Hello again and welcome to another episode of “PEACE CORPS ADVENTURES... FROM SPACE!” I'm just kidding... I am technically not in space but I thought it sounded cooler. It has been a wild ride since I last wrote. With the holidays whipping by faster than I can account for, I have been preparing and participating in dinners, events, travels, training, and work at what feels like a break-neck speed and I am loving every minute of it.
During camp VALOR in Cajamarca, I made the decision to travel to Ancash and share thanksgiving with my volunteer friends surrounded by snow capped Andean mountains and glacial lakes. As you can imagine, it did not take too much convincing to get me there. Before leaving I had to cancel or move a lot of workshops and meetings to the week when I would be back. The school year ends this week so I had no choice but to overload myself. Luckily, when I got back one of the volunteers living close to me asked if she can help out because she lives in a smaller site with less to keep her occupied. I readily agreed and I am looking forward to working with her.
Travel from Cutervo to anywhere is an adventure in itself. Just to get to the bus that would take us to the Peruvian Coast and Panamerican Highway was a 4.5 hour trip (usually 2) because of construction on the rough dirt roads. As with most travel between sites, we use local station wagons that cram two people in the front with the driver (the middle person quite literally getting the shaft) and four in the back seat (usually with someone sitting on a lap or two) and the cargo area is usually full of luggage and bags filled with business wares. It is not a very comfortable ride and your hair and lungs are filled with road dust by the end but it gets the job done. Once we arrived in Chota we bought tickets on a not-so-reliable bus company to get to the coastal capital of Chiclayo. I say it is not reliable because it takes a very scary route through one lane dirt roads with sheer drops to a sure death and the drivers are known for drinking a local alcohol made from sugar cane called cañaso. There were no other options as we were meeting a friend along the way but from the stories I hear, it does not really matter what agency we use and tales of buses going off the high cliffs reach Cutervo gossip circles on a regular basis.
As we pulled into Chiclayo my jaw steadily dropped more and more with every passing city block. I had just come from my site, which I consider to be a very modern city with all the amenities and here I was, transported into what looked like a modern US metropolis. The size and modernity of it all was not what shocked me so much as the sheer diversity of the businesses, architecture, and people. I have gotten so used to my life in Cutervo that I was quickly overwhelmed while standing in a seemingly endless isle at the supermarket trying to decide what type of coffee I wanted to buy. I had forgotten what sensory overload of that kind feels like and I ended up leaving without buying any at all. As I slowly reoriented myself to life in a real city, we took another 4 hour bus (along paved roads!) to the city of Trujillo (called the city of eternal spring by locals). This is perhaps my favorite of all the cities in look and feel. It has beautiful colonial architecture with a large cathedral or church on what feels like every corner. It has a european flare with outdoor cafes and antique book stores and I had a blast just exploring. Unfortunately, we had only hours to experience what Trujillo has to offer and we were once again on another bus to Huaraz, Ancash ten hours inland.
The city of Huaraz itself is small but what it lacks in scale it makes up for in character. Huaraz sits in a valley surrounded by the tall snow-capped peaks of the Andes, shadowed by the tallest mountain in Peru named Huazcaran. A stroll through the streets reveals a strong economic focus on tourism, with local artisans selling their wares on street corners and every block containing at least one hostal and internet cafe. The resturaunts are my favorite part and add much to a very bohemian feel in the city. Almost all of them have book exchanges, hiking maps, couches, and cappuccinos. The night life, too, is fueled by the presence of young tourists looking to unwind from a day of hiking and exploring and it is not uncommon to find two different scenes in the same club/bar – one with up to date US club music and one with local Peruvian dance tunes. It is almost silly how polarized these two scenes are; you can almost delineate Peruvians and foreigners with a pole.
Thanksgiving in Ancash was fantastic. I made a banana pudding and had to learn to make homemade whipped cream to go on top. The morning of our thanksgiving day extravaganza there was a 5k turkey trot charity run. It was so beautiful running through those mountains – at least it was beautiful until I was huffing and puffing to remain conscious for the rest of the race. I am proud to say that I did not come in last... which is good enough for me! The rest of the day was spent joking around in the kitchen while we prepared sweet potatoes (camote), mashed potatoes and gravy, pies, veggies, and fruit salads. Two big turkeys were placed in a local baker's adobe oven and were cooked to perfection. I would say that by the time we sat down to the amazing meal with many of our new Peruvian friends, I had decided this was the best thanksgiving of my life. We started the meal with a couple of speeches from our hosts about what thanksgiving means to us and we ended the meal with a dance party (unfortunately only the volunteers participated).
The next day a group of us woke up early to go hiking to Chuirup, a glacial lake at 14,500 feet. The hike was not all that hard but I ended up paying for not eating a subtantial breakfast and dizziness set in during some of the more dangerous parts. I took a rest to eat something and we made it to the lake while the cloud cover was still low. The photos I have may not do it justice but this lake is on my top five list of the most amazing places I have seen in my life. It was absolutely gorgeous. We stayed long enough to take photos, eat lunch, and let one of our crazy friends swim in the lake as part of a dare with another volunteer (see who can swim in the most glacial lakes). He was shivering for most of the time we remained and we headed back down to get some warmth. It was by far one of the coolest things I have done since arriving in Peru.
After all that I still had a week of training in another very beautiful part of Ancash. I had the opportunity to see old friends and we had a blast catching up on each other's lives. Many of them helped me realize that I am not here in Peru just to work but to learn about and experience the culture as well. Now that I am back in site and I am more energized and optimistic than ever, I realize that I must take small trips outside my site if I am to avoid burn out and keep doing the best work I can do. I am hoping to go to Chiclayo again soon and take a dip in the ocean. I will also plan a trip with some students to go see some ruins close by – we might even get a local expert to come along and explain it to us. I heard there are some really cool cave systems in the San Andres National Park near us too... so let the adventures begin!