Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Many Faces of Machu Picchu...

Soon after dawn the sun brightens the high peaks above the town of Ollataytembo. This is a place of early morning water sounds and bird sounds. Soon sunlight falls on the yellow golden stone Inca ruins on the hills above the town. This is a place to which we would like to return! But today we must make our next move and take the train to Aguas Caliente... It is the first train that I have ever encountered to declare a strict limit on the weight of luggage permitted... (Which we later found that they didn't enforce). We had to decide what to store here in the Apu Lodge where we are staying in Oyataytembo.

Do you remember the scene in the Hobbit movie where the intrepid band of adventurers enters a region of high steep mountains and rushing water...? Strange plants hang from the trees, the rocks forming steep cliffs down to the river. Hanging bridges cross the rushing rivers. Well, that was us today as we entered Aguas Caliente, the gateway to Machu Pichu. It is quite remote with only two means of entrance... Walking or a little narrow gauge railroad that never quite got its rails leveled. The train chugs it's way through the valley as the route gets ever more extreme.


Today we made it to Machu Picchu... What a grand experience! We were advised that is is very important to get there early before the tour busses arrived in late morning... Today it was raining lightly at 4: 30 am as we left the hotel... This is pretty typical Machu Picchu weather (It is after all rainforest.) We discovered a great long line of others at the bus station, with the same plan in mind. Several buses left at 5: 30.. And we were on the 3rd one. After a 30 minute ride we were deposited at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Our first moments were a little confused... Dawn was just breaking, and us without coffee. We were dressed in rain gear, but the rain made reading guide book difficult. Thunder roared and lightning flashed to add to the drama of the moment. Once we located a point of reference that we could identify the morning became easier. We had the trails pretty much to ourselves as the day brightened. The first face of Machu Picchu that we saw was the surreal moving misty clouds giving us momentary peeks at the landscape...The experience was quite mystical! The large stone features were softened and blurred in the foggy light... At times a clear expanse would show and then vanish within minutes. About 8 AM, I climbed up through the fog to reach the "watchman's cottage". I knew that I was very high and exposed but I could see little through the clouds... Suddenly a miracle occurred and the fog vanished and I looked down on the grand vista of Machu Picchu stretched out before me... For the next hour as conditions cleared..,I could see that in fact I was on a very high ridge that looked out at vast cliffs and peaks of dramatic height and all directions! Here are the stone remains of a significant city...a center of political and religious power. Even today the careful city planning to supply water, drainage, access to food, communication with the other parts of the empire serve as a brilliant example of public works that are both functional and beautiful. .

We continued our explorations and noticed that we were acquiring shadows ... The sun showed and strengthened as the day progressed... Now we could appreciate the green meadows among the stone buildings.

One wrinkle to the day was that my cameras, first one, and then my backup camera, malfunctioned because of the light rain that had fallen on them. With the bright sun shining we took a break for a snack, at the same time we discovered that all of our critical papers in the day pack had become soggy with the rain... So we carefully spread out the wet papers to dry, and also put the cameras in the sun... After the food, I checked my good camera and found it had returned to life...Soon after, the second camera was also doing well.

Judy preferred to sit and enjoy the view and I went off to capture the photos that I had missed earlier due to camera problems. By 10 am the scene changed considerably... Train loads of visitors from Cusco arrived and took the bus up to M. P. Suddenly we were sharing the site with great swarms of visitors. Most visitors were in groups with a guide giving dates and details... We know that our retention from such guide talks is poor...and we do better reading a guidebook and traveling on our own. Guides were speaking to their groups in Spanish, English, Japanese, Italian, French, German, and maybe a few other languages. Still the whole scene was so special we were in no hurry to leave.

We left Machu Picchu by mid afternoon with a happy and satisfied feeling that we had seen at least some of the faces of Machu Picchu. ... And in the process had caught a glimpse of the people who had built this amazing city.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Glories of Cusco...and Beyond

There is much unique about Cusco! It is over11000ft in elevation, which means that when you arrive it is necessary to move slowly, until you acclimate. August is in the dry season, and the skies are a deep and beautiful blue. Cusco was an early center of Inca cultural life and many of the faces that I pass in the street are Inca to the core. The city is built of well crafted stone blocks skillfully cut and fitted together in the tradition of the Inca. Many of the streets are beautiful in their stone work and classic narrowness, they are interspersed with large public plazas and many fine churches that give the flavor of the Spanish masters who ruled the country from very early years. Openinf off of the streets, many doorways open into comfortable patios. It is a city well suited to pedestrians, notably missing the traffic and smoke of Quito.

Yesterday early I went into the large enclosed market... Where the people of Cusco buy their daily vegetables, meat, rice, herbs, fruit, but also clothing and household items... The mood of the place in marked by friendly exchange between buyers and sellers... It is hectic but with a certain order... I was astounded to see the huge varieties of potatoes and corn varieties offered for sale... I loved using my Spanish to converse with the women selling medicinal herbs, the sellers of quinoa and chocolate, the stalls with incense and dried fish. I found it amazing to see sacks filled with coca leaves that the local people chew to prevent fatigue, especially when working at high elevation... Apparently there are a lot of coca leaf users here! Some guidebooks recommend to visitors to use the leaves or a tea to prevent headaches from the altitude. And no it is not a form of cocaine or other serious drug. There is also a section of the market that offers fast food service by local food sellers... providing either the sit down breakfast to the many merchants and shoppers.

The city has been skillfully planned to offer neighborhoods limited to the chic tourist trade... hotels and restaurants... But has maintained other sections that are very indigenous and maintain the traditions and life of the people. I fear that some visitors come here and never see the real city or encounter the marvelous people of Cusco. I feel totally safe wandering through the markets even though I am usually the only non local person in sight. I am very discrete in the photos of people that I take.

