.

This weekend  has been the conclusion to festivities, beginning on Saturday with pitched battles between groups of young people carrying paint filled 'globos' in buckets ready to throw at each other. Most people with any sense keep away and I went cycling to avoid this odd tradition. One could see its  results every where. By lunchtime, buses, taxis and young people were covered in paint. Taking some back routes through the city we avoided the worst of it but we were attacked with water bombs which weren't too upsetting.

Earlier in the week we went to an event to elect beauty queens. This was a curious mix between beauty pageant and a contest for the most authentically dressed young woman from each of the provinces of Cajamarca and the local districts of Cajamarca City. Unfortunately it was both boring and cheesy but there were some nice costumes and I was pleased that the traditionally dressed girl from San Marcos won out over some of the more miss world like representations.

On Sunday we had 'las patrullas', a 3 or 4 hour procession of all the local areas and provinces of Cajamarca. These were generally colourful and quite fun with accompanying music and some splendid costumes.  I watched it in the Plaza de Armas and situated myself near a group of friendly people who wanted me to drink their beer and pisco. Although I politely declined this did not prevent them from drinking themselves senseless during the course of the afternoon. Later, when it came on to rain heavily, rather than dampen the crowd's enthusiasm everyone seemed to enjoy it all the more. continuing to throw waater at each other!

The last main event, 'los concorsos' comprised of a lengthy procession of allegorical floats, many carrying the beauty queens and accompanied by  much of the procession of the previous day. It lasted a full 4 to 5 hours. We situated ourselves on makeshift bleachers where places were rented out at around £3 a seat. Although I had some misgivings the structure seemed sturdy enough but it wasn't  overly comfortable, By the end I became bored and wanted the interminable event to conclude. This was also another occasion of war by water bomb and myself and many others were hit by the projectiles which were lobbed from above and the other side of the road.

As I left I saw that another bleacher platform had collapsed; I gather causing 17 injuries, some of which necessitating hospitalisation. This was easily preventable and the joint neglect of the the informal economy and lack of  adequate regulation.  Otherwise the procession was fine but I thought that the police were somewhat heavy handed in clearing the way at the onset of events. Many of the costumes were great but quantity rather than quality prevailed.

In the evening I joined my family for some singing and dancing with guitars and flute. This was great fun and we sung 'coplas', verses of a set pattern always with the same tune but with varying themes, sometimes patriotic other times very rude. At some point we determined to visit some cousins and arrived unexpectedly causing a party to ensue. We all had to 'white up' by painting our faces with talcum  powder. Drinks of whiskey, canosa, chicha and beer flowed freely and the next morning I slept late and awoke with somewhat of a hang over.

Well I gather it is not all over yet as we have the 'Unchas de Carnavales' to come. These comprise the erection of an Uncha tree in every barrio with presents tied to it and more partying.

Carnival in Cajamarca is certainly an experience but come prepared to party and enjoy. Carnival is not universally loved by all but seems to run through the veins of most Cajamarquinos happy to be known as the Peruvian capital of carnival.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Of doubtful interest

Well this blog entry is not so much about events or journeys but life as I have experienced it here in Cajamarca, Peru. It is no more than thoughts and some reflections on life observed, some of which may offer an expectation of what it may be like to live and travel in Peru. I have organised it thematically as below..

Choices for travel are varied; leaving air travel and special tours aside, there seems to be a hierarchy of long distance travel. Companies like Cruz de Sur are slick and offer a comfortable service where it is possible to cover long distances by night, both saving on hotels and waking fairly refreshed. First class cabin tends to cost about 20% more but is definitively worth it for night journeys and prices generally seem excellent value.

If traveling intermediated distances I tend to go by day and take cheaper options. A 5 hour journey may cost as little as 10 soles or £2.50. Buses often play videos which can be unsuitable for younger travelers. Usually there are stops, sometimes an hour for the driver to have lunch and quite often vendors board the bus with fruit or sweets for sale. Generally going can be slow as roads may or may not have asphalt and progress can be halted by farm animals, the fording if rivers and negotiating markets in small towns.

For shorter distances there are 3 main options, combis/buses, taxis and motos (3 wheel motorbikes). Prices tend to double up for each option, from 70 centimos to 1.50 soles to 3 soles although these vary by distance. For the latter 2 you can haggle and usually expect that drivers will try and take advantage of gringos. As market conditions change, for example in the rain, at lunch times or in the evening the price can rise and sometimes drivers will refuse a fare if they don't want to go in that direction. Buses and combis can be fun. Conductors hurry you on and off the bus with calls of sube sube and baja baja and they'll pick you up and drop you anywhere. It can be a squeeze, particularly for tall gringos but at least you don't have to haggle.

In daily life Peru doesn't really consider fairness among the sexes. There is a great deal of stereotyped work roles such as bus and taxi drivers which are all men. I haven't seen more than a couple of women cycling and men are rarely seen in caring roles, although there are quite a few pretty police women!. That said, families tend to be extended and mutually supportive, so some role segregation doesn't mean people necessarily live entirely stereotyped lives lives. There is quite a lot of humorous introspection of this in so called 'saco lagos' which offer short and funny presentations of role reversals in the home and at work with women and men playing to opposite roles to the hilarity of all.  I suppose this may just be a handy device to channel potential resentment.

Anyone with a disability has a tough time in Peru. Public services are scarce and there are few if any adaptations to the environment. Pavements are probably insurmountable for wheelchair users and hence there aren't any! Sometimes one has to cross half metre gaps in the road, or rubble is left without any safety barriers.

I have not been aware of any gay, lesbian or bisexual people in Peru. Perhaps they exist but I guess a low profile is kept except possibly in the largest cities.

Peruvians are not generally very accustomed to other races hence I am often stared at curiously, particularly by children. Occasionally one is called gringo but probably only in the same way a fat child is called gordito (little fat one) without a hint of malice. Here in Cajamarca, the Campecinos (peasants) are distinguished by their clothes, particularly the women who wear tall wide brimmed hats and full knee length skirts, carrying their things or a baby in a blanket on their back. There doesn't seem to be any racial element in their treatment although I guess structurally and economically they are disadvantaged. In Cajamarca not much Quechua is spoken but often people know some words from grandparents.  There are no signs in Quechua and only pocketed pride in this pre-columbian language. That said, here in Cajamarca one can take lessons.

Health and safety
Orthodontists seem to abound and I guess you could get very good and reasonable treatment. Lots of people, particularly Campecinos have a lot of gold in their mouths but I am unsure if this is curative or cosmetic.. I have had no cause to visit hospitals but in the past have found them surprisingly well organised and quite cheap. Glasses can also be bought cheaply if you steer away from designer stuff – so if you need a new or spare pair bring your prescription. Obesity seems to be on the increase and although quite a few young people do exercise, particularly football and volley but many don't. There is also a fair amount of drunkenness and it is not rare to find someone still sleeping it off in the gutter in the morning.

Workplace risk taking is endemic except in the large corporations and the municipalidad, few construction workers wear safety equipment. This extends to ordinary tasks where not much thought is given to working under a car supported only by a single bottle jack. You can buy fireworks without restriction and the youngest of children seem to be able to watch horror movies.

Since this is rambling on a bit, I'll break here and see if I have enough on which to reflect for a part 2 but you probably get the picture. Hopefully this doesn't come over as a rant but I guess one´s attention is more easily drawn to differences in ways of being, some of which may seem a bit negative but are amply compensated by other factors. I am happy if you leave some comments and please don´t be put off from travelling to Peru. It is a fantastic country.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cajabamba party and Jesus by bike

After a reasonably full few days I have elected for one of relative calm, apart from the possibility of a Spanish lesson this afternoon.

On Sunday we delivered our 2 young house guests Astrid and Christy to their parent who were in Cajabamba for Angel's, the children's grandfather's 75th birthday. (more of this later). This has freed up the larger guest bedroom with the ensuite bathroom, so I am relaxing quietly and enjoying a slow start to the day. Actually my bed just collapsed owing to some rather skimpy fittings and is currently under repair! That aside, I have been very happy here and have helped Vicky market her homestay by creating a website. There is a link to it here at the side of the blog and you can become a member of a small group who have been or plan to be guests.