The history of Cusco is both wonderful and sad. This was the home of the greatest of the Inca palaces and temples... The center of a vast economy... The center of advanced knowledge of medicine, plant science, mathematics, cosmology... exceeding the knowledge in Europe at the time. Scholars still disagree about why the Spanish invasion succeeded, at a time when the Spanish Inquisitions were producing a reign of intolerance and fear in Spain. It was a time when cruelty and greed were normal. First the invaders stole anything made of gold... All the fine delicate work of the people and the institutions was melted down and shipped to Spain. The Spanish rulers required the people to produce or grow products which were shipped off to Spain...It was a time of impoverishment of a whole people. Finally the Inca people were forced to give up their cultural ways... As a result much of the knowledge of the Inca was irretrievably lost.As a last attempt to remove Inca culture the people were required dress as Europeans and speak only Spanish. It was a devastating period in human history! The brutality knew no bounds. Of course humans are resilient to a point... Of course the genetic pool of the Inca is still very much present. Here are now found nearly pure Inca people, Mestisos (those of mixed heritage), and those of European ancestry. The Spanish were ultimately driven out and remnants of the traditional life have been recovered and are now valued. Still the shadow of the great destructive Spanish period remain. Even the museums have only limited collections to offer.

Often the hostels and hotels where Judy and I stay are shared with European travelers and backpackers. We Prefer to stay in places that offer a flavor of the country and opportunities to talk to fellow travelers.. We are currently staying in the Ninos hotel in Cusco... The profits from this small hotel go to support a program that supports local street children. It is simple, clean, and provides fantastic breakfasts. In a place like this it is natural that everyone is your new best friend... We meet very interesting people from the world over! Some of the rooms have private baths... But we could not reserve one of these. The common bathroom is a bit different. It is used by both men and women... There is one shared closed off shows and two shared closed off toilets.. First come first served... One sink. This morning when I entered the bathroom, I found a young woman from Australia brushing her teeth, we greeted each other and both went about our business... I think these folks have a real common sense idea!

... Later...

We made it from Cusco to Alyatantembo in about an hour and a half! And it was an awesome ride in a 10 passenger collectivo minibus. Awesome especially because it was over a rugged Andean mountain road... Two lanes... And here in a land where driving is a competitive sport... And the object is to call the other drivers bluff! The scenery is awesome! We are now in a rugged valley of Alyatantembo...a charming of the most genuine Incan towns with its narrow lanes, fantastic stone work, and a stone channel for clear running mountain water in each lane

Monday, August 19, 2013

Organic Food the Natural way

We travelled this past week into the high green hills and valleys of Ecuador. Here many small property holders are living with the land as their only asset. These small independent farmers who are trying to make a living in the complex markets of today start out with a disadvantage. Many are farming as their fathers did. Imagine what a difference it makes to be part of a collective that provides low cost loans and training in new products and farming methods.

To get a sense of what these farmers are doing, we visited a number of small family farmers who have been trained and certified in organic farming methods. They sell their produce in large twice a week farmers markets in larger more prosperous towns. It is direct marketing from farmer to consumer! The organic portion of the market attracts many more customers, despite the fact that that the produce is a bit more expensive. Customers are attracted by the fresh, higher quality, tastier organic products. A small land holder can make a good living in this way.

There is growing interest in locating and preserving the seeds and knowledge the are part of the indigenous heritage of Ecuador... High in the mountains and valleys these treasures can still be found. Varieties from the coastal regions are more likely to have been lost due to more intensive farming methods on mono culture crops like bananas. The recovered crops are a genetic treasure with products that can be sold commercially and genetic information available for cross breeding to develop new varieties.

The cooperative groups provide a range of services, from sharing of seeds, collecting and sharing techniques, providing in depth training in new methods. A farmer can take a low interest Heifer project loan, spend it on tools, seeds, training, land... And then pay back the loan from their increased income. The interest collected serves as the basis for "passing on the gift" to other farmers.

The indigenous farmers made great use of companion planting.. The beneficial interaction between plants grown close together. They do not plant in uniform rows or clumps... But inter spaced crops were grown in natural communities as might be found in nature... The soil was always occupied (year round growing season here)... The soil is never bare, thus preventing drying. Plants are continually added and taken out when harvested. Some plants that we might call weeds are permitted to grow because of their contribution to the soil economy. Large "weeds" that steal the sunlight from crops are removed. This concept of growing plants in communities is called agroecology. Growing diverse crops is beneficial in the farmers market economy. For example 18 varieties of potatoes are grown for their diverse flavors and food qualities. Some plant varieties are included in the community for their ability to repel harmful insects or to attract beneficial ones.

The proof of this system and training is in the results. Training and cooperative support have led many farmers in this region to self sufficiency and economic success.

Neighboring farms plowed by a tractor, practicing monoculture agriculture with only one crop, are much more prone to insect invasions requiring pesticides, in need of soil enrichment with commercial fertilizers (unneeded with the plant communities and compost fertilization), and are subject to the drying of the soil since the dirt is not covered with the mixed plant community. The idea is to let nature do the work...adapt to the natural ways of plants and soil.

Some farmers add to the diversity by also growing animals... Guinea pigs, rabbits, cows, sheet... Selling the meat and using the "poop" in the compost. The ideas, the training, the seeds and animals, the funding, and the passing on of the gift are all part of the Heifer concept. The concept is flexible dependent on local conditions and resources... We saw a trout farm that made use of clear cold spring water to make ponds that support a restaurant and farmers market... More Heifer training and start up money at work,.