Last evening, in Ballas Cafe (see below) I met Milli who I had befriended some months earlier in my internet search for contacts in Cajamarca. She is a 23 year old law student, who unusually for Peruvians has traveled a bit on a volunteer exchange in Canada. We chatted happily over great £3 Margaritas while I disproved the the theories about meeting older men on the internet. She was very pleasant and I think I have been invited to a large family party on Sunday. After this I went to the town square to watch the 155th anniversary celebrations. The plaza was completely full and there was a band, fireworks and a giant display screen – all very festive but after a while too crowded for my liking so I slipped away and walked the 45 minutes back to my house.

Cajabamba is a medium sized town sitting on a ledge overlooking a valley that is endowed with many farms and smallholdings. It is at about 2,600 metres so slightly warmer than Cajamarca with a pretty plaza and great market. The journey there takes in some splendid views of the surrounding mountains and the bus has to negotiate a couple of shallow river crossings.

Cajabambinos appear highly proud of their 'tierra' and the ensuing birthday party demonstrated a close knit community and a love of fiesta. We began with pisco sours and lunch was accompanied with wine and then beer and more pisco and dancing. I stayed the course for about 7 hours and then left them to it! The next day we had a gentle walk around the surrounding district and enjoyed soft drinks and a view of the surrounding countryside, returning to cajamarca at dusk.

Yesterday I opted for another cycle ride with Richard. We went to Jesus, about 20km away, without too much climbing. Its recent fiesta was marred by the death of 4 young people driving back after an evening's celebrations. Richard showed me the curve in the dirt road where the car came adrift, dropping down into a culvert and hitting what remained of a disused concrete bridge. There are now painted steel bollards and some signs but clearly too late for these young people.

We opted to follow some singe track paths in order to vary the passage above a swollen river. Unfortunately the paths petered out and eventually we descended to the river via a stream and through some dense woodland. On reaching the river, and realizing we needed to cross it or climb back up the stream we spent a frustrating half an hour looking for the least fast running stretch. Eventually, by hopping from one island of stones to the other we made the crossing without being washed away!

Ballas Cafe is the only bar that I have found offering a very chilled experience. Its owner speaks good English and plays mostly cool tracks offering some Mexican snacks, more than passable coffee and great cocktails. It is usually quiet and best of all has the most reliable wifi signal I have found. It is on the corner of Belen and Junin.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Hauyanay otra vez

Yesterday I went back to Hauyanay, the somewhat remote village community above San Marcos, Cajamarca. The project had come on well since my last visit and the 150 or so steps down to the waterfall had been completed together with balustrades and strategically places wooden seats to rest on one's return. The next stage is to construct a bridge come viewing platform.

On leaving Cajamarca at 6am I felt fortunate that I had found what I thought was a good seat on a spacious combi. Sitting at the back with my legs stretched into the central aisle was great until I discovered a fold-down seat in front of me and I was at once hemmed in by a fat lady to the right and a heavy man in front. As my knees and backside welded into super-structure of the bus and my near neighbours I attempted to find distraction in the equivalent of Romantic FM which was at least soporific.

On reaching San Marcos I notices a long line of campecino women with their tall hats waiting outside a municipal building for their £20 monthly stipend. I believe it is aimed at bringing them some measure of independence in the prevailing macho culture. I found a cantina serving hot caldo and was offered pig foot or head. I chose foot believing it the lesser horror and left the meat but enjoyed the soup with a little potato and pasta.

Setting off for the village at around 7.30 we arrived to our work. This entailed a 1 mile walk to a small wood of eucalyptus trees in which we cut down tall 'palos' using machetes and then used stones to loosen the bark which was peeled from the tree. We then carried these back to the village. I made 4 such trips and it was hard work. Some of the men (I was allowed to work with the women and children) were focusing on felling a large tree and then cutting it into planks to form the platform off the bridge on which people will walk. This was achieved skillfully with a huge chain saw but the afternoon's work only yielded 5 planks and 25 are needed!
At the day's end there was an opportunity to chat and I learned that one of the men had created a series of 4 line songs 'couplas' about the project and its environmental/touristic aims, to be sung in the traditional way during carnival.

On leaving there was a pretty sunset to compete the day and I returned by 9pm tired and hungry.

Some week later I received word that the bridge/viewing platform had been constructed and I am grateful to Amparo for sending me the fascinating photos which can be viewed HERE

Recently there has been a newspaper article on the sam project and you can find it HERE

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A few different activities in the course of a week

Life has settled into an agreeable pattern, however one still has to allow for the fact that timetabled events slip and slide, minutes, hours or sometimes days; so it pays to have different options on the table.

On Friday I went to Cumbeyo by bicycle with Richard. Either I am fitter or it was a slightly easier ride, probably the latter. We again climbed into the surrounding hills, stopping at a fish farm to view the tanks full differently sized trout. Mostly wide track or asphalt the going was tough but manageable. The route eventually climbs to mine which we didn't visit and hence some of the drivers seemed more gun ho than normal, but not too bad. We passed through some stunning countryside with great views of a steep gorge and the winding switchback trail. perfect for mountain biking.

As we reached the area of Cumbeyo we were able to see literally hundreds of ventanillas (or windows) in the surrounding hills where bodies were once interned. They have long since been ransacked but I am told one can still find pottery pieces and bones. The town of Cumbeyo offers a dusty plaza and surrounding buildings. At a bodega we stopped and bought bananas and sweet biscuits and Mangos, 3 for 25p which Richard said were twice the price of those in the Cajamarca market. We were advised of some ancient sites nearby but the route would have taken us down and up again and was so steep that we turned back.

The fast and exciting descent was only interrupted by one short climb although we stopped for one puncture. Richard's inner tube looked well past its best with about 8 previous patches and I told him I would donate my 2 new ones before I left. As we passed through Otuzco some children pelted us with water bombs but we we didn't mind a little damping down and they were preferable to the occasional ferocious dogs which we outpaced easily. On reaching the airport there was some good flat asphalt and Richard opened up a lead but lack of oxygen meant that I couldn't respond so we coasted back to Cajamarca where they kindly taxied me back to my house.

At the weekend I met up with Another Richard and some of his family. They had offered a day's outing to Porcon which seems to be both a farming cooperative and huge managed pine forest. It is about 30km distance from Cajamarca and includes a zoo, some carpentry and textiles trades, restaurant and a downhill cycle track. Here the countryside appears very different and the forest stretches off into the distance in most directions. The enterprise is owned by an evangelist and the route is signposted with biblical references, often relating to the natural world or relationships with others. I am not too fond of zoos but at least the vicuna ran wild and some of the animals had largish enclosures. We spend t pleasant and tranquil few hours and had a decent lunch. Worth a visit but don't expect a wow factor.

Yesterday I had lunch with Father Michel Garnett. Michael or Miguel as he is known here is well into his 80s and has been a priest in Peru for around 40 years, taking Peruvian nationality in 1974. He is a remarkable man on many fronts, having written several novels and other books. At the moment in the process of turning one of his novels into a film he speaks modestly of his aachievements. Michael also teaches in the local private university and is a 4th dan black belt in karate! We passed a pleasant few hours and downed a sizable measure of Chilean red wine. He is a great conversationalist and has a repertoire of recollections about Peru's political, cultural and social history. His home is shared with a number of visiting god children and and is adorned with his own and others' paintings and memorabilia. I truly enjoyed our chats and hope we can remain in contact.

Aside from my language classes, the gym and some nice chats and lunches with my host family I have today witnessed the carnival swinging into action with the first of its processions. Not everybody is a great fan of carnival. In the evenings various groups bang drums and chant a variety of couplets, mostly about love and life in the countryside. There is a fair degree of drunkenness and the police keep a tight rein. The procession today was happy enough. I wasn't super impressed with the costumes, which I was told are last year's. It was loud and there was quite a bit of water throwing but generally good natured. As this was the first of the processions and we can expect several others culminating around the 14th February I guess there is quite a bit more to anticipate.

By tomorrow I am 4 weeks into my visit with 5 or so more to come. With few exceptions it has been a great month and I feel at one with the lifestyle and personally enriched by the variety of experiences and people I have encountered. I will probably be in Cajamarca at least another 3 weeks and then will loop back to Lima by way of Celedin and Chachpoyas potentially staying at lodge at Gotca where there is a super high waterfall and visiting Kuelap said to be the Machu Pichu of Northern Peru.